I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw it. But there it was, barely visible under the dull, pale glow of the street light; as if it had been put there for my eyes alone. It wasn't the place where you would normally find something like that, but nonetheless, there it was. Barely visible from the waves of people that had tread over it, like the embers of a dying beacon floating on top of a sea of black asphalt.
I picked it up and stared at it, dumbfounded at what I had come across. I wondered for weeks how I would find them or get in touch with them. But there it was. A flier taped to the ground outside the Revelle College dormitory buildings, the only one in sight. Had I taken a slightly different path, or even ignored the random piece of paper stuck to the ground like people normally do, I never would have come across it. I knew then that Allah had put it there just for me.
The black and white flier announced in the standard Times New Roman 12 point font that the Muslim Student Association on campus would have a table on Library Walk during the week and provided a phone number at the bottom of the page. I visited them the very next day. I signed up for the email list, met a couple of guys, and the rest is history.
The MSA provided me a space where I could grow and receive the support I needed as a one month old convert living in a new city and attending a new school. But despite the sense of community and brotherhood one feels when being active in their local MSA, it's still an organization run by college students. What do I mean by that? Well, picture your average college student. They have little to no money and seldom have jobs beyond working at the on campus bookstore. The population on campus often fluctuates in rhythm with the tide of long weekends and extended breaks as students leave to visit their families. So what does that mean for the brand-new college student convert? A lot of time spent alone.
Previously, I mentioned that there are usually two things a convert struggles with most shortly after entering Islam, specifically regarding their dealings with the local community. The first is well-intentioned, yet impractical advice from some members of the community and the second, loneliness that too often leads to depression.
Loneliness for a convert usually takes on one of two different forms. The first, the physical loneliness one feels when they are not around others that make them feel special and share their similar beliefs and traditions. The second, the mental and psychological loneliness one goes through when they're dealing with issues no one around them can understand. Every convert typically goes through one if not both of these types of loneliness at some point, as they navigate through the ebbs and flows of their spiritual growth.
Between 2003 and 2007, there were undoubtedly many instances where I felt one or the other. The one that sticks out to me most, and the one that is fueling my drive to write this at this very moment, is a random Friday night during the month of Ramadan in 2005.
Iftār during the month of Ramadan is a time when Muslims get together to break their fast, discuss some of the difficulties they experienced during the day, and spiritual lessons they learned. But more than that, it's a time where thousands of people regionally, and over a billion globally, share a common experience with one another. Most do so at home with their families, while others choose to do so with their friends or colleagues. But on that particular weekend I found myself alone, as most students went home to be with their families and the local mosque was only serving iftār a few nights a week. Therefore, having no brothers to spend the evening with and no opportunity to socialize at the mosque, I went to the local Subway, bought a foot-long sandwich, sat alone on my couch and broke my fast. It had to be the single most depressing and loneliest moment in my two years as a Muslim. I actually remember thinking to myself, “Being a convert sucks.”
There were plenty of nights like that during Ramadan that year, but for some reason, that night stands out from the rest. Now, you are probably thinking, “What's the big deal about eating alone? I do it all the time! I wish I could have a night to myself to eat and relax.”
However, the issue wasn't just the fact that I was eating alone. Looking back even now, more than ten years later, I still struggle to identify what it was exactly that caused me to feel that way. Perhaps on that night, for just a moment, I realized what was aching inside me, that I was never able to put a finger on. Maybe it was me coming to grips with the notion that this was how it was going to be from now on, or the fact that my reality as a convert contrasted greatly with the reality of born Muslims. Regardless, whatever I felt that night, I knew that prolonging that feeling was unhealthy and detrimental to my development as a Muslim.
Then and there I prayed to Allah and asked Him to spare me and other people like me from having to go through this type of loneliness during the most sacred of months. It had to be one of the most sincere and heartfelt supplications I had ever made. So leading up to Ramadan of 2006, I could not help but feel anxious and apprehensive about the possibility of spending another Ramadan alone, the feeling of that not too distant Friday night anchored deeply in my subconscious. Little did I know, much like Moses when he supplicated to Allah under the tree on the outskirts of Madyan, that my prayer was already being answered.
Amr, a San Diego native, lived at home with his family at the time and was not your typical Muslim college student. He was the only one I knew that was majoring in Ethnic Studies, which paired well with a Spanish Literature major such as me. We were two students with two very uncommon majors, swimming against the strong current of physical science and engineering majors typical of a collegiate MSA. We met my first quarter at UCSD but did not really become close until our junior year, so when Ramadan 2006 rolled around, I was looking forward to seeing if this Ramadan would play out differently than it had last year.
As it turned out, Amr's parents would be out of town for a good portion of the month, which led the way for Amr to invite me over to his house for iftār and dinner; not once, not twice, but for the entire month. I think I went over to his house 18 times that month. I remember the days that I did not go were because I had something else planned. Otherwise, as sure as the sun would rise from the east, I was having dinner at his place. It was the first time since I had converted that someone invited me over to their house for iftar. I will never forget that Ramadan, nor the generosity and hospitality he and his family afforded me.
Unfortunately, not every convert can say they have experienced something similar. Without a doubt there are plenty of converts, some who may have been Muslim for decades, who have not once been invited to another Muslim's house. This is a huge problem. To some, inviting someone to their house may not seem like a big deal, but in fact in the eyes of the convert, it's monumental. It's a sign of acceptance and a demonstration of love and empathy; a gesture that someone actually cares about you and wants to spend time with you. Breaking bread, especially in the month of Ramadan, brings the hearts of people together like nothing else can. Eating together at the same table is a way for us as Muslims to focus on and reinforce our social values, shared meanings and fulfill different attributes of our faith. Eating together is such a blessing and delight that it is actually mentioned in the Qur'an as one of the many forms of pleasure the believer will enjoy in Paradise. Allah will say to those who enter Paradise,
“Eat and drink in health and satisfaction as a reward for what you used to do.” (Qur'an, 52:19).
Therefore, we should not underestimate what an invitation to lunch or dinner might mean to someone. It can completely change their outlook on their religion, their community and themselves. With Ramadan on the horizon, there is an opportunity for you to get to know a convert from your local community. Spend time with them, break bread with them and genuinely try to be a source of comfort for that person. You do not have to discuss religion with them, give them fatwas about their personal lives, or dictate how they should practice their newly adopted faith. That should never be the basis of anyone's interaction with a convert. Instead, spend time with them because you actually care about them, want to get to know them for who they are, and make them feel like they have someone they can turn to. The relationship should be, “I'm always here, especially when you need me”, and not, “I'm only here when you need me.”
Islam is necessarily simple in certain respects, but can also be as wide and vast as the ocean in others. Upon their conversion, converts stand at the shores of this vast religion and ponder not only how best to navigate it, but how to even get off-shore in the first place. Few are blessed with being taught how to swim beforehand, while others are too often thrown overboard with no paddle and no compass. Like the ocean, Islam is a source of life for those living inside it, and an expression of divine beauty for those living outside of it. But for too many converts it can also be dark, deep, and empty with no signs of life. I was blessed to have a life jacket thrown my way when I needed one most, in the form of my friend Amr and his family. So I want to encourage converts and born Muslims alike to go out to your local MSA or mosque, find a recent convert to the community and be for them what Amr was for me. Go out there and answer someone's Ramadan SOS.