By Ismael Abdela
I long cherish the day I met this woman as a redefining moment in my life. It was a cold morning (5 years ago) in North London with nothing to look forward to besides the Friday sermon. It very quickly turned into a series of divinely orchestrated happenings that nobody could so perfectly organise besides the Lord of that day! Okay, slightly dramatic, but keep reading ..
Having only recently returned from abroad, I found myself in North London staying over at my Grandma’s house, which has never lost its thrill since childhood. Grandma’s sleepovers were awesome - the only snag growing up was that we all knew a ‘Grandma sleepover’ meant we would relentlessly be woken up for Fajr! But, given the amount of sweets she would stuff our mouths with, it seemed like a profitable trade off. I remember vividly the morning of the 11th of March. My Grandma, ever full of life, and I playfully raced each other to wake the house up for Fajr. I woke up and carefully made my way downstairs in the dark to turn on the hot water and spare us a torturous cold ablution. I hear her whispering from the top of the stairs, “Son, the hot water still isn’t working.” The boiler man had not come yet, much to our frustration. We brave the cold water, pray Fajr and jump back in our warm cozy beds, rescued from the biting cold. I was in the habit of leaving the house after Fajr at the time, but that morning was lethally glacial. My senses convinced me to stay put. I stealthily snuck up next to my Grandma in her much warmer bed, nestling against her like a spoilt child. A few deep inhales and I was sleeping beauty.
It was 11.10am, oh my God, I was late! I hurriedly left the house with my whitest dressing and newly bought Muslim hat, and briskly made my way to the bus stop. I got on the painfully crowded 29 bus. Fortunate enough to fight my way to a seat, I open my Qur’an and begin reading Sūrah Kahf. A couple of stops further I notice an old fragile woman get on the humid bus with enough shopping bags to agitate passengers as they shamelessly barge her side to side. My heart warmed to her. I called her over from the other side to take my seat, and that is where it all started. She returned my gesture with overwhelming gratitude. She left an impression on me whilst struggling to mount herself on the seat.
“Poor woman,” I thought to myself.
“Thank you very, very much,” she finally panted with laboured breath. Mounting the chair exhausted her.
“That’s very kind of you to get up for me,” she added in a soft, just about audible, Italian accent.
“My pleasure, you are like a mother to me, your right is far greater than my gesture,” I politely replied, directly translating an expression from Arabic in my head. It quickly occurred to me how terribly awkward it sounds in English. We just do not speak like that over here. Yet, it seemed to resonate deeply with her. She stared at me while her affectionate smile grew wider and wider, complimenting the reddening blushes on her face. I was humbled. I mean, apart from how adorable this old woman was, I was moved by how refreshingly human she was.
“What’s that you’re reading in your hand?” she asked me.
“Is it the Qur’an?” she said with a smile, beating me to the answer.
“Yes!” I jumped, impressed, increasingly marvelling at this woman. My sympathy for her quickly grew into admiration. A welcome distraction as I close my Qur’an leaving my index finger as a bookmark; she had stolen my attention. She had something about her; I couldn’t put my finger on it just yet.
“I have always wanted to read the Qur’an,” she said. The passenger next to her calmly got up for his stop. I rushed to fill the now empty seat and learn more about her.
“This book is from God to raise our conscience and guide us towards happiness and prosperity,” I said excitedly in a trained, slightly awkward, evangelical tone!
“Yes I have come across many Muslims in my life, they are very nice and courteous to me,” she said.
“That’s very kind of you to say,” I replied.
A barrage of questions flooded into my mind, but she seemed to tell her own story much better, to my attentive ear, so I preferred to listen for now.
“Did you see the news today,” she said in shock holding her wrinkled hands to her mouth.
“What happened in Japan, the earthquakes and tsunami?! It’s just terrible. God is fed up with us,” she remarked.
“We have made a mess of everything,” she added.
