“Can I go to the masjid with you? I have always been so curious what happens there,” she asked.
My friend Sara and I had spent hours talking about the finer points of Islam. In our small town, most people wouldn’t give me 5 minutes, but she and I love talking culture and religion.
That Friday, I took her to the local masjid and found there was already a tour in progress for another visitor, so we joined along. After the service, we went to the library in the Islamic center and enjoyed conversation over gyros.
Just as we were wrapping up that conversation, someone came in the door and she had with her a young woman whose eyes were wide with wonder and anxiety. She was introduced to us as Sam. She had just converted a week before.
In that moment, my mind flashed back to my first weeks as a Muslim and the overwhelming feelings that washed over me. The look I saw in her eyes that day mirrors the look I have seen in so many new converts.
She was obviously uncomfortable, feeling out of place and confused.
I took Sam aside—under my wing, as it were—and told her that nothing matters right now more than learning to pray. But I also told her one piece of advice I wish someone had told me when I first converted: do not abandon your culture.
Your Culture is Not Bad
When we first embrace Islam, we are surrounded with love and warmth from people that come from all walks of life, all cultures, and all countries.
But they all have one thing in common most of the time: they see Islam through their own cultural lens and they pass that vision onto us, converts.
What happened in your heart to guide you to finding Islam during a time when doing so will most certainly cost you something? Maybe you lost your closest friends, maybe your family pushed you out, maybe you even lost your job. And why did you choose this course?
Because you have a thinking, reasoning mind that was unwilling to accept the status quo. And guess what? There is a good chance that this quality within you was inculcated by your family, your home, and your culture.
There must be something good in your culture if it taught you to think rationally and embrace the truth, whatever the cost.
Unless there is something which is obviously haram—like drinking alcohol, having a boyfriend/girlfriend, or doing drugs—you have absolutely no responsibility to abandon it. In many cases, doing so would cause more harm than good.
Your Name is Your Name
Sister, brother, please listen to me: do not change your name. I say this so passionately because I see it all the time.
Your mother and father gave you that name. They spent months thinking of the perfect name for you. You have spent your entire life carrying that name and, believe it or not, it is part of you, and there is nothing wrong with that.
Unless your name has a very clearly haram meaning—like the name of a pagan God, or a name that means “evil” or “wicked”, for example—I advise you with all seriousness to keep your name. Respect your mother and father and respect your own identity.
Arab/Paki/Indo DOES NOT Equal Muslim
People will tell you that you must speak Arabic to be a good Muslim. They may tell you that you need to learn Urdu. They will be dropping Muslimese words here and there, words like MashaAllah and InshaAllah and Alhamdulillah and you may feel like you’re not part of the club.
Don’t worry. These words are just the Arabic way to express thanks to God and trust in His perfect Will.
MashaAllah means “God has willed this”, so you say it when you are happy to see something good.
InshaAllah means “If God wills it”, meaning you will do such and such only if God wills it to happen.
Alhamdulillah means “thank God for this”, and that is self-explanatory.
Beyond learning how to read the Quran in Arabic so that you can read and recite it in prayer—something which is much easier than it sounds and can be done within a matter of months—you have no obligation to learn any language to be Muslim. Period.
Islam is for all people, all nations, all cultures, and all tribes.
There are many things in the Arab, Indo, Pak… cultures which are beautiful and in-line with Islam’s teachings, but there are many, many things which are not. Do not make the mistake of assuming that just because someone from a “Muslim” country told you something, it must be true in Islam.
The fact is that there are many, many religions in these other parts of the world that have intermixed with the culture and permeated Islam.
You will learn to tell the difference between religion and culture with time, but for now, know this: if you are Muslim, your name, your home, your life, your identity are Muslim.
Islam Came to Refine, Not Destroy
Allah did not make some kind of mistake in creating you and placing you within the family and culture you were born in. It’s not like because you are Muslim you were always meant to embrace another culture.
Allah placed you within your specific family and culture for a reason He understands.
If we all tear off our cultural identities when we embrace Islam, only to wear another mask of another culture, we fade into the background of our masajid and our communities. We assimilate to a culture that is not our own.
This makes fixing problems on the cusp of both cultures impossible because there is no one who understands both better than a convert. We live our lives straddling both places.
If we blend into the background of our Muslim communities, we become worthless in the fight for equality and justice in both communities.
Stand up and do your level best to refine the problems in your community and in your masjid, and do it with a proud stance as a Muslim American or a Muslim Canadian or a Muslim Australian or a Muslim Indian, or what have you.
If you toss off your culture, only wear foreign clothing, and change your name, you are sending a clear message to both your home culture and your new Muslim community: my culture is bad, so I found another.
This will not help anyone, Muslim or not.
Refine your culture from the inside out. Do your best to be an example for people in your town, your neighborhood, your home, and your country. Rather than abandoning your cultural practices, refine them!
Satisfy your curiosity and check out these other helpful links: