Religion is not bound by culture, anyone can be anyone they wish to be.
Muslim converts in America do not fall into a cliche or a stereotype. Muslim converts can be anyone, and as Shahina demonstrates below, all have different experiences.
Shahina is part of a remarkable multi-generational tradition of crossing boundaries in friendship. Born and raised in Hinduism, she converted to Islam as an adult.
This is the story of how I first met one of my best friends in life—and it was not at all what I expected when I set out on this long journey.
I was born into a Brahmin-class family in Hinduism. Of course, the caste system is not as important as it once was, but our culture and our Hindu traditions were important to my family. We did not go to the temple frequently, but we always visited the temple for special occasions. My own interfaith journey began in my childhood and has extended through my entire life. I grew up in Bombay, now Mumbai, which is a very cosmopolitan city; I had friends of different faiths as I was growing up.
I came to America in 1973 and began working on a Master’s in Business Administration in January of 1974. That’s when I first met my husband, Victor, who was studying business as well. I was 20 and Victor was a little older. About a year and a half later, we got married. When I first came to America, I wasn’t sure if I was going to stay here for good— but meeting Victor made the difference. My dad was very open-minded when he heard the news.
The one piece of advice Dad gave me was: “Don’t think of moving back and settling in India again. The society here still is not ready to let you live happily here. Make your life in America after this.”
So, even as we were preparing to get married, there was some anxiety back home about the different backgrounds of our families. When we got married here, we actually celebrated these differences and it became quite an exceptional gathering of people in 1975. We had our civil ceremony at the Oak Park City Hall, near where I lived at the time. This little city just north of Detroit still has a large Jewish population. As we arranged to get married, the mayor of Oak Park became quite intrigued with the whole idea. I was from a Hindu family and was getting married to a Muslim in a ceremony performed by this mayor, who was Jewish. The mayor was so fascinated by our story that he presented Dad with a key to the city of Oak Park.
This more casual approach to our religious traditions eventually led to some anxiety when I made my first trip back to India to see my family and to meet Victor’s parents. Because of our schedules, Victor couldn’t get away for as much time as I planned to spend—a couple of months. This was a very important trip. Aft er living in the Toronto area for about five years, Victor and I were about to immigrate back to America and to settle permanently in the U.S. In January of 1979, our first child, Sami, was born and, by early 1980, we wanted the family back in India to have a chance to see little Sami. As it turned out, Sami celebrated his first birthday in India.
I had not studied much about Islam at that point. I did not cover my hair like I do now. I didn’t even know all of the Arabic prayers that are important in Islam. What would Victor’s parents think about me?
As the miles passed, I did get a little bit scared about what would be awaiting us when we arrived. I was wearing loose Indian clothing, which was appropriate, but the type of scarf I was wearing did not completely cover my hair in the Muslim style.
When we finally arrived at the station, we had not even left the train when one of Victor’s younger sisters showed up at the door of our compartment. She had come to look me over. But as she reached out to hug me, I could feel the strength and the warmth in that hug. I could feel her love reaching out to me.
Our entire time in Hyderabad was wonderful! I knew very little about Muslim prayers and my mother-in-law brought in a teacher each day, so I remember that time, as well, because it’s when I learned a great deal about the basics of prayer in Islam. Victor’s mother was a petite lady with nice features and a particular way of carrying herself, so that you could tell she came from a noble family. She liked to wear a sari and sometimes wore flowers in her hair. Later, she came to live with us in our home in America for 12 years, before she passed away in 1994—and she became one of my best friends. It was so easy to love her. She did things like quietly praise me to other people, when I wasn’t around. I fi rst heard about this from friends who would tell me what she had said. Th at surprised me, at first. But it taught me that all those old stereotypes about “in-laws” were totally false—at least in my family. I was blessed to have those years with her.
Read the stories from the Women of WISDOM:
This story about Muslim converts in America is part of a collection of personal stories from Friendship & Faith, a book that delves into the decisions and experiences about faith and friendship shared by a group of Detroit-area women. This particular story about converting to Islam is by Shahina Begg, a woman of WISDOM.