By Aïcha Dillman
It all began in undergraduate school while studying Psychology. During my last year, I began to realize that there was more to the human experience than just the brain. This notion led to a master's degree in Religious Studies specializing in Psychology and Religion. It was a comparative religion program, in other words, they offered courses comparing the five major world religions: Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Personally, I was raised Christian but as an adult I did not follow any particular faith. With each religious course, I pieced together my own "religion." In the end, I had many branches but no roots.
In 2003-04, I went to Granada, Spain through a study abroad course to learn about the medieval Muslim time period of al-Andalus. My discovery of the eight-century-long Muslim rule in Europe coupled with their tremendous contributions to science, philosophy, mathematics, and religion in a time of darkness for the rest of Europe, led to a completely different path in my religious studies.
In addition, I discovered some biographies of Muslim women that achieved high levels of education and religious piety. Being a devoted feminist, I was inspired by these works and chose to use them as part of my research for the main writing composition that would allow me to complete the course. This very topic eventually developed into my master's thesis.
Part of my own personal religious path included my search to bring together womanhood and spirituality. Feeling a desperate need to connect with pious women (which is difficult to find in any religion), I immersed myself in their biographies. There are 120 biographies of women of al-Andalus that have survived to this day and include several that memorized the Qur'an and hadiths, some who studied fiqh, a few financed the construction of mosques, others fasted, received ijazas and taught their own classes, and wrote and recited poetry.
There was also one doctor, a scientist of the astrolabe, and a few who wrote their own books (although their works have not survived). The most salient woman, Fatimah of Cordoba, is found in the biographies written by Ibn al-Arabi in which he refers to himself as her disciple. Their faith inspired me to be more religious and moved me to begin memorization of the Qur'an. They broke down many negative stereotypes I had of Muslim women, today, in the twenty-first century. They also demonstrated that in Islam, with the right intention, being educated and religious is the same path. Being a strong advocate of women's rights, this was a very important barrier that needed to be broken in order to see the Truth about Islam. All this considered, I still was not thinking about converting to any religion.
It was research and it was contributing to my personal spiritual growth; I was looking for truth, not Islam. My personal philosophy was that religion was an open-ended search that required a lifetime to unearth its mystery, not a series of dogmas which serves the interests of politics in order to control people. This remained my conviction even an hour before converting. After finishing the master's thesis, I returned to Granada, Spain in 2008 in order to obtain more original documents to further my research with the intention to continue with a doctorate the following year.
At this time, I met many converts and Moroccans that demonstrated Muslim faith and how it is put into practice. The Moroccans that came into my life illustrated patience, mercy, and compassion without preaching or condemning. Although I had been studying Islam for approximately seven years in university, I learned from them what thousands of books on Islam could never teach me. Their adab won my heart.
A few days before converting, several of us were discussing philosophy and religion. While contributing to the conversation by citing Nietzche, various psychologists, gnostics, sufis, etc., one Tunisian man recognized my "nafs of knowledge." He instructed me to stop reading books. The theory of religion was clear but not the practice and studying the various philosophies had caused an enormous confusion for me; however, I did not consider myself confused.
His second piece of advice was to cleanse myself with water the next three nights and ask the Creator for guidance. He concluded that after these three days, I might be ready to take the shahadah. I was not convinced I wanted to be a Muslim; I only knew that I was unable to continue as a non-Muslim. I heeded his instructions because internally I had been suffering for many years and needed peace. After these three days, a friend, who was a Spanish convert, came over on that Friday and asked if I was prepared to take the shahadah. To my surprise, I suddenly responded, "Si." She quickly ushered me into the shower and I began crying profoundly. The rahma of Allah (SWT) had already begun to overwhelm me.
I converted on the 25th of July, 2008 in the Mosque of Granada which was the first mosque to be constructed since the Muslims ruled in 1492. A German convert, who headed up a Muslim women's center at the time, assisted the shahadah and soon became my mentor. She later counseled me on Islamic marriage and accompanied the birth of my first child.
Most converts feel an immediate sense of relief after converting but I experienced a tremendous upheaval of deeply rooted pain and philosophies, in other words, an internal cleansing. Each salat lasted an extended period of time and was accompanied by many tears to the point that I could not even pray outside of the house for a few months. Each tear was cleansing my heart and orientating me, metaphorically speaking, towards the Qibla. As long as one knows the direction of the Qibla, it is difficult to wander off the straight path, insha'allah.
Things became so much clearer and easier by reading the Qur'an and studying the Sunnah. This was establishing the roots that I had spent years searching for in Psychology and Religion. It is important to mention that entering Islam did not nullify my research and studies, on the contrary, it reinforced many things and brought together the roots (acquired through Islam) and the branches (obtained through my studies), subhanallah. There are so many major and minor details that contributed to my conversion to Islam that only one Source could have orchestrated such a plan, subhanallah.
In this short and humble narrative, it is impossible to recount everyone but please know that you are all, both Muslims and non-Muslims alike, in my heart. Thank you very much for your patience and understanding along this "bumpy" journey. I pray that Allah (SWT) rewards you in this lifetime and in the Hereafter. Ameen