Raise your hand if your teenage years revolved around makeup, fashion, college applications, and dating. Mathilde Loujayne’s adolescence was no different, except hers also featured a nearly decade-long spiritual quest that eventually led to a life-altering decision. Today, as we continue into the holy month of Ramadan, Mathilde talks us through her journey to date. The Dubai-based author, who hails from the south of France and works in PR, converted to Islam at the age of 18.
“Trust me, I was obsessing over boys and makeup as well,” she says with a laugh. “Your teenage years are such an interesting time, there’s so much going on. But a common thread throughout my life, even when I was a kid, was a strong sense of spirituality. I was eight when I first started asking the bigger questions.” Ironically, Mathilde was born into an atheist family, making her questions that much harder to answer. “I was never taught about God. I had to find those answers myself. And when I learned about God, I was in France and asked my parents if I could get baptised. They agreed.”
Baptised at the age of 10, Mathilde reveals what prompted her decision: the death of her older brother, who was only 16 years old. “It really opened the door to wanting to understand what happened to him. Why did he die at such a young age? Where is he now? Where is his soul? I had to figure all that out as a very young child – and I was still grieving, of course. As a Christian, I was trying to find answers through my community at the time, but was unable to. That pushed me to understand other perspectives, other religions. And shortly after, my parents moved to Oman.”
Both nature and nurture come together to shape who we are, a fact illustrated by Mathilde’s move to Muscat at the age of 11. “I went to an international school, where there was so much diversity, so many different backgrounds and cultures and nationalities. My friends and I were really open about discussing our thoughts on certain topics, which prompted me to read more about other religions. But I was still thinking Christianity – maybe Orthodox or Protestant? I wasn’t really looking elsewhere.”
Mathilde pauses to warn me that what follows is a long story, but it’s a fascinating one. She discloses that her father survived cancer before she was born and was on a spiritual journey of his own. “It was something we’d never really discussed. But around that time, he told me and my mom that he had converted to Islam a few years prior. We had a Quran at home, and I would debate endlessly with him. I wouldn’t consider his point of view, I was very confrontational – a typical teenager, I guess.”
And then 9/11 happened.
“I was 17 at the time and, suddenly, the whole world turned against Muslims. I couldn’t understand what was going on because Omanis are so peaceful, so hospitable. I’d never met a violent person in Oman, and my dad was now Muslim. I figured that since I want to read about other religions, I might as well start with the Quran. I have one in my house, I live in a Muslim country – it just makes sense.” But while her decision to read the Quran was more about general knowledge and less about conversion, Mathilde approached it with an open mind. And an open heart.
“I was so surprised when I started. I found myself reading about the prophets that I knew in Christianity, the stories were so similar, the message was so similar. It felt so familiar, but so new at the same time. It felt like God was speaking to me directly. And the message was so loud – it brought peace to my heart as I was still grieving. It answered so many questions that I had about my brother. It eased my pain and gave me more than I was asking for. That’s when I asked my parents if I can become a Muslim. They were very supportive, so an imam came to our house and I said my shahada – the pronunciation of faith – in their presence.”
The rest, as they say, is history. “I’ve never looked back,” she remarks. Striving to keep her faith strong, Mathilde has been on a mission to understand Islam from a female perspective. As for what she’s discovered? “I encountered many misconceptions that I had to explore. I did a lot of research to understand women’s rights and why certain things are forbidden. What I’ve realised is that it’s a religion of logic, it’s all for our own benefit. Like now, for example, we’re fasting not only for spiritual reasons, but also health. I researched the wives of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) to understand their journey because I wanted to approach the story of Islam through the women of Islam. Even his daughter Fatima – I learned so much about the importance of modesty through her. Being French, I had a hard time with modesty,” she admits with a giggle.
