Maybe it was the price of trying to lead a double life, but I was left broken after three consecutive Fridays – the year I turned nineteen. It was in Melbourne, 1997, not long after the start of the academic year. I was psychologically destroyed by a hat trick of khutbahs during weekly Friday prayers in the rooftop Muslim prayer room on my university campus. Each of these Fridays, I sat cross-legged on the wall-to-wall patchwork of prayer rugs amid the pong of freshly bared male Muslim feet. I tried not to make eye contact with the bearded male khatib preaching from the pulpit, whose testosterone-soaked Australian-accented English was punctuated by rapid-fire Arabic quotations from the Qur’an. The first sermon promised hellfire and gory punishments for Muslim women who did not cover their hair. The second, hellfire and eternal damnation for the Jews and the kafirs and all the Muslim ‘hypocrites’ who associated with them. The third focused on homosexuals. ‘They need to be thrown off a tall building,’ said the khatib, with relish.
These three consecutive Fridays, I returned to my room afterwards to sulk alone. It never occurred to me to evaluate any of these claims or even cross-check them with my own copy of the Qur’an. I never considered exposing my unease to anyone else who attended those Friday prayers. And I had no reason to question the accuracy of the verses quoted or their interpretations – I never had and never did. But after the third khutbah in the series, something snapped. I stopped attending the mosque altogether. I stopped praying, even on my own. I stopped reading the Qur’an. I couldn’t fathom why a sacred Book would promise such damnation and hatred towards the people who cared for me, delighted in my company, and were becoming like a surrogate family to me in Australia – ‘free-hair’ women, ‘kafirs’, and ‘homosexuals’.
My elder sister, brother and I were raised in a middle-class Malaysian family by a mother and father who were both teachers and hardened disciplinarians. My siblings and I were academic overachievers at school and university, but this scholarly prowess was undercut by a constant insecurity about our mixed ethnic identity. We were officially classified as Malay but were of mostly Pakistani and Chinese ancestry. We spoke good Malaysian English, bookish Malay, a smattering of Chinese dialect, and non-existent Urdu or Punjabi. When we spoke English or Malay, our accents immediately exposed us as ‘fake’ Malays to other Malaysians. We weren’t very observant Muslims and often revised the truth when quizzed by our Islamic religious instructors – there was, shall we say, a gap between the reported number of times we prayed daily and the actual number of prayers performed. Still, we were semi-observant and aspired to be better Muslims when we grew up. When I got a scholarship from Petronas, the state-owned oil-and-gas company, to study for an engineering degree in Australia, my family blessed my journey and reminded me to seek Allah’s protection and guidance always. As a rite of passage, I was gifted with my own travel-sized Qur’an, the kind my sister and brother received when they started university in Kuala Lumpur.