Convert. What a word, right? They say a picture is worth a thousand of them. So what’s a word worth? While I may not be able to give you any concise answer to that question I can tell you this: converts are not unicorns.
Of course I’m talking about people who chose to be Muslim and make-believe, fantastical creatures. The stuff of legends. And like most legends they are composed mainly of the substance of which we lend to them. But unlike a magical beast, my substances are very much comprised of normal, mundane human material. And that’s what I’d like to address here: it’s not that converts to Islam are no better and no worse than those born to the religion, but that we are different while having the same struggles.
Sing with me if you’ve heard the jingle, “Ma sha’Allah, you guys are so much better than us. We were only born Muslim. You guys chose this!” If only I could go on Hajj for every time this phrase has hunted me down like a bail bondsman. This idiom, at first blush, sounds innocuous. Why it might even be misconstrued as a complement. But at its heart are some fundamentally disturbing issues.
One: it gives the impression that born-Muslims have no choice in their Islam. I’ve always wondered, at the back of my mind, is this person saying, “I’d be outta here if mom and dad weren’t looking”. Dude – you want me to distract the guards while you make a run for it? Dark humor aside, these Muslims have just as much choice as converts do. In fact, my Islam could be thought as nothing more than a string of commitments, strung together, hour-by-hour, day-by-day, no different than any born-Muslim. I have to keep waking up at 5am and praying, or abstain from free-sex, happy hour, etc. For once upon a time, I was sleeping in—everyday if you can believe it!—until 7am during weekdays and at least until noon on the weekends, engaging in commitment free sexual relations, and getting that much needed stress relief through alcohol consumption. <sarcasm>Clearly you born-Muslims are just running on autopilot.</sarcasm> Or do you really want me to distract the guards?
Two: because I have conviction it is assumed I no longer have to fight or struggle with my own desires. “Dude, it’s so awesome you converted. I mean, you chose to give up hot girls and stuff. Yeah … (sigh) … I was born this way”. Often conversion is conflated for conviction, meaning that it’s always a simple choice for us to be obedient to Allah and His Messenger. Not only is this a false assumption but peddling this kind of jargon actually sets many converts up to fail in that they may even come to believe their own hype. While I may have never looked back once I chose to be Muslim it may have had something to do with why I stumbled and tripped so often: I didn’t have my eyes in front of me.
Being Muslim is the single most important thing in my life. But it is more than simply reliving an event that took place, if I may nerd out for a moment, a long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far way. I became Muslim at the age of 19. While I may still be a beautiful specimen of masculinity (minus some head hair and plus a few pounds) I can tell you I have journeyed far and wide in many ways from the young man I was. And more importantly, I am not simply reliving a commitment I made those many years ago, I continue to renew and in many ways create anew my Islam through my engagement with its two primary sources: the Qur’an and the Prophet. Every. Single. Day. Some days are bigger, some smaller. Some days are epiphanies, some are just holding the line and being obedient (or just trying to be obedient). As one older gentleman told me recently,
“when I was younger, I used to love to travel and have new experiences. Now, being older, I still love to have new experiences, but I’m either unwilling or unable to travel”.
I thought about his words and then understood them: the lifeblood of my faith, my iman, is all about having new experiences, but those new experiences happen less and less now in different places; I’m having new experiences but in my regular daily life. This, I feel, is what is missing from the born-Muslim’s engagement with his or her deen.
So yes, converts are not unicorns. We are not free from worry, pain, doubt, exhaustion, fear, anxiety, depression, confusion, etc. But if done right (conversion to Islam), we can have something most precious of all: ownership over our relationship with Allah, the Creator. And while that relationship is forged, formed, grown and developed whilst simultaneously navigating a foreign, hostile environment (i.e., the Muslim community—wait … did you think I meant America?) it is all our own, deeply personal. I highly recommend it to others. So the next time you see a convert, don’t covet them, don’t condescend to them. Just know, like you, myself, and every other man, woman, and child on this Earth, “we, without a doubt, belong to Allah, and we are returning to Him”.
الَّذينَ إِذا أَصابَتهُم مُصيبَةٌ قالوا إِنّا لِلَّهِ وَإِنّا إِلَيهِ راجِعونَ
“Those who, when disaster strikes them, say, ‘We belong to Allah and to Him we are returning’.” Qur’an 2: 156