OUR UMMAH IS seeing a huge surge in newcomers to Islam. It is perhaps a surge in conversion that has not been seen since Islam spread from China to Spain. According to the 2003 edition of the Guinness Book of World Records, Islam is the world’s fastest-growing religion by number of conversions each year. And with most things that grow so rapidly, we are experiencing growing pains.
I myself was once a newcomer to Islam. In 2001, I took the shahâda and my life changed drastically for the better even though some parts have been challenging. I learned to truly love Allah. And I have encountered fellow Muslims that conflate their ethnic and cultural background with their Muslim identity. I learned to find peace in my heart and peace of mind in worship. I was, however, introduced to an interpretation of Islam in which people’s outward devotion was all that mattered. Learning to live Islam has saved me a lot of heartache, even though I have on several occasions been read the riot act about aspects of Islam that I had not had the privilege of learning yet, much less neglecting.
Over the past three years, I have spent much of my time counselling new Muslims as they were incorporating Islam into their lives and had to face some of the same issues I have been through. What I have learned is that we, as an ummah, don’t know exactly how to welcome new Muslims into Islam. And here is what converts wish Muslims raised in Muslim families and societies knew about their journey.
We Love Allah, But Don’t Want to Change Our Identity
And We will surely test you with something of fear and hunger and a loss of wealth and lives and fruits, but give good tidings to the patient. [Sûrat Al-Baqarah, 2:155]
Becoming a Muslim is a scary undertaking. With so much unknown that lies ahead, converting to Islam is like being a kid all over again, not knowing who you will grow up to be or how hard it will be to become that person. Converts struggle to find their way as Muslims. And the last thing they want to do is lose their identity from a life that has lead them to Islam.
But all too often converts are made to feel like everything about them is ḥarâm and they have to be reprogrammed, often being told that being who they are is an imitation of the kuffâr. Imagine how far Islam would not have spread if this same line of thinking was applied to Southeast Asians, Africans, Persians, etc, who at some point in history did in fact also come from non-Muslim cultures. Islam is for all people of all cultures at all times, and it would make a huge difference to a new Muslim to know this and that their very being is not ḥarâm.
Islam teaches us how to perfect our character and how to live in a way that pleases Allah. This does not mean that everything must be erased. Allah has guided the new Muslim to Islam not to toss out their identity, but to refine it.
O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. Indeed, Allah is Knowing and Acquainted. [Sûrat Al-Ḥujurât 49:13]
One of the most amazing things about Islam is that there is room for every different kind of person. Yet still many new Muslims feel pressure to incorporate a different culture into their identity. When asked what she wished she had been taught when she first entered Islam, Elizabeth Mais, a Muslim since 2005 who currently lives in the Middle East, responded that she wished she had known that “being Muslim is not synonymous with being Arab.” Mais continued to explain, “I’ve felt pressured to abandon my identity and culture since I married an Arab. I was at first expected to adapt to his culture. After nearly ten years, I think he’s finally realized I’m not going to become an Arab. It still baffles him how I don’t think everything about his culture is amazing and correct!”
Many new Muslims, especially women who get married soon after converting have similar experiences. But even without getting married to someone from another culture, the pressure to change who you are is still felt by converts who try to integrate into the Muslim community.
One way in which converts face an erasure of self is through the insistence on having them change their name. More often than not, the first question a new Muslim is asked after converting is what “Muslim” name they will choose, meaning what Arabic name will they choose. It is often presented as something mandatory, when in fact a change of name is something that was not the norm even for the companions of the Prophet œ.
I felt significant peer pressure to change my name when I accepted Islam. I briefly tried to change my name to Mariam. It didn’t stick. I realized I had a duty to avoid seeming more foreign to the non-Muslims around me, and to avoid alienating myself from my family. I came to the conclusion that I didn’t need an Arabic name when I came to Islam. I am a Muslim so when I became a Muslim, my name became a Muslim name.
Jessica Smith, who converted in 2012, echoes these sentiments. She says, “My name does not have a bad meaning. It’s the one my parents gave me. It reminds me of where I come from and the love my parents had for me even before I was born.”
Another way in which new Muslims are expected to adopt another identity is through clothing. Every culture has interpreted modesty in its unique way, from the caftan to the kebaya to the shalwar khameez and the ¢abâya and thobe. While some converts enjoy wearing these types of cultural dress, others wish to reinterpret modesty through their own cultural lens.
Depending on the predominant culture of their local community, the new Muslim will generally be taught that there is only one mode of modesty that is the right kind of modesty, and that mode reflects the predominant immigrant culture. This imposition of cultural expression onto the new Muslim is a denial of their uniqueness, a forced repression of the self. This can be very damaging both to the spread of Islam and to the individual convert.
