I pray you are well and enjoying the summer! It is late as I write this and I am reflecting on a long conversation I had yesterday (Sunday) with a very recent convert to Islam. A mutual friend had asked if I could speak with her because of our common experiences in becoming Muslim, particularly the challenges of her family's accepting her conversion. I was the first Muslim convert she had spoken with. My conversation with her inspired me to share some reflections about the convert experience, for whatever they are worth.
It is so much harder today to become a Muslim than it was almost thirty years ago when I converted back in 1994 - and it was still incredibly hard back then. I truly believe that the fact that God still facilitates conversions to Islam despite the extreme Islamophobia of our current moment means that God has not yet given up on humanity despite all of the horrible things that we human beings have done, and continue to do. We, human beings, have backed ourselves into a self-imposed "corner" on the verge of self-destruction. Considering the extremities of everything from climate disaster to the concentrations of wealth and power in our world to the ubiquity of human oppression and suffering, to the specters of extinction by AI, nuclear disaster, and endless war, we have created a world with a very bleak future. As Muslims in the West, we find our brothers and sisters around the world in concentration camps, open air prisons, and war-torn nations, on the verge of famine, fleeing their homelands with nowhere to go, drowned, imprisoned, tortured -- and ignored, hated or vilified by the world at large. We are collectively feared, caricatured, racialized, and de-humanized. We are outside of the fold of human rights considerations and concerns as human beings on par with other human beings of other religions, cultures, or skin colors. We are exploited, oppressed, and undermined by the leaders of so-called Muslims nations. In America, we suffer from comfort, apathy, and an embarrassment of riches - we are free, liberated, and empowered to act, but too often uninterested, unmotivated, too colonized in our thinking, and too Islamophobic in our outlook. Too few of us are aware of the dire reality of our collective situation and too few have the will or desire to fight back.
Yet despite all of the hardships, the negative perceptions, and the seemingly insurmountable odds before Muslims, God still brings beautiful souls like the one I met today to Islam. When I had the chance to speak with her and know more about her experiences, as I anticipated, there was a moment, an experience, a divine intervention that triggered in her an openness to Islam. I have seen time and again that in these dark times for Muslims, when people find their way to becoming Muslim, there is always something unusual or remarkable that has taken place - a divine intervention of sorts - that changed their life trajectory and opened their hearts to Islam. The more that I spoke to this beautiful soul, the more I recognized and felt a connection to the light within her. There was for me a familiarity, even a soulful kinship that I can only describe as something recognizable but hard to articulate among souls that have journeyed the path of conversion. I recognized a shared spirit of openness, curiosity, truth-seeking, and conviction -- and also loneliness -- that is often characteristic among this convert crowd as I have noticed. And I believe there is something deep, pure, and connected to the divine that is unmistakable among many converts. I have long believed that those who have been chosen by God to become converts have been given the potential to do something important to move things forward for Islam - if they choose it and pursue it. Perhaps I am wrong, but if we consider the qualities of a person that are necessary to convert to Islam in this time, they are the same qualities necessary to withstand hardship, stand for truth, choose God despite the blowback, bravely question, diligently research, deeply reflect, and humbly persevere. Who better than these kinds of people to move your faith forward out of the depths of darkness as we currently are in?
Hearing her story, I was reminded of my own journey and the experiences of so many converts that I have known - what they were confronted with upon their choice to jump headlong into a new faith, not necessarily knowing what that choice would entail, but nevertheless, literally taking that leap of faith. Who could begin to describe what they might encounter as they journeyed forth into the Muslim community - their newly adopted community of co-religionists? Oftentimes, who they meet and what they encounter will determine whether they will still be Muslim in a year's time. Perhaps this is a test of conviction from God. Or perhaps, it is a test upon every community of Muslims that encounters a convert. I assume it is both. But tests notwithstanding, I believe it is my duty, when given the opportunity, to speak frankly and honestly about what a new convert can potentially encounter, to advise on precautions to take, and to offer as much support as possible. If I am right about the potential that these God-selected individuals hold, then how could I NOT do everything in my power to help nurture, protect, and encourage each one I encounter to meet their full potential? Will I NOT be held accountable if i do otherwise?
