Anisah Georgia Liliou
Disclaimer: This convert story has been published on ChallengeYourSoul.com as is, without being edited. It may promote views & ideas not supported by ChallengeYourSoul.com and/or which are not Islamically correct.
I welcomed Islam into my life at, what people think, a very young age. And yet, bringing back to my memory the years before my conversion, is still a chilling experience for me. In principle, my conversion story may seem similar to many other stories. But what still amazes me is the relation between the events; a proof to the fact that God’s Will prevails, no matter the circumstances.
I was born and brought up in Athens. My parents, like 98% of the people in Greece, are Orthodox Christians. During the first years of my life I cannot remember them being particularly religious. They led a normal family life, which included the occasional visit to the church. The people who reminded us of our responsibility towards our religion were almost always my grandmothers and grandfathers. My mother’s parents were both children of priests and had great knowledge in Christian traditions. In their bedroom, they had converted part of their wardrobe into a church, shelves stocked with images of Jesus, Virgin Mary and various saints. Every night, my grandfather would stand in front of that shelf for a couple of hours, reading with humility the holy book; a picture I will never forget.
As I almost always spent my holidays with them, they introduced me to the routine of reading every night little poems to Virgin Mary. That, however, did not prevent me from having my own spiritual experiences. Up until the age of ten I used to see in my dream the events of the following day, which I thought was something normal. I never did my homework, unless I saw in my dream that my teacher would examine me. So I would do it in the school bus, on the way to school. Sometimes I would see dreams relating to other people’s worries, worries I knew little about. My elder sister probably realises this better than me. Sometimes in the morning I would say to her “I had the weirdest dream”, I would narrate it to her and then forget all about it. She would not forget though, and years later she confessed to me that my dreams had affected her life.
When I was 10 or 11, nothing seemed to go well. We had family problems, school was very hard for me, I had no friends. One night I slowly slid out of my bed and decided to pray for help. I think I spent about 10 minutes just standing there; I was trying to decide who to pray to. “Should I pray to Jesus or Virgin Mary? Saint George or Saint Helen? Or that saint, ‘the protector of children’? But what’s her name?” In the end, I did not pray to anyone that night. My reason was that I did not want to offend anyone by not praying to them. But deep down, I had realized that there was something wrong about this religion.
My parents invested a lot of money in my education, and chose responsible schools that honoured the beliefs of the Christian faith. However, the principle of respecting the faith of the Greeks was more inspired to me in the History class, rather than the Theology class. We had remained Greeks and Christians after a devastating 400-year Turkish occupation, and we clearly owed that to the religious leaders of that time. So, although the Christian faith did not appeal to me, I felt it was my responsibility to show some gratitude by going to the church once in a while. But I never believed that, just by standing there in front of an elderly man dressed in gold who was reciting for two hours was bringing me any closer to salvation.
The huge gap between the message of the scriptures and their application on people’s lives was something that always made me very skeptical. For most of the times, I did agree with the teachings of the biblical stories. But the people around me did not practice what they learnt from the scriptures. Instead, they had invented their own traditional rituals with a lot of symbolic elements, to the extent that everything in their faith remained just that: a symbolism, and not an everyday practice outside the church.
I believed that all the Prophets mentioned in the Bible were indeed the Prophets of God, sent to deliver a divine message. However, this message is not clear in the Bible, and sometimes, it is dangerously contradicting. For example, the Old Testament lists a large number of commandments which Prophet Moses conveyed to his people. The Prophet suffered a lot to deliver these laws and to convince people to follow them. But nowadays we are told that we do not have to follow these laws, as our love for Jesus would be sufficient for our salvation. But wouldn’t it be unreasonable of God to make His dear Messenger go through all this, so that we discard His message today? One has to only see the effect of the prohibited things in the modern world. People are born with perfect lungs, yet they destroy them by smoking. Families fall apart, wives get abused, children become orphans because of some pints of alcohol. And we still think there is no necessity to exclude these from our lives.
