By Melissa Barreto
Recently, I was talking with a friend who was reflecting on her journey coming into Islam. She said, “…converts can make a lot of mistakes. People who are novices at anything make a lot of mistakes.”
This simple admission resonated deeply within me and brought on a flood of flashbacks of my own mistakes when I first converted. Admitting to our mistakes is never easy but being real about where we messed up along the way can be an important tool in self development and growth.
Below are three common mistakes that new converts can make and what they can do instead.
Mistake #1: Not Understanding the Core Beliefs and Practices
Sometimes we become Muslim without understanding what Islam’s foundations are or the deeper reasons, meanings, and benefits behind the practices. Or we enter into Islam without even understanding what practices we are responsible for upholding along the way.
Without this knowledge, we end up practicing Islam on a kind of edge, picking and choosing practices out of convenience or social belonging rather than molding a life of deep meaning and conviction for ourselves. Then, when a difficulty arises, or our ideas of Islam are challenged by others, doubt and confusion can overwhelm us because we were never firmly rooted in the foundations.
I struggled for years with my family who challenged me at every turn after I became a Muslim. My mother would argue with me over dogma, while my brother would challenge me on philosophy, and my father would regularly fill my inbox with news articles from the web about the latest so-called Muslim committing some atrocity in the world in the name of Islam.
Those conversations shook me and made me feel weary of what I had committed myself to. I knew in my heart that Islam was for me, and I tried my best to practice what I was able, but that lack of deeper knowledge kept my practice and connection superficial at best. Many converts fall into this.
“I wish I had studied more about the religion itself, its rulings, history and fiqh (law),” admits Alderamin Hamdani, a convert of 16 years. “Taking classes would have been beneficial for me to understand more but I wasn’t aware at the time that there were classes for converts and I was never told about any being offered. I started wearing hijab right after taking my shahada and by the grace of Allah, I have not taken it off since. However, it took me at least three years to fully acknowledge what hijab truly meant and to be modest not just with my clothing but with my manners as well.”
It’s important to build a strong attachment to the core beliefs and practices. Doing your due diligence to learn about the religion and seeking out classes for new Muslims can help. Reach out to your local mosque and see if they have any classes you can attend. If there aren’t, request that they start one.
Mistake #2: Not Having Compassion for Ourselves
When I first became Muslim, I felt an intense urge to try and do everything all at once. Dress modestly! Wear hijab! Learn to read Arabic! Pray every single obligatory and sunnah prayer! Volunteer! Do it all right now!
Seasoned Muslim friends tried to advise me to slow down and take it easy, but I didn’t want to listen to them. I wanted to be MUSLIM. I was like the energizer bunny, always on the move, endlessly beating my drum, until one day, my battery ran out.
Eventually, I crashed. I stopped attending the few classes I signed up for, I distanced myself from good Muslim friends, I put in the bare minimum effort to tick my obligatory box and let everything else go. My inability to maintain “all the things” led me to doubt my reasons for being Muslim in the first place.
If I couldn’t do everything well, what was the point of doing any of it at all? How could I claim to be a Muslim if I wasn’t maintaining every single aspect perfectly every single time? Maybe I wasn’t really a believer. Maybe I had made a huge mistake.
Then I learned about a story from the time of the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him.
One day a companion of the Prophet named Hanzalah, may Allah be pleased with him, thought that he had fallen into hypocrisy. When another companion, named Abu Bakr, may Allah be pleased with him, asked him why he thought this, Hanzalah explained that when he was with the Prophet, he felt like his faith was so high that he could see Paradise and Hellfire right in front of him. But when he was away from the Prophet, and went back to his usual routines of work and family, he would forget. Abu Bakr admitted he felt the same so they both went to ask the Prophet if they had indeed become hypocrites.
The Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, answered them three times:
“By Him in whose hand is my soul, if you could always remain in remembrance as you are in my presence, the angels would shake your hands on your couches and in your roads. Rather, there is a time for this and a time for that,” (Sahih Muslim and Tirmidhi).
