Here is the very very long story of how I came to be a Muslim and wear hijab.
IT ALL BEGAN IN 1973
In a world full of seekers and choices, you may be aware that Islam has alot of converts, many, many of whom were previously Christian. From my own discussions with lots of these people, no two “conversion stories” (for want of a better term) are alike. It does however, to me at least, seem that most people had some niggling concern, some unanswered question, and if they were being honest with themselves, something within the religion they were brought up in, that just never ‘sat right’ within the depths of their soul. So as I reveal to you my journey, please bear this in mind – these were my thought processes, my beliefs, my journey; and it doesn’t reflect that of everyone else who chooses Islam as their way of life.
Circa early 90’s, my BFF (a term yet to be coined) with whom I’d shared many ‘into the early hours’ discussions about lifes really one and only big question – God & Death, burst through my front door and declared Jesus wasn’t God & that he didn’t die on the cross. Well Hallelujah! I thought. You beaute. I had never pondered it too deeply; but I had always found it slightly troubling (say, since Sunday School) that God would let poor Jesus, peace be upon him, die such a horrible death on the cross. After all, Jesus was a good person. Why would God do that to him? He didn’t do anything wrong. God was supposed to be fair & just. How is that fair & just? As I grew so did the unanswered questions in the back of my mind. How could Jesus actually be God anyway? Did he kill himself? Isn’t that a sin? What about the people before that – they’d never heard of Jesus – how could he be their saviour when he wasn’t even born yet?
Despite the concern in my 5 year old head concerning the fate of Jesus, my mother informed me I was a great fan of his, peace be upon him, coming home after Sunday School saying “Jesus did this”, “Jesus said that”. I guess those early years must have given me some kind of religious foundation.
So I would go so far as to say my journey to Islam began at Presbyterian sunday school in Priam Street in suburban Sydney.
So back to the 90s. This “new news”, this simple revelation that God was God (the Creator), that Jesus was a Prophet (the Creation) sent by God, with the same message of every other Prophet that lived, that God was One and not 3-in-1, and that God protected Jesus (peace be upon him) from a slow and painful death on the cross was something I believed in an instant. After reading with confusion my Revised Standard Version of the Bible (which still retains its place on my bookshelf and always will), after traipsing through a myriad of Christian denominations for years (with my bff of course) and late nights spent discussing and contemplating, and many a night privately praying, the world of religion finally made sense to me.
Whilst I never considered myself fully ‘religious” and I more than happily lived the life of most young people of my time, out of curiosity and interest, my bestie and I spent more than a few Sundays during the previous years exploring the broad spectrum that is modern Christianity – presuming, unintentionally, naively, yet somewhat arrogantly I suppose, that this was the only religion in the whole world worthy of consideration. (Well its what my family is, and my family can’t be wrong, because, well because they’re my family. Whatever those foreigners do has no bearing on me). So from Midnight Mass, Holy Water & Rosary beads, to Making a Joyful Noise to the Lord whilst shyly singing and dancing in front of our seats to emotive Christian Rock, with eyes welling during the power ballad closing, to making a speedy exit with the living daylights scared out of us when members of one congregation started “praying” in some “unknown ancient language” with their hands held high in the air (aka “talking in tongues”) and of course the more regular services where you did Bible study with tea and biccies on the weekend and generally wore a gathered skirt below the knee, we explored and pondered religion, almost as a hobby, in the background of our lives during the freedom and excitement of going from teenager to fledgeling adult.
But then (and its another whole story which I won’t go into) in her earnest search for “the truth” my BFF had been led to the The Holy Quran, which once she began reading, found herself saying, ‘this is it’, ‘this is it’… and then she came to my house to tell me.
That was the moment my internal belief system changed from non-practising slightly confused but not really worried ‘Christian by upbringing’ who spent some time thinking about God (probably mostly late at night when I couldn’t sleep), to that of absolute monotheism – One God. The religion of Islam. And I didn’t have to stop believing in Jesus – he was part of the package too – (as a child I loved him dearly – and still do) as a Great Prophet who taught the same as all Prophets (peace be upon them).
