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Gregor Shepherd

Assalamu Alaykum wa Rahmatullahi wa Barakatuhu.

My parents tried to bring us up as Catholics but they never have taken

worship seriously, so it never rubbed off. Im not very religious myself,

but none of my family members really have any religion in their lives. My

mothers younger sister was a nun with the Carmelite sisters but she dumped

the order in 1994 after probably thirty or so years with them. (May Allah

show her Islam). My mothers father converted to Catholicism when my mother

was still quite young and he took religion quite seriously. He died before

I was born so I dont know what he was like. I guess this is why my mother

respects religious people but she doesnt do anything herself. Just before

I accepted Islam she said to me that Islam is one of the worlds great

religions. She also said to me to study Islam properly and stick to it.

She advised me not to disappoint myself by accepting Islam, not living up

to it and then dumping it later on. The most astonishing point she had to

say was that if I ever became a Hindu that shed kill me, and I know she

meant it!

I firstly need to state that I was not a Christian before accepting Islam.

I still remember the day clearly when I was in grade five, I couldnt have

been much more than ten, that I rejected God. We used to have ritualised

prayers to thank God for lunch and all the kids in the class were praying

according to how they felt it should be done. Some placed their hands on

their chests, others knelt, one of my friends held his arms outstretched

above his head. Yet, everybody tried to say the same formula for the

prayer. I dont remember the prayer but I remember thinking to myself that

I dont believe in this, there is no God. So by the time I was ten I had

rejected not only the Catholic Church, Jesus and everything else

Christian, but God also. God never was a serious thought in my head until

I was nineteen, in my second year at university.

Some converts to Islam have told me that they were spiritual people but I

most certainly wasnt. To me, God was a four letter word! Religion was the

last topic I could tolerate. I hated the falseness of the church

establishment. I remember that a year after I had rejected God we were

asked by our teacher in religion class to draw what the church means to

us. I drew the priest standing behind the altar drunk, telling the

congregation that it wasnt a bad drop at all. I know that these Christians

were trying to worship God but they dont have any guidelines to follow.

When I was in grade one, we used to be full of awe in the church or

cathedral. The atmosphere instilled fear into us, but as we grew up, it

slowly wore off.

The way that Christians, no matter what sect, present Jesus made me hate

him, Allah forgive me. He was presented as a lamb, a weak man, even a

hippy. We are expected to look up to Jesus for guidance as a leader but

Christians destroy the true picture for a version which is wimpy! I found

through Islam the real Jesus, as a leader of the believers and as a real

man, a prophet to love as an example and to be proud to be a follower of.

Christianity made me hate the Christ, but it was Islam that made me love

him.

After we had our first Reconciliation, or confession, as it was once

called, we used to go off to tell the priest what sins weve done and ask

God to forgive us. A child of ten is not going to know fully what is a sin

and what isnt, but since the priest is always telling us how sinful we all

are then I had to quickly think of some made up sins to tell as lies to

the priest and escape with a few Hail Marys! Isnt it sad that we had to

sin in order to admit our sins. There was not the slightest desire to

actually repent to God, it was just fear of looking stupid in front of the

priest, trying to avoid a flogging.

First Communion was performed but I dont remember it and I remember going

through the motions of Confirmation with much bewilderment and reluctance.

I thought to myself, why do I have to do this when I dont believe in it?

When I was in grade nine after much argument and harsh words my parents

dragged me off to town for Christmas Mass (we lived in a country town in

New South Wales of 2500 people 22 kilometres from the next large town) and

there was such a huge gathering at the church that people were standing

outside. I sat on the grass and waited for the boring hour to end so I

could go home and go swimming. In our grade twelve religion class, our

principal was the teacher and for the whole year he only turned up to the

class a handful of times! I remember the day towards the final high school

exams when our class debated with him the existence of God! This was at a

Catholic school! Its not hard to see why God did not mean very much to me.

When I went to university in Melbourne I enrolled in a Chinese Business

course. I really excelled in Chinese and in my first year I was awarded a

scholarship to Beijing for three and a half months over the 1990-91 summer

break. It was in China that I first really met Muslims. The university

where we studied had over one thousand students from more than two hundred

countries. In my class there was a Pakistani girl sitting in front of me,

but religion was never spoken of. I really learned how to get drunk in

China, something that my parents would even now be shocked to know. I

would drink everyday. China was just plain fun and religion wasnt further

from my mind.

Towards the end of my stay in China I was able to go on a student trip.

There were four destinations offered, Shanghai, Canton, the North East or

the Mid West. I opted for the trip to Xian in the mid west since that was

the only one I could afford. Little did I know that it would set me on a

trip towards Islam. On the journey about half of the twenty or so students

were Muslims. They included Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Syrians and one

Sri-Lankan. While travelling we discussed religion with the Nepalese

Hindus who were with us. The Arabs sternly and firmly announced that there

is only one God. The Nepalese proudly boasted of millions of gods one for

each person, individually granted to each child by the Hindu priest upon

birth. I thought that the Hindu idea was totally ridiculous but I was

still uninterested in God and religion.

