Tuesday, 13 August 2013
Rebecca Quinn: Beginning My Spiritual Journey
The following is Rebecca Quinn’s story and how she found Islam.
“I stood next to a playground, just outside a large apartment block. It was late at night and I had just gotten off the train from Kuala Lumpur. I could not get a taxi to take me from the train station to this Woodlands address I had scribbled on a piece of paper so I finally got a bus, but alighted too early and to make an insignificant story shorter, I finally made it to my destination. But I only had a block number, not an apartment number so I did not know where to go from there.
Just then a group of teens that were hanging out in the playground took an interest. ‘Hello’, one of them said. They asked a few questions about where I had come from and we got chatting a bit about travel in general. I threw my huge backpack down and took a seat near them. Finally, one of them asked what I was actually doing sitting by the playground so late at night.
I explained to them about the concept and website ‘couchsurfing’. I explained that instead of staying in a hotel when you visit a country, you can request to stay at somebody’s place. There is a network of travelers in almost all countries around the world that offer a free bed to like minded travelers. It is not about free accommodation though; it’s about meeting people who live in that country and getting to know the country from a more local perspective. ‘So’, I said, ‘I’m supposed to be couchsurfing tonight but I don’t know the apartment number and my host is still at work and I don’t have a phone, so I’m not sure what to do.’
‘My cousin does that couchsurfing thing’, one of them chirped. ‘Are you staying with Shafiq? His mum will be upstairs. I’ll take you up there!’
My host was Shafiq so I followed him up. A woman answered the door and they rambled some stuff in Malay and he left. The woman was all smiles and invited me in. Little did I know that stepping through that front door would change my life forever.
She offered me a drink, a towel, a shower and some conversation. It was obvious that Shafiq had not told her to expect me. I sat in the lounge room and told her about a pink milk drink, I had had near the train station. It was disgusting. She said it was bandung and she liked it. She showed me a picture of her late husband and talked a little about him as I took in the surrounds. The house was immaculate and there were some beautiful pictures on the wall. One was of a building with some minarets in the background a cube in centre. Another was some writing in Arabic. I did not really understand what these were or what they meant but with my limited knowledge I associated them with that Middle Eastern religion, Islam.
It was ages before Shafiq got home. I was in the bedroom and I heard him at the front door so I came out to meet him. I remember, to this day, standing in that room with him. He apologised for being so late but I did not mind… I was quite taken aback by his gentleness and quiet speech. A calmness radiated from him.
The next day as he showed me around town, I thought about the Islam thing. As much as I disliked religion in general, I always knew that Islam must have been grossly misunderstood. Having said that, I still believed it to be somewhat violent. Was not all religion? Religion seemed to cause so many wars and so much suffering in this world. I did not doubt the existence of God but definitely questioned these man-made ‘religions’. But these people were the opposite of what I would have expected. His mother had invited a total stranger into her home. His brother was a cheeky and jovial mischief maker, something you would expect from the average Australian guy and Shafiq was the calmest and laid back person I think I had ever met. He was not spending his time, big noting himself and trying to impress me. He was so humble and different. He eventually told me how he had started ‘getting back in touch’ with his religion after rebelling for so long.
Fast forward a year and Shafiq and I had been dating for six months. I did not think we were wasting our time, since I was under the impression that, if it ever came to that, a Muslim man can marry a ‘Christian’ woman. Even though I was agnostic by heart, I was born a Christian. Shafiq had just moved back to Singapore and I was still living in Vietnam. I had just been offered a job in Singapore and was about to move countries. Then came the phone call. I was told that there had been some confusion and that it was actually required that a Muslim man marry only a Muslim woman. I was shocked. And angry. And I had just resigned from a job I loved, and moved out of a house I loved. How could he confuse something like this? I decided to get on the plane anyway since I had a job there now and not in Vietnam.
I pushed the whole conversion thing to the back of my mind for a while since marriage seemed such a long way off and a ridiculous thing to be talking about after six months of dating anyway. I decided to take a class at the Convert’s Centre, just to understand what the religion was about. I wanted to challenge my beloved and make him re-think why he was following this religion… Was he not a Muslim simply because his parent’s were?
