"Islam" is not only a religion, but also a way of life. It is so vast and all encompassing that I always feel inadequate trying to explain why I believe in it. Non-Muslims always ask me "why did you convert?" and Muslims always ask "how did you come to embrace Islam?" There is something very significant in those two ways of wording the same question. Those in the family of Islam know that it is truly like embracing something you love. It's more than just a strong belief that something is truth. It's a strong sense of love you get with the whole ...being...that Islam is. And who doesn't like the feeling of being in love, eh?
Here is the story of how I came to embrace with love the religion of Islam and take on the life of a Muslim. I ask the reader to forgive my ramblings that will take us back into my memories and forward again to the present, and I ask God to forgive my ignorance if I have fallen to that anywhere in this writing. This a long story in that I, like all of God's creations, was born a Muslim, but it took 35 years over the path that led me to Islam. (Believe it or not I have spared you most of the gory details!)
I often wondered if I was really ever to be here on this earth or, if I was, whether my destiny was simply to struggle through harsh circumstances my entire life. From inside my mother's womb, I was almost miscarried. Under appalling "medical" circumstances at the time of delivery, even the nurse tried to push me back inside my mother. But against all odds, on July 8, 1960 at 4:30 in the morning, I was born whole and healthy and began my journey.
I was second eldest of what would be seven siblings, which naturally placed me into a life of observation and responsibility, as I began to help my mother with the younger children. This did not stop me from being an ornery child, but to my benefit, God endowed me with a personality of insatiable curiosity.
My mother, who was herself very spiritual, had converted to the Roman Catholic religion after a miraculous experience early in her adult life, and my father had always been a devout catholic. The churches we attended (every Sunday) seemed always to have been unique and not quite the normal traditional teachings of the Catholic church so that I got a very "universal" teaching of the messages of Jesus with the emphasis being on God and His kingdom in heaven (not on Jesus as God). It was a requirement back in my early days for young girls and women to wear a scarf or some type of head covering when we attended church services. At Catholic School, we girls also were required to wear a specific type of head cover at all times.
I grew up "in the 60's", that time when political activism was high. My parents were among some of the groups that organized freedom marches and neighborhood meetings in an attempt to squelch racism and promote equal rights. Mostly, they exhibited their stance by example. I remember a story my mother told of her having organized one such gathering of neighbors who she hoped would join her in marching at the capitol. In the middle of her enthusiastic oration to the group, one particularly prejudiced neighbor lost her patience and confronted my mother with the ultimate question: "Audrey! What are you doing?! Honestly, how would you feel if your daughter came to you when she was 18 and said 'Mom, I want to marry a black man.'?" My mother's first reaction was to consider my already famous "feisty" attitude and retorted, "what black man would WANT to marry her??" She was kidding of course (right, Mom?), but it was indicative of the non-existent prejudice for race, color or social standing by which she lived.
Throughout my childhood and early adult life, I was taught by priests with liberal viewpoints who, so long as the seed of faith was at least sewn, considered it healthy and good to question faith and traditional teachings. In high school, as in college, it was incumbent upon me to learn about "World Religions". This was my very first introduction to Islam. I never met any Muslims or read much about them. In fact, the mention of Islam in my textbooks was always very brief. Basically, we learned these three facts: "Islam is one of the Great Religions of the world, it is a monotheistic religion, and this man named Mohammed was the religious leader." I'm not sure, but there's a possibility that one of the two classes also may have mentioned that a muslim prays five times a day. History class was another story. Of course, we learned all about the "Moslems" who "still live by the sword" and were atrocious monsters during the time of the Crusades. A Muslim, or the religion of Islam, was always a world away, or another time in history far removed from anything important of the day.
Until 1981, Islam was a sentence or two poked away in the recesses of my memory banks and "Muslim" was a word I often confused with a type of fabric (as in "muslin sheets"). After 1981 (and still today), however, what American could not have lived without seeing the constant barrage of terrorism displayed in the news and media? Indelibly etched in my mind is my 1981 college yearbook cover - a photograph of some students play-acting the American hostages in Iran, blindfolded, a violent, crazed and angry-faced Ayatollah Khomeni sketched in charcoal behind them. Above them, the words "Lest we forget..." made it impossible to do just that. We students feared anything or anyone from the Middle East.
