by Hana Baba producer of KALW’s Crosscurrents
About 20% of American Muslims are converts — people who didn’t grow up with the religion and often don’t have any cultural ties.
In some faiths, there’s a clear path for prospective converts. Catholicism, for example, has an official course of rites, rituals, and classes for those entering the Church. Islam doesn’t have a formal conversion process like that. To become a Muslim, you declare your new belief with conviction in front of a Muslim witness, and that’s it.
For this reason, many converts say they need help and support — but it can be surprisingly hard to find. One place it can be found is the Muslim Community Association in Santa Clara, which has been offering post-conversion support classes for the last seven years.
Twenty-six-year-old Nathalia Costa is in the women’s prayer hall at the mosque. She’s here for the midday Saturday prayer. Wearing a baby blue headscarf, she stands in a straight line with her hands folded above her heart, moving in unison with about 20 other women. They kneel, then prostrate, then sit, and stand back up again, all in silence. Through the corner of her eye, head bowed, Costa follows the women closely.
Costa is new to this. She’s a Brazilian American who became Muslim in December 2016. She used to be Catholic, and says her conversion to Islam came after a long search. She tried different churches throughout her life — from Catholic, Presbyterian and Baptist, to Seventh-Day Adventist Christian congregations.
“And I remember asking my mother,” she says, “‘How do I know what is the truth if every church is saying something different?’ [My mother] said, ‘You don’t know, but whatever you feel in your heart to be right is the truth.’”
Costa started studying other religions like Islam and Buddhism and moved to Istanbul, Turkey, where she taught English for a year. While there, she was further immersed in Islamic culture.
“I learned more and more about it, and I found the truth in Islam. I found that there’s a lot of consistency in it,” she says.
Now, Costa is learning these new rituals little by little.
She laughs, “I get jealous of people born into the religion.” She says she still doesn’t know how to pray correctly, still needs to learn all the suras, the chapters of the Quran that Muslims memorize to recite in prayers.
When the prayer’s done, the other women notice her: an unfamiliar face. She tells them she’s a new Muslim, and they crowd around her — all smiles, hugging and kissing, congratulating her. Especially excited is a Moroccan grandma named Sister Fateeha Abu Mahmoud Kratas. She hugs Costa and says, “You will be our daughter! You are very, very, very welcome!”
After Costa emerges red-faced from the big dose of warm and fuzzy welcome, she walks to another mosque building for her convert support class. It’s called “Study Islam.” She says she’s slowly learning about the religion, but there’s a lot she still doesn’t know. It feels good to be around fellow converts, learning more information and being able to openly ask questions.
In class, instructor Tarek Mourad teaches the new converts about Islam’s main tenets and rituals. Today’s class is about sinning and forgiveness.
The students are attentive as he instructs: “The whole concept of original sin — it doesn’t exist. Because Adam and Eve were forgiven before they left the garden of Eden, so they did not carry down with them an original sin to atone for. It’s not a state of being. A sin is an act that you do.”
The class also tackles topics specific to converts. Nathalia Costa asks if it’s okay for her to participate in holidays like Christmas, to be part of her family.
Mourad answers, “You are part of the family. You should be there. You’re not going to worship that way, you’re not going to eat the ham, you’re not going to drink wine.”
Costa laughs, visibly relieved.
Mixing up culture and religion
These topics don’t normally come up in your average Friday prayer sermon, where the target audience is, for the most part, Muslims born and raised with the religion. For them, strong cultural backgrounds influence how they practice. It’s another hurdle that converts have to navigate.
Instructor Tarek Mourad says one of the biggest problems people have is mixing up culture and religion. In his class, students sometimes come confused about things they hear are Islamic, but are actually part of a certain culture: mostly Arab, South Asian, Afghani or Iranian.
Examples he gives are the Saudi Arabian practices of totally segregating women from men, or not allowing women to drive. Saudi Arabia is the birthplace of Islam, and houses its two holiest sites.
But, Mourad says, “the problem with a place like Saudi Arabia, because of the influence it has, the money it has and the oil it has, people tend to think that this is Islam. [But] Saudi Arabia represents a very small portion of Islam.”
American converts complain of feeling shut out of the mosque environment because it can be so steeped in cultures they don’t belong to. They vent in blogs and podcasts like islamwich. The American women bloggers discuss convert life, including calling out Muslims who want to impose their cultures, like in this excerpt:
And please: Stop asking converts if they know how to cook some dish from your country or dessert your mother made back home. This doesn’t make anyone more or less Muslim. This is your culture! Stop telling newly converted Muslims that they must wear the thobe, abaya, or a shalwar khameez, because “this is how Muslims dress.” This is your culture!
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