The Convert Trap

Evidently, American converts face difficulty integrating into an accepting Islamic community.  It’s bad enough that Islamic practice often conflicts with the American cultural milieu. Community provides the cushion and the impetus for all successful adjustments, yet instead of finding open arms and willing teachers, American converts face a paucity of learning opportunities, and sometimes then doubt their faith as genuine. Some suffer manipulation and deceitful behavior from Muslims who should know better. The most unfortunate of them face rejection from family members, as well.

I say “evidently” because I’ve rarely seen this. I believe it, however, on the strength of many, many accounts I’ve read from Muslim converts scattered all over the country. My own conversion experience is singular, and because of it,  I daresay I can address this situation with some insight.

If I were to address those who are about to say shahada, I would advise:

1.)  Most importantly: find a supportive Muslim community and integrate yourself into it as a potential covert. If you are not welcomed and nurtured, find another community, even on-line. Though face-to-face community is best, on-line community has become and important adjunct, and, in some cases, a life-line for those who cannot find community in their daily lives.

2.  Consider all the implications of living your life as Muslim. What will  be expected of you from Islam, your new sisters and brothers, and what you will expect from yourself.

3.  Learn as much as you can, but be careful of your sources. Check and re-check what you learn with other sources to avoid being duped into the agenda of unscrupulous religionists.

4. Learn elementary Arabic, for the purpose of reciting prayers.

5.  If you are a woman, consider whether hair-covering and modest dressing is something you believe in or are willing to do in the West.

6.  Learn the requirements of polygyny. Get to know polygynous families if you are drawn to this family structure.

7.  Do not inform your family of origin if you value their support and would suffer from their rejection.

8.  Do not inform your family of origin if they love you and would suffer needlessly from your conversion.

9.  Live Islam in secret until you can enter a more favorable situation.Learn to admit and live with the compromises you may make,  especially if you live in the West.

10..Do not get married within a year of becoming Muslim. You need an adjustment period, and a foundation upon which to make a good marriage decision.

This list of tips is my own personal list, because I’ve used them all, and I’ve maintained my sense of feeling Muslim for nearly thirty years, even though I haven’t always lived a proper Islamic life. I haven’t lost my family or my religion, but I’ve made compromises that some people would not want to make.

I decided from the start that I wanted to be Muslim and I didn’t want to lose my American family of origin, nor my American culture. Balancing those two incompatible states produced cognitive dissonance which persists to this day, but I choose it, rather than risk losing my family and culture as well as my adopted religion.

You may not agree, and my not want to consider these tips, but maybe you’ve never heard anyone speak like I do about the conundrum of being an American convert in America. Maybe these tips are the breath of fresh air you’ve been needing. Allah knows best.  May Allah accept my intention to help Western converts coordinate Islam with Western culture when the two can be seemingly incompatible. An American way of practicing Islam is always a work in progress.

 

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My Conversion Story

I’ve been asked to write my story. Immediately, I thought about the day I said shahada in Anis’s apartment. Then I thought about the day I said it in front of a Saudi sheikh,  making it publicly official. Both accounts need writing, but my story does not start there.

Did it start when I first heard the Travel Prayer on my first plane ride to Riyadh in 1986? That moment told me to investigate Islam, but my story does not start there.

Did it start when I discovered that drinking alcohol is haram–forbidden–in Islam, and I wanted to find a religion that prohibited drinking? No, the story starts earlier.

Did it start when I prayed to God to get me out of a relationship with an alcoholic cocaine addict, and I would find a religion I could follow, as an expression of my gratitude? No, the story starts earlier than that.

All of the above events occurred based upon two previous situations, both connected to my family of origin. The first is that my family was fractured, religiously speaking. My mother and father had arisen from different traditions, although both believed in Christianity.  My father did not believe in any organized religion, and therefore never attended services or mass unless compelled to do so by weddings and funerals. My mother attended church regularly, and dragged all four children every Sunday, even in the worst of snowstorms. No one ever fought about it. We knew our parents had differing religious orientations, but we all knew that we’d be free to choose our own religious path in adulthood– as long as it led to Christianity.

The other situation was that my parents became very strict when I hit adolescence. They effectively culled me from my peer group, forbidding me to take part in most of the social activities that shaped my peers. I became an unpopular girl, not because of any personal fault, but because of parental restriction coupled with my placid nature that didn’t dare confront them, except secretly.

