bismillah

How I Struck Gold - my conversion story

Struck Gold

Oh how I wish someone had told me this story back then...

I am 39 years old now, with four children. I was born in New York City in 1973. My children were born in the Middle East (three of them). Every day I thank Allah that my children will never experience the nightmare that I did during my formative years, growing up in the US. I come from an upper middle class family of second generation Americans. We trace our roots back to Russia and Poland. My grandparents on both sides were practicing Jews, but by the time I came along our family had mostly left religion behind.

We moved often every four or five years, first from New Jersey to Maryland to Illinois back to New Jersey and finally to Ohio, where I met and married my husband (We moved abroad when our son was 20 days old). Back in Maryland in seventies, life was cool. I was 4, and my sister was 7 when our parents sent us to private Jewish school (as the local public school had a bad reputation). This was my first exposure to organized religion. We offered prayers before and after meals, and at other specified times. We were expected to observe a dress code and behave respectfully at all times. It was a wonderful time, when my life had structure and meaning. As I grew up, and we moved to Chicago, and I changed schools, and I made new, unreligious friends, I missed the closeness I had once felt to God. Home life was disintegrating, too. My parents got divorced when I was twelve. And I had a stepmother at age thirteen. I became very uncomfortable with myself; from then on I felt my innocence had gone. I was forced to grow up all too fast. I felt like I had to take complete responsibility for myself, as my sister had been on the verge of insanity for years, and my stepmother wanted nothing to do with us kids. I missed my carefree, picture-perfect youth of only yesterday. I longed for my place back as the apple of my parent's eyes.

I longed to feel special, and loved, and cared about again. So I looked for it where most lonely, emotionally starved American teenagers would look: in members of the opposite sex. Little did I know that however many boyfriends later, you're never any close to feeling truly good about yourself (and I'd venture to say you're much, much farther away). So I took the roundabout route (which, in retrospect was unavoidable) by making many of life's most terrible, regrettable mistakes and I'm here to tell all about it, to save others from following the same painful and humiliating path I did.

It was dark, dark time for me, I'd rather not remember the details. My life had become so difficult, so impossible, that by age 18 I was admitted to a mental hospital for a week. The diagnosis: sever clinical depression. The doctor put me on antidepressants. I was definitely at a low point, probably my lowest. But my definition, I reasoned that being at one's worst must necessarily mean there was also a best that one could attain to. So what was wrong with me? Why wasn't I at my best, and how could I be? Why did I no longer find any pleasure, meaning, or significance in my life? For sure the only way to go was up to that point. I was plagued with extreme, overpowering feeling of guilt and shame (for no obvious reason). I had such strong inner conflict going on, I felt like I was being pulled in a thousand different directions. Life was a dark, gloomy, unrelenting tunnel of despair, with no light coming in. Just getting from morning to night was a daily struggle. No matter how often they adjusted my medication, it never seemed to make a difference. It didn't help me, or hinder me. Nothing mattered, not even if lived or died. While I personally never considered suicide, I can easily see how someone in my situation might have. I was attending at Miami University at the time. I would regularly schedule appointments with the resident psychiatrist, without results. I would roam around campus, pondering nature, pondering my soul, wondering, observing, silently, pensively. Why was I here? Why we're all here? To run around, have fun, party, sleep," eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die"?...; to no avail? Was it all for nothing? Do we really have a greater destiny than that? If so, what was it? I had to know. I was all-consumed with the idea of finding out. So I threw myself down on my dorm room floor and cried, "I'm lost. If there be a God, please find me. Help me. Rescue me. Comfort me. Let me know you're out there. Show me my way." With that I picked myself up and went on over to the campus library. There, I asked the librarian for a book that would reveal to me the truth of our existence. Admittedly, it was a strange request but she took my query very seriously and explained that she was a Buddhist. Buddhism, she said, had the answers.

Next day, I attended a meeting at her place. She and her husband were actively involved in spreading Buddhism around campus. I stuck with my new Buddhist practice for about two weeks, sincerely trying to glean any sort of spiritual fulfillment from them, which never came. At this point, I was such a nervous wreck that I couldn't even enjoy a cup of coffee in the morning without terribly haunting thoughts and feelings of desperation. I had absolutely no peace of mind, no rest from the devilish whisperings in my head. Suicide was not a possibility. I wasn't ready to give up. Not yet. I knew there was something was terribly wrong with me, but I also knew that I had to get better. Where was the peace of mind I had once enjoyed as a carefree undisturbed child?

