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

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.

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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.

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.

https://muslimmatters.org/2014/05/05/my-religion-experiences-conversion-1/

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For over a decade, Laura El Alam has been a frequent contributor to various Islamic magazines. In her work she frequently addresses issues related to converts' experiences, women's right in Islam, racism, and Muslim-American identity. You can follow her on Facebook at her page The Common Sense Convert and read her blog on her website Sea Glass Writing & Editing.

6 Comments

6 Comments

  1. Avatar

    NAS

    January 16, 2019 at 9:28 PM

    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. Avatar

    AF

    January 18, 2019 at 9:54 PM

    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. Avatar

    Kristy

    January 20, 2019 at 11:08 AM

    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-

    • Avatar

      Megan Wyatt

      January 21, 2019 at 4:48 PM

      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. Avatar

    Megan Wyatt

    January 21, 2019 at 4:10 PM

    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.

  5. Avatar

    Nasr

    March 5, 2019 at 2:39 PM

    Thank you

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#Life

What Repentance Can Teach You About Success

When losing weight, one piece of advice you’ll hear often is the following – if you fall off your eating plan one day, pick yourself back up and think of the next day as a fresh start.

Annoying, isn’t it?

You’ll hear this advice from people who have “made it” – they’ve lost a lot of weight, their lives have changed, and they’ll tell you to stick through it, and you’ll be like, yeah, I have, I tried, and I keep failing. I keep trying, I can’t sustain the motivation, I have life factors, I have stuff going on that makes this difficult.

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And you’re right.

You don’t have millions of dollars, a dedicated personal trainer and chef, the free time and lack of commitments others do, the lack of sleep, the injuries, or personal life circumstances that advantage others, nor do they have those that disadvantage you.

That’s not the point.

When you make a mistake, if you run through the process of regret, repentance, and retrying to do the right thing, Allah (swt) is pleased with you. And if you keep failing, repenting, and trying again, and again, and again, until you die, Allah keeps forgiving you.

The process of both recognizing your weakness, of getting out of denial, and humbling yourself and not thinking yourself so high and mighty has its own sobering effect. Not only does it help you in dealing with that atom’s weight of arrogance you don’t want to meet Allah (swt) with on the Day of Judgment, it helps make you a better human being, a more compassionate one, a more empathetic one, when calling others away from mistakes.

I’m not perfect, and you’re not perfect. Perfection is only for Allah (swt). But we’re trying. And the process of recognizing your weakness and at least attempting to rectify it means that maybe you’ll sin a little less, maybe you’ll still not invent excuses for mistakes and you’ll teach others, “Hey man, I know this is a sin, I know this is wrong, I hope you can do better than me.” And maybe they do change, and you’re both better for it.

Maybe in trying and failing again and again, what you end up doing is coming a little bit closer to success, and that process of trying and failing is the teacher you needed to get you out of your weakness and to then help others do likewise. Maybe that learning process serves you in succeeding elsewhere down the road in other treacherous turns and trials of life.

Whether it’s in losing weight, fixing broken relationships, pulling away from a heavy nafs addiction (eg pornography), don’t ever put yourself mentally in a position where “you’ve lost” and “you may as well give up” because “there’s no hope for me”. Don’t identify yourself by your failures.

So then, what is the point?

The point isn’t that you hit your goal perfectly. The point is that give your best, even with the little that you have, and that is good enough for you and for all of us. Ask Allah (swt) to help you better yourself, and in these 10 Days of Dhul-Hijjah, increase in your du’a, cry to Him for help, in whatever area of life it is you’re trying to improve.

And whatever you fail at, don’t fall off for weeks on end. Acknowledge your mistake, own it completely and take full responsibility. Try to figure out where you went wrong in your process, get help from others if you need to. Forgive yourself, and don’t resign yourself to an identity based on your mistakes.

Never get tired of failing, getting knocked down, and picking yourself back up and trying to do and be better again.

It’s always a brand new day tomorrow.

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30 Khawaatir in 30 Days- A Parent’s Guide | Day 19: My Mercy Encompasses All Things

Now that we have learnt about when the angels surround us, let’s now talk about how Allah’s subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) mercy encompasses all things.