I became adept at leading a double life. I gave myself permission to do, say and believe anything I wanted, as long as it did not invade the space of my family life. My peers, on the other hand, became even more connected to whatever their family and culture taught them. None of them would have considered challenging their social upbringing, let alone their religious upbringing, because they felt happy there. None of them led secret lives, because they had no need of duplicity. They felt accepted and integrated and ready to forge a path in life according to the guidance of their parents, teachers and religious leaders.

As I matured, I became less connected, less accepted, less well integrated in my social and religious surroundings. My introverted nature made alienation not only bearable, but finally comfortable. I considered myself a free agent except for the most basic of life’s demands. I had to support myself, satisfy my sexual nature, and indulge my artistic nature, while holding spirituality on the periphery until I really needed it.

By the time I needed it, I was well into my thirties, and primed for a radical step in another direction. If I had gone to a Buddhist nation, I would have become Buddhist. If I had gone to a Hindu nation, I would have become a Hindu, but I went to a Muslim nation– Saudi Arabia– and I became a Muslim.

None of this is to say that my conversion came easily or comfortably. Those days caused me great pain. Becoming a Muslim was the objective expression of the internal admission that I really wasn’t going to be like other American women of my age and class; I really wasn’t going to achieve the landmarks of a socially admirable orcomfortable  American life; I wasn’t going to have a husband, children, and home in same sense that my mom had, or any other woman of my age and class.

Then, there were the core principles of Islam against Christianity– the divinity of Jesus and his death on the cross as a redemption for the sins of mankind. I believed that, never questioned it, actually, until I started studying Islam. Even after learning that Jesus never called himself God, or that the virgin birth evoked classical mythology, I couldn’t shake the notion that I would go to Hell if I renounced the story, just as I’d been taught.

Oh, yes, great pain accompanied my conversion, almost as though it were a birth of sorts. I’ve already written about it elsewhere. Here, I would simply like to assert that the conversion started twenty-three years before I said shahada, before I was even aware of Islam as a world monotheistic religion.

I suggest that most, if not all, Westerners who convert to Islam had been primed for it. Years of disconnection and/or downright abuse from their culture of origin had prepared them to look at a way of life not generally available in the West, a way of life that would ask for significant changes in personal as well as social behavior. Who would voluntarily accept those challenges unless having been profoundly disappointed in the culture of origin? Should My Conversion Story be retitled Our Conversion Story?

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Riyadh Still in my Heart

Nineteen years after my repatriation, I am finally able to return to Riyadh. I’ve got someone who is able to secure my visa, I’ve got a place to stay, I’ve got the time and the money, and even my health is still good enough to make this trip to the other side of the world, to the place I called home, to the place of the most eventful, romantic, dramatic and emotional periods of my life. I’ve pined after Riyadh for all these years, I’ve written about it in this blog, I’ve voiced my intention to go back someday, and that day is now this day.

Instead of planning a trip to Riyadh, I am planning a trip to the Grand Canyon.

The Grand Canyon? I’ve never felt any particular affinity for the Grand Canyon or for any other landmarks here in the Unites States. How did I get so sidetracked?

Well, I’m getting fussy in my old age. I fly business class for international trips. That’s expensive, even with discounts. I have arthritis, and I’m fat, though I go to the gym and might even quit overeating one of these days. I no longer jump on a plane with little preparation, like I did in my traveling years. I no longer even wish to jump on a plane without preparation. I’m also fussy about destinations, these days, no longer interested in countries  that are cheapest to visit simply because they are cheapest. Italy and Saudi Arabia are the only international destinations that get my attention now, though I’d love to see Thailand again.

The United States has many lovely places to see.  I’ll enjoy a photography tour of the Grand Canyon. I might even enjoy it enough to plan more trips to US destinations.  Flights are short and cheap to anywhere in the US (compared to international travel). There aren’t many time zones to navigate, so jet lag isn’t such an issue. As a senior citizen, I think I’ll enjoy seeing more of my own country, but I still plan to see Riyadh again.

Now that I can go back to Riyadh,  after years of not being able to do so, I’m specifying that I want to go back for Ramadan, not the chilly winter or blazing hot summer or even the Haj season. Ramadan is the month to be in any Middle Eastern country, especially if one is Muslim. Yes, I still intend to go back to Riyadh, but I want to go next Ramadan, inshaAllah. Next Ramadan…2018…and I’m planning for it. InshaAllah.

 

 

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I Quit

Last week, I quit the Tajweed class I had joined. I attended half a dozen classes and learned– or, shall I say, re-learned– basic principles of Tajweed. The teacher is an Egyptian woman who knows her stuff and knows how to teach it. The class was great, but I suddenly lost enthusiasm for tajweed and everything Arabic.

