An interview with American Women
Anyway Carol’s interview with American women who became Muslim. It is an extract from ‘Daughters from Another Path’, by Anway Carols.
Searching to fill the spiritual void
Many of the respondents (new converts) were searching for something in the spiritual area to fill the void in their lives. It was through this openness that many began to receive the pull toward Islam. This need is reflected in most of the descriptions the women give of their conversion experience. They may have come to the conversion point from a variety of situations, but most were receptive because of the need within themselves and the gentle persuasion of the Muslim person or resource which touched their hearts and souls:
“I married someone who was not a Christian and we both were non-practicing in anything religious. I still thought of myself as a Christian. “What else is there,” I thought. I still held my belief of God and his creation of the earth, but wasn’t sure of the other beliefs I was taught growing up.
The year .after my divorce in I990 I started thinking about what I needed, about what I believed. Early in I99I I started checking books out of the library and reading about Islam, more because I was curious about it than any thing.
I slowly read books on it, but also lived my life as I had been living it. It wasn’t until the fall of I992 that I decided I had to do something about it either get serious about studying it or forget about it. I found several American Muslim sisters in Manhattan, twenty miles from where I lived in a very small town. I studied with them and learned the practical aspects of what I had read for the past year and a half. I took my shahada in December I992.”
“My struggle began many years ago with my search for self-identity. Growing up in America as a black presented meaningful challenges to me during the I960s and I970s. After rallying around certain racial issues and feeling the pressures of early integration in Mississippi and Texas, I began to question my “role” in life as a black woman.
I was a successful professional, but my personal life was a mess. Bad marriage, poor relationship with parents and siblings, discontented with church and God-these all led me to question who I was and why and what I could do to improve relationships with these people and the world in general.
I began to seek out answers by researching black history. I was amazed to find out that most African people came from Islamic states. I later met some Sunni Muslims who shared very impressive information about heaven and hell that touched my heart. I was teaching speech and drama at a Catholic high school in Washington, D.C. at the time.
I became Muslim in I974. I was asked to resign at the end of the year because several students also converted to Islam. Islam cooled me out. It helped me to find God without all of the hang ups and guilt I felt as a Christian. I’ve always loved God, and knowing that I could talk directly to Allah was a welcoming treat.
“I was first introduced to Islam at the age of fourteen, but because of family conflicts I was not able to learn or practice. After leaving home to go to college, I had the freedom to pursue the religion The biggest change I had to make (besides the obvious ones of dress, diet, etc.) was to put some distance between myself and my family and former friends. I did this as a protection for myself that would allow me to grow stronger in my religion without distractions. I had little sense of loss because I filled the void with newfound Muslim friends, and later, my husband.
Sensing the authority of the Quran
Many of the women have expressed their growing respect and love for the Quran, which is considered the final and literal word of God. For some women the Quran was an important part of their conversion experience:
My conversion began as the result of a challenge by a Muslim to read the Quran in order for us to have a debate on the position of. I held the stereo typical view of Muslim women as being oppressed and in a bad position relative to their Christian counterparts. I was nominally Christian, raised in a Catholic environment, but was not practicing the religion and really only bothered to label myself a Christian in order not to appear too rebellious in front of my extended family (my family was also really only Christian in name, not “reality”).
The reading of the Quran and of Hadeeth of the Prophet is what captured me. I went through a very odd experience whereby for the whole week it took me to read the Quran I couldn’t sleep and seemed to toss and turn all night in a feverish sweat. I had strange and vivid dreams about religious topics, and when I would get up all I wanted to do was continue reading the Quran. I didn’t even study for my final exams which were happening at the same time!”
“I began a course in Middle Eastern History, which immersed me further into the study of Islam. When the professor read passages from the Quran to illustrate how powerful a “tool” it was in spreading Islam throughout the world, my heart sang. I knew I had found the TRUTH!
I had been searching for God since the early ’80s. At this point I knew I would someday be a Muslim. After the class was over I continued my investigation into Islam. I bought an English translation of the Quran and read it daily. I was living at home at the time so hid most of this from my family. I got together often with my new friends and my total lifestyle began to change.”
