1. It Gets Easier
The beginning is always the hardest. You've found the truth, fulfillment, and a sense of peace you never imagined possible. A handful of people can't wait to share Islam with their families, but for most of us, breaking the news to parents, grandparents, relatives, and sometimes kids, brings a sense of dread.
This sense of dread has been even more heightened since the September 11, 2001 terror attacks. Many people perceive being a Muslim as the antithesis of being an American, even though Islam teaches us to uphold religious freedom. To most people Islamic practice embodies the opposite of American values and lifestyles. Family members may be shocked or even mildly okay at first, but after it has sunk in, they may be angry, devastated, or cut themselves off from you. You may never again experience the kind of emotional hurts that you will when you first tell your family that you've accepted Islam. The reality is they are hurting too, and their hurts are justified in their minds, even if they aren't in yours.
In the beginning many family members will act their worst, making threats and saying hurtful things, but the more you stay calm and continue to be yourself despite your new faith, the more they will cool down and eventually realize they overreacted. Some people may continue to cut you off, but even those hurts will heal as so many more people continue to love and accept you. Hang in there, it does get better.
2. No matter how much you explain, they still may not get it
Sometimes we think that if we just explained to our family members what Islam is and why its right or why it doesn't oppress women and why it isn't about terrorism, our family members will suddenly have a light bulb moment and say “You know what, that does make perfect sense! I'm not upset anymore!” Don't be surprised if it seems to go through one ear and out the other. The truth is they are hearing what you're saying and cataloging it, but they are too emotional to focus on it right now.
Over time you will begin to have thoughtful, rational conversations with family and friends, but it's not something that's going to happen right away in many cases. Even if your family doesn't have a problem with Islam, or Muslims, they have a problem with you becoming one. You were as American as apple pie; they watched you unwrap Christmas presents under the tree every year, and dreamed of your white wedding. There is a sense of loss that they are trying to cope with.
Don't expect to rationalize with them much at first (unless they ask questions—and even then, don't expect too much) and don't be disheartened.
3. Goodness isn't just about religion
You will find that some of the best people you know are still people of other faiths, and by “best people” I mean people who are ethical, caring, and altruistic; people who are civil and well-mannered. You will find that some Muslims act as third-world and corrupt as the dictators that preside over their homelands.
Do not assume that all Muslims will be exemplary human beings (and the organizations that many of them run are even worse). Expect to be gravely disappointed in the way many mosques are run and how unkempt they are, in how rude and ill-mannered some of your brothers and sisters in faith are, and at how dysfunctional Islamic schools and their students seem to be.
Be ready to feel a pang of disappointment when you find Thanksgiving with your family was more pleasant than iftar at the masjid with your brothers and sisters in faith. Don't, however, let this disenchant you from the dīn or become harsh with them. As an American you have been privileged to grow up in a First World country and raised on its high standards. No one chooses the family and country into which they were born. Hone in on your strengths as an American and what positive things you can bring to the community, rather than letting it make you arrogant.
4. Be merciful
Converts are surrounded on all sides by frustrating experiences. They have to deal with ignorance and intolerance from other faith based family and friends, and often have to deal with the same thing from the Muslim community. Add a few bad relationships or failed love stories in and you have a recipe for some serious bitterness.
In extremely rare cases, you have American converts who are willing to kill other Americans in terrorist acts (wrongfully under the banner of the religion they claim to represent), as if they weren't previously of another faith themselves (and a potential victim for such crimes) not too long ago. Many times we get blind-sided by our negative emotions: fear, disappointment, anger, resentment, etc. We become intolerant of the shortcomings we see in others that we don't find in ourselves. As converts we are in a unique position of having a blended identity that gives us different perspectives, but whatever shortcomings we see in others we should remember that we have our own as well.
The Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam truly had no shortcomings, and his trademark in dealing with ignorance was mercy. Instead of looking at others with distaste and judging them, we should feel sorry for them if they really have a problem and resolve to be good friends and a positive influences. At no point should any person look at us, Muslim or not, and get the impression that we have our noses in the air. We should focus on keeping a soft heart towards everyone, because the real enemies of Islam are few and far between (though they may get the most traction) and we should always maintain a soft heart towards our Muslim brothers and sisters.
5. Being a Muslim is awesome, becoming a minority is difficult
Welcome to a world you may have never experienced before, the world of “the other.” This is the place of those who don't hold an “entitlement” card by virtue of their birth, a world of strange looks and racial slurs. This can be hard to grapple with initially since some of us were never raised to deal with it. When you wear hijab you may notice that people aren't as friendly to you as they once were; you see the change in demeanor that is provoked by your religious identity. It isn't fair, and being raised on American values that preach fairness and equality but never having really experienced racism yourself, you are in for a frustrating experience.
