Thursday, September 23, 2010

Growing into Islam

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.


Um Abdullah said...

SubhanAllah. I am literally speechless. As a fresh convert, one year in, also married to an egyptian I did not know before I converted, struggling head-long in what you have described, you have said everything I have been trying to say. MashaAllah. May Allah make it easy for you, inshaAllah.

One thing I find confusing and difficult to discuss with people is this whole "Islam is easy". so many people, Muslim and otherwise, it seems very difficult, but I think this is not the fault of Islam at all, at least not the pure Islam. One of two things is happening, and I think it is often both: 1. It is your culture making Islam difficult. i.e. your culture saying your parents can force you to marry someone and then you hate him and he makes your life miserable and you blame Islam and Allah. and 2. It is the friction of living in a non-Muslim world at large. If everyone around you (even other Muslims, astaghfirullah) are living opposite Islam, it will seem naturally more difficult to live according to the deen. Does that make sense?

I was just explaining to my husband the other day why I have such a deep obsession with proof and authentic hadiths and the like, because sometimes he feels frustrated that I dont just take him at his word as a sheikh (I know...very non-arab of me...ha ha). I explained that as a Christian things were just accepted, even when they didnt make sense and were'nt in the Bible anyway (like worshipping Jesus...).My faith became based on what the next guy told me it should look like (and it usually was a guy, too...). Christianity has become a watered down joke, mostly classified under "be nice" and it kills me. I never want my Islam to become a copycat version of anyone's, except the Prophet Muhammad (saws).

Anyway, thanks so much for this post. :-)

Anonymous said...

I think things are changing as there are more and more American converts to Islam and more and more Muslims born and raised in the west.

Here are a few sites (there are many more) that I hope can make you feel better. No one should ever feel a conflict for between being Muslim and being American. For pete's sake it's one of the world's great religions (not a culture) and it's a religion that began with converts. The first being Prophet Muhammad! Your not alone.

Muslim Hippie said...

EW- Lovely, I'm glad you found your peace. thirteen years is not that bad really.We all at some point of our lives parrot other ideas and follow them blindly for a while be it (a new found religion, that is dictated by whichever culture you encounter not the religion) or radical politics or what have you. Ideas and ideologies are easy to find. But then after a while the new exciting ideas get old and people with enough wit and who tend to 'use their head' (like how the cheschire cat once wisely put it) pause and re-examine like how you did. I say hooray for you friend. And cheers on spreading your struggles. The public needs to listen. (are you listening public? are you?lol)

Um Abdullah- you have twelve more years to go (just kidding) May God make it easy for you and for us all. (btw, I am not a convert, I just like to meddle in things i have no understanding of *wink*)

Anonymous- The prophet was not the first convert, sayyida khadija was (I am very proud because the first convert was a woman, yes I'm a feminist) the prophet is the prophet Peace and blessing be unto him.

Everyone, I think Islam is not a walk in the park, it's not easy like how some promote it to be. (we pray five times a day, women cover their heads and wear modest clothes, we struggle with our lower selves ALL THE TIME...etc) but we definitely don't need to make it unpleasant, racist, sexist and just plain stupid. And really muslims need to mind their own business (the muslim doesn't interfere in what doesn't concern him) A translation of a hadith (I can't remember the source)

And finally I should go to sleep.


laura said...

I'm not Muslim nor do I plan to be but I have read and learned a lot about it. I spent some time in Egypt and other countries and have dated Muslims. One (Egyptian) even told me all of a sudden after a year and a half of saying he was happy with who I was that I had to convert or he would leave me. I am Christian and I believe what I believe, not what everyone tells me to believe. I respect what everyone else believes. I'm a bit of a watcher and listener. One thing I have noticed is that there are several types of people in every religion: those who try to do their best to be their best even if it is not perfect, those who preach to others how to do things the right way whether they really do or not, and those who just seem to know and understand how what they believe should be correctly applied to modern life (the fewest of the bunch)and actually practice it that way.
I've read your blog before every now and then and have always enjoyed it. I'm not sure if I've ever responded to anything before.
Midwifery is such an amazing (and stressful?) career. A high school friend (Mormon) took that and loved it. I think it makes more sense and is much more personal and memorable than a hospital room where the doctor is often too busy to show up. I applaud you for that.
maybe I'm just rambling...

Afsana said...

I am so happy to read that someone has gone through so many of the things that I went through. I converted to Islam at the age of fifteen and also went through the whole imitation of arab culture phase. I now live in a new city and the majority of the muslims I am exposed to are the "you are only pious if you are totally miserable" type. I felt like an outsider of the faith for many years, and it is an awesome feeling when you finally find your "place".

Shannon said...

Salaams. Your post was written on the same day I took shahada nine years ago...twelve days after 9/11, single as well, of my own volition. So, I just had to coment! My country has never looked the same. The split of before/after converting runs deep, and I do believe it is a process of joy and rediscovery. I am unapologetically American. It's taken me a while to reach this point, but mostly I feel I have arrived there. Sometimes it's lonely, true, but finding oneself, I would imagine, is always a lonesome process, Muslim or not. I would hope that had I been another faith, I would still be journeying towards my true self. I got tired of feeling guilty somehow, for being American. I am who I am. Allah didn't create me nor my culture only to be damned, and if I deny my culture and it's effects on my soul, well, wouldn't I be covering up the truth? So to end my ramble, more power to you. Be yourself, it's the only way to go. And if you ever need a lift, come down to the Bay Area, we even have 'convert masajiid';) May Allah bless you and keep you in His protection.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for posting from your heart. I am so very blessed to have found your blog and through that, your friendship.

I am at a point on my journey with God where I know enough of Islam to be comfortable with my family being Muslim, but not enough to say that I am making conscious decision to be one religion or another. I hope that one day I will reach that moment of clarity and be able to announce to myself, my husband, and my community that I am aligning myself with a named religion. Until then, I will be content praying in the way that feels most comforting to me, and hope that God understands that I'm doing the best I can.

Anonymous said...

Assalamu alaikum sisters,

if you're annoyed by negative perceptions of muslims and want to hear good news about the muslim community in the uk that you can share with other people take a have a look at my blog. spread the word if you like it.


Rain_Drops said...

I think diversity should be a positive thing for Islam, if we could just evaluate it and get the best of it!

Quran Learning said...

If we make analysis of person who grow under the limits of Islam. What sort of personality he made. Because Islam is a complete way of life, it may guides in each area of lives which may lead towards the way of paradise.

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