I grew up in a family that wasn’t really religious, more culturally Christian: celebrating the holidays without any of the spiritual stuff. There was this man from the church who had volunteered to take my mom and her siblings to church when they were children. When I was about 8 years old, this same man volunteered to drive my cousins and I to church on rare occasions when we wanted to go. I loved going to church for the singing and meeting people in the community; however, I didn’t go very often. In fact, the Sunday school used to bribe us with chocolate bars if we came 3 Sundays in a row. I went so rarely, that I never got one of those chocolate bars.
When I was 9, I was placed into a foster home. This family also wasn’t religious and so I stopped going to church. A lot of times I thought God hated me because I had suffered so much in my short life but I kept telling myself that if I just struggled through these years, I would be rewarded with happiness for the rest of my life. In grade 6 I started reading these non-fiction books about the Holocaust. I was obsessed with reading about these stories of survival against hatred and genocide. This was the first time I was ever exposed to people with different customs and traditions. I thought to myself, when I grow up, I will marry a Jewish man so I can partake in this different culture. I had a real interest in culture and religion. I always loved how religious people seemed to be optimistic despite the struggles they were facing.
Fast forward to when I was 16, I was temporarily living in another foster home when my original foster home burned down. I lost everything. The family I was staying with were Christians so I would go to church with them sporadically. I found myself so overwhelmed with gratitude when the entire church had prayed together for me when my life was turned upside down. After leaving this home, I didn’t go to church again for several years.
No matter how many times I had the opportunity to commit myself to Christianity, I couldn’t. Something was missing. To be honest, I’ve never read the Bible. Besides being difficult to understand, I never felt compelled to know what it said. Although I had known many wonderful Christian people, I naively believed that Christians were hypocritical: they were judgmental without practicing what you preach.
I started learning about Islam when I was in college. Someone I met gave the Qur’an to me and recommended I read it. It took me 2 years to finish reading the whole book. The style of writing, much like the Bible, was difficult to understand. Not to mention that the Qur’an is not in chronological order which totally threw me off. Of course I had to do a lot of research about what I was reading. It helps to keep in touch with a Muslim or even an Imam (religious leader), to clarify things and answer questions. I was hesitant to convert to Islam because I really questioned whether or not I could ‘be a good Muslim’. In retrospect, it sounds so silly to think that I would be rejected by Muslims for being ‘bad’ when we now have Muslims committing heinous acts of terrorism.
In the summer before my final year, I worked with several different Muslims from a variety of different places. Ramadan happened to be during that summer and I saw how they struggled with fasting and keeping up with their prayers. It was literally like a ‘no-duh’ moment for me when I realized that I didn’t have to be a perfect Muslim right away. I realized that it would take a commitment every single day. Even after 5 years, I’m still not perfect. I miss prayers, I lose my cool, catch myself in a white lie. Now I see Islam more like constantly working to improve yourself.
Later that year I took my Shahada (declaration of faith). Since becoming a Muslim, my life has changed a lot in some ways and not so much in others. I changed my life slowly over the years, first by cutting out pork because it was easiest for me at the time. I added prayers and fasting; I stopped partying, drinking, and doing recreational drugs. Finally I started wearing hijab full-time and only eating halal meat. The more changes I made, the easier it became to make more changes. In other ways, Islam was so close to my already held beliefs about equity, justice, and community that I found it easy to reconcile myself as a Muslim.
Ironically, after becoming a Muslim, I learned a lot about Christianity. I learned that hypocrites came from all walks of life including Muslims. I believe that Islam has played a huge part in me becoming more of a critical thinker, more disciplined and principled, more confidant and able to stand up for myself. Most importantly, my children will grow up with ‘soul food’ (connection to God) and a strong moral compass based on our shared Islamic values.
As a believer, when I look back on my life, I see how God has led me to Islam. There were so many times I could have easily fallen through the cracks when a small act of kindness by the people around me or even complete strangers helped me back up. I have a great sense of gratitude to those who have helped me and the struggles I have faced because now I see: it was all part of God’s plan.