by Megan M. Putney
Fresh out of college in the late Summer of 2004 I went to South Korea to teach English. The university that I taught at gave me housing in the University’s International Dormitory. At first, I was very lonely. The summer international students had already become acquainted with each other and I found it hard to squeeze in to their close knit group. However one day after yet again hermiting in my room, I heard a knock at my door. When I opened it, there stood a man a bit taller and much older than I with a short beard and a jolly grin on his face. He said to me in his Pakistani accent, “Hello, I’m Ali. I’m from Pakistan. I’m curious, would you like a cup of tea?” I agreed and told him to give me a few minutes to freshen up. When I went to collect him from his room, there he was, standing upright with his arms at his side and his eyes cast down. He was wearing, what I called at the time, “a little hat” and there was a rectangular rug in front of him. I called out to Ali twice, but he didn’t respond. I got nervous and ran back to my room. Five minutes later, Ali came to my room with that same jolly grin to tell me that he was sorry he couldn’t respond, but that he was praying one of the five daily prayers of Islam. This is my first memory of drinking milk tea and meeting a Muslim.
After that day, Ali invited me quite regularly to the fourth floor kitchen to eat Pakistani food and partake in hearty conversation with his friends and colleagues. From my recollection, initially there were eight Pakistanis, one Sudanese, and one Bangladeshi in all. I was the only girl. Eventually, it was routine for me to show up to the kitchen after work and help them prepare the evening meal. I quickly became their sister away from home. However, while it might have been their sisters or mothers at home that would do all the cooking, it was through them that I learned how to cook chapati, (flat bread) dahl, (Lentils) Channa (chickpeas) and chicken curry. Furthermore, on Friday and Saturday nights we went bowling or biking or many other fun things that I hadn’t done in years!
At one point, I had met an Australian girl in the Dormitory. She too started spending evenings with us. Over time, Fuchsia and I asked questions about their habits and customs which did not match ours like “why when so and so extended her hand did Ali not shake it?” or “What’s so wrong about pork anyways?” or “Why do many of you pray so much?”
In addition to the questions, we also supported them during Ramadan of 2004 by fasting for a few days. Eventually, both Fuchsia and I were studying Islam, mainly on the internet. Some days I would come back to the dormitory emotional about what I had found online. Whichever of the eight I would tell would sit me down, give me a cup of milk tea or a spoonful of Dahl and try to give me the truth. Often times several of the others would walk by and also join in the conversation. If at anytime they were not sure, they would look up the information.
Additionally, over the course of that first year, I became familiar with many Muslimahs at the University. All of these women helped me get closer to Islam, but it was Ali’s wife, Munezza who gave me the best insight to what it was like being a woman in Islam. After a semester, Ali was able to rent an apartment and subsequently bring both his wife and child to Korea. They both gladly welcomed me into their home for tea visits and beautiful Pakistani meals. Again, my close relationship with Munezza enabled me to ask pressing questions I had about being a Muslim woman. May Allah reward her for her patience because when I look back, I feel that some of my questions were from such a patronizing perspective. Still, she always smiled and/or added a little laugh to her answers and this never made me feel uncomfortable. Additionally, I liked watching how she dealt with her little girl. More specifically, how she taught her child how to say short Surahs like “al-Fatiha” or how whenever her daughter fell or ate something she would say, “Bismillah” or how whenever her daughter did something new or good, she would add “Alhumdulillah.”
After about a year of learning about Islam through watching the way these Muslim brothers and sisters lived their daily life and researching, my dear friend Fuchsia said her Shahada. Not long after, she married one of the Pakistani brothers. I was shocked with her conversion. For months, I questioned her to how she could do it. How would she deal with her family and friends back home? How would she explain herself? Inside I myself was questioning. Looking back, I realize that I was close to conversion as well, but unlike Fuchsia, I could not get over what I thought were my worldly successes and I could not imagine how not just my parents, but my extended family would respond. I kept thinking that if I were to become Muslim, I would be looked at strangely and that I would continually have to explain myself, especially if I were to wear Hijab. I thought to myself things like, “Who would want to hire/marry me?” or “What will people think of me?” or “Will I ever fit in?”
