Looking back at the conversion process that I and a number of my white North American convert friends went through back in the early ’80’s, I remember a lot of concern with the outward trappings of “Muslimness”:
Names and name changes.
Appropriate attire and adornment (especially for women).
Learning to say and use phrases such as “bismillah”, “al-hamdulillah”, “jazak Allahu khayran”, “maa sh’Allah”, and of course, “inshallah”.
Re-learning how to do a variety of mundane actions “Islamically”: sneezing and responding to someone sneezing, getting dressed, putting on shoes, entering and leaving a bathroom, serving food or drink, cutting one’s nails….
Re-training one’s automatic responses to certain social cues, such as overcoming the tendency to automatically respond to a hand outstretched in greeting by shaking it, without first considering the person’s gender.
Most of the pressure to adopt such trappings came from born Muslims. The wife of one of my (now-ex)husband’s friends was so concerned about my non-Muslim name that one night when we were eating dinner at their place, she told me that I should change my name. When I tried to put her off with a polite excuse, she took it upon herself to select an appropriate name for me—which in her mind was the nearest Arabic match to my name, sound-wise. I objected that I didn’t like the name she was suggesting, and didn’t see why some random Arabic name is particularly “Islamic” anyway. But as we walked from the living room into the dining room to eat, she introduced me to her husband (and my now-ex husband) with the name she had picked out for me. I had to object again that I wouldn’t accept being called by that name.
Essentially, in the minds of such conservatives, to be Muslim was to be Arab (or in the case of some other conservatives I encountered, it was to be Pakistani, or Turkish, or Iranian, or Malay, or…). But it was not to be “western.”
In social contexts where conservatives of that mindset predominated, the simplest way to feel reasonably welcome and to avoid being interrogated about your conversion, or have your every move condescendingly “corrected” by born Muslim women was to be as invisible as possible. To “pass” as a born Muslimah. This was a lot easier for some converts than others. Short, slender, quiet, brown-eyed sisters who conformed to stereotypical “feminine” dress and behavioral patterns could sometimes pull it off. Especially if they wore conservative Arab-style hijab and had changed their names.
At least, if you couldn’t pass as a born Muslimah, you might manage to convince those present that you knew enough about Islam and in particular, the sort of behavior that was expected of a pious woman that they didn’t need to be all up in your business.
Being ok with simply being what you were was not an option, in those circles. Because as the hadith has it, “He who imitates a people is one of them.” Being ok with being “western” was therefore often equated with not being sincere about being a Muslim, because one should “hate returning to kufr as one should hate being thrown into the fire”—so conversion somehow meant transforming even innocuous social habits.
But it wasn’t all about the salvation of the convert, of course. A lot had to do with the egos of the born Muslims involved. Imitation is the sincerest flattery, after all.
There were other pressures on converts to “pass” which came from the wider society.
When I and my friends became a Muslim, we suddenly found ourselves members of a tiny minority of a minority. Not only Muslim (definitely a small minority in North America), but white Muslims. And we wore hijab. This was in the early ’80’s, when very few immigrant Muslim women wore hijab in the region where we were living at the time, even, and as white women wearing it, we looked doubly strange. We not only got stared at wherever we went, but people commented, or asked questions. The wider (largely) white society often expected us to be able to “explain” Muslims and Islam to them—as well as to be able to rationally justify our choices to convert (and especially, to wear hijab). At the same time, we were often treated by whites as definite oddities, as probably-not-truly-authentic specimens of Muslim. Stereotypes about converts to any religion aren’t all that flattering, never mind converts to Islam.
Trying to pass as born Muslimahs was one way that we tried to avoid the endless questions and comments and unwelcome scrutiny. Trying at least to be less obviously converts. Legal name changes were definitely helpful there, and conservative, plain and uncreative hijab also, as well as being accompanied by a gaggle of children with good Muslim names. While such attempts at passing wouldn’t usually stand up to any sustained examination by curious non-Muslims, it did take some of the pressure off in public settings, like streets and parks and store line-ups.
Looking back, I can see that there were a lot of messages that we were receiving about being converts that were really negative, and so we often felt that our lives would be easier if we could make it less obvious. There was a core of shame about who we were that never really left, no matter how much we perfected our “inshallahs”.
To be sure, there were also Muslims (often of a less conservative bent) who pressured us NOT to pass. Because in their view, their own situation as immigrants would be better if whites could see other whites converting to Islam. “But we need Muslims running around with names like Joe and Jennifer!” a liberal Arab Muslim assured me. What he meant was, he felt he needed it. This was more about him than us. He found conservative Salafi-influenced attitudes to Islam and Muslim identity off-putting, and rejected them, so he didn’t like to see converts becoming faux generic conservative Arabs, changing their names to Abd as-Samad or Huda and wearing thobes or jilbabs and “jazak Allah khayran”-ing when a simple “thank you” would have done. Converts who kept on being Joe or Jennifer in jeans and t-shirts and speaking “normal” English would have made him feel that this was one in the eye of the Salafis.
Men like him couldn’t understand why we felt the need to “pass.” But then, they never really wanted to understand us anyway. Fetishize us, yes. Understand us or accept us as equal human beings, no.
But aside from all the social pressures that strongly encouraged us to pass, there was also the felt need for a community. Convert community. Because fellow converts also judged and pressured us, and measured the degree of our Muslim acculturation. In some cases, converts were expected to teach and advise newer converts—which sometimes in effect meant that they were expected to pressure them into adopting certain practices (such as hijab in particular). But through adopting such practices, we felt that we belonged somewhere. We shared an experience with other conservative converts, who were also putting on hijab and peppering their daily conversation with Arabic words and learning to cook biryani and so forth. And who often had names like Amatullah Sutherland or Khadija Beauchamp, and who gave their children names like Muhammad and Mujahid and Asiya and Hafsa.
There’s so much bound up in such issues, that I find it hard to sort out my thoughts.
Some of these things are about manipulation, for some people. Some things cause ruptures in family relationships, which can be difficult or impossible to repair. Some of these things are empowering to some people, however. It’s complicated. Especially when its several things at once.
It can also cause long-term issues with identity. More on that next time.