In the 1970s, throughout the Muslim world, various social and political events were unfolding. One of the most significant was the Iranian Revolution which climaxed in 1979 when Ayatollah Khomeini deposed the Shah of Iran and formed the Islamic Republic. This event in particular gave lots of encouragement and influenced many Islamic activists the world over not just in political activism, but also growing consciousness in social and individual lives.
But typical of the level of Islamic consciousness in Malaysia those days – or rather, the lack of it – to most of us, Islam was just the religion one was born into. Sure, we prayed every day. We also fasted during Ramadhan and then happily followed that with the Hari Raya celebrations. But these were more like rituals and traditions that we just followed and took for granted.
If I may say so, our understanding of the true meaning of being a Muslim was lost upon us. We never gave any serious thought as to what would be the implications of Islam on the way we lead our life, or the way we carry ourselves?
If there was one significant impact on me as a student in the UK – apart from becoming a town planner – it was my new understanding on Islam as being not just a religion, but also a way of life.
To be sure, the signs of Islamic resurgence in Malaysia were already there before I left for UK. I remember Chuck, my class monitor, regaling us with stories during prep-classes about a certain Anwar Ibrahim and his band of young Muslim supporters. And, for the first time, we were seeing young Muslim ladies adorning the tudung.
My journey towards a better understanding of Islam in the UK could be ascribed to the usrah programs organized by my seniors in Blackpool, and then in Manchester. Usrah, in Arabic, basically means the family. But in the context of one’s Islamic awakening, it is more a method for developing the Muslim character and preparation for da’awah responsibilities.
Living in a foreign land, away from the watchful eyes of our parents, it was just as well that we’d occasionally have our little usrah gatherings where we’d read the Quran and discuss some Islamic-related topics. It helped to develop our limited knowledge of Islam.
But it also served to foster our ukhuwah or bond of friendship and the sense of togetherness and cooperation amongst us. For example, to ensure continuous supply of halal meat for our little community in Blackpool, we worked out a duty roster whereby every fortnight two of us guys would travel to a city called Preston to purchase two weeks’ supply of chicken and mutton. We organized a prayer room for use by all Muslim students in the college which included arranging for the weekly Friday prayers.
Barely a few months after arriving in Blackpool, we were already onto our first project together which was to organize an exhibition on Islam at the college main hall. The highlight of the program was to be a talk by Cat Stevens, the famous British singer-songwriter, who a few years earlier had converted to Islam and assumed the name Yusuf Islam. Alas, Yusuf couldn’t turn up at the last minute.
The initiative for our usrah get-together could be credited to the Islamic Representative Council or the IRC. The IRC was an Islamic body formed by Malaysian students in the UK in the early 1970s. During its heydays the IRC was instrumental in helping new Malaysian students to settle down in UK. But more importantly, it helped the young impressionable students to cushion the culture shock by bringing them close to Islam.
I managed to join some of their programs in Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester. Printing and binding of bulletins were some of the chores that were assigned to us younger students. In line with the Sunnah of the Prophet, it was common those days for the guys to grow beards – or at least tried to. Most sisters wore the jubbah which was an ankle-length, robe-like garment and complemented with the tudung labuh, or the hijab.
Another notable student body was the Federation of Student Islamic Societies, or FOSIS. This was a national umbrella organization for Islamic societies at colleges and universities throughout UK. FOSIS Conferences saw Muslim students of various nationalities getting together to discuss issues facing the Muslim world and plan programs. I followed my seniors once or twice to the FOSIS Winter Conferences held at Dewsbury in West Yorkshire. It was through such programs that I got to appreciate the Palestine statehood issues and the Islamist group struggles in various Muslim countries.
Living the life of a Muslim in a non-Muslim majority country had its challenges. For one thing, the liberal attitudes towards social life could prove to be a great, great temptation and a distraction, not just from our studies but our observance of Islamic values. For another, even doing seemingly simple tasks such as performing the daily prayers could be a real test on our resoluteness.
The Brits loved to drink. No, not your mundane coke or the harmless orange juice. I mean alcoholic beverages. When I was staying at the university student hall of residence, during weekends there’d be lots of invitations to potluck parties. And where there’s a party, there was bound to be lots of alcohol. It’s their idea of having a good time. I did have a tough time at first explaining to my English friends that I just don’t drink. I was pretty sure that, initially, they took me as being anti-social or snobbish or something.
With no prayer room provided at public places, performing our prayers away from home could prove tricky. When performing ablution, for example, we had no choice but to lift our feet and wash them in the washbowls at public toilets. Often times we’d get stares and weird looks from the English for this. To pray, we’d have to be smart enough to look for some quite corners away from the crowd and passers-by. If that was not possible, then we’d just have to be bold and lay our jackets down on the ground to act as sajjadah and fulfil our obligations in full view of the public. This usually happened at train stations when we were on long distance travelling.
But for all those challenges, a lot more could be said about the interesting and rewarding experiences of being a Muslim in the UK.
Large British cities used to have a sizeable local Muslim community. They comprised mainly of Pakistani and Bangladeshi migrants. Typically hardworking, most were active in retail, setting up sundry shops and halal butchers which was a boon for us Malaysian students. Interacting with these fellow Muslims and the camaraderie we developed with them was one of the best parts of my stay at Cheetham Hill in Manchester. One friendly Pakistani brother, Mohammed Afzal Khan – who was our butcher then – was active in politics, serving the local Asian interests. I learnt much later that he rose on to become the Lord Mayor of Manchester.
Our local mosque located at No. 443 Cheetham Hill Road was an exceptional place of worship which also acted as a community centre. It was run by the local Pakistani community and was affiliated to the UK Islamic Mission. The bespectacled imam, who wore a long flowing beard, was specially brought in from Pakistan.
During Ramadhan we’d all break our fast together down in the basement of the mosque and the iftar spread which was a combination of Malaysian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi favourites, was a sight to behold – very diverse as it was delicious. The fact that fasting in UK during summer was a tough test on our stamina and patience for the extra-long hours of abstinence from food and drink – sometimes up to eighteen hours – made the iftar sessions a very happy and jovial occasion for all.
Come Aidil Fitri it would be an even more joyous occasion. Everyone would try to be dressed in their best national attires. But if the auspicious day fell on a working day, it was a quick Aidil Fitri prayer at the mosque and then everyone would be on their way to work, or classes in our case.
It was through one of the Pakistani brothers that I also started dabbling in Arabic. Lessons were held at an old office block in downtown Manchester, not far from the famous Manchester Arndale shopping centre. I didn’t quite catch up and were miles away from becoming a proper student of the language. But it did further spur my interest in this language of the Qurán for me to continue my lifelong learning process.
As a norm, products of the formal British education system should be expected to return to Malaysia all full of poise and confidence, with a touch of Anglophile. But as fate would have it, I also underwent a life changing experience, one that would shape my whole outlook towards my religion, Islam. And for that, I am ever grateful to my Creator.