I had a number of relationships during that period of intense self-scrutiny. I was always attracted to strong, independent men who seemed to have it together. Because I was so weak and impressionable and naïve and down on myself, I tended toward emotionally stable, self-confident, strong uplifting men, who were mostly foreigners. While desperately searching for guidance and a cure to my inner pain, I sought temporary comfort in the company of these strangers. The always seemed to make me feel a little better about myself. I felt loved, needed, wanted, and important, if only for a little while. But was it real? Is it a pre-requisite to true love is that love yourself first? Only then can you truly give love, and accept it. I remember that Whitney Houston song from 1985, The Greatest Love of All, which is about loving yourself first. How true it is. But how was I to love myself when I was my own worst enemy? I hated myself. I hated who I had become. I hated my decisions. I hated my life. I resented my parents for pushing me this far over the edge. But I knew I couldn't go on blaming them forever. That wouldn't get me anywhere. In fact (now I speak with the benefit of hindsight), my shaky upbringing in an extremely materialistic society such ours was truly a blessing in disguise because if things had been better, I may never have experienced the great series of events that were about to befall me.

It was the end of my freshman year at Miami. I was having major adjustment problems. I suddenly felt the urge to be back home, closer to my doctors, closer to my friends. I was still on heavy medications, waiting for my meds to kick in and lift the dark cloud from above me. They never did. I was considering a major in Spanish; I have always loved foreign languages. I heard about a great opportunity through Ohio State University. So I transferred, and enrolled in summer semester classes there. At that time I was required to take a foreign culture course. I could have chosen any geographical location; I chose the Middle East because I didn't know a lot about it. One day an American Muslim woman came in and did a lecture on Islam, the faith of most people in the Middle East. She highlighted some very interesting aspects of the religion and corrected many of our misconceptions. Her presentation was called 'the place women in Islam'. She explained how Islam had safeguarded women's rights and privileges well before the Women's Rights movements of the previous century (in US). She explained the special position and role of women in Islam. 1400 years ago, Islam granted women novel powers and privileges, like the rights to buy and sell property, to work and make a living, to keep their names, save money, refuse a marriage proposal, inherit from deceased relatives, do business, get an education, express themselves, stand witness in trial, and even to make their own prenuptials! Islam put an end to the oppressive of wife-beating female infanticide, and the custom of automatically inheriting a dead man's widow, which could have numbered in the hundreds. Islam limited the number of wives to four and even then with strict obligations. The vast majority of Muslim men marry only one anyway. She said Muslims also venerated Mary the mother of Jesus, calling her the most pious of women. What was this strange faith that had so many intriguing features, contrary to what I had previously thought about it? I had to know more. So I went over to a local mosque, just beyond the university grounds, and knocked the door. A foreign man greeted me- he was Egyptian. I told him I wanted to learn more about Islam. He gave me a book called Towards Understanding Islam by a Pakistani author named Mawdudi. Needless to say I devoured it in two hours flat. Amazing. Next day, as if on cue, at my foreign culture class they had a film about, of all places, Egypt. It was a documentary about different facets of life in contemporary Egypt. They discussed efforts to educate the locals about birth control (Egyptian population is booming, currently at one quarter of the US population, and it's smaller than California in size). They talked about the comeback of the headscarf among young Egyptian women. One woman in particular caught my attention. She was dressed from head to toe in black, wearing the traditional 'niqab' which covers everything except the eyes. The man interviewing her asked whether or not she was hot underneath all those types of clothing. She replied coolly: "Sure, it's hot, but the (fire of) hell is much, much hotter than this." Something hit me, like knives going through my heart, all at once. I felt the note of sincerity in her voice. She was obviously very uncomfortable in the summer heat, but was willing to sacrifice her well-being for a higher good, for her fear of God. She was living and breathing her faith- it was part and parcel of who she was. She just 'oozed' faith and genuineness, as Halle Berry might say. I had never met anyone with true conviction before. (I was about to meet many more.)

