Ramadhan Mubarak!

Salaam alaykum and Ramadhan mubarak to all my brothers and sisters in Islam!  I pray that Allah will make the long hours of fasting easy for you and give you strength to get through these long, hot summer days (for those of you in the northern hemisphere!). 

Ramadhan is a month in which we abstain from food and water to not only purify ourselves physically, but also to constantly remind ourselves to work toward purifying ourselves spiritually.  In light of that, I have some goals in mind for this month that have become apparent to me recently.

Goal 1: Speak up with a smile. 

I’ve recently been mulling over my concept of “being nice” and have concluded that perhaps my definition is incorrect.  Since childhood, thoroughly ingrained into my mentality is the Christian standpoint of “turn the other cheek” and “if someone takes your cloak, give him your shirt also” (Matthew 5:39-40), and therefore now instinctually don’t defend myself or stand up for myself when dealing with others – instead, I just let it go.  But, what happens over and over again is that people, acting on instinct, respond by just running right over me and crossing boundaries without hesitation.  I’ve realized that as social – and imperfect – creatures, we are constantly bumping up against each other, so it is completely natural to bump back in order to maintain your position and standing with everyone around you.  If you offer no resistance when bumped, and instead easily fall down, people will simply step right over you and continue bumping into everyone else.  Thus, naturally – and Islamically – we need to assert ourselves and hold firm when others push up against us.  Islam is very specific about upholding the rights of God, of ourselves, and of others.  We must uphold our own rights.  If we don’t, no one else will.  Someone once told me that a mo’min (a believer) might let it go the first time something happens, but not the second time (which falls in line with the English saying “fool me once shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me”).  In reading the Quran and listening to lectures, I’ve been noticing that indeed it is true – prophets and upright companions were regularly met with resistance and would usually SAY something in response.  They weren’t rude, they didn’t have an attitude, they calmly spoke the truth.  Essentially, my concept of being nice or polite is simply ignoring and avoiding conflict.  Defending myself and pushing back is not something I ever associated with religion or as something “good”; I associated it with being dramatic, concerned with trivial matters, and rude.  Thus, my current project is attempting to change my mental definition and actively put it into practice.  Assert myself, speak up – but with a nice facial expression and calm tone of voice.  I need to gracefully look after my rights, while taking care not to tread on the rights of others –  A delicate balance which requires great attention and skill. 

Goal 2: Use good words

As a Christian, I would never utter swear words or even the words that represent swear words – my family was very strict about this (for instance, we also couldn’t say crap, heck, or dang), so even in college I continued to refrain from bad language.  Despite prolonged, humorous attempts from friends to get me to say some of the less offensive words, I refused.  Yet, due to linguistic awareness (that words are given power and meaning by the society that uses them and are not inherently ‘bad’ or ‘good’, but are simply means of expression) and the decreasing grip that Christianity had on my life, I began letting some of these words in.  Yet as Muslims, we too should refrain from using offensive words and should keep our speech clean and uplifting to others.  If we use certain words, people automatically associate certain qualities or characteristics to us that we wouldn’t want to be known for, and we certainly wouldn’t want people connecting those associations with our religion!  So, while I still don’t use such words around others – mostly to myself – I still want to make a concerted effort to get rid of them and replace them with something more fitting and appropriate to who I am. 

I’ve thought about adding a few more goals, but I think these two will be more than enough to keep me occupied!  It’s easy to type something out, but much harder to act on it every single moment of every single day.  I pray that God will help me in my efforts to improve myself, and that He will help all of you as well to work toward self-improvement and giving to others during this blessed month.

For more on specific rights in Islam: http://www.iec-md.org/IECE/religious/treatise_on_rights.html

Forgiveness and Respect

Although I’ve written on this subject before, I find myself still continuing to regularly grapple with forgiveness and respect – for myself. 