I went to a Baptist affiliated college where studying the Bible was a requirement. Much to my surprise (and delight), however, "The Bible" was taught as an historical artifact , an archeological piece of literature. The class was taught by an ordained Methodist minister who also happened to be a very learned, and well-respected archaeologist. He taught us all about the many modifications and literary styles of the bible, how you could tell that the various books and sections of the Bible had actually been written at different periods over very long stretches of time, and how it has so many different versions now. He told us about how the monks used to edit the texts according to political requirements of the time (and that those original and edited versions have now been uncovered), or how often times words were simply mistakenly translated incorrectly, etc. Needless to say, the class material was a shocking, but enlightening experience. The best thing to come of it was that, from then on, I felt it was okay for me to focus on the MESSAGE within the Bible, the MESSAGE that Christ brought, and not the literal word or interpretation therein. I continued to question things intensely after that point. For instance, I thought, "What was the original meaning of the English translation of the words 'Christ' and 'Messiah'?" and "Why is it that when Jesus called himself the son of God he couldn't have meant that he, like all of us, are sons and daughters of God -- in the figurative, not literal sense?"
Despite my orneriness and curiosity, I grew up to be a very religious, very spiritual person, even if it was true that I questioned parts of my beloved church's teachings. One priest even dubbed that being "pregnant with faith" and assured me that it was a blessed state to be in. It was beautiful to grow up with a feeling of being connected to God and to constantly notice His miracles in my every day life. Still those questions nagged at me though. I could never fully accept, could not fully understand or feel that I believed, for example, why we should eat Christ's body and drink his blood. Yes we were doing it "in remembrance" of him, but why did he want us to remember him THAT way? But yes, to have blind faith was what I wanted, so I pushed the nagging questions back out of my mind for awhile. Again and again, they popped back out to the front though. "Why are there Three Gods in One? Why would God need to be three separate entities? Why did God have to 'rest' on the seventh day? How long is one of God's days? If Jesus is God, then why did he have a conversation with God when he was hanging on the cross? Isn't God the All-Knowing? If Jesus was God and God is All-Knowing, Jesus would never have had to ask God, "Father, why have you forsaken me?" God would not have needed the question, and Jesus would not have needed the answer. God, even as a man, would not be limited in their knowledge of each other."
Throughout my life, one of the biggest parts of my heart had been devoted to a particular entity for whom I felt much reverence and for whom I held an extreme fascination. This reverence was in large part connected to the growth of my spirituality. Perhaps it is not surprising that that entity who held most of my interest and admiration (aside from God Himself) was not my "brother", Jesus Christ, but his mother, the Virgin Mary. I can remember being most enthralled with the songs we sang about her. The "Hail Mary" prayer was one of my favorites whenever I felt especially ashamed of a sin I had committed. I hoped that Mary could regard me as an errant child, and would intercede on my behalf to the All Mighty Father. ("Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.). I secretly always wished I could dress like her, and I thought that she, at least in the depictions of her I had ever seen, was the most beautiful woman most likely ever to have walked the earth. I wanted to be a mother like her! I followed the various groups of "Maryology" fanatics, and had always been interested in those stories of people who have claimed to have had visions of Mary. My chosen religious name in the Catholic church, that is, my "confirmation name" (that name one takes when they have completed the sacrament of becoming an "adult" in the church) was "Burnadette", after Saint Burnadette, the French girl who saw visions of Mary at Lourdes, France. Over time, I came to identify the one recurring message in all the supposed visions and communications by Mary to the faithful visionaries and it is simply this: "Pray! Pray! Pray!" Coincidentally, though I knew next to nothing of Islam at the time, I noticed that her messages were to pray at many intervals during the day, but especially at the noontime.
