Did the prophet Jesus consider any food forbidden?

Many have suggested to me that Jesus advocated the same food laws as Mohammed and Moses. The gospel of Mark, however, tells another story:

The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus and saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. (The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. When they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.)

So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, “Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with defiled hands?”

He replied, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written:

“‘These people honour me with their lips,
    but their hearts are far from me.
They worship me in vain;
    their teachings are merely human rules.’

You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.”

And he continued, “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! For Moses said, ‘Honour your father and mother,’ and, ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’ But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is Corban (that is, devoted to God)—  then you no longer let them do anything for their father or mother. Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that.”

Again Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.”

After he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about this parable. “Are you so dull?” he asked. “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.” (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.)

He went on: “What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person.”

A visual guide to Muslim head coverings

hijab-burkaNot all hijab (head coverings) are burkas. It’s important to know the difference, especially if you’re going to shoot your mouth off about them. Burkas are the most extreme form of head covering, as they mask the eyes, but they are also the least common, at least where I live.

Speaking of Jesus in more Arabic ways

arabic-crucifixionI have been finding it interesting to explore how the greetings and affirmations of the New Testament authors sound when phrased in a more Arabic ways. Consider these examples:

Salam to all of you who are in al-Masih (1 Peter 5:14)

Mercy and salam to you from Allah our Father and from Ar-Rabb Isa al-Masih. (Romans 1:7)

For the law was given through Musa; mercy and truth came through Isa al-Masih. (John 1:17)

Accept one another, then, just as al-Masih accepted you, in order to bring praise to Allah. (Romans 15:7)

My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Ar-Rabb Isa al-Masih must not show favoritism. (James 2:1)

But we preach al-Masih crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to the nations. (1 Corinthians 1:23)

But Allah demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, al-Masih died for us. (Romans 5:8)

If you are insulted because of the name of al Masih, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of Allah rests on you. (1 Peter 4:14)

Praise be to the Allah and Father of our Ar-Rabb Isa al-Masih! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Isa al-Masih from the dead (1 Peter 1:3)

But in your hearts revere al Masih as Ar-Rabb. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15)

Yet for us there is but one Allah, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Ar-Rabb, Isa al-Masih, through whom all things came and through whom we live. (1 Corinthians 8:6)

Maybe you find this language confronting? Maybe you find it thought provoking? Maybe you struggle to connect with it? Whatever your response, please share.

Practicing reconciliation between Muslims and Christians

breaking breadAs a moderator of the The Christian-Muslim Interfaith Bridge it shouldn’t be any surprise that I’m interested in how we practically practice (yes, I know I’m verging on tautology) reconciliation between Muslims and Christians. Recently I came across these comments in Peace-Building by, between, and beyond Muslims and Evangelical Christians by Mohammed Abu-Nimer and David Augsburger (Editors):

“There are a wide range of forgiveness practices and rituals in both religious communities. Some are similar, perhaps parallel; others unique in character and practice. In their description of rituals of reconciliation, you Irani and Funk (2001, P. 187) portray the powerful rituals of sulh (settlement), musalaha (reconciliation), musalaha (exchange of handshakes), and mumalaha (breaking bread together) that demonstrate forgiveness and further reconciliation with the language of bitter coffee shared and broken bread together. Each group possesses a vocabulary and a set of practices that facilitate the offering and reception remorse, repentance, and a desire to return to relationship and reconciliation. Dialogue on the nature of these practices and their unique strengths to resolve injury is a central task of interfaith conversation on peacemaking.”

The mention of breaking bread resonated with me deeply given I take Acts 2 as a pretty good description of authentic Christian community:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

Breaking bread isn’t a practice that should just be practiced with people we are already reconciled with. It can be an act of reconciliation in itself.

Hot under the collar over dress codes?

dress-codes.jpgThere have been some vigorous debates over dress codes lately but I have to ask, what would a universally acceptable dress code even look like? In some (sub)cultures full body coverings including face coverings are mandatory for all. In some (sub)cultures clothing is optional. Two extremes on a spectrum. In my own culture jeans and shirts are the norm, with bearing shoulders and midriff common in summer in informal settings. Head coverings are acceptable but face coverings of any sort are seen as subversive and banned in high security areas. Conversely, full nudity is also considered subversive but permitted in some, more isolated areas. Breast feeding in public is generally acceptable but discreetness while doing so is considered more polite than just lobbing them out. While some countries, such as France, are taking a draconian attitude towards one end of the spectrum, other countries, such as Saudi Arabia take an even more draconian attitude towards the other end of the spectrum. I expect most countries are at different points along that spectrum. I know this is an emotive topic, especially at the moment, but I always seek the bigger picture and what I see is that it may be very difficult to find somethings everyone agrees with. If we just say each to his own, let’s think of what that means. It means naked folk and 100% covered folk potentially occupying the same spaces and everyone being okay with that. The truth is most societies draw boundaries at some point. As an Aussie I’m comfortable where my society draws boundaries – tolerates most things but draws the line on 100% covering and 0% covering in select contexts. But I know I’d be a fool to universalise my expectations. What’s the answer though? I don’t know.

What are the five pillars of Islam?

Five pillars of islamIf you know nothing else about Islamic ritual and practice make sure you know this. These are known as the five pillars of Islam.

Shahadah: declaring there is no god except God and that Muhammad is God’s Messenger

Salat: ritual prayer five times a day

Zakat: giving 2.5% of one’s savings to the poor and needy

Sawm: fasting and self-control during the holy month of Ramadan

Hajj: pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in a lifetime if one is able

Who do archaeologists think built the Kaaba?

muslim-kaaba-meccaSomething had always puzzled me. Why do Muslims consider the Kaaba so sacred when it functioned as a pagan temple before Mohammed conquered Mecca?

So I asked some Muslim friends.

They informed me the Kaaba held the status it did amongst Muslims because (according to their history) it was built by Ibrahim and Ishmael in dedication to Allah. That what Mohammed did was “restore” the Kaaba to its true and original function.

This only raised another question. Is there any archaeological evidence to support the claim that Ibrahim and Ishmael built the Kaaba rather than local pagans? The answers I received weren’t particularly enlightening one way or the other.

So I put that second question to you. I have to say I am sceptical. But I am open to being swayed if there is any solid archaeological evidence that predates Mohammed’s conquest of Mecca.

Why is female circumcision practiced by some Muslims and not others?

Female circumcision is widely associated with Muslims in Western consciousness, but in truth the practice of female circumcision varies widely between different Muslim communities. Why is this?

Well, I came across an intriguing explanation for this in “The Third Choice: Islam, Dhimmitude and Freedom” by Mark Durie. Mark writes:

“The modern distribution of female circumcision among Muslims cannot be explained in terms of geography, nor in terms of pre-existing cultures before the arrival of Islam. The Acehnese in Indonesia were Hindus before converting to Islam, yet they practice female circumcision, while Indian Muslims, who also converted out of Hinduism, do not generally follow the practice. The simple explanation for the distribution of female circumcision among Muslims in the world today is that, while all four schools of Sunni Islam allow the practice, it is only the Shafi‘i school which makes it mandatory. Wherever female circumcision is widely practiced among Muslims, this is a region where the Shafi’i version of Sharia law prevails. In this case it is belief which determines behavior, not perfectly, but to a very significant degree.”

I have since had many Muslim acquaintances affirm that many of the differences in the ways Muslims practice Islam can be attributed to different schools of jurisprudence. So there you go.

What is your favourite story about Mohammed?