For the first time in my life, I wanted to take a break from all things Arabic.

At least I realized that my need for a break has nothing to do with Arabic but with the circumstances of my life, specifically, my Arabic family that continually behaves in ways clearly dysfunctional regardless of whether they live in Arab or American society.

At first, I felt guilty leaving a class that benefits me and gives me joy.

I hadn’t been studying, however, and Tajweed needs consistent study. When I lived in Riyadh and attended classes daily, I studied every day, sometimes for hours.  Here, in America, I do not live in an Islamic or an Arabic atmosphere, and I must confess and admit that my attitudes are profoundly influenced by my surroundings.

Would I like to change my surroundings to encourage more participation in Islamic practices? Yes. Why do I not do so?

Here I must reveal a situation of cognitive dissonance that has nagged me ever since I repatriated nearly twenty years ago.

I live with my mom, who is ninety-one years old and an evangelical Christian. She is a lovely woman, who has cared for me, my father (who passed nine years ago) and my siblings. As a Muslim, I am instructed to take care of my parents. Does not Heaven lie under the feet of mothers? I remind my Muslim readers: “Abu Huraira reported: A man asked the Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, ‘Who is most deserving of my good company?’ The Prophet said, ‘Your mother.’ The man asked, ‘Then who?’ The Prophet said ‘Your mother.’ The man asked again, ‘Then who?’ The Prophet said, ‘Your mother.’ ‘The man asked again, ‘Then who?’ The Prophet said, ‘Your father.’ ”

Add to that the early teaching I received from my father, who often told me, “When your mother and I get old, you will take care of us.”

My mother, in her selfless way, always scolded him, saying, “She will have her own life!”

My mother deserves to spend her last years in comfort. She still takes pleasure in caring for us now, as she did when we were small!

Three years ago, she lost her sense of taste and smell, yet she still exerts a supreme effort to plan and cook a tasty meal for my brother and I once a week. This example of her devotion to her family is one of an infinite number she has offered over the course of our lives.

Here we are, she at ninety-one, and me at nearly sixty-seven years old. We live in the house my father built for us thirty-nine years ago, the house that she has cleaned, fixed, decorated, and enjoyed since the day we moved in, the house that is her home. If I were to live elsewhere, she would have to give up this house. Living here with her is my way of honoring her. Of course, I also benefit financially, but that is not so important any more. I can afford to buy my own house.

My weakness, my proclivity  for peace and harmony before honesty, has permitted me to live more as a Christian, like her, than a Muslim, like me. During the weeks I went to Tajweed class, I didn’t even tell her I was studying Tajweed, because she would then know for sure that I am no longer a Christian, as she had taught me. I used to tell her I was studying Arabic, at the mosque instead of the university. She had her suspicions, but true to her generous nature, she kept them to herself.

During those weeks, my extended Arabic family gave me no end of bad behavior. Some day I may write about all of that, but not today, not now. The point now is that I was trying to study Tajweed with one hand tied behind my back, and my family swatting at the other hand. I needed a break.

Cognitive dissonance has been my companion for most of my life. I have often lived knowingly with contradictory beliefs and behaviors. I have often tried to reconcile them, and when unsuccessful, compartmentalized them. I rarely gave one up in preference to the other, and I won’t do so now, but I need a break.

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A Singular Theory

Many people who are firmly committed to their religion are also firmly committed to the idea that those who belong to other faiths will be sent to Hell after they die. The concept of Hell exists as an absolute reality, as does the concept of Heaven, for these people. The stronger their faith, the more firm is their conviction that those outside the faith will not be their companions in Heaven.

My mother is an evangelical Christian who believes that only Christians will see Heaven. At least she refrains from the evangelical side of her religion. She does, however, read books with titles such as, “Twelve ex-Muslims who Came to Jesus Christ.”

I perused this particular book, and was disgusted by the terrible and downright cruel treatment, couched in the practice of Islam, in which these new Christians had been raised. Of course they became Christians!

Their stories do not prove the hypothesis of Christianity’s core teaching, and all religion is, indeed, hypothesis. Religion will remain hypothesis, as it always has been, because no one can or will prove the verity or even the superiority of  one religion over another.

Frequently, I have pondered the phenomenon I just now mentioned in my first paragraph. Why do passionately committed religionists condemn non-members to their version of Hell? Why do they not know that all religious concepts are unprovable and therefore equal in terms of possibility?

Why do they not realize that one’s religious affiliation evolves from one’ s life circumstances and not from a mature examination of evidence? Even converts are converts due to life circumstances, and perhaps psychological characteristics, but certainly not due to the facts of a particular religion being more “true” than another.

