“All I knew was that I was surrounded by loving Muslims who were not pushing me where I was not yet ready to go.”
The first time I met my mother-in-law could have been a disaster. She had flown to the U.S. from Morocco for her annual visit, and this time her trip had a definite purpose: meeting her son’s new bride. Because my husband and I had opted out of a huge, traditional Moroccan wedding celebration and had chosen instead a quiet nikah in the U.S., his mother had not yet laid eyes on me. She had heard that I was an American and a Christian, but I am not sure if that prepared her enough for my very foreignness.
Looking back, I see how unapologetically American I must have seemed: a cliché, from my uncovered blonde hair down to my jeans and t-shirt. With my loud laughter, spontaneous bear hugs, and casual, carefree attitude, I was not demure or proper, nor even wise enough to strive hard to impress this important new person in my life. I was 23 years old, naïve, buoyantly in love, and not experienced enough to realise how very carefully I should orchestrate this first meeting with my new mother-in-law. I did not understand how much power this woman had, the potential, really, to make or break my new marriage depending on her judgment of me and her consequent decisions.
She might very well have taken one look at me and dismissed me as frivolous, silly, immodest…overall, a sorry excuse for a daughter-in-law. She could have asked her son – privately or in my presence – “What on earth were you thinking marrying her?!” She certainly would not have been the first mother-in-law in history to do just that.
Alhamdullilah, my husband has a remarkable mum who defies, indeed shatters, the stereotype of the wicked mother-in-law. I know it is nothing less than her nearness to Allah (SWT) that gives her such peace, tenderness, patience, and acceptance of others. In fact, my husband’s entire family is truly unique. Instead of the train wreck that our relationship might have been, my in-laws and I have always enjoyed a positive and loving bond, thanks to their open-mindedness and warmth. They were instrumental in drawing me nearer to Allah (SWT) and guiding me gently to Islam, and for this I will eternally be grateful. There were five main ways my in-laws provided daw’ah through love, and I believe these are the very best ways to help guide someone to the deen.
1. They accepted me “as is”
My in-laws might easily have taken one look at me and cringed. There I was, a non-Muslim, an outsider, a foreigner who could not even speak their language. Instead of bringing home a capable, familiar Moroccan girl who would know just how much sugar to add to the mint tea, my husband produced me – a relatively clueless young American. I must have stood out like a sore thumb at family gatherings, sitting mute and underdressed among the animated womenfolk draped in colourful, hooded jilabas and bright, silky scarves.
Purely because of their inherent goodness, my in-laws did not reject me or embark upon a campaign to change me. They were willing to look beyond my imperfections and differences and give me a chance. Although I am sure they had envisioned a more traditional wife for their son, my in-laws never made me feel like they were disappointed in me or determined to mold me into their ideal. Being accepted by them made me feel safe, treasured, and eager to learn more about their ways.
2. They welcomed me warmly into their family
As everyone knows, a look can say a thousand words. Even when someone cannot understand a language, they can sense others’ true feelings. Cold silences, rolled eyes, and disappointed sighs are universally understood. Fortunately, so are smiles, warm pats on the hand, and twinkling eyes. Alhamdullilah, from the very beginning I felt enveloped in the warmth of my new family-by-marriage. Although we could not sit and have a cosy chat, my mother-in-law and I could sit side by side, sipping tea in peaceful harmony. We could both try to learn each other’s language and laugh good-naturedly at our tongue-tied mistakes. We could pat each other’s hand, hug, and exchange smiles, united in love for the man who brought us together. My father-in-law immediately took me on as another daughter, beaming benignly at me from across the table and passing over to me all the choice pieces of meat and other delicacies. I felt pampered and loved by my new family, and that was another key to opening my heart to them and to Islam.
3. They talked about Islam positively, but without pressure
I always explain to people that my in-laws never pressured me to become Muslim, and this actually speeded up my acceptance of the religion. No one wants to feel compelled to do something, and stubborn human nature often makes us want to do the very opposite of what we are pressured to do. However, this does not mean that my in-laws never brought up the topic of Islam. They did answer my questions patiently and spoke from their heart. One sister-in-law was particularly influential to me. I did not know very much about Islam, but over the years I had absorbed from the media the notion that Muslim women were oppressed. One of my main concerns, when learning about Islam, was the status of women, and I had many misconceptions and questions. To me, dressing modestly and wearing hijab seemed like burdens that Muslim women had to endure. Deep down, I probably also thought that Muslimahs could not possibly be as educated or independent as I, a “liberated” American woman. Then I met my sister-in-law, Amina. The best word to describe her is “dynamo.” She is an energetic, highly intelligent, successful professional and mother. Amina accomplishes more in one day than most people do in a week. She is a highly skilled engineer and the supervisor of many well-educated men who have not reached her level of expertise. Throughout her education and career, she held tight to her decision to dress modestly for the sake of Allah (SWT). In one of our first conversations she told me, in her faltering English which was much better than any Arabic I could muster up, “I LOVE Islam. Insha Allah I will never remove my hijab.” The passion and conviction behind her words were crystal clear to me, and I saw firsthand that not all practicing Muslim women were oppressed; in fact, their level of independence, intelligence, and self-determination put many Americans to shame. Listening to a hundred lectures on “the liberation of Muslim women” could not have convinced me like my few interactions with Amina did.
4. They were living examples of the deen
When I visited my husband’s relatives, I witnessed harmonious relationships where children and parents were kind and loving to each other. I was amazed and gratified by the extremely generous hospitality I was shown. Seeing Muslims who were so consistently kind, polite, welcoming, and dignified gave me a wonderful impression of Islam. Of course, I now know that the opposite is also true; when a non-Muslim sees a Muslim behaving badly they often think that Islam is to blame. So this double-edged sword is something we Muslims must be aware of when we interact with non-believers. Alhamdulillah, my in-laws gave the best example of Islam, and their lifestyle made me wish for the same kind of stability and peace.
5. They made du’a for me . . . in secret
I know that all the while they were supporting me my in-laws were also making du’a that I would embrace Islam. Who would not want that gift for a loved one? However, their du’a was made privately, and never once did they tell me, “We’re praying that you become a Muslim.”
One peaceful evening, at Maghrib time, I sat on the terrace of a hilltop café surrounded by my in-laws. As we watched the sun go down, we listened to dozens of muazzin down below in the city, simultaneously making the call to prayer. Their voices floated hauntingly through the dusk. It was a poignant experience for me, and I remember it vividly to this day. I did not realise in that moment that Allah (SWT) was pulling me toward Him. All I knew was that I was surrounded by loving Muslims who were not pushing me where I was not yet ready to go.
Laura El Alam is a frazzled but grateful wife and mother of four in Southern California. She fervently hopes that her attempts at raising her wonderful, feisty children (2 toddlers + 2 teens) will pave her path to Jannah.