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Understanding Conversion: Bridging the Two Selves

Sometimes I think about how much my life has changed over the past nine years.

When I try to reflect back on my days before Islam, I often find it difficult to recapture what life was like.

Sure I can remember events, people, places, and different experiences, but to go back and really feel what it was like, I have to reflect deeply.

When I am able to reconnect with my “former self,” I find it a remarkable experience. Although I am still very much the same person as I was in 1998, how I experience the world and how I view it and life has completely changed. Life is the same, yet different. 

We all view the world through a lens, whether we realize it or not. Our basic beliefs and values, whether derived from religion or some other source, known or unknown, allow us to judge the world, other people, and ourselves. They are how we understand right from wrong, and they impact the intricate nuances of our daily lives. 

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As our world continues to move in strange and unpredictable ways, Muslims everywhere, particularly those living in the West, find themselves compelled to discuss Islam with non-Muslims of all backgrounds and beliefs. Many have existing biases against Islam, whereas others come with an open mind. Either way, we Muslims must be capable and confident in not only being able to discuss basic Islamic beliefs, but also in conveying our own experiences and feelings about our religion.

Particularly for those of us who have converted, or “reverted,” to the faith, such occasions to discuss Islam with non-Muslims can be great opportunities to converse in a way that is personal and unique. To be able to do this, however, requires knowledge of one’s self and the knowledge of what one has undergone to arrive within the religion of Islam.

The power of personal stories and experiences is great, particularly those in which an audience can relate to and actually see themselves taking part. We can help them to question their own beliefs — an important step in opening up people’s hearts and minds.

Personal stories also help people empathize with what you have undergone, and such a level of understanding can be a powerful agent of change. Understanding ourselves can be a great source of wisdom.

Knowing who we are — our weaknesses, our faults, our strengths, and our “danger zones” — is essential if we are to progress in our quest and ongoing effort of self-perfection in the mold of the Prophet of Islam (peace and blessings be upon him).

What Do You Believe In?

Reverting from Christianity to Islam took me intensive one-on-one study with a knowledgeable teacher and an additional wealth of independent study. The entire process occurred throughout one and a half years, which, compared to other converts, may be long, yet to others may be not so long. Nevertheless, throughout my reversion period, every day, in fact every moment, I was consumed with self-reflection.

“Who am I?” and “who do I want to be?” were two of the most nagging questions I had to answer; probably the most prominent was “what do I believe in?” 

Ultimately, my conversion began with this question: “What do I believe in?” I was Christian, yet I did not really know what I believed about my own religion, the religion I was born into and practiced — in varying degrees — for 27 years.

What I learned about myself through reflection, however, was that I did know what I believed in, which was that I really didn’t believe in anything! Further questions I had were “What did I believe about God? What did I believe about life? How about death? What did I believe about my society and culture?”

All these questions seemed so big and so difficult to answer. But eventually, I did answer them for myself, and al-hamdu lillah (all praise be to God), the answers all pointed in the direction of Islam.

The Many Levels of Conversion

Although conversion is a phenomenon that is completely unique to every one, nevertheless, those who are serious about it will undoubtedly undergo self-examination of some kind in order to embrace a new way of life and belief system. In fact, we must do this.

Whether we realize it or not, “conversion” occurs on many levels within us; and especially with those from the West, many, many engrained cultural values have to be challenged and overcome in order for “self-Islamization” to occur.

In my time talking with Muslims-by-birth, I have found it amazing that many dedicated Muslims have undergone their own rediscovery of the religion, almost in the same way as a non-Muslim who comes into Islam does for the first time.

Putting Islam to the Test

Many Muslims-by-birth I meet tell me that they have a certain level of envy for converts because they recognize a high level of dedication and appreciation for Islam within themselves, that they desire, but have been unable to achieve.

In fact, in speaking with one brother, he even had the courage to ask me what I thought was the cause of this. Of course I told him that I could only speak from my own experience, but that in my example much of it had to do with getting to know myself and facing up my true beliefs about not only religion, but also life itself.

I empathize with Muslims who are born into Islam and cannot appreciate it as much as they would like to. Perhaps they feel as I did about Christianity for many years.  In discussing this matter with the brother, I challenged him to “put Islam to the test.” I told him that maybe he had to undergo the same process that we — converts — undergo when we convert, namely, the process of questioning basic beliefs and challenging ourselves to find truth.

For people born into Islam, this means going beyond basic levels and striving to go deeper than they ever have before to understand Islam. This, from what I observe, is how many Muslims have rediscovered Islam. They have more or less willed it. They have traveled, they have studied, they have sought out knowledgeable teachers, and they became more involved in their communities — they did whatever it took them.

