Understanding Conversion: Bridging the Two Selves
“Although conversion is a phenomenon that is completely unique to everyone, nevertheless, those who are serious about it will all undoubtedly undergo self-examination of some kind in order to embrace a new way of life and belief system.” Three years on American, Abdul-Lateef Abdullah, reflects on conversion to Islam.
Sometimes I think about how much my life has changed over the past years. When I try to reflect back on my days before Islam, I often find it difficult to recapture what life was like. Sure I can remember events, people, places, different experiences, but to go back and really feel what it was like, I have to reflect deeply. When I am able to re-connect with my “former self” I find it a remarkable experience. Although I am still very much the same person as I was three years ago, how I experience the world and how I view it and life has completely changed. Life is the same, yet different.
We all view the world through a lens, whether we realize it or not. Our basic beliefs and values, whether derived from religion or some other source - known or unknown - allows us to judge the world, other people and ourselves. It is how we understand right from wrong and impacts the intricate nuances of our daily lives.
As our world continues to move in strange and unpredictable ways, Muslims everywhere, particularly those living in the West, are finding themselves compelled to discuss Islam with non-Muslims of all backgrounds and beliefs. Many have existing biases against Islam while others come with an open mind. Either way, we Muslims must be capable and confident in not only being able to discuss basic Islamic beliefs, but in conveying our own experiences and feelings about the religion. Particularly for those of us who have converted to the faith, such occasions to discuss Islam with non-Muslims can be great opportunities to converse in a way that is personal and unique. To be able to do this, however, requires knowledge of one’s self, and the knowledge of what one has undergone to arrive at their place within the religion of Islam. The power of personal stories and experiences is great, particularly those in which an audience can relate to and actually see themselves taking part. You can draw them in and help them to question their own beliefs - an important step in opening up people’s hearts and minds. Personal stories also help people empathize with what you have undergone, and such a level of understanding can be a powerful agent of change.
Understanding ourselves can be a great source of wisdom. Knowing who we are, our weaknesses, our faults, our strengths and our “danger zones,” is essential if we are to progress in our quest and ongoing effort of self-perfection in the mold of the Prophet of Islam (SAW). My process of converting from Christianity to Islam took intensive one-on-one study with a knowledgeable teacher and an additional wealth of independent study. The entire “process” occurred over one and a half years, which, compared to some converts may be long, yet to others maybe not so long. Nevertheless, throughout this period, every day, every moment in fact I was consumed with self-reflection. “Who was I” and “who did I want to be” were two of the most nagging questions I had to answer; while probably the most prominent was, “what did I believe?”
Ultimately, the process of conversion for me began with this question of “what did I believe.” I was Christian, yet I did not really know what I believed about my own religion, the religion I was born into and practiced - in varying degrees - for 27 years. What I learned about myself through reflection, however, was that I did know what I believed, which was that I really didn’t believe! Further questions I had were “What did I believe about God?”, “What did I believe about life?”, “How about death?”, “What did I believe about my society and culture?” All these questions seemed SO big and so difficult to answer. But eventually I did answer them for myself, and - Alhamdulillah (all praise be to God) - the answers all pointed in the direction of Islam.
Although conversion is a phenomenon that is completely unique to everyone, nevertheless, those who are serious about it will all undoubtedly undergo self-examination of some kind in order to embrace a new way of life and belief system. In fact, we MUST do this. Whether we realize it or not, “conversion” occurs on many levels within us; and especially with those from the West, many, many engrained cultural values have to be challenged and overcome in order for “self-Islamization” to occur. In my time talking with born Muslim brothers, I have found it amazing that many dedicated Muslims have undergone their own rediscovery of the religion, almost in the same way as a non-Muslim who comes into Islam for the first time.
Many born Muslims I meet tell me that they have a certain level of envy for converts because they recognize a high level of dedication and appreciation for Islam within them, that they too desire, but have been unable to achieve. In fact, in speaking with one brother from my local surau, he even had the courage to ask me what I thought was the cause of this. Of course I told him that I could only speak from my own experience, but that in my example much of it had to do with getting to know myself and facing up to my true beliefs about not only religion, but life itself. I empathize with Muslims who are born into Islam and cannot appreciate it as much as they would like. Perhaps they feel as I did about Christianity for many years.