I had assumed she was Roman Catholic given her Italian background, which she later confirmed. She drew me into a lengthy social commentary of the moral degradation she has had to painfully witness unfolding around her over the years. Our conversation was educational. I felt like I was talking to an older friend, she met my inquisitive questions with deep insight.
“I am 81 years old,” she confessed with a nervous smile. My jaw dropped. This woman was older than my Grandma. I had never met somebody so old, yet so alive.
“How do you spend your time?” I rashly ask her.
“I spend a lot of time in the bookshop downstairs,” she replied, which explained a lot. She was well read.
“The catholic church has lost it,” she abruptly added harking the conversation back to religion.
“Only the Muslims have really held on to their teachings and values,” she claimed.
Butterflies wrestled in my stomach. I was overwhelmed. Could it be that Allah will save this beautiful woman, merely hours before her appointment? ‘Dawah’, I roused myself!
She continued to sing Islam’s praises to me. She was particularly impressed with the Muslim tenacity to their religious teachings, despite living in an unforgiving culture of ‘anti-God’.
She stared at me until we made awkward eye contact.
“I am so happy that I met you,” she said affectionately touching her chest. Her eyes slowly welled up behind her thick glasses.
Strange I thought, but I could see sincerity glowing on this woman’s face. The whole bus was fixed on our story as it slowly climaxed.
My stop was fast approaching; I quickly turned the topic of conversation to what really mattered - Allah (subḥanahu wa taʿala). I regurgitated anything I could recall from Aqidah classes 101.
“Islam is a beautiful religion,” I preached, “it hasn’t left anything out for the guidance of man, the most important of them is His (God’s) service and worship and to get to know Him…
“He created us and was too compassionate to leave us without a messenger to guide us to the straight path - Muḥammad (peace and blessings be upon him).
Everything between the Heavens and Earth celebrate His praises. He has no partners.”
I struggled to think; I tried my best to keep going. I noticed her leaning more and more towards me. Her shoulders now pressed against mine as she struggled to hear.
Her eyes squinted as she gently pushed her glasses back into position. She was concentrating; I continued.
“In this world, the believer is travelling to her Lord until she reaches Him, those who do not know the path to their Lord, nor do they strive to know it, are truly in loss.”
“I am so happy,” she exclaimed in her very soft tone, with highly emotional break ups in her voice.
By this time I was praying in my heart that Allah guides this woman, she seemed deeply sincere.
The water in her eyes slowly amassed while I described Allah to her, until one stream managed to escape and run down her cheek. She interrupted me as she reached for my hand.
“You know… I was in a coma when I was 79,” she said with a nervous chuckle. “Subḥanallah…” I whispered under my breath as I came closer, exploring deeper and deeper the story told by her face. It was now my eyes that were squinting. The more I navigated around the ridges of her beautiful wrinkles the more I was fascinated by this woman; her face, etched with beauty, told an encyclopaedia of life I wanted to know more of.
“Yes…” she continued, “I am lucky to be alive the doctors tell me, I am so happy that I’ve met you, God has saved me for a moment like this.
“I read that five thousand people in the UK became Muslim last year?” she said semi-inquiring. She was intrigued.
“Oh how I’d love to read the Qur’an, can you get one for me please…I’ll give you the money?!” she insisted reaching for her bag.
“No, no, of course not, I will not accept your money, it’s honestly my pleasure,” I courteously offered. She smiled in gratitude.
“Let me give you my address,” she said as she wrote it down.
“Here, please send it to this address.”
“Sure,” I replied, “I will drop it off personally.”
“Oh, but do get me a large print,” she requested.
“My eyesight isn’t what it used to be you see.”
She put the pen back in her bag and smiled to herself. I sat there rattling my brain about this woman in awkward silence. I mean she is worryingly old, what happens if she dies before I get to her with the Qur’an? What if she dies before saying the testimony of faith?! She interrupts my trail of thought with an inquiry.
