For these reverts, Islam is not the end of the road

Category: Faith & Spirituality, Featured, Highlights Topics: Islam, Reverts Channel: My Journey To Islam Views: 586

Muhammed Nafih Wafy meets up with an assortment of reverts of varying backgrounds who have negotiated their path to Islam through steep and inhospitable terrains but now cherish their hard-earned faith as a treasured possession.

Unlike those who simply inherit their parents' religion, these motivated converts leave no stone unturned in making their faith a constructive, enterprising, and purpose-driven experience.

“I never felt like changing my name nor any other symbols of my material existence when I embraced Islam,” an ebullient Catherine said over her favourite Chicken & Mushroom Risotto at a cafe just across from the New York University Abu Dhabi’s sprawling campus in Saadiyat Island.

We were picking up a conversation that started serendipitously on the sidelines of a conference on the interface of philosophy and religion at the University’s conference hall.

“But the moment I made up my mind to pronounce Shahada in 2012 after an epiphany that culminated a year-long introspection, I felt a powerful wave of change sweeping through every fibre of my existence,”

she went on.

“It was a heavy weight off my mind and suddenly a feeling of pure delight overwhelmed me. It was like being born again and I started looking at myself and everything around me with a fresh perspective. But it launched me into a new phase of life, much more challenging and responsible.”

Chicago-born Catherine, who works for one of the Big 4 accounting firms and arrived here on a week-long business trip, is one of the many young new Muslims who are genuinely motivated to find an abiding sense of meaning and purpose in every single aspect of their newly attained faith.

Despite they hail from different cultural and national backgrounds and attribute their conversion to a wide variety of reasons, one thing that stood out about them was the fascinating journey of self-transformation they are undergoing, or at least they aspire to undergo, since they found out their faith of choice.

That makes their hard-earned faith much more constructive, enterprising, and purpose-driven compared with the run-off-the-mill Islam practised by those who inherited it from their parents and take much of its articles of faith for granted.

Although for many of them finding Islam was seeing the light at the end of a meandering tunnel, it was not the end of their intellectual pursuits.

“I cannot say Islam was the panacea for all my intellectual queries,” said Catherine.

“But it offered me a reassurance that I am guided by the divine light. No faith is expected to provide you with a set of ready-made answers to all your questions. In fact, Islam brought me with a new set of intellectual challenges and responsibilities. That your relationship with God has taken a new turn does not mean your faith is devoid of any challenges. It’s like a career promotion. A superior and more responsible job comes with its own challenges,” she added.

For Birmingham-born Bridget, whose conversion happened as a culmination of a two-year long courtship with her Omani boyfriend in Cambridge in early noughties, finding and accepting Islam was a long journey.

“My conversion was a long-drawn-out process. It’s not a mean feat to abandon the faith to which you were born and accept another one especially while you don't have a strong motivation. I embraced Islam after rigorous soul-searching and introspection.”

Born and brought up in an Anglican family, Bridget was at home with her religious tradition and was not desperately seeking for a new faith.

“I have never been in a spiritual dilemma. There was no motivation nor any compulsion to change faith. But constantly straddled between two faith traditions, I found myself seeking for an anchorage to fasten my floating mind. Eventually, Islam turned out to be my choice. But it came after bobbing out on the choppy, turbulent waters. But once you are there, the transformation has been incredible. Allah has helped me to successfully manoeuvre myself out of a spiritual shipwreck.”

After moving to Muscat with her husband, Bridget sought to leave her turbulent past behind forever. She literally built her life anew, managing to transform herself into a new person. She frequented the weekly knowledge session for new Muslims held every Friday morning at the Institute of Islamic Sciences in the premises of the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque in Muscat, which not only helped her broaden her knowledge of Islam, but also to extend her friendship circle.

For Bridget, Shahada was not just a customary oath of allegiance officially marking her embrace of Islam, but it’s also a pithily-expressed code of conduct governing every aspect of her life. “While making Shahada, one is pledging a life-time commitment to make God the be-all and end-all of one’s existence,” she said. “Shahada changes the entire perception of our life. The conversion to Islam cannot be achieved without the readiness to make God the focal point of one’s thoughts, expressions, and actions.”

But for Michael (now Ali), a telecom engineer by profession who embraced Islam following his participation in the anti- Iraq War protests in London in 2003, Shahada did not make any sense in the initial days of conversion.

He spelt out the oath without fully understanding its meaning. An idealistic young firebrand in his early 20s, Ali’s cause of conversion was more political rather than religious. But his faith underwent a radical change as he grew up and matured over the last two decades. Islam marked the beginning of a significant shift in his life.

