I came across this video a couple of weeks ago on Brother Suhaib Webb’s brilliant website and it really got me thinking about the time when I converted. If you don’t have time to watch the whole thing, skip to about half way and watch from there. The converts on the panel aren’t engaging in the usual ‘Oh, mashaAllah, how did you find Islam?’ kind of conversation, but they’re instead talking about the problems they faced after converting. And there were many. One member of the panel actually left Islam a matter of days after converting, and another was tested when he realised a brother who was helping him in his path to Islam was actually interested in him romantically.
As a Muslim, I felt shame watching this. We all should. How can it be that converts to Islam are abandoned so quickly after they embrace Islam? We would be so keen to help guide them to knowledge, showering them with books and advice…..but then what?
The video also made me realise how lucky I was when I converted back in 2009. I was in the UAE, and surrounded by some very good Muslim friends. The balance was right: We were friends anyway, so I could be honest with the questions I had, and they had the sense not to put any pressure on me, and simply let me take things at my own pace. I was blessed. Alhamdulilah.
But I did get a taste of what it can be like to feel overwhelmed, about one week before I converted. A lady I knew was helping me to find knowledge and was very kind in inviting me to her house to share meals. One evening, though, when I was at her house, I told her I was just about ready to convert, and she started to insist that I do it right there and then. Perhaps it was shallow of me, but I had made the decision to go along to the Mosque where I had been learning, and also to invite my close friends to be around me when I said the Shahada. I hadn’t planned to do it right there and then. I tried to explain this, but my friend was very insistent (I am sure with the best of intentions) and what followed could have easily turned me away from Islam. I won’t go into detail, but it involved tears on my part, and accusations that Shaytaan was inside me, on her part. So watching this video, I can empathise with the feeling of being overwhelmed by the decision.
I stood my ground that evening, and when I did say my Shahada a few days later, it was a wonderful experience. And I knew 100% that it was my decision. There was no pressure.
Of course, when a non-Muslim expresses an interest in Islam, it is very exciting. I haven’t had the pleasure of helping to guide someone yet, but I pray that I do one day. There must be great joy in invited someone to enjoy something so beautiful, and there is great reward from Allah in guiding someone to the right way. But this responsibility to call people to Islam surely doesn’t just end there. It’s not enough to witness someone’s Shahada, say ‘Mabroooook, Alhamdulilah’, pile them up with books, and then disappear over the hills never to be seen again.
So what happens afterwards? From my experience, it’s not making the decision to convert that’s the hardest thing to tackle. It’s afterwards. It’s the first time your alarm wakes you for Fajr, and you fumble around trying to make Wudu correctly, your eyes half-closed in the glare of the bathroom light. It’s trying to negotiate all the positions of prayer, whilst straining to make out the Arabic pronunciation from books and papers propped on a chair next to your prayer mat. It’s hearing knowledgable Muslims talk about details you never knew about and thinking ‘I’m never going to know all this, it’s too much’. It’s dealing with objections from parents and friends when they think you’ve just joined Al Qaeda. It’s waking up for Suhoor and preparing food as quietly as possible in a dark kitchen, and eating Iftar alone. These are the lonely moments. This is when it gets hard. But there’s a tendency to think that it all falls into place for new Muslims.
The best piece of advice and wisdom I ever received was simple. It was nothing profound, but just a piece of common sense. It was ‘Hannah, Islam is easy. Just take it easy’. That’s what converts need. They don’t need someone looking over their shoulder and exclaiming, ‘Sisterrrr, what are you doing??!!! You don’t do it like thaaaaaaattttttt???!!!!!’. Yes, we want to learn, but correcting us requires tact. Because we don’t want to feel that we’re not doing it right, or we’re not doing enough, or we’re not learning quickly enough. That just knocks our confidence, makes us feel we’re not good enough for this perfect religion, and that we’re not pleasing Allah. Not a great feeling.
So if you have the pleasure of dealing with a convert, remember that support once they have entered Islam is even more important that the support they need in getting there. Imagine they are a young child, as they are starting from scratch in the same way that children do when they learn to pray, start to fast etc (and even the children have a head-start, as they’ve been growing up in this environment). Don’t give in to the temptation to excitedly share an abundance of knowledge with ‘Oh, have you read this? Have you learnt that? Are you reading Arabic? Oh you really must!’. Instead, ask what they’re struggling with, and listen to their response. Reassure them by telling them there is a lot to take on, and they can’t be expected to do it all at once. Reassure them that Allah loves them and has great patience. Then offer them practical advice and offer your contact details to them, so that they feel comfortable to keep asking, even if it’s a couple of months down the line, when everyone else expects that they have found their feet.
Embracing Islam is the most important step a non-Muslim can ever take, and if their initial experiences are negative, when they are still developing Iman, the consequences can potentially be disastrous. So try to put yourself in their shoes and appreciate the enormity of the change they are making. Support them to take things slowly, offer advice when they ask for it, and correct them with sensitivity.
And even years down the line, remember that converts can still face the same struggles and tests that any Muslim can. So keep talking, keep asking, inshaAllah.