I was born in the 70s to a middle-class family consisting of my mother, father and two older brothers. My memories of family life are of a happy, secure, very close and loving family. Although my parents were not religious they were very strict in certain areas of my upbringing such as instilling good manners, generosity and consideration for others.
Despite the lack of religious guidance in my early years of life there were certain times that I remember just naturally turning to God for guidance and simply accepting the existence of God. For example, at the age of six I asked my parents if I could attend Sunday School at our local church and at the age of ten I registered with a distance learning Bible course. Also, at the age of 13, I remember passing by the scene of a road accident on my way to school and noticing a pool of blood by the roadside. That evening I prayed to God for the man who was knocked over to return to good health.
However, such moments of religiosity were always short lived. Despite these few God conscious moments of my childhood the majority of my life I lived as a typical 'English girl'. Without any religion to teach me what was right or wrong...I simply followed the crowd.
However, there were times when I would feel unhappy with the way I was living my life. It was at night when I would sometimes lay in bed and think about the things I was doing and feel ashamed and sometimes even cry. I always wondered if there would ever be a point in my life when I would not feel guilty about how I was living my life. At times, I would pray to God, crying for forgiveness and help.
But why would such a young girl turn to God asking for help? My family was not teaching me about God, nor my friends or society. So, why did I even believe in the existence of God? And why in such times of trouble did I turn to Him?
Now that I am Muslim I understand how all human beings have a natural disposition to believe in the existence of God. The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said: "Every new-born baby is born on the fitrah (natural state i.e. Islam). It is his parents who make him a Jew, a Christian or a Magian." [Bukhari, Muslim, Abu Dawud, Tirmidhi & others]
However, now that I am Muslim, I am totally content with the way I live my life and I no longer feel ashamed about my past. In Islam, the moment you become a Muslim and declare your faith in God you become like a new-born baby totally free of sin. The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said: "If a person embraces Islam sincerely, then Allah shall forgive all his past sins, and after that starts the settlement of accounts: the reward of his good deeds will be ten times to seven hundred times for each good deed, and an evil deed will be recorded as it is unless Allah forgives it. "[Sahih al-Bukhari, Vol 1 Hadith No. 40a].
At the age of 15, more major events started to take place which affected my whole outlook in life. In my last school year three of my school friends died.
The first to die was a seventeen-year-old boy. It was a typical school evening spending time at a friend's house. The evening was spent as usual, chatting, laughing and joking. But little did I know that this would be the last time I would see one of my friends. For the next day he had fallen off his motorbike in bad weather and been hit by a car. Two days later he had died.
A few months later a friend from school suffered a severe asthma attack, collapsed during surgery and died. I can remember seeing her the day she died walking around the school playground totally unaware of what lay ahead of her that evening.
I was so shocked at the deaths of two young people in such a short space of time but I didn't know how to cope with it. But little did I know that the most disturbing incident was yet to come.
It was two months later and my last lesson of the school day, Physical Education. I was laughing and joking in the changing room with one of my close school friends. We said our goodbyes to each other when the school bell sounded and went our separate ways.
The next time I saw her she was laying on a roadside after being hit by a car outside our school. I gave my cardigan to be used as a cushion for her head as my teacher tried to resuscitate her. The ambulance came after what seemed like hours. I will always remember watching her motionless hand, displaying all the rings that I had given her, fall off the stretcher as she was being ushered into the ambulance. She died a few days later and the last time I stood so closely to her was sitting inches away from her coffin in the small local church at her funeral.
For weeks I would sleep with my light on and every time I shut my eyes I would see her face. I went totally withdrawn and became obsessed with life after death. I just simply could not accept that there was nothing after death. Again it was my natural disposition guiding me to the existence of God. But at this stage of life I did not look for the answers in religion but rather found myself scouring the library shelves for books on near-death experience and clairvoyancy. And at that stage of my life it was convenient, and a comfort, to accept these ideas.
But for me the most important lesson I learned from that year was that our lives could end at any moment -old, young, healthy, unhealthy. One day, and it could be today or tomorrow, we could be in our graves having to answer to God.
Why did we not live according to His rules? It is not enough that we were good to others and were careful not to harm anybody. What about the God who created us, who provides us with everything to keep us alive like air, a heart that beats and plentiful food to eat? We take His blessings throughout our lives yet fail to even acknowledge His existence or thank Him! How would we feel if after bearing our children and providing them with all their needs that they just lived their lives never speaking to us, never even thinking of us or even uttering one word of thanks to us! Would we want to reward a child like this? Then why do we live our lives expecting to receive God's ultimate reward of Paradise when we have never acknowledged His existence or turned to Him in gratitude for His endless blessings?
In 1991 I moved to London to study Law at a university and my life finally began to turn around. It was here that I met my future husband, who was a Muslim, and his group of Muslim friends. I specifically chose a university in London that was multi-cultural because coming from a very White area I wanted to meet people from different backgrounds. My boyfriend and his friends were not practicing Islam wholeheartedly at that time so we spent many nights out in Central London.
