My Transition From Catholicism To Islam -Amy Luz U. Catalan, PhD
I am a Muslim. I’ve reverted to Islam recently. Like many reverts who have felt and experienced a deep sense of emptiness and loss, I have been searching for my life’s meaning and significance. Plans of travelling to other countries while earning the much-needed funds are nothing compared to what I discovered. I have found my Truth. Becoming a Muslim woman in these contemporary times is a great source of joy and happiness from the distractions and decadence that taint the world.
My reversion to Islam is a return to the original faith. It is a personal decision and the culmination of my faith in Allah, my Creator, and in all the teachings of the prophets from Adam to Mohammed (Peace be upon them). It is not really a big leap, but rather a strengthening of my belief in God who has been faithful to His promise of guidance and protection throughout my life. I have chosen the Islamic name Maryam, which translates into sincerity and purity of intentions. The abaya and the hijab, my “fashion statement” against my former way of life, and symbols of my shift and commitment to the Islamic way of life of submission to Allah, a constant nurturance of my spirituality, and modesty in manners and dressing, have become my wardrobe must-haves. Moreover, the warmth and support of my Omani brothers and sisters that I have grown to love and respect have provided me with zest and courage to pursue my new life with much confidence and hope. I am determined to make a difference in this life and to cultivate the seeds of a renewed faith that Allah has planted in my heart. This is what I will do in the belief that my quest for eternal life has begun.
My Catholic Background
I grew up in a devout Catholic family. I remember that I had a deep belief in God from the time I became aware of His presence in my life.
My father was a member of a religious congregation founded in France and eventually reached the Philippines to spread its mission of Lasallian education. Before he married my mother, my dad was on the verge of professing his final vows to become one of the De La Salle Brothers (a religious congregation of men who live out the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience). His vocation was short-lived, and he became a devoted family man instead. He and my mother were married for five years when it was cut short by my mom’s death due to cancer. He raised me and my brother in our early years and educated us in Catholic institutions from the time we started schooling. My father remarried and we gained a brother. My stepmom, a devout Catholic herself, taught in St. James Academy, where we graduated from elementary and high school. True to his Lasallian roots, my father enrolled me at De La Salle University in Manila for my baccalaureate degrees. He wanted me to become an educator and to “shine like the stars for all eternity.” I finished my doctorate degree at the University of St. La Salle, where I also taught for 14 years. The education that I received from one of the top three reputable academic institutions in the Philippines provided me with enough courses to believe in the equality between men and women. I was a feminist and an activist back in those years. Both ideologies suited me well, for I believed that as a human being, I should strive for something higher and better than my former self through constant personal development and service to humanity. To be a feminist meant upgrading myself so that I could compete and be equal with everyone, and as an activist, I thought that I served the poor by taking up their cause.
However, the sense of awareness of God’s presence in my life made me decide to enter the convent of the Guadalupanas, a religious congregation of Lasallian sisters from Mexico when I was in my mid-20s four years after I graduated from college. At that time, I wanted to become a nun. But God had a different plan for me. I left the convent due to family reasons. Eventually, I immersed myself in the realities of life. I took up post-graduate studies while I worked for the best university in the province. In those times, I felt that something was missing that not even the accolades of finishing my academic degrees or the romantic love of a fellow human being could satisfy. Added to that, the death of my beloved father in 2001 aggravated that sense of loss and emptiness.
In the succeeding years, I focused on my profession with the passion and determination to serve with excellence. However, dissatisfaction crept in because my life went nowhere. This feeling accumulated over the years, and I felt that I only worked to survive, not to enjoy life. I expected too much. Deep inside, my sense of loss and emptiness grew stronger as I faced a crisis- the dark years of my spiritual life. I stopped going to church and hearing mass. At that time, the Catholic Church was beset with internal problems. I started questioning the doctrines and teachings that I learned from years of Catholic education, especially the priests’ authority to preach about justice and love, while they themselves were capable of committing the most atrocious offences against their parishioners. I prevented myself from listening to their sermons by not hearing mass at all. My reason was simple: the very people who professed their faith in God, to the teachings of Jesus and who acted as my intermediaries to God were the very persons who violated the principles that I believed in. I resolved that I would pray directly to God in the confines of my own room and cry out to Him for mercy and guidance.
From Catholicism, I tried and studied Buddhism. However, it was a brief encounter since the doctrines did not appeal to me. The teachings were not clear at all. Instead, I became more confused as to what I wanted in life. The years dragged on, and my success in the teaching profession did not make me happy. Even my travels to other countries to present my dissertation and to attend international conferences did not prove much of a help. I still felt empty.
Finding my Place Under
At first, it was out curiosity about Oman when I came in 2012. I wanted to know how people in this part of the world live. I did not know much about the country and its people, the Omanis, except when I got hired by TATI that I started reading about them in the articles that I researched from the internet. Also, part of my plan was earning the much-needed income so that I could travel the world before I passed on to the next life. When I started teaching here, I dedicated myself to educating my students. There was no doubt in my mind that I was an educator first and a traveller second! My Lasallian education had always been my source of inspiration in serving with excellence. During my first year of teaching, I volunteered to conduct remedial classes to help students who were struggling in writing and had set up an enhancement class to cater to those who wanted to get more exposure to English materials in my second year.