But besides this amazing new found revelation, all I knew about Islam was that some old ladies wore a scarf on their head and they don’t eat pork. Well that part wouldn’t be a problem for me – was never too keen on pig meat – but the scarf, well… whats wrong with hair I thought? I obtained a Quran, and read a book called Islam in Focus. EVERYTHING I read made sense. Except me. It was all true and wonderful. But I wasn’t ready for this.
A scarf? Praying FIVE times a day? Fasting Ramadan?
And so began my time of what I refer to as “sitting on the fence”.
SITTING ON THE DOCK OF THE BAY (Well the fence, but I was going for a song title theme here)
Whilst it was really really easy for me to believe that God was One, not a trinity, the religion of Islam is a whole way of life – and one vastly different to the one I had been leading; and the one I had planned for myself. Despite my interest in the topic, adhering to a religion was not really on my agenda.
The thought of changing so radically, the thought of swapping my life long dreams for a life more seemingly “restricted”, was alot to take in. More than that, actually. It seemed just plain un-do-able. But the more I read, the more I knew that this would somehow end up being my future, even if I couldn’t admit it to myself so completely yet.
Maybe deep down, my soul craved it. But my ‘nafs’ (desires) fought it.
In the meantime (years, actually…!) my best friend threw herself into Islam whole heartedly, and our friendship remained a solid fixture in our lives despite her new lifestle and my old one (we are still close to this day). I tagged along to some new events – Muslim gatherings, Mosque visits, even Arabic classes (which I found fascinating and beautiful). But for the most part I continued on with life as planned, with this tiny sort of Islamic interest on the side. A seed that was growing.
I still attended family & friends church events such as weddings and funerals. At these times I would always feel a surge of Iman (faith) rise within my soul… without a doubt I was not a Christian – I could not worship Jesus as God. I would never bow my head in prayer when they prayed to “Our Lord Jesus”, nor would say ‘Amen’ when they called out in his name. I would also usually sit on the back pew. Still in attendance, still part of my family, but distanced from the pulpit of teachings that mingled the Words of God with the words of man.
As my thirties loomed I began to find it harder and harder to keep the Islam ‘I was feeling’ at bay, and even harder to continue on with my “life as planned”. I had been struggling, though for what I did not know exactly. I was approaching my late twenties. People were getting married and having kids. How could I ever marry someone who believed God had a son? I began avoiding Christmas, alcohol and oysters kilpatrick.
The world without faith I mostly inhabitted seemed increasingly empty, unfulfilling, lost… contrasted with the more spiritual world I encountered – rich, full, deep, solid, certain, peaceful…
“I am the Lord, and there is no other, besides me there is no God”
Isaiah 45:5, Holy Bible
SUDDENLY, ONE SUMMER (A LONG HOT RAMADAN)
Growing up in sunny Sydney Australia, I must say I never knew when it was Ramadan*. When I was in Infants school (the first 3 years of schooling in Australia) the only “different” religions were Catholic, Church of England and Presbyterian. We ate vegemite sangas (sandwiches) in the summer, meat pies in winter and delighted in Sunny Boys, Razzes and Glugs on hot days, which from memory cost around 10 cents each. (Incidentally I believe the Sunny Boy has been trying to make a comeback). By primary (the next 4 years, still in the 70’s) I had changed schools, not far but nearer to an immigration hostel, so we had a host of ESL classes within the school, my small world was expanding, just a little. But by High School, despite the variety of backgrounds of the student body, I was still largely unaware of Islam and Muslims. Also, by this time I did not attend school scripture anymore and in my family Sunday church attendance had pretty much waned completely.
For most of my youth I didn’t know Ramadan existed, let alone when it took place. It came and went whilst I was totally unaware.
The media for me back then consisted of a bit of afternoon telly before riding my bike and climbing trees; there was no internet or screen at every turn, and I had little interest in the 6 o’clock news that my parents viewed daily. But even if I did, Islam and Muslims were not a topic du jour. I suspect most people in Australia who weren’t Muslim (ie most of them) also never knew when Ramadan occurred, even if they knew it existed.
