Converting to Islam: The Highs and Lows
My Conversion Experience
Editor’s Note: The convert/revert experience within the Muslim community, in a time of Islamophobia as well as hateful media and political rhetoric towards Muslims, can pose many challenges for the new convert. Individuals convert to Islam for various reasons and come from diverse backgrounds. Some have community and familial support, while the majority risk losing friends and family in the process. This experience can pose mental as well as physical strain on the individual. Despite the risk of losing friends and loved ones for the individual, as well as the struggle to fit into a new community, Islam continues to be the fastest growing religion in the world. Our guest author has generously provided us with detailed examples of his journey to Islam in the hopes of helping new converts as well as educate those born into Islam about the challenges related to conversion. For those of us who are blessed to have been born into Islam, we fail to understand the struggle involved in the journey of conversion. Insha’Allah this article will enlighten us and help us better support the new converts within our communities.
Guest Post By Archimedes Aquino: Converted 5/3/17
I have had a very positive experience in converting to Islam. My Catholic family’s reaction to it, however, has given me multiple opportunities to practice the lessons of love and obedience that I have learned from the Qur’an. That’s my most positive way of shifting the perspective on what has been a difficult transition for them. My transition/conversion has been one of great ease and has been transformative in how I see the struggles that I face in my life. And I offer this description of my experience to give insight into what a new convert experience is like for lifetime Muslims to learn how to be supportive of new converts and for converts to know that they are not alone in their experience.
I have to confess that I was initially motivated to learn about Islam because of the interest I had in a Muslim woman. I had strong feelings for her and wanted to make it possible for us to be married someday and accepted by her family, and the only way to do that was to convert to Islam. So, off I went to the local mosque to attend a Fundamentals of Islam Class. I expected it to be very preachy and was nervous about it being overly zealous about promoting itself as better than other religions or the “right” one to follow, as many faiths seem to do. I had come to distrust organized religions due to how exploitive I understood them to be and how they use faith to assert control over how their members think and behave. “Do what we tell you, or you’ll go to hell” has always triggered a dare to question reaction in me, as it has always been my nature to want to know if things are really true or if they can stand up to reason and analysis. So, my perspective has always been one of a skeptic. I came to class armed with my skepticism and was met with only encouragement to be skeptical. My teacher had a confident and assertive way of explaining things that showed me the strength of her faith, and the strength of Islam. The woman that I was interested in at the time had concerns that there may be an extremist teaching the class, and so she said that she prayed that I be given a teacher who was more of an academic and scholarly in Islam. Masha’Allah, that is exactly who I was given! I felt like I was not being told what to do but that the Qur’an advises what would be best for me, and I am empowered to make my own choice. I understood that Allah (SWT) understands the questioning nature of the humans he created and that he allows for some mistakes and forgives when one sincerely seeks forgiveness. I connected to Allah (SWT) as someone who wants me to be my best and to find joy in pursuing the straight path. And I did not feel that Islam was trying to control me, but instead, it was giving me instructions on how to live a good life. I could try to figure it all out on my own and ignore the instructions, or I could follow the instructions and make things easier for myself. This approach sat well with my oppositional and questioning nature.
It seemed like I was given a perfect teacher for the way I needed to experience the teachings of the Qur’an. She gave me a syllable by syllable break down of the meanings of each ayah, and then she asked me how it could apply to my life. In doing so she created an emotional connection to my understanding that enhanced the literal understanding. It was the first time any religion caused a deeper understanding and appreciation instead of bringing up more questions about inconsistencies. Then when I found out that Islam actually respects the teachings of other religions instead of disqualifying them, I was convinced that this was the proper fit for me! But the final thing that made me happy to be a part of the Muslim community was the open house that the mosque held where they invited all people of all faiths to come and ask questions about Islam. There were two imams, and two women (one was a convert who was an American and one was a lifer from another country) on the panel, and they all gave their answers to the questions posed by the audience. The questions were very intelligent and challenging, and the panel gave thoughtful and meaningful answers. There was some difference in each answer, but they were all supportive of each other, and all the panelists were respectful of the academic discourse that was taking place. They were even funny at times. I was sold.
