Written by Stephanie Siam
For most converts, the day they become Muslim is like a new birthday. It’s a date that sits foremost in their minds, rolls off their tongues like the alphabet from a kindergartner’s. They may forget their anniversary, ATM PINs or even their private safe combinations, but the date of their conversion is ever-present.
Not me. I don’t remember the most important date in my spiritual history. I know the month (March), and I’m pretty certain of the year (through deduction and certainty of other things going on around that time that I do remember) — 2005. But I have no idea what day I became a Muslim.
I do, however, know where I was, what I was doing, and who I was with. The answers, respectively: Mobile, Alabama; walking around my neighborhood; a former friend. But, honestly, not much of that matters. At least not to me.
When I’m quizzed on the details of my conversion, the first assumption people usually make is:
Oh, you’re a convert? You became Muslim for your husband, didn’t you?
Actually, no. I did not. My husband and I were still a year and a half away from meeting each other when I converted.
See, what matters most to me about coming to Islam is not when it happened or why I made my decision. The real story is in how I got there in the first place.
I’m Just a Young Adult Statistic, baby
When I graduated from college in 2003 with a Bachelor of Science in Theatre Arts, I looked around and realized I had no plan for the future. A degree in theatre doesn’t exactly set you up to roll in the millions; and unless you have a secondary major in something like education, teaching isn’t an option either. Over that final summer, I stayed at the college to work with the summer theatre program in the publicity and management department.
By the time fall rolled around, I was convinced I wasn’t exactly ready for real life, and I was determined to re-enroll to earn a secondary degree in English (which, let me just tell you, ALSO doesn’t set you up to roll in the millions OR be a teacher). My sights were set on writing, and I knew a solid degree like HUMANITIES would take me far (read: sarcasm).
Of course, coming out of college with enough debt to last me a lifetime, literally, for my first choice of studies left me with no real financial option to pursue my second attempt. So, I switched plans.
The Wander Year
I was born in Mobile, Alabama, and though my family has lived in Tennessee for more than two decades, when I think of home…….okay, now I sound like an Alabama’s Greatest Hits country song. Anyway, my grandfather still lived where we left him when we moved away those many years before (see: in his house).
I knew he had more than enough space for me to move in, and I sure as heck wasn’t moving back in with my parents (what self-righteous, indignant, barely-post-teenage young adult would???)……so, I called him up and asked if we could be roommates for an unspecified length of time. He was thrilled and told me to come on down.
During the two months I’d sat in classes waiting to see if I could get more funding for a second Bachelor’s degree, I’d thought about simply applying for graduate school. I was a very good student, and it wasn’t that I didn’t think I could get into a program; I had really just hit a lackadaisical time in my life where I wasn’t very determined or goal-oriented.
However, after moving to Mobile and trying to make it in the adult world by getting a job at a catering business (that I hated and promptly quit) and working for several months as the executive assistant to the Chief Operating Officer (to be read in a brusque, rude tone of superiority, as it was often delivered at me), I ultimately settled at a top down town hotel as a front desk representative.
Over the next year, I made friends with co-workers and started to find a path for my life. I volunteered time at my grandfather’s church as the director of the Christmas cantata — even though I didn’t attend the church, and I felt strangely out of place when I was there. Still, I did have a theatre degree, and I was anxious to put it to good use.
I also applied to the English graduate studies program at University of South Alabama (USA) and secured a spot in their fall 2004 cohort. I had a plan.
You’re Not the Stereotypical Personification of Terror Fox News Told Me About
As part of my funding for graduate school, I was employed as a writing tutor at USA’s writing center. It was there where I met the person who would be my official introduction to the beauty and warmth of Islam. I had already abandoned church for the most part, and I’d been disgruntled with most of what I knew about organized religion.
I’d come to the conclusion that religion wasn’t for me (much to my father’s chagrin), and I was going to walk a spiritual path with God to wherever He lead me.
The secretary for the writing center called the tutors’ office and told me my appointment had arrived. I quickly put away whatever I’d been working on and headed over to the waiting room to greet her.
A well-dressed woman who had clearly not just graduated from high school sat patiently waiting against the wall near the door. I smiled when I saw her and said, “Rasala*?”
Her eyes lit up, and she grinned widely, “Hi, how are you?” I couldn’t identify her accent. It was thick and melodious, bright with a mezzo-soprano timbre.
Our discussion about her writing was short. After we’d finished, I asked her where she was from. She was Iraqi.
I was stunned. Weren’t Iraqi women not allowed to have educations? Didn’t they have to stay home? Why wasn’t she dressed like the women I’d seen on television? I had to know more.
You Remind Me of My Father
It wasn’t long before I was making regular visits to Rasala’s home to spend time with her beautiful family. Not only was she a student at university, she was also the doting mother of two amazing little girls and employed full-time as well. My respect for her knew no boundaries.
I remember the first time I went to her house, I was intimidated by her husband. Not because of him, but because of what I expected him to be like. Muslim Arab men are domineering and demanding. They’re used to commanding the house and bellowing out their orders…..right?
As we sat at dinner that first evening, eating authentically Iraqi and American foods, Rasala’s husband asked me about my family and where I was from. And then, he smiled. And it happened.
His eyes twinkled in the way I’d seen millions of times before.
I was looking at the Arab version of my father. Immediately, I relaxed and settled into the evening, and I even stayed long after the girls had gone to bed and Rasala had left for work. He told me about his past and how he came to America from Baghdad.
From there on out, Rasala’s family was my family. She introduced me to the Arab community, and she brought me to the mosque for the first time — on Eid al Fitr 2004. She held my hand when I cried for a multitude of reasons over that next year. She cried with me. She hugged me in joy when I finally found happiness. She and her husband counselled me and advised me on some of the most important decisions of my life.
But they never pushed me. They never, ever even suggested to me that I should become Muslim.
So, even though I wasn’t with Rasala and her family when I took my shahada — although I should have been — it is she and her family to whom I give credit for bringing me to the peace of Islam. At the time, I wasn’t aware of the magnitude of hasanat a person receives for witnessing a shahada. If I had known, there was no way I wouldn’t have had Rasala and her husband with me.
To this day, although we live countries apart, in my heart I have a special love for this mighty woman and her family. I pray to Allah for their Heavenly reward of Jannah al Firdaws (the highest gardens of Paradise). And what I take away from them is their honest and honorable manner of performing dawah with me.
May Allah bless their home, their health, and provide them with the greatest of rewards in this life and the next, ameen.
My Private Affirmation
So, you see, although I can’t exactly remember the day of the most significant event in my life’s history, I do know how I got there. I didn’t wake up one day and decide, “Today, I’m going to become Muslim.”
On the contrary, one morning I opened my eyes and realized
I am Muslim.
And as a confirmation to myself that I’d made the right choice — something all converts revisit — is a day I do remember.
November 3, 2005. My first Eid-ul-Fitr as a Muslim.
It also happened to be my birthday.
*Name changed for privacy
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