I went back my dorm room and considered the facts. Could I deny what I now perceived to be the truth? Could I deny what I had read, what I had seen, what I had heard, and what I had felt? Hadn't I been crying, desperately, on my dorm room floor only yesterday, pleading for guidance, imploring God for help? Islam came and confirmed what I had already thought to be true. I learned that it was the continuation of Judaism and Christianity, sent by the same God, the One and only true God, the God of Adam and Eve, of Noah, of Moses, of Jesus. Yes, these are all revered prophets of Islam. Islam simply means submitting to the will of God. The whole universe is in total submission to God, but human beings are unique in that they are free to accept or reject divine guidance. If we accept, it is for the benefit of our soul, and if we reject, it is to our own detriment.

So, while I had never considered myself religious before, I became so in that instant- the instant that I could no longer deny the facts. I submitted my whole self to God. I even scrambled around the house looking for a headscarf to cover my hair with! That was in February of 1993, coincidentally, the first day of the Holy Month of Ramadan. I was nineteen. My mother took issue with that part of my conversation only -the decision to cover my hair- as she saw no other inherent danger in me becoming a Muslim. Neither did my father. They just couldn't see why I would want to cover up my best feature. But, then again, doesn't God know best when it comes to such things? Just think how much time, money, and effort I have saved over the years, not worrying about my hair. Now I can spend that time in silent devotion, prostrating to Allah, praising His names, worshiping He who created me and showed me my way, the One true God, who hears and responds to the call of even the most lost and desperate souls.

The first twenty years of my life were basically characterized by the darkness of kufr (disbelief), a seriously dysfunctional home life, and the dire emotional upset and turmoil that inevitably followed. Obviously, the challenges that lay ahead (when I first accepted Islam) were formidable. The early years (after accepting Islam) were essentially an ongoing struggle to erase the myriad of negative emotions, distorted self-image, satanic whisperings, and self-doubts I had acquired. (I had absolutely zero self-confidence, and even a sub-zero sense of self-worth- not only did I not believe in myself at all, I was convinced that I was the most wicked, hated, undeserving person in the universe). It was a colossal challenge to overcome all these feelings- and that's putting it mildly… It was as if I had to climb a huge mountain, going up and up and up, with absolutely no end or hope of reaching my goal in sight. It was an excruciating period. For months, I didn't feel like myself at all. I felt like I was walking in the shoes of a stranger, although they were my own. If my faith had been as solid as it is now, needless to say, it would have been a much easier climb.

A few months after accepting Islam I was sidetracked in my efforts to improve myself and acquire inner peace by a set of very untimely, unfortunate occurrences. There is no real value in pondering over these misfortunes. As Muslims we understand that our circumstances in life are considered to be our 'Qadr', or destiny. These events were pre-recorded by a special pen long before the creation of the heavens and the earth. Also, as true believers, we understand that all our circumstances in life- whether 'good' or 'bad' ultimately work for the good of the individual (kind of like blessings in disguise). This is only true for a believer, though. If 'good' befalls a person, Islam teaches us, we should thank God, and that is good for us. If a trial /hardship/ disaster strikes, we practice patience and that is also good for us. So, I'd say that my din has evolved magnificently- under the circumstances- very slowly but surely over the last twenty years, to where I am today. I have 100% undefiled faith and confidence that the decision I made twenty years ago to submit my will to God's will was definitely the right one. In fact, it makes me shudder just to think what shambles my life would be in today had I not taken that momentous step. For anyone in similar circumstances, who is finding the climb difficult, finding it hard to shake off all those negative emotions, just know that they are from the devil; they have no place in reality. The devil is not going to part ways easily, now that a person has started heading in the right direction. Be vigilant and persevere in your efforts. If you patiently persevere you are promised a goodly life, both in this life and in the hereafter.

While I have made remarkable progress on the emotional/ spiritual front (by the grace of the Almighty) I believe I have yet to re-capture the sense of tranquility and quietude in my soul that I enjoyed as a child. All children are born into that pure, unadulterated state- true to their natures, in a state called 'fitrah' in Arabic (or natural human inclination). It is by the will of God that we should ever deviate, or come out of it- because if we had stayed there, enjoying that constant sense of serenity, security, and peace of mind, what would make any of us go out looking for the truth- or for God- or for a fix? We would never bother, in that case. So, it was actually a blessing in disguise that things got so bad and so out of control so fast.

