I've been looking at this blank page for at least 20 minutes now thinking of how I should begin the story I am about to tell you. I have been thinking about its contents for a few days – actually for a few months – but there does not seem to be a satisfactory way for me to start. So I guess I will just begin by introducing myself.
My name is Aliza. I am no different from any of you, but many would say I have experienced some extraordinary things. In my life I have studied at some of the worst schools and also the best schools in the world, had the chance to travel to more than a dozen countries, worked in jobs as varied as you can imagine – from a waitress to a member of senior corporate management, an in-demand model to a military interpreter. I would say that I have had quite a life sprinkled with interesting pockets of struggle, adventure, hardship and a bit of glamour. In fact, this time last year, I was on the cover of at least two magazines and the main feature in another three or four.
But this year is very different.
For the past 12 months, I purposely stayed away from the media and from industry functions; kept to myself in order to find myself. Although much of my work is still in high rotation on TV, my name is fading from the magazines, from the media and from invitation lists. This year, I am surrounded by friends instead of cameras. This year, my heart has more peace than it has ever had. Why? I have found grounding, truth, sincerity and tranquility in religion ... a religion in which I was not born into.
>>> I hope to keep sharing my life experiences, my interests in health and wellness, my food adventures and my views on world issues and much more just as I have been with you long after this story is released. I know that if you are like me, you are someone who sees a person despite their race, religion and gender and are keen to make friends with everyone in a positive and respectful way no matter their walk of life.
I found a religion grounded in peace, sincerity and respect. The name of this religion linguistically translates to ‘submission’ and, when put in a religious context, it means ‘to submit to the one and only God’. This is the same God that Adam, Noah, Moses, Abraham, David and Jesus all worshipped ... the same God that I grew up worshipping and loving as a strong Christian.
But, the religion I have embraced is one that is so misunderstood and so widely feared due to popular culture and current events.
I started to learn about Islam through a sincere attempt to ground myself in Christianity when I needed hope. But my search for hope in Christianity led me to a meticulous academic research in Islam as a religion and as a way of life. I found Islam not through what the media portrays or what I have heard about Muslims, but through historians, scholars, Christian ministers, Biblical experts, Sheikhs, observation of my Muslim friends and what I felt in my own heart. Truth be told, it is not easy for me to open up and tell you my story. And, since most people know me as a strong Christian, I am guessing that many of you who are reading this are surprised by what I am sharing with you. But I hope you will still read on because I am not writing this for personal gain nor am I going to try to convince you of anything. My only hope is to share a little bit about myself with you and give a small glimpse at some of what I have learned about Islam purely for the sake of fostering religious tolerance, respect and friendship.
For those of you who do not know by background, allow me to briefly tell you about myself.
I was born in a tiny little town in Oklahoma, USA, named Enid with a population of under 50,000 compared to the city of 1.5 million that I live in now. After Enid, I moved 12 times to date.
Through the years there have been times of some comfort and times of extreme hardship. I have been near homeless, had so little that I ate government sponsored meals, but I also had the chance to work and study even harder to create a future for myself. Despite the odds, I excelled in school, won academic scholarships and now hold a double Bachelor's Degree in Economics and Sociology and a Masters Degree in International Business.
I also changed dramatically as a person during those years. From a silent small town girl who did not even say a word in school till she turned 12 to a young lady who consciously made a promise to herself to become someone who will succeed in everything she puts her mind to. I began to speak up, became a student leader, then a campus activist, got recognition for some of my achievements from places like the Pentagon in Washington DC and, after obtaining my MBA, landed myself a job where I quickly became Director of Marketing despite my young age.
To people looking at me from the outside, everything seemed smooth ... too easy almost. But, no one could see what was going on inside. Inside, I was a mess.
The Search for Peace
In many ways the events of my life are a blur. And it is a blur in my memory for good reason – to keep away pain, sadness and a bad cycle of self destruction. I don't want to go into detail in this section out of respect for the many people who could be affected by what I write, but what I can say is I fell into a period of clinical depression due to the conditions I lived in, the experiences I had to endure year after year; and when I thought I was about to recover, I made some bad life decisions that derailed my life for several more years. On top of this, I am an extreme introvert who finds it difficult to talk openly to people (even to my parents) and, therefore, prefer to keep everything inside. Plus, I never really had a healthy outlet to help me work through and work out the issues that plagued me. I often pretended to be happy and confident to maintain status quo so no one would ask me anything and I would not have to think about what haunted me. All of this is of course a formula for emotional disaster.
