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A New Convert’s Identity Crisis: New Faith or New Culture?

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Converts who are adjusting to their new identities often get thrown off course by the blurring of cultural norms and religious practices. By Theresa Corbin.

Picture SXC
Picture SXC

Many people are familiar with an identity crisis. Most experience it when they go through puberty and are trying to figure out who they are, and what they want to be. When one converts to Islam a similar process takes place: whilst a new Muslim is growing into his or her new identity, things can get awkward like it did during puberty.

Like teenagers leaving behind certain things from their childhood, new Muslims will want to put away old haram (sinful) habits that often come from, or are reinforced by culture. As a result, new converts can start to see their culture in a bad light, and reject it in its entirety. I know that I was on the verge of doing just that at the thought of all the beer commercials, the celebration of zina (sex outside of marriage), and the objectification of women in American culture.

But what happens next is only natural: moving away from an existing culture creates a void. Since new converts are surrounded by people who have been Muslim their whole lives, it is natural that they will turn to their compatriots for guidance in filling that void.

But while converts are looking for guidance towards Islam, what they often get is a different culture – one that’s replete with its own good and bad traditions – replacing the one they left behind.

And so enters the cultural identity crisis, which can be self-imposed or imposed on the new Muslim by external sources.

When it is the former case, those new to the religion can mistake the Arab culture for Islam, eating qatayef (an Arab dessert) at least once during Ramadan, wearing thobes (a traditional garment), or even smoking hookah, as if it were part of the religion itself. The newcomer may become more Arab than Muslim, but he or she may not realise that not all things Arab are Islamic.

Similarly, new Muslims sometimes look to Indian and/or Pakistani culture as a guide, and end up throwing out their old clothes (modest or not) for an all-shalwar kameez wardrobe, adapting their palate to the spiciness of curry and biryani, and learning how many cheek kisses to give upon greeting someone. These folks become more South Asian than Muslim – but not all things South Asian are Islamic.

Some Muslims who are born into Muslim families and hail from majority Muslim countries have a hard time understanding that their culture does not equate to Islam

When I was a brand new convert, I lived in a community of mainly Indian and Pakistani brothers and sisters. I looked to them for cues when I was adjusting to my new identity. I began to incorporate shalwar kameez into my wardrobe, thinking that this was the standard Islamic attire. I ate curry and biryani like nothing else was halal. Over the years my love affair for all things South Asian has not faded – who can turn down the beauty and comfort of a shalwar kameez or pass up a tasty biryani? The only thing that has changed is that I now understand the difference between these things being part of another culture and not a part of my religion.

Conversely, in many situations, the cultural identity crisis is not self-imposed. Some Muslims who are born into Muslim families and hail from majority Muslim countries have a hard time understanding that their culture does not equate to Islam. And so when they meet a new convert and decide to take the individual under their wings – and with the best intentions, may Allah reward them – they often insist that the convert follow their cultural habits. The new Muslim, who is still finding his or her way and may not know any different, will take these new practices as part of the religion.

Six months into being a convert, I moved to a new community that was made up of mostly Arab brothers and sisters. I was made to think that all things Western were not allowed, and that the only appropriate attire was black abayas and niqabs (Saudi style). And if you couldn’t cook like an Arab matriarch, you weren’t really Muslim. And while I still love the ease of throwing on an abaya and the delightful taste of well-prepared stuffed grape leaves, I now know, after growing and learning as a Muslim, that these things are not decidedly Islamic.

And while we do not associate things Western with being Islamic, it’s hard to say that any culture in its entirety is haram. It can be argued that those cultures before the introduction of Islam was, at some point, a culture of the kufr.

It is important for converts to incorporate their identity before Islam with their new identity as Muslims, and part of the identity is culture.

There is nothing wrong with adopting another culture if that’s one’s intention, but most new converts do not set out specifically to do so. They stumble into it as a consequence of trying to lead Islamic lives.

But culture – whether its practices are detrimental, innocuous, or beneficial – is not religion. Islam is a complete way of life that allows for an array of cultural practices, provided that they do not go against its teachings. Any culture, be it American, Jordanian or Pakistani, has its wonderful and its unforgivable aspects. But it’s how we fit our culture to our religious identity that makes us Muslim – no identity crisis necessary.

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