Conversion Story For Sheikh Jehad IsmailPublished on 28 Apr 2020
I was born in Poland, and I lived in Kuwait until the age of 14 years old after which I migrated to Australia with my parents. During my life in Kuwait, we basically lived among an array of communities. And we never had issues, in as far as school of thoughts are concerned. In fact, my parents lived in an environment which was a mixed environment. And my father's experience in Kuwait involved, basically, many friends from different communities, Iraqis, Lebanese, Palestinian, Jordanians, and even Kuwaitis and Iraqis obviously.
I grew up in a household where my father was very much for unity among Muslims, so we never heard anything to do with Sunni or Shias at all. We were Muslims and that was good enough for all the members of the family. But my father was a very interesting person in that he used to love to engage in debates that involved people talking about different school of thoughts, you know, differences in opinion. But he would always come to the forefront and basically try to have a reconciliatory tone in all of the discussions that he had. And in the course of saying these things, he had an experience himself. He had an experience where he witnessed two Iraqis fighting. And in the fight, my father heard one of them actually abusing Imam Ali, salawatuhu wa salamahu 'alayh. My father, being a Sunni, but he took offense. And he basically jumped into the fight, trying to... initially, he did not try to break the fight, He actually went against the guy who was abusing Imam Ali (a). And in the course of the fight, the person who was basically being put down, he asked my father, you should know why I did abuse Imam Ali. So my father gave him the benefit of the doubt. He said, "Yes, tell me what happened". He said, "Well, the other Iraqi guy abused the first caliph!". So, my father said, "Is that a justification?, I mean, if the first person was ‘Jahil’, let's say, in inverted commas, you don't reciprocate and you abuse Imam Ali because Imam Ali is a figure you can't abuse."
So, from that moment onwards, my father told me a story, which was extremely fascinating. He went to Najaf, and when he went to Najaf, he asked for the highest authority of the hierarchy in Najaf, and he was basically told to go and speak to the Marja' of the time then, who was known as Ayatullah Muhammad Husain Al Kashif Al-Ghita’, who was contemporary to Ayatullah Sayyid Mohsin Al Hakeem. So my father says, "I went inside the shrine of Imam Ali (a), and I approached the Ayatullah, and I asked him, 'What is this situation with Muslims? I mean, why do we have these issues and differences?'" And when he spoke to the Imam, the Imam was so open minded and again, he was so reconciliatory in his approach about, you know, relationship between Muslims, that my father, after that particular encounter with the Ayatullah, could not believe that there are differences between the school of thoughts that we should fight about. So who's going to convince my father now that the Shias are an outcast, that the Shias are not Muslims, that the Shias are not a group or a community to be trusted, or even to claim that they are not Muslims. So from that moment onwards, that actually enhanced even and further made my father adamant not to create that sense of differentiation between the school of thoughts, at least in our upbringing as children in the household.
Then we moved to Australia after that, and I was at the age of 14. When we moved to Australia, I joined a group, and that group was known as Jama’at al-Tabligh. It's a very well-known group. And the concept of that group basically involves people going around houses, door knocking at Muslim houses, inviting them to come to the mosque. I found it a very fascinating idea. And I joined them for almost three or four years. By then the revolution started in Iran. So I went to the hierarchy of the Jama’at al-Tabligh, because basically, their concept is to reinstate the Islamic khilafah, by educating the masses. Eventually, if you educate the masses, and you bring the masses back to, in line with their faith, then you are preparing the whole society to be Islamic. And therefore the leadership will turn Islamic by virtue of the fact that the society now is Islamic.
So I seized the opportunity being naive enough to believe that everyone thought like me, there are no issues, no differences. And I said to the hierarchy, "You know, guys, we should now unite with these people!". Because they have already declared a government that seems to be Islamic or at face value they are calling for Islamic values, so why don't we join them?" And to my shock and surprise, the answer I got basically shook my entire system, because I was raised in that environment of not differentiating between Muslims. The first answer I got back, we can't do that because they are kafirs. So my whole approach, basically, to the idea of, we are Muslims, was shattered in front of my very own eyes from the answer that I got. So it was a struggle for me to accept such an answer.