“My conversion was a long process. I left Christianity while in junior high school. I was raised Methodist. My father had been a minister one time and was rather strict when I was a child. My parents left the church mother went the American Indian Lakota way and father just left. I looked into a number of faiths but nothing attracted me. I was raised to look at other cultures from a point of understanding to try to step out of my own culture to view others.
The Iranian revolution sparked many questions for me. I decided to learn more about the people and culture and began reading the history of Iran which led to history of Islam an area not even touched in school. This led to reading Quran. I hit an emotional crisis when a relationship (with an Arab) fell apart, and I found myself turning to the Quran. I realized a need to rely on something other than people. My mother was dead, my family far away. I didn’t know who I could turn to or trust. The Quran touched a chord. I got in touch with a Muslim women’s study group and they were very supportive and informative. I especially liked Islam’s base of logic. It took me a year to finally take shahada.
“One day he said, “I can’t go anymore and I don’t want you to take our daughter either.” We had a big fight and were going to split up until we decided that we would take a look at both religions. If I could explain Christianity satisfactorily, he would become a Christian. At the same time, I would take an other look at Islam. (I had claimed Islam two years after we were married, but he wasn’t active and I lost interest quickly.)
I started asking a lot of questions from ministers, theologians, and seniors in the field to help me prove Christianity to my husband. I wanted it so badly, I cried to several of them to help me and most of them said, “I’m sorry-I don’t know” or “I ‘ll write you,” but I never heard from them. The harder I tried to prove Christianity to convert him, the more I moved toward Islam because of its logic, until I finally yielded to the belief in the oneness of Allah.
One thing led to another until my husband and I became practicing Muslims. Islam for me gives me peace of mind because I don’t have to understand the Trinity and how God is “three in one” or that God died on the cross. For me Islam supplies the answers.”
“I called myself agnostic when I went to college. I thought I believed in God and didn’t want to do any thing about it. After a few years, I was ready to go back to being “religious” again. In the meantime, I met a man from Lebanon who would later become my husband. He and I both started learning more about Islam and about six months later I converted. We were married six months after that. The hardest part was changing my ideas about Jesus. It took a long time to be able to say that Jesus isn’t the Son of God without it feeling like blasphemy. But I realized that the beliefs are really close in some ways. Mary was a virgin and Jesus is a great prophet. The difference is in the divinity of Jesus.”
“I never knew anything about Islam except that ”Muhammad was a killer and Islam was spread by the sword.” I was going out with my husband prior to marriage (he was not a practicing Muslim at that time), but when we got married and he finally told his family, his father’s stipulation was that I was to be Muslim. I told him I could not change my religion for a man because I have always been close with God but never had a direct path to walk. Then I started talking about what I really believed. I promised God that I would look into Islam, and I asked God to guide me.
Over the course of several months I started talking to my husband’s friend who had embraced Islam and was a humble practicing Muslim. I asked him many questions. I kept away from my husband about this topic because I wanted to be as objective as possible. My hardest hurdle was getting over the fiery images of what we would look like burning up in hell from my Sunday school books and training. I had been told so many times that if l did not believe Jesus had died for my sins and was my personal savior I would go to hell forever. But Allah showed me the way. I was reading many books about Islam, and everything I read was exactly how I felt inside me. All the answers were there. I may not have understood everything but what I did made sense.
I embraced Islam and shared my first Ramadan with my husband of six months who was now practicing his beliefs. The idea that Jesus is considered God by Christians was something that hadn’t become a reality to some of the women. Muslims were, therefore, able to refute this belief by affirming that putting anything or anyone on the same level as God is a great sin. This point is probably the most dividing belief between Christians and Muslims. For Christians it would be a great sin to deny Jesus as part of the Trinity; for Muslims the greatest sin would be to place Jesus (whom they consider as a revered and great prophet) on the level of God.”
“I asked my friend to attend Mass with me. He said he didn’t attend church, that he was a Muslim. “What’s a Muslim?” I asked, totally unaware that my life was going to change forever as soon as he began his answer. At first, I listened intently but after he got to the part which denied Jesus being the Son of God, even denied his sacrifice for us on the cross, I excused myself from this friend and kicked myself for wasting so much time that now I had missed Mass and would have to go to confession.
