'THE FIRST TIME I saw her was on the tube; she was just getting on with her friends, and she was smiling really wide at something, and I just, you know, I started smiling too. I don't think she saw me. The tube had bad lighting that kept blinking, and the train was packed; she was stood by the doors, talking to her friends and laughing with closed eyes, but she looked lit up. Does that sound right? She was a spark. And I liked that about her. To this day I still do.
I had Muslim friends, at that time, though I wasn't a Muslim then. Following an ordered religion like she did, wasn't part of my upbringing, it wasn't a lifestyle that I had even considered - prayers every single day, dressing like this, saying the 'bismillah'. I had my routine, I had commitments: a day job, evening classes, daily commutes from town to town, friends for the weekends, and a big enough family to keep everyone updated. They checked up on me regularly, my family I mean, and they'd joke, "James, if you don't find yourself a woman before you're 35, we'll all consider you've become queer." That's what they did, we were all taught to achieve these set goals in life and I'd check back after each goal post, "I've graduated, now what? I'm employed in two jobs, now what? I own an apartment with a fully fitted kitchen, now what?" Then it was time to play house. And to think, I almost got married and became Muslim because of her.
There's a cliché in Muslim culture against Muslim women - which I strongly disagree with - that the older they get, the less 'marriageable' they are, like they're a commodity and they're nearing their sell-by-date if they're not married at 25. Trust me, at 25 you're just settling into good patterns and living day by day. For me, I was 29 when I actually approached her for the first time, I didn't really care if she was 21 or 40 - she was 27 by the way - I just wanted to see how she could wear her hijab, be so loud, so extroverted, stuck up at times, and still be happy. She was always laughing or smiling, things didn't get to her like they did for me. She had her faith, and I never equated that with happiness.
A few weeks of seeing her on the tube and around, I picked up the courage to just smile at her first. I thought smiling would be easier than using words. Bingo, she smiled back instantly; sat on the far right, cross-legged, but then she looked down, out of shyness or because of her phone, I still don't know. A whole 6 days later (I counted) when there were fewer passengers I tried to casually sit a few seats away from her and started a conversation. "Salaam", she looked up with wide eyes. "Wa aleikum salam wa rahma tullah wa bara caat," she smiled. Hanging around with Muslim friends in high school and at work, I picked up that 'salaam' meant hello/peace, that's how they all met one another: "salaam, 'sappenin'?" But I had no idea what she said back to me. She didn't say much at the beginning either, she'd only reply to my hellos and how are yous. It took weeks of general formalities for her to be herself, her real, loud, in-your-face self.
I would ask her questions about her hijab, why she was a Muslim, what she thought of the New York 9/11 attacks, whether it was her religion which allowed that and preached it. That's when she would get really hot and aggravated. She defended Islam incredibly passionately, like a zealot! She said Islam was a universal, holistic faith that was founded on the belief that One God, One Creator, put everyone on earth to test them, and that whoever passed their tests would be rewarded with Jannah - Paradise. She said God would hold each person accountable for their choices, and that nobody went to Paradise on a "suicide-ticket" (that's what she called it), and nobody went to Hell without being told about God, and then rejecting it. I never attacked her personally, I was just a curious non-informant. But she would go on and on, a monologue of 'this was Islam, not what was depicted in the media'.
Finally we hit on the big bang - not the theory - the big bang of change: the Qur'an. I had always compared it to the Bible, the Torah, as some ancient manuscript written by old wise men. I asked her what her holy book was about, and I was taken aback when she happily clapped and bent down to take it out of her bag. "Oh, I always carry the glorious Qur'an around with me, I love reading a few lines whenever I find the time!" A travel-friendly holy book. That sounded like a great marketing ad. We began talking about what the Qur'an was made up of, well really, she talked, I listened. I made mental notes that the Qur'an wasn't a story, it didn't have a plot and when you got to the end, that wasn't the end, you simply started again from the beginning, or anywhere when you needed help. She told me with a creative enthusiasm that the Qur'an was the Word of God, it was revealed to Prophet Muhammad ﷺ in Arabic, it talked about nature, death, society, people, prophets of history, science, how to pray, how to live... "It's like a tracking system for you", I mused. "Yeah, I guess it is", but I think I did a disservice to her devout respect for it. We would talk just like that for what felt like years. I really wanted to see her 'outside' the confines of the train station, just to see her in action, to see if she was this disciplined everywhere. I asked if she would accompany me at an after-work do. She said no. No explanation, just a flat out no. I was a little heartbroken at that, I thought if I could get her to meet my Muslim friends, maybe there'd be more dialogue about why they were Muslims. Plus, I was growing really fond of her company.
