Autobiography of my Conscious Philosophy – My Conversion to Islam: Year 5 Reflections

“Why did you become Muslim?”, “What made you convert to Islam?”

Five years into experiencing Islam and being a Muslim, my favorite response to this sort of question goes along the lines of, “Well, what are some reasons why anyone would convert to Islam?”

Since I’ve gotten the question quite a number of times, it makes it more interesting to include the questioner and to start a game of brainstorming. Maybe we will come across a new and interesting reason why someone might convert to Islam. It’s nice to share ideas.

Perhaps in honesty, while I’ve had so much time to think about the reasoning behind my conversion, I am usually not entirely satisfied with any answer I usually give. To say, “I don’t know why” also doesn’t sound very confident either though. To reflect on my conversion to Islam, my intentions for embracing the religion, affirming the existence of God and acknowledging the uniqueness of the Qur’an leads me to believe that humans in general are not all so simple creatures. Some of the reasons for which we do things are unconscious to ourselves in the moment and the reasons why we do things are later revealed to us.

My story wasn’t entirely linear either. There wasn’t someone who was preaching to me or who “made me convert” or convinced me through his or her work alone. My interest in Islam began with very little to no prior interaction with followers of the religion.

What tends to be unhelpful and insensitive is to assume that my conversion was done for one particular reason. This is propagating onto someone else an image of how they view the world to properly be, but everyone’s view on the world is limited.

It may have started out as a spiritual search. If we would like to stretch the time frame back eve years before I thought of Islam, we could maybe convince ourselves that my interest in psychology as a side-hobby eventually evolved into an interest in understanding world cultures and other people, which evolved into trying to understand how other people viewed the world, which made me finally give in to learning something about many other religions.

I’d grown up in a moderate or liberal protestant background, though, like many often do, I eventually moved into a kind of secular non-religious global mono-culture. I might have said something to the effect of how disappointing it is that religion creates divides in humanity, as though maybe secularism would unite humanity. The human project would be solved in a complex mathematical equation at the hands of some brilliant think-tanks, who could imagine up a way for society to function together and ensure happiness. There was no need for mention of a God in any such endeavors. I may have seen a God as potentially distracting. I was kind of an agnostic – I didn’t want to be like the angry atheists, but also I simply felt I hadn’t found any reason to believe in a God or to follow a religion for that matter. Certain aspects about the Christian religion irked me. It was still 2011 however and there was little controversy in how anyone believed or didn’t believe at that time, I felt at least.

I’ve spent some time reflecting on the possibilities which may  have lead me to begin more soul searching at that part of my life. I was basically a nerd in high school, a band geek as well. I was introverted, quiet. Most people had a respect for me I always felt, though I often made myself rather unapproachable. For much of the time, I was quite satisfied to have just a few people that I regularly met with, while engaging interests in music theory and composition, computer games and internet surfing. I was short, had acne and wore clothes that were generally too big for me, which combined with an introverted personality left me in no condition to consider some sort of dating in high school or even in the first years of college, but I would start to attempt to change these things starting my senior year in high school. Perhaps learning about dressing well over the internet (which I may address currently, but do not take as a hobby or interest anymore) and also fixing my acne problem (which was quite a problem) through the use of a powerful drug had helped me to realize something else. I thought that fixing these problems would actually make me feel better about myself and that I would be a totally different person, yet after fixing them, I found myself to be unchanged. I could no longer blame those two scapegoats, so I started to feel motivated to turn inward to fix something about myself. This lead me into the side-hobby of psychology and particularly MBTI personality types.

I may have mentioned it before, but I was quite a nerd, and of course I still am. There is a process involved in turning one’s nerdhood from an insecurity to a means and a path of personality building. SO, I had started to learn about MBTI personality types and soon, I had a lot of people around me identified in their personality type. Myself, an INTP found this like a game. I believe these interests were in fact relevant towards something that would lead me to Islam, or perhaps one kind of Islam at least. Of course, I understand that Allah guides people to Islam and that any such endeavors that someone comes across which “lead them to Islam” are means chosen by Allah.

I had an atheist friend in college. Not just an atheist, but one of these preaching fundamentalist atheists. He had an interesting perspective in how he explained that human love is but a farce, a biological mechanism to incite reproduction and sex. I would call him a fundamentalist, because he really was able to be honest with himself and present his case in full from point zero. Many atheists had just gone along with their lives and not given a real care about the implications of their beliefs or what it had meant, but he was different. Myself, being an agnostic rather, listened to what he had to say, but hearing his words perhaps made me feel further from atheism on some aspects. He was, I suppose an admitted materialist and he was able to explain why atheists are materialists. He sometimes mocked religion as well. For myself, I had felt that my own experience had discredited materialism. I was open to exploring myself, realizing that I was much more complex than I felt materialism could explain. To be described by biological mechanisms and chemical reactions was simply not a position I had decided to take. This friend’s comments on Islam once actually gave me the idea to search on youtube, “why islam” where I came across a video titled “why Islam” by Baba Ali (go watch it). So, well I sent the friend the video as a kind of probing joke, also to suggest that well, look I mean this guy doesn’t quite seem so crazy as you would have me believe, now does he? He replied by actually telling me, laughing, fine then go be Muslim. It would be a few months before I went back to attempting research of religions, however. As I mentioned before, I generally found religion to be dry, boring or maybe controlling or cruel.

