Kathleen St.Onge is a public school teacher and a convert to Islam. She speaks regularly on Islam and develops internet projects to promote faith-based living and religious tolerance. She lives in Toronto, Ontario. She has written a book called "Bridge to Light" that came out of the Light Publishing.
How did you come to embrace Islam? Is there any "one" incident you can pinpoint?
There are three incidents which seem to me to have been turning points, though God knows best the signs and steps by which I have actually made this journey, by His grace. The first was that I met two practising Muslims while teaching university in British Columbia in the year 2000. They impressed me with their calm and dignity, and with the fact that they would not drink alcohol, even in the middle of the "party atmosphere" which clearly characterizes the campuses of most universities in the West. The second incident was that I picked up a kind of condensed Qur'an in English--THE ESSENTIAL KORAN, by Thomas F. Cleary-- that same year, at the university bookstore, mostly because I was curious about where the defining attributes of these individuals might stem from. As soon as I began to read it, I felt an eerie familiarity with the material. It was like coming home, or finding something which has been lost for a long time. I remember the familiar names jumping out at me from the pages--Noah, Moses, Abraham, Jesus--and yet there was more. For what I experienced every day seemed to be reflected in the pages I chose to read that night, and what I read one day seemed to be manifested in the universe the next day. In fact, this "exchange" continued to happen for months, though the text was admittedly an incomplete Qur'an, and in translation. Within a very short time, then, I realized that this was not an ordinary book--more of a doorway. And the presence of God in my life seemed overwhelmingly evident, after decades of forgetting. The third incident was 9-11. I had read quite a bit about Islam by that point, and I guess I was on the verge of thinking of myself as a Muslim. I had started to try to learn some prayers, and I had met a number of Muslims. I remember the first news reports of 9-11, exactly where I was sitting in my home, which was in Toronto by then. I reflected that this event would bring great hardship to Muslims, who would become random targets of hate, and I thought it would be a gesture of compassion for women, in general, to start wearing a hijab for a few days or weeks, so that the Muslim women in our communities could become anonymous among a sea of scarves. And then it hit me that I should wear a scarf myself, step up to the plate, and admit openly what was in my heart all along--that I recognized the Qur'an as my own scripture. And that was that.
What did you find closest to your heart about our Prophet? What was the most appealing thing about him?
For me, the most endearing quality of Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, is that he was a family man. His life with his wives and children seemed very authentic to me, for it presented a situation which was directly applicable to my own life. I imagined him with his children, in his home--with people coming to the door at all hours for support and advice, and with so many demands on his time, health, and resources. I pictured him leaving his family to go off to meetings, prayers, and long travels, and I admired his modesty, steadfastness, and sincerity. It is not easy for any of us to sustain the pursuit of faith in the material world. Most of us who earnestly seek faith are blessed with certain feelings from time-to-time, by God's grace---during a profound and heartfelt prayer, for instance, or in the context of an inspiration or a clear sign of mercy in our lives. It is a very elevated state which makes our ordinary lives seem, well, very ordinary. My heart felt deeply for this man who journeyed one Night, witnessing such miraculous things, and who enjoyed a daily dialogue with an angel--and yet could remain humble enough to help with household chores. I believe he demonstrated much courage and dedication towards his people--for surely he must have felt such loss and separation each time, as he kept "descending" from a state of high spiritual connectivity and awareness, back to the mundane tasks of every day, trying his very best to stay planted on this earth as an example for others. This kind of balance is not easy to achieve, but it is truly inspirational. For it is in being human while entreating the Divine that Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, becomes a model for all mankind. This makes him very real, and very dear, all at once.
How is Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) generally perceived in the geography you live?
Since I live in the West, I would say that the perception of Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, is generally quite inaccurate. There really isn't room here to discuss all the ways in which the mis-assessments are manifested, but the confusion is extensive. The attributions which are the most problematic are those which suggest a certain kind of socio-sexual deviance, on account of the "many wives" issue, and those which confuse the identities of Jesus and Muhammad, thereby falsely suggesting that Muslims assign a certain level of divinity to Muhammad. Of course, it should be remembered that the perception of other prophets is pretty obscured in the secular west, as well. The stories of Adam and Noah are often regarded as being strictly allegorical, and very few people sincerely acknowledge the importance of Abraham and Moses as critical commonalities among Jews, Christians, and Muslims. There is little interfaith dialogue--in fact, there is little dialogue about faith, period--for religion is often falsely assumed to be peripheral to the modern world; some even argue that it is incompatible with it. So, in the context of modernity, which the West proudly heralds as its defining attribute, I would say that Prophet Muhammad is dismissed as being irrelevant, just as so many of his predecessors-- the only real difference being that he is subject to a few more slanders along the way.