Imagine you are a teenager and your parents had to go away for some time. For your own good, they appointed your uncle to keep an eye on you. Your father said to your uncle: “Please, make sure he comes home early, does his homework, does not mix with bad companies, and does not do anything that is wrong”. They then go away. But your uncle does not prove as reliable as your parents thought. Instead, he tells you to do whatever you like. Because you consider your uncle a credible source, you take advantage of the liberties you are given. So, you are getting yourself into real trouble and end up being in a really bad state. Now, although your parents are far away, they can in fact see everything that you do because, if you like, they have installed CCTV cameras all around the house. How would you react if years later you found out they knew you were in this state, yet did not do anything to help you or protect you? Because, being a parent is not just someone that brings you into this world, it is also someone with the responsibility to nurture you and keep you away from evil things. Would you agree that, in that case your parents did not fulfill their responsibility as parents?
The relationship between God and man is similar to the one between parent and child. Through the prophets He gradually introduced us to a number of laws so that we can find peace in this life and get the reward of another life. Our first lesson was the story of Adam and Eve, where we learn that there is an abundance of good things but also a portion of bad things, of which we should be aware and protect ourselves from. The Holy Bible contains the truth, but some parts of it are distorted, either deliberately or by genuine mistake. And by observing people, I found that they preferred the distorted parts and hence, were led astray.
My perception of God was always a God who is Perfect, a God who fulfills His responsibility towards His creation, just as a good parent fulfills his responsibility towards his child. So, I found it irresponsible of God that He would conclude His revelation to us with a book which has so much misguidance in it. How could He stand seeing us falling into sin, disputing with one another on whether He is one or three, without putting the record straight? But on the other hand, I really believed that Christianity was the closest to the truth. I never attempted to study Buddhism, Hinduism or the similar faiths; I believed in Jesus and the rest of the Prophets, and I would be denying them by doing so. Islam had fallen under the same category, because I did not know at the time that Muslims accept all prophets, from Adam to Jesus, and finally Muhammad. In fear of loosing my faith that there is even a God, I remember myself saying, ‘God, show me your true guidance and I will follow it with my heart and soul’. I honestly did not think that God was listening at that moment, but the events of the years to follow proved that God was listening very carefully indeed.
I decided to study graphic design when I was 13, after reading an article about it. Four years later my dream almost reached a dead-end; to be admitted to the university I had to pass tests on maths, physics and chemistry, the subjects I was the worst at. Knowing that I was bound to fail if I followed that route, I started looking anxiously for alternatives. Somebody suggested studying in UK, which I mentioned to my parents. To my surprise, my parents were willing to make the sacrifice and let me go. Although my preparation included 70 hours of studying per week, I realised I was going only when I got to the airport to catch my flight. Most students take a parent with them for the first-day difficulties. I did not do that, because I wanted to avoid becoming too sentimental about the whole experience.
Adjustment did not prove difficult for me, and I probably have my mother to thank for that. She always insisted that I learn foreign languages and at the age of nine I had my first penpal. I grew to correspond with people from all around the world, different cultures, different faiths – a very exciting experience. During my first months in the UK my circle consisted predominately by Greek people. But soon I felt unhappy and wanted to take full advantage of the potential by meeting non-Greek people. Naturally, I left that circle and started interacting with other, to my view, much more interesting people.
Amongst these people was a Muslim student that I had met from the first day there. We used to run into each other all the time; he was always polite and very tactful. Although we were coming from very different backgrounds, we were in the same wavelength and we used to agree in everything apart from religion – I thought. He knew I was very negative about Islam but one day he decided to address the issue of religion in a very delicate manner. He asked me to explain to him the theory of the Trinity and how Jesus can be the son of God.
Under other circumstances I would not make much effort to answer, but that day I really tried my best. I told him everything I had learnt in school and I analysed all the different methodologies that reach the conclusion that there is a Trinity. However, he always managed to answer back with a better argument, because as I discovered later, he knew more about Christianity than me. In a moment of absolute frustration, I uttered these honest words: “If you want to know about the Trinity, you better ask someone who really believes in it. Because I do not believe that Jesus is the son of God, my instinct tells me that he was just a Prophet”. On that he replied, “This is what we believe”. That second my journey in discovering Islam had begun.
