Muslim woman in front of lighthouse

Muslim Forever: A look at the first 13 years

Reading Time: 17 minutes

Muslim Convert Story

by Lenna

Michael Muhammad Knight once said, “I don’t really know how to be a Muslim, but I don’t know how to be anything else.”

That’s not an exact quote, actually, because I can’t find it now. But I remember it well because it resonated with me.

That’s exactly how I feel even now.

I converted to Islam officially in December 2005. I say “officially” because my friends came along and witnessed and we had breakfast together afterward.

There is no official conversion as with Catholics or Jews. You just say the Shahadah and you’re in.

I usually find conversion stories boring, and my own is no exception. Yet people do ask sometimes and I’ve long though maybe I should just go ahead and write it down.

At this point I want to take the trip down memory lane myself, so why not?

Prerequisite: Convert Story, Part 1

In case you didn’t read the first part of my story, I’ll give you a two-sentence summary

TLDR

I was born into a nominally Christian home and left that faith for agnosticism in college. I’d spent a lot of time debating and thinking things over, and was sure I’d be agnostic forever.

Back then being in the “I don’t know” camp seemed like a rational choice. All of us who embarked on a faith journey together in school landed in about the same place.

Were you not agnostic or atheist? I don’t remember any exceptions. So there was that fallacy of consensus reinforcing the idea I’d gotten things right.

Then somehow, much to my surprise, I wound up a Muslim. And this is the story of how that happened. 🙂

Note: If you still want to read the first part (which is pretty long), you’ll find it here

The Deli

My convert story starts in a deli that was across the street from work. A friend (we’ll call her Lola) and I would meet there often for lunch.

Middle Easter Deli food

We loved the food perhaps a bit too much. At one point concluded the dry cleaners must be shrinking our clothes. 🙂

A Christian Palestinian owned the deli. He had lived all his life prior to moving to the States in Israel proper.

He and my friend took a liking to one another and started dating.

That meant she and I were in the deli a lot more, especially on Sundays when (we’ll call him Isa) was watching the game with his friends. We’d help out with the food prep and just chill.

We both liked being around the Arabs who were in Isa’s friend circle. They were a mix of Christians and Muslims. But mostly they were Christians from Palestine and the surrounding countries.

One of his friends had taken a liking to me and me to him. Right from the start, we had incredible chemistry that everyone noticed, including his girlfriend.

Note: In part 1, I had been set to live happily ever after with my atheist college sweetheart….needless to say that didn’t work out as planned!

We didn’t deliberately put our attraction on display. It’s just the way it was, and soon the girlfriend was history and he was talking to me instead.

I had assumed he was Christian, like Isa. When it finally came up and he said was Muslim, I was shocked. Maybe even horrified!

Too Late to Flee

I think if I had realized sooner that he was a Muslim, I might have turned and run away.

The impression I had of Islam is not something I’d ever consciously thought about. Isn’t it crazy to think that such a strong reaction traced back to what I’d passively absorbed?

But by the time he (we’ll call him Mustapha) “confessed” to being Muslim, it was too late. I was already head over heels and within a few short months, we’d be married.

I figured it would be okay since agnosticism is neutral and isn’t going to clash. And he didn’t seem fanatical or at all aligned with the stereotypes in my head.

That was a mistake because we were really very different and it was going to cause problems.

I didn’t know that then though and the first cracks in the lovely picture actually happened among the guys in the deli.

They started to bicker all the time. Sometimes over religion, sometimes over Palestine, and sometimes just to argue for the sheer sake of arguing, it seemed.

Root Cause

Lola and I were really distraught. At first, everything seemed so awesome and fortunate.

She was with Isa and I was with Mustapha. Two happy couples with a lot in common.

Isa and Mustapha had been close friends long before we met them, just as Lola and I had been. And we had these other wonderful friends, so what could go wrong?

It seemed to me the wildcard was Mustapha’s crazy religion. That’s what set him apart from us, and Islam has always had a dubious reputation.

But maybe it’s not Islam and it’s really something to do with culture? Or a mix of both? Probably a mix!

We needed to investigate.

Research

Lola and Isa split up. But even though Mustapha and were also not getting along all that well, we’d married and couldn’t easily call it quits.

So I had research to do, on my own.

At the time we had an Arab culture center which had a tiny library so I borrowed some books. Among them were books about Islam.

That was perfect since I was trying to sift through and figure out what was culture and what was religion. Not only how the two intersected, but what they may have to do with all this strife.

