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.

The Individual and the Ummah

Muslims are constantly talking about the ummah, which means “community,” specifically the community of all believers. We’re proud of being a part of this community, but in actual practice we do little to foster a feeling of fellowship among its members.

Sure, we all pray “together” five times a day and fast at the same time during the month of Ramadan. And there are mosques where we can gather for prayer and other events. But unless you live in a Muslim community or country, it’s hard to feel like you have access to actual brothers and sisters with whom you can share joys as well as afflictions.

This is a big problem in the United States. Outside of communities where there are a lot of Muslims (for example, Dearborn, Michigan), there are too few masjids to serve the needs of Muslims who are scattered all over the country. In my own area, there are none close to where I live and the ones that are closest tend to be made up of close-knit groups who share the same ethnicity or nationality. As a white American convert, I don’t feel at home in any of them.

Another problem is that Muslims don’t have clergy the way that Christians do. If you belong to a church, there is always a central person you can call on for help or guidance. He or she will pray for you, visit you in the hospital, baptize your children and officiate at your death. And if you’re new, it will be the priest or minister who will either personally or through an assistant visit you and welcome you to the church.

I’ve been a Muslim for almost three years and I have never received a call or visit from anyone at the mosque where I said my Shahada. I don’t even know the name of the man who heard my confession of faith! I’ve never been called by anyone from any masjid where I’ve attended, partly because the masjids I’ve gone to don’t keep records about their members, let alone about people who have just visited.

Most churches encourage new visitors to stand up and be recognized so that people can come up to them after church and make them feel welcome to come back or to attend Sunday School classes. They also encourage them to become members of their particular congregation, and if they do, they are entered on the membership roles.

I’ve often wondered how masjids get enough money to operate on when they don’t have any way of identifying who their members are. The only appeals for money I’ve ever heard were made informally after prayers. In Christian churches, if you’re a member you will be contacted about giving money to the church on a regular basis. While there are times when this can be irritating, I still don’t see how a religious institution can function without it.

And yet somehow mosques do flourish, even without formal requests for money. This is partly because charity is one of the Five Pillars of Islam. Every Muslim knows that he has an obligation to give of his own bounty toward the aid of others.

This is one of the things I love about Islam: the emphasis on personal responsibility. We don’t wait for someone to remind us that we’re supposed to do something (not even Allah); instead, we’re supposed to be constantly seeking ways to be faithful to the tenets of Islam. We are to educate ourselves about our obligations. Imams and fellow Muslims can give us guidance and inspiration but it’s ultimately up to us to do what’s right.

But all too often individual efforts to help are hit-and-miss.  Masjids are run by volunteers, but what if they don’t get the volunteers that they need? Without a formal clergy, strong leadership and an organized structure, many basic needs go unmet. This is one of the weaknesses of Islam.

The way I see it, the ummah is only as effective as its individual members.  There is no professional clergy whom Muslims pay to do their work for them. Each Muslim is held accountable for what he or she does (or doesn’t do) in life. It does no good to complain about what the community is not doing for us when we ourselves are not doing anything for the ummah.