My experiences meeting converts (or “reverts”) to Islam varies greatly. Excluding those who convert for the sake of a marriage, conversion has different causes and effects on different women. Many of us leave other traditions where our questions were never answered just to find that Muslim communities encourage us to accept every piece of Islam without questioning it. Thus, converts are often left in an awkward position between seeking answers and accepting the things that are bothering within Muslim communities.
I have met a number of “enthusiastic” converts who are very much about the “big picture.” They accept Islam without digging too much into the troubling sides of Islamic interpretation, practice and ideologies. What these new Muslims often have in common is that they see Islam as one. Islam is a one big unity where minor questions should never affect the rest. For many of these girls, finding a place in the community and comfort in mosques and the institutional part of Islam is somehow easier.
On the other hand, there are those converts who are somehow more “pessimistic” about what Islam brings into their lives. Yes, Islam is one big unity and it makes them happy, but that unity has many pieces that often do not come together. These Muslims often bring the small details into the bigger picture just to realize that the parts do not make the whole…
Although there are many experiences in the middle, some of us have difficulty reconciling a number of things in Islam. It does not take too much before female converts to Islam are presented with the question of polygamy, for example. The eternal issue of the veil and the niqab also chase us around and the problem of family violence is also present in our lives. While at first glance we could just reject it all by saying “this is not Islam” the truth is that all these things have a place in Muslim communities. What is even more challenging: these things are justified in religious terms often by different schools of thought. Therefore, the idea of “read Qur’an and choose the school that better suits you “ is not always an option for us.
As much as looking at the “bigger” picture is important. It is very challenging sometimes. The fact that Muslim communities often encourage us to accept every piece of Muslim realities does not necessarily reconcile with our ideal Islam for which many of us converted.
As converts to Islam we bring a variety of ideas and experiences into our communities. However, it is here where we start playing with fire in cultural terms. Every so often the question of Westernization comes to life within Muslim communities, and we are often call to be “arabized,” as if being Arab was the ideal way to be Muslim. Westernization is also invoked against those voices who challenge things like gender segregation, violence against women and women’s reproductive choices. A call to reject Westernization is often a call to silence disagreeing voices.
What is funny about that is that Islam was born as a religion where questions were answered and challenges were taken into account. One of the things that possibly attracted a number of people to Islam during its earliest years was the possibility to get answers, to open discussions and to be heard, something that was also a right and a duty in the case of women. Today our communities are way more prescriptive on the way this should work and leave discussions only to those who are the “walking knowledge in Islam,” the scholars.
In a time were Islam seems to be threatening and seems to be under threat, Muslim communities call for a unification of ideas, practices and experiences. Hence, diversity is often undermined and, in some cases, even rejected. Reconciling between the “big picture” Islam and the “small” details is not always easy… and the question of who is right? Often arises and challenges our communities and our experience as converts.
Coming next week: Top Issues in reconciling and accepting Islam from a convert’s perspective.