Hatice A. Hatipoğlu - World Bulletin Indiana
When we come across a story of an American, a European, or an Asian who became Muslim, we would read it with full of curiosity. We would have the feeling of pride and achievement, because he or she made the right decision, and chose ‘my religion’. However, this feeling is a delusion which causes us to exalt ourselves. Is it us, our religion, or Allah who makes people to convert Islam?
All conversion stories should lead us to go beyond our ordinary understanding about Islam and rebuild our bond with Quran. This was the grounds of my intention to conduct interviews with my American friends whom I met in the Islamic Center of Bloomington, where people from all over the world gather. I wondered if I could realize a different aspect of Islam, from a different angle of view, by listening their first experiences of reading Quran, prayer and fasting. I want to share their unique stories, because I felt that their answers to my questions are not the kind of answers that a Muslim born person can give.
Both John and Matt were students at Indiana University. Hearing their journey to Islam was really inspiring. The experiences of Anna and Erica are different, because they were already married to Muslim spouses when they converted. Here are their stories:
Hatice A. Hatipoğlu: I am sure you would be asked this question many times by Muslims but for the real curiosity and for the learning of a different angle of view, would you like to tell us what triggered you to become a Muslim? Can you describe the decision you made?
John: I think my eventual acceptance of Islam was a culmination of multiple things that eventually led me to finding my place and belief in God. I became an atheist from a very early age, maybe seven, and spent my entire youth defining myself as someone who didn't believe in God. This belief I think spawned from family issues and my difficulties going to a faith based school. I rejected their teachings not because I did not necessarily like what religion teaches at its core (being a good person and helping other people not for the sake of yourself and being seen, but to help people because they need it), but from its close mindedness, at least that was my own personal experience.
Many people would be astonished to find out that Islam "came" to North America in the 15th century, thanks to an explorer by the name of Estevanico. Then much later as slaves from Africa came, studies suggest that between 15-25% were indeed Muslims. While their faith did carry on for many generations, they still left an impact. Many of the Muslims who were sold into slavery to the West were scholars and haviz and thus were able to learn the language of their captures. Their stories were known throughout much of the South among slaves and then later African Americans (I would suggest looking up Abdul Rahman Ibrahim ibn Sori and Omar ibn Said to start with).
Decades later new religions movements that took a heavy influence began to pop up in the North (New Jersey, Detroit) which would later become the Moorish Science Temple and the Nation of Islam. While many would argue that these movements are unislamic due to their acknowledgement of new Prophets, "orthodox" (or whatever that even means...) Islam is quite apparent in their practices. These movements attracted many African Americans (as they were Black Nationalist movements that were able to attract people through spirituality) who thus joined. (as an aside, I would argue that these people indeed knew Islam and the Quran of Prophet Muhammad (saw), but could not preach this type of Islam to the people because it was so foreign and different their their lives and thus they would not accept it. If it was changed, they would be able to accept it). Many of the aforementioned people who joined these groups would eventually come to accept Sunni or Shia Islam. These people were prominent members of the African American community who people followed and believed them as civil rights leaders and leaders for our country in the 20th century. As a result, they became popular in pop culture and eventually through music, literature and film.
This is where my story begins to form. I had always heard about things about Islam through mainly hip hop music, literature and to a small extent film. This is where the seed of Islam was planted in my brain. I also read Malcolm X's autobiography (or a version for young adults) at this time and became very sympathetic to his cause and who he was a person. He might have been my first hero that was not an athlete. Moving forward a bit, when I was in high school I visited East Africa with my mother and saw Islam in a Muslim majority land. I had always known that Islam was not what the media was saying (this is post 9/11 America), but had no idea about it. I was interested in reading about it from a more anthropological standpoint, just to learn for myself what was really going on here. I then realized that I held many of the same core tenants that Muslims had (not drinking, not eating pork, as I did not eat meat at all, justice, brother and sisterhood, not being promiscuous and so on). I think the most difficult thing was iman. One day in high school a friend of mine knew I was interested in Islam (he was Muslim, but more by name that practice, though I don't know if this should even be said, as only God knows what is in his heart) and asked me if I wanted to attend cuma namaz with him when we had a Friday off from school. I accepted his invitation. To this day I cannot remember what the Imam said that afternoon, but I remember sitting there crying because I felt that the Imam had known I was coming (he did not) and knew all of the immediate questions I had. I felt that my whole world had been shook and everything I once believed (or perhaps everything I refused to believe in ) was now incorrect. This was a very difficult period of my life, as I then and still am a prideful person. I do not want to be wrong or feel that I was wrong.