I was, however, interested in languages so I asked the Syrians how they

read Arabic since I had heard that Arabic is spelled without vowels. We

found communication difficult since we all spoke Chinese together and

communication broke down. The Sri-Lankan Muslim spoke English also and he

explained to me from his Tamil-Arabic book the function of the fathah,

kasrah and dhammah over the letters. He was also the only Muslim that I

saw doing salat while travelling in China, though at the time I didnt know

what he was doing. I never knew his name.

Later when we had arrived in Xian from Beijing we needed to transfer from

the train to a coach and since I had two travel bags, I was having a

little trouble. One of the Syrians looked like a big Italian Mafia boss

from New York and since he was an Arab, I knew he had to be a dangerous

terrorist. This dangerous man immediately came to my rescue and without me

asking took my heavy bag and climbed up into the bus. I followed him and

when he saw me, he simply said Qing zuo!, Please sit, slapping his hand on

the seat next him. So how could I refuse? This was the beginning of one of

the deepest friendships I ever had. We talked together all the way to the

hotel and we couldnt keep apart during the rest of the tour.

The tour lasted about a week and on the last day of our tour around Xian

our tour guide asked us if wed like to go to the Jamia mosque or the

Forest of gravestones. Since half of the students were Muslims we opted

for a visit to the mosque and the gravestones sounded dull. The mosque is

about one thousand years old and looks rather like a Chinese temple except

for all the Arabic calligraphic decorations. I saw one design on the wall

and took a photo of the design. Years later while flicking through my

photo album I looked at it carefully and realised that it was the kalimah,

La ilaha illAllahu Muhammadur Rasulullah!

My stay in China ended two weeks later and I wept when I had to leave my

Syrian friend behind. I had known him for only three weeks but I loved him

more than any other person in the world. When we returned from the tour he

would ask me to visit his dorm room and share warm milk with him,

something I had never done before. He and the other students showed me the

Islamic virtue of Ikram, generosity, without wanting anything in return.

We never really discussed religion except that I found out that Muslims

believed in Noah and his Ark. Oddly, when I asked him if as an Arab he

hated Jews, he asked me why should I hate Jews? I also suggested that Jews

and Muslims had similar religions, something which he firmly rejected,

they seemed almost the same to me.

My love for my new friend led me to an insatiable curiosity with

everything Arabic. Back home in Australia, I always talked about my Syrian

friend and things Arabic which I think must have startled my friends and

family. Months later my best friend handed me a book called The Life and

Times of Muhammad by Pasha Glubb, a British orientalist who had been in

the Jordanian Army. It is a terrible book, but at the time I revelled in

the story of a man called Muhammad unfolding in front of my eyes like the

images of a movie on a screen. By the time I had finished the book I fully

believed that Muhammad really was a prophet.

My curiosity in Arab things led me to get books about the Arabic language,

so I went to the Victorian State Library to find books. I found one old

book that had the Fatihah on the first page with a transliteration and a

translation. After reading the translation, I was so impressed by the

prayer that I copied the whole thing into my notebook, Arabic and all! My

curiosity also led me to my College library where I found a copy of the

Quran. I didn't expect to find one, but the whole shelf must have had

about fifty or so copies by various translators. I picked a small one that

had photos of mosques from around the world. It turned out that this

particular translation was by N.J. Dawood, an Iraqi Jew, who had mixed up

the order of the surahs, so its not so dull to read. Even part of the text

was missing due to bad printing! Despite all this, there was no way that I

could put the book down. I read it in bed before sleeping, and the first

thing I did after waking up was to read some more. I read it on the train

to university and on the way home, even in class when the lecture became

boring! I remember even taking it to a classmates home when I stayed over

the night. The main impression I got from the Quran was the gravity of the

next life and particularly Hell. I remember while reading the translation

saying to myself that I have to become a Muslim.

So I had believed in Muhammad and I now believed in the Quran, the next

step was God, the four letter word! I was walking with my parents to the

shop one afternoon and I asked them if it was stupid to believe in God, to

which they replied, not really, we do. That reassured me, but it also

meant a challenge to my whole being and I found myself struggling with

this new and almost foreign spirituality. I thought that to believe in God

was fine but did I have to adopt Islam to do it? I then decided to read

the Bible. It was so dull that I don't think that I got past Numbers or

Kings. It just didn't have the power of the Quran. So I asked my mother to

take me to a Latin church service and I loved it. There was so much ritual

and formalism in the Latin Mass and I was in ecstasy with the Latin. I

understood nothing but I felt closer to God and that the few people there

really wanted to worship God. It was in the city cathedral and I was just

over awed. I remember visiting the cathedral with my girlfriend later on

and having to hold back my tears from weeping. The interest wore off just

as quickly as it started because it was just not quite right. There was

still something missing.

Later my girlfriend's mother was to be the new principal at a Catholic

primary school and the mass there was so wishy-washy and modern that I was

almost physically sick. The service was in a hall with chairs arranged in

a circle with the little kids under four years sitting in the centre. They

sang such childish and puerile songs that I was disgusted. That was not

worshipping God, it was a sick joke! When I reflected on what church used

to be like when I was a child it was at that point that I lost hope in

Catholicism.

