Everyone sits on the colourful prayer mats on the floor. The walls are decorated with paintings with the names of Allah written in Arabic calligraphy. In the shelves, Spanish copies of Quran and Islamic literature are stacked. A man in his forties, dressed in a long dark blue robe and wearing a green silk turban on his head, holds one end of a white cloth in his right hand and asks a woman to hold the other end in her hand. “Repeat after me!” he says to the woman.
She repeats the testimony of faith (Shahada) after him. She has now become a Muslim. Her new name is Halimah.
It is a special day for Halimah, not only is she changing her religion from Christianity and her name from Leidy but also because she is going to get married to Ibrahim today. Ibrahim converted to Islam six weeks ago exactly at the same place. Halimah is eight months pregnant with a boy. The couple wanted to convert to Islam and get married before the birth of their first child. They found a man who could help them in both matters.
Enter Mr Irfan Shahid (43), a Pakistani who hails from Sialkot. He is not a priest as such, instead, he is a chef and the owner of an Indian restaurant in Oaxaca, a city in Southwestern Mexico where he has been living for last five years. As there was no mosque in the city he set up a makeshift mosque above his restaurant. Since then, Mr Irfan has converted 27 people to Islam.
“How did this happen?” I asked him.
“I don’t go to people and preach Islam to them, rather, they come to me to ask about it. I explain the fundamentals of Islam to them and try to answer their questions to the best of my knowledge. They take a copy of Quran with them to study at home. Sometimes, they would come back a few more times to ask further questions and then suddenly one day they would express a desire to convert to Islam. These people come to me not because they see a light in me but because God sends them here. It is written in Quran that Allah sends astray whom He wills and guides whom He wills. I am a man of sin. My kids were the first Muslims born in Oaxaca. Now with the blessing of God, the baby in her womb would be born as a Muslim. He will be the first Muslim baby in Oaxaca born to the newly-converted Muslims. Inshallah!”
It is the first time in my life I am seeing someone converting to Islam. I was given the task to fill out the Islamic Nikah marriage certificate for the couple which I duly did before the ceremony. Haq Mehar (marriage gift) is 6,000 Pesos. It is a small gathering for a wedding. Only two guests from the bride and groom’s family are present on this occasion, the rest are friends and family members of Mr Irfan. I am chosen to become one of the two witnesses of this marriage. After the Nikah ceremony, we all offer the Maghrib prayer in congregation and have a dinner hosted by Mr Irfan.
A series of events led me to become part of this ceremony. In Oaxaca, I was staying in a hostel. When the owner of the hostel came to know that I was from Pakistan he told me that there was an Indian restaurant just across the street. I was craving for desi food. The last time I had eaten Indian food was in Costa Rica over four months ago. I went to the restaurant and there I met Mr Irfan, the owner of the restaurant. When I told him that I was from Pakistan and how badly I wanted to have some spicy vegetarian food he gave me a big hug and served me with delicious Daal Chaawal (lentils with rice). Upon knowing my story he gave me a free place to sleep in the mosque above his restaurant where I have been staying for last few days.
Meeting any Pakistanis in this part of Mexico was unimaginable let alone becoming an official witness of a Nikah ceremony for someone whom I had met for the first time and seeing some convert to Islam. Yet it all happened. Sometimes, I wonder with great amazement at how unknown paths lead us to familiar places, or familiar paths take us to unknown places.