CONVERSION STORY



Allah is really the best Planner!

My Story

 
Who is better in speech than one who calls
(mankind) to Allah, works righteousness,
and says "I am of those who bow in Islam"?
The Holy Quran 41:33

If you asked anyone who's known me all my life, my mother for example, she'd tell you I was always "into" religion. In fact, I was "into" everything! So many things struck my fancy. From my earliest recollections, around three years of age or so, I remember I couldn't decide if I wanted to be a teacher or a gypsy when I grew up! I'd dress up in long skirts, dangly earrings and tinkling bracelets, wear a colorful paisley silk scarf as a shawl, and run around the house, pretending to be Queen of the Gypsies. When I tired of that, I'd retreat to my playroom in the basement and play school for hours on end. Of course, I was the teacher, and was always trying to corral my brother and his unwilling friends into being my students.
Finally, I passed out of the gypsy phase, probably when I learned how to read. I continued to play school in the basement, and read for hours on end to my imaginary students. Books fascinated me and I read anything and everything. The world opened up to me at a very young age, and I was determined to make my mark in it. From that point on, I decided that I wanted to be a teacher and a writer. Those dreams did eventually become reality, but not without a lot of hardships in between.
I was being raised as a Catholic in a fairly devout home. I attended Catholic school, went to Mass on Sundays and also spent a lot of voluntary time in church. Sometimes I'd sneak in after school, and rather than sit in the main church, I'd go to the small chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary. There I would pray the rosary earnestly and wish with all my heart that she would appear to me the way I'd been taught she'd appeared in Lourdes and Fatima.
There was a custom in the Catholic Church that May was dedicated to the adoration of Mary, mother of Jesus. In school we built something called a "May altar", a small table draped in a beautiful cloth, with a huge statue of the Blessed Virgin surrounded by vases of flowers that we children would pick from our gardens. Daily we would pray the rosary, and at the end of May, we'd have an outdoor pageant where we'd all dress up in our best clothes, girls would wear crowns of flowers on their heads and we'd sing songs to a statue of her in the church courtyard. Someone would have the honor of making an ornate crown of flowers to place on the statue's head, and we'd listen in awe to the Pastor as he told us how important it was to pray to the "Mother of God"! I was awfully caught up in all that and always had a May altar in my mother's dining room.
There was much pomp and circumstance in the church. Weekly confession (of our sins to a priest who was supposed to represent God in the confessional), Mass, Novenas, Benediction, Baptism, First Holy Communion, Confirmation, and if one chose, elaborate ceremonies marking either entrance into the clergy as a priest or nun, or marriage. I mention all this to illustrate the fact that when you are raised Catholic, especially if you attend Catholic school, "being" Catholic is your WHOLE identity. It is constant indoctrination into not only a faith, but a community. Your friends are Catholic, your spouse better be Catholic or there's hell to pay, and your children MUST be raised Catholic. You can't imagine being another religion---you just can't! Perhaps things have changed a lot in the last 20 years, but until I was graduated from high school in 1974, I was a very devout Catholic, despite the fact that the older I grew, the more doubts I seemed to have about the religion.
I made brief forays into the study of Mormonism, because their missionaries were always knockng on the door. Also looked into the Hare Krishna movement, because I was fascinated with their yellow saris, shaved heads and tinkling bells as they chanted on the streets of downtown Pittsburgh. Memories of my gypsy days, perhaps? There were a few short weeks one summer when I was 12 that I began to read the Bible at the request of a Presbyterian neighbor, but my mother put a stop to all those investigations. I figured she was thinking that I was born Catholic and would stay Catholic if she had her way. Little did I know that she too, was rapidly becoming disillusioned with the church, and religion in general. That would also have explained her refusal to allow me to enter the convent when I started high school.
