I do not spend a lot of time thinking about being a Muslim. It is so much a part of my life that I just don’t think about it any longer. But it has been a very rocky road, and on some of those rocks I have ended my relationship with Islam – and yet hearing its siren’s call I have returned time and again. In every case where I have become disillusioned and set aside my faith, it was not because of the religion, it was not because I did not believe enough … no, in each case where I walked away from Islam for a period it was because of people. Other Muslims and their behavior and their judgment and their petty nastiness, these things did more to disillusion me as a convert than anything else.
Within the American Islamic experience we have many people that come to the faith curious and eager to learn more about it. A percentage of these people also decide that this religion speaks to their soul in some fashion and decide to convert and make Islam their own. And within that percentage that converts is another percentage that Muslim communities in America never want to talk about and that is the converts that walk right back out or after a brief stay walk out the back door never to be seen again.
And within converts to Islam, including myself, I have met many that came to the faith and at some point walked away – but never actually left the religion. Rather they left the community or mosque but keep their faith to themselves in their homes and associate only minimally with the larger Muslim world.
Abandonment of culture
Within days of saying my Shahadah, I was treated like I had performed some sort of miracle. Everyone came to me and slapped me on the back and shook my hand and said, “Mashallah!” And yet, a week later when I stood in the musalla attempting to figure out how to pray a man came up and yelled at me for not praying correctly. I told him I had just converted and that nobody had shown me how to do this. A which point he simply yelled at me more for not knowing what I was doing! Apparently people in the mosque assumed since I had taken Shahadah that I automatically downloaded the “being a Muslim” app. I was met with shocked disbelief from some at the mosque when I approached them and told them I needed to learn how to be a Muslim. I was “adopted” by an Egyptian man who then explained to me that in order to be a good Muslim I had to be a good Arab. Thus I grew a beard, began wearing a thobe and kufi everywhere, and essentially became someone else. I believe this happens a lot in our mosques – a convert is encouraged to become Arab-like or Desi-like because that is what many immigrant Muslims believe Islam is. When I decided to visit a mosque across town that was formerly part of the Nation of Islam (by then part of Imam WD Muhammad’s movement) I was told that they were unbelievers and that I should be careful because they were not to be trusted. I found them in fact to be among the kindest Muslims in the community.
It took a long time for me to realize that I came from a culture of my own and that I could wear what clothes I wanted and that I could approach my faith from any angle I wanted. When I began dressing in Western clothes again and cut off my beard there were immediately whispers that I was abandoning the faith. For many converts the worst struggle they deal with is their family. Many converts face hostility and derision at home from their parents or extended family for converting, especially if the family has an existing strong faith already. Becoming someone they are not or adopting a culture they are not can irreparably fracture their relationship with their family.
You’re doing it wrong
From the moment I became a Muslim and continuing down to today I have had a long line of men (and I know the women do it too) at the mosques I’ve attended who feel it is their duty to point out that I am doing something wrong in regards to their Madhhab or personal experience. I quickly tired of, “Brother when you were doing your salaat you held your hands in this position, when you really need to hold them in this other way.” Or even worse was the scolding, “Brother, when the Imam mentioned that our lines should be straight for prayer, I noticed your big toe was a full inch further ahead of everyone else’s. This is displeasing to Allah.” This is extremely frustrating for a convert. He or she is trying to learn and do what is best in Islamic practice and to have contradictory information given to them or information based not on actual Islamic understanding but on someone’s lifetime of personal practice that may or may not be correct can be maddening. For me this even manifested itself in Mecca! I was doing Umrah and was in the Haram circling the Kaaba. Before I even arrived I had read a book on what to do and what the rituals were. And yet as I wore my ihram and circled the Kaaba I had brothers repeatedly coming up to me as I tried to pray and physically switch my ihram from one shoulder to the other depending on which shoulder they believed it should be on. After having it switched 4 times I was deeply frustrated. I hope it did not affect my prayers or my Umrah.
This type of correction or teaching is in many cases innocuous, well meaning and harmless. But it can also be very confusing and gives the convert the impression that Muslims themselves have no idea what to do or how to practice their own faith. I even saw a fistfight break out between two brothers who were each trying to correct me in contradictory ways. Both were convinced that their way was correct and then words like “idiot” and “kafir” were thrown around and then they ended up beating each other up right inside the mosque. Nothing will drive a convert away from Islam faster then contradictory information and fighting between Muslims.
