This is the second in the series of articles I commissioned my old friend to write on her special perspective of Islam. — Ed.
I was not always a Muslim.
I never in my wildest imagination thought that I would end up converting to Islam. I was perfectly happy in my Christian beliefs and traditions, feeling that I was on the right path to eternal life. Certainly turning my existence, albeit my internal one, topsy-turvy, was the last thing on my mind !
After some time living here I met and was welcomed into a family from Algeria, helping out in their pâtisserie and spending hundreds of hours talking about everything under the sun. And in the heart of this family I was disabused of so many more of my notions on Islam, and learning so many things I never imagined possible.
And as the seed grew inside my heart, sprouting quietly and taking root, I started asking questions, and changing certain things in my life, preparing for a new life without even knowing about it.
Some months prior, going through the early stages of my divorce, I had stopped drinking.
Not that we were heavy drinkers, far from it. But something, that still small voice, told me this was no longer a good idea to be enjoying a glass with my meals, as I was now so often alone. And as that habit stopped, without knowing it, I had taken a first step on a path I did not even know I was on.
Now, I do not pretend to be a theologian, but I am an intelligent, educated woman, and I am also of the suspicious sort….not in a paranoid sense, but I have never been one to believe or do just because ‘they say so’ or ‘we have always done it this way’.
A blessing from my Protestant training ? My personality ? Whatever the cause, it has served me well. All the ‘stereotypes’ I believed of Islam, I actively questioned.
I do not know that I was aware I was going to convert, but I knew that I could not follow a faith that MANDATES certain things I could never adhere to. Namely, The Headscarf. And polygamy (or more correctly, polygyny, as it refers only to men with multiple spouses.)
I had never believed that true Islam espoused violence, despite suicide bombers and planes flying into buildings. There are enough people of all beliefs and ideologies who do horrible things, that I know it is not possible that an entire religion would teach that this is the way to behave.
Not to mention that how many centuries have passed (14, if we are counting) without this sort of thing happening? And my own Christian heritage is not without plenty of bloodshed from misguided practitioners.
But finding the proof in the Quran and learning what truly is taught and expected was both illuminating, and positive! And given my background, also reassuring. Because with one (ok fairly important) exception, there is really nothing that does not go right along with Christianity. That one thing being the divinity of Jesus. But that is for later.
I do not intend to be a vocabulary list, or mini-encyclopedia, but over time I hope to share what these beliefs truly are, as someone who came to it with suspicions (as it were) of her own.
So here are two things that I found reassuring from the start. Some things everyone agrees on, others are things open for hot dispute within the Muslim community around the world and over time.
The ‘obligation’ for women to dress a certain way. No. Nothing enjoins us to wear any of the head-to-toe coverings, and even sometimes face veils and gloves, that we see images of, or perhaps encounter in our own communities.
Even covering the hair is not an obligation for daily life. Times of prayer have another set of rules. But none of this is a religious obligation. After the time of Muhammed, leaders passed new rules and regulations, gave their interpretations of the Quran (though they claim not to have, but of course it happens) and Muhammed’s words and acts.
And as Islam spread into the world, the customs of those countries often became integrated into ‘religious culture’ to the point they have become indistinguishable from original intent.
The Quran states that a woman should draw her cloak around her breasts, rather than leaving the chest exposed (remember this was the Arabian desert, in 600A.D., one did not dress as today nor necessarily have the same customs) and also to refrain from flashing the breasts at men to encourage them as they went off to war.
She should ‘cover her charms’ and save them for her spouse. In other words, dress modestly for the times, climate, local custom….it does not say cover the hair, it does not say to hide under a large loose dress or cloak.
Additionally it says that men AND women should ‘lower their gaze’…..do not stare at one another! I, as a woman, am not responsible for your ability to control your behavior.
Really, this is not so different from society putting the blame/responsibility on the woman if she is raped because of the way she dresses.
The second thing was this business of men being allowed to have (up to) four wives.
Now MAYBE I could get around wearing a headscarf if required to, but probably not….but no way was I about to condone a possible spouse living part under another woman’s roof, not to mention her bed ! And while many people do not see it this way, the Quran is actually quite clear in preferring the ‘one man, one woman’ rule. This was a time and place wherein people were ‘married’ to as many sposes as they liked.
With no protection for a woman should she be left for the next one to catch her man’s eye. In the spirit of ‘baby steps’, as I see it, a maximum limit of four wives was ordained, for certain reasons (giving homes to orphans and widows…we need to remember, not our society nor culture, and go with it, right?!)
However, and this is what is so overlooked, it is stated in plain language, that in the case of taking wives 2-4, ALL must be treated EQUALLY.
This does not just mean houses, furnishings, and rotating from house to house each night.
It means in how he feels about and treats these wives. And that should this not be possible to carry out, one wife really is sufficient.
And then it states that, equally clearly, no matter how good your intentions are to be thusly equitable, it will not be possible.
And so, one understands, One Man, One Wife. Personally I do not see how even the ‘letter of the law’ people can deny this, but that is where certain places have decided for themselves how to follow it.
For myself, it is clearly something very much what we ourselves practice in ‘western society’.
These may seem rather minor as things to consider, when wondering if a religion is a ‘good fit’, but, as I will go into another time, the ‘doctrine’ was the easy part.
The societal rules were a concern, because after all one wishes not to cherry-pick in one’s beliefs ! And so, the girl from California continued down the new path.