Monday, 4 April 2011

My Journey to light: how it all Began!

This may not be the best written article in the world, but I stumbled across it while looking for something else, and thought I’d share it! I’ve shared aspects of my Reversion story on the blog, but never in its entirety! This was published in the Indian addition of Roshni magazine in October 2010, and I’m posting the original English Article below. May Allah (SWT) bless all those who have found his path of guidance, and may he (SWT) continue to bless us and keep us on the straight path: aameen.
Roshni: mere zindagi ca safar,

By the Grace of Allah (SWT), I have been on the path of ‘haq now for around 14 years, but never the less I am still amazed and fascinated by revert stories. While all of us are born on the ‘Fitra, the innate truth of Islam, we are inducted in to our respective lifestyles, faith and circumstances as a result of the setting we exist in, some of us find truth, others don’t, while some simply never get the opportunity, but one thing life has certainly taught me is that some are chosen by Allah (SWT) for his blessed deen, and their journey to realise their destiny is truly the stuff of miracles, and reflecting upon their stories reminds us of Allah (SWT) grand designs and how he (SWT) is indeed the best of planners.

In my case, I was born in to a fundamentalist Christian family. My parents, respectively belonged to 2 extreme protestant factions of the faith: my father’s family were Baptists, while my mother’s belong to a little known sect: the Plymouth Brethren. Despite their strict backgrounds, neither of my parents were especially religious, though they had agreed that I would go to church and be educated in the faith as they had, so, I went to church on Sunday, followed by Sunday school and bible class. My maternal Grandfather is a recognised scholar of his community, and as I got older, I began attending the intensive bible studies he conducted in his church. From a very early age, I was struck by the strange duality, or double standards reflected in the lifestyle of my family. There was an obvious split between what their faith instructed them to do, and how this manifested its self for them. While none of us are perfect, some things, I thought, were obvious: i.e., if the bible instructs you to avoid alcohol, you would avoid it wouldn’t you? But all of my family drunk (not to excess), but drunk all the same, and feared all the time that a member of their church might catch them in the act of buying alcohol! My Grandparent’s brethren church regarded all forms of frivolity to be sins: i.e., excess in spending, Television, extravagant gatherings and so on, but my Grandmother in particular was obsessed with sopping, especially for clothes and make-up, a habit she hasn’t given up even now that she is in her eighties! When I asked questions about these dichotomies at bible study, I was never given any straight answers. The avoidance continued, even when my questions became more spiritual! I wanted to know about Jesus being the son of God? I couldn’t work out how it was possible: and if it was, who then is greater, who is worthy of worship: the father, or the son! Again, no straight answers were given. I was only 13 at this point, but for the first time in my life, I began to doubt my Christian faith. Studies of world religion in school stirred something in me, a feeling that there was more out there than I was experiencing at home. When I told my parents that I wanted to investigate other faiths, they were enraged! They strongly forbid me to do so, and seemed almost terrified whenever I raised the topic. Their fear intrigued me, and lead me to believe that I had been raised on nothing more than a brain washed idea rather than any thing factual! And so it was, that my quest began. In my early teenaged years, I developed a love for all things Indian: an uncle of mine worked in Deli, and often brought me clothes, bangles and curiosities, and my love of these things had lead me to take Hindi language classes. My teacher was a Hindu, so my obvious first choice was to visit the Mandir with her. I was instantly drawn to the Hindu faith because of its beauty, its emphasis on individuality, and all paths being equal providing they reach to the supreme being. To this day, it hurts me still when people abuse and find fault with Hindu’s, because they loved and nurtured me on my journey, and contrary to popular misconception, the majority of Hindu’s believe in Tawheed, the same as Muslims do. I also studied Buddhism, and other branches of Eastern philosophy and mysticism, and for a long time, this was enough for me. Islam, was no where on my agenda, because I’d been raised with a belief that Muslims were backward, violent extremists who treated women badly and forced them to dress strangely, and as I’d grown up with extreme Christians, the last thing I wanted was to exchange one breed of fundamentalism for another one!
All that would change however, when I was around 15. In terms of academic study, there was another trend that was developing along-side my language interests, and that was for radio/broadcast journalism. At only 15 years old, I’d managed to secure work for the BBC making children’s programmes, and also worked for several Asian community radio networks. One day, while browsing an Asian food store, I came across a poster advertising something called ‘Radio Ramadhan: a station that would be broadcasting in my area for 30 days and needed volunteers! At this point, I had no idea that it was an Islamic station, but got in touch to offer my services! On my first visit to the station, I wanted to run a million miles! Every one was Muslim, dressed in hijaab, obviously and openly religious and proud of it! I had no place there: or so I thought! But despite my awkwardness, every one seemed quite happy for me to be around. They treated me kindly, gave me tea and food although they themselves were fasting, and answered all my questions with respect and accuracy. Working with them on their programmes, I gained my first insight in to Islam, and it was nothing like what I imagined! Islam built upon my Christian background, and actually answered a great many of the questions I’d had about Christian doctrine. I became drawn to revert stories, people who had reverted from Christianity to Islam and how/what had made them do so. I became convinced early on that Islam was the truth I had been searching for, but I was extremely scared of making the switch! I knew that Islam would be more than a religion: it would mean a complete change of lifestyle: and I didn’t feel ready to take such a risk! How would my family react? Would they throw me out? Would I lose my friends? Would I be strong enough to make all the changes needed? I prayed for guidance, and, foolishly, used to strike deals with god: i.e., if I pass my exams, I’ll convert: and mashallah I’d pass every thing with fantastic marks! In the end, I knew I couldn’t avoid the truth any more: and read my Shahada on the 31st January 1997, in the presence of a group of sisters from the radio station who had come to befriend me. They all gave me gifts: one of which was a beautiful brown hijab! High on excitement and Iman, I casually walked in to the house in my new scarf, not thinking at all about how my parents would react! They were shocked, angry and horrified by what I had done. For weeks, I was not permitted to leave the house accept to attend school, and certainly wasn’t aloud to wear hijaab! I had to hide any Islamic books, scarves or prayer items, as my parents would simply damage them or throw them away! Muslim friends could not call me at home, and studying Islam became all the more difficult as I couldn’t meet any one or leave home. These restrictions were ultimately lifted, but their hatred of Islam remained. My parents tolerated me till I was 18 and had completed my main schooling, and then told me that if I wished to continue on this Islamic path, it would be best if I left their house! I was afraid, and had no idea where I would go: I had no job, no money and no senior education, what would I do? How would I survive! At this time, the masjid that supported me introduced me to a potential young man for marriage. The man was from Pakistan, spoke very little English and was not a UK national! He was not at all suitable as a spouse, but at that time, I saw him as providing a respectful, safe and halal route to leave my parent’s home, so I consented to the marriage. We spent 3 years together, 3 very hard years. He rarely worked, and when he did, all his money was sent to his family in Pakistan. Overnight, I became the financial support for the family. I got myself a counselling diploma, and began working at a Muslim women’s NGO. I even got myself more work at the BBC, and transformed from a shy, lacking in confidence teenager to a capable young woman! But there was a problem! In all of this, my Islam had been almost forgotten! I was not wearing hijaab (although I could have!), was not praying regularly, and felt quite detached from my faith, the initial sparks had gone, and in many ways I was simply going through the motions, just as my husband was. When the marriage eventually ended 3 years later, it concluded under very difficult circumstances. I was emotionally very damaged and bitter about what had transpired, I had never seen any one from my community marry a person, use them and divorce them to secure citizenship as my former husband had done, and I decided that if this was what Muslims did to one another, I did not wish to be one of them! I almost cut off completely from the community, didn’t practise any thing. Part of me must have held on to the fragments of my iman, because I continued to eat halal, didn’t drink and always read my duas before sleep, but that was about all! During my recovery from the break-up, I was invited to visit Pakistan and stay with some friends for a few weeks: that is, weeks that became a 2.5 year stay! In Pakistan, the media industry was opening up, as a result of independent broadcasters securing their own licences! It was in that climate, that I applied for a job with a respected TV channel there, and got it! When I took on the job, I was the first non-Pakistani to have worked for them, and was the subject of much curiosity, questions and more! Some disliked me intensely, especially those who were forced in to working under me: but others liked me well enough and I formed many firm friendships: most of which are still flourishing to this day! Interestingly, most of my colleagues were followers of the Ahlulbayt (A.S), i.e., shias. When I had first come to Islam, suni and shias were merely names for me! They didn’t mean any thing, and I did not know which I was! However, I was quickly indoctrinated in to all the myths about shias, that they were not proper Muslims, that they hit themselves, cry in muherram and Worship Hussain (A.S), that we shouldn’t eat food from