Finding my Faith

I'm not the same woman I was at 27 when I told my mother, "Ma, I can't eat the pasta fagioli." (She'd made it with bacon.) I'm not the same woman who lied when she said, "I didn't become Muslim because of Ahmed." 

My mother believes that for women, most problems and solutions begin and end with the man in her life. But back then there was no way this feminist would admit to anyone -- including herself and especially not her mother -- that she had converted because of a man. 

But today, at 42, and secure in my faith, I can admit that if it weren't for Ahmed -- though he is now my ex-husband -- the word "Islam" would probably still conjure up images of black-cloaked women and melodramatic Sally Field movies in my head. After all, I am my mother's daughter. 

The day I left my Italian-Bronx neighborhood to go to college, I knew my communion and confession days were over. I was never going to let Jesus stick to the roof of my mouth again. There were too many contradictions for me in Catholicism. Why was my never-miss-Sunday-mass father excommunicated after he and my mother divorced -- especially when she was the one having the affair? How could the pope have an Olympic-size swimming pool while millions of his people were starving? And how could I tolerate the church's position on abortion and women's rights? 

By the time I transferred from Barnard to UCLA, I was a lapsed Catholic who wanted nothing to do with organized religion. But I needed to believe in something. 

During my years at UCLA I spent more hours making fliers, organizing demonstrations and making phone calls -- and once or twice bail -- than I spent studying. I defended clinics under attack by anti-abortionists; I worked for funding for the homeless and against nuclear testing; I traveled to Nicaragua to build houses and to Arizona to herd sheep for Navajos fighting to keep their land. 

I tried to change the world one cause at a time. 

In the summer of 1988, I interned at the Nation magazine's Washington office. While researching a story about Mubarak Awad, a Palestinian-American psychologist and founder of the Palestinian Center for Non-Violence, the president of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee invited me to go on a student delegation to the Occupied Territories. Two weeks after returning to UCLA from the West Bank and Gaza I gave a talk to 50 students about my experience. I explained how the intifada had propelled women into major leadership roles. How women-run factories and businesses were building an infrastructure for a future state. 

At the back of the room stood a man, 6 feet tall with bright red hair. He held his hand to his chin, and his focus on me helped me focus. When I finished, he applauded louder than anyone else. I was relieved the talk had been a success -- at least no one from the audience had shouted out, "Arab-loving whore!� 

The man waited until I gathered my notes and walked off the stage before approaching me. "Brilliant speech," he said. I thanked him, trying not to blush. Extending his hand, he said, "My name is Ahmed." But I already knew who he was. He was president of the Muslim Students Association and, like me, he wrote a column for the school paper, where we were both slotted "on the left." I was a fan. 

This was a guy who knocked on every door in Islam Vista, in Santa Barbara, Calif., to campaign for Jesse Jackson. But that day, when he smiled a win-me-over smile, I thought the same thing I'd wondered whenever I read his column, "How could a smart, socially conscientious guy be a Muslim? Be a part of any organized religion?" He was a feminist. A feminist Muslim -- wasn't that an oxymoron? 

As Ahmed and I spent the next several years deepening our friendship -- and eventually marrying -- I returned again and again to those questions. He mostly stood out of my way. It didn't matter to him if I was Catholic or Muslim or Jewish or Marxist (though he thought Marx grossly underestimated the seduction of capitalism). Ahmed wanted me to come to my own conclusions about Islam. After all, it was what he'd had to do. He'd been born into a Muslim family, but after they immigrated from Cairo to Los Angeles, Islam played little visible role in their lives. It wasn't until Ahmed read the Quran for the first time in college that he helped his parents reconnect with their faith. 

I studied Islam in order to debate Ahmed and his belief system, but the more I learned, the more I found how greatly I had underestimated my own ignorance. Mine wasn't a hit-you-over-the-head epiphany, but rather a slow and steady stream of aha's. 

The feminist in me aha'd when she realized that in the Quran God is neither male nor female. The scholar in me aha'd at the various interpretations and schools of thought within Islam, most of which depict the religion as a social and constantly changing belief system, rather than the fixed, dogmatic one the government of Saudi Arabia would have the world believe. 

The Christian still left in me aha'd when she read in the Quran how those who do good deeds are in God's grace. And the scared Bronx girl in me aha'd at the Quran's refrain that God is "merciful and compassionate" -- until, eventually, the scared Bronx girl was no more. 

But it was the social activist in me who aha'd the loudest when she got a deeper understanding of "jihad" (a term that has been grossly misinterpreted in the media). "Jihad" is a word with many meanings, but foremost it describes one's personal and inner struggle to live a just life, a life in which one is obligated to defend those who cannot defend themselves. Wasn't that what I had always tried to commit my life to -- fighting, or, more accurately, struggling, for justice? 