I decided to begin my search and my quest to find even more about the Shia school of thought. By then, I was almost 17, 18 years old. I approached one of our local Shia Imams, who was the second Shia Imam of the largest mosque in Sydney called Al-Zahra Mosque and I spoke to him at length. And basically our dialogue lasted for more than six to seven years. In the end, it was like, going forward and backward, forward and backward, me asking him questions, he’s answering me and so on and so forth.
In the end, he gave me two books, for the same author Sayyid Abd al-Husain Sharaf al-Din al-Musawi from South Lebanon. And one book is called Al-Muraja'at, which is translated in English I think, as the right path or the straight path. But the other book, which was written by Sayyid Abd al-Husain Sharaf al-Din al-Musawi, which I personally believe, was a much more important book than Al-Muraja’at, is a book by the title Al-Nass Wa'l-Ijtihad, which basically, if I'm going to translate it literally, it would sound like "The text versus the opinion of the companions", the text being the Quran. The idea of the book is highlighting how many times the companions of the Prophet (pbuh) through their own ijtihad went actually against the text of the Quran. That was something that was such an enlightenment for me. It was like Nirvana, it was like reaching the very, you know, core of the truth of what is the actual problem between the two schools of thoughts. In as much as the other school of thought says that the Shias take the level of the Imams to such a high level of infallibility, I found also that after reading that book, they took the status of the companions to that level of infallibility as well, where you can't even question what they did despite the fact that, in many situations, they actually went against the text of the Quran. And to go against the text of the Quran, meaning to go against the whole revelation, the whole message. Something that we never heard about, something that we were never exposed to, something that we could not even question in our brain, in our upbringing at school, at least, when we were taught, for example, about the dynasty of Bani Umayyah and the dynasty of Bani Al-'Abbas, and, and so on and so forth. You take it as gospel, you learn it, you memorize it, and you believe in it as if it is a creed, and a credence that you can't question. Based on that, I was not convinced. And the more I read, the more I became convinced that there is something missing in our school of thought.
The icing on the cake, that tipped the scale, is that when I met another Shia person who gave me, as a gift, Sahifa Sajjadiya. Sahifa Sajjadiya was by far the book that made me realize that after truth there is only falsehood. So if you marginalize the truth, you will not find, extra large truth or double x truth, you gotta find falsehood. I decided to myself, time is now available to me, it's the best opportunity for myself to take the school of thought of Ahlul Bayt (a) as my school of thought. And I did, I accepted it with an open arm and I began to question everything I was taught, right from my childhood in school, all the way until I commenced my studies in Al Azhar University as well, which was in Egypt, to such an extent that when I commenced my studies in Al Azhar University, I sensed a some sort of animosity to question our history, to question what happened among the companions, to even question the fact that the master, who is sometimes the killer, and the master, who is sometimes the one killed, are both called masters. Doesn’t make sense. Rationality does not accept that the killer and the killed be both masters at the same time. It's like saying day and night exist simultaneously at the same time, which doesn't make sense, you know? And so many things I had to question and to basically cast my prejudice aside in order to find the truth and follow the truth.
I'll give you one incident that I often used to ask myself about, and without a word of a lie, it took me 10 years to find the source behind that riwaya. It is a simple narration that is mentioned in Bukhari and Muslim about the fact that... it’s a riwaya mentioned on the authority of the wife of the Prophet (pbuh), Ayesha, where she says that the Prophet (pbuh) sent a battalion of companions, and he appointed a leader on that group of Muslims. That person who was appointed as the group leader was not named throughout the riwaya or throughout the narration. But there was something very unique about that person, that every time he would lead prayer with the other Muslims, he would always read Qul hu wallahu ahad. So the group said to him, "You don't know anything else from the Quran except this surah? When we go back to Medina, we will complain to Rasoolullah about you." He said, "Suit yourselves!" So they did. When they went back to Medina, they approached the Prophet (s) and they told him about what happened. So the Prophet said, "Did you ask him why? Did you, did it ever occur to you, why he's reciting Qul hu wallahu ahad?" They said, "No!, Ya Rasoolullah." He said then, "Go and ask him!" So the actual companions went and asked the person and he had an answer. He said, "Allah (swt) described himself throughout this ayah, and I love to communicate with my God, on the basis of the way he described himself." So they went back to the Prophet, they relate the answer. So the Prophet made a comment, he said, "Then tell him, the One that he loves, also loves him." End of the story. Until now, there is no mention of who that person is.
