An Interview with Nikki Kingsley, author of Thirst for Truth: From Muhammad to Jesus
Nikki Kingsley, author of the terrific book Thirst for Truth: from Muhammad to Jesus, has written about her beautiful conversion – how she, a devout Muslim woman, was wooed by our Lord through the help of His Blessed Mother, to become a Catholic.
Over the years, I have heard of many signs and wonders that the good Lord is doing throughout the world, reaching out to everyone, in particular with dreams and visions to a lot of our Muslim brothers and sisters. When I first heard Nikki speak at the Arlington Diocese conference in Virginia, I was drawn to her story, and invited her to speak at the International Week of Prayer and Fasting this past October 20-28. She was able to record a talk for our Virtual Conference, which we have excerpted below. To hear her whole talk, visit www.iwopf.org and get the All-Access Pass for viewing for one year!
Nikki: Regarding my story, I truly sometimes have a hard time believing that this all happened to me, and every time I get an opportunity to talk about it, I feel that it gets refreshed for me too. So it helps me to remember how good God is.
I was born in Pakistan, and I come from a Shia background. In Islam there are two main sects—the Shia and the Sunni sect. I come from one of the most liberal branches of the Shia religion, the Ismailis. I grew up in Africa because my dad took a job there. I have two younger sisters; and so, [my family growing up was] my sisters, my mom, dad, and also my grandmother, whose name is Fatima, but we call her Maji. My parents, being Muslim, instilled in my sisters and myself a love for God. That was the primary thing that my parents taught me that I’m so grateful for. Growing up, God was always primary, and we were always to please God and to love God, Allah. We didn’t pray five times a day and they didn’t have us wear the hijab—not the typical Muslim that you see on TV or you hear about—but in our hearts, we knew we were Muslim, that Allah was one and Muhammad was his prophet. It was more the spirit of Islam rather than doing all the rituals.
My childhood was happy. Africa was great—it was great being there in the ’70s and mid-’80s and life was very simple. We had a lot of friends from all over the world—an expatriate community—but we didn’t have any TV. We didn’t have a telephone at home. There weren’t any other distractions. So, we really lived in the present. We enjoyed the present. The joys were simple, and family was very important.
Maureen: When I read your story, I was struck by the love that your family showed the elders in your family. Tell us about your grandmother, Maji.
Nikki: Maji was my dad’s mother, and we loved her. She lived with my family as far back as I can remember. Since I was little, Maji was with us. and my Dad loved his mother. She was an amazing woman who had suffered and gone through so much in her own life and overcome a lot, but she was the most gentle soul and the most loving, patient person. My dad taught us a great respect for our elders. Maji was always first. For example, we’d sit down for dinner or lunch at the table, and nobody would start until my dad served his mother first. We grew up with that respect and love for our elders. It’s so sad because nowadays with the way things are, families are so scattered and not many people have that love of grandparents. Having Maji as part of our life—and my sisters would absolutely say the same thing—has really impacted us in how we look at family. Even my children had time with Maji. She would make them their favorite food…she was just a special woman.
Maureen: She was a very stabilizing presence in your home. I was struck by the fact that in the tradition of the Shiite Muslims, your dad, when he got married, lived with his parents.
Nikki: Yes, that is a tradition in Islam. Culturally too, in the East, the son will take care of his parents. So, the parents live with their son; they move in with the son, or the son gets married and brings his wife and continues to live at home. But you always take care of your parents..
Maureen: I thought that was beautiful because I was thinking in today’s world, with so much happening especially in America where there’s broken up families. What I’ve sensed reading your story is the stability of your family, especially with your grandmother.
Nikki: Right, and the other word that really comes to mind is also a spirit of sacrifice. I think we have become a very selfish culture overall. When you have grandparents and family living with you, you learn to sacrifice and to give—very naturally—you don’t have to be taught; it just becomes part of life, and you do for each other. This is kind of fading away now, sadly.
Maureen: Exactly. I know you married early. Why don’t you tell us a little about how that all happened?
Nikki: Even though my parents weren’t the traditional Muslim family, we were three sisters, and we were not really raised to have a career or to figure out what we wanted to be when we grew up. We knew that we were going to be wives and mothers and that was going to be our life mission. So as far as education went, we went to school—American schools or international schools wherever we were—but the focus was never on a career, it was on finding a good match and getting married.
