This blog was written as a guest column for The Drawing Board by Aaron Wannamaker – the celebrated writer behind www.muslisms.com, community leader, and published authour. In this op-ed, Aaron graciously offers his unique insights on what happens when someone converts to Islam.
Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world. As for the precise number of converts that make up that number, it is still unclear. But with Islam in the media spotlight, many people take it upon themselves to learn about Islam.
For those who decide to take the leap—or who have already taken it—this article is for you.
I help to run a program at one of the local mosques in Edmonton called Convert Connect. I’ve spoken one-to-one with many converts. Having been a Muslim for almost 9 years now, I’ve heard a lot of stories of people coming to Islam. Everyone has their own unique story to tell, and their own thing that drew them towards the religion. For some it was a sense of purpose; for some it came after a long, spiritual quest through many religions; for some, it just made sense.
Yet despite that, there are still many overarching themes that I find with convert stories. These are 11 of the common things you may come across, both in your personal life and in the community, after you’ve become a Muslim.
You’ll be tested. I know this sounds scary, so I might as well get it out of the way now. After you become a Muslim, there’s a strong likelihood that you’ll go through some form of difficulty. The first year is often the most difficult one. During this time, a lot of new Muslims face backlash from their friends and family and co-workers. Sometimes, health problems arise or jobs are lost. If you do go through a test or trial, think of it as your entrance exam. God says in the Quran:
“Do people think once they say, “We believe,” that they will be left without being put to the test?” (29:2)
However, He also says:
“So, surely with hardship comes ease. Surely with ˹that˺ hardship comes ˹more˺ ease.” (94:5-6)
This is a promise from God that, no matter what, things will get better. Be patient, and pray for God to help you. Eventually, your hardship will pass.
You’ll try to do everything all at once. Oftentimes, in their zeal for their new faith, a new Muslim will try and do everything: pray not just 5 times a day, but all the extra prayers—and the late-night tahajuud prayer. They’ll make an extensive, pages-long list of duas to recite morning and evening. They’ll throw themselves into studying fiqh and tajweed and hadith, with some memorization to boot. All of these things are great goals in and of themselves. But trying to take it all on at once is unsustainable.
If you try and do all of this at once, you’ll end up crashing and burning out. At which point, you’ll feel like you’re less of a Muslim because you’ve had to cut back on a lot of your ibadah (worship). You may even feel this because you’ve lost your New Muslim Zeal (which should be the name of a cologne). But fret not: this is normal. Sometimes you end up finding yourself on the extremes. A big part of Islam is finding your balance, so use this as a learning experience to help you find that balance.
You’ll become an ambassador of Islam. Like it or not, you’ll end up becoming the de-facto “Muslim” to the people in your life. In fact, you might even be the first (perhaps only) Muslim that your friends and family and co-workers meet. As such, whatever image you project of yourself inadvertently becomes an image people associate with Islam. This is why, personally, I’m against new Muslims changing their names—especially if they’re pressured into it. Your name is part of who you are. So if you’re friends grew up knowing Alex as a jean-wearing, ball-cap sporting soccer player, and now you’re Ammar with a thaub and kufi who no longer wants to deal with “filthy disbelievers” and is always talking about how evil the world is—well, would you blame them for thinking Islam turned you into this?
Islam is meant to be something that facilitates good for others. Furthermore, Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) said to make things easy for people, and that “The best of people are those that bring most benefit to the rest of mankind.” Who you are as a human being can change people’s hearts about Islam and about Muslims—for better or worse. You’ll be the face of Islam for many people. They will come to you with questions—do Muslims do this? what does Islam say about that? why do these terrorists call themselves Muslim? And you’re not going to have all the answers at first. But keep on learning, and stay upbeat and positive.
