Why I converted to Islam
I've been meaning to talk about why I converted to Islam. But I felt that it doesn't really fully appreciate my experience with Islam. So, why did I convert to Islam and why do I continue to call myself a Muslim? Many reasons. But it all revolves around one thing, God. The second reason is that it embodied a truly universal way of looking at God. Having this religion be universal was important to me on several different levels, and it continues to inform my continued practice in this religion to this day. But many would ask, is Islam really universal? Is it really accepting?
Of course, most if not all religions center around a God or Gods, so what is different? At least from my experience, Islam deals intentionally with other religions and unifies them.
To begin, the Qur’an teaches its readers that we need to believe in God and God’s message and that we need to do good deeds by helping each other and being fair and just. It teaches the importance of prayer and being grateful to God and to acknowledge that all we have is from God. It teaches us that we were all one with God but then were sent forth as different people.
When thinking about Islam and the words used, we think that it is supposed to look and act a certain way. Many would say that in order to be a Muslim, you have to wear a robe and speak Arabic, grow a beard. Or if you were a woman, that you need to wear a hijab or even more coverings. There are two things to consider when we associate words/names with specific groups of people. The first is that there is a significant language barrier that creates an artificial sense of difference that is partnered also with a cultural difference. When we hear Allah, many would think that is a different God than the God of the Bible. But if we were to go to the Philippines or Mexico, two countries that are predominantly Catholic/Christian, their word for god is Dios. Would we think that Dios is any different from God? Hopefully, most of my readers would say no because we know that is just a translation. The bible itself has different names for God; Yahweh, El, El Shaddai, Elohim. Would we think that these are different Gods? No, just different names for the same being. My readers, did you know that in the areas where the language is predominantly Arabic, Christians call God Allah? It is an Arabic translation, not a different god. Another linguistic thing to consider is what is a Muslim. Translated it means “servant of God”. While many religions focus their names on either names/titles or people or places (Christ or Judah or Buddha), Islam defines and claims its followers as servants of God and takes the literal translation rather than naming them after their messenger. In a way, if we were to say it in English, it would translate as Servant of God.
The second thing we must consider is that, while Muslims do have cultural differences that are heavily embedded with Islamic inspiration or devotion, and that Muhammad (PBUH) would have argued for a specific way on how Islam should look in his time, the Quran itself can be seen as creating a universal core of what it means to be a servant of God, a template for us to take and decorate for our own use and understanding of God. It says in the Quran to be a Hanif, a seeker of truth. And the person the Quran tells us to emulate is Abraham. Abraham in the Qur’an and the bible is a picture of a person that doesn’t seem to have any religious traditions or hierarchy. Abraham doesn't get baptized or take communion, nor is he seen praying towards the Kaaba five times a day. He just lives his life and is present when God is around. The Qur’an says “Abraham was neither Jew nor Christian, but rather was a hanif, a submitter, and he was not one of the idolaters’’ (Study Quran 3:67), “Say, ‘God has spoken true. So Follow the creed of Abraham, a hanif, and he was not of the idolaters’”. Abraham was not an Israelite, a Jewish person or a Christian. He held no title nor did the Bible or the Qur’an distinguish his time with specific rituals, sayings, mantras or creeds. He didn’t have a church nor did he have a hierarchy of clergymen. He was a person living his life, submitting to God and being virtuous.
And while affirming that one doesn’t need specifically to be a Jew or a Christian to be close to God, the Qur’an affirms that there is a difference between the groups. It is not a difference, however, of hierarchy or value; it is a difference of language, rites, and location “…For each among you We have appointed a law and a way. And had God willed, He would have made you one community, but (He willed otherwise), that He might try you in that which He has given you. So vie with one another in good deeds. Unto God shall be your return all together and He will inform you of that wherein you differ”(Study Qur’an S5:48). It doesn’t matter if they are different so long as they are people who submit to God and are virtuous. This is expanded further and with more specificity when the Qur’an repeatedly acknowledges other religions or “people of the Book.” The Qur’an makes multiple mentions of God sending down the Torah with Moses and the Gospel with Jesus “And in their footsteps (the Jews) We sent Jesus, son of Mary, confirming the Torah that had come before him, and We gave him the Gospel, wherein is a guidance and light…”(Study Qur’an S 5:46–47). The Qur’an has readers connect the current revelation to the past revelations not as a replacement, nor as a competitor of the past prophets and their revelations, but as confirmations of them.
