My book and my friend

<< This piece complements Mariam Sheikh’s piece, “The Reawakening.” >>

By the time I gathered the courage to email my friend Mariam for recommendations on local mosques, I had been keeping my secret for weeks. I was a half-closeted Muslim. My conversion to Islam came about with blinding speed and by accident.

For years I felt my emotional connection to God decay, despite all of my Catholic-sanctioned attempts to reawaken even the smallest degree of fervor. Out of desperation, one spring I began to read an English interpretation of the Quran hoping for a fresh perspective on the familiar Judeo-Christian stories. Since I had lost my ability to focus on or feel moved by well-worn Bible passages, I reasoned that if I just read a few chapters of the same stories narrated in a different way, then surely I would find my Catholic faith revived and would return, newly energized, to reading the stories the “right” way.

I never expected that in less than a week I would develop a powerful craving to read to the oft-repeated promises: God is the All-Knowing, the All-Hearing, the All-Seeing, the most Forgiving, the Dispenser of Grace. I never imagined that the poetic articulations of God’s bounty and the precision of His creation would appeal so vividly to my analytical nature, or that the breathtaking language would stand out as supreme above anything I had read before. I am an avid reader and, as an attorney, have been trained to critique language and spot the weaknesses in arguments. And yet by the time I was halfway through the Quran, I realized I could no longer read it as a cultural experiment or as an idle intellectual pursuit or as a gateway back into my Catholic faith.

I was simply reading my book. Even across centuries of time and strained through English interpretations, I knew I was reading words sent down by God. In mere days of reading the first chapter the Quran, my transformation began. I fought it for only a few more weeks, devouring the Quran a second time to be sure, before I said my shahada.

Telling non-Muslim friends was the easy part. Most of my friends were ivory tower progressives who exalted spiritual independence and disdained Islamophobic political rhetoric. A handful of Christian friends offered a few gentle, respectfully worded concerns, but far more often the news was met with excitement and encouragement for my personal journey of discovery. The accolades were ill-fitting and the attention intimidating. In fact, the more I was commended for my bravery, the more it sank in what a scary thing I had done.

Having given the news of my conversion to non-Muslim friends, I then reached out to a few Muslim friends who I was likely to see in the coming months but who remained outside of my closest circle. Here, my apprehension grew into a sense of inauthenticity. Was it even appropriate to contact them out of the blue to say I converted? “Good luck in your new apartment, hey, I converted to Islam!” Or, “How’s the job hunt going? By the way, I’m a Muslim now!” To mollify my awkwardness, I raised the issue flippantly, deflecting my fear with self-deprecating humor, holding myself out like a spectacle to be judged on their terms. I took what had been a deeply personal decision and did my best to downplay it for their consumption.

After I survived those blundering phone calls, there remained the problem of telling Mariam. She had been one of my best friends since our law school years. I had long admired Mariam for being one of the most incisive thinkers I knew, and for devoting so much of her energy to women’s issues in Islamic countries. Over countless lunches, she would recite in detail the latest injustices occurring in parts of the world that had no connection to my suburban American upbringing. Our friendship included bonding over our own versions of feminism, but she seemed to be fighting two battles: the usual sexism of daily American life to which I could relate, and an entirely different arena of patriarchy in the “community” that remained foreign to me.

After years of seeing Mariam as a complex individual, as my smart and interesting friend who could skewer those who support injustice and yet relate compassionately to my mundane complaints about long hours at the office, I pigeonholed Mariam as “my Muslim friend who doesn’t know I’m Muslim.” She became a prototype of what it meant to me to be a Muslim-American woman. From the political causes she undertook to the effortless way she draped a scarf across her shoulders, from the superficial to the meaningful, I saw her as a full and true Muslim. Islam was her right, and no one could take it away from her. In comparison, I was an outsider, a fraud, a silly little girl who jumped into something headfirst and in utter ignorance of the social consequences.

On some level, converting to her religion without her input or blessing called my entire identity as a new Muslim into doubt. I transposed all of my insecurities on her and feared she would question my choice in the same keen way that she analyzed her cases. And I, of course, would lack the answers to defend my conversion. What if I had misunderstood the Quran? Scholars spend lifetimes pouring over this layered text, and here I had sped through it in a matter of weeks and embraced it instantly. I had never even stepped foot inside a mosque! Would she expect me to say “inshallah” around her, or would I sound ridiculous for suddenly speaking Arabic phrases?

Every aspect of my struggle with my new spiritual identity found a foil in Mariam, and I was too intimidated to approach my friend until months had passed. I was going nowhere on my independent hunt for a mosque, for something beyond reading in my solitary apartment and browsing websites with incomprehensible prayer instructions. I hadn’t required any help in deciding whether to convert, but now that I identified myself as a Muslim (however ill-fitting the description felt) I needed guidance on how to be one. And so I sent Mariam an email with no explanation. “I’m looking for a recommendation on a mosque in the area. Any ideas?”

My phone rang shortly after. I knew it would be her and my voice was unsteady as I answered. Never one to mince words, Mariam asked me outright why I inquired about a mosque. I remember responding in the light, laughing tone I’d used with my more casual Muslim friends but my voice caught in my throat. Mariam asked me why I converted. My reasoning sounded inadequate to my ears, “I read the Quran…and…it seems true to me. Especially by the time I got towards the end, where it’s so powerful and even in English the words are unlike anything a human being could create, I realized this had to be divinely inspired. It couldn’t be from man, it had to be from God.” I remember my words spilling out one over the other and my voice trembling. I cut myself off for fear of sounding even more naïve that I felt sure I already did.

A few moments of silence passed, and when she spoke again I heard the emotion in her voice. She told me how ecstatic she was to hear the news and immediately a weight removed itself from my chest. At last, I could freely discuss my conversion with a friend who understood the beauty and the mystery of that miraculous book.

In time, Mariam became my Quran study buddy and living Cliff-Notes guide to “the community.” She invited me to celebrate my first Eid with her family, and provided an anchor of sanity when all of the adjustments grew overwhelming. Of all our shared moments, I always remember that first day we spoke openly about our love for the Quran as one of the turning points of my conversion. I entered that conversation lacking any claim to my own “Muslimness,” and while it would be misleading to suggest that with a snap of Mariam’s fingers I cemented a new identity, it did mark the first time that we talked as two lawyers, two women, and two friends, like always, but now also as two Muslims.

(Photo Credit: Yutaka Tsutano)

Natalie Abraham is an attorney and a recent convert to Islam. She wrote this article using a pen name.

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