A Muslim on a British Pilgrimage

Khalil Martin, a muslim, reflects on the pilgrim places and practices he experienced on a BPT day pilgrimage in Winchester

Let’s leave aside for a moment the question why a Muslim is participating in a pilgrimage to predominantly Christian sites in and around Winchester and focus on what aspects had meaning and relevance from a Muslim perspective.

Under direction from our leader, Guy Hayward, we began by making an inward intention for the day. Mine was to draw closer to God because “in nearness to Him is the great victory.”q and to deepen my walking towards Him.

Intention and sincerity are everything in Islam.  My father used to tell me that the road to hell was paved with good intentions.  In Islam we say that the path to Heaven is paved with good intentions, if intended with sincerity.  “Actions are according to intentions.” h and “God knows what is in your hearts.” q

Already I felt that I was in good company.  We then said our names one by one and made direct eye contact with each of our fellow travelers. The name of anything contains its essence.  When God created Adam “He taught him all the names.” q  Through names we are able to differentiate one thing from another; and through eye contact we can look into the soul of the other and see that which unites us. Through this simple ritual we became a community of travelers.

We moved from St Bartholomew’s church, our starting point, through the site of Hyde Abbey.  From a Muslim perspective it is difficult to mourn the loss of the monasteries.  There is no monasticism within Islam and marriage is half the religion.  Although we can conjure images of beautiful buildings, music, scholarship, learning and a community committed to a simple life devoted to God, the truth was that these monastic orders were hierarchical and exclusive, giving the message that lay people or lower ranks were unworthy or unable to draw close to God.  One of the beauties of Islam is its simplicity and the assurance that we are all equal before God, differentiated only by the purity of our hearts and our actions, with the scholar and the simpleton, the rich man and the poor man standing side by side bowing and prostrating, all in need of God’s mercy.

Onwards we went through the town via St Lawrence’s Church to Winchester Cathedral.  Before entering the cathedral close we paused on the threshold, which for me was poignant. Muslims are encouraged to enter a mosque with their right foot and say  “O Lord, open to me the gates of Your mercy.” h  In other words, this pausing on the threshold and entering the sacred space mindfully and intentionally, was very Islamic.

It was for moments such as this that I have joined this pilgrimage because irrespective of faith there are places on this earth that God has hallowed.  We step from the world of bustling commerce and materialism, the realm of reason and cause and effect, into another world, the world of the Spirit, from the world of the temporal to the world of the Eternal.  Although lit and landscaped by man as architect and designer it feels as if man was merely making manifest a hidden template that had always existed.  These places touch the soul and help us to experience the eternal within us.  Of course we can experience this anywhere, especially in nature. God says “I am closer to you than your jugular vein.” q and “Wherever you turn there is the face of God.” q

God reveals Himself to us in many different ways, inwardly and outwardly, He is the Hidden and the Revealed, the Near and the Far.  His Creation is a reflection of His Qualities, and it is through experiencing Him in His Creation and through each other that we get to know ourselves and we come to know Him.  “He who knows himself knows his Lord.” h  God’s creation is also referred to as the Book of God, along with the Quran, the written word.

God’s creation is full of His signs. “I will show them My Signs on the horizons and within themselves.” q The word for sign, Ayah, is also the word for a verse of the Quran. 

Who can say where the power and the presence of these places comes from? Muslims believe that the souls of the deceased inhabit their graves, not obviously within the dark material confines of the earthly grave but within a spiritual realm attached to the grave.  The souls of the departed will give a place presence, as will the angels in the unseen who gather to hear the praises of their Lord, or maybe God has decreed that the veils of His Creation are slightly more translucent in these places.  In truth, God is in all places but we are veiled from witnessing Him out of His Mercy. As one of His knowers said, “How great is my Lord who veils His Existence, praised and glorified is He, with that which is non-existent.”  If we were able to behold His Glory we would cease to exist, yet that which veils us from Him has no existence because only He is Real.