Everyone wants to hear your conversion story. And the juicier and more salacious it is the better it is. When I would tell my conversion story I could almost see the men and women sitting with rapt attention with buckets of popcorn between them like they were watching a movie. Yes, I came to Islam through both a spiritual path but also from a past that included many mistakes and wrong turns. What I found in the Muslim community is that everyone wanted to hear my story, but through hearing my story it became a boogieman. Things Muslims tell their children at night, “Don’t do drugs, you heard what happened to that man at the mosque.” So while I was lauded for having made a break with my past and embracing Islam – the story served as a way to make me an “other” at the same time. Not really fully Muslim because I came from outside and did non-Muslim things.
For some converts the attention they get after they convert can be almost like becoming a rock star. They speak at engagements. They tell their story. They are invited to Islamic conferences. For the first time in their lives many converts feel really loved by a community. But it has a double edge, they want your story they will clap and smile. But when you come to ask if you can marry their son or daughter they will tell you no because of your past.
You were never really a Muslim
For many converts they are forever treated like they are an anomaly or like a curiosity. In America as a white convert I get this a lot from both Muslims and non-Muslims. Non-Muslims say, “How can you be a Muslim? You’re white!” And among some Muslims at mosques they are always suspicious of you. I walked into a largely African-American mosque once and everyone turned and stared at me. I prayed and then stayed to listen to the lecture that a scholar was giving. Afterwards I was asked repeatedly how long I had been a Muslim and did I work for the FBI/CIA/insert any governmental agency! I always wonder at what point I actually get to just be a Muslim. How many years does it take before the community accepts me? I am sure that African-American converts at largely Arab or Desi mosques have experienced this in some fashion too. I in no way want to make it about race, but only to point out my experience with this. But at the end of the day our mosques have a race problem, one that goes unacknowledged. I will write on that another day. When you alienate someone it makes him or her less likely to come back and contributes to their leaving.
Even when a convert finds a good mosque or good community and settles in and is happy trouble may come. Depending on the structure of the administration of the mosque, I have seen very good mosques self-destruct. American mosques have imploded due to conflicts over hiring Imams, whether the Imam is the head of the mosque, where money is allocated, who handles the money, if there are religious classes who decides what is taught, etc. We face a real crisis with our mosques because the people who in many cases run them or administrate them have had no formal training in parliamentary procedure, debate rules, financial bookkeeping, etc. For converts it can appear to be like watching keystone kops with everyone running around yelling and slamming into each other. And in many cases members of the community with experience in these areas are discounted or not invited to be in the administration.
Converts will be frustrated and despondent if the mosque they have come to love and to attend on a regular basis descends into anarchy, name calling, and in some extreme cases legal action. I have seen converts walk away from their mosques (if not their faith) over this and never return.
So I have laid out some various things that I have seen cause problems for converts and in some cases lead to them leaving Islam altogether. How do we counter this? Well in some of the above cases it is as simple as, “don’t do it”. If you are tempted to correct every Muslim you see because you think they are doing something very minor wrong, maybe you need to channel those energies into something else. Islam will not fall apart tomorrow because someone makes their prayers with their hands by their waist as opposed to their chest. When you meet a convert don’t immediately ask for their conversion story, get to know them as an individual and my guess is that at some point in the friendship they will tell it themselves in an organic way.
But there are some very specific things that mosques can and should do. One is to work out either within their mosque or by teaming up with others who share your mission a curriculum for teaching new converts the basics of Islam. How to pray, help them memorize a few surahs, perhaps even have a class for their family (parents, wives, husbands, etc.) that tells them what Islam is in a way that makes them understand the journey that their loved one has taken. The class need not be cumbersome and does not need to go into massive detail – the convert once they are comfortable with daily practice can take more advanced classes later.
Another thing a mosque can do is investing a little money in sending their board members (if they have a board) or administrators to some sort of leadership training. So they can learn debate, voting procedures, how to do consensus building. I realize that many mosques have very tiny budgets but this one thing could actually save many mosques from conflict later down the road.
During the course of the time I have been a Muslim I have walked away from mosques and even from Islam on 3 occasions. In each of those occasions I walked away not because of Islam, but because of Muslims. And I came back in each case because I remembered or God helped me to remember that the reason I became Muslim was because Islam spoke to my soul. It was a beautiful song that resonated with my being. I did not convert for Muslims or to impress anyone about my faith, I did it for myself, my inner self. And that brings me back home to Islam every time.
If we want to embrace our converts and do more then simply say, “Mashallah!” and “Allahu Akbar” when they convert, we need to see our own faults and work to correct them and also work to fix the issues that hamper the inclusion of converts into our mosques and communities. If we are one Ummah as we claim, then we have a lot of work to do and we should do it to help others.
Editor’s note: Alan Howard is an operations manager with a Silicon Valley based Fortune 500 company. He works closely with Islamic organizations in Georgia and nationally. The views in this article are his own.