Karla's conversion to Islam
"How could you, an educated American woman convert to Islam - a religion that oppresses women?" - Blonde-haired blue-eyed, former Christian, Karla, explains how her theological dissatisfaction with the doctrine of Jesus as God and her discovery of the rights given to women in Islam led her to become a Muslim.
Glossary for non-Muslim readers
dawa - invitation to Islam
shahada - profession of Islamic faith
My conversion process to Islam was a long one (it took 20 years!). It started when I was 12. I went to this over-priced private school...very Anglophile...made us wear uniforms...had us in Forms, rather than grades, etc. Anyway, we were studying the major religions of the world--had a little book on Christianity, one on Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. I remember being really fascinated with Islam, and thinking that Muslims weren't hypocrites like the Christians I knew. I remember two things really standing out for me. One, being the focus on one God alone. I had always had questions about Christianity's viewing Jesus as God--and how that went against the first commandment. The second item that stood out was salat. Not just praying five times/day, but how the majority of the prayer focused on worshiping God. In Christianity, our prayers tended to be "gimme prayers." "God, give me this...God give me that."
I went to college in Washington DC, which has a pretty large Muslim population. My interest in Islam was still definitely there--although I was way too shy. I used to do "drive by mosquings"--going by the Islamic Center on Mass Ave., too shy to go in. Once I called to see if they had classes for people interested in Islam, but I never received a call back. I did buy myself a copy of the Qur'an, and began to read it. It was amazing. It just kind of went into my heart, y'know? The thing that really amazed me about Islam from the beginning, were the rights given to women. I know many people today would laugh at me for such a statement, but as somebody who has read the Bible--I saw rights given to women in Islam that were never given to women in the Bible. Women were given the right to refuse a partner in marriage; whereas, in typical Christian Western Culture at the time (600s CE), women were basically viewed as their father's property--to marry as he saw fit. Women were guaranteed a portion of their father's and husband's inheritance; whereas, in the West, that inheritance typically went only to the eldest son. Women had the right to own property and enter into contracts. A right that women in the United States did not obtain until the mid-Nineteenth Century. The Prophet Muhammed preached against female infanticide--a common practice of the time, and one that is still a problem in India and China. Of course, today it is a high-tech female infanticide--abortions done after an ultrasound to determine the sex of the child. Both men and women were admonished to seek knowledge from "the cradle to the grave." Unfortunately, culture seems to interfere with some of those rights these days.
During my senior year, I found a dawa program on TV called, "Islam." It featured a western looking woman anchor who would interview people on various topics regarding Islam. I believe it was put out by the Islamic Information Service, but I'm not sure. I became totally addicted to this show...actually setting my VCR to tape it, if I was going to be out. I don't remember which channel it was on--just that it was shown on Fridays, and that each show began with "In the name of God, Most Merciful, Most Gracious." When the shahadah show came on, I knew I believed...so I said it with my TV. In God's mind did I become a Muslim then? I don't know. Unfortunately, I did not know any Muslims to talk to about Islam. I was also very worried about what my friends and family would think. Sometime following graduation (I think this was 1990 or 1991), the Saudi Embassy sponsored an Islamic Art exhibit downtown. I remember asking one of the exhibitors if they had any additional information on Islam--and the guy said, "No." I was crushed. I just didn't know where to turn to find out more about Islam. Who to talk to about my questions. I was just too shy to go into a mosque. I didn't even know if I could go in, as a woman. I didn't know if I'd be properly dressed...or if I'd be the only non-Arabic speaking person there. I just kept reading my Qur'an, and asking God the questions. Hoping God would answer my prayers.
My hunger for God did not cease, however....so I decided to go with a more conventional religion, and became a Christian sometime during my mid-20s. The problem was, I always had questions/doubts regarding Christianity---mainly about the concept of the Trinity/Divinity of Jesus. Jesus as God just didn't make sense to me--as it would go against the First commandment and what Jesus himself seemed to practice. He always focused on God the Father, so to speak. When asked, he said that the Greatest Commandment was to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind. God--singular. That's something I've always strived to do, and hope to improve at still. I asked a few different pastors about my doubts, and the response I would get would be, "You simply need to have faith." I remember in one Bible study class this guy started saying all these lies about Muslims. I spoke up, and said, "That's not true." and began to tell the people in my Sunday School about what Muslims really believed. See...even then...I couldn't deny the shahadah. I still believed that there was only one God, God, and that Muhammad was the Prophet of God.
While at grad school in Tennessee, I contacted the Muslim Student Association on campus. Two sisters met me at a local bakery for tea. Unfortunately, they didn't really understand that I wanted to convert--and the whole meeting was rather bizarre. I decided that I would just consider myself a Monotheist, and call it a day. I would read on all of the major Monotheistic faiths--Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. I became more and more uncomfortable with Christianity, though. If I went into a church, and there was a crucifix on the wall...it would weird me out. It seemed like an idol that people were worshipping. I did enjoy learning more about Judaism--and found it to be the closest to Islam. Sadly, the two brothers fight way too much these days.
