Reaching for the Stars: Interview with Convert and Teacher, Melissa Ahmedi

Melissa AhmediWOMEN’S SECTION

26th May 2021

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Melissa Ahmedi BA (Hons), PGCE Secondary RE, was raised in the vibrant, North-Western city of Manchester, England. There, Melissa experienced the unique melting pot of multi-cultural Britain and was introduced to Islam through her sister, who converted at 18. Melissa started visiting the local Ahmadiyya Muslim mosque with her sister and then embraced Islam at the tender age of 13. After her school years, she enjoyed studying History and Religious Studies at SOAS University (London) and trained as a Religious Studies teacher in Manchester. Now married to an Imam of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, Melissa is busy promoting the true teachings of Islam as well as caring for her two young children. The Review of Religions‘ Women’s Section Editor, Munavara Ghauri, had a chance to connect with Melissa and learn about her unique and inspiring journey to Islam.   

MG: Welcome to The Review of Religions magazine, Melissa. Can you tell us a little about where you born and raised to begin with?

MA: Thank you. Jazak’Allah [may God bless you] for having me! I was born and raised in Manchester, UK. I am the youngest of three sisters. My father is an Atheist and my mother is a Church of England Christian. My eldest sister is an Ahmadi Muslim and my middle sister is not religious.

MG: How did you come to learn about Islam?

MA: My eldest sister, Jazibah, converted to Islam first (when I was around 5). Initially, attending the mosque with her and when I grew older, I would attend and meet, learn and pray, with friends that I made there.

MG: How long did it take you to become convinced that Islam was the faith for you?

MA: I think it was a journey over many years, I had seen my sister’s example and it was a process of having my questions answered, particularly in relation to the coming of the Promised Messiah (as). He came to revive Islam and to bring people back to its true teachings of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (sa) and God’s words of the Holy Qur’an. I think in my heart I knew it was right all along, but it took time to make sure my mind had caught up and gained the knowledge in order for me to commit wholeheartedly, mind and spirit.

MG: How did your family feel about your conversion?

MA: My sister converted first, so in many ways it probably wasn’t a surprise to them. Naturally, as a 13-year-old, they were concerned it was a choice that I was making for myself and that I wasn’t being swept up in the moment. I reassured them it was a personal decision that I had thought about and carefully considered. I reassured them that the Holy Qur’an teaches,

لَاۤ اِکۡرَاہَ فِی الدِّیۡنِ

There is no compulsion in religion.’ [1]

and,

لَکُمۡ دِیۡنُکُمۡ وَلِیَ دِیۡن

For you your religion, and for me my religion.’ [2]

In fact, when I wrote to our Caliph, His Holiness, Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad (aba) about converting, he advised me that I should take my time and study the faith. By the time I received the letter back, I had already converted! It’s safe to say that I have never looked back, my heart was firm and I had made my decision.

MG: I must say you were a very mature and focused 13-year-old, to have made such a life-changing decision at such a young age! You then began wearing a hijab [veil] at school at around 14. How did other pupils and teachers react to the change in your appearance?

Reaching for the Stars
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MA: The autumn term following my conversion, I proudly yet somewhat nervously adorned my hijab [veil] at school. As a single-sex girls’ school which had a predominately Muslim demographic, overall, I had a positive reaction. Of course, I had natural anxiety and worry about how people would perceive me. I was worried that the teachers would think that I had been brainwashed. One perhaps did. On my first day, a teacher approached me, puzzlingly and firmly asking me, ‘Why are you wearing that?’ and I quietly affirmed: ‘Because I am a Muslim.‘ She walked away confused and stunned. ‘Oh right‘ she said and if memory serves me well, I could have sworn she rolled her eyes!

Waiting outside my form classroom, an older girl in Year Eleven very loudly quizzed me: ‘Why are you wearing that!? If you’re going to wear it then at least wear it properly!’

