I recently listened to a new podcast series from The Spiritual Edge from KALW Public Radio in San Francisco called “Becoming Muslim.” It’s a series which shares the experiences of eight American Muslims converts. Each episode goes a bit into their conversion stories with a refreshing emphasis on where they are now and what they’re currently doing. Before I get into my review of the “Becoming Muslim” podcast, I’ll share some background about the podcast.
As Hana Baba, a Sudanese-American Muslim woman who is the lead reporter on the podcast, explains, “…we didn’t want to just make the conversion story. We wanted to ask: what happens AFTER they convert?” We got an email from The Spiritual Edge telling us about their podcast series with the following claim:
“Becoming Muslim” draws intimate portraits of each character through thoughtful and conversational journalism that allows real voices to come through -voices that are rarely heard on broadcast. That’s why we are hoping you will share them with people you know. We believe these micro-stories will allow listeners to discover something deeper about our culture.
After binging the entire series in one afternoon–what’s my review of the “Becoming Muslim” podcast?
I think that the podcast series did exactly what it set out to do. They presented the experiences of these American Muslims in a considerate way which doesn’t tokenize or flash these converts as iman-high motivation. These episodes came across as really genuine to me, and I’m sure something about this has to do with the fact that it was produced with an interfaith audience in mind. I highly, highly, recommend this series for our readers and MM podcast listeners. I’m going to share my thoughts about the podcast and what it led me to “discover” within my own “culture,” as a second-generation Muslim who was raised in a Muslim family.
The people featured in this series covered a broad spectrum of American Muslim converts, and touched on important issues that American Muslims interact with. From the racial diversity to the religious diversity (within Sunni Islam), to the age and personal backgrounds, I felt like I heard from many of the types of converts I used to meet at convert-friendly masajid and events in pre-pandemic days. The issues, like ‘when do you actually feel Muslim?’, patriarchal practices in Islamic spaces, the harms of the prison industrial complex, political activism and resistance, and cultural clashes, were all ones that are important to all American Muslims; converts and born-and-raised Muslims alike.
When I step back and look at these people and topics together, it makes me think: how are average masjids in American Muslim communities making space for these types of people and addressing these types of topics (which are very relevant to second-generation American Muslims as well)?
About half of the converts interviewed in the series are Black. What are American Muslims doing specifically for racial equality for all black people in this country, and how are Muslims of other racial/ethnic backgrounds challenging and cleansing personal racist beliefs?
The journalism that went into this podcast did seem quite thoughtful, and it starts with the team of reporters. Hana Baba and the other reporters who were brought in to host episodes, Jahd Khalil, Imran Ali Malik, and Natasha Haverty, seemed to be well-positioned to talk to the individuals being interviewed. Whether it was their connection to each other based on geography, or ethnic ties or journalistic work, I feel like the podcast as a work in and of itself did a great job at finding reporters who could bring out the under-represented voices of the converts it interviewed; many of the converts coming from marginalized backgrounds. I’m so glad I didn’t hear a white atheist reporter doing the heavy lifting in this podcast because it’s obvious when crucial elements are missing for the lack of understanding between the reporter and the story.
American Muslims need to invest more in the projects that Muslim journalists and news/media outlets already have. Like MuslimMatters, for instance?! Seriously, how many times have people sat at their computers reading a MuslimMatters article without thinking about how the “lights stay on” and how this initiative is very important and worthy of support, just like so many other causes. Who did the makers of the podcast reach out to in order to spread the word? To MuslimMatters. Also, let’s invest in future generations of journalists so that there is never a shortage in any newsroom of Muslim reporters to cover Muslim issues.
Money is one thing; let’s also work hard to change the assumptions and beliefs we have about what worthwhile work is, and what career fields are respected and valued within our families and homes. I’m definitely more hopeful with second-generation Muslims, but still…all of those ideas don’t completely fade away.
