Some people are Muslims by birth and some by choice. I am the latter. Though Islam teaches that all people who believe in God and surrender to Him are "muslims," meaning those who surrender. In that case, I have always been muslim but several years ago became Muslim.
Searching for God has been an ongoing journey since my teenage years. Learning and appreciating different religions has too. In the beginning, I tried to get involved in my own Eastern Orthodox tradition. I liked going to church because it was a peaceful time full of chants and focus on God. And I loved the incense. But it never spoke to me, or maybe I never listened well enough. Whatever the reason, I moved on to the traditional American Christianity: Bible class and non-denominational church. Out of that, I received intense fear of Hell and dispair because 1. I was not sure if I had been saved and 2. I was sure my family and people of other faiths were not saved. Thinking of Hell was a private hell.
So I moved away from that, though perhaps the people I had been associating with simply misinterpreted the faith to me. I liked spending time with an extremely nice Christian girl who told me she did not make non-Christians her close friends because it would take her away from her religion. I have thought of that logic often since then.
And later, by some chance, or Godly design, I got involved in the interfaith community and realized that there are many different religions and spiritual paths, and I got a lot more comfortable. Here were all the teachings and thought I had been looking for. It was fascinating learning about different paths to the same God.
And I considered myself an interfaith person, or a person of no particular faith. This was fine for me, I was friends with everyone and respected everyone's tradition. A few years later it was not enough.
So I first fasted for Ramadan. And I loved it! It was strange because I have never been a person who skipped a meal or gave up the extra piece of cake. So how could I not eat or drink the whole day, over and over again? It had to be something bigger than my base desires that was driving me.
And that was the most peaceful I had ever felt. It was unreal. And of course, it was not something I was going to forget about but it lead me further and further into Islamic practices. I started praying. I would perform the correct prayer postures on my little rug and recite my own prayers. Then I started facing in the direction of Mecca. Then I decided to learn the Arabic words. So I would do the postures and have my little cheat sheet, that is how the ritual prayers were committed to memory. When I finally could do the whole thing without cheating and withough stumbling, I felt like I had accomplished something important, like I belonged to something, like there was a higher purpose for my actions.
And so it went: I continued to fast every year, prayed often, learned more and more about Islam. Eventually, I felt the need to declare myself officially Muslim. And when I did, it was as though a huge weigth was lifted off of me. Finally, I belonged, I was committed to something, I had a practical way of relating to life and God and I was so much happier.
Now, we as Muslims, and all people the world over are faced with the fact that some terrorist acts have been committed by Muslims. And this has clouded over everything Islamic from now on. Not a day goes by that I don't read some hateful book about how Islam really is the religion of violence, and all other religions are ones of peace. The authors come up with all kinds of inaccurate "proofs" that they are right, and I am shocked at how much Islamophobic hate there is out there.
The only thing I know to do to counter this is to establish personal relationships with non-Muslims. Since I do not wear a scarf over my hair, no one who sees me on the street would ever think I am Muslim. But one day when I was coming from the mosque with my friend, we were both wearing scarves, and we are both white Russians. An older lady asked us why we dressed the way we did and we explained that we were Muslim and this type of dress is part of our religion and she very politely thanked us. It was a sweet and telling exchange: if you want people to understand you, you have to show yourself to them. As a white non-scarf-wearing Russian, I do not fit into the typical mold of a Muslim woman. Which is fine with me. If someone meets me and thinks "why would she choose Islam as a religion?" then maybe they will be interested to find our more and will see that Islam is a great religion appropriate for anyone, from any country, race, or nationality.
And so I go around town and give talks on Islam if anyone requests it, I write for an online newspaper about Islamic topics, and I try to talk to people who have questions about Islam in a way that would show the true nature of our religion: a peaceful surrender to God's plan and a way of living that creates a symbolic order in our lives.
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