Sunday, 8 July 2012

Tim Alden's Conversion: 'Guide Me to the Straight Path...'

بِسۡمِ ٱللهِ ٱلرَّحۡمَـٰنِ ٱلرَّحِيمِ

The following article appeared in the Muslim Reader in 2008.  It was written by Timothy Mark Alden @ Muhammad Adnan Alden and speaks of his journey to Islam.  It has a beautiful description of his late parents.  There are very few people that one can meet as generous as Tim and it is an immense privilege to now him.

Tim Alden’s Story

It was not any isolated, dramatic event, epiphany or single cause defining a 180o change, but rather a protracted voyage through a long night marred by turbulent storms set apart by the spiritual insights and deep thoughts.  The dawn of awakening was like an empirical concealed veil being raised and lowered repeatedly, each time the mystery’s secrets diffused like vapour in the subconscious.  As that veil is closed, it leaves a conscious whisper of the secret trace like a perfumed mist.

My natural inclination left no doubt that in order to attain that state of indescribable sakinah, I would need to embark on a fresh journey in a new direction on the dawn of a new day.  I felt it time to share my humble journey, so that I can articulate some of my experiences for the benefit of the person searching - the born-Muslim looking to strengthen or re-establish their iman, my friends and the remainder of my direct family: my brother, two sisters and 93-year-old Nana.  There is a strong will on my part to want to relate to them this journey which is difficult to express without concentrated thought, for fear of being misunderstood as infringing upon their beliefs.

Beautiful-Hearted Parents

I was born on the 16th July, 1968 in a place called Whimborne, in the County of Hampshire (now Dorset – they moved the border) UK, to Anne Jermyn and Michael John McLeod Alden.

My late mother Anne schooled in a convent and almost became a nun – but later, sadly declared that she lost her faith in God (though she never lost hope).  Like any good mother, she devoted the best part of her maternal life to concerns of the security of her progeny.  She lived frugally and was a most caring person who would feel no unease to get down on her hands and knees to care for those within her means and strength.  She did not believe in the afterlife or seem to have strong inclinations to want to know of a future destiny, but believed in the separation and rising of the soul after death.

My late father, Michael, was a beautiful-hearted man whom to his own detriment in material achievement, never sold his integrity and values for a trifling gain.  He was academically gifted with an interest towards mathematics and some sciences.  Although he did not attend church and was a free-thinker, he did not disrespect people’s faiths.  He was a humble person, able to communicate well at all levels without distinction towards self-important people.  He had a simple sense of humour which drew people from all walks and levels of life.  He sometimes sought indulgences in strange things like scientific calculators at one stage and later computers and electronics.  He loved the ocean and was a fine sailor.

Both had their heart in the right place and placed high importance on moral values, manners and humility.  Growing up, we rarely discussed religious beliefs or had a fixed reality on final goals or purpose to strive for in this lifetime.  We were taught within their best means to be good, law-abiding people.  They afforded us the best education within their means.  We were not pushed for material goals but were encouraged to pursue our passions in a somewhat happy-go-lucky way.  They were good parents.  May Allah (s.w.t.) be Pleased with them and Grant them Peace and Blessings.

Boarding School & the Beautiful Chapels

After London and at the age of nine, due to our travelling army lifestyle with relocation every two years, my parents put my sister, Emma and I into different boarding schools in North Yorkshire, close to our maternal grandparents.  We were disconnected with our parents excepting letters and school holidays, and at monthly visiting weekends and half-terms, we would respectively stay with our Nana and Grandpa living in Richmond.  Our sister, Charlotte Victoria was born in 1974 and brother, Alexander Edward in 1978.

School life could be quite tough with corporal punishment and long-distance runs were the order of discipline.  I was not an infrequent visitor to the headmaster’s office.  The icy cold 15 or 30 minute runs at the crack of an English dawn, followed by a cold shower were frequent reminders of how one should conform in obedience as safeguard against petty mischief.

Against the backdrop of this, we worshipped in the most beautiful of chapels in the heart of England’s finest countryside, the North Yorkshire moors.  The chapel, a prominent landmark with a dome designed by Sir Christopher Wren, was completed in 1901 to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, so one can imagine the magnificence of this piece of architecture and its idyllic surroundings as an outstanding place of worship.

Wanting Faith

Throughout all this, I never succumbed to building faith; it was more an outward form f adherence and worship.  I remembered being admonished by our headmaster for doing a reading in assembly without rehearsing with him prior.  He said I “adulterated one of the most beautiful pieces of Biblical Scripture” (or words to that effect).  He was fuming; I did not feel sorry, just confused and dejected.  Inside, I wanted faith but it was an environment where religious peers and their choir boys were frowned upon as weak and the real success was to make the first XV rugby team.

