By Sarah Price
Islamic. Jihadist. ISIS. Terrorist. Women banned from driving in Saudi Arabia. Burqa. 9/11…unfortunately, the term ‘Muslim’ or ‘Islam’ isn’t always associated with the most positive attributes. In fact, the term ‘Islam’ can inflict some pretty negative connotations in this day and age. For a term that means ‘peaceful submission to God’, it is a religion that is often seen in the media for all the wrong reasons. So, why would a young woman from country Australia who is educated, independent and well-traveled decide to convert to a religion that is widely considered ‘backwards’?
Well, it’s for a multitude of reasons. Although people usually assume it’s for a man. Why else would a woman do that, right? WRONG. Not in my case anyway. It’s pretty dazzling how some people assume these things though. Even asking for halal food at my local university cafe received a snarky comment from the waitress asking if I ‘converted for my boyfriend’. I get confused looks at my fair skin and light eyes, some Australians ask what country I’m from, only to be shocked to hear I am myself an Australian. Australian AND Muslim? The combination is unthinkable to some.
Despite some pretty harsh and rude comments about my change in faith, I’ve also had some amazing people come up to me and ask me why. This ladies and gentleman is the question that I am happy to answer. You don’t have to agree with it – my word, you don’t even have to accept it – but this is my story and reasons which led me over the course of two years to where I am now. Converting to Islam has been no easy task. I’ve been called names, been scrutinized, rejected and fired from jobs, lost friends and had a really difficult time with my family accepting the changes in my life. But with prayer, investigation, lots of reading and researching and talking to people from different faiths and backgrounds has all contributed to my peaceful way of life now.
Yes, I am Muslim. I am also Australian, I’m a journalist, and I am also a traveler. Being a Muslim doesn’t change the elements that makeup who I am as a person. Although you can never truly express what comes from your own heart in your own personal journey, my reversion to Islam was due to three main factors. This is my story and mine alone.
Traveling to Malaysia was definitely the foundation for my conversion to Islam. After deciding on a whim to go on student exchange to Malaysia, I never imagined what a crazy adventure I had set myself up for. Malaysia is my second home. It holds a very special place in my heart and I grew immensely as a person there. I experienced some of the best and worst moments of my life; and the whole experience was filled with color, adventure, and opportunity.
From sleeping in a dirty ferry port for eight hours, getting lost in a rainforest on Tioman Island (and trying to make it back before dark), riding on motorbikes in Penang and scuba-diving in Perhentian Islands, these were just the beginning of my adventure there. I was getting out of my comfort zone in Malaysia and exposed to things I had never seen as a small town Australian girl from Gippsland. Nothing went to plan nor was expected in Malaysia.
Before Malaysia, I knew nothing about Islam. I had never met a Muslim (to my knowledge) and I always thought of Muslims as wearing heavy black garments somewhere in the Middle East, far, far away from ‘civilization’. Yes, I also thought Muslim women were oppressed. That they couldn’t go anywhere without their husbands, that they couldn’t have careers, and had to wear black all the time. Not that I really thought about it much, I was always in my own bubble of society to ponder too much about it. So, my somewhat fabricated image of Islam was shattered when I came to Malaysia. Suddenly, I found myself becoming curious of the pretty South-East Asian Muslim girls with their colorful hijabs and clothes. I met many Muslim friends – who became life-long friends- who went to university, who had jobs, who wore veils and also many who didn’t, and they all seemed quite content and loved their religion.
Being a journalism student, I’ve always been an open-minded person and have a lust for the unknown. Islam quickly became a mysterious religion I wanted to learn more about. That’s when I decided to do one of my investigative articles about Muslim women’s rights. THIS was the beginning of everything. My eyes and mind were completed opened and bursting with knowledge about Islam and the fact that WOMEN HAVE MANY RIGHTS IN ISLAM! In fact, Muslim women were legally given rights (that’s including divorce, land rights, monetary rights, the right to choose who to marry, etc.) in the Qur’an and Hadiths hundreds of years before Western women were legally given the same rights. There’s even a whole chapter about Women in the Qur’an. Men are taught to lower their gaze, and to treat women and their wives with utmost respect because this is favored in God’s eyes. THIS, of course, does not mean Muslims are sinless. People need to differentiate between culture, politics and religion. We humans are not perfect, in fact far from it. Even I learned this in Malaysia – instead of judging a whole religion on a few people’s actions, look into the religion and what it teaches. When I first stepped into a mosque, I felt an immediate sense of calm and peace. I even interviewed an imam. The strong yet humble cry of the call to prayer invoked feelings in me I had never felt before. When I first bowed my head toward the Ka’ba, I felt home in my heart. I didn’t convert to Islam in Malaysia – I was to over a year later – but it introduced me in a beautiful way to Islam and to the Oneness of God.