I have to say I was quite surprised by what I was learning at the classes. Everything I thought I knew about religion was being broken. These people were not serious, angry ‘don’t do anything wrong or you’ll go to hell’ kind of people. They were pleasant, forgiving and genuinely happy people. I learnt the difference between religion and culture and I think that was one of the biggest things for me. I learnt that the very, very basis of being a Muslim meant belief that there was only one God and that Muhammad (s.a.w.) was the last of the prophets. I learnt that praying five times a day was not an extreme behaviour but rather a means to step outside from the stress and hustle and bustle of daily life, to slow down, to do some active meditation, to keep a perspective on things… to remind yourself of the big picture.
I learnt that the Qur’an gave women the right to make decisions, own property and run her own business. To choose to have a career and / or have a family. It gave women the rights to do this 1,400 years ago. Not 60 years ago as did our ‘liberated’ Western countries. I learnt that the word ‘Islam’ meant ‘submission’ or ‘to surrender’ and that it came from the root word ‘Salam’ which meant peace… Islam essentially meant ‘to be at peace with’ or ‘peace through submission to the will of God’. I learnt not to judge Islam by the behaviour of Muslims, as I should not judge Hinduism by the behaviour of Hindus and so forth. I also learnt that a Muslim man can marry a Christian woman in almost all parts of the world, except Singapore.
There was not a huge shift in my basic beliefs. I considered myself agnostic. I already very much believed in God. This world and what was beyond it was too huge and too mind boggling to be a mere accident. And I had no doubt that these ‘prophets’ existed, though I originally saw them more as incredibly forward thinking, highly influential men of their time. There was a shift however in the way I viewed religion and Islam in particular. To be honest, I am still troubled by some things that occur under the name of religion, be it any religion. But I also started to see that there was more to it than unhappy kill joys trying to make people’s lives difficult. There was a beautiful, inner spiritual aspect to it as well.
Having a background in Christianity, many things in Islam made more sense to me such as the fact that babies are born pure, even if it is out of wedlock. Also, that contraception is allowed if it is not a suitable time to fall pregnant, the imam of the mosque is allowed to marry and that they do not act on behalf of God - they do not forgive our sins, only God does that.
After months of classes, I had started toying with the idea of converting but I stressed about my family and how upset they would be. It would be extremely difficult to try to explain. Shafiq had been working overseas for several months so he was absent for a lot of this struggle. Besides it was something I had to do on my own. I was convinced that my strict Catholic aunts and cousins would disown me and that my agnostic and possibly atheist friends and family would be disgusted. And there are times when you should care about what people think… I love my family to death and I cared about what they thought!
Amidst this struggle, I went to a talk by an American convert called Usama Canon. He spoke about his conversion and how his family reacted. It was hilarious and tragic at the same time but had a happy ending. That talk was the catalyst for my conversion. I left that night thinking ‘I’m going to convert and see if it doesn’t kill me. Seriously what is the worst that could happen?’ And so I converted on my birthday on the last day of March in 2011.
Overall people have taken it well. My immediate family does not ask too many questions. I think this is their way of saying, ‘We’re cool with it’, or their way of avoiding arguments of things they do not believe in. I wish though sometimes that they would ask me. I wish they would say ‘So what’s this about four wives?’, ‘And what about the burqa?’ I assume that they assume that these are aspects of the religion that they could never understand and it is best not to go there, rather than realising that there is a very plausible explanation for these seemingly bizarre behaviour.
The one comment I remember most was from my father. The only thing he said to me was, ‘I watched your grandmother (his mother) struggle as a woman in her generation and then I watched your mother gain strength and rights through the 70s and then I watched you grow up and become the most independent, strong minded woman I have ever met… and I just don’t want that taken from you’. While that meant a lot to me and I appreciated him saying it, I smiled and knew that it was only time, that they would come around and understand. Later, when they finally met Shafiq, I think all concerns of this were forgotten and my father gave Shafiq, his graces to marry me.
I think the most difficult thing with my family is that, had I been wayward in the past and Islam bought me into line and I started respecting my parents, or became a happy person than they might have been thankful, but my family did not need or want me to change. They liked that I was a drinker. They liked that I swore. They liked that I would run about on the beach in a bikini without caring what other people thought. They loved me just the way I was. Luckily, they still do. And they always know that I will always walk to the beat of my own drum.
