"Don't be angry. This is a test from God for you."
These were the beginning of my dear friend Khadijah's words of advice. I told her about the letter I received earlier this week from my adopted grandmother, who has not been willing to speak with me since she learned of my conversion to Islam. I was honestly surprised when I realized that she is ignoring my calls, and avoiding my company. In order to smooth things over, I wrote a letter on my favourite Cath Kidston stationary. I harkened Granny Franny back to the years upon years that she's known me - since fifth grade, actually. She's always praised my religious fervor, strong work ethic, devotion to friends and family. She knows me as a sincere and trustworthy person. Therefore, she can be sure that my decision to convert was a thoughtful, educated, and prayerful. Not to mention, she would not notice much of a difference - I told her the only noticeable difference would be my hair covering outside the home, and that I'll slip away to pray at the designated times. Other than that, how about a Scrabble or Phase 10 game?
My adopted grandmother replied with a note on blue-lined notebook paper. This alone spoke volumes; Granny Franny has always loved her a good greeting card, and seemed to always find an excuse to send me cards covered in stickers, inside and outside of the envelope. Therefore, her choice of 'stationary' aligned well with her brief message: "I received your letter and I want you to know how very disappointed in your decision [sic]... I don't know if you were trying to convince me or yourself... Enclosed is a letter God told Rick to write you."
Not only did my adopted grandmother express grave disappointment that I have chosen to be Muslim, but she also invited her 40+ year old son, who hardly knows me, to read my letter. The first reason this frustrates me is because my letter was not intended for him. The second reason I am upset by this is because Rick enclosed his 12-page opinion on the matter, typed in Comic Sans MS of all fonts.
Rick, an evangelical protestant Christian, begins by explaining that God spoke to him directly, and instructed him to write me a letter. On the first page Rick writes that he asked God, "Father, what happened to that girl who used to love you so much?" Thereby, Rick clearly implies that I no longer love God. Obviously, Rick is a bold guy. First he claims that God speaks with him directly, and second he assumes that he is in the position to judge my spirituality. Not to mention, Rick referred to God as 'Father,' a quite uncomfortable term from an Islamic perspective, since calling God 'Father' necessitates that God has children (Muslims believe that Allah does not have parents or children).
"I am not going to bash Islam or throw a bunch of scriptures at you in this letter... I am simply doing what God asked me to do. The outcome is his responsibility," explains Rick. In page after page Rick details his testimony, or his faith journey in and out of and back into Christianity. Listen, I respect anyone's experience and life story. I admit that I used to speak the same 'Christianese' about my own life, and have even returned to some of the terminology as a Muslim. But I worry that 'God told me to' claims are irreverant, and that these statements are the definition of 'taking the Lord God's name in vain' as is prohibited for Jews, Christians, and Muslims in the ten commandments (Exodus 20:7 NRSV: You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.) Misusing God's name, I strongly believe, is not simply saying 'Oh my God!' when one is shocked or in trouble, as I was taught in Christian Sunday School. Actually, a study of context and language reveals that making "wrongful use of the name of the Lord" refers to applying God's name to events or acts, which have not been commanded or condoned by the Creator. In the original context, wrongfully attributing God's name would have led to the Children of Israel engaging in battle with their neighbours in the name of God, declaring God's blessing on the violence, without actually having the approval of their Lord at all.
Rick writes about "when [he] first gave [his] life to Jesus," his experience of hypocrisy in the Christian church, his life of "drinking, smoking, hidden sins, and hanging around ungodly people." Rick writes about losing his job, and hitting rock bottom. He writes about a vision of Jesus pulling up to the curb of a busy street corner, smiling while seated in the back of a white limosine (Unfortunately no, he didn't mention who was driving).
At this point Rick begins to speculate and admonish me more directly: "Don't turn your back on Jesus... Maybe you never even knew Jesus personally... Be honest with yourself... Give Jesus a try." Rick seemed to miss that I completed an undergraduate degree in Bible, Religion and Philosophy. I chose this line of study because my hobby, my hobby, in high school was reading the Bible from cover to cover, and writing my own commentary as I went. I was the leader of the Christian club in my high school of more than 2,000 students, and was involved in every possible activity at my youth group. In other words, throughout all of the periods of faith crises that he described, I was virtually a megaphone promoting personal relationships with Jesus (I do not say alayhi salaam here, because I am not referring to the Prophet Isa peace be upon him). Ironically, I was in close relationship with his mother during the years that she worried constantly about his welfare. I was one of the Christians who prayed for his safe return to the fold.
