From Colombia to Istanbul: Story of Conversion to Islam

By Mustafa Aydin
Today’s Zaman
July 01, 2005

She is Colombian, however, she has been in Turkey for 12 years. She lives in Istanbul with her husband Ahmet Ayhan Cokokumus, their daughters Merve, Hilal, Elif Deniz, and her mother. She has a unique life story, as well as a story of finding the right path, first through her conversion to Islam for the sake of her spouse, and then through a genuine sunrise in her heart, in addition to what she has experienced in Istanbul, her dream city. Thanks to her perfect Turkish we had no difficulty interviewing her.

During her childhood and youth in a Catholic/Protestant family circle in Colombia , the world of drugs and entertainment, the image of Islam in her mind was not positive. She says she used to think that Muslims believe in other gods, similar to the icons used by Africans or Indians, because of the teachings of the church and missionaries that Islam’s “god” and their own “god” were not the same.

While they were taught about their own god as being merciful, Islam’s god was portrayed as being warlike, brutal, approving pressure on women and approaching people with hatred. Muslims were always portrayed as butchers, terrorists or groups that have caused wars throughout history. Mrs. Cokokumus says that missionaries never told them about the Crusades, Europe’s Cult Wars that lasted for years, the massacres when the American continent was being taken away from the natives, how Africa as a whole continent was colonized, and how its people were sold as slaves, which all have reflections on today’s world:

“They kept repeating the words — love, peace and mercy — and nothing else. They never talked about those issues.”

Because Colombia is very far from the Islamic world geographically, they did not have the opportunity to question the stories about Islam and Muslims, especially after the First Gulf War:

“At that time, the film, “Not without my Daughter,” was constantly shown in Colombia . I was newly engaged to my present husband, Ahmet Ayhan Cokokumus. My friends used to refer to this film and say jokingly, “You might fall into that woman’s position.” I watched that film. I was affected to a certain extent; however, I did not give up, “elhamdulillah” (Thanks Allah). Because my husband used to tell me that Islam was not as what was being said, rather it was a beautiful religion. I trusted him. “

Her husband Ahmet, used to work in ships. Their marriage was also interesting. Ahmet’s ship would dock at a port in Peru , he would send a ticket to Irene, they would meet in Peru and would get married there on a Friday. Her spouse’s family was not aware of this. Mr. Cokokumus had suggested that Irene should convert to Islam; however, she did not understand Islam or the Quran or Muslims. “First, I have to read about Islam and conduct researches about it, believe in it before converting to this religion,” she had thought. “It is not so easy to convert from one religion to another. Your have to be fully convinced,” she says.

The most devoted among her husband’s friends on the ship writes the word “sahadet” (testimony) on a sheet of paper and explains this to her. A piece of cloth is found and used as a headscarf and their religious marriage is solemnized among friends on the ship. Irene is worried, she wonders whether or not she will have to wear that headscarf forever. They come to Turkey . Both economic and psychological problems await them here. Ahmet tries to convince her family to accept his spouse. Their economic condition is not good and they have no place to stay. They spend three or four months with relatives they still mention with respect and prayers even at this moment. It was a different atmosphere for Irene: “Relatives used to say my father-in-law shouldn’t see me without a headscarf on my head because I have become a Muslim and should cover my hair.”

Irene starts to think: “So, in this religion it is not the fear/love of Allah, but the fear/love of relations among people. They were not saying, “Look, this is what our Allah instructs us to do,” rather they were saying, “Your father-in-law shouldn’t see you like that!”

Then she starts questioning everything. She asks her spouse: “What kind of a religion is this? Should I fear your father or Allah? Should I do something for your father or for Allah?”

“Why does everyone put your father in front of me?” she asks. Mr. Cokokumus tries to explain: “It is not like that, it is because of our traditions, however, this definitely is not Islam. ” However, Irene, who has chosen the name Irem for herself, cannot accept this explanation.

She covers her head for the sake of her spouse even though her psychology does not condone this. “But neither my heart was Muslim, nor did I understand the logic of veiling myself. Besides, I could not find the religion my spouse had told me, either in the people or in the surroundings.”