My parents had friends in Africa, and one of them had a son who my parents thought would be a good match because he had grown up in Africa as well and had the same exposure that I had. So, they arranged my marriage. And, because I’d been reading a lot of romance novels (since I had no TV, reading was a big pastime of mine) and I was only 16 when they arranged my marriage, mentally, I think I was like a 10-year-old because of the way I had grown up.
My parents had a beautiful marriage and relationship, so the example of their marriage was the only world I knew. It was perfect! My dad loved my mother, so, I just assumed that when you get married, that’s how life is going to be—to have this husband who loves me, and you have children, and life goes on! So, I didn’t really argue with them.
At one point I did want to go to university because all my friends were applying to universities. Here I was, engaged, and I started to have this desire in my heart that I, too, wanted to explore and see what I could be. My dad said, “Well, you have to get permission from your husband-to-be.” But that didn’t happen, so when I was 18, I graduated high school, and we went to Pakistan, and I was married. I was left there when my parents came back to Africa.
Maureen: After entering into this marriage, you moved in with your husband, Tahir, and his family, but his family was different from your own. Your family was from the more liberal Shiite faith, while Tahir’s family was from the more conservative Sunni faith. Tell us about that.
Nikki: When I lived in Africa with my parents, the division between Sunni and Shia was not a big deal because we were all united, being from Pakistan and being Muslim, so that united everybody. The difference between Shia and Sunni was completely ignored—it didn’t matter once we moved to Pakistan, and my parents just believed that’s how it would be.
But once I was married and they left me, it was a big wake-up call. Now I was in Pakistan and the divisions and differences that didn’t seem to matter before, suddenly that’s all that seemed to matter when living with my husband’s Sunni family. I remember Tahir’s mom saying that the reason that she was happy with her son’s choice and wanted me as a daughter-in-law was the loving home that we had, and the fact that Maji lived with us. So she thought that I would be a good daughter-in-law and she would take care of her, since I grew up knowing to take care of my grandmother.
As time went on, I realized things were very different. I didn’t know how to pray the Namaz or the Quran. My mother-in-law and father-in-law made it very obvious that this was very shameful, and I felt ridiculed many times.
Also, my husband was not the knight in shining armor that I had been dreaming of. He was nowhere near like my father was to my mother; so that dream ended very quickly. Divorce is not an option in the culture nor in my family, so I knew this was a life sentence from the age of 18. In order to survive, I embraced Islam. That’s when I truly entered into knowing what Islam was, and I learned the Namaz, and I would read the Quran. I started to turn desperately to Allah because I needed help; he was my only way out because my parents were not here. Although I was in my country, it was really foreign to me. It was a very difficult, dark, depressing time because I felt completely trapped. The man had all the rights. As a woman I felt like a commodity. My only mission was to serve my husband. And I was 18 years old. I had never cooked – I hadn’t done anything. We always had help in the house, so I had grown up pretty pampered. Now all of a sudden, I was expected to cook for my husband and pretty much just take care of him and his needs. That was my purpose.
Maureen: In your book you realized that not only were you like a prisoner in your own home, but you also talked about how some of the people acted as though they were devout in their faith but were doing all these things that were not good.
Nikki: Growing up, my parents taught me about honesty, that what you say is what you do. So, it was a big shock when I saw around me people who declared the faith, who prayed five times a day and didn’t pray until they did the ritual cleansing, who placed a lot of emphasis on the physical act of cleansing and purity, but who would lie and cheat. Their word meant nothing. Deception was the norm. Islam is a lot about purity—for example, a woman must cover her head, and it’s all about that, but I also found, very sadly, that pornography was rampant. I was shocked because it didn’t connect—how can you do all this on the surface, with prayer, and then underneath you do whatever you want? It just didn’t make sense.
Maureen: This then led you to start examining your faith. Tell us how long you lived in Pakistan, and then what happened as you became disillusioned with what was going on with the Islamic faith?
Nikki: I can’t really say that I became disillusioned with the faith; I was just very confused. It didn’t make sense to me, but I became more and more devout because I was desperately needing help, and God was going to be the only answer because I couldn’t do anything else.