This is a question I like to ask of Muslims, “What is your favourite story about Mohammed?” It is true, isn’t it, that most stories we Christians hear about Mohammed are negative. This is understandable. Negative stories help us Christians feel comfortable with our rejection of Islam as a way of life. But if we hope to understand Islam, if we hope to understand our Muslim neighbours, it is important to listen to their heart stories. The stories that draw Muslims towards Mohammed and the way of Islam. Here is one story a Muslim told me:

A long time ago, there lived an old woman who was carrying a heavy load along the road in the desert. It was a bit difficult for her, but she was managing as best as she could. A young man asked if he could help her with her load, and she readily obliged. Here is the conversation that transpired:

“It would be such a pleasure to have you come alone with me. I accept your gracious offer of kindness and company,” she said. She was a very talkative woman, and the young man did not want to interrupt her. So, he let her speak the entire time they were together without interruption

“But as we walk along young man and as you help me with my load, I have only one request as we travel down this road: Don’t talk to me about Muhammad! Because of him there is no peace and I have trouble in my mind. So, don’t talk to me about Muhammad! And as we walk along together, we will get along just fine.”

She continued:

“That man upsets me so, so much more than you could know! I hear of his name and reputation every where I go. Though his family and his clan once knew him as an honest man, he’s dividing everyone with his claim that God is one!”

“He’s misled all the weak, the poor, and the slaves. They think they’ve all found wealth and freedom by following his way!” she sarcastically snorted.

“He’s corrupted all of our youth with his twisted brand of truth. He’s convinced them that they all are strong and gave them somewhere to belong. So, don’t you dare talk to me about Muhammad!”

They reached their destination, and the man helped the woman put away her belongings. The old woman, with a wide smile of gratitude at this stranger’s kindness, turned to him and said,

“Thank you now, young man. You’ve really been so kind. That generosity and smile is very rare to find now a days. Let me give you some advice, since you’ve been so very nice to me. Stay away from Muhammad. Don’t heed his word or emulate his way. If you do, you will never have true peace, and all you will find is trouble.”

As the young man turned to walk away, she stopped him: “Now before we part and go, if it’s alright just the same, may I ask my dear young man, who are you? What’s your name?”

He told her, and she stopped dead in her tracks.

“Forgive me, but what was that? Your words weren’t very clear. My ears are getting old, and sometimes I have a hard time hearing. You know, it’s truly rather funny, but I’m sure I must be wrong. Yet, I thought I heard you said that your name is Muhammad.”

“I am Muhammad,” the Prophet (peace be upon him) told the old woman.


