I have been trying to define Islam for myself since I converted, almost 13 years ago. Sometimes I feel like Islam is an over-sized sweater I am hoping to wear once I grow into it. And like many converts, finding my niche has eluded me. This comes out as anger at the ummah, anger at the born Muslims, anger at the robots that have inhabited the brains of many fellow converts forcing them to parrot culture and Islam as if they were the same thing. I know this sounds trite, and maybe you think I'm just stating the obvious here... But being a convert is a struggle for me. Not because I am not smart enough to learn the deen, not because I don't speak Arabic, not because I have doubts about the truth of Islam... But because it just is.
Somehow I think that part of it is rooted in the fact that being "religious" at all seems sort of hoaky to me, forced. I have always been a believer, but I have never been an ecstatic born-again type believer. To me there is a personal element to faith that makes proclaiming oneself anything feel a little strange. Now I know we should be proud to be Muslim, and we should be sharing it with others... But somehow sharing feels more like defending in my case. It's different when we are around lots of Muslims, but most of the time I am pretty isolated. However, even among born-Muslims I have some feeling that I am defending my belief, in that case not the faith itself but my true adherence to/ belief in it. Which is a different problem, But it carries the same burden.
It is a rarity for me to go somewhere and feel like, "Yes, these people get me!". Other Americans are pretty sure I'm crazy and probably brain-washed by my Muslim husband, and converts often don't seem to come at the religion from the same place as I do. I became Muslim before I ever knew my husband you see, before I really knew many Muslims at all. And that makes me a little different. I see things without the lens of a culture really because when I came to Islam I came to ISLAM, not the Egyptian Islam, or the Saudi Islam, or the Pakistani Islam. Pause and consider this for a minute. If you are from a large community where people tend to divide off into groups based on ethnicity, it will start to make sense to you. In these groups you can see that people are comfortable because they all agree on a certain version of Islam. Now, I'm not saying this is right or wrong... Maybe their ideas are correct, but right or wrong they all share the same basic ideas.
Converts don't have the luxury of assuming anything. If you are married you can fall back on your husbands culture, otherwise you are on your own. So the question that we have to ask ourselves is, "How can I be Muslim and American?" and "How much of what I considered my personality, my habits, myself, have to change now that I am Muslim?". Unfortunately all the love you get at your shahada... All the sisters saying masha'Allah with tears in their eyes, won't help you with that. You are on your own. Completely. Utterly. And being on your own is lonely.
Now before you think this is a poor me life is hard post, I want to say that this can also be a real blessing. Because you are not culturally biased and you have not grown up thinking something is Islam when it isn't, you don't suffer from re-examining your entire upbringing. You don't have to go though family members telling you you are insane when you correct something you have been doing your entire life. I can't imagine how some first generation hijabis feel, for example. You can just safely split your life into two categories, "before I was Muslim", and "after I became Muslim". But how does this help you define Islam for yourself you ask? Well, it doesn't but I just want you to see I'm not all gloom and doom.
When I first converted this categorizing things seemed to go to an extreme. I rejected things I loved because people told me that was Islam. Somehow harder seemed to be more devout, so I welcomed the challenge. I gave up music, I stopped wearing make-up and western clothes. I even started trying to eat the foods I saw other Muslims eating. Now, don't laugh... Many of us converts go through this phase, and I was unmarried and had no Muslim family. Now, there are so many things about me that have changed. I have opened myself up to accepting the things I like and want and really pursuing the question of whether or not these things are permissible for me.
I want to clarify here, that I don't think you should go "shiekh shopping" or seek people until you find the fatwa you want. I just think if you really miss music, be honest and seek the answers about why it was forbidden, and under what circumstances. If you love animals and miss your dog Fido that you had as a child... Seriously pursue an answer to the whole reasoning behind dogs being unclean, and what that means in regards to owning one. Is everything you are denying yourself based on authentic information? You owe it to yourself to find out.
So what have I decided about who I am as a Muslim after 13 years? Well, I think I'm more liberal now than I was before. I have decided that moderate Islam is actually more Islamic many times. Islam is easy, right? Because as narrated by Ibn Mas’ud: The Prophet said, “Ruined are those who insist on hardship in matters of the Faith.” He repeated this three times. (Muslim) Also, I try not to judge other people concerning where they are in their journey because as narrated ‘Aishah: Allah’s Messenger said, “Allah is Kind and He loves kindness, and confers upon kindness which He does not confer upon severity, and does not confer upon any thing besides it (kindness).” (Muslim) I guess what I'm saying is for me, I am at peace with the fact that I am Muslim by religion, and American by birth. I still like to watch movies, go to the spa... And all the things I did before. I also haven't changed the way I feel about many things that might seem un-Islamic. But that's part of who I am. I had an identity that I brought with me to the religion, and it didn't change. I'm me, only now I'm Muslim.
So I hope that other converts can come to that place. That they can see whoever they are and whatever they are doing is FINE. As long as you are striving to please Allah, forget the people around you! The struggle with yourself is the greatest jihad. Don't feel like you aren't a good Muslim because you aren't like the Muslims around you; because sometimes, the exact opposite might be true.