Conversion Story For Maryam BlackeaglePublished on 10 Jun 2020
Salaam aleikum. My name is Dr. Maryam Blackeagle. I am predominantly Native American. My Dad was from the Miami Wea tribe. His father was Chief Big Horse and his grandfather was Chief Little Turtle, who was one of the greatest war chiefs that lived up until about the Battle of Little Bighorn. He signed the Treaty of Greenville, and when he did, he said, “I'm the last to sign this treaty, but I'll be the last to break it”. And he made peace. If he hadn't made peace, there would have been no one left of my tribe. So, he was for thinking in that way. My mother is a mix of Cherokee and White. Her cultural background was very Appalachian. In other words, I'm a product of heavily Indians.
As a little girl, we lived on a land. I used to hunt with my Dad. He taught me the old ways to get down on your hands and knees and smell out the trails. One of my happiest memories is just walking in the forest, sitting on a log, listening to the breeze through the trees and picking wild berries. But I went from that to the cement jungle of Southern California, which was a whole another world and a whole another experience.
Unfortunately, the tribes have been decimated so much. There are still tribes that are strong, such as the Lakotas or the Southwestern desert tribes. But many of the tribes from the Mideast, the Woodlands tribes, we have been decimated to the point where there's hardly any identity left. When you take away people's identity, you destroy their self-respect. While it is a very much part of the Indian culture to walk what they call The Red Road to ‘walk in a sacred way, dignity respect.’ When you destroy the identity of the culture, you destroy those values.
As I was growing up, I was not taught the concept of dignity, respect. I grew up in a very dysfunctional family that was extremely abusive and at age 14 I ran away. I got caught, went back; and at 15, I ran away again. I went to court and became an emancipated minor. While I was legally an adult, realistically, I was still just a child in the streets of a very big city, which set me on a path that was one of self destruction. I petitioned the court to become my own person, like an 18-year-old becomes an adult. They sent me to a psychologist, they did all this review, and there was an official court order that I was legally of age, even though I was only 15.
In some ways, it was going from the frying pan to the fire. It's not a place for a young girl. There are a lot of people who will take advantage, particularly if you look a certain way. The 70s was a generation of drugs, the discos, there were a lot of things that just were very self-destructive and for a person who was not nurtured to be a person of dignity it was a downward spiral.
It was a high school sweetheart, we got married, and I had a child at age 16. My son was born with bad lungs and when he was three months old, my husband left. I raised my son by myself. It was a real challenge. The doctor said, if he lived to puberty, he might live a normal lifespan. He was very, very, very ill but he had such a spirit and he was such a fighter that he inspired me that I wanted to do better and make a better life for us. So, I went into nursing school. I was caught between this opposing dichotomy of not believing in myself and self-destructive behavior and wanting to better myself and make a better life; so it was a one step forward, two steps back.
But while living in Southern California I liked diversity. I came to know people from all over the place because everybody's from somewhere else in California, including me. And I had a group of friends that were from a wide variety of countries and we all got along great. We partied together, went to the clubs together, and everything was fun, until once in a while religion would come up, and they would develop a very arrogant attitude - us Muslims, you Christian.
I got mad. I thought, how dare they think that they're better than me when I know that they do the same things I do and some of them did a whole lot worse than I did. So I decided I was going to research Islam, prove it garbage - shouldn't be hard - and throw it in their face and teach them a little bit of humble pie. There was one brother in the group that was a little more quiet, so he's the one I asked. He just seemed to have something extra and he brought me a Quran, and a few other books.
One of them was Inquiries About Islam by Imam Chirri, there was a Nahjul Balagha and a couple of books on jurisprudence. I would sit in my house and I would read them. Initially I sat with Imam Chirri’s book, the Bible and the Quran, and I would read, “The Bible doesn't say that!” and I'd look - sure enough, the Bible did say that! Then I'd read some more – “Aha, it does not say that!” and I'd look - sure enough, it was there. I read the Corinthians “Let the women be covered.” It was getting kind of scary because I couldn't prove it wrong.
Then at one point, I couldn't find it and I thought I got him now - I couldn't find it. But it was a typo and instead of being like verse 11, it was verse 13 and it was there. It began to be very uncomfortable, because it wasn't so easy to do what I intended to do; because this was supposed to be a bunch of hooey that I could prove was garbage. I’d heard what the news said. I’d heard all the horrible things about the revolution. In fact, I had known an Iranian, years back during the revolution, and he had told me how horrible it was, and he wanted to kill Imam Khomeini - he called him Ayatollah Khomeini. So, I knew that this was all bad stuff, but these books that I was reading didn't have that.
