I attended a Catholic college that had very strong roots in Catholic social justice. It was taught and lived, especially by the order of nuns that founded the school and still lived on campus. I joined the choir as soon as I got to college and dived right into campus life including Campus Ministry. We were all required to take a freshman seminar, and mine was something to do with religion and social justice. One of the things that we studied in that class was a feminist re-reading of the creation story. I'd never really questioned the validity of the bible before that class. I started wondering who had written the Bible, what their motivations were, and how veracious a book 2000 years ago was required to be.
Around the same time that I started questioning the validity of the bible, I met a Muslim women and her two sisters that were all students at my college. They were all smart, outgoing and religion girls that were able to speak well about their faith. While I had lived in a pretty diverse place when I was a kid, when we moved to the Midwest, we were in the middle of the great sea of white people. There were mostly Protestants, some Mexican Catholics and Amish (who are definitely Christians) so religious minorities were hard to find in my neck of the woods. When I was in high school I had to do a project on Islam, and I had a really difficult time gathering information outside of what I could find online. I asked my youth group leaders about Islam, and Muhammad and was told that Muslims didn't worship the same God as Christians, and a variety of other things that weren't true. They were basically the same unIslamic propaganda that has been floating around for years. How were they so sure in their knowledge? One of them had taken a class on it at a conservative Christian college. Sorry, but I decided to research more on my own after that, realizing that sometimes adults aren't always right.
My new Muslim friends were perfectly happy to answer my questions, point me to great resources and talk to me about any aspects of the religion that I had questions on, and questions I had. Since two of the sisters worked in the cafeteria, we would sit for hours chatting
I'd never really questioned the existence of God. I had spoken to God for years. I guess you could call it praying, but I would just drive in my car and have conversations with God. It helped me to think things out, to talk them out. Since I didn't, at the time question my monotheism I started seeking out, in my mind, the truest form of monotheism. I was becoming disillusioned by the many things that I perceived as being between me and God in the Catholic church. From the saints, to Jesus, I was confused why we didn't just pray to God.
Islam is the worship of one God (same God worshiped by Christians!). They believe that Judaism came about, people screwed it up so Jesus came (as a Prophet) and then when people screwed that up, Muhammed was sent as a messenger and Prophet to the people of the world. Muslims believe that the Torah, Bible and Qur'an in their purest forms are the same, and that it was mankind's meddling that changed them. Muslims believe that the Qur'an was revealed to Muhammed by the angel Gabriel and then written down, which was ordered into the Qur'an. They believe that the Qur'an is the unadulterated revelation from God.
As someone that was constantly questioning the Bible, this resonated with me. If this was truly revealed to Muhammed from God, could this be the purest form of monotheism? To become a Muslim, one makes 'shahadah' or a profession of faith, which states "I bear Witness that there is no god, but God and I bear witness that Muhammed is the Prophet (messenger) of God.' I wrote down the shahadah was was carrying it around in my pocket for days, constantly questioning what I should do, constantly praying about it.
I already easily believed the first part, but growing up as a white girl in the US after 9/11, the second part was a little more difficult. How did I reconcile my life, with that of a Muslim? In short, I never managed to. My problem...I never found the happy medium. I knew I couldn't go all of the way to conservative and leave my friends and culture behind. It wasn't even fair to ask that of me. I wasn't willing to fundamentally change who I was, and I'm not sure I am even able to. I just wanted to be a better person, a person closer to God. My story has a million threads and offshoots, and maybe I can examine some more of them in the future in more detail. Now I think I am just trying to give a basic overview of how I learned about Islam.
There is a strong evangelizing movement in Islam. This 'how to give shahadah in 10 minutes' movement's goal isn't to have people know as much about Islam as possible before conversion, but to convert first and learn later. I could write an entire book on how wrong this is. It becomes all about externalities, about how quickly a woman will don the hijab, stop eating pork, talking to men, and less about learning about the faith and Islamic jurisprudence and making informed decisions. I feel that I while I freely made the choice to convert, I was so naive. I was 19, impulsive and emotional. I wanted to belong somewhere and fill that void that I was searching to fill and I thought that this religion had all the answers.I think it was my expectations that led to my ultimate failure as a Muslim. I was searching for faith, and what I found was religion. Human influence and fallible religion. Another factor that led to my inevitable 'failure' of sorts was the really conservative nature of the mosque that I was taken to. It was very conservative, which I am not and too obsessed with outer signs of religiosity. I remember being in tears after hearing a lecture about how women that don't wear hijab 'are going to hell. I don't know how long but it is a certainty.' I think that was the day that I sort of just gave up.
Last night I finally got around to listening to the NPR's Lifting the veil (http://www.npr.org/2011/04/21/135413427/lifting-the-veil) about Muslim women that wore the hijab and their decisions to stop. Many of those reasons were why I too stopped wearing hijab. I felt judged, and like I was judging those that didn't wear it. I wore it for a month and a half, starting right before Ramadan and then stopping 6 weeks later. My hair looked AMAZING by the way afterwards. I never dressed ridiculously immodestly (okay, I probably showed too much cleavage when I was in Spain but it was 120 degrees out) so I didn't stop wearing it because I wanted to wear tank tops and shorts but I didn't want to be a walking representative of Islam. I didn't live up to my own expectations in that regard. I wish I was stronger, and had more faith, but when I wasn't good enough, I did nothing but beat up on myself.
This post seems negative, and maybe I needed to get the negative out before I can talk about the beauty. I loved, and still love, a lot of things about Islam. I find comfort, and beauty in the prayer. I find a simple joy in putting my head to the group and seeking my creator. I love the faith, the sufi poetry, listening to the Qur'an recited in the singsong Arabic, and learning Arabic. Islam and learning about it fundamentally changed my life. I studied Arabic and Middle Eastern history in school (classes that normally wouldn't have been offered) and rather than going to clubs and drinking, spent many weekends at my friend's house learning about Islamic history, Qur'an and proper Arabic pronunciation. I spent a ton of time at my Pakistani friends house learning about the culture, language and religion and how they all come together.
I don't regret the experiences that I had. I don't regret everything that I learned--how can I regret knowledge? I am not a scholar, but try to learn in everything that I do. If my experiences with Islam were different, perhaps my life would be completely different now. Every experience that I have had has brought me to this point in my life, and since I am blissfully happy now, I can't regret any of them.