When I came here, I did not expect to become a Muslim, for, after all, Muslims were known to be associated with terrorism and Jihad (holy war in defence of Islam). I learned the word Jihad from some Muslim friends during a fellowship at the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung that brought us to Germany in 2011 for a study tour and media training. During the trip, we got to talk about the situation in the Southern Philippines. We discussed the reasons why the Muslims in that part of the country had committed so much dissension and terrorism that killed thousands of innocent Filipinos. Moreover, the 9/11 event in the US added to the belief that they were capable of mass murder. It was only natural that my aunts and uncles warned me to avoid them at all cost and to focus on my work here.
I soon found out that what I learned from the media and from well-meaning relatives and friends proved to be contrary to the misconceptions and biases against the Muslims. As a people, the Omanis acted and behaved differently from those that the media portrayed to the world. In due time, I fell in love with Oman and its people! I began travelling around the country and saw its natural beauty. I had no doubt that I reached the place where I wanted to be. I developed this sense of deep affiliation with the people, especially among my Omani colleagues and students in the college. Everybody was kind and helpful when I first came. As I interacted with them day by day, I became fascinated by their culture and their traditions, and eventually became interested in Islam. In hindsight, I guess that was the start of my journey to embracing Islam. I started reading parts of the Quran that Nishat Farkunda, a friend and colleague, brought from India. I even asked some of my fellow Filipinos if they got interested in Islam. Most of them answered in the negative. It was then that 2013 became a year of the constant search for answers.
Fortunately enough, Rashid Al Hinai was there to engage my thoughts and we got to talk about our students. I started asking about religion and its influence on the behaviour of students who often said “Insha allah” whenever I gave them some tasks to finish, and they would answer “No problem, teacher” as if I was the one who would take the exams and fail if I did not study. On the other hand, the segregation of male and female students in classrooms, including separate staircases, canteens, and almost in everything else, became an anti-thesis to what I believed as the equality of sexes.
Rashid and I agreed on one point that the students are basically good persons and it is the culture that makes them the way they are, not the religion. I asked him to clarify this and he said that everything is provided for them. They do not need to work hard to have a job or earn their income. The government provides for their basic needs including free education and allowance, health services, and social security. What we could do is to motivate them on a different level- to instil in them the chance to dream of a good life.
On my second year of teaching, I met Eyse James Blaauw, an Australian who reverted to Islam and married to a Yemeni. We had a chance to talk about his decision and he explained it in such a way that left an impression that to become a Muslim is to live a contented and grace-filled life. In fact, he said that it was what he wanted all along considering that a Muslim wife was all that he ever needed. He saw the declining values of women in his own society and he did not want to be part of a dysfunctional relationship that would only make him unhappy. He advised me to read as much as I could and to think about it very carefully when I confided that I was interested in Islam.
As I began reading the Quran and other Islamic books, I found out that both Christianity and Islam shared the same basic set of principles of love, charity, kindness, and most importantly the belief in One God. However, the differences between them struck me most. While I believed that there is One God, it did not occur to me that He has no partners or helpers as the Supreme Being of all Creation. Moreover, the Christian belief that Jesus (Peace be Upon Him) as the Son of God could not fit quite well in the Islamic faith. In Islam, Jesus or Issa was a prophet who lived in his time and brought God’s message to the people. I thought about this for a very long time and asked myself if I could accept this idea as part of my truth, but it did not deter me from searching for more. The answers came, but I was not quite sure whether to accept them or not. I became restless and unsure about the information that I was receiving. As I read the Quran and asked about his role in the Islamic faith, I was told that Jesus’ (pbuh) second coming is imminent and he will serve as our guide during the Day of Judgment. I wondered what will be Mohammed’s (Peace be upon him) role on that day? Is he not the last prophet? An Omani working for the Islamic Information Center in Muscat saw me one afternoon at Lulu’s and handed me a pamphlet about the Prophet Mohammed (pbuh). I read it immediately and it said that the Quran was the Prophet’s miracle. As I read about his life, it became clear that he is, indeed, a messenger from God. I also read that all his good works and his examples are worthy to be emulated and he preached the same belief that had been set by all the other prophets who came before him: the belief in One God. So, I reasoned out that if I believe in all the prophets from Adam to Jesus (Peace be upon them), why should I not believe in the Prophet Mohammed (pbuh)?
In the college, I asked Dr. Khamis Al Muniri about the lifestyles of the Muslims since at that time I wanted to visit a village to interact with as many Omanis as possible, to observe more, and perhaps, to teach English to the young children. He advised me against going because it would not be easy. People would ask questions and would not perhaps agree into sending their children out to meet a stranger, a non-Muslim woman. Instead, we discussed about Islam and its basic beliefs, its pillars and how it uplifts a person’s dignity as a human being. He challenged me to find anything in the Quran that violates human nature. I accepted. And my quest for answers continued.