So I started researching. It took me 10 years until I found that this riwaya is speaking about Imam Ali (a). So the question that came to mind: why the marginalization of Ahlulbayt in Sunni sources? That was one of the biggest issues that I faced in my research whether or about where the truth lies. And I was absolutely convinced that the only reason behind the marginalization of the members of the Family of the Prophet (s) is to mislead people about the truth, that the truth does not lie with them, that the truth lies elsewhere when the whole truth lies with Ahlulbayt.
Later on, of course, I had a different experience. And that is when I began reading a very important book because I did part of my master's degree on that book. And that book is Al-Muwatta' by Imam Malik. Muwatta' of Imam Malik is very peculiar in the sense that it has two very distinct dimensions to it. Number one, Muwatta' is the only book that mentions that riwaya about Rusoolullah leaving behind two weighty things, where he mentions ‘Kitab Allah wa Sunnati’ but he does not say that the riwaya originated from the Prophet. He says that the riwaya is marfu’. And when the riwaya is marfu’ within the Sunni standards of the classification of the hadith it means that the companion or one of the companions narrated the hadith without taking the authority or the chain of the hadith back to the Prophet (s).
While we have another riwaya which is referenced all the way to the Prophet and mentions 'Kitab Allah wa Itrati'. So another problem has occurred. How is it that our whole faith system is built on the riwaya that, at best, it's marfu’ riwaya? And a riwaya which is considered to be mutawatir in other book of Sunni hadith that mentions ‘Kitab Allah wa Itrati’ is marginalized, and the riwaya that is only marfu’ is considered to be the basis of the entire Sunni school of thought or the entire Sunni belief system? That again raised a major problem.
The second important issue about Al-Muwatta', is that in Al-Muwatta', Imam Malik adopts a particular way of extrapolating a law in Islam. We know, for example, that each of these school of thoughts and their leaders have used a certain methodology to extrapolate laws. which is istimbat al-hukum. For example, Abu Hanifa qiyas, Shafi'i, you know, al-masalih al-mursalah, and so on and so forth. In the case of Muwatta', or Imam Malik, he adopts a particular style or a particular idea which no other Imam in the Sunni hierarchy adopts whatsoever, and that is known as 'amal ahl al-Madina. What does that mean or how does this translate? What the people of Medina practice. So if he came across, for example, a hadith that is classified as hadith al-ahad, which is narrated on the authority of one or two companions, for example, he would give preference to what the people of Medina would practice over hadith al-ahad, by virtue of the fact that the majority of the people who are practicing a particular thing in Medina, cannot all be wrong, as opposed to a hadith al-ahad, because hadith al-ahad was witnessed by one or two companions as opposed to the majority of the actions of the people of Medina.
And we find something very interesting. That is that 'amal ahl al-Madina, according to Imam Malik, is that they pray with their hands down. So that's another issue. How is it possible that all this evidence is before us and then we are still saying that this is not the right way or this is not the right practice, since the people of Medina are better or more equipped to know what the Prophet (s) used to do than anyone else. And if they have prayed with their hands down, then it must have been handed down to them, generation after generation, from the time of the Prophet (s), to indicate that the Prophet (s) prayed with his hand down, since the Prophet (s) is the one who said, صلوا كما رأيتموني أصلي "Observe your prayer the way you have seen me perform my prayer." And certainly the practice of the people of Medina was one of releasing the hands in prayer. All this information, put together, gave me the absolute conviction that there is no truth except to follow Ahlul Bayt salamullahi 'alayh.
Something I must admit, even when I was a member of this Sunni school of thought, I don't remember a time, other than the time when I was in Kuwait with my family, that I was praying with my hands folded. So I've always had the idea of praying with my hands down and whenever I was asked about it, I would always plead the fact that I am following the Maliki school of thought. In order not to basically raise suspicion or raise issues with the predominant Sunni community that I was living in. They had no issues with that. The problem that I faced is when I had to use the turbah. As a substitute to that, in the initial stages, I was using a tissue or a piece of paper in order not to raise alarms, basically, around me.
