Suffering in Silence: The Convert Identity

From the virtuous days of Dhul Hijjah to momentous Eid mornings, we treasure these precious days and the acts of worship, celebratory preparations, and communal moments that are all part of the tapestry of Muslim culture across societies. Western Muslims—mostly immigrants or family of immigrants—reminisce upon the Islamic holidays spent in their homeland, yearning to make equally satisfying observances in their new home. At the same time, placing emphasis on their own arrangements may come at the expense of catering to the converts of their community at a time when new Muslims are in need of communal support. An issue that Muslim communities in the West turn a blind eye to is “convert care,” that is, showing compassion to and acknowledgment of the often forgotten in society. Converts are of a wide variety of backgrounds, education levels, and Islamic knowledge, but universally experience neglect during the most virtuous days for Muslims and the joyous occasions of Eid. In a publication by Juliette Galonnier entitled, “Conversion to Islam as Racial and Religious Crossing,” Galonnier writes that converts from both the United States and France believed they were,

individuals able to escape the molding of society in order to reconnect with their “true” inner selves.

However, Galonnier mentions issues like resentment and neglect made the “true inner self” narrative challenging. We as Muslims often pride ourselves on our communal duties as a group but fail to draw converts into the fold of community, leading many of them to experience seclusion, uncertainty, and alienation. The sad and unfortunate truth is that Western Muslims are not aware of converts suffering in silence in their community, and those that are aware are unequipped to assist. 

The Privilege of Belonging 

There is comfort in belonging – whether it be a family or a friends group or in a broader sense to a religious community. Belonging is a cocoon of privilege that shelters the vast majority from isolation and exclusion. Social psychology tells us that belongingness is a feeling that satisfies human beings, and so it is in our nature to seek circles of commonality. This is echoed in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, where he cites belonging as a crucial step on the pyramid to self-actualization. The hierarchy cites that one can only reach the steps of self-fulfillment after fulfilling their need for belonging. This means the many who are unable to feel like they belong not only are unable to reach their full potential, but according to Maslow, may reach certain extents of loneliness, depression, and anxiety, because they are deprived of emotional relationships. For converts to Islam, it is clear that the isolation they face, especially during holidays like Eid, stems from a place of unbelonging to communities that have neglected their existence. Though converts have an intrinsic motivation to be part of their Muslim community, the lack of communal outreach and acceptance distances them from feeling a sense of belonging. 

On a broader scale, exclusion has overwhelmingly negative emotional and psychological effects. Although the effects of exclusion are often dismissed as just mere sadness, there is a ripple effect of reduction in self-efficacy. In research conducted by psychologists Dominic Abrams and Jose Marques titled, “The Social Psychology of Inclusion and Exclusion,” a study is cited in which reduced self-efficacy brought about overwhelming feelings of anger, frustration, and anxiety. This is a direct emotional response to the fear of losing support, social circles, and access to resources. If we apply this reasoning to new Muslims, it becomes clearer to understand even on a purely emotional level how a new Muslim can start having uncertainties about their faith despite little to no theological doubts. The behavioral response to exclusion is often to distance or completely withdraw from negligent social circles. Because community is such an integral factor of Muslim tradition, such a behavioral response can be detrimental to the nurturing of a new Muslim’s faith. The harsh reality for many converts is apart from the congratulatory takbirs and embraces in the mosque after the testimony of faith, they become an overlooked face in the eyes of the community. 

Sister Monique Hassan of Muslim Matters wrote a piece shedding light on some of her personal experiences as a convert entitled, “In the Age of Islamophobia, Why Reverts Are Leaving Islam.” Upon taking her shahada, she was met with a welcoming embrace which disappeared in moments. She writes,

Many assume others are helping us or have become our friends when truthfully, most of us spend our Eids alone and we break fast alone.

At a certain point she even stopped going to community iftars because she no longer wanted to feel like a stranger. While she mentions that converts like herself do get greeted with kind words, they are still left to sit alone at gatherings. She then writes,

We isolate ourselves, even more (which is dangerous), because we don’t want to keep feeling like an outsider. 

This reinforces the psychological research done by Abrams and Marques that the immediate response to exclusion is to withdraw oneself from those negligent. It also highlights the corrupted social structure within our community and its damaging effects on new Muslims. 

Convert Identities and Difficulties 

There is no universal convert identity. Every convert to Islam has their own story and their own progression within the faith. Some new Muslims may find their conversion to Islam to be smooth because of reliable social circles or an open, welcoming family. Other new Muslims may not have such a privilege, and may struggle with spiritual separation from their loved ones or the daunting task of seeking religious and spiritual training on their own. Many converts to Islam begin their journey as a new Muslim in hiding, keeping their conversion a secret to avoid familial issues. The overwhelming majority, however, would agree that at least some aspects of their faith are in isolation from the very beginning. It is important to examine the mentalities of converts before constructing support systems to assist them. While converts to Islam may not all have the same mentality, they possess a religious zeal that empowers them to prioritize Islamic identity in their daily lives. A term coined “identity salience” and the salience hierarchy are theories that there are contributing factors that have greater prominence in the hierarchy of multiple identities that make us who we are.[1] It is undoubtedly so that the Muslim identity climbs its way to the paramount position of such hierarchy, but not without tribulation. 