Now years later, with my best friend practically a seasoned Muslim (and married with kids), Ramadan reached my radar. And one year, late last century, with knowledge of its impending arrival, I felt compelled that I should fast.
One thing I should mention here also – is that in Islam, it says people who fast without praying are just starving themselves. I had read this and I knew that for my fasting to mean anything at all I had to pray – 5 times a day.
I was about to take on 2 new things that would change my life.
* * * * * *
My first ever Ramadan began one hot mid December day in 1997. After a pre-dawn breakfast and the short “Fajr” prayer, I went to work with a little prayer mat and hijab (to wear whilst praying) in a bag. I had one of those learner prayer mats with all the words and actions printed on it for you. (At 5 times a day it only takes about a week or so until you’re on your P Plates :-))
I may have been nervous and excited about Ramadan, but I was totally apprehensive about revealing my new “religion” to my boss and coworkers. It was a small business and I was always making coffee and tea and doing cappuccino runs, fasting would have been difficult to conceal. Upon arrrival I blubbered forth with a un-thought-out upfront approach. “Oh Hi. Good morning. By the way I won’t be eating or drinking today”. “Ok” came the reply, “Why’s that?”. I went on to explain I had decided to fast Ramadan. “I’ll try not to eat in front of you then”. What a sweet boss.
Next came time to pray – Salat al Dhuhr (Midday-ish Prayer – when the sun has come off the meridian). I made my Wudu (ablution) in the little girls room and returned to my desk. “Umm.. I have to pray now… where can I pray?” New and nervous I seemed to be blurting things out rather than asking quietly or politely explaining. “Anywhere you like” came the laid back reply. My boss was as cool as cucumber about all of this.
Afternoon. Next came the headache of my lifetime. After a decade or so on a constant caffeine drip, I had gone cold turkey with no thought to consequence. I probably had never or rarely gone without before, and had no memorable experience of withdrawal. I ended up having to leave work feeling very ill; drive home, and with my headache now blindingly painful, I failed my first day with a couple of neurofens.
Dented but not deterred, I continued with the month of fasting. I continued with the 5 daily prayers, I continued on the path of Islam – attempting to submit ones will to the will of the Creator of the Heavens and the Earth.
A huge weight was lifted from my shoulders.
A peaceful contented joy entered my heart.
My boss said I looked as though someone had switched a light on inside me.
As it so happens, as I write this post it is the last week of Ramadan right now.
Must be about my 17th one. Though nowaday my caffeine wean begins a week or two in advance.
* Ramadan is the 9th Month in the Islamic calendar which begins and ends with the sighting of the new crescent moon. For 29 or 30 days Muslims the world over refrain from all food and drink (and marital relations) from the time of dawn until after the sun has set. They also try to engage in extra acts of prayer, worship, charity and good deeds.
During the evenings, mosques are full with worshippers performing special prayers, called Taraweeh. During the course of the Taraweeh prayers, the entire Quran is recited (One-thirtieth (Juz) each night). Also; the Quran itself was first revealed during Ramadan, on a night called Laylatul Qadr – the Night of Decree (also translated as The Night of Power).
The sick, the elderly, children, travellers and nursing/pregnant are not required to fast. (and women do not fast at the time of their monthly cycle).
With the sighting of the new moon; the month of fasting ends with a celebration called Eid Al Fitr – special morning prayers, preferably outdoors, are attended by the whole community, followed by visiting, sharing food and exchanging gifts. Celebrations last 3 days.
In Islam there are 12 months, based on a lunar calendar. This is shorter than the seasonal year (gregorian / solar calendar) by approximately 9 or 10 days. Therefore Ramadan moves throughout the seasons, and one will experience the thirst of a long hot day, and realise the comfort our food brings during a chilly winter.
