Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Shalom to Salam

(I wrote this story years ago for Islam Online.  The site has since folded as a result of the controversy when it was taken over in Egypt.  I thought I had posted this to my own blog, but couldn't find it anywhere.  Maybe it is here, but I didn't see it.  Anyhow, I searched the internet and for once was happy about copyright violation!  I tweaked the piece a bit, and Alhamdulillah, I am bringing my Shahadah story home to my own site.)
Shalom to Salam
By S. E. Jihad Levine
(originally at:  http://www.islamonl/ ine.net/servlet/ Satellite? c=Article_ C&cid=%20115607769319 2&pagename=Zone- English-Discover _Islam/DIELayout)

My husband and I had gone to the masjid for a speaker's program. It was the first time that he had invited me to the masjid since our marriage a year or so earlier. We had met and married while we were both working as substance abuser counselors in a rehabilitation center.

We couldn't have been more different in the beginning, as we are from entirely different backgrounds: he is Black and I am White, he is Muslim and I was Jewish. Although he hadn't asked me to become a Muslim prior to our marriage, he did give me silent da`wah by his excellent example.

He had an extensive Islamic library, and because I was an avid reader, I naturally read a lot of his books. I also observed his modest behavior, watched as he made salah five times a day, went to Jumu`ah Prayer on Fridays, and fasted during the month of Ramadan. So it was natural that I would develop an interest in his religion.

When we arrived at the masjid, he pointed out the entrance to the women's section - downstairs in the basement. We agreed to meet in the parking lot after the program was over. "OK, I can do this," I thought to myself as I entered the dark dank hallway and walked down the steep steps.

Since I never had trouble making friends and always enjoyed multicultural situations, I looked forward to the evening.

My husband had suggested that I wear something modest for the occasion. I ran my hands down over my long-sleeved dress, straightening and smoothing it out. I felt confident that the women at the masjid would approve of my appearance.

However, when I arrived at the bottom of the stairs and walked through the door marked "Sisters," I could immediately feel it in the air: thick tension, suspicion, estrangement, and confusion. Every veiled head turned in my direction and the Muslim women stared at me as if I had two heads. I stood frozen in place in the entrance way, staring back at them.

I had never seen so many Muslim women together in one place. Most of them wore the traditional hijab, but two women peered out at me through head coverings that revealed only their eyes. A few others sat with their scarves draped over their shoulders. When they saw me, they pulled them up over their heads.  I was perceived as a stranger.

But then one of them got up from where she was sitting, approached me, and introduced herself as Sister Basimah.  At least this one had a welcoming look on her face.

Hi," I said. "My name is Sharon. I'm here for the speaker's program?"

"Is anyone with you?" she asked.

"My husband is upstairs," I replied.

"Oh! Your husband is Muslim?" she asked.

"Yes. Yes, he is," I said.

"Al-hamdu lillah," she said. "Come over here and sit with us."

She led me to a table where three other women were seated. They were the most beautiful exotic women I had ever seen. Right after she made introductions, I forgot each one of their names, which were equally exotic. Sister Basimah then got up and went to greet more people who had arrived.

"Where are you from?" one of the women asked me. I replied that I was an American of Eastern European heritage, born in New York City.

"Where's your husband from?" was the next question.

"He's from America."

"But where is he from?"

"Philadelphia, " I replied.

"No, I mean, what country is he from?"

"He's American, born in the United States, he's African-American, from Philadelphia, " I replied, thinking that there was a language barrier. I would later learn that most of the Caucasian women in this masjid were married to Arab men.

"Hmmm," they all said in unison and they cast their lovely gazes downward.

"Are you thinking of becoming a Muslim?" another one asked, looking up at me with a beaming expression of hope on her face.

"No," I replied, "I'm Jewish." Well, I wish you could have seen the look on their faces. As soon as it was politely possible, the topic was switched.

"Are your children Muslims?" one of them asked, returning to the interrogation.

"No." I replied, "I don't have any children." That was it; their attempts to find a common ground with me had failed. They smiled at me and then something incredible happened for which I was not prepared: The conversation turned to Arabic.  Just like that - I was locked out.

I continued to sit with them at the table. They mostly spoke to each other in Arabic, and I mostly smiled. As more women would join the table, they would introduce me in English, "This is Sharon. She's Jewish." Then they resumed speaking in Arabic.

Then the program began, the women gathered in the prayer room and everyone sat down on the plush carpeted floor. But after about five minutes, the women started chatting to one another, all but drowning out the sound of the program that was being delivered over a stereo speaker from upstairs.

