Every Muslim knows several, if not dozens, who chose to convert to Islam as a young adult or even later in life. According to Pew Research, "Two-thirds (67 percent) of all converts to Islam in the U.S. came from Protestant churches, 10 percent came from Catholicism, and just five percent from other religions. Nearly one-in-seven converts to Islam (15 percent) had no religion before their conversion."
Not too long ago an old friend -- let's name him Adam -- called me and dropped the hammer.
"I've been doing a lot of thinking... and I've decided to convert to Islam. Where do I begin?"
Adam's call caught me off guard. Raised in a Catholic environment, Adam's family was conservative and had little experience with Islam outside of news pundits and the media.
As a practicing Muslim who's made the conscious choice to follow Islam, I figured I'd been down a road Adam was looking to begin traveling. So if you find yourself on a journey similar to Adam's, then here are nine questions you should ask yourself before accepting Islam.
1. Have I thoroughly researched other faiths?
You must be asking, what does studying other faiths have to do with Islam? In a word, everything. You're already on a journey to learn more about God. One of Islam's Six Articles of Faith is "belief in all of God's prophets." So, from Adam to Zoroaster, it is important to study the various faiths.
My friend Adam will tell you what he, and many, experience while studying different faiths. First, all these faiths have much more in common than different. And second, Islam has created a system to truly unite humanity as it teaches its adherents to accept all these prophets of God.
Before accepting Islam, make sure you study as many different faiths as you can. That way, if you ultimately decide to accept Islam, you will have done so after experiencing various worldviews, rather than studying them later as a mere thinking exercise.
2. Have I prepared for the possible family and social backlash?
This was a reality for Adam, and is for many who accept Islam. And that doesn't even account for the millions spent to promote Islamophobia to deter people from studying Islam in the first place.
Some find their families actually welcomed their choice, and others not so much. Some see their family research Islam for themselves to learn more, and others see family members become Google scholars to find all sorts of anti-Islam propaganda written by extremists and Islamophobes.
Be ready for whatever comes -- good and bad. No one said it would be easy, just that it would be worth it.
3. Am I ready for the new lifestyle?
Islam is in fact a way of life. Every Muslim has two fundamental and equally important obligations -- faith and works -- both repeatedly mentioned in the Qur'an. Every Muslim has their duty towards God and their duty towards humanity. A Muslim is responsible to live a lifestyle upholding both obligations.
The duty towards God includes (but is not limited to) praying five times a day every day and on time, fasting during the month of Ramadan, and professing the declaration of faith that "There is no god but Allah and Muhammad is His Messenger." For Adam, fasting (especially last Ramadan with its 17-hour fasts) and praying five times a day on time were major adjustments.
The duty towards humanity includes giving charity regularly, paying the Zakaat when applicable, and living a life dedicated to the service of all humanity -- Muslim or non-Muslim, believer or non-believer. In this tough economy, you better believe giving charity is a test of faith too.
Anyone considering Islam should be ready to uphold both of these important commitments and to maintain balance between them. Picture them as two wheels on a cart. Remove one and you end up in circles without accomplishing much. Maintain both and your journey as a Muslim will take you far.
Oh, and no more alcohol and no more pork. This is more difficult for some than others, but nonetheless is an important part of Islam's dietary guidance.
4. Have I decided which community of Muslims I want to join?
You'll need to remove your rose-colored glasses for this one. Yes, Islam is about the Unity of God and the unity of humanity. We all wish the worldwide Ummah (Muslim community) were united. Unfortunately, over 100 different sects of Islam exist today. It's okay, breathe, and don't get frustrated. But, act and keep an open mind.
Aside from the two main branches of Sunni and Shia Muslims most commonly known, within each branch many variations exist. I belong to the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, which is unique for two reasons. First, we are Muslims who believe the awaited Messiah and Mahdi has come as Mirza Ghulam Ahmad of Qadian to revive Islam and reunite humanity in peace. Second, we are the world's single largest Muslim community united under one Imam, His Holiness the Khalifa of Islam Mirza Masroor Ahmad. (Incidentally the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community is the fastest growing sect of Islam).
But that's the choice I've made after my research. It is important for you to conduct your own research. I've impressed this upon Adam and encouraged him to visit Sunni and Shia mosques, to speak with various Imams, and to engage with each mosque's membership. He's done so, and during this previous Ramadan visited several mosques belonging to several different Muslim communities.
Much like researching different religions before accepting Islam, research what community of Muslims you would like to join. Trust me, it makes a difference.
