Speaking with a convert friend recently, we got into talking about ways that we used to feel marginalized and disempowered in the conservative North American Muslim communities that we used to be involved in. And how we still often feel marginalized, even in supposedly “progressive” circles. It was a long conversation, and it was emotionally wearing.
And I know some other converts who’ve had and have similar experiences. But not all do. Some converts not only survive, but seem to positively thrive… and not just in the immediate aftermath of conversion, either. Decades later, they still seem to be quite happy as conservative Muslims living in conservative communities and married to conservative husbands.
Which got me thinking about why conversion works out better for some than others. Part of it—much of it, I’d say—depends on chance: Which community(ies) the convert encounters, what imams/scholars/shaykhs/nutty dawa pamphleteers they learn their Islam from, who they marry (and whether the marriage turns abusive). But some of it seems to depend on the convert’s personality.
As a teenager, I used to like these quizzes that you used to find in magazines, that promised to reveal aspects of your personality to you. What if there’d been one aimed at would-be converts to Islam… rather like this one?
So, you’re considering converting to Islam? Answer the following questions, being as honest with yourself as possible.
(Hint: if you aren’t sure of the answer to some of them, or you’re afraid to be honest, then you need to grow some more before deciding to make such a life-changing decision.)
A. I identify as:
- Male. I was identified as male at birth, and I identify as male today, with no doubts about that whatsoever.
- Female. I was identified as female at birth, I identify as female today, and I love everything about traditional femininity.
- Female. But there are a number of stereotypically “feminine” things that I’m not really into. I just like to be me.
- Why does this even matter? I’m a human being. Aren’t all human beings equal in the eyes of God?
[If you answered (1), then you will have a far different experience as a convert then if you answered 2, 3, or 4. Good luck… and fyi, some of the rest of the questions won’t apply to you.]
B. Which of the following best describes how you relate to God?
- I believe in God, I pray and try to be a good person. It’s cool to watch debates between Christians and Muslims about things like whether the Bible was changed, or if Jesus was really crucified.
- I believe in God, I pray, and I try to avoid doing things that He has forbidden, but I don’t think all that deeply about Him.
- Mostly, I feel sure that I believe in God, but sometimes I have doubts. How can we really know for sure if God or gods exist? None of answers that Christians or Muslims give to that question sound entirely convincing to me.
- I love God. Sometimes I like to go out walking in the woods in the dark, and talk to God. God feels so near to me then. Religious leaders talk a lot about who God is, but I’m not sure that anyone really can grasp that. God is too immense to fit into the boxes they try to put Her/Him/Them into.
C. Do you like to read scriptures or religious books?
- Yes, I have read the Bible and the Qur’an, and I like to memorize verses from them that can help me win debates about religious issues with people who have other beliefs.
- I don’t read all that much, but sometimes I like to read things that are inspirational. Like Chicken Soup for the Soul, but more serious, you know? So a bit of scripture or a religous book that isn’t too hard to read is nice sometimes. It can be a good reminder.
- I read that sort of thing a lot, and it makes me ask all sorts of questions that nobody seems to be able to answer. For example, why would God destroy entire communities, even babies and domestic animals, just because some of the adults in the community were worshipping the wrong gods or committing sins? It doesn’t seem right to me.
- I love reading the Bible as well as the Qur’an. I have already memorized the Light Verse, and the last verses of Surat al-Hashr—they are just so breath-takingly beautiful. I read every religious book that I can get my hands on, no matter who the author is, because I really want to understand all the different religous ways of seeing the world.
D. How important is community to you?
- I have a group of friends who share most of my beliefs. Some of them are Muslim already. We have dinner together sometimes, or we go and attend a talk put on by the MSA. That’s cool.
- I’m more interested in getting married and having kids. My husband and kids will be enough community for me.
- Community is very important to me. I work with homeless youth, and I am also a peer educator in my university’s sex education center. Last year, I volunteered to work on the campaign in my city for a safe injection site.
- I’m pretty much a loner, mostly. I have a couple of close friends, though, and they mean a lot to me. But too much contact with other people makes me really tired for some reason.
E. If a religious leader told you that if your husband forbids you to cut your hair, you aren’t allowed to cut it and God will be angry with you if you go ahead and do it, how would you react?
- I would agree that this is correct, because there’s a hadith in which the Prophet Muhammad says that a woman who fasts and prays and guards her chastity and obeys her husband will enter paradise. So of course a woman shouldn’t displease her husband.
- I wouldn’t really care one way or another. He might be right, but that’s not for me to say, because I haven’t read all the stuff he has. I would think that if he is right, he probably just means that a wife should try to keep harmony in the home, and that sounds like a good idea to me.
- WTF!?! This is a joke, right? Why on earth would a deity care how I style my hair? Wouldn’t God have better things to be concerned about, what with all the suffering and evil in the world?
- It would really bother me, deep down. It would be like I was being torn in two—being forced to “choose” between being honestly myself, and pleasing God… and all because some man wants to come between me and my creator, and treat me like his own personal sex toy. It wouldn’t make sense. I wouldn’t be able to see how this could be just.
