What if I became Muslim
What would people think if I converted to Islam and should I worry? I wear pajamas to grocery shop without a care in the world. I might put on a jester’s hat to buy toothpaste or cash a check at Wells Fargo. I plastered the back of my car with comical stickers. Who cares if other drivers don’t like them? I like them. As a diehard liberal, I am anti-war, pro-choice and against the death penalty. I’m not afraid to take a stand on what I believe in, even if my views may be unpopular.
Raised Catholic, the religion meant more to my mother than to me. I was a profound disappointment to her. I’m sorry Mom. Scattered around our tiny apartment were rosary beads, prayer books and pictures of Jesus. A crushed velvet portrait of the last supper hung in our living room. Every Sunday she rallied us for church, a requirement to remain in good standing. To keep my older brother and me in Catholic school, not only was weekly mass mandatory so were generous contributions at Sunday mass. How much I don’t remember but it was a struggle fill the church coffers on a single salary. My dad worked in a factory and mom stayed home. Church attendance was further required on several holy days throughout the year, the names and purpose of which now escape me. In my youth, the priest said mass in Latin, a language I did not understand or care to learn. Women were not part of the service as they are now. Bored and restless, my mind gravitated towards neighborhood friends and what games we would play when I got home. On Sunday mornings, Mom dressed me in frilly dresses, including a crinoline slip that made me itch. I hated Sundays. I felt like a doll on display. I’d rather be in jeans and sneakers playing Whiffle ball or red light green light with the kids.
Not everyone in our neighborhood was devout. Why did we sit through an hour long service, sometimes in sweltering heat on rock hard benches, when the family next door stayed home and watched television? Were they sinners or outcasts? We all were so much alike, white working class families with children. I never understood some families flocked to church every Sunday morning while others did not. No one could explain it to me either.
Attending weekly church service wasn’t the only part of growing up Catholic. Confessions, a rite of passage for us all, were heard every Saturday afternoon. That’s when we coughed up all our sins, or at least those we’d admit to, and plead for mercy. Some parishioners took confession seriously while for others it was no big deal. Catholics like me ducked into a cramped, dark booth inside the church while a priest, hidden on the other side, listened to the guilty. What grievous wrongs could a seven year old like me have committed? Bless me father for I have sinned. I poured dirt into my older brother’s shoes as revenge because he gave me a black eye. To stay in God’s good graces, a priest handed out penance or prayers. Say them he said and you shall be healed. The bigger the sin, the longer the prayers.
Mom dragged me to confession at age 15. I staggered home, blown away drunk after a school dance. I wasn’t sorry I’d gone out drinking with friends. I was sorry I was dumb enough to get caught. Instead of standing guard over me as I begged for forgiveness, she should have asked why at such a young age I was so wildly intoxicated. Prayers never helped me from being a troubled young woman. I did, however, clean up my act at age 24 because I was sick of myself and throwing up on street corners.
Much later in life, I occasionally attended services at a non-denominational church but that flirtation lasted a few weeks, perhaps even a month or two. Christianity couldn’t hold my attention. My service as a social worker kept me in good standing with the Almighty. Not many people wanted to work in the ghettoes. I held jobs in communities rocked by violence, drugs, poverty, and gangs. Without organized religion, I became more of a spiritual being, connecting with God through meditation, music, yoga and music. That worked for a long time until 9/11/2011 when I attended an interfaith service at a mosque to commemorate the horrific events of that day ten years earlier in a peaceful, harmonious way with my neighbors. The imam expected 30 people yet over 300 Christians, Jews and Muslims joined in unity to pray for peace. On the way out, Qurans were available so I took one. With the encouragement of a Muslim friend (Maha) I made on line through Saudi Arabian animal rescue, I read the Quran from cover to cover. It took me over a year but I finished the entire Muslim holy book. Maha then sent me several other books about Islam all the way from Saudi Arabia. A few I’ve read; others I’m still reading. Maha and I engaged in many long distance talks about Islam. She’s as devoted to Islam as my late mother was to Catholicism. During one talk, Maha asked me why I didn’t become a Muslim. I hedged, offering a dozen different reasons why I couldn’t. Maha never turned away from me.