Earlier today a friend posted something from a Christian site that I found to be very powerful and true for all of us, regardless of religion – or lack thereof.  It stated:

“true respect for another comes from self respect. True love for another comes from self love.   True forgiveness for another comes from self forgiveness.” 

How true this is.  We can’t actually connect to others or have any impact on others until we first deal with ourselves.  Jesus (as) is reported to have said in the Bible that we must take the plank of wood out of our own eye before we can comment on the speck of dust in another person’s eye.  But, in order to begin that process, we must first see ourselves honestly.  Prophet Muhammad (saws) said the one who knows himself knows God.  What does that mean?  It essentially means that knowing yourself opens the door to understanding the world around you and all that is in it.  You must truly know yourself before you can know others, and most certainly before you can truly know God.   

My friend also commented that she found the advice timely as she had been “beating (herself) up” over some past sins that God had long forgiven.  Her thoughts resonated with me because I often do the same thing.  Past sins and mistakes sometimes come hurtling back, hitting me like a runaway train, paralyzing me with shame, fear, and self-loathing, leaving me incredulous that I could have ever done such a thing. 

Yet I often wonder what role our past sins and mistakes should have in our lives.  We should not forget them altogether, because then we may not remember the pain and anguish we suffered through the experience, and the important lessons learned may quickly fade.  We may also find ourselves back in the same place again because we failed to keep in mind the small, seemingly inconsequential steps we took initially that eventually brought us to that horrid place.  Yet in contrast, if we always think about our past sins, we may render ourselves unable to pick ourselves up and move on, paralyzed by the shame and self-hatred.  In essence, we can’t forget our past but we also can’t get lost in it.  It’s a difficult balance to maintain.  

Further, if we lose ourselves in our past sins, we’ll be unable to forgive ourselves, which means we won’t be able to love ourselves, and certainly not respect ourselves.  And if we can’t do that, we will have great difficulty in doing that with others in a way that feels genuine and real to the other person.     Yet, if we easily forget our past and dismiss it quickly, self forgiveness, love, and respect may be shallow, and perhaps not even a conscious process, which may eventually lead to not being aware that we’ve messed up in the first place.  Our ethics with others may be superficial as well; fleeting, changing, insincere.  We will quickly find ourselves repeating the same mistakes over and over, either wondering why it keeps happening, or perhaps simply accepting it as an uncontrollable way of life, part of our personality or environment.  And eventually, some may become completely unaware that they’ve done something wrong, and others may even begin to boldy defend their actions as something good.  

As human beings, we have a tendency to block out the bad things and remember only the good.  Think back to your own childhood or to any fond memory.  Chances are, it’s a warming, glowing, positive memory – with nothing negative clouding the view.  In fact, maybe someday you’ll look back on this moment in time right now with fondness, completely forgetting all the hardship and agony you may currently be facing!  So, it appears that we should actually make concerted efforts to remember the shameful, sinful things we’ve done and struggle retain what it felt like and how we got there – because otherwise… we’ll quickly forget. 

A careful balance is necessary though, because if we go too far, it will be difficult to hold our heads up high, speak with any confidence, or even feel worthy to have friends or other relationships.  Ali ibn Abu Talib (as) encouraged us to look at those less fortunate than us.  This doesn’t mean only financially, but in all other aspects as well.  If you keep your sights set on the big picture, you’ll have a more accurate view of yourself and how you fit in with the world around you.  Chances are, you aren’t that bad.  And even if, in the worst case, you ARE that bad, more than likely you aren’t bad in EVERYTHING in your life.  You probably have something not so bad, or perhaps…. even something good. 

You might think that you’re the only one you know with this particular situation so you have no one less fortunate to look to, but in that case, I would suggest looking online!  There are forums on every possible subject imaginable in which people, strengthened by the anonymity the internet provides, share their stories and experiences with more honesty and detail than they ever would in real life.  Reading the accounts of others is eye-opening.  If you still don’t find someone in a worse situation than you, at the very least you’ll find someone who is similar to you, which helps to make you feel not so alone, and – not so bad. 

