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Ahmadiyyat: The Turning point of my Life

35The Review of Religions – January 2003 I was raised in a Chinese-Buddhist household and my exposure to religion was mixed with ancestor worship and cultural customs. At home we had a small shrine high on a shelf with a figurine of Buddha(as) and a framed picture of my deceased grandfather. After g ro c e ry shopping, my mother would put the choicest fruits and goodies on plates and place them on the shelf as an offering to Buddha(as) and our ancestors. She replenished the plates periodically. On special occasions such as Chinese New Ye a r, my mother would cook an assortment of delicious dishes and put them on a table which had numerous place settings with lit incense sticks for our ancestors. These dishes were a symbolic offering to them and a sign of respect. Hoping that the spirits were enjoying the food, we would prostrate ourselves in front of this table. Also, befo re any journey or important undertaking (such as an exam or competition), we would be reminded to pray for our safety and success. Clasping a fragrant incense stick, its tip a glowing ember, each of us quickly shook the stick back and forth. First we faced the shrine to seek the blessing of our ancestors and then we faced a window to honor spirits who were dispossessed or without their own family to honor them. I recall a particularly unusual way to communicate with God: on special holidays, my mother would kneel in front of the table, shake a couple of coins in her closed hands, pray fervently to God with a question, and then allow the coins to fall out of her hands onto the floor. The answer (yes, no, or m aybe) was interpreted in the combination of heads or tails that resulted. Though my parents do believe in God, they did not really distinguish God from Buddha(as) or ancestors whom they worshiped. Our practices struck me as respectful but a bit mystical and mainly cultural. Without a clear- cut grasp of religion, I did not feel compelled to seek nearness to Ahmadiyyat: The Turning Point of my Life By Kaukab Zirvi, MD 36 The Review of Religions – January 2003 God. I believed in one Creator but thought it was impossible to know the truth in matters such as God and the afterlife. I was attracted to the philosophy of Existentialism, which states that the essence of human nature is the f reedom to choose. I admire d those individuals who we re liberated from all rules of society and followed their own personal code in life. I perceived people who were religious with a mixture of curiosity, embarrassment and a vague pity. Religion seemed to me to be a crutch for those who lacked material wealth, power, and education. And I considere d people who we re exceptionally pious as oddities. The fervor of monks and nuns was remarkable but they were extreme cases who renounced all worldly pursuits – hardly a pragmatic approach to life, I thought. I believed that when faced with a trial, one need not look to a higher power but should find the strength within. I o b s e rved curiously those fo r whom religion was a once a week affair: the remembrance of God on Sunday while the rest of the time was spent dedicated to the world. Moreover, I saw inconsis- tencies in the practice of Christianity and felt that it did not provide an extensive guide to life. T h e re seemed to be no ideal system with which to wo r s h i p God. I had not the courage to face these troubling questions and I rationalized that I did not possess an essential religious conviction. I thought prayer was for most people self-serving. It was per- formed at critical moments p receding a difficult task or at times of misfo rt u n e. Its purpose was to wish for a divine intervention or a small miracle. Why should God heed our cries during tro u b l e d times when we neglect that relationship during good times? I dismissed the Christian view of fo r g i veness of sins as an easy way out. It struck a false chord, and I could not accept that a son was needed to carry out God’s will. The idea of a man invested with divine p owers seemed implausible and even paganistic. In addition, I could not believe that atonement could excuse man’s failings. It wo u l d i nvalidate our choices and re m ove personal accountability for our actions. Ahmadiyyat – The Turning Point of My Life 37The Review of Religions – January 2003 In re t rospect, there we re moments in my life that may have been preparing me for the message of Islam. Befo re starting college, I had a part-time job as a salesperson traveling to people’s homes. On one of my excursions I visited a neighbor who after hearing my sales pitch asked: “We l l n ow that I’ve agreed to listen to what you have to say, is it all right if you listen to me for a while?” She said: “Do you believe in God?” “ Ye s ,” I replied, uneasily. She c o n t i nued, “Do you think that being a good person is enough to get you into heaven?” At this point, I was at a loss. I had never thought about the afterlife, nor about the possible limitations of simply “being a