I’ve since concluded that humans are contentious creatures, just generally. But at that point, I was less jaded and though this some sort of exceptional scenario.

Lola and I are still friends, by the way. She was just over Isa and that whole situation didn’t interest her after their breakup. By the end, she also strongly disliked Mustapha, and the feeling was mutual!

See and Unsee

Remember that I was not in search of a religion. I thought all religions were pretty much the same and could be rejected out of hand.

This was about people and what made them tick. But as I was reading along, I began to question my assumptions about Islam.

I started to think a lot of it made sense, and I started to feel a stirring that’s very hard to describe. I can’t say there was some particular moment where everything changed.

Islam Between East And West

But gradually I came to believe and that really bothered me! I do remember reading a book written by a Muslim woman where she talked about how in Islam, you submit to Allah and thereby to nothing and no one else.

That idea isn’t universally impressive, I’ve found, but it sure did impress me. I also remember reading Islam Between East and West by Alija Izetbegovic, the former president of Bosnia.

Since a lot of what Izetbegovic said was new to me, I credited him with all of it. Some of it was his thinking but some of it was simply Islam shining through.

In any case, now I found myself crying a lot!

I’m not sure why the floodgates opened like that but part of it had to do with reconnecting and part of it with not liking the idea of being a Muslim.

Dancing and Beer

Consider what my life was like back then. I had always loved music and dance and I was a competitive ballroom dancer performing at various venues.

My specialty was tango, both American and Argentine. Argentine was new to the studio back then, so there weren’t a lot of dancers who were accomplished in that dance but I was among the first.

I loved it. Outside of the formal ballroom, I liked to salsa dance in clubs or, if it wasn’t a Latin song, do the hustle.

I have no idea why the hustle went out of fashion! That’s an incredibly easy dance for anyone to learn and do to almost any song…but I digress.

At that time when I wasn’t dancing, I was meeting up with friends to drink craft beer. Some of them actually made their own brews and some of us just appreciated tasty beer.

The point is that my entire social life was un-Islamic! Was I supposed to give up everything?

Even if I wanted to, what would I tell people? How could I tell my friends who spent all that time discussing (and ultimately rejecting) religion?

They would see Islam as the worst of the worst, with everything they’d rejected about Christianity on steroids…and then some!

What would my family say? Why was I so enchanted with Islam anyway!?

I needed to fix this. Maybe I could deconstruct Islam the same way Lola and I had when we were in college.

Sister Malika

A woman at the local Islamic Center agreed to talk with me. I asked her a bunch of questions and she kept giving me pretty good answers.

I gave her more questions and she gave me more satisfying answers. But this did nothing to diminish my fears.

Just dressing for the mosque was problematic! I had little in my closet that was suitable and I didn’t own a single scarf.

Even if I had, I certainly didn’t know how to wrap one and on that front, I proved to be a slow learner.

I always felt like a complete clod at the mosque around the women there anyway! Most were petite, graceful Pakistani women who seemed to glide around and do everything perfectly!

Then there was me.

50 Shades of Red

I distinctly remember when I first met Sister Malika. It was when I married Mustapha and she had tied a scarf on me.

Afterward, she took me to the side to tell me things like have lots of children and don’t have sex when you’re on your period and clean yourself like this and so on…oh dear!

I already felt ridiculous. I was surrounded by the petite and lovely women there, and I felt tall as a sequoia tree and completely awkward.

When Sister Malika noticed my face had gone many shades of red with embarrassment, she took my wrist and said, “don’t worry…I’m a physician.”

I’m not sure why she thought that might be comforting, but it wasn’t!

I had vowed never to set foot in the place again but wound up going back to talk once I took an interest in Islam.

A “Christian” Wife

When I met Mustapha I was a vegetarian and agnostic and he thought both of these things were ridiculous. He seemed to dismiss these “quirks” as some sort of rebellion against my parents.

He cooked well and insisted I eat what he made, which almost always included meat. For him I was also Christian because in his mind everyone had a religion.

The idea you might not believe in God just didn’t register with him. He could also marry a Christian or a Jew as well as a Muslim but perhaps not an outright unbeliever.

As far as Islam, he was not really a practicing Muslim. He always said Islam was the best religion but he was the worst example of what a Muslims should be.

I don’t think he was the worst but he was hardly exemplary. He drank scotch, didn’t often pray and our marriage ended largely because of his irrepressible tendency to call on other women.

