As someone who has more friends that are non-Muslim, than Muslim – I have been surrounded by many different reactions and opinions to the fact I am a practising Muslim. I am blessed, that my closest friends are the most supportive, accepting and positive people, which with Islamophobia on the rise, has given this fact more value than it normally should. While they understand how important my faith is to me, I was so surprised when I learnt one of them held a deep respect and appreciation for Islam, that went beyond the usual tolerance and acceptance I was used to.
Chylo Douglas–Forbes , affectionately known to me as ‘Doc’, is of Caribbean Descent and was raised by her father in south London. I remember talking to her about Islam once just casually, and being surprised by her response; I distinctively remember her saying ‘Islam is such a beautiful religion’. I was so amazed that she held this opinion despite being non-Muslim. Her reaction went beyond any understanding my other friends had displayed; I was intrigued as to what lead her to this understanding. She then went on to tell me that it was because of her father, Martin, and his love and high regard for the religion, despite being Christian himself; ‘Hmmm, for as long as I can remember we’ve had a Qur’an on our bookshelf. Well, actually on top of our bookshelf, as It’s meant to be right at the top or something? Anyways yeah, so we’ve always had that, and I remember having to wash my hand before touching it or opening it. Even before meals he says ‘Bismillah’. I was always raised to give thanks before eating or going to sleep, so always thought Bismillah was a lazy cop out, but I bet you he’s secretly Muslim’.
I was beyond fascinated at this point; how is it that despite being non-Muslim, this man held Islam in such regard that he had a Qur’an in his house, Calligraphy of Bismillah proudly displayed on his wall, and even said Bismillah before every meal? To me this was amazing, and I knew I had to talk to him to find out more.
And, so after meeting up with Chylo in Tooting and buying biriyani, and three different types of naan from Lahore Karahi, I found myself on the way to her dad’s house to interview him. Now, it is important to note that I went in to this interview with Martin under the same assumption as his daughter: that he was a practising Christian who simply held Islam in high regard. What I discovered, however, shifted the whole course of the interview, and it became so much more than I was expecting it to.
After lots of laughter and several attempts to get serious, Martin sits down in an armchair in front me, and his daughter Chylo sits beside me, as we finally start the interview.
Do you consider yourself religious, and if so what faith do you follow?
Martin: I don’t know, I don’t know you’d have to be more specific. I don’t go to church or anything like that. I believe there’s a God.
You believe there’s a God? Do you follow a particular religion?
M: No, I do not.
C: Not Christianity?
M: I don’t follow Christianity, where’s my Bible? Where’s my church?
C: That’s what I thought
Do you mind elaborating a bit more – so you believe there is a God?
M: I believe we’re created. I don’t believe in Darwinism, that we come from apes and all that. But, you know, maybe that idea has got some of its own strengths, but I believe in God. Those apes had to be created by something.
Would you say that you believed in one God then?
M: Yeah, yeah. There’s more than one religion, so God will have many names, but there’s just the one.
That’s really interesting
M: It’s the truth, isn’t it? I might say this in my language, you might say the same thing in your language, it seemingly becomes two different things.
C: Even in the Quran and the Bible, they have the same people, but with different names.
How were you first introduced to Islam?
M: Don’t know (Chylo laughs) I don’t know, I’ve known about Islam from a long time ago, when I was a young guy. But the younger you are, the easier it is for it fly over your head, you can ignore it.
So was it from family, from around friends?
M: Probably friends or something, probably something like (Louis) Farrakhan, or a rap video in which they mentioned something about the Nation of Islam. That was probably my introduction to it, I listened to a lot of rap music, and a lot of the rappers have moved towards it.
What were your first impressions of Islam?
M: My first impression was it’s not for us, it’s not in our language. That was my first impression, that it wasn’t for me. I don’t understand. The writing, it’s nice to look at, but it’s not of my people, I don’t know these people, they’re not speaking my language. When they’re calling to prayer, they’re not calling me because I couldn’t possibly know what they’re saying.
How do you feel about Islam now?
M: It’s for me; they’re my people – I like it. I don’t look at it as religion, I look at it as a way of life, if you want to live good, to live clean. It’s not about ‘follow us or you’re going to burn, follow us or you’re going to die’. Only God will judge me for what I am; it’s about what’s in your heart – it’s your heart that matters.