What I was reading was about dignity and truth and piety and the oneness of God. I started looking through the red lettered edition of the Bible - which has the quotes from Jesus that stand out in red letters - and what Jesus was saying was the same thing that these Islamic books were saying, “Hear, O Israel, there is only but one God - worship no other.” And then the Islamic book was saying Jesus was a confirmer; and I go to the Bible, and it says, “Think that I come to destroy the law; for I did not. I came to confirm and not one jot, not one little will pass from the law, anyone who teaches the law, and others live by it they’ll be the greatest in heaven. But if you break the law, and you teach others to break it, you'll be the least in heaven.” So here's this Pauline Christianity, where Paul says, “Forget what he says, this is what I say,” he says now, versus in the Bible it showed what Jesus says, “Don't listen to anybody else; this is the way it's supposed to be.”
I've lectured around the country, and I've seen and heard a lot of stories from people that have embraced Islam. They are very inspiring. You hear tales of – “standing in the masjid with the Imam who's telling you how to say the words correctly, your friends holding your hands, the Quran in your hand, the shouts of takbir, the hijab parties, the tears of joy running down their face” - I don't have a story like that! There was no Mosque. There were no friends. There were no shouts of takbirs. There were tears, but they were not tears of happiness. They were tears of absolute sorrow, because the day that I embraced Islam was the most humiliating day of my life.
When people ask me what I was before I was Muslim, I generally just tell them I was crazy. I was caught up in the fast life of Southern California. I dabbled in modeling. I was involved in a lot of things that people would consider shameful. When I've lectured in the past - and I've talked about my past - people have come up to me later and said, “Sister, don't tell anybody, you just pretend nothing happened.” I get that, and alhamdolillah, Allah (swt) erases those sins. But I truly believe that nothing happens in vain. There's a reason for everything, including the heartbreaks and the tragedies that I experienced. I chose the path of dawah – maybe I should say dawah chose me. Because the journey of my life from being someone that was self destructive, that had no respect for themselves, that hated themselves, to becoming what I am today, purifying my life, that's true dawah. I think that my life stands as a testament of what the power of God is and what faith can do to metamorphosize your life.
It was very stereotypical, misogynistic - women were oppressed and this was even amongst my friends, they had this attitude, and they wore the tag of ‘Muslim’. “Oh, that's garbage, you know.” “You know, people take it too far away.” “A woman is only worth half of what a man is!” “A woman only has half a brain according to the Quran.” I knew a brother that had been a member of Savak. He hated the revolution in Iran and he went berserk when that happened saying how evil they were. If he saw a woman in hijab, he cussed at them; and then the news, that was a horrible thing. It was the antithesis of the American way, so I had a very poor opinion of it.
One day, I was sitting under a tree outside my apartment, it was a big complex, and I was reading the Quran. And all of a sudden - and there's not a lady likely to tell you this - I felt like I was slapped in the face and kicked in the stomach at the same time. I literally doubled over and I couldn't breathe. It's like the wind had been knocked out of me. But what had been knocked out of me was my pride. What had happened is that the veil had come off and I saw things for the true reality; and not just the reality of life around me, but the reality of who I was, where I was going, and what was going to happen to me if I didn't change.
It was a very, very ugly picture to see. I just crawled up in a ball and I started crying into that tree and it's like, “No, no, no! I'm a Muslim?” And I just cried because I didn't want it. No, no, no, I'm not Muslim. No! It was horrible. There was no happiness to it. I did not want to be a Muslim. But I had no choice. I had to acknowledge the reality of it. That's not an easy thing to do and it's not something that changes overnight. As time passed and I started changing my life and purifying my life, that's when the happiness came. It came to a point - one day I could look in the mirror and I say, “You know, you're not a bad person after all!” - and you don't know how huge that is - unless you come from a life of darkness you don't appreciate light and that's what the Quran did for me.
But I was ashamed to tell people about it. It took me a couple of months. I didn't know how they would react because I was not somebody they would think that would become a Muslim. Finally, I got the nerve, about a couple months later. I had books hidden all over my house and nobody knew they were there. Finally, I told a friend. I said, “I need to tell you something. I don't know how you’re going to take this,” and I stated shahada. I said, “There is no God, but God, Muhammad (sas) is His Messenger.” And their mouth just fell open and they just stared at me - these were Muslims - and they said, “No! No! You don't want to do that! You don't know what you're talking about! You don't know! No, no, you don't want to do that! No, no, no, that's it!”