So, it was really a mixture of trying to understand other cultures, how other people thought about the world and also of trying to understand my own self better that initially would have made me feel encouraged to try to learn about Islam alongside other religions such as buddhism, sikhism, taoism, hiduism and practices of yogis. I was curious to know more about other cultures because I felt this could help me be able to communicate with others from across the globe better. I also thought that if I found something better in the understanding of another culture or if I found a different approach to be more beneficial to me that I would take that particular aspect or practice on myself.

So there I was, one summer off from my current engineering college program, but I was feeling tired of video games. Looking for something outside of myself and for a more beneficial project, I dove in deeper into my previous interest in learning about other religions.

Sikhism, I found was an interesting, spiritual religion. I appreciated their inclination towards monotheism (if that is correct), in contrast to a confusing myriad of gods from other religions such as Hinduism. Growing long hair shows an interest in being a natural, complete human as I saw it. I was not sure however about practicing a religion that hardly made any truth claim to itself. If I am correct, Sikhism is essentially a perennial religion which accepts religious validity of other faiths, which left me asking why I should bother anyway. This is where I start to notice my immaturity in handling other religions and how I went about learning about religions. I was immature because while Sikhism made no claim to physical evidence and their claim was that the evidence was experiential, the claim of experiential knowledge as I understand now is real evidence. I was more of an empiricist at that time. Toaism and Buddhism were interesting traditions as well. Toaism seemed to be concerned with balance, but they didn’t have much to say about God.

It should go without saying that the understanding of God in Islam stuck out as a very natural and logical belief. Actually, from what I had heard of to that point, so much of the atheist disdain of God revolved around the belief that God was a man floating in the sky. Islam, interesting enough would have the same disdain for a strange belief as such, as Allah was beyond physical definition. As a creator of the laws of physics, Allah would not be bound by these. Much of the “search” for God in the stars of the universes is just as futile as the atheists had supposed, according to this religion of Islam. From my agnostic background, I found that accepting this monotheistic explanation of God would be quite easy. I didn’t just go and become Muslim right away though.

I had not known any Muslims growing up. I had practically zero interaction with the religion at all in person. I bought an English translation of the Qur’an from a local Barnes and Nobel (The Oxford publication by Abdul Haleem).

The summer of 2012 had approached and I was planning to leave my American University to study anew in Germany the coming fall. I had begun learning German at my American University and I was originally hoping to spend a semester or year abroad in Germany. Through interactions with students from Germany, I found out that it would be quite easy to apply and that the schooling would be very inexpensive – about 100 Euros per semester for tuition. I felt I was interested in a change and the chance seemed worth it to take, so I sent out some applications and I would soon receive acceptance and plan to move there in the fall.

I had a couple summer jobs those few months, though the free time available would give me quite a lot of time to reflect and consider looking into religion again. I started to link religion into the complex system of the project of human sustainability. My perspective on religion was changed. I had come to understand it not really as a controlling agent, but as a potentially holistic human approach towards their life. I would be riding my bike to the beach, my English translation of the Quran in my backpack. I can recall reading the first – well, I finished Surah Baqarah in that first setting. I remember the strange ayats from the beginning of Surah Baqarah, speaking of people having sicknesses in their hearts, causing them to turn away. I found these ayats very interesting as I didn’t expect the Quran to have this sort of deeper narrative. I can recall saying that whoever wrote this (Quran) must have been rather arrogant – later would I find out one of Allah’s names: Al-Mutakabbir. Then the ayat came: “For those who are i doubt of what we have sent, send but one verse like it.”, which I immediately recognized as a challenge. Has anyone been successful at meeting this challenge? I thought, until it is established that it has bee done, I would start to take this Quran a bit more seriously. From my Christian background as well, I found that accepting stories of older Prophets of God and working this explanation of past religions into my new mind-frame would be quite easy. I didn’t just go and become Muslim right away though. How would I do that anyway? Though I might have communicated with God somehow that day. Maybe it is possible that I had become Muslim that day without realizing it. I continued reading the English Quran translation on may visits to the same beach. Soon, I would be traveling to Germany to begin a new study program.

