Archive for category Wishful (or is that hopeful) thinking

Thinking about stories of holy women

I see that the Feminism and Religion blog has an awesome article up about stories of holy women in Islam. This got me thinking about a number of things. I was one of those converts who was really drawn to those stories. Still am in some ways, I guess.  And I wasn’t the only one. A number of female converts I knew were into stories about holy women, whether these were women in the Qur’an, stories about female Companions, Sufi women, or Muslim women today. We devoured books like Daughters of Another Path (about American women converts). We loved hearing stories about Muslim women political activists such as Zainab al-Ghazali and Merve Kevakci.

What was that all about, exactly? Because, looking back, I recall that (as Laury points out in that article), that having “too much”  interest (aka more than a superficial passing interest) in such stories was discouraged in the Muslim communities that I was a part of. And, that even though this interest of ours was fairly controversial, we ardently pursued it… although now that I think of it, once you’d read several of these stories (especially about Sufi women or modern political activists) then there wasn’t usually too much that was surprising in any of the others. In other words, they were often pretty stereotypical. Why would they be controversial, when they were so utterly harmless? And what effect did reading them have on us?

And… along comes another Debbie Downer. 😦

I think that our interest in these stories was suspect because this was something that the male leaders in our communities weren’t really comfortable with, and feared that they couldn’t control.

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Why did we do it? (II)

But why is it that some converts accept Islam, adopt some of the practices and rituals, make some Muslim friends, maybe get a bit self-righteous for a short while…

Oh, the judg-y questions we used to ask in Sisters' Study Circles: Is it permitted to attend a family dinner if there will be wine on the dinnertable? Is it halaal to attend a baby shower for my neighbor who's living with her boyfriend? And so on....

Oh, the judg-y questions we used to ask in Sisters’ Study Circles: Is it permitted to attend a family dinner if there will be wine on the dinnertable? Is it halaal to attend a baby shower for my neighbor who’s living with her boyfriend?
And so on….            [shirt credits]

…but soon come back down to earth and manage to live a relatively balanced and “normal” life involving good relations with their non-Muslim family and neighbors, a happy marriage, fairly well-adjusted kids and making positive contributions to the well-being of society?

While some other converts end up cut off from their non-Muslim families, former friends and neighbors, or suffering psychological harm, or getting into bad or abusive marriages, perhaps only managing to get out years later if at all, with traumatized kids?

I don’t know. It does seem to depend on a number of factors: When and where people convert, their social location (gender identity, race/ethnicity, social class, religious background, educational level, age, occupation, sexual orientation, etc), what sort of Muslim community they get involved with, where they are in their lives at the time, how their family and friends react… and a whole slew of other factors. Some converts seem to be more resilient than others. Some are more able to access the support they need, whether inside or outside their Muslim communities.

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Why did we do it? (I)

Ayasmom commented recently:

I read your blog regularly and identify with it in many ways although my experience has not been quite so horrible as yours. After reading this post I am left considering what is it about us that we actively participate in this type of personal transformation? What is it about our mental and emotional selves that allows us to search so diligently for an answer to all of life’s most difficult questions, find it in Islam, be so strong to adopt this very other cultural and religious identity, and then take it too far, so far that we inflict more self harm than we possibly faced before conversion? It’s like we leave the religion of our pasts because of the dogma we find unsuitable, but then inadvertently swap it for another. Sure we can all commiserate about the horrible patriarchal system that is perpetuated by traditional Islam, but being converts, we were ever really traditional to begin with? I think the patriarchy of religion is universal, not novel to Islam. I’m thankful for spaces like this where we can hash out all these experiences, thoughts, feelings and ideas. Thank you for sharing.

Good questions. Why did we put ourselves through this? Why (1) convert to an “alien” religion, and (2) take our conversions so very seriously that what we had been taught (or read) is “Islam” started dictating every single tiny detail of our lives? And as if that wasn’t enough, then some of us get involved in Muslim cults or cult-like groups?

What is it the drives the desire to convert, first of all? What was with all the interest in religious matters??

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Converts, wtf?—More on women leaders

Years passed. Years of being in a neo-traditionalist group (that turned into a cult). After years of that, I had undergone quite an attitude adjustment. I had long ceased to question the idea that marriage and community order had to be patriarchal. I wasn’t expecting female leaders or scholars to uncover some sort of egalitarian “hidden history” or to interpret the Qur’an or the hadith or fiqh in an egalitarian way, either. I mean, the texts say what they say, and there’s nothing that anybody can do about it.

But still, when I realized that “mainstream” Sunni conservative immigrant-dominated groups such as the MSA and ISNA were rethinking their past opposition to the idea that women can be leaders, I was intrigued, and hopeful. Maybe, some sort of change in thinking about gender roles was in the offing?

