A Muslim's Journey to Christ
Aghi Clovis FAITH Magazine January-February 2007
Shortly after the Iranian Revolution Aghi Clovis camefrom Tehran to London as a devout 18 year old Muslim. As a result of reading the New Testament and some Christian example she was baptized as a Catholic. In this interview she outlines aspects of this spiritual journey which she describes as a gradual development in recognizing the amazing closeness of God..
EDITOR:Could you describe a little bit about your Muslim formation in Tehran.
AGHI: I grew up in a fairly religious family with two brothers and a sister, both my parents were Muslim. However neither of them were really practising thefaith, but my father’s family were very staunch Muslims. I was practicing my faith.
EDITOR: Why were you practising when your parents were not practising?
AGHI: Because it was that age, about fifteen or sixteen, when you discover things for yourself and I discovered the faith. I was always religious, well God has always been central to my life. I remember going to the mosque during my pre-school years tagging along with a religious neighbour who had a child of my age. I had a great love for the faith.
EDITOR: Did you pray every day?
AGHI: Yes, I prayed. You know every day I put the alarm on and I got up before sunrise. Our house had a courtyard and you would have to go into the courtyard in all weather even snow to undertake the ceremonial pre-wash before prayer.
EDITOR: And how would you describe your experience of prayer?
AGHI: It was absolutely amazing. You stood before God, you were clothed in a white cloth, the cloth that you would be covered when you die, and you stoodbefore God after having washed, and having kept your heart pure and your thoughts pure.
EDITOR: What happened if you didn’t keep your thoughts pure?
AGHI: Then you would have to do a physical cleansing.You would take a shower, cleaning in a particular order. Cleaning yourself was very prescriptive. And then you could then appear before God again.
EDITOR: Would you say that you had an experience of God Himself in the daily prayer before Him?
AGHI: I had shivers going down my spine, standing before God and saying the prayer. especially the first part of the prayer, which is very similar to ‘Our Father’.
EDITOR: Did this prayer affect you?
AGHI: Well it affected the way you behaved in everyday life, since you stood in prayer three times during each day. Any major sin, for instance against chastity and purity of thought, nullified your prayer.
EDITOR: And who was God to you then? Who was Allah?
AGHI: He was the one almighty creator of all things.. I would say my relationship was one-sided perhaps, but at the same time you believed that everything was pre-determined, that it was your fate, that you’re resigned to things happening around you because you think it’s God’s will.
EDITOR: So what did you think of the fact that your parents did not pray in this way and did not presumably purify themselves at least before prayer and were not daily prayers? Did that trouble you?
AGHI: Not really. Islam is a very demanding religion and many people don’t practise on a daily basis. Often they become religious during the month of Ramadan when in a country, in a Muslim country, the wholecountry plunges into this prayerful state where tea houses will be shut or their windows painted opaque so if anybody cannot fast they will not be seen byother people. The whole nation is expected to fast and pray. It is a time of tremendous spiritual renewal, where every one is involved.
EDITOR: Why was it you came over to england at age eighteen?
AGHI: I came with my uncle who was a lawyer anduniversity lecture. He had been travelling and studied abroad. After the revolution he somehow felt that his life wasn’t there, he felt he couldn’t fit in. He had four children, one of my cousins was already in the United Kingdom studying, and so he took his entire family and left then. At the time he was writing a book and I was doing the typing. I had just finished the equivalent of ‘A’ Levels.
EDITOR: So you came over to england as a Muslim coming to a Christian country, at the very least nominally Christian. How did you feel about that, coming to a Christian country?
AGHI: My perception of western culture was that it was a very immoral, very permissive society, where the women are put on display, and men have no regard as to how immodestly their wives are dressed.
EDITOR: Did that frighten you a bit or were you interested by it?
AGHI: No it didn’t frightened me. We were staying in a hotel near Hyde Park and I could see there was a sense of freedom, in the way people conducted themselves, the way they carried on and dressed and held hands and so on. I was coming from a culture where, even before the Islamic revolution, there was a high sense of modesty.
EDITOR: How did you encounter Catholicism?
AGHI: My Uncle had to travel to the United States where he intended to settle. As my American visa was delayed I could not travel with my uncle. My cousin asked Fr Hugh Thwaites SJ, who was in charge of a student chaplaincy to accommodate me. So that was my first encounter with Catholicism.
EDITOR: So you were living with Catholic students?
AGHI: For a short while.EDITOR: Did you witness to your Islamic faith there?
AGHI: I was enthusiastic to introduce Fr Thwaites and Fr Lawson SJ to Islam. My understanding at the time was that Islam was the ultimate, the last faith thatwas given to us by God Himself. I felt Christianity was ‘written’ by man and Islam was the fulfillment of Christianity. Fr Thwaites in his wisdom got me aPersian Bible in no time, and in a sense he introduced me to Christianity.
