I met a new sister at the masjid last week. Like many people who were born to a Muslim family in a Muslim-majority nation, she was curious to know how I, a white American, had come to Islam. I started to explain my story. “Well, my husband is a Muslim. . .” I began. “Oh,” she interrupted, “So he converted you?” I suppressed a sigh. I cannot count the times people have assumed that my husband “converted” me. Whenever I hear that phrase, I cringe. I’ve encountered it frequently from non-Muslims who have misconceptions about Islam, and sadly I even hear it from Muslims who should know better. No, my husband did not convert me, and here is a breakdown of why that question is so problematic.
Belief in Islam Cannot Be Forced
One of the fundamental tenets of Islam is found in Surat al-Baqara, verse 256: “There is no compulsion in religion” (Qur’an 2:256). Adherence to Islam must be sincere and come from the heart; otherwise, it is without meaning. No one can force someone to submit to Allah SWT, and in fact pressure or coercion will usually backfire, causing the person to resent the thing that is being forced upon them as well as the person who is pressuring them. Therefore, it is impossible to “convert” someone. We can invite them to Islam and teach them about it, but only Allah SWT can guide them. Their eventual acceptance or rejection is completely up to them, and their acts of worship will only be meaningful if done willingly, for the sake of Allah SWT.
Converts Have Minds of Their Own
When people make an assumption that someone must have “converted” the person who accepted Islam, that is discounting the person’s autonomy and dignity. It implies that they had no choice in the decision and sounds as if they were forced against their will. Furthermore, it minimizes the many significant changes the convert undertook to embrace an Islamic lifestyle. Converts often sacrifice many things and transform their lives upon embracing Islam. Some converts are rejected by friends and family because of their choice to become Muslim. Many make drastic changes to their lifestyle, breaking habits and eliminating practices that aren’t in accordance with Islam and forming new ones that are.
From the start, converts must learn a great deal to practice their new faith, including the necessary steps for properly making wudu and performing salat, as well as memorizing short Qur’anic verses in Arabic in order to pray. They must master a new way of dressing, eating, and interacting with others. This monumental effort on their part should never be minimized by suggesting that someone “converted” them. Allah SWT guided them, and they converted themselves!
Let’s Stop Stereotyping Muslim Men
Another problem with the assumption that a Muslim man “converted” his wife is that it plays into the ugly stereotype of the overbearing, oppressive Muslim man. The notion that husbands coerce their wives into practicing their faith is harmful to people’s perception of Islam. In the life of Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him), we have the ideal of manhood. He was known to be gentle, good natured, exceedingly kind and loving while still being an effective, strong, and courageous leader. When non-Muslims think of Muslim men, they should think of positive qualities like the ones exemplified by our Prophet. So, it’s partly up to us Muslims to end the narrative of overbearing husbands who “convert” their women. I always make sure to point out to people how, before I accepted Islam, my husband patiently answered my questions about his faith and never forced or pressured me. It is sad that I have to defend him to Muslims and non-Muslims alike, and that I need to clarify this matter repeatedly.
Muslims Should Practice Adaab When Listening
Adaab, good manners, is a fundamental trait of Muslim character. If we ask someone a question, particularly a personal one like “How did you come to accept Islam?” — we should observe certain rules of etiquette. First, we should not interrupt the speaker. Interrupting others is a negative habit that many of us have, and while many overlook it as a minor flaw or a cultural tendency, it is in fact a serious shortcoming. Some people interrupt because they are impatient or have poor impulse control. In some cases, it comes from being self-centered, even arrogant, that we are more interested in being heard than in listening, and that we believe our own thoughts and opinions are more important or valid than those of the person who is speaking.
Having asked about a person’s experience or perspective, we should listen without immediately imposing our own interpretation on it. We should respect it and acknowledge that it is their reality, whether we can relate to it or not. Too many times people second-guess a convert’s story, saying things like I mentioned above, that her husband “converted” her, or something like “Your experience couldn’t have been that hard!” When a Muslim doesn’t respect a convert’s words, they are diminishing their brother’s or sister’s experience. Every Muslim should look to form a bond with new Muslims, to encourage them and make them feel welcome. Those who are rude or judgmental risk alienating the convert or even driving them away from Islam! So, instead of interrupting or challenging a convert, we should listen to what he or she has to say. We should consider their perspective, even if it causes us to grapple with our own concept of reality. Converts can teach us a great deal about the strengths and weaknesses of our ummah.
A Learning Opportunity for Both
One further point is important. If, in the future, someone else presumes my husband “converted” me, it can be a learning opportunity for both of us. Since I want to practice what I preach, I should assume the best about every person I encounter. I can answer him or her in a way that allows them to gain greater self-awareness. When I convey the points I have presented in this article, starting with “belief in Islam cannot be forced,” and I speak with sincerity and humility, I allow the other person to hear me and think about what I have said without feeling defensive or embarrassed. As for myself, I can remember that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said, “Indeed, Allah loves it when any one of you acts, so let him perfect it” (Al-Bayhaqi in Shoua’ab Al-Eman). I can improve the way I answer when someone asks me how I came to Islam. Rather than state at first, “Well, my husband is a Muslim…” I can start out with something like, “I found out about Islam when I was 23 years old and spent two years soul-searching and learning more about it. The more I investigated and found answers, the more I became convinced that Islam is the truth.” Answering in that way, I present myself as the protagonist of my own spiritual journey. The fact that my husband was the one who introduced me to Islam, or even that he is one of the main teachers who provided the answers to my questions, does not change the truth of my narrative. Proceeding in this way allows the listener to focus on me and my journey; at the same time, I am ensuring that the stereotype about husbands “converting” their non-Muslim wives does not take root. In this way, I would, insha’Allah, be perfecting how I “act” when someone asks me how I came to Islam.
Next time you meet a female who embraced Islam, please don’t assume her husband — or anyone else — “converted” her. In fact, don’t make any assumptions at all! She is a unique individual whose heart was guided by Al-Hadi, the Ultimate Guide. Her one-of-a-kind story was written in the best way by the Best Planner. If she shares her experience with you, consider yourself blessed, listen respectfully, and be prepared to learn and grow, right along with the convert to Islam.