In a 2010 study by Faith Matters, a focus group of converts was surveyed on their experiences as new Muslims. A highly relevant question asked was the difficulties faced after conversion. The research study states that half of the converts surveyed had struggles with acceptance within the local Muslim community and close to half had issues with locating support networks for converts and retrieving authentic knowledge on Islam.[2] The research clearly conveys the notion that many converts are struggling with belonging to a community. If communities were able to correct their approach to converts and foster a welcoming environment for converts to thrive, this would resolve other issues mentioned in the survey like seeking knowledge, gender interactions, and Islamic etiquette. Another important point of emphasis is for two out of every three converts surveyed, their families had a negative attitude towards their conversion. Imagine the trauma that plagues a new Muslim who has lost the emotional intimacy within their household only to feel shunned and turned away at the masjid doors. For the sake of our converts and the future of Islam in Western society as a whole, we must defeat major insecurities including the notion that traditional Muslim spaces are exclusive to specific cultures, races, or backgrounds. 

Finding a Resolution 

It was Corretta Scott King who said, 

The greatness of a community is most accurately measured by the compassionate actions of its members.

Far too often the Muslim community chooses to seek self-satisfaction through congratulatory takbirs instead of the necessary nurturing and caretaking that should occur when a person converts to Islam. The vast majority of the Muslim community is emotionally inept in dealing with the problems that converts face. On a daily basis and especially amplified during Islamic holidays, converts are told that the best way to deal with their issues of loneliness, spiritual separation, and familial tensions is to remember that “God is with them.” This is a major pitfall that our community has become complacent with. While converts should be conscious of God’s presence during their hardship, it should not be an excuse to justify the absence of the wider Muslim community. The mere fact that God is present watching over them should act as reminders for why we should be present with them, too. 

Many Muslims who assist converts do so by disseminating knowledge via books because we are of the impression that converts are lacking in religious understanding. What we fail to realize is that they are more in need of companionship. Far too often, converts are stereotyped as being weak in faith and faltering in their certainty, when this is simply not the case. In a study by Pew Research, those who converted to a faith have a higher religious commitment than those who were born into a faith when it comes to things like prayer (70% of converts pray every day compared to 62% of non-converts) and personal importance of religion (69% of converts say religion is important to them compared to 62% of non-converts). While it is important to provide material to grow their understanding of Islam, it is equally important to teach a new Muslim through our own actions and companionship. We must also not undermine converts as if they are incapable of attaining Islamic knowledge and scholarship. Converts such as Siraj Wahhaj, Hamza Yusuf, and Yusuf Estes have taken upon leadership positions within our communities and shaped Western Islam. 

Mosques and Islamic Centers need to get away from “shahada boxes” filled with books and pamphlets, and steer towards a balanced growth through mentorship, supplementary readings, and brotherhood/sisterhood. There are methods from the life of the Prophet Muhammad and the Sahaba that we can take note of and implement within our circles. For example, the Prophet Muhammad would often match the Companions together. A well-known instance of this is the matching of Salman al-Farsi, someone who just found Islam, with Abu Darda, a known scholar and ascetic of the time. Shortly after they were placed together, Salman corrected the lifestyle of Abu Darda after observing his social and familial habits. When Abu Darda took this matter to the Prophet , the Prophet responded,

“Salman has spoken the truth.”[3]

This instance is enough to prove the benefit of companionship, not just for the new Muslim, but for all parties involved. Salman taught Abu Darda, a learned man of the religion, although he was a new Muslim. 

We should view new Muslims with genuine compassion instead of amazing storytellers who make us feel good about our faith. We must escape the disingenuous idea that converts are a “commodity” and begin to humanize their experiences by being receptive to how they feel. The African proverb, “it takes a village to raise a child” should be applied as, “it takes a community to raise a Muslim.” We must recognize the relevance of community in all of our upbringings so we can strive to be the source of community for the often forgotten. 

Works Cited: 

  1. Peek, Lori. “Becoming Muslim: The Development of a Religious Identity.” Sociology of Religion, Vol. 66, No. 3, 2005, p. 217.
  2. Bryce, M.A. Kevin. A Minority Within a Minority: A Report on Converts to Islam in the United Kingdom. Swansea University (UK), p.27, https://faith-matters.org/images/stories/fm-reports/a-minority-within-a-minority-a-report-on-converts-to-islam-in-the-uk.pdf.
  3. https://sunnah.com/bukhari/78/166

Photo Credit: Fabrizio Verricchia


About the Author: Sanjay Subhag is a Computer Science and Islamic Studies student. His interests include poetry, comparative religion, and all things technology. You can follow him on Twitter here.

3 thoughts on “Suffering in Silence: The Convert Identity

  1. Thank you for this reflection, Sanjay. You have given me a lot to think about for my research. Have you been able to find a mosque nearby that has programming for converts or have you find an online community? I’d love to know more if you are willing to share.

    Like

    1. Salaam Rafia! Thank you for the kind words. I know of two really great masjid programs available for converts here in New York City.

      One of them is Masjid Eesa ibn Maryam’s “New Leaf” program (https://www.masjideesa.org/new-muslim). As a regular attendee of Masjid Eesa, I can vouch for the great work done to make converts feel like they are part of the community. The second is the Muslim American Society of New York’s “Revert Reconnect” program. While I did not personally attend this program, I have heard great things from other brothers and sisters in the community.

      Lastly, I think there’s one resource that is especially helpful for converts and new Muslims (or Muslims who want to become practicing) which is New Muslim Academy (https://www.newmuslimacademy.org/). It’s a virtual community geared towards holding classes, sending out emails and infographics, and providing support solely for new Muslims.

      In my opinion, the most pivotal step in supporting converts is companionship. The ideal scenario would be masajid creating programs catered to new Muslims in their community, but even if a group of individuals in every community made it a point to befriend a new Muslim, progress is being made.

      I hope this provided some insight inshaAllah.

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s