It was embarrassing, as the whole corridor turned and watched. But looking back, I remember it positively, as it triggered an internal dialogue. By ‘properly’ she meant, why was I wearing my headscarf so loosely? I was trying to ease myself into the process, but I was acting on my anxiety and worry of outward perceptions of me: what would my non-Muslim friends think? I wanted to prove to them I was still me, yet with a newfound purpose and faith.

Reaching for the Stars
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So, I thank that Year Eleven student in my form for her bolshiness, because it made me realise that I should be proud of who I am and not care about what others may or may not think. I shouldn’t allow that worry to dictate how I present myself. Those were my two memories of my first day. I was lucky in that I mostly received a warm reception to my new journey, the other teachers and students remained mostly indifferent.

His Holiness, Worldwide Head of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad (aba) in a recent virtual meeting with the boys of the Midlands stated:

‘So, a true Ahmadi Muslim, whether a new convert or an old Ahmadi Muslim, the basic thing is that there should be a significant change which people should feel in him and that is to follow the true teachings of Islam and to be a practising Muslim. Offer the five daily prayers, recite the Holy Qur’an, and try to learn more about religion and in this age, the literature given to us by the Promised Messiah (as) is the best literature through which we can comprehend much better our religion. The literature of the Promised Messiah (as) covers all the necessary teachings of Islam given in the Holy Qur’an and in the Hadith [sayings of the Holy Prophet (sa)]. So, we should try to read the books of the Promised Messiah (as) and try to understand the true religion and be a practising Muslim.‘ [3]

MG: You are a qualified Religious Education Teacher, Melissa. How did you decide upon this career?

MA: I wanted to be everything growing up, an artist, an author, a designer, an architect, a linguist! Eventually, I chose a joint honours degree in History and Religious Studies at University. I chose SOAS University to study, not only because His Holiness, the Fourth Caliph of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad (rh) studied English there, but also the rich diversity of the curriculum and courses they offered. I was able to study Arabic for a year and loved it. Whilst studying for my BA, I decided I wanted to teach religion.

I found that when I was there, my identity was somewhat confusing for some. I found that being an Ahmadi Muslim convert, an identity I had found always found very comfortable and comforting, was suddenly questioned. Books in the library of the Promised Messiah and Reformer of the Age, Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (as), had been defaced and insults scrawled on the inside. The Ahmadiyya Muslim belief that the Awaited Messiah (as) had come to unite the world under a banner of peace and love, was a belief that educated students could not sit down and have a conversation about. We successfully held the first AMWSA (Ahmadiyya Muslim Women’s Student Association) event there alongside the Sikh society. Attendance from other Non-Ahmadi Muslim students was scarce and non-existent, however.

I hadn’t really comprehended that people really took issue with Ahmadi Muslims and our beliefs before. I researched and studied Islam privately, publicly and academically. My identity was questioned. At a university event celebrating culture and diversity, there were tables laid out, each table representing a culture or a country. I attended wearing a burqa (the long outer coat Ahmadi Muslim women adorn to celebrate our modest dress) with a traditional Indian saree underneath, lent to me by a friend. I was approached by someone I didn’t know who said, ‘So, is this the culture you associate yourself with then?’ I was dumbfounded. Was he assuming that I no longer had a culture as a White British Muslim because of what I chose to wear? In hindsight, I wouldn’t have had an issue in wearing my usual jeans, long coat and headscarf. Islam of course, is a religion for all people, of all cultures, for all time. I realised that there needs to be greater education of people and more exposure to the attitudes and beliefs of people that are different to them. What better way to do this than through schools?

MG: Very true Melissa. The lessons we learn at school are often indelibly marked in our minds. I recollect that a personality called ‘The Green Cross Code Man’ visited my school when I was a child. He taught us about Road Safety and I then never forgot his message to ‘Stop, Look and Listen’ whilst crossing a road!

So, do you think the curriculum for Religious Education in UK schools could be improved?

MA: Progress has been made but there is always more to be done. It’s a misconception that Religious Education/Studies in schools is purely about religion. It’s learning about the richness of lived experience, exploring how others think and the beliefs that influence how they live their lives. This is the heart of the work teachers do and our curriculum should reflect the richness of diversity of our nation and world, to engage each other in meaningful conversations. 