“So where is the nearest mosque, I know there’s a very big one in Regents Park?”
I’m still not sure what her exact intent was by that question but this was my chance and I would never forgive myself if I didn’t take it. I suspected she wants to take her shahadah, but thinks the conversion is as complicated as a baptism, carried out a certain way, in a certain place. It was my chance; I went for it…
“No Ma’am,” I replied. “You can meet God as a Muslim by saying something on your tongue; a testimony that He is one, and that’s all.”
Her face lit up as she ushered me to keep going…
“Repeat after me!” I instructed.
“Ash-hadu…”, “Ash-hadu”… all the way to the end.
Slowly we completed the testimony of faith in Arabic and began to pronounce it in English. She struggled heavily and we giggled several times in between, but she showed determination to pronounce every letter. Given that she was from a Catholic background, pertinent to add to the testimony was that ‘Jesus is the prophet of God and that God is above having any offspring’.
Oh no! She didn’t repeat after me, she paused and withdrew her closeness. She looked down as I watched her smile slowly fade away and her wrinkles take position. My shoulders dropped, I was heartbroken. ‘La ilaha illa allah’ I sighed under my breath woefully. I really wanted her to say it, oh how it anti-climaxed.
I watched her as she took deep breaths, a pause; slowly she seemed to come back to life. She struggled to speak as she looked in my direction again.
“What…what a… beautiful thing to say,” she stammers as her voice emotionally breaks up again. Her heavenly smile now restored! She gathered her strength.
“Yes, yes…” she said clenching her small fists as she energetically shuffles herself in her seat.
“Yes,” she insisted. “ Jesus is the Prophet of God, of course he is. You know I have felt like that my whole life and didn’t know… and… I’m just happy, so happy,” she celebrated. She began wiping her eyes now. I couldn’t help but fight back my own tears as my hairs stood on end.
“Please write that down for me,” she requested. I was puzzled.
“That testimony, that testimony we just said, it’s so beautiful,” she added. I happily obliged taking my pen out of my chest pocket.
“And also please, I have a son, he’s not Muslim, please can you speak to him. He’s 45 years old,” she pleaded. I was speechless and so much in awe of what was unfolding before me that I could only nod.
“Of course,” I eventually clarified, secretly hoping Allah disciplines me to honour that promise.
She smiled unforgettably. “My name is Philomena,” she said clutching my hand.
I grinned back at her trying to match the warm gesture.
“And my name is Ismael.”
“That’s a lovely name,’ she politely complimented, releasing my hand. I smiled at her in warm admiration. I kissed her forehead gently, promising her that I would stay in touch.
My stop came. I pressed the bell, heaved my heavy bag onto my back, offered a polite smile and briskly walked to pray the Friday prayer. I met my friends and shared with them the delightful story of Philomena - now the Italian Muslimah, Allah had touched. We have been visiting her ever since that day years ago, and although it was a challenge, we did manage to find a Qur’an translation that was big enough for her to read!
With all the negative propaganda Islam is targeted with in our times, we sometimes overlook the simple, overwhelming appeal that it has with every human being who is connected to their natural disposition–regardless of age, ethnicity or culture. The sad thing is, that there are potentially millions of Philomenas who we all pass everyday without realising that they are eagerly searching for their Lord. Allah will hold us to account based on the opportunities and abilities that He gave us to call people to Him. Any Muslim would agree that their iman is the most precious gift they have been granted; how would we face Him not having shared this gift with others?
My meeting Philomena was a riveting reminder of the prophetic instruction to never overlook a small deed, even if it be offering a smile or in this case, a seat.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ismael Abdela is an Anthropology graduate from the London School of Economics. He spent a few years studying Islamic Sciences in Saudi Arabia. He is now a keen social entrepreneur. Ismael likes to write about spiritual reflections, social commentary and tafseer. He is particularly interested in putting religion in conversation with the social sciences.