July 1, 2012 | Ansari, Kiran
The necessity of following up with new Muslims.
AS MELINDA FACED THE CROWD on a bright, warm afternoon in Iune2010, she knew she would remember this day forever. It was literally and figuratively the first day of a new chapter in her life – the day she accepted Islam. After taking the shahadah, scores of women came and hugged her. Some were crying. It was a little overwhelming, but Melinda felt special and her heart testified that she had made the best decision of her life.
It was after the hugs and handshakes came to an end, that reality began sinking in. While her heart was throbbing with excitement, her head was exploding with questions. She continued to come to the mosque as often as she could but the zeal with which everyone had welcomed her the first day was hard to find. Yes, women would answer questions if Melinda asked, but she had no friends, no one to confide in, and no one to call or go out for lunch with.
Melinda’s story is not unique. Scores of converts feel that “born-Muslims” are guilty of not following up as well as they can with their new sisters and brothers who take such a giant leap of faith.
“It is a sad reality that we get excited when someone takes the shahadah but the enthusiasm dissipates and the new converts are often not provided with half as much support as they need,” says Dr. Sabeel Ahmed, director of GainPeace.
To help alleviate this issue, GainPeace initiated a structured mentorship program in 2006 that has helped thousands of new Muslims connect with God other Muslims and the community. Their “Welcome to Islam Package” includes a copy of the Quran in Arabic, English and Spanish, How to Pray DVD, a hijab or kufi and other basic information to inform but not overwhelm the new Muslim. Then, they are paired with a trained mentor for 100 days to help with the fundamentals and basic Quranic chapters. They are also encouraged to join classes specifically designed for reverts – whether in-person or ordine.
Ahmed suggests that when someone takes the shahadah, the imam should appeal to the community to take responsibility of staying connected with the new Muslims by exchanging telephone numbers, meeting them at least once a week and introducing them to their social network.
FACEBOOK TO THE RESCUE
For those who do not live close to a mosque or are hesitant to introduce themselves as new Muslims, Facebook has become a good resource.
Reem Saenz, a Latino convert herself, felt that there was a void in information about Islam in Spanish. She felt the available material was too complicated for reverts. So, she created a Facebook group called “No Perfectos Sino Musulmanes Conversos” which means “We are not perfect, just Muslim converts.” The group is moderated by four administrators and was formed on the premise of encouraging people to ask questions without being judged. At press time, they had 150 active members, most of them new Muslims and others who have questions about Islam and are considering converting.
Catalina Cordova, 19, from Arizona, a member of this group, first heard about Islam when she saw some Muslims at her workplace. However, they were very shy to talk about their faith so Cordova turned to the Internet for answers. She had her “Aha!” moment when she had a dream that she was in a classroom wearing hijab and everyone was waiting for her to read the Quran. She started digging deeper and, a few all-nighters later, she felt happy inside.
“I love this Facebook group since Reem and the other Admins don’t complicate stuff?’ Cordova says. “They don’t copy and paste from other websites and inundate their answers with Arabic terms. They explain with the support of Hadith but keep it simple.”
By winter of 20 1 1 , Cordova took the shahadah. While it is easier for younger reverts to get used to certain things like praying or learning a new language as compared to those who accept Islam later in life, it comes with its own challenges. Since she still lives with her parents, it saddens her to know that her mother is not happy with her decision.
“My mother doesn’t let me cover my hair and tells me that I am wasting my time,” Cordova says. “However, my mom does notice that I don’t party at night any longer and try my best not to fight with my parents.”
WHEN THE WEB WORKS FOR YOU
Saenz finds it interesting to note how people stumble upon her group. They could be looking for a recipe for Arabic food and they land on her YouTube video or Facebook page and find a simple introduction to Islam – minus the jargon.
“Random curiosity can lead you to something that you are meant to see,” Saenz says. “Islam sometimes seems mystical, like something out of the Aladdin movie, but then it can also be confusing if one is not properly guided. Most videos about Islam start with ‘Asalaamu alaikum’ and lots of Arabic words that can immediately throw off non-Muslims.”
Since there are very few Hispanic role models that have converted to Islam, Saenz created humorous skits to encourage viewers to learn more about her new-found faith. Whether she talks about wearing the hijab backwards or reading an Arabic book the other way around, she talks to the viewers at their level, and this is what appeals to them the most.
“When people have issues with hijab with their family I tell them to remember that the biggest symbol for Mexicans is Virgin Mary and she is always seen covered in every depiction of her,” Saenz says.
ISLAM ACROSS THE BORDER
Eduardo Lopez Curiel, another administrator of this group, a biologist, grew up thinking science and faith were two separate things. While his parents were Catholic, he never felt truly Catholic in his heart. Once he read, “Bible, Science and the Quran,” he felt at peace knowing that religion and science can be in sync. He felt “spiritually complete.”
Curiel lives in Mexico City and began his quest on the Internet when he didn’t find good books about Islam in Spanish. That’s when he found Saenz’s YouTube video which is a light-hearted attempt to humanize Islam and not make it into an alien faith.
“Sometimes I used to feel like I am the only Muslim in Mexico,” Curiel says. “But since I have found this group, I feel like I am not alone. Many of my old friends made fun of me. But now I have found a group of ‘rookie Muslims’ trying to help one another.”
TYING THE KNOT
When it comes to finding suitable spouses for their children, many parents overlook the New Muslims citing cultural and language preferences. However, Islam advocates marrying on the basis of piety and many a time marrying a revert can strengthen one’s own faith as he or she becomes more conscious of setting a good example. Mentors can informally help with matchmaking too as marriage is considered half of a Muslim’s faith.
“We spend so much time and money trying to bring people to Islam; however, we need to understand that these people have no families, no brothers or sisters in Islam to celebrate Eid or guide them about Ramadan,” Saenz says. “We often become more of a judge than a sincere friend. We encourage them to covert but when the converts wish to resume their new life and wish to keep studying and get married like every other Muslim, we forget that our sons and daughters could marry them, too. We deprive our children from those who embraced Islam.”
When someone does marry a revert, it is crucial for his family and friends to support his decision. Otherwise, hurtful comments can leave deep scars. Salma Gamal (not her real name) converted to Islam when she married her Egyptian husband. She has learned how to pray and read the Quran in Arabic and is always looking for ways to understand the message of the Quran. That might be more than what some Muslims that are born into the faith do.
However, six years down the road, she still hears the occasional, “One doesn’t become a Muslim just by getting a Muslim name,” “What will she teach her kids when she doesn’t know anything herself?” and “I don’t want to associate with people that don’t pray five times a day.”
THE WORK HAS JUST BEGUN
Ahmed feels the rapid rate at which people are converting to Islam means the increased need for trainers and training. With more Latinos converting, it is necessary for more mentors learn Spanish or have more Hispanic converts train to become mentors. He feels the challenge is more pronounced when it comes to reaching out to the men to attend new Muslim classes as compared to women.
He also hopes that there is a healthy exchange oidawah (outreach) resources on a national and regional level so that individual mosques need not replicate efforts already established by other groups. Work together on enhancing the curriculum and then sharing it vastly so it is more accessible to people all across the nation.
There will always be roadblocks at every major intersection of life. But Cordova sums it up beautifully.
“I did not convert to Islam to make others happy,” she says. “I might have troubles now, but I will never give up and only ask Allah for help.”
Zulayka Martinez says she “felt very alone” during her first two Ramadans
Kiran Ansar! is a freelance writer who lives in the suburbs of Chicago with her family. Reach her at email@example.com
Copyright Islamic Society of North America Mar/Apr 2009
Article Courtesy: Islamic Horizons