- Siti Ayeeshah Zaki & Yasmeen Rashid
When people hear about reverts they go “Wow what brought you to Islam?” It’s very nice to tell them your story but...the behind-the-scenes is honestly very, very difficult.
Yusuf* is a Muslim revert. In conversation with Ayeeshah and Yasmeen, he shares his experiences of realising his faith, practicing it, and hiding it from the most important people in his life - his family.
*Name of interviewee has been changed to protect his identity
Born in Singapore to a Hindu father and a Sikh mother, Yusuf was raised in an interfaith family. “Growing up, the concept of God was very prevalent,” he says. “I didn’t believe in either parent’s religion. Then, I just knew there was a God, someone I had to pray to.”
The 23-year old chemical engineering student from the National University of Singapore describes himself as a very curious child who asked a lot of questions. “When I went to the Hindu temple, I would ask why are we praying to an elephant. When we went to the Gurdwara and we would prostrate to the Guru Granth Sahib, which is the holy book in Sikhism, it didn’t sit well with me to know that I had to prostrate to something that I can create with my own hands. I always asked my dad and mum and they couldn’t give me an answer,” he says.
Yusuf’s first contact with Islam happened when he was about 7 years old, when he spent every June and December school holiday with his Muslim cousins. “My mum’s sister married a Muslim,” he explains. “When I stayed at their place, I got a taste of what they were practising.” It was them, he says, who planted the seed of Islam in his heart. “They would talk about Islam very often. They would talk a lot about God. That kind of touched my heart.”
Yet Yusuf affirms that that seed of Islam grew because he set out to understand about the religion. “I like to read up on religion,” he says. “I’m interested in how people shape cultures and why there are so many different faiths in the world. What I am today is because of that research. It’s because of that quest to find answers.”
In Secondary 2, Yusuf did his first raka’ah which he recognises as the first time his belief translated into action. “I bowed down and said nonsensical things,” he says, laughing at the memory. “I was going through a down period at the time. I knew I believed...but when a friend got into a coma, I was like OK I need to do this. I remembered what my uncle, aunt and cousins did and I just did it in my room.”
It was Yusuf’s secondary school friends who eventually taught him to pray. “They weren’t the best of Muslims but I hold them very closely to my heart because they were there when I was beginning to learn about the religion,” he says. “During the O Level period, we would stay in school till very late and we would pray together at the street soccer court.”
When we ask about the most rewarding experience since he began his journey as a Muslim, Yusuf replies, “What I am today is because of Islam. When I went to Punjabi school, I hung out with a lot of wrong people. I felt Allah protected me and pulled me away from that. When I went to secondary school, I did very well in everything that I set out to do. When I went to JC and the army, I also did very well. It was because of the morals and the teachings of Islam. As long as you stay close to it, you will probably never go wrong.”
Still, Yusuf’s journey is an ongoing difficult one. Like most reverts, Yusuf’s family doesn’t know that he’s Muslim. His challenges, he points out, are very different from born Muslims. “When you go home, you can say salam. People reply to your salam,” he explains. “You can say I’m going to pray, nobody will say anything. You don’t have to worry about the food being placed on your table. Whether it’s halal or not. Being at home is comforting.”
For Yusuf, being at home impedes him from practicing his faith. “Half of your focus will be on the prayer, the other half on the door,” he says, on trying to pray in his room. “When you hear the key turn, you know you have to stop praying.”
Fasting in Ramadan has also proven to be a challenge. “My mum will cook. If I say I’m not hungry she’ll think there’s something wrong because I love my mum’s cooking,” he says. “There was once, I fasted the whole day then my mum came home at 4pm. She asked if I wanted chai and I said no. So I thought I can survive until Maghrib. Then, she came into my room and put the chai on my table.”
Yusuf recalls the time he threw away the tea his mum had made him, in an effort to keep his fast. “I felt very bad,” he confesses. “There are times like this where it’s very hard to explain to people. They won’t go through it.”
The picture Yusuf paints – and it seems a fairly honest and frank assessment - is of someone struggling to reconcile his love for his faith with his family. It gets especially hard when the topic of Islam comes up at home, “My dad would openly condemn Islam in front of the whole family. I cannot say anything because the moment that I do, they will know that I’m taking sides. And if I’m not taking the side that they’re taking, it’s going to be an issue.”
“It’s really very painful because you see so much hate for the religion which you adore so much and you cannot do anything about it,” he says. “At this point I look at my parents and wonder how I’m going to tell them that I’m Muslim. It’s going to break their heart. It’s going to destroy them.”
When we ask about the most challenging thing about being a revert, Yusuf replies, “Integrating into society. You don’t know where you belong. When people hear about reverts they go “Wow what brought you to Islam?” It’s very nice to tell them your story but...the behind-the-scenes is honestly very, very difficult.”
“I have a lot of friends who are Malay Muslims but I will never feel the same thing they feel for each other. They have their ways of doing things, their own slangs. I come from a Punjabi and Hindi background so it’s a huge part of my culture. I love Bollywood, weddings, and all that, but there’s the haram side of it. When I’m with my cousins, I’m comfortable with them. I can talk and joke with them but the moment they say ‘Let’s go clubbing tonight,’ it goes back to ‘I don’t belong here and I don’t belong there.’ So where do I go?”
Yusuf is open about the mistakes he’s made and honest about the fact that he still has much to learn about Islam. He admits that there have been many instances when he wanted to give up: “There have been days when I’ve been so frustrated I wanted to disobey Allah. I didn’t want to do this anymore.”
But he knows there is no turning back for him. “It’s the fact that it’s hidayah... and the curse of knowledge. You can’t unlearn what you’ve learnt,” he says emphatically. “You know this is the right path, so you going away from it is just your loss.”
If Allah guides you to remember Him, it’s a sign that Allah loves you.
– Ali Ibn Abi Talib