So, we can’t forget what we’ve done… but we can’t let it destroy ourselves either.  As Hussain ibn Ali aptly stated, “Moderation is wisdom.”  And so it is.  Balance, moderation… this is the wisest – yet most difficult – path.

Trials and Tests

Once again, it’s been a while since I’ve posted.  There are numerous reasons for my silence – the same reasons as always: too busy and too stressed from work and health problems (which inshAllah will get better soon).  But, on a related note, I wanted to cite a few verses of Quran which are constantly on my mind, especially during these trying times:

Do people think they will be left alone after saying, “We believe,” and not be tested?” (29:2)

“Be sure we shall test you with something of fear and hunger, some loss in goods or lives or the fruits of your toil, but give glad tidings to those who patiently persevere, who say, when afflicted with calamity, “To Allah we belong, and to Him is our return,” they are those on whom descend blessings from Allah, and mercy, and they are the ones that receive guidance.”  (2:155-157)

I memorized the first verse when I first converted, as I knew that I would be facing a long, difficult journey ahead of me.  I realized from the beginning that I would be tested – and indeed, I have been. 

Too often, people look at trials and hardship as the result of God being unfair – in fact, some even leave religion altogether because they don’t understand how a fair God could allow such things to happen to innocent people.  Yet, what they fail to realize is that life in this world is not the end all, ultimate destination.  Rather, this life is a test for our placement in the eternal world of the hereafter; it is a transitory, temporary phase of existence.   

The reality is that our current life sucks.  It’s incredibly difficult.  For hard-working, sincere, “good” people, it’s usually even more miserable, with hardship after hardship; it seems they never manage to get a break.  For the careless and self-absorbed, they seem to get off easy; life is fun and effortless.  But actually, life in this world is like the kind of test in which you answer one question correctly and you are automatically upgraded to a harder question, and if you get it wrong, you’re downgraded to an easier question.  In the end, you get the score you deserve.  The only difference between this test and real life is that in life, God is there helping you along the way, showing you the steps to take, and in fact, giving you all the answers.  But some of us are arrogant and want to do it on our own.  Still others would rather not be taking a test at all and instead just play around and not take it seriously.  Yet the inescapable reality is that we all are in this test, whether we like it or not. 

Life tests come in all shapes and sizes.  As in the aforementioned verse, we can be tested with our financial security (hunger).  Or with the lives of those around us (family, friends) – or with our own lives.  Or with a loss of our possessions, or despite all our hard work and best intentions, being blocked at seemingly every turn.  In tests like these, some people put their faith in God and rely on Him more as they realize that their sustenance does not come from our material world, but from God alone.  Yet others turn away from God during hardship, blaming God and feeling sorry for themselves for being given such an unfair life. 

Tests can also come in the form of blessings and ease.  Not only does God want to reveal (to ourselves) how we react to hardship, but He also wants us to see how we respond when things are going well.  Some people are grateful and thank God continuously for the blessings He’s granted, while others forget God and attribute their success to themselves alone. 

Why do we have tests at all really?  Especially since God already knows the state of our hearts?  Well, even though a teacher can generally get an idea of how a student will do even from the very beginning of the class, the student still needs to go through the coursework and various assessments so that they will know that they got the grade they received because of their own actions.  Not because the teacher liked them or didn’t like them; rather, their grade is based on actual proof and evidence of their performance.  Likewise, on the Day of Judgment, when our final ‘grades’ are revealed, we will be unable to argue that it was unfair – our actions will be unfolded and replayed before our own eyes as clear proof.  We earned our final grade, fair and square.  And in fact, God is more merciful and loving than any teacher could ever be – He gives us numerous chances to start over despite how often or how badly we mess up, and He even went to all the trouble to give us all the answers via prophets and holy books.  So if we still end up getting a bad grade in the end, despite all the invaluable assistance and support we’ve been given all along the way, it is truly fully and thoroughly deserved. 

