September 12, 2012
Names have been changed
There are many religions around the world, and millions of people like me who convert from one religion to another. But I’ll bet few of those converts are 17-year-old Latin American girls who switched from Christianity to Islam.
It all started when my family and I moved from a town in Mexico, where everyone was Catholic, to a multicultural neighborhood in New York where I saw many women dressed in salwars kameez (traditional south Asian clothes), abaya (long black dresses) and hijab (scarves covering their hair). I was curious about the calls to prayer I heard around my neighborhood, which sounded like “aalaa hu-aakbaar!”
I researched online, and realized that the clothes and calls were all parts of Islam, which I only knew as the “Arab religion” that people said was responsible for the September 11 terrorist attacks. I’d heard people on TV say that Islamic women had no freedom and that the children grow up learning to kill and die for their god.
I was confused and I had a lot of questions, especially when I read that millions of people around the world are Muslim. I asked myself: “How could that many people practice a religion that teaches murder, as people say? And is it true that they don’t believe in Jesus Christ?”
I wanted to know the truth so I continued to research. I’d seen videos on YouTube where people quoted verses from the Quran (the Islamic holy book), saying the Quran encouraged Muslims to kill. One particular verse I’d seen quoted was verse 9:123 “O you who believe, fight those of the unbelievers near you and let them see how harsh you can be.” I looked at the Quran myself, and saw that, while some verses called on people to fight non-believers, there were other verses that prohibited murder. In fact, I remember reading one verse that that said if you kill someone, it’s like killing all of humanity.
I realized that people just focused on what they wanted. Some Muslim people do bad things in the name of their religion, like attacking non-believers or oppressing women, but I think they are bad people looking for a justification to do harm. To me, Islam seemed to be mostly about prayer and being close to God.
A Calm Heart
I got so involved that I started believing in the teachings of Islam. I discovered a way to worship God that I had never known before. For years I had tried to fit into Christianity and felt disappointed. For instance, when I received the communion wafer, I thought my heart was empty because I didn’t feel God in me, as I was told I should.
It wasn’t the Arab culture or even the Quran that convinced me that I should be Muslim-it was just something about the prayers that captured my heart. Every time I heard the Adhan (call to prayer) while I waited for the bus, my heart felt calm. It was a feeling of love, warmth, and gratitude that I never felt before. I didn’t think of it as proof that Christianity was wrong; it was just my path to God.
I started watching videos and reading articles online about salat, the complicated daily prayers. I practiced praying when no one was at home. I had to kneel on a prayer rug and touch my forehead to the ground a certain number of times, called sujud. I often forgot all the steps involved and had to rely on a recording of the prayer on my iPod, since I didn’t know all the words in Arabic.
I wanted to convert, but I worried about the obstacles before me. Would other Muslims accept me? Although I had Muslim friends in school, I didn’t feel comfortable telling them about my religious beliefs, or asking them for help. I was afraid that they would think I was just playing around, or that I was offending Islam. And how would my Christian parents react to my new faith? So far, I had managed to hide my newfound religion from them.
First Visit to the Mosque
Last June, I decided to go to the mosque (Islamic temple) close to my house. I walked in nervously and saw many females in hijab. They looked at me and I looked at them. I picked up some religious brochures that sat on a white shelf. As I read, I heard someone say, “Hi.” I looked up and saw a young lady wearing a blue scarf and a long black dress.
“Hi,” I said. Then, after a pause I said, “I’m Mexican, I want to become a Muslim.”
“Subhan’Allah,” she said, which I knew meant “Praise be to Allah.” She hugged me and started talking loudly in Arabic, while everyone looked at me and smiled. I smiled back, and some of the women in the hallway came over to hug me, some saying “Mashallah” (what Allah wants) and “Alhamdulillah” (Thank God).
“Would you like to come by in the summer for some Islamic classes?” the lady with the blue scarf asked.
“Iâ€¦I don’t know,” I replied. She smiled and said, “You would be welcome.” I said thank you and went home happily.
When I got home I told my mother I was going to summer school, but I didn’t tell her it was an Islamic school. Thankfully, she didn’t ask many questions. I went back to the mosque to enroll, and then waited a long two weeks, impatient for the Islamic classes to start.
On the first day of class, I waited for my mother to leave for work, then I prepared myself. I wanted to fit in with the Muslim girls, so I covered my hair with a pink scarf (hijab), and put on a long black skirt and a purple shirt. I didn’t want anyone to recognize me, so I caught the train at a different station. I was afraid that if someone saw me with the hijab, my parents would find out. I wasn’t used to wearing the scarf and I felt like people were staring at me.
When I arrived, I was relieved to see that I fit in; My teacher was wearing a long jean skirt and a blue and white headscarf. The first morning lesson was Arabic Language class, and the second half of class we studied the Quran. By the time school ended, I felt happy, even though I hadn’t made any friends.
Before I went back home I stopped at an Islamic store close to the mosque to buy a niqab, which is a scarf that covers the whole face except for the eyes. I wanted to disguise myself. After the morning’s journey, I was even more worried that my neighbors would recognize me and judge me for dressing like a Muslim. As the weeks passed, it became my routine to wait for my mother leave, then put on the niqab and happily go to class.
At school, my teacher introduced me to two girls my age, Mariam and Sumaya. They quickly became my friends and, along with my teacher, tried to support me as much as they could. They even surprised me one day with a gift of scarves and a necklace with a small figure of Kaba’a, which is a sacred Islamic place.