Many teachers are currently doing a brilliant job and sometimes the curriculum and time limitations hold them back. In many secondary schools across the UK, Religious Studies has one lesson a week. More time is required to have these very important conversations on identity and worldviews, in order to give students and teachers a safe space to build a solid foundation of mutual trust, respect and tolerance.

Interview with Convert and Teacher

Cross-curricular study, greater collaboration and integration of RS into other subjects, will vastly help. From an Islamic perspective, showing the impact of Muslims in all fields, past and present, can break down a lot of barriers. Showing how faith and non-faith worldviews impact every aspect of the world we see today, will go a long way. The fields of the arts, medicine, astronomy and even the invention of soap(!)…were all pioneered and led by Muslims, who were considered to be living in the ‘Dark Ages’. When actually they brought advancement and knowledge to the world as we know it.

Decolonising the syllabus from a Eurocentric perspective in favour of a more globalised and holistic way of learning will aid students in later life. As a PGCE Religious Studies student in Manchester, I felt very humbled to have had the chance to arrange a mosque tour for my fellow cohort of Religious Education teaching practitioners at our local mosque, Darul Aman, ‘The Abode of Peace’. Children also need this exposure and opportunity to learn and discover, to break down barriers and misconceptions. The Ahmadiyya Muslim Community offer regular mosque tours and talks for all schools, organisations and individuals, and I feel this is a brilliant way to enrich not only the curriculum and learning in schools but the broader public. 

MG: Do you think the Government’s policy regarding schools in England during the pandemic has been a wise one?

MA: Teachers and schools have done an amazing job throughout the entire pandemic. They have worked tirelessly and devotedly to support students through such a tumultuous time. The Government’s policy, however, seems to have been too little too late. When other countries acted swiftly and decisively from the beginning and with positive results such as New Zealand who were successful in eliminating the virus, [4] it became evident very early on that the most disadvantaged children of the UK were being left behind in their home learning and that gap is growing. [5]

Interview with Convert and Teacher
©Shutterstock

In early years, for many attending school for the first time, their speech and language development have been impacted. [6] There were huge inconsistencies from school to school in terms of work being set, whether there was enough or too much. This balance ties in with the scary statistics of children suffering much more with their mental health: The Young Minds charity highlighted in a survey from the last lockdown that 75% of respondents agreed that they have found the current lockdown harder to cope with than the previous ones. [7] There has been the National Tutoring Programme initiative, but teachers are now having to play huge catch up for the majority of students who have had their learning impacted.

MG: Some people argue that private schools and grammar (selective) schools hinder social mobility and create unfair opportunities for a minority. For example, two thirds (64%) of the UK Prime Minister’s Cabinet are made up of privately educated people, whereas only 7% of the general population attend private schools. I wonder whether you think that private schools and grammar schools should be abolished in the UK?

MA: I think all children should have equal opportunity to high-quality teaching, learning, resources and education, irrespective of who you are, where you’re from and how much money you have. Currently, education is a postcode lottery; where you live determines your life chances of success and in turn your life expectancy – which is absolutely wrong. The fact remains that for those who can afford it or those who receive scholarships, they know private education has significant benefits; they dominate Britain’s top jobs. [8] This is unfair and there needs to be an equal and equitable representation and diversity in all sectors and fields.

The Worldwide Head and Caliph of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, His Holiness Mirza Masroor Ahmad (aba), at every opportunity reminds us of the importance of education, be it to the female youth in Nigeria: ‘Encourage every girl to get higher education‘ [9], or Australia: ‘So, spend two to three hours or however much time is necessary for your school homework to be completed and then spend at least half an hour to one hour to do your religious studies and that is enough. Then you can easily do justice to both of your school and Islamic studies.’ [10]

His Holiness (aba) encourages balance, prayer and hard work to all, with regards to seeking education. 

MG: Melissa, you had an arranged marriage relatively young and according to Islamic teachings. How did your parents react to your choice? Were they shocked or worried?