“O you who believe, fasting has been prescribed for you as it has been prescribed for those before you, so that you may attain *taqwa.” Quran 2:183
*Taqwa – piety, God-conciousness
Abruptly quitting your job on what would seem like a whim, packing your life into 2 suitcases and buying a one way ticket to the other side of the planet is probably not everyones Plan A or B when faced with one of lifes inevitable crossroads. But when opportunity avails, go with the wind in your sails. Decision made, the path to London seemed to unfold easily before me, and I landed in the middle of everything, of culture, of life, of promise, never a dull moment, never a bored day. London ’98 seemed thriving, and I felt like life began.
I wasn’t totally alone. I had the the beautiful welcoming home of long unseen family with whom I connected, plus I travelled with an expat buddy from my neighbourhood who put me up with a place to stay, which allowed me to get started in the first place.
Before I left Sydney, a Muslim friend gave me the phone number of an Islamic bookshop and told me to call them. This amazing once only brief phone call (“Assalamu alaikum, I just arrived here from Australia. I’m Muslim and I don’t know any Muslims here”) led to practically instant swathes of friendship and sisterhood. The young Somali sisters who took me around London whose sense of fun and humour sat exact with my Aussie one. The older English sister everyone knew for her fabulous cooking (she was later to make my wedding cake), the Polish sister, the Austrian one, the sisters from France, Bangladesh, Africa, the Spanish sister with whom I had a running race along the Thames, the Asian sisters who who weren’t sure what to do with the BBQ in Kent so turned to me ‘the Aussie’. The Algerians who treated me like family whose soup I loved. The Bristish West Indian sisters I met in the street who invited me to dinner and Eid gatherings and made me feel part of their world. The young Mauritian sisters, whom I nick-named the coffee sisters (due to our shared love of a good brew), who made sure I was never alone during Eid at the end of Ramadan. The antipodeans with whom I could relate. The strong British women. The English Indian sister who became my best friend. Friends are like flowers in the garden of life, to quote a profound preschool song.
The shared timeless belief that that God is One, visible with hijab (which I did not yet wear), audible with the prolific greeting “As Salamu Alaikum”, “peace be to you”, instantly made me part of a large, diverse active Muslim community . Welcomed with open arms, ‘sisters’ descended their wings of love and mercy on the fledgling new one of their own.
Islam says you will be like your friends, mine were now overwhelming Muslim. Then someone sent me a very short booklet in the mail, the name of which I can’t recall….
Walking on Sunshine
When I had first come across Islam in my early twenties, I couldn’t grasp the hijab. I knew very little about it and sometimes I would sit on the train, on the way to work, and wonder ‘whats wrong with hair?’, ‘why would someone cover their hair?’. Next it became a ‘thing’. An exotic garment to wrap around your head at home with friends and ooh, ahh and laugh. Other than that, it was not something I gave a serious consideration to or imagined as a reality in my future. I occasionally donned one on my adventures in London, going to events with sisters where everyone was wearing one, kind of liking it, kind of not. I spent time alone in my flat experimenting with different ways of pinning it, folding it, wearing it, slowly becoming friends with the very idea of it.
One day a booklet about the hijab arrived in the mail from a New Zealand sister. That night I casually read it before I went to sleep, it was short and sweet, but somehow it pierced my heart. More than that actually – it reached into my soul, and told me to come home. It had words along the lines of ‘Do you accept men learing at you and thinking xyz?’ asking questions like this amongst others before finally stating “Well Allah (God) does not accept this for you” I went to sleep that night feeling more loved and protected than any other night I can remember. (I wish I could remember what the name of the book was!).
The next day I got up, got dressed in a floral maxi dress and long sleeve shirt, and wrapped a little fringed majenta scarf around my head. Just like that. On auto pilot. As if I had done it everyday of my life. I wasn’t the slightest bit nervous or aphrensive. It was the opposite of anxiety, it was peace and certainty. As I made my way to my job at Westminster on the London Underground, I felt 10 feet tall. Elated. Almost touching the roof of the tube train. Walking on sunshine.
So that was that. The beginning of my hijab evolution. And its definitely been an evolution – but I’ll leave that story for another time.
Sydney Hijabi, Muslim blogger, free spirit, lover of the arts