New converts' first holy month

The Muslim fasting month of Ramadan started yesterday. But for many new converts, abstaining from food and drink for about 13 hours a day can be challenging.

Helping these new believers is the Muslim Converts' Association of Singapore, or Darul Arqam, located at Onan Road in Joo Chiat.

Since 1980, the organisation has been looking into the welfare, religious guidance and problems faced by new converts to Islam here. About 600 people here convert to Islam each year, said a Darul Arqam spokesman.

According to a Straits Times report from 2003, that figure was about 500 about a decade ago.

In the 1970s, the number of converts averaged about 200 a year. In the 1980s, that number was about 400.

This number includes Chinese and Indian Singaporeans as well as Filipinos and Americans.

Many converts here consider Darul Arqam a second home, where they regularly attend weekly lectures or to volunteer during weekends.

All these programmes, which includes classes on Ramadan preparation and prayers, are planned with converts in mind.

The spokesman said: "We are taking an easy and simple approach for the new Muslims so that they can enjoy fasting and its benefits on their first Ramadan."

Islam requires all healthy Muslims to fast during Ramadan to spiritually cleanse themselves and to understand the sufferings of those less fortunate.

However, pregnant or menstruating women, as well as Muslims who are too old or too ill are exempted from fasting.

IT WAS AN INTERESTING RELIGION

Her interest in the religion came in 2005, during a history lesson while at university in the Philippines.

"For me it was an interesting religion and for the longest time, what I knew about the religion I learnt by myself," said Mrs Mercedes Solano, a Filipina who is also known by her Muslim name Siti Aisha Solano.

Nobody drew her to the religion, said the 26-year-old, adding that she did not have a Muslim boyfriend at that time.

Last year, the petite housewife, who first came here to work at a restaurant three years ago, took the plunge and started attending classes at Darul Arqam on her own.

On Oct 26 last year, Mrs Siti Aisha embraced Islam as her new faith. She is experiencing Ramadan as a Muslim for the first time this year.

Her family, who live in Manila, are Catholics. They have been supportive of her decision, she added.

Said Mrs Siti Aisha: "They said I should do whatever that makes me happy, they only wanted to know that I am serious about converting, which I am."

LOOKING FORWARD

She lives in a four-room flat in Ang Mo Kio with her 29-year-old husband Ashafi'e Mohd, a civil servant, and his family.

The couple married earlier this month after a two-month courtship. She is current awaiting approval for her Long-Term Visit Pass-Plus (LTVP+).

The scheme was introduced in 2012 in response to the trend of increasing marriages between Singaporeans and foreigners.

The LTVP+ will be granted first for a duration of three years and then for up to five years for each subsequent renewal. LTVP+ holders will also be eligible for health-care and employment benefits.

While Mrs Siti Aisha said she has been looking forward to this year's Ramadan, she admitted that fasting for the first time will be a challenging experience for her, especially in Singapore's weather.

"Even before I converted, I tried to fast to practise, but I still find it quite hard. But I am trying to do my best, with the support of my husband and my in-laws," she said.

She is looking forward to the festivities at the end of Ramadan, but she said she is also looking forward to performing the rituals of the fasting month, which include the normal prayers and Terawih prayers, which are performed at night during Ramadan.

PARENTS ASK IF SHE HAS DONE PRAYERS

Her Buddhist parents were initially opposed to her becoming a Muslim.

But now they are extremely supportive, to the point of even asking her if she has done her prayers, said a recent convert, Miss Doris Sofea Toh, 24.

The teacher at Nan Chiau High School, who is also known by her Muslim name Sofea Adawiyah, said she first became interested in the religion while studying at the National Institute of Education in 2011.

Miss Sofea told The New Paper that her parents objected because they thought "there were too many restrictions in Islam like covering up for women and the fact you had to pray five times a day".

It was a struggle convincing her parents, who are in their 60s, because of the fear that they would be "losing a daughter once I became a Muslim," she added.

"But they eventually turned around when they realised I was serious. I was extremely proud when they came to my conversion ceremony recently. Now, they ask me a lot of questions on being a Muslim. And not only do they ask if I have done my prayers, they also make sure we eat at halal restaurants whenever we are out for a meal," she said proudly.

Miss Sofea embraced Islam in April and will be experiencing her first Ramadan as a Muslim.

"I tried fasting three years ago and it was difficult for me, but I had to train myself," she said.

Even though she fell sick last year, she managed to fast the entire month, she said.

She is confident she will have no trouble fulfilling her duties as a Muslim under the guidance of her 27-year-old fiancé Mohamed Fauzy Juffrey, who is also a teacher.

The couple will tie the knot in November.

Miss Sofea said she has been looking forward to this year's fasting month because she will be doing her prayers and preparing for the coming Hari Raya Aidilfitri holiday, which is on July 28.

She said: "I also can't wait to check out the bazaar at Geylang this year, to look at the clothes and food on offer."

HAD TO FAST WHILE IN DIFFERENT TIME ZONES

Last year, Miss Nur Sumiaya Tan, 28, embraced Islam and experienced a taste of fasting and praying for the first time.

Now, she is keen to share her experience with other new converts.

The retail supervisor - who became a Muslim in April last year - is one of the Befrienders at Darul Arqam.

Introduced in 1996, the programme aims to help ease the new converts' journey towards understanding Islam better.

Miss Nur, who is single, said: "The aim is to get to know them and see if they have any hardships going into the religion. We are also here just in case they have any questions or doubts while fulfilling the religious obligations."

Her own journey into Islam began several years ago.

As someone who was "always surrounded by Malay friends", Miss Nur said she was always "curious about Islam", and she eventually went to Darul Arqam to learn about the religion last January.

And even though she grew up in a Christian household, she said her 70-year-old mother never objected to her converting. Miss Nur still lives with her mother and her 33-year-old brother in a four-room flat in the Bedok Reservoir area.

"I was a free thinker previously but my mother told me she didn't mind because I was old enough to make my own decisions in life," she added.

But her previous career as an air stewardess with Japan Airlines presented its own set of problems, especially during Ramadan.

She said: "I had no problems with the fasting, I only had problems coping with the different time zones because of the travelling.

"I left that job in April, so I am looking forwarding to fasting the full month this year."

Another thing she is looking forward to is the "bonding" that comes after a whole day of fasting.

Said Miss Nur: "Apart from the praying and fasting, breaking fast together also brings me closer to my friends. It is like a reunion dinner, except this one you do it every day for a whole month."

zothman@sph.com.sg

This article was first published on June 30, 2014. Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.

This article was first published on June 30, 2014. Get The New Paper for more stories.