Mathilde rightfully asserts that women from the early years of Islam – both Khadijah and Aisha were pillars of the community – aren’t recognised nearly enough. “If you think about it, a lot of the lectures focus on the companions of the Prophet, but not so much on his wives. Some of them were scholars themselves, they would teach the companions. No one talks about that. It’s such a huge achievement and something we should be proud of as Muslim women. Seeing how much knowledge they had contrasted by how many girls don’t get an education in Muslim countries today? It’s not right.”
Talk of influential women steers the conversation in the direction of Halima Aden, who famously gave up a thriving modelling career, stating that it was at odds with her faith. I ask if this act of sacrifice resonates with Mathilde. It does. “I always wanted to be in the music industry. And I was. After moving to the UAE, I worked for a company that put on major concerts and music festivals with A-list artists – Kanye West and The Prodigy included. It was a lot of fun, but you can imagine what the music industry is like. There were so many times when I thought, ‘What am I doing here? These are not my values.’ Don’t get me wrong, I still love music, but I knew I had to give up my job. I resigned and ended up in the corporate world, which was a sacrifice because I loved the work. It just wasn’t compatible with my lifestyle.”
But it’s not just behind the scenes in the music industry where Mathilde feels like a bit of a misfit, unfortunately. With Islamophobia at an all-time high in France, I ask how she reconciles the fact that’s she French, female, and Muslim. “It’s a confusing time because I love my country, but I can’t stand the news.” And yes, she hears about the hijab ban daily at this point. “That ruins it for me. I wish France would embrace its diversity, but it’s going in the opposite direction. I almost don’t know what to say because I feel very sad about the situation. It hurts when your own country goes against your values – I wouldn’t be accepted if people knew who I was.”
While Islamophobia is a relatively recent phenomenon, longstanding opinions about the religion are well-documented. “Islam is the best religion, and Muslims are the worst followers.” I read aloud this famous quote by late 19th century playwright George Bernard Shaw to Mathilde, curious about her reaction. Caught off guard, she chuckles before confessing, “When you’re a new Muslim, you embrace the religion fully and think all Muslims are perfect Muslims. It’s an assumption we falsely make because we’re all human at the end of the day – no one’s perfect. But living in the Middle East, you can’t assume every Muslim is practising – everyone is on their own path. I’ve learnt to not judge.”
Big Little Steps. PRP AED 78,
available at thedreamworkcollective.store
This is a message reinforced throughout her book, Big Little Steps. “New Muslims come with an energy of wanting to be perfect, but I tell them to take their time. You have to understand why you’re doing certain things, understand the rationale behind it.” Aimed at both converts and those born into Islam, Big Little Steps breaks down the religion’s principles in a simple and inviting way with the aim of making it more approachable and highlighting its beauty. Published by The Dreamwork Collective, it tackles preconceived notions of Muslim women in a positive manner. Even the aforementioned Halima Aden makes an appearance.
“I wanted to share everything that I’ve learnt as a woman and a new Muslim,” says Mathilde, delving into the idea behind the book. “When you embrace Islam, there’s so much to learn, and it can be very overwhelming because people from every corner come to you with advice – unsolicited advice sometimes. It comes from a good place, but yes, it’s overwhelming.” The book was born as Mathilde sought the right words to explain why she chose to embrace Islam to her mother. “I wrote Big Little Steps with non-Muslims in mind – specifically my mom – because all this time, I was trying to prove to her that I’ve become a better person. I’m not very talkative, so it came out as a book.”
As someone who struggled to find material for new Muslims, she recalls, “I wish I had something like it growing up. I had to buy a children’s book when I was learning how to pray. That’s why I wanted to make it available to others.” Big Little Steps is also strategically designed to engage readers, encouraging them to take notes as they go along. “The idea is to understand Islam through my personal experiences, with the book serving as a guide to read the Quran. It’s not about my vision. I want the reader to start their own thought process.” Referring to herself as a mere vessel to spread the word of God, Mathilde says her goal is fulfilled if she can help even one person.
Now that’s modesty.