5. Have I studied the Qur'an?
This almost seems like a no-brainer but is so crucial that it cannot be emphasized enough. The Qur'an is not a terribly long book and if you don't have a copy, here's a free e-copy in English. You can also find about 70 different Qur'an translations for free here too.
Take the time to read and study the Qur'an. As Muslims we are advised to recite this book daily. Get comfortable with the Qur'an, understand it to the best of your ability, and if possible finish it at least once in a language you understand before accepting Islam. While this is certainly not a "prerequisite" to accepting Islam, it will empower you with priceless practical and spiritual knowledge of Islam, and that is never a bad thing.
6. Have I studied Prophet Muhammad?
Prophet Muhammad, whom the Qur'an calls the Seal of the Prophets, is Islam's holy founder. Known as "the walking Qur'an," read his life to truly understand what Islam is and is not. Fortunately no person's life in history is better recorded than the life of Prophet Muhammad and no shortage of wonderful works exist to relate his life. One of my favorite biographies of Prophet Muhammad's life is available for free download here.
To know Prophet Muhammad is to know Islam.
7. Have I prayed enough?
God declares in the Qur'an 2:187, "And when My servants ask thee about Me, say: 'I am near. I answer the prayer of the supplicant when he prays to Me. So they should hearken to Me and believe in Me, that they may follow the right way.'"
You'll know you have prayed "enough" when your heart finds contentment. This is something only you can gauge. God hears prayer and admonishes us to pray to Him for guidance. Prayer is the most powerful weapon a Muslim has, so pray fervently however you please. Islam teaches that ultimately our salvation rests in God's hands. Be active, be sincere, be consistent, even incessant in your prayers to God. Let prayer be your vehicle's fuel in the journey to Him.
Without prayer, you're running on empty.
8. Am I ready for the potential culture clash?
Every mosque, every community has a different culture, a different flavor. This is another reason it is important to visit different communities before choosing the one right for you. Some really are easier to work with than others. Mosques often gender-segregate worship services. If you're a woman -- find out if the mosque you're interested in even has a place for women to pray (some unfortunately don't). In what language are sermons delivered? They're not all in English.
The best way to prepare is to spend some time attending the mosque services and getting to know the congregants and leadership before formally committing yourself.
9. Do my heart and mind meet?
And finally, this has to be a yes. A few months back Adam called me in a rage.
"Q, I gotta ask you a question, and if the answer is the nonsensical one I got from this Imam at this mosque I just left, I don't know if Islam is the right faith for me."
I smiled. His personal experience was affording him the benefit of practical study -- not just theory from some hypothetical scenario.
Here's the bottom line. Islam rejects the notion that religion and science conflict. The Qur'an 67:4 declares, "Who has created seven heavens in harmony. No incongruity canst thou see in the creation of the Gracious God. Then look again: Seest thou any flaw?" Islam teaches that religion is God's Word and science is God's Works. God's Word and God's Works should not ever conflict.
Therefore, the Qur'an repeatedly commands Muslims to investigate, ponder, reflect, question. Indeed, Prophet Muhammad famously declared, "The cure for ignorance is to question," and "It is obligatory for every Muslim male and every Muslim female to attain education." It was on this premise that Muslims made unprecedented advances in science, biology, chemistry, astronomy, and physics during Islam's Golden Age. Devout Muslim and Physics Nobel Laureate Dr. Abdus Salam -- who won for predicting the God particle -- attributed his passion for science to the Qur'ans incessant advocacy to question everything.
So I was even more thrilled that Adam was undertaking this crucial scrutiny, and that his investigations were bearing fruit.
Likewise, know that no shortage of anti-Islam critics exist to make you second-guess and doubt your decision. Take the time to scrutinize Islam yourself and understand its teachings and history in detail. The best 'weapon' to combat ignorance and intolerance of Islam is education -- so educate yourself as much as possible by studying the Qur'an, hadith, and classical Islamic scholars.
Before accepting Islam, make sure to avoid heartache and regret, and don't commit until you feel that satisfying contentment of mind and soul.
So this is what I've been putting Adam through. I know, I'm a terrible friend. But as you can see, there is much to consider. That is a good thing as Islam seeks educated, thoughtful, and contemplative decision-making.
Islam is a lifelong journey and people work at different speeds. My own grandfather spent 15 years studying before committing himself to Islam. Don't let anyone rush you, and don't rush yourself. Take the time to make a decision best for your personal relationship with Him.
Happy New Year, and may God bless you on your journey, accept your prayers, and guide you to the path He deems best.