Hi. As-salaamu alaikum wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuh. (Peace be upon you and Allah’s mercy and blessings)
At the time of writing this, I have been a Muslim for 4 weeks. Islamic understanding though is that I have been a Muslim since I was born 48 years ago – it’s just taken me a long time to find my way back on to the right path.
If any of this offends you, I am sorry. Some of it offends me too but this has been my road to Islam and you just know it has a happy ending.
My Early Years
As a teenager, I still went to church on Sundays, and yes, I did toy with the idea of becoming a nun – apparently that’s quite common – but boys were too much of a distraction. I did, however, go through a phase of wearing all black and wore a big silver cross around my neck
And then God threw a nice little tester my way. I fell in love with, and married a man who unfortunately had his own demons to deal with. We had two good years together and four which were difficult.
I didn’t go to church much anymore but it wasn’t until my maternal grandfather died in 1990 that I fell out with God. It wasn’t because my granddad had died. I accept people die. But I was sitting in church listening to the sermon and thinking “This is wrong. I don’t know what’s wrong, but this is wrong”. In church on that day, in my head, I apologised to God and said “I’m sorry, I’m not going to see you for a while. Goodbye.” Those exact words.
Kind of like a rebellious teenager, I would attend christenings, weddings and funerals and I would stand for hymns but not sing. I would refuse to close my eyes and join in prayers. I also know that deep down I had questions but I wouldn’t actively go and seek answers. I wanted someone to take me aside and tell me what was what. I still respected churches and appreciated them as beautiful architectural structures and I always respected people’s right to follow their religion whatever it may be but I had lost my way and, to avoid the issue, I declared myself an atheist. It was the easy and lazy way out.
Time continued to pass. I have three beautiful, respectful, well-adjusted, polite, funny, well-educated, hard-working children who I love to bits. The eldest from my marriage, the younger two from a long relationship that didn’t work out.
The Long Road Home
I didn’t work for years while bringing up my children. We lived on the Isle of Skye for many years and – well, it was complicated. However, I did feel like I was wasting my life so, in 2002, I decided to study an Open University course. I always regretted not going to uni. The first year of the course was called Humanities. Literature, architecture, music, art …. and religion.
While studying the different religions, I guess the first chink in the armour broke open. Although my interest was primarily in Literature, the ‘religion’ element caught my interest – particularly Hinduism and Buddhism. With the exception of my rebellious teenager years, when basically I was just a brat pushing boundaries (I never did anything really bad, I was just sulky and wanting my own way all the time) I have always been a peace-loving, slightly hippyish kind of person. I love people. I’m interested in people. All people. My mantra was “We’re all just humans sharing the planet”.
Although Hinduism wasn’t quite what I was looking for (and I did realise that I was looking for ‘something’), Buddhism was a big attraction. It struck me as being so peaceful. Love life, love the planet, love your fellow man. Just chill, man! During this phase, I began to accept some of the bad things that had happened to me in life. I’ve had some pretty rough patches. But what could I do about it? It had already passed. The past has been and gone. You can’t change it. With some deep-breathing and some calming (and totally amateurish) meditation, I let go of hate and the world soon became a brighter place.
I read a lot about Buddhism. I was excited to see the Dalai Lama when he visited Inverness a few years ago. I felt an enthusiasm I hadn’t in so many years. My children bought me a necklace with an Om symbol because they thought it suited their hippy, tree-hugging, slightly off-the-wall mother. People started buying me buddhas. I bought a couple too. But I never said “I’m a Buddhist”. There was no open declaration. People just assumed. Equally, I didn’t argue when people talked about me being a Buddhist.
Buddhism, while still holding my interest, didn’t feel quite right. There was still something missing. I re-opened dialogue with God. I didn’t turn to Him I looked over my shoulder and said “Hi”….. literally. I couldn’t quite work it out yet but I knew that God – the one God – is what is missing from Buddhism.
I was such a crazy, mixed-up kid (albeit in my 40s). No-one really discusses religion in my circles but it was assumed I was atheist or Buddhist but I was missing having God in my life and, for me, that meant returning to Christianity. I tried to discuss it but some people just aren’t very good listeners and I really needed someone to just hear me out. It’s been a bit of a lonely road.
Around that time, I attended three funerals in sad, quick succession. I sang the hymns, I folded my hands and closed my eyes and listened to the prayers. I took a tiny step towards God. He took ten towards me. Allahu Akbar!