We are not perfect. We are not angels. We are human beings. We were created to be forgetful, to ebb and to flow, and because of this it is normal for our faith and the quality of our deeds to do the same. What matters most is that we keep coming back to Allah. Even the Quran recognizes that faith will increase and decrease in humans. Being Muslim does not require perfection, that is impossible, but it requires you try your best in your human ability.
For Sister Amatullah (name changed to protect privacy), a long-time convert to Islam, maintaining consistency in her practice has been a challenge from the start, especially in the face of community judgment and criticism. Self-compassion, remembering why she converted, and gaining more knowledge is how she keeps moving forward and deepening her connection with Allah.
“I’ve been struggling with this for 20 years since I reverted,” said Amatullah. “I make it about my personal journey with Allah and block out all the other noise. I struggle with things within the religion, not because I don’t believe in Islam, but because I’m a human being. You have to constantly be developing yourself as a Muslim and strengthen your knowledge about Islam. But everyone has their own personal journey and a lot of times that’s not supported by the community, it’s criticized…You have to give people allowances to be human and to make errors…we need to build each other up instead of tearing each other down.”
Wendy Diaz, author, speaker, and Puerto Rican convert to Islam, encourages new Muslims to focus on the positives as they are learning and growing in their new way of life.
“Transitioning into this lifestyle takes time. Forgive yourself for the transition period,” advises Diaz. “You’re going to go through changes, and you may have some bumps along the way…Don’t dwell on the negativity. Even if you made mistakes, it’s okay. Everything happens for a reason. Even if I look back and think ‘I should have done this or that’, I still know this is where I’m supposed to be.”
Mistake #3: Being Harsh with Our Loved Ones
This one is often felt by converts the world over. Sometimes in our commitment to the new ways of Islam, we get overly enthusiastic about weeding the things out that no longer belong. This could mean distancing ourselves from past habits, mindsets, or social gatherings.
Unfortunately, the people this often comes down the harshest on are our own family members. As we try to uphold our new beliefs and practices, we suddenly feel the need to go on the defensive and can end up demeaning the long-held beliefs and practices of our families in the process. This can create friction and distance between us and the ones that we love.
“The biggest mistake was being too rigid with my family,” admits Diaz. “I feel like it pushed them away. It wasn’t ill intentioned; I was trying to be firm in my faith and they saw it as me being extremely rigid and overly strict…The best advice is to seek knowledge. The more we learn the more we realize how little we actually know and how vast and flexible Islam is. When you first accept Islam, you don’t understand how vast it is. It’s not so black and white, there’s a lot of gray.”
My own rigidity towards my family caused many disputes to the point that we felt greatly uncomfortable being around one another for years. While finding a balance between your needs and the needs of your non-Muslim family can be a challenge to navigate, we need to always remember the great value and importance that Islam places on being good to our families, whether they are on board with us being Muslim or not.
Family is so important in Islam, especially the relationship with our parents, Allah actually commands us in the Quran to be good to them right after ordering us to obey Him.
“Your Lord has decreed that you worship none but Him, and that you be kind to parents. Whether one or both of them attain old age in your life, say not to them a word of contempt, nor repel them, but address them in terms of honor.” (Quran 17:23)
It wasn’t until I began to loosen up and look at things from their perspective, that our relationship was able to be rekindled. And to my surprise, it didn’t require leaving off my core values or beliefs. It just took a little compassion and prioritizing the things we had in common. Check out these helpful tips on interacting with your non-Muslim family.
Doing it Better
Regardless of what brings you to Islam it’s likely that you will make mistakes, and that’s okay. New beliefs take time to settle, new skills take time to learn, and new lifestyles take time to adjust to. By acknowledging our mistakes, and working to do better the next time, we can grow into knowledgeable, compassionate, and committed Muslims.
Melissa Barreto is a convert to Islam and homeschooling mother of five children. She is the Co-Founder of Wildflower Homeschool Collective, a homeschool organization based in Northern New Jersey.