Recently, I had the privilege of sitting with religious scholar and Snapchatter extraordinaire, imam Suhaib Webb during his most recent visit to the city of Madinah. We spoke in his hotel room about some of the challenges facing the convert community in America. The following is a transcription of that conversation. The content of the conversation has been edited for clarity and style.
Jameel Besada: So shaykh, just to give the readers a little bit of information about yourself, how long ago did you convert and what were some of the challenges you faced back then?
Imam Suhaib Webb: I converted when I was twenty, but I really made the decision when I was 17 or 18 years old. I think the challenges that we faced in the early 90’s, 1992 specifically, were very different than they are now. There was no Islamophobia back then. Today, it’s streamlined like a “Happy Meal”, it’s packaged and ready to be served. Also, being Muslim back then was kind of cool. There was a movement within urban centers of America; you had people like Cat Stevens who had become Muslim. You also had a large Nation of Islam (NOI) movement within hip-hop. Plus, Malcolm X the movie came out, and artists like Lauryn Hill and Q-Tip were Muslim. And of course Mike Tyson, who was this massive iconic figure. So there was a sense of it being kind of a cool thing, which is not the case now. But then of course culturally, as a white American, it was definitely going against the grain. So I think my biggest challenge was my concern for my family, how they were going to respond. To top it off I was also in a gang, so I didn’t know how they would respond as well as dealing with my own personal vices in general. So before I became Muslim I was like “I want to stop drinking,” for like 6 months. After that, then I’m going to stop smoking weed. So I kind of knew that I needed to clean-up. So I was able to clean-up a bit before my shahādah (personal declaration of faith and formal act of conversion). And I didn’t even know about shahādah then, for me it was like “Oh, I’m Muslim, I don’t eat pork” without my knowing anything else.
JB: So fast forward to 2016, what challenges do you see in the Muslim convert community today, how have they stayed the same, and how have they changed?
ISW: In addition to some of the social challenges converts face, there are also institutional challenges as well. Honestly, I think that we have a very serious lack of independent convert institutions; institutions that are ecumenical theologically and teach orthodoxy, and don’t brand themselves in any way. We need institutions that are financially and administratively capable of addressing the religious, social, and economical needs of converts. I really think at this point that is our greatest challenge. I remember while I was in Boston we had about 2000 converts in three years. So as far as the main institution is concerned, it did a great job. However, institutions that are dealing primarily with non-convert communities, especially on the east coast, are dealing with a host of issues, such as immigrants trying to adjust to life in America, many don’t speak any English, the FBI trying to speak to congregants. Therefore, you have many things that are stretching the capacity of this one institution. Realistically then, it can’t be expected to look after the more nuanced needs of the converts. There was an instance where I had to go to the projects to talk to someone’s parents and basically tell them, “Hey, we just want to let you know that your daughter is not a terrorist.” But then, as the imam of a mosque, how often can I go to the projects and do that? I can’t. Because my capacity is being pulled and stretched thin in so many different directions.
So I think that we lack funding from within ourselves as a convert community. We have almost come to expect funding to be there for us. However, I think it is time we really need to start thinking about funding our own work, and putting ourselves on a firmer economic footing. Look at churches. They start with five people, and then they just work hard and have a lot of passion in the process. There’s a book called Sticky Church by Larry Osborne where he talks about how this happens. Something similar to Dār al-Arqam during the time of the Prophet , and then putting our own money back into our own institutions. People ask me all the time, “Why aren’t you the imam in a convert community?”, and my response has been, “Because you couldn’t survive in a convert community.” You could and should sacrifice in this line of work, but you can’t kill yourself. And to be honest, I hate that because that’s what I wish I could be doing. Furthermore, the administrative piece tends to not be there as well. So I think our biggest challenge at this moment is the lack of institutions that can really help; help people that are converting with mental illness, help those that are converting with abuse and substance abuse issues, and then again some people are even converting that are extremely successful. So the question then becomes, are we really able to glean the best of everyone and work together institutionally? I think that converts tend to compare institutions with churches, wherein churches may lack the spiritual guidance and information that we find in Islam, what they did give you however is a feeling of family. Mosques tend to have orthodoxy, tend to offer limitless classes, but people don’t ever really experience family. Whenever we talk about converts the first thing we talk about is education, which is great because it’s a core principal of their development, but there has to be more than just that. Dr. Sherman Jackson likes to say that when a person converts they commit social suicide sometimes, because they lose a tremendous amount of friends and family. However, I think that’s all part of the testing process from Allah that we have to go through. Nonetheless, that doesn’t mean that they have to go through that process alone. We should be there to support that process.
