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Candid Convertsations : Day One

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Candid Convertsations (4)
I don’t remember too much from 1990, except for the excitement that came over me when I went to watch Home Alone and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in theaters, the Ultimate Warrior beating Hulk Hogan at Wrestlemania VI, and of course, the first time I ever visited a mosque.

The night was cool, as is typical of Angeleno nights. I remember wearing a light denim jacket and my new black and white LA Gear shoes my mom had bought me. A swarm of insects were buzzing around and bumping into the fluorescent lights in the parking lot just as Isha prayer was wrapping up. I stood outside the recently converted two-bedroom home that was now serving as the local mosque and remember it quite vividly, despite it being twenty-five years ago.

A small half-Bolivian, half-Pakistani boy came up to me and introduced himself and asked if I was new. Casting aside the usual banter that often takes place when two people meet for the first time, I immediately blurted out with the boldness and frankness only a  5-year-old could muster, “Hey, you want to be friends?”

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To my immediate relief, he agreed. Just as he did, however, another young boy turned the corner, pulled up right alongside the first boy and asked, “Who’s this?” A sudden wave of dread came crashing over me. Was my newly formed friendship about to be dissolved as quickly as it was formed? Once again however, to my relief, Mansur came to the rescue and simply introduced me to the three-foot inquisitor. To this day Mansur, Ahmed, and I are still very good friends.

I guess you could say that was the day I converted for the first time. Yes, the first time, but more on that later. Luckily for me, converting when you are five years old spares you the awkward social protocol that goes into being a new member of the community. Relationships are based off of little more than age and gender, making my transition into the colorful social fabric of the San Gabriel community seamless, to say the least.

Convert Cabal

Sadly, however, when one grows up, things that were once so easy and carefree become weighed down with decorum and ceremony. Part of that decorum is the all too familiar “convert cabal”. If you have ever been present for a convert’s shahādah at a mosque, then you know what I’m talking about. If you are the convert, it’s that throng of people queuing to greet, hug and congratulate you on accepting Islam.

I guess that’s why part of me loves the whole thing. The convert’s initial exposure to the community is full of love and hope, salutations and well wishes. What better way is there to induct someone into a community? The only other day one gets that much attention is on their wedding day. I mean, you feel almost like a celebrity, like you actually matter and are important. Indisputably, that sentiment is one that needs to echo strongly and loudly in the ears of any convert upon their conversion. They need to feel welcomed, loved, and above all else, accepted as a valued member of the community.

But then again, part of me strongly dislikes the formality; standing there underneath the lights with a long line of people waiting to see you. It’s almost as if you’re a rare piece of art, like DaVinci’s Mona Lisa or Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa; people waiting in lines to see you, perhaps taking your picture and then moving on with their lives. But unlike the Louvre, the lines eventually stop forming and generally, the people stop caring.

Navigating All Alone Without Tariq, Mariam and Harry

Nonetheless, my main qualm with the whole procession is rooted in what happens after the convert cabal dissipates. After everyone disperses and the lights go off, he or she is too often left alone to navigate the turbulent and tumultuous seas of converting to a faith that is widely viewed by non-Muslims as strange at best and violent at worst; braving the daunting and undulating waves with nothing more than their wits. I do, however, laud those communities that provide new converts with the proverbial map and compass and even go so far as to assign a member of the community to be their guide and mentor. From what I have seen, this strategy is being implemented by a growing number of Islamic institutions. Now, it still isn’t perfect by any means and is only cause for measured optimism, but it is undoubtedly a step in the right direction.

Therefore, my issue does not lie with the institutions themselves per se, but rather, it lies squarely with the individual community members; those that are not part of a mosque committee or involved in its leadership. I’m talking about the everyday Tariq, Mariam, and Harry that comes to the mosque, attends the occasional prayer and event and goes home. It’s a segment of this crowd whose interactions with the convert often drive the convert away from coming to the mosque and in too many cases, from the faith entirely.

Hold off on the Divorce and other Advice

Put aside all of the challenges associated with the changes they will go through in their personal lives outside of the mosque, their attempt at assimilation into the local Muslim populace alone causes me to advise them rather than congratulate them when I finally reach the front of the queue. It’s for that reason I tell converts at their conversions that the next few months of their lives are going to be some of the most difficult they will ever face. I speak to them candidly about the loneliness they will encounter, but more specifically I prepare them for some of the harsh treatment and misplaced advice they may come across when they interact with some community members. These types of stories are innumerable; women being told they need to divorce their non-Muslim husbands immediately, or men being told they need to have their tattoos removed at once otherwise their prayers aren’t accepted. The list of conditions for being Muslim goes on and on.

convert baggage

Born Muslims, especially those who were raised in a Muslim society, must keep in mind that change does not happen overnight. When people enter Islam, they often do so with a ton of baggage and don’t simply leave it all at the front door. Their problems and shortcomings enter Islam right along with them. Islam, despite its beauty and comprehensiveness, is not a panacea that cures the convert of everything that ails them. Addicts are still addicts, poor people are still poor, and dysfunctional families are still dysfunctional. Individuals must take these socio-economic problems into consideration before addressing issues such as marriage or their choice of lifestyle.

