How My Non-Muslim Family Members Have Made Me A Stronger Muslim

As the holiday season wraps up, writer Laura El Alam, a convert of many years, shares her thoughts on valuable lessons that she has learned from her family

By Laura El Alam

Whenever I walk into a room, there is one member of my family who consistently walks right out.  He says he’s not comfortable with me now that I wear a headscarf. He’s had nearly 19 years to adjust, but the “discomfort” persists.  

I’m allowed to visit another close relative’s house only if I agree not to pray there. He believes his home is “consecrated to Christ,” and if I worship Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) there, it would somehow taint the sanctity of his home. When I tell him that I do not have to perform ritual prayers there, but the very act of visiting relatives is, for Muslims, an act of worship in itself, he is flummoxed.  “Let’s just meet at a pizza place,” he suggests.

I am a convert. Needless to say, family reunions aren’t as fun as they used to be.

Born in a white, Midwestern, staunchly Catholic family, I really broke the mold when I married a Moroccan Muslim and converted to Islam in the year 2000.  I’ll never forget the first time I showed up to a family gathering with my flowing abaya and headscarf, thereby confirming once and for all the wild rumors they’d all been hearing.  “She really did it,” they whispered amongst themselves. “Her poor parents!”

Since I took my shahada I have been, without a doubt, the focus of ongoing family debate, gossip, and speculation. While every one of my relatives reacted to my conversion with a certain degree of surprise and concern, time and deep reflection softened many of their hearts, Alhamdullilah. The love and support of a few of my relatives have been a balm for me in tumultuous times and has helped me to grow stronger and more confident in my imaan.

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Other family members, however, are just as opposed to my choice today as they were in 2000–or perhaps even more so, since Islamophobia has definitely increased over the past two decades. While it saddens me that some of my closest blood relatives believe I am destroying my life and destining my soul for hell, I have come to realize that they, too, are teaching me valuable lessons that I can use to grow closer to my Creator.  

Ties of Kinship

Among my most fervent supporters is — perhaps surprisingly– my uncle who is a Catholic Jesuit priest.  At a sprightly 80 years old, he recently celebrated his 50th anniversary in the priesthood. He has traveled around the world, speaks several languages, and has taught in high school classrooms for longer than I’ve been alive.  And even though he is devoted to his own faith, he has never wavered in his support of me as a Muslim.

Although I am sure that deep down he would prefer for me to be a Catholic, my uncle has great respect for Islam and has never pressured me to return to the faith of my youth.  He once sent me a beautiful amethyst tasbeeh along with a list of the 99 names of Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He).  When a family member said something disparaging about hijab in his presence, my uncle articulated a response so perfect that I did not have to offer a single word in my own defense.  He recently visited my family and encouraged my teenage son, with whom he has a special bond, to keep practicing his faith diligently.

“Don’t ever give up fasting Ramadan,” he solemnly advised my son.

He also complimented my daughter on her hijab, telling her it made her look extremely dignified and unique, especially among the scantily-clad young women of her generation.  “I hope and pray you will continue to be strong enough to wear your Islamic clothing,” he told her.

In all those ways, my beloved Catholic uncle has encouraged me and my family to be confidently and unapologetically Muslim.  When I am feeling down, his words always lift me up and bring me closer to my deen.  His actions remind me that people of different beliefs can still respect, support, and love each other.

I have heard of converts whose parents disowned them or completely cut contact with them when they embraced Islam. Alhamdullilah my own parents never wanted to end our relationship or withdraw their love from me. Although I know it was difficult for them when I rejected the faith they tried to instill in me (including paying my expensive Catholic school tuition for 12 years!), they assured me that they loved me no matter what. They kept helping and loving me and, when my children were born, showered them with wholehearted devotion that was untarnished by any sadness or betrayal they felt at my conversion.

Holidays like Christmas and Easter were initially very sad and challenging for my parents, as I was no longer celebrating with them. However, I made sure to send gifts and cards to them on other occasions and welcomed them into my home during Ramadan, which my father, in particular, loved while he was alive. Although my mother initially worried about my hijab and how it would mark me as a possible target of discrimination or violence in this country, she eventually became my most fervent defender. When others — whether strangers or family members — dare to make untrue or hostile remarks about Islam, my mom courageously jumps to our defense, protecting me and my fellow Muslims like a fierce mother bear protecting her cubs.  She frequently buys hijabs and scarf pins for me and my oldest daughter and goes out of her way to greet Muslim women enthusiastically wherever she encounters them, whether it’s the airport or the grocery store.

My parents taught me that true love is resilient and unconditional. They help me feel more courageous in a society that does not always accept Muslims, and they let me know that no matter what others say, their love for me is unwavering.  My parents give me the courage to live a life of purpose and they increase my gratitude to Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He).

Finally, I am blessed to have a few distant family members who have become some of my staunchest allies. Even though I was not very close to them prior to embracing Islam, their open-mindedness and support in times of trouble have made me extremely grateful to them.   They are the ones who send me comforting, love-filled texts whenever Muslim-bashing in the media is at its peak. “I’m here for you. I’m sorry for what you’re going through. I love you.” Such simple words are like a rope to help me climb out of despair.

These gentle souls have also talked with less tolerant members of my family to try to soften their hearts towards me.  It hasn’t always worked, but it means the world to me that they try. They have taught me that adversity often shows you who your true friends are and that when Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) takes something away from you, He subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) will give you something better in return.