When I arrive in Germany, as I am starting the semester with a group of internationals, I end up meeting Muslims from Malaysia and Egypt. I would visit a Turkish style mosque, the first mosque I ever visited. I felt it was very calm, like I could stop many concerns while being in the room. The friend who took me there insisted I make wudhu, so he taught me how and he said I could follow him for his salah. Of course it felt quite strange to be making these awkward positions. The friend pointed to the ceiling to say, “This ayat here is worth one-third of the Quran.” I didn’t understand him and I thought he meant there was a third of the Quran on the ceiling and I just said, “I”m pretty sure it is a lot longer than that…” I was kind of in a trial mode for Islam. Still, I didn’t become Muslim until a few weeks later, after the third jummah that I would have visited (as a non-Muslim). I never really ever looked back, but no doubt, there would need to be some sorting out of the various types of Islam that exist(ed) and it would not always be easy or fun.

Convert Culture

Do we reject our culture?

Is an american convert to Islam committing cultural heresy? Or, otherwise said, does one need to relinquish culture once converting to Islam?

Let’s just go ahead and answer the question before we get ourselves confused.

Converting to Islam does not mean a rejection of one’s culture and cultural norms, except those aspects of the culture which are in direct contradiction to the rules of Islam. All good aspects and neutral aspects of one’s culture should be embraced. Islam is not culturally predatory. We need to be cautious of a kind of teaching that says that Islam is culturally predatory or which tries to turn Muslim converts into Arabs, Turks, Malays or other very specified cultures that are associated with Islam.

Please view the document called “The Cultural Imperative” by Shaykh Dr. Umar Faruq Abd-Allah

American Muslims, British Muslims and other “non-assimilated”  Muslims including converts should work to reach within their cultures and take the greatest aspects of our cultures and really run with them and embrace them. We do not need to be ashamed of our cultures, even if they had oppressive pasts – for one, we don’t bear the sins of our forefathers and two, we are Muslims now carrying the deen of Allah.

The following video is titled ‘A very British Ramadan’ and was posted on Facebook, as one may follow through the link.

Culture rejecting you

There is a totally different approach to the topic at hand, which is to ask, can the Americans or the British or the (you name it) accept Muslims into their definition of their culture? How about, even if the converts happen to have a family history that dates back generations in that land? They are not accepting Muslims, so I am cast aside. This has often been the norm throughout history. British converts would set sail for Morocco and the family may set up a funeral for their family member’s death (i.e. conversion to Islam). We are not in a so much polarized world at this point.

See here, a story on on stories of British converts leaving to Morocco in the Middle Ages.

Here is another story, in contrast to that however, A Muslim in Victorian America: The Life of Alexander Russell Webb.

Immigrant Problems

How do the convert Muslims interact with the immigrant Muslim communities? On one hand, you would like to have an American, British, German, Mexican (what have you) Muslim culture, yet you only find foreign languages, biryani, Arab nationalists and other converts who insist you must also be Arab, as was the Prophet Muhammad.

We find immigrant communities accepting perhaps a simplified Islam, satisfaction with upholding only few basic teachings and often apostasy and a severe lack of understanding or motivation. I do not even mean that as a generalization, but as an issue that is common. For convert Muslims, we need to consider and reflect on how we can secure ourselves, the next generation and how to help and encourage new Muslims to advance their roles and which directions to take.

Might I dare to be a bit controversial and bring up an opinion that is not all so uncommon among many classical and serious Ulema, but which many American immigrant Muslims would not see as politically correct. That is, that without any sort of explanation or specific allowance from Ulema, that it would have been impermissible to even have left the lands of the Muslims to go live in a place of dar al-kufr, a place in which practicing Islam and raising children extremely difficult. Many Muslims cannot even fathom to consider leaving western countries to live in a majority Muslim country, but perhaps it would do them much better to do so. For many converts, there are a number of reasons for us to specifically stay in our countries of birth. For instance, we understand the culture and therefore can propagate the religion more holistically and as an indigenous subculture, rather than as something entirely foreign. Many Muslims are living in very insulated environments in the west that are often quite bad at communicating with local westerners. Oops!


Solution to sorting out Cultural Issues

Quite frankly, the vision of the immigrant communities has in a lot of ways failed us and has not reached out to us or made us feel welcome or encouraged. There may be exceptions, but this means that Muslim converts in the west must pick up the task of securing future interests and not relying on the immigrant communities to a large extent. This does not mean that we are to reject immigrant Muslim communities either.

The above video is just a short clip from the American Muslim scholar, Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, who is addressing Muslim names. It is a common idea for people to find a muslim name once they have converted, however it is obviously not a commandment of the religion. It may be recommended if the name has a negative meaning.

In this clip from the same scholar (Shaykh Hamza Yusuf), it is mentioned how Islam has grown and adapted to the indigenous cultures of people where Islam spread.