But the moment when it all rained on me is that after I was handed these two books by the Shia scholar, he met with me again and he said, "Have you converted? Where do you stand in all of this?" So, I said, “Sayyidna, I have actually converted long time ago even when I was in discussion with you and dialogue, but I never came out and told you or declared it in public. But now I am pleased to tell you that I did." However, the most significant moment of my time that made me feel the awe and the loftiness of Ahlul Bayt (a) is when I began reading Du'a Makarim al-Akhlaq from Imam Zain ul Abideen. I cried, I cried so much. And I kept repeating this statement in the back of my mind. Why this wealth has been denied or hidden from us? Why were we not granted access to this beautiful way of communicating with Allah (swt)? Why was this Family not part and parcel of the Islamic heritage? Why is it that we cannot access a Family that the Quran talks about on behalf of the Prophet (s) where Allah (swt) says, in the Quran, قل لا أسألكم عليه أجرا إلا المودة في القربى.
If that's all that the Prophet (s) had asked for, then why is it that this Family was marginalized? Why couldn't we access them as Sunni's? What's the big deal denying us access to these people? So, Sahifa Sajjadiyah to me was, like, an incredible book of enlightenment, a book that I could see the love, the passion, the connection, the tranquility, the peace that this Family had with Allah (swt). The more I read, the more I was, again, convinced that there is no way that Allah (swt) would put a plan in place, put a Prophet among a nation, and then Allah (swt) would just leave that nation to decide for itself who the leaders will be after the Prophet (s)? It just does not make sense.
Then when you come across such wealth of language, such wealth of love, such wealth of admiration, and you put someone in their place to lead the Muslim ummah, again, it just defies logic. It defies rationality. It defies common sense. And it leads you to one path and one path only. That this has always been planned by Allah (swt), that the post of Prophethood and the post of Imamah can never be something that can be chosen by virtue of election. It is an appointed post, that no election can interfere in the appointment of these people. And since we know that the Imamah is an extension of the school of Prophethood, then definitely the school of Imamah is also by appointment, just like the school of Prophethood is also by appointment.
Allow me to say that right from the time when I went to Al Azhar University, and then I came back, and before I went to Qum to basically also adjust my studies from the Sunni school of thought to the Shia school of thought. I was like, what they say in the Indian subcontinent, I was like the ‘Paish Imam’, you know, the second Imam that would lead prayer in the absence of the al-imam al-ratib, as they say in the Islamic jurisprudence terms. We had a Mufti in Australia, his name is Taj ud Deen Hilali, he was very well known. And he's been in the news all over the place. He was the head of the largest Sunni mosque in Sydney. It's called, funny enough, it's actually called Imam Ali mosque. But the Sunnis, unfortunately, call it Lakemba mosque, in reference to a suburb in which the mosque is built in.
In that mosque, I grew in that mosque, I used to go there, attend Friday prayers. My school, when I started school, it was like a 10 minute walk from the school to that mosque. So I would actually come at lunch, pray at the mosque. And during Friday, I would actually leave the school and ask permission for an extra period, and come and join the Friday prayer at that particular mosque. As I grew, as I went to Al Azhar University, graduated from the faculty of Usul al Deen, came back, I started helping at that mosque and I was leading prayers.
Now one day, out of the blue, one of the people that used to pray behind me decided not to pray behind me. He came and he saw me after the prayers. He said, "Sheikh! I want to speak to you." I said, "Yes, go ahead!" He said, "I just want to let you know that I did not pray behind you today." I said, "It's your choice. I can't force anyone to pray behind me. It's up to you. Is it?" "No, but I want to tell you why I did not pray behind you." I said, "Be my guest." He said, "Because you're a Rafidhi." I said, "And how did you know that?" He said, "Because you're praying with your hands down. And rumors had it that you've converted." I said, "You know what? It's no use hiding the facts. Yes, I did convert! And yes, I am a Shia now. And I'm proud to say that I am a Shia and it's up to you to accept that fact or not."