In the Quran there is a chapter dedicated to the Virgin Mary, called Surah Maryam, and it’s named after her – Maryam (Mariam) is Mary. When I was seeking help from Allah, I was reading the Quran, and this chapter really stood out to me because the woman that is described is so holy and so pure and so beautiful. She’s the mother of the prophet Issa, which is Jesus, so as a Muslim I fell in love with Maryam because she was like an ideal for me. I just was drawn to her gentleness and her beauty as a mother to Issa. I really was not drawn to her son, but I was really drawn to Maryam as a woman; it started my relationship with her. I would read that chapter every day. She had a special place in my heart, yet I didn’t consciously recognize that. It’s now, looking back, that I see that.
I was in Pakistan for three years, praying desperately for Allah to save me. My daughter was born there, and my husband did get a job in the Middle East, so we moved to the United Arab Emirates, where my son was born. That was a little bit better because living with my parents-in-law had been very difficult. Also, in the UAE I had more freedom, so that part got better, because I could take a taxi and go places and it wasn’t as restrictive of an environment. But my marriage unfortunately continued to deteriorate because my husband just wasn’t interested in being a father or a husband and was just kind of living on his own. That made it a very difficult time, and I spent 10 years there.
I would see my parents and Maji every year, and I would tell them how unhappy I was and that things were difficult. But unless you have physical bruises, it’s very hard to explain emotional and mental abuse. I didn’t even know that’s what it was called, because in my part of the world it doesn’t even have a name. I was just told to “Get over it!” and “It’s not so bad.” My husband put on a good act, too—he was very nice to my parents—so nobody really saw what I was going through with being ignored and just kind of abandoned in many ways. My health started to suffer, and I started to get really sick.
I finally told my dad that I felt like I didn’t want to live any more, that I was contemplating suicide because there was just no way out. I couldn’t imagine living my whole life in this relationship. At that point in time, if it weren’t for my two children, I think that’s the only thing that stopped me. I couldn’t imagine not being there, especially for my daughter—that she would be married off because my in-laws were really very conservative, and she would have no life—so that is what kept me alive. My dad finally did take notice. He realized things were serious, and he asked me what I wanted to do. I said, “I want to go to America.”
That had been something in my heart because I used to visit my aunt and uncle in the United States every year. My sisters at this point were living in Canada, but I did not want to go there. In my heart, I just felt I had to come to America. I felt if I came to America, I’d be saved. My dad did send me money to buy tickets for my children and myself. I told my husband I wanted to go and just see my parents and needed a break in the summer. It’s detailed in my book, but it was an escape to get out of there. I arrived in the United States in 1999.
Once I got to America, I had no plans to go back. I think my parents were thinking if I got a break I would eventually go back, since divorce was not something that ever happened in my family or was even considered, but once I got here, I had no intention of ever going back. I was going to do whatever it took to survive. I hadn’t worked, I couldn’t drive, and I didn’t have money… just what my dad gave me to come here.
So, I stayed with my aunt and uncle for three months. God bless my uncle, my dad’s younger brother, who taught me how to drive, and he really wanted me to get on my feet. He helped me find a job in marketing, and that’s how I started. In three months, I moved, got an apartment, rented a place, and had a job. I put my kids in school, and I went through the whole immigration process, the visa for work, and the paperwork and everything. My uncle really walked with me through it. He was my support.
God just sent just the right people at the right time for me. Maji was living with my uncle, so when I got an apartment, Maji moved in with me and she helped take care of the kids when they came home from school, so I could continue to work. Maji lived with me for a while and the kids got to know her and spend time with her, which was such a blessing.
Life started to get into some normalcy; I wasn’t living in fear. I did end up getting divorced. Again, a lot of detail, but I was finally able to get free from Tahir. And very soon afterwards I met my second husband, Simon, at work.
I was a devout Muslim, and my children had a Quran teacher; I was insistent that they had to know the faith. I believed Islam was the way—that you go to hell if you are not a Muslim. I felt sorry for all the Christians because they were so nice, but I felt they were all going to go to hell.
In Islam, a woman cannot marry a non-Muslim man—that would not be a valid marriage, but a Muslim man can marry a non-Muslim woman and that would be valid. When I met Simon, he was a non-practicing Catholic who didn’t go to church or practice the faith. I did not want to offend Allah in any way, so I told Simon that to marry me, he had to become a Muslim. He agreed because, to him, it didn’t really matter if he didn’t really practice anything. So we got married in the mosque and Simon started to practice Islam and he would pray and fast and read the Quran. It was a very Muslim household, and, to his credit, he really tried. He did it all.
