I was raised in a very religious Christian household. Religion is as much a part of our family’s identity as are the black eyed peas, corn bread, and greens we eat after Sunday service. At any given time, guests who walk into our home would be greeted by Christian, TBN/Moody Bible/Focus on the Family orchestra blaring on all three televisions and the radio. Outwardly, I sang in the church choir, orchestrated college trips to service, and dutifully made communion every first Sunday. But internally, a storm of confusion brewed.
I think I concealed my doubts fairly well, but my mother’s perceptive eyes would press me about where I was in my faith. I tried to talk to her about it, and while our conversations would start off sane, somewhere along the way I’d eventually pop up with one too many questions. Core-to-the-belief questions. Maybe even blasphemous questions. In fact, our exchanges would turn so heated, they would end in tears from the Mom I describe as my best friend. I hated hurting her and prayed every day for some sort of sign that would quell my doubts, but an emptiness persisted that I couldn’t seem to overcome.
True to my curious nature, I’m a bit of a news junkie. I watch Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck if for no other reason than to scoff at their crazy, vitriolic exclamations. On any given day, I cycle between Huffington Post, Jezebel, Slate, and other progressive news sites constantly checking for updates; I couldn’t tell you where or which article, but one of those sites reposted/linked to Altmuslimah. And I was hooked. Here was a forum where Muslims of various shades of skin, nationality, and orthodoxy congregated, and to top it all off they were predominantly female voices. Altmuslimah led me to a website penned by “Hijabman.” Disgruntled with the way Muslims were portrayed in the media, I was driven by a desire to prove that we, as a nation, are not at war with Islam. As the national debate surrounding the Manhattan Islamic Center, and of course the subsequent antics of the idiotic Floridian Pastor, took up more and more of my daily conversations, I would pull quotations from Altmuslimah as my “proof” that radical Islam is not necessarily a true representation of Islam. I wanted real explanations as to why the abuse of women is un-Islamic, and most of all, I was curious to learn where local cultural practices veered off of Islamic beliefs. I found myself passing along posts by Hijabman and from Altmuslimah to friends.
One day, as I walked to my car I spotted a slip of paper annoyingly flapping in the wind underneath my windshield wiper. When I yanked it out, ready to crumble and throw away, the words “Open Mosque Day” stared back at me. My inquisitive mind wanted to keep up and “be in the know” for my many water cooler conversations, so I went. I sat in the front row with some trepidation, and was relieved when other bold souls asked the more “sensitive” questions. As I was making my way out of the room, two teenage girls wearing jelbabs greeted me and politely asked what drew me to the meeting. I was so afraid that I’d somehow antagonize them with my real reasons of curiosity, I wound up causing a bigger offense by making a weak joke about how I thought their head coverings made them look like a group of black ghosts. Their response was two-fold. One, check out the site WhyIslam.org and two, come back to a class the following Saturday.
Man, do I feel bad for that teacher! I pressed him about every stereotype, every “abused Muslim woman forced into a polygynous marriage” story I’d ever been told. Sure, I had read all the articles Altmuslimah had dedicated to dispelling those myths, but surely that web community did not represent mainstream Islam? After five exhausting but exhilarating hours, certain truths stuck in my mind. My patient teacher had never flinched at my relentless, pointed questions, and assured me he’d be back next week to show me more. What he didn’t know was at that first meeting he hit the nail on the head, awakening within me simple, core ideas that I think I always instinctively knew to be true: to pray, to fast, and to make acts of charity were things that I always held close. Those were central aspects of my Christian faith that seamlessly carried over into Islam. More important though, my teacher had answered the “Jesus Question,” something that had always nagged me in my Christian faith.
So, week after week, I eagerly returned to that class. I asked questions, read the translation of the Qur’an, prayed, and chatted for hours with women from the class. After I answered a question for a fellow student in class, the teacher asked why I hadn’t taken shahadah–the solemn testimony of belief in one God and Muhammad as His messenger. I had no answer. It occurred to me then that I was a part of this community now. Wow. I really am… one of them, I thought. I am no longer a student, but am now a believer. That evening I took the literal leap of faith—the shahada.
So now, I am “in the closet.” I believe what I believe, but I am not prepared for the heartbreak that will someday ensue when I open up to my family about my faith. My always astute mother has upped the pressure, asking me each day if I feel like I’m living my life for Christ, representing him as I should. I mumble something about prayer, and try not to focus on the creases forming on her brow. One day, I will tell her Insh’allah. One day.
To be fair, I’m still wrestling with all that my reversion means. I enjoy music (especially dancing). I love movies. Love them. I have bold, not-meant-to-be-covered hair. I wear loud high heels. Stilettos even. I can throw back a shot of whiskey with a straight face. I’ve never considered myself second to any man. I’m not a virgin, and no, I’ve never been married. Not to mention all my gay friends. Is there room in this world for me? I’ve started to let go of most of my “debauchery,” but nevertheless, I wonder how can something that seems to beautifully answer so many of my fundamental faith-based questions simultaneously fly in the face of everything else that is a part of my day-to-day life. I am comforted to know that I am not the only one asking these questions; I love that Altmuslimah is a forum where people feel candid enough to pose the very same concerns that are swirling around in my mind. All I know is there is something about Islam – the surrender – that brings my soul peace. Figuring out the nuances of what that means for my daily life is something I am still learning.
Joi Samson is a contributor to Altmuslimah.