I’m a ‘born Muslim’, but I came to Islam properly at 17 years old. I wish I could tell you all the details of how that happened, but I wouldn’t be able to explain it. There are always different angles to things if you look into them enough. But I’d really like to share a few things to help someone who is coming back to their Deen. I’d like to talk to you about where I was before taking Islam seriously and how I approached Islam when I (formally) came to it.
When I was explaining to a friend that my approach to life is pretty open-ended; I’m a relativist in most cases and can pretty much understand and be accepting of any situation/idea/person if I know enough about it/them, she told me I’m not. I was a bit taken aback wondering how she was here telling me what I am and am not, I mean, not in a conceited way, I was just surprised that she had read into me. She said I’m not a relativist because she’s noticed I have these limits to the way I approach life – things I will just never ever do, and no matter what happens she knows they won’t change. I realised then that I shouldn’t go round telling people that I’m open-ended in case they take the wrong understanding for their own lives. I knew what she was talking about in regards to my boundaries.
Here’s one example; when I first started secondary school, in year 7 all the kids were swearing like they’d just learnt how (which they probably had). It was anarchy – the way young people are when they go to uni and realise they can drink and be as promiscuous as they want. It’s that feeling of having a new rule to break, because you can; it makes people go crazy. But I just never liked the way swear words sounded, or the way they made people look when they said them. I made an oath on the way back home from school one day that I wouldn’t swear – I made that oath to God. This was before I was ‘practicing Islam’, but I held tight to it for the most part.
Another limit example is lying. Lying is not my strong point. It’s something my parents generally kept us away from by showing us that they believed what we told them. I never had a reason to lie to my parents – ever – because even with the worst of things, I could tell them the truth without getting in trouble. Lying has always, therefore, been pretty pointless. In school I was around a lot of kids who used their growing independence to find every opportunity to get up to something that they could lie to their parents about. I realised I didn’t have that need and I could actually tell my parents where I was going if I was going out, and they wouldn’t stop me or even ask where, who with, what time I’ll be back etc. It actually made me feel strangely guilty if I didn’t give them the details because they were passive in their trust, so I myself told them where I was going, who with, what time I’ll be back etc. The only time this started to change was when I was around 15/16 and I began getting difficult by not communicating with them much. This was the same time I started keeping a poem-diary and went through the usual swings teenagers go through.
Anyway, yeah I came to Islam when I was 17. I won’t go into why, but at that age I was in the middle of trying to change my appearance. I thought by doing that I could also change my personality and become more outgoing. I had a tough time in previous years in a friendship with a girl who made most of my school life pretty hellish. But I wanted to not be insecure anymore; I had certain (superficial) ideals I wanted to embody. Islam was the last thing I wanted to slow me down. I mean…I was starting to look like I was somebody. The problem is I never acted like one – my limits were always there. In those years I tried and I tried to be as rebellious as the kids I was around. I was adamant, but I couldn’t go far enough. I was too afraid of the consequences.
Relationship with God & Guilt
I mentioned previously that I made an oath to God in year 7 that I wouldn’t swear. It might make you wonder what importance God had to me then for me to be making an oath to Him – before I started ‘practicing’ Islam.
Well, I guess even though I knew very little about God and Islam, what I used to do when I was young is I would ask God things all the time. Literally all the time. To me a prayer was basically making a wish. I don’t even remember what my wishes were because they were silly things, but they were constant. I had conversations with Him. I remember one time – it was in a flat where we first lived so I couldn’t have been older than 5 or 6 – I watched my mum sitting on the sofa, reading the Qur’an. I didn’t know what the Qur’an was, my mum just told me it was an important book and I knew it must be because of the way she was reading it. She was rocking back and forth, she had a scarf on her head – I mean people don’t read books that way if it’s not an important book. So the whole time I was watching her, I just kept talking to God asking Him what’s in that book that’s so important. I sat making up my own stories which I’m not going to go into now in case some die-hard Muslim has a heart-attack reading this at the thought of my frivolousness as a child.
My other conversations with God consisted of asking for forgiveness for the stupid things I did, like wasting too much paper by gluing them together to make a big carpet, or making fake tears to convince my parents I was upset because I wanted a new toy (which never actually worked out because I’d start laughing), or bullying my little brother for no reason other than the fact that I could. I asked forgiveness a lot, even while doing those things. I had a relationship with God that no one knew about and if you came up to me then and told me about God, I would’ve tested your version to the God I felt I knew. If your version was not matching the closeness I had with Him I would’ve moved away from you – which is pretty much what happened with me and a lot of the Asians (mostly my mum’s friends) who claimed that this or that was haram (unlawful).
One of my friends (also Asian) said to me one time on the way back from school that I should start praying salah. She came from one of those same crowds who were always saying everything was haram. I didn’t see such people embodying any grace in their characters, all they did was condemn. Their’s wasn’t an Islam I wanted to embody. I outright told her that even though I don’t practice, I think a lot about ‘religious things’. I told her that my worship was spiritual, not practical and I was happy like that. Now I was around 13/14 at the time, I didn’t have a clue what spirituality was, but I knew I was a thinker. And yes I felt guilty not praying salah because I knew that’s what Muslims do and I wasn’t doing it, but I didn’t know what to do about that. She of course told me that it’s not enough and I shrugged. I wish she’d known how, despite everything, any conversation about Judgement Day was enough to bring me to tears because of the fear I felt. I just didn’t know how to go about making a change.
