Friday, 23 October 2009
Crossing the Styx
بِسۡمِ ٱللهِ ٱلرَّحۡمَـٰنِ ٱلرَّحِيمِ
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.
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.
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. So she was rather quick in her time for an old rust bucket. 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 or ARPA – Automated Radar Plotting Aid – as we called it. The Coral started to pitch more and I noticed that I idly 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 horse in the froth before the waves broke. I was too young to be afraid. I was excited.
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. Now was a good time to feel terror.
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. It was a bad matinee with no good ending. 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 I vowed I would never go home. But most of all, I thought about what happens when we 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 vomit 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 US$100, a fortune for him, 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 stars 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.).
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, and most of what I did, I will not put in writing – at least until I am dead. 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. 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.
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.
And then there was the issue of Paul of Tarsus, the actual founder of Christianity. Paul never net Jesus (a.s.). And he never spent much time with the actual Apostles or was even on good terms with them. So Christianity was not even about Christ (a.s.). The doctrines were essentially reactive, developed by people hundreds of years after the fact. 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. Of course, since then, I have discarded Cartesian thought as itself inadequate.
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 Shaykh Martin Ling’s (q.s.) ‘Life of Muhammad’. Now, this Muhammad (s.a.w.), this was a man I could follow.
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, 06th December, 1999 that I said the shahadah. I did the sujud in the church, near the altar. It was not most conventional thing to do. But that was how my voyage as a Muslim began.