So if you find yourself in the midst of trials and are feeling particularly down about it all, cheer up.  God tests the believers.  The harder the test, the further along you are and the better shape you’re in.  Just like an athlete who must undergo an arduous, strenuous training regimen, or the MD student who faces rigorous, extensive testing of their knowledge and expertise, so must the believer pass through difficulty to make it to the final destination.  Of course, the testing period is extremely difficult, but the athlete, the MD student, and the believer keep striving forward because they know very well the wonderful reward that lies at the end.

Identity Crisis

My sincere apologies for my long silence – work, life, and everything else has kept me too busy to post anything. 

Nevertheless, one issue has been growing in my mind over the past few months and is beginning to take a toll on my mental well-being: my identity. 

Upon conversion, I was excited to be seen as a white American convert to Islam; I enjoyed being different and didn’t mind the curious stares.  However, as time has passed, the excitement is wearing off and I am now feeling almost desperate to be seen as ‘normal.’  It would be nice to ‘fly under the radar’ so to speak every once in a while, to fit in with SOMEONE at least.  Everywhere I go, I’m different.  Born Muslims stare at me with curiosity, and some approach me and talk to me about it, but the conversations rarely go beyond that; it seems that I’m viewed as some sort of exotic rarity that they want to pump enough information out of to be able to rush home and call their families to tell them about an American convert they met (sometimes they ask to take pictures with me so that they can show their families even)… while all the while failing to realize the seriousness of the impact my conversion has had on my life. 

Americans either stare coldly, smile kindly (or with sympathy rather), and a few (mostly women) compliment my scarf or my outfit.  And there are always some who treat me rudely, assume I don’t speak English, or believe I must be brainwashed or a complete idiot for accepting Islam.  Although the people around me from day to day are mostly polite, I find myself being held at arm’s length, despite my efforts to get to know them and move closer toward them.  

Of course, I can’t fail to mention the few true friends I have found online; kindred spirits who either share my experiences or simply are sincere and genuine enough to move beyond my appearance (most of them don’t even know what I look like anyway!).   

As a result, I find myself suspended between two worlds – the Muslim world, which seems to be something one must be born into, and the dominant culture in the American world, which seems to consciously or unconsciously reject all those who fall outside the white, Christian(ish) ideal.  I can’t really blame either one outright, however, as it’s basic psychology to be attracted and feel close to those who share similarities, and feel unsure or distrustful of those who are different.

And all the while, I have begun to struggle with my own concept of who I am as an individual as well.  I fit nowhere.  Due to my conservative Christian background, I find myself resonating more with Muslims from collective backgrounds, who value family and more traditional roles of the husband, wife, and children.  Yet my own family seems to have drifted more into individualism, living life for themselves, depending on only themselves, and thus not extending a helping hand when other family members need it most.  At the same time, I support the Islamic view of the roles of the husband, wife, and various family members (which is definitely not always the same as the cultural traditions most Muslims practice, and differs slightly from the traditional Christian ideals); I still value independence and minding my own business; I hate the nosiness and mindless (yet destructive) gossip that often accompanies collective cultures, and believe that people should be left to manage their own lives, make their own decisions, and find the right path for themselves without the intrusion or judgment from others. 

And I am so many other things as well.  I am a musician, an artist, an intellectual, an athlete, someone who is open-minded, compassionate, educated, moderate, skeptical (in that I ask questions and am unconvinced if something is not logical), hard-working, curious, and earnest.  I have a million different interests and enjoy learning about everything.  I have a great deal of knowledge about Christianity, and am knowledgeable about Islam as well.  Compared to my family, I’m a raging liberal.  Compared to most other highly educated Americans, I’m conservative – moderate. 

