Have you ever seen a unicorn in real life? I thought I did but then I saw an article circulating on Facebook one day and BAM! There was Naziyah Mahmood right in front of me.
Ecstatic to find this young lady, all decked out in a stunning dress and wielding a Samurai sword that could only be understood that she knew exactly what to do with it.
This is our conversation, an abridged transcript – documenting the occasion when I had a two hour conversation with a unicorn.
Martial Artist, Astrophysicist, Aerospace Engineer, Writer, Poet, Model, and hailing from Scotland; this soft spoken beauty was one of the first people to pop into my mind when I wanted to interview people for this series.
Years after my first encounter of Naziyah I slid into her DMs for an interview request on IG. A polite refusal in the least was to be expected, but I was soon blown away by her warm reply that she was totally up for this.
Nilly Ilgüy: I love martial arts and I’ve been a big fan of it since I was a kid. Grew up with 3 brothers, so that influence of what they were into definitely rubbed off on me.
So coming across the article and finding out more about you, that you are this amazing young woman, I got this impression that you know who you are and are comfortable with that.
I’m in my 30s and I feel like I’ve only just started to see who I really am, allowing myself to explore, accept, and nurture that.
For me, coming across you and how phenomenal you are just blew me away.
What I really want to know is what it’s like for you…
Naziyah Mahmood: First of all thank you so much for those beautiful heartwarming words. They mean the world to me. But I think that’s the thing, everybody has their own personal journey. And to me, I don’t see ages. I don’t see restrictions in that sense.
We see experiences / obstacles that come in other ways, I guess you could say I had to grow up very fast in my environment and what was happening around me. And because of that I lived very fast, very quickly. Whether is was to do with academics – I was ahead a few years so I was the youngest in my class, at the same time I was doing other things on the side too.
I never quite understood why I was doing that. I’ve always had this rush inside of me, like this is something I have to do.
It got to the stage when I realised that I couldn’t tie myself according to the expectations and social norms of society of those around me. It started taking a toll on me as well.
Those are the things people often don’t speak about because to them it comes across as some form of weakness – to me it’s an awakening as opposed to a weakness which is incredibly important.
There are always a few things that were so grounded in my life in times of difficulty and hardship, I would hold onto them with all of my might and they helped me get through. I often have people come up to me and say “you had all this on a silver platter, you probably had everything paid for“ and I’m just like excuse me? I went to one of the roughest schools in Scotland!
I mean, I’m partially blind and there are these taboos and cultural background, and I can sit on the line of several cultures as well. Rather than see that as a restriction I see it as a positive because it means that it is giving me the opportunity to expand my knowledge and experience and see people as people and not based on characteristics that they grow up in. To see them as a heart and soul and mind as opposed to just a body and it’s quite the journey and still is.
One thing I do believe is that we will always be students in life no matter how old we become, how long it’s been since we’ve been studying or whatever.
Life in itself is a journey towards a destination. The ultimate goal is for it to be about happiness, contentment, as much as anybody has this pursuit for happiness, and ultimately it’s about finding your inner peace.
NI: I totally hear that and it speaks to my heart and the journey I’m on. A thought just crossed my mind – the adversities, all the limitations that we have that are beyond our control and facing in our lives – it’s as if when one sense is weaker than others, the others will become stronger.
I feel like adversity, challenges, these aren’t there to hold us back. They are there for us to overcome. And figuring out what has strengthened within us despite our weaknesses. Be it a physical impairment or an emotional one and we all have varying levels of this in ourselves, it’s bearing that in mind that has allowed me to accept that.
The trauma I’ve endured in my life sent me down a deep dark hole for such a long time and I couldn’t see beyond my pain, beyond what I felt put me there. In a sense it was never meant to keep me there.
How I would respond or how I can grow really was up to me and it’s up to all of us so having that awareness, and I feel like you must of had this awareness much early on, growing up fast, being exceptional, to me that feels like an alien concept.
Tell me about what it was like in that kind of environment, in the nurturing experience that allowed you to be who you were and realise that.
NM: To be honest I never thought that I was exceptional and I still don’t today. I still see myself as a framework that is still in progress, as does everybody to an extent.