A Muslim Shares His Story

Are you ever curious about the world beyond your own backyard? About religions other than your own? About spiritual journeys unlike your own? If so, you may be interested to hear that I have invited a number of friends to guest post on Curious Christianity and share some of their stories with us, to give us their insiders perspective on alternative paths. The first is from Terence Nunis, a Muslim whom I have grown to respect for his articulate and always curtious conversations.
Terence’s Story
This is a record of my journey as a Muslim. I used to be Catholic and belonged to a missionary organisation. After my conversion, I sat on the board of a Muslim converts’ organisation and specialised in da’wah programmes, convert management, interfaith issues and apostasy cases. I am an initiate of a Sufi order.
The following is my conversion story.  It is quite long.  But then conversions are complicated things.  One moment, you see the twilight and then the dawn creeps up on you and you never realised that the exact moment when the sun actually rose above the horizon.  That is what realisation is about.  But like many things, there has to be a catalyst.
The Start of the Journey
When I was 16 years old, I had a disagreement with my parents.  It was not a violent fight or anything of that sort, merely a disagreement.  In the end, I decided to move out.  A lot of things happened along the way.  In any case, I ended up at a course called Nautical Studies at Singapore Polytechnic.
The interesting thing about this course is that you did not have to pay.  It was an apprenticeship.  The shipping company paid you to study and in the end, you became a navigation officer.  The apprentice spent three months in the polytechnic learning enough so that he does not get himself and others killed and then he was shipped off to sea to learn the rest on the job.
It was during these three months that I got involved with the Legion of Mary, Legio Mariae.  At that time, since I was going out to sea, I was only an associate member.  But I had the handbook and the associated reading materials and I picked up everything else rather quickly.
The Merchant Navy
My first ship was older than I was by several months.  At that time, it was the largest vessel I had ever seen.  She was 230 m long, 32 m broad and skipped the waves at 24 knots.  She was a bluish grey in some places, all rust in most others.  She was a container ship.  After her, I eventually served on two flagship vessels of over 300 m length overall and about 80,000 mt deadweight tonnage.
There are people who would sail years and a lifetime without seeing anything.  It was all routines, sailings, coastings and berthings.  I was not one of those.  I craved adventure, I sought danger.  Basically, I was an idiot.  God, in His Infinite Wisdom, Answered my prayers.
It was July, 1995.  The Coral was just out of the Pillars of Hercules, Gibraltar into the North Sea when we had reports of possible inclement weather off the Bay of Biscay.  It was the period between Christmas and New Year.  We were out at sea sailing to the New World.  There was a wild party in the mess.  It was my first Atlantic crossing.  I had too much to drink well before midnight.  I had the 0400h – 0800h watch with the Chief Mate.
At 0100h Local Time, I was called to the bridge to prepare to take the wheel off auto steering.  I was pissed and I was cranky since it was not supposed to be my watch.  But the captain was an old sea dog and he knew trouble when he saw it.  The meteorological report indicated lightly increased sea state on the Beaufort scale with moderate winds.  It was force 6.  Force 8 is a gale.  Anything above that and we would be in a world of terror.  By the time the night was over, we would see force 12.
The crew were roused.  The boatswain was on deck with every man that could be spared to secure everything they could, check the lashings and make sure the water-tight doors were shut.  The engine room was manned and they were tightening up things down there.
And then, the sea was unnaturally calm.  The air was crisp and clear.  There was not a cloud visible in the sky.  The Milky Way was a river of silver across the sky and Sagittarius could be seen drawing his bow.  I stood next to the wheel staring at the stars; mentally counting off the constellations of the zodiac that I could see.  And there was always one missing.  The ocean seems unnatural when the sea is like a mirror.  To anyone familiar with the sea, this was a time to get slightly worried.
I was ordered to take the wheel.  And we went from auto steering to manual steering.  The Master (only a landlubber would call him ‘Captain’) formally took over command of the bridge and the 2nd Mate went over to the radar (actually ARPA – Automated Radar Plotting Aid).  The Coral started to pitch more and I noticed that I could no longer see the stars.  All the deck lights were switched on.  Then I started to see the white horses as the sea started to froth.  A white horse is a wave with lots of froth on the crest.  Sailors called them white horses because if you looked at it long enough, you could almost see the horses in the froth before the waves broke.
