Thousands of people watched Stuart Hird convert to Islam at the Eid Prayer Yard during the holiday celebrations.
Power of prayer brought me to Islam
Abu Dhabi // When Stuart Hird was made redundant in July, it was only the start of his troubles. The Australian expatriate was also evicted from his home, defaulted on his loan repayments and had his resident's visa cancelled. Then there was the news that his father had died in Australia.
"It was a very difficult time," said Mr Hird, 57. "But there was one thing that kept me going - my faith." Mr Hird was born a Christian. His parents had him baptised into both the Roman Catholic and the Protestant churches, and his job before moving to Abu Dhabi was in a Catholic school in Western Australia. When he moved to the Emirates after an attractive job offer with Abu Dhabi Education Council, Mr Hird immediately started asking questions about Islam.
"I have always been inquisitive about religion so when I came to an Islamic state I felt I should find out about Islam. I read the history and parts of the Quran and I found it enlightening. "I realised I was disenchanted with Christianity, in that I had never got the answers to my questions about life and death from the Bible." Over the next few months, Mr Hird completed the Quran, a feat he had never managed with the Bible, and found more than just a religious book.
"I saw many similarities between it and the indigenous aboriginal way of life in Australia where they follow 'Dreaming stories' as a guide for life. For me, the Quran, as well as being an important religious text, was a set of morals and guidelines for living a good life." As Mr Hird became more attracted to Islam he felt more at home in Abu Dhabi. When his employers terminated his contract in July, Mr Hird was determined to stay in the UAE.
"I was told I lost my job because someone in upper management didn't like me but the official line was that I was not doing well enough. At first I was not deterred. I thought I would be able to find another job quite easily." But within days he was reduced to living in his car, a rented Nissan Pathfinder and, with no income, his debts began to mount. In September, he could no longer pay the car rental. Mr Hird was reduced to sleeping on the streets, often on a bench in Abu Dhabi's Central Bus Station. His financial worries worsened when the rental car company brought a lawsuit against him for missing payments.
Although his family in Australia bailed him out, he had also borrowed money from friends in the capital and was forced to write cheques that would bounce. More court cases were filed that Mr Hird could not respond to. Finally in October, he was picked up by the police patrolling the bus station and found to have an invalid visa. Mr Hird was jailed on Oct 10. "At first it was simply a relief to know I was going to get three meals a day and a bed to sleep in," he said. "But obviously it was not very nice. I was extremely downhearted and immediately fell back to my interest in Islam."
While in prison Mr Hird saw something which convinced him to become a Muslim. He described it as the power of prayer. "Five times a day one of my fellow prisoners would perform the call to prayer. Then all the Muslims would line up behind the prayer leader and perform their salat. It was amazing to watch. "All these people were in a bad situation being in jail but they gained strength from their prayers. They were always really positive. During my sentence I decided I was going to become Muslim."
On Nov 23, after 40 days, Mr Hird was released. He stayed with a friend temporarily but before long he was back in the bus station with only a small bag of possessions and very little money. There he met a Somalian man who invited him to join the Eid prayers. At the prayer yard, in front of thousands of worshippers, Sheikh Ahmed Shikhani took Mr Hird through his shahada - a statement in Arabic declaring there is only one God, Allah, and that the Prophet Mohammed was his last messenger. Mr Hird received an enthusiastic response from the audience, who thronged around him afterwards, shaking his hand and embracing him.
He did not tell anyone about his personal situation as he did not want people to think he was becoming a Muslim to get support from the Islamic community. But he was introduced to Mohammed Nasser, the daawa from the New Muslim Centre, who came to his aid. "We are doing everything we can to help our new brother," said Mr Nasser. "I met him four days ago and I have been contacting many people here and in Al Ain. Insha'allah we will find him somewhere soon."
Despite all his hardships Mr Hird remains positive. "I am very grateful to all my brothers who have given me support in my hour of need, but really I should thank God. The words Allah hu Akhbar (God is great) are the most important words in the Quran for me because they are so true. "I have lost everything but found everything at the same time. I don't have a job, a house or any money but I do have faith in God. Since becoming a Muslim I am the happiest I have been in years."