I never expected my conversion to Islam to ultimately bring me closer to my family.
Growing up, a deep desire for a faith I could wholeheartedly embrace was intertwined with a haunting anxiety that my family would never know the real me.
I mistook having many doubts and questions about my religion for being, somehow, unworthy of the gift of faith that I coveted. I doubted my own goodness. But I knew my family saw me as good. I cherished their love but feared their disappointment if they really knew how uncertain I was. As much as I longed to confide my doubts to my loved ones, I was simply too ashamed to think I could.
And when I couldn’t deny that another faith just made more sense to me than the one in which I had been raised, I worried that converting to Islam would bring a separation that couldn’t be bridged.
What I failed to realize was that nothing could separate me from the love of my family. But in order to recognize that truth, I had to go through the process of openly pursing my path of discovery, which came to a climax with my conversion to Islam at age 16 but by no means ended when I reaffirmed Christianity eight years later.
In fact, I had already isolated myself through my silence and fear. It was only by letting the truth unfold, even sometimes reluctantly, that I learned a very valuable lesson:
When we are rooted in love, our wanderings in pursuit of our truest selves will ultimately lead us to deeper connection with those who love us most.
If you are feeling estranged from your family, if your heart or mind or spirit lead you in a direction that you fear others may not understand, I hope my story – though undoubtedly different from yours – will resonate and bring you encouragement.
… our wanderings in pursuit of our truest selves will ultimately lead us to deeper connection with those who love us most.
Faith, Family, and Fear
I couldn’t tell my parents right away.
For different reasons, I was afraid to show either my Christian mother or my atheist father the extent to which my doubts had led me.
For my mother, I was afraid of hurting her by confessing that I could not affirm the faith in which she had raised me. I had truly loved going to church with her every Sunday. Throughout my childhood, the church was my second home, the place where I felt most comfortable and loved. As a child, my closest friends, both children and adults, were made in church. I longed to follow in my mother’s footsteps as a lay leader. And beyond all of this, I had grown up moved by the love of God in Christ, yearning to relax into the assurance that I was unconditionally loved forever.
But I couldn’t quell the fears or doubts ever-present in my mind. There was so much violence in scripture that contradicted my church’s emphasis on an all-loving, all-forgiving God.
Beyond the struggle to wrap my mind around the confusion of the Trinity, there was the struggle to wrap my heart around the cruelty of the cross. God incarnate died to save us from the wrath and eternal condemnation we apparently deserved, condemnation we would receive if we failed to believe. That wasn’t the theology of my church, but it was the message I understood from Christian culture, and it was a message I could not blame my father one bit for rejecting.
I feared for the sake of my father’s soul and my own. And I doubted my own goodness because of my lack of faith. The fact that I admired my father as the most courageous and compassionate man I knew both in spite of and because he rejected the violence and confusion of Christianity altogether… well, that was another contradiction that I could neither abide nor shake.
So I was afraid to go to my father with my doubts, afraid that I could lose the faith that I held by a thread. And I still desired that faith so deeply.
Islam was a refuge for me in my fears and my doubts. I could share some, though not all, of my longings and struggles about God and faith with my Muslim friends.
It began with simply telling our different stories, and gradually discovering that the parts of my story that I didn’t understand were retold and cleared up in Islam. Adam and Eve repented of their disobedience and were forgiven – no original sin. God was one – no messy, complicated Trinity. The cross – no; God would never need nor demand the death of His beloved prophet, Jesus, whom Islam embraced with reverence.
But the biggest draw of all, besides the loving model of my friends? I felt as if my doubt was okay.
I believed that prayer would gradually deepen my faith, and now I would pray at least five times each day. But even if I couldn’t relax into the faith for which I yearned, my good deeds would count for something.
One of my biggest frustrations with Christianity had been the emphasis that works without faith counted for nothing, that there was nothing I could do to appease the God I could never fully accept nor reject.
If my faith was insufficient, I worried that I could go to hell. But in Islam, I thought, the God I strove to worship would give me credit for trying.
Conversion and Consequences
So I converted to Islam in secret and sought to hide it from my parents until I was “ready.” What I was waiting for, I’m not sure I knew.
