Saturday, April 12, 2014

Why I Don't Go to Halaqas - aka, what's wrong with the way conversion stories are told

And this is *precisely* why I don't go to halaqas and feel extremely uncomfortable there [halaqas are religious gatherings among Muslims. On campus, it's usually a speaker who comes and talks about an Islamic topic. The purpose is to help strengthen the audience's faith]:
Yesterday, I decided to go (and I don't often go but thought, meh, let's give it one more chance). The MSA had invited a speaker to talk about her conversion story. She's a neuroscience professor at a university and a former Irish Catholic who converted several decades ago - you know your religion is correct when a white person, especially if a scientist, converts to it; you know the other religion is wrong if it doesn't "make sense" to the white scientist. Thank God for these white converts - what'd we ever do without them, right?

What happens with most conversion stories, sadly, is a bashing of the former religion, a mockery of certain practices or beliefs of the former religion that don't make sense to the convert & the audience thinking that's hilarious, and the convert saying, "I don't pray for my parents because they were not Muslim. I just can't." This speaker said the same thing. These stories turn from one's spiritual quest to who's better, whose religion is better, how terrible the previous religion and their religious community was, and so on. Yes, rest assured, Muslims who leave Islam do the same thing - and it's just as wrong when former Muslims do it as when former Christians/Jews/Hindus/others do it.

There's also an over-simplification of Islam, the Qur'an, the Sunnah, Islamic law in these conversion stories. Let's first understand that Islam is, contrary to the convert's opinion and many Muslims' opinion too, not very simple at all. If it were, we'd all be practicing it the same way, and there'd be no need for the multiple schools of law, the more than enough sects and sub-sects, and so many different and conflicting interpretations of the Qur'an/Islam. Usually, when a Muslim says, "Don't ask me if I'm a Shia or Sunni - I'm JUST a Muslim!" Actually, if you're saying that, chances are, you follow a Sunni Islam. Or one of the many versions of Sunni Islam. That's called privilege. A Shi'a person can't say the same thing because when you're a Shi'a, there are severe, brutal, and violent consequences in most places today. You can't simply be "just a Muslim." Or, no, wait, lemme rephrase that. YOU can be, but you don't get to tell others whether they can or can't or think lowly of people because they realize that it's a little more complicated than being just a Muslim.

She mentioned that she grew up thinking Jews were an extinct people, so she was shocked when she met a Jew; the audience, again, thought this was absolutely hilarious - pity that Catholicism would do that to you, their laughter seemed to be saying. I now wish I'd said out loud during the Q&A (I told this to her individually, and she was surprised) that I grew up thinking Jews AND Christians were extinct people, that the people the Qur'an talked about were all from the past and none of them any longer existed. That's what happens when you live in a small mostly uneducated community with a lack of media access. And I grew up in the 90s in a village in Swat where everyone was Muslim. Sunni Muslim. Hell, I didn't even know Shia Muslims exist or that I was even Sunni! I found that out many years later when my older sister told me, "If anyone asks you, you say you're a SUNNI. We're Sunnis." The speaker also told us she didn't know what the words of the Ten Commandments meant, and I wanted to say, "I learned the translation of the Qur'an when I was under 10, and I had no idea what even the translation was telling me. Because that's what happens when you're a kid - no one teaches you things on your level, and no one breaks them down for you." This is important because the audience thought it was hilarious that she didn't know what the ten commandments were actually saying, and it was as though there was a flaw in the religion that made it this difficult for a child to understand. It's not a flaw in the religion itself; it's in how it's taught to kids, and that happens with all religions. Yes, including Islam.

Someone in the audience asked her, during the Q&A, how to invite/convert people to Islam appropriately without saying things like, "Hey, you don't even know your own religion! Jesus (peace be on him) never claimed he was God!" And the speaker said, "Well, I usually say something like, 'You can believer whatever you want, but I personally cannot worship something that's dead.'" ... And I'm like, great if that works for you, but someone could easily say, "And me, I can't worship something I cannot see" or that the thing they worship represents the deity they're worshiping. Also, dude, Christians don't believe Jesus is dead ... again, WHY this oversimplification of religious ideologies and beliefs that are so rooted in history, depth, and thought?! But mostly, it's this arrogant thinking that you understand why people do what they do, this thinking that YOUR way of believing is better and more rational ... and that rational is better ... oh my God ...

