It is the mid-1970s, Sunday morning, in a comfortable middle-class catholic church in Edgware, halfway through the service, I see a tired, distressed, dirty looking man come up the aisle to the front and try to speak, “Oh father, help ….!”
I was born in the early 1960s, in Paddington London. My father, a fast-food chef, a Black immigrant to England from St. Lucia in the Caribbean and my mother, a housemaid, from the same island were residents in the United Kingdom since 1959.
Almost every Sunday, our family, Matthew, Dad and I, would sit together on the wooden benches to receive communion. My mother stayed at home. Communion meant eating a thin wafer of bread and taking a swig of alcohol. I remember the feeling of confusion at eating Jesus’s body and drinking Jesus’s blood. Still, I knew it was ‘symbolic’ and that meant we were just ‘pretending’.
But the sick man wasn’t, he was clearly in distress. The priest had reached the highlight of the service. “Take this, all of you, and drink from it: This is the cup of my blood, the blood of the new and everlasting covenant. It will be shed for you and for all so that sins may be forgiven. Do this in memory of me.”
At this point, a bell rings and we were supposed to bow our heads, everybody did, apart from me. The man held my attention. In the corner of my eye, I saw the priest give the order for the man to be removed. I remember thinking Priests are not really good people. The distressed man began to cry as a church usher took him away.
I remember thinking that is why Mum stays at home. She told me the priest in Paddington, where we used to live, was drunk on the altar. I also remembered the appearance of the priest in his underwear when Matthew opened the wrong door to go into the box and confess his sins!
Those three childhood memories shaped my view of religion. I was quite definitely a believer in God, but the stories of drunk, perverted, merciless clergy and drinking Jesus’s symbolic blood, put a bad taste in my mouth! Not to mention that as a black teenager growing up in London – pictures of a white Jesus did not sit comfortably in my search and quest for self-identity.
In the mid- 1980s I trained at the Mecca of journalism – the BBC. Filo-fax meetings, fast cars and money, diverted my attention from religion. I became a black upwardly mobile professional person or BUPPY. As an ambitious hard-working T.V. presenter, I was consumed by my own magnificence.
It took just seven years for my obsession to deteriorate in an environment where human misery was exploited to produce award-winning careers. The experience left me in a spiritual gutter. Life had no meaning. I was constantly asking myself, “Is this it?! Isn’t there more to life than this?!”
Despite my firm belief in God, I saw religion as divisive. I was against all forms of organised religion. A casual glance at world affairs, at that time, suggested that religion was at the core of much of the strife around the globe. Protestants vs Catholics in Northern Ireland. Muslims vs Jews in Palestine. Christians vs Muslims in Nigeria.
The irony was I needed something to believe in more than ever before. I needed truth. I needed to make sense of my life. I was 28 years old. I felt I had no other choice but to conduct a journalistic investigation into each world religion to see if any were suitable for me to join. I examined Christianity, Buddhism and Hinduism. Islam was the last on my list.
Situated close to the Atlantic coast, eight miles south-west of the Gambian capital, Banjul, I was in Serekunda. Having visited as a journalist making a documentary, I returned a year later for a holiday and found myself in the small front yard of Younus – a convert to Islam. We were introduced by a mutual friend and almost immediately started to talk about God. I enjoyed debates. This was my chance to crush his arguments, rattle his faith and persuade him to leave Islam. I was convinced religion was a menace to society.
For hours on end, we debated God, the trinity and the role of Jesus. Outwardly, I thought I was doing well but the voices in my head kept saying, “Listen to yourself. You’re talking absolute rubbish!” I was trying to be a genius but was obviously came across extremely dumb. I tried to beef up my credibility so he would listen to me and I kept bragging about how successful I was in the hope he would think it cool.
I felt a mixture of resentment and admiration for the way Younus would break off at exciting points of our debate, wash parts of his body, stand, bow and hit his head on the ground. Resentful because he interrupted my train of thought and admiring of his discipline and self-control. He obviously knew something I did not understand, but I soon became determined to find out.
On that day in December 1992, the veil of “reality” was lifted. I was transported to the “other side.” My understanding and thinking became crystal clear. Everything suddenly made sense. It was a moment I had not seen coming. Although, in truth, my whole life was a build-up and introduction to that moment. It was the moment I knew I was Muslim.
Casually, after what must have been our second or third day of debates on religion. Younus posed a question that I had never seriously tried to answer. I had questions and answers for everything, I prided myself as an astute, all-knowing, intelligent being. In the attempt to come up with a coherent answer to why I was created. I was dumbstruck. I searched desperately through the files in my brain and heart and found “no search results.”
Younus’s confidence intrigued me. He knew the answer. It was his complete certainty that turned my world upside down. I had not been created except to worship Allah. In a flash, the centre of the universe suddenly shifted. I was no longer the most important thing in the world. My desires, feelings, opinions, aspirations, appearance, intellect, piece by piece, bit by bit, fragmented, disintegrated and were instantly obliterated.
At that moment.
The only thing worthy of worship.
To this day, an intense, happy and buoyant emotion remains in my heart. The emotion is sometimes tearful, sometimes euphoric but is always accompanied with a deep sense of contentment. Islam is the submission, the freedom and the joy that only gets better when the needs of self are replaced or matched by the service to Allah or to others. Since 1992, every waking moment has had a purpose. A journey of discovery in the vast sea of knowledge contained in Allah’s world.
In the sweltering heat of Omdurman in Sudan, students spend lifetimes studying Quran, Arabic and Islamic jurisprudence. I was there, in the late 1990s, for over ten years sitting at the feet of the scholars. I wanted to know what Allah expected from me and how best to make Allah and Allah alone the centre of my world.
Now approaching my thirtieth year as a Muslim. Allah remains at the centre of my being and Islam is my way of life. It is not just how to pray and do rituals, rather it guides me in every aspect of life, every thought, every deed. How I interact with other people, what actions are morally wrong, how to achieve spirituality. The point is it is the lens through which I approach, view and understand life.
Years later, I think again, through the eyes of a Muslim, about the dishevelled man who walked up the church aisle. He is my responsibility to feed, guide, clothe and support. It is up to me and everyone else in the place of worship to lower the wings of comfort and mercy and wish for our brother what we would wish for ourselves.