Yet…. none of that is evident when others only look at my scarf and the color of my skin – they simply make their judgment, and then brush me from their mind.  Of course, I remind myself that even if I didn’t wear the scarf, people would just look at my overall appearance and pass me off as X or Y and move on.  So, it’s not a question of a piece of cloth; I like wearing it and cherish its benefits greatly.  I just think it’s regrettable that it’s become an item highly marked with preconceptions and stereotypes.  Muslims and non-Muslim Americans alike see it and come to entirely different, and incorrect conclusions. 

And yet, what does it matter that others see me for who I truly am or not?  It doesn’t really… but I think it’s just the combination of being hugely misunderstood everywhere I turn AND struggling with my own concept of who I am.  I am many things, but am having great difficult to tie it all together in order to conceptualize myself as one, single individual.  I don’t expect others to fully understand me, but I suppose it’s not entirely fair to complain about it either since no one can get a clear picture of who I am until I first understand myself.

Christmas: Jesus is the Reason for the Season… Right?

I have to admit that Christmas has always been my most favorite time of year.  Growing up, I always had a running countdown of the days left until Christmas – in fact, my countdown started even before my mom put up the handmade advent calendar in the shape of a Christmas tree, on which we would hang one bell for each day that passed.  On Christmas Eve, my brothers and I would stay up all night, eagerly anticipating Christmas morning – when we could wait no longer, we would rush into our parents’ room and terrorize them until they got up (5 am isn’t early for Christmas, is it?).  And yes, even now, I still enjoy the festivity of the season, with all the bright lights and beautiful colors and music, and the overall bustle and thrill of anticipation that seems to run through nearly everyone.

Of course, Christmas these days seems to be carried out to the extreme – people rushing from one place to another, spending too much money, desperately searching for discounts, feeling overwhelmed and stressed with all the parties, performances, traveling, and various obligations we have this time of year.  Amidst it all, it is easy to lose sight of the bigger picture and get swept away by the tide of commercialism, consumerism, and decadence, causing many religious observers of the holiday to feel obligated to bring things back into perspective by echoing the well-known phrase: “Jesus is the reason for the season.”  Indeed, we wouldn’t even have Christmas if it weren’t for the birth of Jesus….  right…?

My investigation into the history of Christmas began by accident back when I was in college (and still a Christian).  My friend and I were musing over the purpose of Christmas trees, since it seemed unlikely evergreens would be that common in Palestine during the time of Jesus.  I decided to look it up on the Internet, and immediately saw that indeed, the Christmas tree was of pagan origin.  I didn’t feel too good about that, so I stopped any further searching as I didn’t want to know what else might have pagan origins as well!  Of course though, over time, my curiosity got the better of me and I did begin to look into the origins of Christmas, which became easier to face as I had begun having doubts about Christianity anyway at that point.

So is Jesus the reason for the season?  Well, although it sounds nice and feels good to say, unfortunately, Jesus is not the reason for the season.  In reality, Jesus is more of an afterthought, added to the holiday several centuries later.  The real reason for the season comes not from one sole source, but from a variety of other religions and traditions, the majority stemming from pre-Christian ancient Roman religious practices.  For instance:

Christmas day (Dec. 25th):

In ancient Babylon, this day was a celebration of the son of Isis, during which people would have a feast, throw wild parties, and engage in gluttonous drinking and eating.

Later, in pre-Christian Rome, the holiday, termed Saturnalia, was celebrated in honor of the god Saturn.  This was a time of hedonistic debauchery, celebrated with large feasts, drunkenness, and even orgies.

Another pre-Christian Roman religion was that of Mithra, the sun (or “son”) of God (in fact, much of Paul’s teachings about Jesus are exactly the same as the teachings of this religion).  December 25th was celebrated as the birthday of Mithra.

Christmas caroling:

In celebration of Saturnalia, some ancient Roman people (known as Mummers) would dress up in costumes and travel from house to house, entertaining people with songs and dances.  Incidently, when Christianity came on the scene, caroling was actually banned by the church.