Coming to Islam (baby steps)
One time in our sixth form library, a girl who was newly trying to wear a scarf on her head took it off in our group of girls and some of the girls were trying it on just to see how they’d look in it. They passed it to me saying they wanted to see how I’d look. I remember how uneasy I got; I became so defensive saying I didn’t want to try it on. Inside I was in fear of how awful I’d look with it, and I think I actually walked away from them with some excuse that I needed to go onto the computers.
That was the way I felt about wearing a scarf, but along with all of the other reasons I came to Islam, one of the biggest was the conduct I saw of the girls who practiced hijab in our sixth form college. They were just like us non-hijabis and weren’t in-your-face about the fact that they were practicing Islam and we weren’t (if they had been in-your-face at that time it would’ve alienated me from them). One of them – one of my closest friends to this day – had/has so much zeal for life that it’s hard for you not to love her. I remember asking some non-Muslim friends about how they’d be around me if I started practicing hijab, their response was that they wouldn’t feel as easy talking to me, and then I reminded them of that girl and one of them said; ‘Oh yeah, I talk to her just fine, don’t even notice she has a scarf on’, and I laughed at this.
Anyway, when I started taking an interest in Islam, it really started from when I came across a lot of religious friction on social media sites (this was before Twitter). I began watching lots of videos of lectures by certain Muslim figures which were going round on those social media sites, and then started searching for more videos on my own. As much as I see Muslims ridiculing it, the internet was the only exposure I had then to any Islamic knowledge (other than a beginner’s guide for children which we had in the house). And I was just soaking in everything I learnt. When I came to Islam – and this is the main bit I want you to take – I took baby steps and I defined those steps for myself. By saying this I’m not saying I defined my own path to knowledge and that’s what you should do, not at all. What I mean is, I defined my own pace and I trusted myself.
The more I learnt about Islam the more I wanted to practice everything. I took a month learning how to pray salah by having a beginner’s guide to prayer open in front of me until I didn’t need the instructions and transliterations anymore. If you ask certain people if this is permissible, they’ll outright tell you; ‘You can’t have a book open in front of you while you’re in prayer, your prayer doesn’t count’. And that’s the kind of mentality I rejected. I’ll give you another example of this. When I started practicing hijab, do you know how I did that? I had a pashmina around my neck. Literally, that was my first step to hijab. The same girl who had told me I needed to pray when we were 13/14 was now telling me; ‘I know you’re trying Roszeen and I really don’t want to put you off, but you know that’s not hijab don’t you? There’s actually no point if you’re going to wear it like that.’ And again, I shrugged her comment off because I didn’t care what she thought about what I was doing.
In that summer I had the scarf covering my hair with my neck still showing, but then time after that I was practicing the scarf the way you see now, and now the abaya awaits in’sha Allah. I acted this way because I trusted myself. The same instinct that told me I was ready to be serious about Islam led me in all of the steps I was taking within it, and I didn’t care what anyone said about my progress, why? Because I considered myself to be starting from zero. I knew that whatever I added to my current state could only be an improvement from the way I was before. From not praying at all, to praying with a book open – even just once a day – was a definite step up. It reduced the guilt I’d previously felt from being purposely ignorant. It put me in a state of struggle where I felt comfortable to keep growing, hoping God would be pleased with me.
But along with that, I’d also like to say that my limits (that shape my character) helped define the boundaries of the way I learnt about Islam. That whole not swearing, not lying, keeping away from certain rebellious stuff etc. fit well into my Islamic ‘practice’. This is why I can’t tell you to start from absolute zero, even though I’d been telling myself the whole time that I did. The fact is that I was blessed with parents whose teachings have helped me, even if they didn’t directly link them to Islam. My friend made me realise that I had already built boundaries from my upbringing (and perhaps a guilt complex), which have been helping me in this journey, although I make countless, countless mistakes (Lord knows).
But I’m not going to say you need to build up character before you start practicing Islam. Why? Because they’re the same thing. Even though people don’t tend to pay as much attention to Islamic teachings on adab the way they do about controversial topics, it’s really important to stress that those little limits you get taught as a kid have to be upheld. Go back to them if you’ve long left them behind. Draw those boundaries, make those principles. They’re promises you can make in your head AT ANY TIME; don’t lie, don’t cheat, don’t talk rudely, don’t raise your voice, don’t break your word etc. etc. and if you follow them continuously you change everything.
On top of that base you add your actions – at your own pace, but with determination – and start embodying Islam, bit by bit. We may not be classed as reverts, but we’re not far off. It takes a lot to break out of the excess we’ve fallen into. But coming back to Allah takes trust in Him, through which you have trust in yourself, and requires going back to your fitrah (natural state) as a child so you can build again. Whoever presents you with a negative image of this Deen doesn’t know God themselves. So take your steps. There’s no need to panic.