Matt: I am very happy that you chose the word "triggered" in asking what made me convert to Islam. Trigger implies that it was a sudden change from one state to another, I had never heard of Islam before and it was introduced to me while I was searching for the truth. I did not particularly like anything about it and I was shocked that the Muslims did not accept Jesus as the son of God. I however was attracted to learn about Islam because I wanted to help Muslims understand that Islam is not true and that they needed to believe Jesus is the son of God. Now what triggered my heart to change was not that I became convinced as a result of research and listening to debates, I was triggered by the first time I heard the basmallah (بسم الله الرحمان الرحيم). I opened a lecture and it began with a recitation of this beautiful prayer and I was very moved in my heart! I quickly replayed these few words several times until I was able to repeat it as best as I could. So after that I would go around my day saying بسم الله الرحمان الرحيم and I knew that I was in love with Islam and wanted to follow this religion. This is a beautiful proof for the superiority of zikr allah over intellectual effort, at least in my opinion.
Anna: When I was 18 years old, I met my husband at IU. We were both undergraduates, he a sophomore, and me a freshman. I wanted to learn more about religion in general, and about my boyfriend's religion specifically. I put it off for a while because I was busy with school work and side jobs, etc., but I finally started reading the Qur'an when I did an internship abroad in France my junior summer. I had tried to read the Qur'an before, but I was trying to read it cover to cover (and getting through Al-Bakara is not easy!). This time I just picked a random page and read a page or so every night. It didn't take very long for me to see where this was going to lead (my conversion). I had never read anything so true before, and so beautiful and so right and so perfect and without contradiction. I had never been so touched by words on a page as if the author knew me inside and out when He wrote them. I was very quickly convinced that it was God's Word and converted the last week or so of my stay in France (so it only took about 8 weeks). It was just so clearly the truth - I had no other choice! And it is the best choice I have ever made, and I am so grateful that God signaled to me and pulled me into his light because I was utterly lost without him and fear the thought of what I would have become had He never reached out.
Erica: It was a long process for me but one of the most substantial triggers was the experience of Ramadan. I fasted during Ramadan for almost 10 years before I decided to do Shahadah. Also, I felt like I needed to experience religion more fully. This gave me tools to get through transitions in my life, especially the death of my mother.
Depending on how many months/years you have been Muslim, can you tell us about your very first experience of Ramadan, first fasting, and also your first prayer? What do they mean to you?
John: My first experience with Ramazan was quite difficult. I was alone in Bloomington for my first year of university and didn't know many Muslims. I was fasting alone, though I didn't even really know how to fast. I was learning much of my Islam from books, the internet (which can be a very horrible place to learn about religion) and a podcast series from New York University called ICNYU (Islamic Center of NYU). I think this podcast really helped me, as the Imam was speaking to a Muslim American audience, who like myself, go through the same trials and tribulations. My second year in Bloomington I finally became humble enough to visit the mosque in Bloomington. There I was lucky enough that some new Turkish IEP students saw that I was American (I think i look quite American... or so they say) and wanted to practice their English with me. Then invited me to their homes and this was the beginning of a new chapter in my life (and perhaps the best). I learned so much from them (and still continue to do) about not only religion, but how to be a good person for the sake of humanity.
As far as what Ramadan means to me, it is a chance for me to step away and outside of myself to remember God and his power and that we depend on him for everything in our lives, even the things that we cannot see or understand. (sorry, kind of a boring and cliché answer).