Christmas trees:

Trees were worshipped by the ancient Druids in Northern Europe, and during the winter, people would often bring evergreen trees (and sometimes decorate the trees) inside to remind themselves of the hope of the new life to come in the springtime.  Early Christians abhorred the practice, and believed it to be blasphemy.

Gift-giving

Even giving family and loved ones gifts on Christmas has pagan roots – during the celebrations of the god Isis, people would commonly give each other gifts.  For Saturnalia, the rich often gave to the poor and less well-off people around them.   Gift-giving was also banned by the early church.

Santa Claus

The origin of Santa Claus comes from 4th century bishop, St. Nicholas, who was known for giving gifts to others secretly.  When the church realized the difficulty of preventing people from celebrating the traditions of the popular culture around them, they allowed gift-giving on the rationale that St. Nicholas, a Christian, had done it.  The mythical figure of Santa Claus was modeled after St. Nicholas, and in the 1800s, American cartoonist Thomas Nast began drawing yearly pictures of him (initially in religious robes), which thus began the transformation into the bearded, plump, short man in a red suit that we are familiar with today.   Ironically, the only originally Christian Christmas tradition just so happens to be Santa Claus, whom many modern-day Christians now bemoan and even refuse to include in their Christmas celebrations.

Jesus

Jesus was later added into the well-established tradition of Christmas celebrations about 300 years after his death, as church leaders decided that it was too difficult to fight against the tide of Roman culture, and determined instead that it would be better to add a Christian element to the mix to better attract non-Christian Romans to the religion with the promise of allowing them to retain their popular religious traditions.  In reality, however, Biblical historians believe Jesus to have been born sometime in September, nowhere near the date of December 25th.

The Real Reason for the Season

So, the real reason for the Christmas season is exactly what we see today (minus Santa Claus and the actual name, which stems from “Christ-mass”).  Overindulgence, gluttony, excess spending and the materialistic emphasis on gift-giving (or rather, gift-getting), wild parties, drunkenness, and debauchery.  Excess and frivolty is the reason for the season.

If Christians want to truly celebrate the birth of Jesus, then they should celebrate it in September, but should take care to remember that there should be no caroling, no Christmas trees, or presents (unless you’re Catholic, in which case Santa Claus and gift-giving is allowed as per St. Nicholas).

The fact that so many Christians ignore the history of the development of their OWN religion and religious holidays is astounding.  Admittedly, I was once one of them, and in retrospect, I know exactly why I chose to remain blissfully ignorant.  The truth will force one to face the reality of one’s beliefs, much of which is based on mere fantasy and fairytales.  Logic and fact should therefore be avoided at all costs in order to avoid shattering the fragile glass house constituting one’s beliefs.

In the end, celebrating Christmas for what it truly is – a purely cultural holiday – is certainly not something horrific or satanic.  Rather, Christmas is a cultural tradition deeply embedded in Western societies, with a rich and diverse history extending back thousands of years.  It is doubtful that modern Westerners worship Christmas trees, Saturn, or Mithra, nor do they sing songs to Roman deities or engage in mass orgies (well, the majority probably doesn’t anyway).  On the contrary, it is a wonderful holiday during which people gather together with family, give each other presents as a sign of our appreciation and love for one another, and make unforgettable, warm memories that will stay with us to the end of our lives.  Certainly, there is nothing un-Islamic or un-Christian about that.

So, to that end – Merry Christmas everyone!

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christmas

http://www.essortment.com/all/christmaspagan_rece.htm

http://www.history.com/topics/christmas

Lauren Booth: Tony Blair’s Sister-in-Law Converts to Islam

Lauren Booth: I’m now a Muslim. Why all the shock and horror?

News that Lauren Booth has converted to Islam provoked a storm of negative comments. Here she explains how it came about – and why it’s time to stop patronising Muslim women

It is five years since my first visit to Palestine. And when I arrived in the region, to work alongside charities in Gaza and the West Bank, I took with me the swagger of condescension that all white middle-class women (secretly or outwardly) hold towards poor Muslim women, women I presumed would be little more than black-robed blobs, silent in my peripheral vision. As a western woman with all my freedoms, I expected to deal professionally with men alone. After all, that’s what the Muslim world is all about, right?