But there was one thing – the only thing that I could always turn to for grounding, to calm myself and to refocus so that I could at least function at work and in life. Religion. I always had God.
The beginning of last year began rather bright for me. I felt a newfound freedom because I was finally making progress in resolving some personal and family issues and was looking forward to starting over on many levels. My career in media was going well with both local and international assignments so I felt like I wanted to experience new things and try out a different lifestyle. I was living a rather private, quiet and humble existence doing my work and spending time at home till then, but because of a lifted burden, I tried being more outgoing, more social, found some hipster friends, started making rounds at the many events and parties around town, and even dabbled a bit in artistic photography where I showed more skin than I had ever before. I felt free and alive but somehow still empty.
Perhaps because the life I was trying to live was so foreign to me and very much not for me, I regretted. And as the emptiness grew, the parties became dull, I got stuck with a sexy image and the hipster friends did not bring out the best in me, to say the least. I began to hate who I was becoming in those short months and I was back to feeling lost, hopeless and confused about the world. I wanted my usual, quiet, boring but wholesome, private life back. So, I cut myself off completely and returned to the one thing that has always grounded and refocused me.
After stopping everything, I promptly turned towards God in hopes of finding the true peace I craved for. And so my journey began...
The Truth That Found Me
As mentioned, this was not the first time I sought God's assistance to calm myself and refocus, but somehow I really wanted it to be the last time. The other times I would refocus just enough to survive my life but this time, I wanted God to be and remain the guide of my life. I wanted religion to be a lifestyle choice for me; not just an element of my life. I had experienced enough in life by now to know the type of person I wanted to be and the kind of life I was most comfortable leading. I wanted to live a pious, clean, peaceful life and wanted purity.
To have purity, I wanted to find the true and simple Church of the early Christians because I thought that should be the correct way to worship God. I was thinking that the people who were with Jesus or his disciples and how they worshipped should be the right way. I found the modern churches too flashy – like a rock concert, and lacking in depth and soul. I also found some of the new Christian theories to clash with my belief system where people should not change religious theory to fit their own desire. A new Christian denomination should not be made every time a group of people disagree with an element or want an addition to what preceded. Therefore, the fact that there are more than 200 denominations in Christianity did not sit well with me. I wanted purity. I wanted the truth. I wanted the correct way of worship.
What I did was set out on an academic exercise. I felt that what I had to do was research Christian history and get my hands on early Christian bibles and manuscripts to get clues as to which church, which denomination is the correct one ... the one I should follow. I know that writers often infuse their reports with their own biases and beliefs so I chose books about Christian History that were written by non-religious historians and Biblical experts. I knew that I had to dig deep and go back to the very beginning of the church because of what I knew about the Bible. As an undergraduate student I studied at a Jesuit college where there were still brown robed monks teaching and tending campus grounds. It was mandatory for students to take up Christian theology classes as part of the curriculum. In one of those classes, the Jesuit who was lecturing taught something that I never forgot. The Bible was put together by a pope. Later on I found out that the chapters of the Bible were also chosen or rejected and there were many conflicting versions. If the Bible was put together by a man or a group of men and different versions conflicted, then what about the religion itself? I had to know. I wanted to know because I wanted to be a good Christian who follows God's commands not what was chosen by a man or a group of men sometime in the past.
At this point, I want to give my utmost respect to my dear Christian friends and family members who may be reading and let you know that I know how beautiful some of the Christian teachings are. I am very proud of the Christian upbringing I received. I am grateful for the values and ideologies Christianity has instilled in me. And, I still love the teachings and life of Jesus till this day. However, the further I looked into history, the more I understood that Christianity and the theories and belief we now hold were put together by a group of men. The more I learned about how much struggle there was to get some concepts like the Trinity approved and accepted shows me that it was just simply that – a concept (and in fact, it has been proven to be a theoretical creation and has been taken out of most reprints of the modern Bible). The more I found out about Paul or Saul, the supposed author of the New Testament, the more compelled I felt to keep researching and searching for the truth. After some time, I concluded that what I needed to do was take a look at the religion that was practiced by Jesus, David, Abraham, Moses, Noah and so on. Not the religion that has been passed down to me. I knew none of these men were Christians. I knew that Jesus was a Jew who spoke Aramaic but not all the great Prophets were. Some of the Prophets were Arabs, some were from other tribes. So, what religion did all of these great men practice? Because that is exactly what I want to practice. They were the best and chosen by God, so whatever they were doing must have been right.