I joined my current company almost two years ago. Coincidentally during my HR orientation, there was a guy who I would work a lot with there. He ended up working for me on numerous projects, and we became friends. He was just out of college, and a rebel. I started asking him how he could drink, if he was a Muslim (threatened to tell his Mom)....asked him why he didn't go to Jummah (Friday) prayer, etc. Over the course of a year, I realized that in talking to him, I was really talking to myself. (I don't drink though--never have.)
So around last February, I went to our local Islamic Center's New Muslims class on a Wednesday night. There was nobody there. One of the brothers kept saying...just wait for Isha (the evening prayer)...the Imam (religious leader) will be here...but I felt too uncomfortable. I left. About four weeks later, I tried again. There was a class going on. That night, 10-11 years after I had first said shahadah in my apartment in DC in front of a TV set, I said shahadah in front of the Imam, a Muslim Sister, and a whole bunch of people interested in Islam. Since that time, I've learned to pray (something I had tried to teach myself through the Web and videos for years!)...and begun to study Arabic. Insha'Allah (God willing), one day I'll be able to read and understand the Qur'an in Arabic. I'm totally amazed that I can already read certain bits of the Qur'an; although, my vocabulary does not allow me to understand much...yet.
Monday, October 8th 2001, was a momentous day in my life as a Muslim as well. I wore hijab (Muslim head covering) for the first time ever to work as part of the Scarves for Solidarity campaign. I was the celebrity at work--people kept walking by my office door, etc. I had posted articles about "Scarves for Solidarity" as well as Islam on the door. And when people asked me, "Are you one of them?" or "Are you a Muslim?" I said, "Yes." So now I'm out of the "Muslim-closet" at work. I guess people just assumed that a blonde-haired blue-eyed person could not be a Muslim. The main question people seem to ask, is "How could you, an educated American woman convert to Islam--a religion that oppresses women?" They are quick to try and equate the rights of women in Afghanistan with the rights of Muslim women everywhere. Basically, what I tell them, is that the Qur'an gives women more rights than the Bible does--in print. That was one of the things that first drew me to Islam. Unfortunately today, Islam is no longer the leader in women's rights. I had a choice--deny what I believe (i.e. that There is only one God, and that Muhammed is a Prophet of God)...or accept what I believe, but work to change the problems that exist within the Muslim community. I chose the latter.
More in Hawai'i turn to Islam
Less than three weeks after terrorists struck New York City and Washington, Heather Ramaha stood among a group of women at the mosque in Manoa and recited the shahada in Arabic:
"Ash-hadu alla illaha illa Allah. Wa-ash-hadu anna Mohamadan rassulu Allah."
Heather Ramaha, a Navy petty officer, is among those in Hawai'i who have converted to Islam since Sept. 11.
She was testifying that "I bear witness that there is no God but Allah (one true God), and Mohammed is a prophet of God."
By doing so, she became a convert to the Islamic faith, extending a recent national trend.
Some Muslim clerics across the country say they are seeing a fourfold increase in conversions since Sept. 11, when stories about Islam jumped from the back pages of the religion section to front pages worldwide.
Hakim Ouansafi, the president of the Muslim Association of Hawai'i, said that prior to Sept. 11, there had been an average of three converts per month.
In the two months since then, there have been 23.
And oddly enough for a religion that is often perceived as one that cloaks its women from head to foot, the newly converted Westerners tend to be female. Ouansafi said the national ratio of converts is 4-to-1, women to men. Here, he said, it's closer to 2-to-1.
Most Mainland converts are African-Americans, who make up about a third of U.S. Muslims, some of whom found Allah while they were in jail or in recovery from drug or alcohol addiction.
On the West Coast, the men are mainly military, said Ouansafi, and most of the O'ahu converts are former Christians. One's even a single cosmetics saleswoman.
More people are looking into his religion and liking what they see, he says, despite the relentless media coverage of Muslim terrorists.
"Know you find bad people in every religion, and that religion should not be judged by that extreme minority," he said.
One thing Sept. 11 did was remind people that life is too short: "If I'm going to die, I want die a Muslim," a convert told Ouansafi.
Cromwell Crawford, chairman of the religion department at the University of Hawai'i-Manoa, echoed that: The effect of Sept. 11 on the national psyche made all Americans aware of the transience of life.
He described the mood of the country as changing: Singles seek to bond; family members hang together more tightly; and, by extension, the nation's people reach out to one another.
"People are turning to religion both in the institutional sense and in noninstitutional ways," Crawford said, adding that the fallout also is benefiting other religions besides Islam.
Why overwhelmingly women?
"In the expression of this mood, women are moved more readily and more deeply than men," he said. "Go to any church and you'll find more women than men."
He also finds the female students in his classes often show greater insight into ethical issues.
"Women are the more religious of the genders for various reasons," Crawford said. "... Women give birth and so they are in touch with the life process, caretakers of the life cycle by virtue of their biology."
Converting — or "reverting," as Muslims call it since they believe everyone starts life as a Muslim — does not take much besides a sincere belief there is one God, and only one God.
