‘Which Road To Take’
Anne and I were shown into the cleric’s office. The sheikh who greeted us turned out to be a Canadian. He was over six feet tall and wore a white shirt and trousers covered beneath a brown cloak. He bore a striking resemblance to the US actor, Samuel L. Jackson. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Anne’s shoulders begin to shake at the surprise presence of a Hollywood icon in a white turban and brown cape. Sheikh Ahmed Haneef tried to put me at ease. He made small talk about family and the weather, then he posed soft questions about the background to my decision. He drew out whether I understood the basic tenets of the faith. I did.
‘You’re ready, sister,’ he said.
He guided me to say two phrases, first in English, then in Arabic: ‘I testify that there is no Allah except Allah alone without Partners. And I testify that the Prophet Muhammad is the final Prophet and Messenger of Allah.’
The words were transparent and clear. I was not being called to follow a half-man, half-God, a concept I had never grasped. I was vowing to be obedient to the sole God of all existence. The room had the heavy, woollen quality I remembered from the night in the masjid.
‘Are you feeling this?’ Anne asked, sensitive to the atmosphere.
I had just taken the greatest oath of my life, to submit myself to the God of all creation. I acknowledged the Might and Majesty of the single force behind life and death and rebirth. I was taught to recite the first section of the Qur’an, al-Fatihah, and Anne joined in supportively, repeating line after line of the strange Arabic words.
‘Bismi-llah al-Rahman al-Rahim’, in the name of Allah the Most Merciful, the Most Compassionate. From time to time the sheikh interrupted us saying: ‘Roll your ‘r’s’ more, ladies, like this: Bismillahirrrrr Rahmanirrrr …’
Feeling like an illiterate child, the words began to work their beauty upon us. I tasted each syllable, thirsted for the meanings, savouring sounds eternal and deep in flavour. ‘Subhanaka Allahumma wa-bi-hamdika’, O Allah, how perfect You are and praise be to You. We had done our ablutions, wudu, earlier. It was already one of my favourite things to do. There was a real excitement as I ran water over my hands and face with the intention of purification. By the time I ran my fingers from the back of my head to the front, I was covered by a tingling sensation. Muhammad, the Messenger of Allah, said:
‘When a Muslim, or a believer, washes his face (in the course of wudu), every sin which he committed with his eyes will be washed away from his face with water, or with the last drop of water; when he washes his hands, every sin which he committed by his hands will be effaced from his hands with the water, or with the last drop of water; and when he washes his feet, every sin his feet committed will be washed away with the water, or with the last drop of water; until he finally emerges cleansed of all his sins.’ (Narrated by Muslim)
Now that I was Muslim, my duties began right away. We were taken downstairs to the vast prayer hall where a short partition wall allowed men and women to pray separately. As an outsider this ‘segregation’ had always seemed outrageous. Now, preparing to pray it made sense. I didn’t want to be watched by men as I crouched down. A younger girl would have been shy, bending over before hundreds of men and going into prostration.
I was glad of the single gender privacy. People cried too when they made salah, I’d seen that happen. Would I want a stranger of the opposite sex seeing me so openly emotional? At the same time, a man trying to pray could have his thoughts wander far from the divine realm if a young woman were in his eye line. I preferred gender separate privacy in my moments of deep reflection and emotional vulnerability.
I had been subliminally led by press headlines and a constant stream of negative attitudes towards preconceptions and prejudices about Islam and what little I had known of its practices. The religious observances of Muslims were not explained in rushed news bulletins about ‘extremists’ or ‘fundamentalism’ to offer the ‘why’ of the faith. I was finding out to my surprise and relief that each step, every recommendation made to the believers came from both common sense, and beneath that a ‘wow’ factor of spirituality.
Salah is poorly but usually translated into English as ‘prayer’. My prayer as a Christian had become the equivalent of asking a bank manager (who didn’t trust my collateral) for a loan: it was a half-expectant whine for things I wasn’t in desperate need of in the first place. Salah, on the other hand, recognized God’s Mastery of everything in existence, for all that was and all that is to come in the future until and beyond the ‘Day of Judgement’. It is a vast acknowledgement that no one and nothing else is worth asking for help except for The One. Anne and I both prayed in the near empty hall at Maghrib time.
