Trading Places

Abrar House, 45 Crawford Place, Edgware Road, London I am afraid that the way this evening was announced does not quite hit the point. I am not what people would consider a "typical revert": someone who went into one direction and then changed into another, or someone who felt at home with one group of people and then felt at home with another. Rather, I have always been a "naughty girl". I used to question everything; I learned because I wanted to know rather than because I was taught; I interacted with a variety of people out of curiosity. Perhaps it helps to tell you a bit more about myself. My family is Protestant on my mother's side and Catholic on my father's side. My closest relationship was with my mother's father, a Protestant minister, and my father's mother, a very warmhearted Catholic woman. But already when I was very young, I sensed the tensions that were there in undertones: each group thought they were the ones favoured by God and the others would be condemned. In addition, there was the silence of taboo with regard to politics and history that was around in many German families after WWII. From this point, I started exploring the world. One of my central questions was: "Does it grow or is it made?" Plants grow, machines are made. Bread consists of grain that grows and is made into dough and baked. Growing means being directly made by God. When you look at these things carefully, you discover their beauty: flowers, trees, vegetables, animals, human beings. Even when it comes to ideas or communities or the like, there is usually a part that is made and a part that we have to give time to grow. By the age of four, taught myself reading and writing. I never forget another one of my key experiences that is still important today: when I asked my mother about a sign that looked like a little circle, she casually said it was an "O"; later on, my father answered the same question by saying it was a Zero. It was both unsettling and fascinating to find out that both was true - depending on the context. So I started to read books. I was never deterred by the fact that I didn't immediately understand everything that I read. There were many religious books, among them Biblical stories, but I read the complete Bible when I was eight. There were books on science and history. I also liked to read travel books and to dream of distant countries that I might visit in the future. And again there was religion and religions. I couldn't help being impressed by the truth and wisdom that came across from any religion. The more I was appalled by religious controversies. It didn't seem to make sense that God who is just and merciful would reject people of faith who did good actions just because they happened to belong to a specific group. And yet many people in my environment seemed to believe that. The Protestant school that I attended was right next to the Catholic school; the border fence between the schoolyards was the battle-field for inter-denominational squabbles in the breaks. Weren't both groups just kids, and didn't they both believe in God and consequently should be expected to behave in a reasonable way? What if they both had a point, like the little circle being an "O" and a Zero? At the age of nine, I discovered my father's books on WWII with details of all those things that the adults discussed, if at all, only in whispers. There were also pictures: bombs and destroyed buildings like those that were still around in some places; soldiers in a trench, in tanks, in hospital; Auschwitz and other camps. How could this have happened? From what emerged in conversations amont adults, it seemed that everyone had just been "following orders." Apparently, being a "naughty girl" was not too bad, after all! To my great relief, I found out that my grandfather, the Protestant minister, had been a member of the Bekennende Kirche ("Confessing Church" that opposed the Nazi regime). Realizing his constant dilemma of speaking up and risking to be arrested or even killed, or keeping partially silent in order to continue doing something meaningful and to help others survive, I wondered what I would have done if I had lived at that time. On the whole, the experience left me with nightmares - of course I had no one to talk to because I was reading the books secretly. Except for God. I soon became aware that my religious views differed quite a bit from those of most people around me. For me,

God was invisible - certainly not like in the pictures that I had found in some books. From the stories I gathered that, in the past, He had appointed men and women as teachers and models for people. I was sure that God listens to our prayers - at least that is what I felt when I was silent. I was sure that God is merciful and loving as well as just; He could punish me for bad actions in order to give me an insight; or He could forgive me when I was ready to learn; He was certainly pleased when I did good actions, and He would eventually make up for every suffering in the future. I sometimes felt uncomfortable thinking I couldn't possibly hide anything from Him; at the same time I felt comforted at the thought that He understood me in any case and that I could turn to Him directly with all problems In contrast to that private theology of mine, I came across religious