When people ask me what led to my conversion to Islam, I cite several factors, but the one that really did me in was good old-fashioned da’wah. Some people think of da’wah as missionary activity, but that’s not the way I experienced it. I only had one woman give me missionary tracts, and that was after I’d already converted. (I’m not sure why she did that; maybe she was afraid that my conversion wasn’t going to “take”?)
The only time anyone even broached the subject of my converting was when a man I’d known for a couple of months asked me, “So, do you think you’d ever become a Muslim?” And that was in response to my saying that I really liked what I’d learned about Islam. By then the seed had already been planted.
The fact was, I’d been familiar with Islam for a couple of years, from courses that I’d taken in college. I knew—and had been quite impressed by—the Five Pillars. I had learned about how Islam was founded and spread. I was even familiar with the various schools of Islamic Law (Shari’ah). But I didn’t know what Islam looked like in the flesh. I had never had a one-on-one conversation with a Muslim in my life.
That all changed after I started working for a test preparation company upon my graduation from college. Many of the students who came into the center every day were Muslims from Libya who were in the U.S. studying to take their medical licensing exams. Since they had to study with us 22 hours a week for their student visas, I saw a lot of them. At first I was shy around them. They had strange names, broken English and strong accents, and the women all wore headscarves. I couldn’t imagine what we’d ever have to talk about.
But it was they who started talking to me. They asked about my family, my work, where I lived and where I had traveled and they shared the same information about themselves. In fact, they talked incessantly! They were so friendly, I soon lost my shyness and began to open up to them. I started learning their names and their faces. I stopped noticing their accents and found myself understanding them easily.
They occasionally mentioned their faith, but mostly in terms of how they applied it to themselves. They never once said that all people should become Muslims or that those who don’t would go to hell. If they had I would have been turned off immediately. I’d heard too many Christians say similar things and I’d always felt uncomfortable when they did, even though I was one of them.
I couldn’t help but become curious. What made them so kind and friendly? Why were they always so cheerful? And how did their faith play into it, if at all?
I soon found out that their faith had a great deal to do with their behavior. They often mentioned that they would not be good Muslims if they didn’t accept others the way they wanted to be accepted. (And this was from Libyans residing in an often hostile America!) They credited God with everything that was good in their lives and looked at everything bad as tests God would give them the strength for. They talked about accountability and humility, and patience and perseverance.
When I asked questions about Islam, they were always obviously pleased, but never pushy. But still, when I was asked if I thought I’d ever become a Muslim, I answered with a resounding, “No!”
I explained that their culture was just too different. I couldn’t imagine praying five times a day, learning Arabic, wearing a hijab. After all, I was an American!
Slowly, I began to understand that these weren’t the real obstacles. Yes, I had trouble imagining myself doing them, but the real issue was that I thought doing them would change who I was as a person. When I finally realized that being a Muslim would only make me the person I was meant to be, I started to “try on” the idea of converting. And the more I thought about the kind of people the Muslims I knew were, the more certain I became that I wanted to be one of them.
Along the way, I’d read a lot about Islam and Mohammad, the role of women and the testimonies of converts. But it was real-life Muslims who led me through the gate. And for that I am eternally grateful.