This week’s screams of faux horror from fellow columnists on hearing of my conversion to Islam prove that this remains the stereotypical view regarding half a billion women currently practising Islam.

On my first trip to Ramallah, and many subsequent visits to Palestine, Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon, I did indeed deal with men in power. And, dear reader, one or two of them even had those scary beards we see on news bulletins from far-flung places we’ve bombed to smithereens. Surprisingly (for me) I also began to deal with a lot of women of all ages, in all manner of head coverings, who also held positions of power. Believe it or not, Muslim women can be educated, work the same deadly hours we do, and even boss their husbands about in front of his friends until he leaves the room in a huff to go and finish making the dinner.

Is this patronising enough for you? I do hope so, because my conversion to Islam has been an excuse for sarcastic commentators to heap such patronising points of view on to Muslim women everywhere. So much so, that on my way to a meeting on the subject of Islamophobia in the media this week, I seriously considered buying myself a hook and posing as Abu Hamza. After all, judging by the reaction of many women columnists, I am now to women’s rights what the hooked one is to knife and fork sales.

So let’s all just take a deep breath and I’ll give you a glimpse into the other world of Islam in the 21st century. Of course, we cannot discount the appalling way women are mistreated by men in many cities and cultures, both with and without an Islamic population. Women who are being abused by male relatives are being abused by men, not God. Much of the practices and laws in “Islamic” countries have deviated from (or are totally unrelated) to the origins of Islam. Instead practices are based on cultural or traditional (and yes, male-orientated) customs that have been injected into these societies. For example, in Saudi Arabia, women are not allowed to drive by law. This rule is an invention of the Saudi monarchy, our government’s close ally in the arms and oil trade. The fight for women’s rights must sadly adjust to our own government’s needs.

My own path to Islam began with an awakening to the gap between what had been drip-fed to me about all Muslim life – and the reality.

I began to wonder about the calmness exuded by so many of the “sisters” and “brothers”. Not all; these are human beings we’re talking about. But many. And on my visit to Iran this September, the washing, kneeling, chanting recitations of the prayers at the mosques I visited reminded me of the west’s view of an entirely different religion; one that is known for eschewing violence and embracing peace and love through quiet meditation. A religion trendy with movie stars such as Richard Gere, and one that would have been much easier to admit to following in public – Buddhism. Indeed, the bending, kneeling and submission of Muslim prayers resound with words of peace and contentment. Each one begins, “Bismillahir rahmaneer Raheem” – “In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate” – and ends with the phrase “Assalamu Alaykhum wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuh” – Peace be upon you all and God’s mercy and blessing.

Almost unnoticed to me, when praying for the last year or so, I had been saying “Dear Allah” instead of “Dear God”. They both mean the same thing, of course, but for the convert to Islam the very alien nature of the language of the holy prayers and the holy book can be a stumbling block. I had skipped that hurdle without noticing. Then came the pull: a sort of emotional ebb and flow that responds to the company of other Muslims with a heightened feeling of openness and warmth. Well, that’s how it was for me, anyway.

How hard and callous non-Muslim friends and colleagues began to seem. Why can’t we cry in public, hug one another more, say “I love you” to a new friend, without facing suspicion or ridicule? I would watch emotions being shared in households along with trays of honeyed sweets and wondered, if Allah’s law is simply based on fear why did the friends I loved and respected not turn their backs on their practices and start to drink, to have real “fun” as we in the west do? And we do, don’t we? Don’t we?

Finally, I felt what Muslims feel when they are in true prayer: a bolt of sweet harmony, a shudder of joy in which I was grateful for everything I have (my children) and secure in the certainty that I need nothing more (along with prayer) to be utterly content. I prayed in the Mesumeh shrine in Iran after ritually cleansing my forearms, face, head and feet with water. And nothing could be the same again. It was as simple as that.

