Bismillah al-Rahman al-Raheem
9 June 2014, San Francisco, California
My body felt heavy and exhausted as I stepped off the plane in San Francisco. Eleven hours on a plane after a whirlwind six months abroad apparently takes its toll. Not to mention I hadn’t been able to fit all of my books back into the suitcase I came with, and was now lugging a decent-sized hand baggage, filled to the brim, through SFO.
The last month before I left the U.K. had been a time of intense change for me. As the clouds melted away and spring began to bloom in London in early May, my old life began to melt and I could see that something new would be emerging. I had met my husband (though I wouldn’t call him that for some time yet), and my interest in Islam peaked when I started seeing a practising born Muslim on the regular. It was a rush of books, new ideas, and changes in the way I had always seen the world.
In contrast to the stark clarity with which I remember my time in London, those summer months after I returned are a blur to me. I remember riding my bike to the local library a few times each week, returning the books on Islam that I had taken and scouring the shelves for anything new. My introductory books now had a shelf of their own in my room, displayed right next to the brand new Arabic-English Qur’an that I had picked up on my last trip to Barnes and Noble.
When I wasn’t going to the library or reading, I was enjoying settling back into normal life with my family. My sister and I went to the mall like we had always done before, though she was left somewhat puzzled by my odd pull towards more modest pieces and my newfound obsession with maxi dresses. As much as I would never have admitted it to myself back then, I think my subconscious knew all along that I would end up converting and, shortly after, wearing hijab and I was preparing.
Everything came to an abrupt stop when I got sick that July, and the next few months of illness were a complete haze. Mostly bedridden during that time, I can remember doing a lot of praying for God to guide me and to forgive me. The downtime that I was forced into during those months gave me time to delve into the Qur’an, and though I didn’t understand a whole lot of what I was reading I somehow felt drawn to it.
As I came out of the illness it was time to head back to Santa Cruz to finish my final year of my bachelors degree. I got in the car that September with some trepidation, knowing that I would finally have to face the ex-boyfriend and all of the friends that I had left so far behind during my semester abroad and, on a deeper level, knowing that I would not have much in common with them anymore. That summer, I had come to realize that I was in love with Islam the way you see people fall in love in romantic comedies: first they are best friends, and then all of a sudden one of them wakes up and realizes they are madly in love with the other. What had started as an academic interest turned into the only way of life I could envision for myself.
I moved into my apartment with a good friend and previous roommate, and for a little while, I could pretend that everything was quite normal. I went to classes, got back into going to the gym, and didn’t speak much about my mysterious foreign man who I got on Skype with a few times a day. Over dinner we ignored the fact that I was no longer eating pork or drinking alcohol.
Then, one warm October day, I snuck out of the apartment and headed to the Fall Fair, where all of the various clubs and societies were accepting new members. I had one goal: to go seek out the Muslim Students’ Association. I walked in and grabbed a map at the entrance, located their table, and started walking purposefully towards the area they were located in, praying that I wouldn’t see anyone I knew.
I spotted their table from a ways off (a bunch of dudes with beards don’t exactly blend in too well), and as I was standing a few feet away trying to muster up my courage to go speak to them, a bright, smiling girl in a headscarf bounced up to me and asked if I needed anything. I told her I wanted to convert to Islam, and just like that, I was part of the group. I was glad for her warm enthusiasm that day, and ours would actually turn into a friendship that is still alive and well.
I began going to meetings and getting to know the rest of the sisters, who were all more than willing to lend their help in whatever way possible. For the first time, I felt like I had found somewhere to really belong, and a sense of peace that I had never before felt in my life was coming over me.
I confided one day in my friend that I would really like to learn to pray, but just wasn’t sure where to start, so she invited me to the MSA’s Friday prayer. It was my first ever Friday prayer, and I had no idea what was going on, but it was on that fateful day that I met another friend, this time an older woman and a professor at my university, who would become a sort of mentor to me.
It was with her that I would begin going to the mosque a few cities away, with her that I would truly begin to learn and practise this religion, and it was with her that I attended the class where I took my official shahada.
It was mid November, and it was one of the first of many seminars she would take me along with her to attend. I remember it vividly, it was called Prayer Beyond the Motions, and it perfectly coincided with my learning to pray and gradually working the five daily prayers into my schedule. It was a three-day seminar, and not only was it the first time I had attended an Islam class live, but also the first time I prayed in a proper mosque in rows with all of my sisters in Islam.
On the second day she took me up and introduced me to the shaykh that was teaching, and when asked if I had taken my shahada yet I replied no. He told me he would be glad to do it for me there on the spot, but for some reason I held back. Looking back now I don’t remember why; I had been practising Islam, going to Friday prayers, and even dabbling in some sunnah fasting all before this point. Perhaps I felt that I didn’t need to do it officially, since it was already in my heart.
Whatever the feeling I was having, as we drove towards the mosque where the class was being held on the third and final day, I made up my mind. When the first break started, I screwed up my courage and went to tell the teacher that I was ready. He smiled like he already knew, and as the class resumed he called me up to the front.
After about two words of repeating the shahada after him, I broke down into tears. To this day I don’t know why, perhaps it was a mix of happiness at the new life I was embracing, sadness for the life I was leaving behind, or maybe just the profound peace that had no other way to let itself out of my heart and body. I stumbled tearfully through the shahada, and then my friend gave me a big hug. That, in turn, was the signal for all the other sisters to get up and hug me, and I went through the long line of women and back to my seat. Throughout the rest of the class women kept coming up to me, welcoming me, hugging me, handing me small gifts they had bought from the bookstore. One woman even gave me a tajweed color-coded mushaf, and inside I found a little slip of paper with her name and phone number on it, in case I should ever need anything.
Though you could call that the very beginning of my journey, it was one of the most touching moments I have ever experienced within the Muslim community. The general outpouring of love and welcome for a girl they probably hadn’t even noticed until this day was overwhelming, and I will forever be grateful to not only my friend that took me to that class, but all the women who gave me the most positive start possible on what would be a long, long journey.
The rest, you could say, is history. I continued to attend classes, read books, learn, and grow into my new identity as a Muslimah throughout the rest of my time in Santa Cruz, and eventually began a new chapter when I moved to the U.K. I have talked a little bit about how my family handled the situation here, but if you would like I could write a bit more on that in shaa Allah, just let me know!
Because putting on the hijab was such a big part of my journey, and one that has finally reached a conclusion only within the past year, I am going to devote a whole couple of posts to that story next month. Also, if you would like to read more about my illness the summer before I converted you can find that here. I hope reading my story has given you some things to reflect on, and I pray that it can be of benefit to others out there!
If you missed Part I, read that HERE.