ideas that I couldn't agree with. One was a plurality of gods; I thought that probably polytheists misunderstood something - I'd find out the details later by reading more or by meeting them. Another one was the idea of a cast system like in Hinduism or any other idea of special religious privileges that would be unjust by not giving everybody a chance. Another one was the concept that Jesus had been "crucified for our sins": it came across as an innocent person being punished instead of me, and that I felt would be most unfair. At that point, I didn't know the details of where babies come from, but I did know that parents can only have children of their own kind and therefore couldn't make sense of some concepts of Jesus being God's son, or that God was imagined as male. On the whole, I wasn't ready to believe anything that didn't make sense to me one way or the other. Instead, I increasingly discovered that my private theology reflected what came across in texts from Islamic sources that were accessible to me. By that time, I collected wise sayings from the religion in a blue copybook and discovered that most of them came from Muslim tradition. I understood that "Islam" literally meant "surrender to God". Wasn't "surrendering to God" an inner attitude? Faith in the One God and all His messengers? Wasn't that what I wanted? I discussed my thoughts only with very few classmates and my Catholic grandmother, the rest was a process of reading and thinking and praying until, at thirteen, I was sure that I was actually a Muslim and ready for the formal consequences. I knew that this would be difficult for my parents to digest, therefore I decided not to tell them until I was older. But my mother found out by reading my diary notes. The following years were not easy for any of us in the family. As the only Muslim far and wide, I was given the choice in school between Catholic and Protestant RE classes or free time, therefore I picked whatever I found most interesting at any given time and learned a lot of both. I read a German translation of the Qur'an the way I had read the Bible. And I knew what I was going to study: Islamic theology, of course. I wasn't sure if that was possible for a woman - in the worst case I was ready to be the first one (only much later I found out that there have always bee women scholars and teachers in Muslim history. Eventually I taught myself reading Arabic. By the time I was eighteen, I went to the the first mosque that was built nearby and corrected my mistakes by listening to the Imam's recitation at prayer. So my journey to Islam and within Islam is more like a continuous journey with a number of temporary "camps" rather than moving from one permanent home to another one. In fact, I travelled to and lived in quite a number of countries including several Muslim ones for family reasons, study purposes or just for discovery. After all, didn't the Prophet say, "Whoever travels in search of knowledge is in God's path?" Perhaps it's then not surprising that I can relate to "people on the move", as my "fellow travellers", so to speak, most easily, and that one of my favourite prayers is, "Guide us on the straight path ..." Travelling, or migration, is a central theme in Islam. The Qur'an mentions examples like Abraham who left his father and his home and spent the rest of his life travelling; or Moses and the Children of Israel who left Egyptian slavery and spent forty years in the desert. The Islamic calendar is calculated after the hijra, the migration from Makkah to Madinah. The Prophet pointed out the importance of migration, physically or metaphorically as "leaving what is bad for something that is better". Nobody said that moving is easy. Travelling, in the physical or in the intellectual and spiritual sense, is

demanding: you have to get out of your comfortable habits that have formed in the course of time to be confronted with a new perspective and its challenges and insights. In case of geographical migration, there may be relief from poverty and persecution, but there may also be a taste of discrimination and xenophobia. There may be fear of the unknown and sadness at what we lost and anger if we were compelled to leave. And there is also our inner world to be rearranged. Let me give you the example of moving house. The movers have left, and you are unpacking your bags and boxes. Furniture: how will it fit in? Clothes: I will have to sort through them to decide what to give away or to throw out - or perhaps some can be changed in a useful way. Crockery: I find that my favourite teapot was broken on the way. Inevitably, I will find quite a number of things that I forgot I had, and miss other things that I thought I had. In a very similar way, it works with our inner "baggage" when we move from one place to another, in whichever sense. There are habits that we never thought about but that are now suddenly challenged. For example, in n some parts of the world, nodding means yes and shaking one's head means no, but in other parts it may be exactly the opposite; in some cultures people shake hands to greet each other; in others this gesture is left to good friends; in some cultures it is considered a mark of respect to take one's hat off, in some it is a mark of respect to keep it on. We may have to learn a new language, complete