One particular concern rattled around in my mind for a long time, causing disquietude: “Will my family go to heaven?”
Recently, a few Muslim friends asked me if I had talked to my family about Islam. I told them the truth: I gave my family basic information about the core tenets of my faith and about the life of the Prophet, but I was not looking to convert them. I did not find it necessary. In my own experience, I embraced Islam for two reasons. First, I found the Qur’an continued the message I had found buried in the Bible beneath scholars’ own additions and erroneous translations. Second, I discovered that Muhammad embodied someone of incredible faith: just, merciful, kind, peaceful, humble and, most importantly, God-conscious. While I proudly say I am Muslim, I am less concerned with the label than with the content. In the broadest of terms, I identify with people of many paths and find beauty in our common struggle to seek answers to our existential questions, while savouring the awe of not always being able to do so.
It is helpful to understand my journey. I grew up in an independent Baptist church in the heart of the Bible Belt, was saved about three times and baptized twice. A dutiful member of my conservative community, I went to the altar regularly, wore long, modest dresses, and sang in the choir. At 18, I began to feel increasingly bothered by the hypocrisy of some in my church. The same people singing about Jesus were calling Arabs ‘towel heads’ and referring to African Americans in derogatory terms. This resentment had been festering throughout my teen years and was only compounded by my struggle to find my place in the world as a young woman. An unplanned pregnancy, a bout of depression and a divorce led to my religious community turning its back on me and to my reevaluating the faith I had been born into and had believed I would die in.
I no longer resent the church or blame its members for my ostracization. My Christian upbringing was a necessary part of the journey to my ultimate destination—Islam. I learned plenty of inspiring stories about God’s prophets during sermons and in Sunday school, but I also learned that hypocrisy abounds. I was born into Christianity and embraced it because I loved God and it was the only system I knew, the only road I thought would lead me to my Creator. When my naïve 18-year-old self discovered people within this community who were far from the ideals of the religion’s teachings, I suddenly felt unhinged from what had always served as my anchor. But the experience, unsettling though it was, taught me that no matter the place, the misbehavior of people should not discount the message itself.
Some time after distancing myself from the church, I fell in love with the Qur’an and the teachings of Prophet Muhammad. God’s unadulterated voice spoke to me through the pages of the Qur’an in a way that it never had in the Bible. Despite my enthusiasm however, I had learned enough to know that no matter the beauty of the message, I would inevitably find Muslims who would disappoint me. And I did. But I was older and wiser and knew that we oversimplify life when we hold religion as the only variable in people’s behavior. Education, politics, and regional and cultural idiosyncrasies all go into what makes a person and then a community behave as they do. Yet as much peace and direction as my new faith gave me, it brought with it new anxieties. I had embraced Islam as my compass, but my family was still Christian.
I converted to Islam because, in the end, I took issue with some doctrinal tenets of protestant Christianity. My family still prescribed to those very same tenets. I spent many sleepless nights worrying about my loved ones’ fate. Could I claim that my family could reach Paradise simply to ease my own mind or did I have a basis for this assumption in Islam itself? I believe the second is true. Muhammad said, “One who treads a path in search of knowledge has his path to Paradise made easy by God…” What if this is, in fact, God's way of letting us know that while the systems though which we seek to find and become closer to our Creator might be different, intentions carry across the religious labels we wear? What if we can be wrong about a lot of things except those basic injunctions to love God and spend a lifetime trying to find His message to us as humans; to treat others with respect, compassion and justice; and to leave the world better than we found it, both physically and spiritually? This message is transforming if true. And it is the spiritual lens though which I, as a Muslim, look at my Christian family and in broader terms, all people.
Tonight, I won't lose sleep tonight over my family belonging to a different faith because I believe we are walking together on this journey to know Allah. I don't know who is or isn't on the "right" path—a person who calls himself Muslim, but does not fear or love Allah may not be, while a Christian or a Jew who yearns to be closer to her Creator may well be. The inner workings of the heart are for Al Lateef—the One who understands the subtleties and complexities of His creation—to know. After many nights spent tossing and turning, I have come to believe that there is less issue with the name of the path than with someone actually striving to be on one. I maintain that God, in His infinite knowledge and mercy, allows for systematic differences, while the intention of the heart and the actions remain constant. In an oversimplified way, maybe this explains why we find good and bad people in all religions and among those who do not subscribe to any religion at all. I take solace in the fact that my parents inculcated in me the very values that brought me to Islam. They're doing a lot of things right and Allah knows that each soul’s journey to Him is unique. This realization is humbling, stripping away any façade of self-righteousness; I cannot sit contentedly and assume I am perfect just as I am. Instead, this perspective moves me to pray seventeen times daily to Allah that I be guided.
Anna Wittman converted to Islam after both a spiritual and academic journey. She focuses on cultural issues unique to American Muslim converts.
Photo credit: Moyan Brenn