It’s always so touching wallah to hear when someone tells you all these lovely things and a part of me warms up straight away. There’s always going to be a little voice inside of me telling me that’s not quite me it’s almost like imposter syndrome. I think to an extent everybody has it at some point in their life. When so much is out there in the world to kick us when we’re down we’ve got to stop helping that along.
I’m involved in a lot of different sectors and a lot of them are about gender equality and female empowerment, whether it’s in martial arts and STEM and even in writing.
Alhamdulillah I was very blessed with loving parents and a loving family, we are a small family we grew up with a lot of hardships and at times only had each other and nobody else.
If you have done the best you can you will not have regrets because you can only do what is humanly possible within your control and the rest is up to God.
It’s a very precious feeling as we never have that with extended family so growing up quickly just happens and you see things happen that can pull you down into a space of darkness. And everyone will experience a darkness, maybe some more than others but it’s not a comparison game.
It’s a place you find yourself that so incredibly lonely. Even if you have a loving family and friends standing at the edge of a pit calling you trying to reach out for you, ultimately it’s your own two feet that will lift you. You can get strength and support from others but ultimately to escape from that place you’ve got to stand on your own two feet.
A lot of people think that courage means having no fear. Courage is to understand that fear and being able to push it aside and put forward that belief and conviction of what it is you are fighting for and keep going.
When you can find that hope and a little bit of light inside of you to grab onto it – whether someone throws you a line or you make it yourself and climb out. These situations will arise again and again and again and for me the reason I’ve got to where I was is because it prepared me.
NI: This is why I started my blog and began making leather journals. The journaling aspect was a way of giving back to myself the space I needed to be creative, to figure this out, and to tell my story properly without feeling I had to adapt it to others or embellish it. And sometimes we sensationalise our pain when we’re getting sympathy and I would do that because I lacked love in my life growing up so when you said you had a close-knit family and a lot of love there, it makes sense that you grew and flourished.
My name is Nilüfer and it means water lily in Turkish, a flower, and yet I found myself wilting away before I had a chance to really flourish. But then having these realisations and coming across someone like you who is living life on their terms, and you know yourself to know what that is and to go from strength to strength in that.
When I say you’re exceptional it’s not meant in the ego the sense but a lot of people fail to do what it takes to know themselves. Be that they may think they can’t do it or they may believe that people have that handed to them.
So we limit ourselves because we perceive the success of this being easy and comes easily to them, but yet it’s so far from the truth. This is why connecting with you was about telling this story and sharing it with others, because we’re all in it together.
If we don’t get curious about this with each other we go on believing whatever bias we’re coming from.
NM: That is definitely something I’ve written about before it’s not about the comparisons because no matter how large or small for menial an achievement may look to somebody else, it all comes down to the situation you’re facing. Everybody’s situation and circumstances are different.
Imagine an empty sheet music, so it’s just bars. These bars on the sheet are fate. They have a predetermined start and end. That is your timeline and that is something written and it’s the musical notes that you yourself draw on, from that beginning to that end are the footsteps you take through your life on that journey. They are what you decide there, your choices, your efforts, all the hard work you put in, it’s all your decisions – that’s what destiny is. Destiny is that song you play in your life, but the fact that it’s got a certain amount of length to it, is your fate.
The song you decide to make out of your life will come to be affected by the circumstances, obstacles, pain, and traumas in your life; and all the great moments the happy moments of beautiful parts as well, but it’s about being able to combine both and bring balance to both sides.
NI: Having that balance for harmony in life despite facing adversity in any shape or form is what I’m currently striving for. I’d love to know how do you manage that in your life, how do you know, despite the challenges you face?
NM: Nobody likes to be rained on but we need that flow of water so that seeds can grow. I guess you can see that rain as your obstacles. You learn to take them in and use them as methods of growth and that to me is what I define as a warrior.
Someone who can take the negative energy that has come their way and make it rebound in the form of self improvement. To push it off them in a way that it becomes progression. You take the hit, you will be wounded, you will have scars afterwards. Scars are going to tell your story.
Every day when you look in the mirror they will remind you of how you got as far as you have and how far you’ve got to go, but you can definitely do it.