Still, he loved Islam and believed it was ideal, so when I took an interest, he was thrilled. He taught me a lot, even if it was “do as I say and not as I do.”

He seemed to think his role in converting me to Islam was going to give him massive brownie points with Allah.

Points he desperately needed. He seemed to believe bringing me into the fold might even tip the scales for him, so the least he could do is answer all of my questions and help me along.

No Way Jose!

I didn’t convert though. Not during our marriage which lasted 6 years.

He never pressured me to officially convert. A lot of people thought I’d put Islam behind me with the divorce, possibly believing my interest traced back to Mustapha.

I just couldn’t see myself doing all the stuff you were supposed to do be a practicing Muslim. Yet if I took the plunge, I didn’t see myself shirking all of my obligations. So I was stuck.

I remember what I used to say A LOT while I was learning about Islam. This one phrase was well worn: “You can’t be serious.” 🙂

Take for example simply learning out to pray. I don’t mean du’a (supplication) but salah, which practicing Muslims do five times per day.

I had first learned Al Fatiha (The Opener) in Arabic. It took some effort but I was pleased. Now I knew how to pray! Or not.

Because it turns out, there’s a lot more to it than that!

You Can’t Be Serious!

When I realized there was a ton more to learn, including more verses and phrases and various positions as well as a procedure for ritual ablution…wow…You can’t be serious!

Who would do this even once per day? Never mind five times!

There were also the names of the prayers and the number of cycles for each one. The ones that were obligatory and the ones recommended you had to learn.

And of course the prayer times, which are different every day. They’re windows with a start and an end and you’re supposed to adhere to the schedule.

Maybe to a person who grew up as a Muslim, this was no big deal. But to me, it seemed like a lot to expect!

Never mind fasting from dawn to sunset for 30 days during Ramadan without even water to drink. How is that even possible?

Ghost

Just to clarify the timeline, I basically struggled with Islam during my entire marriage.

I never said goodbye to Islam and I never committed either. It was hard to separate all of that from everything else with Mustapha and his family and friends.

It was only after we divorced that it seemed really clear this was my sincere choice. Or was it?

Because again, actually converting means dealing with all this stuff I’ve mentioned and that still seemed really hard! So I tried to move on and ignore the issue altogether.

ginger kitty hiding

Do you remember Whoopi Goldberg in the movie Ghost? How the ghosts kept trying to talk to her and she kept trying to avoid them?  But they would not leave her alone.

She would try to drown them out with her singing and tell them to go away. But they persisted until finally she just had to pay attention to them.

That’s how Islam was for me. It wasn’t going away.

Just Do it!

Finally, I decided to take the plunge and convert to Islam. I was still living a life that was not in accordance and still wondering how I was going to make this work.

But I had friends by then who were Muslims. They convinced me I should just be honest about what I believed and be “ever striving.”

Okay. So I said the shahada and made it official. I really started trying to practice properly, though the Muslims I knew at the time were not very practicing.

Again, like Mustapha, they loved Islam and thought it was perfect guidance yet fell short in practice. Everyone falls short, actually, because no one is perfect but some people hardly seem to even try.

I believed and no longer entertained any doubts. To this day, I’m very grateful to Allah for inviting me to the home of peace….or in this case dragging me kicking and screaming. 🙂

I didn’t deserve to be redeemed but He led me to the straight path anyway and for that, I’m grateful every single day. But that didn’t mean it was going to be easy.

Ever Grappling

I struggled to gain an understanding of Islam and the practices even at a rudimentary level. And with coming “out of the closet” to my friends and family.

I still struggled with the headscarf and modest dress in general. In fact, when I went to a new mosque to meet a friend I even struggled with how to enter!

As crazy as it seems now, I didn’t realize there was a separate entrance for each gender and had gone to the men’s door. Men were streaming out and none of them were looking at me!

Of course, they weren’t supposed to. They were lowering their gaze just as they should.

One of them finally sent his wife back to lead me to the other door. I was mortified! There would be many moments like this where I was simply clueless and grappling.

I progressed in fits and starts, sometimes getting the hang of things and sometimes backing off again, immersing myself in the way things used to be.

Goodbye, My Loves

At some point, I was ready to surrender the things of my former life. I traded my Chula skirt for an abaya and never looked back.

A couple of years ago, I was at a local festival with a friend and saw my old friends from the dance studio there entertaining the crowd. They ran over and hugged me and asked me to come back.