Accepting Islam obviously necessitates some major work on one's whole outlook on life- not to mention one's wardrobe. There was major work to be done- both inside and out. Getting used to wearing Islamic dress and covering my hair was relatively easy. I'm not one to fret over what people will say, or how they'll react. My only thought was (as it still is) to do what pleased God. People naturally have respect for people who do the right thing, even if they are baffled by it at first. I found the level of respect people had for me (especially native-born Muslims who were not practicing what Islam teaches) to be very high. The much bigger challenge to overcome, as stated, was on the emotional, intellectual front. Accepting Islam as your religion forces you to negate all of your previously held opinions and understandings of things (about both yourself and the world at large). All of a sudden I was compelled to throw everything that I had known or learnt up to that point in the dustbin and start all over. That was certainly a major challenge. I was also forced to come to terms with the fact that not everyone was going to share the same zeal and zest I had for Islam, and for finally finding the truth of our existence. To me, it was a no-brainer. If someone were to approach you with convincing evidence that your life actually does have great meaning and purpose, and then proceeded to tell you exactly what that purpose was, only a fool would turn away. That is the nature of kufr, a kafir being a person who has the truth presented to him, but he refuses to even CONSIDER the facts. It is definitely a terrible state to be in. These people cut off their own lifelines, so to speak, severing their connection to God.

As for my friends, they were much less enthusiastic about my reversion to Islam than I was. They thought it strange that I now dressed modestly, refused to talk to any of our male friends, refused to drink, smoke, and do all the other stuff. Needless to say, most of them slowly drifted away from me, as I did from them. As for the major depressive state I was in at that time, it didn't just magically go away after believing in Islam. It wasn't like a light-switch that went on and suddenly let me see everything as clear as could be. No, I remained largely in a depressive state even after accepting Islam, but the difference was that the curve was now heading in the right direction- for the first time ever! I was getting better instead of getting worse. More significantly, I now knew that no medication in the world could cure what I had- I wasn't sick. I had just been misled by the masses and been away from God for so long.

Of all the un-Islamic behaviors I was involved in, the hardest one to give up on was a man whom I considered to be the love of my life. I was involved with a Arab at the time of my conversion- ironically; he was in no way supportive of my decision to become a Muslim. He had no bearing at all on my decision to accept Islam. In fact, I knew that if I took that decisive step in my life, I would have to break things off with him altogether. And that's exactly what I did- as heartbroken as I was at time. I was so emotionally attached to him, so down on myself, and such a total emotional wreck that I was unable to distinguish between someone who was just using me for his own personal gratification vs. someone who really cared about me and wanted what was best. If he had good intentions, he would have encouraged me in the direction I was headed- toward accepting faith- then he would have married me in a halal way. I thank God (with the benefit of hindsight) for protecting me and for making my leaving him the second best thing I ever did- after accepting the religion of Islam.

After recognizing Islam as the truth, nothing could stop me from implementing its orders right away- both the commands and prohibitions. Waking up at dawn every morning to pray the fajr, or dawn prayer, was the biggest challenge/ change I had to make. I knew I would be held accountable for all of my actions from then on, and I wanted to meet God with as clean a slate as possible- after having showered His favors upon me, and having guided me to the Straight Path at a relatively young age. While most of my friends were out partying, and steeped in ignorance, I was prostrating to my Creator and living my true purpose in life-what could be more gratifying and deserving of thanks (to our Creator) than that?

I doubt if any two upbringings- one of parent and one of child- could be any different than mine vs. my children's. I thank God constantly (all praise be to Him) that my children will never know the disastrous effects of being raised in a disbelieving environment, by disbelieving parents. It is enough (of an uphill battle) that we Americans have to contend with the horrendous effects of disbelief- of not knowing who created us, why we are here, what we should be doing, what our purpose in life is, etc. Couple that with a family who shows absolutely no support whatsoever- add to that the emotional distress caused by parents who don't make their children feel wanted or loved. It is a criminal act, in my opinion, to have children and then do not make them feel the least bit wanted. It is pure child abuse- which can be just as devastating, if not more, than physical abuse- which everyone agrees is inexcusable. Thank God my children will never experience any of that sickness. Thank God for the blessing of Islam upon us. Thank God for the religion that teaches its followers that children are a blessing. I have recently written a book on Islam, called Why Islam?, to combat the negative image that non-Muslims have about our religion. It's not my personal story- I wrote it to acquaint people with the beauty of the religion of Islam. The book is available by contacting Islamic International Publishing House.

Thank God for the religion that lets us see everything in its true light.

K. Sherman


The Islamic Bulletin
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