good person.” At the time, I did not have a firm sense of self or my place in the world. This episode confirmed my insecurity about religion and spurred me to explore the answers. Before learning about Islam, I had many misconceptions. I saw Islam as stifling and re p re s s i ve to its people and their spirit. This prej- udice stemmed from ignorance as well as Western misre p re s e n – tations of Islam as a re l i g i o n practised by radical extremists. I could not fathom why one would endure the seeming hardships of deprivation, spend inord i n a t e periods of time to re m e m b e r God, and avoid activities that I considered generally harmless. I thought perhaps devout Muslims were naturally predisposed to self- denial and possessed a peculiar resistance to temptations. Although I had Muslim acquain- tances, none of them adhered to religious beliefs firmly enough to fo l l ow through with action and consistent practice of Islam. In college, I met Muslims who were Ahmadi who showed true commitment to their faith. I noticed the self-effacing person- ality and the deference to God before all other interests. I was impressed with their quiet resolve, honesty and lack of pretensions. And there was an unmistakable sincerity and steadfastness in how dearly they held Islam. I marvelled: w hy would this matter to someone in a society such as ours? What could move someone to follow a set of l aws? How could you centre yourself in the midst of conflicts (domestic and global), the Ahmadiyyat – The Turning Point of My Life 38 The Review of Religions – January 2003 e rosion of families, and collap s i n g political and social institutions? As I learned more about Islam, I fo u n d that this was the way to peace. O b s e rving salat for the first time, I was moved by the absolute tranquility and attention tow a rd s God. I admired the grace and fluidity of the prostrations and m ovements. For the first time, I fe l t a pro found respect for this personal daily affirmation of God that was a constant – re g a rdless of the distractions of the outside world. You did not have to become a recluse to have a bond with God. This opportunity was open to eve ryone at all levels and classes. I noticed that the Holy Qur’an was treated with the utmost respect, like a rare treasure. This attitude intrigued me. What message could it possibly contain to command such reverence? I was impressed that it was the Word of God and not a compilation of stories recorded by man through the ages. I was impressed that it was a living message that was realised all the time in the daily life of Muslims. S l ow ly I became disenchanted with the current state of society a round me. I saw a trend tow a rd s worship of the individual over all e l s e. But then I realised that our relationship to God is so valuable, that sacrificing a measure of our own freedoms and personal l i b e rty was a small price to pay fo r the many blessings we re c e i ve eve ry day of our lives. Islam is not a way to deprive man but a p rotection of his soul. Being in the field of medicine, I have witnessed death time and time again – this has made me realise that our live s a re just a passage to the here a f t e r and our time here is pre c i o u s . Despite the pro g ress I made in learning the basics of Islam, there we re nagging doubts that kept me at arm’s length from full a c c e p t a n c e. How could I change myself so completely? I fe a re d looking into the mirror and not recognising myself, like a person who aw a kens with no memory of who he is and tries to forge a new i d e n t i t y. I fe a red that I would stunt myself and silence a part of me that begged for expression – that I would limit my potential as a woman and that I would re s e n t the restrictions and guidelines on h ow to behave. Ahmadiyyat – The Turning Point of My Life 39The Review of Religions – January 2003 My development towards the love of Islam has been a gradual process that is difficult to explain. But like a budding plant that grows imper- ceptibly and then one day blooms, the truth unfurled only with the course of time and in the right climate. Only after a period of learning about Ahmadiyya Islam did I witness the truth with clear vision. When I read The Philosophy of the Teachings of Islam by the Promised Messiah(as) I was moved by the light of reason. It made sense to me that the cause of Allah was the highest since from Allah we come and to him we return. Providing a comprehensive code of life, Islam invites God into every aspect of our lives and into our ve ry soul. It teaches peace, moderation, and responsibility and promotes a state of being which prepares us to meet God – a state of purity and righteousness. I was surprised at the simplicity of Islam which does not re q u i re special mediators, accessories or ornaments in its practice. Yo u need only righteousness to attain nearness to God. Islam also stresses the spirit of humanity and equality – that we should be judged by our piety rather than our appearance, race, and status. Thus, Islam offers the message to all