[Updated 21 April 2021]
I've celebrated Ramadan since young, but this year's Ramadan has been a particularly special one for me as it's the first one where I've finally felt in touch with Islam as a "practising" Muslim. Despite being born into a Muslim family, I only started feeling connected to my faith about a year ago after a few years of learning about Islam.
As a "born" Muslim, I don't think my experience is very common but it's not widely talked about either. This quote from a video by Hui Chinese Muslim Isa Ma
resonated with me:
"I’m not a convert but nor am I a born Muslim … I don’t think there’s such a thing as a born Muslim because the word Islam means a conscious, voluntary, complete and unconditional submission to Allah (swt) and in order to do that we need to know what submission means and who you’re submitting to.”
Over the last few years, I've realised that there is no simple separation of the experiences of "born" or "converted/reverted" Muslims, although we tend to assume that "born" Muslims don't have a conscious journey to Islam the way that converts do. A little while ago I joked to a friend that I was a "born Muslim who had finally converted to Islam". It's an odd statement to make, but somehow it's the most accurate way I can describe my own journey to (re)discovering Islam and embracing my Muslim identity.
If you told me in 2015 I would even have a single book related to Islam I probably would have laughed ?
I was born into a Muslim family, but apart from fasting, celebrating Hari Raya, and following halal dietary requirements I really didn't know very much about Islam. I didn't learn Malay as a child either (I studied Chinese instead so that I could communicate with my Chinese grandparents), so I couldn't go for any classes conducted in Malay. In a country where being Malay and Muslim are deeply intertwined, this was another difficulty until I found out in my 20's about Islamic classes conducted in English.
It was only in 2016 that I began to feel a crisis of faith and decided I needed to really get to know what being a Muslim meant if I wanted to call myself one. But from that realization onwards there was still a long journey of doubt, fear, revelation and learning before I reached the point today where I feel comfortable in my Muslim identity. I didn't have many Muslim friends growing up either, so I didn't have anyone I could talk to about what weighed on my mind.
My journey to faith began with doubt. Around 2014 or 2015, I was talking to a group of people about our religions when I mentioned that I didn't pray. Another Muslim woman cut in to say - "Oh, that means you're not actually Muslim"
. At the time it was hurtful, but now, 5 years later, I can look back and pinpoint it as what motivated me to learn more about Islam. (Although I still think it's quite a hurtful statement to say to anyone as you don't know what their own relationship with their faith is!)
Around the same time, I met my boyfriend and his family, who were more religious than me. On a practical level, I realised I would need to start practising if the relationship was going to get serious. But at the same time, being able to have frank discussions with him about the big questions I had about faith and spirituality and Islam also spurred me on to do my own research and dive headfirst into discovering my own faith.
Although I've expanded my telekung collection now (?) I still use these 2 gifts pretty regularly.
From the start of this journey, I realised I was lucky in many ways. There are many more resources available in English online now, something that wasn't the case years ago when my own mum converted to Islam before her marriage. I was able to go for classes in English at Darul Arqam (Singapore's Muslim Converts' Association), and I had plenty of Muslim friends to talk to who engaged in my questions and doubts with thoughtful and amazing conversations. My boyfriend's mother and aunt gifted me telekungs
(prayer garments) as a way to encourage me to start praying. After I started praying and let it slip to my boyfriend that the prayer mat I had bought was too thin and uncomfortable, his mum even gave me 2 prayer mats they had stowed away. ❤️
P.S. If there's someone in your life who's going through a similar journey of discovering Islam, I really recommend encouraging them through small but meaningful actions like this. I appreciated how they didn't push or pressure me any further as it made me feel comfortable to slowly explore the faith. ?
This is what my view was the first month or so I began to pray ? Looking at it now it's pretty funny and reminds me of a card game setup. But at the time, these cards really were my lifeline to praying.
But there was still a 2-year gap between my first Darul Arqam lesson about praying, and when I actually started to pray. In between, there was lots of fear and apprehension and second-guessing myself. One beautiful aspect of Islam is how there are daily rituals such as prayer that anchor us to our faith, but when you're essentially new to it or not confident in yourself, it can be scary to take that first step!
The longer I went without praying, the more I began to worry that I would really forget everything and have to restart the process. Luckily, I found these flashcards in a local shop
and it felt like a small but hopeful sign from God. The first time I prayed, I think I must have taken 15 or 20 minutes to pray 4 rakaat
. It was past midnight, I had all these cards laid down in front of me, I was sweating through my telekung even under the cold breeze of the air-conditioning ? - and I still felt apprehensive once I was done.
