Moving beyond “conversion stories”

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A new Muslim’s journey into the faith can be overwhelming. Sometimes, simply having a listening ear is one of the best forms of support for converts, says Meaghan Brittini.

(Image: PhotoXpress)
(Image: PhotoXpress)

Being asked to share your “conversion story” is just one of the inevitable parts of being a convert. But a problem with such stories is that they often just end with a shahada; not as many people seem to be interested in how we may be getting along afterwards.

The first years after taking my shahada were not always smooth. Although a lot of reading and contemplating, and feeling like I was more than ready for this step, making the transition into a comfortable “Muslimness” proved to be a rather tumultuous challenge.

True, there may be a lot of support and resources for new converts out there, but unfortunately, they are not always the ones we need most for such a major life change, especially when each of us is juggling this with our own personal issues.

Most of the help for new Muslims that I’ve encountered is aimed at integrating us as quickly as possible into a more homogenised or orthodox practice of Islam. These include initiatives to send new converts off on pilgrimages, Arabic classes, and mosques that offer crash-courses in traditional Islamic belief and practices.

While it’s completely practical to learn how to pray or how to make wudhu according to sunnah, some of these resources take away the opportunity for self-recovery for new Muslims. It does not offer us the possibility to grow and learn the faith in a way that is the most meaningful for us.

Take for example a book that I had borrowed from my local Islamic library. The book was meant to be a guide for new converts and it very staunchly proclaimed the niqab to be the only acceptable dress for women. I may now understand the depth of diverse interpretations of Islamic practices and styles of dress, but for a newbie who was still nervous about telling her friends and family about her new religion, being told that I must wear a face veil was a bit unsettling, frightening even.

We often speak about Islam as a religion that is simple and easily followed by anyone. Yet oftentimes as Muslims, we can make our religion complicated and difficult to follow on ourselves. This can unfortunately be passed on to new Muslims.

Peers and helpful faces in the mosque are always quick to offer unsolicited advice to a new Muslim. These range from whether you should be wearing socks while praying, to remembering which foot to use when stepping in or out of the mosque. While I know this advice is well-intended and sincere, the array of different (and sometimes conflicting) information about practices coming from Muslims of different backgrounds and cultures, who each rely on a different set of scholars and schools when arriving at their interpretations, can result in information overload.

While I’ve never doubted belief, I often wondered if I could manage what I thought was an authentic Muslim lifestyle. I try my best to meet the expectations of my closest community, yet there were many times when I felt like I was swallowing things that I was not yet comfortable with (like wearing a headscarf to fit in with the crowd; something which did not bring me closer to the faith at all). At other times, I was discouraged when my baby steps at adapting practices were called “invalid” by others. Meanwhile, I struggled with many personal conflicts on the inside without any outlet for them.

Sadly, I’ve met a few converts who have slowly turned away from Islam altogether because of their experiences with all of the things I’ve mentioned above. It wasn’t Islam that let them down; it was facing this confusing pressure to live up to their respective communities’ perceptions of an ideal Muslim, a lack of adequate emotional support from their new peers, and overall confusion about how to simply “be” a Muslim.

Converts need support from their community that goes beyond hearing about their conversion stories, especially when these stories risk essentialising the convert’s experience altogether.

Instead, one of the best ways to support new Muslims is to encourage them to find their very own place within the faith at their own pace. That learning experience may come quickly or slowly; it may be riddled with U-turns or, if they’re like me, progress up and down like a roller coaster ride – but it will come. Meanwhile, simply offering a listening ear can be one of the greatest ways to help a new Muslim on their journey.

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