For new Muslims nothing can be more daunting than dealing with family members’ reactions to the decision of converting to Islam. Parents, siblings, and other relatives can either shun their newly-Muslim family member, ask very tough questions, make hurtful comments regarding their faith, or even give them ultimatums in order to pressure them to abandon their choice to embrace Islam. While some of these initial reactions and resistance may be well-intentioned, they are no less hurtful. The first Muslims during the Makkan era in the time of the Prophet Muhammad , peace be upon him, dealt with similar, and oftentimes much worse, situations with their families. Some endured torture, humiliation, and loss of status and financial stability, while others lost their lives as the very first martyrs in Islam.
However, there is another more complex struggle that new Muslims face involving close family, and that is the challenge of raising their children as Muslims. Too often, there is a lack of education, aid, and established support groups within the greater Muslim community for this purpose, leaving converts to teach themselves and their children on their own. Other times, there is a wealth of resources available, but converts are not familiar with how to tap into these opportunities. Some new Muslims embrace Islam after they have already had children, and the ages of the children vary; the older the child, the more complicated the relationship between them and their Muslim parent could become. Younger children are more likely to be inclined towards the teachings of Islam and easily accept their parent’s guidance. However, some family dynamics, such as divorce or single parent households, may present greater dilemmas such as children caught between two circles, one with a Muslim parent and the other with a parent of another faith. Other converts may marry and bear children after their conversion but lack the adequate education and experience to properly teach their child the religion.
To look further into this multi-faceted issue, I interviewed two Muslim Latina converts of different backgrounds who have successfully raised children as Muslims after their own conversions, and whose children are now independent adults, to ask them how they were able to take on this tremendous endeavor. As a mother, myself, I wanted to offer a ray of hope to those new Muslim mothers out there who may be struggling with feelings of inadequacy or failure.
From Dominican Single Mother to Muslim Educator
Amada “Sahar” Quesada was born in Manhattan, New York, to Dominican parents and grew up in Chicago, Illinois. She was raised as a Pentecostal Christian and embraced Islam in 2001, two months after the September 11th attacks in her hometown. She had been married for 10 years prior to accepting Islam, but by the time she converted, she was living as a single mother with three children. Sahar was introduced to Islam after trying to convert a Muslim woman to Christianity but then stopped to listen to the woman tell her about her own faith. She said, “(At the time) I was unhappy spiritually where I was with my Pentecostal church. I started to research Islam and got in contact with local Muslims in the Chicago area.” She says she fell in love with Islam after learning that it was a religion with a scripture and ethics that has not changed even centuries after its revelation. Sahar, who was born Amada (“Beloved” in Spanish) Quesada took the name “Sahar” after the woman who first taught her about Islam.
As Sahar began learning about Islam, she taught it to her young children, ages 8, 4, and 3 at the time. Once she decided to embrace Islam, she took advantage of all the resources available. “I started with Quran recitation for the kids when they were younger, I even had them enrolled in private Islamic schools, which helped with their development towards learning about Islam and understanding what it was,” Sahar explained. These classes helped to build a solid foundation for her children while she also dedicated her time to learning through reading books, listening to lectures, attending Islamic seminars and conventions, and through hearing the experience of other Muslims.
For the next years of her life, Sahar immersed herself and her children in Islam. She taught by example and through lots of practice. She became very involved in her local mosque, much as she had been with her church as a Christian. Yet this devotion was met with constant resistance. Sahar’s ex-husband, tried his best to persuade his children to remain Christians. While they were with him, he forced them to eat pork and go to church. It was their eldest child who finally stood up to her father and told him to let them practice Islam.
Coming from an already religious background, Sahar had understood the need to build a strong connection with God for the sake of her children. She became an Islamic school teacher and volunteered in different capacities within the Islamic community. Sahar has been an educator for over fifteen years in Islamic schools. This also helped her stay close to her children while they shared in her journey.
At the same time, Sahar made sure that her children kept close ties with non-Muslim relatives. Maintaining her Dominican identity was important for her, and this kept her connected to family, regardless of religious differences. She wholeheartedly declared, “I will never close the door on my Dominican pride and what comes with it. It is in my blood and even plays a role on how I handle my daily life without me even noticing.”
Still, she admits that for her, staying true to her Dominican identity while being Muslim took a lot of trial and error. “Finding a proper balance and being able to distinguish my identity with each ‘hat’ that I wear has been the hardest thing about practicing Islam as a Latina and a mother,” she said. “However, I do love the fact that I can relate to others that share being Latin-American, a mother, or a Muslim, or even all three, and finding that commonality.” She believes that a person does not have to choose one identity over another; if everything is balanced within the guidelines of Islam. Becoming a Muslim should never be a reason to abandon or be ashamed of who you are.
At first, Sahar’s family despised her decision to convert to Islam, but have since become supportive after seeing the positive impact it has had in her life and in the lives of her children. All three have married and began living on their own as independent Muslims, while keeping their Latino identity and preserving the Dominican traditions of their mother. For Sahar, her children are a source of constant pride and happiness, as they should be for any mother. The distinction is that Sahar has been able to pass on to them the gift of Islam while they were young, which she only received at a later age, and that is certainly an achievement.
