I get this question a lot. I have been getting it almost weekly if not multiple times a week since about last fall. Most of the time, it comes from Muslim friends- who are joking (I think)… or non-Muslim friends who are completely serious. This question usually comes right after, or before: “What got you interested in Islam? Why are you so involved in Muslim civil-rights? Why do you always post things about Muslims or Islam on facebook?”
These are all questions I don’t mind answering, but for both my sanity and the sake of not wanting to repeat my answers over and over again, I have decided to write this post addressing all of these concerns and inquiries.
To the point of what got me “interested” in Islam, I can honestly say I don’t think there was one defining moment or event. I know that my involvement in all things Islam-related and my passion for advocating for Muslim-American rights, stems from my involvement in activism around Palestinian rights. I had always known there was a “thing” called Palestine, a people called Palestinians, and the infamous “Palestinian/Israeli conflict”. Growing up in a Polish Catholic household, in a disproportionately white suburb, the idea of Palestine or occupation by Israel never came into conversations in my childhood or even young adulthood. Even as I was being radicalized politically and involved in the anarchist punk scene, I don’t ever remember anyone mentioning Palestine. I was first introduced to the concept of Palestinian self-determination in December 2008, during the seige on Gaza. I had two anarchist friends staying with me from Portland, and they were discussing Operation Caste Lead, and the murder of hundreds of Palestinians, including children. I remember going to St. Mark’s Bookshop in Greenwich village where I was living at the time and looking at the newspapers… the images of death, destruction, and occupation. It was then that I decided I needed to be more active in advocating for Palestinian rights, to be in solidarity with those suffering at the hands of such obvious yet hidden oppression (hidden to folks like me, and many others in the U.S. who chose to ignore it or never hear of it).
Still, I had no interest or particular questions about Islam. I joined Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) at DePaul in the fall of 2010, and got heavily involved. Some of the members were Muslim, and I befriended many of the folks organizing with SJP but still.. I didn’t really have questions about Islam. It was not until I took a class my winter quarter of my junior year at DePaul “Islam in America” where everything started to come together for me. Between organizing around Palestinian rights, learning about the history of Islam in this country, and strange encounters and bizarre turn of events, I was all of a sudden very interested in Islam. I was simultaneously taking a class titled “Geopolitics of the middle east and north africa” with a professor who is ironically Iranian, but very secular. For some reason, I was very interested in Iran, and specifically the Green Movement and youth. While writing each paper for this class, I realized it was IMPOSSIBLE to study Iran and its socio-political movements without studying Shi’ism. And of course, it was impossible to study Shi’ism without having a foundation of an understanding of Islam. I had this foundating from the “Islam in America” class, and the study of Shi’ism happened on my own (again, this professor didn’t really push the idea of shi’ism on the class despite the many articles and books we read on Iran).
I was also VERY inspired by Leila Ahmed’s “Women and Gender in Islam”. This book really changed my life. I was never one to think Islam was inherantly oppressive to women, nor did I have many negative views on the religion itself, but Ahmed’s book opened my eyes to a whole history that I never knew existed. Through her very detailed historical analysis of women’s rights through the lens of Islam, I was able to learn the nuances of this category of “women’s studies in Islam” and see the real role of patriarchy and State oppression which caused many of the issues we think of today, as opposed to the religion itself.
I learned about the life of the Prophet Muhammad’s first wife Khadija, through discussions with friends, my class, and Ahmed’s book. I was astounded at her bravery, the fact that she was the FIRST Muslim, the first believer… she was older than the Prophet, she was his boss, she asked HIM to marry her.. it just seemed to contradictory to everything I thought about that time period, that region, and this religion. To this day, Khadija inspires me in many ways. As does Fatima, a daughter of Muhammad and Khadijah, wife of Ali and mother of Hasan and Husain.
Back to why I haven’t converted… the real reason is, I am not ready! I am not ready to accept my own Catholicism which I struggle with every day and have struggled with in many ways since the age of 12, when one of my closest friends passed away and I began to question the existence of God. Furthermore, I began to question why I am a part of this faith- this oppressive, heirarchal, faith which has a terrible history and a frightening contemporary history as well. Since then, I have learned many wonderful things about Catholicism, the various saints, Catholic social teacher, Dorothy Day, liberation theology… etc.
This year alone, I have been to services of worship at a Sikh Temple, Hindu Temple, a few mosques (Sunni and Shia), Catholic church, and a Shabbat service at a synagogue. I don’t want to give the impression that I am one of those “shopping for religion” types, I’m not. I have a diverse group of friends who I love and when they offer to take me to their place of worship, I feel very honored. I have learned something each time I have gone to one of these various services. I have cried at a few, I have felt slightly uncomfortable, bored, sad, excited…. they have all been emotional events in my life.
All I know for sure is, I believe there is a God. I don’t feel particularly comfortable with the idea of Jesus as his son, and a few other important details seem questionable to me. I still call myself a Catholic when people ask, although I know it is more cultural than anything else. I still have a desire in my heart for my children (assuming I have children) to be raised with some Catholic traditions… baptism, having a Godfather and Godmother, celebrating certain holidays, hearing the stories, etc. I want them to be amazed by the gems of my Polish Catholic heritage and the struggles and joys of my relatives and ancestors.
I love Islam and I will continue to read as much as I can about this faith, read its scriptural books, and participate in services and discussions. Will I ever convert? It’s hard to say. I’ll stick with “no” for now, not because I don’t embrace Islam or I am embarrassed or scared or something is holding me back. As I said before, it is too early for me to determine anything in regards to my spirituality and faith. I may stay every-questioning and searching forever, or you never know.. maybe I will embrace Catholicism again as I make new discoveries and have new experiences.
Thank you for reading.