It often happens that a Muslim converts tale of “coming out” to their family comes loaded with sadness. In the post 9/11 world, it seems the worst a normal western kid can do is dedicate their way of life to a religion of peace; understandably perhaps, in the post 9/11 world, Islam is rarely viewed as a religion of such calm and so, though saddening, it’s not surprising that many families are fearful of the implications of their child converting to Islam. Once a person takes the decision to live their life according to the guidance of the Qu’ran, it’s not just they who must adjust to the changes this will bring, both positive and challenging, to their life.
When I told my husband I wanted to convert to Islam, I’m not sure who was more taken aback; myself for the words coming out of my mouth, or he listening to them fall. When we first met, G had asked me only one question about my religious belief and practise; the question, “Do you believe in God”. Though I didn’t practise christianity, had leaned towards buddhism in recent years and knew little about Islam itself, that was an easy question to answer; Yes, I said, I do. Gradually over the next few years I found myself pondered the answer I gave and questioning the practise behind it, looking for something that fitted the beliefs already held. Christianity, the idea of trinity, didn’t sit right, Judaism was too obscure from understanding, it was only Islam which made sense yet I shied away from this fact. I too was a product of post 9/11 fear and converting to Islam was a daunting thought process. When I uttered these words in the home we shared together – unwed, chalk and cheese – they were the last words I’d ever thought I’d hear myself say; in fact were the words since our relationship had begun were the words I’d repeatedly sworn I would never be saying. That’s the thing about religion, just like love, you’ll find the truest form in places which you never thought you would.
G’s main concern when he overcame his initial shock – and yes, happiness – was how family would react to my choice and whether they would believe it was made freely or would think he’d coerced me into choosing this path. We spoke for hours and hours round and round in circles, worrying what their reactions would be, how I’d handle the questions and reactions which would come. In the end, our concerns were mostly unfounded and questions were only asked indirectly or not at all. There were of course those who recalled my past words “I’ll never convert for a man” and used them in attempts to convince me that was exactly what I’d done. Others shrugged, sad to realise this meant “no pork, then?” and out of all of my family, there was only one strong objector, whose objections were..continue to be..shown in a passive non-aggressive approach. Though it is hard sometimes to deal with the hidden innuendos behind conversations, I know I’m lucky my family has accepted my life as a muslim without confrontation or animosity or backlash toward my Turkish, muslim husband. Despite all the differences our lives now entail, my family’s been respectful to the decisions that I’ve since made. It is inevitable though, that when ones lifestyle changes so drastically from the one which your loved ones still lead, certain conflicts will arise and as we broach these conflicts gradually I understand how so many converts tales end in sadness and too since M’s birth, I see too clearly how many more hurdles we will face as he grows both in spirit and physical soul. As M grows older, becomes more aware of the world and the lifestyle we lead, many of the conflicts and contradictions between my old and new worlds need to be tackled and boundaries between them secured either firmly, or flexibly in place and these boundaries apply not just to G & I but those around us, both family and friends. Our interactions with our son are not the only relationship which will shape the young man he is set to become.
It’s inevitable when you choose something, you make a decision to reject something else instead. The hardest aspect of choosing a new way of life and rejecting the old is in explaining your reasoning to others without being critical of the path they’re staying on. Adaption, interpretation and flexibility seem to be the keys to balancing an islamic lifestyle in the west; but flitting between countries, living in different societies with opposing ethics and attitudes, having grown up in one and still learning the other, these keys are not the easiest to turn. I recall going back to the UK last year and realising for the first time that actually the fish and chips we both looked forward to, probably wouldn’t come close to being defined as halal: Living in Turkey, G had never had to really think about it; being new to the concept, I’d never before thought to address it. But once we had done, we had to deal with it and we realised that adaption was key to eating without offending, and any ‘sacrifice’ would be our ‘burden’ to bear. (As it turned out, we found a great fish & chips shop so M was able to taste mushy peas, and we satisfied our need for a greasy fix.) What we would eat, where we would eat it were details we had to consider, G & I, in relation to those loved ones we would be with, for though it may be my homeland technically, when we visit the UK, we are just that..visitors..and it wouldn’t be right for our visit to inconvenience anyone. We adapt our chosen lifestyle to that of those we are visiting with and as long as we know beforehand where our boundaries lie, and how flexible we’re prepared for these to be, we can deal with it and focus on enjoying our stay not the aspects of it which could else make life less comfortable. The difficulty for us is when the tables are reversed, when our visitors come here and step into our lifestyle – how flexible are our boundaries here?
There is a big difference between respecting, understanding and comprehending a decision someone else makes with their life. Ideally for converts, they’ll convert from a family who believes in a faith which they practise – this way the comprehension of believing in a higher power, the understanding of the need to do so and the respect of others all faiths dictate should, in theory, make the “coming out” smooth. Harder is coming from a family with no set practise of faith, where understanding and comprehension may be missing from the mix. For a convert having rejected a certain path, asking for respect of the other while simultaneously showing respect for the rejected, is a complex and profound balance to find.
Since our son was born, while I was pregnant with him, G and I have spent many a night wondering how it is we find this balance, not only in the raising of our son, leaving him free to enter into faith autonomously though inshallah it will be one we’ll all share, but also in the balancing of both of our families; a British, mostly unpractising, christian one, and a Turkish, culturally practising islamic one – how to demonstrate to both families that our family with our son(s) is based on neither Turkish nor British customs and standards but on religious grounds and practise and method. Many of the complications needing solutions are the same between both of our families despite the vast differences between the families themselves and many of the our boundaries complexities make sense to neither. For many intents and purposes, G and I face the boundaries with families as if both of us were converts to Islam, jumping the same hurdles, deflecting similar opinions and objections from each side.
As our baby grows bigger we notice with awe how quickly he absorbs his surroundings, how when seeing an act once, he tries to replicate the motions, or when hearing a sound uses his wordless vocabulary to mimic it. The acts, words, and intentions between our entire lives are absorbed by this tiny wee being and are slowly but surely connecting the threads which will one day define who he is. It’s so easy to forget this right now, as he sits by my feet merely playing, so easy to stay focused only when connecting with him directly. But while M is sitting merely playing, he’s listening to every sound he hears, noticing every action we make, and most importantly, picking up on those which we don’t make, which he won’t hear. These boundaries which we’ve been toying with in theory need to move now into practise as he starts to understand our every move.
When we listen to a muslim converts tale, it’s human nature to feel saddened for their plight, to wonder why their families couldn’t just accept them as they are, trust them to believe in Islam’s peaceful core. Yet it’s not as simple as that; from the time that the convert chooses Islam, their family’s choice is pre-determined for them; accept it or lose us, and that’s a tough call to make, an unbalanced boundary to place on the table. My family is a mixed bag of nuts. Many are christened will never choose to be baptised in faith, some are lapsed catholics with leanings to the ceremony of faith, others are atheists and others still missionaries for christianity. Even on the days when passive innuendos are rife in conversation and huge elephants hang silently in the room where we sit, I’m thankful that they try to find balance, are prepared to seek it with us, because though a converts life may be complex and profound, a converts family doesn’t get off scot-free.