Yet I know that many people do not think of converts in this way. Ask any convert and I am certain they will recount how fellow Muslims, upon hearing of their convert status, will assume that converts know very little about their own religion - and proceed to speak to them as such. I recall the recent incident in which I was shopping with my son for a suit and encountered a Muslim salesman who helped us. He noticed the Arabic script on my son's ring, which led to a conversation about Islam. When I mentioned that I was a convert, he immediately began lecturing me about the basics of Islam, telling me what he believed a convert should know, which continued unabated even after I mentioned I was a convert of over 20 years and was part of a non-profit education institute focused on teaching about the Islamic intellectual tradition. Did I mention he was not much older than my 18 year old son? :/
Similarly, the beautiful soul I met today shared an encounter she recently had with a Qur'an teacher, to whom she was introduced by a male friend. The Qur'an teacher, upon learning she was a convert, proceeded to send her an article about women who convert to Islam because of a relationship and the issue of Zina (she did not convert from a relationship as is one popular perception of women converts). He also took it upon himself to lecture her about zina (sexual impropriety), her need to be modest (despite it being a Zoom meeting with the camera off!), and after interrogating her about her interactions with her male friend, warned her that men and women should not interact. All of this within the initial meetings intended to teach the Qur'an. I cannot think of a more repulsive introduction to the Muslim community and learning the Qur'an. I apologized to her and warned her that unfortunately, despite all good intentions of fellow Muslims, as a convert, this is not atypical of reactions she might encounter.
The irony is that converts probably know a lot more than the vast majority of Muslims who simply inherit their religion from birth and have not invested time in learning. With all the reasons NOT to become Muslim in our Islamophobic age, just think about how much reading, reflecting, questioning, soul-searching, praying, and hardship a person would have to go through just to overcome all of the obstacles to converting - and then still choose to be Muslim. It is a serious investment of time, intellect, heart, and soul. But most non-converts are unaware.
One of the questions that I was asked during our conversation particularly struck me: Should I NOT tell people that I am a convert? After some thought, my answer was in the affirmative. I think it is enough to tell fellow Muslims that you are a Muslim, but it is not necessary to say you are a convert. I have come to the conclusion that sharing this intimate detail about one's life should be reserved only for those people who can be trusted to honor one's dignity and who will give such knowledge its due respect. For some reason, saying that one is a convert triggers a variety of reactions that are unpredictable and in most cases, not positive. To say that you are a convert creates an expectation or generates a perception, neither of which is helpful in my opinion. And as we are all on our individual journeys with varying degrees of knowledge and experience, for someone who has invested so much in learning Islam and overcoming so many obstacles to becoming Muslim, why should she or any convert, feel somehow less entitled to be just a "Muslim" than any other Muslim?
I shared a lot of advice with the beautiful soul I met based on my own experiences and observations. I gave her advice on dealing with family members, on navigating learning, and on building a relationship with God. I did a lot of talking. In the time we had together, there was a lot that we didn't get to cover, but I was so touched and honored when she later sent me a poem she had written the night before. It was so beautiful that I asked her if I could share it here anonymously and she very graciously agreed. To me, this poem captures the depth and beauty of an understanding and connection with God that goes far beyond that of someone who only converted to Islam earlier this year. When I read this, I feel the love, the trust, and the conviction. May God empower her and may we as a community live up to our responsibility in nurturing, supporting, and helping her to reach her full potential - and that of all human beings that God will invite to Islam.
The Watchful Embrace of Al Raqeeb
In the vast expanse of this life's sphere,
Where solitude whispers and shadows leer,
My heart beats with Allah’s name most dear,
Al Raqeeb, His presence forever near.
The Watchful One, with love and grace,
Sees all our struggles, every chase,
Knows our yearning for a safe embrace,
Witnesses our life, every phase.
In our hearts, a silent plea,
An unspoken tale of our misery,
Invisible to all, but one entity,
Al Raqeeb, who perceives our diary.
Understands our pain, our inner fight,
Our deepest fears in the heart of night,
For His gaze pierces through all sight,
In the shadow and the radiant light.
In the hush when no soul hears,
Our silent cries, our hidden tears,
He listens, as He always steers,
Our vessel in this sea of years.
For we are never truly alone,
Not in the depth, nor height unknown,
In the silence, His love is shown,
Al Raqeeb, our pain is known.
With Him, our secrets find a home,
In His understanding, we find our tome,
Where our hearts are free to roam,
Under His watch, in His celestial dome.
In every moment, in every place,
In Allah’s Observant gaze, find solace,
Al Raqeeb, the heart's sincerest grace,
For even in solitude, we find Allah’s embrace.
Thank you so much for reading and being with us on this journey. I also want to take this opportunity to express my profound appreciation to those who have written to me to let me know that you look forward to these weekly emails. For that reason especially, I try to write something that I hope will be thoughtful and thought-provoking. Sometimes, the writing comes easy. Sometimes it doesn't. But in all cases, I would rather take the time to write something I think is worth reading rather than short-changing the process. So please forgive me if the emails come a little later than usual, like today! I wish you a wonderful and blessed summer and look forward to seeing you online soon insha'Allah! May God inspire, empower, and guide you always!
In Peace and Hope,
Greetings of Peace dear Friends,