Listen to her entire talk describing HOW SHE CAME TO ISLAM click the link Journey to Islam
Sister Salma was born in New Jersey in 1959, is from Sicilian-American descent; holds an M.A. in English literature. She has taught at Rutgers University in New Jersey. She embraced Islam in 2007 and shared her story of reversion with IRRT Srinagar in December 2009. Read her articles here
Born on the 15th of February in the year 1959 in a predominantly Catholic Sicilian town, sister Salma finally found the truth in Islam in 2007after a journey she describes as "a winding road… a long and winding road".
Her first impression upon us was a very deep one; having woken up before Fajr for our convenience she reflected the virtues of dedication and keenness to share the truth.
Background: The talk which proved a soul-enriching experience was begun with something about the background of the speaker. We learnt that she was from New Jersey, and being a Catholic neighbourhood, "Following the religion of the forefathers" and "honouring the ancestors" were the dominant ideas which however failed to impress her.
Exposure to Muslim Culture: Despite being unaware of the fact, from an early age she was being exposed to Islamic traditions. Owing to 400 years of Muslim rule in Sicily, even after having "transplanted" to New Jersey en-mass some of the traditions and pathways had lingered on with the Catholic community. She had witnessed many such patterns such as her father's unique style of washing up before meals which she finds utterly similar to Islamic Wudhu and even the numerous sayings that surrounded her in childhood have parallels in the "40 Hadeeth".
Strong Belief in God and dissatisfaction with the Trinity: She describes herself as a very religious person, wanting to please God and find out what he wanted us to do and then to go and do it- that was life for her.
The idea of Prophethood of Jesus and the absolute oneness of God came as a "relief" to her, after years of being "mentally tormented" by the Trinitarian and idea and continuously feeling a natural "cognitive dissonance" like so many others.
A period of disillusionment and searching: Her faith in Christianity was first shaken at an early age- probably in high school, when she started reading the bible and felt a cognitive dissonance.
Throughout high school and college she kept searching through the different traditions, believing that if she searching among the different Christian Churches she could hit the right one. Consequently she studied several branches of Protestantism. She however never thought of being a Hindu or even a Jew, which would be a "Logical progression"; for she could not give up Jesus. In those days she never thought about looking at Islam for right since 70's Islam wasn’t getting good press in the U.S.
On studying literature in college, she got further proof for Christianity being a man-made religion and as she now describes Christianity as "A human construct inspired by Jewish ethics"
Studying World literature she came across many dying, rising gods and realized how the "Eucharistic" idea had evolved throughout history. This idea of "consuming the flesh and blood of your dead God" seems so bizarre to her that she is surprised she ever fell for it.
The "Deal with God" and Missionary work in Japan: Though she describes college as the "last nail in the coffin" she was not over and done with Christianity yet. At the age of 23 she made a "deal with God". She would go as a missionary to Japan to preach the Gospels and God in turn would show her the truth.
As a Christian missionary she was expecting to be shown the truth that "Christianity was the truth" but ironically God showed to her the opposite that "Christianity was NOT the truth"
It was during her field work that she met within a couple of months a person with a PhD from a top level German university known for Biblical Criticism and many more people who had got their PhD in Scripture study. And the shocking reality was that "every single one of these PhD's was an agnostic!" She witnessed how faithful Christians came out of their PhD courses as atheists or agnostics at best, a trend that defied logic. These people gave her an "earful". Normally such people hide the truth from the average Christian and amazingly she says, that's what the word Kufr means- to knowingly cover up the Truth.
Here she makes a mention of Bart Ehrman who tries to expose this hypocrisy but as for most scholars in Christian circles, they don’t want to reveal the truth for they don’t want to upset the people as it is extremely traumatic to witness ones religious paradigm being blown up.
A period of mental trauma and Depression: She describes this period of her life when she lost her religious paradigm as the most trying and traumatic part of her life. After that she spend ten years of her life really depressed and upset; for her life didn’t seem worth living without a religious tradition.
As soon as she lost her faith, her health suffered and she developed unusual health problems in her 30's which no one could rule out. She now says the reason is that "if your spiritual health is unhealthy, you will be unhealthy in all kinds of ways"
It all boils down to "a connection with God" she says "and if there's something wrong with that connection it will have reverberations in the rest of one's life. I believe that very strongly"
She studied many different religions and beliefs some of which were very exotic like Kabala, exotericism etc but each time she experienced cognitive dissonance.
Though it seemed very interesting at times, she felt she was on the way wrong path. She now has an answer to it that: it’s the Jinn who are running it and trapping men by leading them into this satanic nonsense by making it interesting by mixing in just the right amount of truth.
She thought that if God created us he would have placed an "instruction manual" somewhere; so she started on a search for it.
Reconciliation with Christianity: She realised how everyone including her was prone to mistakes, much less be part of God, and she realised that she needed guidance. She had realised how most things outside Christianity were way wrong. After some time she came to realise that though Christianity was not 100% true, it was perhaps "the best thing on the shelf".
She mentions here how George Elliot, the Victorian writer did something quite similar and their spiritual lives took similar trajectories. She realised this while doing a PhD on Elliot, which eventually got side tracked. Somehow they were like "twin souls" as the University of Tubingen in Germany where she lives is the very place that Eliot translated the "higher criticisms" from and so they have similar biographies.
