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Convert Story: To Ask Or Not to Ask, That is the Question

Joseph Milburn, Guest Contributor

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“How did you convert to Islam” is a question that is commonly asked to those who convert to Islam. While the short answer to this question is, “I said shahada”, the long (and more detailed) answer is one that is commonly expected.

It is important to acknowledge that the majority of “born Muslims” who ask this question do such out of good intentions. For this reason, I wrote this piece out of a place of love and not out of a place of judgment or hatred. While it is important for “born Muslims” to be mindful of how they ask this question, it is equally important for converts to not hold ill will towards born Muslims who ask this question. Due to the fact that Islamophobia is rampant in both the media and political discourse, many “born Muslims” are naturally shocked and emotional when they meet people who accept Islam. Some “born Muslims” have also had limited interactions with converts and therefore, to them, it is not only shocking for them to meet converts, but they are genuinely unaware of certain etiquettes when it comes to asking a convert for his or her story.

In this piece, I am going to write about a pet peeve that is shared among many Muslim converts. While I cannot speak for every single convert, I can say that based on innumerable conversations I have had with fellow converts, there is one thing most of us agree on and it is this; it is rude to ask a convert about his or her conversion story when you haven’t built a relationship with the convert. This piece will explain why many converts consider such a question to be intrusive. The purpose of this article is to better educate the “born Muslim” community on how they can do a better job in support of converts to Islam. In this piece, I will break down the reasons why this question can come off as intrusive if it isn’t asked in a proper manner. I will also include personal anecdotes to support my position.

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I would like to conclude by saying that I do not discourage “born Muslims” from asking this question entirely, rather I am merely arguing that this question should be asked with the best of adab.

Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ) said:  “Part of a person’s being a good Muslim is leaving alone that which does not concern him.” (Tirmidhi) For this reason, such a question should be asked for purpose and it should be done with the best of manners. This is supported by the fact that Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ) said, “I have been sent to perfect good character.” (Al Muwatta)

Note: For the sake of avoiding confusion, the term “born Muslim” is defined as anyone who was brought up in a Muslim household.

To ask a convert “Why did you convert?” is to ask about the person’s personal relationship with God

Within the context of a friendship, it is generally understood that friends will share personal details with each other. However, it is also generally understood that it is rude to ask people you just met personal questions. To ask a new acquaintance a personal question in most cases comes off as intrusive. This is especially the case in which you ask a person about his or her relationship with God.

For example, there are women who do not wear hijab. Even if we do (for a moment) ignore the Islamic ruling concerning hijab, we should all agree that a woman’s reason for wearing (or not wearing) hijab is a personal matter that is between said woman and God. If one was to ask a woman who doesn’t wear hijab why she doesn’t wear it, that would be intrusive because such a question would involve interrogating said woman about her relationship with God.

Another example concerns a married couple. If one was to meet a married person for the first time, it can be considered rude to ask said person about his or her relationship with his or her spouse.

When one asks a convert about his or her choice to convert, one is literally asking said convert about his or her relationship with God.

I am not saying that it is wrong in all cases to ask such a question. However, one should be mindful of the fact that because this is a personal question, one should have at least have built some form of a friendship with said person before asking.

convert friendship hugs

To ask a convert “Why did you convert?” is another way of asking, “Why do you believe in Islam?”

Many people identify to a faith tradition because it was part of their upbringing. If you were to ask a person who was born Muslim, “why are you Muslim?” you might hear said Muslim respond with, “I am Muslim because I was raised Muslim” and you wouldn’t hear a detailed answer beyond this.

In most cases, a convert to Islam (or any other religion) did such after research and critical thinking. To convert to a new religion involves not only deep thinking but a willingness to step into the unknown.

I have on many occasions told my story to people. In most cases I will ask the person “why do you believe in Islam?” I am then disappointed when I find out that the only reason the person is Muslim is due to upbringing. While I am not saying that said person’s faith is invalid or less than mine, a person who only identifies with a religion due to upbringing is a person who didn’t engage in critical thinking.

Any relationship should be built upon equality and mutual benefit. If I as a convert am able to provide a well thought out answer as to why I believe in Islam, I expect a well thought out answer to the same question from the person who initially asked me.