As each day passed in Malaysia, and with each experience I lived, it dawned on me that I was starting to outgrow the sheltered life I was living back home in my country town, and the various stereotypes placed on society from culture to culture. Malaysia was having an effect on me far greater than the boundaries of Monash University, cool clubs and intriguing food; it was the people itself and the lessons I was learning. I realized that every little moment in Malaysia would be some of my best. I was definitely not the same girl that left Melbourne airport for this unexpected journey I grew immensely, while paradoxically also finding myself and what I’m truly capable of. I was a girl who was insecure and always feeling confined and trapped in the community I was living in – Malaysia, in a way, set me free. While we can’t be sure of much in this world, I know without a shadow of a doubt that going to Malaysia randomly was one of the best decisions I have ever made. Malaysia didn’t turn out as I imagined or planned, and that in itself made it so wonderful. It taught me to believe in my own capabilities and in myself more than ever, and that comes with taking a deep breath and stepping into the world on your own for the very first time.
Malaysia gave me adventure. It kick started my career in journalism. It allowed me to meet wonderful, terrible yet interesting people. But most importantly…Malaysia gave me Islam. I truly believe I was meant to go there.
I was a very strong Christian before converting to Islam. It’s an extremely focal point of my faith journey and without it I would not be a Muslim.
My love for Jesus (peace be upon him) actually led me to Islam. Christianity is actually the closest religion to Islam, not only theoretically but also historically. There are many misconceptions about what Islam teaches about Christianity. To begin, the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) wrote a letter regarding how Muslims should treat Christians. To summarize it, we are to treat Christians with respect, and even if a Muslim man is married to a Christian woman, she cannot be stopped from praying in her place of worship. In Surat Al-Mai’dah (The Table Spread), 5:82, this is what it says – ‘and you will find the nearest of them in affection to the believers who say, “We are the Christians”. That is because among them are priests and monks and because they are not arrogant’. Amen. Christians and Jews are commonly referred to as ‘People of the Book’ in Islam, because we all have the same Abrahamic roots. Jesus’ (pbuh) name is actually mentioned more times in the Qur’an than the Prophet Muhammad’s (pbuh). Muslims still believe in the virgin birth and place importance on Mary (may Allah be pleased with her). Jesus (pbuh) is an important figure and you cannot be a Muslim without believing in the life and work of Jesus (pbuh). I could write a huge post about this, which I will discuss further in future blog posts. Jesus (pbuh) prostrated and humbled himself before God. He only performed miracles under God’s permission. He was an incredible prophet who taught love and compassion to the children of Israel. The only difference between Christians and Muslims is that we take Jesus (pbuh) to be a prophet and not to be worshipped alongside God. Islam teaches the Oneness of God, and to worship Allah (swt) alone and we believe that Jesus (pbuh) taught this himself. The term ‘Allah’, by the way, is the Arabic word for ‘God’ and is not just an Islamic term. Arab Christians also call God ‘Allah’.
I love most aspects of Christianity. I love how it teaches compassion, mercy, love and all the good things that we human beings should aspire to be. I loved all my Christian friends, I think they are wonderful people and I will always pray for them. I think it is wonderful that many churches are so active in the community and want to do good things in society and help others. However, after returning from Malaysia I felt like something was missing. I researched key aspects and foundations of Christianity, right down to the trinity and where the concept came from. I researched what Paul taught, what various historical leaders implemented after the death of Christ and I read my Bible inside out. I researched on what has been taken out of the Bible, what has been put in and the various contradictions and solid truths of the Bible. There are similarities between the Qur’an and the Bible. For me, the Qur’an answered many questions I had about my Christian faith for a long time. I could find no fault, no contradictions in the Qur’an. I listened to debates between world-renowned Biblical and Qur’anic scholars, and felt that the Qur’an made more sense.
However, even when I found Islam to be the truth for me, it was very hard for me to actually leave Christianity. Religion has always been the most important thing in my life, and I wanted to make sure I was converting to Islam with all my heart and for all the right reasons. Converting to Islam meant I had certain obligations – praying at least five times a day, giving more to charity, wearing more modest clothing (a choice that I gradually implemented in my life) and give up drinking (drinking is forbidden in Islam). This is a mammoth change; as much as I didn’t want to leave the safe haven of the church, I also knew I had to follow my heart to what I believe whole-heartedly is the complete truth. I didn’t see converting to Islam as so drastically different to Christianity however I saw it more as an update of my faith, for many reasons.
