I remember the joy I felt when I first became a Muslim. I felt truly happy and at peace, settled in a way I had never felt before. The best way to describe it is that I felt whole. I wanted to shout it from the rooftops; I couldn’t wait to share my excitement with everyone. I eagerly jumped into the local Muslim community, attending classes, halaqas, and Friday prayers. I met all of the Muslim women I could, eager to make friends who shared my faith. I was living, breathing, eating, and sleeping Islam.
Then, reality struck. I realized there was a bit of a clique mentality in the mosques. Many of the women just seemed unwilling to accept an American Muslim into their midst. Although most were initially polite, it was difficult to get beyond “Assalamu Alaikoum.” I had difficulty making close friends, and always seemed to be standing on the outside looking in.
I also soon realized that, despite “finding myself” in a new religion, I was still experiencing an identity crisis of sorts. Much of Islam is closely tied to culture. Living with my Arab husband and spending time with Arab friends, I was unable to discern the difference between being Muslim and being Arabic. Whether the pressure came from me or my husband is unclear to me, but I felt a huge pressure to learn Arabic. I became overly concerned with learning about Arabic culture– food, language, clothing, customs, and manners. At times, I was learning much more about Egypt than Islam. I felt always under the microscope, as though the entire Egyptian brigade were waiting for me to make a mistake.
In time I came to feel just as isolated as I had in my previous life. In the wake of feeling unwelcome, I stopped going to the mosque. After repeated messages of not measuring up, I began limiting my time with Egyptian friends. I resented the pressure, whether real or imagined, to be Arab. In response, I started to distance myself from Islam as well. Looking back, I can say that I was extremely unhappy.
“Believing as Ourselves” by L. Lynn Jones and Jeffrey Lang deals with these issues and more. Jones, herself an American convert, discusses these things with brutal honesty. She talks about the disconnect, the problems with Muslim communities in America, and the pressure to be someone else. She also talks about the importance to keep your own identity. “Believing as Ourselves” gives us permission to become a fully functioning Muslim without losing our personality. While self-improvement is always needed and we should strive to be good Muslims, we must stay true to who we are.
Above all else, the book allows us to see that we are not alone in our feelings. Jones gives us permission to have doubts, confusion, and resentment. She lets us know that the feelings are quite normal among converts and that they are not a reflection of weak iman (belief). When we are feeling alone in the Muslim community, it is helpful to know that converts around the world share our frustrations.
While she does offer stress relief suggestions, she stops short of offering solutions. This is the one drawback of the book. After many chapters of commiseration, a reader naturally expects a happy ending with an easy-to-achieve solution. That doesn’t happen. Instead, the author advises a retreat from the Muslim community, a time of self-reflection. That is good advice; however, the retreat should be followed by a return to the community. Read the book, but go beyond its pages.
After you have reveled in the shared frustrations and retreated into yourself for awhile, find a way back. Use the book as a starting point in your own journey to Islamic peace and happiness.