I can't really remember my first namaz. I just remember printing out something from the library that had everything in Arabic and its transliteration. It took me months to memorize everything and was quite frustrating at first, but I eventually got ahold of it. Studying Arabic for a year my sophomore year helped quite a bit.
Matt: When I first began to pray as a Muslim I was living with my father and had not told him about my accepting Islam and becoming a Muslim. So I would wake up in the morning and sneak to the basement and make my prayers holding a paper with the Arabic transliteration. I did this for about 2 weeks until I told my father and he said he is not disappointed but wishes I spoke with him more before I converted; now however he loves islam and has even came to Friday prayer and joined the Muslims in prayer twice.
My first Ramadan was very hard because I was working jobs that had me outside in the hot sun and the days are very long where I live so you will be fasting from 4:30 am to 9pm. But I was able to do it Alhamdolillah. The amazing thing I learned about fasting is that it brings your focus onto yourself more clearly and you are able to observe your bad character traits and ask Allah to forgive you. Ramadan is a time to rest and when Allah gives us another chance and it's a blessing.
Anna: My first time fasting, I was not yet Muslim. I fasted a few days with my husband during Ramadan and felt very accomplished indeed! My first Ramadan was just after I had converted (a month or two after), and I completed it start to finish. I'm sure you know the feeling of how clear your head becomes and how easy it is to think and connect with God when you're fasting. It was such a nice way to begin my journey as a Muslim. It was the first time I felt as if I had showed God my gratitude properly, even in the smallest, tiniest amount for all the beauty in my life, that I had never been properly grateful for before. The first time I prayed, I was in France and didn't know how to pray. I had seen my husband pray, and tried to just copy what I had seen (I of course was completely wrong and was probably not even facing the right direction). However, it felt important to me, and I wanted to bow down before God, so I spent a lot of it prostrating. It was a good first prayer - sort of like a contract. "I am yours now," I was saying, and I knew He heard me.
Erica: Though I hadn't converted, my first experience with Ramadan was almost 17 years ago. It was during the winter so the length of fasting was much shorter. My first prayer was a quiet event with my husband and children. Both are moments of peace in my heart.
From a community perspective, what is the value of Ramadan to your family, friends, and non-Muslims as well?
John: I think for me the value of the community is multi layered. Ramadan is great because I can see many of my friends every night in the cami, eat with them and talk. But at times it is quite frustrating. I feel that many of the people here take advantage of their community and the few permanent residents here that rely and depend on this mosque and call it home. Living in a college town means that we have people come and go and do not see this place as home. They think about home and realize that the mosques will always be there since the community there is Muslim majority or something close to it. As a result they don't think about the hard work and volunteering that must be done since we do not have the funding to employ an Imam or a staff to clean and take care of the mosque.
I also dislike how the community here is spread among nationality. While I can understand and appreciate the need to feel close to your fellow countrymen when in a foreign land to feel comfortable and not alone, a great chance is wasted to meet different people from different places who have different experiences and ideas. We can learn so much from each other, though we are not willing to step out of our comfort zone to listen to new things or get over language difficulties we might have. As God says in Surah Al Hujurat, "Oh mankind we have created you... into tribes/nations so that you may know one another" which the important part here being "so that you may know one another". We are not taking full advantage to know one another, in my own opinion.
Matt: I have been Muslim for 7 years now; I live in a town with a very very small Muslim community and most of the community are university students so there is always a transition of new people coming and the old ones leaving. So for myself and many converts Ramadan is not an easy time because we are lacking any real Muslim community in the United States, but we are still developing as Muslims in this country and forging our own American Muslim identity. This will take some time and right now it is sad for me to see some of the friends I know who are also converts leaving the fast and also leaving the prayer because there is not any viable community support for us.
