Feeling Lost as a Convert

Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world (although it is second in number of adherents). This is partly because of the growth of Muslim families, but it is also because of an increasingly large number of converts. However, what many Muslims don’t realize is that many of these new Muslims leave the faith after months or even years of being converts.

See this article, “Why Are New Muslims Leaving the Faith?” from Islam21c.

I’ve been a Muslim for three years now and I can relate to much of what is written in this article. I haven’t been tempted to leave Islam, but I’ve sometimes wondered if I have what it takes to be a Muslim. I know that all it takes to become a Muslim is the statement of faith (the Shahada). But being a Muslim (a “good” or practicing Muslim) is another thing altogether.

Here’s where I think things go wrong for many converts:

  1. Muslims are not completely honest beforehand about what is expected of the new convert.
  2. Muslims bombard the new convert with all these rules that he is suddenly supposed to live by.
  3. Many of the rules have no basis in Islam, but are cultural conventions.
  4. There are so many differing opinions about some issues, the new convert becomes confused.
  5. Born Muslims have no idea how hard it is for the convert to completely change his or her life.
  6. Most new converts are handicapped by the fact that they don’t know Arabic.
  7. Converts are often isolated from other Muslims and find it hard to break into new groups.
  8. Muslims expect too much too soon and get impatient with converts who take a long time to adjust.
  9. Muslims expect converts to just “pick up” how to be Muslims on their own.
  10. Converts are afraid to admit how much trouble they are having and don’t know where to go for help.

I was very fortunate that when I became a Muslim, I had a lot of born Muslims who befriended me and whom I saw every day. They always asked how I was doing and were ready to help in any way they could. They invited me into their homes and went with me to the masjid. It was a wonderful introduction to Islam and I will forever be grateful to Allah for bringing these people into my life.

But things change. Now most of these friends have moved away. I have no one to go to the masjid with or to ask for advice. The only consistent fellowship I have is on Facebook. I’ve begun to slip in my commitment to pray and to wear the hijab. Eids have become a lonely time for me. Ramadan seems pointless.

Much of this is my fault, I know. If I need help I should ask for it. I should do all I can to increase my iman and develop my deen. I need to pray more than ever and ask Allah to help me. I should keep in touch with all my Muslims friends and be honest with them about how I’m doing. (This is really hard!) I don’t have to do this alone.

But I think we all feel that we should be able to. That there’s something wrong with us if we can’t. However, speaking for myself, I feel so overwhelmed by all I don’t know that I just don’t know where to start. Should I learn Arabic? Memorize the Qur’an? (In English??) Force myself to go to the masjid (which, by the way, is doubly hard for a woman)? Watch YouTube videos about Islam and how to be a better Muslim? Sign up for forums and ask strangers for guidance? Bug my Muslim friends with complaints and questions?

What makes it even harder is that I live in a predominantly Christian nation. People just assume that everyone is Christian (unless told otherwise). I was raised as a Christian and most of my family and spiritual memories revolve around Christian traditions and rituals. Being a Christian comes as naturally to me as breathing. Being a Muslim does not.

It’s also hard when Muslims form groups and cliques according to their ethnicity or nationality. If you don’t belong to their group and speak their language, you’re the odd man (or woman) out.

You know what my greatest joy is? When someone says “Asalaam alaykum” to me when I’m out running errands. Those are the times when I feel like a part of the great big wonderful community of Muslims. Those are the times when I feel like I belong.

Another convert weighs in on this issue here.

Have You Forgotten?

Today on Facebook I found this comment:

Don’t you think it’s puzzling that we’re all born with amnesia wondering who we are, why we’re here and where we came from? Time to remember… wake-up! Move into the heart to remember! ♥

The woman who wrote this isn’t a Muslim, but her sentiment reminded me of what it felt like when I discovered Islam. Muslims believe that we’re all born Muslim—that is, connected to the One God, our Creator. But for a variety of reasons, we lose that sense of connection as we grow up in this dunya (the temporal world).

I like to think that babies still have that sense when they enter this world. They are so trusting, so eager to smile and to laugh. It’s not hard to teach a child to enjoy life and to feel loved. The tragedy is that so many of us forget what that felt like as we grow older.