I asked the Master for the heading to steer, he just told me to keep into the wind.  That was easier said than done since the readings started to go crazy.  It was as if we had entered into another world, a white hell of howling banshees and stinging rain.  We had crossed the Styx and Charon beckoned.
The troughs in the waves started to get deeper and the waves started to tower over them.  The bridge of the ship is as tall as a twelve-storey building from the wharf but we looked up to mountains of white, angry water.  If anyone said he was an atheist, at that moment, he would know there is a God and He is an Angry God.
I was relieved after a while and sent down to the under-deck passage, which had started to flood.  There was a breach somewhere or the bilges were overflowing.  We were welding like crazy in the engine room and struggling to keep the pumps moving, trying to patch things up.  Lashings came loose and drums of grease were flying around in the lower deck.  The under-deck was moving like a subway train coming round the bend.  The beams were groaning and the metal was starting to scream.  Every time a wave hit, I could almost see the steel bulge and it was raining rust, water and lube oil.
I was recalled to the bridge after two hours.  The replacement helmsman was sea sick and looked pretty banged up.  We were rolling almost 30 degrees and the bridge wings were inundated with water.  The bridge wings are ten storeys above the sea on normal days.  I had to be secured to the wheel.  The radar was useless since it just picked up sea clutter because of the towering waves and we had no idea where we were, just the middle of the Atlantic, somewhere south of where the Titanic sank, amidst a winter gale that was not supposed to be there.  I was a deck cadet in those days, on my first ship and my first voyage.  There was a lot going on that I did not know.  I was only concerned about holding on to the wheel and trying to believe I was actually steering.
On the VHF radio, they knew there were several other vessels out there but if anyone stuck their hand out in the wind and spray, there was nothing to see but white.  The rain was like ice needles and the waves made going out treacherous.  At that moment, I began to pray.  I said every prayer and several hundred Hail Mary’s more.  I repented for every sin did and several others I was sure I had not done yet.
There was a loud scream of metal and the starboard gangway was gone.  The forward mast seemed gone.  First it was there, the next minute it was gone.  Or at least the topmost third of it.  The containers in front of the bridge started to vibrate.  The lashing bars started to snap.  The vibrations had loosened the turnbuckles on the lashings.  One of them seemed to be heading straight towards me on the bridge like a huge spear before a giant wave took it away.
Then we lost steering.  The steering motor was not responding and there was no way to tell if it was a mechanical failure or if the rudder was gone – which was unlikely.  The Coral started to go broadside to the swell.  The roll became worse.  Every time the vessel started to return to the upright, another wave smacked us down.  If this continued, we would capsize.  The Master was screaming out steering commands but there was nothing I could do since there was no steering control.  We could only look to the port and see the white wall of the ocean come closer and closer with every roll.  At that moment, I was pretty sure we were all going to drown.
Jumping into winter seas will either kill you because you have every bone in your body broken by the waves or you simply suffer hypothermia – you fall asleep after being stung by thousands of icy needles and never wake up.  It is never like what you see in that final scene from Titanic.
The roll of the ship was too much to lower the life boats from the davit safely.  They would either get smashed on the ship side or the waves would take them.  I saw gratings, lashings and perhaps the odd container or two washed overboard.  There was as much chance as finding a pig in the kosher deli than a life raft or life buoy left.
The Master called for the stations to abandon ship.  The Chief Mate reported that the starboard lifeboat could not be launched without a tackle.  The davit was cracked.  The 3rd Mate came back that the port life boat was in two pieces.  We were all in life jackets with no place to go, which was fortunate on hindsight.  We had less chance of surviving in open-top life boats in those kinds of conditions then we did on a semi-stricken vessel.  At that moment, said vessel was like a small piece of wood in a tub with a three-year-old.
The next two hours were the longest in my life.  I had my life flash by with several season’s worth of reruns.  And that state, you think about the most innocuous things, the most incongruous, the most mundane.  I thought about the people left behind in Singapore; how he vowed he would never go home.  But most of all, I thought about what happens when you die.  I had a Bible somewhere in my cabin.  Maybe if I did get out of this, I would actually read it again.  It was something I had left off since I joined ship.
