By Shylon Smith
My father is retired US military. I was born on an American Air Force Base in Turkey. I knew about Muslims all of my life; however, I did not really pay attention to their religion until I was about 12 years old. My father is Methodist and my mother was a Southern Baptist until she married my father who had 22 years of perfect attendance in church, so she joined his church and became Methodist. My family has always been very active in the church. I remember believing in God and being sure about Him when I was five years old. I wanted to become a nun when I was eight years old. My parents told me no because only Catholics can be nuns.
When I was 12, I was confirmed into the church. I visited other Christian denominations and a Jewish synagogue during the confirmation process. Later that year my school took a field trip to the National Mosque in Washington, DC. This was almost 30 years ago; they probably have more than one mosque there now. We saw a Quran that was hundreds of years old. I asked the man who was there a lot of questions that I had been asking my preacher. My preacher had told me, “Have faith. Believe. Do not ask so many questions.” The man at the mosque answered all of my questions in a logical way and added information that made me very curious to learn more about Islam. I remember I asked, “Why did God have a son and not a daughter? Why did He kill his son after he told Abraham not to kill his son? What happened to the people who believe in God before the sacrifice happened?” The Muslim guy explained that Muslims believe in Jesus (peace and blessings upon him) but that he was a Prophet like Moses and Adam (peace and blessings upon them both). He said that God has no parents and no children and if you ask for forgiveness and are sincere, He will forgive you for anything. I learned later that most of the beliefs about Jesus (peace upon him) are the same: the virgin birth, he is the messiah, and that he was able to heal people as part of the miracles God gave him.
I knew that Muslims and Jews believe in the same God as Christians. I went home that night and told my mother that I needed to learn Arabic to read a book called the Quran because it was important. She told me there was not anyone to teach me in our area and DC was too far because ten miles there takes more than an hour to drive. She said Spanish would be far more useful and to take Spanish at school. I forgot about the visit for several years and studied Spanish.
When I was in college, I met several non-practicing Muslims. By non-practicing, I mean they were not praying and they drank alcohol. May God bless them and forgive them. I asked one why he did not pray and why he drank alcohol. He told me, “I am a bad Muslim.” Looking back, I respect him for his honesty. He did not make up excuses or try to twist the religion. May God bless him.
I was reading the Bible and thinking about why people are different religions and why humans are not all the same religion since there is only one God. I thought most people are whatever their parents are. I began thinking which one is really the right way? I prayed and asked God to guide me. I stopped eating pork and drinking alcohol in case I would become Jewish or Muslim. If I were to be Christian, which one, there are so many denominations… which one is the right one?
I prayed daily and asked God for a clear sign. I promised that once I knew, I would stick to the right way no matter what and I would not ask for more signs. I had heard a sermon about a guy who when speaking to an Angel kept asking for signs (in the Bible). He knew it was an Angel. That should have been enough. After a few months, I had a very clear dream and then woke up. Most dreams I forget quickly. This one I still remember vividly. There are many ahadeeth about dreams. I prefer not to share it in a public magazine. Just know that when I woke up, I was a Muslim from that moment. I began reading everything I could about Islam and began my journey to find my way. I had a very idealistic view the first few years. I thought Muslims were all good. Islam is from God and is perfect. Muslims are human beings like anyone else. Some are great and some are not. Most are medium. If you are nice to them, they are nice to you.
I laugh at myself now looking back at how I thought everyone would think in the same way I do because it was so logical to me. I thought everyone would see that Islam is the right way. I would explain to non-Muslims and tell them about Islam and then feel sad when they did not suddenly see it on their own. Then I would deal with very closed minded cultural Muslims who would try to tell me everything except breathing is haram (forbidden). When I would give them evidence, they would reject any scholar not from their own country. Then I would try to talk about science with Atheists and wonder how they did not see God in all the beautiful creations on Earth because they are so complex. How many people know that one of Allah’s names is the Evolver? Do we all know Islam supports the evolution of animals? This could be an article on its own inshallah later.
The Quran says there is no force in religion and God guides who He wants. It is our job as Muslims to be kind to EVERYONE (not just Muslims), to share with those who are in need, and to follow the example of the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings upon him). We should be open minded, always learning, and if we do all of these things, our kindness is an invitation to others to learn about Islam. We share the Quran with them, and then God will guide them when the time is right for them. Every person should be treated with respect and kindness. We might be the only Muslim they meet in real life, so we better be the best example we can be. We will be asked about it on Judgment Day. Eighty percent of non-Muslim Americans have never met a Muslim. Their only experience with Muslims is from the media.
We also have to be good to other Muslims. In my almost 20 years as a Muslim, I have seen several women leave Islam because of the harshness of human beings who did not know the real Islam and who were pushing their customs from their home country onto new Muslims and trying to make them do everything the way those people did back in their country. Islam respects culture. We learn that cultural differences are fine. When someone becomes Muslim, you do not change their culture. Only the religion. The companions traveled and taught people about Islam. They did not try to change peoples’ foods or clothing. They focuses on the heart.
Islam gives everyone rights including women, children, elders, and even pets and farm animals (I love animals, so this was really cool to me). New Muslims have rights on other Muslims. We must say when we do not know something and refer them to someone with more knowledge. It is okay to say, “I am sorry I do not know and that is a great question. Let us ask a scholar.” It is wonderful finding new information and often there are multiple right ways to do something. Helping others answer their questions also opens our minds for new knowledge and gets us closer to Allah (swt).
Give everyone the benefit of the doubt. The Prophet (pbuh) often allowed multiple views to exist at the same time and accepted them all as valid. He valued the opinions of others and listened to them. He made everyone around him feel special and needed. He included people of all ages, ethnic groups, and he included women. Women were everything from scholars to bodyguards. How many of us know the women who defended the Prophet in battles where he was surrounded and outnumbered? The Prophet (pbuh) empowered women and encouraged them. His wife Khadija (may Allah bless her) was an amazing businesswoman. She proposed to Muhammad (pbuh) because he was very honest and trustworthy. She had been his employer. Thousands of educated women in England, Australia, and the United States convert to Islam every year. I remember joking with a Muslim friend a few months before I thought about Islam. I said, “I would never be Muslim or Jewish. I like bacon too much.” Never say never. Smelling pork now makes my stomach hurt. A friend introduced me to beef bacon, and it was love at first bite.
People ask me many questions. The most common one is about my clothes. When people ask me about my modesty, I explain to them that Muslim women are like nuns who can get married and have kids. We pray a lot and we devote ourselves to taking care of our kids and parents and community. We help the poor and the sick, and we serve God exactly like nuns. We also dress like them. The Bible in Second Corinthians tells women to cover their hair. The Bible tells women to dress modestly. Islam tells men and women to dress modestly and to lower their gaze (not to stare at those of the opposite gender). Islam and Christianity have so many things in common because they are both from God. As Muslims it is our job to invite Christians to Islam. The Quran says you will know Christians by their love. We need to share our love with them too.
I pray for my parents and all of my family to become Muslim. I pray for our country and all of the world to live in peace and for all of us to be kind to everyone. If I start with my community and work to make it better, if each of us does our best, the world will be a better place. I often think of the Girl Scout motto: Girl Scouting builds girls of courage, confidence, and character, who make the world a better place. Change begins with one person. Let that change begin with me.