In 1983 I graduated college and received a degree in Special Education. That means that I spent more than the usual amount of time in college and obtained a degree in Elementary Education, but have further endorsements that make me a "specialist" in teaching reading and teaching children with learning disabilities. Perhaps it is part of my nature or an attribute of my personality that was fostered through my college education (I think it is the former), but it is my way to take everything in life and break it down to it's smaller, more manageable components. I do this with a whole picture in mind of where we want to be headed in the end.
I spent 2 years teaching before I met my future husband, a seemingly pious, devout Catholic who was not only gentle, kind and giving, but highly intelligent and insightful. Everything seemed perfect, in fact, he seemed to have been "heaven sent". We met in the church where he had been assigned to work for the summer and we came to have many long philosophical conversations about life and family. The only trouble was, he had been assigned to work at the church because he was a Seminarian (one who is studying to become a Catholic priest). Since Catholic priests may not marry and must remain celibate, but because we felt that we had fallen in love with each other, I was at a loss over what to do. At any time I expected that the sky was going to open up, a loud thunder would crash and a bolt of lightening would come to strike me down for taking an interest in a "man of the cloth", for "taking him away from God" as some older ladies in the church put it. I prayed for a sign from God that I would recognize as a clear indication that I should NOT go further in the relationship with this man. The very next morning he came to me and told me he had decided to leave behind his course of becoming a Catholic priest. He asked if I would marry him, and thinking "what clearer sign could there be than a proposal of marriage?" I accepted on the spot. I would teach for a third year before we moved across the country where he decided to pursue a law degree. One might say that the competitive grind of law school alone is enough to put most marriages through a test that cannot be passed. We had more than the usual share of obstacles, traumatic events, and hardships in our first year of marriage. In fact, it is my recollection that our lives turned upside-down on the day after we said, "I do".
Eight months after we were married, In March of 1985, we lost one of my six brothers. He was murdered by a single gunshot bullet to the heart. After 6 hours of surgery and 30 units of blood, there was still one hole in his heart that the doctors could not find and so he bled to death. At first it looked hopeful that he would survive and an orderly had come out to tell us that the doctors were just finishing up. I said another "Our Father" ("The Lord's Prayer" -- that prayer that Jesus taught us: "Our Father, Who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our tresspasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For Thine is the Kingdom, and the Power, and the Glory, forever and ever. Amen") Suddenly, two things happened simultaneously. One was that I envisioned my brother laid out in a casket. I saw his dead body and every detail of the church and the clothes he was laid to rest in. The second thing was an enormous feeling of being enveloped in something. I mean that *I* was enveloped suddenly, by something I can only describe as a peaceful energy source or field around me. In my mind, though it was not in any spoken language, I felt an understanding of the words, "everything is alright -- there is peace."
My brother's birthday would have been on Easter Sunday that year and he would have turned 22. It impressed me how large the number of people who showed up to his funeral. I think people who didn't even know us had come to share our sorrow. The entire church was full to "standing room only" and waves of people flowed through the doors at the front of the church and out onto the street. Our brother's death was very traumatic for me, and after he was gone, I longed to see him again, even if in a dream. At his burial, the priest brought tears to everyone's eyes when he pointed out that Easter Sunday, the day of victory when Jesus overcame death and was raised to heaven, alive, to remain forever with God, was the day that my brother was born. Was it not a wonderful message from God that my mother had given my brother the middle name "Victor"? On the day he was killed, he also was victorious over death and was forever with the "Father".
Several months later, I did have two dreams of my brother. In one, he showed me a piece of heaven. In the other, he was come to tell me in the face of a natural disaster that I could not save all of my remaining family members from their doom as I had been trying to do. He said that I had done what I could do and that the message had been given to them, it was their choice to ignore me, and that now it was time for me to seek my own safety. His appearance was that of a young boy and his face and being beamed with an expression of happiness, ecstatic pleasure in something, and phenomenal peace that is indescribable. I awoke wondering why I had dreamt of him at that age, and not at the young adult age of 21 which was my last remembrance of him.