I did not allow my friend to preach me about Islam. My whole life I was being preached at and I did not like it - this time I was after constructive dialogue. He was superb in debating and great help in explaining things; two qualities I appreciated much more than preaching. This way I did not feel that I was being led at something or being brainwashed; I followed my own pace. I started studying the basics of Islam, which I compared with Christianity. I never knew there were so many similarities between these two religions. Just as Christianity is the next step from Judaism, only that the Jewish people do not accept Jesus, in the same way Islam is the next step from Christianity, only that the Christians do not accept Muhammad. The main principle of Islam is that there is only one God and Muhammad is His Messenger. I agreed many times with this principle but I kept on studying, sincerely hoping that Muhammad would have said or taught something I did not approve of. But whenever I found such points, after studying them in detail, I discovered that there was always a perfectly reasonable explanation behind them.
Having agreed with the basics, I moved on studying more complicated issues. If I were to accept this faith I wanted to eliminate the chance of regretting it by learning as much as possible about it. As I kept on reading, not only I found in words what I already felt in my heart, but something even more complete in a miraculous way. The authenticity of the message, the wisdom in the divine commandments, the scientific evidence, all added up into a system that could have never been invented by man. This ‘system’ not only solved the problems that I had identified in the Holy Bible, but it unveiled a whole new perspective in leading a life where religion is actually a way of life and not just a part of the jigsaw. Furthermore, if one were to study the commandments in the Bible and then objectively observe the Christians and the Muslims, he would find that the Muslims follow it more to the word, and hence the Muslims are better ‘Christians’ than the Christians.
My conversion to Islam happened in three stages. In the first stage I could see that Islam is a better religion than Christianity, but was scared to admit it. In the second stage I managed to fight my prejudice towards Islam and be honest with myself by saying, “Yes, Islam is definitely better”. But then I did not want to imitate the hypocrites, who say they believe in one thing, yet they do not act upon it or do the opposite. If I really believed that I am a sincere person who does not set double-standards, that was the time to prove it. So, I decided to accept and act upon the truth to which I was guided, and that was the final stage of my conversion.
It took me some time to get used to the idea that I was a Muslim now, but the knowledge I was acquainted with over the years gave me great confidence. Being in peace with my consciousness gave me the strength to deal with any problems that were to come. Unfortunately though, I was so excited over discovering Islam that I thought all Muslims appreciated this gift and honoured it by acting upon it to the letter. Many converts say that if they were to judge Islam by the people and not by the Book, they would have never become Muslims. Indeed, I met many Muslims who looked very religious, yet gave to Islam a bad name by following their cultural tendencies or their individual desires. Some instead of giving support to new Muslims, try to push them towards their own deviated groups that take people outside the fold of Islam. And some even find it difficult to accept that a convert may know more than a born Muslim, and hold grudges when they see that their advice is not followed. But God is all-praiseworthy, who made it a test and a learning experience for me, out of which I came out stronger. For now I can distinguish the good and sincere Muslims, who have good intention in their hearts and many good deeds in their account with the Lord.
I did not make any formal announcement to my family about my conversion; I always considered religion to be a very private thing and had grown to detest the fact that many people in Greece use religion as a social security system. All the people who accept Islam and act upon it notice a good change in their personality. The same happened to me, but unfortunately went unnoticed in my family, because I was always known as a well-mannered and disciplined child. Yet I had changed considerably; I was more patient with people, I was able to resolve arguments in a grown-up manner, I was less stressed and more positive about life. I had gone through problems, I had asked God’s help, even through routes that I found impossible, and He did it for me, He protected me and guided me. And when God is your friend and your helper, you should not fear anything.
My family did not notice all that. But they noticed changes in my diet, my dressing code and my social circle. I did not try to hide the fact I was a Muslim, but I did not make it obvious either. Besides, I was gradually introducing myself into practicing Islam, and I thought that gradual progress is something that works well with everyone. Many children forget that parents are the people who have seen you growing and know you best; and I was not such a child. I could soon sense that my parents knew – my father knew and accepted it, my mother knew and tried to deny it by not thinking about the possibility of it. A convert has to be very sensitive on this issue. Some parents get shocked when their child decides to abandon a major part of the family’s identity. They start blaming themselves, thinking that they were not good parents, thus the child is punishing them by denying the principles that they cultivated in him/her. This is not the case. As other converts’ parents, my parents also brought me up very well, giving me a Christian education because they sincerely believed that it was the best for me. But in school you also learn to build up arguments by weighing the pros and the cons, finally coming to a judgment of whether something is beneficial or not. This is the key to survival in life; if we did this more often, we would save ourselves from a lot of trouble. And this is exactly what I have done. I have put Christianity on one side of the scale, and Islam on the other – and Islam, to my surprise, is a clear winner.
