I took the Shahadah on September 20, 1991. If you had told me 5 years prior that I would embrace Islam, I never would have believed you. In retrospect, Allah’s guidance was so subtle yet consistent, that now I see my whole life as leading up to that moment. It is difficult to encapsulate the exact factors that brought me to Islam because it was a journey, a process, that lasted three years. Those three years were both exhilarating and exhausting.
My perceptions of myself and the world changed dramatically. Some beliefs were validated; others, shattered. At times I feared I would lose myself; at other times I knew that this path was my destiny and embraced it. Throughout those years, a series of aspects of Islam intrigued me. Slowly and gradually, my studies led me towards the day when I took the declaration of faith, the shahadah.
Prior to my introduction to Islam, I knew that I yearned for more spiritual fulfilment in my life. But, as yet, nothing had seemed acceptable or accessible to me. I had been brought up essentially a secular humanist. Morals were emphasized, but never attributed to any spiritual or divine being. The predominant religion of our country, Christianity, seemed to burden a person with too much guilt. I was not really familiar with any other religions.
I wish I could say that, sensing my spiritual void, I embarked on a spiritual quest and studied various religions in depth. However, I was too comfortable with my life for that. I come from a loving and supportive family. I had many interesting and supportive friends. I thoroughly enjoyed my university studies and I was successful at the university. Instead, it was the “chance” meeting of various Muslims that instigated my study of Islam.
Sharif was one of the first Muslims who intrigued me. He was an elderly man who worked in a tutorial program for affirmative action that I had just entered. He explained that while his job brought little monetary reward, the pleasure he gained from teaching students brought him all the reward he needed. He spoke softly and genuinely. His demeanor more than his words caught me, and I thought, “I hope I have his peace of spirit when I reach his age.” That was in 1987.
As I met more Muslims, I was struck not only by their inner peace, but by the strength of their faith. These gentle souls contrasted with the violent, sexist image I had of Islam. Then I met Imran, a Muslim friend of my brother’s who I soon realized was the type of man I would like to marry. He was intelligent, sincere, independent, and at peace with himself. When we both agreed that there was potential for marriage, I began my serious studies of Islam.
Initially, I had no intention of becoming Muslim; I only desired to understand his religion because he had made it clear that he would want to raise his children as Muslims. My response was: “If they will turn out as sincere, peaceful and kind as he is, then I have no problem with it. But I do feel obligated to understand Islam better first.”
In retrospect, I realize that I was attracted to these peaceful souls because I sensed my own lack of inner peace and conviction. There was an inner void that was not completely satisfied with academic success or human relationships. However, at that point I would never have stated that I was attracted to Islam for myself. Rather, I viewed it as an intellectual pursuit. This perception was compatible with my controlled, academic lifestyle.
Since I called myself a feminist, my early reading centered around. I thought Islam oppressed women. In my Women’s Studies courses I had read about Muslim women who were not allowed to leave their homes and were forced to cover their heads. Of course I saw Hijab as an oppressive tool imposed by men rather than as an expression of self-respect and dignity.
What I discovered in my readings surprised me. Islam not only does not oppress women, but actually liberates them, having given them rights in the 6th century that we have only gained in this century in this country: the right to own property and wealth and to maintain that in her name after marriage; the right to vote; and the right to divorce.
This realization was not easy in coming… I resisted it every step of the way. But there were always answers to my questions. Why is there polygamy?
It is only allowed if the man can treat all four equally and even then it is discouraged. However, it does allow for those times in history when there are more women than men, especially in times of war, so that some women are not deprived of having a relationship and children.
Furthermore, it is far superior to the mistress relationship so prevalent here since the woman has a legal right to support should she have a child. This was only one of many questions, the answers to which eventually proved to me that are given full rights as individuals in society.
However, these discoveries did not allay all my fears. The following year was one of intense emotional turmoil. Having finished up my courses for my masters in Latin American Studies in the spring of 1989, I decided to take a year to substitute teach. This enabled me to spend a lot of time studying Islam. Many things I was reading about Islam made sense.
However, they didn’t fit into my perception of the world. I had always perceived of religion as a crutch. But could it be that it was the truth? Didn’t religions cause much of the oppression and wars in the world? How then could I be considering marrying a man who followed one of the world’s major religions? Every week I was hit with a fresh story on the news, the radio or the newspaper about the oppression of Muslim women. Could I, a feminist, really be considering marrying into that society?
Eyebrows were raised. People talked about me in worried tones behind my back. In a matter of months, my secure world of 24 years was turned upside down. I no longer felt that I knew what was right or wrong. What was black and white was now all grey.