Then in 2013 I met Diba, a Muslim from Afghanistan, at the airport where I volunteer. We became fast friends, sharing meals together both at her home and at neighborhood restaurants. Diba invited me to meet her family and they embraced me as one of their own. I love Diba and her family. During Ramadan, the holiest of Muslim holidays, I joined Diba’s family for Iftar’s, the breaking of the fast, at a local Masjid. No one was a stranger. Everyone welcomed me to share food, prayer and lively conversation. I felt loved and respected.
Diba moved away last year but I remain close with her family especially her sister in law, mother, niece and nephew. We’ve gone to the state fair, out to eat, and to her nephew’s school concert. I mourned with the family during the loss of Diba’s beloved brother who passed away last year. I was so sorry for his loss.
Around the same time, I became involved with the American Muslim Women’s Association of Arizona (AMWA). I noticed an advertisement asking for contributions to the refugee toy drive during Ramadan. As a former volunteer with homeless children, donated toys meant so much for the shelter children at Christmas. I left my donations at the Tempe mosque but no one was there. Just a large box was left out for contributions. I had wanted to meet the women involved so I showed up at AMWA’s annual meeting in September. I’ve been involved with the good work of AMWA since then. I was proud and delighted to receive an award for community service last fall.
Diba and her family demonstrated the true meaning of Islam through their deep love and respect for one another. Their lives are filled with hard work, honor, respect and family values. Afghan people are kind, caring and compassionate not just with their own families but with their extended communities. I’ve come to love and respect Islam as well as Afghan culture.
At mosque services, held on Friday, I feel peaceful and calm. Praying comes easy. I am connected to Allah. I’ve finally come home. I’ve made a lot of mistakes in life. Drinking and drug use at an early age because of an unhappy home life. Instead of looking for direction, I looked for love in all the wrong places.
In 1994 a pedestrian car accident changed everything. It ended my social work career so I re-invented myself as an all around volunteer to stay connected with the community. I’ve volunteered as a pet therapist with homeless children. To satisfy my political side, I helped out in former Governor Janet Napolitano’s office. I helped third grade children with reading problems. I’ve been involved in animal rescue since 1989. Last year, I became involved with the good work of the American Muslim Woman’s Association. I now volunteer at Sky Harbor airport. Several months ago, I started as a volunteer with the IRC (International Rescue Committee) as an assistant in the English as a second language program. Once or twice a month, I do office work in the Grand Canyon chapter of the Sierra Club.
One of the five pillars of Islam is charity so I’m already good with Allah on that.
Guard your modesty the Quran says. At my age, I wear conservative albeit colorful, stylish clothing. What about the hijab? About half of American Muslim women don’t wear cover their heads. What will I do? Of course at the mosque, I always cover. That’s not optional. What about every day? I’m not sure yet. Am I afraid of what other people’s reactions? Perhaps, although when I wear one I receive lots of compliments. There is also the Phoenix weather which stretches from about mid May to mid September when the daily temperature is over 100. I really don’t want to cover my head every single day during that scorching heat.
So if I converted to Islam, my life would be the same. For the past six months or so, I’ve attended weekly mosque services. I bought a Muslim holy book to help me pray daily. If I said I converted to any other religion but Islam, probably no one would care. Am I afraid of what my friends will say? Part of me says yes and part of me says who cares. Does anyone else make personal decisions and consult me? No, they do not. Why should I be concerned? My mother terrified me for most of my life. She’s gone now and I don’t have to be afraid of her or anyone else. I don’t need anyone’s approval to convert. If friends turn away, it’s their loss. I’m a good, kind, decent person with a fabulous sense of humor.
Islam is distorted by the media. Yes, there’s a bunch of violent extremists, fanatics who stray from the true meaning of Islam. They’ve committed brutal murders, rapes and other atrocities in the name of Islam. They do not represent the world’s nearly 1 billion Muslims, nearly all of whom are good, decent people. Around 5-6 million Muslims are US citizens. I’ve come to know dozens of Muslims throughout the US and on line around the world. People are kind, generous, compassionate, loyal, caring and just like everyone else, they are human beings.
Please Allah help me through this difficult time and help me decide what’s best for me and to have the courage to stand by my conviction.