Nine months passed by that way. Meanwhile, she takes the “sahadet” once again at an occasion where all family members are present so that it should be known by everyone that she has become a Muslim; nevertheless, her heart is not Muslim yet. “I was still a Christian in my heart. I still had not taken the Quran in my hands or even read a single line of it.” A year later, her mother comes from Colombia to Istanbul . After her coming, Mrs. Cokokumus feels more courageous and takes off her headscarf. “I cannot do something I have no idea about just because people urge me to do so. I would do it only if I have the love of Allah. Allah already knows my heart,” she thought. She does not receive the negative reactions she had expected from the relatives. As she starts speaking Turkish, her dialogue with her father-in-law increases. One day she asks him: “When you told me, “Cover your head,” I did so, but who are you? Are you Allah that everyone in the family is afraid of you? He bowed his head and did not speak. Then my mother-in-law supported me. She said, “This bride is telling the truth. If someone wants to do something he/she should do it with a full heart. It cannot be through force or through hoodwinking.” She first gets acquainted with the Quran in a strange way after a year. This is the time that her heart is converted:

When I read the Quranic verse at the beginning of the Surah Bakara, my heart suddenly was filled with warmth. I said to myself, “This book really belongs to Allah.’ All a sudden, my heart was full of a unique feeling of trust.”

This time she is stuck over the war verses. “I used to tell myself that this Quran was so beautiful, but why did it mention war. Besides we were taught that Islam was a warlike religion.”

“Because I could not grasp the meaning of those verses of the Quran, they seemed heavy to me at the beginning. However, elhamdulillah, I did some research as to why the wars had erupted and learned about why Islam had permitted wars. At the end of this process, I uttered the holy word, “sahadet,” from the bottom of my heart and became a genuine Muslim. I said to myself, “Yes, this is the religion my spouse had told me about and which the Quran explains.”

One has to grasp Islam, live by Islam and for Islam, not according to people, but according to the Quran. This I realized later on. Unfortunately, tradition and Islam are interrelated in Turkey . The number of people, who have analyzed the Quran and have shaped their lives according to it, has only started to increase over the last few years.”

Because there were no effects of tradition on Mrs. Cokokumus, she did not have any difficulty in accepting what is written in the Quran: “Those, who learn about Islam from traditions, have difficulty in adopting the Quran’s open commands and changing the behaviors that are not in line with what Allah demands in the Quran.”

From ‘Christ is God’ to ‘Prophet Christ’ Belief’

Irem’s home country is Colombia , and she says because this is a country of entertainment, the youths there are not interested in religion. Since the priests at every funeral say the deceased has gone to heaven, the society does not feel the need for religion. She was shocked when her husband told her before she became a Muslim that Christ was not crucified on the Cross but was taken up to the skies. Because that is a big sin in Christianity: “I cried a lot; how could my husband have said something like that! He died for us, in order that our sins should be forgiven. He was saying something like Christianity was collapsing under its feet. My husband said: “If you think seriously you will learn the truth, I can’t say anything else.” After that I learned the realities about Christ from the Quran. I saw how a real monotheist religion is. Now my only concern is that my mother still believes in this religion. I pray everyday to Allah to make her believe the way I do.”

Headscarf test

The story of Irem being introduced to the veil is also interesting:

“I had thought that once I covered my head I would not open it again. Because, doing this for the first time was quite difficult for me. But the love of the veil occurred inside me one morning. There was no darkness that morning, and I began to love the veil. Whenever I saw covered girls, I went outside and prayed, “Oh, how beautiful, they cover they heads. Oh God, please help me cover my head like them,” and after that, I said, “I will cover my head like a Muslim woman. Because this Allah’s order for our own good and security.”

Later, she meets Sare and listens to the speeches by her father, Abdullah Yildiz. They support Irem greatly during that period. She asks her husband when he returned from the ship: “Should I cover my head?” Her husband, Ahmet, says: “No, no. Do not cover your head now, if you want to do it for my sake. Wait until you really believe.” Then, he goes to his ship again. And Irem covers her head as soon as he leaves: “I covered my head on Layalt Al Qadr. Thank Allah! My husband completes his work and returns home. Of course, he did not know. I had instructed my children not to tell their father that I have decided to cover my head. We were to go somewhere; I got ready and covered my head. My husband was still thinking that I was making a rehearsal on how to use the veil. He said: “Alright, alright, it looks good. Now wear your normal dress and let’s go out.” And I said: “I am ready!” He said: “You mean like this?” I said yes. He said: “You mean you have covered your head?” I said: “I covered my head when you left.” He was so happy to hear this and I cannot express his happiness in words. I was feeling freer, more precious and peaceful. I felt like a woman among people and in the presence of Allah.”

Islam in Latin America

Irem says that Latin American countries are too far from Muslim countries geographically, and there is almost no communication between them. To find a credible Islamic source in Latin America and talk about Islam is very difficult. Recently, some very important Spanish works and interpretations are being sent to Latin America . Irem said: “I sent a Spanish book to my foster-sister, Nancy , recently. We write tons of letters to each other. Since Islam is being presented as a war-like religion, this perspective needs to be explained extensively. Because the missionaries constantly say, “Ours is the religion of love, Islam is a belligerent religion.”