I strayed towards rugby but there was no peace in that competitive environment.  I found myself in a state of loss, unsure of my bearings.  I remember lying awake, praying long into the night and that my strongest attestation to having had any faith until the age of 36.

By 1985, my father was posted to Hong Kong.  I was overjoyed to be leaving England and boarding schools.  It was bringing me back to the Far East which all these years had held the untold mysticism within me.  I redid a year of ‘A’ Levels and completed two more years of school.  A great time: lots of rugby, yachting and night life but something inside me was far from complete.

Passion for the Sea

By 1988, I remember sitting by the Repulse Bay army headquarters while my father folded the sails, asking what I wanted to do.  The answer was, “No idea” but I had a passion for the sea.  I had sailed a lot with him around the South China Sea to the Philippines as well as around the Baltic and Danish fjords during our tours of living in Germany.  By the Grace of Allah (s.w.t.), my father was able to get me a position on a 49-foot, sailing ketch to be delivered from Hong Kong to the Mediterranean via Singapore, Maldives, Yemen, Sudan, Egypt, and through the Suez Canal ending up in Rhodes.

I was taken on as the first mate.  It was a magnificent adventure at the age of 20 – 10 days crossing the Indian Ocean, culminating in a three month stop in Port Sudan after hitting a reef in the Red Sea.

Following this, I pursued a career in the yacht industry in Hong Kong, first as an engineer, service manager and finally a yacht broker, establishing a small brokerage in Singapore importing Italian yachts.  Many stories such as being held hostage (with my Boss at gun point) by a crazy Indonesian warlord who would not pay his bill, well reminded me of the very colourful career.

The business had some success in the mid nineties only to be derailed by the Asian financial crisis.  Most of my clients were regional tycoons, who had amassed vast wealth through a limited period of time, looking for avenues of pleasure to spend some of their gains.  Suddenly, my entire prospect base, on the verge of acquiring medium to large yachts, was wiped out almost overnight.  I was in a major panic but somehow, readjustment to the Asian crisis did not leave us destitute.  Life went on and indeed new avenues of business were established exporting yachts out of the region to the reaches of Florida, Australia’s Gold Coast and sometimes the Mediterranean

Spiritual Visions

During this whole period, I vividly recollect certain pivotal experiences, which were instrumental to my path to Islam; one of them was in October 1999 – five years before entering Islam.  After returning from UK, what started as jetlag resulting in five sleepless days; I was very much conscious and could recall with absolute clarity the occurrences, feelings and states I experienced.  My mind was like a bullet train with thousands of gigabits of thoughts running through it.  One after another, I was unable to stop the flow and it was as if time had sped up thousands of times faster.  Years later, I learnt the hadits of time speeding up during this age.

During my experience, as I was walking, I could hear the drumbeat of communications.  It was as if I was experiencing how communication how communication evolved from transmission of sounds (drumbeats) to development of languages, from monosyllabic ‘how’ to the fluent languages we hear today.  It was like playing a movie of the history of time in lightning speed, akin to retracing my ancestry to the beginning of time.

Whilst this experiencing was ongoing, I distinctly recall the repetition of the words in my mind: “Guide me to the straight path, guide me to the straight path…”

It should be noted that the significance of this was not the driving motive for me to convert to Islam.  This was later, through being taught, educated and by my own rational power of reasoning.  These experiences served only as a taste, or affirmation, which helped motivate me towards Islam.

By 2003, I had reached this point of realising there was no real fulfillment in this endless pursuit of a dream with no real definitive purpose.  I was dealing with powerful, rich people who often used the power of money to their advantage and had no compunction dragging the brokers from pillar to post, quite often resulting in major expense bills with no deal.  It seemed like some sort of sport to some.  It felt as if I was selling my soul to these people to seek their financial favour.  Yet, I was doing my utmost to provide open, honest service within my capacity.

For me, it left a massive void of unhappiness, desperation and sense of loss.  The material rewards became sickening and the people around hotly pursuing these material values in an ego-driven frenzy became undesirable role models on which to shape my life.  By this time, the fledgling Southeast Asian yachting market had shown some signs of future recovery and we tried to reverse our fortunes by investing in representing two prestigious Italian yacht dealerships.