After the program was over, the women went into the kitchen to prepare food. Sister Basimah came over and told me to sit and make myself comfortable until it was time to eat.

"But let me help you," I offered.

"No! You are our guest. Some American sisters have arrived. I'll introduce you," she replied.

Sister Basimah motioned to one of the women on the other side of the room. She came over and the two women kissed each other on the cheeks and greeted each other with a cheerful Arabic expression.  Then they turned their look on me.

"This is Sharon. She's Jewish. Will you keep her company until we eat?" Sister Basimah said to the other woman.

"Oh, yes!" she replied. "Hi, Sharon, I'm Sister Arwa!"

Sister Arwa and I sat down and began to get acquainted. I asked her questions such as how long she had been a Muslim, whether she was married to a Muslim, etc. Then she dropped the bomb.

"Why did you kill Jesus?" she blurted out.

"What?" I replied. My face must have betrayed my shock and disbelief.

"I mean" she inquired again, this time softening her question, "why did the Jews kill Jesus?"

I couldn't believe what I was hearing! I was astonished and rankled by the question. I could tell by the innocent look on her face that she really wanted to know. Maybe she never met a Jewish woman before, and this was her first real opportunity to get an answer to her burning question.

When I was first introduced to her, I welcomed her company; after all, she was the first American I had seen that evening. Now I wanted to get up and run from the table. Then the anger set in.

Giving her a baleful look, I replied through clenched teeth, "We did not kill Jesus. The Romans did!" She returned the look of a wounded animal. Her lips opened to say something, but before she could reply someone called to her.

"Excuse me," she said, "I'll be back." I could hear the relief in her voice as it trailed off while she quickly escaped from our table.

A group of African-American sisters arrived at the masjid and I spent the remainder of the evening in their company. Before I left to meet my husband, Sister Basimah gave me her telephone number and encouraged me to call and arrange a time to visit with her.

I did call her, and we developed a beautiful relationship. Over the days and weeks that followed, she told me all about Islam and Allah. It was from her that I learned that Muslims believe that no one killed Jesus! I learned that Allah took him up unto Himself.

She sensed that even though I was Jewish, my heart was searching and yearning for spiritual peace. One evening while my husband and I were visiting her home, she came right out and invited me to Islam.

The turning point occurred when she explained that all my sins would be forgiven when I came to Islam. She said that I would be reborn, like a newborn baby, with no sins, with another chance. I broke down and cried.

I wanted another chance to get right with Allah. You see, I had a very checkered past. I always loved God, but I got lost in life. We asked her husband to help me say the Shahadah.

When I told my husband what I was about to do, he was shocked and happy at the same time. He asked me if I was really sure about my decision, as if he couldn't believe what he was hearing. I responded that I was never surer about anything in my entire life. There was no internal battle, no fears or doubts.

After I said the Shahadah, Sister Basimah's husband said, "Mabrook (congratulations) ! You're now a Muslim!" (a line I use to this day when I help sisters say Shahadah).

Before I left Sister Basimah's home that special evening, she gave me a gift of a booklet about modesty for Muslim women. She also gave me a prayer rug, a prayer dress, and a hijab.  When we returned home, my husband gave me a gift of my very own Qur'an and a summarized Sahih al-Bukhari.

I have worn hijab since that day, al-hamdu lillah. I have never taken it off, even after the dreadful days following September 11, 2001.

When I became a Muslim in July of 1998, my father denounced me once and for all. He had been very upset with me anyhow for marrying a Muslim, and refused to recognize my husband as his son-in-law.

"But, Sharon, those people hate us!" he cried.

All efforts to explain the difference between the peaceful religion of Islam and the political struggle between the Palestinians and Israelis fell on deaf ears. Never mind that my father was the first one in his family to marry outside of Judaism. My mother had been a practicing Catholic when they married.

To add insult to injury in my father's eyes, my husband was also African-American. Prior to September 11, 2001, most Americans thought of Malcolm X whenever Islam was mentioned. Many other family members also made it known how disappointed and frustrated they were with my decision to marry a "Black Muslim."

My father died in August of 2001, one month before the events of September 11. At the request of my father's wife, my family did not tell me that he had died until after his funeral was over. Did they fear that I would show up in the synagogue dressed in Muslim garb accompanied by my black husband?

We are taught that the religion of Islam is for all people and for all time. It shouldn't matter whether a Muslim is Egyptian, Pakistani, American, Saudi, Indonesian, Turkish, or Palestinian. It shouldn't matter whether he or she is black, white, red, or yellow. It shouldn't matter whether he or she speaks Arabic, English, Spanish, Turkish, or Urdu. Our cultural diversity should not divide our Ummah. Allah tells us in the Qur'an that (Al-Hujurat 49:13).