We forget because we get distracted and damaged. People hurt and mislead us. We allow ourselves to get sidetracked by our desire for their acceptance. We seek fame and fortune instead of communion with our Creator. We forget what real love feels like.

And then there are the things we do to ourselves. We treat ourselves and others badly. And then we deny that we feel guilty. We try to justify our actions. We don’t see that we need reconciliation with our Creator.

But we never stop missing Him. We always have this vague sense of unease, as if we’ve lost our way and are afraid that we might be lost forever.

And yet He never moved. He is still there, our light and our guiding star. All we have to do is open our hearts to Him.

And when we do, we remember.

Does Christianity Make Sense?

When I was a Christian I often heard people say that Christianity is a inclusive religion. I guess what they meant by that is that anyone can become a Christian. You don’t have to be born into Christianity or undergo a rigorous training program before you can call yourself Christian.

But that’s not entirely true.

Allah (which actually is just Arabic for “God”) is exactly how He is presented in the Qur’an and the ahadith (the teachings of Mohammad). He shares many characteristics with the Jewish and the Christian “Gods.”  (Islam is the only one of the three religions that claims that they all worship the same God.) He is just, merciful, compassionate, loving, forgiving and eternal, the source of all things and Lord of the universe. But to have a relationship with Him, you don’t have to believe a lot of other things, like:

  • God is made up of three parts, or persons, otherwise known as the Trinity, or the Triune God.
  • One of those parts is Jesus, who is not only God, but was also a human being for 33 years out of his eternal existence.
  • However,  Jesus is not just one of the persons of the Trinity. He is also the son of one of the other persons (the Father).
  • As a man, Jesus had to die as a sacrifice for the sins of all mankind.
  • He also had to be raised from the dead to show his victory over death.
  • Even though Jesus died for all mankind, the only way to reap the benefits of that sacrifice is to believe all of the above.

When a prospective Christian asks how all of this works, he or she is told to take a leap of faith. Or that this is a mystery we are not meant to understand.

I’m sorry, but that sounds like a cop-out to me. Of course God is more than we can understand. If we could grasp what He’s all about, he wouldn’t be God. But when having a relationship with Him means that we have to accept things that don’t make sense, it’s awfully hard to reconcile that with our reason and intellect. Does that mean that Christians have to be irrational in order to believe in the Christian version of God?

Don’t get me wrong: when I was a Christian, I thought I did understand the Trinity. But the truth is, many people who call themselves Christian don’t really understand how Jesus can have existed for all time, but not be all there is to God, how he could be tempted to sin as a man but live like a saint, how he “turns into” the third person of the Trinity (the Holy Spirit) in order to dwell in our hearts, and so on.

Most Christians simplify things in their own minds by saying that Jesus is God. Period. But that’s not really what the Bible clearly says. A lot of what Jesus supposedly said in the Bible about God and his relationship to Him is open to interpretation.

When I was a Christian, I repeated the creeds with everyone else. I told people that Jesus was my Lord and Savior. But when I tried to explain to non-Christians what that meant, I could hear myself saying words I wasn’t really sure I meant. (Or understood.) And that bothered me.

When I found out that Islam teaches that God is One, and only One, I could grasp that. Of course God has to be One. Otherwise, you never know if you’re worshiping the right God, or the right part of God. (If all three persons of the Triune God are equal, why are you never told to worship the Holy Spirit as well as the Son and the Father?)

Muslims don’t have to pretend to believe something that is unbelievable (unless you believe that the concept of God is unbelievable, in which case you’re an atheist, so this would all be a moot point).

Faith of any kind is not easy. We all have our doubts. There is no one religion that answers all our questions. But some religions raise more questions than they answer and for me Christianity is one of them.

Seeking Guidance

A newborn baby operates on instinct. She doesn’t decide when she cries or sleeps. He’s at the mercy of the adults in his life to make all his decisions for him. But as she grows older, she becomes increasingly independent. And part of that independence is learning to make your own decisions.

The good parent teaches his child to make decisions wisely and responsibly. This can seem like an overwhelming task because making decisions isn’t easy even for grown-ups. How do we teach our children to be wise and responsible when we so often fail at this ourselves?

