Over 25 years ago, I started upon the path that would lead me to faith in Islam. As a Muslim, I believe that every person is born with an innate faith in the Creator, but as they are raised they may embrace the faith of their parents or society. It is not easy, as an adult, to reject one’s upbringing and return to a pure sense of faith. I thank Allah for opening my heart and bringing me to where I am today.
I grew up in a mostly white, upper-middle-class, Christian community in the suburbs of northern California. It was a beautiful, quiet area. I knew all of my neighbors, played baseball in the street, caught frogs in the creeks, rode horses in the hills, and climbed trees in my front yard.
My parents were of mixed faith: Presbyterian and Catholic, with varying degrees of practice. At my mother’s urging I did attend Catholic church on occasion and proceeded through the sacraments of First Communion and Confirmation. I did it for her, though, not truly comfortable with the church’s environment or teachings.
A “Home” Church
I lived on a quiet, dead-end street near a grammar school and a small Presbyterian church. The church congregation was small and elderly, with only a few couples with young children. When I was about 10 years old, the people of this church invited me to participate in their children’s Christmas play. Every Sunday morning from then on, I walked to and attended church alone.The people were nice and never made me feel out of place. Feeling more at home there than at the Catholic church, I became a very active member of this small Presbyterian church down the street. In sixth grade, I started babysitting the younger children during the service. By ninth grade, I was helping the minister’s wife teach Sunday school. In high school, I started a church youth group by recruiting a few of my friends to join me. It was a small group: me, my friends, and a young couple with kids, but we liked it that way. The larger Presbyterian church in the center of town had about 100 kids in their youth group and took trips to Mexico. But our group was content to get together to study the Bible, talk about matters of faith, and raise money for charities.
These friends and I would often sit together and debate spiritual issues. We questioned:
- What happens to the people who lived before Jesus came?
- Why do some very righteous people automatically go to hell just because they don’t believe in Jesus?
- Why do some pretty horrible people (like my friend’s abusive father) get rewarded with heaven just because they’re Christian?
- Why does a loving and merciful God require a blood sacrifice (Jesus) to forgive people’s sins?
- Why are we guilty of Adam’s original sin?
- Why does the Word of God (Bible) disagree with scientific facts?
- How can Jesus be God?
- How can One God be three different things?
- We debated these questions, but never came up with good answers. The church wasn’t able to explain either; they only told us to “have faith.” I believed in the life example of Jesus as an honorable person, but were not able to understand the more esoteric teachings of the church.
Finding God in the Natural World
The people at church told me about a Presbyterian summer camp, which I attended for the first time when I was ten. For the next seven years, I went every summer. While I was happy with the little church I went to, this is where I really felt in touch with God, without confusion. It was here that I developed my very deep faith in God. We spent much of our time outdoors, playing games, doing crafts, swimming, etc. It was fun, but every day we would also take time out to pray, study the Bible, sing spiritual songs, and have `quiet time.’ It is this quiet time that really meant a lot to me, and of which I have the best memories. The rule was that you had to sit alone – anywhere on the camp’s 200 beautiful acres. I would often go to a meadow, or sit on a bridge overlooking the creek, and just THINK. I looked around me, at the creek, the trees, the clouds, the bugs 🙂 – listened to the water, the birds’ songs, the crickets’ chirps. This place really let me feel at peace, and I admired and thanked God for His beautiful creation. At the end of each summer, when I returned back home, this feeling stayed with me. I loved to spend time outdoors, alone, to just think about God, life, and my place in it. I developed my personal understanding of Jesus’ role as a teacher and example, and left all the confusing church teachings behind.
I believed (and still do) in the teaching “Love your neighbor as yourself,” fully giving to others without expecting anything in return, treating others as you would like to be treated. I strived to help everyone I could. When I was fourteen, I got my first job, at an ice cream store. When I got my paycheck each month, I sent the first $25 to a program that connected needy children overseas with American sponsors. During my 4 years of high school, I was a sponsor for a young Egyptian boy. He was 9 years old, his father was dead, and his mother was ill and couldn’t work. He had two younger brothers and a sister my age. I remember receiving a letter from him when I was 16 – he was excited because his sister had gotten engaged. I thought, “She’s the same age as me, and she’s getting engaged!!!” It seemed so foreign to me. These were the first Muslims I had contact with.
Aside from this, I was also involved with other activities in high school. I tutored Central American students at my school in English, raised money for Nicaraguan school children and Kenyan villagers, and campaigned against nuclear arms.
