A long list of friends nurtured me along the journey to Islam. Thank you for your wisdom, guidance, patience, and insight. Much appreciated are the donated hijabs, long skirts, tunics and abayas so that I dressed like a proper Muslim woman. Many of you played crucial roles in my conversion. Naming everyone is impossible but you know who you are. Each one holds a tender place in my heart. I’ve learned so much yet more opportunities await me.
That unforgettable as well as shocking morning on Tuesday, September 11, 2001 that nearly every American remembers started me wondering about Islam. I whipped out the phone book (yes, they existed back then) and looked up numbers of every local mosque. I called and said I hoped that my fellow Arizonans didn’t slam all Muslims too harshly for the cruel, brutal mistakes of a few. Well, at least one man did. He shot and killed a Sikh who worked in a Mesa gas station, mistaking him for a Muslim because of his turban. Years later, I found out that Phoenix area imams submitted a joint statement to the media harshly condemning the Twin Tower attacks but it was ignored. Ordinary Muslims were horrified and appalled by the terrorists but were held accountable for their actions. In the chaotic aftermath of 9/11, Muslim women wore hats as head coverings instead of the traditional hijab to blend in and to avoid trouble. Everywhere in the US, Muslims were on edge, fretting about retribution. So I thought about Islam. I didn’t do much in the beginning except that I was curious. I drove by the Tempe mosque a few times but that was about it. What happened at a Friday prayer service, the Muslim holy day? I was too timid then to attend on my own so I didn’t. What would I look like in a hijab? I always loved hats and wore a hat almost all the time. My head was rarely uncovered. As the internet picked up speed, I checked out Middle East animal rescue groups. I’ve been involved in animal rescue since 1989 and feel a tight bond with others who rescue animals. Almost right away, I connected with women and men from countries like Egypt, Iran, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia. All rescued animals. Maha from Saudi Arabia and I began conversing regularly. We talked about anything and everything including Islam. About two years later, she poked around, asking about converting. Me? No way. I enjoy our talks very much but there was no way I’d convert. I considered myself spiritual but not religious. Still, I continued to read up about Islam although I never told anyone. I checked out library books about Islam as well as Middle East history and culture. Changes swirled around me as my interests in Islam deepened. A small notice in the daily newspaper announced an interfaith service to commemorate the ten-year anniversary of 9/11 in peace and unity at the Tempe mosque. That was my opening. Take it, I said to myself, and go to the mosque. So much had happened in the ten years since 9/11. The US not only invaded Iraq but Afghanistan too. There was a major recession that rocked the US. We elected Barak Obama twice, infuriating the Republican Party. On the evening of the interfaith service, I arrived at the mosque not knowing what to expect. The imam anticipated 30 guests or so and at least 300 Muslims, Jews and Christians showed up. It was awesome to be surrounded by so many caring and compassionate people. A pastor, rabbi and the imam all spoke of faith, friendship and unity. As guests left the mosque, Quran copies were available. I took one and later that week told Maha about it. She asked if I would read it. Honestly I rarely read the Bible but yes, I would read it. Due to lingering problems from a traumatic brain injury, the result of a pedestrian car accident in 1994, I don’t absorb material as well as before but I started the Quran. Eventually, I read the holy book from cover to cover. Maha sent me additional books from Saudi Arabia about Islam. My journey continued. I read the books she sent and wanted to learn more.
Fast forward to July 2013 at Sky Harbor airport where I was a volunteer. A simple smile brought surprising changes into my life when a middle-aged Muslim woman wearing a colorful hijab stood outside a security checkpoint. Our casual encounter continued. Warm feelings lingered. I didn’t want to leave and neither did Diba. Away went her cell phone and we both started a new phase in our lives. I couldn’t let Diba leave without asking if we could get together. Of course, she said, handing me a slip of paper with her phone number.
After our first meal several weeks later, Diba and her family embraced me as one of their own. From sharing food and conversation, I’ve learned so much about Afghan culture. Afghan people are thoughtful and generous hosts. As soon as I enter an Afghan home, there are always plates of sweets, pistachio nuts, apricots, and green tea. Drinking tea is an Afghan tradition. My knowledge of Islam expanded and grew.