As a result of that, we had organized as a group of students at that time, or in collaboration with a group of students at a very prominent University in Sydney called Sydney University, one of the oldest universities, I believe, in Sydney, a seminar called ‘The Unity Seminar’. That seminar, basically, the idea of the group was to bring Shia's and Sunni's together on one platform and speak about issues that will bring the communities together. I was working at that time with the office that looked after the mosque. I was working in the office at that time. And it happened that, on that day, there was no one but me and a friend, a colleague, and that colleague also left so I was on my own in the office. A solicitor, who was part of the group that organized the seminar, could not attend the seminar. He called and he wanted me to brief him as to how the seminar went. I got very emotionally involved that it was a great seminar, a great attendance, we came out with so many propositions and proposals as to what will be the plan after the seminar and what we can do to create that sense of unity.
In the meantime, without me realizing, one of the executive committee members, who was very anti-Shia, extremely anti-Shia, had entered the premises, and was listening to the conversation without me knowing. When I ended the conversation, he came into the room. And this is exactly what he said, "Is it how many times have I told you, not to mention the word Shia in this office?" I said, "Not once. Because firstly, I don't know you, you are new to the committee. And no one told us that we can’t speak about issues of that magnitude."
By me answering him in that way, without me realizing, all of a sudden he just started throwing punches at me! Yeah, and it was a big issue, the committee got involved. But that day, I resigned. I said, "I will not stay one single day working for this community anymore." I finished all my commitments and all my work commitments with that family. Of course, as a result of that, I was married then, and as a result of that I lost my first marriage due to the conversion because I was not tolerated being a Shia in that setup and, basically, I had to leave the marriage because it... although initially, I have to admit, my wife, in fairness to her, my first wife, she stood by me initially, but then it became too involved, it became too much to bear and accept that I had taken that path and I became a full on Shia. So, you know, as the Quran says, “You either live amicably or you depart amicably.” So, it ended up in departing our own separate ways.
But the stigma did not stop, the stigma always followed me, that this person has abandoned his school of thought, has abandoned his community, and he joined the Shia school of thought. I did not break away completely from the community after that. I kept my presence though not on an official basis. But I would go back and visit these people because I grew up with them. And they had no qualms with me as far as the general masses are concerned. The leadership, yes, they had issues. They would refuse that I would lead any more prayers inside the mosque because I've become a full on follower of the school of Ahlulbayt (a), but it did not faze me in any way, though it was tough losing a marriage, losing a set up, losing work, losing your position in the community, it has its impact on you when you basically were somewhere and then you lose the whole setup as a result. That's basically some of the things I faced due to the fact that I reverted on the basis of the community, at community level.
At family level, not through marriage, but through my own siblings, and my parents, by then my father had passed away. My reversion happened after my father had passed away. My mother, upon hearing that I became a Shia, her stand was so phenomenal, that she made the remark, she said, "By him adopting the Shia school of thought, had he become worse in terms of his religion or better in terms of his religion? Is he more practicing now? Is he more God conscious? Is he more God fearing? Is his practices better, or worse? If his practices have become better, then I have no issues with him. That's his choice, he can be whatever he wants". So I never had issues with my mom, may Allah bless her and grant her a long life.
As far as my brothers are concerned, I have another brother that worked with me in organizing these unity seminars. And to this day and age, we always talk about these issues, and he is still a great advocate of unity between Sunnis and Shias. And he even writes poetry sometimes about Ahlul Bayt (a) and about Imam al-Mahdi (a). And he has his own thoughts about the differences between the two school of thoughts. So I never had issues as far as my immediate family is concerned and I consider this to be a blessing from Allah (swt) in that regard.
After the conversion, and after I lost all the setup that I've worked for, being in the Sunni setup, I was actually recruited by one of the Shia centers. And it happened to be that it was the same center where I used to have the dialogue with that Imam, the Shia Imam. I started there as what we call a community development officer where I would help the community in day to day issues or problems, facilitate, helping them getting referral services to different government departments, because that's what my job description basically entailed. And later on that particular setup also established the first Shia school in Australia. It was a primary school, basically, from K to 6. And the same Imam, that I used to have a discussion with, had asked me personally to join the school as the head of the Islamic department in the school.