You will see the latent hypocrisy that exists in many aspects of our society, you will have a perfect image of our great nation shattered, you will experience double standards and security checks and anti-Muslim bigotry, but take heart in the fact that you will also experience the greatness of the human spirit and the American people. You will see that for every negative experience you have, you will have many more positive ones. You will meet people who go out of their way to compliment you on your hijab, people will politely ask you questions and make it a point to tell you how much they respect what you're doing. You will find that most people strive toward fairness, justice, and morality. The bumps in the road are just going to make the smoother patches seem all the more smooth. Don't focus on the negative or take it personally, just enjoy the positive.
6. Don't be a groupie
Never subscribe to any single imām, scholar, or organization as the ultimate authority and source of knowledge, and stay away from people who tell you to do so. There are kooks and cults within the Muslim community, and your innocent, convert face makes you a perfect follower. This isn't to say that most people are going to ask you to drink poisoned Kool-Aid at the next halaqah or join a terrorist cell at the mosque, but every Muslim follows some sort of “flavor” of Islam that they believe is right, and most haven't been exposed academically to other ideas and materials.
Even within conservative Islam, there are varying opinions on many subjects, and the best scholars and imams are those who acknowledge those differences respectfully. Be wary of imams and scholars who are quick to put down others, who insult, and who promote their teachings and opinions as “correct” with a disdain for those who are “incorrect.” What most people don't realize is that these types of people are everywhere, not just in the Salafi community. They are Ṣūfis, Ḥanafis, and Progressives too. Every sect within Islam has its extremists. Stay away from all of them.
Also, keep in mind that if you have a question you want answered, talk to a shaykh or imām who understands your particular scenario, preferably one who has a great deal of experience with American issues and converts. Avoid “Shaykh Google” if you can. A good rule of thumb is to seek religious advice or rulings only from someone who is very familiar with your society and circumstances.
7. You are the trophy Muslim (I know, it's annoying)
“How long have you been Muslim? How did you convert?” These are two questions you are going to hear for the rest of your life, so have the edited monologue ready. Every time people ask you these questions, their eyes light up. They want you to move them and give them their daily īmān-boost with your magical story, and suddenly you feel some pressure to perform. You don't have to.
While I encourage you to be polite, understand that you aren't putting on a show to make others else feel good about themselves or Islam. Keep it short and simple. Other people will patronize you in the beginning when they hear you've been Muslim for a few years, and may ask you basic questions, assuming you know nothing. They are well intentioned, but have a response ready, that is polite but also ends the conversation. You don't have to stand there and smile and endure this time and again. Be nice but brief, and know that you don't have to share any details of your life or conversion that you don't want to.
8. Be careful of whom you marry
There are plenty of examples of successful interracial and intercultural marriages, and most converts will marry someone who is not of the same ethnic background. However, I will say this: you are more American than you probably realize, and even if a man or woman has been living in this country for decades, if they grew up in a Muslim country, you are going to have some major differences in terms of expectations, mannerisms, and how you think and process things.
While racism is completely prohibited in Islam, a person who marries a Muslim from another country will face challenges directly related race and/or culture. If you're a woman, you may be especially vulnerable to being put in a position where you are expected to sacrifice aspects of your identity, especially because you are the one coming from a non-Muslim background. This is not to say that this is always the case, but it is a common problem that converts face when marrying, so it's something to keep in mind.
9. You're still American, and that's who you'll always be
American policies are at a low when it comes to how this country treats Muslims both at home and abroad, and unfortunately anti-Muslim bigotry is shockingly rampant. Many Muslims around the world view America as an enemy, and if we're honest with ourselves, they have valid reasons to do so. President Obama's drone strikes in Pakistan, our country's blind support of Israel, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan haven't done the American image any favors. All of this anti-American sentiment can make an American Muslim feel guilty for being an American, but don't let it.
You are an American. You are not a drone program or a war or a policy. You are not anti-Muslim bigotry or Guantanamo Bay. You are a person who was born in a country that has so much more positivity going for it than it does negativity, a country that has provided you with an experience that has made you into the person you are today: the person who chose Islam as their faith. You may be outspoken, educated, independent, proactive, charismatic, caring, brave, and filled with dreams that you are determined to make come true for the better of the Muslim community and the world. You didn't become all that the day you became a Muslim, you became all that the years you were raised as a can-do American.
Don't let anyone else tell you what it means to be a true American, or a real patriot. Don't let anyone make you feel that as a Muslim you are less entitled to being the person you have been your entire life. You have the unique opportunity to redefine American, so get out there and do it.