We say بِسْمِ اللَّـهِ الرَّحْمَـٰنِ الرَّحِيمِ  (bismillah Ar-Rahman ar-Raheem) a lot, right? It means ‘in the Name of Allah, the Most Merciful, the Most Compassionate.’ 

We say it when we pray, before we eat, and we’re encouraged to say it before we begin any new task. But do we really understand what rahma (mercy) means? 

Question: What do you think rahma means?

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Do you know that the word rahma comes from the root word, رحم (rahim), which means womb? 

Question: Who can tell me what a womb is?

That’s right. A baby is usually in their mommy’s womb for 40 weeks. The baby gets all the nourishment it requires; the temperature in the womb is perfect, the nutrients are always administered, it is safe and warm. All the baby has to do is grow, and alhamdulillah all its needs are being met. 

Question: How do you think the womb relates to Allah’s subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) mercy?

Allah’s subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) mercy is constantly surrounding us like a safety net. That doesn’t mean that we’ll never experience any pain, but Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) is constantly showing us mercy with every breath we take. Even blinking is a mercy from Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) that we don’t even have to think about. Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) even has more mercy for us than a mother has for her own child! 

One day the Prophet Muhammad ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) was walking with a group of his companions, and they passed by a woman who was frantically looking for her child. She would take any child to her breast and try to feed him/her. Then the Prophet Muhammad ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) said to the companions: “Do you think that this lady can throw her son in the fire?” We replied, “No, if she has the power not to throw it (in the fire).” The Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) then said, “Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) is more merciful to His slaves than this lady to her son.”

And guess what? There’s even more mercy in the hereafter than we’re experiencing right now. 

Salman al-Farisi reported: The Prophet Muhammad ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) said, “Verily, on the day Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) created the heavens and earth, He created one hundred parts of mercy. Each part can fill what is between heaven and earth. He made one part of mercy for the earth, from it a mother has compassion for her child, animals and birds have compassion for each other. On the Day of Resurrection, He will perfect this mercy.” [Sahih Muslim]

99 parts of mercy on the Day of Judgment! That is one reason why it’s so important to have a good opinion of Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He)! Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) even tells us in Surat Al-A’raaf:

وَرَحْمَتِي وَسِعَتْ كُلَّ شَيْءٍ ۚ

“My mercy encompasses all things” (Surat Al-A’raaf; 156]

And you all, my dears, are all encompassed by Allah’s subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) mercy, alhamdulillah. 

 

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30 Khawaatir in 30 Days- A Parent’s Guide | Day 18: When the Angels Surround Us

Now that we have learnt about Hajar raḍyAllāhu 'anha (may Allāh be pleased with her) and her sa’i, let’s now talk about when the angels surround us.

Do you know that every time we sit together and remember Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He), we are not alone in our meeting? We have very special visitors, and these visitors love to hear us praising Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He)and thanking Him. 

Question: Who can tell me who these visitors are?

Yes! They are angels! Can anyone name some angels for me?

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We have Angel Jibril 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) who has delivered every message to every Prophet since the beginning of time. We also have our angels on our left and right who write down our deeds.

Question: Does anyone know the name of the angel that is in control of the weather? 

His name is Angel Mikai’l. 

There are so many gifts that Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) grants us when we gather together and remember him. Four things happen every single time! I want you to pay close attention to this hadith, because I’m going to ask you what those four things are after I read it. 

Are you ready?

‏لا يقعد قوم يذكرون الله عز وجل إلا حفتهم الملائكة، وغشيتهم الرحمة ونزلت عليهم السكينة، وذكرهم الله فيمن عنده‏

The Prophet Muhammad ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) said: “When a group of people assemble for the remembrance of Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He), the angels surround them (with their wings), (Allah’s) mercy envelops them, tranquility descends upon them, and Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) makes a mention of them before those who are near Him.”

Question: Can you believe that Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) makes mention of your name when you make mention of His? What do you think it means when “tranquility descends upon us?” Do you feel how calm your heart is? 

That is a gift from Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) and He tells us that our hearts find rest in His remembrance:

أَلَا بِذِكْرِ اللَّـهِ تَطْمَئِنُّ الْقُلُوبُ

“…Unquestionably, by the remembrance of Allah hearts are assured” [Surah Ar-Ra’d; 28] 

 

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