“I do know what I'm talking about.” My first conversation coming up publicly as a Muslim was defending Islam, to a Muslim. And I started pulling out books from all around my house “See this here! See this is here!” They didn't like it. They gave me so much material for the lectures that I ended up doing later on about the liberation of a woman through Islam, the value of hijab, how it's not a symbol of oppression, but a tool of liberation, that enables us to be where we need to be in this world, side by side and make this world a better place, about our partnership in the khilafa of man, but they didn't get it.
It was a tag they wore, but they didn't know their head from their elbow about what Islam was. They would say things to me, like, “Why do you want to do that? It's too hard. You can't learn Arabic. Don’t you know the Quran says you only have half a brain? Why do you want to be a part of something that says you only have half a brain? It's too hard. Don't do that. Well, maybe if you want to do a little bit, but don't go overboard.” Then they would say things like, “What! You think you too good to party?” and I would say, “You know what? Yeah, I am, and you should be too. Well, I lost all of my friends. My whole life had to be purified.
Converts lose a lot. It's a hard road. We are kind of in a no man's land. We don't exactly fit in our communities where we grew up and we don't exactly fit in the immigrant communities either. There's a lot that is lost. But when you compare it with what you’ve gained it makes it worthwhile. I just wish that we could do more of a welcoming of converts into a community. A lot of folks, when they first embrace Islam, they get, you know, all that happiness, but then they're left alone and the honeymoon wears out, and then they end up very isolated - very alone. And I see this happen many, many times.
I have tried a few times. But again, that's frequently a sad story for converts. My Dad went to his grave denying I was his daughter. I have no family. I'm alone in this world. But I have Allah (swt). It doesn't really matter what you lose, when you get down to it, come the last day, who’s going to be there for you? Allah (swt)! And as long as you have that you have everything.
I begin studying more and more. Substance abuse is not easy to get rid of. It was a struggle for quite a while. I knew no practicing Muslims at all. Except for that Afghani group that had come for medical treatment and they couldn't speak English and I couldn't speak Pashto. They would come to my house. There was an elderly man and a young boy and he was close to the age of my son. They had been attacked by the Russians and the boy's arm had been blown off and they were there for medical treatment. And they would come to my house and I’d make them tea and I would put on a movie called Black Beauty because it had some Afghani words in it and they would watch that.
And one day this man - he looked like Moses about to part the Sinai - and I'd never seen anybody like that. It was hard for me to go up to him at first to introduce myself. I’d just peek at him around bushes because he was scary, this turban and the staff and those flowing robes, and finally, I got the nerve to go up to him and I said “Salaam!” He looked to me, “Salaam?” I said, “I’m a Muslim.” “Muslim?” It was funny, but then he did a big smile and he just welcomed us and they would come over and we'd have tea and we would just nod because nobody knew what they were saying to each other. But he taught me a couple words like ‘kilaam'.
One day he came over and he was very serious - he said “Kilaam.” I said “Okay,” I got a pen and some paper and I sat on the floor and so I'm writing what he's telling me. I had no idea what he was telling me. But I wrote, out of respect, wrote everything he said and I saved that paper and then I never knew what it was. Years later, it turned out he was telling me how to pray. It was surahs and what to say in your prayers. Because I had no books like that. I knew you needed to pray but I didn't know how to pray. So I had made up my own prayer.
There was a verse in the Quran that just hit me, and I memorized it in English and I'd seen on TV once in a while, so I knew about standing and prostrating. And I would stand and I would recite that verse, and I would prostrate and I'd say there's no God but God, there's no God, but God. I’d look to the East and the West. There's no God, but God. I made up my own prayer and it was like that for three and a half years because I knew no one.
After their kid healed, they went back to Afghanistan. And Ramadan with the same way. God teaches you. I wasn't so far off with that little prayer. Ramadan came and I heard on the news - it's Ramadan - so I quit eating. It was in the middle of summer, 30 years ago, and I was driving, Southern California is a 115 degrees, black leather interior of my car, no air conditioning, and I almost passed out behind the wheel. So I told myself, I wonder if it would be cheating, if I was to get up before dawn and eat something. So God taught me to do sahoor. When you have desire, God will open the way even if there's not another person on the planet. So that's the way it was for about three years. I had a few little books and I read them and read them and read them.
Then I had an opportunity to move to Oklahoma. I went there and I looked for a masjid and I found one in a phone book. I went over there in a little muscle T shirt and a fair hairdo and jeans. I walked in the door that turned out to be the men's section of a Wahhabi masjid. I walked in “Salaam!” And they quickly took me outside on to the driveway and asked, “What is your proofs?” I said “Well, Quran, Nahjul Balagha!” They were Wahhabi. “What are your proofs?” I said, “That's my proofs.” They gave me a phone number for a sister. But when I would talk about Nahjul Balagha she didn't want to talk to me anymore. So that didn't work out very well. so then I was alone with my books.