Life went on, though never as before. After a third year of teaching and being the sole support of my new family, my husband decided he wanted to become a lawyer. His school of choice required that we move some 3,000 miles away from both our families to the state of California. Teachers in America though termed "professionals" do not get professional status really, and the pay really proves it. I could not support us on a teacher's salary. Plus, in California, in order to be able to teach anything (even if I have credentials everywhere else), one must take a test called the California Basic Educational Standardized Test (or CBEST for short). We moved to California in June of 1986 and the next CBEST exam was not to be given until August, so after two weeks of hitting the pavement (looking for a job) I took what seemed to be the only thing available, an interim job as a legal secretary trainee. I made more money doing this than I ever made as a teacher, and I didn't have to bring any work home with me. Not only that, but if I worked overtime, I got paid for it, too! Consequently, I never went back to teaching.
Once I was gainfully employed again, my husband quit his temporary job and again left it up to me to support us while he went to law school. In two year's time at my job, I was promoted to a supervisor. My home life on the other hand was not so positively progressive. I began to be treated as a battered and abused wife and almost never did we attend church except perhaps once or twice a year. In 1990 I became pregnant (finally). I was at high risk of losing the babies (I was carrying twins). Also, I had the kind of "morning sickness" that was constant -- 24 hours a day, for the entire pregnancy -- and so I had to quit work. By this time my husband had graduated from law school, a place which in my mind was the very opposite of good standing or law abiding citizenship. To my horror, his companions and friends spent most of their time indulging in drinking and using drugs. Even at the end of their exams, they could be seen walking from the room and being handed champagne and marijuana joints.
Six years after we had been married, and having had to quit work because of the pregnancy, my husband and I agreed that I should stay home to raise the twins. After this the domestic violence and abuse would escalate, despite my constant pleas to God for help, and despite many varied attempts to make the marriage work.
After several years of this abuse in my marriage and especially after one particular nightmarish event (my 9 month old babies and I almost lost our lives in a car accident the cause of which would have been the drunken and drugged out hands of my husband), I lost my connection to God and fell into a state of numbness. Somewhere in my intellect, I knew it was a miracle that we did not die, and that in fact we survived without a physical scratch. Mentally, we were harmed deeply. After this horrendous event, I found myself wishing that I could have that connection back, that sense of faith and love I once had for God. It is curious to me how I was able to know that there was a God, but on the other hand felt absolutely no connection. I didn't even perceive it as that He had abandoned me. Just that for some reason -- I could not contact Him, could not communicate, could not feel His presence. This was very depressing. If I prayed at all, it was a mechanical exercise of the breath and tongue to a God I was not even sure was there.
One day during my normal housecleaning, I picked up a newspaper and a loose sheet of advertising slipped out from between the pages. I bent down to pick it up, almost tossing it away without a thought, even before standing up again. But something made me stop and look at it. It was an advertisement for a rosary. In the Catholic faith, a rosary is a string of beads like the tasbeeh. It is symbolically a wreath of spiritual roses that you give to Mother Mary in remembrance of her devotion to God and to her son, Jesus. The string of beads is separated into 3 sections of 10 beads each, with a single bead between each section. 3 extra beads complete the string before the crucifix that hangs from the end. What you do with a rosary is to recite a mantra -- a similar prayer for each bead, revering Mary and her blessedness, her life as a model of one of the best of God's servants. On each of the single beads the "Lord's Prayer" is recited. So it goes as one bead is held, a prayer is said, and then you pass it on between your fingers. Old church teachings suggest that anyone who recites a full rosary nine days in a row with a special intention will have that intention granted. As long as the intention is made in earnest, it is said that Mary, as an intercessor with an extraordinary compassion and love for us, will never let our prayers go unanswered.
I looked at the picture of the rosary. It was just the rosary I had always wanted as a child. It was $15. It came with a prayer book, too. "That's a good deal", I thought, not considering anything but the material value of the plastic and metal construction of it, the cost of shipping and handling, and the cost of the materials and printing of the prayer book. Because I had always wanted that pretty rosary and because it was such a "deal", I mailed in my order for it. When it arrived a few weeks later, I tossed aside the prayer book and remembered that in the bottom of a drawer somewhere I had a more beautiful prayer book that my grandmother had given me when I was 6 years old, I think. I never could read the long words or understand anything if I could read them, so I had only looked at it often to admire the beautiful artwork. I remembered too that it had a section on how to recite the rosary and its spiritual meaning.