During this time of researching, digging and sincerely searching, a well meaning Muslim friend of mine asked if I had ever learned anything about Islam. Admittedly, I had not. I would like to think that I knew quite a bit about Christianity and a bit about Judaism but the third Abrahamic religion, I knew nothing about. Well, I figured if I am going to find the truth and Islam comes from the same tradition, there must also be clues in Islam for me to uncover. So, I began reading, and reading, and reading, and I could not stop.
I was completely absorbed with the teachings of Islam from the start. As alluded to previously, Islam simply means ‘to submit to the one and only God’. And, a Muslim is someone who submits to the one and only God. When I learned that I thought, well that means every person from the three Abrahamic religions is a Muslim and is practicing Islam then! Well, in a way yes but not quite because in Islam, there is not only an emphasis on the oneness of God but also that since there is only one God there must also logically be only one correct way to worship God as well.
Uh oh ... this is starting to look like what I have been looking for.
As I kept reading I found myself easily understanding the stories of the Prophets of Islam because they were the same Prophets that I grew up learning about in the Christian Bible. I found myself drawn to the way Islam structures religion into a lifestyle and not just an element of life, and I found myself readily accepting the way the Muslims worship God. I began with a book that compared ancient manuscripts in Aramaic, Arabic and Greek. Then I moved onto books that traced the truth of one God through not only Islam, Christianity and Judaism but through many other religions throughout the world. Even polytheistic religions accept that there is one supreme God. Then it was onto books on Islam's view on Jesus and the Christians. Then onto books on Islamic beliefs and so on and so forth. Book after book it was as though each of the 10 to 12 books I read were carefully put in order for me; building on the findings and knowledge gained from the previous books and leading into the next book to be read.
>>> I felt like God was leading me step-by-step and placing each book in the perfect order for me to see the truth. And, even though it was my personal choice to begin the search for truth, I sincerely feel now that the truth had found me.
The last two books I read were of the universality of Islam (how Islam can fit into any culture and race and be a guide for any of life's situations) and a collection of short stories of how other people found Islam. Honestly, as I read about the reversions of others from Christian clergymen to Japanese housewives to young school children in Brazil and would-be gangsters in America, no story hit me more than the story written by a lady from Oklahoma from a Christian background who was searching for truth. When I read her story, it reflected back at me and I cried heavy tears. I knew and was certain then that I had found what I was looking for.
From Now till the Hereafter
Alright, so I found the truth I wanted. Now what?
By this time, even though I had no doubt that Islam is the way to go, the issue of reverting (Muslims use the word "revert" instead of "convert" because it is believe that when a person embraces Islam, they are returning to the correct path of total submission to God after a period of being astray) was still a very difficult and serious decision for me. I had so many fears of how my parents would react, how my friends would react, how my social circles would react and whether I would lose everyone and everything dear to me if I formally accepted Islam into my life. Then there was the issue of work and where my income will come from if I have to end my career in media so that I can dress properly and wear a headscarf. Many thoughts went through my mind during those weeks. But what I concluded was, if God has guided me to Islam then I have no choice but to accept, because I know that He is the most Kind, most Merciful and knows what is best for me. Additionally, if this choice makes me a better daughter, a better friend and a better person and gives me more peace, more hope and more happiness, I believed that the people who love me will still accept me no matter what – even if it takes a bit of time. I also believe that since God is the best Provider and Protector, He will send work my way that not only suits me but is also acceptable in Islam. As these thoughts were firming up in my mind, I thought of getting an American English translation of the Qur'an to read. And, it was on the very day that I asked for a copy of the translation of the Qur'an from one of my Islamic teachers – when he spoke words that pierced my heart and made my eyes overflow with tears – that I formally accepted Islam by reciting the Shahadah or Islamic Testimony of Faith.