Who knows? Maybe I would have remained a Catholic if I had discovered the Catholic Worker movement or Catholics for a Free Choice earlier in life -- organizations whose missions emphasize economic and social justice. Maybe I would have remained a Catholic if the one priest who talked and listened to me when I was 13 had done so face to face and not in some dark box (and if he had, along with hearing me confess and granting me absolution, counseled me about surviving adolescence). Then there was the question of Jesus. It had always been hard for me to believe God took human form. But it was as a Muslim that I learned what an incredible prophet he was -- the epitome of the social activist. 

After years of questioning Ahmed about everything, I found my answers in Islam. But as a convert I had to work for everything I believed. I was constantly translating, not only the language of the Quran, but the rituals too. It was hard to trust that one could have a one-to-one relationship with God, and I still believed I needed an intermediary, some authority, someone more worthy to intervene on my behalf. So I turned to the "real" Muslim, the one born into faith, for all my answers. I made Ahmed my teacher, my priest. 

While equality was the rule in every other aspect of our lives, when it came to matters of faith, I wanted Ahmed to call the shots. When we prayed, though he encouraged, often insisted, that I lead the prayer, I refused. Ahmed was the authority. Besides, he sounded so beautiful when he recited the Quran in Arabic. I wanted him to give me all the answers, and when he refused, my questions turned into childish badgering: "Are you sure if you swallow accidentally while you brush your teeth that doesn't break my fast?" 

It wasn't until my son was born that I truly grew up into Islam. Ali was seven weeks premature, and small enough to fit in the palms of his father's hands. The doctors told us Ali couldn't go home until he was able to regulate his own body temperature. I could hardly swallow as I watched my son in his plastic incubator, trailing tubes and wires to help him breathe. It had taken years of trying and fertility testing for Ahmed and me to get pregnant: I couldn't believe God would take our son from us now. I felt like a kid again -- swept back in time to age 12, when I'd been convinced God had killed my friend Barbara by giving her leukemia for no reason at all. 

Desperate for hope, I saw breast-feeding as the one way I could help Ali heal -- but he was too weak to latch on. So on the first day of his life, instead of a newborn suckling at my breast, I nursed an electric pump (on loan from the hospital) to increase my milk supply. Then -- somehow -- the loud methodical chugging of the pump's motor helped to drown out my fear. "In the name of God, the Benevolent, the merciful..." I began reciting the first Sura in the Quran. "...It is You we serve, to You we turn for help..." There, alone in the hospital, I spoke to God for the first time, one to one, with no intermediary. And I understood that the God I was talking to was compassionate and merciful. 

Two weeks later, Ali began to nurse. The day I took him home in his oversize blue-striped onesie, I knew God had heard me. 

Though I still love my son's father, Ahmed and I have been legally separated for a year now. There were, in the end, some questions that Islam could not answer. But because of our faith, a lot of prayer -- and yes, some therapy -- we have remained friends and continue to raise our son together. 

I'm not the same Muslim I was 15 years ago, but I am still a Muslim. And last week, after all these years, when I told my mother that Ali couldn't eat her baked beans because they were made with pork, her response was the same as ever. "That's ridiculous," she said. Then she mumbled, "Well, let's see what you believe when the next guy comes around." 

I didn't respond. My conversion may have started with a man, but it continues with me, and it's never-ending. 

Originally published in Salon. 12/18/2006

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Older Comments:
Assalamu Alaikum Wa Rahmatullahi Ta'ala Wa Barakatuhu. My dear sister, your story literarily drove me to tears. I'm so proud of you. I'm also a feminist and i admire your profound dedication. I pray that Allah (SWT) continues to guide you on the right path. Ameen

I understand that you became a Muslim because Of a Man. But I admire you for holding on to Allah even after Separation. I am also a Woman, born Muslim and separated for 6 months not legally. I have a daughter. May Allah grant Me and You the Strength and endurance to be on the Right Path until our deaths. Ameen!

what an enlightening message for those who have some left over faith

Asalam Aleikum my dear sister in Islam

Thank you for sharing your story with us. May Allah (swt) increase you in your deen and give you peace, both you, your son, and our brother in Islam Ahmed.


u have given me a lot of courage.i come from a strict buddhist family.but i m a muslim by heart.ur story is so much similar to me.i got introduced to islam 4 years ago.n now m going against the will of my parents to continue my journey to learn more.i really respect u n salute ur courage.may Allah bless you.

That's beautiful sister, thank you for sharing :)

Subhan Allah! My journey into Islam also started with a man named Ahmed who is now my ex-husband. The people around me also thought the same thing of course until my next husband was Muslim as well. We truely aught to thank Mighty Allah for allowing us, for chosing us to be muslims especially in a country where it is not socially accepted. And for opening our eyes to the truth. May Allah keep you on the correct path, give you the good in this life and the good in the Hereafter and save you and your family from the Hellfire. Ameen!