Some people are very decisive while others are indecisive. I tend toward the latter. In my younger years I never wanted to make a decision because I was always afraid that I would make the wrong one. When I was asked what I wanted to do, I would say, “I don’t know; you decide.” That was my way of protecting myself from another person’s displeasure. I thought if I never made a decision, it would always be the other person’s fault if it went wrong. I also thought that no one would ever get mad at me if I never tried to push my own agenda.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. All I ended up doing was frustrating my friends and family. They felt that I was distancing myself from them, making myself inaccessible. Just because I wouldn’t say what I really wanted. They weren’t asking me to agree with them. They wanted me to reveal myself by showing what I cared about.

I was especially bad about this when it came to my boyfriends and later my husbands. Shortly before I married my first husband, I became a Christian. And rather than making me wiser and more responsible, I became less so. That was because I didn’t ask God to help me make decisions; I asked my husband to. And because I was trying to be a “good” Christian, I thought I had to defer to my husband’s leadership and to me that meant that I was to let him make all the decisions.

That’s the tricky thing about seeking guidance. If we seek it from the wrong people, we can make a mess of our lives. Bad advice makes for bad decisions. And even if the person we’re conferring with has good motives and a certain amount of wisdom, he still may not give us advice that fits us.

I discovered this when I took a course in creative writing a few years ago. I’ve always wanted to write and thought I was good at it. In class one day I told my teacher that another teacher had said that my writing was “almost lyrical.” My writing teacher’s response was, “Yes, but that doesn’t mean it was good writing.”

I was scarred by that comment, to the point where my confidence in myself as a writer was almost completely eroded. As a result, I stopped writing for a while except for in my journals. It has taken me a lot of time and effort to build back my self-esteem, and I’m still not where I want to be.

So how do we protect ourselves from people who are not really wise or empathetic enough to give us good advice? And how do we make decisions for ourselves that are the “right” ones? And, even more, how

The Shifting Sands of Doubt

I haven’t been around much lately because I was studying for the GRE (Graduate Record Exam®) I had to take for grad school. I took it on September 26th and now I’m trying to get back into my writing. I’m also trying to get back into my faith. Because the truth is, while I was focusing on the GRE, I lost my focus on everything else.

I have trouble switching from one activity to another, especially in the course of one day. If I try to make myself “turn off” one mindset and “turn on” another, I find that my brain just won’t co-operate. I feel befuddled (which means “very confused and unable to think clearly”) or dazed and disorientated. It’s like when you have something in the back of your mind that you keep thinking about even when you try not to. If I try to write, or study, or even pray when I’ve just been doing something else, I can’t seem to clear my mind and allow it to focus on something new.

I’ve been diagnosed with ADD (or Attention Deficit Disorder), which is another way of saying that my mind works differently than most peoples’. I’m terribly disorganized, I tend to hyperfocus on one thing at a time, but I also need constant stimulation or I get bored and tune out completely. I tend to jump from one enthusiasm to another and become totally obsessed with each one, but give me a week and I’m on to something else.

Lately I’ve been feeling out of touch with my faith. I keep missing prayer times, I haven’t been reading the Qur’an and I don’t wear my hijab as much as I used to. I’ve been worried that my enthusiasm for Islam has run its course, that it was only a temporary interest and now I’m over it. But when I think about God, and how I see my relationship with Him, I know that Islam is the only religion that makes sense to me.  My problem has more to do with my inability to stick with things rather than with my lack of interest.

I realize now that I can’t grow in my iman (faith) unless I feed it. The problem is, I’ve been getting most of what I know about Islam from the wrong sources. Islam emphasizes the importance of knowledge but it has to be the right kind of knowledge. When I pay more attention to Muslims who are trying to push their own agenda instead of to Mohammad as revealed in the ahadith, I’m bound to become confused and disillusioned.

I’ve decided that there is a hierarchy in learning. The most important things to learn are what Allah says about Himself and what Mohammad says about Allah. Next on the list are the things we need to do to be righteous in Allah’s eyes. But even there, our most important sources are the Qur’an and the Sunnah. Whenever I get confused about what Allah wants of me, I need to turn to these resources, not to the opinions of other Muslims.