I wanted to give this a test. (Astaghfirallah! I'm sorry Lord for my mistake! Forgive me, please...) I knew I should never test God, but that I did. I decided to test the promise that an intention would be granted upon completion of a novena (nine days straight of reciting the rosary prayers). I could have asked that the abuse in my marriage would stop. Or that my husband would be able to stop using drugs or alcohol, or that his compulsions for involving himself in pornographic lifestyles would stop. I could have prayed for that connection to my God to appear again and that I would once again feel that wonderful feeling of being faithful, of being with my God.
Instead, I superstitiously went about a ritual out of simple boredom and curiosity and prayed that a good friend of the family would find a resolution to a complicated mess he had found himself in.
To recite the mantras, the prayers, was not all that was required. You see, the reason there are 3 sections of beads is to symbolize the three mysterious time periods of the life of Jesus, Mary and Joseph: The Joyful, the Sorrowful, and the Glorious (roughly, the birth, the death, and the resurrection and ascensions). Three days into the novena, our friend was blessed with miracles. I told him, a very non-religious person, about the rosary exercise I was going through, about my intentions for the resolutions of his problems. I think, whether he believed in miracles or not, his heart was unmistakably changed and he understood more of the spiritual phenomenon of life.
As for me, the miracle was just the spark I needed to continue to the end of the novena. Suddenly, miracles were happening for me, too, and my life was changing quickly from the inside out. I was on my 3rd novena, sitting quietly on my bed on a warm, sunny early summer day, at the noontime, when I began another recitation. On this particular day, I was unusually contemplative about the life of Jesus, Mary and Joseph in my meditation. I was contemplating the sorrowful mysteries of Christ when it occurred to me that Jesus was not God. He was a man, a man like no other man for sure, but he was a man. The difference was that he was blessed to have had more faith than any other man had. He was sent to earth as a messenger to show us that we, too, can have the glory of God if we would but believe, too. I thought God COULD have sent a "son", but He didn't. He didn't need to. I thought about what an extraordinary burden it would be for any man, even Jesus -- even if he WAS God -- to know each and every single sin and evil that each and every one of the men, women and children ever born to walk this earth had committed. And is committing. And would commit. How could anyone bear such a mental burden? We must all follow his example and stop our evil. This is his message and why he was sent to give it. He was a mercy from our Lord. And what a glorious loving mother Jesus had -- how pure and perfect she must have been to raise such an extraordinary man.
At that moment of extreme sorrow I was empathizing with, something unbelievable happened. Though I was awake, I had a moment of clear vision of things I cannot describe. I came to know some things, including that we cannot comprehend the Love of God. Other things I envisioned were awesome. I can remember the vision and wanted to tell everyone about it. I held back, not telling more than a few people, for fear of being considered crazy. But the vision forever changed my life, my viewpoint and perceptions of the world and the universe we live in. I was never again afraid of death, in fact, I look forward to that event. It was frustrating to me at times to know that even if I would not be thought of as crazy, there was no way I would ever be able describe the things I saw and came to KNOW.
Four more years of the worst abuse in my marriage passed before I finally broke free from my husband. Finally, I had to grapple with the laws of my religious upbringing. I thought, "I know that divorce is against God's law," and "Any good Catholic knows that it is against the church's laws to divorce." But I could not believe that God would want me to remain there and let myself, or more importantly, the kids, be subjected to this abuse - or worse! We could have been killed. As soon as I was able to get some financial freedom (another job) I separated from him. My first job back in the workforce was to go back as a sort of secretary/backup office manager/legal assistant at one of the branch offices of the law firm I had previously worked for. Since they were continually asking me to come back to work for them, that was the perfect opportunity to get back into the workforce. Unfortunately, my position was temporary (covering a long term maternity leave for the other secretarial supervisor) and when she returned, they only had a budget to offer me a much lesser paying job. I had to refuse, opting instead to find another job that would sustain us.
