c. 1998 Religion News Service
UNDATED _ Ismail Royer remembers the sunny fall afternoon seven years ago when a songbird heard in a suburban St. Louis park transformed him from a lapsed Catholic into a believing Muslim.
Royer heard the sound that changed his life as he and a Muslim friend sat in Manchester Park engaged in yet another of their intense discussions about God. Suddenly, the bird's melodic call grabbed Royer's attention _ and his spirit took flight."My heart turned that day,"he recalled."It was a combination of how perfect the day was, how perfect the bird was, a feeling that how could all this just be an accident. It had to be the work of some law-giver. That was the moment at which I made the internal conversion to Islam." Six months later, at age 19, Royer formally converted to Islam. No more drugs, no more alcohol, no more eating pork, no more casual sex with a girlfriend. Randall Royer had become Ismail Royer.
As a Muslim, Royer _ who now lives in Falls Church, Va. _ is about to celebrate the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, which Muslim tradition holds is the month in which the Prophet Muhammad received the first of God's revelations that comprise the Koran, the faith's scriptural text. Ramadan, a period of daytime fasting, begins with the expected sighting of the new moon on Dec. 20.
But as a white American, Royer remains something of an anomaly within the Muslim community. While large numbers of black Americans have converted to Islam in recent decades, white converts remain a rarity, even as their numbers are said to be growing.
Estimates place the number of Muslim Americans at between 3 to 6 million. African-American converts account for more than one-third of the total, Muslim groups report. However, no one really knows how many white Americans have accepted Islam.
Ihsan Bagby, a Muslim demographer at Shaw University in Raleigh, N.C., said white converts comprise between 2 to 5 percent of the American Muslim community. Yvonne Haddad of Georgetown University's Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding mentioned the figure 120,000 when asked about white American converts.
But both Bagby and Haddad agreed it's all just guess work."There are no reliable figures,"said Haddad, co-editor of"Muslims on the Americanization Path?"(Scholars Press).
In the 1960s, significant numbers of black Americans followed the example of Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X and began converting to Islam. Often their conversions were part of a general rejection of a white Christian America they felt had failed them.
White Americans _ most of them college age _ did not begin converting in noticeable numbers until the 1980s, said Bagby. Fueling the conversion mini-boom were increased contact with the growing population of foreign-born Muslims attending U.S. universities and the rising popularity of Sufism _ Islam's esoteric mystical path _ among spiritual seekers drawn to exotic practices. "In the Caucasian community, conversion to Islam has come from the middle class,"said Haddad."First it was students. Now you're getting professors. It's definitely growing." In interviews, white American Muslim converts to Islam said their reasons for accepting the faith were varied. They cited Islam's call for social justice, its appeal across racial and cultural divides and its clear parameters for acceptable human behavior. Former Christians often said troublesome doubts about Jesus' divinity were erased by Islam's strict monotheism."I had trouble with Christianity's notion of the trinity,"said Royer, who works for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim civil rights group in Washington."It just didn't work for me." Some women said they found conservative Islam _ particularly its emphasis on modest attire _ an attractive defense against unwanted sexual advances. Some converts said Islam helped them turn around lives being destroyed by drug and alcohol abuse. Still others said Islam unexpectedly came into their lives along with a spouse.
Tracia Tawil, a 37-year-old mother of six in Battle Creek, Mich., decided to convert to Islam in 1982 after marrying a Palestinian Muslim who had come to the United States to become a doctor."I didn't go into the religion without first doing my own research,"said Tawil, who was raised a Lutheran."I spoke with other people and I read. I came to the conclusion that Islam answered my religious needs." Ismael Shelton, who runs an antiques store in Grass Valley, Calif., grew up in a"formerly Christian-type family"steeped in Zen Buddhism. He came to Islam by reading a biography of the Prophet Muhammad, Islam's founder."It inspired me. The prophet's truth was every man's journey,"said Shelton, whose younger brother also became a Muslim.
At the time, Shelton lived in San Francisco, where he began attending"a typical immigrant mosque. I was looking for community recognition of what I'd already come to on my own,"he said.
