The road to Islam
I remember seeing them, everyday, day in day out living thir normal lives. They wore different colours, different styles, over Asian clothes, English clothes and something in between. They were everywhere, it was a normal thing, I didn’t mind it in anyway, I just didn’t understand, why did they do it? How weird they cover themselves like that? I don’t know how I could ever do that, I loved my hair, loved it touching my shoulders, loved to feel the pony-tail swinging behind me and I loved flicking my fringe out of my face every so often. That scarf thing tied all over my head would make me feel so locked up, strangling my neck, how did they do it?
It’s like they lived their life, and we lived ours. The Asians were on one side, the rest of us separate. If you walked into the common room or a lecture hall, you would see an ‘asian’ corner and then a few ‘non-asian’ corners, and of course there would be those who strayed from the idea, but that may only be because they lived in that world. Nobody lived in both worlds, they were true to one or the other. Nobody tried to segregate us; we just don’t fully intermix, just naturally. We didn’t talk to them and they didn’t us, I don’t really know why.
That was, until one day I sat in the wrong place. I was overwhelmed in my own world, unaware that I had sat on their row, and they would come along in their group. Most times that normally happens; I would just be ignored, but not this time. Normally we wouldn’t mingle so freely, it would be just hi and bye or hey.
Anyway so she sat with me, all tied up in her scarf. Surprisingly, She was so nice and we really began to talk, she was completely normal, just like us, only her scarf differentiated her from me. We liked the same TV shows, same movies, had same thoughts on careers and everything, we just clicked. I began to realise that there really wasn’t much difference, she still had fun, and she still had haircuts and fringes just not on show. It did surprise me: what a waste of a good haircut, but still it was strange that this huge barrier had been broken. Our only difference was our lifestyle and part of our culture. It seemed as though she was carrying three cultures: her Pakistani origin, her british born culture and her growing faith in islam.
After I got to know my new friend, Zarah, I began to notice lots of other girls in scarf’s, or Hijab rather. They were of all colours and ethnicities not just Pakistani-Asians. They were Arab, Chinese, black, Indian-Asian, even white people in Hijab. I was eager; I wanted to know more about this, about Muslims, about Islam.
Even though I had grown up with Pakistani-Asians all my life, all I ever learnt was about Indian films or curries, never about Muslims. They used to have Asian dress living a British lifestyle. All the girls I did know didn’t wear Hijab; they wore their hair down, were ‘blinged’ up, high-healed tarts with a boyfriend charm bracelet on the usual change every so often. They wore Asian clothes with the sexiest styles and colours. Zarah was too a Pakistani-Asian Muslim, but she was totally different. I wanted to know her more, to know her life more. Just by being her friend I was able to differentiate a being a Muslim had nothing to do with being Pakistani or British, it was completely something else.
I loved having a Muslim friend, it was something so different, it wasn’t just a fake happy face or a ‘trying to keep peace’ scenario, it was something real. But amongst all this new friendship I still had to maintain my everlasting old friendships with my non-Muslim friends. Unfortunately, I couldn’t meet Zarah a lot, my other friends would look at me and not understand what I could possibly have in common with her. I remember going to the club that night, my best friend Amy was piling on the drinks and hoping to ‘get off’ with the ‘fittest’ guy at the club and go for it. It seemed so silly; amy would always wake up with a hangover every time they went out and not know who she slept with. It was the lifestyle, but it was immoral, and absolutely normal and acceptable.
All my life this was my life, mini-skirts, makeup and boys; it was the life of my friends and my two older sisters. I don’t know why, when I sat down and thought about it, it seemed so wrong. My eldest sister went through several relationships before settling down with one guy, having a kid and then divorcing, leading her to restart her long line of unsusuccessful relationships yet again.
I look at my family and think, this was me and now I wish they could see what I see, how I see. I feel like I crossed some invisible line, some major tightrope that I walked for so long and finally stepped off and had a look around at what was really going on. But they remained on the rope not knowing, not even trying.
My Gran, she’s a Christian, she doesn’t drink but even she had had her fair share of night outs and hangovers in her youth. She hadn’t taught us much about god or faith even though she believes in god herself. I don’t know about god.
At school we had done religious studies for most of our school life, up until GCSEs. All the knowledge flew in one ear and poured out the next. It was always something that was uncomfortable to talk about, something that blew out of the window each time it was mentioned. But, for some reason, each time I heard about Muslims the feeling was different. I secretly yearned to know more, to actually know what it was, from the point of view of a Muslim. I always wanted to know, but I was so afraid of what people would think of me, my family, my friends, they would disown me for joining some weird sect or voo-doo doers, I could just imagine my mothers face and my fathers temper. They would think im a freak, they would disown me, or lock my eighteen year old body in my room and never let me out again.