At that same time I had gotten involved in the internet from a computer my husband had previously set up at home and through an advertisement on the UseNET I found the company I presently work for. This was a job as an administrative assistant and although I had never had experience in any computer or software company before, I felt confident I could do this job. As I walked out of the interview something told me that this would be the job I would have next. I felt a sense of unusual certainty and so I was right. I got the job. I was offered enough salary that I could support the kids by myself. As it turned out, however, the salary I received though more than I had ever brought home before was not quite the salary promised. I therefore needed to depend again on the child support payments that my ex husband had been ordered by the court to provide. Unfortunately, his lifestyle and deteriorated attitudes cost him many jobs and if he happened to be keeping a job at any particular time, he did not always honor his obligations. How I survived is that I just ...did. Sometimes I wonder if there was some miracle happening because there were times I could remember looking at my checkbook and wondering how it was that there was still so much money there. I should have expended all that was there, yet I had a small reserve. I remembered my mother's voice often in my head saying "don't worry...everything will always work out for the best in the end" and "something will always come through."
It is true I do not spend extravagantly, though sometimes I get the wish I could splurge. I buy clothes from second hand stores (used clothing, etc.) and eat as cheaply as possible. I usually do not eat breakfast or lunch and that saves a lot of money. I don't indulge in going out to movies much, things like that. I just do without. My one luxury that I keep is my internet account, and that I justify by the information I have gained and the potential information I can gain or disseminate through using it.
Because of the complexity and severity of circumstances surrounding this man's abuse and personality, the official divorce date was a long time in coming. During the long period of separation, I happened to meet a fellow on the internet who I began to have long philosophical discussions with. He was from another country originally and I found it comforting to find that in his country children are raised as I was. After a month of chatting with him and finding that his beliefs were extremely similar to mine, he told me that he is a Muslim.
Here I was, 35 years old, and this was my first ever meeting an actual Muslim. All I knew was that cursory coverage of the subject of Islam in the World Religions classes and that the word Muslim was synonymous with "terrorist". Now I was certainly stuck with a mix of emotions! Fear mixed with that famous curiosity, plus admiration for what he was telling me he practices in his life. I had spoken to him just long enough to crave more knowledge. He gave me my first book of Islam, a textbook used in some theological schools. I was flattered that he felt my philosophical or spiritual understanding already had put me on a level of that matching the theology students there!
About the same time that I received the book, this brother had the opportunity to visit friends about 2 hours away from where I lived. I was able to visit with him in person, ask him tons of questions, and watch him in "real life" as he practiced his Islamic lifestyle. I watched him glow when he came back from his prayers. I basked in the peace that surrounded him and that he brought to the room where we stood talking. I found myself eagerly wishing I could experience the same peace. After he left, I got down to the business of reading that philosophy book and to my amazement I found I could not put the book down! There was MY philosophy written in those pages! But...I was also shocked and confused since it was not at all what I had been lead to believe was "Islam" or a "Muslim".
That book lead to another, to another, to another and another until finally I found myself trembling from a mixture of emotions. I wanted to say that this was my religion. I watched "The Messenger" (a movie forbidden in Hollywood starring Anthony Quinn about Islam and the Prophet Muhammad's life) and I cried. I read Islamic women's magazines and I cried. I read one passage from the Qu'ran and again, I cried. I trembled and I cried. Why? Because this was my religion and I was sure of it. It was what I knew in my heart was right. The glory and the beauty of it evoked that kind of feeling you get when you witness a miracle and have nothing to express your elation and joy over it except to cry those happy tears.
But I wasn't ready to commit myself, to profess openly, that I wanted to be a Muslim. Maybe I was 90% there, but there were still some fears that held me back, one of which was "What will happen to my soul if I denounce Jesus as God? I have always been taught that no one shall enter the kingdom of heaven but through Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Son of God." I had not yet read the Qur'an.
I decided, too, that before I get into this any further, it was incumbent upon me to see just exactly how this religion was put into practice. The theory, the logic, the philosophies were all well and good -- but how is it actually practiced by real Muslims?? Maybe they really are terrorists and women beaters (oh yes, I had already seen the movie "Not Without My Daughter" -- AND read the book!)