There were problems brewing in our home with regards to the church. One was the ever increasing demand for weekly donations, school tuition, etc. The church was getting richer---it was evident everywhere, from the land holdings and purchases of the church worldwide, to the new Cadillac the pastor drove. While the church was getting richer, schools were closing, parishes were downsizing, and the nuns gave up their traditional habits for modern clothing allowed under the edicts of Vatican II. The Latin Mass was all but forbidden---you couldn't find one anywhere. Saturday masses were introduced so folks didn't have to get up early on Sunday mornings. Folk masses became the rage and guitars in church were just too much for some older parishioners. Confession went out, the sacrament of "Reconciliation" came in. An evangelical movement made huge in-roads into community activities and suddenly Catholics were also "born-again" Christians talking in "tongues". Membership in churches was declining rapidly. Marriages could now be "annullned" on a whim so that all those divorced and re-married Catholics could return to the Church and also bring back the bucks. And perhaps worst of all were the whispered secrets about the many priests who were molesting children, especially boys, my brother among them.
The church treated my mother none too kindly from the start. She was divorced from my father, a non-Catholic drunk and a womanizer, who had a few peculiar religious beliefs of his own. Mom tried hard to make the marriage work, but my father, whom I never knew, just wouldn't settle down. The divorce became final while my Mom was pregnant with my younger brother. We lived with my grandparents, Mom went to work to provide as much for us as she could, and actually it was a pretty decent life. We vacationed frequently, had the best toys, clothes, etc, and felt loved and secure.
But back in those days, divorce was SUCH a scandal. I remember I didn't even know my parents were actually divorced until I was in high school. Up until that time, my Mom told everyone she and my father were seperated, especially the nuns at school. Divorce was allowed in the church, but people had a way of turning it into a soap opera. The fact that my mother was quite attractive didn't help her situation much. Other women on the block, good Catholics, never included Mom in any neighborhood activities. In fact, they shunned her. I guess they heard their husbands talking about what a "dish" (an actual comment) she was, and despite the fact that my Mom basically ignored men and never dated was no consolation to those "good" women. Mom was ostracized. It was worse at school. Because Mom worked, she wasn't free to run to school and volunteer. She didn't have time for the PTA or bake sales. I was treated fairly well by the nuns, but my poor brother suffered a lot. Everytime he'd get into a scrape at school, the whole convent came down on his head. It didn't matter if little brother was innocent---if the other kid had a father at home, my brother got not only the blame, but frequent paddlings as well. More than once I heard the nuns scream at him "You're no good because you don't have a father!" Many times, my grandmother, fighting back tears would explain to us that of course, we had a father---everyone did---he just didn't live with us was all. Time is a great healer. Those words don't mean much to him now, but when my brother was young, the nun's comments hurt like hell. That was one of the reasons he was so receptive to the friendly advances of one of the parish priests. Little did he know, that by being taken under the wing of one of the good fathers, he would end up being a victim of sexual molestation. It took him years to inform my mother, because of course the priest convinced him that no one would believe him. Years of counseling followed his revelation, and he recovered to the point t! hat when given the chance to sue his molester in court, he refused, saying "The man was sick. I forgive him."
These factors, along with the changes in the church, slowly led my mother away from the fold. As I said, when I was convinced I wanted to enter the postulancy when I began high school, Mom refused. I can not thank her enough now for that decision.
One year after graduation, while in college, I married my "high school sweetheart". It was a horrible mistake. Six years of misery, a futile attempt at marriage counseling with the parish priest and the birth of one child culminated in divorce upon the death of my grandmother. Grandma had held my marriage together by sheer force of her will on mine. Her motto was 'even a bad man is better than no man', and as dear as she was to me, she just couldn't conceive of my divorcing. But when she died, that was the beginning of the end. I took my daughter and went home to my mother's house to care for my ailing grandfather. It was a terrible time.