The idea of being present, using that power and being present to work towards self-improvement, being honest with yourself, it’s one of the beneficial things you can do with yourself. You might find some very hard truths but until you acknowledge and accept and admit to them you won’t be able to move forward.
Acceptance for me is one of the key processes of being able to move forward in anything whether it’s heartbreak or feeling like you failed or whatever. Being able to accept what’s happened and pick yourself up and move forward is one of the best things, as long as you can accept it.
NI: Yes, absolutely. If you can be honest with yourself you can be your authentic self. Authenticity is something we all admire but it’s a personal difficulty we all face as well and if we’re not being honest with ourselves, and I’m not saying we have to be hard on ourselves because the way that we talk to ourselves or what we think of ourselves impacts the way we actually go about life.
Being authentic and figuring out what you’re really about – what makes you tick, who are you, y’know, and that allows you to really rumble with that.
I recognise this with whoever I’m connecting with and right now it’s with you. And I love that this message keeps being repeated again and again. Which is why I love the way you communicate your insights and experiences online. You have an incredible community!
NM: I’m so blessed and so grateful for my community! The online journey kinda started by an online martial arts magazine, I think it was Gareth Davies. He approached me and asked me to write an article for his online magazine CMA news and I was like, go for it. I didn’t expect much from it, I was just honoured that he would approach me especially in terms of martial arts.
To be honest most of the fields I’m a part of are very male dominated as it is and that’s an exceptionally male dominated field. So for that to go through I was really happy.
Next thing I knew it happened to go viral. I remember on my private facebook account I was just overwhelmed as I started to get thousands of friend requests. My friends thought it was ‘five minutes of fame’ and it’ll all be done within a couple of days time and it’ll be forgotten. Oddly enough I took comfort in that! So what happened then was somebody said if you want to make this work create a public page now, so everyone can come to the page. But that’s not what I wanted as this would then be a very diluted interaction.
Knowledge to me is such a priceless commodity, it’s one of the most beautiful gifts that people can share with one another. People who were genuine were here for that and I’m so blessed because 99.9% of interactions I had was all so very positive. And I have seen, especially other women of faith or women of colour or similar backgrounds to me online how they tend to get a lot of hate on their pages. It’s so heartbreaking because it comes from some who are similar to that person’s background or ethnicity. And rather than supporting, it’s very much to do with bringing each other down and it’s heartbreaking.
I’m glad I waited because my community was smaller and cosier, and those people who have been with me from the start of that page are what I like to call ‘Golden Oldies’ because a lot of them are still there.
One thing I’m grateful for is I tend to forget that it’s my own page as we get so carried away in the comments and I’m learning so much from everybody else and they’re sharing knowledge with me. I’ll post a question or put up an article or something, it’s just so wonderful to see that they’re not just interacting with me but with others.
NI: Let’s talk about Islam for a bit and how you reconcile your interests, be it with martial arts and so on. How do you live your Deen?
NM: When I mentioned earlier that there are some things in my life that keeps me grounded those things that pull me through is my Deen and it’s not about trying to fit around my work projects in daily life it’s about tying those things around my Deen because for me my beliefs are a core part of who I am.
We are not bodies who then inherit souls, we are souls who then inherit our bodies so our soul is a core foundation of who and what we are.
And to me my faith is such an embedded core part of my soul. That also means having to look into Islam. Not just the idea of what we are told on social media posts but really looking into it.
I have some personal restrictions that I work around but Alhamdulillah I’ve been very blessed in martial arts environments where I am able to keep that under control. The concept of martial arts and women being knowledgeable in self defence is nothing new if you go back to the times of the Sahaba you have wondrous warrior women.
For example Khawlah bint al-Azwar she was the daughter of the chief of the Bani Assad tribe and she was the sister of Dhiraar bin Al-Azwar and from a young age she was taught by her brother to defend herself. During the Siege of Damascus he was taken prisoner by the enemy forces this was the time when Khalid Ibn Waleed (RA) was leading the Muslims in battle.
She concealed herself so nobody could tell that she was a woman and she ran into the battle with such conviction and desperation to save her brother. There was a Sahaba who later said they saw this warrior who kept going in and out of the enemy forces.
