The Convert Spirit: “Tails” for Converts: Developing a Mature Faith

Many things bring people to Islam: Some come to Islam after years of study, and some after learning only a few key items about our faith. Some come to Islam through books, college classes, personal relationships with Muslims (including boyfriends/husbands), or even travel to Muslim-majority countries.

The parts of Islam that first “speak” to people are unique to each individual and where they are in life- some of us are first drawn to the idea of pure monotheism, some to the ritual of salah, some to the practice of hijab, some to the ideas of racial egalitarianism and social justice found in Islam, some to the idea of a rule-governed life, some to the unchanged nature of the Qur’an.

Here is an important reality to understand: Often, what brought us to Islam will not be the thing that sustains us in Islam.

Over the years, as we learn more and practice more and experience more, our faith should grow, expand, and mature. Too often, however, we close ourselves into little cardboard boxes labeled “The Very Best Muslim” where we hide from the world and ourselves. Sometimes we do this because it feels good to us. Sometimes we are convinced by other Muslims (especially husbands) that this is the Only Right Way. Usually, it’s a combination of both. However it happens, after about 10 years living cramped inside that box, many of us bust out and, feeling lost or feeling like a failure for not loving life inside that dark, narrow space, many leave Islam altogether.

Mature faith doesn’t live inside a cardboard box. A mature faith should involve all the parts of our personalities, strengths, and needs. A mature faith should have Allah as its primary focus. A mature faith should move us to be active in the world. A mature faith should grow and strengthen over time.

Eventually, our mature faith should bear little if any resemblance to the faith we started out with. It should be multifaceted, stronger, and encompass more of ourselves, more of Islam, and more of the world.

Many people lose their faith when the reasons they came to Islam no longer hold the same meaning for them, but they didn’t develop a deeper, more multifaceted faith and personality. When they didn’t explore beyond the world of the cardboard box or connect all the parts of themselves into a whole person.

The people or communities that brought us to Islam and nurtured us in our early years may disappoint us or we may just grow away from them. Ideals we developed in the early years of our faith may be challenged, or our focus may shift to other ideas or values. A mature faith takes in ALL of Islam along with the realities of our own selves and the realities of the Ummah.

I recently re-read the Autobiography of Malcolm X for the first time in about 28 years. Like many converts, reading the Autobiography played an important role in my path to Islam. Yet this time as I read it, I was struck by the fact that Brother Malcolm (rahimahullah) seemed to believe that racism does not exist among Muslims as people. At the time, as a new convert, he didn’t seem to know yet that many- even most- Muslims don’t fully “live” Islam, and that there is widespread racism and colorism among Muslims around the world.

Did he become Muslim for the “wrong reasons”? I wondered. What would have happened if he had lived longer and come to experience racism and colorism among Muslims? Would this have shaken his faith? Fortunately, I learned that Brother Malcolm had a shaykh as a mentor/spiritual guide, and was working on learning and growing his faith. Of course Allah had other plans for him.

Here’s an analogy: When we travel to a beautiful place, we might ride in a car, train or airplane. The experience of travel is undoubtedly part of the memory and experience of our trip, but the core purpose of our trip is to witness beautiful mountains, oceans, forests, and waterfalls. Perhaps we will also visit unique towns, learn to communicate in new languages, or eat delicious food.

The situations, people, and ideals that bring us to Islam are the means of transportation that bring us to the beautiful destination of Islam. The excitement and meaning of that trip will never be forgotten. It was beautiful. It will always be a part of us. But the destination has so much more to offer.

If a person, community, culture, or country helped us get to this destination then we must learn to stand on our own as Muslims, and experience the deep joy, love, and growth Islam can bring us as independent individuals. This also means looking deep inside ourselves to see our own shortcomings and those of others and understanding where we need to exert more effort on improving ourselves. Spiritual development is a lifelong process. We can work to be change-makers of our own souls and in our wider world.

If a book, group, teacher, or concept of Islam helped us get here, then we must put down our binoculars (or perhaps turn off our televisions and computers!) and see the wide world of Islam and get out there and explore it. Think of Islam as a big house of many rooms. We enter Islam through the front door and stand in the foyer- then we are free to explore the many rooms of all that Islam has to offer of nourishment for our hearts, minds, bodies, relationships, and communities.

If ideals about relationships, social justice, or community helped us to get here, we need to learn deeply about how Islam encourages and promotes our role in promoting these things to the best of our ability, but we should not expect to find a utopian Muslim community or relationship. And before all else, our primary relationship is with God. When we draw from the deep well of this connection our ability to make the world a better place will be exponentially strengthened.

And perhaps most importantly, if Islam speaks to some parts of us or the place we are at in our lives at the time, we need to be open to discovering the ways we evolve as humans and people of faith. We all come to Islam in a given “season” of our lives. Accepting Islam does not obligate us to STAY in that season. We will continue to go through the normal evolutions and changes of life just like everyone else. We all have periods of life where we put parts of ourselves on the back burner- ESPECIALLY WOMEN find we have to do this during our childbearing years, and this often coincides with our early days post-conversion. Reviving the neglected parts of ourselves means becoming a more honest, interesting, and whole person of faith. Too often, however, we don’t know how to do this and we believe that being that whole person is incompatible with being Muslim. (More on this process in a later post.)

Mature faith grows, like a crystal, into a multifaceted jewel. We develop mature faith if we continuously learn, experience, worship, travel, interact, and take on new knowledge and wisdom.

And most of all we develop mature faith if we always keep our relationship with Allah at the center of our faith, and relate to our Lord from a place of honesty and wholeness.

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