Saturday, 19 March 2011

a Convert Crisis? or something more!

As a Revert Muslimah (i.e., a Muslim previously of another faith), I often receive Emails, telephone calls, enquiries that go something like:
“I have a friend who is interested in Converting to Islam; can you meet up with her and give some advice and support?”. This is something I take great pleasure in; though a great responsibility, its an honour to be of service to some one searching, and potentially a source of comfort to them while they often find themselves rather lost in an intense, life changing, spiritual journey!
It wasn’t ever something I worried about, that is, till I became shia almost 6 years ago. Before adopting the school of the Ahlulbayt (A.S), sectarianism was no where on my agenda! I was, by my own admission, an extremely uneducated Muslim! I belonged to a group of Muslims who were of the view that if you prayed, fasted, appeared to go through the Muslim motions, that was quite sufficient! And while I didn’t start out this way, I soon adopted the label and the seen-to-be attitude! (don’t misunderstand me; I’m not suggesting that all non-shias hold this attitude; however, shia or not, an understanding of Islamic difference is surely pivotal; if nothing else, so that you can mentally justify to yourself and one day, your creator, why you chose one path or another!).

As I was saying, with new Muslims; this is a massive challenge! How do you package sectarian difference? How do you encourage and instil an open mind, while, at the same time, emphasising the importance of the Ahlulbayt (A.S) and their teachings. Late last year, a potential new female revert was placed under my care. To protect her privacy, we will call her Kathryn for the purpose of our discussion here. She is Irish Catholic in origin; living here in Glasgow; she is married, with twin boys aged 6. She has been a practising Catholic for almost all of her life; however, 3 years ago, she began working for the Jaffri Family; (the same, traditional Sayed shia family that adopted me as one of their own many years ago). This family have brought many people to the deen, probably because they have a very holistic attitude to the faith. Rather than preaching allot; they simply live Islam; and extend the love of that living to every one around them; talks about faith are usually accompanied by great food and comfortable surroundings, along with any practical support the enquirer might be seeking. Kathryn had been a part of all that; and clearly started to recognise there was something different in the characters of those she was encountering. The inevitable questions about Islam began; and when the family deemed she was on the verge of converting, they asked her to meet up with me and talk more. I had a few chats with her on the phone; and on our third chat, she accepted my offer of coming over for lunch; (that lunch I recall, began around 1 PM and finished somewhere near 8 PM!!). She had allot to say, and more to ask; every thing from hijaab; how to wear it and how others would feel about it, to doctrine and knowing which path to choose! I answered these questions as fully, and honestly as I could; I shared my own hijaab experiences, and various other revert stories of friends and contacts via RMA. When it came to doctrine, I have something of a stock answer here; encouraging all new or potential Muslims to keep an open mind, to read, study and reflect as much as possible and draw their own conclusions, while seeking guidance from Allah (SWT), and if they do these things, they will surely find the truth within themselves! I gave her some books that had helped me in the early days, and directed her to our own Revert Muslims website. That was all fine until, Strathclyde University launched its Islam Awareness week! Kathryn went along to some of the events held there, and reported on how much she was enjoying them! I didn’t think any thing of it; rather, I felt happy that she was pursuing her interests and going along to these events on her own (she had previously indicated to me that she wouldn’t be comfortable going to a mosque, unless one of us came along with her). Kathryn also asked me if I knew that Strathclyde University ran a ‘New Muslims group in their Student Masjid?
…, Oops! Now, I did know that! I’ve known of the group for some time and some of the leaders are lovely people! But; fair; I had omitted to mention it to Kathryn! The group describes its self as non-sectarian, which is a trait I’d admire if it were true; when I approached them about becoming a mentor for new Reverts; I was refused; and to my knowledge there are no shias in the group (much less any mention of them). Most of the leaders are other reverts. I know some of them personally and know that they are not in the least sectarian; however, those who fund the project are from certain mosques, belonging to a certain country, and have a very CERTAIN Agenda!! People might start out in this group, where there is coffee on tap and every thing is good; but once adopted in to the fold, they then move on to the ‘Certain mosques, and for the most part, are never seen again! Now you might understand why I hadn’t been selling it to Kathryn! But surely, explaining that to her only makes me sound like a paranoid sectarian freak! Plus, I firmly believe that we all have to learn in our own ways sometimes, especially when it comes to making our own mistakes! She asked me what I thought of the group and I was suitably vague, said that I knew some of the members, and that they were nice, etc. I continued to stress the importance of study, keeping an open mind and so on. I then prayed, and left her to it. I actually felt quite good about my decision; after all, I know that certain mosques would banish you out for even thinking about going to a shia Centre; I didn’t want to be doing the same in reverse! She had to see for herself! So, she attends these meetings religiously every Wednesday, and I don’t hear very much from her. The Jaffri family, who obviously meet her at work, tell me all is well and that they think she will convert to Islam any day now! I am shocked that things are moving so fast and discuss my concerns about the University Mosque, but no one else seems troubled by it, so I let it go!