Some thought this was Khalid Ibn Waleed (RA), and the warrior fought so valiantly and finally managed to get hold of her brother. It wasn’t until later that they noticed that Khalid Ibn Waleed (RA) was coming from the other direction that when they saw him they were like who is this warrior.
He approached and asked several times who are you and a female voice came through and said I am the sister of Dhiraar, I came to save him. And they were so impressed by that she later lead certain legions in later conquests.
NI: A brilliant reminder in Islamic history that this is nothing new though it may not have been common…
NM: That’s the thing nowadays it would seem so much more taboo. Back then they would teach self defence to their wives, sisters, daughters, and this is so much more normalised.
For example Nusaybah bint Ka’ab (RA) she was one of only two women of 74 leaders who actually descended to Medina to pledge their allegiance to the Prophet (PBUH) so of all those leaders there were only two women.
It was during the Battle of Uhud, she was there to deliver water to the injured and fallen when she saw the Meccan forces break through, and the Prophet (PBUH) was taken back she saw them coming and that there wasn’t many people left around the Prophet (PBUH) she leapt in with swords swinging and would not let anybody bring harm to him. She took over twelve major injuries to her body but she would not give in until the Prophet (PBUH) was safe. SubhanAllah! I just think these were the true warriors.
NI: I think the struggle is that we don’t know enough about these people, we’re ignorant of the stories in Islamic history and we need to revive that.
NM: When I look at these people who fought with such a valiant noble cause it makes me realise the depth of Islamic history is so wonderful.
When people mention Islamic Golden Age they don’t realise the depth and beauty of it.
They had so much knowledge and there was this major transition that happened especially in terms of sciences, philosophy, and astronomy, physics and mathematics and so much more.
Islamic history has such a rich culture of knowledge and to me that’s such an important pursuit. The pursuit of knowledge is so incredibly important to me.
Often when I give talks I’m trying to break stereotype, that could be about gender equality. I mean everyone knows who Einstein is, who Maxwell is, and Tesla and so on and so forth and the only woman on average most people will recognise is Marie Curie because she’s on banknotes. But show them a picture of Ada Lovelace, someone who was the first computer programmer ever to exist. That affects everyone, whoever owns or uses a phone or laptop. They’re not as exposed to that.
So bringing that forward and normalising this idea of women of sciences and engineering is so important but also normalising the idea within the Muslim community about women in science is so incredible.
We hear about famous scientists and scholars, like Ibn Haytham – who was the father of optics. He was a mathematician, a physicist, and astronomer. Maybe you might hear about Jabir ibn Hayyan who was the father of early chemistry. You’ve got Khwarizmi – you know, the father of algebra.
Some people will know about Fatima al-Fihri who was the founder of the oldest running university in the world that’s in Fez, Morocco. She was a well educated and well inspired woman who fought to have knowledge at the forefront of Islamic learning.
One other woman I like to speak about is Sameera Moussa. She was an Egyptian nuclear physicist. She actually started this movement called ‘Atoms for Peace’. It was basically to protect the world against atomic hazards and she was later unfortunately assassinated for her work. This was a Muslim woman at the forefront of science who had started this massive movement when you barely had women within science being noted, let alone Muslim women.
There were women who were great artists, great philosophers, and they were always there. And one thing I often agree on is: to be able to know the existence and to aim for something, you have to be able to see it beforehand.
This concept of role models, the reason people look to them is because it means that this is achievable. It can be done as it’s been done before.
We’re so used to being shown one picture of one role model and it still feels so alien and I often say this at schools in talks when I give them, it’s not about bringing one role model and showing them because students will feel “ok yeah, this person is great and inspirational but still feel like they’re a million miles away I can never do this”. But it’s about showing them that they also have the potential to also become a role model.
So it’s about self-empowerment. By looking at this role model and speaking with them to feel empowered within you is the ultimate goal because that leads to this feeling of confidence.
NI: Would you speak about this more? I feel like we need to hear more from you!
NM: Definitely. I was recently invited along to a Madrassa to speak to the girls there and to listen to the kind of questions they have. I tend to find that across the board whether you’re giving talks at schools, universities, colleges, or companies, this could be third sector organisations or it could be mosques.