My mind raced from one answer to another, questioned every bit of statements and their meanings. Salwa Al Sulaimi and I initially talked about the role of women in Islam, and Thuraiya Al Rawahi gave me some pamphlets which I hungrily read and finished in one day. This kind of conversations with Muslim colleagues went on for quite some time. The next thing I knew, I was attending a talk at the Ministry of Education Training Center in Nizwa. It was sponsored by the Islamic Information Center of the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque. The announcement came from two of my Omani brothers, Haroon Al Nabhani, who received the message about the talk, and Saud Al Busaidi, who sent an email to the English Language Center staff. Eventually, Haroon and Saud figured out significantly in my decision to attend the talk. I went there, not to embrace Islam, but to listen to the speakers and to learn more. I was the only Filipino and the only one from the college, the rest were Omani and Ethiopian ladies. During the talk, Fatima Al Harrasi, the speaker, asked me this question: “Why did God create us?” I was hesitant of my answer at first, but I said aloud “There are two reasons: to worship Him and to love His creation”. The projected answers which were quoted from the Quran convinced me that, indeed, my Catholic beliefs were in line with the Islamic faith.
During that talk, I met Amira Reyes, a fellow Filipina who reverted to Islam two years ago. It was her who answered most of my questions about Jesus as the Prophet and not as the son of God. In Islam, Jesus (pbuh) is revered as one of the prophets who prophesied about the coming of another prophet known in its narrative as Mohammed (pbuh). It was believed that Jesus did not die on the cross. Instead, he was raised up to Heaven by God himself and it was another man who looked like him that was crucified. Jesus’ (pbuh) second coming had also been a very important part of the Islamic teachings. My heart jumped with joy when I heard that Jesus had not died on that day and was and is still alive! I had goosebumps and tears started falling. I knew that I was going to be a Muslim.
Before I uttered the shahada or the profession of my faith in One God and in His Prophet Mohammed (pbuh), I did not stop shaking. I wanted to do it, but part of me initially resisted, especially because once I committed to embracing Islam, there was no turning back. I called up one of my Omani colleagues who happened to be available at that time after I texted several others and did not get any response. I told Saud, my seat mate in the office who I had serious discussions with, that there was no point in delaying my decision to become a Muslim. I cried on the phone while I talked to him and he told me that he did not know what to say. He was speechless. I asked him to just say that everything was going to be fine. It was all what I needed to hear- the voice of another person reassuring me that I was going to make the best decision in my life. It acted as my security blanket. However, I believed in my heart that Allah called me to return to Him with a renewed faith and a pure heart. Tears just did not stop falling while I uttered the words, Ash’hadu an La Ilah Ila Allah wa ash’hadu ana Mohammed Rasul Allah, wa ash-hadu ana Issa Rasul Allah (I bear witness that there is no God but Allah and I bear witness that Mohammed is the Last Messenger of Allah and I bear witness that Jesus is the Messenger of Allah.). After that, I felt the best feeling in my whole life. I suddenly felt peace in my mind and in my heart. Happiness from within surged and it made me cry while I embraced my sisters who congratulated me. I became a Muslim. It was the best thing that ever happened to me.
Living Out my Truth
At first, I only wore the hijab to symbolize my reversion. The whole college knew about it because Dr. Khamis announced it on the college whatsapp group. Muslim and non-Muslim colleagues and the majority of my students greeted me when I returned to the college that week. I was ecstatic and felt like a newborn trying on her first steps. I knew that Islam would be my lifetime pursuit.
As days went by, I learned the salaat and memorized the Al Fatiha. Eventually, I could pray on my own without notes. I would anticipate the adhan from a nearby mosque or from my phone, readily do the wudu or the ablution and change into my prayer dress. During the first few times that I prostrated, with my forehead touching the ground, I felt a very deep sense of peace and happiness that made me sob incessantly and I knew then that I was closest to Allah. From that time on, I would always look forward to hearing the adhan. Prayers had been my direct connection to God, and they filled my life with peace and happiness that were not there before.
I started wearing the abaya just recently. I made that decision after a welcome party organized by a group of students last May 20. The dean of our college, Dr. Hafidh Ba Omar, gave a speech in Arabic and I was overwhelmed by emotions because my students were there, gave out roses and gifts to me, held the letters of my name, MARYAM, in front of the audience to see. I gave a speech on how the goodness of the people in the college became one of the reasons that inspired me to embrace Islam.
Wearing the abaya has been an appropriate response to the kindness and generosity of my Muslim community. I want to be one with them in leading the Islamic way of life. The feeling of being protected against anything when I wore it for the first time was overwhelming that I want to wear it for the rest of my life.
My journey as a Muslim has just started. This is not the end of my narrative. One of my plans is to become a Muslim scholar and to propagate the principles of truth that the people who are closest to me must know. May Allah grant and guide me in my endeavours and instil in me a pure and humble spirit to pursue the Islamic way of life until my last breath. In sha Allah! n