A new podcast about American converts to Islam is gaining public attention not so much for highlighting how and why they become Muslim but for going beyond their conversion stories to explore a deeper issue: What challenges do the individuals face after they change their faith and how does Islam continue to provide spiritual fulfillment.
Called “The Spiritual Edge,” the podcast was launched in November 2021 on KALW Public Radio in San Francisco. The project was conceived and created by Hana Baba, host of Crosscurrents, the radio station’s news magazine that features what KALW describes as “joyful, informative stories that engage people across the economic, social, and cultural divides in our community.”
Baba set out a few years ago to report on the lives of Muslim converts. Raised in a Sudanese American Muslim family, she was curious to know not just why people chose to adopt Islam but also how they adapted to the faith and how it transformed them spiritually.
The podcast features a series of stories of men and women from different cultural backgrounds whose lives were dramatically changed after they embraced Islam.
Among them: A college basketball player who joined the Nation of Islam during the civil rights era and went on to become a Muslim prison chaplain; an African American Christian woman who converted to Judaism and then to Islam—eventually starting her own women-led mosque; and two Chicago-area Latinx converts.
In researching the series, Baba discovered that acts of faith resulting in religious conversions can be profoundly challenging. This is largely because converts typically find themselves thrust into a new religion whose beliefs, customs and expectations appear alien to them, and which are shaped as much by a new culture as by their adopted faith.
One such case is Sofie Lovern, a 46-year-old standup comic and single Latina mother of three from Oakland, California. A lapsed Catholic from an unstable family, she converted to Islam after realizing that what she read in the Quran and about the life of the Prophet Muhammad coincided with her own thoughts.
But because Lovern was pregnant again and single, the imam of the mosque where she converted persuaded her to marry a man from Morocco who emigrated to the U.S.
“He’s always like, ‘Moroccan ladies don’t do that,’” Lovern told Baba. And the comedian found him to have “no sense of humor…He never laughed.”
Because of the clash of cultures and sensibilities, the marriage ended in divorce, and for a while, Lovern questioned why she had changed her faith.
Despite her marital turmoil, Lovern stuck to her newly adopted religion. “I just had to come full circle again,” she says, “and remember why I converted.”
“People who work in Muslim marriage spaces say it’s not uncommon to hear about mosque leaders finding matches for new convert women who are single,” says Baba. “In some cases as soon as they become Muslims.” For Lovern, her marital turmoil and being left alone with three children prompted her to “cut off from her mosque community” and begin to “question why she chose Islam in the first place.”
“I just had to come full circle again,” Lovern says. “And remember why I converted,” including that it had nothing to do with her ex-husbands misogyny or Moroccan culture. She had to stop and separate herself from what she’d experienced because “a lot of it is absolutely in contradiction to what the religion says.”
One of the podcast’s recurrent themes is the loneliness experienced by many converts after they become Muslim. “There are stories and stories of feeling isolated,” Baba says, resulting in a sense that some of the people profiled in the podcast felt “un-mosqued.” In other words, they were compelled to practice Islam by themselves after being frustrated in their efforts to find a welcoming Muslim community.
As with other houses of worship, Baba says mosques face challenges in community building and integrating newcomers. In fact, what the landscape of Islam in America will look like for the country’s younger generation is an issue Baba hopes to explore in the future.
In a sense, younger Muslims are experiencing similar issues to converts, Baba said in a recent article on Religion News Service.
“They were born in Muslim families but now they have to grow up and embrace it on their own.”
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