Mais says that she wants raised Muslims to understand that “we [converts] aren’t one-dimensional characters who fell into a religion. We have pasts, ideas, dreams, families, and friends. And we have a lot of conviction about what we believe. It’s why we’ve searched so hard. So, Muslims raised in Muslim families, you should not get your feathers rustled if we don’t agree with you right away. We’re used to researching and reconciling our thoughts and beliefs. Don’t pressure us to adopt your culture. We are valid beings.”
We Love Worship, But Feel Awkward in the Masjid
In addition to trying to reconcile their identity with a new dîn, converts often face rejection from families, friends, and society at large. Some converts even lose their jobs and their standing in their community and end up feeling as if they don’t fit in anywhere. In more extreme cases, Muslims dependent on family are even thrown out of their homes when they convert.
No longer welcomed at old haunts because of their new faith, the new Muslim turns toward the masjid for a feeling of belonging, community, and brother/sisterhood. But many are met with judgement, isolation, and tokenism in their new place of worship.
Noor Aslam, a convert since September of this year, says about her experiences in the masjid that “People are kind of in their own bubble and stay around the sisters they already know so when I first started going to the masjid, I kind of felt awkward.”
Understanding that the new convert to Islam experiences isolation, Prophet Muhammad œ gave special attention to new Muslims, teaching them in Makkah and sending a special teacher to those new Muslims in Madinah before he migrated there.
But new Muslims today who feel isolated by their society also face isolation in the masjid and find that few people are filling the role of new Muslim advocate. Converts often feel like the odd man out when people in the masjid form cliques in which they are not welcome. New Muslims end up feeling intense loneliness as they find their way in the dîn alone. And this loneliness is most acutely felt when they are opening and closing their fast alone during Ramadan, and when they have left behind their old holidays only to have no one to celebrate the two Eids with.
Those new Muslims who manage to break through the isolation they find in the masjid then face judgment and suspicion. Smith, speaking about attending the masjid, said, “I feel like I am constantly being picked apart. Being in the masjid is very uncomfortable for me. It’s like being the weird kid, eating lunch alone when everyone else is sitting with a ton of friends whispering about how weird you are.” She is not alone in her feelings of being judged at the masjid.
The convert trying to accomplish the incredibly awkward task of becoming a part of a new community understands that their fellow Muslims view them with suspicion. Raised Muslims regularly voice concerns that new congregates, especially those who are white, may be spies or are just apostates in the making.
Beware of suspicion, for suspicion is the most false of speech. Do not seek out faults, do not spy on each other, do not contend with each other, do not envy each other, do not hate each other, and do not turn away from each other. Rather, be servants of Allah as brothers. (Bukhâri and Muslim)
John White who converted in 2001, says, “It is so disheartening when Muslims who were raised in Muslim families treat you like you have one foot in Islam and one foot out, especially when you have sacrificed everything to worship Allah and you just want to be with others who love Allah.”
Adding insult to injury, Samana Siddiqui, in her article entitled Prejudice in the Muslim Community, quotes a sister as having said, “I never considered a non-Arab equal to me. I know it’s wrong, but in the place I grew up in, that was how we grew up thinking.” This attitude is intensely felt by new Muslims.
The feeling of loneliness and isolation in the Muslim community is especially bad for American Muslim converts of African descent in communities that are divided along cultural lines. According to Al Jazeera America, “Black Muslims […] are often left out and ignored by their co-religionists. African-American Muslims in particular are segregated out of mosques dominated by South Asian– and Arab-American Muslims. Referring to black Muslims as abed, or “slave,” is commonplace among some Muslim communities, and many South Asian– and Arab-American families discourage–if not outright forbid–their children to marry them.”
This should horrify a believer of a Prophet who stated in his last sermon:
All mankind is from Adam and Eve. An Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab, nor does a non-Arab have any superiority over an Arab; a white has no superiority over a black, nor does a black have any superiority over a white; [none have superiority over another] except by piety and good action. (Bukhâri)
But more than feeling isolated or judged, many new Muslims say they only feel accepted when they are being treated like a token Muslim. Converts sometimes feel as if there is only a tacit acceptance of them when raised Muslim want them to be their spokesperson for Islam, or to retell their already oft-requested convert story.
Jason Miller, a convert since 1999, says, “I always felt the people at the masjid viewed me as good entertainment or someone who would promote all their ideals to the world at large. People asked if I have “converted” my family yet, as if I give guidance to whom I will. Even Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) wasn’t able to work that miracle, so why is it assumed that if my family has not accepted Islam that I have failed in delivering the message to them?”
Indeed, [O Muhammad], you do not guide whom you like, but Allah guides whom He wills. And He is most knowing of the [rightly] guided. [Sûrat Qaṣaṣ 28:56]
The masjid should be a place where converts and raised Muslims can get together and get to know and benefit from one another. But unfortunately this rarely happens.
