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 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.
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 . 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 .
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 takes something away from you, 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 , 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 and not Jesus . 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 , some Muslims have lost their families’ love and support when they decided to practice Islam. Allah 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.