I'd seen sisters with a scarf so I went to the material store and I bought some cloth. But I didn't know what kind to get. I got some that was too heavy weighed nearly 10 pounds. No, this was not working out. So, I was at Walmart one day, and I looked across and I saw a woman in hijab. I started following her, peeking at her around the clothes and I think pretty soon she figured out somebody is following me. I think she was getting really nervous. I kept doing it for half an hour. I was following this woman in the store and just looking at her. Finally, I got the nerve and if I don't say something, she's going to call the police. I walked up to her and I said “Salaam.” She said “Walekum Salaam”. She was from Saudi Arabia. She didn't speak a word of English, but her husband was in the store and he spoke English. So we just stood there and smiled at each other until he showed up and they gave me their phone number. But during that time, I got a good enough look at her that when I went and visited her the first time I was in hijab.
It turned out that they were Shia and that opened the door to everything. And I had friends and I had community and I had resources and I became in contact with an Imam in Chicago who would send me information and I began my studies and little by little by little. And then people wanted to hear my story and I started lecturing and then I got involved with the school and alhamdolillah, it was a long distance non-accredited theological school. But I got my PhD in religion, and started lecturing around the country. I lectured universities, I did television shows, radio shows, various Islamic centers, conferences, workshops, anybody that would listen to me, I had a story to tell.
At times, yes, I had more family than you could shake a stick at. Dearborn is huge, when I ended up moving to this area. And in Oklahoma, I had a small group we met at my house, I led Dua every week, they had keys to my house - they were my family. It was a family that I never knew in my whole life, because of what I came from. And it's something that, to this day, even though I left Oklahoma, I'm still very, very close to them, and I go visit as often as I can. And then here in the Dearborn community, there's a lot of converts. So you do have more of a support group there. We had a group called ‘Ummah’ for a while, and it's kind of fallen away and I would like to see that get back again because now we are falling back into the cycle of isolation, where sisters and convert brothers as well, are not getting the support that they need.
We have a lot online, but I'm not seeing a lot in real life that's happening. I was at masjid last night for Dua Kumayl and my youngest son - he happens to be blonde - and he was walking around, he came and he goes, “Mom, I don't look like anybody else here. I don't feel like I fit in.” And I said “Well, this is your community and this is your family, you just go over there and you shake their hands and you will be recognized because you're an individual.” I was trying to show him the good things. “I wish my hair was darker like theirs I don't fit in with them” and I said, “Well, you still can fit in. You stand out by fitting in too.” I was trying to give him the positives.
It's hard, particularly he's not Arabic speaking - he’s a little American boy - and other people aren't real quick to talk with him. I had a teenage son, I would take him to the YMA program, which is an excellent program. But everybody would talk in Arabic and they had their cliques. He didn't speak Arabic and he was very isolated. So we really do need to work in that direction, getting more connection between converts and between Muslim’s children, because even though they're raised in Islam, they're Americans. They don't have that Middle Eastern Lebanese cultural background to bond them together. Somehow, we need to build a bridge between our youth, or we're going to lose them.
I was Muslim for nine years before I married. I thought I was being very careful, asking the right questions. It did not work out. Oftentimes, brothers think when you embrace Islam, that you will become Persian, or Arab, or Pakistani. And you don't, you’re still you, you have an Islamic perspective but you're still who you are. And that's really hard. Frankly, if you want a Persian wife, you need to marry an Iranian lady. You need to respect that we still have an identity of our own, and a history of our own and a culture of our own. While we are enjoying the good and getting rid of the bad - that's a hard thing to do - and there are a lot of cultural barriers.
I've talked to a lot of sisters that have just accepted being single, because they've been hurt, they've been taken advantage of for green cards, they've dealt with a lot of misogynistic practices and abusive marriages and they just give up on marriage. You have a responsibility to teach your children. My middle son, he cut his teeth on the microphone. I would hold him in one arm and the microphone and the other and he got a lot through osmosis. But unfortunately, you know, the marriage was bad, he was not treated well and he got a bad view of men in Islam. So he is struggling on trying to find his own path. Well, we have to teach our children our religion, it's our responsibility. But you also have to have them to be cognizant of the other faiths around them.
Just yesterday, I had a long talk with my 11 year old about what is Islam, Sunni versus Shia; the basis of Judaism and the basis of Christianity. He had the sense to say, “Mom, I'm questioning as to what is the right path.” And so I was sharing with him the different aspects of those paths. You teach your kids, but basically all you're doing is planting a seed, and you nurture that seed. And then it's up to Allah (swt) whether or not it's going to grow. They reach a point in their life where they have a right to choose their own path. And it may not be the choice you want for them. But you have to respect that they have that right.
