Congratulations, if you have made it this far in your journey and my prayers that you will remain steadfast as you progress along this path of Islam throughout your life. Long after the chants of Allahu Akbar die down if you had the opportunity to witness your faith at a masjidin front of other Muslims or silently at home with only Allah and the angels to witness like I did, it is possible that you might see some of what I’ve seen and experienced. Here are some convert survival tips drawn from my own experience:
I came in like most converts wide-eyed, with an open heart, and ready to learn about and accept my chosen faith. I read voraciously about Islam before and after my conversion. I read everything from different translations of the Quran, books giving an overview of Islam, books about iman (faith), aqeedah (theology), hadith to books on sale in Christian bookstores full of untruths and distortions by “ex-Muslims” to Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses. As for the latter, I had read Rushdie’s book while in high school trying to make sense of the furor around it and rather enjoyed his unique literary style. It was only later, upon re-reading as a Muslim with some basic understanding of the faith that the blasphemous passages became more clear. My advice to anyone, read as much as you can, not only the “approved” books but whatever piques your interest, and you might learn a lot by reading that which others try to tell you to avoid. Always look critically to what is excluded from your masjid’s library, bookstore, or curriculum, and you’ll learn a lot about what they really believe and often like to present as a universal or “more authentic” expression of Islam.
Don’t Accept Opinions & Views Uncritically
It took me almost a year or two to cautiously begin navigating the Muslim community through my regular attendance at various mosques in the area including the ones my well-meaning friends never told me about including the smaller offshoot masajid, the Ahmadiyya and shia mosques as well. What an eye-opener to the different expressions and manifestations of Islam. Now, this is not theology class where we scrutinize our own beliefs and the beliefs of others, it’s just about being open to learning about our fellow human beings. Don’t fall into the trap of demonizing without critical thought and reflection. Learn and if you don’t know, just be quiet, don’t add fuel to the fire. I seriously doubt that anyone’s iman goes up from attacking others and it most likely will only serve to coarsen your manners and harden your heart. Although, there can be benefit in clarifying issues related to belief.
I’ve always been inquisitive by nature, I actually consider this a blessing, the same inquisitiveness that caused me to read my older siblings history textbooks while still in elementary school cover to cover led me to want to find out about the religion of Islam through reading the Quran after 9/11. And it is this same spirit of inquiry, which causes me to ask questions, sometimes even the hard questions, in reflecting upon the situation of our communities today.
To be honest, even though I didn’t entirely lose my inquisitiveness after accepting Islam through my interactions with other Muslims, I subdued that part of me along with my penchant for asking questions especially in classes (is the voice awrah or not?), and my own individuality to fit in with the prevailing mood of the community. Lower your voice sister, lower your voice, don’t laugh, brothers are walking by.
Let me offer a few examples to demonstrate as a means of clarification. At one masjid, I frequented, the doors on the sisters’ side were often locked and chained closed from the inside even during times of peak usage. Perhaps the ones in charge had forgotten that women might need to exit the building quickly, safely, and efficiently not to mention that chaining doors from the inside is an illegal and dangerous fire hazard. I attended this masjid for years, and even though from the very beginning, I and just about every sister I spoke to thought this phenomenon was outrageous, no one, including me, said or did anything about it. Had I seen this before my Islam, say at my high school or a church or any community hall, I would have been the first to say something and to keep at it, engaging my peers and those in charge until the chains came off but now within Islam, after carefully observing and adopting the ways of the community around me, like everyone else, despite the internal conflict, I silently turned the other way.
In school, I tended to always sit in the very front of the classroom, particularly if I liked the subject being taught. If I was going to be a bit of a troublemaker and depending on where my friends were, I might sit in the middle or back of the room. At most of the masajid that I have attended, lectures are often held in the musalla and the male lecturer often speaks from the men’s side usually partitioned off from the women’s section by a wall, glass, bookshelves, two-way mirror, or a curtain. At times, the speaker would ask if there were any questions from the sisters’ side and often there were questions, as sisters would whisper among themselves for clarification and sometimes write on pieces of paper and send it with a young child over the speaker. Occasionally a microphone was passed around but more often the sisters remained silent even if they had questions out of a fear of appearing immodest by raising their voices using the microphone.
I can’t tell you the number of times, a new speaker would come to visit and lecture in our community, and as soon as he opened the floor for questions, he would say that he welcomed and encouraged the invisible sisters behind the partition to participate and ask questions and then there would inevitably be some discussion on the brothers’ side about whether a women’s voice is awrah or not and thus shouldn’t be heard. And every single speaker that I can remember then engaged in a vigorous discussion with the brothers that the voice is not awrah. But by this time, most of the sisters after looking around at each other unable to really see or hear or participate fully in this discussion remained silent, including me, even if we had questions out of that communal pressure that tells women that being silent or being unseen or sitting in the back of the room is more modest. A well known saying mentions that “two types of people will never learn, the one who is too arrogant to ask or accept and the one who is to shy to ask.”