A few weeks later, I get a card in the mail, Inviting me to one of those Mosques with an Agenda, to attend Kathryn’s shahada! I can hardly believe what I am reading and feel physically sick! I feel somehow responsible for this and blame myself; if I’d encouraged her not to go, if I’d done more for her myself etc, this may not have happened! And its not the fact that she will now not be shia, its more the fact that its ‘One of those Mosques! I straight away pay a visit to the Jaffris and ask if they have talked to her about it. They assure me that they have, at length! But she appears to have made up her mind and there is no shifting it. I apologise, but I can tell they do blame me just a little, and this only accentuates my feelings of having done wrong by Kathryn!
After some reflection, I decide not to attend her shahada; I figure I might end up doing more damage than any thing constructive, and now that she’s in to the Other Agenda, she might even resent my presence herself! Only, on the morning of her big day, she calls up to check I’ll definitely be coming! Naturally, I say nothing about my intention not to go, and start digging out the gift I had bought for her! I ask how every thing is going, how her family feel about her converting etc. To my amazement, she says she’s not told them, and that the ‘Other mosque advised it was better just to convert and worry about them later; “any way” she says, “they have no hold on me after I become Muslim; faith comes first!”. I feel panic rise within me; some of this might hold if she was on her own, but she is married, has children who need her and creating such a rebellion in the house might have horrific consequences! As far as her family are concerned, she is working today! “so, what will you do?” I ask, “when you walk in with hijab on, when they see you praying, what answer will you give?”. She is silent; “I haven’t thought about that really. They just told me it would all be OK, I should just convert and Allah will find a way!”. Well, doesn’t Allah help those who help themselves? I thought, but none of this I say; she is already stressed and I sense I’m making it worse. I shower and change, and head down to that certain mosque. I get there just as the congregation are performing Jummah salat; the place is packed, and its clear they have announced that a shahada will be happening! None of the Jaffri Women are there, so I hope she registers my presence on the women’s side! I pray quickly and quietly on my own, and as I say ‘Salaam, the imam is at the point of his speech where he is getting ready to talk about Kathryn! He calls her forward and asks her how she came to this decision. Kathryn usually has a colourful, animated quality to her speech; but today, she somehow sounds like she is paralysed by fear! Sure; nerves are natural in such a strange setting, and when standing before so many unknown personalities, but something strikes me as very wrong here! Her head is lowered; she is reading her notes, and when she gets to the point of reciting a hadaith she has memorised, her breaths seem short, as though her chest is tight and she is straining to get the words out. I start moving forward through the women, though my barging to the front is earning discontent, I feel that maybe if she registers some one she knows, she might settle a bit. The imam then goes off on some rant, I can’t remember the exact words but something like:
“ you do realise that now you are becoming a Muslim, your life must change completely! Islam is a complete way of life; no drinking, no smoking, no eating the pig! You must banish all those negatives from your life now; music, TV, unsuitable literature and mindless talk. You must only surround yourself with those who share your faith; even your marriage is now no longer valid; if he will not convert, you must separate from him and find yourself a Muslim husband! Now, get ready to say your shahada!”. I am shocked! I always imagined Certain mosques holding these views, but I never expected them to be aired at this time, in this manner! I feel totally disgusted and wish I could just get up and leave! Only, I hear Kathryn gasping and then say “stop; sorry, I’m sorry!”. She picks up her things and starts running through the women’s section! I get up, and follow her sound, tripping over women as I go and earning more mutters of discontent. “Kathryn! WAIT PLEASE!”, I shout as I rush to catch up with her outside! 2 of the Jaffri men are there, and we all head outside for fresh air! What happened! She can’t speak, and has covered her face with her hands; tears drip through her fingers, and I feel so desperate for her. I want to hug her, but I sense she wants space! The men keep talking, but I hush them! For want of something better to say, I simply offer “why don’t we forget the shahada for the moment, and grab a coffee some place?”. I regret it as soon as the words are out; but all the same, it seems to strike a chord with her. She wipes her eyes and says “I’d like that, if you don’t mind!”. We are getting ready to leave when the Imam of the mosque storms out and blocks my path, demanding to know what I was doing there! I don’t say any thing; no one says any thing! He glares at the Jaffris and I, and points a finger in my face, saying “this is all your fault, leading people a stray; don’t come here again!”. I feel embarrassed at all this happening in front of Kathryn, who only 10 minutes ago was planning to convert! “and you call yourself Muslim!”, I say as I climb in to the car and close the door!
So, we have coffee, and over the following few weeks, we start to unpick the damage done! We go back to informal dinners and chats with Kathryn; and we invite her husband to some of them. Her boys start playing with the young Jaffri boys, and the 2 families connect on a human level! Kathryn’s husband is curious about Islam, though is so far not the least bit interested in converting! He doesn’t seem to have a problem with his wife converting though, which is unusual in such cases!