I soaked up more and more about Afghan customs and traditions. To add to my growing knowledge, I borrowed books from the public library. I read about the misery created by the 1979 Soviet invasion and the ensuing violence and the cruelty imposed by the Taliban. The American invasion exacerbated a country already under siege. I gobbled up information as fast as I could.
On a Friday in late November 2013, the Muslim holy day, I attended my first prayer service with Diba. Following tradition, I wore a hijab for the second time. The first was at an Islamic funeral service, also with Diba a few weeks earlier. The loosely fitting scarf fell to one side on my head, not quite covering my hair like other Muslim women but I looked presentable enough.
I felt at home in the mosque as if I belonged there. I wanted to return but felt uneasy about going alone. Reticence was uncalled for. I was warmly welcomed at the mosque. I only returned if Diba’s family was at my side.
Another blistering hot summer came along. With it Ramadan arrived. It is a month long period of fasting and prayer. In July 2014, I attended about 7 or 8 iftars, or breaking of the fast, at a local mosque with Diba’s family and friends. I was swept up even more into Islam. I cherished my evenings sharing home-cooked food, conversation and prayers with my sisters, some of whom I met for the first time. Women laughed, hugged and traded bits of our lives. Children played under watchful adult eyes. After meals, we took turns cleaning up. At the end of July Ramadan was over. There would be no more evenings at the Islamic Center. I didn’t want it to end. I loved the camaraderie among Muslim women. No one was a stranger. Everyone including me was welcomed.
As Ramadan closed, I felt let down, at a loss. I enjoyed spending time at the mosque in unity and friendship with my Muslim sisters. So I took the plunge and started attending Friday prayer services on my own. Week after week, I showed up at the mosque each week wearing a hijab. Since August of 2014, I haven’t missed a prayer service. I hope my good health continues to bring me to Allah’s house every Friday.
In the meantime, I met a Somali lady, Qamar, at the airport where I volunteer. Qamar and I started talking during my two weekly shifts. In May 2011, she left for maternity leave. I bought her a small gift for the baby. A few months later she sent me a photo of her and her new infant daughter. She asked if I wanted to visit. At the time we only lived about 10 minutes apart. Since then, we’ve become like family. She now has two children who I adore and love.
About two years ago, I met Nadia, a Pakistani American who asked me for a place to pray while I was on duty at the airport. No problem I said pointing out a quiet corner behind security where I was posted that day. We exchanged contact information and keep in touch. A skilled artist with international connections, Nadia too is a devout Muslim who further piqued my interest. Nadia lives out of town so we stay in touch via the internet.
As I soul searched, I discovered AMWA (American Muslim Women’s Association). I read of their toy drive during Ramadan. For seven years I was a pet therapist with Gabriel’s Angels, a group that tries to break the cycle of violence in abused, abandoned, neglected and at risk children through healing pet therapy. My adopted dog Luke and I visited children at a homeless shelter. At Christmas, friends donated gifs for the children. Those small presents boosted their spirits and brought smiles to sad, sorry faces. After delivering the presents, I drove home in tears wishing I could do more. Sometimes I felt so inadequate. I imagined that Ramadan gifts would be just as uplifting for Muslim children. How could I ignore the Ramadan toy drive? AMWA’s Facebook page listed the Tempe mosque as a drop off location. When I arrived with a bag full of toys, no one was there, just the box. Disappointed, I noted the date of their annual meeting. I came alone with chattering teeth even though it was about 100 degrees outside. I exhaled relief when Diba joined me. That afternoon, I learned about the good work of AMWA. I wanted to help but how? I continued attending AMWA events and meeting terrific people, growing more confident. AMWA’s commitment to women and their devotion to improving lives of new refugees impressed me. So I just dove in. I collected donations for the next year’s toy drive. I helped hand out back packs on a blistering hot summer day. I secured toys from a non-profit organization that once helped the kids at the homeless shelter. About a year later, I received an email from then president Shabana Fayyaz. The email was anything but routine. At the upcoming annual meeting, I would receive an award for community service. Elated and proud, I told everyone. The women, men, and children I meet through AMWA are dedicated, loyal and enthusiastic about bettering the lives of women in our community. I am so glad to be part of AMWA.
