A mentor might find herself unexpectedly wearing the caps of educator, mediator, life coach,
social worker and role model, all at once.
Every now and then, Allah (SWT) might bless us with an amazing opportunity: the chance to support a recent convert as she takes her first, tentative baby steps towards practising her deen. If we rise to the occasion, we can potentially make a significant, positive contribution to a sister’s life, earn numerous rewards from Allah (SWT) and perhaps, even solidify our own knowledge of and adherence to Islam.
It can be a challenge though, to be a mentor. People new to Islam often have a long list of questions to be answered. They are hungry for detailed information that even experienced Muslims might not have at their fingertips. In addition, converts frequently face some obstacles, such as family members who oppose their new Islamic lifestyle, friends who tempt them to return to their former ways and old habits that are difficult to break. In extreme situations, some new Muslims are even forced out of their home or exposed to violent behaviour as a result of their conversion. So, a mentor might find herself unexpectedly wearing the caps of educator, mediator, life coach, social worker and role model, all at once. It can be a bit daunting.
How can we more experienced Muslims offer the best quality support to new sisters? Which actions and words are most helpful to them? Which ones turn them away? I have interviewed several Muslimahs – both converts and experienced mentors – to find out which strategies are most effective. Based on their feedback and my own experience as a convert, here are some suggestions to help mentors be as positive and inspiring as possible.
• Welcome the new sister warmly in the masjid, even if she is not covered perfectly, in your opinion. Embrace her even if she does not fit your criteria for what a Muslimah “should” look or act like. Rejection or judgment could send a vulnerable newbie right out the door and back to her old life.
• Invite her to attend Islamic activities, even if they are publicised and she does not technically need an invitation. She might be too shy to attend without encouragement. Or, in order to summon up her courage, she might need the promise of seeing a friendly, familiar face once she gets there. Remember, the gatherings we veteran Muslims take for granted (say, a huge ‘Eid celebration or even a small halaqah) often seem strange, unfamiliar, or intimidating to a recent convert.
• Introduce her to warm and pious Muslimahs in her area. A network of caring, practising sisters will be an enormous comfort and help to her.
•Answer her questions patiently and to the best of your ability. If you do not know all the answers – which you quite possibly won’t – help her find appropriate, qualified people to ask. Remember, it is probably not helpful enough to tell a new convert, “You should ask the imam about that.” You might need to explain what an “imam” is, where to find him, and how to make an appointment with him. Better yet, accompany her to his office to help alleviate any nervousness she might feel.
• Remember to use your best Islamic manners, since your actions and words will make a lasting impression on the sister. New converts are typically trusting and impressionable. They have found the perfect deen and (justifiably) expect experienced Muslims to be living examples of Islam. It can be so profoundly disappointing and confusing when their more experienced brothers and sisters display blatantly un-Islamic behaviour.
• Invite her to your home for tea and conversation. Hospitality, generosity, and a cosy chat break down barriers and pave the way for comfort, friendship and sisterhood.
• Direct her to reputable websites and accurate Islamic literature. Wading through the misinformation, incomplete or biased opinions and blatant lies can be overwhelming and quite discouraging for a new convert.
• Start a New Muslim support group at your local masjid and/or online. Meeting regularly with fellow converts, competent mentors and educated scholars is an amazing, super-effective way for converts to assimilate. They will not be able to organise such a gathering by themselves though, so it is up to us established Muslims to do it for them. We can also put social media to a good use by starting a Facebook page where new Muslims can reach out to more experienced ones, or a web group where dialogue and outreach can happen.
• Point her in the right direction of any special services she might need. If the sister is facing abuse or homelessness due to her conversion, she might need help from the masjid, the government, or a charity. If you do not know anything about available services, you can help her do research and ask the masjid office for ideas.
• Pressure her to do anything she is not ready to do. Guilt trips, nagging, dire warnings of the hellfire – these most likely will not inspire a new sister to practise her deen. Your positive, cheerful and sincere example probably will. Remember, from the very beginning she needs to do everything for the sake of Allah (SWT), not to get people off her back.
• Expect an overnight transformation. Remember that becoming a Muslim is usually a huge and sometimes difficult transition. There is a vast amount of information for a novice to learn: the positions and times of salah, the surahs in Arabic and the many new rules of diet, socialisation, dress code and behaviour. Even learning Islamic names, which are often unfamiliar to non-Arabic speakers, can be overwhelming. When I was a new convert, I met two sisters – Mubashera and Mudassarah – who are now among my dearest friends. But I vividly remember that learning their names and how to pronounce them (not to mention which sister went with which name!) took me weeks of practice. Furthermore, the Arabic terms that most Muslims throw into conversation by habit (insha Allah, Alhamdullilah, masha Allah, dunya, deen, fardh, haram, just to name a handful) are unknown to new Muslims. They might feel too shy to ask the definitions of these words that most Muslims take totally for granted. So, be mindful of the huge learning curve these sisters have and be as patient and helpful as possible.
• Give her false, culturally-based, or incomplete information. This is tricky because we mean well, and we often don’t realise our own limitations. Many people who grew up in Muslim households habitually perform some acts, or hold some beliefs that they assume are Islamic. Sometimes those habits are products of culture, not deen and are actually wrong. If a sister needs a great deal of basic Islamic knowledge, it is probably best to help her enroll in a class for new Muslims or introduce her to a reputable scholar who is prepared to educate her.
• Be cliquey. While it is human nature to form a close-knit group of friends and stay within this comfortable circle, it is not healthy to be so chummy that we exclude others. New converts will find it difficult to make friends if no one welcomes them into their group or makes the effort to get to know them. When attending a gathering, it is extremely helpful to keep an eye out for any outsiders who are on the fringes and invite them to join the group and participate in the discussion.
• Play matchmaker against her wishes. While you might know a handful of eligible brothers who are looking for a wife, a recent convert probably has too much on her mind, in the very beginning, to think about marriage. It might even be unwise for her to take such a huge step until her life has settled down a bit and her Islamic education is fairly thorough. So, as much as you might enjoy the romance and satisfaction of matchmaking, do not coerce a new sister into meeting her “dream man” until she is ready and willing to do so.
• Forget about her after your first meeting. Sadly, many converts receive a warm and enthusiastic welcome from the community on the day they make shahadah and then find themselves completely alone in the following days and weeks. If you meet a sister who has taken her shahadah, after hugging and congratulating her, try to get her e-mail address or phone number so you can stay in touch. When the excitement begins to wear off, she will be grateful for a new friend to turn to with any questions or concerns.
Laura El Alam is a frazzled but grateful wife and mother of four in Southern California. She is a homeschooler, breastfeeder, lullaby singer, perpetual house tidier, short-order cook, bibliophile and board game enthusiast. And she really likes to write. She embraced Islam fourteen years ago and has felt whole ever since, Alhamdullilah.