Featured image: A view of the Great Smoky Mountains. Pix by Michael Wifall.
I was 21 years old when I found Islam. I was a stranger in a small town called Athens in southeastern United States where I went to college. Named after the ancient city of Greece, the cradle of Western civilisation, this little Athens is barely known outside the realm of American college football and dedicated fans of the rock band R.E.M. that originated from the town.
Signs that my experience in the small town would be life changing appeared the moment I landed at the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport in Georgia. My father and I were about to board the van that would take us to Athens when tiny snow flakes started falling from the sky. I had never seen snow until then. “Pa … It’s snowing!” I whispered excitedly to my father, showing him the tiny specs of ice on our jackets. He smiled.
Our flight was among the last to arrive in Atlanta that day. Within minutes into our journey on the road we entered a snowstorm. The driver, a local, said he had not seen a storm like that for many years; since the year I was born. “You came all the way from Malaysia and brought the snow with you,” he said. I did not expect to see any snow in this part of the United States and there I was, caught in a storm.
Little did I know a far greater storm would stir in my heart in the months to come.
My father left me in Athens before the snow melted. He warned me before he left that I might return to Malaysia feeling displaced, maybe even unwelcomed. That happened to him when he returned from his studies in Australia as a young man, and well into his retirement. He cried on my shoulder as he hugged me goodbye.
He was right, though I had no idea what he meant then.
I accepted the offer to study at the University of Georgia with hope I would be accepted into the Henry W. Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication, one of the top Communication schools in the United States. I wanted to major in Journalism.
But something happened the day I registered for classes. My academic advisor, an elderly African-American gentleman who played the trumpet, presented me with a list of subjects I could take to fulfill my academic requirements in the Humanities.
Something caught my attention, something that eventually derailed me from my original intention of being there in Georgia: Religion.
The education system and culture at home ensured that I was sheltered from learning about any other religion except from the one I was born into. In my case, Islam. And then suddenly I was presented with the opportunity to learn about the many great religions of the world. I seized the opportunity with much excitement and shocked I was when I learnt the customs at the college’s Department of Religion. You must leave your own religion at the door and learn about religion from the perspective of each congregation. One is forced to confront one’s own bias.
It was an interesting time to be in the United States. I was there less than six months after ‘September 11’ and the whole country was curious about religion, particularly Islam. There was great interest in interfaith understanding and world civilisations. The demand for knowledge was high and discussions were colourful. The learning experience was overwhelming and challenging at so many levels. The world suddenly became so big and complex and I was but an innocent and ignorant young girl. With clear acceptance that my time there was limited I soaked in as much as I could with all my senses.
I remember making a phone call to my father at the end of my second semester seeking his permission to change my major. Events and circumstances in my life unfolded in a way that led me to this decision. “Religion? Ah, so! It is unconventional, but if there is where your heart lies then you have my blessings,” my father said. What would I do with a degree in Religion? Cross one bridge at a time, my father would say.
I spent the remaining time in college buried in literature on Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism … I did not realise until then how ignorant I was about that great “thing” that was so close to the human heart: Faith and religion. The theological, historical and sociological aspects that form religion, and faith. There was not one day in my life in Georgia I felt lonely, except in my entire journey there learning about this.
I studied in a missionary school in Malaysia and some of my closest friends were church-going girls, yet I knew so little about Christianity. I never knew I was even allowed to discover Judaism (a word I’d only come across in the few films I saw about the Jewish Holocaust), and yet there I was spending time after classes in deep discussions over hot chocolate with my Jewish teaching assistant. But what affected me most profoundly was how much I did not know about my own religion despite being born and raised a Muslim, with more than 11 years of formal education in Islam in a Muslim-majority country where Islam is given special privileges.
This realisation made me very sad but extremely grateful to my parents for sacrificing their resources and giving me the freedom (and trust) to learn, far away from their own watchful eyes.
There was a moment late one night when I was doing my assignments that I paused and looked at the books spread across my table. Concentrating on the Abrahamic religions, I had by then owned a Torah, several versions of the Christian Bible, various exegeses of Qur’anic surahs … With all that knowledge, exposure and freedom, I could have been anything I wanted to be; subscribed to any religion I felt inclined. And noone would know. In my cultural context, this was a big deal.
I was 9,867 miles away from home, alone. It was that night, for the first time in my life, I realised I was Muslim by choice and not by birth. It hurt to think it took all my life up until then, far away in a small town in the Bible South, for me to consciously acknowledge Islam as my heart and soul. Was this simply a matter of path or was there something about the society I grew up in that deprived me of this illumination? I dreaded the thought of it.
I took a couple of courses on Islam in my final semester. One of the class exercises was to study surah Al-Fatihah line by line, word by word. The beauty of the text, as well as the exercise, was profoundly humbling. Even more humbling was the realisation that I was exposed to so much information about Islamic tradition in secondary school and even mastered (Read: Memorised) the entire procedure and verses in a Muslim burial. And yet, I only just learnt in that Georgian classroom the deep meaning behind that short surah in the Qur’an that all Muslims recite every single time they bow to the Almighty.
By the end of the semester we were tested on our recitation of Al-Fatihah. It was a surah I had memorised as a child and so I waited for my turn with ease. One by one, I saw Christians of various denominations, Zoroastrians and even atheists walk up to the professor to recite the surah. It gripped my heart knowing this education would be unacceptable in my own country.
When my turn came I read the surah fluently. When I finished my professor said, “Alhamdullillah“. It hit me then that he said “Praise be to the Lord” to every student who recited the surah, regardless of their religious beliefs. He asked if I were Muslim, since I was familiar with the surah. I nodded, and he said again, “Alhamdullillah“. Two semesters in his class and he had no knowledge or interest in my religious background, until then. His only interest, and duty, was to teach Islam as best he could to all his students.
On the weekend of my graduation I rented a car and took the longest drive I had ever taken alone. I drove into South and North Carolina, and up the Great Smoky Mountains. I perched by the roadside and spent hours absorbing the magnificence of the mountains. The thought of returning to Malaysia scared me. I knew exactly what I was returning to. A materialistic suburban-city lifestyle, and where faith is governed by politics of the state.
I was utterly depressed and fearful. I looked at the vastness of the sky and mountains beyond me and thought, surely there is something far greater in this life than all that we are obsessed with at home. Will the strength of my faith survive it? I drove down the mountains through the state of Tennessee praying for Guidance.
My father was right. I have returned home to become a displaced person in my own society. Today my countrymen are quarrelling about the ownership of the word “Allah”. Noone is really interested to know about each other’s religion, except to defend one’s own from The Other. The discourse on Islam is reduced to two main themes: Palestine and the hijab. And of late, homosexuality.
I know many young Muslims out there are struggling to make sense of the immense pressures and invasion of their faith; the dumbing down of something as great as spirituality. Every day we are being judged and the walls are closing in on us, forcing a uniformity that is supposedly for our own good. Worldly punishments are promised to us in the name of God, with renewed enthusiasm day by day. Many in fact have quietly lost faith.
However, there are many more who are still surviving. But this does not mean they are not hurting. To them I say, hold on. Let us not let the force of man erode our faith no matter how bad it gets here at home. InsyaAllah, one bridge at a time …