New converts to Islam -- Some advice

ssalamu Alaikom,

The process of conversion isn't a simple journey, and sometimes a person feels rather alone. I thought I would write an article for new female converts and those thinking of converting, based on my experiences and the experiences of other converts that I have read online and heard about in person.

When I was in the process of converting, I devoured all information I could about Islam. My primary source was the internet, simply due to the volume and variety of sources available. Oftentimes, I was confused, because what one website stated as fact was not necessarily what another said. And what one Muslim poster thought was the cat's meow made another Muslim poster howl. Oh so many opinions, and so many Qur'anic verse and hadith to back up all these opinions! What to think, for the new convert who is just learning and isn't quite yet sure what is opinion and what is fact?

Having been in the faith for a while now, I am aware that there are schools of thoughts and difference of opinion between scholars. (Islam has no central authority to turn to, unlike other religions with a very set hierarchy.) This difference of opinion is allowed, and scholars (and therefore the rest of us) are to respect the opinions of one another.

However, some of the websites one encounters have a set opinion and will not tolerate any deviance from this opinion. Not only this, but some posters to Islamic websites will answer as if from a position of knowledge, when they actually do not have the necessary knowledge.

This occurs in person, too. There are Muslims with very set opinions, who very strictly adhere to their school of thought, and seek to impose this way of living Islam on those around them... especially new converts, who are like sponges, eager to soak up absolutely anything relating to Islam.

So, it is vital that the new Muslim research everything for themselves, and never blindly accept what others are telling them. Take from multiple sources! Read the Qur'an and hadith, read the scholarly opinions relating to them, and also read articles and fatwas from a variety of sources. Yes, ask your fellow Muslims, but don't blindly follow. In addition, don't take the easiest path *or* the hardest path. Don't quickly accept an opinion that says what you want to hear, when you know that 99.9% of the other opinions did not agree with this one. If it seems like a controversial or weak opinion, look deeper before deciding. And don't take the opinion that makes the religion too difficult to bear. The Qur'an itself warns us against this, too!

You know, when I converted, I was given a giant haram list: makeup, music, dogs, any piercing beyond a single earlobe piercing, pants, Western dress, Western haircuts, exposed feet, maintaining friendships with non-Muslims, talking to men on the phone even for business purposes, brushing the teeth while fasting, eating with the left hand, tampons, wearing bright colors, travelling anywhere alone, working in a mixed environment, using any sort of guide to pray, all Western holidays and celebrations, praying a certain way or failing to pray a certain way, and so on. I thought my head would burst. It seemed like Islam was merely a collection of millions of minute rules intended to strictly regulate every single breathing moment of a person's life! It is true that there are rules we are expected to follow, or recommendations that we ought to consider, but at first, give yourself time and space to grow into these commitments. Don't expect yourself to magically become super Muslim in the blink of an eye (or in the time it takes to recite the shahada.)

And of course, don't forget the biggest insistence a new Muslim woman will hear: YOU MUST WEAR HIJAB STARTING NOW!

Later, I found out a lot of what those few Muslims around me insisted were... if you'll pardon me for saying this... "gospel", were either distortions of scholarly opinion, the strictest opinion, one opinion out of a few, or flat out wrong. That means I spent a lot of time obsessing and feeling like a failure for no good reason at all. It wasn't until I started meeting a larger variety of Muslims and researching things for myself that I realized there is more than one way to live Islam.

Many converts are isolated and do not have direct access to a mosque or Muslim community. Many must rely on books, tapes, the internet, and perhaps one or two Muslim families or friends to guide them. It's difficult and I sympathize because I was once in that situation, myself.

The best way to understand the dazzling beauty and variety within Islam is to meet as many Muslims as you can, and to visit as many mosques and communities as you can. When I came to Dearborn, and when I met my husband's family, I was floored by the rich variety in how people live as Muslims. There are Muslim women who do not wear hijab at all. There are Muslims who own dogs. There are Muslims who do not pray every day but fast each Ramadan and intend to make the hajj. There are Muslims who follow every last rule of Islam and those who ignore most. There are Muslims who have very set opinions on how a Muslim ought to live, and those who are quite agreeable to disagreeing. There are Muslims who are extremely knowledgeable about the religion and those who know very little. In other words, given that there are six billion of us worldwide, it makes perfect sense that there are all kinds of Muslims in the world. Your job as a convert is to find *your* Islam, *your* path, *your* voice. I am not advocating that you fail to meet what could be called the basic requirements of the faith... but I am advocating that you find a way of living Islam that is right for you.

As I have already briefly mentioned, hijab is a major issue. Such a small, simple piece of cloth, yet it wields incredible power. While researching Islam, I was struck by how much attention hijab is given. A woman could go her whole life without truly understanding Islam, but she sure as heck understands that she ought to have that square of cloth on her head. So much attention is devoted to this topic. A new Muslim convert is also going to encounter the opinion that hijab is not a requirement at all. The need to cover is agreed upon by all four schools of thought, I am sure, but there are individuals and groups out there that do not believe it is necessary. So, with all of this in mind, a convert has some decisions to make. Remember that this is your life, your spirituality, and hijab is an intensely personal issue. Don't allow others to badger you into doing something that you are not yet comfortable with. Likewise, don't let others badger you out of doing something you feel you must. I know for myself, it took me some time to want to wear hijab. Honestly, it took me more time to understand hijab on an inner, spiritual level. I wore hijab first out of duty and only later came to identify with it and understand the inner modesty it represents.

