I like talking with people who have changed religions. Here is one of them.
Kima Jones is a poet and a book publicist in LA that I met through Roxane Gay at a reading about a year ago. She always wears the most incredible lipstick, and her writing gives me the shivers. I knew she’d become a Muslim as a young woman, and I’d also been giving a lot of thought to the process of religious conversion lately, so the idea of asking her to kick off the Convert Series seemed to follow naturally.
What was your religious background before your conversion? How old were you when you first started thinking about Islam?
I have been a God fearing person all of my life and cannot remember a time when God was not only a part of my life but the fiber of my home. In the bedroom where I slept as a child lived my grandfather’s ashes and the Bible next to them, I’m guessing, as a way to watch over my brother and I. There were also the children’s Bibles engraved in silver with each of our names when we were baptized and handed to us with care and concern and the expectation that we master the 23rd Psalm with haste and conviction. Holy water was kept on a high bookshelf and rosaries were always in reach. When I was older, and had a room to myself for a time, with my own single bed and thin rug, I delighted in having my own altar and Virgin Mary candles, which were lit each night as I prayed and blown out by my roaming grandmother before she finally laid her own body down for shut-eye.
Understand that my paternal grandmother and family, Anglican, proud and Catholic, instilled a very specific sense of God and Godliness—cleanliness, morality, quietude. My maternal grandmother and family, Southern, Baptist and rousing very much made me believe that God lives in the music and that if I could find it, or some part of it, I would have a greater connection to Him. Thus, my earliest attempts to catch the holy spirit of God were a mash up of the two: Sit quiet and pray when it was time for praying, sing loud and stomp when it was time to stomp and hope—more than anything—that I would be saved. Better, spared.
I converted to Islam at age thirteen years old after a summer of talking with my father. My father had converted when I was a young child. Back then he was a young, good-looking Harlem slicker and therefore didn’t have time to really child-rear in the way that he may have now. His mother did not really understand Islam, but I think she had respect for her son and his wishes for his children even if they were in her care. So while my grandmother did not bring us to the mosque and we had no concept of a Quran or Arabic, she abided by his wish not to feed us pork. For her it was a middle ground. We went to church and we enjoyed church, but we did not eat pork. In that way, I think, she felt like she allowed my father some parental assertion while still giving us, what was, in her opinion, the best religious upbringing possible. So I went through catechism at St. Joseph’s Church in Harlem on 125th St and Morningside and I would later be baptized in my great-grandfather’s church, Community Baptist, in Charleston, SC, a church he built himself, after leaving the army and completing a degree in religious studies. The pulpit gave way to an underground pool and at the age of 10, I gave my life to Christ with my cousins watching and laughing and clapping and Grandaddy praying for my salvation.
I spent my eighth grade summer, the summer before high school, away from my home with my father. We would talk long into the night about God, but especially the Trinity and especially the Holy Spirit. We were very close, very very close, and he gave me books to read and asked me questions about them like a peer. By the end of the summer I had stopped wearing my cross and knew I wanted to convert to Islam but wasn’t completely sure. I made my final decision after a dream I had. I dreamt I was Muslim, I saw it and felt it, I saw myself taking Shahadah (the declaration in the Oneness of God and the Prophet Muhammad being the last prophet and servant of God) and my hair was wrapped in black silk. The next morning, my father gave me shahadah. I returned to school and my neighborhood and to my friends that I had left for the summer with a scarf on my head and long skirts that came to my ankles. I had also finally grown breasts!
CONGRATULATIONS ON YOUR BREASTS. I’m sure there were plenty of outward changes in your life after your conversion, but I’m also interested in hearing about how it changed your inner life. How did becoming a Muslim change your connection to God? How did you go about finding a Muslim community to support you and worship with as a young convert?
Hmmm, you know, I don’t think my inner life changed very much. The tenets of Islam are the tenets of Christianity so I prayed, differently, but I was used to prayer. Charity but I was used to charity. Modesty but I was used to modesty. The principles were really all the same. What changed was my relationship to Jesus, who I had once worshipped, and, now do not.
Maybe the hardest and loneliest part of my conversion was finding a community. Up until then, worship was something I did with my entire family. We went to church together, we had fellowship together and I had a group of peers, mostly my cousins, who I got into a lot of trouble with under the guise of Christian youth activities. Suddenly I was the only Muslim in my family besides my father. My father was not my custodial parent, so I was really alone. When I visited with him, I absorbed as much as Islam as I could. In the between time, we had phone calls and letters. I went to the mosque by myself every once in a while but I didn’t like the feeling of not having my family there and abandoned worship at the mosque for worship at home. Never mind navigating the masjid as woman – a single woman – that’s an entirely different subject. I suppose the masjid from my childhood, Masjid Al-Mutakabbir, is my home masjid in the same way I consider Community Baptist Church my home church.
I am choosing to remain nomadic to a degree: I float from masjid to masjid here in Los Angeles, where I live now, trying different masjids on and worshipping with all kinds of Muslim communities. I’ve been to predominantly black masjids, predominantly South East Asian masjid and I’ve been to the all female masjid. The beauty is that the prayers are the same wherever I go. In my heart I want to believe that I’m home at whatever masjid I walk into, but that is not true: race matters, culture matters.
Did you feel like there was something within you that Islam specifically brought out? Some aspect of you – your personality, your way of being in the world – that hadn’t or couldn’t have been nurtured before your conversion?
I have no fear, none. I can only think that’s Islam – it is a kind of ultimate, infinite, unshaken faith and belief in God. I don’t fear, and I don’t worry. Allah is akbar.
Was something about the process of converting that has enriched or added to your relationship to God? Do you think there’s a significant difference between your experience as a convert to Islam as opposed to someone who was raised in the faith? Or – is there anything else you have to say about being a convert that I’ve neglected to ask you?