Despite their different experiences, Royer, Tawil and Shelton all began their Muslim lives as orthodox Sunnis, members of the religion's majority tradition. Many other white American converts came to the faith through Sufism, Islam's unorthodox mystical stream. Most were associated with groups that modified Islamic practices to suit American and other Western spiritual seekers.
One such convert is Benyameen van Hattum, a 47-year-old furniture maker, who in the early `70s encountered a form of"westernized Sufism"taught by Pir Vilayet Khan, then a fixture on the New Age circuit."A number of us involved with that realized that if we wanted to delve into Sufism seriously we had to go to the source,"said van Hattum, who lives in Abiquiu, N.M."So we went to Turkey and Jerusalem and came to the realization that if you want to study Sufism properly it must be done within the context of Islam." In 1976, he formally converted to Sunni Islam. His wife, an Israeli Jew he met in Jerusalem, also converted. Both are now students of Shaykh Muhammad Hisham Kabbani, a Lebanese-born Sufi teacher based in Mountain View, Calif.
Spokeswoman Dilshad Fakroddin said that of the 25,000 Americans associated with Kabbani's Islamic Supreme Council of America,"perhaps 18,000 to 20,000 are Caucasian." Van Hattum found the need to formally embrace Islam. But thousands of other white Americans also deeply involved with Sufism have not formally converted, despite having integrated Muslim religious practices into their lives.
Among the most famous is Huston Smith, one of America's most respected academic experts on religion. Smith, a retired University of California at Berkeley professor, has been involved with Sufi practices for 26 years. In observant Muslim fashion, he prays five times a day.
But although"heavily influenced by Islam,"Smith, the son of Methodist missionaries in China, said he still retains"my formal affiliation with Protestantism.""I'm drawn to the esoteric,"he said."The picture of the divinity offered within Sufism is what draws me. But I have no need to adopt the exoteric label." White converts to Islam say they encounter the same problems of discrimination and prejudice that Muslims from all backgrounds say they face in the United States because of ignorance of Islam and stereotypes stemming from Middle East terrorism. For converts, the problems sometimes involve non-Muslim relatives perplexed by the new faith of a son or daughter."At first my family was extremely concerned,"said Fahhim Abdulhadi, a 29-year-old former Episcopal Church acolyte from Alexandria, Va. who became a Muslim 10 years ago."Their image of Muslims was the wild-eyed terrorist. When they saw Islam helping me become a better person, that changed." White converts also face the usual religious conflicts associated with following a faith other that of the majority of their relatives.
For Abdulhadi and other former Christians, Christmas presents its own set of problems _ particularly when it coincides, as it does this year, with Ramadan and its emphasis on self-purification through fasting and other forms of self-denial. (Because Islam follows a lunar calendar, Ramadan comes at different times of the year in relation to the solar-based Western calendar.)
Even though Islam exalts Jesus, Muslims reject all Christian claims to his divinity and regard Christmas as essentially a pagan celebration made worse by secular society's emphasis on extravagant gift-giving and excessive partying. That leaves ex-Christian converts in a quandary at Christmas over how to maintain family ties while not compromising their Muslim beliefs.
Abdulhadi declines to say"merry Christmas"or exchange presents, but will share a holiday dinner with his family. Tawil allows her children to accept Christmas gifts from her family,"but we certainly don't celebrate the holiday in any way." Former Episcopalian Leili Kaye McGree, a Folsom, Calif., woman who is the only Muslim member of her family, said Christmas remains important to her because"it's a time for love and sharing with my grandchildren, who all celebrate the holiday. Labels don't matter with family,"she said.
White converts noted yet an additional problem stemming from being culturally different than other Muslims, particularly immigrants from Islamic nations."When you convert, particularly if you're a European American, everybody welcomes you,"said Abdulhadi, a public relations consultant currently taking time off to write a self-help book."But then they say, `sorry, wrong culture' when you say you want to marry their daughter." Because they are a small minority within the Muslim community, Royer said white American converts"face their own particular challenge because there is no real group you can go to and feel comfortable with people who were raised as you were."It sometimes feels as if I'm always in someone else's community, eating their food, fitting into their cultural framework,"Royer added."The positive side is I've learned a lot about multiculturalism. The negative is I have no cultural support group. Religiously, I'm a Muslim. Culturally I'm still a white guy from St. Louis."
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