An Icelander’s Journey to Light
In 1997, while studying Arabic in Cairo, one of my English girlfriends, a born-again Christian bought me a portable Bible, with both the Old and New Testaments. I was extremely pleased because I had decided that I needed to know what the Bible was and what was in it. And I felt that I could hardly call myself Christian without consciously studying the Bible.
In 1998, whilst studying at Damascus University, I read the whole Bible, from cover to cover, taking notes as I went along. Once I had completed it, I realized that there were too many inconsistencies, too many things I didn’t agree with. Like the Old Testament’s portrayal of God and women, not to mention all the things that Paul wrote in the New Testament. And when I read about the holy men, the Prophets, like Noah, Lot, David, etc., I found that I didn’t respect them. I love and admire Moses (from the Old Testament) and Jesus (from the New Testament).
Having already read the Torah, I tried getting a complete Jewish Talmud, to no avail. I’d always heard that Jews (except for Reformed) do not recognize someone who converted to Judaism. Also, many, though not all, Jews are Zionist (those who support Israel). And I am terribly anti-Zionist and anti-Israel, and so, by default, pro-Palestinian. I also wanted a religion that would accept a convert. I dabbled with Buddhism but decided this was not for me, as Buddhists don’t believe in God. And I strongly believe in God, always have. Buddhism is still interesting as an alternative way of life. My mum and I used to discuss Hinduism and so I was very interested in it, but there are just too many Hindu gods for me. Therefore Hinduism was out of the question. That, and the fact that you cannot convert to Hinduism.
When I had my son, Andrés Ómar, in October 2001, I was asked whether he would be baptized, and even then I refused. I felt that innocent children would surely be welcome in Heaven, baptized or not. Anyway, how could I introduce him into the Christian religion when I myself did not call myself a believing Christian, though I was born and raised as a Protestant? I didn’t believe in the Trinity, in Mary as the “mother” of God, in Jesus as the “son” of God, in Jesus dying to cleanse us of our sins, in Jesus crying out in Aramaic on the cross: “Eli, Eli, lama sabakh-tha-ni?” I mean why would Jesus cry out: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” when Jesus knew he was sent on a mission by God as a prophet of God?
I grew up being one of the most anti-Muslim, anti-Islam people you could ever meet. This is true: I was. I had also been anti-Arab before moving to Cairo to study Arabic (I thought Arabic calligraphy was beautiful). I’d grown up in the States, raised on American movies, which always portrayed Arabs as fundamentalists, radicals, women-oppressors, religious fanatics, terrorists, never normal, average people. The large majority of people who are anti-Arab have never been to any Arab country. The reality there is very different.
In 1999, I went back to Damascus to work at an embassy. There in 2000, I met an engineer named Mohannad. We married soon after we met. To be honest when I married Mohannad, I married him because I loved him, even though he was Muslim. Over time, I realized I loved him because he was Muslim. A good Muslim. I had met many Muslims here in Denmark and in the Middle East, and just like in my life, I’ve met some nice and not-so-nice Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, etc. I thought all those Muslims I’d met were representing Islam. And whenever I asked Muslims questions about Islam, one thing struck me: Nearly everyone claimed to be an expert in Islam, even those who gave me, I later found out, false information. It would have been more prudent just to say: I don’t know/I’m not sure. Yet I never judged Christianity or any other religion by its followers. Strangely though, I judged Islam by every Arab I meet, even though not all Arabs are Muslim. Some are Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Druze, Coptic, Alawite, etc. And most Muslims aren’t Arab. Muslims can be Indonesian, Indian, Chinese, Macedonian, Malay, Russian, Thai, African, Bosnian, American, Swedish, etc., and of course, Arab. I had been raised not to be prejudiced, but I was. It took me a long time to realize this.
It’s only after countless hours of discussion, and at times arguments, with my husband that I came to be open-minded enough to realize that I didn’t have the full picture.