However, the best kind of knowledge is that which is gained through experience. Book learning is not enough. I need to be in an active relationship with Allah if I ever want to overcome my tendency to lose interest. This is where prayer enters the picture, as well as our attitudes toward prayer. If I feel that prayer is something I have to do, I avoid it or do it grudgingly. But when I feel that prayer is something that I get to do, I pray willingly and with joy.

There’s a story in the Bible about the foolishness of building one’s house on shifting sand instead of on solid rock. Other people’s opinions are like shifting sand; Allah is the solid rock. Whenever I feel myself slipping in my faith, I should look at where I’m building my “house.” If it’s not on Allah and His word, then I shouldn’t be surprised if I don’t feel secure in my faith.

 

Summertime, and the Living is NOT Easy

My mom was a musical fan and I often heard the song “Summertime” playing on her stereo during my childhood. The first line goes, “Summertime, and the living is easy.” But I have to tell you: I don’t feel that way about summer. Especially the last two years since I’ve been a Muslim.

For one thing, dressing modestly is hot! And I don’t mean that in the “attractive” or “sexy” sense. I dread going out some days because I know I’m going to have sweat trickling down my back as soon as the sun hits me. (It doesn’t help of course that we don’t have air-conditioning in our car!) Sometimes I long for the days when I could throw on a sleeveless top and some shorts and just go. But I feel funny now if I venture outside without long sleeves and pants and a hijab.

I’ve had to learn a few tricks about dressing hijab. I try to stick to my light, cotton hijabs and to wear long-sleeve tops so I don’t have to layer. Long skirts and dresses can be a good solution, too. I’ve worn an abaya on a few occasions and actually like the feeling of being covered yet being able to move freely, but most of the abayas I have are of man-made fabrics so they’re not that cool.

Even though I complain sometimes about having to dress this way in the heat, I have to admit that I’ve found that I don’t really feel that much more hot than I used to pre-Islam. And I don’t have to use as much sun-block either! (All right, I don’t use any sunblock. I know I should, but I always forget.)

Another thing I find difficult is gardening. Not only because I get hot, but because I can’t bear to dress modestly when I’m working in the yard. The clothes just get in the way and the heat is definitely intensified. Short of going out to garden in the middle of the night, I haven’t yet worked out a way to stay cool and modest while doing so. And my yard looks like it!

Also, I won’t be going to the pool any time soon. I love to swim, but I just don’t have the nerve to wear a burkini or other modest swimwear at a public pool. One of the local mosques occasionally has a swimming event just for women, but it’s at an indoor pool and somehow that’s just not the same as swimming outside.

I hate the idea that I have to curtail some of my activities now that I’m a Muslim. I have no problem with not drinking alcohol or partying, because I never did much of that anyway. Nor am I a sports-nut: I don’t jog, or play softball or tennis. I do go to the gym (occasionally!), but it’s an all-women gym, so I don’t have to worry as much about how I’m dressed. (I’m rather lax about it, to tell you the truth.)

And now for the biggie: Ramadan. I don’t look forward to it like I wish I would, because I always worry so much about how I’m going to handle the heat. I’ll be so glad when Ramadan moves into the other seasons, but that won’t be anytime soon. So I better get used to it. I don’t want to stop doing anything just because it’s Ramadan and I’m passing out on the couch (in the air-conditioning). For one thing, I have a GRE test to take at the end of August and I can’t afford to stop studying just because it’s Ramadan.

I’m praying hard that I be able to handle all the things I wrote about in this post. I realize that’s probably the point of all these “hardships.” If we didn’t have trials in life, would we rely on Allah? Besides, my trials are nothing compared to my brothers and sisters who are fighting for freedom and still have to observe Ramadan. When I put things into perspective like that, I realize I don’t have it so bad. We do have air-conditioning at home and most places I visit do as well. I have the freedom to worship any way I please. And to voice my opinions.