A Larger World
My family and I invited exchange students into my home, and I had penpals from all over the world. I began teaching English at a refugee center, to some friendly, lovely Muslim widows from Southeast Asia. All of these experiences put me in touch with the outside world, and led me to value people of all kinds. Throughout my youth and high school, I had developed two very deep interests: faith in God, and interacting with people from other countries. When I left home to attend college, I brought these interests with me.
Off to College
I left home at the age of 17 to attend a small liberal-arts college in another state. My dorm roommates were another girl from California and a woman from Japan. I started out as a Foreign Language major, with a thought to one day work with refugee populations, or teach English as a Second Language.
I didn’t know anyone else at school, so I tried to get involved in activities to meet people. In line with my interests, I chose to get involved with a Christian group, and an international conversation group for English-language learners.
During my first term at college, I met often with my Christian group to listen to “personal testimonies,” sing songs, etc. Every week we visited a different church in the city. Most of the churches were unlike anything I’d ever been exposed to before. One final visit freaked me out so much that I quit going to the group meetings. At this church, there was a rock band with electric guitars, and people were waving their hands in the air, eyes closed, singing “hallelujah.” I had never seen anything like it! I see things like this now on TV, but coming from a very small, simple church, I was disturbed. The atmosphere seemed so far removed from the worship of God, and I didn’t feel comfortable returning.
New “Church” Home
I always felt closest to God when I was in a quiet setting and/or outdoors. I started taking walks around campus, sitting on benches, looking at the view of the mountains, watching the trees change colors. One day I wandered into the campus chapel – a small, round building nestled in the trees. It was beautifully simple. The pews formed a circle around the center of the room, and a huge pipe organ hung from the ceiling in the middle. No altar, no crosses, no statues – nothing. Just some simple wood benches and a pipe organ. During the rest of the year, I spent a lot of time in this building, listening to the organist practice, or just sitting alone in the quiet to think. I felt more comfortable and close to God there than at any church I had ever been to.
Meeting More Muslims
During this time, I was also meeting with a group of international students as part of the conversation group program. My group was made up of students from Japan, Italy, and Palestine. We met twice a week over lunch, to practice English conversation skills. We talked about our families, our studies, our childhoods, cultural differences, etc. As I listened to the Palestinian student talk about his life, his family, his faith, etc., it struck a nerve in me. I remembered the only other Muslims I had ever known – my Egyptian “foster” child, and my students at the refugee center. Previously, I had seen their beliefs and way of life as foreign, something that was alien to my culture. I never bothered to learn about their faith because of this cultural barrier. But the more I learned about Islam, the more I became interested in it as a possibility for my own life.
Reading, Studying & Change of Heart
During my second term of school, the conversation group disbanded and the international students transferred to other schools. The discussions we had, however, stayed at the front of my thoughts. The following term, I registered for a class in the religious studies department: Introduction to Islam. This class brought back all of the concerns that I had about Christianity. As I learned about Islam, all of my questions were answered. All of us are not punished for Adam’s original sin. Adam asked God for forgiveness and our Merciful and Loving God forgave him. God doesn’t require a blood sacrifice in payment for sin. We must sincerely ask for forgiveness and amend our ways. Jesus wasn’t God, he was a prophet, like all of the other prophets, who all taught the same message: Believe in the One true God; worship and submit to Him alone; and live a righteous life according to the guidance He has sent. This answered all of my questions about the trinity and the nature of Jesus. God is a Perfect and Fair Judge, who will reward or punish us based on our faith and righteousness. I found a teaching that put everything in its proper perspective, and appealed to my heart and my intellect. It seemed natural. It wasn’t confusing. I had been searching, and I had found a place to rest my faith.
That summer, I returned home and continued my studies of Islam. I checked books out of the library and talked with my friends. They were as deeply spiritual as I was, and had also been searching (most of them were looking into eastern religions, Buddhism in particular). They understood my search, and were happy I could find something to believe in. They raised questions, though, about how Islam would affect my life: as a woman, as a liberal Californian :), with my family, etc. I continued to study, pray and soul-search to see how comfortable I really was with it. I sought out Islamic centers in my area, but it was not easy to find something close by. So I continued to search on my own. When it came up in conversation, I talked to my family about it. I remember one time in particular, when we were all watching a public television program about the Eskimos. They said that the Eskimos have over 200 words for `snow,’ because snow is such a big part of their life. Later that night, we were talking about how different languages have many words for things that are important to them. My father commented about all the different words Americans use for `money’ (money, dough, bread, etc.). I commented, “You know, the Muslims have nearly a hundred names for God – I guess that’s what is important to them.”