Early on after my conversion, while attending Islamic lectures, seminars, and classes I would sit in the front continuing my tradition from before my Islam. As I integrated more and more into the community and developed friendships with some sisters, I quickly moved towards the back of the room, not even the middle, the back. Why? Because, we are so often told that inside and outside of salah the best rows for women are in the back but even better yet a woman should remain in her home. And so often, ironically, it is the sisters most active outside their homes i.e. at school or in the workplace or volunteering that love to say how women should stay in their homes and that this is their optimal sphere. The question which seemingly never arises to these women is then why did and do they continue to pursue education, volunteering, and a career outside of the home? And how does one, especially a convert learn about her religion and acquire Muslim company and influences while staying at home with her non-Muslim family or even if she lives alone? How does she even get groceries? But perhaps they will say, well for necessities and for practicality, you have to look at the context and individual situation, even though just a minute ago they were happily and joyfully trying to beat us over the head with ayat and hadith quoted in isolation.
Conversion, do you need witnesses?
No, you don’t. I’m not making fatwa here but this is a question I’ve spent more than 8 years researching, and have asked the people of knowledge that I have access to, and despite an opinion here or there, which will generally say it might be recommended for reasons x,y, or z, it is neither a condition nor precondition for the validity of one’s shahadah. I took my shahadah a second time nearly 2 years after my first because some well-meaning sisters wanted to ensure everything was okay. So we went to the masjid and I said it again in front of 5 people (2 brothers behind the curtain and 3 sisters on my side of the partition), at which point the brother said I should begin to learn al-Fatiha, which I mentioned that I had already learned. If a person is ready to take their shahadah, there is no need to delay it. I’ve heard so many stories where a person was ready to take his or her shahadah on the weekend but was “waiting” until after the following jumu’ah or some other later date to embrace Islam. None of us can be certain when we will die and in an issue as critical as faith, it’s better to hasten to enter the fold of Islam.
What is a Muslim name? How do you define, identify, and categorize it? Is it anything more than the name a Muslim carries? So that a name like Ify Okoye is by default a Muslim name once the said Ify Okoye becomes Muslim? Not so, for so many of our brethren. A Muslim name for a convert should be Arabic, preferably a name shared by a prophet in Arabic or a companion of one of the prophets. So after trying to resist the pressure of those well-meaning but insistent Muslims I encountered that I take on a “Muslim name” one Nigerian brother who rode the same bus route as me finally said I should take the name Zainab as I reminded him of his little sister and so the name stuck. Much easier to integrate into the community with a name like Zainab, which everyone recognizes and can pronounce rather than Ify much less Ifeoma. You’ll get more “I didn’t know you were a convert” rather than the “Are you Muslim?” comments and looks, which I still get even today. And just as a matter of dawah and choosing your battles wisely with your non-Muslim family, I think it would be good to see more converts retaining their given names.
Resist the urge and pressure to get married 5 minutes after your conversion
At least wait for 10 minutes. Two things about marriage, if you are still on good terms with your family (and may Allah reconcile those who are not) tell your family beforehand and try to get them involved in the process and beware of your wali especially if he’s not your dad because he may have other than your best interests at heart.
It’s okay to retain the good from your culture and manners
It’s okay to speak in English. Saying shukran is not more holy and does not make you more religious than saying thank you. There is no hadith that says eating biryani for iftar is more rewarding than eating baked chicken and macaroni and cheese. Depending on where you live, converting to Islam is also like converting to desi or Arab or insert whichever culture predominates cuisine and dress. If you are accustomed to arriving on time for events, continue to do so even after your conversion. Islam is a beautiful way of life, which does not ask us to abandon the good from our cultures in order to convert but rather part of the strength of the Islamic tradition comes from its being able to encompass a variety of cultures.
Enjoin Ties with your Family
Don’t break off ties with your family. The responses to my conversion within my family were diverse from intensely hostile to supportive to somewhat indifferent. It requires much more patience to interact with and display excellent manners to those who are hostile to you especially from your family and close friends as they know how to push all of your buttons. And it requires wisdom, something often lost in that new convert zeal and fervor to implement the religion as much as possible. Don’t be afraid to apologize to your family for past behavior even if you think you were right because in the end we seek to call them to our faith and not simply to score brownie points in arguments.
Get your Salah and other Ibadah on – learn to read Arabic and the Quran
No one can learn this religion all at once. In the early stages, I recommend that the new convert begin by learning about who Allah is and Islam through reading the Quran. Translations are good in the beginning but nothing compares to reading and understanding the Quran in the original Arabic language in which it was revealed. Learn about the Prophet sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam and his companions (may Allah be pleased with them) and you will come to know and love them. Focus on learning, practicing, and perfecting the fundamentals like purification, salah, and fasting before going into the finer details of more esoteric debates.
May Allah azza wa jal help us to remain sincerely steadfast upon this deen. Ameen.