Dear Mike Tyson

Mike Tyson is to make a pilgrimage to Mecca with Muhammad Ali. A Muslim publisher and translator offers some words of advice to the convert

So you're off to God's own House of Correction? Excellent: nothing like enduring the austerities of the Mecca pilgrimage for inspiring penitence and stiffening the moral fibres. By converting to Islam in your Indiana cell, you won a bout with Old Nick - now you have a chance to earn that victory.

No doubt your travelling companion Muhammad Ali has told you why you are going. The Hajj is about returning to the centre, focusing on unity, letting the centripetal force of God win out for a few days over the dissipating trends of the world. Caught up in its rites, milling with the millions around the Holy Kaaba like moths around a candle, we forget the four points of the compass and discover a liberating ability to connect with what lies beyond.

I hope this works for you. Like you, I was brought up in Christendom, and I found my first Hajj so unfamiliar and astonishing that I prayed hardly at all. Nowhere else, not even at Disney World, do so many people come together in one place. Standing, praying, eating, talking with 2 million other men and women from every race is a dazzling confirmation of one's own insignificance and of the global fellowship that is Islam.

The Saudis have promised you red carpet treatment. Not because they belittle the crime for which you were imprisoned - in fact, they routinely lop off people's heads for it. But because they recognise that Islam celebrates forgiveness, a virtue of which Mecca is the symbol. The Prophet was persecuted there by its idolatrous citizenry, who tortured and killed many of his disciples; yet when he returned as a conqueror 10 years on, he forgave those who had wronged him and rejected revenge.

The journalists who hound you know nothing of this, of course. Mecca is, for them, the Forbidden City, filled with weird Muslims and lamentably teetotal. That symbolises something else: the interior wealth of Islam is unknown to them, as is its capacity for melting and reforging the human soul. The only Muslims they document are the mad fanatics who are worlds away from the piety of most traditional believers.

Those who mock you for buying a house in Las Vegas and shopping at the mall in Caesar's Palace do not believe in your repentance. With casual racism they assume that devilment is in your heart, perhaps even inscribed upon your genes. Only a matter of time, they smirk, before Iron Mike reverts to type.

But we believe in you, Mike. Malcolm X was slammed up for a whole string of hideous crimes, yet he emerged, to the astonishment of hoods who knew him and the bafflement of the press, as a moral paragon, a symbol of hope and transformation for the West's ethnic underclass. Thirty years have passed, and we need another such role model. Muslims, and especially black people, urge you to succeed. Keep those hands up, Mike.

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