Julia Donaldson’s book Monkey Puzzle was my eldest daughter’s no.1 bedtime tale with its story of a monkey who’s lost his mum and the caring butterfly who tries to help him find her. Despite Monkey’s descriptions, Butterfly keeps leading them to the wrong animals until, exasperated, Monkey blurts out,
‘Butterfly, butterfly, can’t you see?
None of these creatures looks like me!’
‘You never told me she looked like you!’
‘Of course I didn’t! I thought you knew!’
‘I didn’t know. I couldn’t! You see…
none of my babies looks like me.’
There are times when I feel like Monkey. The faith I connect with seems a different animal viewed through the eyes of others. I wonder if I still count as a Muslim when I disagree with so much it’s purported to represent.
I’m one of those white, western, female converts that people assume must be brainwashed or bonkers. It’s a largely accurate assessment as lots of them are – self-righteously parroting bulls**t, an inane smile on their face and an incongruous scarf on their head – but in that sense they’re not so different from many ‘born’ Muslims; more on that in a minute.
But first I’ll answer that burning question…
What made you become a Muslim?
I was the last person you’d expect to convert – white, Irish, Sunday-schooled, convent-educated. By 15 I’d concluded religion was for wimps, started by some long ago Jeremy Beadle type who’d pulled a prank that turned out far better than he ever could’ve imagined.
Sick of people telling me what to believe when surely belief, by its very nature, was something you had to find for yourself, I turned to Guns’n’Roses and Thelma and Louise instead.
I was oblivious to Muslims until I moved into a shared house with one at 26. The word wasn’t even in my vocabulary – moslem, muzzlim; was I saying it right? Luckily he was confident and easy-going and didn’t mind answering my questions but I wanted to know more. Before long I’d gone through every book on Islam in the public library.
I learned it was a clarification of the messages in Judaism and Christianity, the final draft of a vision corrupted and forgotten over time. Christians, Jews and Muslims all theoretically sing from the same hymnsheet, just disagree over which edition to use.
I learned the Qur’an isn’t an instruction manual to be taken literally, but a historical artifact and a tool to encourage thought and introspection. Ignoring its subtlety and layered meanings and cherry-picking quotes out of context is like skimming through a Jilly Cooper novel for the naughty bits – you’re not interested in the bigger picture, just the cheap thrills.
I admired the Islamic perspective on life: the absence of a clergy, the encouragement to pursue knowledge and the emphasis on social responsibility and individual accountability. I was impressed Islam recognized women’s rights centuries before the suffrage movement and was relieved to allow myself acceptance of a feeling that never really left me throughout my atheist years – that a higher power, call it a Life Force, Creativity or God, exists in the world.
I wasn’t looking for a club to join, but the essence of Islam resonated in me – it was more commonsense than religion. I converted after a year of research and my real education began. Understanding Islam was one thing, but understanding Muslims? Whole different ballgame.
The road to radicalization is paved with good intentions
As a ‘revert’, the mildly patronizing term used to describe converts, I was a magnet for unsolicited advice from self-declared authorities desirous of extra piety-points. Many seemed to think that, however sweetly well intentioned, I’d ‘gone in blind’ and took it upon themselves to educate me.
Some peppered their speech with so many ‘alhamdullilah’s’ and ‘masha’allah’s they reminded me of robots with phrases coded into their CPU, and the cloying condescension when they called me ‘Sister’ made me feel anything but. Others wanted to shoot the breeze and trash-talk Jews, as if by choosing Islam I’d automatically aligned myself with the PLO.
Then there were those who’d eye me suspiciously from a distance, reluctant to engage – for them I was from the wrong race, hemisphere or gender.
“I hope you don’t mind me asking but…”
Happily, I was also the catalyst for shy queries from curious non-Muslims who asked questions they ordinarily stifled for fear of causing offense. I became the go-to person for Everything-You-Wanted-To-Know-About-Muslims-But-Were-Too-PC-To-Ask.
The same things cropped up again and again:
“Aren’t muslim women dreadfully oppressed, forced to cover, denied rights?”
“What about honour killings and men having four wives?”
”You’re not allowed pork or alcohol right? Why would someone give up their freedoms like that?”
Some of the issues I knew about, others gave me that sinking feeling you get when you’ve missed something obvious. Had I been naive?
“Keep them in the dark”
The short answer is ‘No.’ It turns out I’m luckier than most. Confusion about the line between culture and religion and ignorance of what the Qur’an actually says means Muslims born into their religion are limited by what they’re taught. They’ve never needed to research it so they grow up with only a glimpse through the keyhole – never seeing the big picture. Viewed as the Muslim equivalent of Sunday School, madrassas teach children to recite the Qur’an and the obligatory prayers. They rarely tackle interpretation.
In the same way Christian clergy kept the Bible in Latin to better control their ‘flock’, fifteenth century religious scholars stopped the spread of printing in the Muslim world fearing copies of the Qur’an would lead to Muslims reading and interpreting it for themselves. They needn’t have worried.
It’s supposed to work like this: Muslims look to the Qur’an, the sunnah (the prophet’s sayings and behavior) and the hadith (reported sayings and behavior transmitted through a chain of authenticated sources), in that order, for their understanding of Islam. But in homes all over the world Qur’ans are kept shrouded in fabric on high shelves and the tops of wardrobes. Muslims recite the words with little or no understanding of their meaning, while the other texts whose contents were determined on the whims of various powerful men through the ages, have assumed the mantle of Absolute Truth.
“Don’t try and understand it – just make sure you say it right”
Muslim prayers and the Qur’an are written in Classical Arabic, a language now limited to historical literary texts. Quite different from the Arabic commonly spoken today, it takes years to master and is so complex even Arabs themselves cannot agree on its various interpretations. Yet over and over again I was told I’d never gain an accurate understanding of the Qur’an from translations, that I should concentrate instead on refining my pronunciation.
I was effectively discouraged from trying to fully understand my faith.
Accurate recitation is valued more than understanding content. Quoting the entire Qur’an by heart wins you the revered title hafiz – irrespective of whether you know what you’re on about.
And so we’ve ended up with the veil, the medieval brutality of Sharia Law and the despotic goal of an Islamic state masquerading as Islam. Muslims today still turn more readily to sheiks and imams for advice than try to find the answer in themselves and this isn’t limited to the illiterate.
A fresh perspective
Everyone thinks religion is about toeing the line but the biggest thing I’ve learned from my conversion is, conversely, how to think for myself. People use and mold religion for guidance on the minutiae of everyday life (I knew someone who stopped plucking her eyebrows because she’d been told it was haram (forbidden)).
But religion isn’t the be-all and end-all of morality. It’s not about shutting things down and cutting yourself off – it’s the starting point that encourages people to explore, expand and develop their own understanding, and that’s why morality in religion can’t be fixed and finite. There IS no Ultimate Rulebook, no One-Size-Fits-All template for life. Run a mile from anyone who tells you otherwise.