Again, while I am not saying it is wrong in all cases to ask, a born Muslim should ask himself or herself “why do I believe in Islam?” In my opinion, there are many who are born into Muslim families who don’t truly believe until later in their lives. Those Muslims in my opinion (and mine alone) are similar to converts.

To ask a convert “Why did you convert?” is to ask the convert to perform labor.

In some cases, “born Muslims” expect converts to tell their stories. I can remember a few incidents in which I have been asked to tell my story and I politely declined. In response, the person became angry. This to me is a symptom of entitlement. Nobody is entitled to know anything about anyone else (aside from people with whom one has a natural relationship with).

In addition, one should be cognizant of the fact that converts typically get asked this question repeatedly. Thus after a significant amount of time, a convert is prone to get tired of repeating the same question over again repeatedly. Naturally, it can become exhausting eventually.

While I do not believe it is wrong to ask this question in all cases, one should not ask this question to a convert from a place of entitlement. I can think of cases where I have been asked this question by “born Muslims” and when I have refused to provide an answer, they have gotten angry at me. This is entitlement.

To ask a convert “Why did you convert?” is to ask the convert to explain his or her personal life.

Backbiting is one of the worst sins in Islam. Another major sin is to disrespect one’s parents. Thus we can conclude that backbiting about one’s parents is a huge sin.

This is evidenced by the fact that Allah has said (ﷻ) “We have enjoined on humankind kindness to parents.” (Quran 29:8)

A typical follow-up question to “Why did you convert?” is “How did your parents react?” This in many cases puts the convert in a position where one may feel pressured to mention some negative details about his or her parents. In Islam, parents are to be respected, even if they aren’t Muslim.

Before asking a convert this question, one should be mindful of not putting unnecessary pressure on the convert to commit this injustice.

convert friendship

Cases when it is appropriate to ask

However, I do maintain a firm belief that in any true friendship, things will be shared. I don’t think it is wrong in itself to ask a convert about his or her story provided that there already exists a relationship where personal information can be shared. It is highly suggested to hang out with the person first and then ask the convert for his or her story.

As a personal rule of mine, unless I have hung out with the person one on one at least once (or a few times in group gatherings) I don’t tell any born Muslims my conversion story. Naturally, I only share personal details with people I consider to be a friend. If I would hang out with the person, I consider that person to be a friend.

The reason I am also hesitant to share my story with just anyone who asks me is because I can think of countless cases of when I have shared my story to people I have never seen or heard from again. I choose to exert my agency to share personal details of my life to people who I consider to be part of my life. While many Muslims are happy when people convert, many Muslims also fail to provide any form of support for said convert after conversion. I have seen too many cases of when a person recites shahadah, people pull their phones out to record it, but very few will give the convert his or her number. I genuinely believe that many “born Muslims” fail to see the big picture in this regard.

Before asking a convert for his or her story, you should ask yourself if you are comfortable sharing personal details of your life to that person. If you are not comfortable sharing personal details of your life to that person, there is nothing wrong with that. However, you shouldn’t expect the convert to share personal details if you aren’t comfortable sharing personal details. Even if you have built a close friendship with someone, you still aren’t expected to share every detail of your life to someone. Even if you consider a convert to be a close friend, you should still respect a convert’s wishes to not share his or her story.

Conclusion

While I have addressed concerns about the tendency of “born Muslims” to ask converts about their journeys, I want to acknowledge that most people have good intentions. In Islam, the natural state of any person is one of righteousness.

I firmly believe that a friendship that isn’t built on trust and the sharing of personal information isn’t a genuine friendship. Therefore the key term in this context is “friend”. If you wish to ask a convert his or her story, please make sure the following conditions are met:

  1. You are already friends with the convert to a point where asking a convert about his or her relationship with God isn’t an intrusive question. Ask yourself, “Are we close enough where we can share other personal details of our lives with each other?”
  2. You have a well thought out reason as to why you believe in Islam.
  3. You don’t feel entitled to know about the convert’s journey and that you will allow the convert to choose not to share such information if the convert doesn’t wish to.
  4. You don’t probe into the convert’s relationships with other people.
  5. You aren’t just asking the question to somehow feel validated about your belief in Islam.

