In the mid 1970s I became a Muslim and spent the next twelve years practicing, learning and teaching about Islam. For many women in this time, conversion to Islam was because of a fiancé or husband and the challenge of learning about Islam left to this influential person. For me, Islam became a choice and an interesting journey though culture, biases, warm sincere people and as with any religion, hypocrites.
In those years, I was the first white educated American Muslim woman that many Muslims from other countries encountered. The question enviably, why did you become Muslim, was answered countless times from well-meaning people. My journey though Islam was not about love interests, separation from society, but about inner questions and the quest for answers, that Islam, at the time, provided.
Perhaps the greatest challenge to me was separating Islam from cultural Islam, the practices and dogma that developed around the religion over the centuries. Many Muslims, especially women would insist that their belief and practice was Islamic, when on examination would learn that culture had evolved this idea. One example was of an Indian Muslim woman who insisted that it was hadith that women never cut their hair with scissors. An educated Saudi Muslim woman pointed out that her practice was influenced by Hindu traditions, not Islam.
Books on Islam in the 1970s were very difficult to acquire. I need to correct myself here. Books existed of poor translations, cultural interpretations of Islam or so esoteric, one had to be a scholar to interpret the meanings. Today, thousands of well-written books exist to educate women and men about the spiritual beauty found in Islam. Although Muslims should be universal Muslims, some of the early books confused, appalled or scared me with their strict cultural codes of behaviors and expectations.
Back in the 1970s many Americans had not encountered an American Muslim, especially one who wore a head scarf. I did not wear a veil because a veil is not an Islamic requirement, but again, one of those cultural interpretations of Islamic modesty. I will not debate the validity or nonvalidity, but say, I respect the decisions people make for what they do. I wore a headscarf to the university, to work and out in public.
People’s biases were obvious when the hostage situation took place in Iran about Muslims. Although I was only threatened once, I believe my own openness helped educate people about Islam. I discovered quickly that I needed to be well educated in the Islamic belief system in to correct or educate people. Respect is a two-way street and I had some wonderful discussions during that time about religions and their common themes of morality, goodness and spirituality.
My reasons for walking away from Islam I will not detail here, nor is there any importance to my eventual spiritual evolution away from Islam, except to me. I will say that my years as a Muslim enriched me in ways that I am grateful I had the experiences, opportunities and dedication to be Muslim. I do understand why people are attracted to Islam and I do understand the challenges facing Muslims not only in the United States, but the world.
Islam is truly a religion of peace and defense. Islam is a religion that cares about the poor through Zakat. Islam is a religion that brings a sense of morality and, dignity back to women. I speak of Islam in its purest form, not the cultural misinterpretations, fanaticism or intolerance seen on the news from areas in the world. Never judge a religion by its followers, but by the intrinsic beauty found within. People are never perfect, but truth in its many revelations is.