I’ve been asked to write my story. Immediately, I thought about the day I said shahada in Anis’s apartment. Then I thought about the day I said it in front of a Saudi sheikh, making it publicly official. Both accounts need writing, but my story does not start there.
Did it start when I first heard the Travel Prayer on my first plane ride to Riyadh in 1986? That moment told me to investigate Islam, but my story does not start there.
Did it start when I discovered that drinking alcohol is haram–forbidden–in Islam, and I wanted to find a religion that prohibited drinking? No, the story starts earlier.
Did it start when I prayed to God to get me out of a relationship with an alcoholic cocaine addict, and I would find a religion I could follow, as an expression of my gratitude? No, the story starts earlier than that.
All of the above events occurred based upon two previous situations, both connected to my family of origin. The first is that my family was fractured, religiously speaking. My mother and father had arisen from different traditions, although both believed in Christianity. My father did not believe in any organized religion, and therefore never attended services or mass unless compelled to do so by weddings and funerals. My mother attended church regularly, and dragged all four children every Sunday, even in the worst of snowstorms. No one ever fought about it. We knew our parents had differing religious orientations, but we all knew that we’d be free to choose our own religious path in adulthood– as long as it led to Christianity.
The other situation was that my parents became very strict when I hit adolescence. They effectively culled me from my peer group, forbidding me to take part in most of the social activities that shaped my peers. I became an unpopular girl, not because of any personal fault, but because of parental restriction coupled with my placid nature that didn’t dare confront them, except secretly.
I became adept at leading a double life. I gave myself permission to do, say and believe anything I wanted, as long as it did not invade the space of my family life. My peers, on the other hand, became even more connected to whatever their family and culture taught them. None of them would have considered challenging their social upbringing, let alone their religious upbringing, because they felt happy there. None of them led secret lives, because they had no need of duplicity. They felt accepted and integrated and ready to forge a path in life according to the guidance of their parents, teachers and religious leaders.
As I matured, I became less connected, less accepted, less well integrated in my social and religious surroundings. My introverted nature made alienation not only bearable, but finally comfortable. I considered myself a free agent except for the most basic of life’s demands. I had to support myself, satisfy my sexual nature, and indulge my artistic nature, while holding spirituality on the periphery until I really needed it.
By the time I needed it, I was well into my thirties, and primed for a radical step in another direction. If I had gone to a Buddhist nation, I would have become Buddhist. If I had gone to a Hindu nation, I would have become a Hindu, but I went to a Muslim nation– Saudi Arabia– and I became a Muslim.
None of this is to say that my conversion came easily or comfortably. Those days caused me great pain. Becoming a Muslim was the objective expression of the internal admission that I really wasn’t going to be like other American women of my age and class; I really wasn’t going to achieve the landmarks of a socially admirable orcomfortable American life; I wasn’t going to have a husband, children, and home in same sense that my mom had, or any other woman of my age and class.
Then, there were the core principles of Islam against Christianity– the divinity of Jesus and his death on the cross as a redemption for the sins of mankind. I believed that, never questioned it, actually, until I started studying Islam. Even after learning that Jesus never called himself God, or that the virgin birth evoked classical mythology, I couldn’t shake the notion that I would go to Hell if I renounced the story, just as I’d been taught.
Oh, yes, great pain accompanied my conversion, almost as though it were a birth of sorts. I’ve already written about it elsewhere. Here, I would simply like to assert that the conversion started twenty-three years before I said shahada, before I was even aware of Islam as a world monotheistic religion.
I suggest that most, if not all, Westerners who convert to Islam had been primed for it. Years of disconnection and/or downright abuse from their culture of origin had prepared them to look at a way of life not generally available in the West, a way of life that would ask for significant changes in personal as well as social behavior. Who would voluntarily accept those challenges unless having been profoundly disappointed in the culture of origin? Should My Conversion Story be retitled Our Conversion Story?