She used to be a Southern Baptist, a radical feminist and a broadcast journalist. Now Aminah Assilmi is an ambassador of Islam. The director of the International Union of Muslim Women, Assilmi calls Oden, Arkansas, home. She travels the country speaking on college campuses, increasing public awareness and understanding of the faith.
Assilmi has not always been a Muslim and a proponent of Islam. Meeting her first “real life Muslims” when she took a college theatre class some years ago, Assilmi said she almost dropped the class when she walked into the room and saw some Arab students in traditional hijab. In the handbook she authored, “Choosing Islam,” Assilmi writes, “There was no way I was going to sit in a room with dirty heathens. ... I shut the door and went home.”
After her husband encouraged her to go back to the theatre class, Assilmi said she felt it was her duty to “convert the poor, ignorant Muslims.” Hoping to convert the students to Christianity, Assilmi began to study the Qur’an, the holy book of Islam, in a quest to prove that Mohammed was a false prophet and that Islam was not a valid religion. However, the more she read, the more she became interested in Islam. She was particularly interested in what the Qur’an had to say about men and women.
For two years she studied in order to convert Muslims to Christianity. But during that time Assilmi started to change. Her husband began to notice that she no longer had an interest in going to bars or parties. She was content to stay home and study the Qur’an. Her husband attributed the changes in her to another man and the couple separated.
For Assilmi, taking Shahadah (declaration of faith, believing in one God) in 1977 was the first step toward a deeper understanding of Islam. Nevertheless, she still had a few hang-ups—like hijab. Hijab is the modest dress worn by both Muslim men and women; however, its most recognizable feature is the headscarf worn by women.
An award-winning broadcaster in the Denver market, Assilmi lost her job when she began wearing Islamic dress. For Assilmi, her job as a broadcaster was not the only thing she lost when she first chose Islam. Her marriage over, she also lost custody of her children because the court decided that the “unorthodox religion” would be detrimental to them. But since then, Assilmi says her children have converted to Islam and so have her parents and her ex-husband.
Now at “well over half a century” and having survived bone cancer, Assilmi has made two pilgrimages to Mecca, a holy trip that Muslims are instructed to take in their lifetime. She make her residence in Arkansas.