Thirty three years ago my mother took a leap of faith, both literally and figuratively, when she decided to convert to Islam. She was raised in a Black Baptist family and though they weren’t particularly practicing they held the church to a very high standard. Anyone who understands Black folks knows that for most the church is a vital part of family life. Since our roots were in the south, Mississippi to be exact, this fact held especially true.
Like most Black families, my grandparents were familiar with Islam due to Elijah Muhammad and the doctrine that the Nation of Islam propagated during the 1960’s. In most Black communities Islam has never been viewed as something dangerous or foreign. Even today, if you go to any hood in America there is a reverence for Islam since nearly everyone has an uncle, auntie or cousin that is or was Muslim at some point. With that being said my mother did not accept Islam through the teachings of the Nation but instead she was part of a wave of young women who converted to mainstream Sunni Islam in the 1980’s.
I try to find life lessons in all the curve balls life throws at people and apply them to my own. These are some of the gems I have learned from my momma.
10. That man made you do what?!: When people discovered my mom was raised with a Christian upbringing, they automatically assumed she converted to Islam due to a man. My mother always made it clear to folks that she converted to Islam out of free will well BEFORE she met my father. As a young girl, she taught me to make major decisions for myself and never to blindly follow a man into anything.
9. Spot the spiritual exploiters…then stay far away: For some, converting to a new faith is like learning a new language. Mentors and spiritual guides are crucially important not only for converts but those who are born into the faith as well. Even within the confines of Islam there are those that seek to exploit others to their own benefit. As a woman, it is important to pay attention to the teachers and scholars you align yourself with. There are many people who specifically prey on young women who are just venturing into a new faith. Thankfully, my mother never had that experience but she was well aware.
8. No VIP section: Islam is not exclusive to a certain group of people with similar thoughts, but naturally you may find those people clustered in the same community. This is not the VIP section of a club. Islam is practiced by thousands upon thousands of people throughout the world who follow varied opinions and thoughts. From Salafis in the deserts of Saudi Arabia to Sufis on the coasts of Senegal there is a place for everyone within the religion. If you don’t like an opinion or practice find a different community. It is that simple. For real. I’ve been part of different communities and have met Muslims who follow a variety of opinions and approaches. Life is truly more gray than it is black or white. The basic tenants are the same across the board but there are a multitude of opinions and rationales for other things. If Islam was truly monolithic it would not be practiced by so many different people throughout the world.
7. “Do it for the culture”…or not: I was raised in a predominantly Arab community. At one point it was very difficult for me to differentiate between Islam and Arab culture that had intermingled with what I was being taught. Every culture has this to an extent and it is important to spot it when you see it. Prior to Islam, my mother was a singer and after converting she was told that she had to stop. Depending on the community you are in Islam is usually practiced based on the given culture. This doesn’t make it right or wrong. Culture can be a beautiful thing. This just simply means you have to pay attention and be able to tell when someone is throwing their culture into a religious practice.
6. Keepin’ kinship kind: Maintaining ties with non-muslim family is just as important as practicing your chosen faith. Just because you converted does not mean you have to severe ties with family members who are non-Muslim. Anyone who encourages you to do this has to be given the side eye. Any faith that draws you away from your family is not one that will bring you closer to God. There is a respect given, in particular, to parents even if they aren’t Muslim. Even though I never took part in Christmas or Easter festivities, my mother made it a point to visit my grandmother on these holidays simply because it was important to her.
5. Be nice: Growing up our doors were always open to people. My mother has always loved to host. She always extended a hand to single women, especially if they were new converts. Looking back I think she saw herself in them. Be nice but don’t sacrifice yourself or your well being for others.
4. People ain’t perfect: Allow folks to spiritually grow at their own pace. My mother has always remained compassionate towards people who are struggling with Islam. She has always had an open door policy with my siblings and I. I’ve had a place to vocalize my frustrations without the fear of being judged or labeled. My mothers compassion has led me to be understanding of others peoples struggles. A magnifying glass should not be held to lives that other people are living. Everyone in life is presented a different set of challenges. We’re all just trying to move through this mess and make the best out of it.
3. Stay true to you: The biggest mistake you can do is not being true to yourself. When my mother converted to Islam she was all in and ended up sacrificing some of her identities. She was told that she had to choose and Islam preceded everything else. Once she independently studied and learned more she was able to merge all of her identities. She is Black, a woman, singer and artist. Being Muslim does not mean giving up who you are. With some people, there is one identity that triumphs the other but at the end of the day you should never feel pressured to choose.
2. Seek it: Don’t rely on others for information regarding your Islam. Learn for yourself then secondly for your children. My mother always emphasized the importance of being a knowledgeable woman. People, even in the sincerest of intentions, may give you the wrong information. Growing up in a house full of sisters my mother ensured we all went to Islamic schools in order to promote a deep understanding of Islam.
1. Girl, let it go!: There are some things in your life you can change and there are other things you just can not. At some point you have to learn how to give in and just let go. I struggle with this on a daily. My mother always said maturity and experience brings this attitude to surface. Everyone takes a different path towards God and the older I get I am finding this to be true.