You’ll start to see your world differently. It won’t happen all at once, but gradually you will start to see the world through the lens of Islam. Things you once thought were normal or acceptable will seem strange or even wrong. You’ll notice that a lot of things our society partakes in are things that Islam prohibits—promiscuity, various forms of intoxication, even dealing with interest in a bank. However, this is not an excuse to hate on your own culture and society. Yes, there are problems. But there’s a lot of good in it, too: politeness, fairness in commerce, care for the disabled—all these things and more are things that Islam encourages. Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) lived in a society where people worshiped idols naked and where tribal honour took precedence over justice. And yet, as he was leaving Mecca, he turned to it and called it the most beloved place to him.
Everyone won’t see things the way you do. And remember that, for a time, you also saw things the way they do. Be empathetic towards them, and if someone questions you as to why you aren’t drinking anymore or wearing tight, low-cut skinny shorts, use it as an opportunity to tell them that it’s part of your faith.
You’ll become a minority. There’s a good chance that if you’re a Muslim convert, you’re Caucasian. For your average, 20-to-30-year-old white Canadian male or female, life is pretty normal. You may sympathize with minorities, but it’s another thing entirely to identify as one.
Even if you’re already an ethnic minority, when you become a Muslim you become part of the 3% of Muslims in Canada. For someone who grew up in your average Canadian household, it can be a bit of a shock. The words “oppression” and “fairness” take on new, and sometimes personal, meaning to you. You see how painful labelling others can be. You may even recognize prejudices within yourself that you never realized.
Unfortunately, in our heated climate, you’ll probably see or hear of things happening to your co-religion brothers and sisters that will hurt you. Prophet (pbuh) said that the Muslims are like “one body; when any limb of it aches, the whole body aches, because of sleeplessness and fever.” No matter what happens, though, don’t let it drive you to hate. We may be few, but that doesn’t mean we can’t make our voices be heard.
Your experience with the community will vary. When you get up in front of the prayer hall and repeat the shahada in Arabic, you’ll hear a lot of cheers and the whole community will come up and congratulate you (be prepared for lots of hugs). It may be a bit overwhelming, but know that everyone’s intentions are good.
The sad truth is, a lot of times Muslim communities, no matter how well intentioned, are not equipped to deal with Muslim converts. While some mosques have dedicated convert programs, many do not. Too often will a convert say their shahada and then be forgotten.
The upside is that you can usually find a way to get involved with the Muslim community. If you are at university, chances are there is a Muslim Students’ Association on campus and they’re always willing to accept new volunteers. If one mosque doesn’t seem particularly hospitable, find another one. Many mosques also function as community centers, so see which programs are going on and try to attend them. Again, at the very least, go to Friday Prayers. All of this can be a bit overwhelming, especially if you’re introverted. But the small amount of discomfort you’ll feel meeting new people will vastly outweigh the loneliness and confusion you’d feel otherwise.
You’ll have to develop your filter. The thing about being a new Muslim is that you’re impressionable. And this is understandable. If someone who has been a Muslim all your life tells you you’re going to Hell if you wear your pants below your ankles, who are you to question him? You’ve only been a Muslim for a few days; he’s been a Muslim for a lot longer than you so he, obviously, must be an authority.
But the brutal truth is that just because someone has been a Muslim all their life doesn’t necessarily mean they understand their religion correctly. A lot of people will mix culture and religion, but it’s so subtle that they won’t even notice it. But a good rule of thumb is this: if someone’s advice sounds strange, or they don’t have evidence to back it up, you have every right to question it.
Not only that, but you’ll also be dealing with people whose temperaments and expectations and backgrounds are different than yours. You’ll be exposed to a lot of cultures and a lot of different ways of practicing Islam when you become a Muslim. You may hear different opinions regarding certain issues—such as the aforementioned pants-below-the-ankles. So even if things seem black and white, know that the majority of the time there’s a grey area that can be navigated. It takes time to develop this, and to find where you’re comfortable within that grey area.
You’ll have to find a mentor. You can’t become a Muslim in isolation. Islam is a communal religion, and as a new Muslim it’s imperative that you become part of the community. And even more important than that is that you find a mentor.