They have gone past the understanding of religion as it was passed down to them from their parents, and they found Islam for themselves. For many, it happens when confronted with different life circumstances, for example, perhaps when they go abroad to study and are suddenly no longer in an Islamic environment, or when they or a family member becomes inflicted with an illness or when they experience a tragedy, or for some perhaps when a particularly stubborn Christian missionary puts them to the test and they find that they do not have the level of faith they thought they did.

Whatever the scenario is, experiences such as these force us to draw definitive conclusions about why we live this life of Islam. As Muslims, we know that submission means, “we hear and we obey,” as we are (ideally) servants of our Creator. For many, myself included, accepting Islam includes a greater yearning for truth and knowledge of God as well. This can occur, however, only when we push on with that search for truth, even once we have accepted Islam.

If we read the biographies of some of Islam’s distinguished personalities, we come across lives such as that of the Islamic scholar Imam Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali, who yearned for a more direct experience and deeper level of truth, although he had already achieved great worldly status as a scholar. In order to do so, however, he underwent a major questioning of his beliefs and an abandoning of all his worldly status before he could arrive at it. The results of his life journey speak for themselves.

Imam An-Nawawi, another renowned Islamic scholar, speaking about Imam Al-Ghazali’s Ihya’ `Ulum Ad-Din (Revival of the Religious Sciences), wrote “Were all the books of Islam (except for the Quran and the Hadith books, that is) to be lost save the Revival alone, it would suffice for the Muslims.”

The Search for the Inner Self

Imam Al-Ghazali looked deep within himself to arrive at the conclusion that his worldly successes, even as an Islamic scholar, would not be enough to save him on the Day of Judgment. He feared for his fate and thus had to address the inkling in his heart that told him to go farther.

Uncovering our inner selves can be a difficult experience. It often entails dissecting the darkest layers within us. It requires self-effacement and the courage to be vulnerable, admitting that we may not have the answers we thought we did in life. It is, without a doubt, a test of the highest and greatest magnitude.

God draws our attention throughout the Quran to the importance of reflection:

{Those who remember God standing and sitting and lying on their sides and reflect on the creation of the heavens and the earth and say, “Our Lord, You have not created this in vain! Glory be to You; save us then from the chastisement of the Fire.} (3:191)

We know that reflection is not an easy thing, particularly when it is directed to ourselves. In another verse,

{Do they not reflect in their own minds? Not but for just ends and for a term appointed did God create the heavens and the earth and all between them: Yet there are truly many among people who deny the meeting with their Lord (at the Resurrection)} (30:8)

When I look at myself today as opposed to three years ago, I see two different people. No, rather, I see two people with many of the same attributes, but in completely different places.

The Shelter of Religion

A very well-known, contemporary scholar talks about religion as a shelter. He says if your shelter is strong and protects you from all the devils in the world, has no holes in the walls, and keeps out the rain, then it is a good one.

However, if your shelter is porous and doesn’t protect you from the devils, then you need a new one. The “me” nine years ago was in a badly damaged shelter that was not protecting me from the elements. “Me” today, however, with Islam, in sha’ Allah, is in a much better shelter, one that protects me as long as I stay in it and don’t leave it.

Conversion within us does this. It literally moves us from one place in life to another. Therefore, every piece of “us” must change; it must undergo examination and renewal to arrive at the truth, not just back into it accidentally or unwillingly.  Many of us — whether non-Muslims coming into Islam or Muslims who feel the need to “re-find” Islam — today do not understand how dramatic the process of conversion is.

If we read the stories of the Companions of Prophet Muhammad and look at how dramatically their lives changed upon coming into Islam, only then do we fully understand how encompassing Islam is and how radically it can affect every aspect of one’s self. It can turn animals into saints, heathens into angels. It is nothing less than the total renewal of the person, from top to bottom.

If we all delve a little deeper and get to know ourselves a little more, both the good and the bad parts, we can all undergo some sort of reawakening for the sake of God. All it takes is will, effort, and reliance on and help from God.

About Abdul-Lateef Abdullah
Abdul-Lateef Abdullah, an American convert to Islam, obtained his Bachelor’s degree in Political Science & Economics at the University of Delaware, his Master’s degree in Social Work from Columbia University, and recently completed his Ph.D. from the Institute for Community & Peace Studies, Universiti Putra Malaysia, in the field of Youth Studies. He has worked as a Program Assistant for the Academy for Educational Development (Washington, D.C.); a Social Worker at the Montefiore Medical Center (Bronx, New York); and the Director of Documentation and Evaluation at Community IMPACT! (Washington, D.C.). He has also worked with the the Taqwa Gayong Academy (New Jersey, U.S.A./Penang, Malaysia) for troubled youth, both Muslim and non-Muslim. As a recent (1999) convert to Islam, he spends much time writing about his experiences as a Muslim-American convert.