By the end of it, I am still unsure as to what happened next.  But the Chief Engineer had run into the steering flat to restore steering manually.  Communicating with the bridge, he managed to bring the vessel towards the wind.  They managed to restore the steering and I took over.  And then the communications went dead with the steering flat.
After an eternity and a day, the seas started to calm.  The winds died down.  I was relieved from duty as helmsman.  I could actually see the twilight, the teaser before the sun would rise.  The stars were still up there, silent witness.  But the sky was starting to lighten.  It was past four in the morning perhaps.  And if the roller-coaster ride from hell began at 0130h Local Time according to the log, those 3 hours seemed a lot longer.
We did muster as soon as feasible.  One of the cadets was missing.  After a search, we found him in his cabin.  There was puke everywhere.  He was hiding under the bunk mumbling some nonsense about mothers and deserts.  He signed off the next call in Singapore and never went near a boat ever again as far as I knew.
The Coral steamed into New York harbour several days late.  The engine almost died within sight of the Statue of Liberty.  That lady with the torch never looked so good.  Tugs had to help tow us in.  The ship was battered, with every fitting on the starboard side scoured clean off, no stanchions, no gangway, no pilot ladder.  The forward mast was a third shorter, several containers were missing; many more were crumpled and cracked.  One of the anchor lashings had snapped and the anchor had gouged new holes above the bow thruster and bulbous bow.
When I went back to the cabin, I picked up my bible for the first time in many years.  It was the first time in a long while that I actually read the name on the inside.  All these years, I had taken my sister’s copy.
Looking back, that first voyage was rather eventful.  I remember being in Sri Lanka at the height of the civil war.  I did some crazy things there.  I so desperately wanted to see the shore after a short voyage across the Lakshadweep that I actually climbed down the mooring rope to go ashore.  I could have been fired for that.  I was with another cadet and we were holed up in the Pink Elephant bar at the Hilton hotel whilst Colombo was under siege by the Tamil Tigers.  We got rip roaring drunk and I paid a tuk tuk driver a USD 100 to break the curfew so that we could get back to the ship on time.  I was more afraid of the captain than being shot at by the Sri Lankan military or the Tamil Tigers.  All that to deliver a package.
The Tamil Tigers had artillery and they tried to shell the outskirts of the city as well as the harbour.  They had sampans filled with explosives and they tried to ram ships entering the port.  We would read the incidence reports on the teletext before we entered pilot stations and it would be bloody reading.  But it was also off Dondra Head, south of Sri Lanka that I saw millions of fish come out to spawn at moonlight.  It was eerily beautiful and the ocean turned silver.  Nature did what it did and the war did not matter.
We still had pirates in the West Coast of Africa all the way past Socotra on the way to Bab al-Mandab.  I have kept countless pirate watches, sitting at the forward or aft mooring stations doing nothing but sharpening my knife.  I always kept a knife with me whilst on deck, like any of the crew.  It was useful for anything from cutting ropes to opening grease drums.  But we were a container ship going full-steam.  There was never any real danger of us being caught by pirates in the open sea.
There were days crossing the great green of the Mediterranean, when I would sit at the forecastle, watching the sun set.  The dolphins would race past us chasing the flying fish.  The skies would turn from red to purple and then blue and you could see the stars peek out shyly.  Orion the Great Hunter would be on the equinoctial, the celestial equator, there holding the lion in one hand and his great sword in the other.  One of the first constellations noticeable would invariably be Scorpio, the great scorpion of the heavens.  And then, one by one, the rest of the celestial map would unfurl and the starts would be there like old friends.
Those were the best times and those were the painfully loneliest times.  I remembered the girl I liked that I left behind in Singapore.  I thought about my family.  My grandmother.  Mostly, I felt empty, as if I was missing something.  Times like this, you can have amazing conversations with yourself with only the howling wind over the gunwale to keep you company.  I spent my navigations watches at night on the bridge wing or the monkey island, just beneath the aft mast.  I spoke to God, I had soliloquies with Jesus (a.s.) and I debated philosophy, theology and life with the other personalities in my head.
