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I Studied to Become a Catholic Nun, Then I Found Islam

Irena Handono is a well known Indonesian convert. She actively supports converts and spreads the message of Islam. She is the founder of the Irena center, an Islamic school for new Muslims. Irena embraced Islam in 1983.

Raised in a Catholic Family

I was raised in a religious Catholic family in Indonesia. I was very privileged. My family was rich and I received a good education.

For us, being Christians meant that we were different to the majority population of Indonesia who are Muslims. We were rich, educated and wore fine shoes.

The Muslims, so we believed, were poor, uneducated and always had their flip flops stolen in front of the mosque. Only much later during my studies to become a Catholic nun, I came to question this very shallow view.

I Wanted to Dedicate My Life to God

From a very early age, I received religious instructions. And as a teenager I actively participated in several activities in our local church. I remember that I always had the aspiration to become a nun.

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As a Catholic, leaving this worldly life to live in a monastery is the most noble thing to do. I wanted to dedicate my life to God only. After I finished high school, I followed God’s call and decided to enroll in a Catholic seminary.

Studying Comparative Religion

My parents were very surprised about my decision. I am the only girl of five siblings. And they hoped to keep me close to them. However, when they saw my determination, they supported my wish to become a nun.

My life as an apprentice began without difficulties. I was even chosen for special training outside the monastery. There I studied comparative religion at the institute for philosophical theology. I chose to focus on Islamology. That was the first time I learned about Islam besides the fact that I had been born in the most populous Muslim country of the world.

Here I met the same prejudices about Muslims that were also present in my community. Poor, uneducated, uncivilized. Being only 20 years old, I could not accept that. I did my own research.

Starting to Question

I studied about other countries. Mostly non-Muslim majority countries. And I found that other countries had similar problem with poverty and education like we faced in Indonesia. India, China, the Philippines, Italy (at that time), many South American countries.

I went to my lecturer and presented my facts. And I asked him to give me permission to study about Islam. He gave me permission. But, my objective of studying Islam had to be to find the flaws, faults and weaknesses of Islam.

My First Encounter with Quran

I set out on my mission. I took the Quran and my intention was to find everything I can to use against Islam. So, I opened the Quran with translation and started reading. Only much later did I know that the Quran is supposed to be read from right to left.

However, I opened it like any other book and read:

Say, He is Allah, who is One. Allah the Eternal Refuge. He neither begets nor is born. Nor is there to Him any equivalent. (Surah Al Ikhlas)

I was amazed by this chapter. My heart agreed that God is One. That God does not have children and that He is not created and that nothing is like Him.

Questioning the Trinity

After my first reading of chapter Al Ikhlas, I went to the pastor to asked him about the reality of God. I told him that I have not quite understood it yet. How can God be One and three at the same time?

He told me that God is indeed One but has three manifestations or personalities. God, the father, God, the son, and God, the holy spirit. This is called trinity, he concluded.

I just accepted his explanation. But at night, something pushed me to read chapter Al Ikhlas again: God is One, He does not beget, nor is He born.

The next morning I went again to my lecturer. I told him that I had difficulties understanding the trinity. He went to the board and drew a triangle and wrote: AB=BC=CA. He explained that the triangle is one but it has three sides. The same is true for God and the concept of the trinity.

Just Accept the Dogma

If that is the case, I continued his logic of the triangle, one day God might be a rectangle with four sides. The lecturer argued that this is not possible. I asked why. He became impatient. It is just impossible, he said. I continued questioning. Then my lecturer said that I just have to accept this dogma of trinity even though I don’t understand it.

“Just accept it. Try to digest it. If you question it, you sin.”

I could not digest it. I could not accept it. And at night, I went back to the Quran and read chapter Ikhlas. Something in it just pulled my heart to it. It was so clear: God is One. He does not beget, nor is He born. Nothing is like Him.

Through my own research, I came to know that the whole idea of the trinity was man made. It was in 325 after Christ during the consensus of Nizea that the Unity of God was split in three. This fact left a deep painful split in my Catholic identity. Nothing was the same as before.

My Only Refuge

It took another six years until I found the courage to become Muslim and to openly proclaim my new faith. When I wanted to take shahadah, the scholar asked me if I was prepared to bear the consequences. Converting was easy, he said. But living with the consequences of conversion can be a life long challenge.

So I was prepared. I had to save myself. And I had to save my soul. I could not go back to live with just accepting false dogmas. With my conversion I lost my family. I lost my wealth. And I was alone. It was not easy but God was always with me. He was my refuge. My only refuge.

My Life is for God

As a new Muslim, I knew my responsibilities. I started my five daily prayers. I started fasting in Ramadan and I covered my head. As before, my life was dedicated to God, not to false doctrines and dogmas. I left the monastery but I found that as a pious Muslim woman, my whole life is dedicated to God.

I do not have to leave this worldly life to be close to God. Everything I do is for God. My life is for God. Alhamdulillah

(From Discovering Islam archive)

About Claudia Azizah
Claudia Azizah is originally from Germany and mother of two children and writer. She served as Assistant Professor at the International Islamic University in Malaysia until August 2019. She is co-founder of the Ulu-Ilir-Institute in Indonesia. She regularly writes for the German Islamic newspaper. She is interested in Islamic spirituality, art and Southeast Asia. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram: #clazahsei