I was a teenager when I converted, just thirteen, you know, and my head was still bigger than the rest of my body and I had horrible acne across my forehead and wore my mother’s t-shirts to hide my stomach and thighs because I was shapely and uncomfortable. So much of my conversion is tied to my coming of age. Islam is the sum of my girlhood. In the music I loved: WuTang, Gang Starr, Queen Latifah, Mos Def, Tribe, Rakim, Busta Rhymes; in the food I ate, no swine ever, bean pies, halal beef sausages; in the way I dressed, usually long skirts and dresses and always with my hair wrapped; the boy whose door I was banging down. So I can tell you that I loved one boy all four years of high school and my relations with him were informed by the fact that I had a newly minted fear of hell and damnation and premarital sex. He was Muslim, too, and our fathers were friends. We went to the same masjid, and we sat next to each other in biology. He was terrible to me in the way all fifteen-year-old boys are terrible to thirteen-year-old girls. We never kissed those four years. We never so much as held hands until we were adults and could admit some of the pressure and confusion. We were kids, man. Our faith and genitals were completely out of synch. Our friends were doing it. A lot. Pregnancies. Abortions. Dropping out. Prison. Shot dead. A classmate caught a body that summer and was given 25 years. Another classmate was thrown out of a car and killed on impact. A girl in math class went all the way to London to hide a pregnancy from some older dude.
I think my father thought he was protecting me, but there is no protection from life. But I also have to acknowledge that I’m here and I’m whole, so my father was on to something. I think my father felt that because he couldn’t be there full time he would give me something so unfaltering that I would always feel secure. Something to steady me and remind me. I don’t mince words with the Lord. Social media, everyday language, prayers, it doesn’t matter, I’m going to say I’m blessed and Allah is akbar. I know what I’ve made it over, and it’s because the work Allah has for me is greater than my obstacles.
I believe Islam is perfect and perfect for me, but the way we practice is not perfect. How can it be? We’re flawed. I’m a Black American Convert (BAM), and I’ve experienced racism in the ummah (community) since I first converted. Middle Eastern sisters who don’t want to touch my toes in prayer break the ranks, sometimes women grab their children and hold them like I’m a big, black boogeyman, maybe I’m adjusting my hijab and my nappy hair is stared at too long and too hard. But the beauty of being a BAM is that I practice an Islamic Islam not a cultural Islam. Middle Eastern mores don’t apply to me and other BAMs because we weren’t acculturated in that regard. We learned Arabic, and learned our prayers and read the holy texts. We took the religion and left the culture for the most part. There are definitely BAMs who feel like duplicating Middle Eastern culture makes you more authentically Muslim, but that’s not true or right. Islam is not of any culture. Islam is a way of life that over a billion people on this planet abide by. BAMs are often treated like the issues specific to our community are not a part of Islam, but they are. Of course they are. You have to understand that when that white man walked into that church in South Carolina, BAMs mourned. Most BAMs come from the Christian tradition. Those are our aunties and uncles and grandmas in those church. We didn’t abandon our families because we converted. My great-grandmother goes to church every Sunday. Sure, we know there are generational Muslim families, especially in Philly and Newark and Houston, but the great majority of us have roots in the church.
It’s beautiful, now, you know, because my niece and nephews have Muslim grandparents and Muslim parents and they’re being raised in Islam. I also have Christian nephews with Muslim grandparents. One generation at a time. My mother converted when she was 45 or something like that. She was Christian my entire life and then one day she’s reading and studying the Quran and months pass and then my mother wants to convert. Ameen.
When the brothers in the community started opening up dojo studios for self defense and opened organic grocery stores in the hood, and when the sisters opened boutiques and daycare centers and Islamic instruction schools that didn’t merely impact me or only the Muslim children, that impacted our black families and communities. The Prophet Muhammad said, “The believers, in their love, mutual kindness, and close ties, are like one body; when any part complains, the whole body responds to it with wakefulness and fever.” [Muslim]
We are one ummah. I cry for the people in Ferguson, in Baltimore, in Chicago, in Gaza, in Malaysia. I know there are some who don’t feel that my experience is authentically Muslim because I’m a BAM, because I’m queer, because I do not wear hijab outside of the mosque. So if you ask me what Islam brought out of me or what Islam has enriched me with the answer will always be faith. The world is falling apart. Black people are dying every day. We live in a police-state, under constant surveillance, harassment, fear of religious persecution and racial profiling. They are killing us. If I do not believe that a better world is possible in this life and the next how will I get over or through? My sister is expecting a baby any minute now and someone’s sister was killed in a jail cell last night. I have to mourn that woman who is a stranger to me but so much a part of me and in this thing called life with me. And when my sister finally drops that baby, I am going to celebrate his little life because I know he’s a miracle. And I fully understand and acknowledge that I exist in a world that doesn’t want me here. The whole wide world is trying to kill blackness but we are coming, and we’ll keep coming, and we’ll come again.
“Our Lord! Do not condemn us if we forget or fall into error; our Lord! Do not lay on us a burden like that which You laid on those before us; our Lord! Do not lay on us a burden greater than we have strength to bear. Blot out our sins, and grant us forgiveness. Have mercy on us. You are our Protector; help us against those who stand against Faith.” [2: Al-Baqara-286]
And I have Faith. And I believe. And I believe.
Kima Jones has received fellowships from PEN Center USA Emerging Voices, Kimbilio Fiction and The MacDowell Colony. She has been published at Guernica, NPR and Scratch Magazine among others. She is the founder of Jack Jones Literary Arts, a book publicity company.
Have you changed religions? Do you have any thoughts about it? Would you like to talk to me about it?
Mallory is an Editor of The Toast.