Navigation is a specialist skill.  It takes nerves of steel and a calm head to manoeuvre a 300 m vessel with minimal clearing room in crowded waters all over the world.  Steering in Suez, for example, there is only a clearance of ½ degree port or starboard and down the Elbe, the currents make it tricky and a vessel can easily go aground.  Sometimes, we make mistakes.  The idea being to fix it and not panic.  Situations do occur.
In the few short years I spent sailing, I had the education of the world.  I had seen the aftermath of war and natural disasters.  But I had also see the sun rise and set on a thousand different places.  I had been to every continent except Antarctica.  I had met all sorts of people and been to all kinds of delves and known every type of place of disrepute.  One thing I had a healthy contempt of, were Muslim societies.  Many of the worst places I had been were Muslim.
When my ship visited Jeddah, the port officials made it difficult for us to go ashore because this was a ‘holy’ place and we were ‘infidels’.  We could not walk on deck with our scapular or cross or any symbol of the unbelievers.  It was an alien world of hypocrisy and arrogance.  We had to bribe the port officials of many of these Muslim nations so that they did not make things difficult for us.  Bribes included Marlboro cigarettes, cash and bottles of Jack Daniels.  Needless to say, I did not think much of Islam or Muslims.  The only friend I really had was my Bible and the only person I could speak to was Jesus (a.s.).
Back in Singapore
When I got back to Singapore after more than 3 years overseas, I had a year to complete the Diploma in Nautical Studies.  There are for too many things to actually write about.  To pay the rent and my bills, I worked at the port as a stevedore and was part of the container lashing gang.  It was a difficult, dirty job that paid well.  It also meant that I was mostly late for the morning class since I worked a 12-hour shift.  For my second job, I cooked at the restaurant for SGD 10.50 hourly.  In between, I attended church.  Sometimes, it was St. Joseph’s church since it was the church for the Portuguese community in Singapore.  Most times, it was the Church of St. Alphonsus, Novena Church where I followed the novenas and rosaries.  I visited my paternal grandmother fairly often since I felt she was the one that took care of me.  Otherwise, I was distant from the rest of the family.
The Issues of Faith
In 1998 and 1999, I would go to Novena Church, the Church of St. Alphonsus almost every single day.  Most days, I would be there for the morning Mass and the evening Mass.  I memorised the order of Mass, I knew most of the liturgy by heart and I could sing the hymns without the book.  When the priest was celebrating the Mass, I would mouth along the words.
There were days I would be there at night and stay until the early hours of the morning before walking home to where I stayed, at Toa Payoh.  By this time, I hardly drank.  And I had stopped eating pork because it was in the Old Testament.  There were days I fasted just like Jesus (a.s.) did in the Bible – from sunrise to sunset.  But in truth, I had no real idea what I was doing.  I was a Christian who had stopped believing in much of Christianity.
For me, the problem with Christianity is that it did not stand up to intellectual scrutiny.  When we have challenges, we turn to God.  And in doing so, I spent a lot of time reading the Bible and I went a bit further.  I picked up Aramaic and Latin.  It was enough to know what I was reading, not enough to hold a conversation at the grocery store which would be unlikely considering they are dead languages. I read the letter, the epistles, the works and commentaries and supercommentaries of the early Church doctors.  I knew the history of the Church, the denominations, the various churches, the Councils, the Reformation, the Counter-Reformation.  It was like goodly cloth until you took it to scrutiny and then realised that there were holes.
It began with innocent questions of wonder: The crux of the matter was the concept of Divine Will.  If man is condemned because of Original Sin, and is only saved by the Vicarious Sacrifice of Jesus (a.s.) upon the cross, what about those who did not meet him?  Or those who have never met him?  What about children who die before receiving the Sacrament of Baptism?  Is there Salvation?  Or are they condemned?  If man is not saved by good works but by Grace, what is the purpose of good works?
And that led to the Original Sin itself.  If God is Infinitely Merciful, why would He be vindictive and inflict the sins of the father upon the son?  If the sins can be inherited, can the Grace be inherited as well?  And with Original Sin comes the Vicarious Sacrifice.  If God’s Justice cannot be sated except by a perfect sacrifice of the innocent, would that not be a contradiction since there is no justice if one is blamed for the misdeeds of another?  It was like taking a thread to the edge of the cloth and every day, bit by bit, the pieces started to unravel.