Entering the cathedral with its magnificent nave, built by man but inspired by God to His Glory, the heart soars and the chest expands.  Cathedrals like this are designed to create awe and humility, and to be a place where heaven and earth meet.  Part of the presence and beauty of these places is that they were built by hand.  We are all slaves of God and contain His Spirit, and when we create something by hand we are imparting something of that Spirit to the object.  The closer the craftsman is to God the more of His Beauty is he able to impart to the object of his handiwork.  The same is true of the designers and the architects and all those involved in its building and creation.  God has said, “I am Beauty and I love to behold beauty.” h

The stones create a sense of weighty earthboundness while the lofty ceilings lift you up to another realm.  Mosques are often built with a square footprint topped by a circular dome.  The square represents the earthly realm and the circular the eternal realm (because the circumference of a circle is a function of Pi with its infinite non-recurring decimal places).  Man is God’s vice-gerent on earth, containing within himself the knowledge and potential for the highest and most holy to the lowest and most dark.  To stand in such a place is to renew your connection between heaven and earth and to understand the covenant that God has made with you.  From a Muslim perspective the statues and icons and imagery are an unnecessary and unwelcome distraction and the presence of graves and tombs a disappointment.  “All the world is a place of worship (place of prostration) except the toilet and the graveyard.” h

A visit to the crypt and the holy well beneath the altar reminded me of Mecca, with the holy well of ZamZam besides the Kaaba.  Water and worship are inextricably linked in Islam through the necessity to make ablutions before prayers.  Every mosque will have running water although I am not aware of the concept of holy wells other than ZamZam.

From the crypt we went up to the shrine of St Swithun’s.  Muslims will not pray to or ask for intercession of a saint. “God, You alone do we worship and You alone do we ask for help.” q However, you can greet the soul of the departed and offer a prayer.  If they are amongst the communion of saints and beloveds and those brought near, you can hope that you will be amongst them in the next life.  As mentioned earlier the souls of the departed are attached to their graves, so it is known and understood that the tombs of saints and prophets have “baraka”, a word translated as blessings but which is much more than that, an outpouring of abundance and goodness.

As magnificent and inspiring as cathedrals are it is often difficult to find a place of peace and refuge. They are places of communal worship and lifting your hearts up to God rather than of quiet contemplation and inward journeying, which I consider the very essence of a pilgrimage.

It was a joy and a relief then to leave the cathedral and visit the Church of St Swithun’s at Kingsgate, a hidden gem and an oasis of quiet and solitude.  For me the joy of these pilgrimages is to visit what I would call the holy wells of the spirit, places to sit and contemplate and travel inwardly in a way that refreshes the soul. Although one can do this anywhere it seems that some places are more refreshing than others. This is the realm of the spirit and it is not contingent on the outward form of a specific religion.  Islam is more than anything the religion of unity, it is to see the One in the many and the many in the One.  In essence there is only one religion, the religion of peace, love and worship of the Creator, the Lord of all the worlds.  The individual forms of the different religions are necessary as a vehicle and as a practice and direction, but the destination is the same.  We are all pilgrims travelling on our chosen roads towards the City of God.  The nearer one comes to the city the more the paths converge.  I love the beautiful simplicity of many English churches and the sense that they have born witness to the joys, sorrows and yearnings of so many souls over the centuries.  Just as old furniture acquires a patina from all the hands that have touched it and polished it over the years, it is though these places have acquired a spiritual patina.  Although there are now well over a thousand mosques throughout the UK, which are also places of refuge and solace, most of them have yet to acquire this patina. My home mosque, the Shah Jehan Mosque in Woking, is a fortunate exception.  One shouldn’t underestimate the power of silent meditation and contemplation as a group, and it is relatively unusual, so this was a welcome part of the journey. I could have happily stayed there much longer!