I want to mention marriage. As a new convert, I felt intense pressure to marry, and I've heard other new Muslims say the same. "Marriage is half your deen" is an expression you are going to hear regularly, and from acquaintance and stranger alike. Whether or not you wish to marry is a personal choice, but I would recommend that you spend a few years as a Muslim before you do so. "You'll learn from your husband, he can teach you Islam" is something you will hear, and sure, that's true, but you have your own brain and you can learn Islam without a husband! You must learn and grow into your deen, because trust me, you are going to undergo some changes in your first few years of being a Muslim. You will look back at the person who converted to Islam, and the person you are now, and you are going to see some real differences. Wait until you are firm in your religion and a little more knowledgeable before you put your future in the hands of somebody else. What if his Islam is much more strict than yours? What if it's too lenient? And let's be honest here... It is entirely possible that a convert will be manipulated due to her lack of knowledge. "Oh yes, honey, it's required that the wife massage the man's feet every day or else the angels curse her. Oh yes, honey, it's recommended that the wife does all the housework. Oh yes, honey, it's totally halal for me to smoke weed." Being a part of a Muslim family will strengthen your Islam and will improve your knowledge and perhaps even make you feel closer to the community, but it is something that should not be rushed. "Marry in haste, repent in leisure".

Not to mention that for most of us, we don't have family and community behind us when we decide to marry. If we wish to follow Islam properly, we avoid dating and being alone with potential partners. Because converts may find themselves on the fringe of the Muslim community, and alone when in search of a marriage partner, we are often quite vulnerable when seeking marriage. Not all of us have any connections, we must rely on the word of our wali (who is sometimes someone we don't know very well), or if we cannot find a wali, the word of the potential husband himself. We can't look into his background and his reputation because we don't know who to ask and what to ask. We may not have many offers of marriage because of our distance from the community. This is not a secret, and there are opportunists who will take advantage of this vulnerability. So, do not rush marriage. Learn your religion, become comfortable in it, attempt to become part of a larger Muslim community if possible, network with your trusted Muslim friends, and proceed very slowly with potential partners.

Now, enough of your interactions with Muslims. What about non-Muslims? You are going to be asked many questions about Islam, some simple, some intricate, some obscure. Don't answer beyond your ability. Be honest with people, tell them when you cannot answer for something. (And then go home and research it!) Likewise, you are not responsible for everything done in the name of Islam, nor do you have to agree with it. Here is a radical example: honor killing. Honor killing is known within Islamic societies but it's not at all Islamic. It is cultural. You are going to be asked difficult questions, and it's worth being prepared for it. Similarly, becoming Muslim does not nullify your ethnicity and cultural background. You do not have to become something or somebody else. You are not renouncing your people or your culture.

Also, don't feel any shame about your non-Muslim family. Do not turn away from them if you've previously had a relationship with them. Don't discard your non-Muslim friends (although it's fine to evaluate a friendship if, say, your primary connection is the fact that you went bar hopping together every weekend...) Becoming Muslim does not mean you must entirely reinvent yourself and do away with anything that came before.

Another thing I would like to discuss is the topic of name changes. A number of new Muslims are told that they must take on an Islamic name. It is true that a Muslim is required to change his or her name if their current name insults Islam or has a bad meaning. A man or woman named "Christian" might want to change their name, for example. But I would guess that for many of us, our names do not have negative meanings. A woman may wish to adopt an Islamic name as part of the conversion process, but that is a personal choice. As a funny aside, one time a man *told* me what my new Islamic name would be. Yeah, sure! I like having a Western name because it's mine, it's my identity, and also because I feel it promotes understanding. Most non-Muslims think all Muslims are Middle Eastern, and when they see me, Ms. European-Descent Convert, it makes them re-evaluate some of their preconceived notions of Islam!

Give your family and friends time to accept the changes you're making in your life. Your journey toward Islam may have been a long time in the making from your perspective, but it may be completely surprising to your loved ones. Additionally, I would recommend that you refrain from insisting that those outside of your direct influence (such as your children) follow you into Islam... You can certainly make dawah to your friends and family, but be gentle with them. And although I have heard of non-Muslims following their sole Muslim relative into Islam, I would say don't expect this. Respect is a two way street, of course. I highly recommend that you talk to your friends and family all along the way, as you grow into your new religion.

Now, having written all of this, I can't help but think that the overall tone of this article is negative. That is entirely not the case! Converting to Islam will be a wondrous journey, and you will be amazed at the improvements in your outlook, frame of mind, and habits. Islam has brought me very little discomfort and a whole lot of security and peace. But, a new Muslim may find herself encountering some of these situations and I wanted to better prepare her for it.


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