It just seems so wrong!! And the whole idea of conversion & then telling your story over and over because it affirms the veracity of MY religion ... I can't, I just can't.

Also, can we PLEASE talk about a conversion without talking about the hijab if the convert is a female?!?! And what's worse - a GUY asked this question about the hijab! (But fortunately, a female then said she had the same question. But still!). Every. Damn. Time. It's a female convert, and she covers her head? Great! Let's ask her to tell us what she thinks about the hijab, why she wears the hijab, how her struggle with it has been, and so on .... and hopefully in the process to convince all these misguided sisters who don't cover their heads. Fortunately, though, her response wasn't one that'd necessarily convince someone to wear the hijab, because she said she didn't believe it was required and that one day, she went to a friend she trusted to show her all the references to the hijab in the Qur'an ... she said she was still not convinced, and that one day, she couldn't leave the house without the head-covering. I don't know if the guy who asked that question was satisfied or if he regretted having asked the question but whatevz because she--WHEW--said that she completely understands and respect women who don't wear the hijab. She told the boys that it's hard business and that it's easy for them to blend in but not for the girls, and that we shouldn't make everything about the hijab - women aren't the sole carriers or representatives of Islam. Yayyy!!

So, never again. People convert because it works for them, and that's great! And I'm so happy for them that they're at a place in their lives where they are more at peace than they might have been in the past. But the message they send out about their former religions are really unpleasant and as someone who studies religions, they bother me a lot - because all of those things can also be said about Islam or any other religion. But when a former Muslim says the same things about Islam that former Christians or other new converts to Islam say about their previous religion, most Muslims among us tend to get really upset and defensive. That's not okay.

P.S. I want to also note that I understand that many converts who say what they say about their previous religions or their non-Muslim family members (e.g., "They're on the wrong path; I pray for them [if they're alive] or I don't pray for them because they were not Muslim when they were alive"] because that's what many Muslims actually want to hear. Or that's what the converts believe the Muslims want to hear, and it's their way of fitting in, of belonging in the faith and the community. But still, I feel like it doesn't justify much of the way the conversion story is told.


  1. Interesting post and to be honest; I can't say I blame you for not wanting to go to halaqa's on campus; the speech was quite... sad. If she reads this, please pray for your mother and father... you have no idea where they stand with Allah swt. My teacher often tells us about the power of prayer from a child to a parent, it is immense.
    Secondly; I am beginning to wonder about the purpose of convert stories, it seems to cause angst amongst people. Converts do have challenges but so do 'born- Muslims' (I'm sorry to not think of better terminolgy!) reconnecting with faith; especially in dealing with family who feel offended and those stories do not get heard anywhere near as much. Good post.

  2. As a convert, I totally agree with you, and it weirds me out when people ask me about how I converted and then give weird "compliments" I guess about what this means for me as a spiritual being. I happen to be a former Catholic too, and I'm grateful that I was raised Catholic. I had an excellent moral upbringing. I was raised to know God, and that prepared me for Islam. When I say that to Muslims, that I'm happy to have been raised Catholic, I get some pretty weird looks. lol But everyone has a faith journey, everyone has spiritual droughts and hardships, and to look at conversion as this sort of "cure" for spiritual maladies is just wrong. I still struggle with faith and religious practice, and I know every other Muslim does, even if they don't admit it or think it's a story worth telling.

    I love your blog, by the way. I'm so glad I read your Muslimah Montage. :)

    1. Caitie :) So good to hear from you! (I'm assuming you're the one I know, right?)

      Refreshing to hear your thoughts! I really hope I didn't come off as too vicious in my response to the above speaker's talk, but, really, it was suffocating to have to endure it. It was pure evil! And it breaks my heart that our MSA thinks such talks should be encouraged and celebrated. Absolutely heartbreaking.

      I couldn't agree with you more that everyone struggles with faith and religious practices--every Muslim I know has or is going through it right now. I'm still going through it, and as I tell my friends, I'm enjoying this phase (if it's a phase - maybe it's not, and I hope it's not! I hope it's eternal) so much, so grateful to be going through it. It's liberating, really, to finally not feel the burden of judging others on my own standards of piety and all.

      Lots of love and respect to you! And I hope you're well!

    2. The inner jihad...always all the time....


Dare to opine :)

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