It’s been 16 years since I converted to Islam and although I am convicted in my faith, I still wrestle with the concept of whether I am Islamic enough for my Muslim brothers and sisters, or too Islamic for my family and friends who know very little about Islam. This internal conflict has made me reflect upon what it really means to be a Muslim as I navigate my way through the world, and I suspect that I am not alone in this battle. More than 75% of Westerners who convert to Islam every year are women and I cannot help but wonder what these women’s lives are like as they seek to learn more about the religion of Islam when coming from a different cultural background, as did I. Not to mention the fact that Islam is now almost constantly under the media microscope when it comes to the interpretation and practice of the religion.
Having been established over 1400 years ago, the religion of Islam has evolved to mean many things to many groups of people, and one may not find a Muslim from Nigeria practicing all of the same traditions as a Muslim from Saudi Arabia. Witnessing this manifestation as I’ve learned about Islam has made me question the significance of what I’ve observed to be a “cultural” Islam versus that which is rooted in the teachings of the Holy Quran and Sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh)*.
For example, when I first came to Islam, I received countless questions from family and friends. Questions like:
“Why do you have to wear that scarf on your head?”
“Why do you have to pray so much?”
“Your husband can have how many wives?”
When answering their questions I was able to refer to the Quran and Sunnah to explain myself and although I sometimes received a suspicious look, that was pretty much the end of the interrogation because I was able to provide proof for my beliefs. Some individuals nodded and smiled, indicating that she/he agreed with portions of what was said while others said nothing further.And on the contrary, I also received countless recommendations from Muslim sisters after taking my shahadah concerning how to wear my hijab, what types of cloths to wear, what to do and not do, and what to say and not say. I must admit, however, that I seldom received any explanation as to why I was being told to do so, nor was able to get a reference from the Quran or Sunnah concerning the advice. Balancing between the worlds of my indigenous culture as an African American woman and the cultural traditions attached to the Islamic religion has been a challenging and revelatory experience.
I’ve been challenged by having to accept the ebb and tide of friends and loved ones into my life based upon my decision to become a Muslim. Not everyone understands why I’ve changed my lifestyle to conform to the pillars of Islam and although I do my best to explain and share the reasons, there are individuals who question whether what Islam teaches is the truth. But this has in turn been revelatory because it has motivated me to go to the source of Islamic teachings and to discover for myself what it means to be a Muslim.
I can honestly say that it has taken me at least 11 of the 16 years since converting to Islam to be able to reach a point where I feel comfortable and at peace with my practice and representation of Islam, and this is important because although religion is an inward purification, it is also an outward example for others. On the inward side, as a convert, it is important and necessary for me to understand and remember why I was drawn to the religion in the first place. It wasn’t because of how I saw women tie their hijab, it was because I recognized the truth in the translation of the Holy Quran. And on the outward side, it is the reflection of that truth in my actions and words that can hopefully inspire others and make the world a little better than what it is.
As a convert to Islam, I am continually seeking to learn more about what it means to be a Muslim and I think that all Muslims, whether born into the religion or a convert to it, should do the same. The Holy Quran is a revelation, and the practice of Islam can also be seen as a revelation because we are constantly striving to learn, understand, memorize and implement the injunctions of the scripture and the traditions of our beloved Prophet (pbuh) in our lives.
Now when I ask myself whether something that I intend to do or say is Islamic enough or too Islamic, I weigh my answer/action upon whether what I’ve decided is rooted in the Quran and Sunnah and I strive to be merciful with myself and others as I do so, and although the dilemma can still pop up every once in a while, I remind myself to go to the source for answers rather than relying solely upon the interpretation of others.
*PBUH: abbreviation for peace be upon him, the recommended declaration used when mentioning the name of the Prophet as a show of respect