JB: So what would you then like to see from the convert community in 20 years?
ISW: I would like to see our own institutions that are really playing somewhat of a different role. Just to be clear, I think that we are all part of one community, so I’m not really an advocate for the whole immigrant/ indigenous terminology because I think it’s unhealthy. Nonetheless, I think we have to be honest in our assessment of institutions. I believe that current Muslim institutions don’t really speak to the core of America. They preserve certain cultural constructions for their own security and comfort, which I understand. They also look after the education of certain aspects of the community, which tend to be younger children or teens through the establishment of Islamic schools. They also do provide liturgy. But what I would like to see from convert communities and institutions is that if any non-Muslim were to just walk in, that they would be able to relate to the message for the most part, and not feel culturally threatened.
So I actually tried that when I was in Boston. I gave a series of sermons with that in mind just to see what would happen. So I gave a sermon based on the verse, “And we did not send any messenger except speaking in the language of his people.” (14:4) So I thought about how at that moment the whole country was focused on the popular TV show Breaking Bad. I personally had never seen it. I tried to watch it but I couldn’t. Still, I decided that I was going to do what I would call “Breaking Your Bad”. I really wanted to know if it were possible for Muslim preacher in America to say something on the pulpit so profound that CNN would want to know what this person is talking about. So I started doing these types of topics,
“Breaking Bad” followed by “Fifty Shades of Gray”, the latter addressing the erosion of ethical clarity. And then that’s what happened believe it or not, because as soon as we did it, we had non-Muslims calling the mosque asking, “Yo… what time is that sermon?” We even had Shī’ah brothers and sisters come and say, “We want to come to breaking bad too.” Shortly thereafter, CNN also covered it. Of course, all of that was just a red herring to grab attention, while dropping a deeper message. The point was just to be out there talking about pop culture. So I would like to see our institutions in a way that they are so powerful that they can speak directly to America, like almost jump right into the arteries of America and hit issues. I think that’s extremely important. I think someone like Linda Sarsour does a great job of speaking to certain veins of the country. I thinkIMAN in Chicago (Inner-city Muslim Action Network) does great work, and Omar Suleiman’s “Inspiration” series. He did one episode on drugs and got a tremendous response from non-Muslims.
So I believe that culturally we are uniquely positioned to speak to certain aspects of our society. Now, I’m not saying there is an American “us” and an American “them”, but what I am saying is that there’s a certain part of the community that we can directly speak to. And it would be great to see more and more of that happening. Something similar to what the NOI did. They were so relevant that certain people found connections with the NOI immediately. So I would like to see something like that on a much larger scale.
JB: In your opinion, what should be the role of the born Muslim with regards to their interactions with converts?
ISW: Well on both sides I think that there needs to be more religious tolerance, and everyone needs to just give us a break and understand that we have to make certain calls for our convert community. Our attitudes are more relaxed than most post-colonial communities, our nuances and activism might be a little different than what that community is used to. There needs to be a level of mutual understanding and a sense of self-governance to a certain degree. Allow us to handle and tackle issues that we as converts are better equipped to handle.
JB: Do you ever see the convert/non-convert dichotomy every going away? Do you see converts ever being able to fully assimilate into the community without having that convert designation?
ISW: Yeah I think so, I mean people like Imam Zaid Shakir have done that really well. Dr. Umar Farooq Abdullah, Dr. Ingrid Mattson.
JB: So what is that one elusive variable that allows someone to transcend all of that?
ISW: Time. I think we have to realize something, which is that our communities are kind of like what we see in the film “Poverty Inc.” in that they tend to profit from the poor even though they are there to benefit the poor. Not all of charities and organizations of course, more so ones like the IMF (International Monetary Fund). But I do think that the community tends to benefit from the presence of converts. Converts are a constant reminder that Islam is still guiding people. And all that’s great to a certain degree, and I mean it’s great experience but you don’t have to own it. If that person has converted then they have converted. You know, I really like when Imam Marc Manley says, “Conversion is a moment, and then Islam is the process.” You hear people talking saying things like, “Oh, meet this convert he has been Muslim for eight years now.” Why don’t we ever refer to ‘Umar as a convert, or even all of the companions? However, I don’t think it’s a negative from the non-convert community. I honestly just think that it reminds them of the greatness of Islam and they’re happy to see it. They’re genuinely overjoyed to see Islam permeating the bowels of disbelief and bringing people up to the light of guidance.