Most people wouldn’t agree with me, but I am as convinced of that as I am of any religion. Most people would label me an agnostic or an apostate, but I no longer label myself religiously. Because of my current life circumstances, I now view all religion as  a means to comprehend the human condition in a way that satisfies universal angst regarding what becomes of us after death. Religion also guides us in how to navigate the gauntlets of common life tasks, and basic relationships. All religion is valid. Each religion is true to the ones who practices it, and why would anyone want to interfere with that truth? Why would anyone care whether another person believes in a certain religion to the exclusion of all others?

Religion is an aspect of human character, human history, human psyche more than an aspect of scientific reality like the causation of infectious disease or the principles of genetic inheritance.  Maybe this fact has something to do with the tendency of most people to be intolerant of or prejudiced against other peoples’ religions.

I propose a related explanation, and this is something very few people will agree with, but I propose it anyway, quickly adding that I, too, am subject to the winds of my life’s circumstances, and my own psychological orientation. I propose that people who are strongest in their faith are least convinced of what that faith teaches. They cannot admit their suspicions, nor can they tolerate any possibility of question, of indecision, or of hesitation in front of conviction. Such admission would cause tremendous internal stress, and a guttural fear of going to Hell, so they mask it with forceful belief and strict adherence to whatever religion they follow. They reinforce their belief with evangelical attitudes and habits towards those less well cemented to their particular version of the Truth.

This is my theory, and I cannot prove it, but I offer evidence in support of it from my experiences in Christian churches. Islam also offers evidence, but I haven’t seen much of it– yet.

Without exception, Christian churches focus not only on the divinity of Jesus Christ, and the absolute truth of his ordeal on the cross, but also that his death atones for the sins of all humankind. No Sunday service does not pound these ideas into the heads and hearts of attendees. Repeatedly, Sunday after Sunday, church goers are subject to exhortations urging them to greater faith. Why? If their truth is true, why must they continually smack members over the head with it? If adherents actually adhere, why must the content of these Sunday services look so much like con artists urging listeners to buy fragrant creams for curing cancer?

I still practice Islam, on occasion and incompletely. If asked about my religion, my response will change according to who asks. Sometimes I say Islam, and sometimes I say Unitarian Universalist. To be honest, I must say I belong to both, but no one wants to hear that, so I don’t say it out loud. I also still like much of the Christian teaching with which I was raised, but I can’t call myself a Christian. Lately, I’ve been looking at Buddhism, and I do like its teachings, but I can’t call myself a Buddhist, either.

If I had been raised in a Buddhist country, or if I had lived in one rather than in Saudi Arabia for twelve years, I would surely be a Buddhist by now. I know that, and I’m not disturbed.

The point is that I am now comfortable with nagging ambiguity, accepting of contradiction, and embracing of possibilities.  Most people are not, and I’ve often wished that I could be like them.

I spent years trying to be a “good Muslim” like so many of my friends who seemed happier than me. Before that, I tried to be an agnostic like so many of my former friends whose cynicism attracted me in my youth. Even before that, I believed in the Trinity, which I had been taught, as if no other truth could possibly exist, as if I were a sinner just by considering the possibility.

Now I feel comfortable, though thoroughly private in the ideas I’ve espoused here.

I expect that whoever reads this, if anyone, will disagree and maybe even chastise me. That’s OK. I will consider all responses, if any. I don’t write for responses, anyway, I write for my own expression, and also, I must admit, to attract a reader who might sort of agree with me, because, I, too, am subject to all human needs both psychological and spiritual as well as physical. I’d like to meet kindred souls, but to all I say, “Peace be upon you.”

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Life Cycles of Blogs

My favorite free theme, Fruit Shake, is no longer supported by WordPress. I would never have changed it, except that my list of followed blogs and Arabic language resources  had become out-of-date. Most of the links no longer worked, and most of the blogs had not been active for years. I realized that the period of time during which I was writing and reading blogs has now passed, not only for my blog but for most of the ones I used to read.

Because the Fruit Shake theme was no longer supported, I was unable to customize it, to remove the defunct links or add active ones. Reluctantly, I perused the free themes that supported custom colors and headers, and was disappointed with the pickings. I finally settled on one, and when I activated it, was dismayed to see that all my links have been eliminated. The only list now present is my archive list.

After getting over the shock, I decided not to add a list of Blogs Followed or any other reference to other bloggers or links, at least not now. I wonder, though, what happened to all the blogs I used to read. Why have their authors stopped writing? What has happened to those authors?  We sort of got to know one another through blogging. We became familiar with each other’s stories, and we looked forward to each other’s posts.