What did he say to me? Well, what strikes at the heartstrings of one person may not do the same for another but I will share one of the things he pointed out to me. He said to me, "Why don't you fully submit yourself and become a Muslim? (Keep in mind that Muslim simply means a person who submits to the one and only God.) He knew that I had done extensive research, was reading intensively and had come to the conclusion that Islam is the truth and is right for me. Through our short conversation that day, he also knew that I felt as though I had been a Muslim my whole life but didn't know it. To me, this realization shows that I have already submitted so I replied, "I already have". To which he swiftly replied, "No you haven't". Hearing these words broke my heart. Something ripped inside me and I started to cry. At that moment I realized with full understanding that without declaring and committing myself to a life of submission to the one and only God, I have not truly submitted myself. I felt like I was unknowingly denying God, denying the truth I had found, denying my beliefs when I wanted so very much to be good and submit to God in the correct way. Less than an hour after this realization, I submitted and accept Islam as my way of life.
After reciting the Shahadah, what I felt cannot be accurately described. I felt a rushing sensation go through me which felt like a thorough cleansing. I felt pure and was given lightness, peace and genuine happiness. I had never felt such innocent gladness like that in my life. And, those feelings have stayed on till this day and I know they will be with me till my last day in this world.
I am happy with Allah my Maker and with my chosen religion.
Peace, Hope and Respect
I don't know how my story will be received but I sincerely hope that we will continue to be a part of one another's lives. I hope that we continue sharing our views, sharing our experiences and supporting one another in a positive way. I also hope to make new friends from everywhere, every culture and every religion. I look forward to moving on from my past because what matters is what I do from now into the future. Yes, you will see me dress differently and I may also speak a little bit differently as well but for the most part I will just be an upgraded version of who I was. I want to be a better person. Someone who is more kind, more giving, more thoughtful, more caring, more considerate, more respectful, more gentle, more calm, more understanding and someone who is more conscious of improving herself day in and day out.
I really have to thank my wonderful parents for the love, care and understanding they have given me. Having their support and permission to choose what I believe is best for myself is a true blessing that I am forever grateful for.
Lastly, I pray that all of you will also find peace, hope and respect in your own lives.
Assalamu’alaikum (Peace be upon you)
For those of you who are interested, here are just a few things I find attractive about Islam. Just to share.
1. ‘Allah’. I like the fact that in Islam, God is called by His proper name, ‘Allah’. Just like my name is Aliza and your name might be John, God's proper name is Allah. It makes my relationship with Allah that much more personal and touches my heart even more. At first I was not sure because I have heard other names being used by Christian and Jewish theorists. But with more investigation, Allah (or a derivative) is used by not only the Muslims but also the Jews, Christians and other religions. If you want further reading you can go to the ultimate non-religious source, wikipedia, and read about this yourself. <en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Allah>
2. Sincere Care for Community: Fasting, Charity. I have found that in Islam, more than any other religion, there is a sense of social responsibility for the less fortunate among us. Fasting and giving to charity annually are compulsory in Islam. But, the reasons might be different from what you think.
a. Fasting during the month of Ramadan is fasting from all pleasures and evils. This not only means no food or drink between dawn and dusk but also no sexual acts, no bad thoughts, no bad actions and no bad speech during those hours as well. Fasting in this way is for a few reasons: to become more sensitive to the struggle of those around the world who are less fortunate and live in hunger all the time, to train ourselves to control our desires and bad habits, to purify ourselves from the minor sins of the past year, and to gain rewards from self sacrifice.
b. Annual giving to charity is obligatory for all Muslims. The amount is 2.5% of all accumulated wealth from the past year. Money is collected and redistributed to the groups in society that need it most. There is a list of people who can receive these funds, such as orphaned children, etc. Those who are better off have the obligation to always remember and help those at the bottom of society. I think this is brilliant.
3. Purity and Respect: Keeping things Halal. For most people, the word ‘halal’ refers to the type of food Muslims are allowed to eat, but it's much more than that. The word ‘halal’ refers to what is lawful or permissible in Islam. All things that are good for you, beneficial, clean and pure are halal. Everything that is harmful, evil or dirty are not halal. The Muslims that I know (and the kind of Muslim I want to be) also put a huge stress on making sure their actions, thoughts and speech are all halal (good and pure) as well. Let me give you an example: in Islam gossiping and backbiting are major sins that can send a person straight to Hellfire. Here's another example, in Islam, men and women are not supposed to look directly at one another for fear of having inappropriate thoughts which is a sin on both the person who had the thought and the person that caused the thought to appear. Yes, this might seem a bit over the top because it's just looking but, if you can follow the thought process, I find it incredible how detailed Islam is in deterring sin and maintaining the highest level of respect for others at all times.
