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Young Convert Finds Structure in Islam (Q&A)

People who choose Islam for their lives find it in many different ways. Some find Islam through loved ones. Others find it through travel. While others find it through research.

How Allah guides us is as varied as His creation. One thing every convert to Islam has in common is that they truly believe in God.

And whoever believes in God, He will guide his heart. (Quran 64:11)

On the 20th anniversary of someone who came to Islam in his youth, I sat down and asked a few questions everyone is eager to know when they hear he became Muslim at the tender and tumultuous age of 16. Here is what he had to say.

Q: To which faith does your family ascribe?

A: My father is a Christian and my mother followed many different belief systems. Since my parents divorced by the time I was a year old, I lived most of my life growing up with my mom.

During my youth, mother was really big into paganism at times. Then she was into metaphysical spirituality and taught me a lot about meditation.

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Then she even dabbled in witchcraft. It was an atypical upbringing for a white, southern male. We also moved around a lot and I was allowed to do pretty much anything I wanted. Because of this, I really craved structure in my life. I found that structure in Islam. Alhamdulillah.

Q: How old were you when you came to Islam?

A: I was 16 years old, a sophomore in high school. That was back in 1996.

Q: During this time of American history, not many people knew much about Islam. How did you discover it?

A: It was actually in history class. I wasn’t a great student, but I had a healthy level of intellectual curiosity. So when my history teacher announced that we would be skipping a huge section of our history book, I wondered why when most students were just thankful that they didn’t have to do all the work that those chapters involved.

Because of my curiosity, I started reading the skipped chapters. They turned out to be about Islam and the Islamic empire.

And right there in my history book were the tenets of faith in Islam as a description of what Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) taught. I couldn’t believe what I was reading. They described what I held to be true in my heart. I knew I was in my heart a Muslim and wanted to make it official.

Q: How did you go about making it official?

A: There was a kid in my algebra class who had a strange name (Ali) and looked brown, so I asked him if he was a Muslim. I know that sounds so racist, but I was so naive. I had no exposure to any difference culture, ethnicity, nationality, or faith outside of the US.

He was really cool and forgiving about my question. He laughed and said that he was in fact a Muslim and a Pakistani. I asked him if I could go to the mosque with him. I also asked if I was pronouncing the word “mosque” correctly, I only knew it from my history book. He laughed kindly once again and said he would bring me that weekend.

I attended the Sunday school class at the mosque that he went to and ask if I could become a Muslim. The leaders of the class told me that I would have to learn a little bit more about Islam before I could take the shahadah [testimony of faith one says that makes one a Muslim].

They told me to come back to a few more Sunday school classes. Then if I was still interested in being a Muslim, they would help me. I was ready then and there and I couldn’t understand why I had to wait. So after the class was over, I asked Ali to help me become a Muslim. He told me to repeat the testament of faith after him. And that was it, I was officially Muslim.

Q: How did you continue your Islamic education? Did you receive support from the Muslim community after you converted?

A: I continued to take the Sunday school classes about Islam and everyone welcomed me so warmly. I was blessed to be surrounded by a great community. Ali’s family took me in, when my family was not as understanding as I had hoped. There were also a few Muslim kids who went to school with me. They made the transition a lot easier. We all learned and encouraged each other.

Q: You mentioned that your family was not as understanding as you had hoped, how do you mean?

A: They are now very supportive and even defend Islam to people. But it was a long road to get to where they are now. And I don’t blame them. They held all the misconceptions about Islam and Muslims that are so pervasive in American and Western society at large.

They thought I was going to become violent, that I was no longer myself, or that I had joined a cult. The usual reactions new Muslims get, but this was a pre-9/11 era, so I am assuming it wasn’t as bad as some new Muslims experience from their families these days.

For a while, family members would sneak pork into my food. They made fun of the Salam [greeting of peace Muslims say to each other when meeting and parting]. A few times they even pulled my prayer rug out from underneath me while I was praying. It was rough being the only Muslim kid in a family of non-Muslims who hated Islam. But I loved my faith and wasn’t going to give up what I believe in for anything.

Q: Did you hide the fact that you had converted to Islam from your non-Muslim classmates?

A: No. I never hid my Islam. I was proud to be a Muslim and told anyone who knew me. Plus, I prayed in the hallway, so I kind of had to explain that to people who witnessed what might have seemed extremely strange to onlookers.

Q: Since you were very open about your faith, how did the non-Muslim students react?

A: Being a Muslim in high school had its rough moments. Some people who had only had an understanding of Islam through the ‘Nation of Islam’ would insist that I couldn’t be Muslim because I am white.

At my school, the serious Christians and Muslims banded together and supported each other. People called us the “God Squad” and knew that we were not into drinking, partying, or anything like that. I often look back and wish more adults could be as mature and inclusive as we were in the “God Squad”.

Q: Do you have any advice for new Muslims who come to Islam at an early age like you did?

A: Absolutely. Once you establish that you are a Muslim and dedicated to your faith, people around you eventually start to understand and respect your boundaries. You just have to respect yourself and your faith, and then those around you will follow suit. And if they don’t, you can always limit interaction with people who don’t respect your values and life choices.

I think that is wise approach to relationship for everyone, not just converts. Always trust in God. He will be with you no matter how hard your struggle may be.

(From Discovering Islam’s archive)

About Theresa Corbin
Theresa Corbin is the author of The Islamic, Adult Coloring Book and co-author of The New Muslim’s Field Guide. Corbin is a French-creole American and Muslimah who converted in 2001. She holds a BA in English Lit and is a writer, editor, and graphic artist who focuses on themes of conversion to Islam, Islamophobia, women's issues, and bridging gaps between peoples of different faiths and cultures. She is a regular contributor for and Al Jumuah magazine. Her work has also been featured on CNN and Washington Post, among other publications. Visit her blog, islamwich, where she discusses the intersection of culture and religion.