"O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another ..."


(Update, 2014)  Alhamdulillah, despite all the challenges of cultural differences and family, I am still a Muslim.  I am blessed that my step-mom (Jewish) and brother (Bah'ai) accept me as a Muslim.

I remember visiting my step mom for the first time as a Muslim.  Everywhere we went, she introduced me to her Jewish lady friends with, "This is my daughter, Sharon," or "You remember my daughter, Sharon, don't you?"  Me with my Arabic style jilbab and hijab.  Can you picture it!  She told me she didn't care what religion I was, as long as I loved God and was happy.

I haven't really discussed it too much with my sister (Jewish).  I do remember her asking me if her children, at the time little kids, would be frightened if they saw me in Islamic covering.  I haven't seen my sister in years, and her children are now college age, but I suppose we are at least at the tolerance level. 

My mother (Christian) was deceased by the time I came to Islam.  But, when I would go to Pittsburgh to visit her sister, my aunt (Christian), I am ashamed to say that I took my hijab off before entering her home.  Although this is permissible Islamically because there are no men in her house, I did it for the wrong reasons.  I just didn't want to explain.  I did have on modest clothing with the hijab down around my shoulders and she never asked.  She probably thought it was a fashion accessory as she was always used to me dressing modestly anyhow. 

Finally, I still consider myself an ethnic Jew.  My religion is Islam.  But no one can ever take my ethnic identity away from me.  Most Jews and Muslims don't agree and don't understand, but some do.  What's important is that I do. 


AlabasterMuslim said...

Asalaamu Alaikum! This is such a great story to read, mashallah! You have posted it before though, :). I'm glad i was able to read it again. I'm also happy that your step mother was proud to call you her daughter.

* said...

Wow, I am amazed of the journey coverts take to get to where we are. Alahu Akbar.

Fadiosis said...

Assalamo alaikom. it's the first post in your blog. I've read it so many times yet i can never get bored!!!

amazing story and i am a lucky person to know you ♥

Safiyyah said...

LOOOL! I knew you guys would find it! Jazaka Allahu Khayrn!

otowi said...

I could really relate to the outsider feeling you described in the masjid - I remember that so well!

Uni said...


I have read this story before on your blog, and read it just as avidly again :).. Masha Allah its such an amazing journey, yours.

And to actually help sisters say shahadah..(MashaAllah you do that too!)... [Ive never had the opportunity *sigh*]...

I name thee...'blog'! said...

wow..i'm so glad i came across your blog! you have such an amazing story. this post had me hooked to your blog for an hour.. i felt inspired reading some of the stuff you wrote:)
also, i.think.you.are.so cool...i love that you have a battlestar galactica poster at the end of your blog page..!

C said...

Asalaamu Alaikum

I remember reading this before but what caught my attention this time and maybe before is that you are married to an African-American. I know what it feels like to be a convert and not married to an Arab or Pakistani. You feel so left out. My husband is Malaysian. Converts married to Malaysian guys are one in a million or less. African-Americans are so friendly so I 'm sure you have found many friends among them as well as the first friend you found at the mosque. I have never been more comfortable at a mosque then the one in Detroit I went to.

Rukhpar Mor said...

I do remember reading this!! And I enjoyed it very much=)

Happy Muslim Mama said...

Assalam-alaikam Sis,
thank you for sharing your story.

Not very impressed with the behaviour of the sisters at the masjid though.

American Muslima Writer said...

Salam Saf,

No one ever gets tired of reading convert stories.
I love yours. May Allah reward those who helped you.

UGH Masjid Manners... i think we had long swapping blog posts about these a few years back with the community.

Alhamdulillah for Allah bringing you to Him.

Yasmine said...

I just thought how it was interesting that sister marwa, an american convert inquired you why the jews killed Jesus. It appears she still had some christian beliefs lingering still. its so odd... i mean how could she not know that. Maybe she was not muslim for long but the fact she felt so defensive about Jesus is SO ODD... oh my God! anyways I hope she has fixed that by now and Alhamdulillah you're muslim :)

Safiyyah said...

Actually, it's "Arwa" which I purposely wrote because it means "goat" in Arabic lol.

Yeah, strange, eh? Apparently, the sister didn't know her Islaam well and didn't read that part in the Qur'an. Also, there's a high rate of antisemitism in the Muslim community. She was probably jumping on the band wagon and opening her stupid mouth without knowledge - the worse kind of Muslim.

teeraljannah said...

This made me cry. <3