During Ramadan, November 2002, I asked Mohannad whether he would help me read the Qur’an in Arabic. He had little time, but I was determined to read the Qur’an in Arabic with the help of a good translation. When I read the Qur’an, Islam’s holiest book, I thought it was beautiful, so scientific, so compassionate, so feminist! Nearly all the books I’d ever read about Islam, all written by non-Muslims, showed Islam in a negative light. Those people who wrote against Islam sometimes gave partial quotes from the Qur’an, leaving out the rest of the verse, or they would translate the verses incorrectly, on purpose or by mistake. I knew enough Arabic to know that what I was reading was unlike anything I’d ever read.
So much science, so much knowledge that has been only recently discovered. I mean the Prophet Mohammad mentions: black holes, space travel, DNA and genetic science, evolution (transformation and mutation), geology, oceanography, embryonic development, aquatic origins of life… WOW! I had always heard that the Qur’an was basically just a watered-down version of the Bible, but none of this was in the Bible! I wondered how someone over 1400 years ago could have written anything like this! Some of these ideas were only discovered this century. Then I thought, well, Arab scientists, astronomers, mathematicians, cartographers were so advanced for that time, maybe some of them got together and wrote a book, loosely based on the Torah and the Gospels. But then I studied it further and realized that the Arabic scientific revolution followed the arrival of Islam. Then I read that Muslims believe that the Qur’an was given to Mohammad through the Angel Gabriel, and is the continuation of God’s word. Muslims believe that parts of the Torah and parts of the Gospels, that speak of Jesus’ life, are inspired by God, or “Allah” as God is called in Arabic. Not just Muslims, but Christian and Jewish Arabs also call God “Allah.” Muslims revere Abraham, Solomon, Moses, Jesus, and Noah, in fact, all of the Biblical Prophets. It is also mentioned that there are other prophets that came to other nations to help them become better people. It’s said that Buddha was one of these prophets, but that he along with Jesus, never meant for people to believe he was superior to God, just that he was a messenger of God. They also believe that the Prophet Mohammad is the last prophet, until Jesus returns to Earth.
It says in the Qur’an that Allah can put a veil over our eyes and a stone over our hearts so that we can neither see nor feel the message of the Qur’an. Only when Allah is ready for us to know it, do we understand. On 12 December 2002, I had an incredible dream that started me thinking and contemplating religion more deeply. Dreams are very important in Iceland and dream interpretation is practically a science! I never thought I needed a religion. Religion fascinated me, but I had believed I was doing fine just believing in God, taking bits from different religions until I got my own cocktail: “Anna’s Mix.”
In January 2003, I started looking at the Internet, just doing searches like: “Islam,” “Qur’an,” “Muslim,” etc. In March, whilst in Reykjavík, I got the opportunity to speak with one of my best Icelandic girlfriends, a Muslim, and she recommended a really good English translation (the Abdullah Yusuf Ali version), to go along with the original Arabic. In April, I received it and started using it as a supplement.
In May 2003, my Icelandic Muslim friend returned the visit and stayed two weeks with us. We started talking about the Qur’an. I told her that I wanted to translate it into Icelandic. She told me it was her dream too. We agreed we would do it together. We used our time together well, discussing Christianity, Judaism and Islam all day, every day. She had questioned her Lutheran faith, considered Judaism, visited Israel (“Occupied Palestine” as far as I am concerned) twice, and only on her second visit, started to consider the other side of the Arab-Israeli conflict. She got interested in Islam. She had earlier gone a similar path as I, coming to the same conclusions. Back in 1995, when she told me she’d become Muslim, I behaved badly: I was extremely negative. Shame on me for being unsupportive!
Now I found myself seeing myself Muslim. I told my husband about my revelations, and he questioned me at length. He asked me to wait with changing my religion. He told me that becoming Muslim would make my life more difficult, that people who didn’t know Islam would treat me differently, that at this time, in the year 2003, and in this world we live in, people would ridicule me. He said I might lose contact with my family and my friends if I took on the Muslim faith. He feared that people that didn’t know me so well or that I hadn’t seen in a long time, or ever met him, would think he was forcing me to become Muslim. I told him if that were true, we could not have got married, for when we married, I was Christian, and had remained Christian up until then. Also, I argued, people who have known me at all know I am a strong-minded, true feminist/humanist, that I am opinionated, but not narrow-minded, and that no one can control me… My parents have tried for years to no avail!