So, I had the conviction, but I had no idea about the rituals and practices, how to do them properly, or any of the logistical information. I just kind of went along with imitating others during prayer, and experienced some good feelings from that, but I did not want to just go through the motions as I had done in Catholicism. So, I held off on taking the Shahada (the oath of faith) until I could understand the prayer rituals more deeply. Fortunately, my teacher was part of the Good Tree Institute who gives monthly presentations/workshops on understanding the Qur’an called “Qur’an and Me” sessions, where she told me exactly the meaning of the Fatiha (the 1st surah in the Qur’an). What I had been learning from my Fundamentals of Islam class emphasized a personal responsibility for developing my faith, as it was illustrated in the first encounter between the angel Jibrail (Gabriel) and Muhammad (PBUH), where he told him to “read”. So, I started doing all that I could do to develop my pursuit of Islam and to practice its pillars. I stopped drinking alcohol when I began experiencing worse and worse hangovers, taking my last drink in August 2016, so this helped me physically and spiritually. I also stopped eating pork after watching some videos on how pigs processing of food doesn’t detoxify much of what they eat, and how that can be a cause for a health concern. I also justified this with current documentaries on the industrialized farming and raising of pigs, and how unhealthy that is, and just determined that eating pork increases the risk for cancers and metabolic issues, and that enabled me to stop back in January 2017. Two months after that, I also started giving Zakat out of each of my paychecks to see if I could manage the 2.5 %, and offering to help others more when I saw a need. Two months after that I downloaded an app on my phone that told me when to pray, and the exact steps of the ritual, downloaded another one with a compass to show me which direction to pray, and I ordered a prayer rug from Amazon. I downloaded another app to show me how to do the ablution ritual to prepare for prayer, and then I just started fumbling my way through Wudu (ablution), reading and reciting the words in Arabic that accompanied the ritual, and started praying when the app indicated that it was time. I was on my way! And as I did it more and more it got easier and easier. It was never difficult, just challenging, like learning anything new. But, it had an oddly familiar feeling to do these new things, as if they weren’t really new. Doing the prayers caused me to feel calmer during the day, and it also seemed to have other physical benefits, like stretching throughout the day. Focusing on my connection to Allah (SWT) and asking for His guidance throughout the day really helped me to be mindful of my actions and to try to be kind to others. Once I experienced this then I decided to take my Shahada. I wasn’t perfect at everything, but I was comfortable with the basics and knew that it would only cause me to grow in a good direction from there.
I think that the difficulties that I face are more in how I will deal with others learning that I am now a Muslim and how their preconceived ideas may cause them some negative thoughts and feelings. Up until when I converted, I shared with others that I was “studying about Islam” without the full commitment of saying that I was in the process of converting to Islam. I was fully aware of the hostile climate towards Islam that has been festering in the U.S. since 9/11/01, and I did not want to subject myself to any potential backlash until I was absolutely certain that I would be converting. Now that I have converted, I feel like I have to be selective with who I tell about being Muslim so that I can avoid racism and bigotry if possible. But, on this decision, I am torn. I am by nature a very private person. People in general only know the parts of me that I feel they need to know. This keeps my friendships free of unnecessary drama and lets people keep their guard down. Being a counselor, I am well trained in selective disclosure and redirecting people away from personal information about myself, and this serves me well in all aspects of my life. But, then I think about the sisters who wear the hijab and how they choose to display their faith bravely and reverently, no matter what the reactions from others may be. I see them and I am inspired to be open about being Muslim because I know that I am proud to be a part of a faith as beautiful and amazing as Islam is. I want to defend Islam on Facebook and point out when people are incorrect in their assumptions or portrayals of it. And I want to advocate for everyone to separate Islam from the cultures of the countries in which it is practiced. And yet, at the same time, I know that there are people like my own parents who can’t see beyond what they have learned from Fox News, and consider every Muslim to be a potential terrorist. They have a concern about me becoming a part of the group that they have learned to hate and fear. And then there are people like my two sisters who fear that I am being influenced/brainwashed to eventually be recruited and turned into a suicide bomber. While their fears are as extreme as terrorism itself, I know that it comes from a place of love in wanting to keep me safe, and from a lack of understanding of what Islam is about. Growing up, my father told me stories of the mysterious Muslims who lived on the island of Mindanao, in the Philippines, who would kill you if you looked at their women the wrong way and were so fierce that the U.S. military forces had to develop the automatic handgun with a larger bullet capacity because the standard six shooter revolver was not enough to stop them in battle. So, I admired and feared them at the same time. But this sort of mystique could have just had easily become the stuff of boogeyman nightmares and fears that fuel the stigma of Muslims even today.