them, and should avoid them at any cost! I recalled these words, and one day over lunch, the sectarian topic came up! Confident in my ignorance, I began to spout all the nonsense I had been taught regarding shias. No one said any thing, and most people respectfully left the table! But one man, gently took me aside and asked me where I had heard these things. When I told him at was from my religious teachers, he seemed shocked! But asked me if I had studied any thing about shias on my own? I shook my head, and later as I reflected on this, I was overcome with embarrassment! Each and every thing I had come to learn in this life, I’d done so through fact, self study and analysis! How stupid had I been: mouthing off insanities that I knew nothing at all about! From that day on, I promised that I’d start studying shia Islam for myself, and at least make informed statements in the future! The world I found when I began this study was one of wonder to me: sure it was Islam, but so different from the Islam I had encountered previously. It was vibrant, factual, practical. No hard and fast rules, but logic, decency and common sense! No extremes, just a middle path, no unanswered questions, no voids or gaps. I was captivated, studied each and every day. I spent so many nights reading, and continued my studies when I returned to Scotland. When I did eventually learn about the tragedy of Karbala, I was moved to tears, to pain and trauma in a way I’d never known before. There is so much I could now say about Karbala, but at that time, I remember being struck by how Zeynab (A.S) sacrificed her hijaab, her covering so that my sisters and I could wear it with pride today. I cried so much over this point, and I remember calling a male friend of mine who lived in London, in a Muslim area, asking him to send me some hijaab scarves. I remember how he laughed and said, “for you? Hijaabs, what will you do with them!! Hang them on the wall?”. His words were harsh, but were only a reflection of what I had turned in to. I was less like a Muslim than ever. Any one passing me in the street or talking to me would have no idea at all that I was a Muslim, because I had let every thing go, had not been true to the great truth Allah (SWT) had shown me in my teens. I felt ashamed, but I also knew that thins were going to change: for now, forever! I found out where my local shia centre in my city was, and began studying under the mowlana there. He counselled me through my difficult past, and taught me the basics to start me off on my new path. I did receive my hijaabs from London, and have never removed my scarf since. That was in 2005, and so much has changed since then. I am now one of the directors of an online based organisation supporting new shia Muslims, I am vice chair of the shia Council for Scotland, and a regular presenter and contributor to ‘Ahlulbayt TV. As a disabled woman, I also do allot of work championing the needs of disabled Muslims, and trying to educate the wider community in order to eradicate the horrific discrimination many disabled Muslims experience. I helped set up an organisation under which this work can be done, we educate and train Imams on disability Equality issues, and we also translate Islamic books in to Braille, and audio formats, and fund sign language interpreters for majliss during muherram and other major events. More recently, Allah (SWT) blessed me with a wonderful shia husband, an amazing man who shares my faith and passions and is there to guide and keep me on this blessed path. There is not a day passes when I do not thank Allah (SWT) for all his mercies towards me. I’ve made many mistakes, and almost lost my Islam, but by the Grace of Allah (SWT) I’ve returned to the truth, and my errors have only made me hold on even stronger to the truth I have been blessed with. If you take any thing from this story, it should be the great mercy of our creator. No matter where life takes us, no matter how many wrong turns we might take, he is there, ready to welcome us home and transform us in to souls that he (SWT) and we too can be proud of. The final reminder I would leave you with, is that being Muslim, and being shia in particular is not simply the stuff of ‘name’s sake, it has to be something dynamic, a living message that we attempt to embody and live out through every thing that we do. When Imam Hussain (A.S) called out from the planes of Karbala, asking if there was any one to help, his call was not to all those companions who had already left this world, his call was to all of us, to each one, to see how committed we would be to forwarding his message, the truth of his Sacrifice to all people of all time. It is a reality that many reverts to Islam do not find the path to Ahlulbayt (A.S), quite simply because there are not enough people conducting dawa activities, and supporting them on the path. Moreover, a recent UK study showed that 50% of new Muslims leave the faith in the first 2 years of reversion, often due to family rejection, and the pressure of loss they experience, coupled with an inability to integrate fully in to the Muslim community. We all have a responsibility to support these New Muslims, and spread our message to all around us, not just by preaching, but by giving practical help, support and friendship, being people of action, not of empty words. People of purpose, rather than fake empty spiritual air! That way, Insha Allah we will surely be successful, and Allah (SWT) knows best).