Anna: Well, Ramadan is an interesting time because my husband's family is Muslim, but my family and most of our friends are not. I spend a lot of time saying, "Yes, I don't even drink water," and "Actually it IS healthy to fast," and explaining to people that they can still invite me to events with food - I won't be offended. All of this aside however, fasting makes me feel closer to God. Not just in the way that is inherent to fasting, but also in the way that it makes me look inward and away from all of the eating that everyone around me is doing. I feel distant from those who eat, as if a veil has been drawn between us, and I fear for them on the other side of the veil because I feel so close to God and what is true and right on my side. It scares me and makes me feel whole at the same time. I wish everyone would fast.
Erica: As each year goes by Ramadan gains more and more meaning for me and all those around me. I am gaining more friends and connections in our Masjid and my non Muslim friends and family are gaining knowledge as I explain what Ramadan is.
How did you feel when you first read Quran? Since it is sometimes hard to understand the value of Qur'an to us as a Muslim born person, how do you define or articulate the influence of the Quran on yourself, your personal life and your social life?
John: My first experience reading Quran was strange. I was doing it alone (in English) without anyone guiding me or to help me understand what God is really trying to say to us. Many new converts I feel get lost in this and as a result feel as though they are understanding what God is saying on their own, without having any background knowledge on WHY God was saying these things at this time. This is where extremism comes from and how new Muslims are very easily taken into this mind frame... a lot of it comes from our inability to ask for help out of fear of being perceived as stupid or ignorant (this is nafs... we must control it and ask for help!).
God forgive me, but my knowledge of the Quran is not as deep as I would like it to be. There are some verses that my eyes have only read once or twice. But there are others that I am constantly reminded of thanks to things that I see in my daily life that remind me of them, or from the words of others who are my knowledgable than me. But I think, as a Muslim, the Quran is always there for me, even after I neglect it. My struggle to read in Arabic still continues today, but thanks to others I have been able to read faster and with more accuracy. That being said, when I hear Quran in Arabic from someone I feel something in my chest or heart that is indescribable. As humans, we are left without words to explain our true feelings. For example, if you love someone with all of your heart, you cannot explain this feeling in words to others. When we fall in love, those first moments we have with that person we are in love with, these feelings cannot be explained or described. Even if we do, we do not do them justice. I think this might be the best way for me to describe hearing Quran. As far as reading it in English, I am always moved by God's foresight into the future and his ability to know how to evoke emotion, yet command us at the same time.
Matt: The Quran is the key to coming close to Allah and the Prophet peace be upon him is the key to coming close to the Quran. I knew I loved the Quran and I would read the transliteration in order to memorize the Arabic as best as I was able. Then I took an Arabic course at university and learned to read in 3 weeks and have been working to improve my ability to recite Quran since then. Reciting the Quran in Arabic even if you are not understanding is something very very powerful because the words that Allah spoke to His Beloved Messenger are coming onto our tongues and from our tongues the sound vibrations affect our consciousness and our hearts. To me the Quran is something so outstanding that I am deeply in love with it and feel a longing for it all the time, it's something that nothing on earth compares to. Just to be able to recite the same words that were also recited on the tongue and lips of our Master and leader Prophet Muhammad peace be upon him it is such an honor for us that Allah kept this book preserved and not changed. The Quran is something that has deep meanings like endless oceans and it is all there for anyone who is willing to sacrifice their ego and be humble before Allah and his Messenger peace be upon him. The Quran has changed my life because I never want to go a day without reciting it and being with Allah.
Anna: I kind of answered this already since it is such a big part of my conversion story. To put it simply, it was like a lightbulb went off, and I suddenly understood everything in the world that I already had understood, but differently than before. And better. Much better. The Qur'an changed my life, and I knew I could never un-read it or go back. Now in my personal life, I try to make every choice based on the words within it (although I'm sure I often fail), and I frequently discuss what it says with friends and family - even non-Muslims. My hope is that one day I will say just the right verse to someone, and it will make them want to know more, insha'Allah. The comfort of God that the Qur'an opened my heart to is the greatest gift I have ever or will ever be given, and I want that for everyone else, even though many people will never open themselves to receive it.
Erica: Day by day and week by week the Quran increases influence on me. I strive to gain a deeper understanding of its meaning. I think it will be a long process but I hope to keep learning more.
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