A practical primer for those who are new to the faith.
Islam is the fastest-growing religion in the world. For all the islamophobic sentiment and misinformation saturating the public, people are coming to embrace the faith in unprecedented numbers. If you?re reading this, chances are you are one of those people seeking answers about the truth of Islam. Great! I?m glad to have you here. Let?s talk.
image by Gillian Blease
Here is the truth: ?Muslim? is not an identity you can casually choose for yourself. Muslim as an identity is something that is given by equal parts practice, experience and intention. The path to Islam looks different for each individual but each and every path requires study, deliberation, and practice. This is one version of that path:
As an observant Muslim woman who came to the faith later in life, the draw to Islam makes perfect sense to me. I embraced the truth of Islam in 2012. After years lost in darkness, it was submission to Allah(swt) that handed my life back to me ? and because after so much struggle it was Allah that gave me my life, I considered it a responsibility to give my life over to Islam. And truth be told, my life has flourished under submission to Allah. Through my dedication to spread the truth of Islam I?ve become an educator and advocate for transgender and gender-diverse Muslims, and a community organizer (& prolific troublemaker) in faith-justice work within Chicago. Since 2016, I have been a co-founder and Director of Masjid al-Rabia ? a women centered, LGBTQIA+ affirming, radically accessible Islamic community center in Chicago that provides education, advocacy and outreach for thousands of marginalized Muslims every month. From a desperate nobody to a dedicated community leader ? mine is a Muslim Convert Success Story if there ever was one.
Pictured (left to right): Mahdia before Islam, Mahdia c.2016
As a relatively high-profile convert to the tradition, I receive a lot of contact from people who are considering, or have recently come into the fold of Islam and are looking for guidance. Most of these people are eager, and enthusiastic, and entirely well intentioned .
In my role guiding new converts through the ins and outs of the faith, I have seen far too many people enthusiastically take the shahada (the Muslim declaration of faith) to later disavow Islam and never return. It can be weeks or months later, or sometimes even years. Some of us are pushed out by bigotry and ignorance. Some had a misinformed perspective on Islam. Some just didn?t find what they were looking for in the end. All of it could have been prevented with a little more preparation and intention.
This is one woman?s attempt to clear the path a little and provide a framework for new converts to build a healthy, spirited relationship with the faith we call Islam. I will note, It is just one of an infinite number of ways to come to Islam ? I do not claim to be the beginning and end of this conversation, just a vehicle for the structure and discipline that made Islam the most important part of my life.
Let?s dive in.
STEP ONE: CONSIDER THE WEIGHT OF THIS DECISION
Why Islam? Why do you want to be a Muslim? Before we go any further, you should have an answer to that question. Sit down somewhere comfortable and have a long talk with yourself about why you?re here at all.
Consider the words of the Shahada: when you declare that there is no god but God and Muhammad is the messenger of God. Think about what that encompasses, what that means to you. There are a lot of ways to be a Muslim but there are two things we all have in common. First is Tawhid, or the oneness of Allah. Our other uniting factor is that perfect Word of Allah, the Qur?an. AT THE VERY LEAST, we should be on the same page on these truths before going forward. If you have doubts (and that?s okay! doubt is a natural human experience, especially considering big decisions like this) give yourself space for those doubts and meditate on them for a while.
You don?t have to declare your undying faith just yet, but you should begin this process by considering the gravity of the decision. Coming to Islam may mean a dramatic shift in how you live your life. It may mean restructuring your relationship with others. It can mean facing your personal demons and shaping yourself into a better person. This will take time. That?s good. This should take time.
Ready? Alright, moving on:
STEP TWO: UNLEARN ISLAM
The first tier of attaining knowledge is to admit your own comprehensive ignorance. ? Imam Ali, a.s.
SO YOU?VE been exposed to the light and truth of Islam and want to join the Ummah. Awesome! Great. Now: I?m going to need you to forget everything you think you know about Islam.
Here is the truth: you live in a culture that?s vision of Islam is shaded in equal parts islamophobic nightmare and orientalist daydream.
As outsiders to the faith, we are saturated with misinformation ? both positive and negative. If you?re considering Islam as a way of life you?re hopefully less saturated with the islamophobic nightmare version of the faith, but if you don?t disengage with the fantasy now, down the line those rose colored glasses will end up creating strife.
