By Miriam, a graduate student in Philadelphia crossposted at Muslim Matters
You may see me in the crowd in my community saying, “kedu” (hello) or chanting “eh” after “Igbo Kwenu” (“Igbos speak”). On the outside, I am your typical Igbo-American girl. However there is nothing typical about me – I am Igbo and a Muslimah (gasp!). Shock to you? Perhaps not, but to many in my community it is. Many Igbos and even Nigerians claim that “there are no Igbo Muslims.” Well, sorry to break it to you, but I am living proof that I am full Igbo and a practicing Muslim. When I tell Igbos that I am a Muslim, I frequently hear “tifaqua” (God forbid!). I am not married to a Muslim (a common thought among many) nor was I tricked into the faith by a fellow Muslim. I converted (alhamduillah) because I felt like this was the right path for me – to convert to another faith- the same convictions that drove my forefathers before me to convert to Christianity. Others may claim that “Islam is not compatible with Igbo culture,” yet I challenge them to prove that Christianity was more compatible than our traditional indigenous beliefs that preceded it for thousands of years. What many fail to realize is that we are a product of our environment. If Buddhists took control of Igbo land, we would most likely be Buddhist and still strong in that faith and conviction. My challenge for everyone reading is to analyze why you believe what you believe – and to respect and agree to disagree with others who may differ.
To be a Muslim in my community is difficult – not impossible, but challenging. Many of our practices, cultures and beliefs rest heavily on Christianity, even though Christianity arose among the Igbos in the 1900s. In fact, my great grandfathers were not Christian. How do I come to terms with cultural beliefs such as reincarnation? This belief is ingrained in my people. Even my grandfather, a Christian, believes in reincarnation – even though it goes against the principles of Christianity. Are masquerades (symbolizing the dead) halal? Is breaking the kola nut (see a kola nut ceremony) a preservation of my rich culture or an abomination in the eyes of Allah (subhanahu wa ta ala)? How can I find a happy medium yet preserve my identity as an Igbo? Today, this still remains a challenge. I am still trying to find a community – even if small- of people of my own ethnic background. Are there people like me? I asked myself, “do Igbo Muslims exist?” Frustrated, I scoured the internet for anything – ANYTHING that would reassure me that there were people like me. Alhamduillah, I came across this blog – about an Igbo Muslimah convert. I contacted Ify immediately and soon we became friends.
While I expected hostility from my own community, I am somewhat dumbfounded and shocked by the treatment that I have received from some born Muslims. This is certainly not an attack on the fellow Muslims who have embraced me and provided support, but rather a critique of the way some born Muslims interact with converts. You never know who might be a new Muslim – one may have converted only a few hours before your encounter. Your interaction can either help a new Muslim embrace their faith or help them leave it. I can sympathize with why a Muslim may leave Islam, due to a lack of community – especially if you are non-white. No one comes to you, and invites you for iftar during Ramadan. No one introduces you to people they know in their family who are looking for a wife. I can be assured that if I walk into a local church, I would at least be greeted with a “hello” or a “welcome” and a smile by one stranger in the church. As for the masjid? Not so much. Are some masajid unwelcoming? Yes – and I have yet to find a welcoming masjid in my area. I desperately long for the feeling of community, acceptance, and support, which is so critical to building my faith. In the predominantly Desi/Arab masjid I have attended, as a black Muslimah, I am invisible – I exchange salaams with women who give me cold looks. At the end of jumu’ah, the congregation lingers, talking and exchanging greetings while I, on the other hand, walk away, and even question if anyone noticed my presence at all.
However, the hostility has also occurred on the hands of fellow Africans. I can recall one instance when I stood next an African woman, not realizing that she was praying on her own before the calling of the adhan. I had just converted, and was still trying to understand how to perform salah. She later looked at me sternly and said, “You don’t know how to pray?” in front of others. Embarrassed, I made some excuse and apologized for the confusion. I was too embarrassed to announce to the entire group that stood around me that I had recently converted. She neither bothered to assist me nor to make me feel welcome. I never entered that masjid again. I would have preferred her to come to me and say, “Sister, I noticed that you were praying with me before the adhan? Normally, this is a private prayer.”
I am putting my story out there to paint a 3D picture of the life of a female convert to Islam that may be residing in your community. She was not a blank canvas before embracing Islam. Rather she had an established cultural identity and is trying to merge it with her faith to paint a picture of who she is today. She may not have the support of her family or community and needs the umma to become her second family. Honestly, if my faith alone rested in the hands of Muslims in my community, I would have left Islam long ago. However Allah (subhanahu wa ta ala) gives me strength to persevere even through tribulations and I ask everyone to please make dua to make this easier and my faith strong.
But don’t shed tears for me, just yet. I have found a small group of converts that I can call on for support. Recently, meeting Ify and her crew has expanded my circle, alhamduillah. On a Friday night, Ify, her Muslimah friends, and I went out for cupcakes and pizza. We laughed, talked and giggled the night away. As I sat next to these women eating my delicious pizza, I thought to myself “so this is what a community feels like.” Alhamduillah, I think I have found a niche – a niche not based on culture, race or ethnic affiliation. But a niche based on the principles of Islam and the fear of Allah (subhanahu wa ta ala) alone. Personally, I prefer the latter. Because while friends, family, and strangers may isolate you, the love of Allah (subhanahu wa ta ala) is so much greater and and more rewarding.