I study the hate speech spewed on Facebook and the ignorance that it is based on, and try to prepare my counterarguments to assertively defend my choice and my community against those who would try to defame it. I see them try to cheapen it by using quotes taken out of context and oversimplified vilifying comparisons to their oversimplified exaltation of Christianity. I study and I prepare for arguments from family members, from friends that discover my conversion, and from strangers who would only hate their idea of what a Muslim is but don’t know a thing about what it actually means to be a Muslim. I find strength in my new faith and community, and I sharpen my understanding of and how to convey to others the beauty of Islam. I temper my ideas and my tongue to speak in a way that exemplifies the beauty that I am trying to explain, and I discipline my mind and conduct to emulate what I learn about the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), as I pray for guidance from Allah (SWT). It’s odd to feel both a sense of peace and calm from the faith, but then use that serenity to help me to defuse the anxiety that I feel in response to the idea of having to defend myself and my faith to the many that I know are the majority in the country that I live in and call home.
Having grown up one of the few Asian immigrants in my predominantly White neighborhood, and then in my predominantly African American schools, I had grown accustomed to being the odd ball kid who did not belong to any group. But now I feel like I belong to an odd ball community of odd ball kids, consisting of so many immigrants and Americans, and I don’t feel so completely alienated. It’s nice, but it feels like I have gained this community at the expense of losing membership in the other communities that I also belonged to. My mother says that I’m “tearing the family apart” while my father refuses to speak to me. I feel strange at work where they pray to Jesus Christ before every shared meal and work function, while I silently pray the same things to Allah (SWT). And I feel like I have a secret that if discovered by the wrong kind of person could result in a negative consequence of some sort. I feel like this is what it is to live under the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, and I’m not a fan of it. I want to share my adoration of Islam with others, just as much as the woman that had initiated my interest in Islam. And yet, I don’t want to cause problems because of the attitudes of others who fear it. This is an issue I am still trying to resolve for myself.
Being a new convert is complicated. I am excited about my new path and love my new Muslim community. And at the same time, I have a chronic low level of worry and concern that just lingers and keeps me vigilant to defend myself and other Muslims whenever possible. And for every negative emotion of worry, fear, and alienation; I feel that the teachings of the Qur’an and Hadith give me a way to be resilient against despairing in them. I worry about my family’s feelings and how it will only hurt them, but I don’t worry about how their feelings will hurt me. I feel grounded and that my faith has found a home that lets me feel the love of Allah (SWT) and the Muslim community, and I feel like I have to get used to the awkwardness of that like one would for any new experience. But, this is a good problem to have.
I anticipate that my upcoming year will continue to be a combination of excitement and fumble my way through the cultural aspects of Islam since it is a way of life and not merely a religion, but I’m comfortable with the level of support that I have received from the Muslim community. I’ve made many friends and acquaintances in the short time that I have been interacting with the community, and this only reflects its warmth and strength in how consistent it is in following the instructions of the Qur’an and the personal example set by the prophet Muhammad (PBUH). I am inspired by each of the members of the community that I meet and how they can all tell me about how they have benefitted from their faith and how it guides their lives.
What helped me most as I converted to Islam was having connections to people within the Muslim community. At the mosque that I go to, The Islamic Community Center, I was able to find the Fundamentals of Islam Class where I got a great experience of the knowledge about and connection to Islam as demonstrated by my awesome teacher. Then I got another teacher who illustrated the importance of understanding the context of the texts within the Qur’an. I was then able to connect to the Good Tree Institute where I was able to witness and participate in intelligent discussion and processing of the Qur’an. I saw the many kinds of Muslims that attend these events and was inspired by their positivity and activism in their community and in their own lives. I was always encouraged to keep learning and keep asking questions, and discussing the ideas of the teachings was so invigorating. I was then invited to join other groups to become a member of a group forming to address mental health issues within the Muslim community and found a place to be useful with what I already knew and felt like I was enriching the community that I was joining. Everywhere I went, at every event I attended, I felt welcomed and respected. It was like witnessing the Qur’an in action. Faith was being shown through works, and I knew that this religion was authentically trying to elevate the lives of each member of the community.
