A visitor’s account of their stay at Zawia Ebrahim

It seemed unlikely that I would make the trip to South Africa from Europe. In the end, God had to show me strong, undeniable signs that it was time to go. The rich meanings I learnt there, as it turns out, were just what I needed at this point on my journey.

I had arrived at the Zawia in the evening and settled in. In the early hours of the next day, I walked across the courtyard, under the stars, wrapped in a warm jumper, to join the dawn prayer. It was after the peaceful prayer that I met Shaykh Ebrahim for the first time – he walked over to my side of the prayer room and greeted me, “Would you like to join me for breakfast?” Soon after, I found myself in the kitchen of someone I’d been admiring from a distance for several years. I couldn’t work out whether I felt at home because everyone was so welcoming, or because it was all meant to be. There was a sense of familiarity, a sense of connectedness.

Being a Western convert to Islam, I had often experienced conflict between adopting certain practices and my own upbringing. Even certain attitudes that Muslims around me had were so alien to me, and yet I associated them with Islam and felt I should take them on. This caused an inner disconnect, an inner conflict that, after several years, became unsustainable. Shaykh Ebrahim has come to show me that to be a Muslim in the West doesn’t make it necessary to practice a culture that is at odds with your own. He doesn’t have double standards, he is the same around everyone, he is authentic.

Shaykh Ebrahim could be a family friend – the respect, generosity and openness with which he treated me, was unlike any Muslim man (let alone shaykh) I had encountered. It’s not that the others were worse in some way – but it was the treatment that struck me most, that I felt human first and foremost, not a woman, not Muslim, not European. Female Muslim friends I have spoken to since have responded to this reflection with “but that’s how it should be.” There seems to be a growing sense of frustration amongst Muslim women in the West, who get treated one way at work or in public and another way in their religious communities. Strict segregation, or keeping women out of the public sphere, doesn’t benefit anyone. My sense is that it’s the men that need to adapt to this reality, and grow increasingly comfortable and confident with sharing space with women, respectfully and appropriately. Just as they do in the workplace, for example. They need to be more honest with themselves about the consequences for children, family and community when women are kept out of the public sphere. From what I’ve learnt, these practices have no place or origin in the Islamic tradition. I cannot imagine the Prophet (peace be upon him) making women feel excluded or ashamed, as some men make women feel today.

If I could summarise the two key lessons / gems from my stay at the Zawia in Johannesburg, they would be:

  1. Be authentic. The deen can either be “an identity or a technology for transformation”. Shaykh Ebrahim says that this issue isn’t about losing who you are, you use the deen to discover who you are. It is completely possible – now that I’ve seen it first hand – to be at one with others, at one with yourself, and at one with God. “Take back your life,” Shaykh Ebrahim told me, “and keep your deen.”
  2. Absolutely nothing is arbitrary. Everything that happens, everything that is presented to you is from God, for you and is the next thing you need in order to draw closer to Him. If I could open my eyes wider and wider to this fact, I know I’d live a much richer, more meaningful day-to-day existence. Our days are in fact filled with these subtle things – pulling up to my house as the lecture I’m listening to concludes, the train being delayed by two minutes and I just catch it, looking at my phone (which is on silent) just as someone dear is calling. So much goes right without our intervention. There are infinite miracles to be grateful for and to know Him through.


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