Last week, Kathryn took her Shahada in front of me, at home, with the Jaffris, her husband, and her boys; her mother was also there; she is not happy, but does, to a degree, accept her daughter’s right to choose! We had dinner, gave her some gifts; and talked through what support she feels she will need over the next few weeks; learning to pray, telling friends, preparing for hijab etc. She has a long way to go, but she is on the right track and is taking her time! We are all there to support her; and I’m sure that with patience, confidence and courage, she will get there! Its not been easy however, to ditch the Other Mosque! And Kathryn hasn’t left them due to doctrine; (she is currently unwilling to embrace one sectarian label or another), but the ideologies are never the less, in stark opposition! While Kathryn recognises that such a regime would not fit in with her lifestyle and family, she also knows she is missing out socially! Some of what that Imam said was true! Change does have to happen; social change is a massive part of that! Were she a part of them, she’d have sisters on her doorstep day and night! She’d be at the mosque daily; she’d be bombarded with literature, and be so busy that she’d never have time to dwell on the life that had gone before! She might not be learning much of the faith, but she’d be happy, busy, surrounded, and supported in a way that we cannot support her. Too much of this ‘New Convert Hysteria is not healthy in my view, but neither is existing as an Island! I used to think the lack of resources in the shia community here stemmed from the fact that we were a small community, divided along language/cultural grounds. I know that, had I not been an Urdu speaker, I would not benefit from the position in the community that I have today! Kathryn comes to our weekly circles, she visits the Jaffris, and she meets me at home too, but the fellowship of other new reverts, the ability to ask questions and connect with others in her position is something she doesn’t have here, (and which she would have if she were in the other community!), and these problems are not just Scotland-Centred, visit any shia community around the world, and you’ll hear similar discomforts being raised! Reverts, who have been Muslim for over 20 years, yet still do not feel they belong, and may still not have married either because the community doesn’t yet accept interracial marriages, (something which is for the most part, common place among most suni groups!). We justify these things, by talking about shia suppression, about smaller, newer communities, and about all these things taking time! But they all somehow feel like pathetic excuses! We discussed this self-same topic at the RMA Conference in 2008, and look set to discuss it again this year, knowing that little has moved on! Last night, our centre held a debate on the topic of integration, and while all of the above and more came up, few solutions were reached! Every one concluded that integration was easy; and if there are problems, well, …, they’ll take time to iron out won’t they!
My worry is, if we continue on this train of thought, won’t we lose so many more people like Kathryn? Over the years, I’ve seen many potential/new Muslims, visit our centre, and leave, either because they don’t understand, or because no one extends a hand of friendship to them! And back in our own worlds, we continue to divide over marjah, ideology and philosophical abstracts, trying to drag converts in along with us, most of whom rarely get it!
This post wasn’t meant to be a rant, though I’m aware it does look like one. I just think new Muslims are often the mirror before which we can measure our state; sure, when you look at the behaviour of ‘Others, highlighted in this account, you see we have allot to applaud ourselves for! But its what comes next that worries me; that pivotal linkage will potentially be the stuff that holds our reverts, our children, our new generations on the path; and if we continue as we are, I really fear we’ll have a crisis of faith on our hands, where Shias too will be reduced to nothing more than a group of seen-to-be Muslims, who once followed Imam Ali (A.S), but now follow ….,? something?

2 comments:

  1. I can relate to several aspects of this post.
    I live in an area with very few Muslims, let alone Shia. Yet, I feel obligation to my family's wishes and needs to be here, and am tied by work and finances as well. Now at my age, marriage prospects are basically non-existent, unless I had no ties at all or would abandon everything for a stranger, as no contacts are here to be made except for perhaps an occasional mutah offer. So, I have to be comfortable enough in my own skin to go it alone, but it is much harder to do so when one is new to Islam; in the beginning there is a lot of learning to take place, and a lot of drama dealing with family, etc., that is hard if not impossible to manage successfully without some kind of resource.

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  2. I totally agree with you! It’s a very tough life! And I’m not saying that for the sake of sympathy, but rather because I still feel that people don’t get how hard it is and instead, condemn some new Muslims for not being able to walk the walk fully in the early days! I feel tied to this place as well, but now, after marriage, I may have to move, which is creating its own drama! I didn’t handle the early issues with my family well either after converting, and we recovered from some of those, and not from others! I think sometimes, life becomes so compartmentalised that even seeking out one’s individual sense of self becomes a massive challenge! May Allah (SWT) grant us the strength to tackle these sensitive subjects, and the wisdom to find a path through them for ourselves and others!

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