We talked again later about his beliefs. We seemed more and more alike in our belief: heaven and hell, angels, our duty to our fellow man, holy scriptures. It was just the “Jesus thing” that kept us on opposite ends of the spectrum. I also noticed another complication; despite everything, I was falling in love with him.
It wasn’t Islam that was the issue. It was Christianity. I was a “doubting Thomas” in every way and the guilt was overwhelming. I began to seek all kinds of advice to rid me of this demon of doubt. Then, three events took place in the space of a week that caused me to decide to leave Christianity altogether.
First, I went to a nun that I trusted deeply and poured my heart out. She responded with compassion, but she handed me a Quran as I left. I was very confused. Then, I went to my religion teacher, who was a lay person. As we talked, I grew more confused and finally said, ”Look, I just want you to tell me that, undoubtedly and with full conviction, Jesus Christ is the Son of God.” He didn’t look at me when he said, “I can’t tell you that.” Now I was angry too. What was wrong with these people that they refused to give me the answers I was looking for?
Finally, I turned to God. At least I was sure that he was still there for me. And he would help me. I prayed that he would open my mind and my heart and show me the answer I was looking for. I used a method I had used many times before. I would pray everything in my heart, then open the Bible to a random page and find my answer. I opened my Bible to the trial of Jesus in front of Pontius Pilate. Pilate was trying to get Jesus to say something by which he could be convicted, in order to relieve his own guilt for having him sentenced to death to fulfill the wishes of the people. Pilate asked him, “Are you the Son of God?” and Jesus answered, in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, “It is you who have said it.” Suddenly, I felt at peace.”
“When I was eighteen I went to a local two-year Christian college. It was there that I first came in contact with Muslims. There were a lot of them there, and I was fascinated with the idea of another group of people I knew nothing about-some people from the “Holy Land.” I took a course called “The World’s Living Religions” and learned a little about Islam. I met my husband-to-be there when I was nineteen years old. I married him after four months.
We moved far away to go to a university. There I met an American Muslim woman who wore hijab. She gave me books and pamphlets about Islam. I read some of them and watched some debates between Muslims and Christians about the divinity of Jesus and the authenticity of the Bible.
It was then that I heard clearly for the first time that the Christians (including the Catholics) thought that Jesus was God and that the Bible had been changed by men and mostly made by men’s words, not God’s. I was shocked. I knew then that I was not one of “them” anymore.
Finding something familiar in Islam
The close identity of Islam with the prophets, with the emphasis on Allah as the same God the Christians and Jews worship, with the acceptance of Jesus as a great prophet and teacher, with the tracing of their roots to Abraham-all these make a familiar setting into which Prophet Muhammad came to bring the final word, to set right with direct revelation God’s word of “the way” to the people.
This familiarity may have been part of the easy transition for some of the American-born women when Muslim beliefs were explained.
“After meeting my husband we shared our religious beliefs, which were similar. I began exploring my religious feeling after he asked me about my beliefs of Jesus being God, and he explained about prophethood and Muhammad. I agreed with these Islamic interpretations. I began studying from interest about Islam. Six months after we had married I began doing the prayers. After another six months, I participated in the fast during Ramadan. I found at this point that Islam defined my belief. I could no longer deny my belief in Islam just to prevent hurting people’s feelings.”
“When I met the man who would become my husband and learned that he was Muslim, I was scared and asked all the questions that caused my fear. I also took a course in college called “Islam and Social Change” and learned even more about Islam. As I learned more and more in the course, the more questions I had and the more afraid I became. This fear, however, was different than the fear of the unknown; this fear was a fear of self discovery. I found that all along I shared ‘the beliefs taught through Islam but never had a name for it. This course, the Quran; and my husband helped me realize that for a number of years I had been living a Muslim life without knowing it.
(It wasn’t until I learned the Five Pillars of Islam that I began completely practicing as a Muslim.)
So when people ask how long I have been a Muslim I can’t tell them, but I can think that it has been eleven years. If they ask me when I converted, I can tell them in I992. As a matter of fact, my husband knew before I did that I was Muslim but let me come to that realization on my own.”
And so began the faith journey for these women that would affect those around them-the families in which they were raised, their friends, their colleagues at work or school. Most of all, it would change the direction and flow of their own lives, not just in a religious sense but in every facet of their existence.