The MSA (Muslim Student Association) at Arizona State University played a small but nonetheless important link in my journey to Islam. I wish I was young again to be part of this vibrant, active organization of young men and women devoted to Islam, education, the community and to each other. Returning to the past is impossible but I admire and support the MSA and hope they can change the world in a way our generation failed to do.
I attended an interfaith dinner sponsored by the MSA in the fall of 2014. I met a young couple, Sarah and Mohammad, who became like family. I’m sorry their visas expired and they returned to Saudi Arabia. I miss them dearly.
I know Saba from a social gathering at AMWA and we became friends. One evening Saba asked me if I ever said the Shahada, the Islamic declaration of faith. Although I attended mosque services for almost a year and pray daily, I hadn’t said the Shahada, the declaration of faith. I said it on the spot, repeating it word for word after Saba. That Friday after services Saba’s husband announced there was a sister making her Shahada. Confident and proud, even if I couldn’t grasp every Arabic word, I said the Shahada and became a Muslim. Afterwards, so many sisters hugged and congratulated me. I never felt such love and caring before.
Almost a year ago in January 2015, shortly before I said my Shahada, I started to attend a Quran group, also known as a halaqa. Love is like the wind, you don’t see it but you feel it. That’s an apt way to describe the sisters in my Halaqa. Each week, the meeting room overflows with love, joy, kindness and compassion not to mention tasty food and lively conversation. I missed only one session to attend a memorial service. Starting out with a potluck dinner, we nibble on homemade food and dabble in conversation about our lives, families, jobs, friends or the latest news. Children giggle and play games. Then it’s time for business. A smart, well read sister leads us in a serious discussion on parts of the Quran. We ask questions and talk about true Islam, not the distorted often violent version a few misguided and fanatical men and women carry out in the name of Islam. At Magrib, the fourth of five daily prayers, we break to pray together then return to finish our discussion. We end with a sister offering up a prayer of peace, mercy or thanks. Sometimes now that sister is me. I am so proud and honored that sisters have enough confidence in me to lead a closing prayer.
Our Halaqa enriches and nourishes each of us because of our strength and diversity. Our age ranges from students to seniors. Women are from around the world including places like Somalia, Egypt, Morocco, Algeria, Chile, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Malaysia, Bangladesh, Mexico and the US. Forgive me if I left out someone’s country. We are bonded by our devotion to Islam and to each other.
For a long time, I knew little or nothing about Islam but the more I learn, the more I want. My sisters help me expand my knowledge. It’s refreshing to be in a group without competition, gossip or backbiting. We respect each other and truly care about one other’s well being. There’s no rivalry on who has the sharpest looking purse or most expensive pair of shoes. We’re in this together as sisters in Islam. If I fail or if I succeed, at least I know my sisters are on my side. This is the true face of Islam. Thanks ladies for welcoming me into the group. You’ve helped me to become a true sister, helping me to learn about what it truly means to be a Muslim.
No one forced me to convert. AMWA, the MSA, and friends like Diba, Qamar, Nadia, Sarah, Mohammad, Saba, and others showed me the goodness, mercy, peace, and love of Islam. I am so thankful for the sisters who cook food for me each week, knowing that my life as a disabled person is a struggle. I appreciate the friendships that I’ve made since my conversion. I enjoy the camaraderie among us sisters. I try my best to uphold our deen, our faith, and demonstrate to others what it really means to be a Muslim. Take the Muslims on a bus recently in Kenya who refused to be separated from Christian passengers as demanded by a group of armed militants who boarded and threatened to kill everyone. That’s what true Islam is about. That’s the Islam I learned and practice. I pray five times a day. I am good to my neighbors, even if they don’t reciprocate. I will continue to serve the community that so lovingly embraced me as best I can for as long as I can.