Days went by where I didn't see her on the tube so I figured she'd deliberately not come. The next time I did see her she was stepping off as I was getting on. I grabbed her elbow and rushed into an apology, "hey, look, the other day I didn't intend to make you uncomfortable, I wasn't asking you for something else, you know, romantic. I don't know if you're already involved with someone, you haven't mentioned it, and I was just suggesting that you meet some of my Muslim colleagues; they're Muslim women too, and we'd just have dinner, casually, nothing else, I really didn't mean to pu - I'm sorry." It was only then I realised I was still holding on to her arm. This must've looked like harrassment. She was supercool about it though and gently explained that her faith restricted meeting the opposite sex in a confined and secluded space, as in on a date. When she put it like that it sounded so scientific. "My family wouldn't be entirely comfortable knowing we were alone together, either. If it's a dinner with other people, I could bring a friend...?" My heart sunk and skipped a beat at the same time. "Do you mean a boyfriend...?" "No, Muslims don't have intimate relationships before marriage so I'm free in that aspect! I meant a girl-friend, is that ok?" Hell, yes. "Sure, that'd be nice. So you'll come? It's at a restaurant, I could give you a map an-" "Yes, that'd be wonderful". And it was.
It took me a whole of three years of restraint and preparation to pop the question. I hate that phrase, 'pop the question'. She had met most of my friends, I had met most of hers. A few times in passing, she'd given the "salaam" hello to my mum, my younger brother, and I met her mother, so we had covered some ground work, I think we were comfortable with each other. In all that time I was still thinking hard about Islam too, I knew that being an "outsider" of the religion, meant I couldn't marry her. Now that I think about it, if I had asked for something else, really pushed for another relationship, that would've been beneath my ethics. I didn't know I had ethics. Or morals. She told me from the Qur'an that 'believing men were to marry believing women' so in marriage it doubled the power of faith. She also said that converting to Islam to marry a Muslim was a vain reason but people did do that or they were pressured into it. I didn't want to be one of those Muslims she complained about. "Those Muslims that say one thing, and do another, it's hypocrisy. They preach peace but teach their children that anyone alien is a kaafir and belongs in hell. Marriages are a sham - Muslim men are supposed to be protectors of their wives and wives are meant to be loyal, but look at it around you, it's so disappointing." She wasn't so happy after all, she was just trying to stay upbeat despite what she saw. With an attitude like that I did a double-take on whether she was up for marriage. I knew I was. My family were going to be massively shocked, I knew someone somewhere would have a heart attack and it'd be because of me.
For myself, for my own peace of mind, I went through a spiritual retreat, a mental retreat really. I had already had more than two years of soul-searching, because I would read the things my friends told me, especially about marriage, war - the things they said were contradicted in the news; and then after meeting her, I spent over a year reading a translation of the Qur'an, beginning to understand what life's goals were, who God was. I had that next goal-post to achieve and this time it was more solid, something that made me more of a man, I was really huffed up. She smiled at me so deeply but she'd never say anything to help me know for sure that she felt anything for me. But I knew I had strong feelings for her so I was looking for an ally, I guess. I felt like the Prophet ﷺ sat in a cave, finding contentment, waiting for a sign, a light. Do I trust in God? Should I be a "believing man"? Should I hold myself "accountable"? Would God then allow me to marry her? Would I make a good Muslim? My head jumbled with these questions and my heart kept saying yes, it would shout in reply: yes! I asked one of my Muslim friends how one went about the painful procedure - he laughed at me for calling it that - so he took me to a mosque, a beautiful white one with a fading greed dome. I sat there without shoes in front of a dozen men and imam (religious leader) who asked me to recite the shahadah (testimony of faith) after him.
أشهد أن لا إله إلا الله و أشهد أن محمد رسول الله
"I bear witness that there is no God but Allah,
and I bear witness that Muhammad is Allah's servant and Messenger"
And that's it, I was, I am a Muslim. The thing with conversion which the Muslims don't tell you is that it first comes from the heart - anyone could say those words but our hearts are what really testify. People congratulate you but they don't know for sure what's going on in your heart. After saying my shahadah waves of strong emotions rushed over me, and at the risk of sounding effeminate I can say I had to struggle to fight back the tears! That was my jihad too, you know, even so early on. I still fumble with using the Muslim sayings sometimes in public, I'm getting more confident with it though. I fear I'm not saying them properly but my imam jokes I'm making pretty dedicated progress 'for a lawyer'. That's one man I can count on. He's an old soul, may Allah bless him.