At that time, I was working as a full time government court interpreter which meant that I had to resign my job, but I was very happy to do so because that is my field. My field is not interpreting, my field is to work for this school of thought now, to work for Allah (swt) and to promote the school of Ahlulbayt (a). So to me it was an amazing opportunity. I joined the school right from its inception. And I worked in that setup for almost four years. I was teaching students from all different walks for four years, right from K to year 6. After that, I felt the need to branch out and to go in different communities. We established an organization which is very well known now, worldwide, I mean any international speaker, you ask about this organization in Sydney, they will tell you that they know about because it involves itself basically by one major program in the year, that is the first Ashara. They would invite international speakers to come for the first Ashara and it's a huge setup. Basically, it's no less than 1500 to 1800 people attending on a nightly basis. We started that group of just giving lectures in English because we felt the need to start doing lectures in English. I was the first speaker to start the English majalis for Abi Abdillah al-Hussein (a) at that scale. And we started in a place called Stratfield and the name of the organization is Al Emaan, Australia.
After that, one of the organizing members said that, "Sheikh, it is time for you to start traveling into the Shia world, so that people know about you, because you are a good speaker, you're a revert, you will add this dimension to your work when you are basically approaching these different communities and you will have an impact on these communities." I married again, of course, and my current wife is an Italian revert. She's a Shia herself. And I basically thank Allah (swt) from the bottom of my heart that she's a very understanding, cooperative, encouraging wife to the extent that whenever an invitation comes and a lot of invitation comes, she never says anything else other than, "this is God's work. May Allah bless you, we are behind you." It is something that I've always wanted. That support is so essential in the life of a preacher 'alim if you want to call that, I consider myself a student, who wants to branch out and go out and serve the religion of you know, Rasoolullah (s) and Ahlulbayt salamullahi 'alayhim. So in that regard, alhamdulillah, we’re doing very well. Great rapport, great understanding and great support.
I feel that without Ahlulbayt (a) in my life, I can't exist. They are everything to me. They are my role models, my inspiration. Whatever I want to do in life, I look into their life. And with my limited abilities, I try my level best to incorporate their lifestyle in my lifestyle. What do I owe them? Everything! Genuinely, I feel I'm indebted to them. I mean, without them, I always felt this something empty, there’s a huge vacuum in my life. Only when I came to know Ahlulbayt (a) that I felt my existence, I felt my presence. I felt my importance as a human being that now can really feel his ability to communicate to Allah (swt) through such an important medium which is Ahlulbayt (a) salamullahi 'alayhim. Without them, I feel I can't even understand my existence. Without the presence I can't even get to know the proper dimension and definition of who the Creator is. It is them and them only that were able to define God for me. So, what do I owe them? What is it that I don't owe Ahlulbayt salamullahi 'alayhim. Everything, I think, the world, not only myself, but the world owes a lot to Ahlulbayt salamullahi 'alayhim. At all levels, whether it is you know the humanitarian level, the ethical level, the level of understanding the world, the level of understanding Allah (swt), recognizing Allah (swt), recognizing the message, even knowing the Prophet (s), no one knew the Prophet (s) the way they knew him. If you really want to know the Prophet (s) you have to know Ahlulbayt (a). How amazing, how amazing what Ahlulbayt (a) taught us when it came to the riwaya, for example,
أَللّهمَّ عرِّفْنِي نَفْسَكَ، فَإِنَّكَ إِنْ لَمْ تُعَرِّفْنِي نَفْسَكَ لَمْ أَعْرِفْ رَسُولَكَ، أَللّهمَّ عَرِّفْنِي رَسُولَكَ فَإِنَّكَ إِنْ لَمْ تُعَرِّفْنِي رَسُولَكَ لَمْ أَعْرِفْ حُجَّتَكَ، أَللّهمَّ عَرِّفْنِي حُجَّتَكَ فَإِنَّكَ إِنْ لَمْ تُعَرِّفْنِي حُجَّتَكَ ضَلَلْتُ عَنْ دِينِي
That shows you the importance of how you need to basically link yourself to Ahlulbayt (a), be attached to this Family that the beauty about them can be summarized in one statement, I think, with my own modest and humble ability to express these, and that is, the statement is that, Ahlulbayt salamullahi 'alayhim is the manifestation of Islam. They are the cornerstone of Islam and without them Islam could not continue.
So, what do I owe them? I owe them everything.
This video was first published on 16 Jan 2015 by ABTV Reborn as Reborn EXCLUSIVE: Sheikh Jehad Ismail | Full Episode - HD. We are grateful for their cooperation.