Jumaat, Mac 27, 2009

Former Baptist explains why she is now a Muslim

She used to be a Southern Baptist, a radical feminist and a broadcast
journalist. Now Aminah Assilmi is an ambassador of Islam.

The director of the International Union of Muslim Women, Assilmi
calls Fairfield, Ohio, home. She travels the country speaking on
college campuses, increasing public awareness and understanding of
the faith.

She wears the traditional Islamic hijab, which includes a head scarf,
covering her hair and neck and modest clothing with long sleeves.

Last week at the University of Tennessee, Assilmi spoke to a near-
full audience on the status of women in Islam in her lecture, "A
Muslim woman speaks from behind the veil."

Assilmi cautions critics who say that women are oppressed in some
predominately Muslim countries. She says their practices are
cultural, not Islamic.

"People who are held down, are held down by ignorance," she
said. "They follow cultural practices. Do not judge Islam by these
individuals who have only practiced like the people in their family."

But, Assilmi told audiences, she hasn't always been a Muslim and a
proponent of Islam.

Meeting her first "real life Muslims" when she took a college theater
class some years ago, Assilmi said she almost dropped the class when
she walked into the room and saw some Arab students in traditional

In the handbook she authored, "Choosing Islam," Assilmi
writes, "There was no way I was going to sit in a room with dirty
heathens. .. I shut the door and went home."

After her husband encouraged her to go back to the theater class,
Assilmi said she felt it her duty to "convert the poor, ignorant

Hoping to convert the students to Christianity, Assilmi began to
study the Koran, the holy book of Islam, in a quest to prove that
Mohammed was a false prophet and that Islam was not a valid religion.

But the more she read, the more she became interested in Islam. She
was particularly interested in what the Koran had to say about men
and women.

Islamic women, she thought, "were freely beaten by their husbands and
tossed aside."

Assilmi says she had based her opinion on stereotypes; and soon found
out those ideas were not in keeping with the Koran.

Through intense study, she said she learned that Islamic women are
equal to men and are paid according to the job they do regardless of
their gender. Both men and women have equal rights to education.
Islamic women have had the right to own property for more than 1,400
years. And when a woman marries, she does not change her last name,
but keeps her father's last name.

Thus, Assilmi told her college audience, "We remain our own distinct

"For two years I studied in order to convert Muslims to
Christianity," she said.

But during that time Assilmi said she started to change. Her husband
began to notice that she no longer had an interest in going to bars
or parties. She was content to stay home and study the Koran.

"I was quiet and more distant," Assilmi writes in her handbook.

Her husband attributed the changes in her to another man and the
couple separated.

After she moved out with their three children, Assilmi was visited by
a Muslim holy leader who answered her questions about the faith. He
asked her if she believed in only one God and Assilmi said yes. He
asked her if she believed Mohammed was His messenger. Again she said

"He told me I was already a Muslim. I argued that I was a Christian,
I was just trying to understand Islam. I couldn't be a Muslim! I was
an American and white!

"We continued talking. Later he explained that attaining knowledge
and understanding of spirituality was a little like climbing a

The first rung on the ladder was the Shahadah, a statement of belief
that there is no God but the one God and Mohammed was his messenger.
The Shahadah, done before witnesses, is in the Islamic faith, the
Christian equivalent of a statement of belief in Jesus Christ as Lord
and Savior.

For Assilmi, taking Shahadah in 1977 was the first step toward a a
deeper understanding of Islam.

But she still had a few hang-ups -- like hijab. Hijab is the modest
dress worn by both Muslim men and women; however its most
recognizable feature is the head scarf worn by women.

"I agreed with modesty, but I was vain about my hair," Assilmi
said. "The Koran tells us to cover ourselves to be identified as
Muslims. I am a Muslim and I know what my God-given rights are. Hijab
is not a requirement or restriction, but a right and a privilege. I
would fight to the death to wear it."

"I gave up being a women's liberationist -- it wasn't fulfilling -- I
became a Muslim ... Liberation, yeah, that's Islam," said Assilmi who
adopted her name during the Iranian hostage crisis in 1980.

She adopted the new name "to protect my family from ignorance." She
no longer uses her given name.

Assilmi said Islamic women are not limited in professional fields by
their religion. However, "The most powerful profession is being a
mother. Because we form the mind of the next generation."

Muslim women, she said, are often discriminated against because of
the hijab.

"In this country it's extremely difficult for Muslim women."

That is why some Muslim women wear varying degrees of hijab. For
example, some women might wear loose-fitting modest clothing, others
may wear the head scarf, covering the hair and neck, and still others
may have the courage to wear the face veil where only the eyes are

An award-winning broadcaster in the Denver market, Assilmi lost her
job when she began wearing Islamic dress.

She says the persecution is intense.

"I've been forced off the road before -- beaten up -- and I've never
lifted a hand against anyone," Assilmi said.

She even tried to wear the face veil, but said, "I could not handle
the experience."

The defining moment came when she tried to cash a check at her bank
wearing the face veil. A bank security guard drew his gun preparing
to shoot if she made any questionable moves.

For Assilmi, her job as a broadcaster was not the only thing she lost
when she first chose Islam.

Her marriage over, she also lost custody of her children because the
court decided that the "unorthodox religion" would be detrimental to

But since then, Assilmi says her children have converted to Islam and
so have her parents and her ex-husband.

"Relatives of mine are still becoming Muslim right and left," she

Now at "well over half a century" and having survived bone cancer,
Assilmi has made two pilgrimages to Mecca, a holy trip that Muslims
are instructed to take in their lifetime. The cancer weakened her
bones and now she uses a wheelchair as a "mobility enhancement."

"God decided that I would continue to live," she said.

And, "I ceased to be afraid of anything. It became very important
that I would speak the truth everywhere. I would have to answer to
God for everything I do and say.

"I love sharing Islam."

(Rebecca Simmons writes for The Knoxville News-Sentinel in Tennessee.)

Also read Aminah Assilmi's story of conversion to Islam in her own

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