I took more time to establish my prayers in my routine work. My imam said it should be the other way around in that my work and day to day routine should fit around my prayers. That was harder to do. I then used my time to give stronger signs to her, ask her about marriage, whether she had anyone in mind, what her future plans were. She would brush them off or turn pink and laugh saying the man that married her was doomed for life. I wanted to be that man badly. Her family told her she was getting on in age and should look to find someone suitable. I know this because they'd say it in front of me and say in Persian that she should "marry an educated boy like me." I didn't know whether they meant me, or just an educated man. A few instances I nearly asked them for her hand but knowing how independent she was, I thought she would misunderstand it as 'oppression' from the new Muslim man, so I stayed quiet.
Half a year after that I couldn't take the complexities of our non-relationship-relationship. I had openly suggested getting married to her friends but they were no help and from their viewpoint, very biased. My imam said I should balance faith in God with faith in action and that if she was the one for me, it would happen insha-Allah (God willing). My friends egged me on, I hadn't mentioned it to my family yet and so at that point, I took the matter into my own hands. I remember drinking loads of water and sweating; my hands became clammy, I felt so small. It's moments like that when you realise how much you depend on God. There is no might or power except with God, Allah plans everything, Allah is in control, I kept saying over and over. I asked her to meet me at a cafe for lunch, "I have a case on an Indian Muslim child I think you'll be interested in, and I wanted your opinion on this Moses-beard I'm breaking into, are you free?" I heard a long pause over the phone until she said, "hmm-hmm, I'll be there in 20 insha-Allah". "Insha-Allah," I replied. C'mon man, you can do this.
Just like the first time I saw her, she jumped through the doors, snagged her top onto something, pulled it, looked up, saw me, and shone. I was in love with her. Muslim men, they have issues with this 'L' word, love. You can fall in love with someone and have absolutely no control over it; I read that it's Allah who controls the heart. But we are in control of our actions. I could take my love and grow with it, or let it destroy me. She sat down, throwing her files onto the other side, looking around, at me, then at the table again. "Salam`alaykum wa rahma", "Wa`alaykumsalam wa rahmatullah!"
"How have you been?"
"Al-hamdulillah" (all praise is for God), she smiled.
"And family? Your friend said you took your mum to the doctor's?"
"Oh yeah, no, it's fine, she had a routine check. Waiting from the last bloody appointment to this one made her more ill. You'd think the NHS would prioritise their waiting lists according to urgency but instead they're ranking up the elderly because they're apparently closer to death. Hasbunullah (God is enough for us), if the medical care doesn't kill us, waiting for it will. Bugger." I still laugh at the way she speaks, or swears. She was serious but entertaining. She was damn cool. And I was still jittery. If I wasn't Muslim, I would've brought my own jackhammer.
We ordered lunch, she ate more, I looked more. And then the moment of truth. I was stupid but I planned that if I asked her before food and she said yes we'd celebrate and be too excited to eat; I eat next to nothing anyway, so I planned to ask her after eating, hopefully in the aim that we'd be more 'settled'.
"I wanted to ask you something but I'm really nervous about how you'll respond." She didn't look up.
I tried again. "Do you remember when I sat next to you years ago on the tube, and I asked about your headscarf, and you became hysterical?"
"That wasn't being hysterical!" I got a reaction, oh thank you God. So now I'm trying to calm her down, right, and build up to asking her the million dollar question.
"But I liked that you were really passionate about it, I like that you're a feisty Muslim woman. Islam needs more women like you!" She said nothing but just grinned and looked at her watch.
"I like many things about you, such as your adherence to Islam's pillars, your modesty, the fact that you can make curse words sound great... And I like how we work together, I think we're good for each other and I see something here. That's actually what I've been trying to hint at for months. I've suggested and dropped signals for what I'm asking you -"
"What are you asking me?" she said, and I began imploding then. I had a mental speech prepared and she cut me off so I had to retrace my calm approach. I felt like a fool.