One of the facts that contributed to the dispersement of my particular circle of bloggers was the passing of Carol Fleming in 2011, whose blog American Bedu formed a hub around which so many of us fluttered. She succumbed to breast cancer, two years after her husband succumbed to leukemia. She blogged about her illness, as well as his, but she always maintained the purpose of the blog, which was to educate and entertain Westerners who found themselves in Saudi Arabia, and to inform those who remained behind. No successor emerged from that milieu. No one could have taken her place, but why did most of us drift away from blogging? I don’t know, and I am one of those who drifted. Maybe I did feel the hole left by Carol’s passing, and simply did not return to my blog after a time of getting used to her absence.

I am happy to see that two of those blogs are still functioning. I am also happy to report that I have continued an on-line friendship with another blogger, who spends more time on Facebook than she ever did on the the blogs.

Has Facebook superseded blogging as the way to socialize and reach out to kindred souls? I have spent more time on Facebook during the past few years, but I do not feel nourished by writing short Facebook posts in response to someone else’s comments or links. I do not feel inspired to start my own discussions or post my own links, because my Facebook page is visible to all who know me.

I would never want the people in my life to read on Facebook some of the words I’ve published on this blog. My blog is deeper and more honest than anything I would write on Facebook, and for that reason, my identity behind Marahm is not discernible by anyone who actually knows me. For that same reason, my blog is more valuable, even though I have neglected it for months a time.

Maybe the other bloggers whose blogs I used to read lost interest. Maybe they moved out of or into the Middle East or divorced their Arab husbands or decided to leave Islam. Maybe none of that happened, but they merely moved on, in terms of interests and activities.

The important point is not that a whole group of bloggers moved away from their blogs after a period of intense involvement, but that they did it at roughly the same time, as if an invisible energy flowed through each of us but then slithered under another door, leaving us flat and disinterested. None of us planned that, discussed, or even noted it, I daresay. Could blogs, as entities, as vehicles for the transmission of news, emotions, ideas, and narratives of their writers, be subject to a sort of life cycle, much like the persons themselves are subject to the life cycle?

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Synchronicity

Have I written about Synchronicity here before? No matter. It is a phenomenon that occurs multiple times, if one is attuned to its features, and I’ve just enjoyed another episode. Synchronicity is a concept introduced by Carl Jung, the pioneer practitioner of Depth Psychology. The heart of Synchronicity lay in meaningful coincidence.

Coincidence might seem meaningful by definition, but ordinary coincidence does not carry the significance of Synchronicity. Let me bypass definitions that are readily available, and tell you about my most recent experience of it.

Several months ago I found an Arabic language class offered by our local university. The class was entitled Arabic ll, a second semester class, and I knew it would be too easy for me, but I needed a refresher. With the possibility of going back to Riyadh later this year, I wanted to renew my study. I enrolled, and attended the classes.

Only three students had enrolled. One night, two of those students did not show up for class, so I was the only one, and the teacher asked me if I wanted to review any specific aspect of Arabic. I told him I’d like to review Tajweed– the special rules of reading the Qur’an in Arabic. He gave me a fast and furious refresher course in just an hour, and I felt energized. He told me about a system called The Qur’an Pen, and he said he would get it for me.

The classes ended. I forgot about The Qur’an Pen, but my interest in Tajweed had been renewed. One week before Ramadan, I received an email from the local mosque informing of a sister’s Tajweed class commencing soon. I attended the first class, and felt as though I’d come home.

Two days before Ramadan, I received an email from my former Arabic teacher saying that he had obtained The Qur’an Pen and wanted to give it to me. I was surprised and pleased. I met him at the city’s main mosque after Friday prayer, the day before Ramadan, and he showed me how to use it.

These coincidences– the teacher’s refresher class, the new class at the local mosque, and the teacher giving me The Qur’an Pen– all occurred within two weeks of Ramadan. Ramadan, as all Muslim know, is a time of giving increased attention to the Qur’an.

Why would these coincidences occur this year, when nothing like that has occurred in all the nineteen years I’ve been repatriated? I had actually abandoned Ramadan. My faith and practice has never been strong enough to observe Ramadan in the midst of the non-Muslim society in which I now live.

If Synchronicity is about, “meaningful coincidences,” the meaning of these coincidences for me is clear. The time is right and proper for me to return to the Qur’an. I now have support. I now have tools. I am weak; I need to be bolstered, and I have been bolstered.

I am happy.

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