I made the choice, based on a referral from our thoughtful brother who had done some investigating for me, to venture into a mosque. I cannot tell you how afraid I was. The building was old, a bit dilapidated, dark, and foreboding. I had been given the name of a woman there and had planned to meet her. On the phone she seemed sweet, but her broken English left us unable to talk much, so I had no idea what to expect or do when I got there.
I had been having a problem with throat infections and ear infections that winter, so I had taken to wearing the scarves on my head, partly to keep the San Francisco blustering foggy elements from my ears, and partly to try and participate in acting like a Muslim. I had read and been told by the brother that I would HAVE to wear the hijab if I did become a Muslim. The scarves saved me from the painful earaches and so I was wearing one when I entered the mosque for the first time.
Stepping through the doors, I tried to remember what I had read about which foot was supposed to be placed first. Right? Left? I couldn't remember and I hoped nobody would see me do it incorrectly. I had brought my children with me and together we hesitantly walked through the door, hand-in-hand. At first we saw no one. We quietly tiptoed down a hallway, looking for anything that would indicate where we should go. There were signs up on the walls, but they were all in a foreign script and language. Finally, just as I saw a sign that read (in English) "Prayer Rooms Upstairs", two men appeared from around a corner. They looked at me with what I thought were dark, frightening eyes and facial expressions. I was afraid that, my being a woman, maybe I wasn't supposed to be there. With a heavy accent, or in another language (I couldn't tell which), one of them addressed me. My eyes and face must certainly have shown my apprehension and confusion. I did not understand what he had just said. The other man told me that the women's bathroom was down the hall and the prayer rooms were upstairs.
I smiled, nodded and thanked him, then slowly ascended the stairs, still tightly holding on to the hands of my children. They whispered "where do we go Mom?" I said, "I'm not quite sure...let's just be very quiet and go up here to see what we can see!" It was apparent that the custom is to remove your shoes, which we did. We peaked around the edge of the open door and saw but a few individuals, men congregating in the front and the women behind them where there happened to be a line of cushioned benches along the back wall. This is where we sat. Everything that we observed was frightening at first because it was so absolutely foreign. But I came to notice that each and every person who entered the room had looked at me and smiled. Some nodded and repeated that phrase which the man downstairs had addressed me with ("Salaam Alaikum!").
Then a sister came through the door. I looked at her, she looked at me and immediately I just KNEW it was the woman I had spoken to on the phone. Still we could not communicate in a common spoken language, but instantaneously, there was sharing of a feeling of genuine love between us. Amazing! She kissed my cheeks and between herself and two other sisters, they managed to indicate to me that they were so happy to meet me, see me there, and invited me to stay and observe the prayers.
I was mesmerized (and continue to be so always) by what I came to know is the Azaan. As weeks passed, I fell in love. I fell in love with the Muslims whose actual biological family members I could not distinguish because all children were regarded the same and all the parents were truly like brothers and sisters in one huge family. At that time I was driving home from work to pick up the kids every Thursday night, try and feed them and then drive in the opposite direction again about 50 miles in the hopes of making it to the Thursday night du'a before it ended. This didn't always come out on schedule and, of course, never could I understand what was going on since I couldn't speak the language. But I knew one thing for certain: There was that peace I had seen from my first meeting with the Muslim brother, magnified, intensified at least 20 fold and I loved going to the mosque just to feel that peace and be in the midst of a community that was so family oriented AND which was obviously reverent towards their women! I thought, "I would be happy to marry any one of these men!" "this is the kind of man I want my son to grow up to be, and this is the type of spiritual, pious and happy woman I want my daughter to grow up to be."
I remember thinking..."DAMN!! Why have we been lied to all this time? WHY haven't we all been told about the good people, the true Muslims? why only the terrorists??"
On Friday nights and Saturday mornings, I began attending classes. On Friday nights, the classes were also in that foreign language which I could not hope to understand even a word, but the sisters did their best to try and translate for me what was being said. I am forever grateful and at the same time sad that they had to miss part of the learning while they were in the process of translating. I enjoyed the classes nevertheless, especially at the infrequent times when someone, usually a woman, would break into a full debate IN ENGLISH!
