By Mai Li Muñoz Adams
November 25, 2001
It is estimated that there are no fewer than 700 million Muslims in the world and as many as 1.2 billion, with 3 million to 6 million of them living in the United States.
“That’s about 20 percent of all people on Earth,” according to the Internet Web site www.religioustolerance.org .
And the number is growing. If current trends continue, Islam will have more adherents worldwide than Christianity, Judaism or Buddhism by the middle of this century.
While many Muslims practice Islam because they are born into the religion, others are choosing Islam over their own traditions.
Marcela Madrigal said it was the most logical choice for her — and one that has changed her life.
A pre-med student at Gaston College in Dallas, N.C., Madrigal was assigned to do a report on a world religion in one of her classes earlier this year. She’d already begun to learn about Islam from a few Muslim friends and wanted to explore the religion more deeply.
“I was very interested because no one does anything about Islam …,”she remembered.
She picked up books about the history of Islam, a copy of the Qur’an and the collection of Muhammad’s hadiths, later writings the prophet used to supplement the Qur’an.
“At first it was like I had 20 questions all the time, but the more I learned the more I understood better” — and the more she realized the path of Islam was her path.
It wasn’t that Madrigal wasn’t religious. She was raised by devout Roman Catholic parents in Costa Rica. “I’d always been a very religious person, and I believed religion or your faith should be very strong because it will help,” she said. “But I was unhappy …”
Madrigal was 16 when she realized her discomfort with what she considers hypocrisy in the church. For instance, she questioned the Catholic tradition of confession to a priest.
“I don’t have to go to a priest to confess my sins,” she said. “I’m going to heaven and God is going to say, ‘Here are your good deeds and bad deeds.’ God is the only one who can judge me and say I am good or bad.”
Although Madrigal said her father has always been interested in and researched other religions, she knew she risked rebuke from her family if she openly questioned them. “You do things because of your parents … and I continued to be Catholic because of my family.”
But, at 20, she could no longer deny her own personal convictions when she was introduced to Islam. And after a successful report for her religion class, Madrigal converted and began attending Friday prayer at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
“I realized that people actually do practice the religion they talk about. They talk about what is said in prayer, what is talked about in the Qur’an and the hadith and they feel like brothers and sisters,”she said.
But she still had a hard time telling her family, first her twin sister, Monica, and her parents, with whom she’s been living in Lincolnton for almost 10 years.
“Monica is fine with it,”Madrigal said. “She understands because she has met Muslim people. It’s not like she agrees with it 100 percent, but when it comes to religion, we are both open minded.”
Her mother, Binaey, has not been as forgiving.
“My mom will not accept it and doesn’t want to hear it or know about it,”she said. “She says that God is in our hearts, and Islam is not really a religion. I tried to explain to her. I bought a copy of the Qur’an in Spanish so she could read it, but it’s like world war three. She’s open minded about everything else, but she’s not very open minded when it comes to stuff like that.
“And my oldest brother doesn’t know. He’s a very devout Catholic and my fear is when I tell him during Christmas he’s probably going to go ballistic.”
Although she does pray at home — Muslims are required to pray five times a day — Madrigal said her mother will not allow her to wear her hijab in the house or go anywhere with her if she is wearing it.
“It hurts me because that’s part of who I am now,” she said. “But I understand her and I understand how Hispanic people are and the Roman Catholics are. … They believe that the Roman Catholic Church is the only church.”
Although Roman Catholicism is a religion practiced by many Latinos and Hispanics, a 1998 study done by Georgetown University found that of people age 20 to 39, 8 percent of the Latinos had joined another denomination of Christianity or another religion, including Islam and Buddhism. At least 65 percent left for evangelical Protestant groups, Pentecostal churches or Mormonism.
But Madrigal attests that the transition is not easy.
“A lot of the Hispanics don’t even talk to me now. People look at me funny,”she said. “… The older people are like, ‘She went bad.’ ”
A feeling of betrayal
That’s exactly what Rose McSheehan thought about her sister, Huda.
McSheehan and her brothers and sister were raised Catholic in Charlotte, but their mother became Southern Baptist when “the Catholic Church told her that all her children were bastards because they were not born in the church.”
She remembered going to church “Sunday, Sunday night, Wednesday and Wednesday night.”
Yet church could not heal her brokenness.
“When I was 11 years old, I was going through some bad things,”she said. “Bad home, bad parents, I had a stepdad because my father left. I grew up in a living hell.”
McSheehan started using alcohol and drugs but knew the escape was only temporary. She looked again to the church for answers.
“They told me in church, ‘If you live right and pray, God will take care of you and bad things will go away.’ ”
For McSheehan, that wasn’t true, and she felt betrayed.
Plus, she didn’t agree with all that she’d been taught:the creation story starring Adam and Eve, with Eve’s responsibility for the sins of the world; Noah and the ark; the stories of the prophets; the idea that no one is saved unless he or she confesses Jesus as savior.
“Adam has his own mind and made his own decision to bite the apple …” she said.
She would ask, “If you can’t enter the gates of heaven if you don’t have Jesus, what happened to the people before Jesus?’ ”
McSheehan was disappointed that different churches professed to believe in the same Bible but interpreted it the way they want.
“From that point in time I was confused and searching and asking questions and coming to terms with my own faith because I knew if I didn’t have faith I would go to hell.”
Huda, her sister, wasn’t appeased as easily.