Originally, when I started lecturing I thought it would be to my fellow Americans to break the misconceptions and the stereotypes against Islam and Muslims. But I find that Muslims need to be taught their own faith themselves. Just as the difficulty as a convert, being able to separate what you're raised with, with what truth is, born Muslims - people that grew up Muslim - they have that difficulty too being able to separate the culture from which they're raised and what their religion really is, because they aren't necessarily the same thing. It's very hard to let go of the ego and realize that and use critical thought about what is true Islam and what within my culture is not, and be able to choose otherwise.
My lectures frequently were on women's issues, because people always want to know about the woman and the hijab. But my desire was the metaphysics of Quran. Seyyed Beheshti said that the metaphysical teaching of Quran was a substratum to understanding Islam. So that's what singed me to know the spirit behind the law and sometimes the spirit is more important than the law.
I was very busy lecturing, and I was starting to get an audience. Then one day, I was writing a lecture on the audacity and arrogance of mankind. It was not scheduled for anywhere. It was just something on my mind, about the ownership of life and when someone dies before their time, and that we should be grateful, whether it's one second or 1000 years, because our life actually belongs to Allah (swt), and it's just a gift to us. So I was writing this lecture and vacation time came around and I put it away. I drove to Oklahoma to see my oldest son and my grandchildren and, while I was there, he died! And I had to practice what I was about to preach - and that quieted me. That's, a very huge responsibility to practice what you preach.
So I took a step back - grief for a mother is a very unique situation - something I still struggle with. It's not something you'll ever get over, it just becomes a part of your tapestry. I've struggled trying to find my voice again, because part of me feels I need to get back out there, I need to be lecturing. There are hadith talking of sins for those who have gained knowledge and then do not share it. But I'm trying to find a way to get my wind back, and my spark back. But also our communities have short memories and after a while they forget who you are, and the invitations stopped coming. So I don't know, if I'll be lecturing anymore or not, I'm just gonna leave that to God. Just like this came up out of nowhere, maybe something else will, we'll see what God wants me to do. But even the tragedy of my son's death was not in vain. There were lessons to be learned - to practice what you preach, the fragility of life, how important it is that we love each other, and stand by each other, support each other, and share this message that will make such a difference in the world. That's the lesson in my son's death that needs to be told.
There's a lot of prejudice you see out there, there's a lot of hatred out there, we seem to be getting on a momentum that is just causing the hatred to go out of control. Muslims are reacting in bad ways; then the response is bad and then they do bad. Somebody needs to break this. Somebody needs to stop this momentum of hate and violence, because it's getting out of control.
Over the years I've experienced a lot of issues. One time I was walking through a mall carrying my newborn baby and a group came by and they spit on my child. Once I was pumping gas, and I heard somebody shouting the N word real loud, and I just ignored him. They just kept cussing and shouting the N word and so I started looking around, to see if there was an African American person around so I can give them a look of sympathy, like that crazy person. There was nobody around and I realized that I'm the one that they were calling the N word. And that was interesting.
I’m trying to find work. Right now I'm looking for work, it's a real struggle. They see my scarf instead of my abilities as a nurse and I've got 30 years of excellent experience as a nurse. It's difficult and it's only going to get worse, if people don't start using their minds, instead of their emotions. Now, more than ever, we need the dawah. We need more people to get out there and show what’s true Islam; not just by words, by actions. We can't have this knee-jerk reaction when something bad happens we're going to go do something bad. That's not Islam. Islam is of the intellect of the heart, not of the fist, not of the knife, not of weapons. A weapon is the last thing that we should use. The real jihad is the one that's inside here and that’s what we have to demonstrate in our own behaviors and to other people.
When people come together, it's natural, you're afraid of something that you don't know, it's just human nature. But when you sit together and you break bread, and you share your beliefs, you find you have more in common than you have apart. I just love when people walk up to me with that lemon and they walk away with a nice sweet cup of lemonade - “Oh, you're not so different than me! Well, I agree with that, too!” But we have to talk to each other. We have to break that bread. We have to bring that human face to the table. If we don't start talking.. I don't know what this mentality is with the countries, “We haven't talked to each other. We have all these sanctions.” Yeah, where's it getting at? How's it working? It's not! You need to sit down together and work it out because we're all on this planet together and if we don't, we don't have a future.
This video was first published on 25 Jun 2013 by ABTV Reborn as Reborn - The Search Of Dignity & Modesty In Islam. We are grateful for their cooperation.