My journey to Islam started in a pub on Green Lane, Small Heath, Birmingham. I was seven years old and we lived in a big old Victorian pub that was crumbling even then and eventually knocked down. By the time my family lived there, Small Heath was almost completely a Pakistani area, teeming with fabric stores, halal butchers, Islamic bookshops and masjids. Two communities moved alongside one another but rarely interacted: the Muslim community and what remained of the second-generation Irish that had gradually moved away. Growing up, I knew the Muslims were different and was drawn to them but at that age, I couldn’t say how or why. Instead, inside my home, I played at what I could see of them from the outside, dressing-up like old Asian women: I longed for a salwar kameez with gold trimmings, filigree bangles and long hair that I could braid into a single plait down my back. Most important was the head-covering which I would attempt to replicate with towels and my mother’s scarves.
My brother and I went to Catholic school and I liked to collect Catholic paraphernalia. I would build shrines to the Virgin Mary with glow-in-the-dark rosary beads and tiny plastic bottles of holy water from Lourdes. I had heard stories about religious statues in Latin-American countries crying blood and, during my many sleepless nights, I would sit watching the statue, simultaneously fixated and paralysed with terror. I imagined I saw her outstretched hands shift position or her thin lips smile spookily. I had an inkling that it was someone like me that would have a vision of Jesus or The Virgin but this feeling wasn’t necessarily comforting, it was also disturbing. I would check my hands for stigmata or think that I saw shapes or movement in the corners of dark rooms. Perhaps to self-soothe, I connected with the rosary and repetitive prayer and would say Hail Marys and Our Fathers. To this day I hold a set of Islamic prayer beads if I can’t sleep or when I travel.
I was sensitive and unsettled. In the background of my life rocked my parents’ imploding marriage and drinking. One night we watched from the fire-escape as it took three policemen to drag my father away roaring incoherently, the red lights of their cars flashing across the big front windows of the pub. My mother, perhaps in an attempt to keep herself from falling apart, became distant and unavailable, motivated only by the mundane tasks of running the pub and making sure we had clean clothes. Nothing else was really discussed. She soon began a relationship with a much younger barman from the pub and that was another form of being absent. I used to creep downstairs when the pub was shut and watch them drinking together and playing pool. They would then start kissing in a tight, unmoving grip. Gradually, it was like I was shut out and forgotten, observing my mother’s emotional life from the outside.
Despite the fear and the chaos or maybe because of it, from an early age, my internal life was as real and as important to me as the external and often unreliable circumstances of life outside of myself. I started practising Buddhist meditation at 14. I had inherited my parents’ chaos but I knew deep inside that there was an internal reality where peace existed – I only had to find it. From thereon in, I knew that essentially life was an inner mystery and all that mattered was engaging with that mystery and revealing its purpose.
And so ensued years in the quest for enlightenment. However, in many ways, I was my mother’s daughter; I myself was blocked because I couldn’t handle the pain of being who I was. Looking back, without realising it, my meditation practice was an exercise in compounding all of my negative ideas about myself. The way I understood Buddhism was that the individual was responsible for their own enlightenment; there was no easy get-out where God helped you out. You had everything you needed and everything else was just craving or aversion. Peace was easy, right? It was about detachment. I could detach momentarily whilst meditating and gained periods of peace but generally, I would return to chaos because, on the other hand, I was actually detached, just unhealthily so: from my deepest needs for comfort and acknowledgement, from my grief and admitting that I needed support from others. I was too much for the world: too hysterical, too difficult, too needy. The key was to shrink myself. Meditate it away. I was only unhappy because I was so flawed and broken. It was my fault.
To try and find some semblance of stability and love, I went from one disastrous relationship to the next, coming out of each one feeling slightly more damaged and jaded than the last time. I think that being ignored and unheard was such a big aspect of my childhood that I was subconsciously drawn to men who didn’t understand me and so treated me badly, either deliberately or out of their own ignorance and unacknowledged pain, like my parents had done. Each time this happened, I would return to meditation which offered some relief but it was often short-term and without it even for a day, I would return to feeling overwhelmed. I felt wronged, angry and desperate for connection yet I wanted to bypass these feelings and experience an everlasting bliss of cloudy indifference – my idea of Nirvana. If I had inherited the addict gene, I would have misused some substance or other to achieve this. Instead, I went deeper into the empty well of my avoidance and craved spiritual union so I didn’t have to be me because all I seemed to be was an ever-tightening ball of need and ache.