When faith is all you have, to realise one day that what you have held on is not correct is a rude shock.  I actually fell sick and was in a state of distress and confusion.  And I had no one to talk to about this.  Except this God who may not be God.  I had read philosophy and was quite familiar with the Western schools and Near Eastern discourse.  In the end, it was Descartes that gave me some semblance of sanity: Cogito ergo sum.  It is commonly translated as, ‘I think, therefore, I am.’  Perhaps, it would be better to say, I think, therefore the thought exists.  As to the ‘I’, it is unproven yet.
Coming back to the concept of the Triune God, the main issue I had was: if Jesus (a.s.) was God and he died on the cross, then did God die?  If ‘God’ died, then he is not my god.  The God who Created the universe, the God of that storm when I was sailing, the God of the heavens that unfolded before me all those years ago could not be so fallible.  He is not God if the universe was sustained when He was absent.  And if Jesus (a.s.) died and God Lived, then Jesus (a.s.) is not God.  I spent many nights thinking about this conundrum.  And thus, Jesus (a.s.) was relegated to a charismatic Pharisee of uncertain origin.
I did a close study of the Bible and each and every one of its books, including the history, the mythology and especially the supposed origins threw much of everything into doubt.  Of no doubt, I was no longer a Christian.  Albeit a Christian who went to Mass twice every single day for two years.  But I had nowhere to go.  I rejected outright the thought of being an atheist or an agnostic.  There was a God and there had to be a reason for Creation.
In the end, I decided to start from scratch and empty the cup since all that I believed was suspect.  The question now was: Is there a God?  After much thought and deliberation, I concluded that there was.  What is the nature of this God and there more than one?  The first nature of God I recognised, was that He Exists.  And the second is that He is the Creator since He Created.  For Him to Create, it meant He had to be Omnipotent.  And if God was Omnipotent, then He is One since were there another God, someone could stop Him and there would be plurality in the laws of Creation.  If God was One and Omnipotent, then He was also Omniscient, since He cannot be Omnipotent if there were even one thing, He was not Aware of.  If such a God were Omnipotent, He must also be Omnipresent.  That immediately ruled out Jesus (a.s.) as God.  And that was all I had to begin with: That God Exists, that He is One, that He is Omnipotent, Omniscient and Omnipresent.  This is a summary of much deliberation and thought over a great period of time.  I had rationalised God, but I did not know Him.
I moved on from Christianity and studied many other religions.  Based on the above, all religions of cyclical time were immediately eliminated from consideration.  All religions of a polytheistic nature were also eliminated.  Christianity was eliminated from consideration and all I had left was – Judaism.  Islam was never on the list.  I did not like the ‘Islam’ portrayed by the Muslims.  Judaism seemed the perfect initial fit.  After all, Christianity developed as a Jewish sect.  And yet, after much study, Judaism itself was found wanting.
One day, the clerk at the finance office asked me, why I never thought of becoming a Muslim.  I replied quite indignantly that I would never, ever convert.  But surely Allah (s.w.t.) has a sense of humour.  One day, I passed by a bookshop in Arab street and on a whim, I bought an English translation of the Qur’an.  I read it on the bus on the way back.  And I could not put it down.  I read it over days afterward and I looked up the exegesis of the passages.  I bought a copy of the story of Muhammad (s.a.w.).  The first sirah book was Martin Ling’s ‘Life of Muhammad’.
It was a shock to the system and I remember that I had a very high fever for days.  I went back to Novena church almost every evening and sat in the pew outside long after the rest of the church was closed.  Only these days, I stayed until well into the morning and I had the King James’ Version of the Bible in one and the ‘Abdullah Yusuf ‘Ali (r.a.) translation in the other.  This went on for several nights.  This Ummah that I read about; that was what I wanted to be part of.  And Jesus (a.s.) was no longer a Pharisee wandering rabbi; he was a prophet of God.  And Muhammad (s.a.w.) was indeed the final Messenger and the evidence of everything, I found in the Bible.  It was in the beginning that I found the end of the search.  Most importantly, the Qur’an is about tawhid.  And the exercise that I had done to find out that God is One was done, perhaps more than 5,000 years earlier by Abraham (a.s.).
Then I read the story of Pharaoh, when the seas closed in, he said, “I believe in the God of Moses.”  And God replied; “Now you believe?  It is too late.  You had every chance before this.”  I remembered that storm in 1994 that began this journey.  But I was given that chance.  I believed in the God of Moses (a.s.), the God of Jesus (a.s.) and finally, the God of Muhammad (s.a.w.).
It was there, alone in the dark, at three in the morning, 1999 that I said the shahadah.  I did the sujud in the church, near the altar.  Not most conventional thing to do.  But that was how my voyage as a Muslim began.