When I got home, it was 10 pm on a Friday night and my first weekend as a Muslim stretched ahead of me. The girls were visiting relatives so I was alone. What did I do with my time now that drinking and meeting friends (for drinking) was not an option? On my bedside table was the copy of the Qur’an in English I’d taken from France. Despite it being there since my return from Iran, I hadn’t opened it.
I opened it now to chapter two, Surat al-Baqarah. I was face-to-face with the same verses which had judged me so harshly five years earlier. There in Arabic, and besides that in English, were the words which once upon a time had made me want the book to be as far out of sight as possible. I read out loud: This is the Book, wherein there is no doubt; a guidance to those who are al-Muttaqun (the pious and righteous persons who fear and love Allah). Who believe in the unseen and perform Al-Salah (worshipful prayer), and spend from what We have provided for them [including caring for their parents, their children, and charity to the poor]. And who believe in that which has been sent down to you (Muhammad) and in that which was sent before you and they believe with certainty in the Hereafter. They are on (true) guidance from their Lord, and they are
the successful. (Qur’an 2: 2–5)
I was reading the book as one seeking guidance rather than seeking fault within it. My new faith didn’t mean passive muttering of some lines on a page before closing my eyes. Like every believer I was now called upon to change my life, to positively affect the lives of those around me. Words without action were a redundant litany. I read again: ‘Who believe in the unseen and perform al-salah (worshipful prayer), and spend from what We have provided for them.’ After accepting Islam with my heart and with the words of testimony that afternoon, the Qur’an had turned from being a book only of warning and Divine wrath into an astounding tribute to the Creator who wanted to give me care and guidance.
I was astounded.
I was very relieved.
I was in love.
Lying in bed, I thought back to the first winter my family spent in the French farmhouse. Despite having travelled around the world, I was basically a suburban kid who had never grown a flower, much less a vegetable. We had arrived in the south-west corner of France at the tail end of summer. The garden had been bursting with colours and late fruits such as figs and grapes. But within weeks I watched in confusion as the jasmine vines which wrapped around the gables of the front door began to lose leaf after leaf. The peach tree went from an abundance of fruit to a measly stick. The flower beds looked like graveyards for dead foliage.
By January, I was convinced that my poor gardening skills had killed every growing thing on the three-sided garden around our home. One icy day, Roget, the elderly farmer who had made us instantly welcome (despite our Englishness), stopped his battered car outside our house and knocked on the door holding a bag of dead pigeons he had just shot. They were still warm. He gave them as a gift, telling me gruffly in French: ‘Pluck next to a burning fire and throw the feathers into it.’
I took the chance to ask him a question that was bothering me: ‘What happened to our jasmine vine and our peach tree?
Why have they died?’ He had looked at me, nonplussed. So I said it again, trying every French phrase I could think of to describe our entire garden’s demise. Each time I finished my question he would just say: ‘Quoi? (What?)’ Finally Roget looked at me like I was crazy and said: ‘It’s winter.’
Never, until taking my shahadah, had I fully grasped the profundity of the dying of vegetation that comes about consistently to most plants, flowers and vegetables. I had walked to our fig tree, staring, then to the walnut trees, past the destitute strawberry patch and at the back door stopped by the brown sticks which weeks earlier had yielded vast (but sour) grapes. This was all going to come back? Impossible! He sends down water from the sky from which We bring forth growth of every kind, and
from that We bring forth the green shoots.
In mid-February, after a dozen brutal frosts and a foot of snow, the first peeping shoots of recovery began to appear. I walked with the children around the garden, examining the miracle of rebirth first-hand. They cried in excitement: ‘Look Mamma over here, even this one is alive!’
This excerpt is from ‘Finding Peace in the Holy Lands‘ by Lauren Booth
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