After summer school ended, I knew I didn’t want to hide my faith any longer. One day while chatting on Yahoo! with my friend Mariam, I revealed that I wanted to tell my parents the truth.
“When do you think you’ll tell your parents?” Mariam wrote.
“I don’t know. I am scared they will get mad at me.”
“Look, I know it’s not easy, and that if I ever told my parents I want to change religions they might react badly, but who is your creator?” she asked.
“God,” I wrote.
“Exactly. Who will be with you when you die? Who will save you in the day of judgment?”
“God,” I replied.
“In Islam, parents are important, but God is even more important. Do it, and Insha’Allah (Allah’s willing) they understand.”
I knew my parents would be mad with me, because they might think I had stopped believing in God-or at least in their God. I feared my father, a religious man, would be upset that as a Muslim I believed that Jesus Christ was a prophet, not actually the son of God. But I knew I had to confront my parents eventually.
After dinner one night, my mother and father stayed at the dinner table watching TV.
“Mom, Dad, I need to talk to you,” I said.
“OK, turn off the TV,” my dad replied. I did and he said, “OK, talk.”
“I know this is not easy to understand, but I want to change my religion,” I said while staring at my hands.
“Which one?” my mother asked in a surprised voice.
“Islam,” I said. I felt like I couldn’t breathe and for a moment, everything was silent. Then I tried to explain why I wanted to convert. I explained a little bit about Muhammad and Islamic beliefs, and concluded by saying, “I found God, I believe in God, please let me convert.” Again, everything was silent. My mother looked at my father and my father looked at me.
“Are you out of your mind?” my father finally said, standing up. “Of course I will not let you. What the hell are you thinking?” he yelled. “Don’t you know that you will get beaten? Do you feel embarrassed by your culture? Or, what, you want to marry one of them? Don’t play with this! Please! My God.” It was silent for a moment until he looked at my mother and said, “See, that’s what you wanted to come to America for?”
I wanted to speak out, but I couldn’t. I felt like mud. My eyes filled with tears and my heart felt like it was getting smaller. I went to the bathroom and cried. The conversation was over, at least for that night.
For a while after that, I pretended I wanted to find God as a Christian. My father taught me about Christianity, but when he did, I didn’t feel anything. When I said the “Lord’s Prayer” I just felt like I was talking without understanding; there was no feeling of happiness.
Then I changed tactics and pushed my parents to accept my new faith. I asked my parents if they were ever going to let me convert to Islam or any other religion, but they always said “No” and sometimes got mad. I felt like I had to choose between my family and Islam. It was impossible. Both were important in my life.
It was August and Ramadan was coming up. Ramadan is a whole month in which Muslims have to fast from dawn until sunset. Fasting is supposed to teach you about patience, humility, and spirituality. I wanted to do it to prove my faith and feel like a true Muslim, but I knew I couldn’t tell my parents about it.
I woke up from Monday through Friday at 4 a.m.-before fasting began at dawn-to sneak into the kitchen to eat. When my parents returned home from work each evening and invited me to eat dinner, I always made excuses like, “I ate before,” or “I’m not hungry.”
Many times my father got mad at me, but I didn’t break fast. During weekends I didn’t fast, because my parents were with me all day, I knew I couldn’t get away with it. I was sad when Ramadan ended, because I fasted all by myself and I couldn’t celebrate Eid, the end of Ramadan, with anyone.
A Call to Conversion
I wondered if my whole life was going to be this way, always hiding my beliefs. Then, one day without planning, I decided to do my Shahada, the declaration of belief in Islam.
That day I was waiting for the bus in an Arabic neighborhood, and I heard the call for prayer. I took a scarf I had in my backpack and quickly covered my hair. I went into the mosque, walking fast to the women’s prayer room to pray. When the prayer ended, I stayed in the spot I was in. I felt a tear in my chest. I rose up and walked directly to a woman who wore a brown hijab and black dress.
“Hi. Um, excuse me, do you know where I can find the Imam (leader of the mosque)?” I asked. She smiled. “Sure, follow me!” she replied. She took me to an old man with white beard in a beautiful office. I admired the red carpet, the shiny brown desk, and a shelf with books in Arabic.
“Salam Aleikum, I would like to do my Shahada,” I told him. The Shahada is what you say to testify your faith in Islam. To convert to Islam, all you have to do is say it honestly. For about 10 minutes I talked to him about Islam, until he told me, “Say it!” I looked at one frame with Arabic words, and touched my skirt.
“I testify there is no God but God, and Muhammad is the messenger of God,” I said in Arabic. With those words, I officially converted to Islam. “Welcome sister, Allah has guided you,” he said. I thanked him.
I was happy I had become a Muslim, but a feeling of sadness made me realize how much I wished my parents and my friends had been with me for such a big moment in my life. When I returned home, I acted as if nothing had happened. I didn’t tell anyone.
Now one year has passed, and still no one knows I’ve officially converted to Islam. I used to talk about my faith with my sister and mother, but I felt like they thought it was “just a phase” because they kept telling me to wait a few years before making any decision.
These days, I try to practice Islam as much as I can without calling attention to myself. Sometimes I pray while no one is at home, or go to the mosque after school or during weekends. Although I have become more confident about my faith, I plan to wait for the right moment to tell my parents I’m Muslim, hoping someday they will accept it.