Raising Boricua Born Muslims: Islam in the Inner-City and Puerto Rico
Newlyweds Karima Kayyam and her husband converted to Islam in 1973 after what she describes as “seeking knowledge and identity in the Puerto Rican community through the Young Lords Party.” Her husband, Juan Garcia, known as Yahya, was a member of the Puerto Rican civil rights organization during a time when Islam was spreading rapidly in the urban landscape. They attended the classes of a Muslim scholar by the name of Heshaam Jaaber from the Elizabeth, New Jersey, and embraced Islam through his guidance and after all the questions they had as Christians had been answered and explained logically in Islam.
Karima was born in Coamo, Puerto Rico, but her parents migrated to New York, and later Newark, New Jersey, where she was raised and introduced to Islam. “Newark had recently gone through a civil rights uprising. The youth were tired of the racism, and Islam opened the doors to new guidance and equality for us,” Karima explained. Although her parents were Christian, they respected her decision, and Karima attributes this to her and her husband’s respect and good treatment towards their parents. In Newark, Black Muslims also opened the doors of acceptance for the Puerto Rican converts, which made their transition easier.
Once Karima had children, she was already deeply absorbed in the Islamic culture of the inner-city Muslims, but still connected to her Christian family and her Puerto Rican roots. She taught her children about Islam through reasoning and logic, explaining to them the meaning behind “La ilaha il Allah,” there is nothing worthy of worship except Allah. She reasoned that if her children were well-grounded, then their faith would not be easily shaken. “My family would want to take them (her children) to the Christian churches, and I would allow it so that there would be no (room for) doubt,” she explained, “Alhamdulillah, logic wins over doubt.” After all, it was this rationality that had brought her and her husband to Islam.
Although she would have preferred that they attend an Islamic school, Karima’s three children went through the public school system. Islamic schools were less common at the time, and her family could not afford a private education for their children, so they learned Islam at home and in the mosque. Karima’s lessons consisted of reminders about the Qur’an and the Sunnah, praying and supplicating together, and practicing patience. She and her family continued learning by being around other Muslims, frequenting Islamic lectures and conferences, reading the Qur’an and ahadith, and always asking questions to those who were more knowledgeable. The prayer was of utmost importance for Karima, who describes making the five daily prayers a priority no matter what was happening in her life.
Karima and her husband helped to establish a Latino Muslim community and mosque called Bani Saqr, in Newark. Bani Saqr is not well known now because it dissolved over the years, but during its inception, it was perceived to be a beacon of learning for Puerto Rican and Latino Muslims. Karima’s family spent their early years reaping the benefits of a motivated and unified convert community before relocating again to Puerto Rico.
With mostly Arab or South Asian immigrants, the situation for Muslims in Puerto Rico was very different. Karima’s family would attend Friday prayers and Eid gatherings at the established mosques, but their growth as Muslims at that point had to come from within the household. They also had to set an example for non-Muslim family and neighbors of how to live Islam while still being true to their Puerto Rican roots. They faced the challenges of attending family reunions where pork, a common staple in Puerto Rican cuisine, and alcohol were frequently served. Karima joined family gatherings out of respect, but when opportunities for dialogue arose, she spoke to her relatives about Islam and explained the reasons behind certain restrictions.
She believes that the lessons she was taught by her own parents helped to shape how she handled all situations as a Muslim and a mother. “I was born to beautiful God-fearing parents who allowed us to seek knowledge and stressed family unity despite our differences; some were poor, some rich, some black, brown or white, some righteous and some not,” she described. Karima passed down these lessons to her children, who in turn, exercised patience and respect with their kin. As the only Muslims in their family, they relied on each other as their Islamic support system.
Although they also faced their fair share of trials, Karima and her children have remained firm in their faith because of their reliance on Allah and each other. Even now that her children have grown up, this strong mother prays continuously for them to be kept on the straight path, as Islam teaches that the supplication of the parent for his/her child is always accepted. (At Tirmidhi).
When asked what advice Karima would give to other Muslim mothers out there in the struggle, she said, “Stay close to your families and your identity. Be the best example you can be under whatever circumstances you encounter. Islam is the best guidance for mankind, but be you, as we are constantly growing and learning. Allah makes no mistakes.”
In Latin-American culture, we often hear the phrase, Madre no hay mas que una, meaning that we only have one mother, so, in other words, take care of your mother. Likewise, in Islam, time and time again we are taught that the mother has a particularly high status, and that is because of the constant sacrifices she makes for the sake of her children. Karima’s and Sahar’s stories may have taken place at different times and locations, and under different circumstances, but what unites the two are the sacrifices they made to live their lives according to Islam while raising their children as Muslims. Aside from finding a balance between Islam and their Latina identities, these mothers fought the same battles as all other mothers. They had to persevere with their minds, bodies, and souls to steer their families in the right direction. Motherhood does not come with a manual, even if you put the word “Muslim” in front of it. While our own personal stories may be different, what we can learn from their experiences is that we should always remember our purpose and what brought us to Islam in the first place. Just as we were chosen and guided by Allah, so will our children, insha’Allah; our role is to do our best, pray for a good outcome, and put our trust in Allah’s ultimate plan.