Islam Attracts Converts by the Thousands, Drawn Before and After Attacks
by Jodi Wilgoren
ALLWIN, Mo., Oct. 20 — Since she became a Muslim six months ago, Angela Davis has given up many things. She stopped listening to music, started sleeping on the floor, put away her 100 Disney videos and traded her porcelain doll collection for velvet posters with verses from the Koran.
Now, in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Ms. Davis may have to give up her children.
After her photograph, in full veil, appeared in the local newspaper on Sept. 30, Ms. Davis's soon-to-be-ex- husband refused to return their children, 5 and 2, from a weekend visit. She has not seen them since.
"It's a test that is given to me from Allah to see if my faith is strong enough," said Ms. Davis, 27, who discovered Islam in an Internet chat room this spring and now teaches pre-kindergarten at the Al-Salam Day School in this St. Louis suburb. "I'm asked to give up my religion for my kids, but I won't do it. On Judgment Day, as much as I love my kids, they won't be there with me."
Though her situation is extreme, Ms. Davis is one of thousands of new Muslim converts struggling with their identities amid anti-Muslim fervor and declarations of an Islamic holy war being broadcast on television. Already estranged from relatives and friends, some of whom accuse them of joining a cult, these new Muslims face catcalls and fresh challenges to their faith
Many say the events of Sept. 11 only confirmed their commitment. Shannon Staloch is not sure why, but upon hearing of the hijackings, she immediately grabbed a book from her backpack and recited the Arabic declaration of belief; she made the conversion official 12 days later.
"You know how the world changed when that happened and everyone was shaky?" Ms. Staloch said. "I wanted something steady."
With some 6 million adherents in the United States, Islam is said to be the nation's fastest-growing religion, fueled by immigration, high birth rates and widespread conversion. One expert estimates that 25,000 people a year become Muslims in this country; some clerics say they have seen conversion rates quadruple since Sept. 11.
Experts say Islam is attractive because of its universal message — the faithful believe that everyone is born Muslim and thus call the transformation reversion, not conversion — and because its teachings incorporate other traditions, honoring Jesus Christ, the Jewish patriarch Abraham and other Biblical figures as prophets. Though missionary work is rare in Islam, spreading the message is demanded by the Koran. Conversion is as simple as reciting one sentence — "I bear witness that there is no deity except Allah and that Muhammad is his messenger" — in front of witnesses, a ceremony known as Shahadah.
"There's no class," said Khalid Yahya Blankinship, chairman of the religion department at Temple University. "There isn't really a formalized requirement, you don't have to be tested." Mr. Blankinship, who converted to Islam in 1973 and has since witnessed 100 Shahadahs, added: "It's very important that Islam should spread. The idea is that one should want other souls to be saved."
The vast majority of converts are African-Americans, who make up about a third of Muslims in the United States. Thousands find Allah while in jail or in recovery from drug or alcohol addiction. Less familiar are the lapsed Catholics and lost Jews, often highly educated professionals, who come to the mosque.
Many convert because they want to marry a Muslim who demands it, a common reason for conversions in any religion.
"I would never have changed if it wasn't for Rania," David Nerviani, a St. Louis police officer, said of his Egyptian-born wife he met on patrol. "It's probably not that deep for me."
Others find Islam through friendships on college campuses, research papers on world religions or trolling the Internet.
Some just feel called. Abdullah Reda of Reston, Va., said the news of Susan Smith, the South Carolina woman who drowned her two sons, brought him to Islam. A 13-year-old California girl had an epiphany during a sunset drive through the red rocks of Arizona. Katie Mathews, a graduate student at Washington University in St. Louis, who plans to make her Shahadah on her 23rd birthday in November, prayed for a sign and soon saw a license plate, "4 ALLAH."
Nine years ago, Jim Hacking was in training to be a Jesuit priest. Now, he is an admiralty lawyer in St. Louis who has spent much of the last month explaining Islam at interfaith gatherings. Mr. Hacking's search began in the 12-step program Overeaters Anonymous and intensified when he befriended an Egyptian-born woman, Amany Ragab, at the law review at St. Louis University. He made the Shahadah on June 6, 1998, and proposed marriage to her the next day. This summer, the couple traveled to Mecca.
"The thing I've always latched to is that there's one God, he doesn't have equals, he doesn't need a son to come do his work," Mr. Hacking, 31, said. "Giving up the pork and the alcohol was the easy part — I never drank much, but I did like bacon. The hard part, and the part I still struggle with every day, is being a good person, and living a good clean life."
To help with the social transition, the All Dulles Area Muslim Society in Sterling, Va., pairs converts with mentors. Other mosques offer seminars in the basics of Arabic prayer. Web sites like jews-for-allah.org and understandingslam.tripod.com provide glossaries to common Muslim expressions, step-by-step guides to ritual washing, interactive games to teach Arabic, and profiles of fellow converts, organized alphabetically, by county of origin and by former religion.
Perhaps the greatest challenge is maintaining family relationships, as parents often view conversion as a betrayal. One Web site offers a how- to guide for telling relatives. "Do not allow them to drag you into a conflict regarding religion at all," it lectures.
Ms. Stolach, who teaches middle- school literacy, said her mother had helped her shop for hijab, the traditional Muslim head covering, but Ms. Mathews says the main reason she has delayed her Shahadah is that she is living with her parents.
"My mom, she's Christian and she's very upset," Ms Mathews said. "I told her about my signs. She said, how do I know it's not the Devil?"
"The Koran says you have to obey your parents, heaven is at the foot of your mother," she added. "I have to obey God before I obey my mother."
On Sept. 11, Ms. Davis's mother exhorted her to remove the hijab, saying it would endanger her grandchildren. (Ms. Davis's divorce lawyer, and her husband, did not return telephone calls.) Ms. Davis, who wears a shoulder-to-ankle robe over her clothes, also faces resistance from her older two daughters, from a previous marriage, whom she enrolled in an Islamic school this fall, but who have lately said they would prefer to live with their father.
As the afternoon call to prayer sounded from the mosque above Ms. Davis's classroom, the girls, white scarves around their heads, scrambled up to the women's balcony, where they bowed and knelt like old pros. They murmured "bismillah" ("in the name of Allah") before starting a game, "astaghfirullah" ("I beg Allah for forgiveness") after a misstep. But they say their father says their mother worships Satan.
"I got one person saying they want me to be Muslim and then I got my dad saying no Muslim," said Krashanna Agers, 9. "I don't know, I'm not grown up yet."