By Tim Lam
A crucifix-wearing Catholic nun was the unlikely catalyst for reconnecting Amna Iqbal to her Islamic faith.
Before she moved to Melbourne, Amna grew up in the UK where she attended a Catholic school.
“A lot of my love for interfaith is because it is familiar to me – the hymns, the verses, the way we worship in a church space reminds me of home and of that school,” she said.
But there was one person in particular who played a special part in Amna’s faith journey.
“I still remember Sister Brenda with her fiery red hair, special nun outfit and her big, awesome, badass crucifix,” Amna said.
“She’d slip her backpack on and take us everywhere – the synagogue in London, the mosque in Nuneaton, churches, Buddhist temples.
“I never encountered an individual who was so in love and so true to her faith but also had genuine compassion, empathy and curiosity for all the other faiths that she encountered.
“My faith and my journey towards Islam is also because of Sister Brenda and the love she had for her faith.”
Amna shared her story at Ormond Uniting Church as part of Multi-faith October, where guests from different faith traditions talked about their religion at the Sunday morning services.
Fi Bottcher spoke about her journey with Christianity, Cynthia Mackenzie shared teachings from Buddhism, Pam Spiegel represented the Jewish faith and Amna Ispoke spoke candidly about the joy and challenges of being a young Muslim.
One of the five pillars of Islam is prayer, and Amna uses the iPray mobile app to send her daily reminders.
But the perils of modern technology were exposed during a visit to a churros store.
“When I downloaded the iPray app, I didn’t realise the default ringtone was a man reciting the call to prayer,” she said.
“So I was in San Churro with my friend with my churros and hot chocolate when my phone started playing the call to prayer on full volume!
“But it was also a really defining moment for me because I realised what is part of my everyday life is incredibly unfamiliar and a bit spooky and weird for people who might not have been confronted with it before.”
That realisation took on a darker turn when Amna went on exchange in Madrid and was placed in a homestay with an Islamophobic housemate.
“She took a doona away and said ‘you people have coloured skin, I don’t want you to dirty up my doona’,” Amna said.
“I’ve had people stare at me my whole life but I never had someone pierce me quite so much to the point that the façade that I had been so carefully curating for so many years just crumbled.”
Her traumatic experience led Amna to visit a mosque for the first time in many years.
“I remember just sitting in front of a fountain and crying,” she said.
“At that moment it was not about the hijab or whether I was praying five times a day. I had a feeling that I just hold on to now beyond anything else – that I have God in my heart.
“In front of the fountain that day, crying and feeling like I had nothing, I realised I had God and I’d found him.
“When you have God in your heart, when you have Jesus, or Buddha or Vishnu, you have light. And where there’s light, there’s love.”
Multi-faith October concluded with a panel discussion and multicultural meal prepared by the Ormond home groups.
Ormond Uniting Church minister Rev Andrew Boyle said there was a “wonderful resonance” between the guest speakers’ stories and the Christian faith.
“It’s about this journey – of maybe avoiding God but then being found by God, often through suffering – where light and love enters into us,” he said.