Are we nearly there yet?
I’m a deep thinker. I read. I research. I keep my cards very close to my chest. I can quietly consider for weeks, months or years – then bam! It’s done.
Then, one evening, my sister said she wanted to go to Morocco. She usually goes on holiday with our mum but mum didn’t want to go to Africa so I said I would love to go. It sounded nice and hippyish. My children were all grown. I had a full-time job. So we went. I LOVED IT! I loved the weather, the people, the food, the city, the mental traffic system (you have to watch it for a few days before you realise there is actually a system)..
And then, first night there, I was sitting on the balcony, glass of beer in hand, listening to the birds tweeting, when I heard this extraordinary sound. I’d heard it before on TV – usually on some drama where good old British/US Intelligence Agencies and spies are in the Middle-East hunting down Muslim terrorists – but oh my, this was different. This call to prayer. To hear it up close. I put down my drink and listened and I’m getting goosebumps recalling the sound. (The Qur’an asks us to look for the signs). What is so unusual is the conflicting feelings I had of both peace and excitement. I would hear it at what I thought then were just random times of the day. I felt like a child wanting to follow the Pied Piper of Hamlin. I wanted to know what Muslims did when they heard it. Did they stop and pray on the spot? Did they have to hurry to their nearest mosque? Or did they just stand, listen to what was being chanted, and then go about their daily lives? What did they do?!
My Muslim husband
Also on that holiday, I met a man who worked at the hotel. He is now my lovely husband. I feel totally blessed that he is in my life. In Islam, there is a belief that Allah has created you in twos. We have both since said that when we met, we bonded. It was that simple. It was like we already knew each other. We are so similar in our thoughts, our tastes, our humour, our personalities, that he’s not just my other half, he’s the other half of me. When I returned home, I was heartbroken. I felt like I was in mourning. I wrote to him just to say hi. He wrote back. As our relationship slowly developed, so did my interest in Islam which I had touched upon briefly during my studies.
Islam. In my part of the world it’s the religion you don’t speak about. This religion you only know about through the media. The religion that allows men to beat their wives and never let them see the light of day. When George W. Bush declared a War on Terror, you knew he meant Islam. I never hated Islam the way you were expected to do – I just didn’t have any real understanding of it. I had only crossed this path briefly as part of my studies. In Morocco, about 97 or 98% of the population is Muslim. I could not equate the lovely people I met there with media-Islam. And, for the record, there is so much love and respect shown between the husbands and wives that I met – there’s no need for shows of open intimacy, you can just see the affection in a shared look or a smile. And the wives were far from beaten or submissive!
Out of curiosity, I downloaded the Qur’an onto my kindle and began to read – and read. By the time our relationship had reached the point where we were communicating by email every couple of days, I had questions. Because we were writing, I could ask a whole question without being interrupted. He read my questions and answered every single one. His family were celebrating Eid al-Adha. He wanted to share it with me and sent me loads of photos – and answered my questions. The meaning behind this Eid seems strikingly similar to the Harvest festival.
After a year, and a lot of discussion, we decided we wanted to spend our lives together and marry. I returned to Morocco and met his family who were funny, kind and respectful – and I knew, without a shadow of doubt, that I had been duped by Western media into forming misconceptions about a beautiful religion. My husband’s family invited me to attend a dawn prayer on Arafat Day just before Eid al-Adha. Of course, I was happy to go along for the experience. Praying outdoors at dawn with thousands of Muslims was incredibly moving.
In Morocco, I learned the greeting, As-salaamu Alaikum – hello – but it’s not hello, it’s peace be unto you. Peace. Really? Is this what I’ve been searching for? Islam?!! But I’m a white, Scottish woman struggling with Christianity! How can this be?
A brief sidestep into alcohol
My family likes whisky. We’re whisky drinkers. A good dram. A fine malt. For me, undiluted – no water, no ice. And in the pub, a nice cold lager. Or Baileys. We used to party hard back in the day, at regular big family get-togethers. Thing is, as a bit of a rebellious individual, I wouldn’t touch alcohol until I was 16 years old. It was openly encouraged but I would sulk when the drinking began. I thought it was pointless. Why would you drink it if it was just going to make you fall over, be sick and wake up with a headache? But I eventually gave in and got stuck in to vodka, or cider, or rum, or brandy…. basically whatever was going. As I got older, my alcohol consumption became a little more refined and I stopped drinking the alcoholic drinks I didn’t like – because before then, if it was in my hand I would drink it. “See me! I’m Scottish, I can drink anything!”
