*Note: this is the first in a series of convert Q&As I’ll be posting based on my convert support work over 15+ years and my 28 years as a Muslim.
Question: I’m a Muslim revert of 6 years alhamdulilah. I’ve been struggling for some time with identity issues. I feel like I’ve lost my identity. I don’t know who I am anymore. I’ve changed so much over the last few years and my life is very different from how it was before. I’ve been trying really hard to make myself a better person in accordance with Islam and our teachings. But I feel like I’ve forgotten who I am, and what I love and I’m feeling quite lost.
Answer, by Ustadha Jennifer: Salaam! This is a very common experience converts face and I’m so proud of you for thinking it through and reaching out.
When we become Muslim we face a number of pressures, some from the community, and others from ourselves.
Sometimes the Muslim community or the Muslim friends we hang with seem to want to turn us into “Muslim mini me’s” and there is pressure to conform to their expectations. People often want us to be Muslim in the exact same way they are Muslim because it makes them feel validated when someone new to Islam lives and practices like they do.
Sometimes in our quest to be The Very Best Muslim we read books or advice from other countries or based on understandings of Islam (especially for women) that tell us that there is “only one right way” to be The Very Best Muslim. Most of these resources are produced by men in countries like Saudi Arabia and they promote very narrow ideas about what a “Good Muslim Woman” looks like. We then feel that we have to give up important parts of ourselves in order to be the Very Best Muslim.
Sometimes we lack role models to show us examples of a fully integrated Muslim personality or what a healthy Muslim convert from our culture looks like.
Sometimes we ourselves want to “prove” that we “belong” as a Muslim by meeting the expectations of the other Muslims around us. Sometimes they don’t actually put this pressure on us but we put these expectations on ourselves because of our own insecurities. Note that if we are white, we are often experiencing “being different” or “being a minority” for the first time (among Muslims) and we try to blend in to avoid the discomfort.
Sometimes we are married to men from majority Muslim countries and we rely on them to “teach us” Islam and how to be Muslim. The vast majority of them are not in any way qualified to teach us either and we may be limiting ourselves based on their expectations or their claims about what a “real Muslim” looks like.
Sometimes when we came to Islam we wanted to actually “escape” parts of ourselves that we didn’t like, didn’t understand, or didn’t know how to integrate into a fully Muslim self. Sometimes when we came to Islam we were struggling with mental health concerns, sin, trauma, or less-than-ideal lifestyles and behaviors, and distancing ourselves from our entire personality is easier than deconstructing and separating the healthy and unhealthy parts.
A lot of this, however, is actually not related to becoming Muslim at all. These phases are a normal part of growing up and becoming fully adult. Most of us generally convert in our 20s or during periods of upheaval or change in our lives. We haven’t lived long enough to have experienced the changes and evolutions that will happen later in life.
I’m in my 40s. I have definitely been through several phases of life and evolution as a person during my almost 30 years as a Muslim. 10 years ago I realized that there were certain aspects of myself I had neglected, not because I was Muslim so much but more because, well, LIFE happened! I discovered that I needed to bring those important things back into my life in order to feel complete. When I did start doing those things again, it was the first time I was doing them as a Muslim. That was the time of my life when I started working on my Islamic knowledge and my Qur’an recitation and memorization again and I also went back to riding and owning horses which is something that was an important part of my life when I accepted Islam.
I have a working theory that the things that were important to us around the time of our spiritual awakenings/conversion to Islam are often things that speak to the deepest and most spiritually engaged parts of ourselves. So I often recommend that you think back to who you were at that time. How did the things you were doing contribute to opening your heart and mind to Islam? How do those things relate to your best spiritual self, the “person who accepted Islam”?
Some converts close themselves up into a cardboard box they have labeled “Islam.” When a person stays crumbled up inside that box, they start to feel stiff, limited, and isolated in the dark. Eventually, they can’t take it anymore and they have to bust out. In my experience, that tends to happen around the 10 year mark so it’s perfect timing that you are thinking about this now, in your 6-7 year time.
This doesn’t mean that you are supposed to be the same person you were back then. In fact, you shouldn’t be the same. Growing through life means we change because we are adding layers of life experience and learning. I have also found that I went through a mini-evolutions around my multiple of 10 birthdays (20, 30, 40).
But you want to make sure that you are collecting all the things that make you who you are and nurturing them. Leave behind things that don’t serve you and making sure you keep the things that make you feel alive and competent.
When you feel alive and competent you will also be tapping into your best self and this will help you to become more spiritually competent. Self-knowledge means you can have self-awareness and honesty. It means you can feel at ease knowing that Allah created you and brought you to Islam because you are valuable and you belong in Islam. You can be honest and open in your prayer and du`aa’. You can understand what “language” of Islam speaks to you and find communities and teachers that speak that language so you can grow as a Muslim. You can learn about Islam more deeply and fit what you learn into the patchwork of your heart and your life. You can become a more developed and refined spiritual person. And you can use all of that to discover your mission for this season of your life.