One woman’s journey out of terrorism and into the loving arms of Jesus
Words by Ana Gascon Ivey
Photos by James Acomb
Esther’s father wanted her dead. He printed flyers with her picture and scattered them all over Pakistan. She ran from city to city with her husband and baby, always looking over her shoulder, always wondering if that was the day he would catch up to her. She was no longer the first in her militant Muslim family to volunteer for jihad, no longer the beautiful girl with long dark hair and light olive skin to sign up for a suicide mission. She had become a Christian. Her conversion was a death sentence.
Like her transformation from Islam to Christianity, Esther Ahmad is a paradox. She speaks humbly about her past life as a terrorist but preaches passionately about her present life in Christ. She’s keenly intelligent, with a love for math and science. She’s also a theologian of sorts, able to quote from the Bible and Quran like a scholar. But ask her if she has learned to drive and she confesses sheepishly, “I didn’t pass the test.”
Esther was born Zakhira Ahmad (she changed her name after her conversion) to a wealthy businessman who rejected her as a baby. She was his third daughter. Her father had wanted a boy.
“I lost count of the number of times I was introduced by my mother at a gathering with extended family and heard, ‘Oh, so this is the girl your husband refused to look at, eh?’ ” says Esther in her book, Defying Jihad. “It was painful.”
His rejection is at the heart of her chilling tale. In her book, she paints her father as a tyrant who ruled over his daughters with a meat cleaver, the one he used to chop up goats. He also beat their mother regularly. One time he shouted to her from another room for a glass of water. Esther’s mother called back, “I’m coming—let me just pour the tea, and I will come.” Moments later he rushed in, grabbed her by the neck, and smashed the empty glass on the side of her head.
“I remember my mother falling to the floor, whimpering as she went down,” she says. She came home from the hospital the next day with her ear stitched back together. Her father used the incident as a warning to his girls.
“We were raised in this way, so for me it was normal,” she says. It was also normal for her to wear a veil and head covering, pray five times a day, and heed her mother’s warnings about Allah. Her mother told her if she wore nail polish, Allah would pluck out her nails, and if she lied, he would pull out her tongue and nail it to a wall.
But what left the deepest impression on Esther’s young mind was her mother’s favorite saying: “everyone has to die sometime.” She said it again and again, stamping it into her daughter’s soul like a birthmark.
When she turned 13, Esther joined her father’s militant Muslim group. There she learned about what they called "the evils of the West" and marveled at weapons such as AK-47s and hand grenades. They told her Allah had given them the tools to fight the holy war.
Several years later she attended a religious meeting held in her affluent home. The men and women sat apart, separated by a curtain. Esther listened closely to the militant Muslim leader. He railed against infidels and extolled Allah’s reward for those willing to die in his name—a secure place in paradise for the martyr and her family. When the cleric asked for volunteers for jihad, she raised her hand. She wanted to go out as a suicide bomber. Everyone has to die sometime. She was 18.
But God had other plans. A week before Esther was to leave for jihad training, she had a dream. She stood in a graveyard, buried in darkness and terror. As she looked for a way out, she saw a light coming toward her. The light was a man who invited her to “Come and follow me.” She followed him out of the darkness and into the light. Later in the dream, he told her, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” Esther didn’t know the words he had spoken were from the Bible.
A few days later she met John, a Christian man who challenged her to read her Quran more closely and ask questions. She accepted his challenge, but there was a problem. She needed to postpone jihad training until she got some answers. She told her mother she wanted to spend more time with Allah. The militants obliged.
“I decided to study the Quran and the Hadith (the prophet Muhammad’s teachings) like a scientist, testing the words for truth,” she says. “I found so many inconsistencies. My questions only led to more questions, but no answers.”
She secretly studied John’s Bible at the hospital where he worked. Within the pages she discovered Jesus was the God of love, not hate; the God of peace, not terror; the God of truth, not lies. She told John about her dream and the words the man had spoken. “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”
John showed her where to find the words from her dream in the Bible. “God has chosen you,” he said, his eyes wet with tears. Esther renounced Islam and gave her life to Christ.
A series of events took place over the next two years that play out like a Hollywood thriller. After she told her mother about her conversion, she beat her daily and threatened to kill her. The day her father found out, he considered burning her alive. “I’ll slaughter you in the name of Allah,” he told her.
Word got out and a local leader told her father to arrange public debates with Muslim scholars. If she did not return to Islam within 30 days, then her father could execute her. She faced each scholar like Daniel in the lion’s den, trusting her God to protect her. One by one, the clerics peppered her with questions. One by one, she answered them.
After 21 debates, the radical leaders gave up. Some said she had been brainwashed. Others said she had dug too deeply into the Quran. Regardless, they all agreed she was never coming back to Islam. Her father and about a dozen clerics planned Esther’s execution. She felt no fear.
“When I offered to die in jihad, I wanted to kill as many people as possible,” she says. “My motives were completely different now. As a Christian martyr, I believed my death would lead many people who heard the debates to search for a new life in Christ.”
By this time, her mother and two younger siblings had also become Christians. They all agreed to not disclose their new beliefs. But her mother was open about one thing—she didn’t want her 21-year-old daughter to die. The two of them turned to John, Esther’s Christian friend, for help.
The night before her execution, under cover of darkness, she hugged her mother one last time and ran away. John waited for her nearby, then drove her to a safe house on the back of his motorbike. The next day she did something unimaginable for a Pakistani girl. She proposed to John. Running with a husband would be safer than running as a single woman. He agreed, calling their union God’s will.
As husband and wife, they trekked from one side of Pakistan to the other, finding sanctuary in the homes of Christians, most of them poor. She gave birth to their daughter, Amiyah, in a college basement while students were away on break.
After two years, the young family was granted temporary asylum in Malaysia. Finally, they were free. Esther took off her veil and head covering in Malaysia. She’s never put them back on. Eight years later they were granted permanent residence in the United States.
Today, Esther, John, and their daughter live in the South. To protect her family here and abroad, she does not publicize the city or state where she lives. She also doesn’t reveal the name of her hometown in Pakistan. It’s been 14 years since she last saw or spoke to her family.
“Some of the family members I left behind were secret believers,” she says. “I can’t risk bringing any trouble to them, especially to my mom. I look and sound a lot like her. If someone were to recognize me and make the connection, it could be really bad for her.”
“My mother had a heart condition,” she continues, choking back tears. “I don’t even know if she is still alive.”
The South has been kind to them. Known for its warmth and hospitality, the area has welcomed them as long-lost cousins. Despite many cultural differences, Esther has embraced her new family, brothers and sisters in Christ.
“We found really good Christian people, and they have surrounded us with love and care,” she says. John works in the medical field. Their daughter Amiyah attends public school. Esther spends time with foreign missionaries. Her second book, Unveiled, came out earlier this year.
Esther’s militant past sets her story apart. She was once a terrorist, steeped in radical ideology, ready to strap on a suicide vest to kill Christians and Jews. Her decision to follow Jesus spared her life and the lives of others. “I give thanks to God every day for saving me from my former life,” she says.
As a Christian, she has dedicated her life to sharing Christ’s words from John 11:25, 26 (English Standard Version): “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he dies, yet shall he live. And everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.”