Meanwhile, at one of the tasting tables, I’d accidentally bitten into something with pork and spit it out while turning down yet another offer for beer.

Pork, beer, dancing, mixed gender group hugs? This event really showed how much I’d changed. This wasn’t my world anymore.

But what was my world now? I had managed to make myself a stranger everywhere!

It seemed I no longer fit in with my old crowd but I didn’t really fit in with the Muslims either. To some degree, I’d just have to get used to a state of limbo.

Islam meant more to me than all of the awkwardness and hardship and so I stuck with it, alhamdulilah. A lot of converts leave and while that’s sad, I can see why.

Gaining a foothold and integrating into the community isn’t easy.

Tragedy Strikes

I was stuck in an uneasy space between two worlds when tragedy struck on an unimaginable scale. And not just with a single blow but a long series of horrors.

I’ve written about this a few times before so I won’t belabor the point here. But what’s important is that all of this shattered me and then pulverized me into dust.

That’s really how it felt. But it was a chance to rebuild from the ground up, a new person in many ways.

American Degenerate

Because some of what happened I blamed on the filth and degeneracy of this society, I was ripe for a far more conservative version of Islam.

Feminists, in particular, were the objects of my wrath since I saw their social engineering project as largely responsible for wrecking my life. I still do, though I’ve expanded the list of culprits and thus diluted my hatred for them to some degree.

Islam was the answer, and not some nancy version that allowed me to somehow still sip beer and dance the tango. Real Islam which I was only beginning to understand.

Never Obsolete

I was convinced then as I am now that Islam is perfect guidance that everyone should strive to follow. There were reasons for those traditional moral values, and I could see it clearly now.

Lots of friends turned away once I rounded this corner. I don’t even remember “coming out” at first to my family and friends so I guess we can assume it was uneventful.

I hadn’t noticeably changed and that wouldn’t necessarily seem weird to Christians. How many of them divide the world and religion so completely you’d hardly even notice they’re believers?

To them, I suppose I’d just picked a new doctrine to more or less ignore. 🙂

But when I started preaching the gospel of conservatism and turned on the “liberal values” and secularism they so cherished, many of them said their goodbyes.

Goodbye, Old Friends

As for my part, I waived back and offered a cheerful farewell. Because I knew there was no way to bridge the differences now and I didn’t even want to try.

A few relationships did survive and still do to this day, alhamdulilah. Those are relationships I really cherish.

I’m not close to many people in my family anymore, especially the ones who feel the need to make snide comments. They want to know when I’m going to “take off that hood” or why I’d join such a “woman-hating, backward religion” in the first place. Sigh.

There’s nothing I can do about that. So I just turn away from them and don’t bother to hold a grudge.

You have some people who will stick by you and some who won’t. That’s just how it is.

But what I really needed was a community of Muslims. Not the kind who though Ramadan meant getting together to overeat and watch Hindi films without bothering to pray!

Practicing Muslims who could help me refine my understanding and practice.

Latifiya

At the time I was working in an office where I saw one lone hijabi roaming the halls now and then. When Ramadan rolled around, I asked someone on my team to introduce me to her.

I’d seen them working together on a project and through I felt a little awkward, I wanted to ask her to walk with me at lunch while we were fasting.

She agreed and we quickly became friends. At some point, she invited me to Latifiya which is a gathering where Muslims do dhikr and then listen to a short lecture.

Afterward, we usually stay for some conversation over tea and sweets. The first time I showed up I felt awkward, as usual, but I took an immediate liking to the women there.

And it was only the women since the gatherings are gender separate. A feature of our gatherings I came to love.

By this time I had a closet full of proper clothing and wore the headscarf. Which after countless tutorials, I could easily wrap and secure with just one or two pins, alhamduillah.

Patient and Kind

I still stumbled a bit with lots of the practices and was really shy about praying in front of anyone. Though I’d get over that soon enough because if you attend many gatherings, you are going to wind up praying together.

The best part about this group is they’ve never made me feel stupid. Not even once!

I could ask them anything and make countless mistakes and all they would do is patiently explain and coach me some more. That opened up the door for me to learn in comfort and safety.

I took refuge in that community for almost two years, attending our study circle on Saturday, Latifiya on Sunday, and Qur’an Khatm once a month. We also were together on holidays and for various outings.

I learned more in the first few months among them than I had in all the years prior. Now I feel completely comfortable around Muslims and struggle more when I’m with non-Muslims in mixed gender settings.

