I have never believed in a ‘one size fits all’ anything. I learnt this the hard way especially when I used to attempt purchasing those dubious Free Size leggings down at the weekend market. Having been born to a mother who is Chinese adopted by an Arab family and to an originally Roman Catholic father who is Eurasian – I had my share of ethnic confusion. Dad entered the fold of Islam to make a go of the marriage. Sadly he was a part time Muslim and thereafter became a weekend dad after the divorce.
I began attending Muqadam reading classes four times a week since I was about six years old. Yes, the only evening I got off to watch my cartoons in peace was on Thursday evenings. I didn’t understand why I had to go for these classes. Reading this not only foreign language but in this strange looking alphabet. However as with most kids at that age, our brains absorb new information like a sponge and I picked it up rather quickly. I hadn’t even grasped Bahasa Melayu on account that since my grandmother passed away when I was four, I have predominantly spoken English at home and only dabbled with Bahasa Melayu when I absolutely had to in Mother Tongue class.
So back to the lessons, I was at this lower floor neighbour’s home in a room with the nenek and other children. Most of whom made fun of the fact that my Malay sounded too posh (if you can imagine). I soon gave up trying to befriend them. The aim became to complete my pages as quickly as possible without incurring the wrath of the nenek’s rotan and make like the wind. Back to cartoon land. Mind you I had no clue what I was reading about.
As with most Muslim children, I was taught the Al-Fatihah and recited that along with Al-Ikhlas before I fell asleep. All I knew or had been told was that it was to protect me. I knew nothing else of this God. What He wanted of me then followed by how I was to appease Him since I don’t even understand the language His manual came in! For a six year old, that was a lot for my tiny head to handle. Needless to say I was constantly lost in my thoughts, being an introvert without the knack for making new friends – I had this kind of time on my hands to think about such things.
(Alhamdulillah) Turns out I was blessed with some aptitude for languages (I know you’re wondering about the bad Malay – another story for another day), the nenek giving my single mother and Sri Lankan nanny the good news that I was a diligent albeit reserved girl in class. All I knew was to stick my nose in the book and read. By the time she gave my mother this report I had completed the Holy Quran twice. Still – not knowing what the importance of it was. It upset me that I didn’t know why I was doing this. There was a small ceremony where the Atok recited the do’a selamat. Rising my little palms together trying to look all focused; my only real happiness was getting to eat the pulut thereafter.
Disconnect with Islam
Early adolescence came a-knocking and I was much like any other teenager. School, after-school sports activities, gossip, imagining what married bliss would be like with Johnny Depp and trying to get my way with curfew etc. Mother however still wanted to make sure I was on the right path. Bless her, she is something else my mother (yet another story). Despite her own sparse knowledge of the religion, she made certain I went for religious class. She wanted to keep me in line, what with the big bad world and the temptations I was exposed to. So off we went to Sunday madrasah. Yes, we. My mother and I enrolled in their Dewasa Sunday classes.
For a good number of months my mother and I were classmates. This left even less opportunity for me to skive. This was held at one of the mosques. Conducted in Bahasa Melayu, my Achilles heel as fate would have it. I tried my best to not only translate in my inner voice what the Ustazah was trying to impart on our young minds but to make sense of the message. Most of it sounded almost instructional. I had several questions.
Bearing in mind my already existing handicap with the language I now had the urge to question and clarify my doubts with this person who as far as she knew was the law of the land. It mostly consisted of ‘do it and believe in it or else’ attitude. With my best possible choice of words from my limited vocabulary, I asked my questions and got shot down with vague responses. Nonetheless I scored well on most of the tests and exams.
The sad part is that if someone had asked me what I learnt during the better part of my adolescence, I can’t think of one thing. I just sat in, listened and did the work and in the process missed Xena Warrior Princess on Channel Five. In this class we were taught how to perform solat. Again memorising these words to a ritual I had only seen my mother do at home. Secretly, I just did all of it to make my mother happy. Internally I was struggling with identification and the real need to feel like I belong. Why was all of this good for me? Don’t get me wrong, so far no bad has come out of it, my worry was that I wasn’t feeling anything. Performing the solat I tried hard to get a spark of some sort. Something. Just let me feel something to affirm that what I am doing, I am doing for a purpose. Nothing happened.
Madrasah ended and I was back to being a more carefree teen. I was a good kid, did not give problems except that I soon started slipping academically. Much confusion, doubt and sometimes anger was swirling in me. Amidst your normal teen angst I was going through, I knew I had to have a firm hold on something. Like when a ballerina pirouettes she needs to always pick a spot to focus on else she loses balance. I wanted to turn to religion but had these endless doubts. Things as inane as how was I to attempt to ‘get good’ at religion when I’m not pious. I was going about it all wrong.
This unsettling feeling went on for years well into my young adulthood. The company I kept was not of the bad variety but neither were they a vehicle for change. My spirituality or what little was left of it was dwindling. Thankfully though by the sheer grace of Allah S.W.T. I did not succumb to most of the vice people my age were getting involved in. Nonetheless this void in my heart slowly but surely increasing in its presence.