I did not tell my Australian friends at first. I waited until I saw them in person to tell them. Many people, I still have not told. I had to make the decision about whether to make a big announcement ‘I’m a Muslim everybody!’ or to just casually drop it in at some stage so there is not a big thing made out of it. So many of my friends I have not seen in years because of my travels so it did not make sense to me to make the big announcement. I figure they will slowly get it over time, what with Facebook and social media. For the people I did tell, I know I did not always explain it in the best way, but rather in the way that I thought they would want to hear. For example, I originally told my cousin and best friend that I mostly did it for Shafiq and marriage. At the time, I was fraught with anxiety about my family’s reactions and I thought that was the explanation that she would accept the easiest. There is, of course, no denying that I probably would never have converted without meeting or wanting to continue a relationship with him. However, I also like to think that he forced me to open my mind. I always thought that religious people were close minded and stuck inside their ‘box’. But what if I was stuck in a box? The ‘religion is evil’ box? I also know that if something happened to us in the future, that I would stay within the religion. I would of course, have to make a particular effort in making sure I kept a community of people around me who were practicing. Although I regret the way I explained it to her initially, I think we have all moved past though initial awkward moments.
The only people we have deliberately not told were my grandparents. They are staunch Catholics in their late 80’s and 90’s, and they adore me. They are too old to understand. It would break their hearts and they would spend their final years stressing over me burning in hell for being a Muslim. They know Shafiq is a Muslim and they like him very much so at least it has been an eye opener for them.
Islam certainly is a life long journey in pursuit of knowledge. It has not been an easy journey. Six months after converting, I was diagnosed with colon cancer. Surgery went terribly wrong and I spent the following 15 months in and out of hospital trying to correct the damage done in the first operation. At first, I did not connect the two events but after things went wrong for me, time and time and time again, I started to question if I was being punished for becoming a Muslim. I would then push thoughts like that away, thinking they were ridiculous. Looking back, I wish that I had used my spirituality more to help me through that time. There were two reasons that I did not. One, I found it difficult, being in a small town in Australia where there is not a lot of influence around you to keep practicing particularly being so new. I stopped doing my prayers and while I would spend some time reading and learning about the religion, it was mostly only on Sheikh Google. One book that my husband sent me that did help was Yasmin Mogahed’s ‘Reclaim Your Heart’. The other reason is because I delved right into health and cancer and most of my days were spent learning about that instead.
This year, I have been spending more time on my learning and spirituality. I still constantly ask questions and criticise until I get answers that make sense. I am also very aware of who I take answers from. Right now I am particularly interested in gaining inner spiritual strength and working on getting genuine meaning out of my prayers every day. I am also very interested in women’s issues in Islam and of course, the controversial issues. I suppose it is probably natural for an Australian convert to be interested in this. All the while, I try not to get too bogged down in this stuff as it can be suffocating but I do want to be able to give solid answers to my friend’s and family’s questions if and when they arise.
It has been a bit of a joke over time that as Shafiq, my husband, started to get back in touch with Islam, he started praying for a pious wife that would teach him about his religion. Then I turned up on his door step! And I certainly was not the Malay, hijabied, pious woman he was looking for. But without a doubt I taught him about his religion and I also forced him to choose Islam, and not just follow it because that is what he was born into.
I have slowly found that as I surround myself with the right people, I become stronger and stronger in my spirituality and more settled in my religion. I am also constantly learning. as I said this is a life long journey of gaining knowledge. The people whose stories or knowledge I have found particularly important and inspiring in this journey have been Usama Canon, Mustafa Davis and his Jordan Richter story, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf and Walead Mosaad. Unfortunately, I have never had to opportunity to listen to any prominent women. I hope that will change in the future!
To sum up: The struggle? My anxieties over what my loved ones thought. Just be a good ambassador for the religion and know that they will come around. The challenge? Staying in touch with the religion through difficult times or when you are living in non-Muslim surrounds. The lesson learnt? Be picky with your teachers and stay inspired!”