In my last days of alcohol, I would not drink at home – only at the pub, or out for a meal, and it would only be lager or whisky. During my holiday in Morocco, I would just drink small glasses of beer. After I met Simo’s family, and once we decided to marry, I stopped. That was it. No problem. I didn’t miss it and quite frankly, I was quite glad to see the back of hangovers and lying in a spinning bed. My child-self jumping up and down and hollering “I told you so!” For my hen night, I had once last blow out – a farewell to alcohol. Now I don’t get invited out anymore because apparently sober people are no fun. At a traditional wedding I was invited to, and also at my own wedding in Morocco, everyone was eating and laughing and dancing and basically having a great time – and not a drop of alcohol was had. My husband has never drunk alcohol and has no interest in ever trying it.
“So you converted for your husband!”
I hear you declare. “Because he told you to. Because he forced his wife to become a Muslim. Yes?”.
No. I have a mind of my own and I know how to use it. Also, Allah is still testing me – because of current immigration rules, my husband is still in Morocco and I am 2500 miles away in Scotland while we jump through government hoops to meet visa requirements. We use a free text service to communicate – and boy, do we communicate! I have never had a relationship with ANYBODY – male or female – who I have talked with so much and on so many subjects and with whom I have felt so much accordance. During any discussion about Islam, he has always said there is no obligation or compulsion for me to become a Muslim. We can be Christian and Muslim together. It was purely down to my own relationship with God.
Hearing that first call to prayer made me sit up and think “Oh hello, what’s this?” and, certainly, it was meeting my husband that instilled in me the need for further research. Even before we married, my interest had developed into “This is right!”. Out for a walk together one day, we were discussing Islam and I asked him to recite the shahada for me so I could hear it. He said it and I thought, “Oh, I can’t become a Muslim because there’s no way I’ll remember that!”.
Back home – brought together by Allah, married by law, and separated by the British Government – I bought a paperback English translation of the Qur’an to read while waiting for my husband. I also bought ‘How to Pray’ and ‘Welcome to Islam’ – both written by Mustafa Umar.
I trawled the internet and became so confused. My husband advised me to stay off the internet and read the Qur’an. Just read. So I did. He said he knew by my nature and my thoughts and feelings and actions that I was already a good Muslim. I pretty much knew by then that I would take the shahada.
(The Qur’an asks you to look for the signs). I was at work one afternoon. I still had How To Pray in my bag. I had read it from cover to cover several times. It’s a small book – doesn’t take long. Suddenly, I heard a chance conversation between one of my colleagues and Muslim man who works in the same building discussing languages. I rudely interrupted (I apologise) and asked if he would help me with some pronunciation and showed him the book. He was happy to help. My brother in Islam has offered me advice and answered questions. I told him I was thinking about becoming a Muslim but I needed to be sure that I was doing it for me and not because my husband was a Muslim – so if my husband was not in the picture, is this still what I wanted? I think I already knew the answer. He invited me to meet some local Muslims during Islam Awareness Week. I also asked if I could see inside the mosque and he arranged for me to meet some lovely sisters and brothers there.
That night, speaking to my husband, I told him I was ready but I didn’t want to without him We share everything. We share our days. We share the funny moments and our problems. He tells me about the surprisingly heavy rainfall they had in Morocco … I tell him about the surprisingly warm sunshine we had in Scotland. I have wandered around a supermarket, taking photos and asking what he wants me to buy (Do you like this juice? Do you need new razors? That kind of thing). So sharing something as life-changing as shahada was really important.
My name is Stella and I’m a Muslim
The conversation basically went like this:
(me) I know there is no obligation for me to revert but I want to. I’ve been practicing shahada in my head. But I don’t want to say it without you. Do you understand what I mean?
(he) You want me to be with you when you say it?
(he) I’m with you, my wife. I’m always with you. Do you want to say it now?
(he) I’m here with you. Say the words.
And I did.
7 April 2014: 01:09am Ashadu an la ilaha illallah wa ashadu anna muhammadan rasulu’llah.
(he) So you are a Muslim now. That’s great. Welcome. You are a Muslim.
(he) You are the best Muslim. That’s such a big thing you did.
Three weeks later, in a hall across from the local mosque, at a celebration to welcome me to the community, I publically recited shahada
I have A LOT to learn but I am back on the right road and a new journey has begun.