I remember someone once saying that when you see your brothers going in a certain direction, follow them. Basically, if you see people that you like, your favourite rappers, your friends, your elders, when you see them going to Islam – follow them.
How do you know so much about Islam?
M: I’ve got Muslim friends. Also, I work in a primary school and a big percentage of them are Muslim. And, if you like something, you ask, you enquire about it, that’s how you come to know. If you’re not interested in something, you don’t ask about it, you don’t look into it. You know, when people talk about it, you close your ears. If you’re interested you look, you listen, you ask and you learn.
So what is it about Islam in particular that draws you to it, that interests you so much?
M: When I look at Christianity, they show me a white man on cross in a country in which all the people have a tan, (Chylo laughs loudly) come on, now. I just think: ‘come on, why you telling me that? Why you trying to pull me to that?’ When I see Islam, I see different people of colour, permanent tan, original language, untampered.
C: There’s actually a lot of talk relating to why so many Caribbean, African people are converting to Islam. It may be that during slavery, it’s something slave owners told them, to keep them in fear, to not rebel against them.
M: What, Christianity?
M: There’s a joke that if there was a heaven they wouldn’t tell us about it, because they wouldn’t want us there.
C: That’s why loads of people I know are converting.
So you’ve talked about how you feel it’s more inclusive to other races, is there anything else that draws you to it?
M: I like the way of life, I think it’s a good way of life. You know, Christians go to church on Sunday, they may pray when they’re eating, for example, but, in Islam, you’re praying a lot more; you’re keeping God closer to yourself. You know men and women pray separate, so your mind is on God, it’s not on ‘oh that lady in front of me she looks alright’…you know, things like that. It’s well thought out, it’s a way of life. When we’re living in these kinds of times, you need something, do you know what I mean?
That said, I’m going through life like a soldier, I’m not tied to one God, or one religion. I’ve got a sister in one church, a brother in another church, my dad goes to another church, nephews practising Islam and I’ve have friends that are Sikh. So, I’ve been everywhere, Gurdwaras mosque and churches, and I’ve gone there as myself. I don’t go there as a Christian in a Gurdwara, in a mosque, I go there as myself. When you invite me, I come; you say cover your head, I cover my head. You say don’t eat meat when you come here, I won’t eat meat. You say don’t smoke when you come here, you say take off your shoes, I’ll do that. Cause’ when I’m going, I’m going as myself.
Have you ever considered converting?
M: I consider it all the time; I consider it all the time. I think about it all the time.
What prevents you from doing so?
M: I’m not committed, it’s just commitment – I don’t know. I think about it all the time. There are children in my school that ask me: ‘When are you taking your shahada? Are you Muslim? Have you taken your shahada?’ I tell them no, I haven’t.
C: I’m pretty sure it doesn’t, and I already kind of know the answer, but do you think the way Muslims are portrayed especially recently…
M: Don’t affect me, don’t affect me.
C : (Laughs) Yeah, but you can see the difference now…
M: Don’t affect me. Back in the day, when I was growing up with yardies – if you’re Jamaican and you’re bad, you’re supposedly a yardie – all Jamaicans were supposed to be bad men. Jamaica wasn’t/isn’t full of bad people, Jamaica has lovely people. But there’s a percentage of them that are wicked, and they give all a bad name. It’s the same with everything. There’s always someone trying to spoil it, trying to spoil your name.
This interview lasted approximately five hours – I stopped recording after three. It evolved more in to a discussion and debate between all three of us, I couldn’t help myself from joining in. Martin was so fascinating to talk to, and the views he holds are so interesting. What you are reading here is a mere eleven minutes of the entire three hours – that is how rich the conversation was.
I feel I learnt a great deal from this interview, but the main thing I learnt about Martin, is that he is extremely compassionate, empathetic and tolerant. He also seeks to spread these values in everything he does. It was quite touching to learn he makes an effort to learn a few phrases in languages his pupils speak, so he can greet them in that language and make them feel comfortable. He tells me he always tries to see everything through a positive lens, so even if he does experience any negativity it goes unnoticed to him. Whether he decides to revert to Islam or not, it is beautiful to see how deep his understanding of Islam goes and that he has passed that down to Chylo.
I think we could all learn a little from Martin. In fact, the world could do with a few more people like my dear friends Martin and Chylo.