Just over one year ago, I officially accepted Islam. At the time, I was familiar with the fundamental philosophy of Islam, but I was still learning about the different aspects of Islamic practice. I knew that as a Muslim, I would be expected to pray at least five times per day, that I would be expected to fast during the month of Ramadan, and that I could no longer eat pork or drink alcohol. I didn’t know how to pray and I didn’t know why pork and alcohol were forbidden. I didn’t quite understand hijab and I had learned nothing of Islamic etiquette as demonstrated by the Prophet (may the peace and blessings of Allah be upon him). Immediately after I took my shahada (declaration of faith), many of my habits remained the same, but I continued to learn more about Islam.
I kept quiet about my newfound religion. As I learned how to carry myself and how to fulfill my Muslim duties, I slowly made changes to my lifestyle. YouTube helped me learn al-Fatiha and the last few surahs of the Qur’an. When I went home over the summer, I met a woman who herself converted to Islam when she was my age, 40 years ago. Though several generations separated us, the struggles of new Muslims have remained more or less the same. New Muslims have questions. We crave information but lack proper support systems. For those of us who are less shy, asking for help is effortless. For others, such as myself, timidity keeps us relegated to quiet corners of the masjids and long late-night internet searches at home. Realizing I needed help, she lovingly guided me through some of the finer aspects of Islam, including tawheed (oneness of Allah) and adab (etiquette).
When I returned to school in autumn, my iman (faith) was high. I was praying and reading the Qur’an on a regular basis, and Allah ta’ala blessed me with intelligent, pious Muslim roommates. Our religious differences— one roommate was a Malaysian Sunni, the other was an Iranian-American Shi’a and our fourth roommate was an Indian Hindu-by-tradition—never caused a problem. Quite the contrary, our religious discussions earned them a special place in my heart, and I hope they will remain lifelong friends.
At the same time, though, I still hung out with my old group of friends. Many of them drink, smoke, and go to clubs as I once did. Unwilling to seclude myself during a time when I most needed support, I tried to compromise with them. I allowed my friends to smoke and drink in my presence, but tried to keep my distance from the intoxicants. If the alcohol was in the left corner of the room, I would sit in the right corner. Regardless of where I would sit, the conversation would quickly turn into inquiries about my refusal to drink. In a society where becoming old enough to legally drink is a rite of passage preceded by years of secretly drinking in friends’ basements and entering bars with fake IDs, the idea that someone would choose not to drink is unfathomable. My friends would name the Muslims they know that drink, or they would say I’m becoming “too fundamentalist.” While these comparisons and insults are harmful in their own right, they’re not as painful as the most frequent comment: “But you used to drink!”
Unsure of what to say, I usually responded in the affirmative and remained quiet, politely refusing furthers offers of alcohol. I lacked the confidence I needed in my Islam to firmly stand my ground, and the memory of the drinking also brought back everything associated with it. In their adamant assertions, I heard fear more than anything else. They were afraid of losing me. Drinking is a favorite pastime of large percentage of students in my school. The comment put me in a very difficult position; I was caught between the desire to leave the bad influences behind and not wanting to lose the group of people who had otherwise been supportive and accepting of my changing personality.
I wish I could say that the non-Muslims were the only people who forced me to relive my past, but that isn’t the case. Born Muslims, sometimes those I knew both before and after my shahada, also questioned me about my past. Though they were glad for another member of the Ummah, they never seemed to be able to let my past indiscretions go. I drank at the time because I saw nothing wrong with it. I ate pork, smoked, and partied for the same reasons. I eventually dropped all of these habits, but to them, the more important fact of the matter was that I engaged in them in the first place. They seemed to imply that they were more pure than me because these pollutants never entered their bodies. Any attempts on my part to argue otherwise were fruitless.
I mention all of this because there are more people entering our wonderful faith each day, and they will also be worshiping during the month of Ramadan to the best of their capabilities. The only thing that separates a born Muslim from a convert/revert is how they came into the religion. Otherwise, converts/reverts pray, fast, and make dhikr the same as any other Muslim. While some new Muslims do struggle with kicking their old habits, with the help of Allah, they will eventually walk along the Straight Path. It wasn’t easy to leave behind my preconceived notions of God, it wasn’t easy to stop eating pork in a family where pork is served at least twice per week (and to be honest, my childhood favorites mostly involve pork). It isn’t easy to return to a family that was not all that receptive to your newfound faith. You know what is easy? Embracing new Muslims for who they are now, and not judging them for who they used to be. If Allah t’ala has forgiven me, can you at least try to do the same?