I wasn’t born into Christianity. I was not baptized as a child because my parents wanted me to make my own decisions about what I wanted to believe in. I will always be grateful to them for that. My Grandmother taught me about the Bible and I still cherish all the talks we have about the Bible and Christianity. However I could never really find a church I liked – I found them all very different from each other and I didn’t like how much emphasis is placed on the differences between each church even though they claim to follow Jesus (pbuh). I went to Catholic churches, Lutheran, Seventh Day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witness, Baptist, Pentecostal, and the list goes on. However, I was against really going to a particular church because I just wanted to follow and love God. I was actually baptized at the beginning of my trip in Malaysia, on the coastal waters of Penang under a starry night sky. However, I was baptized just as a Christian. No church involved, which I liked. Although I quickly became interested in Islam, changing religion from Christianity to Islam was the hardest decision I have ever made, but it was the right one for me.
Christianity taught me to love God. It taught me humility, it taught me to love others, and it taught me a lot about Jesus (pbuh). I would not be who I am if I wasn’t once a Christian.
My sheer drive to be a journalist has taken me to places I never imagined and allowed me to meet amazing people. I’ve interviewed famous people such as One Republic, Bastille, Marina Mahathir, Kristian Chong, Yannick Bovy, Sisters in Islam, Virginia Haussegger, Senator Michaelia Cash, VJ’s Hanli Hoefer and Alan Wong and the list goes on. I’ve been to incredible events and interned at really great places. I am very fortunate to have experienced so much at such a young age while still completing my undergraduate degree in journalism. However, the best part of being a journalist is being able to make some change in the world. To give people a voice, to learn about human beings and the world around me. This is so humbling and motivates me every day. Being a journalist led me to learn about Islam. Yes, I am still a journalist and still as motivated (if not more) as a Muslim woman. Incorporating my faith and career is not a difficult task, and in fact Islam helps me to appreciate people and the world around me in many different ways.
Interviewing UN Person of the Year, passionate leader of SIS (Sisters in Islam), writer and strong advocate for women’s rights Marina Mahathir definitely shaped my view of Muslim women’s rights and of Islam itself. I still remember how sweaty my palms were. A million thoughts were rushing through my head. ‘Am I good enough?’ ‘Am I really cut out for journalism?’ This was my first interview with someone quite famous. As soon as I met Marina, her quiet yet assertive nature impressed me and I immediately felt a sense of ease with her. I knew the interview was an important one, a life-changing one. She answered so many questions I had been asking myself since arriving in Malaysia. The Qur’an does not teach inequality. It does not permit men to beat their wives. Her knowledge was exuberating, and I felt as if I had a newfound understanding of something much bigger and deeper than I ever thought possible. “We are all one people on this Earth,” said Marina as we finished the interview. I smiled at her in appreciation, and looking back now I know that was the most important lesson I had learned thus far. Despite various factors that apparently make us so different – such as national borders, countries, politics, culture, tribes, heritage, skin color, race and religion – we all bleed the same and breathe the same air. I think we should all try to remember this daily.
Whenever I have travelled – from tropical Malaysia, to the wilderness of Africa, to the prestige of London and the historical greatness of Ireland – I find a story where ever I go. Of course, in my great country Australia too. All you have to do is listen, and you find soon enough that everybody has a story. Incredible ones. The human race both disappoints and truly inspires me, and I hope to convey that in my writing. People say journalists are bad people – but I have only met great journalists, editors and reporters who I have learned a great deal from and motivated me to become better. Because in the journalistic field, you never really stop learning. There’s always room for improvement, and journalists have an important role in society to inform the public of the world around them. The most vital thing I’ve learnt in Islam which I incorporate into journalism is no matter what evil and good I see in people, it’s important not to judge too harshly (that would be bias for one, we need to be as objective as possible in our reporting) because EVERYONE is capable of anything. ‘The greatest jihad (struggle) is to battle your own soul; to fight the very evil within yourself,’ Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). We can always look at others and improve certain things about ourselves. There’s so much worldly wisdom in this one quote, and it truly inspires and humbles me.
But let me not disillusion you – becoming a Muslim and incorporating it into my way of life has not been easy in the slightest. It’s hard, and you learn more every day. People judge you, even Muslims judge you. I’m not going to just put some holy light around it…being a Muslim has tested my patience more than ever before, more than I ever imagined. But they say the right path is not always the easiest one – and despite how hard it is at times, it also brings an incredible sense of peace in my heart and into my life. I wouldn’t have it any other way. It is part of me now, but not all of me. It makes me happy, it makes me cry, and it makes me question a lot of things about society and about the Dunya (this life).
All I can say is that I find rest with Allah (swt), and no matter what I go through, I know I am never alone every time I make Salat to my Creator. Truly, ‘verily with every hardship comes ease’ (Al-Inshirah 94:6).
Sarah Price is a 23-year-old Master of Journalism student at Monash University in Australia. She converted to Islam in 2014, after a trip to Malaysia inspired her to learn more.