with a new code of behaviour. When you move to a new place, there is always the danger to drop a brick. You will make many new friends, but there may also be new enemies. At the same time, you miss your parents, siblings and friends. True, today it is relatively easy to keep in touch by phone and internet, but that's not the same as coming together for a spontaneous cup of tea or a big assembly for some family occasion. And by the next time you go to visit, babies may have grown to school age and school kids to university students, some may have married and started a family, some may have migrated to other continents or left this world altogether, and the atmosphere in the neighbourhood where you used to play may have changed beyond recognition. The sadness at finding your favourite teapot broken is nothing compared to that! The thought of the loss may make us depressed and pessimistic until we lose sight of what we gain - not necessarily in material terms but in terms of knowledge and experience. Now sadness and insecurity is something natural, nothing to be ashamed of. We are often taught to rely on God and to have patience, therefore we tend to deny some of these emotions. But there is nothing wrong with them. Even prophetic people had to deal with them. Every Muslim remembers, for example, Jacob (Yaqub) who, when he got the false news of Joseph (Yusuf) having been "eaten by a wolf", said, "There remains only beautiful patience!" - at the same time, he was deeply sad, and we are told that he wept until his eyes became dim. Or there is Mary (Maryam), and every Muslim knows the story of the great miracle of the birth of Jesus (Isa) - but try to imagine her in that situation as a pregnant women without a husband to protect her, giving birth all by herself, and then the Qur'an tells us how she leaned to the trunk of a palm-tree and said, "I wish I was dead and long forgotten!" Such a desperate statement from someone who is so close to God? Then there is the story of Moses who, as one of God's signs, threw his stick and it became a snake and he "felt fear and turned to run away", until God tells him that there is no reason to be afraid. The Qur'an does not tell these stories in order to criticize the people who are supposed to be role models for us but in order to show that there is nothing wrong with human emotions. We have to know and admit them in order to deal with them. Later on, scholars have presented detailed guidelines. Al-Ghazzali, in his main Ihya 'Ulum ad-Din, systmatically describes how to find out and deal with human emotions, desires and impulses like anger, envy, greed and many others. First of all, however, we have to acknowledge them. The Prophet's own example may help us with this perspective. He and the early Muslims migrated from Makkah to Madinah and founded a community that was very diverse. There were many different tribes, and while I must admit that there were not really different languages, there were different dialects. The tribes had different social systems, economic activities, and religious beliefs. The Prophet was invited to end a generation-long war between the tribes and to make peace. He brought about a peace agreement and then integrated the different

social groups with each other by initiating brotherhood between the muhajirun (migrants) and ansar (helpers), bringing together people not only from Makkah and Madinah but also from different parts of the world, like Bilal from Africa and Salman Farisi from Persia who joined after a long journey of spiritual search. Each had come a long way, either geographically from Makkah or even a different continent, or metaphorically from a situation of war and permanent insecurity to an agreement to live together in peace. People must have felt the same sadness at losing what they left behind, the same insecurity with the challenges they were facing, and we do know about certain ambitious tribal leaders who were envious of the Prophet's success to the extent that they started secretly to support the enemies of the community. And the people of Yathrib, knowing quite well that it would be natural for the Prophet to feel homesick at some point, asked him if he would move back to Makkah if he had a chance but he replied that through this covenant his commitment was to them whatever his feelings were. So with the challenges come new chances. In order to overcome sadness and insecurity, it sometimes helps to acknowledge the feelings but then turn one's mind to the gifts and chances we have to build up a new society. When I explain the ordinary tasbih to people, I sometimes take it in the following order: Allahu akbar: God is greater - and then while going through the 33 beads, thinking of problems and challenges in our lives; they may be great, but God is greater and will help us to overcome them eventually. Al-hamdu lillah: Praise be to God - and, while going through the 33 beads, trying to remember anything that we received that we can be grateful for; if we think about it carefully, there will certainly be more than 33, and these gifts will carry us through live and enable us to build something new. SubhanAllah: God is glorified - if we open our eyes, we will see the splendour of God's presence everywhere in creation and within ourselves and know that we are not left to ourselves.