What Makes ME a Muslim?

Reflections on Identity and Conversion

I have a friend who is probably one of the few converts who has figured out how to reconcile, merge and display multiple identities at once. This extrovert lady, who stills the spot at every party, is not only highly educated but also knows multiple languages and pays tribute to her European ancestry. She has been a Muslim for many years, but she has also managed to pass down to her children elements of her non-Muslim identity that are important to her.

Zahra Lari- Via Hijabican

Although her kids have Muslim names, you can find them wearing kilts and performing  Highland dancing. Yes, she wears hijab but her daughter does not since it is not the mother’s decision to make. My friend has not given up what makes her whole for the solely purpose of pleasing her Muslim community or her born-Muslim husband. This lady is often found volunteering in traditionally all-male environments and fulfilling her motherly duties by encouraging her kids to do what they enjoy doing.

Yet, it is exactly this behaviour that has raised some questions in our Muslim community… is this appropriate for a convert? Can she really call herself a Muslim? Should she force her daughter to wear hijab and her son to give up the kilts? And what about her activities with men!

Many Muslim communities in today’s Western countries are very unilateral in that they preach that there is only one way to be a Muslim. Much of it is expressed in the way you dress, what you eat and how much you follow what particular mosques consider to be sunnah. This makes it quite challenging for new female converts to reconcile multiple identities.

As a convert I often feel that I live a triple life. First, as a Latin-American immigrant in a Western country; second, as a woman born into a macho culture; and, finally, as a convert to Islam. The intersection of these identities has proven challenging for me to manage. Latin Americans do not understand that I do not drink or eat pork; Westerners do not know whether to stereotype me as an “illegal immigrant,” “a drug dealer,”an oppressed Muslim woman” or a “terrorist;” and Muslims do not know what to make of a Latin American convert who identifies as a feminist and takes pride in her cultural heritage.

Muslim girls singing- Via the Washington Post

Being one of the fastest growing religions in the world, a convert would expect other Muslims to be open to diversity. Unfortunately, we are not quite there yet.

For instance, one of the things that shocked me when I first became a Muslim was my community’s attitude towards death. During salat al-janazah women are severely warned against crying, screaming or expressing any kind of pain, and some even question women’s presence in these circumstances. Children are taught to somehow “forget” about the dead, and people in my community compare other religions’            relationship with death as a sort of idol worshiping… The fact that they are oblivious to other’s views on death is not surprising, as my community tends to be quite one-sided when it comes to worship. However, many of them do not even imagine that they may be shattering one of their own cultural identity.

As a Mexican I grew up seeing images of death everywhere, not only in the Day of the Dead, but also through ritual practices. Even though my family was not religious we visited the graves of family members on special occasions, we cleaned the tombs and replaced the flowers. My grandmother kept an altar with the pictures of our dead (an uncle and later my grandfather).  The idea is not to worship; but rather to remember. Remembrance of the dead is important to us for several reasons. If one asked my grandmother about the altar, she would say that the altar is a line of communication with God through which she prays for an easy transition to the afterlife for those who preceded us. She would also emphasize the importance of younger generations remembering the death and being aware of their own mortality.

Culturally death is close to us, perhaps because hardship became common through war, colonization and poverty; or maybe because death is real and expected.

Engaging with a Muslim community that is very Arab-like and so ambivalent to death was not easy, and I noticed that a lot of the converts are compelled to give in to particular cultural expectations. But, is that what makes a Muslim? Are we supposed to adopt the dominant cultural representations in our individual communities?

To be realistic, we do. We adopt certain things (i.e. specific forms of hijab, eating habits, language, etc.) Some others “slip” our minds… Thanks Giving turkey anyone?

Yet, the core should remain… we must ask what makes ME a Muslim?

In my time as a Muslim, I have been lectured several times about the death issue (and many other ideological occurrences) but I have not left it aside since it makes me who I am. After few years of practicing and interacting with a variety of Muslims, I have come to understand that our communities should often be reminded that things are not black and white even for Muslims. 

Muslim woman in Christmas attire- Via Muslimah Media Watch 

Diversity is good and enriches communities. And although right now my community is not very open to alternative identities, I see in people like my friend and her kids some hope for the future. Perhaps the younger generations will realize that Islam is not a squared box of cement. It is rather a space open to everyone and it opens its doors to every individual.

Eren Cervantes-Altamirano