F. If you are in an unfamiliar social situation where you don’t know anyone and you aren’t sure what the rules are, what do you do?
- I can usually figure out any social situation, and I make friends pretty easily wherever I go. I wouldn’t be feeling awkward for very long.
- I might feel a bit shy at first, but I would probably manage to figure it out. I always try to be pleasant to everyone, and go with the flow wherever I am.
- I’m not all that hung up on rules. Sure, I don’t try to offend people, but neither do I worry a lot about whether people like me or not. And I usually manage to find someone to talk to, in most situations.
- That sounds like a really awkward situation. I tend to avoid situations like that when I can. Or, I watch others carefully to see what they are doing and how they are behaving, and I mirror them.
G. If you had friends who were constantly treating you kind of strangely because of your ethnicity or where you were born or who your parents are, or assuming that because of your ethnic origin that you have lesser morals or you used to be promiscuous, how would you feel?
- I’d probably laugh along with them, and maybe rib them right back, I guess? I’ve never really encountered that kind of situation before, so I don’t really know. But I don’t think it would likely happen to me.
- I’d be, like, whatever. Maybe they have insecurities they need to deal with. I might decide to see less of them. My priority would be my marriage and my kids, anyway.
- Anyone who treats me like that is not a friend. Period. I don’t have time for people like that.
- I don’t have many friends, and those I have mean a lot to me. If a friend treated me like that, it would really hurt me. That would be really hard to deal with.
H. If you asked a religious leader a difficult question, and he gave you a pat answer that you didn’t find convincing, what would you do?
- I might ask another religious leader who has more knowledge, I guess. Or I might just put the question to the side for now. Maybe there’s wisdom in his answer that I am not in the position to appreciate at the moment.
- I don’t know what you mean by a difficult question. I don’t usually like to ask too many questions. Why make your life complicated if you don’t have to?
- I might ask someone else… or I would read up on it. But I don’t take things that religious leaders say all that seriously. They may know a lot more than I do, but they are after all human beings. They aren’t infallible.
- It would bother me if any religious leader did that, because by asking them a question, I am putting a certain amount of trust in them, and if they just give me a pat answer then that would feel trivializing. Or, I might start to doubt whether they actually know what they are talking about.
I. What kind of art and music do you like?
- I’m not really into either one. What good does it really do? Our society spends way too much time on things like that, and it can easily be a source of temptation to sin.
- I’ve always liked doing paint-by-number. I’m starting to enjoy listening to nasheeds, like Dawud Wharnsby’s “The Blue Sky is Blue Like Blue Bubble Gum.”
- Art that challenges convention. Punk rock music. Riot grrrls.
- All kinds of different stuff. Stuff that moves me, makes me think, helps me see the world in a new way. I like to make art. I’m not very good at it, but there’s something wonderful about the process. I love to sing. It’s one of the ways that I talk to God.
J. When the end is near, and your life passes before your eyes, what do you hope to see?
- That I’ve believed in and done the right things, I guess, because of course I want to end up in heaven, not in hell.
- I guess… that I’ve had a good marriage, and kids, and a nice house, that I decorated myself. Freshly made bread on the kitchen counter. My garden blooming. Grandkids.
- Hopefully, that I’ve left the world a bit better than I found it. And that I’ve had a lot of fun in the process, and those who knew me had fun too.
- That I haven’t sold out. That I haven’t wasted my time. That I’ve used my mind, and learned as much as I could. That I’ve been a decent person, who treated others as I myself would want to be treated, no matter who they were.
K. What is your idea of heaven?
- The way that heaven is described in the Qur’an.
- Being with my family in peace and harmony forever.
- I can’t imagine some sort of static heaven, where everyone just relaxes in the shade and drinks non-intoxicating wine… and the women wait around for their husbands to visit them now and again. I think that would be more like hell. There would need to be space for growth and development, or I’d hate it. And heaven would have to be gender-equal, or it wouldn’t be heaven. Which means that I don’t take what the Qur’an says about it literally.
- I can’t picture myself in heaven, frankly. The Qur’an doesn’t mention any books in heaven, but any place without books would be hell for me.
If your answers were mostly 1’s and 2’s, then you probably will do fairly well as a convert. If your answers were mostly 1’s, then you might even become the next ISNA president, or the next big shaykh/shaykha, if you play your cards right. If your answers were mostly 2’s, then you’ll probably manage.
But if your answers were mostly 3’s or 4’s, then not so much. If you convert, you will probably have a very difficult time of it. If you are a loner, or can learn to be one, then you might manage to beat the odds and survive as a Muslim. Or maybe not.
[NOTE: This is—obviously—satire. I don’t give out religious advice. I wouldn’t presume to tell someone else whether or not they should convert.
But I would say that those doing dawah ought to be more honest about what conversion to Islam will mean for people, especially for those people who evidently won’t fit in easily. But although that’s what I think, I know better than to expect that it will ever come to pass. Those who do dawah are usually invested in the idea that Islam is for everyone, no exceptions, for highly personal reasons. The real-life impact on actual people isn’t really on their radar.]