But something kept me going. And it was more than my desire to marry Imran. At any moment I could have walked away from my studies of Islam and been accepted back into a circle of feminist, socialist friends and into the loving arms of my family. While these people never deserted me, they haunted me with their influence. I worried about what they would say or think, particularly since I had always judged myself through the eyes of others. So I secluded myself. I talked only with my family and friends that I knew wouldn’t judge me. And I read.
It was no longer an interested, disinterested study of Islam. It was a struggle for my own identity. Up to that time I had produced many successful term papers. I knew how to research and to support a thesis. But my character had never been at stake. For the first time, I realized that I had always written to please others. Now, I was studying for my own spirit. It was scary. Although I knew my friends and family loved me, they couldn’t give me the answers. I no longer wanted to lean on their support.
Imran was always there to answer my questions. While I admired his patience and his faith that all would turn out for the best, I didn’t want to lean too heavily on him out of my own fear that I might just be doing this for a man and not for myself. I felt I had nothing and no one to lean on. Alone, frightened and filled with self-doubt, I continued to read.
After I had satisfied my curiosity about and been surprised by the results, I began to read about the life of the Prophet Muhammad and to read the Quran itself. As I read about the Prophet Muhammad, I began to question my initial belief that he was merely an exceptional leader. His honesty prior to any revelations, his kindness, his sagacity, his insights into his present as well as the future all made me question my initial premise.
His persistence in adversity and, later, his humility in the face of astounding success seemed to belie human nature. Even at the height of his success when he could have enjoyed tremendous wealth, he refused to have more than his poorest companions in Islam.
Slowly I was getting deeper and deeper into the Qu’ran. I asked, “Could a human being be capable of such a subtle, far-reaching book?” Furthermore, there are parts that are meant to guide the Prophet himself, as well as reprimand him. I wondered if the Prophet would have reprimanded himself. As I slowly made my way through the Qu’ran, it became less and less an intellectual activity, and more and more a personal struggle. There were days when I would reject every word find a way to condemn it, not allow it to be true. But then I would suddenly happen upon a phrase that spoke directly to me.
This first happened when I was beginning to experience a lot of inner turmoil and doubt and I read some verses towards the end of the second chapter: “Allah does not burden any human being with more than he/she is well able to bear” (Quran 2:286).
Although I would not have stated that I believed in Allah at that time, when I read these words it was as if a burden was lifted from my heart.
I continued to have many fears as I studied Islam. Would I still be close to my family if I became a Muslim? Would I end up in an oppressive marriage? Would I still be “open-minded?” I believed secular humanism to be the most open-minded approach to life. Slowly I began to realize that secular humanism is as much an ideology, a dogma, as Islam. I realized that everyone had their ideology and I must consciously choose mine.
I realized that I had to have trust in my own intellect and make my own decisions that I should not be swayed by the negative reactions of my “open- minded,” “progressive” friends. During this time, as I started keeping more to myself, I was becoming intellectually freer than any time in my life.
Two and a half years later, I had finished the Qu’ran, been delighted by its descriptions of nature and often reassured by its wisdom. I had learned about the extraordinary life of Prophet Muhammad; I had been satisfied by the realization that Islam understands that men and women are different but equal; and I discovered that Islam gave true equality not only to men and women, but to all races and social classes, judging only by one’s level of piety.
And I had gained confidence in myself and my own decisions. It was then that I came to the final, critical question: Do I believe in one God? This is the basis of being a Muslim. Having satisfied my curiosity about the rules and historical emergence of Islam, I finally came to this critical question, the essence of being Muslim. It was as if I had gone backwards:
Starting with the details before I finally reached the spiritual question. I had to wade through the technicalities and satisfy my academic side before I could finally address the spiritual question. Did I…. Could I place my trust in a greater being? Could I relinquish my secular humanist approach to life?
Twice I decided to take the shahadah and then changed my mind the next day. One afternoon, I even knelt down and touched my forehead to the floor, as I had often seen Muslims do, and asked for guidance. I felt such peace in that position. Perhaps in that moment I was a Muslim a heart, but when I stood up, my mind was not ready to officially take the shahadah.
After that moment a few more weeks passed. I began my new job: teaching high school. The days began to pass very quickly, a flurry of teaching, discipline and papers to correct. As my days began to pass so fast, it struck me that I did not want to pass from this world without having declared my faith in Allah.
Intellectually, I understood that the evidence present in the Prophet Muhammad’s life and in the Quran was too compelling to deny. And, at that moment, I was also ready in my heart for Islam. I had spent my life longing for a truth in which heart would be compatible with mind, action with thought, intellect with emotion. I found that reality in Islam. With that reality came true self-confidence and intellectual freedom.
A few days after I took the shahadah, I wrote in my journal that finally I have found in Islam the validation of my inner thoughts and intuition. By acknowledging and accepting Allah, I have found the door to spiritual and intellectual freedom.