One night I arrived early and found inside the cabinets of the study room a library FULL of books of all sizes and in various languages. My attention was drawn to one particularly FAT book and as I pulled it from the shelf, I realized it was an English translation of the Qur'an! WOW! Great! I was so excited! I began reading the Qur'an during the Qur'an studies, since I couldn't understand what was being said anyway. I came to find out later that with my hijab (which includes my dress, my manner and my posture), I was being mistaken (I should say "taken") as a muslima, one born and raised! Once everyone realized that I was not just being quiet, but was an American who only spoke English, someone who was trying to learn about Islam, the classes began to be given as much as possible in English, too.
It was reading the Qur'an that finally gave me the final -- what should I call it? -- that final percentage of doubt removed. Here in the pages of the Qur'an were explanations of dreams I had had, the visions on rosary meditations, life events, thoughts, scientific things, miraculous things, etc. Once I had begun reading the Qur'an (I didn't have to read it all to know this), I was certain that it was an authentic Holy Book, divinely revealed. It was too complete, too sublime, too eloquent, too beautiful to have been from the hand or mind of man without having come first from the only One who could know all this -- and more. Imagine my reaction when, over the weeks of classes I attended and after perpetual tearful trembling (choked back and hidden from the rest of the brothers and sisters there), I came to read the passage about how the believers will read the Qur'an and tremble or cry and know that it is the truth.
I knew it was the truth. I knew I had no choice but to sincerely and openly announce that I knew it was the truth. There were clear messages, clear understandings between me and my God that this is where I belonged. I had a dream one night following that I was in a room full of brothers and sisters, the brothers on one side, the sisters on another. I was looking at all the men and from behind me someone put their hands on my cheeks. It was an old woman who, with a sparkle in her eyes and a jovial expression in her voice said to me as she turned my head away "You will be very happy in this way, you'll see!"
The next time I went to the mosque, I asked one of the sisters what was involved in converting to Islam. Were there special classes for a specified amount of time I would have to complete? (This is so for Catholicism...I automatically thought it would be so for Islam, or any other religion for that matter). Was there some special ceremony?
I was told that all I needed to do was have it sincerely in my heart and say in front of at least two other practicing and sincere Muslims that "I believe there is no God but God and Muhammad was his messenger". I could even say it in English if I wanted to. I wondered when and where I should do this. Up to this point, the classes and prayer meetings had consisted of perhaps no more than 10 or 15 people. One of the sisters (my "special" sister) went to the Imam and told him that I was interested in converting. They spoke to each other in their language, occasionally smiling at me. When my sister translated for me, she also told me that she would be going away for a few months, back home to her country, but that the next day there was going to be a special event at the mosque and that all had agreed that would be a good time to take my shehadah.
I was so relieved and felt so light! The following night, much to my surprise, the mosque was literally filled to the brim with people. It was the eve of Ashura and maybe 1500 or 2000 Muslims had come in from all over California to commemorate that day, that battle, which was so important for the revival of Islam in the world. What a perfect night to take shehadah! I stood there and read in Arabic from a tiny piece of paper I held between my fingers "Ashadu an la illaha Ilallah; ashahdu an Muhammadun Rasululah." I had not heard the actual pronunciation of it, so I was unsure if I had recited it correctly. When I looked up, I saw that everyone was crying. The moderator for the evening was choking back tears as well, and asked that all the sisters come to the front, to the stage where I stood, and welcome me to the family of Islam.
All I remember at that point was a sea of women, crying, smiling, kissing me, hugging me, rocking me back and forth, telling me things in their language that I couldn't understand. I was overwhelmed and it was 45 minutes or more before the last sister came up to express her joy and extend the warmth of her heart. I remember the feeling this way: Imagine being in a room with 2000 of your favorite grandmother. One old woman took my face in her hands, kissed my cheeks and through tears of joy and broken English said, "You will be so happy!"
And I am...
Assalamu alaikum wa rahmatul-l-lahi wa barakatuhu,