I have always believed that a person should not be judged based on their skin color, religion, sexual preference or any outward physical qualities that they show which defines them into a group. A person’s heart was intentionally created as something that exists inside our bodies, invisible to the eyes, it’s true intentions unknown and hidden for a reason.
Being human, we always want to define someone either by the way they look, the way they dress and most recently what they believe in. You are either black or white (or brown in my case), straight or gay, punk or country and most currently in the news, Muslim or non-Muslim.
Recently, I have found myself revealing more and more the precious thing closest to my heart, something which I’ve kept far away from the critical eyes of the world to protect it from judgement – that is my belief as a Muslim. I’ve always felt it unnecessary to wear my religion on my sleeve as I have felt that my faith is private and should be kept that way.
Increasingly though I’ve been bombarded with news about Islam and terror, violence and basically all the woes of the world being connected to the thing which is closest to my heart…and having seen all these stereotypes and unpleasant definitions of Islam has made me realized that perhaps it’s time for me to come out of the closet and stand proud as a Muslim or at least as a single person that represents the other billions of Muslims who love peace and just want to live a normal life.
So here it goes:
Hello. I’m Muslim and this is my story.
I was born a Muslim into a family of Muslims. Islam was chosen for me by birth. So I came to know Islam like others who were born into a religion, whether it be Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism or even Atheism – we first learned our beliefs of the world through our parents. Apart from the exposure from my family, I went to a government and private school in a Muslim country in Malaysia and after school would go to religious classes at the national mosque. Some teachers were kind, others were strict and used to pinch me for not memorizing my Quranic verses correctly. It seemed to be an ‘Asian’ way of teaching, mixing pain with rote learning. Was it a Muslim thing? No. Because I found out later that my Indian teacher also pinched me when I couldn’t memorize my maths times table and my Malay teacher used to hit our hands with a cane when we failed to answer a question correctly. So what did they all have in common? Perhaps not knowing a creative way of teaching kids? Or maybe just frustrated adults venting out their anger at powerless children? Either way their actions didn’t make me define them by their race or religion. Again who knew who they really were in their hearts?
After 7 years in a Malaysian education system I was sent away to a boarding school in Australia and looking back it was not a conventional choice for a Muslim family to send their daughter to an Anglican school where I learned to sing hymns about Jesus Peace be Upon Him (pbuh) and God (the Most Merciful and Gracious). I loved singing it too! Maybe it was the melody that always managed to lift up the spirit. I sang all the good parts praising God and just skipped the bits which defined Jesus as God because Muslims believe Jesus was a prophet and not divine in nature. Whether this is true or false for you doesn’t matter to me because in the end you will choose what you believe and no one else has any right over that. That experience made me realize that you can express yourself to God in different ways but in the end what mattered is the message between the one that calls out and the One that listens. Again, I realized only God could hear that voice in my heart whether I sung it as a hymn or a Quranic verse in my daily prayers. The love expressed was the same, only the vehicle that carried the words was different.
Life continued, I grew up, travelled the world and met many interesting people. When I was 18, I met a man in Italy that opened my mind a little bit more. I was sitting on the side of the road beside a duomo (church) facing a piazza and was chatting to one of my university friends, when this random man came up to me with his son. He asked me where I was from and what I was doing there and we started chatting casually, and somehow with a perfect stranger I started talking about life and religion. He invited me to his house nearby and I went with my Thai friend and together with his son, we continued talking and found out he sold textiles in that town. I asked him why he came to talk to me, and he just said he noticed something and felt he should talk to us. In this day and age, you’d probably think it was an invitation to danger going to a strangers house just to talk about life, but yes there are still nice people in this world, at least back in 2002. Anyway what impressed me the most and still does to this day was his answer when I asked him what religion he was. He said he was a Jew, a Christian and a Muslim. I said to him, how can you be all three? Shouldn’t you have to pick one? And he said how can he, when he believed in all. Then I said to him, well that’s the same as me I guess, coz I also believe in the three religions, with a bit of difference here and there. And he answered, aren’t we the same then? It’s just what you choose to call yourself…
I knew at that time I had found someone who I connected with spiritually and somehow our meeting was more than just a coincidence. We never ended up keeping in touch but I will always remember my encounter with this stranger that became one of the most defining moments in my spiritual life. I have met more and more people like that Italian man and I started noticing that the people I meet are not just coincidental or transient experiences but milestone moments which have shaped me into who I am today. Does one get to choose the stranger one meets tomorrow? No, but I do believe you have the power to direct the experience and choose whether it will be a defining one or a fleeting, forgettable one. If you open your eyes and look closely, you will find the world connects in such amazing ways and leaves you without a doubt that it is perfectly organized and not just one of random meetings. One such meeting was when I met my husband and also some other stories which I will share another day as I take a few steps further out of my closet.
Life tip of the day: Get to know a muslim.