Islam (the faith) is not defined by the images you see on TV. It is a religious tradition that stands independent from so-called ?Islamic culture?. In the same way that Christianity is not defined by the Pope, the Westboro Baptist Church or Chance the Rapper; Islam is not defined by it?s cultural products or famous practicioners.
Forget the so-called ?Islamic State?, forget Malala Yousafzai. Forget all those media stories about badass muslim women shattering stereotypes. These cultural/historical/political markers can be important entry points to the faith, but if you let them define your perception of Islam you end up carrying along the cultural baggage that comes along with being a product of centuries of Judeo-Christian Western/American normativity.
I need you to admit that you know absolutely nothing about the finer points of Islam. Of course, completely disassembling a lifetime of conditioning is impossible. You can?t un-learn every toxic idea that?s been borne in your orientalist/islamophobic head, but you can work at it. Every day. Unlearning Islam is an ongoing process, and a critical one to truly embracing the faith later on.
STEP THREE: READ THE QUR?AN
YES, THE ENTIRE THING.
Being a Muslim is like holding a very simple contract with Allah ? you live by the Word, pray and do good deeds, and in exchange you receive a new life in Understanding and Justice. When you decide to embrace Islam, the Qur?an is your terms and conditions. Now I know y?all don?t read your iTunes contracts in full anymore, but what do you do when a contract has life-and-death implications on your life?
When you recite the shahada and declare that There is no god but Allah and Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah, how can you believe in that message, truly embrace it and submit yourself to that truth if you haven?t considered the entire message itself? Coming to Islam can be a long, sometimes confusing and difficult path to navigate. Let faith be your anchor and the word of the Qur?an be your guiding light.
?But Mahdia, I don?t have to read the entire Qur?an to know Islam, I read scholars interpretations!? ? you, right now, @ me
Let?s go back to high school for a moment, to English class. Students have to read Shakespeare?s Hamlet and write an essay about themes and meaning, with sources. One student reads the entire play, thinks critically about it and writes an essay using their own opinions and interpretations of the text; another student finds a few ready-made essays online and ctrl+c ctrl+v?s that baby right to their teacher?s inbox. Both students get a good grade, and pass the class. They got the same grade ? did both students learn the same thing? Do you really wanna cheat your way into the mosque?
When you rely on interpretations of the Qur?an rather than the Qur?an itself, you aren?t putting your faith in Allah ? you?re putting your faith in a scholar. And where scholar?s are fallible, the word of God is not. Of course, at some point you will reach places where it is important to consider Islamic history, prophetic example and scholarly exegesis on the text. History, exegesis and the example set by the prophet and his successors is a critical component of a healthy relationship to the faith but from my experience if you don?t have the Qur?an itself as your anchor, it is far too easy to get tossed around and confused.
Let your time with the Qur?an be a personal conversation between yourself and Allah. Read. The damn. Book.
It will take time: that?s okay. This can end up being one of the most important decisions you?ll ever make. This should take time.
STEP FOUR: GET ON THE MAT AND PRAY
Nobody just comes to one day and decides to be a person who wakes up for fajr and prays five times a day with perfectly memorized surahs and beautiful recitation. You get there with discipline and practice.
Discipline. And Practice.
Start small: Commit to building your practice every day. If you don?t know the words yet then just take five times a day to practice stillness and remember Allah. Get yourself in the habit of praying ? not just in following the motions perfectly, the motions come later. Don?t worry about form yet, and don?t worry about recitation. Let your body get used to the routine. Get an adhan app for your phone. Pray when your phone reminds you – this is life in the future. Just PRAY.
Fostering a prayer routine and learning the words of the Qur?an is a wonderful opportunity to work on bettering the self. Instill discipline. Stretch your mind. Let your recitation become a meditation on your relationship to Islam itself.
Start with al-Fatiha. In your own hand, write down the surah in whatever language you?re most comfortable with, and copy it again every day. Consider what it means. Begin to memorize it ? first in your native tongue, then in Arabic. Once you?re ready, move onto the next surah. When you know what it means, when it isn?t just sounds, it will be much easier to remember and much more rewarding for you in the end.
