Yesterday I was ‘called’ to Islam. The call to convert came from a lovely twenty-one year old South African man named Shakeer whose brown eyes were bright with friendliness and encouragement.
We were sitting opposite each other at a metal-legged table at the Golden Olive restaurant in Clonskeagh. Shakeer was wearing a freshly-ironed full-length brown thobe and a white hat. He had a long black scribbly beard.
Shakeer had phoned me a few days previously. He had heard about my Ramadan fast from an ex-colleague of mine in Waterford. He said he was interested in my experience and in why I was fasting. We arranged to meet. He told me it would be good if my husband came too.
Shakeer was in Ireland with a group of 26 South Africans. They were brought to Ireland to lead the nightly Taraweeh prayers of Ramadan at various mosques around the country. They were chosen to come to Ireland because they could all recite the full Quran by heart.
A person who can recite the full Quran by heart is called a Hafiz. To put this achievement in context – the Quran is slightly shorter in length than the Christian New Testament – it’s made up of just over 6,000 verses. Learning it by heart is considered a major achievement.
Shakeer told me that he left mainstream school at fourteen in order to learn the Quran. It took him six years. “This is more than double the average” he told me and explained that it took him so long because he was involved in various other activities including radio work during that time.
The 26 guys from South Africa were all members of the Islamic missionary organisation called Tablighi Jamaat. When they arrived in Ireland they were split up into groups of twos or threes and sent to various towns and cities. Shakeer was sent to Waterford city with two others.
He had a child-like quality to his face despite his long beard and he was bright with laughter and smiles. “My mam filled my bag with biscuits and all kinds of food for the journey” he told me. “She even put in powdered milk. I opened my bag and wondered did she think I was going to the jungle” he said laughing.
The biscuits and powdered milk his mam packed were still sealed in the bag as he prepared for his journey home. He told me that they were treated really well by the Muslim community in Waterford and that they were invited to houses for food every night. This, he explained, was a sign of respect for the Quran.
When he walked down the streets of Waterford the non-Muslim community of the city were curious. He said that when he walked down the streets of Waterford wearing the full length thobe, cars slowed down to look and people turned and stared. He smiled when he recounted their interest and didn’t seem to mind.
Recitation of the full Quran was completed at the mosque in Waterford the previous night. “It was very emotional” he said and explained that the completion of the Quran, coupled with the fact that it had been the 27th of Ramadan, meant that it was a night when supplications were accepted by Allah.
I asked him what he meant by supplication. “It’s a request” he said. “A person can ask for anything that comes to mind”. “Even material things?” I asked. “Yes, anything”. He laughed when I asked him if it works . “We have seen many times that it helps” he told me. “We made a special supplication because of the recession and lack of jobs in Ireland”.
We talked for over an hour. He told me about the presence of evil in the world today, about the media misrepresentation of Islam, about different law schools and movements within Islam.
He told me that their visit to Ireland was “majorly fruitful” because they completed the recitation of the Quran and that some people learned a few chapters of the Quran and one woman whose family is Catholic “reverted to Islam”.
I looked up at the clock on the wall of the empty restaurant and was it one o’clock in the early afternoon and time for me to go. “Before you go” he said, “it is my duty to call you to Islam and for that reason I’m asking you to pay note to a few things”. He went on to tell me that Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world today and he spoke about the logic of the “oneness of the Almighty”.
He gently encouraged me to convert, there and then, by reciting the Shahada or creed (“there is no god but God and Muhammad is the messenger of God”).
“Is this why you wanted to meet me?” I ask him. “Yes” he answered smiling, a little cheekily. “Everyone is a believer or a prospective believer” he explained and “you are more prospective than others”.
I told him that I wasn’t going to convert, that I was interested in all religions. He urged me “don’t let religion be something of research and study, rather make it something of passion and devotion, a spiritual experience”.
He said “do this tonight – put your head on the ground or put your hands up and say “oh creator, show me that which is correct and guide me to that which is correct” and I hope you will see the light”.
I realise that Shakeer was giving me what he believes is the greatest gift that he can give to any person. As a devout Muslim he believes that, as an unbeliever, I am destined for hell where I will burn for eternity. I understand that he is concerned for me. He told me he felt pity for me. I appreciate his efforts.
“Out of billions of people in the world” he tried one more time. “Why would you meet someone who calls you to Islam? I think it is the Almighty and he wants to give you guidance”.
“Well in that case” I reply, smiling “more guidance will come”.
I do not share Shakeer’s faith or his beliefs. People might wonder then why I didn’t debate with him. But over the years I’ve come to the conclusion that beliefs are really very powerful things – in God or in no-God, in gods or in no-gods. I tend to go with the words of Ninian Smart “God is real for Christians whether or not he exists”. And who am I to disagree?