I was overcome with grief at Grandma's death, and even my baby girl didn't give me the will to go on. The divorce and being alone without someone to love and to be loved by made matters worse. I became physically ill. When I could nearly no longer function, I went to the doctor who sent me to a psychiatrist. He explained that the grieving process was so intense and prolonged for me (due to my double loss through death and divorce) that it had driven me into a deep depression. With that knowledge, counseling, and a brief stint on anti-depressants, I recovered. But not enough. I no longer found comfort in the church. I needed God in my life, but didn't know where to find Him. I started to read the Bible, something rather foreign to Catholics in those days, but found no answers. I decided to just "be" a Christian. I made a few attempts to join other churches, but I just couldn't get with that born-again, talking in tongues, Jesus died for YOUR sins, philosophy. I tried to go back to college, but caring for my grandfather was a full-time job, and so was my daughter. I dropped out. I had no money, no child support or alimony from my ex, and worst of all, I had no man to "take care of me". I felt as if I had no future, no reason to live. I prayed a lot, hoping "someone" would hear me, but I received only silence in return.
I investigated every religion I could think of. I studied them all. I rejected Judaism on the grounds that it seemed impossible to be of the "chosen people" or "saved" simply because of one's bloodlines. There was something so unfair in this to me, and I couldn't conceive of a God who would send people to heaven or hell based on who their parents were, regardless of whether they did good or evil in their lifetimes.
Hinduism was another difficult one to swallow. I couldn't get past the idea of multiple gods, that anything or anyone could be a god, or the biggie--cow worship. It just didn't make sense.
The oriental religions---Buddhism, Confucism, Taoism, etc, where too detached from what I considered to be the reality of life and also from the Bible stories I'd grown up with. Though I knew even at that time that the Bible was full of mistakes, the idea that Prophets came from the begining of time to guide people to the right way was still stuck in my brain. Later, I found this thought confirmed in Islam.
Towards the end of 1981, as my life situation and mental conditions worsened, I grew more and more desperate to “have a life”. I wanted a home of my own, a marriage and more children. And I wanted to find the truth in regards to religion. I was sure the answers to all my dreams lay somewhere with God, but had no idea of how to reach Him. I spent days and nights crying, hoping that God would reveal His way for me. Crying and begging God for the right answer.
One afternoon, while alone in the house, the overwhelming urge to “talk” to God came over me. I can remember that day as clearly as if it happened yesterday. I will never, insha Allah (God willing), forget the feelings and actions that took control of me that day.
I was standing in my bedroom, just standing, not even knowing where to turn, not able to move. I just knew I had to pray to God. Suddenly, the thought came to my mind that I had to be “clean”. Why, I had no idea---now I know, but then I didn’t. So I decided to take a bath. I washed myself completely, from the top of my head to the tips of my toes. I went back to my room, and still unsure what to do next, I stood still. Although the weather was warm and sunny, I donned a long bathrobe, that covered me completely. I felt I had to be covered. My hair was wrapped up in a towel, yet still guided by an unseen force, I combed it out, put it up on my head, and then just stood there again. Suddenly, I knew that before I could approach God, I had to cover my hair. I can not even remember what I used, but I do know I covered every strand of it. I suppose if any Muslim had seen me at that moment, they would have considered my wearing “hijab”---the outer clothing that covers everything but the face and the hands of a Muslim woman.
Again, I stood, waiting for the guidance to come. Immediately, I felt compelled to humble myself as much as I could before my Creator. I could not sit, I could not kneel. I had to get lower, somehow. I could not lay prostrate, as priests and nuns do when entering the clergy, as that was too “Catholic” for me. Not that I rejected it because I was no longer a Catholic, but deep, deep down in my soul, I knew it was not the right thing to do.
Next, the thought came to me that I must place my face on the floor. I could not think of a more humbling, submissive position. Yet, for some reason, again which I knew not then but know now, I took a small afghan from my daughter’s crib, coincidentally the size of a Muslim’s prayer rug, and laid it out of the floor before me. Again, I knew the place where I would pray, and attempt to meet God, had to be clean. As it turns out, I placed the rug so that it was facing in the direction of Mecca---incredible to me now, that even the direction of my supplications, by some instinctual force, was just as Muslims pray.
