My friend Natalie, a Latvian girl who converted to Islam in 2008, resembles Nicole Kidman. So when the image of the Hollywood star comes to my mind, my lips make a naughty smile.
It was a calm Ramadan in 2008 in the small and peaceful town of Dundee, Scotland. No doubt, Natalie was slim, tall and beautiful just like any supermodel you would see on TV. When she spoke on how she came to know Islam, her soft voice was full of passion and her eyes would sparkle, enough to make you understand the excitement within.
During Ramadan, she would come almost every day without fail to the masjid, to mix with her new sisters in faith, learn to read the Holy Qur’an and pray Tarawih. When she prostrated, I could see her eyes closing so hard in concentration and her lips moving fast from reading prayers, as if she was in a deep conversation with God.
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Her story was rather simple but interesting. Natalie had always been interested in religion and she was born a Christian. Throughout her teenage years she used to read books on different religions, one after another, until she came to know Islam.
Coming across the Holy Qur’an, she found it amazing and heart-touching. Slowly her heart became drawn to it, and she began to believe. Not having the chance to convert, she continued life as a Christian until she came to Dundee University to study, and met Muslim students. Subsequently, she proclaimed Shahadah during the holy month of Ramadan.
For Natalie, her struggles were different from ordinary Muslims. First, Islam was still new to her and there was so much to learn. I saw her struggling to put on hijab, to pronounce the Arabic letters while reading the Qur’an and to understand the different Muslim cultures in the Muslim community around her.
I wondered whether she knew that most of our cultural practices had nothing to do with Islam. Then came the next obstacle: emotional isolation caused by disconnection from her natal family.
Natalie’s non-Muslim roommate reacted with hostility upon receiving the news of her acceptance of Islam and Natalie had no choice but to leave. Her parents in Latvia were secretly informed about her conversion and they were in shock. Natalie was torn between her new passion for Islam and embarrassment for defying her parents’ religion. She was also torn between her old lifestyle which in many respects contradicted Islam and the new Muslim culture. On top of that, in a few weeks’ time she was to marry Abdullah, a Pakistani man who was a university friend.
Being a Muslim does not mean one will get along easily and automatically with other Muslims of different cultures and backgrounds. I was secretly praying that the marriage decision was made out of wisdom and thorough thinking and not simply out of excitement of meeting a Muslim man, or to wipe out the loneliness in her heart after being distanced from old acquaintances. Those, in my observation, were Natalie’s main struggles and Ramadan was the perfect time in which she sought help and inner strength from the Most Compassionate.
|Regardless of geographical boundaries, cultural practices and personal circumstances, the holy month of Ramadan reveals a thousand silent battles and struggles with one single goal.|
Three Different Personalities
In 2009, I celebrated Ramadan in Heidelberg, Germany. Heidelberg is a scenic and tranquil town with a small population. With the river Neckar flowing under the old Heidelberg bridge and an astounding Heidelberg castle on top of a hill behind, the district is simply breathtaking.
It was one of the very few cities in Germany left untouched during the Second World War. Heidelberg University, a worldly prestigious educational institution was the town’s proudest symbol.
Here I stumbled upon Rachel, Sumaiya and Sara. Three different personalities with three different struggles.
Rachel was a German, brown-eyed with blond hair. She caught my attention at the Eppelheim masjid when she first appeared at the masjid door, looking very cautious. Stepping inside, she immediately took out a piece of cloth from her bag and covered her hair. My impression at that time was that perhaps she was someone interested in Islam and came to the masjid to learn about Islam or to meet a Muslim friend. I was wrong.
Her story was unique; Rachel was married to a Palestinian guy for about 7 years and she only converted few months ago. After the marriage, Rachel and her husband separately remained faithful to their own religion, but with time, Rachel slowly was drawn to Islam. She studied Islam for several years before deciding to convert. Having a stable and good job, she fully realized the risk of being sacked by her boss, or boycotted by surrounding colleagues if they learnt about her conversion.
Rachel lacked social support outside her nucleus family so she kept her Muslim identity secret. She was an ordinary German at workplace and a hijab-clad Muslim woman at the masjid, a daily struggle that she had to cope with. And again, Ramadan was the time for her to seek God’s guidance and to self-reflect.
Sumaiya on the other hand, was a Somali girl from an immigrant family. Every day in the masjid, she would look so calm, often smiling. Her challenge was similar to any other immigrant Muslims: to prove her worth as a German citizen in order to be accepted and at the same time remain true to Islamic teachings. Her dark complexion and traditional hijab exposed her to occasional harassments and Islamophobic remarks.
Yet, Sumaiya chose to go on.
Returning back to Somalia was not an option. She was anxious about her future, and how her children would grow up and assimilate. Feeling like a total alien sometimes, she sought refuge in close families and sisters in faith. Ramadan became a sanctuary for her and for her family, in which they found serenity and God’s presence.
Sara was a guest to Germany for medical treatment. Originally from Qatar, she was diagnosed with leukemia few months earlier. The news came to her as a shock, taking away all her excitement about life.
Sara appeared physically small and frail. Whenever I saw her in the masjid during Iftar time, she always had this sad look on her face. When praying, she would remain still and focused. Wrinkles and tears on her face clearly explained her unspoken struggle; to beat her fatal disease and survive. Blessed with a safe haven of Ramadan, Sara and her family continuously invoked God the Almighty, begging for complete and eternal cure.
Do We Really Feel How Lucky We Are?
This year, Ramadan is special because I am back to my home country, Malaysia. Ramadan here is a month of struggle for all. Born Muslims, many Malaysians tend to take Islam for granted and look for other sources of happiness in life. So Ramadan is the time when most of us sit down, contemplate, and ask ourselves tricky questions we always try to avoid.
A big distraction, however, is the excitement for `Eid, a strong cultural sentiment manipulated by the capitalists. Malaysians find it difficult to focus on Ramadan because there is just so much to do for `Eid: shopping, decorating the house, baking cookies, preparing ‘ang pau’, planning for open houses and holiday trips, etc.
Regardless of geographical boundaries, cultural practices and personal circumstances, the holy month of Ramadan reveals a thousand silent battles and struggles with one single goal.
All those who believe in one God and in Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him), humble themselves in tears and revitalize their hearts by day-long fasting and abstaining from sins. They go back to the state of fitrah and thus grasping the true meaning of life and the purpose of creation.
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