A few years ago I would have never thought that level of comfort among Muslims was possible. I get a reminder now and then of just how far I’ve come.

A Newbie

I guess it’s been a while now though the memory is fresh in my mind. A new convert showed up to Latifiya one Sunday and I saw myself in her.

She had tried to secure her hijab but her hair was sticking out. When you first learn, you might put in 19 pins and the thing is still slipping around driving you crazy. 🙂

sad dog

She was wearing nail polish and telling us about her dog and her boyfriend who happened to be in jail. I was thinking to myself how hard this transition was going to be for her.

We were patient with her and not at all critical even though she was pretty far off the mark on a lot of things. Finally one of the sisters (we’ll call her Aisha) explained to her that she doesn’t need to confess her sins to us.

She said Islam isn’t a confessional religion and you don’t need to confess to anyone besides Allah in private. All that really does is constitute more sin for possibly throwing off others and increase the witnesses against you on judgment day.

This woman looked puzzled. She really couldn’t make any sense of that at all and I could see why.

We formed a WhatsApp group for her and tried our best to bring her around but after a time or two more, she never came back. I felt bad and vowed to take more of a leading role if a newbie ever showed up again!

I think no one understands a convert like another convert. We need to support one another.

For me, it was bittersweet because I was sorry to see her go but realized that with the help of the sisters, I had come a long, long way, alhamdulilah.

Found and Lost Again

I’ve kind of lost touch with those Muslims I waited so long to find. The reason is more trauma and more trauma and more trauma!

If you read about what happens, people isolate themselves socially when bad things just keep happening. I don’t know exactly why though I know some of it has to do with experiential loneliness.

I’m down to voluntarily associating with just two people in real life (and a few others online). I don’t know how long this will last but I just can’t bring myself to talk to people anymore for the most part.

The last time I was at large gathering for Eid in 2017 a few days after someone tried to kill me. It was hard to be in a festive mood.

I didn’t tell anyone why I was upset. I just felt really awkward, in pain, and embarrassed and wanted to go home.

It was a wonderful gathering. Absolutely lovely with probably at least 100 guests and it should have been a great time for me had my circumstances been different.

So far I haven’t been able to return to any sort of social circle and barely keep in touch along the fringes.

Forever Muslim, Insha’Allah

Since Islam found me, I’ve gone through a lot of trials and tribulations. My enthusiasm and stamina have waxed and waned.

But I’ve never had a doubt and I’ve never regretted becoming a Muslim. In fact, I believe Islam is the best thing that’s ever happened to me by a long shot.

I get angry when hear people say they want to eradicate Islam. To me, they’re saying they want to sever my lifeline.

Without Islam and my Muslim friends, I don’t think I would have survived the darkest times.

I’m not sure if I could have pulled off a suicide, but I’m sure I would have considered it from time to time. Instead, I turned to Allah and found Him to be the only lasting comfort.

With All Of Your Heart

I really wanted to talk more about the spiritual side of Islam and what it means to me. But I find myself at a loss on that front.

How do you explain something like that? It’s a bit like trying to explain falling in love with someone.

What does that feel like exactly?

Do you get that feeling that your heart is dancing or just dropped into your stomach? Have you ever been so lovesick you couldn’t eat or sleep for days?

Well, you can tell someone all about that, but it’s not the same as experiencing it for yourself. There was an intellectual side to my awakening but that was more a side effect than the main event.

Suddenly I felt the presence of Allah and it felt as if I was reconnecting. A familiar feeling I’d unwittingly blocked for far too long.

After something like that happens, you want to love Allah with all of your heart forever, insha’Allah.

Conclusion

It’s done! At last, I’ve finally written my story.

I’m not going to change this first draft apart from fixing minor things like typos. Because too much editing blunts the sincerity and this is straight from the heart.

I’m writing stream of consciousness and I’m approaching 5,000 words now. If you stayed with me for this long, thank you! You’re a pillar of patience. 🙂

Now that I’ve gotten this off me “to do” list, I think it’s time to get back to my travel series. Next up is Malta.

So stop by and check that out, and have an awesome day. 🙂

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[…] Update: Read what happened in part 2 here.  […]

Gul Ghutae
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Gul Ghutae

Masha Allah Lenna. This is a beautiful journey. May Allah give you (& us) the strength to cling to this faith forever. You are an inspirational person, Alhamdulillah.
Stay blessed.