Monday 5 June 2023 \


Open Heart, Open Mind

Choose the right path

By Jessica Nunez /Haj and Umra magazine/Jeddah/June 2009

She entered Varsity a Christian and graduated a Muslim

When Katie Hurst moved to Columbia 10 years ago to study religion at MU, her intention was to work at a nonprofit or teach Christian education. She didn't expect to have adopted an entirely new lifestyle and belief system by the time she graduated. But that's exactly what happened. Katie entered MU a Christian and graduated a Muslim.


It didn't happen overnight. When Katie started college, she already had doubts about one of the fundamental Christian beliefs: the Trinity.

"It just didn't make sense to me," Katie says, bouncing her 10-month-old daughter, Maryam, on her lap while eating lunch. "In the Bible, it says to worship no god but God, but that conflicts with the teaching that Jesus is also god."

In college, the questions only grew as she took classes that introduced her to other religions, including Islam. After Sept. 11, when she was a junior in college, Katie took a class entirely on Islam. She wanted to learn more about the religion she thought many people were judging unfairly at the time. As she took the class, Katie realized that she wasn't only interested in the religion - she identified with it.

"I thought: Everything I'm learning, I already believe," Katie says. "The more I grappled with it, the more I started to think seriously about converting."

By then, Katie was married to Dustin. She told him what she was thinking and gave him some things to read. Dustin had grown up Baptist, and his parents were more against the conversion than Katie's, but he also decided that Islamic beliefs were in line with his own.

"I don't like to think about what would have happened if things didn't work out that way," Katie says. "I'm just grateful that my husband believes in the same things I do."

Soon, Katie was practising Islam. She went to the mosque, covered her head in line with hijab, or a head scarf, and said daily prayers. "I basically did everything except officially 'convert," she says.

The process of converting to Islam is simple but serious. The only requirement is to recite in Arabic the Shahadah, or a proclamation of faith, in front of at least one other person. In English, the proclamation says: "There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is his messenger."

One day, while Katie and her husband were out of town for a friend's wedding, she had a very disturbing but revealing dream. In it, she dreamed that a radical group broke into the mosque in Columbia and yelled out that they were going to kill every Muslim.

"So, I was there, walking to my death," she says. "And I said, 'Wait, I can't die without saying the Shaha-dah!"

The next day, she officially converted, and Dustin did the same a month later.

According to Nabeel Khan, former imam, of the Islamic Centre of Central Missouri in Columbia, there were about 15 converts in the congregation when he left in August 2007. Today, there might be even more.

The mosque's new imam, Ronald Smith, converted to Islam at age 14, as did his wife, Aaliyah. Outside Columbia, two Missouri state representatives are converts to Islam. Talibdin El-Amin, a Democrat who represents the 57th District in St. Louis, converted after observing the religion in Egypt when he was in the Navy. JamilahNasheed, also a Democrat who represents St. Louis in the 60th District, is one of just two Muslim women in state legislatures nationwide. She converted after a childhood full of violence that caused the early death of both her parents.

There is no concrete number for the Muslim population in the US, or for the number of Muslims who were born into other religions. As The New York Times Almanac cautioned in 2000, all estimates of the US Muslim population should be read as "educated approximations, at best."

When the Pew Research Centre conducted a study on Muslim Americans in 2007, they projected that 0.6 per cent of the adult population (18 years or older) is Muslim. This translates to about 1.4 million Americans. Other estimates put the number between 2 million and 8 million.

About 35 per cent of adult Muslims were born in the US and about 23 per cent of Muslim Americans say they converted to Islam from another religion.

The beginning of Islam in America can be traced back to the time of slavery. According to Robert Baum, associate professor and chairman of the religious studies department at MU, one-tenth of the slaves brought from Africa to the US were Muslims. Today, 20 per cent of Muslims in the US are African-American.

Sally Howell, a researcher of Arab-American culture at the University of Michigan, sees another trend. She sees more people like Katie, who convert to Islam for individual spiritual reasons. "Today's conversions seem to be more about the faith of Islam itself and its approach to individual spiritual salvation," Howell says.

Baum agrees. "What appeals to many people about Islam is the sense of discipline involved, as well as the creed that all are equal in the eyes of God," he says.

Reasons for converting aside, Howell says, newcomers to Islam in the US make important contributions to cultural understandings within the religion.

"They bring a new understanding of ethnic, racial and religious diversity," she says. "They have a new direction in interpreting the Qur'an for contemporary everyday life, and they deep-en connections between the Islamic world and 'the West'."

Katie has seen this in action. When the mosque has an open house, Katie and her husband are usually asked to come and speak to people about Islam because of their experiences growing up Christian.

"It's a little easier to connect with someone when you know what their background is about," Katie says.

She also hopes she will be able to bridge some misunderstandings between mainstream Americans and Muslims.

As a woman, one question she's used to being asked is about her style of dress. Today, Katie wears a light-brown jilbab, a baggy garment that touches the ground. Her head is covered completely by a cream-colored scarf that encircles her face and secures snugly under her chin. Her large blue eyes stand out in the sea of light fabric and skin.

"Personally, I think wearing hijab is one of the most feminist actions a woman can make," Katie says, now standing and jiggling a fussy Maryam up and down as she walks around the near-empty restaurant. "It seems like the exact opposite, and in some cases, it can be oppressive, such as when women are belittled by it or forced to wear it. But really, when I put on hijab, the focus is on what I do or what I say as opposed to what I look like."

Katie says she believes the Qur'an means for women to cover their heads in an act of obedience to God, never to husbands or men.

"When women are forced to wear hijab by their husbands, it's really taking all the meaning out of it," she says. "They're no longer doing it as an act of worship, but rather as a familial duty. For me, putting on hijab every day is a reminder to myself that my duty is first to God."

Today, Katie is putting her plans for a master's degree on hold as she takes care of her young daughter. She will raise Maryam and future children as Muslim.

"I want Maryam to have a strong spiritual and moral base, but I'm planning on choosing my battles," she says as the infant now sleeps in her arms. "If she wants to wear some hideous T-shirt when she's 13, who am I to stop her? But will she do her homework? Yes. Will she go to mosque? Yes."

As words of advice to people thinking about converting to Islam, Katie offers this: "Do your research. Gather as much information as you can about Islam, and every other religion, for that matter. Look at all options available, and if this is what you choose, come to it with an open heart and an open mind." - Courtesy article.




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