I had learnt so much about Islam, Arabic and Muhammad that I felt I needed

to ask Muslims more questions about Islam, but I didn't know any and it

never occurred to me that there were mosques in the city. However, there

was a Muslim girl from South Africa, in one of my classes who wore hijab

so I knew I could ask her, but I was too shy. I assumed that all people

were like me, (thank God they are not!) and that she would be offended to

discuss her religion. Our class assignment had to be done in pairs and

Allah arranged that she was to be my partner for the assignment. After the

assignment I approached her one day in the college canteen and I coyly and

quietly asked her if she would mind answering some of my questions about

Islam. Her reply stunned me, Of course! What would you like to know?

I was introduced to two other ladies at the college, one Australian and

another Turkish, who also helped with my search. The Islamic society at

the college played the movie The Message which I went to see, but

unfortunately a storm caused a power failure and I did not see the end of

it. I was weeping in the theatre. I was so impressed by the scene where

the companions of Muhammad go out into Makkah to declare their faith. I

had a dream the next day and when I woke up I had the words There is no

god but God and Muhammad is the Messenger of God on my lips, just like

those companions. I rang up the South African girl to tell her about it.

She introduced me to her father and brother and they helped a lot. Her

brother-in-law is the son of a prominent Imam in Melbourne and they

invited me to a youth gathering in the city on weeknights after the end of

year exams were to be over. I couldn't wait and I begged them to let me

go that very week.

When I went along the first time, I saw the men doing salat and I remember

comparing it church and I then knew that salat is the correct way to

worship God. The azan for the following Friday but it never happened. Since also had a great effect on me. Later a book was read

aloud to the group. I do not remember the title or author, but I know that

it was the reading of this book which clinched my belief in God. The

passage being read meant roughly; ...for the non-believer there is no

caring, loving, sustainer who protects and provides for him, helping

throughout life... it was at that point that I felt as if my entire body

had been shattered into each individual atom and scattered throughout the

universe. I remember feeling so incredibly lonely and empty that I even

felt my head tilt backwards from despair. The reader kept going, however,

and I listened to him read; ...but for the believer there is a caring,

loving, sustainer who protects and provides for him, helping at every

moment... it was at this point that all those atoms in my body came

flooding back together from across the universe and I became one again. I

was convinced that Allah really exists! I knew then that I had to accept

Islam.

My new Muslim friends at the youth group organised my conversion party for

the following Friday but it never happened. Since my father had been given

a transfer with the Air Force to Brisbane, a farewell party held by his

friends meant that I couldn't make it. I also wanted to move with my

parents and start a new life as a Muslim avoiding all the difficult

questions my friends and associates were bound to ask. We moved to

Brisbane the next week.

Now in Brisbane I had no friends and no contacts, just my translation of

the Quran which I read three times over and a few simple guidebooks on

Islam. We spent a few weeks settling into the new house which was in the

vicinity of the Holland Park Mosque (there were only four mosques then in

Brisbane and they were all far apart) and I spent most of my time learning

about Islam and trying to do salat. We went on a two week Christmas

holiday to the beach and I did much of the same.

About one week before I accepted Islam a class friend from Melbourne came

to visit me while on holidays in Brisbane. She asked me to go with her and

her friends to a disco at the local high school. I only went since she had

just come two thousand kilometres for a visit. I was rather bored there

with the dancing and enjoyment, I never really liked that kind of thing.

After an hour or so the fellow who was singing in the band to us all there

not to forget the reason why we had gathered tonight and then has said, so

lets do this next song for Jesus! And they promptly sang a foolish disco

rap song about how Jesus has saved us! I felt ill.

Later that same night I went home and got into the pool in the back yard

and sank into the water so that only my nose and eyes were free and I

stared up at the stars above me. I simply said to myself, God or whoever

you are, help!

I was incredibly bored and desperate to talk to someone about my new

faith, so I decided to just walk up to the mosque to meet some Muslims. I

walked the twenty minutes to the mosque but Shaytan told me to forget it,

so I did, and I went home. The inexorable attraction to the mosque led me

right inside the next day, but unfortunately there was nobody there at

about three p.m. When I was just about to leave, a Lebanese brother asked

if he could help in any way, so I told him that I wanted to talk about

Islam. He asked me to follow him and he then led me up the street to the

mosque house where half a dozen young Muslim men were living. I was

introduced to another Australian brother and my wish came true, at last

someone to talk to about Islam! I didn't understand much of what we talked

about but I knew that it was true and that was all that mattered. I

accepted Islam with the Imam the next night, January 21, 1992 and I took

the name Abdul Azim, servant of The Tremendous.

Since my acceptance of Islam I have lived in Pakistan for one year, where

I also got married and thanks to God I now have two young sons, Aftab and

Muhammad.

Wassalam.

gl.shepherd@student.qut.edu.au (GREGOR SHEPHERD)

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