It was then that I started to change the way that I was praying, because now I was happy. I was safe. My children were fine. I was in a free country. And where I had before been praying and begging Allah to save me, I now started to ask him who he was.
I don’t know why that changed. I think it’s because I loved him so much, I wanted to know him. I was not satisfied just doing the five-times-a-day-prayer and checking off the things you are to do. I wanted more; that was a burning fire. I don’t know why that fire started to burn in my heart. All my friends were devout Muslims, yet when I would tell my friends that I wanted to know who Allah is, that there’s more to the faith that I want to know, they all thought I was crazy. They would look at me and say, “What more do you want?” And I said, “I don’t know, but I know that there is more.”
When I would pray, I literally would see a wall in front of me. I’d be on my prayer mat on the floor, head down, prostrate, and I would pray and beg Allah to reveal himself, but all I saw was a wall. I knew that God was on the other side of the wall, but I couldn’t get past it. And I would hear nothing. It would be total silence, which really frustrated me, yet I kept pushing, begging. Nothing changed until we visited New York City, and we went to St Patrick’s Cathedral. Simon insisted we should go because it’s a tourist stop. He said, “It’s beautiful—you have to see it.” So I went, but I was very reluctant because it was a Christian place, and I didn’t want Allah to be offended. So, I walked in not very happy—I just wanted to get in and out quickly.
When I walked in, the first thing I saw was a stained-glass picture of Jesus – and it looked like his eyes were alive and looking at me! It made me so uncomfortable, so I walked around the cathedral, which is beautiful, and I felt like Jesus followed me, with his eyes behind me, piercing me.
Near the exit, as the kids and I were looking in the gift shop, I heard a woman’s voice, whispering, “Come back. Come back.” I turned to look, but there was nobody there. So, I just turned back around, thinking it must be in my head. Again I heard this gentle sweet voice saying, “Come back!” Then all of a sudden, I knew it was Mary speaking to me. And I also knew where she was calling me to—there was knowledge that came with the words—she was calling me into her chapel, Mary’s Chapel, which I didn’t even know was there in the back, behind the altar. So, I had to go back because I had loved her as a Muslim through all these years. Since she was calling me, I couldn’t just leave! So, I went back into that chapel and I stood there waiting for her to say something, but I didn’t hear anything. But I wouldn’t kneel there because that’s idolatry for a Muslim, so I just waited … and nothing.
So, I left, but I told Simon that for the next three-four days that we were there I had to come here. It’s like my heart was being tugged. After I heard her voice, I felt a peace I had never encountered anywhere else, that kept calling me back. So, the next few days, we made it a point to stop in at St. Patrick’s, and although I didn’t hear anything more, I did feel deep peace.
Maureen: So, the Queen of Peace, which is one of her titles in the Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary, you felt calling you—that’s beautiful.
Nikki: And I didn’t know this was “Catholic” —to me it was a Christian church. I had no interest, no desire, to know anything more. We came back home, and I went back to my usual Islamic prayers.
Then, about six months later it was December, and I was asleep. It was early morning, and I was kind of waking up, in and out of sleep, and I saw Jesus and Mary were at my bedside! I was filled with a joy that I cannot describe in words. My body was still on the bed, but my spirit was not—it was like my spirit got up—and we embraced, and I felt like I had met my long-lost friends and family. The Joy was indescribable. It felt like Heaven had come into my room.
We talked about my life, and we prayed together. It was incredible! And as this was happening, it was like light was being infused into my body. And, when I woke up in the morning, I physically knew I was different. I was just not the same person—something had changed.
Maureen: You got some infused graces—that’s a beautiful gift.
Nikki: Yes, but also, for a Muslim, very confusing. Because I had been praying and begging Allah to reveal himself. I wanted to know him. And yet the dream I have is Jesus. I knew who it was—he had a crown of thorns on his head. I knew it was Jesus, and I knew it was Mary, no question. So, why would Allah send me Jesus? You know, for a Muslim, in my head I’m thinking he should send me Muhammad and then it would be like Allah is speaking to me. But there is Jesus and Mary!
Be sure to check out Nikki’s book!