Still I continued my friendship with Zarah, in secret, hiding from anyone who knew me, having secret msn conversations or private text messaging. I didn’t care if they would be angry at me, or hurt for deceiving them, this was for a better cause for a better need. Even if I wasn’t a person of good faith, I was a person of good will. So I secretly led my double life, my family and friends unaware.
Me and Zarah, we never talked about faith, I think she was afraid to render me uncomfortable, similarly I didn’t want to ask her in case of causing offense and losing her friendship. Then one day we were sat together amidst a collection of other Muslims in their own conversations: I asked her.
“er..can you tell me why you are different to those?” I pointed towards the typical, clearly ‘tarty’ Pakistani Asian girls in the far corner. It seemed like the most stupid way to ask, but we were friends now, it was allowed for me to be an idiot about it.
“erm ok..” she started laughing “hmm well don’t respect themselves and I do, by the look of it”
“I don’t get what you mean?”
“are you asking me why I dress modest or why I’m not wearing Asian clothes?”
“erm..ok..both, its just its always puzzled me zar..”
“ok no worries, ok well they seem to be just Pakistani girls, I seem myself as Muslim first, and I believe that god has instructed women to do this so I do it, to cover to protect my modesty and my chastity” she smiled as she said it, she wasn’t uncomfortable at all.
She kindly explained to me a lot of things that day, and unsurprisingly, everything she said was making complete sense and felt like absolute logic in every way. It really did get me thinking. I mean a girl covered in make-up, ‘bling’ with lots of skin showing is very likely to turn heads, receive whistles and get raped, but a covered woman? What would seduce the men in the first place, if they couldn’t see anything to get tempted?
She told me even a person who is born a Muslim reaches a point in his/her life in which they feel they have to convert/revert. A person who is born a Muslim only holds the title and is quite unknown to his/her real faith until they seek the knowledge for themselves, they almost live in as much ignorance as a non-Muslim does. Ignorance as in, not knowing much about Islam or trying to know about it. She told me when she had converted to Islam; it was the hardest thing to do. She had to go against all her family values and traditions, just following her own heart.
I began to openly roam with Zarah then, meet her friends discuss Islam, it was great. They were so friendly and nice it was unbelievable. She told me internet sites and gave me books and pamphlets to read, she didn’t force anything onto me, I always kept asking her. I soon became attached to her friends too, one friend was so filled with knowledge from mosques and famous Muslim men, I would find myself drowning in his talks and force him to come online and tell me more.
I also realised, there were lots of respectful Muslim women who didn’t wear Hijab, some wore clothes that weren’t too fitted, or showed no skin, some wore clothes revealing everything but nonetheless were good Muslims, and they had good knowledge and conduct. They prayed regularly and were fun to be around. There were different types of Muslim individuals as there were different types of non-Muslims. Muslims were not some weird sect with creepy rituals, they were so much more, and they were in fact just humans with real morals. I know from the first moment that I had met Zarah I had knocked upon the door of Islam and it gave me shelter. And the Muslims welcomed me with open arms. As I got to know them more, my love and passion for Islam grew as did my friendships with my new Muslim friends.
Then I remember the first time I watched them pray. Zarah asked me if I wanted to come along, I could have waited outside if I wanted to, but I insisted it was fine for me to come inside. I had feared this many times, I always feared the moment I would be there at prayer time. I don’t know why I feared it so much, but I knew I had to go just once, to get it out of my system. It couldn’t be that bad, or that scary, and I could always lift up my two legs and run as fast as I could it if overwhelmed me. So I decided to go through with it.
First we went to the student union toilets so they could do their washing ritual. How strange I thought, I remember coming here several times late at night refreshing my makeup and touching up perfume with drunken giggling girlfriends. This image was so much more peaceful, so much calmer.
I stood at the side and watched zarah remove her scarf to reveal the most beautiful shiny hair straight hair imaginable, so long reaching her waist, it made me realise only something so deep and true would make her cover something as beautiful as that.
She began the washing ritual, ‘wuthu’ . She rolled her sleeves up and washed her hands, and then she used her right hand and rinsed out her mouth. Next she snuffed her nose with her left, I payed attention to every detail. She give me a cheeky grin before washing her face thrice. She then moved onto her arms, then she wet her head and slipped her fingers behind her ears and down through to the neck. She then lifted her feet to the sink, one at a time to wash. It was so simple. I remember seeing it on TV once, it looked so mystified and eerie and you could hear chanting, the real thing was completely different.
She then dried up and put her scarf back on, I’d seen her do this so many times now I could be the expert. Normally girls fuss over their hair, well, I had seen Zarah fuss over her scarf so many times day, its funny how messed up it can look when it’s on all wrong.