Then one day one of the boys from the group visited my student house fully clad in shalwar kameez and a significant beard. I was amazed - he had decided to start practicing Islam. Where he used to greet me with a big hug he just smiled and walked past me making a joke that "I won't be hugging you anymore!" I always had the perception that someone who was following a religion would frankly be very serious and boring. But here was a boy whose face was alight with happiness in his own life choice to turn his back on partying and the so-called "high-life" and practice Islam in its entirety.
From that day on every time this boy came to visit my student house he would talk about Islam. It was very strange because from that instant I became extremely shy in his presence out of respect for him and his values. I would simply sit quietly and listen to what he was saying about Islam. When they went home I would often debate the points discussed with my then-boyfriend but I was always left having to agree the viewpoint given in Islam made perfect sense. Slowly I began to picture together in my mind a view of how perfect the world would be if we all lived our lives as dictated by God in Islam.
Many aspects of Islam appealed to me directly. Many issues that If I had implemented in my teenage years, would have made such a vast difference in my upbringing. For me, it was some of the prohibitions laid down in Islam that appealed to me. For example, the prohibition of alcohol. We are told in the Holy Qur'an that there is some benefit in it but the harm outweighs the good.
"They ask you (O Muhammad) concerning alcoholic drink and gambling. Say: "In them is a great sin, and (some) benefits for men, but the sin of them is greater than their benefit."
[The Holy Qur'an Chapter 2 verse 119]
I could clearly see the ill-effects a large consumption of alcohol had played in my own life but could also see the damage at a societal level. It leads to a loosening of behavior which can lead to fornication, adultery and crime.
Islam also prohibits sexual relations outside of marriage. For me this was so appealing. The consequence of free sexual activity within a society inevitably leads to pregnancy and when this happens outside the stability of marriage this is more likely to end in an abortion.
But, of course, attraction between a man and a woman is part of the natural disposition given to us by God. Therefore, Islam implements certain rules as a precaution to prevent this attraction occurring in the first instance. For example, the modest dress code and behavior of both men and women.
It might seem difficult for some to understand how a Western woman can embrace the dress code of a Muslim woman. But for me I found it liberating. I no longer had to endure the unwanted glances of some man sitting opposite me on the tube. For the first time in my life I was taken for the person I was and not for simply the way I looked or dressed.
Islam is such a wide encompassing religion that this is such a small snapshot of the many things I was learning back in 1992 and which were appealing to my logic and common sense. I continued to read books and leaflets to increase my knowledge and slowly my faith grew.
However, one book that I was unable to read at this time was The Holy Qur'an. I possessed a copy in English, which I kept in a safe place but whenever I opened the front cover I was too scared to read the words and would quickly close the cover. Looking back now I can see that at this time I was in some form of denial. I knew that the Qur'an was the true word of God. And I think that when you reach that realization you either turn away from the truth out of fear because you don't want to change your life or you wholeheartedly embrace the truth and become Muslim. But for me at that time I simply did not feel ready to make that change.
However, I was slowly changing my behavior. I stopped drinking, smoking and eating pork and would 'practice' fasting a few days during Ramadan. It was in the Ramadan of 1992 that I learnt my first part of the prayer in Arabic -the Al-Fatihah or The Opening. I struggled with the first few lines trying to get my tongue around this new language but was soon amazed at how easily the words entered my memory. I was sure that God was helping me in my learning. From that moment on I slowly learnt the majority of the prayer and began praying just one prayer a day reciting what I had learnt so far.
It was at this stage that my then-boyfriend went home for the weekend. He telephoned me from home and told me that he and his friends were going to Regents Park Mosque the next day. He asked if I would like to come with them and consider taking my shahadah (i.e. declare my faith and become Muslim).
It was strange because even though I had been researching Islam for a year or so I had never even considered taking my shahadah and 'officially' becoming Muslim. I was so scared. I recognized the enormity and seriousness of taking such a decision. I did not want to take my shahaadah if I wasn't certain that Islam was the truth or if I thought that I wasn't ready to change my life in such a way. I knew that if I became Muslim it would be for the rest of my life.
Therefore I spent that evening with all my books and leaflets sprawled out on my bed. I anxiously read through all of them looking for something that I disagreed with or felt I could not accept -I found nothing! I also prayed to God with the incomplete prayer that I knew at that time.
By the end of what seemed like a very long evening I went to bed very anxious but hoping and praying that God would guide me. I was extremely comforted when I awoke the next morning. I had had a wonderful dream and in it I was opening the door to my Muslim friends and they were greeting me with such a broad smile as if to say "You are one of us now". So my mind was made up and I became a Muslim on 5th July 1993.
I married the man I met at university and we are now still happily married with children, by the grace of God. We are both totally committed to Islam and are working hard together to raise an Islamic family, God willing. I have never regretted my decision to become Muslim even through the most testing of times. My faith has just grown from strength to strength and every day I learn something new and understand my religion even more.
My advice to all non-Muslims -do not judge Islam by looking at particular individuals or groups of Muslims but rather judge Islam by what is written in The Holy Qur'an and the numerous authentically recorded sayings of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). Only when you approach these sources with a clear and open mind can you see the truth and beauty which is Islam.
"Say: Lo! As for me, my Lord hath guided me unto a straight path, a right religion, the community of Abraham, the upright, who was no idolater." [The Holy Qur'an chapter 6 verse 162]
This is the story of Sister Yasmin Umm Amani and she can be reached at [email protected]