“I grew up without a father”

“My mother used to pray as follows: “Oh God! Give me a daughter who has a holy life, who is helpful to everybody. I grew up in a very serious environment. I was always more mature and stable than my contemporaries. I used to pray on behalf of the person I was going to marry: “Oh my God, let me marry someone who has a holy life and will love me not in only this world!” and since my friends knew my prayer, they used to say: “Even if you manufacture this person in a factory he will still have flaws.” Because it was impossible to find someone like this in Colombia . Our society is far too free on moral issues. The structure of the family and perception of life is very different.

After meeting her husband and feeling Muslim, and the marriage process began, Irem’s prayers also changed. She said, “I prayed, oh my God, if this is the true religion for you let me get married, if not, don’t let me marry.” At that time, after all these prayers, I saw my husband like a light in the dark sky. This was a good sign for me.”

My daughters make jokes with my mother!

Irem prays for her mother constantly:

“It is not easy for my mother. Her daughter has changed her religion, has gone to another country, her grandchildren are being brought up in a different religion and this is her only asset. It is not easy to accept this; but she self-sacrificingly supports me.

While we fasted during the Ramadan she also fasted on Saturdays. My daughters talk with her in Spanish. My younger daughter, in particular, says to her: “Grandma, why don’t you pray to Allah? Why don’t you read the Quran? My elder daughter is concerned about my mother. She asks me, “Mother, what will happen to my grandmother when she dies? I wish she was Muslim.” And I say to her: “We will pray to Allah for her. We want her to convert to Islam.”

“We read the Quran and Bible with my mother. I observe that she gets bored, then I make a joke, “Mom, I read the Quran and you do not listen, I also read the Bible to you, and again do not listen. Which religion do you believe in?” she laughs.”

Irem’s grandfather was also a religious man. She said: “He lived the way Islam requires. There has has never been pork in our house; no one has ever drunk alcohol in our house. My being brought up in such an environment was a chance for marriage.”

First Ramadan

I had never fasted in Christianity. It changes from sect to sect; but there is fasting in Colombia during the “holy week,” believed to be the week in which Christ was crucified on the cross. That week, people abstain from eat meat on Thursdays and Fridays, that is how we fasted. We ate fish and this was even better! It was like torture for me during the first Ramadan of my life in Istanbul , as I did not know the Quran and pretended to be a Muslim in order to make my husband happy. I was not comfortable because I did not know its meaning and did not believe in it. But after I learned the Quran and Islam, the next Ramadan was like a festival for me. I have been trying to fast four days a week since the last Ramadan. Although the days get longer and longer I am not affected by it, and I am repaying by fasting the number of days I missed during Ramadan. I am so happy, so thankful to Allah in a way I cannot explain. My Allah gives me the strength to fast. I wake up for Sahur, study my lessons and read the Quran.”

How will the daughters be brought up?

Merve Hilal was born first and then Elif Deniz. After that she started thinking:

“Alright, I am a Muslim now, I can read the Quran at least from its translation (I do not know how to read Arabic). Then, how will I be able to bring up these children in a nice way according to Islamic moral values?”

As a mother, she does not want a simple Islamic life. This is because Islam encompasses a 24-hour time period. People may pray and then continue to live their sinful lives! But Irem does not think this way:

“All our lives, all the things we do should be Islamic. I thought how I could be a good example for my children. I did not know how to pray, I learned. My husband taught me. At first, I prayed as men do! I read the prayers from sheets of paper while standing or sitting. I feel very happy while I am praying. I had never been interested in things like Yoga or Buddhism; I discovered happiness in prayer and the Quran.

My children and I are learning Arabic

I am taking Arabic lessons. I am trying to deepen my Islamic knowledge. My daughters are also learning enthusiastically. My elder sister prays sometimes. She knows 99 names of Allah (Asma-i Husna). We are very happy. My younger daughter may have some problems, nevertheless, she can also read 99 names of Allah. We have a very secure environment, both physically and spiritually. My elder daughter can translate the first two pages of the Quran. My biggest dream is to raise my children according to Islamic moral values. Children are entrusted to us by Allah but we are not aware of the importance of our responsibilities as parents. I observe people and see that we care about making our children become doctors or lawyers, but we do not endeavor to make them people who are loved by Allah.

Irem Cokokumus or with her former name Irene Murizzo Reyes…

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