A mentor doesn’t have to be a sheikh or imam. It can be an everyday Muslim. This person should be someone you can turn to with questions and advice, and if they can’t answer they should be able to point you to someone who can. But the deciding factor is that they should have a good understanding of the faith. How can you tell this? There are a few indicators:
- Look at their character; is this person well-mannered and respected?
- They should practice what they preach; does this person pray regularly, avoid bad habits and vices, ect.?
- Their advice should be practical; is this person teaching you how to implement your faith in your everyday life? Or did they just give you a laundry list of “don’t do”s?
- Pay attention to their attitude; are they a positive person, or are they always frowning and complaining about the “evils of society”?
- Do you like them? A mentor should be your friend.
A mentor should be a positive and encouraging presence in your life. This will help you develop not just as a Muslim, but also as a person.
You’ll be a target. Not to be alarmist, but Muslim converts are easy targets for extremist groups. Because of their impressionable nature, Muslim converts are sought out because their minds are pliable. A seed of hate can be planted in the new Muslim’s head, which can easily be watered by anger and violence, and fertilized with twisted ideologies. Fear can be used as a way to pressgang a Muslim convert into accepting extremist ideas.
If someone comes to you with information that seems strange to you, refer it to your mentor or to an imam or sheikh that you trust. Oftentimes, the strategy of an extremist is to cherry-pick hadith or verses from the Qur’an and ignorantly present them as solitary, hard-and-fast truths, without any consideration for context or other evidences related to this issue.
You’ll have to keep learning. Never stop learning. This is one of the most important things that every Muslim—not just new Muslims—need to grasp. The moment you think you’ve reached your spiritual plateau, a place where you feel like you know enough, is the moment you begin your downward descend. So keep striving to learn.
Well that’s what the internet is for, right?
No no no no no.
When it comes to religious knowledge, the internet is like a minefield in the dark. There are some safe spots, but there’s a danger of getting blown up. On the internet, everyone’s an expert. A forum is not where you find your fatwas (religious rulings). YouTube is not your sheikh. While there are websites that provide good information (listed at the bottom), these should just be a starting point.
When opportunities for learning or guidance come up, take them. This can be in the form of a seminar, a visiting speaker, a weekly halaqa (gathering), and at the very least, Friday Prayer. Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) said that “The seeking of knowledge is obligatory for every Muslim.” You need to put your effort in to learn, because the truth won’t come to you if you’re just sitting in one place.
But just as it is important to learn, it’s also important to learn correctly. You can’t just power through the volumes of Sahih Bukhari or a book of fiqh (religious jurisprudence) and call yourself an expert and start dishing out religious verdicts to people. If you want to learn hadith, start with Imam An-Nawawi’s 40 Hadith. If you want to learn Qur’an, start with reading through a reliable English translation, such as Abdel Haleem’s. There are some resources at the bottom of this article to help get you started.
Always stay curious, and never be shy to ask questions. If you have a question, know that you’re not the first person to ask it. There are very few questions in Islam that can’t be answered; those that do relate to matters of the unseen, such as “what do angels look like?” or “how does God decree destiny?”. But questions like “what does this verse mean in the Qur’an?” or “why do I have to do this?” will have an answer. So keep your mind open, and never stop learning.
It’s all worth it.
Many things will bring a person to Islam. Perhaps it’s their own research. Maybe it’s the people they know. It may come after a long and painful spiritual journey. But as time goes on and you deepen your understanding of the faith, you really come to know not only yourself, but God as well. You become more aware and respectful of the world you live in. In your times of need and fear, you’ll find God if you seek Him. You’ll struggle and there may be times when things seem hopeless or like the fear or pain will never end. But they always do. After becoming a Muslim, a better world awaits you—both in this life and in the next.
Islam is a journey, not a destination. Its knowledge is an ocean; you can wade safely along its shore, or dive into its endless depths. It’s your comfort and your armour.
Islam is a way of life, and a way of thinking.
Its message is simple: God is One and Muhammad (pbuh) is His Last Messenger.
Its purpose is clear: to teach us how to live a good life by serving God and honouring His creation.
Islam is simple. So keep it that way.
Aaron’s Recommended Websites