There are some questions that tend be very similar and they felt held back from a cultural restraint. To be able to get them to understand that if you want to be able to step forward within your Deen, a huge part of that is learning true knowledge and what you will find a lot of cultural practices are not the same as Islamic practices.
A lot of them are actually very contradictory. Islamically, it’s your duty to be able to point out something as Islamically incorrect.
Children are being taught cultural practice as ‘Islamic practice’ when it’s not. The pursuit of knowledge and taking an interest in it from a young age is really important. Starting to normalise ideas always needs to come from an earlier age because it’s harder to break those taboos later.
NI: If you could say one thing to sisters who are struggling in their life with culture and they wanna learn more about Deen, they wanna embrace it and be transformed by it, what would you say to them?
NM: There’s a very strong difference between faith and culture and the two should never be mixed because for me that’s a very toxic mix. A lot of people can easily confuse culture with religion and they are not the same thing whatsoever. So many times I’ve found that what’s being practiced is actually forbidden in the faith itself.
To any sisters out there who are finding themselves confined to the restraints of cultural oppression, whether it’s from a background from another country or whether it’s being here and having that conflict with embedding your Islamic beliefs with western culture; wherever you are, the hardest thing anyone can do in their life is learning to find a sense of value and worth in yourself. Self confidence. When somebody can have a form of self confidence they’re more likely to adhere to what they believe to be true, as long as they are not harming anyone else of course.
At the end of the day when you can find value and worth and confidence in yourself, if you are someone who is trying to adhere to any form of loving and peaceful belief and hold on to it in a world in time where we are surrounded in darkness…
You are a warrior.
You are someone who people will fear because you have something to hold on to.
The reason why you have people trying to push you back is because they are afraid of you. They’re afraid that this person has something that keeps them hanging on. What people don’t understand, they fear, and what they fear, they try to destroy.
When you’re alone and truly feel like you have no one by your side, you have the most powerful and most eternal strength with you.
In mathematics and in the sciences we’re told for something to be infinite it needs be based on a foundation, or have a constant to it that is used over infinity. So when someone says “I truly love you for who you are”, that can be anyone, it’s incredibly beautiful and it means so much. But when someone says they love you feesabilillah, when they say I love you for the sake of Allah, that doesn’t mean they don’t love you for who you are, that doesn’t mean they love you because of God. What it means is that they love you based on something that is eternal. And the only thing we truly believe to be infinite is God Himself.
To say that someone loves you, feesabilillah, means to love somebody that is based on something that is eternal.
The foundation of that love is eternal.
So if you were to hurt or betray this person then in a way you are betraying God! You can’t risk that for the sake of your own soul.
When you feel that someone loves you infinitely that makes you feel powerful.
Going back to confidence, to have that form of care for yourself. You can be someone who doesn’t find much love for yourself but to realise you have someone who loves your infinitely, that is Allah. That in itself in empowering. And to truly understand what that means will help you take steps in your life to move forward.
NI: Wow, I never thought about it like that before. It’s so true though and I think we can get so caught up on what we’re lacking when there is a constant that sustains us to be able to carry on. Thank you!
NI: Books! GO!
NM: Anything from the classics, C. S. Lewis, Treasure Island. The Art of War and The Art of Peace by Sun Tzu. Morihei Ueshiba, the founder of Aikido or Osensei as they call him, of course that leads on to Martial Arts. I also have the entire Sherlock Holmes collection which I love!
NI: Favourite martial arts movie?
NM: Ahh this is so hard! Okay, so Akira Kurosawa – he was one of the pioneers of filmography. He directed ‘Hidden Fortress’ and ‘Throne of Blood’. These were old black and white movies and the way he shot his films, the way he manipulates the visuals were amazing. A lot of the actors in his movies were trained swordsmen to begin with. Some of the choreography to the trained eye is so incredibly beautiful and so precise. The tradition of oriental swordsmanship is to do with precise accurate cuts so I would go on YouTube and marvel at replaying these scenes over and over again.
NI: One of my biggies is that what I’m watching is real. It’s nice to have special effects and fanciful leaps that couldn’t be accomplished without wires and whatnot but I love to see an art form in its true sense, that I could learn.