Therefore, I would encourage communities to have conversations. Imam Khalid Latif did this brilliantly in Manhattan. What he did was he had a panel of just converts speaking to this massive hall of non-converts, and I think what would be even better than that would be to turn this into mosque policy. I think converts should speak to people in institutions and then craft some sort of understanding about language and programming. That’s when you create a real opportunity for cohesion. Unfortunately though, we are not talking to each other. We tend to think the worst of each other.
JB: Despite the fact the fact that male and female converts both share similar experiences upon conversion, there are undoubtedly certain issues that are specific to the sisters, such as finding a trustworthy wali (male guardian or representative), dressing modestly, and divorcing their non-Muslim husbands. How would you advise our sisters and the religious leadership to address some of these issues?
ISW: I think with initial converts we need to discover the rulings in Islam that allow new Muslims certain concessions when they are valid, even if it goes against a specific text. [I advise] don’t divorce your non-Muslim husbands, at least not right away. I say that because those special and sacred non-negotiable texts didn’t just come to the companions overnight. Like ḥijāb (the veil), it came 13 or 16 years later. I mean, I understand the verse “today I have completed your religion and completed my favor upon you” (5:3). I get it. But I also look at the prophetic statement “And whatever I have commanded of you, do the most that you can.” It’s very difficult to expect a person to apply all the rulings of Islam in a short period of time. It’s irresponsible and it’s irrational.
And what I’ve seen is people go in that way and then go out much quicker. I think that’s why I said we have a need for independent institutions.
For example, I got a guy that comes to my ḥalaqah (study circle) right now high as a kite on weed. And I know he’s high because I used to get high too. Nonetheless, he comes to the ḥalaqah. So hopefully he will slowly begin to open up, have conversations, and then find the spiritual motivation to struggle and overcome that vice. But if I just start going in on him about why he smokes, I may lose him. He may never come back to the ḥalaqah again. Ibn al-Qayyim talks about this when he poses the question, “Is it allowed for a person who has an infinite number of sins to just work on a few?” In other words, get those right and then move on to the next. And he says absolutely yes, because it’s illogical to burden someone with all of that at once. So one of the challenges that we have, like you and I as sharī’ah students, and this is going to hurt you and I a little bit when I say this, but we have introduced a language of law to people when there are many other languages of Islam. First thing people are worried about is “Can I do this, can I do that?”, which is important no doubt. But there are other languages of Islam, like the language of love. And of course love is then tied into the rulings of law. There are so many different languages to our religion not just the language of law.
So I think the issue with these sisters specifically and with converts in general is that we need to find the concessions that work for them when it is allowed. There will be times where we need to make fatāwah (personalized legal verdicts) for those people. We need to get across the fact that we understand what they are going through, that they are facing certain issues and that they have their own unique set of challenges. So when we speak to them, we make sure that we get across the fact that we are not telling them what they are doing is right, and that we are not encouraging them to continue, but rather tell them just like Chris Rock said in one of his standup routines, “I understand,” and we’re here to try and help you.
Whenever Allah talks about a convert, He uses words like the word iḥyā’ (revitalization), the word inshirāḥ (spreading out, opening), it’s always a word about growth and resurrection, life and blossoming. So our job is to facilitate the process of blossoming. Allah is the one who plants the seeds, He’s the one who causes people to blossom. So we should take to heart what the famous scholar Imām ash-Shāṭibi says in his work al-Muwāfaqāt. He says that the mufti (the legal jurist capable of issuing legal rulings) must treat people like a doctor. If you over medicate you poison their liver, but if you under medicate they die of an infection. So the goal for the muftī is to carry them on the middle path in order to stabilize that person.
I had a stripper convert. She was in my office and she’s crying and she told me she met a Muslim guy at her work, what a story. We have to realize that her struggle, and people like her, is not like a “tomorrow I’m fixed” type of struggle, there’s a ton of issues at play; psychological issues, abuse issues, their hatred of men. So the first thing I told her was to not tell anyone in the community what she does for a living, obviously because it’s no one’s business and secondly they may not like what they hear. I also asked her how she fell into that career because I wanted to learn. So she said, “My father is non-ambulatory, my brother is a drug addict, so there was no one in my home to earn money. I don’t even have a GED.” She told me that she doesn’t have the skill set to read and write properly, and this is in America! A white girl! She’s told me that that line of work was the only thing she could do. She said she hated it because she was a Muslim doing this.