“It was an ongoing process, as my view of Islam has evolved in sync with my worldview. A few years after conversion, in my early thirties, politics took a backseat and spirituality took over. I used to devour Rumis and Ibnu Arabis of the world. Then I mellowed a great deal. Now, I humbly believe that I have a more balanced, unbiased understanding of Islam, aligning more with the holistic view of human life that the Quran advocates,” he said. “My priorities have kept on changing. There is no better spiritual exercise than listening to one's own life as it unfurls petal by petal.”

Ali believes Islam as well as its broader concept of God and religion has significantly influenced all these changes.

“Each moment of our mundane day-to-day existence has the potential to spiritually awaken us. No human experience, however inconspicuous and humdrum they might seem, is devoid of the spiritual potential to enlighten us and connect us with God,” he said.

Catherine, for her part, calls this phenomenon the birth of a spiritually alert mind. She says every single object or phenomenon, animate or inanimate, has a compelling spiritual message encoded in it, beyond its material exterior. It takes a spiritually alert mind, though, to decode them and absorb the subtle nuggets of wisdom conceived in them.

“To believe in God is to believe in the unseen. But it’s not a blind belief in something of which we have no proof, but to believe in a phenomenon to which we are eventually guided by everything we see,” she said.

Although God remains physically invisible, He makes Himself known to us through His unmistakable signature in every ounce of our being and in every single particle of our universe, she elaborates.

“We don't have to physically see God to have faith in Him, but we believe in him by witnessing his signs, which permeate our being and the being of everything around us. We witness His signs everywhere- in all complexities and varieties, harmonies and disharmonies, of our life.”

For Robert, an engineer by profession, it was his passion for social service, philanthropy, and community building that eventually led him to the shore of Islam. While speaking over an Iftar gathering in one of the luxurious hotels in Dubai’s Palm Jumeirah, he extensively quoted Quran verses and prophetic traditions extolling the virtues of charity to explain how motivated he was by them and how Islam helped him to pursue his life-long passion with a clarity of vision and sense of purpose.

It’s meaningful and purpose-driven in every step from conception to implementation. He read out a list of 15 projects that he successfully implemented since he and his wife Clara embraced Islam 15 years ago. We welcome every Ramadan with a dedicated project and we are looking to immortalize every year of our life with an exclusive project, 70-year-old Robert said with an elan and enthusiasm belying his age.

For Sandra, daughter of a Jewish banker and a Catholic school teacher from Philadelphia, Islam marked the final destination in a journey through all the three Abrahamic faiths, she said after a visit to Abu Dhabi’s Abrahamic faith centre. She was full of praise for her parents who left her in a spiritual crossroad without ever forcing her to choose their respective religions. It was this uncertainty that encouraged her to start her spiritual odyssey off the beaten track.

“It helped me penetrate deep into the human realm and pose fundamental questions about who I am and what I may become,” she said.

But still Sandra had a tough time as she grew up and opted for Middle Eastern history as her major in the university. At one point she was “utterly flummoxed and bamboozled” by what the orientalist scholars have written about Islam. But this had piqued her curiosity to learn about Islam and Islamic history from Muslim sources.

And she spent many a long hour swathed in the proverbial hot towels, struggling to distinguish her prejudiced, stereotypical understanding of Islam and what she learned from Islamic scholars and experts. Although academics paved the way for her to Islam and she converted to Islam in the midst of completing her PhD thesis, she soon decided to abandon academics and try her luck elsewhere.

She has since worked for several NGOs and non-profit organizations involved in fighting against inequality, poverty, and injustice, in different parts of the world. “Islam gave me new priorities. Or it’s the other way around: My new priorities guided me to Islam. Reading is no longer a tool for me to acquire more knowledge and prove myself to be a master. I no longer read much of those hefty volumes I used to devour left, right and centre.

Why should we acquire this much knowledge if we cannot process them into wisdom? Today machines can gather, process and generate knowledge faster than us. Once I wanted to prove myself as a scholar, but today my ambition is to excel as a human being. This is a struggle to surrender,” she said, referring to American scholar Jeffry Lang’s book about his conversion to Islam.

A common thread running through all these stories of reversion is the focus on nurturing and developing a spiritually alert mind and an unmistakable sense of responsibility it constantly generates. It was that alertness that helped them, as Catherine rightly said, to identify the

“potential in every material to transport us to the immaterial, and in every evanescent to clue us in on the eternal realm”.

While a majority of Muslims fail to realize the therapeutic potential of the faith they inherit by birth, the reverts who negotiated their path to Islam through steep and inhospitable terrains cherish their hard-earned faith as a treasured possession.

Muhammed Nafih Wafy is a writer currently based in Abu Dhabi 

  Category: Faith & Spirituality, Featured, Highlights
  Topics: Islam, Reverts  Channel: My Journey To Islam
Views: 586

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