This past May, Stephanie Diaz was amongst the many 2013 graduates, as she received her Bachelor of Science in Dental Hygiene from the University of Oklahoma.
Aside from completing her undergraduate degree, she was undergoing a spiritual journey.
Stephanie, like many other converts, began comparing Catholicism, Christianity, and Islam. “When you don’t have the relationship with God, life is hard day-to-day,” she said.
She has had a Pakistani-Muslim friend since her middle-school years, and they lived together freshman year of college. She was always curious about her customs, but figured it was cultural. She would ask questions but never saw herself becoming a Muslim. “It was foreign to me,” she said.
It was during their Christmas Break that her friend took the Hajj (the pilgrimage to Mecca and the fifth pillar of Islam). “When she came back, she was so passionate and motivated by Islam and I was so inspired!” she said.
There was a time period in which her family was very focused on finding their religion. Stephanie knew about Jehovah Witnesses, Catholicism, Christianity, “my family gave up and nothing was really clicking — but I was inspired by her,” she said.
Although she was inspired, she also found great difficulty. She said, “I was really struggling. I was depressed, and she encouraged me.” Stephanie’s friend encouraged her to find a relationship with God — but not under Islam. She referred Stephanie to the Christian student group on campus.
Stephanie took her advice and continued talking to her Christian friends. She began asking questions about the trinity, “There were things I never understood in Catholicism and Christianity overall, so they referred me to their priest.”
“I was so excited and I had a list of questions, but my friends would call me and explain that the priest couldn’t meet with me for this reason or that, and so I took that as a another sign,” she said.
I asked Stephanie a series of questions that detail her journey into Islam.
Q: What led you to convert?
Stephanie: Not one specific thing, it was more of a series of events. I kept praying to God to make ease for me and give me signs. There were so many things that kept happening.
Q: Could you give me some examples?
Stephanie: For example, the very first time I heard the Qu’ran being recited, I had tears — it was very emotional. I have never felt that way before about anything and it was very touching. I would walk around campus and would hear the Qu’ran in my head, and it was weird because I didn’t understand anything.
Q: How do you feel about your decision?
Stephanie: It was hard but I feel so much ease. I was blessed enough to learn from my roommate and other Muslim friends I met on campus.
Q: I admire women who wear the hijab, like yourself, what made you decide to wear it?
Stephanie: After sunset prayer, I would keep my hijab on — kind of like practice. I would leave it on for the rest of the night. It was weird, but I felt protected and I was treated differently.
Q: How so? What were some changes that you experienced?
Stephanie: I felt a difference during the day when I wouldn’t wear the hijab. When I was wearing it, boys would be cautious to curse around me and would open the door for me. Before the hijab, I would just wear long sleeved shirts and was covering more. I was practicing for a year. I would cover when I would go to the mosque and sometimes on the weekends.
Q: What was the final influence that led you to fully commit to the hijab?
Stephanie: I met my friend Sarah in college! She motivated me to start wearing it and I did. We were roommates and had a class together. Of course I was nervous, I wondered what my professors would think. I would get those looks like: What are you wearing? Eventually they got used to it, now they don’t even notice, or they will compliment me.
Q: When you converted, how did your family react?
Stephanie: With my family, it was kind of awkward. I didn’t tell them right away, I just eased them into it. Their reaction overall was, “Are you crazy? You are a disgrace to all Mexicans, your family is Catholic.” This was my younger brother’s reaction, especially. My family just didn’t want me to become a fanatic, but when I converted, I waited 2 years to wear the scarf.
Q: I can only imagine their reaction, how did they feel about you wearing the hijab?
Stephanie: My family wasn’t too happy about it. My brother tried to take if off on the street one day and I had to run back inside. When you become Muslim, it’s a different mentality and so they don’t understand why I wear it or see the beauty in it.
Q: And can you explain exactly why you wear it?
