Bismillahi Rahman Ar-Raheem!
Alhamdulillah, we got the opportunity of interviewing another Muslimah- a revert to Islam who has beautifully explained her journey to Islam. Wallaahi, all the interviews we've done so far have really taught us a lot! From the honour of being a Muslim woman and the importance of our modesty, Imaan and taqwa to the difficulties reverts to Islam has to face and the value of our struggles for the Sake of Allah.... Subhanallah, it has all been exceptionally inspirational!
So, here's another lovely interview for all of you! I should have put it up on the blog at least a week ago, but anyway, here it is. Before we start on the interview, please check out the blog of the Muslimah we interviewed: Grace Through Tawbah. As interesting as this interview was, so is her blog. Do check it out, In Sha Allah.
To the interview now:
TELL US ABOUT YOUR JOURNEY TO ISLAM
Grace Through Tawbah: Bismillah ar-Rahman ar-Raheem
My journey to Islam was quite unexpected. I grew up in a devout Evangelical Protestant home, and at the age of 12 I had a bit of a faith crisis, started asking all the big questions "why am I here?" "how do I know my parents' religion is the right one?" "what are the chances that I happened to be born into one of the families on earth that was right?" etc. After reading a Christian doctor's explanation of how we know the Bible is reliable and preserved and the word of God, I settled back into my family's version of Christianity, and really fell in love with it. During my teenage years, I spent my summers teaching kids about the Christian gospel I loved so much, sometimes at my local church where we lived in the U.S., a couple summers back in French Canada where I grew up, and one trip to Kenya where I fell in love with the hot culture. Since childhood, my parents had read me stories about great missionaries of the past, and it was my dream to be a Christian missionary in a similar culture, whether Africa, the Middle East, India, South America anywhere, living in the culture I loved and sharing the gospel I loved. (Did I just use the word "love" five times??)
I've always been obsessed with studying languages, and one day an elder in our church gave me a beautiful green velvet-covered Qur'an with tiny gold plaques on the front, as a souvenir from a business trip to Saudi Arabia. I opened it, all excited, and found that the words inside, although it was the most beautiful script I'd ever seen, were unreadable. So I had to learn it. I went online and looked up resources to learn Arabic, and began studying via websites where I met dozens of Arab Muslims. Our conversations inevitably turned to theology, and while I didn't learn much Arabic, I was determined to convince them that Christianity was the truth and the only way to heaven and God. That was in late 2009.
As we spoke, they began questioning things in ways I'd never thought of before, or questioning things that I'd always wondered about myself, but buried deep down because I was happy in my faith and certain it was right, so I didn't want to worry about the questions. Questions about the Trinity vs tawheed, questions about the preservation of the Bible, questions about forgiveness through blood vs through repentance, questions about original sin and total depravity. By the time September of 2010 rolled around, I had gone from die-hard Christian to almost certain that Christianity was wrong, and though I still wasn't completely convinced of Islam, and still had many questions about it, I was amazed enough by its beauty to give it a try. And being an impulsive, head-strong, naive 18 year old, "giving it a try" meant finding a husband and running away to the Middle East, so that I could be fully immersed in Islam, and study it from the inside out. So I did, and two and a half years later, I've had every question answered and more, and remain very enthusiastic about studying both religions and learning to explain the differences between the two, and the shortcomings of my old faith.
Grace Through Tawbah: I'd like to say it's some virtue like humility or haya or something, but that's a work in progress. I think the biggest change has been opening my mind, learning that no matter how right one way seems to me, I've been wrong before - very wrong - and I need to remember that, when I disagree with others. Whether it's being open-minded and willing to go wherever the evidence leads in a matter of fiqh/madh'habs/jurisprudence, e.g. whether niqab is compulsory, or music is forbidden etc., or whether it's learning not to generalize and lump people together when sitting down with someone of a completely different religion, and learning to respect them and get to know their beliefs, and distinctions in schools of thought, so I can deal with them in the best way, I'd like to think I've come a long ways since my days as a die-hard Calvinist. Just like we don't appreciate non-Muslims lumping us together with Sufis and Shiites and Ahmadiyyas etc., and find it a breath of fresh air to sit down with someone who understands and respects those differences, and can address us intelligently, I'm learning to take the time to get to know those distinctions in other religions, and above all, get to know the people behind them, and love and respect them, regardless of their beliefs, so that we can engage each other in dialogue effectively.
Grace Through Tawbah: Sure! I wasn't aware there even was a religion called "Islam" until probably middle school/high school when I had to write a paper on it. When 9/11 happened, we still hadn't moved to the U.S. and it really wasn't a big deal in our community - I didn't know who the alleged perpetrators were, or anything about their supposed ideology. But the veil was something I was aware of from a very young age. Whether it was the women in our Bible story books and Jesus movie that wore them, or the harems of gorgeous Arabian women covering all but one eye in Aladdin-type story books, I thought it was absolutely beautiful. When I was very little - maybe 5 or 6 - I used to take my towel after bath-time, or a scarf, and try different niqab and khimar styles in the mirror, and I always dreamed of playing Mary in the church Christmas pageant, because she got to wear a long khimar-like veil.