It goes further to acknowledge and affirm the belief of those who practice outside of the rituals and influence of Muhammad “And Truly among the People of the Book are those who believe in God and that which has been sent down unto you, and that which has been sent down unto them, humble before God, not selling God’s signs for a paltry price. It is they who shall have their reward with their Lord…” (Study Quran 3:199). And while the Qur’an says that there is not a requirement of title or adhering to specific religious traditions that come with the titles of Muslim, Jew, or Christian, there is also no discouragement of being within those faith traditions as well. When you read the Qur’an, there is a dichotomy, a difference between two sets of people. Those who believe and those who do not. The important part of distinguishing these two people are not whether they adhered and submitted to Muhammad, but that they confirmed and identified the similarities of what he brought to the table with their own revelations. The revelations, the Qur’an that Muhammad had brought taught to care for the poor, the orphan, to treat others fairly no matter the difference, to see traditions not as the end all be all but to keep obedience to God at the forefront of every ritual, to Pray to God, to accept the other religious brothers and sisters and to compete with them not in a game of dominance, but in a game of good deeds. What religious tradition would deny those teachings? And again to reiterate, the Qur’an goes further than many of the already revealed texts by openly acknowledging them and including them while acknowledging their differences and how to navigate the existence of difference. And the protocol is not to dominate them and conform them, but to live with them.
One of the biggest things that has Islam not as a religion that dominates and snuffs out the other religions is, not only does it acknowledge and praise believers who adhere to other faith traditions and writes out how to compete with each other (“vie with each other in good deeds”), it specifically stops and prohibits the forced conversion of people. It prohibits the act of religious domination. In the second chapter of the Qur’an it says “There is no Compulsion in Religion…” (2:256). Not only that, the Quran shows time after time that it reminds the prophet to let rejection of his message go, that it is not his job to make people believe. In fact, the Quran almost makes it sound like God telling the prophet “don’t worry about them, let me handle it.” In Surah 6 verse 107 to 108 it says “Had God willed, they would not have ascribed partners unto god. We have not made thee a keeper over them, nor art thou their guardian. Do not revile those whom they call upon apart from God, lest they should revile God out of enmity, without any knowledge. Thus have we made the deeds of every community seem fair unto them. Then unto their Lord shall be their return, and He will inform them of that which they used to do.” Conversion must be sincere and they must come with all their heart and soul. If someone were to be forcefully converted, they do not do so with an intentional heart, but one filled with anger towards the enforcer and the religion that they represent. And in that, the enforcer would have committed a grave injury in ensuring the loss of a person who would choose to submit to God.
In Islam we find a revelation that, taken in its Qur’annic form and the history of Muhammad and his followers into consideration, is a religion of inclusion and celebration of differences. We find a religion that calls its readers and listeners to worship in a pure form, that like Abraham, who had no specific vestments, rituals, buildings, or hierarchies. We are called to Worship God and to respect each other’s revelations and/or paths to God. We are called to vie against each other in Good deeds which include giving charity and being fair. In essence, no matter what religion you call yourself, be it Christian or Jew, so long as you submit to God, the Universe, or the Way,, you are practicing Islam, even if you were to have never picked up the Qur’an and read it or even known about it. For Islam, when translated into English, means Submission to God. That act, that verb, does not need a title or rituals, but can be found in many religions with different titles and different rituals. All in all, it is the intent we bring to our form of worship, not the name of religion we ascribe our devotion through.
It is this reason that I declare myself Muslim and stick to that identity. It allows me to engage with an Emergent Christian Baptist church and elect to be on its governing Board, go to its Bible studies and its Sunday services while at the same time attending Jumma prayers (only at LGBT friendly Mosques) and praying 5 times a day. Islam allows me to not only study the Qur’an, but also the Bible and other religious texts to deepen my faith. I use a Rosary to count my blessings, Lectio Divina to engage with the Qur’an, and meditation to reach out to the divine. I read Marcus Borg And Rachel Held Evans, both who are Emergent Christian writers, while attending Quran studies. Islam allows me to reach out to the other faith traditions from the People of the Book to deepen my relationship with God and understanding of the world. It allows me to celebrate the diversity of faith traditions and celebrate with my fellow human beings their own spiritual journeys. That is why I love Islam.