But I didn’t really move in those circles. They were middle-class and immigrant-dominated. Their events were too expensive for me to even think about attending, usually, when they weren’t too far away to begin with. So, it didn’t seem likely that I would actually encounter any of these fabled new female leaders.

But then, 9/11 happened.

Shortly after 9/11, I attended a conference put on by a large and well-funded “mainstream” conservative Sunni Muslim organization. I was in search of solace.

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Converts, wtf — Impossible predicaments

It’s hard to begin to get a handle on white converts. Even if I limit myself to North America—though I’m not sure that doing that would be entirely accurate. Even back in the stone age (aka pre-internet days), when communications were so painfully expensive/slow, our experiences as white converts were affected by whatever contacts we had with the experiences or ideas of white converts elsewhere (particularly in western Europe). It seems that ours is a transnational experience.

There really is no “white convert community” in the sense of a fixed entity. It’s more like a flowing river… or less poetically, a revolving door, with people entering and exiting all the time (and some still whirling around and around). The convert population is forever in flux. There don’t seem to be many statistics available, presumably in part because it must be hard to study such a small population that is geographically dispersed. One study in Illinois by a Muslim researcher in the late ’90’s found that about 75% of American converts (race not mentioned) leave Islam, but how applicable these numbers might to elsewhere in North America or to the situation now even in Illinois is unclear. But speaking from experience, the converts I knew were often highly mobile in more ways than one: Some left Islam. Some left conservative Islam for much more liberal interpretations (which for us at that time meant pretty much that they had left Islam… and we lost contact with them). Some moved across the continent… or to the other side of the world. Some moved repeatedly.

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Musings on Muslim identity (III)

“O you who believe! Stand up for justice, bearing witness for God even against yourselves…” (Q 4:135)

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So far, my musings on Muslim identity have been very much centered on MY particular experiences as a white North American convert. Which is unsurprising, but also potentially distorting in a way. Perhaps the problem is not so much with all the racial and gendered dimensions of conversion in North America, but… me?

I mean, sure, conversion to any religion is bound to have its challenges. And becoming Muslim in North America in the early ’80’s was very much a leap in the dark. I thought that I knew what I was doing at the time, of course, but looking back, I just shudder at how remarkably unaware I was of the implications of just about everything that I was doing. Yes, those were the pre-internet days, and I was young and very naive about the way the world works, but really….

And once I had begun to get a sense of how race and gender and class and a whole host of other factors were going to make my relationships with both Muslims as well as non-Muslims a lot more complex now that I had converted and become a practicing, conservative Muslim, then surely any half-way sensible person wouldn’t still expect any sort of warm welcome, much less a sense of belonging? Maybe I just had very unrealistic expectations—not only due to the dawah literature I read, but due to… white privilege. After all, in this racially polarized society, how was it reasonable to have expected anything other than what ended up happening?

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Apology #1: from a Muslim pamphleteer

The following is a part apology, part letter to the community, that I hope that I will hear or read some day, from a brother who wrote dawah pamphlets, and delivered numerous talks on “____ in Islam” in different parts of North America. Yeah, it’s completely fictitious. But a sister can dream, right? Anyway, it’s an apology that I need to hear.

I know that his ideas about “what Islam is” and how Muslims should live definitely weren’t his alone. And, that he probably sincerely believes to this day that such interpretations are the most correct, and that Islam (as he understands it) is the One True Way that alone will save people from hell.

I also know why these ideas seemed to “make sense” to conservative immigrant Muslims like him, who were preoccupied with preserving their “Islamic identity” in North America, as they struggled to build a decent life for themselves and their families. They faced an unbelievable amount of prejudice and ignorance, and especially in the wake of the 1979 Iranian revolution, they felt under a lot of pressure to “explain” Islam and Muslims to non-Muslims—and what better way to make yourself feel better than to go beyond merely trying to rationally justify your beliefs and practices to producing pamphlets and giving talks aimed at non-Muslim audiences, arguing that Islam is the truth?

But still. It cannot have been unknown to this Muslim pamphleteer (and many others, mostly male but sometimes female) that Muslim students groups and mosques were distributing these pamphlets to some pretty vulnerable people, as well as to some Muslims who would use them for their own selfish purposes. Any sensible person could anticipate that there would be some pretty bad results from doing that.


Dear Sisters and Brothers in Islam, and in humanity,

Assalam alaikum wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuhu. I greet you all with the greetings of peace, and wish for you the mercy and blessings of God.

Years ago, I wrote a number of booklets on aspects of Islam, and gave talks that further expanded on those ideas. I have come to realize that a number of the ideas and practices that I promoted have caused harm to others, and for that, I am deeply sorry.

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