I decided then and there that if friends and family didn’t want any contact with me because I decided to become Muslim, so be it! My religion is mine and I am proud of my research into Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam. It has taken me years and countless hours of reading and soul-searching to get to this point. My belief in God is something I have always taken seriously and I have never been ashamed to declare this faith, even when others ridicule me for believing in something they say we cannot see. I argue, look around you, how can you not believe in a supreme being that created everything around us. And for those of you that view Islam as some kind of cult, it isn’t. It’s one of the biggest religions in the world, if not the largest: One in four people on this planet is now Muslim, and it’s the fastest growing religion.
So finally, on 4 June 2003, I decided to officially become Muslim so that I could go on Hajj to Mecca. I had been searching for answers for a long time, since my childhood, and by the mid-1990’s, I was buying books on different faiths. Deep inside, I imagined I would find the answers for me. I remember the first time I heard the “Azan” (the Muslim call for prayer, when a fellow says “Allahu Akbar” (God is Great) from a minaret at a mosque). It was a bright, sunny, February Sunday in Cairo in 1997, so church bells were also ringing, but when I heard the call for prayer, tears streamed down my face, without my realizing it. I wasn’t Muslim, but it moved me. One of my oldest and dearest friends, a Catholic, was in Beirut a while ago, staying at a hotel and woke up to the call for prayer at 4.30 during her first night in Lebanon. She thought it was so moving that she also cried.
When I read the Qur’an, I feel it in my stomach, deep in my gut, that this is right for me. The inspirational beauty of the Qur’an makes me sometimes cry. It’s an all-encompassing way of life. No other religious book ever moved me to tears.
The Qur’an is simply put the most complex book I’ve ever read. The more you read it, the more you both understand and at the same time, question. The Qur’an is meant to inspire you to learn more. Every time you read it, you peel off different layers of understanding. I am not an expert; I never will be. Even if I read from it every day for the rest of my life, I will still learn something new. It’s full of mysteries. I still also supplement my Qur’anic studies with Biblical studies like the “Gospel of Barnabas,” “The Torah,” etc.
I’ve also since got some new Muslim girlfriends over the Internet. Whilst searching the net, I came across an Icelandic Muslim site and I contacted the writer. We started a correspondence. Around New Year’s 2004, I sent her a report I wrote entitled “Islam in Iceland 2003,” which I am submitting to the Saudi Government, she suggested we three work on the translation of the Qur’an from Arabic to Icelandic (Kóraninn), as she also speaks Arabic. So it seems that we will be three Icelandic Muslim women working on translating the Arabic Qur’an.
I did however buy an incredible amount of reading material in Kuala Lumpur. I really stocked up! My husband, son and I stayed a month in Malaysia. What an incredible place! Of Islamic areas, I had only been to the Arab Middle-East and here was a whole new Islamic world in South-East Asia! The experience was wonderful to say the least. I had always been fond of Islamic art and architecture, and all of Malaysia is both an indoor and outdoor museum! Under the Muslim Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, Islam had a revival. He wants to unite all the Islamic countries, not just in a so-called Islamic Union, but he also wants one currency, a gold dinar. What a visionary! Islam needs more men and women like him!
I always try to be positive, so I think it’s a very exciting time, the 21st century! If someone like me can become Muslim, there’s hope for anybody! The friends that I have discussed religion with recently know that I have become Muslim, and without fail, they have been extremely supportive. I was a bit surprised that they were not shocked. They said they knew one day I’d find my niche (I’d been searching so long), and they were happy for me. Some even call me by my new Muslim name: Núr, which means light. I also still use Anna Linda, because it’s the name my parents gave me and it represents part of the person I was for 36 years. Núr is just the continuation of me!
So ends my story: “Journey to Light,” a journey which is, in fact, just beginning!
By Anna Linda Traustadóttir
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