By: Dr. Idris Elbakri
Our Muslim community is blessed with individuals who have come to Islam after being born into a different faith tradition. These are individuals who, of their own accord, have found and accepted the truth of our faith. They come to Islam from different backgrounds, and for different reasons. Converts, usually from the indigenous people of the land (i.e., Canadians) strengthen the Muslim community in several ways. They help our faith strike its roots in society, they provide their immigrant brethren with a better understanding of the country’s history and culture, and they can become capable spokespersons for the community.
The purpose of this article is to critically examine, and suggest remedies to, the response of the Muslim community to its stream of converts. This article looks at the issue after a convert has proclaimed his/her shahadah. The evidence for the arguments and suggestions made is anecdotal in nature, based on the author’s observations and experiences.
Many converts have arisen to positions of prominence in the North America. A few examples include Imam Siraj Wahhaj, Shaikh Hamza Yusuf, Imam Zaid Shakir and Dr. Ingrid Mattson. The latter was recently elected the president of the Islamic Society of North America. Despite these luminary examples, many if not most local Muslim communities are falling short in providing converts with the necessary support for their transition into the faith and community.
We generally meet the new convert with cheers and proclamations of “God is Great”. Often times, after the 5 minutes of fame that the convert receives when he/she proclaims his/her shahadah, they are all but abandoned. Conversion can be a very lonely experience. Converts risk their family ties, their jobs and their friendships when they come to Islam. Because our faith is often identified as the “other” in the Western psyche, converts can be considered cultural apostates by their families and friends. Our Islamic centers and other institutions have virtually no programs to offer support and to compensate for those potential losses. Converts are left to fend for themselves and to depend on the kindness and goodwill of individual Muslims. The private efforts of individual Muslims to welcome their new brothers and sisters are admirable in many cases. However, there is always the risk of the convert coming under influences that seek to shape them into a certain idealized image of a Muslim; an image that is often informed by allegiance to certain movements, cultural influences and that is almost certainly alien to the historical and cultural experiences of the convert. I have often wondered (sometimes in despair) how a week-old Muslim suddenly appears like they have just emerged from 7th century Arabia (or so they were lead to believe).
One of the categories of people for whom the Qur’an admonishes us to give Zakat charity to is the category of those whose “hearts need to be reconciled”. This includes new Muslims who require assistance and support to remain firm in their new faith. Our community and its representative organizations should consider creating programs, funded from Zakat, that ensure that our new brothers and sisters are cared for and supported. A program of support for the new Muslim can include the following elements.
- Social support: This is, in my opinion, the most important. New Muslims need Muslim friends. Friend to whom they can talk, share their experiences and struggles and “unwind” when the going gets tough. The primary role of these friends/mentors/supporters/ansar is not to teach or indoctrinate, but to open their hearts and homes to the new Muslim, and to just “be there” when needed. A formalized support program could match converts with mentors based on surveys and personality profiles. It could also provide training for the mentors to ensure they are sensitive to the struggles of new Muslims.
- Educational support: There is a dire needed for formal educational opportunities that introduce the convert to the beliefs and practices of Islam. This can take the form of periodic offerings of introductory courses, as well as one-on-one mentoring. Appropriate materials for self-study would complement a formal learning program.
- Financial support: Funds need to be marked for the sole purpose of helping converts deal with the possibility of financial difficulties. These difficulties could arise due to family support ceasing, job loss, or may exist from before accepting Islam.
In researching, designing and implementing such a program, it is important to have a clear educational and social philosophy. The goal of such a program should not be to help the new Muslims become copies of their immigrant brethren. Rather, it should strive to ultimately help them reconcile Islam with the other dimensions of their Canadian identity. The prophet Muhammad (S) was reported to have stated that those who were “the best” (in character) in pre-Islamic times were also the best in Islam. Effectively, becoming Muslim should affirm everything that is wholesome and beautiful in one’s character. Attitudes that lead converts to change aspects of their identities, from their names to the way they dress, should be abandoned altogether.
Instructing the new Muslims in the beliefs and practices of Islam should encourage questioning and critical thinking. We can expect that converts have come to Islam after a long period of study and thinking. They are lead to the faith by their hearts and minds. We have to adopt teaching methodologies that respect their intellectual capacities and critical thinking.
Another challenge is for the Muslim community to learn to embrace converts regardless of their ethnic or socio-economic backgrounds. We have to be able to embrace new Muslims whether they are White or Black, Aboriginal or Anglo-Saxon, rich or poor, a North-ender or South-ender. Islam is only as colorblind as we are.
To conclude, I recall the bitter words of a convert who had been Muslim twenty years or so. He said that when he embraced Islam, he was told all of his problems would end, but that, in reality, he felt they all began then. Nonetheless, he had remained committed and had successfully raised a Muslim family and rose to a position of prominence in his community. There are many like him. Their endurance and faith, against all odds, is a testament to the power of the truth of Islam, once it penetrates and illuminates someone’s heart.