MA: I’ve always felt very blessed and privileged to have understanding and supportive parents. The process of marriage for Muslims varies massively, people hear the word ‘arranged’ and panic, did she have a choice? Was she forced? There is a clear distinction between an arranged marriage and a forced marriage. Forced marriage has no place in Islam. The freedom to choose your life partner is a key part of the arranged marriage process.

The arranged marriage process is exactly the same as someone introducing you to a potential life partner. Although the process may have seemed a little alien for my parents and they were concerned that the timing would affect my studies (myself and my husband were both students at the time, my husband at Jamia (Islamic theological college) and I at University). However, it was the right timing as we were both able to continue our studies and support each other through the process. We attended each other’s graduations, which I think is a really lovely thing to be a part of…a big life moment like that.

Reaching for the Stars: Interview with Convert and Teacher
©Shutterstock

MG: I agree Melissa. My late father-in-law and husband both attended my graduation and enriched the experience!… You are married to an Imam of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Association. This is a great commitment in many ways. For example, you could be posted to a foreign country at any point and there aren’t the financial rewards that a normal career may generate.  Were you prepared for this sort of lifestyle?

MA: Being married to an Imam has already opened so many doors for me in my life. When I meet someone new, I tell them it’s sort of like marrying someone from the army, it’s a sense of duty, to fulfil your commitments and where you are posted, is your home.

By the Grace of God, and with the prayers of His Holiness (aba) whilst being married I have studied and gained two degrees, lived in 4 places and had 2 children. I don’t feel it’s held me back in any way. There is an element of living for the moment, as you never know when you may relocate. I know of missionaries’ families who have relocated across the world, adopting new languages and cultures, and raising children in the process. It’s an incredible experience and privilege. Of course, there can be challenges but His Holiness (aba) cares and prays for you, as he does for the whole world.

Ultimately, we believe that the material things of this world will not be taken with us when we pass away. The impact of what we leave behind are our deeds. Our service to God is through serving His creation. Wherever we go in the world, wherever we may live, it’s our responsibility to leave behind a positive impact and to engage and interact in the local community where you live and show people Islam is a religion of peace.

I have had the privilege to work with the media, we have filmed some BBC pieces, one at our Annual Convention, the Jalsa Salana UK, and one at our favourite place in Manchester, where we get hot chocolate and brownies!

MG: Clearly, you have a strong passion and drive to serve your faith alongside your husband. If you had to convince someone that Islam is a faith which supports women as opposed to suppressing them, what would you say?

MA: So many people, women especially are choosing Islam as a way of life as they feel it liberates them. Why is that? Women are able to achieve spiritual, academic and professional heights whilst being Muslim.

I would encourage everyone to do their own research, do not be misinformed and fall into the trap of fake news and stereotypes. Our Caliph (aba) tells us that the literacy rate of Ahmadi women is higher than that of our men. [11] We are educated. As the President of the Women’s Auxilliary, Dr Fariha Khan, recently stated in response to a biased BBC article‘As Ahmadi Muslim women we don’t need others to come to our rescue, we know our rights and we know how to defend them.‘ [12]

MG: Melissa, what advice would you give to someone who may be trying to develop a relationship with God and/or attempting to find a faith that suits them?

MA: Pray and seek God’s help with an open heart. God in the Holy Qur’an states:

وَاِذَا سَاَلَکَ عِبَادِیۡ عَنِّیۡ فَاِنِّیۡ قَرِیۡبٌ ۖ اُجِیۡبُ دَعۡوَۃَ الدَّاعِ اِذَا دَعَانِ ۖ فَلۡیَسۡتَجِیۡبُوۡا لِیۡ وَلۡیُؤۡمِنُوۡا بِیۡ لَعَلَّہُمۡ یَرۡشُدُوۡنَ

And when My servants ask thee about Me, say, “I am near. I answer the prayer of the supplicant when he prays to Me. So, they should hearken to Me and believe in Me, that they may follow the right way.”’ [13]

On matters of faith, everyone has a unique, personal experience. Sometimes you may feel undeserving of God’s love and mercy, perhaps you have made many mistakes along the way as we all do as humans. But know that God’s love, mercy and forgiveness encompasses everything, and we are never beyond seeking a living relationship with Him.

