A Heavy Light | Part 1

How I felt when I became a Muslim.

A thick candle.

People sometimes ask me, “What was it like when you converted?” and they must be expecting some kind of rapturous event where I saw the light and felt a huge burden lift off my shoulders and my heart set free. But my conversion to Islam wasn’t so much about seeing the light, but rather realizing that the light was always there. I just didn’t realize it.

And let’s be straight: that light was heavy.

While no doubt many converts have experienced that feeling of being unshackled, of having their souls washed and wiped crystal clean, my conversion was quick and unexpected. The scenario itself might sound terrifying: a Caucasian couple sitting in a living room, surrounded by 8 Muslims. But it wasn’t. My friend (who would become my future boss) had invited me and my girlfriend to his house for dinner. A disarming meal of lasagna and Cesar salad helped ease me into the environment. Afterward, we sat in the living room with the largest family I’d seen in one house, consisting of my friend, his wife, his son, his parents, sister, sister-in-law, and brother.

This was the first time I’d been in a Muslim household; the first time I’d witnessed Muslim prayer; the first time I’d even seen such a large family living in harmony under one roof.

My girlfriend suddenly said: “I want to say it.”

By it, she meant the shahada, a simple phrase that makes one a Muslim: I bear witness that there is no god except God, and Muhammad is His Messenger. Simple in English, but in Arabic it took some linguistic gymnastics to try and say it.

Ash-hadu al la ilaha ilAllah, wa ash-hadu anna Muhammadan rasoolAllah.

She was guided through it, and when she was finished, she was a Muslim. Just like that. The entire family congratulated her.

“Perhaps one day,” my friend’s Dad said, “Aaron will be ready to say it too.”

The room went quiet and I felt everyone look at me. I was holding my breath. I kind of knew this was coming. A fork in the road was in front of me. I knew it was now or never.

“I’ll say it,” I said. My friend helped me through the Arabic shahada. And that was it: I was a Muslim. I became a Muslim in a warm living room with a small gathering of myself, my girlfriend, my friend and his relatives. There was no imam involved, no announcement over the PA system, no line of strangers coming to shake hands and kiss you on the cheek; years later I would see these things and find it almost like an extravaganza, in contrast to my own humble experience.

My friend’s Dad made a short prayer and said to me, “God willing we will walk in Paradise together.”

So how did it feel? It’s hard to explain. More than anything, it felt natural, like it was something I had to do. I had a choice; I could have stayed quiet and gone back to analyzing the pros and cons of formally converting, even though I already believed in Islam. But when I made the decision to say my shahada, it was kind of like jumping off a diving board shrouded in fog, a mix between excitement and fear and uncertainty about where I was going to land–but having faith that I’d be ok.

 Convert VS Revert

In the Muslim community there’s a small debate over the semantics of “convert” versus “revert”. Muslims believe that every person is born with an innate inclination (a fitrah) towards God, and that accepting Islam is just a means of “reverting” back to that inclination. “Convert” implies accepting a new belief system. Really, though, there’s a way to harmonize the two. From my point of view, when a person accepts Islam, they revert—but then they have to convert their life to fit that acceptance.

And in those early days, I was intensely preoccupied with how to convert my life to be acceptable, Islamically. It was about finding out what was permitted (halal) and what was forbidden (haram), learning what the Quran was, what hadith were, how to pray (and learning to wake up for fajr, the early morning prayer). I felt like there was so much in my life that I wasn’t sure was compatible with my newfound faith: video games, movies, music, writing, friends, and the list went on. Suddenly, I was looking at everything through the lens of Islam. And there were days where I would wake up and realize with a sinking heart that, “oh my God, I’m a Muslim…”; and other times when I would be so filled with joy at the simple fact of reminding myself that, “oh my God, I’m a Muslim!”

On top of that there was the reaction from my friends and family, which was all at once cold and confused. My parents mercifully accepted my choice, and tried their best to accommodate me and my girlfriend as we tried to learn how to be proper Muslims. My friends were confused and I began to drift apart from them, under the pretense that they just wouldn’t understand. My extended family was split between acceptance and denial, and for years it would stay that way.

Rarely is such a change easy. But it came with a sense of reassurance that, no matter how bad things got, God was on my side.

Holding the light

To me, Islam was a logical and straightforward decision to live how God wanted me to live. Before I said my shahada, I had barely read the Quran, never set foot inside a mosque, or spoken with an imam. All of that came later. Not one to procrastinate or do things half-heartedly, I immediately set to work on changing how I was living to be a proper Muslim. After all, linguistically speaking, the word “Muslim” means “one who submits to God”.

And that’s not to say there wasn’t a spiritual aspect of my conversion either. I had accepted Islam in my heart prior to saying the shahada (and given the number of times my girlfriend and I practiced saying it in Arabic, we may as well have been Muslims then and there). In the midst of all the trials came a spiritual wholeness, like a gap that had been filled in. It was what I had been searching for my whole life: sensical, logical, structured spirituality. A balance of the world and the afterlife. A greater purpose behind everything I did. I remember taking dishes out of the dishwasher and being amazed that I would be rewarded for this simple menial chore.

More than anything, though, it was a reassurance; a promise that, yes, God does exist, your life does have a purpose and it’s time to get working on it. It was a simple truth that was enough to keep me going through my hardest trials—a light both uplifting and heavy, weighing on my thoughts and deeds. A light I was determined to hold.

To be continued…

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