I spoke to owner and creator of Qenza, Nadhirah Jalani, the day after she had quit her job and was starting to work on her business full time. Qenza sells beautiful prayer mats that are inspired by the Middle East, with a touch of modernity. When she and her husband moved in their home as a newly married couple, they were unable to find things that represented their identity as a young Muslim couple with contemporary taste.
Having just quit her job as a financial controller in a mining company, she was nervous and excited for the journey that lay ahead of her.
“We’ve been working on this since March 2015, but because I worked full time, it was really tough. It’s also all a learning process, and I’m a bit smarter now, just a little bit! For example, we went through 7 samples for the first product that we had. In late June 2016, we finally got our products in store..”
What made Nadhirah get into the prayer mat business?
“I cannot be hypocritical. I cannot pray to God, and at the same time not believe in God.”
“There were a few moments. It was like a connection of dots. One was that I grew up Muslim, and I was taught religion in my school in Ipoh. The way it was taught in my school, it just wasn’t appealing. I didn’t like it. It was a lot more about rules than ethics, and it was a lot of “Do this, or else you will go to hell!” There was no inspiration in the entire thing. When I moved to Perth, where I could make my own decisions without society looking and frowning down upon me, I thought, ok, I’m going to explore religion and discover what it is. I learned a lot more about different religions, but just on the surface. And I thought, this religion business is difficult. I’m just going to be a good person. I didn’t know whether I believed in God or not, but then my father fell sick. Then, when my father fell really sick, I prayed to God. I thought, hang on, I cannot be hypocritical. I cannot pray to God, and at the same time not believe in God. If I’m praying, it must mean I believe in a higher power, and therefore I need to know who I’m praying to. So I re-learnt Islam again, and it was very surprising re-learning it, because I learned that a lot of things I hated about it when I grew up learning it was more cultural than about the religion itself.”
“When you read about Islam, there is a lot of focus on love, mercy and compassion. In school, the way I was taught was all about fearing God. So then, I went through this process where I became really proud to be Muslim. When I have my colleagues come over to my house, I want to make it obvious to them what identity I have, which is a modern, contemporary, hopefully successful career woman. My Malaysian culture comes through in how I decorate things. But when I looked at things around me, whether they were Malay, Muslim or South East Asian, everything looked as if they belonged in my grandmother’s house. While there were a few players in the market, in my opinion, nobody really pushed the boundaries.”
Nadhirah was also greatly inspired by a trip she and her husband took to Turkey.
“There’s been a lot of resentment against Islam recently because of ISIS, and I feel like I need to bring Islam to pop culture.”
“Turkey had always been a dream destination of mine, because we were taught about the Zaman Tamadun Kegemilangan Islam (Islamic Golden Age) in school. I wanted to find out for myself what it was. I thought it was going to be an experience more like Saudi, but it wasn’t. It was just an amazing experience. I felt especially inspired when I saw Islamic geometry. I finally understood why it was a big deal. It’s incredible! It’s beautiful! What I really hated though, was after this incredible movement, people kept making carbon copies of that. When you make a carbon copy of something, it doesn’t look as good as the original. So I thought, if I can’t find this in society, then I’m the only person in this position to do it. Being in Australia, there’s been a lot of resentment against Islam recently because of ISIS, and I feel like I need to bring Islam to pop culture. It needs to be acceptable in order for people to understand it, and for people like me who struggled with religion when I was younger. It’s more spiritual than it’s led on. I know I might get flak, not everyone is going to understand what I want to do, but I’m going to do it.”
What has the response been so far?
“So far, so good! There have been people who absolutely understood it from the beginning and they love it. Some people are like, will my prayer be more accepted? No, I’m not preaching you anything here! That’s between you and God!”
How did she manage this business while she had a full-time job?
“With a very understanding husband. You know how Sheryl Sandberg said choosing a life partner is really important? I really understand that now, because he understands how important it is for me and he has been nothing but helpful in this entire journey. He’s been my biggest supporter and my biggest critic. I’ve also had really understanding bosses. If you watched Steve Jobs’ commencement speech, it was something along the lines of if you want to do something, you tell God and the universe you want to do it, and the universe will help you get there.
Nadhirah’s big goal is to make Qenza the next Ikea!
“I feel like Ikea has infiltrated the entire world with Swedish culture, and nobody even realized it. I would like to create something along the lines of Ikea, where people can get products that are more contemporary, new, modern with a touch of South East Asian culture. I’m very proud to be Malaysian. I would want them to buy something and take it home and love it. And for my mats, if you want to buy it and just use it for yourself and not for praying, it’s not at all insulting. I love it more, because it means I’ve done a good job. I’ve created a piece of work that not only appeals to a segment of the market, but to everyone because it’s beautiful. I don’t want to be like, “Oh, let’s just keep this to the Malay market.” I want to design and create beautiful things.”
Qenza’s designs are available for purchase online or instore! For more information, check them out here!
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