MG: Christmas is probably an important festival for your parents, sister and your extended family as it is for most British people. How do you spend Christmas in a manner that is sensitive to the traditions and sentiments of your family, whilst not religiously celebrating it yourself as a Muslim?

MA: I feel very grateful to have a family that is deeply respectful of my beliefs as a Muslim. Out of duty and respect for my parents, it’s important to me to show them and also model to my children that Christmas is important to their grandparents and that it’s a time of togetherness and sharing, much like Eid is for Muslims. Despite not believing in the origins and history of Christmas, as Muslims we encourage gift-giving, spending out of what you love for the benefit of others and sharing joy with others. Keeping the ties of kinship is an important part of faith and strengthening those bonds by breaking bread with one another and enjoying each other’s company is something Islam promotes.

MG: It’s so nice to hear that families can remain united despite differing beliefs and cultures. Finally, Melissa, a really fundamental question that I need to ask. You moved to the South of England recently. Who are friendlier, Northerners or Southerners?! 

MA: Without wanting to betray either side(!), the North will always have a special place in my heart, my families are based there, my children were both born there. But the South has welcomed me with open arms too. I have met amazing people in the South. I may have turned to the dark side by saying the weather is much nicer down here!

Mubarak Mosque Front

Mubarak Mosque, Islamabad, Surrey, UK

We now live a stone’s throw away from our Caliph, the Worldwide Head of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, His Holiness Mirza Masroor Ahmad (aba), who resides in Surrey. We wait eagerly for the day we can meet with him and pray in his congregation at Masjid Mubarak, the ‘Mosque of Blessings’. So, I would say my heart is up North, but my soul and spirit are very much with the Caliph.

MG: Ah, both profound and diplomatic Melissa! Thank you so much for sharing your beliefs and life story with us. It’s been both fascinating and inspirational!


ENDNOTES

[1] Holy Qur’an Ch.2:V257

[2] Holy Qur’an Ch.109:V7

[3] https://www.pressahmadiyya.com/press-releases/2021/04/members-of-majlis-atfal-ul-ahmadiyya-from-midlands-of-the-uk-have-honour-of-a-virtual-meeting-with-head-of-the-ahmadiyya-muslim-community/

[4] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-53274085

[5] https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/covid-19-resources/best-evidence-on-impact-of-school-closures-on-the-attainment-gap/

[6] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-56889035

[7] The survey carried out with 2,438 young people aged 13-25, between 26th January and 12th February 2021

[8] https://www.itv.com/news/2019-06-25/britains-most-powerful-people-more-likely-to-have-attended-private-school

[9] https://www.pressahmadiyya.com/press-releases/2021/02/lajna-imaillah-nigeria-have-honour-of-virtual-meeting-with-world-head-of-ahmadiyya-muslim-community/

[10] https://www.pressahmadiyya.com/press-releases/2021/03/members-of-nasirat-ul-ahmadiyya-australia-have-honour-of-a-virtual-meeting-with-the-head-of-the-ahmadiyya-muslim-community/

[11] https://www.loveforallhatredfornone.org/educating-women-key-to-preventing-spread-of-radicalization-ahmadiyya-caliph-says/

[12] Lajna Imaillah UK Instragram Page

[13] Holy Qur’an Ch2:V187

Related Posts:

  1. Reaching for the Stars: Interview with Ophthalmologist, Dr Munazzah Chou
  2. Reaching for the Stars: Interview with Pioneering Bone Cancer Researcher Amnah Khan
  3. Interview with Fariha Khan, National President of the Ahmadiyya Women’s Association UK – The Pandemic and Humanitarian Efforts of Ahmadi Muslim Women
  4. Reaching for the Stars: Interview with Senior Scientist at Pfizer Dr. Nusrat Sharif

source THE REVIEW OF RELIGIONS

http://www.reviewofreligions.org

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