Being a Malay normally means being born into a Muslim family and it's fair to say my family is quite religious. My sister was a hijabi ever since she was 16 and my mother however only started wearing it full-time in her late 40s, early 50s. Throughout the years she became more and more religious and she now spends her free time reading and reciting the Qur'an. As for my brother, although he doesn't smoke, gamble nor drink it was in his late 20s that he became a more conscientious Muslim. My late father was a happy go lucky man who hardly missed a prayer and stayed away from most things haram. Aside from reminders by my mum about not missing my prayers and (very) frequent nags about dressing decently, Islam was never forced upon me. This is one of the reasons I just love learning about my religion and I try my best to practice as much of its teachings.

During most of my childhood and teenage years Islam wasn't something I would think about that much. I was more concerned about the latest video on MTV, getting my homework done (I remember we had a Nazi-like math teacher who used to make us cry but still, homework wasn't as important as MTV of course) and basically trying to fit in. The month of Ramadhan would come along and as a kid I'd fast at least half a day for a month. I went to a Western-oriented private school in KL and Islamic classes were just part of the curriculum to me. It wasn't until I moved to New Zealand that Islam started playing a bigger role in my life. I was 16 years old and suddenly I was placed in an all-girls' school. I made friends and they would ask me questions about Islam and sometimes I wouldn't quite know how to respond.

"Why do Muslim girls wear that thing on their head? Why don't you wear one?"
"Why does Islam allow people to get divorced? It's forbidden in Catholicism and that's how it should be." (this 17 year old girl was a pretty staunch Christian as you might have guessed )
"Why doesn't Islam grant equality between men and women?"

Living in a Muslim country and being surrounded by Muslim family and friends didn't really give me a reason to question Islamic beliefs and practices. I just accepted things as they were. However, living in a Western country was a completely different experience and it led me to question and think about Islam on a deeper level. I felt silly not knowing the answers to some of the questions that were thrown at me so I'd ask my sister and brush up on my Islamic knowledge by reading books. Books about Islam by Muslims, books about Islam by Christians, books about other religions... just all sorts of books. During Islam Awareness Week the university students would organise a week's worth of activities to educate people about Islam. I attended talks by prominent Islamic scholars such asYusuf Estes, Bilal Philips and Abdurraheem Green and watched documentaries about the history of Islam. I watched Parables in the Qur'an and Stairways to Paradise by Moez Masoud. I met and became friends with Muslims from various countries and got to know a few Muslim converts (or reverts, whichever way you like to think of it). It was this experience which really opened my eyes to the beauty of Islam.

It was Muslims whom inspired me to learn more about Islam and it was Muslims whom made me fall in love with Islam, mashaAllah. Dunedin is such a simple city compared to where I come from but it holds a very special place in my heart because of this. In all my years of trying to become so Western, I failed to realise the beauty of my own culture and religion. The Muslim women in New Zealand are strong, beautiful, vivacious, multi-cultural, tolerant and understanding followers of Islam. They made me realise that I can be Muslim and be an educated, beautiful and empowered woman at the same time. I am very thankful to have been given the gift of Islam and I continue to learn so much more about life and people through this beautiful and enlightening religion. I'm not the best Muslim you could ever meet but I still hold on to many traditional values and this surprises many. My faith in God is much stronger now and my life is a jihad (struggle) against my nafs and incessant wants for I recognise the true meaning of freedom is the ability to do what I ought to and not what I want to. It's only when I am ready to open my heart and mind that God is ready to let me in.

Allah said: “Indeed I Am as My servant presumes Me to be. And I Am with him when he remembers Me, so if he remembers Me to himself then I remember him to Myself. And if he remembers Me amongst a company, I remember him amongst a company greater than it and if he draws close to Me a span of a hand I draw near to him the span of an arm. And if he draws near Me the span of an arm, I draw near him the span of two outstretched arms. And if he takes a step towards Me, I quickly step towards him.” [Al-Bukhari and Muslim]

So I'm taking it one step at a time...

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Anonymous said…
Love this post, I hope to read more of your thoughts :)
Shahirah Elaiza said…
That's so sweet, thank you Sarah! =)
Sara said…
OMG How do you two know each other??! Small, small, world.

Btw Sha, this is such a beautiful post. I actually was somewhat "religious" before I moved to the states. Once I got here, I started to miss my daily prayer. It's not til I got into college, then I realized that I am losing a piece of myself. Then I started to pray again. But like you said, Im still taking one step at a time to become a better Muslim :)
Anonymous said…
Sara, that is the funny part, I found Shahirah's blog on another bloggers site that I follow. I checked out her blog and saw you on it!!! Small small world, I swear.. How did we bump into eachother in cyberspace?? LOL :) Glad we did though.

Regarding the post, yes I can see how it may be difficult to hold onto ones religious ties when living in the states.. For me, since this is all I have known, I have been able to find a happy medium.. But it takes time though to figure out how we want religion to take a role in our lives.
Shahirah Elaiza said…
And how do you two know each other? Glad you bumped into each other on my blog! =)

All good and lasting things take time. The most important thing is that we've been given the opportunity to (re)discover and explore something truly meaningful.
starry eyed said…
this post is so beautiful. and i so agree with you. im taking baby steps too. its never too late. :)
Shahirah Elaiza said…
Thank you Najwa. I'm pleasantly surprised other people can relate to my experience.

Here's a hadeeth you may find interesting. A bit long but it's good:
The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) has said:

"There was a man from among a nation before you who killed ninety-nine people and then made an inquiry about the most learned person on the earth. He was directed to a monk. He came to him and told him that he had killed ninety-nine people and asked him if there was any chance for his repentance to be accepted. He replied in the negative and the man killed him also, making it an even one hundred. He then asked about the most learned man in the earth. He was directed to a scholar. He told him that he had killed one hundred people and asked him if there was any chance for his repentance to be accepted. He [the scholar] replied in the affirmative and asked, `Who stands between you and repentance? Go to such and such land; there [you will find] people devoted to prayer and worship of Allah, join them in worship, and do not come back to your land because it is an evil place.' So he went away and hardly had he covered half the distance when death overtook him. There was a dispute between the angels of mercy and the angels of torment. The angels of mercy pleaded, 'This man has come with a repenting heart to Allah,' while the angels of punishment argued, 'He never did a virtuous deed in his life.' Then there appeared another angel in the form of a human being and the contending angels agreed to make him an arbiter between them. He said, `Measure the distance between the two lands. He will be considered belonging to the land to which he is nearer.' They measured and found him closer to the land (land of piety) where he intended to go, and so the angels of mercy collected his soul.

MashaAllah =)
Anonymous said…
sha.. i loved reading ur blog !!
and its true livin outside our own country especially in western country does gave us a negative or positive impact. it juz us have to decide wat to choose.
yeah take a step everyday to be a better muslim =)
wkm said…
Sha, living in the States for five years made me search the true meaning of being a muslim.After being back in malaysia for more than 20 yrs i am still learning and searching for Allah and RasuluLah.AlhamduliLlah, that's how i came to find that we are of the al aidarus clan. MasyaAllah. Don't give up, eventhough its a small step, do it istiqomahly. Rahmat Allah luas. Islam is beautiful. wasalam