The mental accommodation: In her early 40's she returned to Christianity upon
realising the "need to belong to a community and need to worship God". It's here she made a conscious choice that though Christianity was not true she would return to the Church. She would thereafter say the Nicean Creed with "fingers crossed"
She thus made a "Mental accommodation" to tolerate the Trinitarian nonsense while not believing in it for she just believed in just One God. Like most Christians she says who believe in One God "but continue to profess Christianity because it is identity" and it's hard to think of oneself any other way.
She accepts there is a lot of this "Nudge-nudge, wink-wink" going on in the Church. At times it felt dishonest but people made the compromise for though it was not 100% true, there were many right things Christianity said that no one would disagree with, besides they felt there was nothing better outside.
The Encounter with Islam: As to how she wound up in Islam, it's quite an interesting story. She was looking for "Christian women's head coverings" on the net and she repeatedly ran into the word Hijab. As she started searching for Hijab she ran into a facebook group of Muslim teenagers whom she started helping with the script of a Baba Ali video. She says how she started helping them thinking that she was the teacher but how they ended up teaching her a lot more.
These teenagers left many messages on Facebook in which they would use many Arabic words which she didn’t understand and had to look up. And each of those words stood for a concept. She thus had to look up words like Zina, Shirk etc. and soon she made a glossary for herself.
She then relates that she was once standing in Church singing a Hymn a sentence rolled through her mind "Zina is second only to shirk" and she realised that she recalled it using the Arabic words, it seemed too strange to herself.
The Natural Urge to seek more knowledge: She then describes she felt Literally compelled as though it was "a starvation". She just had to learn more and the more she learnt about Islam the more she wanted to learn; it was "like an infinite loop" that she couldn’t stop; she just couldn't stop reading Islam. She had to keep learning and learning as it was so interesting; "it was so compelling; it had that ring of truth. It had the Fitrah and one gets the gut feeling that- this is the Truth!"
ISLAM- No other way to go: At a certain point the evidence became so overwhelming that she "just had to let go". She realised that she was hanging on to the Christian label just because it was familiar and it was the religion of her forefathers and it was not a good enough reason to hang onto something untrue. It got to a point she had "no other way to go".
She describes her condition the cartoon convention where a man while falling off a cliff grabs hold of a little branch to avoid falling into the ravine, just as she was holding onto the label of being Christian; however she realised that holding on any longer was ridiculous for the branch was bound to break. Finally she had to "let go of the branch" and as she says "There was no other way to go; had to do it!"
While giving answers to questions certain facets of her understanding of Islam really stand out. Being asked about the books that she has reads she answers quite simply: "There is so much to absorb just from Quran and Sunnah; I haven’t gone too far afield from there"
With regards to the portrayal of Islam in the west by media and as to how she broke free of those stereotypes, she says "I was in high school when the Iran Hostage situation broke out. That was the first time Islam had got on our radar screens in America. I wasn’t aware of Shia-Sunni. All we knew was that Muslims kidnapped Americans. It was very negative. But I knew enough from Christian History to know that you do not confuse Jesus with Stork Bernada so it was not so difficult what people were doing from the religion."
With regards Islam being the dominant religion in the west she says: "I do not have any doubt in my mind that’s going to happen"
She describes the trend about women converts to Islam in the west that she has noticed as such: "A lot of those are middle aged western women. It's kind of a trend. Why would that be the case? I think a western middle aged woman has already seen what happens to women when they are not protected by a Shariah type environment; it's like been there, don’t that, got the battle scars. "
She also accepts that "I can tell you without any qualification that when ever in life have got myself hurt or distressed or everything went haywire it was because I wasn’t following Islam. If I had followed the letter of the law, I wouldn’t have stepped my toe"
As regards her observation of Muslims doing Dawa on the internet she says that she has noticed many a times the "adversarial approach". However in reality like the king of Abyssinia once said the difference is only "that thin line" as theologically what separates Islam and Christianity is just a thin line. She says: "When I took seerah classes, I was amazed at how many things were consistent with Christianity. And if are to do Dawa to the west we have to start with common-ground first."
As regards to the focus shifting to the rationality of Islam rather than the spirituality she says: "Take the word Shariah; the first thing that comes to your mind is someone having their hands chopped off. What people don’t understand is that it’s not just one type of punishment but a complete system of justice where all everyone gets rights. We hear more of hand chopping than we hear about God being closer to us than the Jugular vein; we need to hear that more often. We need to hear more about the dog and the woman and the water in her shoe. We need to hear more often that if you take one step towards Allah he takes five towards you. Its all about what we choose to emphasize and point out. There has to be more balanced education."
As for the Muslims of the East who were born Muslim, she has this beautiful advice: "You guys in the east, you grew up with Islam. God gave you the gift; when you were born he put a diamond in your hand. But a lot of us spend 40 odd years walking through the desert, through the forest and only after a couple of decades we are lucky enough to notice the diamond. The things is we, the reverts don’t take it for granted because we know what the other way of life is like. We know what it is like to experience that mental torment. You guys have a diamond in your hand. Please don’t take it for granted; pick it up and examine every facet of it. Don’t think you know better, Just follow Islam! Don’t try to be creative with it."