“She was one of those people who flip-flopped into religions,”McSheehan said. “She was searching her whole life and would go wherever she felt she would fit in and was special.” She found that in Islam.
McSheehan supported her sister’s choice.
“When the church came to my house to visit my sister because she hadn’t come for a long time, they found out she had become a Muslim, and they verbally attacked her,”she remembered. McSheehan was still a Christian and found herself telling the visitors, “This is her decision, her choice. Just because she doesn’t come to your church, do you condemn her?Does Christ tell you to condemn? Jesus tells you to spread the word, not shove it down people’s throat.”
She wasn’t convinced that her sister had made the very best decision, but she saw a change.
“Looking at my sister, there was a peace with her,”McSheehan said. “I would think, ‘What would make these women cover in the middle of July or walk in the heat of August dying under these veils? What would make them feel so strongly about this religion?’ ”
Still, McSheehan wanted to bring Huda back to Christianity.
Before she tried to rescue her, though, McSheehan studied more about Islam.
Compare and contrast
A friend gave her a list of books and suggested doing a comparative study between Christianity and the Bible and Islam and the Qur’an.
“I read and learned where the Bible originated … that it’s been changed by man’s hand,” she said.
The more time McSheehan spent with her sister and other Muslim women, the more she was influenced. Out of respect, she began to wear a hijab when with them. She attended prayer meetings and study groups. She even changed her name to Fatimah after one friend, determined to tell her about Islam, made the suggestion.
“The more she would talk about Islam, the more I would counteract with Christianity,”she remembered. “About 2 o’clock in the morning, (the friend) got so frustrated that she started crying, and in a split second Allah changed my heart. That was a turning point.”
Still, Fatimah wasn’t sure Islam was right for her.
Finally, her answer came on Aug. 17, 1988. “I went to a meeting with the women. I was wanting a cigarette, not wanting to listen, but the woman who was talking, everything she said was for me,” she remembered. “I kept praying and asked God to show me a sign and wondered,‘Am I going to go to hell if I denounce Jesus?’ ”
She went outside to smoke and saw a cloud that resembled a human holding a baby.
“Now, I don’t look at things and read the signs across the Earth like that, but it was like telling me, ‘You’ll find your comfort here, there is no God but God.’ And I took that into my soul and my life.”
That was 13 years ago. She is now married to Adel Al Shaer, an electronic technician, and she stays at home in Polkville, in Cleveland County, with their six children; a seventh is on the way.
“I started studying to bring my sister back to Christianity and ended up taking myself to Islam.”
The road to Islam wasn’t quite as rough for Safia Malik. There was no soul searching or overcoming feelings of betrayal or trying to fill a hole in her life. One day when she was about 10, her parents announced, “We’re becoming Muslims.”
“We lived a moral life without the tenor of Christianity,” said Malik, who won’t reveal her birth name because she said she no longer identifies with that life. “We weren’t really religious. We didn’t sit around and read the Bible.”
Malik, now 41, was born in New York and raised in Ohio. She can remember the reactions from non-Muslims when she and her sister went to school because Islam was still a mysterious religion in the 1970s. But, even as a young Muslim, Malik never regretted her parents’ choice.
“It was a very unusual thing, people weren’t acquainted with Muslims,”she said. “When we went to school … kids would say, ‘Oh, you look like Batman,’ but because of our background, we felt like they would just have to get over it, and over time they do get over it. And we felt in our soul that we were right. … Unless you’re the No. 1 jock or cheerleader, every kid experiences ridicule. Persecution was there, but you learn over time to ignore it. It didn’t consume our lives and was never so intrusive or severe that people were attacking us or pulling our clothes.”
Malik and her husband, Mohamad Suleiman, moved to Monroe in 1992, and they attend the Islamic Center of Greater Charlotte. She and her husband have degrees in mechanical engineering, but she stays at home with their children.
Although she converted to Islam with her parents, Malik chose to continue practicing Islam because she finds truth in it.
“Over time, and through study, I got religion through the Qur’an and the hadith. Any individual has to accept a religion for himself,”she said. “By 18, I was thoroughly entranced.”
Malik said she takes comfort knowing that she has meaning in this life and not the uncertainty she sees in others.
“Islam is the completion of Gods’ gift to mankind, like the last chapter of a book. It’s like the final chapter:Judaism, Christianity and Islam,”she said. “We do believe Islam is for all mankind.”
Malik said she’s been fortunate to have avoided a lot of the persecution adult converts experience, even after September’s terrorist attacks. But it is important, now more than ever, for Muslims to stress the integrity of their beliefs.
“Muslims have been forced to come out, especially those who are sitting on the fence, and say, ‘No, that’s not what Islam is,’ ”she said. “Islam is a beautiful, perfect, peaceful thing, and people have to look deeper than the clothing.”
Madrigal and Fatimah Al-Shaer, formerly Rose McSheehan, say people —even family members — still harass them. Al-Shaer’s mother, who lives in Midland, is still reluctant to talk to her and accept her husband, and Al-Shaer’s brothers call her “raghead.”
“This coming from people who don’t go to church now,”she said.
And Madrigal’s mother still tries to bring her back to Catholicism. She even expects her daughter to prepare for Mass.
But Madrigal is happy with her new faith. “This is something that is going to be for the rest of my life. This is the final stop for me,” Madrigal said. “Because if you leave God in a time of crisis, then he will leave you.”