In discussing this matter with the brother from my surau, I challenged him to “put Islam to the test.” I told him that maybe he had to undergo the same process that we converts undergo when we convert, namely, the process of questioning basic beliefs and challenging ourselves to find truth. For people born into Islam, this means going beyond basic levels and striving to go deeper than they ever have before to understand Islam. This, from what I observe, is how many Muslims have rediscovered Islam. They have more or less willed it. They have traveled, they have studied, they have sought out knowledgeable teachers, they became more involved in their communities - whatever it takes. They have gone past the understanding of religion as it was passed down to them from their parents, and found Islam for themselves. For many it happens when confronted with different life circumstances, for example, perhaps when they go abroad to study and are suddenly no longer in an Islamic environment, or when they or a family member becomes inflicted with an illness or they experience a tragedy, or for some perhaps when a particularly stubborn Christian missionary puts them to the test and they find that they do not have the level of faith they thought they did. Whatever the scenario, experiences such as this force us to draw definitive conclusions about why we live this life of Islam.
As Muslims, we know that submission means, “we hear and we obey (24:51),” as we are (ideally) slaves of our Creator. For many, myself included, accepting Islam includes a greater yearning for truth and knowledge of God as well. This can only occur, however, when we push on with that search for truth, even once we have accepted Islam. If we read the biographies of some of Islam’s great personalities, we come across lives such as those like Imam Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali who, while already having achieved great worldly status as a scholar, yearned for a more direct experience and deeper level of truth. In order to do so, however, he underwent a major questioning of his beliefs and an abandoning of all his worldly status before he could arrive at it. The results of his life journey speak for themselves; Imam Nawawi, speaking about Imam Al-Ghazali’s Ihya’ Ulum al-Din (Revival of the Religious Sciences), wrote “were all the books of Islam to be lost save the Revival alone, it would suffice for them.” He also earned the title of “Hujjat ul-Islam,” or “the proof of Islam” for his great works and teachings.
Imam Al-Ghazali looked deep within himself to arrive at the conclusion that his worldly successes - even as an Islamic scholar - would not be enough to save him on the Day of Judgment. He feared for his fate, and thus had to address the inkling in his heart that told him to go further. Uncovering our self can be a difficult experience. It often entails dissecting the darkest layers within us. It requires self-effacement, and the courage to be vulnerable and admit that we may not have the answers we thought we did in life. It is, without a doubt, a test of the highest and greatest magnitude. Allah draws our attention throughout the Qur’an on the importance of reflection,
“Those who remember Allah standing and sitting and lying on their sides and reflect on the creation of the heavens and the earth: Our Lord! Thou hast not created this in vain! Glory be to Thee; save us then from the chastisement of the fire (3:91).”
We know that reflection is not an easy thing, particularly when it is on ourselves. In another ayat [verse],
“Do they not reflect in their own minds? Not but for just ends and for a term appointed, did Allah create the heavens and the earth, and all between them: yet there are truly many among men who deny the meeting with their Lord (at the Resurrection) (30:08)!”
When I look at myself today as opposed to three years ago, I see two different people. No, rather, I see two people with many of the same attributes, but in completely different places. A very well known contemporary sheikh talks about religion as a shelter. He says if your shelter is strong, if it protects you from all the shaytans (devils) in the world, it has no holes in the walls, and it keeps out the rain, than it is a good shelter. However, if your shelter is porous, if it doesn’t protect you from the shaytans, than you need a new shelter. The “me” 3 years ago was in a badly damaged shelter that was not protecting me from the elements. “Me” today, however, with Islam, inshaAllah (by the will of God), is in a much better shelter, one that protects me as long as I stay in it and don’t leave it. Conversion within us must do this. It must literally move us from one place in life to another. Therefore, every piece of “us” must change, must undergo examination and renewal to arrive at truth, not just back into it accidentally or unwillingly.
Many of us today do not understand how dramatic the process of conversion - whether we are non-Muslims coming into Islam or Muslims who feel the need to “re-find” Islam - is. If we read the stories of the companions of the Prophet Mohammad (SAW) and look at how dramatically their lives changed upon coming into Islam, only then do we fully understand how encompassing Islam is and how radically it can effect every aspect of one’s self. It can turn animals into saints, heathens into angels. It is nothing less than the total renewal of the person, from top to bottom. If we all delve a little deeper and get to know ourselves a little more, both the good and the bad, we can all undergo some sort of re-awakening for the sake of Allah. All it takes is will, effort, and reliance on and help from Allah.
You can read a number of Abdul-Lateef Abdullah’s articles at http://www.islamfortoday.com/abdullah.htm