Did I know anything about Islam or Muslims--no! Certainly not about their prayer habits. Yet here I was, preparing myself to meet God just as a billion plus Muslims do 5 times a day.
I stepped onto the edge of the afghan, went down on my knees, then with arms outstretched, I placed my face on the floor. Suddenly, everything felt “right”. This was the way to talk to God. I cried. I cried a lot. And I begged God to direct me to His course.
When I was finished, I got up, and for some reason, felt a sense of peace. Nothing had changed in my life, in the span of those few moments, and yet everything had changed! By the nature (“fitrah”), that each one of us is born with, I had made contact with God in the way that He, Himself had instructed us to do. I had no idea what was to come of what I had just done. Yet it somehow felt so right.
It was at that point that I decided I no longer believed in anything except that there was a God. I even gave up my belief that “Jesus was God” or “the son of God”. I believed in nothing, except the Creator. Who or what He was, what was His way, what He wanted me to do next, I had no idea. I just put my faith in the belief that there WAS a God.
Over the course of the next couple of months, I theorized a lot. Again, as it turns out, the thoughts that kept coming into my mind were thoughts that were placed there long before I was ever born. They were the same kind of thoughts that any thinking, rational person, determined to find guidance, would have.
Once, I determined there was a God, and that meant only One Supreme Being, I came to understand that if there was one God, He must have ONLY One way for all mankind, from the beginning of time, to reach Him. A path that was taken since the creation of Adam. One path that ended all the confusion as to which way was "the right way". A path for all those who had gone before us, and for all those who would come. A way that would lead us not only to Himself, but to a meaningful life, here and beyond. A path that obviously not all had discovered, yet surely existed, by the mercy of a logical God.
One God. One way. What was that way??? I was determined to find it. Though I still had no idea what path this was, I did know this---that once I found it, it would be incumbent upon me to accept it completely, to submit myself entirely to it. I clearly remember thinking the word “submit”. The very MEANING of the word “Islam”, I was later to discover!!!
In December of 1981, I went to a dinner party and there I met my first Muslim. He was a Nigerian student, studying at the University of Pittsburgh. We were seated next to each other, and when the waiter delivered our menus, he leaned over to me and asked if I could help him with the menu, as there were certain foods his religion did not allow him to eat. “And what are those foods?”, I asked. “Pork and alcohol”, he replied. Naturally, my next inquiry was as to what religion he was. “Muslim”, he answered confidently. Right away, I was driven to ask him if he could explain to me the central belief of this religion. Without hesitation he told me to believe that there was only One God. Only One God. Jesus was not a God, Jesus was not God’s son, God had no partners. There was only One God.
It was so simple! Yes, only one God. I could accept that. My second was also important. I asked what was this religions thoughts as regards to women. He was most happy to indulge me, as all Muslims are. Smiling, he explained that while men and women were equal in the sight of God, they were not the same. Each was created for different roles. In brief, man was the breadwinner and responsible for the care of the family. Woman was the childbearer and responsible for the care of her home, husband and children. As no boat can sail with two captains, man was given the position of leadership over the wife. Although there was mutual respect and consultation, in the end, the man was the decision maker. I think he was half-afraid of what my response might be. Yet, to me it made perfect sense! “I can agree with that!”, I happily told him.
Over the course of the evening, I am sure I asked a zillion more questions, but I can’t recall a single one now. But I do know that the evening ended with me giving him my phone number and asking him if he could put me in touch with people who could teach me more about this profound discovery. He promised to ask at the mosque on the coming Friday, and told me he would be glad to get some books for me. I went home sooooo happy. I believed I was truly onto something. I believed I just might have finally found the way to God, and the answer to all my prayers!