I mean, think about it. People are not going to listen to what you have to say about their clothes if they are struggling with drug addiction, or fighting to put food on the table in order to feed their families, or looking for a place to stay because their parents kicked them out of their home after they heard that they had converted to Islam. These problems are real and instead of knee-jerk, judgmental “advice”, individuals in the community should also open up their wallets, homes and hearts to provide support.

Once their lives are in order and at peace, once their focus is no longer inundated in other pressing matters, that is when we, as a community, can start to have conversations about faith and its minutia. Until we reach that point, focusing on the minor details of faith as opposed to trying to keep that person in the faith is like focusing on saving one tree while the entire forest is burning to the ground.

It is better for a person to be a Muslim sinner, believing in Allah and the Last Day, than to be a modestly dressed non-Muslim who knows nothing about Allah or how to worship Him.

Treat the New Borns

Those of you who are born Muslim did not become observant and devout all at once. You needed time to grow and learn. Therefore, we should not expect converts to turn their lives around overnight, but rather, afford them the same luxury you afforded yourself: Time. They need time to teach their non-Muslim husbands about Islam, time to break-up with their boyfriend or girlfriend, time to find a new circle of friends, time to figure out how they fit into this entirely new way of life. New Muslims need to be treated in a similar fashion to that of infants. They need someone to guide them, protect them, nurture them, be there for them when they make mistakes and show them what the proper course of action should have been when they make mistakes. We must allow them to retain their individuality without trying to completely change their personality. We must help them prioritize which issues need to be addressed immediately, and which can be put on the back burner.

Converts are already special for many reasons, mainly because Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) handpicked them out of billions of people around the world to be part of the Ummah. However, post-shahādah converts are in the midst of figuring themselves out. As a community, we must focus on first cultivating faith and love for Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) in a place where not too long ago, was void. This holds true for both converts and born Muslims. Faith is principally manifested from the inside out. Once faith takes root in the hearts of people, only then can they begin to focus on the outward actions of obedience.

Only then will faith take on an added spiritual element, rather than merely being hollow actions void of any purpose or meaning. We must also remember that Islam did not come to completely wipe our canvas clean and paint an entirely new picture with broad, sweeping stroke of the shahādah. Rather, it came to accentuate the good qualities already found in a person, fill in our empty gaps and correct our deficiencies.

Converts are like the Mona Lisa. It’s celebrated for its beauty and revolutionary artistic style, but is no less revered or esteemed despite being considered by some to be an incomplete work of art.

Ustadh Jameel Besada was born and raised in Los Angeles, California to a Peruvian mother and Cuban father. He accepted Islam in 2003 and went on to receive his bachelor’s degree from the University of California San Diego in Spanish Literature with a minor in International Migration Studies. Today, he is a student at the Islamic University of Madinah in the faculty of Islamic Law, where he will be the first Latin American student to complete a degree from the faculty of Sharia.

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Ustadh Jameel Besada was born and raised in Los Angeles, California to a Peruvian mother and Cuban father. He accepted Islam in 2003 and went on to receive his bachelor’s degree from the University of California San Diego in Spanish Literature with a minor in International Migration Studies. Today, he is a student at the Islamic University of Madinah in the faculty of Islamic Law, where he will be the first Latin American student to complete a degree from the faculty of Sharia. You can find Ustadh Jameel on Facebook and Twitter.

10 Comments

10 Comments

  1. MalikSaabSays

    March 1, 2016 at 11:40 PM

    One should be patient when seeing someone not ‘sizing up’ to a certain standard. One should be patient in pronouncing judgement just like Allah Most High was & is patient with us in our shortcomings.
    Do to others as you would want their & your Master to do to you.

    • Jameel Besada

      March 4, 2016 at 7:44 AM

      I could not agree more. We so often want to treat others harshly when they make mistakes, but when we happen to fall into error we expect unconditional clemency and forgiveness. As you said, treat others as we would want Allah to treat us.

