Gender & Identity, Life

I am more than my conversion

My outline has been written, with particular settings and characters thrown in my path, but I continue to fill the crisp pages and punctuate them with my responses to God’s plan.

Every person has a story. A White Muslimah… a convert… a “revert”… I grasp for the correct diction that will allow me to summarize my journey and identity in the way people seem to desire most: Labels. Short, sweet, and easy to organize; yet they leave a sour taste in my mouth. How can I be reduced to a word or phrase?

As someone who was raised in a liberal but practicing, Roman Catholic family, began exploring Islam in high school, and officially embraced the deen just prior to entering my second year of college, I often receive mashAllahs and genuine adoration from Muslims. But it’s unnecessary to place a convert on a pedestal, for only God is the true Judge, and even those who were born into Muslim families must consciously “choose” Islam. As a Muslim American convert with western European roots, I am no better or worse than anyone, but I do have my story, and it is not the fairytale that many long to hear, where one struggles, discovers Islam, and has reached some form of enlightenment.

Instead, my story is one of straddling a fence between two worlds and seeking balance and authenticity in the process. What many forget is that spiritual journeys may have conspicuous starting points, but they never truly end. They simply evolve. It has been four years since I embraced Islam and seven since I began studying it as a religion, and I still find myself in a “no man’s land.” I have enumerable reasons to say Alhumdulillah with all the passion humanly possible. I am grateful for the opportunity I had to keep my training wheels on and learn about the beliefs, practices, and lifestyle associated with Islam prior to my conversion. I am grateful for my loved ones and my undergraduate education at a wonderful university where I was active in leading an interfaith movement. I am grateful for the natural talents and skills God has granted me.

But I struggle to find my place. In many ways, I feel connected to those who share my racial, ethnic, or cultural background; yet, it can be difficult being the one who doesn’t drink or the one who needs to schedule hangouts around prayers. Other times, I feel a true sisterhood with my fellow Muslimahs who live the deen on a daily basis. However, cultural barriers and differing family dynamics remain. I feel, at once, a part of both worlds and an outsider in both. My nostalgia and my personal commitment to surrender to God each day are sometimes at odds, yet I attempt to embrace them not as two separate entities, but as one fused, whole self.

The past four years have flooded me with thoughts and emotions, as I strive to keep my head above water. I recall the numerous exchanges I have had with non-Muslims regarding my religious identity. As an interfaith activist, I have experienced both formal faith-based dialogues and plenty of informal (and often spontaneous) conversations with classmates, co-workers, and complete strangers. These encounters have been filled with kindness and intellectual curiosity, but they have also been characterized by misunderstanding and discouragement. It is with frustration that I remember the non-Muslim classmate with whom I agreed to meet on campus to answer questions about Islam. The evening began with my anticipation and preparation, as I grabbed a folder containing educational notes on the tradition, and progressed toward surprise and some discomfort when my classmate brought an older Arab Christian gentleman to speak with me. It finally peaked at hurt and betrayal when the stranger controlled the conversation, my peer sitting silently, and undermined my decision to convert while attempting to convince me that Islam was a religion that condoned spousal abuse and the killing of “unbelievers.” Despite handling the situation with poise and shutting down an incident that was more of a debate than a dialogue, I broke down in a bathroom stall soon afterward.

My mind now flashes to a significant relationship that spanned six years and blessed me with a friend and a partner with whom I worked toward engagement. It is hard to translate emotions into words when I describe how this individual helped me learn about Islam and served as my rock and support system through so many transitions. It is even more difficult to remember the judgment and rejection by a parent due to my status as a convert and my Christian family. In the end, our relationship was highly nuanced, and we changed in ways that lessened our compatibility; but I still struggle to forget the family influence that ultimately broke us, the feeling of my heart being torn apart and of being hated for what I am, rather than who I am. Being silenced… and then being forgotten.

Despite the negative sentiments, I have had sincere and heartfelt moments with Muslims and non-Muslims – both of whom have supported me after each of these painful experiences and accepted me as I am. I have felt warm embraces and bitter rejection on both sides of the fence. In single moments, the grass always seems greener elsewhere. But I will learn to nurture the middle ground where I try my best to stand proudly and honestly.

As a graduate student pursuing my Master’s in Social Work, I am passionate about diversity and justice. I appreciate the complexity of humanity – it is a professional responsibility and, in my opinion, a personal and moral one. Islam, to me, is a way of understanding the world, loving the Creator, and interacting with His creation. I believe in the accessibility of God’s message across space and time, but I also believe in the significance of historical context and the influence of culture and politics. Like many of my brothers and sisters, I am discouraged by those who view Islam and the global Muslim community through a narrow and blurred lens, assuming every follower has the same experience.

We know the ummah is not a monolith, but it is time that we not only acknowledge the diversity within our community, but also within each individual. To those who are not Muslim or are simply less religious, the way I pray five times a day, participate in 17-hour fasts with no water, and don the hijab may seem too conservative; to Muslims who are more traditional, the way I perform poetry, engage in musical endeavors, maintain friendships across gender lines, and sport blue jeans may seem too liberal (or my least favorite phrase, “too Western”). The truth is, I am multidimensional, and my identities are woven together. There may be loose threads and frayed edges, but we are most beautiful when all of our colors show through.

Today, I am still learning how to nourish my soul – how to cultivate this no man’s land to maximize the growth and beauty with which God has entrusted me. And so my story continues.