I loved the inclusion of experts within the episodes. There was historical, social, and religious information and analysis that supported the stories of the Muslims being interviewed. There were academics and professionals, and Muslims and non-Muslims. I’m very impressed and humbled with the interview done with the imam in Sofie’s episode – I will talk more on that later. I also think the bonus episode with Edward Curtis was a nice opportunity to get a birds-eye view of the history of Islam in the Americas. It wasn’t too dense or detailed, and was great as an overview. The reporters also added context and information when it was needed, and strung together stories with facts and commentary well.
Listening to these experts reminds me about how there are so many people out there to learn from, and I’m already going into rabbit holes looking into the publications and work that the experts featured have done. I’m for sure going crazy over the Black Islam Syllabus right now.
The conversational aspect of the podcast was enthralling and was what really hooked me. It reminds me of times when I’ve stayed up in the early hours of the morning having existential conversations with roommates, or those times when an elder in my family has sat me down and poured out their personal history to me. I personally know one of the people interviewed, pretty well, and I thought the podcast did such a wonderful job of capturing their personality and presented the person in the way that I know them to be. (This also happens to be the episode in which I really needed some tissues. I have spoken to this person about their conversion in the past, but like MM author Joe mentions, it’s not okay to ambush converts with questions. The episode shed some light on this person which I found very moving.) Some Muslims interviewed were intense or a little private, or open, or light-hearted. It was a nice mix going from episode to episode.
I’m thinking about how I miss speaking to people and connecting with fellow Muslims after two long years hunkered down in the pandemic. And what they say about making friends after college is totally true –especially multiplying that with the demands of motherhood! When I went to college I literally selected the school I got into with the best MSA, UC Irvine, because that’s what I wanted my college experience to be about. I was going through my own born-again type of revert Muslim situation, and college is a time when many students, not just Muslim ones, explore and build their identities. I felt like everywhere I turned, I felt this energy of learning and connecting and supporting each other–and my life is so devoid of that now.
Are there things I can do right now to connect more deeply with those I am in touch with, reconnect with those I’m missing from the golden college days, and make strides to try to do that more locally with new people in my own community?
Lastly, I think the balance of the podcast between the words of the interviewees and the interjections of reports and experts was a good one. It reminds me of really good podcasts I hear on NPR, like Radio Lab. The podcast was just so well-done and professional.
Isn’t this just a sad thing, the fact that I had to mention that this podcast was of professional quality? Can we please get some more podcasts like this and other projects out there that are spearheaded by Muslims? I’ve been writing for MuslimMatters for over a decade now, but have recently stepped into an additional role as a content manager. Now I’m seeing how the sausage is made –and wow, is it complicated and hard to produce and present professional, high-quality journalism and other projects! Once again, can you please think of how you can support MuslimMatters, and other organizations and people doing good work; financially and otherwise? I know how much more we could do and how better the quality could be with just a little more room to stretch in our finances.
One of my favorite moments in the podcast was when they tracked down and interviewed the imam who set up one of the converts, Sofie, to marry a man from Morocco. What did this imam, Yassir Chadly, from an immigrant background, say? He said what he did was well-intentioned all those years ago –he thought he was going to support a new sister who was pregnant and on her way to becoming a single parent. Then, he admits how and where the mistakes he made were, like overlooking the cultural differences, or that perhaps the man was only interested in moving to the US. He thinks critically about what he could have done to help the situation, like checking in regularly with the couple to make sure they were doing well, and helping mediate issues that had arisen between them. Then, he finally, and I think humbly, says “I think most of [these types of marriages] don’t work, 99%” of them, actually.
Thank you, Imam Yassir, for admitting publicly that you made a mistake. Thank you, Imam Yassir, for clarifying your intention but not defending it at the expense of the apology and recourse. Thank you, Imam Yassir, for learning from your past actions and thinking of a better way to move forward, giving recommendations on what to do in the future (avoid these marriages.)
