They sought answers to questions only known in their hearts. Two Mualafs (or converts to Islam) share their story with Intan Maizura Ahmad Kamal Iman Suzan Lee
FINDING THE LIGHT
“WA’ALAIKUM salam”. Her reply to my initial greeting of “Assalamualaikum” is soft but firm. As Suzan Lee (or Iman Suzan Lee as she is now known) slides open the glass door of her family home for me to enter, I couldn’t help but notice the ornate Chinese prayer altar in one corner of her living room.
She waves me in, and noticing my glance, offers a small reassuring smile as if to say, “that’s quite normal.”
In another part of the house, her father, Robert Lee, sitting erect on a Chinese-style wooden bench, is engrossed in the athletics coverage from the recently concluded London Olympics.
“Dad, Intan’s here for the interview,” Suzan reminds him. Reluctantly, he tears his bespectacled eyes away from the screen to acknowledge my arrival before proceeding to switch off the TV. In a kennel outside, the family dogs are barking but not in a threatening way.
The 65-year-old Lee, a former insurance man before his retirement, is joined by his other daughter, January, Suzan’s younger sibling. “Sorry, mum’s not feeling well so she won’t be joining us for the chat,” she apologises.
Suzan, a graphics artist, is a Chinese mualaf, or convert to Islam. The rest of the family isn’t.
Sister January embraced Christianity while she was still in high school, while mum and dad continue to be staunch Buddhists. The family home is everything you’d expect a Chinese home to be — with the ubiquitous prayer alter, the slashes of red on the doorway and the Chinese paintings.
Suzan may have changed but nothing else has. In fact, her conversion hasn’t affected the family dynamics in the least, says her dad. “Oh, except now we make sure that if we go out to dinner with her, we go to halal restaurants. I still like my pork but I just make sure I have it elsewhere,” he says with a chuckle.
BREAKING THE NEWS
When Suzan broke the news to her father, he was driving her to work. That was four years ago. “I was stunned for a good 30 seconds,” recalls Lee. He didn’t have anything against the religion, but for Suzan to embrace it?
“I was shocked because my daughter had always been a staunch Buddhist. When she was younger she had even told me of her intentions to go to Tibet to pay homage to the monks,” shares Lee. “I remember she said to me, ‘Dad, I want my own faith and I hope you can respect that’.”
After the initial shock, Lee recalled: “I was able to accept her decision. We Chinese pray to our ancestors and some follow Buddha’s teachings. Suzan wanted to have a faith... so why not? But the one thing I did impress upon her was that she had to tell her mum.”
Nodding, Suzan shares: “Dad was the first one I told because I knew he’d be more agreeable to it. Mum would be the opposite. From young, I’ve always known her stance on religion but I decided that it was the right time to break it to her. I just didn’t know how...”
But she did. “I knew that as mum was older, and I am of that age where I can make my own decisions, the chances of her resisting or fighting back would be less. She wasn’t happy, and today, she’s still trying to accept and adapt. But she’s managing.”
Chips in dad: “When I told my daughter to tell her mum, it was more out of respect. Deep inside, I knew my wife would be ok. Why? Because her own family is also a multi-religion family. She has siblings who’ve converted to Christianity and Islam.”
Perhaps she was just disappointed, muses Lee. “It’s not so much a racial thing because my wife grew up in a Malay community during her childhood in Johor Baru. The family stayed in government quarters surrounded by Malays. They were very familiar with Muslim customs and practices. As far as my own family is concerned, I have a Muslim daughter, a Christian daughter and very soon, I think my son who’s now in Melbourne will probably be converting to Shintoism!”
“It took me 10 years of real soul-searching before deciding that Islam was the religion for me,” confides Suzan. “I had so many questions that needed answering. I may not be the smartest person but I am curious by nature. And that triggered my desire to research more on Islam. Things fell into place during the journey.”
She began reading about Islam with a fury. It was difficult at first trying to determine what was accurate and relevant to read and what should be avoided. Fortunately she also had a good friend who gently guided her on her journey.
“The religion didn’t just fall in my lap nor did I suddenly have some vision or a dream in the middle of the night,” says Suzan, smiling. “I remember I asked for signs and my prayers were answered. I was not praying as a Muslim or anything, I was just asking whoever was listening that I needed a religion, a direction.”
Glancing at her father seated next to her, Suzan adds: “My father once told us that to be a whole person, there are four pillars that you should fulfil — you must have respect for your parents, have a good education, good health and be spiritual and have a religion. I thought I had everything but I didn’t have a faith. I needed something solid. The signs came in different forms. I didn’t believe in God at that time but I do remember saying that if it were true God existed, I wanted Him to show me where I should be and what I should do.”
It was the night before Chinese New Year that Suzan resolved to convert. “I woke up in the middle of the night — no, I didn’t have any funny dreams — and the determination to do it was very strong. The next morning, I made some calls to find out where to do it, and then went by myself. I needed to have two witnesses with me so I took my friends. Everything was done within minutes. I felt that I had finally got myself on the right path.”