For some reason - fitrah I guess :) - I was entranced by its elegance and femininity, and when I began learning about Islam, and realized that this beautiful tradition was still practiced, I got this wild idea that maybe I could actually wear it someday, though it would look pretty weird on a Christian :) About halfway through this period of learning, while I was slowly drifting away from Christianity, I read an article on a Muslim website about why hijab with niqab is preferable to hijab without, and I decided that if I ever converted, I would wear the niqab. And sure enough, three months after I decided to try Islam, I moved to Egypt, and the very next day, before going out to enroll in Arabic classes, I told my fiance's cousin's wife, who I was staying with, also a niqabi, that I wanted to wear niqab/abaya. She dressed me up and I haven't wanted to go back since :)
Grace Through Tawbah: The first verses, believe it or not, were also the first verses that God revealed to Muhammad, in surah al 'alaq, (96), "Recite in the name of your Lord who created, created man from a clinging substance, recite, and your Lord is the most Generous, Who taught by the pen, taught man that which he knew not." I was reading it for the paper I mentioned earlier, that I wrote in my first year of high school, explaining why the Christian God and Allah are different
At the time, I was completely close-minded, knew nothing about Islam, and simply quoted what other Christians had to say about it (e.g. that it was a pagan moon-god religion), and I firmly believed the Qur'an was from the devil. So even though I noticed a strange rhythm about it, I chalked that up to its satanic origin, and read as little as possible for the paper, focusing on verses like "...most of [the writers of the Bible] follow naught but conjecture. Surely conjecture will not avail aught against the Truth." (10:36) and "...the Christians say: [Jesus] is the son of Allah. These are the words of their mouths. They imitate the saying of those who disbelieved before. Allah’s curse be upon them! How they are turned away!”" (9:30) I was quoting them simply to get my point across, and never stopped to think about their claims.
When I later was re-introduced to Islam by the Muslims I'd met, and began studying Islam more seriously, I focused more on the logical aspects of doctrine and the verses that spoke to them, as well as asking about verses that Christians claimed were contradictory or fallacious (like the Qur'an supposedly claiming the Trinity is God, Jesus, and Mary, or the "verse of the sword" that people claim means Muslims are called to kill all unbelievers, etc.), rather than reading the Qur'an as a whole. So I really didn't know it very well until I started taking Arabic and tajweed classes in Egypt, and was able to read it in Arabic for myself. At which point I realized it had to be divine, there's no way it could come from an illiterate man. I've since taken the opportunity to read it from cover to cover, and Nouman Ali Khan's tafseer lectures have also been invaluable in helping me make sense of the chaotic translations, and the brilliance of the book (yes, that's the name of one of his lectures, check it out!)
Grace Through Tawbah: I never told them about my study of Islam leading up to my conversion, because my parents would never have allowed me to speak with Muslims - or any strangers - online. Which is good parenting, but being a headstrong teenager, I went ahead anyways, since hey, I was going to convert them all, right? :) I asked my parents from time to time about things that didn't make sense - original sin, the Trinity, etc. - but when I pressed the issue, they would just get annoyed, thinking I was trying to debate for the sake of debate, and didn't really doubt the doctrines. So when I got to the point of leaving Christianity and deciding to give Islam a try, they had no idea, and I had no idea how to break it to them, because I knew it would turn our family upside-down, to say nothing of my grandparents and aunts and uncles (one side missionaries, Bible school directors, church elders and such, the other side Bible-belt, southern Baptist, KJV-only kind of people). So I kept quiet.
But, having finished high school, the huge pressure to go to Bible school, and the huge pressure of leading a double life (Christian at home and church, Muslim at work and school), made me decide to do something drastic, and just leave it all, find a husband abroad among the Muslims I'd met online, and move to his country and get married (again, crazy teenage reasoning). Right up until the flight, I was still lying awake at night, trying to figure out how on earth to break it to them that I was Muslim, let alone engaged and moving to another country, and in the end, they found out about my planned move via Facebook before I could tell them.
So the reaction was more damage control, trying to convince me I'd be sold into slavery or murdered if I went through with it, and when they realized in the following week that I wasn't just moving, but I'd converted, it was also somewhat more damage control, trying to convince me to stay and talk with church leaders about my doubts. I went ahead and moved anyways, and after a week or so, spoke to them with my fiance about our marriage. They said they'd suspected it by then, and ended up coming to Egypt with my father's two brothers for the wedding party a month or so later. We ended up cancelling it and evacuating them because of the Revolution, but the initial reaction that first week,of complete devastation and heartbreak and ruined lives, while it was horrible at first, eventually subsided and we're slowly re-learning to live together with our different faiths and practices.
Grace Through Tawbah: I'd tell them something along the lines of the cliche expression "you're entitled to your own opinion, but not your own facts". Whether or not you're "in the market" for a religion, I encourage you to learn about the belief systems out there, if for no other reason than to relate better to those who hold them, and have a better foundation for explaining to them - and yourself - why you believe what you believe. And have a little intellectual honesty. Don't write off valid questions or apparent inconsistencies within your own belief system - attack them head-on, and don't evaluate other belief systems based on what you hear from those who hate it, or from the media, or from any other negatively biased source. Go to the religion's texts themselves, and those who are qualified to answer questions you may have about those texts. And read the texts in context - you can come up with the most absurd and horrific teachings when you pull bits of phrases out of their literary and historical contexts.