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Joe Milburn is a law student at DePaul University College of Law. He is originally from St. Louis where he went to Saint Louis University and double majored in Criminal Justice and Political Science. In college, Joe served as community service chair for his MSA. Joe hopes to become a civil rights attorney that is of service to all marginalized communities while having a focus on fighting against Islamophobia as well as discrimination against those with disabilities (especially those who have Autism).

12 Comments

12 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Laura El Alam

    November 30, 2019 at 9:20 PM

    Asalaamu alaykum. Thank you for this article. As a fellow converts and writer, I’ve tried to address this same issue.
    Almost every convert I’ve known has faced some tactless and hurtful questions and comments from born Muslims. It can be very detrimental to new Muslims who have such hope for solidarity and support from their brothers and sisters in faith.

    I hope many people will read this and choose their words more carefully.

  2. Avatar

    Kathryn

    December 1, 2019 at 12:28 AM

    Honestly 9 gimes out of 10, I don’t mind. I have different levels of my story for different settings mind you, when I’m asked by strangers it’s a much shorter censored version.
    What DOES irk me as a revert is the term “born muslims”.
    We are ALL BORN on a state of fitra, hence the term “revert”.
    So when the question is specifically phrased “were you born muslim” or they tell me “I was born muslim, how about you?” I definitely get a bit annoyed.
    May Allah guide us to patience and the best speech.

  3. Avatar

    SITHARA BATCHA

    December 3, 2019 at 1:57 PM

    As Salamu Alaikum,

    Jazak Allahu Khayran for your the article! Very valuable advice for born Muslims like myself.

    Like you said, I think we mean well: how Allah enlivens, enlightens and guides hearts is truly amazing, and, we born Muslims would like to partake – vicariously anyway, through that experience.

    But, as you reminded me and others, we have to deserve that experience through building relationships, as its often intensely personal and private.

    I myself have researched deeply why I am Muslim. Perhaps unlike a convert’s experience, my research and journey have taken place over various spans of my life. Would I want to share my reasoning and experiences fully and openly with everyone? Probably not.

    So, lessons learned, thanks again!

  4. Avatar

    Gibran

    December 21, 2019 at 1:36 PM

    It seems to be after the testimony the Sahaba just taught the new convert how to pray and then Tada see you next Jummah salams. We should look to their example. No massive public spectacle which is itself either pressure (or temptation to arrogance), no heavy fetishizing or intrusive questioning, nothing just one of us now.

  5. Avatar

    Muqeem Visa

    December 25, 2019 at 10:08 AM

    Great Post and Great way to Explain

  6. Avatar

    Diana

    December 28, 2019 at 12:55 PM

    Yeeeessssssssssssss yes yes so much yes!
    It’s even worse when a complete stranger, who hasn’t said hi, salam, not a single word, comes up and asks how long you’ve been Muslim or what your story is. Or people who ask and are looking to be entertained.
    Thank you for writing this.

    • Avatar

      Fatima

      January 3, 2020 at 8:21 PM

      Assalaamu alaykum,

      Reading this i was nodding my head. I was raised muslim and if i met a convert muslim id never ask right away their story except after i formed a report or friendship. That being said alot of muslims who are immigrant background and not very educated do not understand the privacy of this question.

  7. Avatar

    Learn to Read Quran

    January 7, 2020 at 10:23 AM

    MashAllah i read complete article that really write good article

  8. Avatar

    Islamic Books

    January 25, 2020 at 12:17 AM

    The Arabic word ‘Islam’ means ‘submission’, and is derived from a word meaning ‘peace’. As such, the religion of Islam teaches that in order to achieve true peace of mind and surety of heart, one must submit to God and live according to His Divinely revealed Law.

  9. Avatar

    nimra

    February 5, 2020 at 8:17 AM

    islam is the beautiful and peaceful religion i have ever seen and Islamic Services of America is amazing visit there services they are awesome.

  10. Avatar

    ehzal wake

    October 12, 2020 at 1:12 AM

    Nice Article. Please Keep more same as this type of Articles.

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