EDITOR: Would you like to describe a little bit moreabout these beginnings of your introduction to Christian ideas?
AGHI: I came from a religion in which Mohammed himself said that he has no miracles, so I was amazed that Jesus did. My ignorance about him surprised me. I’d finished A Levels and it was pretty tough. It’s not like here where you specialize in a few subjects. You have sixteen subjects and you have to pass all to progress in each academic year. Like most 18 year olds I thought I knew it all! And here was I, reading things about our Lord that were amazing, about His person, words, actions.
EDITOR: What followed upon these realizations.
AGHI: Father Thwaites introduced me to the monthly Patrician meetings of the Legion of Mary, where one of the members prepares a short talk, everybodydiscusses it and then finally the priest leads conclusive thoughts and prayers. These were very enlightening. I first met Christ there and I was totally overwhelmed. I understood then that man needed to be redeemed, and that our Lord had done this. This is where I met Greg, my husband to be. I was impressed with his integrity, and sense of purity. I was intrigued to find someone living in London, which I regarded as a totally permissive society, yet remaining unaffected. He was extremely chaste, extremely decent.
EDITOR: And this would be like a good Muslim man in that sense would he?
AGHI: No, no he wouldn’t be like a good Muslim man at all, because a good Muslim man believes he can have many wives. Certainly my father and my uncles, and boys generally that I knew in Tehran had this sort of attitude. The women were very chaste but the men were very lustful.Men felt that women were created for their pleasure and so the Church’s attitude to women was a revelation for me. Gradually Gregory and I were thinking a little bit more in terms of commitment to each other, and Gregory threw this challenge to me that if I could prove to him that Islam was a true religion he would become a Muslim, and vice versa. I read my Koran much more than before, as well as the New Testament. In the end he didn’t have to convert me, just reading the New Testament wasenough.
EDITOR: enough to open you to Christ?
AGHI: Yes, I came to understand, that man had to beredeemed, and that the Muslim animal blood sacrifice is an impoverished sacrifice. Also I was carefully reading my Koran in order to convert Greg. With my new understating of the bible the Koran did not seem to me so authentic or divinely inspired. For instance the conditions on which a man may divorce his wife. It just didn’t make sense.I also had considered the Koranic story of Miriam which is the part on our blessed mother. Islam teaches that our blessed mother was always a virgin and that Christ did not have an earthly father. But that’s where the story of Christ stops, except to say that that was the will of God and anyone who says that God has taken a son to himself, would be scorned in hell. All of a sudden theholy book appeared incomplete and inadequate.
EDITOR: After your baptism did you develop a deeper experience of God?
AGHI: Only very gradually did I gain a personal experience of a loving God, of a loving Father. Father Thwaites had said: look you have to believe that Jesus Christ is God, and once you have accepted that you will become accepting of everything else. Because the faith is so rich we need a lifetime to absorb and understand it.
EDITOR: Did this mean that you began to reject Islam?
AGHI: No, no, I just didn’t ponder on Islam any more, I was pondering on Christianity. Sometimes you have to knock the old house down in order to build a new house. But it wasn’t like that in my case, my old faith wasn’t being taken away from me. I received thefullness of truth in my new faith in Christ.
EDITOR: So in a sense your discovery of Christianity was a fulfillment of you Islamic belief.
AGHI: Yes that’s right. even to this day I don’t go around denigrating Islam. I haven’t had time and energy to give to that. My focus has been to discover my faith, to practice my Catholic faith.
EDITOR: And what about your experience of prayer now? You described earlier your prayers as a teenager. You’re older now and you’re a Christian. Were there any significant differences as well as similarities in your experience of Islamic and Christian prayer?
AGHI: Well after my baptism and then with a young family I certainly felt I didn’t pray enough, even thoughI was praying the daily rosary. While a practicing Muslin I prayed a lot more.
EDITOR: And do you still feel that?
AGHI: Well I do now, thank God after dropping the children to school I am able to go to daily Mass and say the Rosary before the Blessed Sacrament, and that seems to fill me totally.
EDITOR: Do you still have the feeling of the greatness of God and your smallness that you experienced in your Islamic prayer, and do you ever get a ‘shiver down your spine’ in the same way?
AGHI: I do get shivers down my spine when I see I’m before my God and that I am receiving Him in the form of the Blessed Sacrament. And now I know his closeness. I thank God for our Blessed Mother, she is there. My relationship with God has grown through Our Lady. Not having a mother in this country and being the mother of ten children I certainly needed a mother, and she took that role. Her statue stood always on our windowsill in front of the sink. And so therefore I am close to God as I am close to His mother.
EDITOR: Your closeness to Our Lady is also a fulfilment of your experience as a Muslim.
AGHI: It certainly is.
EDITOR: Thank you.