  2. Tom the Taalib

    March 2, 2016 at 8:57 PM

    Jazakallah Khayr Ustadh! Everything resonated so much, these are tough conversations to have but important nonetheless. Some lay Muslims don’t know how their actions drive new converts away from the faith. I remember when I first converted a woman told me and my wife that every touch between us was haraam. She didn’t know our names or situation or anything. The bad experience set back the dawah to my wife big time (eventually converted as well alhamdulillah) and stopped me from going to the masjid for maybe a year. Contrary to MaalikSaab’s comment, I don’t think sharing these stories has anything to do with having too high of standards for everyday Muslims, it comes down to real negative consequences in our community and pointing it out is naseehah inshaa Allah.

    • Tom the Taalib

      March 3, 2016 at 3:08 PM

      Brother MaalikSaab I just realized I totally misread your comment. Forgive me akhi, jazakallah khayr.

    • Jameel Besada

      March 4, 2016 at 7:48 AM

      Unfortunately, stories like yours happen all too frequently in our communities. I hope that converts such as ourselves can take on roles of leadership in our communities to provide that sympathy and care to converts going through similar circumstances that we went through shortly after our conversions. I hope by sharing my experiences that converts will feel that their experiences are not unique, and also provide community members with some insight into the difficulties facing converts outside of the mosque.

  3. Isam Zaiem

    March 3, 2016 at 9:14 AM

    Dear Brother Jameel. May Allah (SWT) make your deeds as beautiful (jameelah) as this insightful article you wrote. I was born Muslim and did not really practice Islam until my early 40s. What you addressed is so true. I have lived in the United States for 46 years and have seen many of my brothers who reverted to Islam and how the Muslim community, due to its lack of understanding of human nature had unintentionally mistreated and confused the newcomers. You brought plenty of interesting ideas that I did not realize myself. It would be really important that in addition of creating a support group for converts, made up of those masjid goers, and teach them or make them aware of the conditions that these converts maybe are going through so that they may transition much more smoothly.
    I was also touched by your comment about converts being special people that Allah (SWT) had picked them up from the billions of people out there. Similarly, I thank God every day and ask myself the question of how lucky I am to have been born to Muslim parents, otherwise what would have guaranteed that I would have chosen to be Muslim on my own! Jazaka Allahu khayran.

    • Jameel Besada

      March 4, 2016 at 7:50 AM

      Thank you for your kind words, and I’m very happy to hear that you were able to find your way back to Allah. May Allah bless you in your affairs, bring you closer to Him, and make you means of guiding others to His path.

  4. junaid

    March 8, 2016 at 12:25 PM

    Everything resonated so much Brother MaalikSaab I just realized I totally misread your comment. Forgive me akhi, jazakallah khayr

  5. Alison

    April 26, 2016 at 6:19 AM

    I am a new convert and a woman in my early 20s. After my conversion I have been looking helter skelter to vent out the isolation I feel. I can totally identify myself ‘with the loneliness’ that a new Muslim feels. But for me it has been the other way. Nobody around me apart from a few close friends is aware that I am a Muslim now. Therefore I never have had the injunction problem.
    For me, it is difficult to break away from my old set of friends who are non Muslims. Honestly, my reason to alienate is not that they are non Muslims but because the way they lead their lives are antithetical to Islam, spending even a minute with them becomes burdensome for me. But I can totally relate myself with the author’s predicament in the initial days, very difficult indeed, when you are trying to break away from almost everything that hitherto made your life. But, But, But I cannot express the joy that I feel after conversion. It suddenly feels that everything in my life has gotten right. I agree that for a new convert addiction, poverty might act as some sort of inhibition but with the glory of Allah, poverty becomes richness, infact nothing as ‘poverty’ exists. I am awed at the beauty of Islam. Over awed. And the statement that we are chosen by Allah, just made my day. Indeed we are, otherwise who can afford such insurmountable luxury of peace and happiness.
    Also, another statement from the author that struck me best was ‘It is better for a person to be a Muslim sinner, believing in Allah and the Last Day, than to be a modestly dressed non-Muslim who knows nothing about Allah or how to worship Him.’ So true. I am so awed by the magic of Islam, that I sometimes wonder what the world would be like if everyone knew Islam. It is the only world that convinces me that a utopian world can exist, no matter how microcosmic.

  6. Thabit

    December 23, 2016 at 11:35 PM

    I am one of these reverts. I recently said my Shahada and feel so alone right now. I live approx. 40 minutes from my closest masjid. I also sometimes feel like I don’t “fit” because my family is not Muslim, or I am Caucasian etc. On top of that I work two jobs and am very busy. My neighborhood and work environment have no other Muslim’s. My wife and children (teenagers) are all happily Christian, although they are very supportive of my choice to become Muslim. As I pray 5 times a day, ready myself as we enter this new year for Ramadan, cleanse myself of Vices, and subsequently abandon my social circle to some degree, I feel so alone in my faith and my choice right now. I do not regret my decision. I love Allah. This article rang true for me and also brought me solace, because now I know there are others who are going through what I am.

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