In time, you begin to feel the freedom prayer affords; the joy in remembering Allah; the relationship you build with your faith and your body as your prayer journey develops. Take a moment to breathe and say alhamdulillah.
LET?S TAKE A BREATHER
I know it might feel like I?m asking a lot of you. It may feel like it, but I am not writing this to slow or deter you on the path to Islam. I write this because Islam is the most important thing in my life. It?s number one of two simple reasons I?m even alive today to write this. It is the drive in my day-to-day, it?s the reason I wake up and it?s the reason I choose not to kill myself every day. I write this not to deter those who are curious about the faith but to empower women like me to make the right, informed, INSPIRED decision for themselves.
That kind of decision takes time. That?s good. It should. Still here? Great. Moving on:
STEP FIVE: GET INVOLVED
Try to get engaged with other Muslims and broader Muslim communities. Go to the mosque. Reach out and read and connect with Muslims in your community. Most mosques have a contact person for supporting new Muslims. There are online communities and resource networks out there to help. If you have safety concerns, or there isn?t a place nearby, you can join Masjid al-Rabia?s Wednesday evening classes or Friday prayers online every week. You can contact our team at Masjid al-Rabia any time to talk.
If Islam is a practice, then community involvement and faith-justice work is a crucial aspect of that practice. As Muslims we are called upon to seek justice and show compassion for the most marginalized. When I first came to Islam, it was this aspect of the faith that pulled me in.
Don?t oversell yourself or your involvement in the faith. Be honest about your process of learning and coming to the faith. There are lots of us who are willing to help new converts and people considering the faith just the same, but please don?t claim to be committed if you?re still not quite sure. Coming to the door with an earnest ?I would like to convert to Islam and I want to get involved to know more,? is going to work out far better than declaring ?I?m Muslim like you? only to change your mind a few weeks later. I say this as a person who has seen a lot of converts come and go over the years: the former is honest and respectable; the latter can feel like betrayal of trust.
It?s an act of bravery to say, ?I don?t know, I?m not sure, I?m still learning. Will you help??
STEP [???]: ASK ALLAH WHAT?S NEXT
Alright, so, here we are. Do you make your declaration of faith? I can?t decide that for you. Let time, education, discipline practice and community lead your heart as you consider the words of the shahada. I?ve said this like a dozen times already but I?m going to say it again: This process will take time. It should. This is the kind of decision that will define the rest of your life. Give this decision the weight and respect the faith tradition deserves.
Read the Qur?an. Reading the Qur?an is like a conversation between yourself and the divine. Have that conversation with Allah. Get rid of all other mediators and just think for yourself: What is the the Book telling you? Is Allah speaking to you through the word of the book? What is she saying? What do you learn from the shared history of the faith? Does this speak to you as Truth, as something undeniable, something you couldn?t let go even if you tried?
If you don?t feel that way about the Word, then? Why? Genuinely ask yourself why. Doubt is okay, it?s a natural human emotion. But engage with your doubts. Be mindful of your feelings ? sit with the positive and the negative all the same. Because you will be tried in your faith on the other side of this declaration, it is best to have a solid, heartstrong understanding of why you?re here before you walk in the door.
While you are going through the process of unlearning Islam, reading the Qur?an, learning to pray, and getting involved, we are here to support you. Maybe it turns out this isn?t the right path for you ? that?s okay! This tradition isn?t for everyone and that?s perfectly alright. Maybe Islam is the truth you?ve been seeking all along ? alhamdulillah!
A spiritual mentor to many and the imam who presided over my own shahada, Imam el-Farouk Khaki of the el-Tawhid Juma Circle said: ?By the time a person is ready to take the declaration of faith, they have already been Muslim for a long time.? Let this process lead you to strengthen your faith and lead you onto the true path of Islam for a relationship that may last the rest of your life.
Welcome to the Ummah. Asalaamu alaikum.
[Mahdia Lynn is a community organizer in Chicago and Director of Masjid al-Rabia, a women-centered LGBTQIA+ affirming organization providing spiritual care for marginalized Muslims. She is a Muslim woman of trans experience and a prolific advocate for transgender and gender-diverse Muslims across the globe. She writes a lot here on Medium. You can also follow her on Twitter.]