Anyway I opened the door to the prayer room and my heart skipped a beat, or maybe stopped beating altogether up until I saw them. There were a few rows of parallel rectangular arches on the floor; I remember they were a distinctive royal blue with a gold arched border, like doorways painted on the ground side by side with a pointy arch. The room was mostly empty, but a few women were praying. They were just scattered among the rows: a lady on the first row, two on the second and one on the third row, the remaining two rows were empty. Each row consisted of about ten blocks.
The first lady had finished and she walked off the left and smiled at me, she was so beautiful. I remember noticing the twinkle in her blue eyes and the glow in her olive skin as she grabbed her bag put on her shoes and left. I turned back to my sight-seeing, and found that Zarah was in mid-prayer. Her face was straight and calm; she was looked as though she was absent-mindedly bending over, putting her hands on her knees, then straghteneing up before prostrating fully on the ground. She looked oddly entranced, happy and calm all at once. I felt like I really wanted to try, I really wanted to see what it feels like, but it looked so hard. It would be so childish and silly, like a child wanted to test his friends toy if I asked.
Many times after that I went with Zarah and her friends to watch them pray, sometimes I would flick through the books on the shelves and examine the covers, but when my hand would come near the Quran it would quiver, I don’t know if it was fear of the unknown or fear that this may change me completely. It was just a book, so why did I feel it like so?
After spending so much time with my Muslim friends I began to change myself. They weren’t much different but they talked of so many things, they even said they were not very good examples of Muslims. Still I couldn’t wear my mini-skirt anymore, and I felt embarrassed to let even a little cleavage show. If I wore even a vest top and sat amongst them, I would feel so ashamed when sitting amongst zarah’s male friends, I don’t know why, I had never felt this before. Before it didn’t used to matter to me what I wore, my other friends still wore clothes like that, I felt so alien to them. Sometimes I wish I could do it again, but I just could not anymore.
Finally one morning I woke up and I believed in god, in Allah. It was strange, I had read so many things aobut islam for a whole year, spent my time with them but all the same I had never completely let go of my old life, I was still hanging on to it with the grasp of my fingertips. But this morning I had decided that I wanted to convert. All year the thoughts had come through my mind several times, and I always feared them, I feared how to go about them and I feared what people would think about me. But day after day I let my brain battle and today it had deciceded that a muslim is what I am and what I will be.
I wke up pulled on my jeans and my dress, then I did something I never expected myself to do. I opened my drawer and pulled out my sky blue Pashmina shawl. I remembered the way I had seen Zarah put it on so many times and I did it to. I pulled the long side and wrapped it around my head, covering all my hair, part of my face and my neck, I shoved my pony-tail down the back of my dress. My heart shook as I peered in the mirror at Muslim me. I walked out of my room but fearfully retreated again, I tried three times before successfully leaving my flat and attending my morning lecture at university.
I sat there in the lecture hall, half concealing my face, quiet as a dead mouse waiting to be buried, I felt like everyone would stare at me but nobody did. And then Zarah walked in, she kept craning her head around, looking for someone. Then she finally turned her head and looked right at me. She looked dumbfounded and her laugh froze as she was lost for words. Then suddenly she burst out” oh my god you look so nice! Oh my god your wearing a scarf?!” slowly all her girlfriends started to realise and they all fussed and fawned over me, I felt happy and embarrassed at the same time.
I then, was given a real introduction to Islam, I was taught everything by my friends and some muslim scholars came to see me. I had to say the ‘shahadat’, a declaration of faith: there is no god but Allah and mohammed is the messenger of Allah. They taught me the basics of Islam and they taught me ‘wuthu’ and how to pray.
I remember my first prayer, it was alongside Zarah, she guided me all the way through. When I used to watch from the side-lines I could only see silent movements, when I actually said the words and did the prayer myself the feeling was indescribable. Words cannot bring those feelings to view, nothing can.
I didn’t have to say much to my parents, I simply walked in the door and let them see me. One really good thing about Hijab is that anyone in one is a Muslim, it’s a sign of a Muslim. My father looked as though he wanted to be sick and my mother went as white as a sheet when they saw me in one. My parents were a bit taken aback, they couldn’t believe any of it. I felt a bit bad about it, doing all this, but to me, this was the right thing, the best thing and they just had to accept me for it. After some time, my father silently agreed and my mother was so supportive. Every time I would meet my family I would tell them so much about Islam and what I had learnt. My eldest sister had stubbornly accepted it but she wouldn’t hear any of it, she didn’t want anything to do with it. Still, my mothers support was enough, and my faith in god was enough.