Religion seems a rather alien concept to me. Given my name, Abida, is Arabic, I’m already assumed to be born and to die a Muslim. However it was only a couple of weeks ago that I stepped into a mosque for the first time in my life. My dad was unusual for his generation, unlike many South Asians who were shop-keepers, he was highly educated, naturally gifted in Mathematics and Physics. My dad told me that when he was a small child in India, in those days, he had to swim across the river to get to school every morning, there was no other way. I asked him what would happen if you couldn’t swim? The answer was simple, you wouldn’t get educated. It wasn’t surprising that he was a strong swimmer. The reason that I mention this was that his philosophy was that the most important aspects of life were education, family and kindness. He had his faith but he never thought it necessary to go to mosque and pray, it’s what you do with your life that is of any worth were his thoughts. Given that he drank alcohol, it was bizarre that the one aspect of the Islamic faith that he did strictly abide by was not eating pork.
I’m trying to paint a picture of a non-traditional Muslim family. We had an unusual upbringing, the only non-white family in the village, my dad thought it best that his children didn’t feel segregated, so we celebrated Christmas and Easter like any other normal child. He was multicultural with the opinion that if you live in a country, you should respect their traditions. One memory that makes my friends laugh is when one day out of the blue, I told my teacher that I should be exempt from morning assembly at school because I was Muslim. Really, Abi, she retorted? She smiled and said ok, and I thought great, except I was in this small room with a few other children in total silence. I was so bored, the next day, I decided it wasn’t so bad to sing hymns in assembly. My teacher and friends knew I wouldn’t last five minutes.
We knew dad was dying but nothing really prepared us for what was to follow. We researched the internet and found that we had to bury him within 48 hours, given that a post mortem wasn’t required. With the kindness of family friends who were practicing Muslims, they were able to guide us through the process. In Islamic faith, a dead body has to be washed prior to burial (known as the ghusl) by family members of the same sex. So my brothers had to go to the mosque and wash our fathers dead body, as one can imagine, they found that pretty horrific, but got through it. Then his body was wrapped in white cloth (enshrouding) and placed in the coffin. The men and women are kept separate in two rooms for the prayers (salah), an unusual aspect is that anyone who also uses the mosque for prayers can be present, so there were people that we didn’t know in the rooms. My dad’s coffin came to the women’s room first. I went to the coffin, but when I saw his face it broke my heart, that wasn’t my dad, it was his shell, my sister-in law grabbed my hands and told me to block that image out of my mind, to focus on good memories of him. I didn’t look again. We knelt on the floor, but as I didn’t know how to pray, I just read a few verses of the Quran with a scarf around my head. Then the coffin was moved into the men’s room, on speaker, we listened to a man start chanting. It felt strange to me, as I didn’t see the point in it all, he’s dead, why are we doing this, and why am I separated from my brothers? The worst part was to come, only men can bury, so I wasn’t allowed to go to his grave until the day after.
First and foremost, I’m a human being, no better or less than any other. I’m an ex-scientist, I have my own mind and don’t follow convention. I’m agnostic, I think once you’re dead that’s it, no after life, of course I can’t say that I’m right, because I’m not arrogant and can’t offer proof, it’s just based on intuition. I am however well-brought up and respectful of faith; that day no matter how hard it was, I followed the tradition because it wasn’t about me, but about my dad and doing the right thing. Cremation of the body is forbidden in Islam, but I would prefer that than burial. Once you’re gone, all that’s left is your shell, it doesn’t matter where you’re buried, my dad is in my heart and mind.
When you look at me, you see someone of colour (an Asian woman), if you hear me speak (a Welsh woman), if you read my name (a Muslim woman). Who am I? A human being, none of those questions matters. I always smile when someone asks where I’m from, I simply say nationality or ethnicity (to be politically correct), and what’s your faith? – actual or expected? 🙂
When I heard the news that we would have to switch off dad’s life support, I cried continuously, I feared being there at the end, watching him die, but the strange thing was that it was all very peaceful. When he drew his last breath, for a fraction of a second, I wanted to join him. I don’t fear death, because for me there is no unknown, just peace…