My Turning Point
After another personal crisis, things took a turn for me and in me. Isn’t that how it always starts? In tune with this sentiment is something I read off of some site – when you are down on your knees, it really is the best time and place to start praying and that was what I did. I finally started asking for help. From the one entity I had so devoutly shied away from all those years. Note my ironic use of the word ‘devout’. Discreetly, I embarked on this quest for information, knowledge and understanding. The only social media I was regular with was YouTube. I enjoyed watching short clips of stand up comedy and looking up music videos from back in the day. It now proved another purpose as I looked up videos on people who were embracing Islam.
I’ve always secretly admired reverts as they are now referred to. They chose Islam. Of course it is known the Allah S.W.T. gives hidaya to whom He wills but you understand my meaning. They sought out the truth and found Islam. I began watching video after video of these individuals who gave up old lives to take on this newfound truth. Needless to say I was in awe of their courage and dedication. I needed desperately to get inspired. Since I didn’t have Muslim friends who were practicing and living Islam (at least not to my knowledge – may Allah S.W.T. forgive my ignorance) I had to seek it out.
In a way I considered myself to be in the same boat as those who were discovering Islam. Spiritual awakening was my goal. Slowly but surely I could feel myself getting there, I was on the right path I believed. When I wasn’t watching these videos I was picking up books to beef up newly gathered information.
A book I had been lent some time ago might have sparked another soon to be milestone. It was Naima Roberts’ From My Sisters Lips. I had not read a book in a while at that period however I completed it within a few days. I read on my commute to and from work. It awoke something in me. I never grew up amongst many Muslims. It had mostly been my mother and me. Only time I interacted with Muslims was perhaps those rare occasions we went to the mosque. ‘Interacted’ being a rather strong word choice. You can only imagine how much contact I have had with Muslim women and Muslim women who were covered.
I remember reading the paragraphs on the train in my pencil skirt, tight top and calf-high Doc Martens thinking this could be just what I need. I still have the boots, just that now it would have to go with the hijab I was wearing for that day. All of which Roberts was dispelling in her book, it appealed to my senses. She would quote verses from the Quran and as it can only be written by Allah S.W.T. himself, I picked up the Quran after some years of not doing so. I starting looking up the verses she mentions. Those verses would then bring up another question I had and I began looking up that topic in the Quran.
I became more convinced that this was something I had to do to either complete or accompany my new self as it were. So on a Sunday in July 2012, I put on my first hijab. My parents just greeted me good morning and off we went to breakfast. My parents are cool like that; they knew I wouldn’t have wanted them to make a spectacle of the new look. It was a haphazard attempt of course. Hair was sticking out in some places, material kept slipping off my shoulders but inside I was just beaming. To YouTube I turned again for the now all famous hijab tutorials. Gosh some of them were funny. There were so many of them! I tried to learn a few styles that were quick and that still had some semblance of fashion. Which then led me to some other issues of should hijab be fashionable? I still have some handicap with the hijab ever so often but have thankfully acquired ‘go to’ styles.
Thereafter more reading ensued along with videos from Ustazs and Sheikhs. I started watching these short clips of da’wah and of other relevant topics. Through a friend, I was turned on to Yasmin Mogahed and thereafter had the pleasure of attending one of her talks here. When I had more time on my hands, I would watch some rather lengthy debates circling Islam and Christianity. Those would just blow my mind as I’d sometimes have two windows open, one with the debate video and another for Quran.com.
It was also on YouTube where I learnt the history of the Ka’ba and concurrently I looked up rituals of Umrah and Alhamdulillah went for my first Umrah trip in early January this year. As it turns out Huda TV is an aired channel in Saudi Arabia – I was a happy camper! Upon our return I would send links to AskHuda videos to my parents in our mobile group chat. I now feel like I belong to a group. The Muslim Ummah.
All my life I have either been too mixed to be accepted in the Malay Muslim community or too Malay Muslim (as they have perceived me to be) to kick it with the non-Muslim crowd. Perception is a dubious concept, all it means is how you think about or understand someone or something. People’s close-minded judgements often impair any possibility of honest open communication. In most government records under the race category I am deemed as ‘Other’ and boy did I really feel like an outsider. Now when asked that god awful question ‘What are you? I firmly respond with ‘I am a Muslim’. Follow up questions usually ensue but I just have fun with those.
The method in which I began discovering my Islam would perhaps pale in comparison to a classroom setting styled learning resulting in a degree; however it was what I was comfortable with. It was how He decided I was going to best absorb the information I needed. I am still absorbing.
Remember, there is no ‘one size fits all’.
Finally coming out of the proverbial writing closet with lofty dreams in tow. Manages a community office, paints walls and cleans up after kids at her day job.
Editor’s Note: Although watching Youtube videos can be an iman-booster and help pique interest in some topics in religion, the best way to learn our deen is through living teachers with a chain of transmission (sanad) that leads back to Prophet Muhammad (S).