4. Protection and Liberation: Dressing the part. To a lot of people around the world, the way Muslim women dress seems awfully restricting and oppressive. But, with a bit more knowledge, there is a lot of wisdom and liberation behind covering up. In Islam, the woman is so precious and so beautiful that special precaution is taken to protect her honor and intellect. Covering properly is a precaution against the many possible dangers that could arise from seeing a woman's skin and shape. But that's not all. Covering properly also frees the woman from sexual objectification. A person speaking to a properly dressed Muslim woman is forced to first take note of her intelligence, speech, thoughts, manners and character instead of her fashion sense, body shape and hairstyle. The correct Hijab(covering) for women has three main elements: it covers the woman's entire body except the face and hands, it is not transparent, and is loose enough to conceal the shape or size of her body. In addition, the headscarf she uses should also cover her chest and what she wears should not draw unnecessary attention to herself as it defeats the purpose of dressing modestly. Truth be told, it was quite easy for me to start dressing this way. Traditionally, in my culture, covering up more showed that you knew how to protect yourself and your honor. Shoes that cover the entire foot is also the norm as covering the feet is a sign of respect. So, switching from my normal daily outfits (jeans, tee shirt, cardigan, sport shoes) to something more Islamically correct was just a matter of wearing looser clothes and covering my hair. And, you know what? Now every man who comes in contact with me stays at a respectful three to four foot distance, lowers his gaze out of respect and listens intently whenever I speak. It worked! I am empowered and protected at the same time. **Note: This doesn't mean that a woman has to dress poorly. A woman is still a woman and should dress femininely and nicely. I actually find it quite fun to do up my headscarf. It's like learning to dress all over again.
5. Solat: The five daily prayers. While many people see praying five times a day a bit extreme, to me it all makes sense. When prayer is not obligatory, it is so easy to forget to communicate with God for weeks at a time. Making prayer compulsory ensures a continuous connection with God. For Muslims, prayer also cleanses minor sins and deters sinning because it reminds us to remember God all day and to do only what will get us to Heaven. I imagine many of you might be curious as to what Muslims say during prayers. It would be too long to write everything here but I can share a recitation that all Muslims must perform every time they pray to show you that there is nothing scary in all that mumbling we do. This is a simplified translation of the first verse of the first chapter of the Qur'an called ‘Al-Fatihah’.
In the name of Allah, the most Beneficent, the most Merciful.
All praises are due to Allah the Lord of the Worlds (all of Creation).
The most Beneficent, the most Merciful. Lord of the Last Day (Judgment Day).
It's You who we worship, it's You who we ask for assistance.
Keep us on the Straight Path. The Path of those on whom You have bestowed Your Grace,
not (the way) of those who have earned Your Wrath, nor of those who have lost their way (gone astray).
6. The Qur'an: A scientific miracle. There are so many scientific references in the Qur'an it is almost unbelievable. But first and foremost we have to remember that the Qur'an has been unaltered since it was revealed (much research has been done on this and all confirm the unchanged authenticity of the Qur'an) and that it was revealed in a time when there were no microscopes, no marine biology equipment, no radars, no geological studies and the like. Despite this, the Qur'an explains in detail embryonic development, it mentions the place where the two oceans meet but don't mix (Gulf of Alaska), it mentions the structure of mountains and how they are like pegs in the earth and so much more. There is so much recorded in the Qur'an that scientists are only just discovering and understanding them now. So much so that many world renowned scientists, after reading the Qur'an, accepted Islam soon after. They concluded that only the master planner of the world can know such things before they are actually discovered by science. If you would like to read more about the science that is present in the Qur'an, you can start your research with the book ‘A Brief Illustrated Guide to Understanding Islam’ by I.A. Ibrahim (1997).
7. Notable Reverts: Please Youtube these people. These are just a few people I found interesting but there are many more notable reverts who have shared their stories on Youtube that you can watch.
a. Yvonne Ridley, ex-Taliban captive and internationally acclaimed news correspondent.
b. Yusof Estes, former Christian preacher and entrepreneur.
c. Lauren Booth, Tony Blair's sister-in-law and news correspondent formerly based in Gaza.
d. There have been many American military veterans who have reverted to Islam after serving in the Middle East. You can search for ‘American soldier Islam’ in Youtube.