Not because it is the first time she will set foot outside her country. Not because it is the first time she will set foot on an aircraft. Not even because the hajj is the ultimate journey for every Muslim.
Fatima’s hajj is the ultimate journey because her journey begins before she receives the good news of the Gifted Hajj. Her journey begins with the first steps she takes towards consciously embracing the life of a Muslim.
It is an ordinary working day in 1995. Fatima, then known as Nozibele Phylis Mali, is busy working for her employer, Mehrunisa Dawood, fondly known as Mehrun Bhana, in Rylands Estate.
She is busy sweeping a room from which she can clearly hear Mehrun Bhana’s son, Shafeeq, in the lounge, revising the Quranic chapters he has memorized. Fatima is listening, spellbound. This is strange, interesting, she thinks, although she does not understand a word.
“Why is this child sitting like this?” Fatima’s wonderment brings her work almost to a standstill. As a diligent worker she does not want to appear to be slowing down her work, so she watches secretly.
“I don’t want him to see me because I must work,” Fatima says.
But she is so drawn to the recitation, the respectful way this child is sitting with the book he holds. It is so beautiful and almost disturbing at the same time, because it is so beautiful yet you cannot understand. Fatima starts questioning why she is so attracted to this melodious sound.
She hears footsteps, and quickly resumes her work. But her mind and her heart are fixed on this child reciting the book. She knows neither the Quran, nor Islam. But, as she watches and listens, she ultimately recognizes one powerful truth: “This thing comes in my heart.”
Touching the Heart
And so the one thing that comes into her heart is Shafeeq’s recitation, his posture, the whole atmosphere created by a sacred moment.
But there are other things too, she says, that come into her heart.
“This lady, every morning when I’m coming here, she’s got a smiling face.” Even when Fatima errs in her work, she has learned that there is no fear of reprisal for the common mistake in domestic chores. Instead, there is the culture of admonishment with kindness.
This treatment is very different from that which Fatima experienced whilst in the service of a previous Muslim employer. With Mehrun Bhana it is an unusual relationship. There is a sisterhood that transcends the typical race, class and employer-employee barriers.
Her food is served on the same plates as the rest of the family and she eats at the same table as Mehrun Bhana. When one touches another person through these man-made barriers, then one reaches the heart of the other. Fatima feels this touch and recognizes it as a feeling that makes her “smile and cry at the same time.”
Another thing that comes into her heart is Mehrun Bhana’s ritual ablution and prayer. At 1pm Mehrun Bhana goes into the bathroom and comes out with a beautiful long top and a scarf.
Her questions multiply, urging like a wave. What is going on in this house? Why am I so attracted to these people and their life? Mehrun Bhana senses her curiosity. She knows Fatima is clearly searching for spiritual guidance.
Fatima had been born into the Methodist Church and is the only surviving member of her family.
Mehrun Bhana prompts a discussion with Fatima on religion, the church and her faith. They speak of the things that dissatisfy Fatima in her faith over breakfast. Mehrun Bhana advises her to pray.
“When you leave my door, speak to God. Say ‘O God, please help me. Show me the truth.’ Say that all the time as you walk until you get to your home, and God will show you the path.”
Several months later Mehrun Bhana takes Fatima to the Islamic Da’wah Movement (IDM) office where a Xhosa-speaking member of the organization explains Islam to her in her native language. Right after that, Fatima decides to embrace Islam.
Mehrun Bhana reflects on the day Fatima goes to the IDM: “When I came back the Imam said: ‘she immediately said the Shahadah and adopted the name Fatima.’ It was a very emotional moment for me. I was actually speechless.”
Hardships of a New Life
The change in Fatima’s life is visible.
She describes herself as a person who was at first preoccupied with her own needs, and who has become one who is genuinely concerned about the needs of others. Previously she had no time for others. Now, she says, she even makes time to smile.
But the new life does not come to her without its hardship. Although her brother Douglas is always very kind to her and shares his home with her, his wife, Christina, is vehemently opposed to her sister-in-law’s new faith and she openly resents Fatima, deliberately making life difficult for her.
However, Fatima perseveres with patience and constancy. She is neither deterred from practicing her faith, nor from refraining to respond in like manner to Christina.
Christina’s hostility compels Fatima to leave her brother’s home and seek refuge in the nearby home of another sister in Islam, Nadia. Soon after she embraced Islam, Fatima helps a neighbor and his two children who are abandoned by their mother.
The father is so overwhelmed by the benevolence of Fatima and Nadia that he feels drawn to their faith and, with his children, embraces Islam later.
The Angel of Death
Within a few months an unexpected turn of events presents Fatima with another challenge. In 1996, Christina’s teenage son falls seriously ill and dies of injuries sustained in an accident. Fatima responds with magnanimity and comes to the aid of her sister-in-law.
At a time when all Christina’s friends forsake her after the funeral, Fatima remains faithfully at the side of the grieving mother and helps to heal her broken spirit.
Is it not in the nature of a grieving spirit to recognize compassion foremost from one who had been rejected? Christina’s heart melts with Fatima’s compassion. Her hostility dissipates and she is transformed into a bosom friend.
She asks Fatima to let her come with her to Macassar to attend the weekly madrasa where they learn the basic teachings of Islam. After three visits to the madrasa Christina’s heart relents and she finally embraces Islam.
And so Fatima becomes familiar with the visits of the angel of death. This messenger had already summoned the souls of many of her nearest kin; all her siblings, her parents, her husband, and the last one was Douglas, her beloved brother, who met his death in October 2006 as a victim of an armed robbery. This incident occurs three days before he is due to visit the offices of the IDM to embrace Islam.
Fatima grieves, but her comfort is that Douglas had made the niyyah (intention) to accept Islam, and that his reward is the realization of that niyyah.
The Ultimate Journey
Fatima does not speak of her joy of undertaking the Hajj. Before the decision was announced she simply “never put it in [her] heart” until the good news reached her in April this year. It is a quiet joy, tempered by the preparation and instruction under the tutelage of teacher Yasmina.
Mehrun Bhana offers further guidance and takes care of the physical and logistical matters. The Gifted Hajj Committee attends to the basic costs. Fatima is excited, but she continues to fulfill her role as helper and caregiver in her community wherever there is a need and where it is possible to help.
In her original journey, from a self-centered woman, to a compassionate Muslim, Fatima touches the lives of many people. Of these, a total of fifteen people commit themselves to the Islamic faith, including her children and neighbors.
Mehrun Bhana affirms that propagation of Islam begins at home. Fatima reflects, “Allah is love… so, I must try to love.” Two women complete the circle of giving and receiving.
But Fatima’s journey is not yet full circle. When and how it will be, Allah knows best.