MU Graduate Helps Bridge Religious Gap After Converting to Islam

February 26, 2009

Author: Jessica Nunez

Source: Columbia Missourian

When Katie Hurst moved to Columbia 10 years ago to study religion at MU, her intention was to work at a nonprofit or teach Christian education. She didn’t expect to have adopted an entirely new lifestyle and belief system by the time she graduated.

But that’s exactly what happened. Katie entered MU a Christian and graduated a Muslim.

It didn’t happen overnight. When Katie started college, she already had doubts about one of the fundamental Christian beliefs: the Holy Trinity. “It just didn’t make sense to me,” Katie says, bouncing her 10-month-old daughter, Maryam, on her lap while eating lunch at Kayotea Tea Room & Bistro. “In the Bible, it says to worship no god but God, but that conflicts with the teaching that Jesus is also God.”

In college, the questions only grew as she took classes that introduced her to other religions, including Islam. After Sept. 11, when she was a junior in college, Katie took a class entirely on Islam. She wanted to learn more about the religion she thought many people were judging unfairly at the time. As she took the class, Katie realized that she wasn’t only interested in the religion — she identified with it.

“I thought: Everything I’m learning, I already believe,” Katie says. “The more I grappled with it, the more I started to think seriously about converting."

By then, Katie was married to her sweetheart, Dustin. She told him what she was thinking and gave him some things to read. Dustin had grown up Baptist, and his parents were more against the conversion than Katie’s, but he also decided that Islamic beliefs were in line with his own.

“I don’t like to think about what would have happened if things didn’t work out that way,” Katie says. “I’m just grateful that my husband believes in the same things I do.”

Soon, Katie was practicing Islam. She went to the mosque, covered her head in line with hijab, or a head scarf, and said daily prayers. “I basically did everything except officially ‘convert,’” she says.

The process of converting to Islam is simple but serious. The only requirement is to recite in Arabic the shahadah, or a proclamation of faith, in front of at least one other person. In English, the proclamation says, “There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is his messenger.” "Allah" is the Arabic word for God, and Muhammad is the seventh-century prophet to whom Islam’s holy book, the Quran, was revealed by God.

One day, while Katie and her husband were out of town for a friend’s wedding, she had a very disturbing but revealing dream. In it, she dreamed that a radical group broke into the mosque in Columbia and yelled out that they were going to kill every Muslim.

“So, I was there, walking to my death,” she says. “And I said, ‘Wait, I can’t die without saying the shahadah.’”

The next day, she officially converted, and Dustin did the same a month later.

According to Nabeel Khan, former imam, or religious leader, of the Islamic Center of Central Missouri in Columbia, there were about 15 converts in the congregation when he left in August 2007. Today, there might be even more.

Some Muslims don't believe in the idea of conversion to Islam, but rather assert that people who come to the faith are simply reverting and not converting. There are no definite numbers on people who have converted to the faith.

The mosque’s new imam, Ronald Smith, converted to Islam at age 14, as did his wife, Aaliyah. Outside Columbia, two Missouri state representatives are converts to Islam. Talibdin El-Amin, a Democrat who represents the 57th District in St. Louis, converted after observing the religion in Egypt when he was in the Navy. Jamilah Nasheed, also a Democrat who represents St. Louis in the 60th District, is one of just two Muslim women in state legislatures nationwide. She converted after a childhood full of violence that caused the early death of both her parents.

There is no concrete number for the Muslim population in the U.S., or for the number of Muslims who were born into other religions. As The New York Times Almanac cautioned in 2000, all estimates of the U.S. Muslim population should be read as “educated approximations, at best.”

Despite this warning, there are several credible sources that attempt to provide “educated approximations.” When the Pew Research Center conducted a study on Muslim Americans in 2007, they projected that 0.6 percent of the adult population (18 years or older) is Muslim. This translates to about 1.4 million Americans. Other estimates put the number between 2 million and 8 million.

About 35 percent of adult Muslims were born in the U.S. and about 23 percent of Muslim Americans say they converted to Islam from another religion.

American history and pop culture are peppered with people who accepted Islam after growing up in another religion, such as Christianity, or no religion at all. Malcolm X was one of the most influential leaders of the Nation of Islam, an organization founded in 1930, after he converted in prison and abandoned a life of crime and violence. Muhammad Ali, who was born Cassius Clay Jr. into a Baptist household, is a world-class boxer known internationally by his Muslim name. Former NBA star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (born Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor Jr.) also has a name that identifies as a Muslim, but others, such as comedian Dave Chappelle and actor and hip-hop artist Ice Cube, aren’t as easy to recognize.

The beginning of Islam in America can be traced back to the time of slavery. According to Robert Baum, associate professor and chairman of the religious studies department at MU, one-tenth of the slaves brought from Africa to the U.S. were Muslims. Today, 20 percent of Muslims in the U.S. are African-American.

“One of the motivators of the Islamic movement in the African-American community is the feeling that Christianity supported slavery and segregation and that it is now complicit in racism,” Baum says.

Sally Howell, a researcher of Arab-American culture at the University of Michigan, sees another trend. She sees more people like Katie, who convert to Islam for individual spiritual reasons, than she did in the past, when movements such as the Nation of Islam had as many political motivations as religious ones.

“Today's conversions seem to be more about the faith of Islam itself and its approach to individual spiritual salvation,” Howell says.

Baum agrees. “What appeals to many people about Islam is the sense of discipline involved, as well as the creed that all are equal in the eyes of God,” he says. “For many people, they’re wanting to get away from materialism, sexualism, hedonism, that they believe is present in American culture.”

Reasons for converting aside, Howell says, newcomers to Islam in the U.S. make important contributions to cultural understandings within the religion.

“They bring a new understanding of ethnic, racial and religious diversity,” she says. “They pave a new direction in interpreting the Quran for contemporary everyday life, and they deepen connections between the Islamic world and ‘the West.’”