"I am asking you... to marry me. I know I'm in love with you and I want to marry you, I have been thinking about it for a substantial amount of time and so I'm asking you to marry me. Will you marry me?" Saying marry that many times in a sentence made me sound slow. But she said nothing again, so all her uncharacteristic quietness made me think something was wrong. Maybe I should have asked her parents first. "I really am in love with you, Allah guided me to you, and I hoped you might feel the same? Say something."
She nodded, "Subhan-Allah, I-er. Ok, in honesty I've developed an attraction towards you. I see the compatibility, I too have love for you, in many ways, and marriage appears to be a practical solution." There she went with that scientific breakdown again. I asked her "Do you love me?" She said, "I do." My insides did cartwheels, you know, huge into the sky cartwheels. Then she brought me down, "but I can't marry you."
"That's not an answer. Is something wrong, is it not allowed?" I always thought it was me. I thought I'm the new guy, and the Muslims around often reminded me of that. I assumed I was doing something anti-Islamic. "You said there was an attraction, you thought about marrying me, you said you love me as I love you." She looked down, and she began tearing up. Then my gut began twisting as a list of possible forbidden reasons entered my head. In those seconds I literally began checking off what made her upset, everything from money, family harassment, a juvie-record, my family, my faith, terrorism. Was terrorism why she couldn't marry me? Were we a threat? "Don't cry, please. We'll figure something out, insha-Allah, you're the positive one, have faith you always say. Tell me why you think you can't marry me? Please."
"Your brother asked me to marry him in April and I said yes."
That was 8 months ago. Hearing her say she was going to marry my brother was the strangest thing, and worse than terrorism. But she's always with me. He isn't a Muslim. When did he ask her, he knew I was interested, why would he. She can't marry a non-Muslim. My chest felt tight. "What."
"Your brother asked me to marry him and I accepted. I'm so sorry. He took the shahadah after you but didn't tell anyone because he was afraid of what your family would say, how people would react. He asked me before you did. I promised him, I said yes."
Again, just hearing her say that didn't make sense to me. I was blown. I was broken. When I became a Muslim one of the first struggles was understanding that God is unseen, nothing could comprehend Him because He was God, and He controlled things without our even being aware of it. All of a sudden I felt that God conspired against everything I did for Him. It wasn't rage, it was hurt. I had to blame someone so I blamed God, God hurt me.
More questions hit me and I didn't want to know the answers but I had to now, she just basically said she was engaged to someone else. My brother. My 'Muslim' brother. I wanted to make a martyr out of him. But how dare he do that. He always did this, took things before I could reach them. Steal them from me. This was my goal. She was meant for me. And how dare she; then she became my open enemy. How dare she not say anything for so long and allow me to drop those hints, ask her to marry me. She said she loved me.
"I can't believe this," I really couldn't, it was probably the second time I chugged and was close to crying. "What's wrong with you... Why didn't you tell me? No, first tell me why would you say you love me if you're lying."
"I'm not lying."
"You're in love with one man but agreeing to marry another?"
"That's not how it really is - "
"That's exactly how it is. I don't believe he's a Muslim, you converted him then. Why didn't you tell me?"
"We were going to but I knew you would think it was to hurt you, it all happened without you knowing, I had promised your brother confidentiality."
"And now you've promised yourself to him too, that's great, that's really excellent. You know what, I can't do this. May you have a happy life, together. I can't be here."
I got up, left. It was cowardice, I didn't want to face the reality of it. He got there before me, she was more in love with him, I was just the 'brother' she helped. God. I instantly began looking back over the years and where I could've done something differently, or been more forthcoming about it. Then I was shadowed by this anger that I didn't get what I had been working for in this life, I was dejected for months but couldn't really tell anyone. I got on with life. I had to. I guess it wasn't meant to be, it was part of Allah's decree.
I still see them both, together, a few times a year, at family functions or parties. They wave at me, he gives me a hug and apologises every time I see him, which I get tired of now, like, just let it go, stop feeling sorry for me. Things happen and there's a lesson in everything; I'm still learning as a Muslim, trying to deal with situations the best way I can but this was a huge blow to so many hopes I had tied together. I had mentally prepared a future with her but it was all dust. I think I'm still hoping she'll leave him but that's just my insecurities playing up. Subhan-Allah wa bi hamd, it's ok, I accept it, I always wish them the best. I love them both. I loved her. She said she loved me too, but she married my brother. Allahu akbar (God is greater).'
Liked that? Read: "I regret marrying your mother."
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