He didn't stop there. Rick begins the next section of his letter saying "I know very little about Islam...," and then proceeds to pose questions, which prove to be rhetorical. First, Rick asks "Where is your testimony?" He then elaborates, claiming that if God truly had led me to convert to Islam, "there should have been at least one or two more pages to [my] letter" to his mom. I suppose that Rick is assuming that I intended to convert his mother to Islam, and would need to include a bonafide 'testimony' to do so.
In response to the joy I expressed to my adopted grandmother saying "I've never been happier," Rick retorts, "Where are the details? Why are you so happy? I could talk your ear off telling you the things God has taught me and shown me over the last three years... To be honest, you don't sound too happy in your letter."
Next, Rick accuses me of being caught "in the same trap [he] was in," apparently of religious ritual, because I pray 5 times daily. He says, "I pray every waking hour of every day. I am not boasting. I am just stating a fact. Praying is nothing more than talking with God. I talk with him all day every day and he talks back to me all day every day."
Even more, Rick tells me about "the most beautiful, sexiest, coolest girl" that he got involved with, despite the fact that she was nonChristian and still married. Instead of dwelling on the problem that this lady was still married, he focuses on his 'sin' of involving himself with someone who was not a Christian. Rick claims that God asked him directly, "Suppose Beth was a Muslim and tried to get you to convert to Islam. Do you think she may have been able to persuade you?" Of course, this portion of his story leads Rick to accuse me of converting to Islam in order 'to obtain love or please a man.'
Finally, Rick repeats himself: "I know very little about Islam." And then says there's one question that he must ask himself: "Why would any woman ever want to convert to Islam of her own free will?" His question would have been legitimate, had he not followed it immediately with "It's a great system for the men! I'll give you that." Clearly, Rick wasn't lying - he knows very little about Islam.
Sadly, Rick concluded this 12-page letter saying that I am welcome to contact him if I would like to hear more of what God has taught him. Otherwise, Rick says, "Please do not contact me if you want to justify your decision, or promote Islam. I do not want to get into any debates. My search is over. If you are truly happier than you have ever been, your search is over also."
After making accusation after accusation, Rick concludes his letter by completely refusing to hear the answers to the questions that he posed, or to engage me in dialogue. Not only do I feel violated because he read my letter, but I feel that his tone, questions, and assumptions are disrespectful. Also, having spent quite a lot of time abroad, and with people from many different faiths and walk of life, I'm shocked to encounter an American who simply does not know how to engage a person with a different perspective in dialogue. I mean, I don't feel threatened by speaking with a Jew, a Hindu, an atheist. On the contrary, I quite enjoy learning about perspectives different than my own.
So, the million possible ways I could begin to respond to this message have been bouncing around in my head nonstop this week. How frustrating! How sad!
In light of the guidance of the Quran, I've decided that I'm not going to send Rick or Granny Franny a reply. I'm going to dispose of the letter, in fact, since seeing it makes me upset, and I should not feel anger towards this person. After thirteen years of sharing the message of Islam with the polytheistic citizens of Mecca, Allah revealed Surah Al-Kafiroon (109) to the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him):
Say, "O disbelievers, I do not worship what you worship. Nor are you worshippers of what I worship. Nor will I be a worshipper of what you worship. Nor will you be worshippers of what I worship. For you is your religion, and for me is my religion."
I would not mention this Surah, had Rick not stated plainly that he wants to hear nothing of my perspective, and that his own search is over. Even if I did reply with kind words and a simple explanation of my experience, he would be completely closed, even to my answers to his questions. What I will do is take this opportunity to answer the questions and accusations that Rick posed on my blog throughout the next month or so.
As for the counsel I received from my dear friend today, I was reminded that sometimes "the best answer is silence." I have no desire to argue about my religion, nor to ask anyone to change their religion. Beyond that, Khadijah reminded me that tests from Allah are signs of Allah's love. Allah sends us tests to measure our strength, and to prepare us for greater challenges that lie ahead. There are many people in my family and social sphere who do not yet know about my conversion. Most likely, I'll encounter more and more opposition and disappointment, and I must be patient and kind in these situations. There's no need to be angry. I'll conclude with the CAIR (Council on American Islamic Relations) counter-ad to Pamela Gellar's offensive anti-Islamic, seemingly pro-Israel subway ad campaign: