Becoming An American Muslim
I converted to Islam as a teenager, but my journey to Islam really began as a child. My parents never realized this, but by God’s grace, I was being guided to the path of Islam through them. As a child my father taught me to pray to God, rather than Jesus (peace be upon him) and I wonder if that was the first seed of Islam that was planted in my heart. My parents taught me the importance of charity and service to one’s community, to smile and forgive. They taught me the importance of loving for others what I love for myself and how to be kind. They taught me the importance of telling the truth and being just–and of leaving the world a better place than how I found it. Most importantly they taught me to love God and humanity.
The first time that I saw the Quran, I thought it was the most beautiful book I had ever seen and I found myself drawn to it like a magnet, despite all the horrible things I had heard about Islam. I remember flipping through the first few pages and then flipping back to the first chapter and staring at it. Even though it was in a language foreign to me, it somehow left an imprint on my heart.
That moment sparked my interest in Islam, but it wasn’t that moment that made me want to become a Muslim.
When I was sixteen I began Middle College where I was a college student and completed high school on the side. My first friend that I made was named Ece. She had just arrived to the U.S. from Turkey and immediately took me under her wing. Ece wasn’t just a dear friend to me– she was like the sister I always wanted, but never had. She was one of the most kind people I have ever known and the most beautiful thing I saw in her heart was her love for humanity. She never saw me differently because of difference in faith. On the contrary she saw the fitrah of Islam in me and through her I began to see Islam inside myself.
I was heartbroken when she left back to Turkey–but God continued to guide me to Islam.
The first time that I went to a Mosque I was 18 and I went for the Open House Day where people of my community of other faiths were invited to a special sermon about Islam, watch Friday Prayer, and eat yummy food afterwards. There was something about that experience that had a huge impact on me and my heart. I felt the presence of God and His angles in a way I had never felt before– and I felt an inner peace that I never wanted to leave my heart. For the first time in my life I felt a sense of belonging and I felt like I had finally found “home”.
Soon afterwards, I returned to the Mosque during Ramadan for Friday Prayer to ask how to become a Muslim. I took my declaration of faith and felt the biggest spiritual high ever, thank God. A nice Muslim sister gave me a prayer outfit with pink and white flowers and I received a children’s book on how to pray. When I got home, it took me about one hour to figure out how to pray Fajr prayer. I was learning how to memorize Surat Al-Fatiha and learn the rest of the prayers. I did my best to try to write Surat Al-Fatiha in gold Arabic letters on a piece of red construction paper and hung it on the wall above my bed.
Meanwhile, God started to test my sincerity in a series of tests that led me to avoid the Mosque for a couple of years. I got bullied to tears by a sister for not attending Friday Prayer when I had my period, and I had been made to feel unwelcome by two other sisters as well. One who shamed me for waiting in the men’s section to ask the Sheikh questions about Islam. I was given the impression that I wasn’t allowed to enter the men’s section or ever talk to the Sheikh. The other sister publicly embarrassed me and after that I really did not feel welcome. The final experience that I had that drove me away from the Mosque was when a brother found out that I was a convert and told me “You are American? All Americans are going to hell!”
It’s comforting to remember that even the butterfly hid herself from the world in a cocoon before growing wings and learning how to fly. Islam is ultimately about my relationship with God and it is solely on God that I rely. I clung to my connection with God– and promised myself to not ever let anyone drive me out of my faith.
My conversion also triggered an identity crisis. I was made to feel that there was something wrong with me for being both Muslim and American. I felt that I had to choose between either being Muslim or being American. I was told things like: “You are American. You can’t wear hijab.” Or as several Muslims told me: “You can’t have the name Erica. It’s an American name. You have to have an Arab name if you want to be a Muslim.” I was given the new name Noor, which I didn’t even know what it meant at the time. Later I learned that Noor is a beautiful name, it means light and is the name of a chapter in the Quran. However, I have also learned that my name Erica is a flowering plant and is also a beautiful American cultural name. After more than a decade, I still love the name Noor, after knowing that it means light (i.e. spiritual light), but as a Muslim convert and an American, it is important to me to keep my real name Erica, because it is my name, my identity, and represents my roots. Not to mention, Erica is the name that my parents named me.
After I converted and started wearing hijab, I got rid of a lot of my American clothes thinking that even the most modest of them were haram because they were American. And no matter how hard I tried, I was never “Muslim enough” because I couldn’t help being an American.
I even gave up my love for playing sports, believing that being a female athlete was harram. Apart from school, sports used to be my life– especially soccer, swimming, and water polo. The only acceptable exercise for me wearing hijab became walking or hiking. The list of halel slowly became smaller as the list of harram slowly grew bigger. The worst part of my identity crisis was forgetting who I was, where I came from, and who God had created me to be— and yet this darkness eventually drove me to search for light.
It wasn’t until years later, while living abroad, that I started to see the beauty of Islam in my own culture and upbringing and I slowly began to embrace who I was. I was amazed when I learned about other American Muslims who were true to both their faith and their American identity and some who were even female atheletes– like Ibtihaj Muhammad. I learned that some converts intentionally kept their American names and loved the same things about our culture that I did. They were not ashamed of their identity, like I had been made to feel. They embraced it in the most beautiful way. I learned from Imam John Ederer, an American convert and Imam, and other Muslim scholars that it is sunnah (recommended) in Islam for a Muslim convert to keep her/his first name, unless it is in anyway offensive to God or Islam, or has a bad meaning.
I still dream of helping create an American Islam. One where it’s okay to be a pious Muslimah and an athlete. Where Islam brings out the best in my culture and any dream can be made possible with the help of God. My mother and grandmother smile when I wear an American Muhajibah tea party dress to their tea parties. And my dad smiles when I wear western cowgirl Muhajibah clothing with a cowgirl hat and cowgirl boots when I go horseback riding with my family. Now I know and understand, thank God, that Islam is for every culture and every people. And when I go to the Mosque, I am proud to be an American Muslim.