My experience at the ICNA Convention ironically began with my not wanting to volunteer to talk about my religion. I was asked to assist in the Window to Islam program as they were shorthanded this year. I had the opportunity to volunteer with them in 2008, so my name came about naturally. I wasn’t too keen on volunteering this year, but before I take you on the roller coaster ride this experience turned out to be, here’s a little background: Window to Islam is a one day symposium at the ICNA Convention where people of other faiths are challenged to learn about the various facets of Islam. Attendees discuss material about Islam and also engage in a tour of various aspects of the ICNA-MAS Convention. There are lectures, food and open discussions about Islam.
Initially, my trip to Hartford was slightly dependant on one of my family members who was expecting her first baby. I had vowed to drop everything and head to NY once she had gone into labor, but fortunately that time came 2 days before the convention. After seeing her little boy and heading to Hartford with my family’s consent, I still found myself facing issues with helping out at Window to Islam. While this opportunity is not something most would pass up, I felt by volunteering I would miss out on attending many other programs. I wouldn’t get a taste of being a convention attendee but would rather experience being an organizer. I wasn’t too thrilled about this because, like the average female, I wanted time to shop, time to sit back and hear the speeches.
But deep inside I knew that if I volunteered for ICNA I’d still have time for all these things. I’d be able to hang out and still fulfill my responsibility. I remembered verse 216 of Surah Baqarah: “And it may be that you dislike a thing while it is good for you, and it may be that you love a thing while it is bad for you, and Allah knows, while you do not know,” and decided to give the volunteering a go. I was able to get my good friends, April Covington and Aatika Choudry, to attend the session with me; at this point volunteering didn’t seem as bad, but I still had doubts.
Aatika was unable to volunteer at the last minute, but fortunately April was by my side. As we walked into the Marriott Capital Room, Saturday, May 23rd, I replayed some moments of last year’s Window to Islam session. I recalled the honor of moderating that session, the delicious brownies and fruit, and the chance to hear my favorite speaker Iman Badawi blow the audience away with her intellect. I briefed April on what questions to expect and advised her that it’d be best to simply be ourselves. I told her to expect the tour of the bazaar with her chosen group to go overtime, and to keep in mind we’d have to eat quickly at the end of the bazaar tour before going to observe prayer from up in the control room.
I expected about 4-5 people in my group for the tour. Then I was informed by Br. Tariq Zamir that a sister with a broken leg and disabled child was interested in Islam, and, due to their health circumstances, I’d be going one-on-one with her. I figured it was because she couldn’t walk fast and that would split up the group (trust me; you do not want to get split up in the bazaar!) This actually made me happy, as I only had one person to talk to, which equals a lot less work. I was clearly going for the minimal work principle. I did know, however, that I would still have to ask the attendee, Julie, what she liked about Islam and to what degree she was interested.
While Julie has more to say about some of the discussions we had that day, I’d like to share more about what I gained from volunteering at Window to Islam. I couldn’t even begin to imagine that I would find a wonderful new sister who would teach me about things like the physical sickness of a child and the instrumental place of a mother in curing matters of the heart. From Julie I learned that being sick allows you to focus on your health; you step back and realize you don’t even have full control over your body, something I had not been able to grasp until then!
I never would have thought that by attending the Window to Islam program I might be able to explain Islam to a new Muslim and Imam Sirraj Wahhaj, one of my favorite Imams, would take her shahada. Julie’s experiences and her story are timeless gifts. I never would have thought her shahada would take place on stage in front of 12,000 people and I might get to be a factor in this—subhanAllah! And to think, the entire time I did not want to help ICNA at the Window to Islam Symposium; SubhanAllah, if given the chance, I’d do it again in a heartbeat.
Last year I came to Window to Islam late in the day because I didn’t want to explain to my family members what plans I had. My family is Catholic. My parents are divorced and the only religion in my family is on my father’s side. I never had religion forced upon me or even taught to me as a child. Faith is something I spent my entire life searching for, and with each new experience it grows deeper. As a devout Christian I studied the Bible in depth. I studied the Old and New Testaments in depth, I studied translations and I studied the Hebrew and Greek with the concordance and lexicon. I found that no English translations could express what was in the oldest surviving books.
I have been interested in Islam since I was a child. I started reading the Quran in 1998, but I didn’t know any practicing Muslims. A friend of mine converted to Islam and when I found out last year, I had a lot of questions to ask. Before the Window to Islam event and the ICNA-MAS convention I only knew what I could learn from books and a very small Muslim community a few towns away from where I live. The Window to Islam event showed me the bigger picture; it showed me the common faith Muslims share and the community and family aspects of Islam.
Before I came to Window to Islam the first time, I knew I was interested in possibly converting to Islam. The first time I came, I came where I was in my faith. I decided not to wear hijab or to dress Muslim because I didn’t dress that way except to go to Mosque. I didn’t get a chance to talk to anyone personally last year except for Brother Jihad Abdul-Jabbar who was sincere in his faith and gave me the peace of mind to come back again another year and take another look.
This time I had been studying Islam seriously for one year and my experience was much different than last year. I came to Window to Islam as early as I could; my son’s pediatrician visit was re-scheduled to Saturday morning. I had already begun to change my habits. I had quit smoking and I had started to dress more modestly, wearing long sleeves and not wearing shorts. I wasn’t wearing hijab yet. I wasn’t sure if I could live up to all that is expected of a Muslim woman.
Window to Islam was great. I found out about Window to Islam surfing the web last summer. My experience was much different this year because I was determined not to let anything get in the way of my search for Islam. What I enjoyed most was the one-on-one interaction, the music, the food and most of all watching the people praying. I had a feeling I can’t explain watching everyone pray. The call to prayer was beautiful and it touched my heart. These are the things you can’t read in books or experience surfing the internet.
Very few times in my life have I ever felt that anyone understood my faith in Allah, but at the convention I felt that we all shared a common faith in one God, Allah. I didn’t expect to take shahada. Umber asked me what was stopping me from taking shahada and if I would like to take shahada.
My answer was that I felt my faith would be questioned, my motives would be questioned and I didn’t want anyone to try to change my mind about my faith in Allah. Umber said that people question your motives whether you do the right thing or the wrong thing, so why not do what you believe is pleasing to Allah? I knew what she said was the truth and that’s why I decided to take shahada. I know that even when you practice the same religion as your family does, you are questioned when you practice with more devotion. I had experienced the same things as a Christian. As a Christian my beliefs differed from others because of my studies; in Islam I find something that I know in my heart is the truth and the path that I know in my heart is the right path.
I knew I would be nervous to take shahada—if it was in front of one person or the entire world made no difference to me. I really didn’t want to know how many people would be watching when I took shahada and I didn’t even look out from the stage. I only looked at the Imam. It was easier than I thought it would be; I knew that Umber was right, that it would be best for me and for everyone who was there to take shahada in front of everyone. I loved listening to the Imam speak after shahada; it touched my heart because I was experiencing the same feelings after breaking my leg and having surgery and a titanium rod put in. I found a new concern for my health and a fear of leaving my disabled son an orphan in this world. I also found many blessings in my struggles – truly Allah does reward us when we patiently persevere.
After shahada I was greeted many times and the Muslimahs gave me lots of hugs and lots of love. I don’t think all the hugs I’ve gotten in my life added up to the amount of hugs the sisters gave me that day. It was a blessing to meet so many wonderful Muslim women and InshaAllah, we will keep in touch and I will never forget them! I came as a stranger and left as a friend and a sister in Islam.