Alhumdulillah, my ego and prejudices did not stop me from inquiring. However, over the next six months it became an increasingly confusing time for me. The more I learned about Islam, the more my worldly concerns haunted me. I knew the truth, I just didn’t want to admit it. I owe my success of getting through these six months primarily to two gentlemen who happened to be roommates, Shafik, from Pakistan and Anwar, from Sudan. Alhumdulillah, during this testing time, they kept me from going in the wrong direction. Mashallah, Anwar was such a good example. Every time I came to their dorm room, he was always praying. Whenever we all ate together, he would tell me to say “Bismillah.” These are only a few of his habits which influenced me greatly. Shafik too was a great influence. It was unconscious for him to practice the Sunnah. If we were eating, he would always call out to anyone walking down the hall to come join. If someone was sick, he’d be the first person to drop by with assistance. Most notably, he always made sure that if I had a question about Islam, he would find the answer. He would often send me emails with answers that were not just generic copy and paste responses, but personal, well researched responses. He would also follow up with me to see if I had any additional questions or concerns.
By December 2005, the only question that I couldn’t find peace with the answers I was receiving from all of my dear Muslim friends and acquaintances was in regards to the importance of the Prophet, PBUH. I couldn’t understand how Islam, when it puts so much emphasis on the oneness of God, also puts a large amount of emphasis on reiterating the Prophethood of our blessed Prophet Muhammad. (PBUH) Specifically, I couldn’t wrap my head around why Muslims were to add, “Muhammad (PBUH) is the Prophet of God,” in every prayer following, “God is one.” Finally, it was in Pakistan that someone was able to answer my question. To summarize, I was told that when we exclaim that Muhammad (PBUH) is the prophet of God, we are saying that his teachings are from God. Alhumdulillah, Allah willed for Muhammad (PBUH) to share with us the correct path as this correct path was designed from Allah and Allah alone. Additionally, when we say that Muhammad (PBUH) is the prophet, we are testifying to the validity of the Koran. The Koran is not a text written by man, it is written for man by Allah ALONE.
It was a few days later on December 26th, 2005 when on my Pakistani International Air (PIA) flight from Karachi to Lahore, did I say the Shahada over and over to myself. This was conversion #1. I was a Muslim and proud. Of course, my ego still drove me nuts with questions about my acceptance in the world, but Alhumdulillah my faith in Allah was stronger. I didn’t tell anyone about conversion #1 for some time. Most people just assumed, but didn’t ask any questions about again, what I call conversion #1. I was wearing hijab. Fuchsia was teaching me how to pray. I only ate Halal food. The list could go on.
At one point, Shafik did ask and I told him about my airplane conversion to myself. He then told me that while Allah is all knowing of what one says and feels and does, it is important that the Shahada is said when clean (by taking a Muslim shower) and said to at least one witness. It wasn’t long after that I said Shahada #2 to him. It took awhile for me to share with others, but eventually I did have the courage to share. Sure enough, all of those Brothers and Sisters that had been there over the one and a half years of questioning and testing threw a party in my behalf. We ate cake and we laughed together, just like we had so many times before.
All of these people who helped me find Islam are now spread out across the world. Ali and Munezza are back in Pakistan with their family. Fuchsia (now Zahara) and Junaid are in Italy with their two sons. Anwar is still in Korea, but with a great job. Shafik is in Ireland doing a post-doc. All of my other sisters and brothers in Islam that I met in Korea too are pursuing careers around the globe. I consider them “My Global Muslim Extended Family.”
My conversion to Islam was due to so many people from all parts of the world who were willing to look past the fact that I was not a Muslim and be my friend. They never pushed me to become a Muslim, but they had faith that it was possible. They allowed for me to ask them questions. They took the time to respond. They answered not with haughtiness, but with sincerity in helping me see the truth. Most importantly, they practiced what they preached. I am forever in debt to these people. May Allah reward them in this life and the hereafter. Ameen.
To conclude, I came to New York City to pursue a Master’s degree in International Education at NYU in the Fall of 2007. Because of my positive experiences in South Korea with communicating with people from all over the globe, I decided that I wanted to learn how to encourage others to study abroad and/or have opportunities to communicate with people from other backgrounds and cultures. That Fall was my first time to live in the United States as a Muslim. Before landing back on our great country’s soil, I was so worried about fitting in, finding positive Muslim role models and making Muslim friends. Alhumdulillah, I owe much appreciation to both M.E.C.C.A and the Islamic Center of NYU (ICNYU) for making me feel so comfortable in New York City and assuaging my fears. Both of these organizations helped me adjust back to living in the United States and continue to help me grow in the deen (religion). Inside of these organizations are amazing people, not only the organizers and leaders, but also the Muslims attending the lectures, seminars, and discussions. These born and convert Muslims know (inshallah) that Islam is comprehensive and that life is about a gradual progression of understanding. Allah wills, yes, but He expects us to play an active role in the betterment of ourselves and our community! Ameen.