Did I feel accepted within the community? I can only say that I noticed and observed the behaviors that were welcoming and inviting. Having been raised as an odd ball that did not fit in much, I really had no expectations of the community accepting me. I was more focused on whether the community could fit how I wanted to live. I’m sure that I was doing things wrong during prayer, or I may have tried to shake a sister’s hand when I didn’t know better, but when I asked about anything that I wasn’t sure about, I got answers and that helped to create understanding within myself. Will there be Muslims who may try to tell me that I’m incorrect or maybe even not welcome? I believe that there are haters in every community, and I’m not really concerned about them. Maybe I was very fortunate to have had the experience that I have had so far because I take the responsibility of pursuing Islam as a personal endeavor for me and my own growth and development. I don’t expect that the community is going to do anything for me, and am looking to see what I can do for it. And on every occasion, Alhamdulillah, I am pleasantly surprised by the warmth and hospitality given by the gracious hosts and participants. Everything that I do with others, or for others is an act of worship for me as a Muslim. And I sincerely feel that others are acting in the same manner by the conduct that I see from them.
What I would recommend to any converts who want to feel more welcomed is to take advantage of the events that happen within your local Muslim Community. Participate like crazy. Attend classes to learn about Islam and the Qur’an. Learn Arabic. Go to social groups and be with other Muslims in any way that you are comfortable with. Take responsibility for yourself and your own growth. Smile. And be yourself. Don’t try to be the most stereotypical Muslim person ever. Just because you convert doesn’t mean that you have to assume the culture of Saudi Arabia. There are so many countries and cultures that practice Islam, and you can help to develop how Americans practice it. You don’t have to change your name, grow a beard, or wear a Kufi. Be the best version of yourself using Islam as your guide.
What I would recommend to Muslims trying to make converts feel more welcome is to invite them to events, encourage them to ask questions, give them a safe place to ask questions, and then when they make mistakes give them instruction on how to correct the mistakes, but do it in a non-judgmental way. Be sweet in how you speak to them/us and remember that we may not know any better, but we want to know how to do things the right way. Demonstrate the example of the Prophet (PBUH), and we will learn to love the way of life that was shown through him. Be a mentor to them, and show them the actual mechanics of how to do prayer. You may have done it a billion times in your life, but the new convert is learning it for the first time, has no prayer rug, and is trying to say words in Arabic that his/her mouth is not used to sounding out. The wonderfully gracious and generous people that showed up for my Shahada gave me a sort of Muslim starter kit, which was thoughtful and amazingly practical and welcoming. It included: a Qur’an and an accompanying Arabic to English dictionary for reading the Qur’an, perfume for my prayer rug, prayer beads, and some CDs called the Poor Man’s Book of Assistance by Hamza Yusuf. Giving a convert the tools and skills to worship really helps to make the connection faster.
My experience as a new convert is beautifully awkward but I’m loving the process. I have some fears that I may lose some connections due to other people’s bias and bigotry, but I have the serenity in my faith that Allah (SWT) is my caretaker, and that everything that is a struggle has a benefit for me hidden somewhere in it. I approached it gradually and eased my way into it, but ultimately it was never hard. I hope that more converts can take something from what I have written and use it in their process.
Archiemedes M. Aquino is a Filipino-American, naturalized American citizen for 36 years, confirmed Catholic at age 22, and converted Muslim at age 44, as of 5/3/17. He grew up in Prince George’s County, Maryland, and came to Arizona in 1995 to study Industrial Design at ASU. Masha’Allah, he found his calling and got a Bachelor of Science degree majoring in psychology instead. He earned his masters of counseling degree from Arizona State University in 2003 and worked 4 years in rural general mental health with all populations, and has been a licensed professional counselor since 2006 in the state of Arizona, with a certification from the National Board of Certified Counselors. He has been working as a counselor for 14 years, specializing in domestic violence issues, with 10 years of experience working with primarily Native American communities. He is familiar with generational trauma, substance abuse and addictions, ADHD, PTSD, and autism spectrum disorders. His preferred modalities for treatment are cognitive behavioral therapy and motivational interviewing, with a humanistic approach.