Above all, I wanted to project – and grow into – a certainty that always eluded me.
I wanted to be seen as confident in my faith, for the people I most loved all seemed confident in theirs (including my father, who has always been as confident in his atheism and faith in humanity as my friends have been in their faith in God). And I thought that the “me” that my family knew and loved was the one they saw loving church and reading theology. I had always been afraid to reveal my whole truth.
And now that that truth had a new label, I didn’t even know where to begin to talk about it.
Of course, it was all out of the bag when my mother found me attempting to smuggle a prayer rug in my backpack!
There was pain and confusion. Some harsh words were spoken. There was even a short period of family counseling.
Being openly Muslim brought tension into the family.
But I was incredibly blessed as well. My family did not stop me from spending much of my time with my Muslim friends, going to the mosque, or fasting during Ramadan. We knew we still loved each other deeply, and that love showed through any and all awkwardness.
I still felt as if there was a part of me my family would never understand, and I know they still felt some grief. And as unready as I was to tell my full story and doubts to them, I was even more unready to hear how they were processing this change in me, as individuals and as a family.
But, with the big truth out in the open, parts of the deeper truth, of everyone’s deeper truth, leaked through over time.
And the truth really does set us free.
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Discoveries Along the Way and Finding Myself in Love
For me, Islam was not my final destination, but it was an essential part of my journey.
I could not possibly be who I am now without traveling the path that led through Islam, as hard as that may have been for my family.
I learned so many things along my journey that remain central to my understanding of God and humanity: the all-merciful, all-compassionate nature of God, the interconnection of everything in the universe as a reflection God’s Oneness, the need for modesty and humility and cultivation of inner beauty.
I also learned much about the worldwide Muslim ummah, or community, and some of the struggles facing Muslims in the Middle East and around the world. In a post-9/11 world especially, having that consciousness has been crucial for shaping my passion for interfaith dialogue and peacemaking in a war-torn world.
Beyond everything else, the experience of being openly different – not as a religious minority, but different from the expectations I thought my family had – gave me room to stretch my imagination and potential.
Even through all the tension and confusion, the fact that I dared to take some steps in a direction beyond my own fears of not being who I thought others wanted me to be ultimately helped me to realize my family’s unconditional love.
So much tension and confusion might have been avoided if I had trusted that unconditional love in the first place, if I had been more open with my family about my doubts and my journey. But then again, the nature of my anxieties included doubt about the unconditional love of God, undermining my trust in that love from anyone else. That was a lesson I could only learn by traveling out far enough to realize that I have always been anchored in love.
I am grateful for the blessings my journey through Islam has given me. And now, I can honestly say, I believe my family is too.
My faith journey unveiled, to some extent, the struggles and questions I had sought to hide. The person I am still becoming with every step is more open, more empathetic, and more aware not only of my own doubts and fears, but of those of others.
My own insecurities isolated me, deceiving me into believing that I was the only one feeling struggle and doubt. Taking my own journey may have led me in a direction my family didn’t follow, but it also opened me to the truth that we are all on a journey, that we are ever and always becoming. And therefore I need not be so anxious about the expectations of others, because we are all always moving beyond expectations as life stretches us.
We all need to give one another the space to grow.
Feeling yourself pulled in a direction you think your closest loved ones may not understand can be a scary, vulnerable experience. And the very sad truth is that some families do not understand. Sometimes living into your fullest self unveils estrangements that are never bridged.
But I firmly believe that following your calling into your fullest self will, ultimately, show you that you are anchored in Love.
That love may or may not come from the people who are close to you now. In my case, it helped me recognize the love that had always surrounded me, and that well may be your case too.
Discovering that love takes trust, which living into your truth will cultivate, and time, which reveals both joy and pain as it passes. But it may be that you discover love from new, different people, who you come to meet precisely because you live into your truth.
Love is the river that holds us and pushes us through our transitions. The people who love us most will love us through our journeys and changes, and we will love them too, knowing that tomorrow they will be more than they are now – new and different, just like us.
The world needs all of us out of the box. Follow your path, and bless your family and the world by living into your most authentic self.