By Tara Dooley,
In retrospect, Carole Sturm traces her conversion to Islam to a prayer she uttered as a 15-year-old in a Roman Catholic church. It was the appeal of a spiritual teenager, raised in the church, the plea of a young woman who believed in God but struggled with the Catholic mysteries of faith and forgiveness. “I said, `God, show me what this means or show me something else,’” Sturm, 34, said, recalling an afternoon nearly 20 years ago in Tulsa, Okla. “After that, I figured I was going to hell. I mean, I was 15.” It took about five years, but God answered her prayer and showed her Islam, Sturm said. “It was a slow dawning,” said the Arlington, Texas, resident and computer systems analyst for Sabre Group, based in Ft. Worth. “It wasn’t like I woke up one night and said, `This is it.’” In converting to Islam, Sturm joined a growing number of Americans who switch to faiths that have been imported to the predominantly Christian United States. And like many others who convert, Sturm said she found that her new religion allowed her a spirituality and an understanding of God that previously seemed elusive.
National Islamic groups estimate that there are more than 6 million Muslims in the United States, placing the religion’s membership ahead of several of the nation’s mainline denominations. There is no formal or elaborate conversion ritual to the faith. Someone who becomes Muslim must simply declare a belief in one God and recognise Mohammed as a messenger of God, Sturm said. But like Christianity, attracting converts is important in the religion, especially as Muslims choose to live in non-Islamic states, said Yvonne Haddad, a professor of Islamic history at Georgetown University. “It is a missionary religion,” she said. “In the 20th Century, (conversion) has assumed a more important role.” In many places in the United States, the Muslim community consists of families from Islamic states worldwide as well as American converts.
For Cherie Lyle, the decision to convert to Islam from the Seventh- day Adventist Church was prompted in part by the assortment of races and ethnicities she encountered during Friday afternoon prayers at a mosque on Center Street in Arlington. “I saw this sea of Muslims that ranged from the blackest black to the whitest white, and what came to me was, This is what heaven must be like,” Lyle said. Lyle’s journey to Islam began when she happened on a television show about the five pillars, or basic tenets, of Islam: a declaration of faith in the absolute oneness of God, prayers five times a day, gifts to charity, fasting during the month of Ramadhan and a pilgrimage to Makkah. Lyle, who had taught Sunday school in her church, said readings of the Qur’an offered a believable way to understand God and an account of how to live as a Muslim. The Christian Bible, and especially the writings of the Apostle Paul, had confounded her with contradictions. “I had studied very deeply, but I always felt that the hard questions went unanswered,” said Lyle, who is trained as a lawyer but now teaches at Al-Hedayah Academy, an Islamic school in Ft.Worth. Although Sturm said that Islam once seemed a foreign faith to her, it became increasingly familiar as she pursued a degree in finance from the University of Oklahoma and met students from Islamic countries who shared their knowledge, including the man she eventually married, Shahzad Khan.
For Sturm, reading the Qur’an answered her questions of faith in a logical manner. Islam did not require her to make leaps of faith, such as accepting Jesus as the son of God and path to salvation, she said. “There is no way we can earn our way to heaven without God’s mercy, but there is more responsibility on the shoulders of the person,” she said of Islamic teachings. “That was important to me.” In addition to an emphasis on personal responsibility, teachings on the importance of the family and morality also appealed to her, she said. Watching his daughter convert to Islam did not feel right, said Sturm’s father, Charles Sturm. But he came to accept her decision when he saw how she, Khan and their two children lived their religion. “I would not have advised my daughter to do this,” Charles Sturm said. “When she followed the tenets of the Catholic faith, she was a good woman. (But) I have no doubt that she is a good woman now that she is following the religion of Islam.”
Although the teachings of Islam may feel instinctively right to Carole Sturm, following all of the customs is not always easy. Lyle and Sturm said they have struggled -to different degrees -with the Islamic requirement that women cover their hair. Once she made a declaration of faith, Lyle, 43, immediately took to wearing long, concealing clothing and to covering her hair. But after she broke the custom for her sister’s wedding, returning to the covering became more difficult. Now, she sometimes does not cover her hair for business meetings, she said. Similarly, Sturm does not cover her hair at work, where she often deals with Sabre’s clients, although she emphasized that the company offers a good working environment for Muslims. “I just haven’t been able to face the questions and the looks,” she said. “People do take you differently...It colours how seriously they take you and what you say.” Despite their difficulties with dress requirements, Lyle and Sturm underscored that the decision about what to cover and when is a woman’s to make. Both women objected to critics who say Islam is oppressive to women. Examples of extreme restrictions on women’s freedom to work or even walk unaccompanied outside in some Islamic countries are cultural or political impositions on Islam, they said. In fact, both said that Islam offers women reign over their money and names. Requirements of modest dress are for both men and women, and nothing prohibits sun dresses at home, Sturm said. For both Sturm and Lyle, Islam showed them a way to understand God. “It was like seeing God without all the baggage,” Lyle said.