Stephanie: I wear it first and foremost because this is what God wants me to do, to honor my body and have modesty in the way I dress, and also in my behavior. The hijab helps remind me that I belong to God, that He gives and blesses me with so much, and that the very least I can do is hide my hair and beauty except to only a few special people, like my family. By covering, I can be judged based on my character, not on looks.
Q: It’s been a while since your conversion, is there any change in your family?
Stephanie: I converted like 5 years ago and I still have struggles, they still want me to have a beer and have some carnitas (pork). They tell me “Your hair is so pretty, just take it off.” But they’ve come to respect it more. Just the other day, my dad bought some tacos and he remembered I didn’t eat pork and so he offered another alternative.
Q: What was one of the hardest things for you when leaving Christianity?
Stephanie: A combination of leaving the Christian faith and not accepting Jesus as my Lord and Savior made it harder. Nowadays, a lot more Christians are better learned about Islam but they refuse to listen. You’re raised this way believing He died on the cross and resurrected. It was really hard for me — but you have to think about it logically. If people don’t want to see the truth, they aren’t going to see it or listen.
Q: I have the same questions you once had; however, many Christians aren’t aware that Muslims believe in Christ and love him just as much. That’s an article in itself, but tell me how would you describe your experience as a Muslim Latina?
Stephanie: As a Latina, there are things of the Latino culture that completely clash with Islam. In the Hispanic culture, we love to drink, be wild, have parties and eat our pork. In that aspect, it’s very hard — especially when I used to go the club like every weekend, since I love to dance. I had to leave that behind.
Q: For a lot of people, they have the perception that Islam overrides culture. What do you have to say about that?
Stephanie: Family is very important for Hispanics, and that’s also very true in Islam. In our religion, we are supposed to love and respect our parents. But there are limits such as no drinking, the whole pork thing, and dancing. These were big things I had to kind of knock out, but overall, my life is so much easier without those things. Islam is a different mentality and a whole different way of living — and in the end, it really makes your life a whole lot easier.
Q: So have you changed everything about your personality?
Stephanie: I am still Mexican, I still like my Daddy Yankee, my Salsa — I still listen to that type of music. I just filter out the inappropriate things. I love to dance and still be at girl parties or with my friends. Now, I just get to have fun and not be self-conscious about guys trying to approach me or checking me out and that type of stuff.
Q: I understand and respect you but there are others who don’t understand. How do you feel about those who don’t quite get what you are describing?
Stephanie: I think some people don’t believe in the Hereafter. Nowadays, it’s all about instant gratification. We want the fast food, buy new things and have a nice house. It’s not a bad thing, but sometimes we are so consumed in looking good and obtaining a worldly life that people don’t realize there’s a whole different meaning to life. Islam gives life a different meaning, a purpose.
Q: What do you think makes it hard for people to accept Islam or any religion overall such as Christianity, Judaism etc.?
Stephanie: People want to have fun. They care about redeeming themselves. For example, during Ramadan it’s all about disciplining desires. People don’t want to do that, they want it now! But Islam makes it so much easier, girls wouldn’t be anorexic, there would be no drinking and driving, gambling, drugs — the list goes on and on. It would ultimately be for the greater good.
Q: Since 9/11, the media has slandered Islam and Muslims, but it has also brought Islam to people’s attention. It has led some to do research and ask questions, even while others continue to hate in ignorance. What are your feelings or thoughts?
Stephanie: Before 9/11, nobody really knew anything about Islam. I thought it was a culture about the eastern hemisphere. Anytime something happened, I’d say, “Oh please don’t let it be a Muslim.” It’s sad I thought that way. It hurts, I do see people saying they are terrorists, they are dangerous, and more. But if it weren’t for those comments, people wouldn’t research it and learn more. It can be very destructive, but it can also push people to learn about Islam to see if it’s actually true.
Q: Thank you for your great insight Stephanie, any last words?
Stephanie: Don’t study “Muslims,” study Islam.