It is not a crucial issue for me whether or not my family accepts the fact that I am a Muslim, because I will always find ways to practice my religion and therefore have peace within myself. If they do not accept it now, they will accept it as years go past, when my ongoing commitment to Islam will be getting more and more obvious. The more I read and learn, the surer I become that I made the right decision – a solid proof that this is not a phase. However, holding on to the reality that I am still the same person, is very essential to me. Unfortunately, a person may be known as sensible and responsible throughout the years, yet when s/he decides to follow a route opposite the establishment, he gets stripped off these qualities. It is an example of the double standards that get applied as a common practice nowadays, but it is only a self-defense mechanism people use to create the pretense that an issue is not there, therefore they do not have to deal with it. I had people around me who knew me very well, had acknowledged the maturity in me and had declared their full trust in me. However, when the news reached them, I became this far-too-young person to take such mature decisions, who had been brainwashed and had no independent will. Hence, a conversion like this is also a real test for relationships, which can have shockingly disappointing outcomes that one ought to be prepared for.
Here it might be interesting to add that after having studied Islam and Christianity for years, I have come up with my own terminology on what makes someone a Muslim or a Christian. A Muslim is someone who believes and accepts the teachings of the Holy Qur’an wholeheartedly; therefore I am confident that I am a Muslim because I do not reject any part of the Qur’an. Similarly, a Christian is someone who accepts the Holy Bible wholeheartedly, but I rarely meet people like that. I personally do not perceive my family as Christian anymore, because each one of them follows his/her own version of Christianity, whether they realise it or not. My mother says that she accepts and believes the Bible, but her whole life has denied studying it, because “belief should be free of investigation”. Therefore, in my view, she does not really know what she believes in. My father also says he accepts the Bible, but uses his intellect to reject parts of it that his own logic does not agree with. My sister’s faith is the most obvious example of all, as she totally rejects the Old Testament because of its content, believes in Trinity, yet when in hardship she does not turn to God/Jesus/Holy Spirit, but to Virgin Mary. So the ‘Trinity’ becomes ‘Tetranity’.
I think there are two main reasons for filtering and adjusting a religion to our own liking; (a) we have misunderstood the principle of religion and therefore we exploit it to our own advantage, or (b) we realise the importance of religion so well that we are prepared to scrutinize it and filter it using the intellect that God has gifted us with. But in this case, when changing it, we indirectly admit that this religion is not perfect. The question is: will we be honest with ourselves and ask for guidance, or will we continue to live in uncertainty because we fear change? Would God really create this perfect world for us to live in, but according to an imperfect system? My hope is that one day my family will raise these questions, but for the time being, they regard themselves as Christians and I ought to respect that. When I go back home, I practice what we are told in the Qur’an: “Unto you your religion, and unto me my religion”, (109:6). Therefore, I put no burden on them, but in return I expect them to put no burden on me, in order to have an ongoing healthy relationship. I do not think that religion is the cause for the evil wars that happen throughout history, but it is the people’s unwillingness to be patient and tolerant with each other.
Before I got to know about Islam, I had created my own framework of what I perceived the perfect religion to be like. I judged everything I learnt and saw according to that; if something did not fit to my own framework, I would reject it, otherwise, I would accept it. Many times I struggled to protect my own framework against the external influences, in order to keep it in the same condition as when I was little – simple and pure. In hindsight I realise that I was protecting the instinct that is granted to every human being, the belief in One God and the will to worship Him only. Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said, “Every child is born with a true faith of Islam (i.e. to worship none but Allah Alone, the One and only God) but his parents convert him to Judaism, Christianity or Paganism.” I believe that the people who convert to Islam are the people who guard this instinct with honesty and know that there is a perfect religion somewhere out there, although they have not heard about it yet. So God rewards them for their honesty and grants them what they have been hoping for. And the people who are lost are those who deny to admit God’s Perfection, thus do not expect anything perfect from Him.
And when it is said to them: “Come to what Allah has revealed and unto the Messenger Muhammad”, they say: “Enough for us is that which we found our fathers following”, even though their fathers had no knowledge whatsoever, and no guidance?