I wish so deeply that imams, shuyookh, and other religious figures could emulate his example and humbly acknowledge mistakes they made and move on with apologies and better practices. Imam Yassir did not have to consent to being interviewed, but he did, and I was truly moved with what he had to say. Are there a council of imams out there from American convert backgrounds who can come up with best practices for imams and masjids to help support and treat the average new Muslim or long-time convert? Can they spread this information to other institutions?
This podcast has also given me a new perspective when it comes to supporting converts. That is: supporting converts in their convert-led initiatives to provide adequate convert care. It’s February, Black History Month, and the Bronx Fire tragedy just happened last month –so the issue of the inequalities that all Black Americans face is really fresh in my mind. When we think about supporting the rights of Black Americans in the aftermath of George Floyd and other instances of police brutality against unarmed black people, I have heard this repeated over and over: follow the people directly impacted by the cause. Don’t rush in with a savior complex. Listen and follow and use your privilege in the way you’re asked to. So, why don’t we do this with converts, too? Let’s listen, follow, and use our privileges to support converts in our communities.
I’ve heard many converts and some woke imams (no other word for it, sorry) say that the key to supporting converts is through companionship. That involves having a big Muslim brother or sister paired with a new convert who can help them learn and implement different aspects of the religion they’ve just joined, and also simply be a friend and an inlet to the Muslim community. One of my best friends in college was the big Muslim sister to a handful of converts. She’s actually the way I met one of the people interviewed in this podcast! I always respected and admired her commitment to keeping new Muslims close to her and I can say that she spent at least a couple of hours every week directly supporting a new Muslim or two with one-on-one meetings at the masjid or having them over to her house. She even tried to rope me in and have me help out a new sister, but it fell through for various reasons. Hopefully everyone knows of one person like that in their community –a rock for new Muslims to turn to. Why can’t there be more than one person (at least) in every masjid or Islamic center in the country?
Ramadan is coming up and what did one of the converts say? That he never gets invited over to anyone’s house for iftar during Ramadan because he’s not Arab or Desi; he’s a Latino convert. That is so wrong and so messed up. We know that right, as Muslims that is completely against the principles of Islam? But I totally believe that it is true for not only him, but countless other converts from various backgrounds, particularly the more marginalized ones.
How about this Ramadan, pandemic precautions considered, let’s try to keep our eyes open for new Muslims in our ranks and just invite them over (outside?) to join your family for an iftar meal. What about inviting them for Eid lunch? I’m thinking about this for myself, too, as a mom with a toddler –and the meal doesn’t have to be fancy or home cooked. The house doesn’t have to be spotless; just the invitation is enough, even if the regular chaos of daily life is still on. Yes, there should be organized committees within masjids to help facilitate this, but why wait for the masjid board to take action on this?
And while we’re talking about masjid boards, are there new Muslim classes held at your local masjid? Look into it and send feedback to the board; and tell your friends at the masjid to do the same. Be the squeaky wheel that gets the grease. The imam isn’t the only one who is qualified to teach the basics of Islam classes, so don’t wait for his schedule to clear up. Is there a learned person in the community who can teach this class with some input from the imam, and help with other scholarly resources?
If you’re not already totally sold on listening to this podcast, here’s a link to a short video with the trailer. But, come on, you know you want to grab a pile of unfolded laundry and listen to it now!
If you do take a listen to this series, what I really want to encourage us to do is to look past the tender moments that will fill your eyes with tears (you know, the kind of tears you cry when you see someone accepting the shahadah after Friday prayer). Actually listen to where the converts interviewed in the series are now and how they are connecting with the broader Muslim communities around them, and what work they are doing; for other converts, non-Muslims, and the American Muslim community at large. The topic of convert care is a very important and a largely neglected issue in most American Muslim communities. If we’re honest, the “after” the shahadah part is where the Muslim community fails new Muslims. Is there something we can all learn or take away from these episodes?
If you’re a new Muslim or come from a convert background, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this series. Comment down below or even submit your own review on this podcast or reflections about these issues to our submission page.