Throughout the years and in my search for something that gave me peace, I sporadically attended a Sufi meditation group ran by a convert called Malik and his wife Zainab at a Quaker Friends’ Meeting House. The women sat on one side of the hall and the men on the other. They would sit in the dark with shawls over their heads meditating with just the sound of traffic outside, often with their feet up on the wooden benches, or leaning back in their chairs. Sometimes people would fall asleep. Compared to the stringent cross-legged uprightness of Buddhist meditation, it seemed almost lazy. Malik was intense in his own way but he was always consistently welcoming and friendly. He just wanted me to meditate and asked for nothing in return – not even that I follow Islam. I remember he would come and sit beside me but would keep his eyes downturned on the floor in front of us, looking up occasionally to make brief eye-contact. Rather than finding this rude, I remember feeling safe and like my privacy was respected in his presence. It was the only experience I’ve ever had with a man where there was simply no demand being made of me, to smile, be ‘nice’ or look interested.
He said basically the Sufi says a single statement to themselves then waits for Allah’s light to transmit into their heart – he called it muraqabah. He also said that oftentimes a Sufi meditator will cry underneath their shawl as they meditate because they are connecting to their heart, which can be emotional and sometimes painful. At the time, what he said seemed like an ineffectual way of seeking God because I suppose I didn’t trust God. I thought I was so messy and ‘wrong’ that simply sitting with my own thoughts with no regimented containment would surely leave me a quivering mess of hysteria and depression. Having made myself so vulnerable, God would probably not be very accessible anyway and leave me to deal with it all on my own. However, looking back, the experience with that group and Malik and Zainab’s unquestioning acceptance introduced me to the notion of the ‘the heart’. They acknowledged that emotion wasn’t something to be repressed, an obstacle to be overcome to start the ‘real’ work of spiritual development – it was part of our relationship with the divine.
Although the Sufi group used to pray in the Quaker hall, I was always too shy and inexperienced to join in with them. The push to pray came with a brief relationship with a Malaysian man when I was 27. I spent a lot of time at his house with his family and I loved being there the most. Their house was always relaxed: they would sit and watch TV together as a family, drinking tea with condensed milk and smoking roll-ups; there was always food cooking away in the kitchen; then came the quiet days of Ramadan where they would sleep most of the day then slowly rise. Again, I knew something was different but this time I was in my mid-20s and could articulate what it was: it was reverence and cleanliness; it was discipline; it was a calmness in the knowledge that Allah took care of things and there was no need to grasp for control. I would watch his mother pray in a white hijab; she had bad knees and would ‘kneel’ on the edge of the low sofa. To me, to prostrate was the most natural thing. I couldn’t try to find meaning anymore in the endless knots and tangles of my emotional life. It was an obvious thing, to surrender like that. Ultimately, there was nothing else that I could do. When we broke up, it was his homelife and the religiosity of his parents that I missed the most. They left my life but the prayer was what they left with me.
This year, after many years of intending to, I completed my first Ramadan. I felt drawn into the fold of Islam and I was put in contact with many supportive groups and individuals. Finally, I had done something that actualised my burgeoning faith. I felt physically weak but spiritually whole; I needed Allah more than I needed food or water.
I realised that I had been placing my suffering at the centre of my spiritual practice. It wasn’t sufficient and could never have been. But also, contrary to being ‘wrong’, my life had happened because it could have been no other way. I couldn’t have been anybody else just as my parents couldn’t have been anybody else either. Yes, we had lived out a palimpsest of ancestral pain but it was also a map to show me a deeper way of life: Islam. Again, because no other way of life would have satisfied me and no other path would have convinced me.
Of course, I still have many days of feeling sorrow and longing, that is just my personality. But in a deep way, the nature of my struggle has changed. By accepting Allah’s gentleness and guidance, I am learning to accept myself.
My journey to Islam has been like falling in love. Initially, fascination with its aesthetics – I loved the beauty, the colours, the ‘otherness’ of Islam. But then I drew closer and a slow familiarity grew, like the Arabic prayer on YouTube as I would bumble the words I knew. Now, the understanding has begun. I hope to go deeper into that mystery, to find another way of being that centres around the divine, not trauma or pain.
There is a Source from where I came and ultimately, I will return. I have felt homesick my entire life but it is not a burden anymore – it is a thread of connection, a reminder of the great need for love that I have and Allah, as close as my own breath, understands and is willing to provide. On the days that it doesn’t feel that simple, I just try to return to the prayer – that surrender – and wait till I feel it again.