Written by Kaighla Um Dayo
It was early August, 2009.
I was homeless with my young son, living in a motel. But rather than focusing on finding jobs, I spent all my days and many of my nights alone with my son in my motel room, watching video after video on YouTube of people who had chosen to embrace Islam, many against violent odds.
I had already read ‘The Idiots Guide to Understanding Islam’ written by a convert to Islam called Yahiya Emerick and found myself surprised that many of my own deepest beliefs were held to be true in Islam, as well.
Finally, after weeks of this, I decided to call the local mosque because I wanted to speak with someone in person who had embraced Islam. Unfortunately, in many of the mosques in America, even today, there is no one on staff to answer the phone, and if there is, they don’t often speak fluent English.
So, when I called and asked if I could speak with someone who was a convert to Islam, the message was mixed up and though they took my number, I was sure no one would call me back, ever.
So imagine my surprise when I received a phone call later that same evening from a woman who said she was a Puerto Rican/Italian convert to Islam and would love to answer any questions I had. We arranged to meet at her home the following day. I made an excuse to use my friend’s car, and my son and I went to her house.
She was so kind and so welcoming and seemed like a normal American to me. She wore hijab and was very modest, but she wasn’t wearing a burka or a face-covering like I imagined she would be. I sat down and told her what had gotten me into my most recent predicament, and how I saw Islam as coming into my life at precisely the point I needed it to.
She asked about my work experience and when I told her I was an experienced, albeit uncertified, ESL teacher, she jumped at the chance and called her old workplace, a small Islamic school near Chicago. She knew they needed an English teacher right then, and arranged an interview for the next day.
I left my son in the care of one of the women she had known for years, a day-care provider, and went to the interview, wearing borrowed clothes and a hijab, just out of respect. As long as I live, I will never forget the way the Principal of that school made me feel: like a dignified, respected, respectful woman who deserved kindness and straight talk.
He told me that he believed I was qualified for the job, and was hiring me based on that assessment alone. He told me that he understood I was interested in Islam, and pointed out the library we were sitting in, which was full of books in three languages, all of them about Islam in one way or another. He told me that he had no interest in hiring me in order to ‘convert me’, and that my job was absolutely not conditional on my acceptance of Islam.
But it was our parting words that stuck with me, and still warms my heart to this day: He told me that since it was a boarding school, there were rooms for students to stay in, dorm-style rooms, and that my baby and I were welcome to come stay in a room there, because it was wrong that I was depending on an ex-boyfriend who treated me with such disrespect.
And he told me that even if I hated the job or they decided I wasn’t the right fit, my baby and I could always stay there. He said, “I am a Muslim and God will ask me how I dealt with you, a single mother with a small baby and no family to help you and nowhere safe to live. If I tossed you out, I would not have an excuse in front of God. This is your home and you are welcome to stay here as long as you need or want to, regardless if you keep this job or not.”
I was floored.
We agreed I would begin working in a week or so, and move that weekend. I went home and told my friend I had found a great job and a place to stay, and I hoped he would not delve deeper, because he was still a staunch Christian and knew nothing about my recent interest in Islam.
Unfortunately, he did delve deeper and when he got the truth out of me, he lost his mind in anger. I had never seen him like that, screaming and cursing at me, calling me names and telling me I was an idiot and threatening to hurt me if I didn’t pay him back for all the money he spent on me and my son in those weeks.
I was scared and called my new friend, the Puerto Rican sister, and she and her husband cut their dinner short to come an hour out of their way to get me and drive me to their home, where they insisted that my son and I sleep in their bed while they slept on an air mattress in the guest room. She awoke early the next morning and drove me to the school, where I finally, for the first times in months, breathed a sigh of relief that now, me and my son were safe.
In just a few days, the holiest month of the year for Muslims began: Ramadan. The students who were my age and were studying Islam in depth (so not my middle school students) moved into the dorms and I found myself surrounded by women who understand their place in their faith and their communities, which were rich and varied.
They awoke long before sunrise to eat and drink in preparation for the long day of fasting ahead of them, while I and the dorm-mom sat together watching videos about Islam, as she was a recent convert.
I read whatever books I found in the library, and eventually decided to read the English meanings of the Qur’an. I came to the middle of the chapter called Al Maidah (The Table Laid With Food, referring to the Last Supper of Jesus and his disciples). In that chapter, God says about Jesus:
“And [beware the Day] when Allah will say, “O Jesus, Son of Mary, did you say to the people, ‘Take me and my mother as deities besides Allah ?'” He will say, “Exalted are You! It was not for me to say that to which I have no right. If I had said it, You would have known it. You know what is within myself, and I do not know what is within Yourself. Indeed, it is You who is Knower of the unseen. I said to them nothing except what You commanded me, that is: ‘Serve Allah, my Lord and your Lord.’ I watched over them as long as I remained among them; and when You did recall me, then You Yourself became the Watcher over them. Indeed, You are Witness over everything.” (Al Maidah, Verses 116-117)
And that was the day I knew, for sure, that Islam was the truth.
I told my close friends there, and ultimately said the shahadah— or the declaration of faith which states “I testify that there is no one and nothing worthy of worship but God, and I testify that Muhammad is the final prophet and messenger sent by Allah”.
I became Muslim on August 28th, 2009, on the 7th of Ramadan in the Hijri Year 1430.
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