BY Theresa Corbin
Our Ummah is seeing a huge surge in newcomers to Islam. It is perhaps a surge in conversion that has not been seen since Islam spread from China to Spain. According to the 2003 edition of the Guinness Book of World Records, Islam is the world’s fastest-growing religion by number of conversions each year. And with most things that grow so rapidly, we are experiencing growing pains. But what do we know about the journey of the converts?
I myself was once a newcomer to Islam. In 2001, I took the Shahadah and my life changed drastically for the better even though some parts have been challenging. I learned to truly love Allah. And I have encountered fellow Muslims that conflate their ethnic and cultural background with their Muslim identity. I learned to find peace in my heart and peace of mind in worship.
I was, however, introduced to an interpretation of Islam in which people’s outward devotion was all that mattered. Learning to live Islam has saved me a lot of heartache, even though I have on several occasions been read the riot act about aspects of Islam that I had not had the privilege of learning yet, much less neglecting.
Over the past three years, I have spent much of my time counseling new Muslims as they were incorporating Islam into their lives and had to face some of the same issues I have been through.
What I have learned is that we, as an Ummah, don’t know exactly how to welcome new Muslims into Islam. And here is what converts wish Muslims raised in Muslim families and societies knew about their journey.
We Love Allah, But Don’t Want to Change Our Identity
vAnd We will surely test you with something of fear and hunger and a loss of wealth and lives and fruits, but give good tidings to the patient. (Al-Baqarah 2:155)
Becoming a Muslim is a scary undertaking. With so much unknown that lies ahead, converting to Islam is like being a kid all over again, not knowing who you will grow up to be or how hard it will be to become that person. Converts struggle to find their way as Muslims. And the last thing they want to do is lose their identity from a life that has lead them to Islam.
But all too often converts are made to feel like everything about them is haram (prohibited) and they have to be reprogrammed, often being told that being who they are is an imitation of the kuffar (disbelievers).
Imagine how far Islam would not have spread if this same line of thinking was applied to Southeast Asians, Africans, Persians, etc., who at some point in history did in fact also come from non-Muslim cultures. Islam is for all people of all cultures at all times, and it would make a huge difference to a new Muslim to know this and that their very being is not haram.
Islam teaches us how to perfect our character and how to live in a way that pleases Allah. This does not mean that everything must be erased. Allah has guided the new Muslim to Islam not to toss out their identity, but to refine it.
O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. Indeed, Allah is Knowing and Acquainted. (Al-Ḥujurat 49:13)
One of the most amazing things about Islam is that there is room for every different kind of person. Yet still many new Muslims feel pressure to incorporate a different culture into their identity.
When asked what she wished she had been taught when she first entered Islam, Elizabeth Mais, a Muslim since 2005 who currently lives in the Middle East, responded that she wished she had known that “being Muslim is not synonymous with being Arab”.
Mais continued to explain, “I’ve felt pressured to abandon my identity and culture since I married an Arab. I was at first expected to adapt to his culture. After nearly ten years, I think he’s finally realized I’m not going to become an Arab. It still baffles him how I don’t think everything about his culture is amazing and correct!”
Many new Muslims, especially women who get married soon after converting have similar experiences. But even without getting married to someone from another culture, the pressure to change who you are is still felt by converts who try to integrate into the Muslim community.
The New “Name”
One way in which converts face an erasure of self is through the insistence on having them change their name. More often than not, the first question a new Muslim is asked after converting is what “Muslim” name they will choose, meaning what Arabic name will they choose. It is often presented as something mandatory, when in fact a change of name is something that was not the norm even for the Companions of the Prophet (peace be upon him).
I felt significant peer pressure to change my name when I accepted Islam. I briefly tried to change my name to Mariam. It didn’t stick. I realized I had a duty to avoid seeming more foreign to the non-Muslims around me, and to avoid alienating myself from my family. I came to the conclusion that I didn’t need an Arabic name when I came to Islam. I am a Muslim so when I became a Muslim, my name became a Muslim name.
Jessica Smith, who converted in 2012, echoes these sentiments. She says, “My name does not have a bad meaning. It’s the one my parents gave me. It reminds me of where I come from and the love my parents had for me even before I was born.”
Converts & True Modesty
Another way in which new Muslims are expected to adopt another identity is through clothing. Every culture has interpreted modesty in its unique way, from the caftan to the kebaya to the shalwar khameez and the cabaya and thobe. While some converts enjoy wearing these types of cultural dress, others wish to reinterpret modesty through their own cultural lens.
Depending on the predominant culture of their local community, the new Muslim will generally be taught that there is only one mode of modesty that is the right kind of modesty, and that mode reflects the predominant immigrant culture.
This imposition of cultural expression onto the new Muslim is a denial of their uniqueness, a forced repression of the self. This can be very damaging both to the spread of Islam and to the individual convert.
Mais says that she wants raised Muslims to understand that “we (converts) aren’t one-dimensional characters who fell into a religion. We have pasts, ideas, dreams, families, and friends. And we have a lot of conviction about what we believe. It’s why we’ve searched so hard. So, Muslims raised in Muslim families, you should not get your feathers rustled if we don’t agree with you right away. We’re used to researching and reconciling our thoughts and beliefs. Don’t pressure us to adopt your culture. We are valid beings.”
To be continued….