Journey Into Islam – A Converts Tale Part I

The Ka'abah - Photographed by Marc Manley 2008

 One of the questions that is most often asked of me, both by Muslims and non-Muslims alike, is how did I come to Islam. Often this query is framed around a supposed single instance, a distinct and defining event that overwhelmed my being and thus causing me to embrace Islam, as I have often heard it described by others. I have heard this very same rhetoric espoused by so-called Muslim converts (such as myself) who often characterize their own accounts of coming to Islam in the very same singular fashion. I am always stuck by the simplicity by which these voices engage such a diverse and often elusive subject, to speak nothing of how converts (or reverts, as some prefer) short change themselves in their abridged assessments of their own journey to Islam.

During a speaking event, in which I was asked to give an autobiographic account of my own experience as an American Muslim, one questioner in the audience asked, “what was it about Islam that made you want to become a Muslim?” Apparently I had delivered such an intriguing talk, that upon being asked this bold question, the crowd fell into a hush, awaiting a thunderclap. I believe I duly disappointed them when I replied, “perhaps the more important question is not why I became Muslim, but why I choose to remain Muslim.” The disappointment and confusion that befell their faces was apparent. I attempted to recover by telling them that it was everything; everything in the nineteen years proceeding my choice to become a Muslim had an effect, be it profound or not. It was a mixture of my parenting, my childhood experiences, encounters with people—good and bad—and of course, those innate aspects of my personality that the Muslim tradition calls “fitra”. While I had answered his question, I left that day with the feeling that most of the attendees were not satisfied with the answer I had given them. It is mainly my belief because the experience is much more epic than it is dynamic, evolutionary versus epiphany. It is still my hunch that for those converts/reverts who assert that they did have any epiphany, there’s still quite a bit of back story that’s not being told. And in cutting out all of that back story, they do a disservice to the story that is unfolding before them at this very moment.

Detroit race riots of 1967 I was born in was Detroit, Michigan, in 1973, seven years after the 1967 Race Riots. Though in reality the decline of Detroit proceeded the race riots by as much as ten years, my family, a working-class family of five, was thoroughly effectd by the repercussions of a city poisoned by the disease of racism (we were forced to abandon our home). In fact, I have often contemplated the Qur’ānic verse, by which God compensated me through the trial of living in desolate Detroit:

ونريد أن نمن على الذين استضعفوا في الأرض ونجعلهم أئمة ونجعلهم الورثين

“We desired to show kindness to those who were oppressed in the land and to make them leaders and make them inheritors.” [Qur’ān 28: 5]

In time, the ravages of drugs and crime had certainly come to oppress my family. The neighborhood had become so unsafe that our father would sit on the porch with a loaded gun so we could play in the yard. Ultimately, after having our house shot at and fire bombed, we were forced to abandon ship and move to the suburbs.  The economic impact on our family was devastating.  Our time in Detroit would play such a defining role that its specter still haunts some of my family members to this day.

Despite the urban hostilities, there remained one single hindrance that would go on to define my family and my youth: race. Race more than anything else dogged my family’s footsteps—maternal and paternal sides alike. This dilemma was due to the remnants of Jim Crow America and the psychological deficiency that many of my family members struggled with. My family had most certainly imbibed the value system of white supremacy and its byproduct of self-loathing. In one conversation with another Blackamerican friend of mine, he asked if my family had tried to “pass”. I pondered this question at length. “No”, I replied. “Our experience was more akin that that of Anne Frank: we hid in the attic of white suburban America and prayed no one would discover we were black.” So powerful was the ghost of Jim Crowism that my family didn’t even attempt to pass; white values and aesthetics were admired, but from afar. So deep had the inferiority complex of white supremacy penetrated the psyche of my family that to go all the way and “pass” was still viewed as off limits. Instead, my family shrank into a more insidious despair by attempting to deny any trace of blackness entirely. The consequences of this were devastating, both internally and externally for family dynamics, for we had now ostracized ourselves from the rest of the extended family. The rest of my childhood and early adult years would bear witness to the humiliating and heartbreaking effects that self-loathing had on my family members and myself, as it corrupted us from the inside.

You are reading Part I of this post. Stay tuned for the second installment. The banner image above was photographed by yours truly at the Haram in Makkah, Saudi Arabia, in 2008, while on ‘Umrah with the Medinah Institute.

6 Replies to “Journey Into Islam – A Converts Tale Part I”

  1. Titus,
    I would hope that it is a combination of introspection that is tempered by faith-based understanding. In the verse that I quoted above, I have felt that, for a kid who came from nothing and raised in a climate of shame, it could be nothing other than Divine Intervention to explain the talents that I have been imbued with.

  2. Marc
    A truly insightful beginning. While I continue to attempt to understand the total impact of race upon my life, as I simultaneously exhist within a world that denies my truism’s, I continue to be impressed with the process of analyzing you have done. Perhaps it is this process that has led you to your faith, or is it your faith that has allowed you to analyze these realism’s and remain sane.

  3. Marc,
    I like the manner in which you framed the rhetorical question about choosing to remain Muslim, very thoughtful indeed. In tassawuf it is often expressed as the path that chooses you rather than you choosing the path and this :intuitive mystery remains ineffable.

  4. Wa ‘alaykum salaam, Husayn.

    It is something of a mystery. Though I have not yet articulated it outright in the article, one of the main points I hope to drive home in writing this is to demonstrate Islam as a healing force; as a holistic one. That is why I quoted the verse from suwrah al-Qasas, by which God speaks of compensating those who have suffered. There is very little talk of the redemtive aspects of Islam when Muslims, and I think especially so with converts, describe their experiences with it. For me, Islam was a system by which, through God’s mercy, I was able to overcome the insanity of racism, in both its internal and external forms. Through Islam, I have been able to become a complete person, and addressed the deep-seated issues of shame associated with race-history in America.

  5. as-Salaamu ‘alaykum brother AbdulAlim.

    May Allah give you tawfiq [success] in wrestling with these important matters and draw you closer. Amin.

    As I am sure you know, Islam is about making choices. Not only a single choice to enter into Islam, but also daily choices to keep perpetuating that decision. It can be arduous at times. That is one of the reasons I have written so much about my experience as a Muslim-by-choice. Not really for the da’wah point of view but rather as a means by which I can draw strength from as well as reflection on where I have been, where I am at, and God willing, where I am going. Know that Islam is a God-centered religion and that above and beyond what anyone may say about your “Christian name”, know that your endeavors are to please Allah. Further more, being that Islam came to “confirm that which came before it”, there is no shame in having a Christian name in that you are merely acting on that Qur’anic notion that the Message that ‘Isa [Jesus] brought with him was a precursor to the Final Revelation that Muhammad [s] brought with him.

    “And when Jesus the son of Mary said: ‘O’ Tribe of Israel! I am a Messenger of God sent to you, confirming what came before me from the Torah and heralding a Messenger yet to come after me, his name being Ahmad’ “. [aṣ-Ṣaff: 61: 6]

  6. Assalamualaikum

    “perhaps the more important question is not why I became Muslim, but why I choose to remain Muslim.”

    Couldn’t have said it better myself. Lately I’ve been struggling about that very statement, to remain Muslim, to maintain prayer, to fast Ramadan, etc.

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