of humankind. The importance of charity and helping the downtrodden appealed to me. I was heartened that these virtues had basis in God’s will and thus charged them with an even greater purpose. All of these principles allowed me to embrace Islam with my mind as well as my heart. I remember thinking that memorisation of the prayer would be a great challenge. After achieving that goal, I realised that Allah does not give us any task that is impossible and enables us to earn greater and greater rewards. When I prayed for the first time, I felt an overwhelming feeling of humility – that Allah was keeping watch over me and seeing straight to the core of my being. It made me yearn for His Grace and Mercy and I felt as if the prayer was being etched in my heart. In my reading of the Holy Qur’an, I was stirred by its eloquence and directness. As a perfect guide, the Holy Qur’an instructs man and a dd resses the meaning of his e x i s t e n c e. Learning about the Ahmadiyyat – The Turning Point of My Life 40 The Review of Religions – January 2003 Holy Prophet Muhammad(saw) was inspiring. Here was a gre a t Prophet who was a pious man as well as a great leader and statesman who epitomises true righteousness and sacrifice. In a ddition, I found Islam to be unique by acknowledging the validity of all the messengers of God through history – fro m Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Buddha, Krishna, Jesus (peace be upon them all) and ultimately the Holy Prophet Muhammad(sa). On my first visit to the mission house, I was nervous because it was new territory. But once there, I became comfortable because the sisters welcomed me so warmly. I was impressed that ord i n a ry people could have such e x t r a o rd i n a ry faith and still participate fully in all aspects of their lives. Over time, I saw that veiling is not restrictive but instead reflects a devotion to God and the modesty we must maintain. The recitation of the Holy Qur’an touched my heart; the wo rd s seemed to rise to the sky. An aspiring poet once asked his mentor how to learn from the great poets. He advised him to copy their verses for writing the words would transmit the author’s inspiration through the rhy t h m and flow of the phrases. In the same way, recitation of the Qur’an c o nveys the wo n d rousness of God. There have been struggles along the way – most importantly, my own inner struggles and my family’s strong opposition to my conversion – but I know this is the right path. I pray that inshallah [God Willing] they will come to accept it. I see that in order to reach God, success is found with steadfastness and conviction. We cannot simply insert a relationship with God into the free slots of our life when it is convenient. While we have an instinct to please our parents and mentors, we should have an even stronger instinct to please Allah to whom we owe eve rything. We may stumble across obstacles and experience pain and heartache but God is all- knowing and will acknowledge our s i n c e re effo rts. We mu s t constantly return to Allah – like a traveller going home – and draw strength from Him to renew our faith. It is comforting to realise Ahmadiyyat – The Turning Point of My Life 41The Review of Religions – January 2003 that ‘Allah burdens not any soul beyond its capacity.’ In Islam, we are like ve s s e l s resonating Allah’s power thro u g h speech, intentions, and actions. I h ave been embraced with open arms by this community and I am grateful to my Ahmadi sisters and b rothers who are shining examples of Ahmadiyyat, the true Islam. Their generosity and encour- agement helped me accept Ahmadiyyat. I give thanks for all the blessings: the wonderful teaching of Islam as conveyed by the Pro m i s e d M e s s i a h( a s ), the local and national Lajna organisations, and the Jama’at which provides so many o p p o rtunities to increase our k n owledge and strengthen our faith. I realise that I have just begun this journey but hope inshallah to s t ay true to the essence of Ahmadiyyat. The following is a verse from the Qur’an: And if Allah afflicts thee with harm, there is none who can remove it but He; and if He intends good for thee, there is none who can repel His grace. He causes it to re a ch whomsoever of His servants He w i l l s. And He is the Most Forgiving, Merciful. (Ch.10: V.108) F rom Our Te a ch i n g by the Promised Messiah (as): ‘Do not fear the curses the world might heap on you for they melt in the air like smoke, they cannot turn day into night. Take care that on the basis of a thing or two, which you think you have accomplished, you do not fall into the delusion that you have done all that needed to be done; for God desires that your entire life, yo u r whole being, should undergo a deep and thorough revolution. Indeed He demands from you that you accept a death, after which He would give yo u another life.’ Ahmadiyyat – The Turning Point of My Life About the author: Kaukab Zirvi, a yo u ny new ly c o nve rted Ahmadi recalls her introduction to Islam. This former Christian Buddhist lives in the USA.