So the average person in our community cannot imagine what facing that type of challenge must be like. So my job at that moment is to find someone who can find her a job so she can begin to earn a ḥalāl (lawful) living, the answer is not to find her a husband. The answer is to find her a source of income. So that’s what I meant by institutional and financial support. So I think with women in general, conversion needs to be explained. I think the statement, “There is no deity worthy of worship except Allah” needs to be explained very well, because it involves a form of divesting and investing. “There is no deity worthy of worship” is a person saying, I’m divesting from other than Allah, and the last portion, “except Allah” is a person saying, I’m investing completely in Allah. Both of those entail applying the rules and regulations of Islam, learning, and growing.
What I loved about the people from where I converted was this idea of constant change. You constantly uncover things about yourself that you need to address and fix. It wasn’t like one day you wake up and you are ‘Umar . So I think with these sisters, finding qualified scholarship, and trying our hardest to keep them offline. Oh my God, so much damage is being done to people with all these online fatwas. In Azhar and I’m sure here in Madinah, you are actually taught how to read a fatwa, how to criticize it. Is the language correct, is the logic right? Is it written in a way that is suitable and fits the person inquiring? And that’s one of many challenges. But I think it would be great to see a tafsīr (an explanation of the Qur’an) for converts, or a book of fiqh (Islamic legal rulings) for converts. The Maliki school of thought in its books actually discusses all kinds of scenarios in the various chapters of fiqh, and they’ll put a disclaimer at the end, “except for new Muslims.” Even fornication, drinking, wearing a cross, and I even think Imām Dasūqī says even if that person is walking to church. If they’re a new Muslim you have to give that person a break. And that’s not to say that the break is the goal, the break is a means to reach capacity.
So I think with a lot of these people we need to give them the idea that they are on a spiritual trajectory, they made a covenant with Allah, and it means that over time you will be changing. Our job is to facilitate that process; to help them grow, help them learn acquisition of actions and knowledge that will aid them in their growth as a Muslim and then deal with the rulings more in a step by step fashion. I mean if you are asking a woman to leave her husband, just think of the systemic outcome of that. It could be financial, it could cause her to give up her kids, she could very well end up homeless, it may subject her to scorn from her family. It could really lead to bigger problems. And that’s why scholars say to not give a fatwā that leads to basically a bigger can of worms, to another thousand rulings. I mean, what if she lives in a place where Islamophobia is hot and the husband takes her to court and accuses her of being a terrorist and they take her kids? I mean all kinds of stuff. So I suggest we get to know each other first, build relationships, build a community, be nuanced, and then begin to kind of dissect these little issues.
I actually thought about my first week as a Muslim, there was probably like 7,000 new rulings. I’m serious, just the number of things I ran into. Like my mom has a dog, they eat pork at the table, they drink. I tried to go back and literally count them all. I was going to write a book about the things I faced in those first seven days. It was like 7000 new rulings, it was an infinite number. So I called this African-American brother I knew, Abdul Salaam, who taught me at that time. I told him, I have a girlfriend, I have this and that, I mean I was completely overwhelmed. He was like, “Brother…tawḥeed, ṭahārah, and ṣalāh (knowing Allah, purification, and prayer). For the first 8 months I just want you to learn how to pray.” I had one of those little books, with transliteration, and I just used to read that. Then he said he wanted me to read this book by Bilal Philips. After that, he wanted me to join this thing called a ḥalaqah. It was like a one year program. But now with the internet, and the sheer amount of information out there it complicates things. People say to me, “Oh, it must have been difficult back then”, but no it was easy because you were able to dose what you learn.
But I think it would be good to see some materials, study materials, written from the perspective of a convert, written in a way that speaks to some of the issue. I had a sister who converted and she was like 16 at the time. Her mother was an evangelical Christian, really hardcore. And this girl, may Allah bless her, said that she had to hide fasting from her mom. So she went out and bought these protein shakes and would keep them under her bed. She would have a protein shake for suḥūr (pre-dawn meal, eaten prior to the commencement of fasting) and one for ifṭār (post-fast meal, eaten after the sun has set). That’s all she was having, and this was when the days were long. At ifṭār time, she said she would have to go to the restroom and pray in the restroom, drink her protein shake in the restroom. And when I mentioned that to some people they started attacking me, like how can you say someone can pray in the restroom? First, go back and read what the Maliki school has said about this issue, it’s very clear. Secondly, that’s a specific challenge that no one can understand. She even started to lose a lot of weight and her hair started falling out because she wasn’t eating properly. So there has to be that understanding, it has to be as if you are wearing their clothes as my teacher would say. The muftī has to wear their clothes, they have to really know the depth of the issue, because the ultimate goal is to bring people to the obedience of Allah and to help them get to that point.