Islam teaches there is One God, and we are created to worship Him, and that God showed us the importance and means of doing this through various prophets, from Abraham, to Moses, to David, to Jesus, and finally Muhammad, to whom was given a divine Book, whose beauty far surpasses anything written by man, let alone an illiterate one. This Book chronicles the successes and failures of those who went before, explains the gravity of worshiping or failing to worship our Creator using heaven and hell as frames of reference, tangible, physical outcomes of our actions that allude to the all-consuming importance of God, and all is preserved in a literary form which protects it from future corruption. Because every single aspect of life is addressed, there are no questions about what God wants from us, and every single moment is turned into an opportunity to worship Him. Study it. You will find it sensible, appealing to the most natural logic and reason, a religion which stands for justice for the oppressed, liberation for the enslaved, and peace for mankind.
Grace Through Tawbah: Well, above all, remember that you may be the only Muslim that the aggressor ever speaks to, so be prepared to explain not only your veil, but your very religion, to anyone who asks, whether they are trying to insult you, or honestly curious. Read about the character of our Prophet, salAllahu 'alayhi wa salam, especially a book like "Enjoy Your Life" by Sheikh Muhammad Al-'Arifi, to learn from our Prophet's example of the most excellent way to deal with people, including those who mock and insult us.
And when it happens, put those principles into practice. Stand up for yourself, yes, but in a respectful, honorable way, and use the opportunity to spread the message of Islam through your actions, and if possible, your words. From the moment I stepped off the plane moving back to the U.S., I've had dozens of strangers make comments, yell insults, offer words of encouragement, or address questions about the veil and Islam to me (I've compiled a few here), and good or bad, I try not to let them leave with the same view of Islam and Muslim women that they held before our encounter. And if you don't feel up to the task of facing harsh words alone, make sure you bring someone with you when you go out (especially a good idea with the surge in anti-Muslim violence recently).
Grace Through Tawbah: I think it's because we've developed a wrong mindset about Islam. It's so easy to look at Islam as a long list of arbitrary rules that limit our freedom of expression, and ask why would God really care what I wear? When we think about Islam this way, we're going to find every way we can to explain away the "rules", or ignore them completely, because our priorities are wrong. Our only purpose on this earth is to worship our Creator. That's it. Period. And every one of those "rules" are incredibly wise guidelines that will not only make us happier, more peaceful, more successful individuals, but allow us to turn every action and moment into worship.
And as soon as we approach Islam with this mindset, and make worship our only purpose and goal in life, get rid of all our other whims and desires, like being fashionable/pretty/attractive/
sexy/etc., we'll find it easier to embrace what's evident in the Qur'an and sunnah. And the hijab is evident. Without going into whether the face veil is mustahabb worship (highly recommended) or fard worship (required), the Qur'an clearly mandates the jilbab (Qur'an 33:59) to cover the whole body loosely, and the khimar (Qur'an 24:31) to cover the chest. God didn't leave any doubt that our entire bodies are to be covered, and in loose garments that hide our form.
And in an era where women's bodies are objectified by society at large, their sexuality exploited to unprecedented degrees, their beauty held to increasingly unrealistic standards, and their value reduced to how successfully their appearance meets those standards, nothing makes more sense than to liberate oneself from it completely, by taking our bodies out of the picture entirely, and forcing the focus onto the truly important aspects of a woman, that make her valuable, and make her human - her intellect and character. You only need to look at the billion-dollar pornography, plastic surgery, makeup, fashion, diet, and advertising industries to see how great a problem this is. To say nothing of the very practical reasons for wearing it, two of which are given in the Qur'an, namely identity and protection - the clear identification of the woman as an honorable and respectable woman, and a Muslim one, and the protection of her sexuality by removing it from the public eye.
Grace Through Tawbah: I honestly don't have one, or even a favourite passage. I've never had one jump out at me when I'm reading, that sticks with me more than any other. I know it's a cliche answer, but every single verse is loaded with wisdom, and beauty, and meaning, and application for daily life, and to wrench it out of its context, or favor it over any other seems like an exercise in futility. Boring answer, I know :)
Grace Through Tawbah: You're blessed. You're blessed with truth, and you're blessed with the knowledge of why you're here, the very purpose of your existence. Don't waste it. Regardless of your situation here in this life, you hold the keys to success in the afterlife. Don't waste them. You've been given the opportunity to live the most wonderful, beautiful, coherent, comprehensive lifestyle known to mankind. Don't waste it. Make every moment count for eternity. Worship the One who created you.
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Inspirational, wasn't it? Jazakallah khair for all your answers sister! May Allah bless you and reward you with the Jannah and fill your life with peace and happiness. Do make Du'aa for her. We're sure that you would have learnt many beneficial things from this, so the least we can do to thank her is make Du'aa for her :)
If you have missed our other interviews, you can check it out here:
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