Don’t get me wrong. Even though it can be hard to be a Muslim sometimes, I know in my heart that I wouldn’t have it any other way. The “sacrifices” I have to make are nothing compared to what Allah has done for me. He calls me to do my best, but is merciful and compassionate when I fail. And He never leaves me. With Allah, the living may not be easy, but it’s better than living without Him.

 

Worrying About What Others Think

I’m going to a memorial service this morning for my old Girl Scout troop leader. She was also my mother’s best friend and her daughters and my sister and I are the same age and were close friends when we were growing up. I haven’t seen the older daughter, the one my age, for thirty years. I didn’t even know her married name until I saw it in the obituary.

I’m looking forward to seeing people from my past, but I’m nervous, too. Most of them have no idea that I’ve converted to Islam. And I will be announcing that fact loud and clear by wearing the hijab. (I’m also considering wearing an abaya.) I worry that I’ll put people off, that they’ll feel uncomfortable around me. But I’m praying that Allah will pave the way. After all, my being a Muslim is to His glory and really has nothing to do with me.

Besides, one reason I dress hijab is because I want people to see that anyone can become a Muslim. There’s nothing in my background, other than a belief in God and an interest in religion, that points to the likelihood of my converting to Islam. Both my grandfather and my first husband were ministers and I have been sporadically active in the Christian church for most of my adult life. As little as three years ago, the thought of becoming a Muslim was the furthest thing from my mind (or so I thought at the time).

I’m proof that Allah is the one who guides our hearts. Mine has always been with Him, from my earliest memories. I just didn’t know how to express it in a way that would be completely meaningful to me.

And yet I’m still afraid of what others think of me sometimes.

I went through this when my youngest daughter got married. From the moment she announced her engagement, I started worrying about wearing the hijab to her wedding. She and her fiancé were perfectly fine with it, but I wasn’t so sure that others would be. The groom’s family was also fine with it, even though they’re Catholic. But there were going to be others there who were sure to be taken back by the hijabi in their midst, especially once they realized that she was the mother of the bride.

My husband took it for granted that I would wear the hijab to all the wedding festivities. I wasn’t as sure as he was. I fussed for months about what I could wear that wouldn’t look too “Muslim.” As if the hijab wouldn’t be a dead giveaway! I finally settled on a long skirt and jacket for the rehearsal dinner and a lavender abaya for the wedding.

I knew that I was being silly, but I couldn’t help myself. I didn’t want to draw attention to myself at my daughter’s wedding. I didn’t want her to be sorry when she got her wedding pictures and there was her mother sticking out like a sore thumb.

I did feel kind of isolated because no one came up to me to congratulate me or compliment me on my lovely daughter. But there wasn’t a reception line, so that wasn’t all that strange. And I was asked to give a toast to my daughter and new son-in-law. I appear in many of the pictures and I don’t really look out of place. It seems that I worried for nothing.

I was actually relieved when one of my relatives came up and asked me about my conversion. I’d rather people acknowledge it in some way than talk about it behind my back. I did have another relative ask me after the wedding, “What do you think your grandfather would say?” but that was the mildest form of disapproval I received the entire weekend.

The fact is, I haven’t had any negative comments since I started to wear the hijab. Most people ignore it and those who do mention it are usually just curious. I don’t know whether this means that people in Ohio are more accepting than people in some other places or if they just don’t know what to say. I did have a man greet me at the bus stop the other day and when I responded, he said, “Oh, I thought you were one of those Arab ladies until you spoke!” But he was perfectly friendly. It seems that people are more puzzled about my ethnicity because I don’t look like what they imagine a Muslim looks like than they are about the fact that I’ve converted to Islam.

I know that wearing the hijab is a big decision for many Muslim women. But I can attest to the fact that we worry about it too much. The burden is really on others to decide how they’re going to react to it not on us to make them feel more comfortable about it.

This is who I am now. I’ve announced it to the world on Facebook (that makes it official, right?) and I announce it every day when I walk out of the house in a hijab. I don’t want to return to the way I used to be, unsure about my relationship to God and unhappy with every religion I encountered.

But I still have to remind myself sometimes that I’m proud to be a Muslim, that it was my free choice to convert and that I haven’t regretted it for a minute. Maybe I’ll get a chance to tell someone that today. But if not, my hijab will tell people for me.