Sadly though, the ongoing quest to stay in the game and acquire material possessions lacked the cultivation of moral bearing and integrity I was looking for.  Values of people around me were being sacrificed for the sake of these gains, yet they seemed blinded to it.  I felt myself swimming against the current, for it was not the direction I was naturally inclined.  I knew it was wrong – yet it was the only direction I had been accustomed to.  It was a desperate situation in many ways; people would step on someone’s head to protect their own social position and standing, rather than try to help up those who were struggling or do the right thing.

It was about this time, being so empty inside and unfulfilled spiritually that I deeply began to search inside for answers.  The year before, in 2003, I had actually completed the basic introductory course in Islam and had taken with sincerity, the shahadah.  Primarily, the logical connection expounded in the Qur’an between the lineage of the prophets from Ibrahim (a.s.) to Nuh (a.s.), Musa (a.s.), ‘Isa (a.s.) and finally Muhammad (s.a.w.) – the Seal of the Prophets – completing the religion of mankind, being the most modern (621 CE) made complete sense.

I was amazed to learn how Islam believed in the former religions of Christianity and Judaism.  However, it was still only a 51% confirmation for me.  There were too many questions, too much to absorb and learn.  It felt right but I could not pin down a better level of certainty.

No Reason to Doubt

I took the leap of faith, firstly because it was incumbent upon me in time for marital reasons but primarily because I knew I had found something really beautiful in the way Islam taught integrity, manners, the teaching of total adherence to human values, taking care of the downtrodden down to the point of such things as kindness to animals and even reward for helping every living creature as well as being just and fair in all matters.  It seemed to cover everything with no stone unturned and I could not find any reason or contradiction to doubt the teachings of Islam no matter how much I enquired.  But I need the time and space for it to unravel and harness that inner voice.

Over the next year, during this soul search, I came across some content on the Internet that talked about the Western interpretation of mid-life crisis – fast cars, fast girls and so forth but I was not feeling that.  It was precisely the diametric opposite f what I was searching for.  I had pretty much forgotten about the initial discovery of Islam, as I still had not found the connector.  Then I found some spiritual content that talked about the life centering balancing out the highs and the lows, spiritual cleansing.  It resonated deeply with me in its simplicity; I concluded I was actually going through a sort of spiritual-biological change and probably what Western terminology referred to as this ‘mid-life crisis’.

Depression – An Indescribable Private Hell

Finally, my mind started working overtime again.  I could not sleep for six days and became very sick spiritually.  Throughput my life up until this point, I had suffered from regular depression but this time, it was severe and had been going on for several months.  I did a self-diagnosis through the internet.  I was clinically depressed and to the point of strongly to not want to exist anymore – just hoping for ‘nothingness’.  It is the most debilitating thing imaginable, an indescribably private hell.  To briefly illustrate, I feel incapacitated, unable to do the simplest things such as getting up, going to the toilet and eating.  It is hard to imagine how I could ever have possibly done so many things in my life up to those points.  I did not even feel like I could talk to anyone about it because there was no energy or comprehension as to how to describe it or to understand what was happening to me.

Eventually, after six days of no sleep, I was a zombie.  I had a few sleeping pills which I was rationing as I was well aware of the dangers of using prescription medicine.  I met with the doctor and he expressed the importance of not resorting to medication.  That was when I was thinking of turning to religion.  Somewhat to my surprise, he was very happy.  He advised me to do that and quoted a chapter from the Bible:

Jeremiah 17:7-8
7Blessed be the man that trusts in the Lord, and the Lord shall be his confidence.  8 And he shall be as a tree that is planted by the waters, that spreads out its roots towards moisture: and it shall not fear when the heat comes.  And the leaf thereof shall be green, and in the time of drought it shall not be solicitous, neither shall it cease at any time to bring forth fruit.

The words were very impactful indeed.

Dawn of a New Day

The next day, after another sleepless night standing by the bedroom window watching the cotton blanket of morning mist rise over the Bukit Timah hills, I made my mind up.  My wife, Salinah, and I drove to Darul Arqam.  It was like opening a magical gate because from making that conscious decision, my heart became lighter and it was like switching to ‘auto-pilot’.  As we drove, somehow the radio picked up this station with children singing Thala’a al-Badru ‘Alayna in slow rhythm.

In my sleep-deprived state, I cannot think there could be any physical way the car would have made it safely without Allah’s (s.w.t.) Guidance.  When we arrived, Bro. ‘Umar, who had been giving me lessons previously, was sitting on the door step smiling.  He was having a quiet smoke.  It almost seemed like he was expecting our arrival.  We told him I had come to learn to start practicing Islam and that was the say he took me upstairs and taught me how to pray.  Writing this and remembering that day and that period is such a great reminder to me of how Islam changed my life, and led me away from the rocks of disaster I feel I would have hit pursuing a path without any definitive surface.  To me, there are no doubts to that.

