My name is Ahmad Shakur, and my guest this evening is Michelle Ashfaq, who is originally from New York.
She is married and a mother of three. She is a first-grade teacher at the Charlotte Islamic Academy in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Michelle is consented to share with us her thoughts about converting to Islam, and her motivation for doing so, and her concerns as a Muslim.
Host: Michelle, I want to thank you for joining us this afternoon in our little conversation.
We’ve got a few things to talk abut this afternoon, but I want to start by just simply asking you how were you introduced to Islam?
My Life Before Islam
Sister Michelle: When I look back now I can say that I think I was introduced to Islam in a very subtle way, even in childhood. When I attended a Catholic school I was so drawn to the stories of prophets, some of them were Jesus and Yunus (may peace be upon them). But I think it started from there just the fascination of somewhere over there in the Middle East.
But I was originally really starting hearing about Islam and learning about it through my husband through his character and his good example and ways in teaching me etiquettes and cleanliness before I was even converted. He just told me a lot of things and then I started reading Islamic books that were sent over from Pakistan from my father-in-law, and I started reading, and that’s how I started to just get a feel for what Islam was.
Q: Before converting to Islam, did you consider other religions or was Islam what you wanted to do?
Sister Michelle: Before converting to Islam I went through a phase of just not knowing any more what I wanted to do as far as faith and prayer, besides being raised Catholic, and I had been attending Baptist church with my grandparents due to circumstances. So I was going to both places to worship. Then when I was about 17 or 18, something happened. One day I went to the Catholic church and then something just told me don’t go inside. And I just felt like every Sunday I just started getting late and things would happen like things would be in my path to stop me from going.
When I look back now, it’s amazing that it happened for a reason, that I was just confused and I knew nothing about Islam at all. I knew nothing about any other religion because I was naive. I grew up in a very small town with my grandparents in southern west Virginia, and I was only going to church and back from church. That’s all what I knew.
Q: Now tell me Michelle, now that you are a Muslim, and you have been Muslim now for 12 years, a married woman, how does Islam make a difference in your life?
The Peace is Tremendous
Sister Michelle: Islam has made the most tremendous difference in my life, like there are no words to explain. The peace that you feel with Islam is tremendous. I think it is also a connection that you have between you and God, Allah. I just cannot find the words. I thought about that question, like how can I put it into words.
But I would say that one of the most powerful things would have to be reading the Holy Quran because of the knowledge and the guidance that it provides; any question that you have, there is an answer. If you have a question when you start reading the Quran and somehow when you turn the page you will read it and the answer is there. It’s a healing. And it says in the Quran that it’s a healing to the breasts of the believers; for any emotional sickness. I would say that the Quran definitely had a huge impact with me.
Q: You mentioned your former Christian life. Tell me a little bit about what you thought about Islam before becoming a Muslim, and what does it signify to you today?
Sister Michelle: Before converting I had really not known anything up until like I said when I met my husband and started reading books about becoming a Muslim.
Q: What attracted you to the religion of Islam?
Sister Michelle: The simplicity of it. The simplicity of Islam is what really attracted me, and knowing that the Quran I can open and I can understand what I’m reading. Because when I was going to the Catholic church we did not have Bibles or books we can open and read and understand what we are reading. We just had to listen to the priest and the sermon he was giving. And we had to think about what he was talking in terms of faith-value, and most of the times I used to question things.
I can still remember two of the things that I questioned deeply: one was that they want you to have confession at a Catholic church, and I remember my mother was pushing me saying “You have to go for confession, you must go for confession” and I would say “Confession for what?” She would say “You have to go to the priest, you have to tell him all the sins that you did”. And for me that was very strange.
I thought “Why do I have to go to this man and confess? I know he is a priest, but he is not my father!” Still at a young age, I knew there was something that was not right with that. So we had a bit of an argument. Pretty much I told him I don’t have any big sense to confess and he looked at me very strange. I said “Why do I have to come to you, can’t I talk to God directly?” and he did not have an answer for me. He said “My daughter, just go and do the prayers Hail Mary” that was his answer for me.
The other question that I really had to question was if you say that if we don’t believe in Jesus as a savior, what about the people that came from Abraham (peace be upon him)? What about those people that followed him before Jesus came? If you are telling me that if I don’t believe this way that I would go to the Hellfire, so what about those people? Abraham was a prophet and they followed him as well. These are the two big questions that I had.
Q: Were their answers not satisfying for you?
Sister Michelle: No, there didn’t seem to be any logical answers to those questions.
Q: It must have been a frustrating time for you, spiritually?
Sister Michelle: It was. I think the most frustrating time was when I had not met my husband, and I really did not know what to do, where to go to worship, and it was a whole year of just like drifting, questioning God, why is this happening to me? Why can I not go to the church? I was baptized at that church. I loved going to the Catholic church. I loved everything about it. I remember I was the only one who stayed and talked to the priest and talk to any of the nuns. I would stay with them. I even wanted to be a nun when I was small. There were pictures of me taking my shirt and putting it over my head when I was a child. I told mom that I wanted to be a nun when I grow up, I don’t want to get married I want to be a nun, and I was so devoted that way.
Q: How are those issues resolved for you now that you are a Muslim. How are you getting those questions answered now?
Sister Michelle: Definitely I would say that when you learn about Islam is like learning how you are to live as a human being. Like any question that you have or any problem that you face, you have the hadith of our Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). For me hadith is such a wonderful book of knowledge to have and how to deal with problems that we have everyday that we face. This cannot be found in the Christian faith.
Another thing is our salat (prayer) that we pray five times a day and how significant that is, because that keeps you focused. You think about the five times. You have to wake up in the very early morning, which is hard but I’m doing this for God and I want my sins to be forgiven for the whole day. So this makes a big difference. Also, the fasting; to think about the poor people, to really fast and truly feel hungry and feel like I’m making a sacrifice for God Almighty like I’m doing this for Him and Him alone. And Zakat (giving money) that constantly keeps me reminded about the importance of these things.