One of the biggest problems, if not the biggest problem, that converts in the west face is not that of Islam not fitting into their previous lives. It's not even that of their families accepting or not accepting their conversion. It is one of the long standing difficulty of culture versus religion.
One of the many things that happens when you convert is that you find yourself in this phase of what I like to call “loving you to death.” You have many people coming up to you, saying “masha Allah” and “alhamdullilah” as well as the occasional “Allahu Akbar!” Sisters give new sisters hugs and kisses. Brothers give new brothers a handshake and the typical man hug. And then... And then “it” begins.
“It” is overwhelming. It is not that it's wrong, or that it's offensive, because it's not. It's that the problem lies in the lack of knowledge on both sides, which leads to head spinning and confusion by the new Muslim, and frustration from the born-Muslims that we just don't get it.
Everyone is Right
Everyone believes their way is the right way of Islam. “Follow me,” they'll tell you. The problem however, is that as soon as that person leaves, someone else comes up and says “forget what they told you, my way is the right way, so come with me.” And that goes on and on until your head spins and you don't know who or what to believe. I mean, we all say “la illaha il Allah, Muhammadur rasool Allah,” so we all must be right somehow, right? But everyone can't be right, can they? So your head spins. Who do you follow? What mosque do you attend? You're asked what mahdab you follow yet you don't even know what a mahdab is. Unfortunately, you quickly learn that admitting that can cause even more problems because now you're being told why the one the person you're speaking to is right and the others are wrong. But then you tell the next person who asks that question that you follow the mahdab your friend has introduced you to only for them to tell you that that is the wrong mahdab and you really should be following another.
And so your head begins to spin.
The “Haram!” Police
One of the hardest parts after taking shahadah is what is expected of you almost the second you've said those all important words. There are many among the vocal who expect that you will instantaneously change every aspect of your life, and the degree to which they believe you should change your life is entirely dependent on the way in which they practice Islam.
I can't speak to the pressure that's put on new brothers, of course, but the pressure put on new sisters by some can be enough to make you have second thoughts about having taken shahadah, and in fact, has lead to some “taking it back.”
Suddenly parts of your life which had seemed mundane and almost unimportant before are, to some vocal critics, “haram!”
Do you already have pets? Particularly a dog? “Haram!” they say. You have to get rid of it immediately, no matter how long you've had it or what purpose it may serve within your family.
Do you have friends of the opposite gender? “Haram!” they say. You must never speak to them again, especially without a mahram there. And if you do, and you're seen in public with them, await the next version of the "being friends with the opposite sex" speech.
Do you celebrate your birthday, let your kids go trick or treating, give out Hallowe'en candy, visit family on their holidays, have close friends of other faiths (particularly those who are Jews), or dare to give a Valentine to your spouse? Ya Allah! “Haram, haram, haram!”
And so your head spins again. There are suddenly all these other apparent rules which you'd never heard of, rules that are far apart from what you thought Islam was. Rules governing clothing, those you knew were there. But television? Music? Your pet guinea pig? Those rules you didn't know existed and so you get this little voice in your head saying “if I knew I had to give up Survivor, disco music and Gus the Guinea Pig, well no longer eating honey garlic Chinese spare ribs, that was hard enough, but I'd have thought twice if someone had just told me Gus was haram!
You need to wear hijab
One of the first things that new sisters are expected to do is put on the headscarf. While hijab is the overall behaviour of modesty for both men and women, it has become more known as the headscarf that Muslim women wear. If you take shahadah in a masjid, or mosque, you'll be wearing one at the time, as it is something all women entering a masjid need to wear. But if you take shahadah outside of a masjid, such as at a conference, at a friend's home or anywhere else, chances are, it's something you wouldn't necessarily be wearing.
Hijab is sometimes controversial, but is supposed to be a personal and individual decision. In Surah al-Baqarah, we are told that there is no compulsion in religion, yet in some parts of the world, men have made hijab compulsory on women, even just to leave their homes. In some families, culture has prevailed so much so that fathers and brothers would rather kill their daughter or sister than to allow them the choice to not wear hijab. And that's the thing – hijab is a choice. But what is worse is that these are the only stories and angles of hijab that the mainstream media covers, giving those who do not know the difference between culture and religion the belief that hijab must be forced and a woman must die if she chooses not to.
So as a new sister, you take shahadah and then they start telling you all the different types of scarves. Their favourite place to buy scarves. Which pins to use. Yet the most important question has not been even asked. Maybe people haven't even thought to ask it. That question in “will you wear the headscarf?”
And so you stand there, you let them wrap you up, and for some the excitement is catching, but for others it can be very scary. You've not told everyone you're converting and walking down the street with a scarf on your head in July isn't necessarily how you want Great Aunt Gertrude the family gossip to find out. So you do you gracefully take the scarf off without offending someone? The space between that particular rock and hard place is extremely narrow.
If you grew up Muslim, hijab is a normal part of your life, male or female. But if you convert, it can be a very divisive issue between yourself and your non Muslim family and friends. This is an issue which isn't truly understood by those whose families have always been, or who have been for a generation or two, Muslim. As Muslims, we must be patient with our new sisters. We mustn't pressure them to put on the scarf when they are not ready. To do so leads to resentment, hurt feelings and negativity to the piece of cloth that we have the choice to wear, but also towards the sisters who, while they have the right intention, are making life more complicated for the new Muslimah. There are families who have disowned their children for converting to Islam. There are others that could deal with it as long as they didn't have to see it, but to have it thrown in their face in the form of the scarf, that is the straw that broke the proverbial camels' back and when their child is told they are no longer part of their family for becoming Muslim, but most of all, for wearing hijab.
/end of part one.