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Expressing Spirituality Through Art

Expressing Spirituality Through Art

Issue 1 Sept / Oct 2003

Growing up in South Africa, I was always aware my roots were somewhere else and there was a sense from a very early age I would travel and explore. My father had moved from Germany as a small child and my mother left England in her early twenties.

 I had an interest in art from a young age and there was a split as to whether I would go to drama or art school. Whilst at drama school I decided to major in stage design.

 South Africa was undergoing a huge amount of turmoil, and university life was punctuated by student protests and our demands for change. These were very important years and shaped the end of the apartheid regime.

 In 1987 I came to England with a desire to further my studies. I went to the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School to do a one-year postgraduate course in design. After completing this I took up various positions in repertory theatre as this is an excellent training ground for a young designer. I was resident scenic artist at the Mercury Theatre in Colchester and working with the youth theatre at the Everyman in Cheltenham.

 The theatre world is very exciting, but it very much panders to one’s ego. A place where there isn’t really a moral code – absolutely anything and everything is acceptable. I think in some ways I was swamped and pulled in various directions. Iwas becoming aware that theatre was not really an environment I was comfortable in. I did not know what it was I was searching for but looking back I believe it was the need to find an alternative value system that was more connected with spirituality.

 One day in 1996 I was riding the bus to the Riverside Studios where I was performing and I suddenly thought, if I could paint every day I would be very content. This feeling was so strong that I decided to act on it; I enrolled on a foundation course at the City Lit, in preparation for following my dream of reading a BA Honours at Central St Martins in London.


It was at that time I formed close friendships with Algerian and Moroccan Muslims. Just through socialising and spending time in the company of these people I became very aware that there was something they had that I did not. The artistic journey can lead to self-obsession as you struggle with your creativity, yet here I was discovering a world in which people accepted life. I found I much preferred to be in the company of my Muslim friends where we would prepare meals and talk.

 I began to draw on my past, because I had been taught by nuns at my primary school. It was a very strong part of my early life and at the age of six years old I would go to the Chapel at midday to hear the Angelus. As a teenager, I would go to the local Anglican church youth group. They had a folk group that would meet once a week and it became a very large part of my social and spiritual being. We would go for weekends out in the mountains. At these retreats we would find a closeness with our beliefs. So when I did come to Islam it did feel like I was coming home – re-finding what I did have, but had lost.

 I was by this time very drawn to Islam and immediately decided my first step was to read. I was far too terrified to step into a mosque, and the whole idea of wearing a head scarf was really daunting, so I found a book on Islam written by a German professor. It was a very factual discussion, making it out to be this rather antiquated belief system that was very sweet. It wasn’t reality. But I was still interested and decided I really needed to find somebody with whom I could enter into a spiritual conversation with, about Islam. Very luckily I was given the name of a wonderful Irish sister who had been a Muslim for 15 years.

 I will never forget our conversation on the phone in 1998 when we were deciding where to meet and she said, “Don’t get shock because I will be wearing the jalbaab, a long gown.” I was absolutely petrified but I went along. She took me into her home which I remember was filled with incredible serenity and peace. I thought: yes, this is something I really want to become more familiar with. She and I struck up a friendship.

 In December 1998 during Ramadan, I was very close to the decision I wanted to make, but I was also deeply aware if you convert to Islam it’s a one-way ticket. This was something I was not going to take lightly. I decided to fast the whole month and got a little book on learning to pray. Some people I had mentioned this to were very sceptical, telling me my prayers or fasts would not be accepted because I was not a Muslim, but my conviction was very strong. I fasted the whole of Ramadan.

 It was the middle of Ramadan when I actually tried to pray five prayers. It was during the Asr (afternoon) prayer, I was struggling with a book in one hand, and worrying that my scarf was falling off, and trying to pronounce the Arabic, that my semi-dark room suddenly filled with an incredible light that was not only visible but physical. I immediately rang up my friend and very innocently told her I had just had angels in my room. That was the moment I accepted Islam.

 I continued my reading, and after a couple of months my friend suggested we went to the mosque. It was an incredibly exciting moment and I felt this absolute sense that, yes, this would be OK. We all crowded into the Imam’s office at Regent’s Park, and al-hamdu lillah (praise be to God), he explained it to me very carefully and all the sisters were overjoyed. I’m sure I was crying. On that day in May 1999 I made my shahadah, declaration of faith.

 Then began a really rocky road. I’ve now found this out from so many new Muslims: that everything is extraordinary as you go towards making that decision, but the moment you take it, you go through great torment and are severely tested. This wonderful thing I had discovered became intangible and I did not know how to hold on to it, and I knew it was a sin to doubt.

 At that time I was not wearing the headcovering, and although I was feeling that it was something I had to do, I was getting a huge amount of pressure to wear it. I started wearing a scarf to attend Arabic classes while I had some time off work, and I had become used to it. My job has a lot of client interface and I was unsure what the reaction of my employers would be. Al-hamdu lillah when I made enquiries they told me it was my right as a Muslim in the UK.

 In terms of my studies, in four years I have only seen one other sister wearing a scarf at Saint Martin’s, but my beliefs are taken seriously and respected. It is met with incredible respect and people accept there are certain rules in terms of the kind of work I produce that are affected by my faith. In Islam work is seen as worship, and art is to glorify God.

 Despite the fact that my family is all the way in South Africa, I have regular contact with them and we visit as often as possible. I discovered recently that because my coming to Islam was such a gradual process, they were aware of it. My parents visited the priest of my local church to ask him about this Islam their daughter was talking so much about. He told them they need not worry - it was not some kind of strange religion, and I would come to no harm.

 I am able to discuss and share my beliefs with my family. I know I came into the faith because of the mercy I saw in other people, and that will be my da’wah (inviting others to Islam), God-willing. Family, friends and work colleagues have noticed that I have found peace and if I can show them that, they will seek knowledge for themselves.


My journey was a solo journey but Allah provided all the people to help me along the way.


words: Rafiqa Basel

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