Observing Daily Prayers

From that day, I started to observe the daily prayers, (slowly to begin with) and I started to read the Qur’an every day until I completed it from cover to cover in English.  At first, it was a confusing read but its Message resonated clearly.  The last ayat of the opening surah read “Guide us to the Straight Path.  The Path of those on whom You have Bestowed your Blessings, not of those who have been condemned, nor of those who go astray.”  In October 2005, on the first Friday of Ramadhan, I performed my first prayers inside a masjid, Masjid Ba’alwie at Lewis Road, where I met the imam, Habib Hassan.

Not only did the inner tranquility, stillness and total peacefulness of the mosque strike me but also the outer tranquility.  The weather pattern even seemed to set the stage for this incredible new experience.  I clearly remember the rain driving hard against the seemingly tin roof during the sermon and I prostrated in absolute surrender to the Lord of the Worlds.  When my forehead touched the carpet inside that mosque, I was very emotional.  It was very humbling indeed.

Father’s Death

Six months after I started practicing Islam in total submission, our father, who was in fine health, passed away suddenly of a heart attack.  He had been on a two week sail of a lifetime (sailing was, is one of our family passions) down the Croatian coast, in the Adriatic – the Makkah for someone who loved sailing as much as he did.  Daddy had not sailed in a long while but in one of his earlier postcards, a few days before, he described the sail as ‘lively’ with varying winds.

In his 63rd year,, after a dream sail of a lifetime, his big heart had given way.  We were extremely close and finality of it was unimaginable.  I desperately searched to expedite the paths of knowledge and truth; there must a reason to life for such a fine man of good moral character and value who had never sacrificed his integrity for a small price or a high sum of money to be wasted so needlessly.  The mental capacity and intelligence, a lifetime of learning and study (he used to keep a cupboard full of scientific calculators much to the chagrin of my late mother) and he would them all meticulously to do pages and pages of scientific calculations (physics, mathematics – just to keep his mind active).  Experiences surely could be in vain and amount to nothing.  Within, I knew this could not be the case and indeed may spiritual experiences and insights around that time strongly confirmed with me to be patient, that I will be with my father again one day, but I must continue to seek the right direction, the straight path.

In March 2007, our mother passed away suddenly, also in her 63rd year – from a blood clot.  We managed to spend a most memorable five week holiday together in the French Pyrenees, Cyprus and UK over that New Year.  Somehow, I knew we were saying our goodbyes and I am at peace with the loss of my mother and my father whom I love very much.

Asking God for Guidance


And (O Muhammad) follow that which is inspired in thee, and forbear until Allah Give Judgment. And He is the Best of Judges. (Surah Yunus:109)

Narrated Abu Hurayrah (r.a.), the Prophet (s.a.w.) said, “Allah Says I am just as My slave thinks I am and I am with him if he remembers Me.  If he remembers me in himself, I too, Remember him in myself; if he remembers Me in a group, I Remember him in a group that is better than they; and if he comes ne span nearer to Me, I Go one cubit Nearer to him; and if he comes one cubit nearer to Me, I Go a distance of two outstretched arms Nearer to him; and if he comes to Me walking, I Go to him running.”  (Swahih al-Bukhari, 93/502)

Islam has become a way of balancing life for me.  It has awakened me to a new reality from what I was accustomed to as the perception of normal.  It is a worldview that has a definitive purpose and an ending that gives us a purpose to strive and improve as human beings and not be moulded by the material values of our environment, which too easily allows us to lapse into the mindset of “eat and drink now, for tomorrow we die.”

Coming from a Western secular environment, I can say there are many good things about the West, that environment, its people and their values.  Unfortunately, Islam is largely misunderstood and seen as backwards, regressive, boring and has less and less of a place in what is perceived as normal anymore.  Progress in the West is seen as relaxing on laws and moral values such as dress etiquette and consumption of intoxicants, including drugs.  There has been a strong emphasis on the need to work hard to build a good family life by acquiring material means and affording the ‘good life.’  Sadly, I feel this has driven a lot of people to exuberant ends, over-indulgence and over-relaxed moral standards towards the ends of ‘anything goes’.  I feel the capitalist political model is failing in this direction, as more people become disenchanted with the course of material pursuit, broken families and homes die to drug and alcohol abuse and moral and financial bankruptcy – debt-ridden lives.

I will never give up this religion, not for mountains of gold or even all the worth of the world, insha’Allah.

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