Afterwards we walked across the meadows to the Hospital of St Cross, a beautiful enclosed set of buildings and garden with a noble history of support and help for the poor.  It made me think of the caravanserais that were established along the Islamic pilgrimage routes.  For a Muslim pilgrimage means only one thing, the fifth of the five pillars and obligations of Islam, to travel once in one’s life, if one has the means, to the Holy House in Mecca, the Kaaba. Muslims believe that it was built by the prophet Abraham and his son Ishmael. It is the point of focus and direction for the Muslims prayers.  In the past Muslims travelled from all points of the compass, overland or by ship, often an arduous journey of a month or more in both directions, to converge for the annual rites which lasted for 5 or 6 days.  The pilgrimage was undertaken even from the earliest days of Islam by hundreds of thousands and became critical to the spread of knowledge, to trade, to the establishment of mosques and communities along the main routes, and to the intermingling of cultures, united by a common faith, a common language (for the educated) and a common purpose. The pilgrimage is a metaphor for life itself, with its climax being a dress rehearsal for the Day of Judgement.  It is a testament to the deep yearning in the souls of mankind to reconcile themselves and find peace with their Lord.  It is also a testament to the importance and relevance of making pilgrimage as an act of faith and worship.

Pilgrimage has always been both, an individual journey and a communal endeavour, and that found expression in our walking together and eating together.  We are mirrors for each other, and through giving and sharing and helping each other we are participating in the unity and seeing the One in the many.  Traditionally Muslims eat on the floor from communal dishes; it was good to see our fellow pilgrims sharing what they had bought and baked.  It would be easy to imagine that if this group met regularly it wouldn’t be long before the meal break became a great communal picnic.

After lunch we had a good walk to the top of St Catherine’s hill, where the story of St Catherine’s life and martyrdom reminded me of the famous Persian mystic and poet Mansour Al Hallaj.  He was reportedly executed for proclaiming, “I am the Truth” and “There is nothing inside this cloak but God.”  He has been an inspiration for seekers and lovers of God for over a thousand years.

From the summit of the hill it was a short walk to the Mizmaze, a mini pilgrimage within the pilgrimage, with its twists and turns, its apparent repetitiveness, confusion and minor irritations mirroring life.  At its end there is a sense of satisfaction and a recognition that it was much easier than at times it seemed. One of the blessings of a walking pilgrimage is the inner rhythm that walking creates.  Muslims are urged to remember and invoke God at all times and in all places. “Keep your tongues moist with the invocation of God.” h The rhythm of walking allows the heart to fall into an easy rhythm of invocation, both of the heart and the tongue. This was certainly true of the pilgrimage as a whole but especially true of the meditative path of the Mizmaze.

Then it was back to Winchester to St John the Baptist church. This is another beautifully simple church with a special atmosphere, enhanced by the removal of the Victorian pews. I would love to see it with the chairs stacked away.  Mosques are empty spaces, often with only a single prayer niche to indicate the direction of prayer.  It has been said that empty space is the most conducive for contemplating the Divine.  Because God is no thing, there is nothing that can represent Him in any way, and this absence of form, this emptiness, creates a space within into which the Divine can enter. This church had something of that quality.  Our host told us that they had had to close the church temporarily because it had started to be used by drug users.  It struck me that we are all seeking and yearning for transcendence, and that this church was a place of transcendence.

Then we went back to the cathedral for a final farewell.  Like a bracelet the day was much greater than the sum of its parts, each part adding to the other; an immersive experience of beauty, silence, meditation, prayer, communion, reflection, companionship, journeying inwardly and outwardly. Guy’s singing added joy and levity, Kim Wilkie’s history and local knowledge context and meaning. It all contributed to make a wonderful day.  For me it was a journey of the spirit, beyond doctrine and form. It was all about intention, and we began and ended with intention.

Thank you Guy, Kim and BPT.


h Hadith, saying of Prophet Muhammad



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  1. Susan

    A really beautiful and insightful account. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Fatima Rayner

    That was a fantastic and honest account of your experiences. Thank you.
    As a Muslim, I was curious to read how you would connect the pilgrimage to your own interpretation of Islam. Mainly as I too have wondered where I could forge the connections between historic spiritual spaces to my own spiritual self. Sounds just as I expected!

  3. Thank you for this wonderful story, proof once again that we all have more in common than we think.