Lessons of Love

Not all lessons have been easy to learn.  Some of my closest relatives have strengthened my imaan in a different, much less appetizing, way.  One relative does not wish to discuss any common ground we have, such as living a God-conscious life, respecting Jesus 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him), admiring his mother, the Virgin Mary, and revering the prophets like Abraham, Moses, Noah, and Adam (peace be upon all of them).  Rather, he believes our differences divide us irrevocably. He is convinced I will go to hell because I worship Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) and not Jesus 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him). He sees my conviction that Jesus is a prophet of God but not the son of God (and simultaneously one with God) as the gravest sin, and our relationship has gone from close and loving to distant and strained.  

It is a bitter pill to swallow, but this particular family member has indeed made me stronger.  He has taught me that devotion to Islam comes before family loyalty. Even though we are supposed to do our best to maintain family ties, we must not sacrifice our beliefs in order to appease our relatives. Since the time of Muhammad ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him), some Muslims have lost their families’ love and support when they decided to practice Islam. Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) knows our sacrifices and will reward them, inshaAllah.

Another of my family members has brought me closer to Islam in an unexpected way.  She is a regular consumer of Fox and Breitbart news — sources that are so consistently Islamophobic that I am not surprised by her horrible misconceptions about Islam.  She believes that because I dress differently now and celebrate different holidays, I have lost my “Americanness.”

People who accuse others of not being “American enough” do not want to unpack the uncomfortable truth that their narrow definition of “American” — one that identifies white Christians as “true” Americans and the rest of their compatriots as inferiors or interlopers –is, at its core, deeply racist.  

Dealing with this family member has actually taught me a great deal. She has inspired me to examine my own white privilege and to constantly search my own heart for subtle traces of racism. Until I was in my mid-twenties, I was a run-of-the-mill white woman like her, with all the safety, benefits, and advantages which that entails.  Now, as a visibly Muslim woman, I do face some discrimination, but I realize that my white skin will always afford me a certain amount of privilege. I know that Islam condemns racism and therefore I have dedicated much of my professional writing to examining and condemning racism within the American Muslim community. Furthermore, this particular family member has inadvertently encouraged me to define for myself what being “American” means —  to own my Americanness — and to passionately advocate for Muslims’ rights in this country.  Whether she knows it or not, she has actually brought me closer to my faith, more devoted to my Rabb, and more convinced of Islam’s perfection.  

Converts like me often face challenges from their non-Muslim family members and friends.  Rather than letting these difficulties dishearten us or make us doubt our faith, let us search for the lessons that can be learned from each interaction, from each heartache.  And when and if we are blessed to have non-Muslim family members who support us, let us cherish them and go forth and share that love with a fellow convert who is struggling.

For the past decade, writer Laura El Alam has been a regular contributor to SISTERS Magazine, Al Jumuah, and About Islam.  Her articles frequently tackle issues like Muslim American identity, women’s rights in Islam, support of converts/reverts, and racism.  A graduate of Grinnell College, she currently lives in Massachusetts with her husband and five children. Laura recently started a Facebook page, The Common Sense Convert, to support Muslim women, particularly those who are new to the deen.

For Me is My Religion: Tales of Conversion part 1

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5 responses to “How My Non-Muslim Family Members Have Made Me A Stronger Muslim”

  1. NAS says:

    Beautiful words sister. You have put together what can be called a blueprint for converts to use in their own journeys. It’s definitely not an easy one. May Allah increase you in Iman, continue to make you a symbol of hope for American Muslims and give hidaya to your mother and your entire family.

  2. AF says:

    You say: “I’ll never forget the first time I showed up to a family gathering with my flowing abaya and headscarf, thereby confirming once and for all the wild rumors they’d all been hearing.”

    Your first mistake was letting your family hear about your conversion through “wild rumors” rather than from you.

    Your second mistake is believing that your relatives are required to agree with your beliefs. They’re not.

    You do not agree with their beliefs and reject spending Christian holidays with them, but complain when they reject discussing Islam with you. These are both religious decisions. If you want them to respect your rejection of Christianity, then you must respect their rejection of Islam.

    I’m sure that your relatives read essays like the article you wrote here and see you denigrating them in print. In light of that, they strike me as a very tolerant group of people to still associate with you.

  3. Kristy says:

    I often read articles like yours about converts to islam whose Christian parents and relatives like your uncle the priest who give unconditional love and support to the muslim convert. Unconditional love to others regardless of what they have done is one of the pillars of Christianity. Forgiveness is another.

    But sadly what I have never read about are the muslim parents and uncle imam who gives such unconditional love, forgiveness and support to the muslim who converts to Christianity. I know three such Christians from muslim families and wonder why there is such a difference. But I am happy for you that your parents and uncle are real Christ-followers.
    My best to you-

    • Megan Wyatt says:

      Those who have worked in missionary work abroad also know of plenty of Christian families who turn their family members out when they convert to Islam.

      Some are threatened to be killed or are killed, others are erased from wills, many kicked out of their homes, and the entire family network is encouraged to ignore them completely.

      Culture has a lot to do with how things are handled much more than religion itself.

      And you are wrong that there aren’t Muslim leaders, family members, friends, etc who haven’t remained loving and compassionate of those who have stepped away from Islam for numerous reasons.

  4. Megan Wyatt says:

    Thank you Laura for this article that I am certain many many converts to Islam will be able to relate to. You have given us a private glimpse into some of your most painful experiences and also moments of love and given encouragement to those who feel down to find the lessons that family, friends, and community in general can teach them. Jazakum Allahu Khairan.

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