Decision to Convert / Revert
At the end of the summer, I returned to college. The first thing I did was contact a local mosque in the area. I asked for the name of a woman I could talk to, and they gave me the number of a Muslim American sister. That week, I visited her at home. After talking for a while, she realized that I was already a believer. I told her I was just looking for some women who could help guide me in the practicalities of what it meant to be a Muslim. For example, how to pray. I had read it in books, but I couldn’t figure out how to do it just from books. I made attempts, and prayed in English, but I knew I wasn’t doing it right. The sister invited me that night to an aqiqah (dinner after the birth of a new baby). She picked me up that night and we went. I felt so comfortable with the Muslim sisters there, and they were very friendly to me that night. I said the shahaadah, witnessed by a few sisters, making my reversion official. They taught me how to pray. They talked to me about their own faith (many of them were also American). I left that night feeling like I had just started a new life.
I was still living in a campus dorm, and was pretty isolated from the Muslim community. Without a car, I quickly lost touch with the women I met, and was left to pursue my faith on my own at school. I made a few attempts to go to the mosque, but was confused by the meeting times. Sometimes I’d show up to borrow some books from the library, and the whole building would be full of men. Another time I decided to go to my first Jumu’ah prayer, and I couldn’t go in for the same reason. Later, I was told that women only meet at a certain time (Saturday afternoon). I was discouraged and confused, but I continued to have faith and learn on my own.
Ramadan / Hijab
Six months after my reversion, I observed my first Ramadan. I had been contemplating the issue of hijab, but was too scared to take that step before. I had already begun to dress more modestly, and usually wore a scarf over my shoulders. When I visited the sister, she told me, “all you have to do is move that scarf from your shoulders to your head, and you’ll be Islamically dressed.” At first I didn’t feel ready to wear hijab, because I didn’t feel strong enough in my faith. I understood the reason for it, agreed with it, and admired the women who did wear it. They looked so pious and noble. But I knew that if I wore it, people would ask me a lot of questions, and I didn’t feel ready.
This changed as Ramadan approached, and on the first day of Ramadan, I woke up and went to class in hijab. Alhamdillah, I haven’t taken it off since. Something about Ramadan helped me to feel strong, and proud to be a Muslim. I felt ready to answer anybody’s questions.
However, I also felt isolated and lonely during that first Ramadan. No one from the Muslim community even called me. I was on a meal plan at school, so I had to arrange to get special meals (the dining hall wasn’t open during the hours I could eat). The school agreed to give me my meals in bag lunches. So every night as sundown approached, I’d walk across the street to the kitchen, go in the back to the huge refrigerators, and take my 2 bag lunches (one for fitoor, one for suhoor). I’d bring the bags back to my dorm room and eat alone. They always had the same thing: yoghurt, a piece of fruit, cookies, and either a tuna or egg salad sandwich. The same thing, for both meals, for the whole month. I was lonely, but at the same time I had never felt more at peace with myself.
When I embraced Islam, I told my family. They were not surprised. They kind of saw it coming, from my actions and what I said when I was home the previous summer. They accepted my decision, and knew that I was sincere. Even before, my family always accepted my activities and my deep faith, even if they didn’t share it. They were not as open-minded, however, when I started to wear hijab. They worried that I was cutting myself off from society, that I would be discriminated against, that it would discourage me from reaching my goals, and they were embarrassed to be seen with me. They thought it was too radical. They didn’t mind if I had a different faith, but they didn’t like it to affect my life in an outward way.
They were more upset when I decided to get married. I had gotten back in touch with the Muslim Palestinian brother of my college conversation group, and we were married the following summer (a year after my reversion). My family freaked out. They weren’t quite yet over my hijab, and they felt like I had thrown something else at them. They argued that I was too young, and worried that I would abandon my goals, drop out of school, become a young mother, and destroy my life. They liked my husband, but didn’t trust him at first.
It took several years for my family and I to repair our relationship. The arrival of grandchildren helped :). There are still times when they question certain practices, but for the most part they are now respectful of my choices. It took time for them to see that I am indeed happy, and that Islam has enriched my life rather than destroyed it. I am still the same person: grounded in faith, open-minded towards others, charitable. Knowing Islam has given my soul a place to rest.
Looking back on all of this, I feel truly grateful that Allah has guided me to where I am today. I truly feel blessed. It seems that all of the pieces of my life fit together in a pattern – a path to Islam.
My Path to Islam was Originally Published on About.com