Dr. Renee Gray is an African American and converted to Islam 25 years ago. Dr. Gray shares her story to let other Muslim converts know they are not alone in this journey. She is the author of “Journey to Muslimah”. She has a bachelor’s degree in Liberal Arts, a master’s degree in Educational Psychology with a minor in Cultural Education Studies, and a doctoral (PhD) degree in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies with a minor in Cultural Education Studies, all from the University of Tennessee. Currently, Dr. Gray provides online professional development workshops for educators, edits dissertations, serves as a mentor to minority doctoral students and is an instructional assistant in an alternative middle school.
I was 18 and in school when I met Jamal. I often spotted him standing and bending outside in the parking lot. I didn’t know what he was doing so decided to ask. I learned he was performing a Muslim prayer. Jamal went on to tell me that Muslims pray five times a day. That women dress modestly in Islam and cover their hair. Later, he shared books about Islam with me. One day, I realized that I knew another Muslim, a colleague. He wore a turban and a thobe (traditional Muslim attire). We had never talked but I was pretty sure he was a Muslim, too. It turned out Jamal also knew him and we were introduced a few weeks later.
Faruq was a tall, handsome man. He spoke well and seemed to have himself together. He did not have a thobe on this time. Instead, he was dressed in slacks, a sweater, and a kufi (skull cap). We talked about work and about Islam. Faruq, I learned, had been introduced to Islam in college and it had positively impacted his life. When he asked about my interest in Islam, I didn’t have much to say. After all, I did not know much about Islam. As we became friends, listening to his beautiful recitation of the Quran, I felt very peaceful. I didn’t quite understand how reading a language could sound so harmonious. Faruq seemed to love reading the Quran.
Over the next few months our conversations took a turn towards the personal; he was interested in me. We talked about Islam; what it meant to become Muslim. We talked about believing in one God, not eating pork, dressing modestly, and making salat (praying). We also talked about the validity of the Trinity; a concept that I struggled with abandoning. I had a hard time believing that Jesus was not the son of God. Growing up, we were told in church that if we did not believe Jesus is the son of God, we would go to hell. The only way to heaven was through Jesus. So, I told Faruq I wasn’t trying to go to hell. I needed more time to figure this thing out. Faruq understood. He also had me rent the movie Roots; it would give me a better idea of Islam, he said. And, it did.
Through Roots, I learned that many of the slaves brought to the United States of America were Muslims. As an African American, knowing that some of my ancestors were Muslims said to me that I should also be a Muslim. I shared my thoughts with Faruq. He told me that if I truly believed in Islam, I should become Muslim. So, at the age of 19, I took the Shahada (bearing witness that there is no God but Allah and Prophet Muhammad is His last messenger). I also got married, relocated, and had a baby. And, I was divorced within five years.
For the next 10 years, I experienced many challenges. These challenges included confusion/misinterpretations regarding Islam, racism in Islam, denouncing Islam and, finally, returning to Islam. There were additional failed marriages, too. All of these experiences made me feel sad. I couldn’t understand how such a beautiful religion had created so much dysfunction in my life. So, I returned to church for a short time. Yet, I didn’t feel any better. I still yearned for the peaceful, content feeling I experienced when I practiced Islam. This feeling did not involve other people – it was just a feeling I got when I remembered everything Allah said in the Quran and when I remembered all the things the companions of the Prophet said. Because I had been disappointed by so many people in Islam, I was very cognizant of the need to separate (at the time) the people from the religion to maintain this feeling. In addition, in order to return to Islam, I knew I would have to make some major changes in my life. I recommitted to not only remembering the things Allah said in the Quran, but reading it again with tafsir (interpretation) and reading authentic hadith ( sayings of the Prophet Muhammad). I attended Muslim conferences and the local masjid (mosque) as well. I found a great mentor, too.
By Allah’s grace and mercy, I have learned so much about Him, His messenger, and the overall beauty of Islam. Since making the appropriate Islamic adjustments in my life, I have been happy. Indeed, I’m more productive than ever before. All these changes have given me confidence. Being Muslim also makes me feel like I can do anything as long as I remain focused on Islam and committed to doing the right thing in a balanced way. Understanding the wisdom of Islam has also allowed me to establish healthy relationships with fellow Muslims.
As Muslims, we must clearly understand how to love Allah and His creation. We should NEVER allow ourselves to become alienated from Him for any reason. A Quranic verse reminds us “with hardship comes ease”. That is true. It is also true that with patience and a willingness to learn and grow, this journey to becoming a Muslim is beautiful!