To be honest, I felt a bit cheated. ? I thought that once I started praying, things would easily fall into place. However because I was so unsure at first, spending minutes stumbling through even Al-Fatihah, I only felt embarrassment. But I forced myself to keep going, silently hoping that God would give me strength.
Eventually, several weeks in, I had that quiet moment of revelation. During one prayer, in the middle of sujud
, I froze. I felt myself overcome with an overwhelming feeling of contentment and peace and I stayed in sujud
with my forehead pressed to the floor until my legs began to tremble. I think I cried a little at the feeling of protection that seemed to wash over me. It wasn't like my apprehension or shyness had gone away but I felt more confident in my journey. I began to pray more times a day to work up to 5 daily prayers and even signed up for some Islamic classes during Ramadan last year.
And this is where I've arrived now, feeling confident enough to pray in the office. Thankfully our office is set up to be comfortable for doing prayers! ? There's also something really magical about working opposite Masjid Sultan and hearing the booming, soulful azan (call to prayer) echo through the office. ?
In the year that's passed since that first shaky, 20-minute-long prayer, it's been a rough mix of ups and downs. Praying 5 times a day was difficult at first (some early mornings the temptation to stay in bed is still strong!), and for about a month when I was dealing with some sleeping issues I ended up skipping the dawn Subuh prayer because I just felt so emotionally exhausted. Getting used to praying while out with my friends was also a bit awkward at first as well, but thankfully my non-Muslim friends didn't mind waiting outside the prayer room for me or pushing our dinners back until after Maghrib.
Unfortunately, I lost touch with some friends; though we didn't part with any bad blood, it made me realise that when you decide to prioritize your faith and how integral it becomes to your life, there will always be some people who aren't as supportive or who won't understand. I encountered some awkward situations going for classes too; some other students asked if I was a revert, but would give me judgemental looks when I told them that I was a born Muslim. I'm not sure why these situations happened, but I've also learnt that sometimes you just need to let things go and rely on God to carry on.
Even after 'finding' my faith, it wasn't smooth-sailing. I found myself resetting my goals, or failing to meet them. The biggest goal I had in 2019 was to pray in a mosque before the end of the year. I had never been in a mosque before apart from a field trip in school, but my shyness and self-doubt really held me back. I only achieved that goal in February 2020 ? There's really no direct journey to faith, and I constantly need to remind myself that Islam is a lifetime process and that because of God's Mercy and Forgiveness, you can still try again and improve if you feel that your faith is shaky or lacking.
And so one year on from when I really started this journey of discovery, and we arrive at our present day. In all honesty, it was the first Ramadan in a few years where I actually felt a sense of excitement. In previous years I dealt with health problems that affected my fasting. Last year, I felt like my mind was in chaos from trying to learn about prayer and dua and fiqh and tafsir all at once. But this year, spending Ramadan at home ended up being a huge blessing for me.
I started praying terawih
for the first time ever and needing to do it on my own allowed me to go at my own pace. I also started reading an English translation of the Qur'an and some of the lines have moved me in ways I never expected. I'm currently about 90% through it and once I've finished I plan to start from the beginning and dive into the tafsir that's included. For a homebody like me, that feels really shy about being around others, being at home has given me time and space to learn more about Islam and strengthen my faith.
It's also let me reflect a lot on the journey that I've been on and continue to walk. A year ago, I couldn't have imagined myself as I am today - being able to pray more than 4 rakaat
without feeling panicky or anxious; knowing more surahs than just Al-Fatihah; getting familiar with selections of hadiths. Even my boyfriend remarked that when we would go out (pre-Circuit Breaker!) I would be the one to drag him to a nearby public prayer room so we wouldn't miss our prayers. I've grown even closer with some of my other friends (both Muslim and non-Muslim) by being able to talk about faith, spirituality, and the intricacies of Islam.
I've learnt that there is no one way to faith but many of us will experience a moment that shakes you from the inside out. And for me, that decision to commit to Islam opened up an endless world of knowledge and possibilities. Despite the not-so-easy parts of my journey so far, what I've learnt and gained far outweigh any losses I've encountered. I know that it's only through God's Might and the love and support of those around me that I've come so far. As I continue on this journey, I only look forward to how Islam and God's presence will grow in my life. ❤️
Join us at Hello Ramadan 2021
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