The sheikh who finally converted me at a mosque in London a few weeks ago told me: “Don’t hurry, Lauren. Just take it easy. Allah is waiting for you. Ignore those who tell you: you must do this, wear that, have your hair like this. Follow your instincts, follow the Holy Qur’an- and let Allah guide you.”

And so I now live in a reality that is not unlike that of Jim Carey’s character in the Truman Show. I have glimpsed the great lie that is the facade of our modern lives; that materialism, consumerism, sex and drugs will give us lasting happiness. But I have also peeked behind the screens and seen an enchanting, enriched existence of love, peace and hope. In the meantime, I carry on with daily life, cooking dinners, making TV programmes about Palestine and yes, praying for around half an hour a day.

Now, my morning starts with dawn prayers at around 6am, I pray again at 1.30pm, then finally at 10.30pm. My steady progress with the Qur’an has been mocked in some quarters (for the record, I’m now around 200 pages in). I’ve been seeking advice from Ayatollahs, imams and sheikhs, and every one has said that each individual’s journey to Islam is their own. Some do commit the entire text to memory before conversion; for me reading the holy book will be done slowly and at my own pace.

In the past my attempts to give up alcohol have come to nothing; since my conversion I can’t even imagine drinking again. I have no doubt that this is for life: there is so much in Islam to learn and enjoy and admire; I’m overcome with the wonder of it. In the last few days I’ve heard from other women converts, and they have told me that this is just the start, that they are still loving it 10 or 20 years on.

On a final note I’d like to offer a quick translation between Muslim culture and media culture that may help take the sting of shock out of my change of life for some of you.

When Muslims on the BBC News are shown shouting “Allahu Akhbar!” at some clear, Middle Eastern sky, we westerners have been trained to hear: “We hate you all in your British sitting rooms, and are on our way to blow ourselves up in Lidl when you are buying your weekly groceries.”

In fact, what we Muslims are saying is “God is Great!”, and we’re taking comfort in our grief after non-Muslim nations have attacked our villages. Normally, this phrase proclaims our wish to live in peace with our neighbours, our God, our fellow humans, both Muslim and non-Muslim. Or, failing that, in the current climate, just to be left to live in peace would be nice.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/nov/03/lauren-booth-conversion-to-islam/print

Lauren Booth interviews:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W57jH3awu-M&feature=related

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qIsYIst_5o4

After reading about her conversion and listening to her speak, all I can say is mashAllah.  It’s hard for me to listen to her speak without tears in my eyes, because I know exactly how she feels when she speaks of the peace, tranquility, simplicity, and wisdom of Islam.  After encountering Islam, one can never walk away unchanged and unaffected.

A Day of Thankfulness

I thank God for this precious gift of life, for the beauty and wonder of His majestic creation around me, and for the sustaining bond of family and loved ones, in spite of all their flaws.

I thank God for rending the veil of ignorance and blindness from my eyes, and allowing me to see the truth plainly and clearly, no matter how painful the truth is.  I am eternally thankful to God for guiding me to the right path, and for giving me the tools to find the truth in all things.

I am grateful for all the hardship and difficulty I face, as only through trial can I struggle and grow into a better person.

“God’s blessings are numerous, and my tongue is too weak to count them.  His favors are abundant and my understanding falls short of grasping them… I thank God for giving me the ability to thank Him – even my thanking requires thanksgiving” (Imam Ali ibn Hussein, from Sahife Sajjadiya).

I pray that on this day of thankfulness, we will reach out to those less fortunate than us, and share the overflowing blessings that have been undeservedly bestowed on us.  Look around at those near you; if everyone helped those in their close circles, no need for charity would ever exist.  “If any one of you finds your near ones in want or starvation, he should not desist in helping them” (Imam Ali, from Nahjul Balagha).

To my American readers, Happy Thanksgiving!