Imam Khalid Latif is blogging his reflections during the month of Ramadan, featured daily on HuffPost Religion. For a complete record of his previous posts, click over to the Islamic Center at New York University or visit his author page, and to follow along with the rest of his reflections, sign up for an author e-mail alert above, visit his Facebook page or follow him on Twitter.
Last night in Houston I had the privilege of meeting a young man, named Abdur Rahim, who converted to Islam a couple of years ago. After my lecture at the mosque, we ended up grabbing a quick bite together with my friends Farooq Razvi and Mohammed Faiz Khan at a Denny's close-by. Abdur Rahim is from a Latino background and is to the best of my knowledge the only convert in his family.
As we looked over the $2 value menu at Denny's, Abdur Rahim and I began talking and he said something that I've heard many converts to Islam say, but still hurts whenever I hear it. "People get really excited when you convert, and they are around in the beginning," said Abdur Rahim, "but then it seems like they forget about you."
I asked a young girl, about eight years old, at dinner last night what her favorite part about Ramadan is. She said she enjoys the time right before we break our fast because her entire family is together. Undoubtedly for those of us who have family that we can break our fast with, it's a great experience. But what resources are we providing for those whose families are not Muslim, both during Ramadan and outside of it?
It's hard for most of us to find a place to fit in and belong. For the Muslim convert, it's that much more difficult. Trying to find people who can understand what you are going through, acknowledge that you had an entire life you've lived prior to the day you converted, and help you make decisions based off of where you are coming from can be challenging. Many have a tendency to just say, "This is what Islam says." That doesn't really help a person understand what they, in specific, are supposed to do. A lot of the time it's also not what Islam necessarily requires -- its just what you think someone should do.
The Prophet Muhammad had a companion by the name of Abdur Rahman bin Awf. He was one of the first people to actually convert to Islam and prior to his conversion his name was Abdu Amr. In one of the few instances that he asked someone to do so, the Prophet recommended to this man that he should change his name because his given name, Abdu Amr, denotes he is submissive to an entity other than God, while Abdur Rahman denotes he is servant to the Most Merciful, God alone.
He also had a friend named Umayah who had a strong dislike for Islam, and Abdur Rahman's conversion put a strain on their relationship. In our tradition, we find a narration in the Sahih Bukhari collection, a highly referenced and authoritative text for Sunni Muslims, in which Abdur Rahman and Umayah entered into a contract with each other, which essentially said they will look after and protect each other's families and property. When Abdur Rahman bin Awf signed the contract, he signed as Abdur Rahman. Umayah tells him I don't know you by this name, use your given name to sign. As so Abdur Rahman bin Awf erased his name and signed as Abdu Amr. Why did he do this? Was he compromising his faith in doing so?
Far from it. Abdur Rahman was considered to be one of the senior companions of the Prophet. He was given news that he will be amongst those who will definitively be going to heaven. He held many positions of authority during his life. He also had a life prior to his becoming Muslim. He had a family and friends that he had to deal with. The solution in these instances can't simply be to deny all of that and be so staunch and zealous in your practice that you push away those who you are supposed to be closest to. And the advice that we give shouldn't be devoid of that understanding. People, whether they are born Muslim or convert, can't all of a sudden erase an entire life that they have lived and the expectation shouldn't be as such. Such expectations are unrealistic, be they from fellow Muslims or converts themselves. Who you were yesterday plays a role in who you are today and where you are headed in your future.
Friends and families of converts are often confounded by and disappointed to see their loved ones making radical changes to their life. Loving someone means accepting them for who they are and supporting them when they want to improve themselves. Holding them back because the way in which they want to grow is foreign to you is selfish. Understand that a convert's desire to make changes to their life is not a negation of their heritage or upbringing, nor is it a judgement of you for not making the same choices as they have.
As we grow institutionally in the United States, it becomes important to establish and support spaces where people can feel comfortable coming as they are. We see initiatives like this already in places like the Ta'leef Collective in California which has become a safe space for many in the Muslim community, converts and those born into a Muslim family, who are trying to figure out where they belong. We have a program at our center called Conver(t)sations that draws converts from diverse backgrounds who are brought together by a common need to share, learn from each other and just be themselves. Suhaib Webb, an imam in Boston and a convert himself, also has a similar program which recently hosted an iftar for converts and their families in order to give converts that feeling that they often miss out on -- breaking fast with loved ones. Programs such as these will hopefully alleviate the converts' often frustrating search for a place where they can belong without having to give up one or more parts of their identity.
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