BEAUTY OF RELIGION
“It’s wonderful,” exclaims Lee, when I ask him about what it’s like to have a multi-religion family. “We get to celebrate all the major celebrations... Hari Raya, Christmas, Chinese New Year... In fact, on Hari Raya, I do give Suzan her duit Raya! And on Chinese New Year, she is also a part of the celebrations.”
Being the only Muslim in the house, Hari Raya for Suzan is a low-key affair. “I do go visiting to my Muslim friends’ house. And I’d bring my mum along because she loves all that rendang and ketupat!”
Whatever religion you abide by, just embrace it and follow it well, concludes Lee. “No religion teaches you to do bad. If you follow it in the right way, and your intentions are pure, you can only be a better person.”
Chua Siew Leng
For communications manager Elaine Aisyah, formerly Chua Siew Leng, it was fated that she would embrace Islam. Now, in her 10th year as a Mualaf, she’s a glowing example of contentment. But, as this mother of three readily shares, her journey hasn’t been easy.
Born into a Buddhist home, she confides: “I always believe that I was fated to convert. In secondary school, I had a lot of Muslim friends. One of my closest friends was a Malay and it was through her that I learnt so much about Islam.”
Her face breaking into a serene smile, Elaine added: “She would tell me about the doa and practices that Muslims observe in their daily life. Later, I got curious and wanted to find out more about the religion. I liked the fact that it wasn’t just a religion but also a way of life.”
Having completed her education, Elaine worked in Singapore. There, she got acquainted with a Chinese Mualaf security guard who also shared with her some of his knowledge about Islam. “He told me that if I wanted to learn more, he would direct me to a Muslim association. You see, at different stages of my life, I met people, who on hindsight, indirectly led me to the religion.”
The pull to the religion was a gradual one, admits Elaine. “When I started to learn and pray, I hadn’t converted. But the praying part really made me realise that I was actually praying to only one god. Being of Taoist faith before, I’d often pray to different deities. At mum’s house, it’d be a deity that looked a certain way, at grandma’s house, it would be a different one. But when I prayed the Muslim way, regardless of where I was, it’d always be the same god that I’d be praying to. That was something that shocked me.”
It did feel strange at the beginning to be praying to “thin air”, confides Elaine, but, “... eventually I realised that for me personally, there was no longer any need for statues or pictures. I embraced the idea that God is all around us.”
BREAKING THE NEWS
The first person she told about her intentions was her aunt and her mother’s younger sister who lived in the US. “I told her first because she has always been a very open person. I needed to seek her advice on how to break the news to my mum because I knew that mum would be absolutely against it.”
Her aunt, recalls Elaine, was shocked initially but eventually respected her decision. “She never tried to dissuade me. I actually wrote to her and then she wrote back and then we called each other. Two weeks after that, I called my mum.”
Elaine converted first before making that call from Singapore to her mother. “I had already been living with my ‘adopted parents’ in Singapore for two years and been learning about Islam. When I decided to convert, I brought along my bapak angkat and abang angkat as witnesses. Then I made the decision to tell my mum.”
Her eyes misting, she confides that the news hit her mum hard. “My mum and dad divorced when I was young. So she raised me as a single mother until I was 7. She pinned all her hopes and aspirations on me and I think when I decided to convert, she thought she’d be losing her daughter, her only hope.”
Elaine recalls that her mother tried everything she could to break her daughter’s resolve. But the attempts were futile.
“I was still in Singapore and didn’t go home for some time. I guess I maintained the distance as I didn’t know how to handle her. But an ustazah friend and my adopted father advised me to go home. They said that no matter what, the family is still important and that I should never distance myself from my mother.”
So Elaine returned. And mum continued with her attempts. “I went back and she continued to force me to eat and drink things that I couldn’t. It was challenging, especially emotionally.”
When Elaine met her then future husband, two years after her conversion, her mother’s hopes were raised. “The first thing she asked was whether he was Chinese,” recalls Elaine. “Actually, my husband is half Chinese. But when I told her that he was a Muslim, her hopes were dashed — again. She thought that once I was married, she would lose all her rights over me.”
Fortunately, Elaine’s husband was very patient. “He knew what I’d gone through and he encouraged me to pray and ask God to open my mum’s heart. When we visited mum, he made it clear to her that she was never going to lose her daughter. He promised her that every month, without fail, he’d take me back to see her. Over time, her resistance softened. Even now that mum has passed away, we still go back to Johor Baru just to show the rest of the family that I’d never be lost to them despite my conversion.”
Today, smiles Elaine, her kids are lucky. They get to celebrate Chinese New Year and also Hari Raya. And they’re appreciative of the different cultures. The family bond has grown stronger as a result of the tribulations and there’s greater tolerance and respect for each other. “No religion, including Islam, advocates breaking up the family unit,” says Elaine. “Things will be tough but just be patient and keep praying for the best. Even hardened hearts will melt when you show compassion.” firstname.lastname@example.org