The ‘original sin’ of a convert: Forgive me Allah, for I have sinned

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The loss of her partner and having to grieve from a distance reveals the inadequacy of conventional understandings of death for Eren Cervantes-Altamirano.

The ‘original sin’ of a convert: Forgive me Allah, for I have sinned_Aquila Style
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Perhaps it is absurd of me to think that Ramadan will ever be a time of peace and reflection. From the moment I converted, my patience, my love for Islam and my faith have been constantly tested. Beyond the struggles of belonging to a non-Muslim family, the reconciliation of new identities and the challenges of trying to fit in mainstream Muslim communities, this year I started Ramadan off surrounded by death.

As the month of Ramadan approached and I prepared to fast, I lost my life partner in a sudden accident. He was making plans to travel from Saudi Arabia to Canada and visit me this summer after Ramadan. The news came as a shock to all who knew him – he was young, full of life and had dreams.

Such an unexpected event brings about not only a sudden awareness of the fragility of earthly life, but also shows us the best and worst of the Muslim communities that surround us. Saad’s death is something I had to think and rethink in order to rationalise completely. I can’t say that the process is over yet. But his death has also made me question my own place among Muslims as a convert, as an Indigenous woman from Mexico and as a “sinner”.

I grew up in a conservative Catholic environment where the idea of the “original sin” continues to be preached as baptisms are recommended. Even though many Muslims reject the idea of sin from birth, I have found striking resemblances between ideas of sin and the “guilt treatment” perpetrated against those that “do not fit.” You have the sin of pre-marital relationships, the sin of LGBTQ love, the sin of not dressing up accordingly and the sin of being a woman of colour who questions and critiques mainstream interpretations – among others.

Saad’s passing was a constant reminder of my “sins” and the status that I have failed to acquire among mainstream Muslim communities in Canada and abroad. The hours following the accident were extremely stressful: not only did I have to come to terms with the loss of Saad, but the only contact I had with the events in Saudi Arabia were through a friend. No contact from the family, no further details.

After seven years of companionship, our relationship is tainted by the lack of a proper marriage ceremony and the family’s lack of acceptance. I was never good enough for them or even Saad’s friends and acquaintances because of my nationality, my colour and my background. For many of them, my worst sin was “tempting” a perfectly raised conservative Saudi man.

The loss of my partner was experienced from a distance. I had no right to the rituals and I am still not entitled to the communal healing experience. Nonetheless, I have been blessed with a family, whom despite the differences and religious disagreements, has been able to put all that aside to support me and honour the life of a Muslim who considered himself “a moderate practising Sunni”.

Following the tradition of my mother’s land in southern Mexico, Saad’s picture stands in the living room along with flowers and candles that are lit every day. My family has attempted to guide his next “trip” with sweetgrass inspired by the tradition of some First Nations in the land where we are visitors. Nonetheless, they understood that Saad would want to be honoured in a “Muslim” way.

The few days preceding Ramadan were filled with anger and tears. Not only was my family denied any kind of “closure” ceremony by mainstream Muslim leaders because they are not Muslim – because there was no marriage contract or because that’s simply “not the way we do it” – but I was also reminded that I am mere statistics in the da’wah books, who will continue to be poorly supported by institutional Islam. You know, institutional Islam prides itself in saying that “X” number of women are converting to Islam (something I have discussed before), but little support is provided to us convert women.

After several years as a convert, I find myself wondering why am I being punished? Because I am considered a fornicator? Because I am suspected to be less of a Muslim? Or because I do not believe that mainstream understandings of death and mourning help those of us who carry on?

As I went through the process of trying to honour Saad in a way meaningful to him, I discovered that many Muslims have a troubled relationship with death. Many fear it, neglect it and ignore it. Some believe that the responsibility to the dead ends with the burial of a body and the funeral rituals that often lack women and non-Muslims. Such an understanding of death clashes with mainstream Mexican understandings of loss and grief and certainly violate Indigenous views on the cycles of life and death.

Nevertheless, in the eyes of Muslim leaders in my community, my reasons for wanting to honour Saad were not good enough. I was constantly told that this is bid’a (innovation), that this is not Islam and that I was engaging in a dangerous behaviour that could lead to a major sin. The options I was offered instead were to leave the issue alone and “move on.” A friend’s family member even told me: “You are still young and there are many men out there. Find another one.”

But among all the darkness of the past days, I was blessed with the help of a broader network of Muslims who, above all, believe that Islam should be about love, support and healing. I was offered support not only by El-Tawhid Juma Circle, but also by Muslims for Progressive Values in Ottawa and Edmonton. My family was hosted by a United Church in Edmonton in a Muslim ceremony that honoured Saad’s memory and sought to ease the family’s healing process. Of course, very few Muslims attended – fearing being labelled as “sinners”.

After days of being treated with scepticism and being categorised as a “sinner,” I stand in the middle of the month of Ramadan not questioning my faith, or the tragic events that led to Saad’s passing, but instead questioning the purpose of my own shahada.

What does it mean to be a Muslim convert when each time I needed support, I had to scramble for it? What does it mean to “be part of” a community that questions my ethnicity and racial background, and doubts my knowledge and faith? What does it mean to be a “good” Muslim vs a “sinner” like me?

Thus, as the Catholic creed taught me, I guess I should start every interaction by saying: forgive me Allah for I have sinned…forgive me Muslims for I am a sinner.

This post was originally published on the author’s blog Identity Crisis

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