This is truly inspiring! I salute you for your firm conviction in Islam, the true religion of God. May other converts to Islam read your inspiring and moving experiences and story as Muslim woman.

I thank Allah for your life, and that he has choosen you amongst the guided ones. May you not loose track and focus after you have been guided , Amin

This article is a beautiful journey that a woman has shared with us. I am an American born Muslim and I wish everyone who thinks ill of Muslims could read this article. She's right, Islam is really about growing into the religion and learning those things that you say 'aha' to! My family has always encouraged me to learn more about Islam than I know, and GOD BLESS MY FATHER for not being a forceful vindictive kind of dad that so many other Muslim girls had. He made me love Islam more than anyone can understand because he told me how merciful Allah was, by just reading to me. Allah bless us all so that we can make others understand too. :)

alhamdolillah may ALLAH shower HIS blessings upon you and your family Ameen

As-salaam alaykum warahamatullah wabarakatuh

A truly inspiring story!Masha Allahu,you were truly guided by Allah,for all those inquisitve years as a child and growing up to being a youth.He was just taking you to the place your heart had always longed for.Well,Allah knows best why things didn't remain the way they were with your ex-husband.But I believe his mission was accomplished.May Allah bless your son and grant him the heart of a Mujjahid like his fearless mother.

I am so inspired by your beautiful story that you decided to share wit everyone. I myself am a convert, and indeed can relate with your experiences. Mash Allah. May Allah keep you and your family healthy, prosperous, and happy at all times... Asiya... I am as well divorced, yet my heart will always belong to Numan Haider... Ameen... Asiya

This is breathtaking! powerful. This is just such a lovely way for someone to truly live her faith. What I loved most is that I do not see any kind of denigration towards the practice of religion she came from. She just stated what she felt wrong with it. I am praying that Allah surrounds this lady with His Light as well as Ahmed, her husband and her son. No matter how the marriage goes, I hope that their friendship will last forever

Alhamdh Lillai.
May the peace of Allah be with you.

Hmmm, your mom sounds like mine :) Nice article, thanks.

AlhamdullilAh,may Allah help islam and muslims.

aslamu alaykum iwould to apperciate ur wounder ful progamme.which is the best of the best in the is the duty of every muslim to be good eample for others by alive the way of our prophet (peace and mercy be upon him).jasaakumallah for ur doing good things.

The article is amazing & touchy. It should be more eloborated.

I can related to this article. I was christian and converted before marriage. Everyone though I converted because of my ex-husband but alhamud Allah I am muslim women with him and without. Islaman it changed me to a better person and I can't never go back to what I was. One you see the true you can't live on lie.

Masha Allah yah'di man' yasha'u wa yudhee'llu man yasha'u.
Nice and moving article. I have been blessed by Allah to be born Muslim and grown up in a loving Muslim family and a in a Muslim country but moving to north America made my faith even grow bigger and more profound every day.
May Allah put us and keep us all on the right path.

mashallah i wish u be together again

Indeed, a touching article.

asaalaamu-alaikum,sis. alhumdullilah. it is only Allah who makes muslims and even though it was your husband's influence it's b/c Allah placed it in your heart that you remain a muslimah today. the things you describe like him wanting you to lead is bidah and some other things as well,but anyway glad to see you staying strong in the faith and this is why it is up to us as women to learn this deen for ourselves,so we learn what's correct. i also come from a christian family and it was hard at first but my family is very respectful of my way of life. may Allah continue to bless you and keep us all on the right path. ameen.

I just want to thank the author for posting this article. It was amazingly inspiring for me, I have never lost faith in Islam but I have been lazy about practicing...not anymore now.
This story is my story. The only difference in my life is the age at the time I converted was 22 and my husband is not Arab, however he and his family are Muslim born. It is truly a small world and it's good to know someone shares my same path.

ASA sister in the deen, I was very touched by your article and its details, the way you express yourself was very beneficial to me and also encouraging. I would very much like to be in touch with you could you please e-mail me when you have a chance. Many thanks, may Allah swt bless you abundantly.

When you said, Bismillahar rehman nirraheem, Al-hamdullilla, Arr rehman nirra heem, iyyaka na'aabdu wa iyyaka nastaeen (In the name of God, the Benevolent, the merciful..." I began reciting the first Sura in the Quran. "...It is You we serve, to You we turn for help..." )then God musthave told the angels," A God fearing lady is seeking My help and praising me"

I am really touched by this story. Insha'Allah you will see good times again. Remember one thing, dont stop believeing in Allah. He is the most high.

Salam, Alhamdullilah for this article.I am recently married to a convert,who converted to Islam because of me.I had difficulty but I understand it now.Allah has HIS Ways to enchant us to believe HIM. Thank you. Reading this article has calmed me down. Alhamdullilah

i just wanted to know what caused you to separate from your husband while you learned so much from him as a newly convert. just wondering. Can't you get back together for your son's sake?