After the last salam of Jum’ah, and just before everybody stands up to grab their shoes and shuffle towards the exits, a young man nervously works his way to the front of the crowd.
Hands shaking, he steps up to the microphone and, repeating after the Imam, announces to the world one of the biggest changes of his life:
“I bear witness that there is no God but Allah and that Muhammad is His Prophet.”
Some stand and shout “Allahu Akbar” in excitement, while others quickly jump to the front to shake his hand.
The shahadah is more than a recognition of Truth. Rather, it is merely one (albeit big) step in a larger journey, one that could have begun as recently as a few hours prior but will last for decades to come and have wide-reaching personal, psychological, emotional, and social consequences.
As someone who started his own journey almost 15 years ago, I can say that being a Muslim has been one of the most fulfilling – and equally challenging – things that I have ever done.
The first few months as a Muslim can be filled with pitfalls, and sadly a staggering number of new Muslims end up giving up on developing their faith. What follows are a few tips for born Muslims that would help us, as converts, to explore life as members of our new faith.
Give Us Some Space…
Converting to Islam neither begins nor ends at the shahadah and requires (slowly) adjusting lifestyles, eating habits, personal and family relationships and social norms; and that’s all before you realize that you are in for the “special treatment” at the airport!
When you meet a new Muslim, give him/her the space to find their place in the mosque and wider community. Maybe he is an introvert and doesn’t want to talk today, and maybe she is contemplating taking a Quran memorization class but doesn’t know where to start. Let them make those decisions for themselves.
Additionally, as converts we all know that born Muslims are curious about what led us to the faith. “How did you come to Islam?” is a question that most of us are excited to hear, but one that gets tiresome after answering for the 100th time.
Sometimes I wish that I could just record my conversion story and have it ready to go on a USB drive to pass out to those who want to know more.
When you see me and other converts around the mosque or other community events, treat us like you would treat every other Muslim. Be friendly, but don’t single us out for attention just because we are the new face.
… But Don’t Forget About Us!
That said, we need support from our fellow Muslims, or sometimes just someone to talk to. One of the biggest problems with Da’wah is that there are tons of community resources for non-Muslims seeking to know more about Islam, but almost nothing available once they convert. As a result, many new Muslims find themselves alone.
If you see someone who is not fitting in or seems lost, invite them for a casual cup of coffee, or just throw them a smile along with a friendly salam ‘alaykum. If you play a larger role in your community, think about setting up classes for new Muslims, and check on new members from time to time.
Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff…
Islam is often touted as the “easiest religion in the world.” Simple rules, rituals, and a one-sentence declaration of faith are all that you need to be a Muslim. Nothing could be further from the truth. Differing interpretations of the Quran, Sunnah, and Islamic Law such as rules about how to perform prayers or even what day Ramadan starts and ends can throw an entire community into disarray.
Converts, usually unaware of the nuances, are often caught in the middle and can become uncomfortable praying in a mosque because of the pressure they feel to comply with everyone else’s interpretation.
In the end, most of these issues are trivial and mean little in the big picture. Don’t freak out if you see us not praying the “best” way possible, or our hijab is not exactly the way you envision that God or the Prophet would have intended. Let us make mistakes, learn more over time, and eventually grow to become better and stronger Muslims.
… But Show Us the Diversity of Islam.
Our faith is also one of the most diverse and beautiful in the world. With a 1400 year old tradition that spans every imaginable cultural, political, economic, and social context, the range of Islamic expressions in everything from legal interpretation to clothing is vast.
When dealing with us as converts, take advantage of this opportunity to celebrate that diversity and show it to others. Learn more about your faith, the cultures in which it operates, and the depth of the Islamic tradition.
Realize that there are probably more opinions than the ones that you were brought up with at home or in a majority Muslim context, and don’t force a particular approach on those of us still finding our own way.
Being a convert is a massive challenge, but also an equally great opportunity to get closer to God and our fellow Muslims. As someone born into Islam, take the following verse to heart and realize that we are all on this journey together:
God does not burden any soul with more than it can bear: each gains whatever good it has done, and suffers its bad- ‘Lord, do not take us to task if we forget or make mistakes. Lord, do not burden us as You burdened those before us. Lord, do not burden us with more than we have strength to bear. Pardon us, forgive us, and have mercy on us. You are our Protector, so help us against the disbelievers.’ (Quran 2:286, trans. Muhammad Abdul Haleem).