It’s why I fell in love with Wing Chun after seeing Ip Man. When I first saw it I thought to myself, if that’s a real Martial Art then I want to learn it! And then researching about it I found that it was developed by a woman over two hundred years ago just further strengthened my resolve to learn it one day.
I’ve got to know what your favourite Martial Art is though!
NM: Oh gosh, I’ve practiced 13 martial arts and techniques. My first one was Ninjitsu, so Ninja. It was one that was closest to my heart because it gave away to feel like you can see the world when you’re working in a way that supposed to be stealthy.
At the same time I have to say Ninjustsu, Ba Gua, Xing Yi Quan, Aikido, Hapkido, Taekwondo, Tai Chi, European Fencing, and more. Many of those I practised with the master who took me on as his apprentice. We also practised martial techniques such as Fa jin, Dimmak, Kyushu Jitsu, Qi gong and Gi cheon.
Our main art form became Haidong Gumdo, a Korean sword art based on ancient military techniques, which teaches the practitioner to face off against more than one opponent at a time (as opposed to traditional sword arts which teach more on a one-to-one level).
I’m a traditionalist when it comes to martial arts so the spiritual aspect is incredibly important to me just as much as the physical aspect of it, if not more.
There’s a very big difference between Martial Arts and Martial Combat, the spiritual growth as well as mental growth.
There’s nothing wrong with doing Martial Combat for the sake of self defence of course.
I started specialising in weapons arts, especially sword arts about 13 years ago. My main art has been a clean sword art called Haidong Gumdo.
Very blessed to have found a teacher of it who not only took me on as a student but also as an apprentice. A lot of masters won’t take on an apprentice any more let alone one who is female from an ethnic background and visually impaired. He was very understanding and very caring, a father figure.
We trained in several arts for over a decade and then he went back to the Far East and left everything on my shoulders. So I’m now one of the senior presence of it in Scotland for this art.
I also dual wield – two swords – and it also encompasses a bit of staff work and other weapons. So I’ve practiced everything from Tonfa to Nunchaku, European Sword Fencing as well.
Weapons wise the sword was always closest to my heart. Martial Arts wise it would either be Ninjitsu or Haidon Gumdo because one was my beginning and the other one became my strength later.
NI: Would you ever consider teaching?
NM: I used to teach along with my master but we stopped to concentrate on our own training. When you’re just teaching you can fall back on your own training and we wanted to keep expanding our own training as well. I do plan to have small classes and seminars once in a while.
A lot people have this misconception about Martial Arts that it’s about violence, a physical activity. Yes there’s a large physical aspect to it but Martial Arts encompasses a spiritual growth, a mental and emotional one also.
I have trained top female fighters for the Olympics as well. Especially in terms as a combat system rather than taking it in as an art; no matter how skilled somebody is when they find themselves in a situation where they would need to defend themselves the mental awareness is the most important. It’s a natural instinct in women when we are scared we freeze and our limbs won’t move. If you’re not there mentally in that moment and not able to control yourself mentally, that skill doesn’t mean anything.
You need the psychological and emotional training that comes with it to grow as a person. And that spiritual side that helps you grow as a soul.
NI: I’ve always found martial arts to be very graceful and very harmonious to the human experience and it’s so overlooked by women in general.
When you share your experiences and training with us it allows us to see more of what it’s about. And there is a stark contrast between martial combat and martial arts but both are needed. I think it’s important that everyone learns how to defend themselves.
NM: Very much so, and you need that physical training. Like MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) is something I consider as martial combat rather than an art. In a street situation someone with MMA skills would definitely do well because it’s practical.
The reason I’m a traditionalist in the arts because a Martial Art is a form of self expression, like you said – graceful. And it’s almost dancelike.
Art is a journey, a way of life.
That’s why Japanese martial arts have ‘do’ at the end of their name which means ‘way’ and to bring that into your routine helps you to grow in many ways.
Naziyah, whose name means ‘One of Pure Heart’ – it was an absolute pleasure to share this with you and thank you for letting us into your world and can’t wait to see more of what you have to offer!