"We believe, as Muslims, once a person reverts to Muslim, all his past sins are forgiven by God," Ouansafi said. "Starts just like a baby that was born."
The conversion ceremony itself is fairly simple, he said. A convert tells of the converting of his or her own free will; then explains the five tenets of faith.
For the ceremony, two witnesses watch as a convert agrees that Jesus was among the great prophets (Ibrahim/Abraham, Mohammed and Moses are among the others), but not God, then speak the same two sentences that Heather Ramaha recited.
Now, Ramaha is incorporating her Islamic faith into her life as a Navy petty officer stationed at Pearl Harbor since July. She doesn't wear her hejab to work as a dental hygienist, but she does wear her head covering when attending services at the mosque. While her husband, a Marine, was away recently, she couldn't quite recite the five daily prayers, all said in Arabic, without his help.
But Ouansafi said the Islamic faith is supposed to be practiced to the best of one's abilities: It's forbidden in the Quran, for example, for pregnant people, travelers and people with diabetes to fast at Ramadan, if fasting means harming oneself.
On a recent Friday — the Islamic equavalent of the weekly Sabbath — Ouansafi spoke at the prayer services about the role of women in Islam, and talked at length in an interview at his office with his wife, Michele Ouansafi, herself a convert, about what draws women to a faith some have called oppressive.
Women are revered in their faith, the Ouansafis said. The wearing of the hejab is for a women's own protection — they are away from the lascivious looks of men. The women pray in different rooms and behind the men so as not to be a distraction when worshippers kneel and place their foreheads to the floor.
"Women are in back because we are the stronger of the two," said Michele Ouansafi with a laugh.
And all the major texts of religions — the Bible, the Torah, the Gospels — "in the Quran, women have more rights," her husband said.
He noted that in the Quran ("the word of God, descended directly on the prophet through Gabriel," said Ouansafi), Eve and Adam were equally at fault for leaving the Garden of Eden. Eve wasn't the seductress. Many of the passages in the Quran are gender-neutral.
And, in Islam, Ouansafi said, the money a man makes goes for the family. The money a woman makes is hers, he said. Women are not obligated to work.
The first feminist was a Muslim known as Khawlah, Ouansafi said.
Khawlah argued with prophet Mohammed, taking issue with how easily her husband could divorce her. All a man had to say was, "You are to be as the back of my mother," which was held by pagans as freeing the husband from any conjugal responsibility but didn't leave the wife free to leave his home or remarry.
Khawlah went to Mohammed to plead her case. He told her to be patient, but she kept arguing. Finally, she took it to a higher authority, and Allah heard and agreed with her.
"Women not only have the right to speak, but to argue with the great prophet," Ouansafi said.
Michele Ouansafi converted after meeting her husband-to-be when he tutored her in Rhode Island in 1986, but she said he never asked her to convert.
"Ours is a faith of attraction, not promotion," said the French Canadian woman with an MBA who works at Earth Tech, an environmental firm, as a contracts administrator.
For those women who see their place in the home, the Islamic faith can be very attractive, said Tamara Albertini, a UH philosophy professor who specializes in Islam and grew up in an Islamic country. The man is responsible for taking care of the earnings, and the woman rules the home.
"The main problem with Islam is: If things don't work out, there's no place to go," she said, noting that a woman needs very strong reasons to leave a marriage. However, if a Muslim man leaves the faith, she can divorce him.
Although Ramaha's husband, Mike, is a lifelong Muslim and a Palestinian who grew up in San Francisco, he was not the reason for her conversion, she said.
"Mike never once tried to get me to convert," the 24-year-old 'Aiea resident said. "He said, 'If you want to do this, you can research it yourself, but I'll love you either way.'"
Ramaha has been searching for a way to explain her new faith to her family in California. She notes that most of their information about Islam comes from the TV movie, "Not Without My Daughter," a story about an American woman, an abusive Iranian husband and a subsequent fight over their child.
"I haven't been able to find a way to tell them without them flipping out," she said. "I haven't told Dad. I tell him I go to the mosque, but I haven't told him I converted yet."
To people who ask her why she would choose a religion that some consider oppressive to women, she responds that they're mixing religion with culture.
"Growing up in the U.S., Islamic faith doesn't have the culture mixed into it," she said.
Ramaha was the first in her family to join a church. At age 5, she befriended the daughter of a non-
denominational pastor and became a Christian. The rest of the family joined later. Her mother is still a churchgoer. But Ramaha said she struggled with the Christian view of the Holy Trinity. In March, she took an online world religions class through a California university.
"I'd been a Christian for 18 years," she said. "There are so many loopholes in that religion. (Islam) opened up so many ideas. ... I felt that in my heart this was the right (one) for me."
As a follow-up, she took an introductory class on Islam in Hawai'i after Sept. 11, she started reading the Quran, and "something clicked." She converted soon after.
"I've always felt drawn to something out there, (otherwise, there's) an emptiness," she said. "The only way I feel complete is when I have a religion, a God to pray to."