We Love Islam, But Must Crawl Before We Can Run
Make things easier; do not make things more difficult. Spread the glad tidings. Do not hate. (Bukhâri)
New Muslims usually experience an overload of information, burn out, and a huge learning curve when they delve into the deep pool of knowledge that is Islam. This overload usually happens when raised Muslims, with the best intentions at heart, are trying to get new Muslims up to speed in 0.4 seconds. In reaction to this amount of information, new Muslims shut down.
Islam was revealed over a period of 23 years to some of the best of people ever created–the companions of the Prophet œ. It takes time to incorporate Islam into someone’s life. And new Muslims need patience, attention, and care from their brothers and sisters in Islam in order to achieve this.
Tarek Ezzat, Managing Editor of OnIslam.net, writes in an article entitled How the Prophet Treated New Muslims:
People might accept the idea of submitting to the one God, but they might have problems in some of the commandments (such as hijab, fasting the long days of Ramadan, etc…).
The tribe of Thaqîf agreed to embrace Islam but told the Prophet œ: “We will not give out any charity (zakâh), and we will not fight in the way of Allah (jihad).” The Prophet accepted that from them, and he told his companion: “They will (willingly) pay charity and perform jihad once they have embraced Islam” (Abû Dâwûd and authenticated by Al-Albâni).
Again, we note his wisdom in recognizing the weaknesses in people and dealing with them based on that.
It is really important here to note that the Prophet did not “customize” the religious teachings for those individuals; he rather considered that to be an introductory stage that was given to a particular person in their new journey in Islam. Sometimes and in certain situations with certain people, raising the bar and challenging people will produce the best out of them. In other occasions, we have to understand the human weaknesses and give people a gradual plan while they get up to speed, of course without compromising the basics and essentials of our dîn.
Just as converts in the time of the Prophet œ needed the Messenger to foster them, converts today need their brothers and sisters in faith to help them change their hearts before they are expected to change their outward actions.
But many new Muslims are immediately met with critique about every aspect of their life that can be construed as haram. Bringing up relatively smaller issues like wearing nail polish or eating with the left hand is inappropriate when a new Muslim is still not familiar with all the aspects of Tawḥîd.
Speaking about what she wished she had learned first when she came to Islam, Regina Carlyle, who converted in 1997, recalls when she was first introduced to Islamic knowledge. She says, “The sisters tried to be helpful and did what they thought was best. But all they ended up doing was dictating a list of all that is haram to me. I wish I had learned to strengthen my love for Allah before being subjected to so much of what seemed like rigidity at the time. It would have made it easier to incorporate rules and regulations into my life if I had known that I should do it for the sake of Allah and not just because it is what Muslims do.
Carlyle’s thoughts are reflected in ¢Aishah’s statement about the order of revelation of the Qur’an and the wisdom of it. She said, “If the first ayah revealed in the Qur’an was telling people do not drink, they would have rejected that order. If the first verse revealed was telling people not to commit fornication, they would have rejected that order, too. But the first verses revealed were about Paradise and Hell-Fire until the hearts became attached to Allah; then the orders of haram and halal were given.”
Allah’s method of revelation and Prophet Muhammad’s œ method of teaching Islam to people are the most perfect ways of introducing Islam to new Muslims. New Muslims today need guidance in this same way. Converts need the support of their brothers and sisters in faith as they learn and incorporate Islam gradually. They are not in need of the ḥarâm police.
Aslam says, “their [raised Muslims’] support is crucial. By support I’m not just saying teach the new Muslim what they need to know, but I’m talking about being gentle to their journey and understand that their progress may be fast but it also may be very slow. I would also tell them never to judge them or even to ask about their past; and when dealing with non-Muslims, never to give up on anyone because Allah can change anyone’s heart.”
As the number of converts continues to increase, our ummah has an opportunity to foster love for Allah and for Islam in these new Muslims. New converts face a lot of hardship for simply saying that they believe. And many converts lose everything for the sake of Allah. It is up to us who have been around in Islam for a while to aid new Muslims as they take their first shaky steps into Islam–with open arms, understanding, and gentleness.
We can look to programs like New Muslim Care in the U.K. (<newmuslimcare.org>) and groups like <ifoundislam.net> as examples of how to foster new Muslims and help them flourish in their new dîn. Much work needs to be done in the masajid, in our approach to identity, culture and teaching New Muslims their new faith, but it is not an impossible feat. Every raised Muslim is indebted to someone in their family’s past who fostered– in that one person who first converted in their family–love for Allah and Islam. And each of us has the opportunity to be that person to someone else’s family.
*Names have been changed to protect the identities of those interviewed.