6 comments:

  1. Thanks for sharing - it is lovely. I am glad you survived and came out shining from difficult times.

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  2. Thank you sister for your very kind words! Mashallah we all make it through, we all find a way back even from the darkest times, we just lose sight of those moments at times. It actually helped me to reflect on this story again, because if finding guidance is not a miracle enough on its own, then what is! We see through these examples that any thing is possible, Allah (SWT) just has to command it to ‘be, and it is!

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  3. SubhanAllah. This was so beautiful. JazakAllahu khair for sharing. I wish I was on Facebook right now, so I could share.

    I especially liked this part and it gives me something to reflect on at the end of my day (and hopefully, every day from here on out inshaAllah):

    "The final reminder I would leave you with, is that being Muslim, and being shia in particular is not simply the stuff of ‘name’s sake, it has to be something dynamic, a living message that we attempt to embody and live out through every thing that we do."

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  4. Salaams! So nice to see you back on the blog; I’ve been missing your words of wisdom lately! Insha Allah all is well?
    Thank you for your very kind words. I think we all enjoy revert stories, they reflect so much hope, they are proof that miracles do happen, that any thing is possible with Allah (SWT), but they are especially inspirational when they come from a shia perspective, because you know how much more of a struggle it has usually been to find that path! This week I met a sister who was telling me about the growing shia community in the Philippines mashallah! A part of the world where I never expected our faithful to be! But …, more on that later!

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  5. Wa alaykum as salam,

    I am sorry I have been so MIA lately; school is tough this semester. Hehe. Alhamdulillah all is well, jazakAllahu khair for asking!! I hope you are well too inshaAllah.

    That is great to hear about the Shia community in the Philippines. MashaAllah! There are small Shi'a communities growing in the Hispanic islands as well. Alhamdulillaah.

    I have your quote on my wall now, to read and think about every time I glance at it. =]

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  6. Salaams again; please don’t apologise! Life is mad busy; just drop by whenever time permits you to do so! The main thing is that you are well! We are OK; struggling along; and still need every one’s duas!
    Insha Allah I’ll post more on the Philippines and their growing community; we have a sister from the community studying here in Glasgow so I was going to take advantage of her Easter break time and ask if she’d write a post on it for us! Lets see …
    I’m glad my quote works for you too; bless you for your kind words! Ultimately, inspiration is the most important gift we can give one another; the hope to keep going, to strive higher etc; and if we can do that, for just one person, then we’ve done something worthwhile Insha Allah!

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