“American Beauty” is a new series in which Yahoo Lifestyle takes a virtual cross-country journey to discover what beauty means — reimagining the American flag through the diverse group of faces that make up the United States of America. For our first installment, we’re focusing on Muslim-American women, highlighting what makes this group unique while showcasing the common threads that bring us together. In this first-person essay, Kaya Gravitter clears up misconceptions about her journey to Islam.
While I was growing up as the granddaughter of a Pentecostal preacher from Kentucky who started a church in northern Wisconsin, the teachings of the Church were drilled into my brain. But from a young age, I had a lot of questions that most Christians or the Bible could not answer. I asked my Bible teacher at 7 years old, “Why do we celebrate the birth of Jesus on Dec. 25?” (I recently learned that there is scientific evidence Jesus was not born on Christmas.) I also asked questions like, “Why was the Trinity introduced after Jesus died?”
I later left the Pentecostal religion at 10 to be a Lutheran. Aside from my discrepancies with Christianity, I went to church every Sunday, read the Bible (still do), taught vacation Bible school, and sang at church. I even went to leadership camp every summer during high school, where we would focus on the Old and New Testaments.
When I was 16, I had some inclination to start praying directly to God. I was around family, who would say in prayer, “Dear Jesus, thank you …,” I would say under my breath, “Dear God.” I felt upset that people were not praying directly to God. (This is before I knew about Islam or that Muslims don’t pray to Jesus, Mary, or Mohammed but rather directly to God.)
Fast-forward to when I started college in 2011 and I had many Muslim friends. One of them told me that “our religions have the same prophets.” Then I started researching the similarities between the Abrahamic religions. I never told anyone about the research I was doing. To be honest, I wanted to prove that Islam was grotesque and that the media was right about Muslims. My hope was that I would try to get them to convert to Christianity.
In the fall of 2013, after studying the religion for more than a year, I took an Introduction to Religion class, and my teacher, an ordained minister, taught us that the Bible had missing books. It upset me because I had put all my faith in the Bible, but it wasn’t even 100 percent there. I learned that the Quran had never been changed. So my trying to learn about the truth of Islam to convert my Muslim friends ended up having the opposite effect. The more I studied Islam, the more my questions about science, God, Jesus (Muslims believe in Jesus as a prophet, born of the virgin Mary) were answered. One of those was “Could God really create the world in six days or how was the world created if there was nothing?” According to the Quran, God created the earth in six days (Quran 41:9-12) and there’s no mention of rest or the seventh day. Keep in mind one of God’s days is an eon for humanity. (Quran 22:47). Islam teaches that God created the universe out of nothing. I don’t know if that’s the same as the Big Bang.
During the holy month of Ramadan, in which Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset, I decided to read an actual Quran (not something from the internet). I asked my convert friend, who invited me to Iftar (breaking of the fast during Ramadan), if I could borrow her religious text. That night, I got home and started to read. My heart became full of light as I read the first sentence. I hid this feeling from everyone because I was scared of how my friends and family would react.
There was not just one thing that made me want to convert to Islam but many things. But the push I needed was when I first read the Quran.
Reading the Quran in English was not enough because to really understand the meaning and its context, it is ideal to read and understand it in Arabic. I decided to take Arabic in college so I could read the untranslated Quran. I can now read it in Arabic, though I cannot understand it all.
I converted to Islam in January 2014, taking the “shahada,” or declaring my faith in God only and that Mohammed was his prophet. I felt like I was doing the right thing by saying it, though it didn’t feel all that different because I did it by myself, in the privacy of my own home. It was my own little secret between me and God.
I didn’t realize until years later that it was life-changing because I didn’t change much after becoming Muslim, but I did become a better, more giving person. I donate to charities now and do community services. My way of thinking or values did not change. I was always religious. My mom’s side of the family are Seventh Day Adventist and do not eat pork. My parents never drank when I was growing up. I still pray to the same God (Allah is only the Arabic word for God). The only thing that is different is I dress more modestly. I used to dress in modest clothing because it is mostly cold in Wisconsin. Now I choose to dress modestly because I get to decide what society sees of me, not based on everyone else’s beauty standards.
When I converted, only a few people knew about it. I confided in some of my Muslim friends and my best friend Lindsey (she is Christian). She was the only one who really supported me. It was hard having to keep this secret from the world, which I kept because I was scared of how my family and friends would react. With keeping this secret, I always felt I was living a lie and not being who I truly wanted to be. It was not until my last year in college that I started to let more people know that I had converted. The more that people would say bad things about Islam, the more I would feel required to speak up about it. That is also when I chose to wear a hijab. My family in particular didn’t like me putting on the hijab at all because they wanted to “see my hair in public” and they thought I was wearing it for someone, but I was only wearing it for myself.
The most common question I get from Muslims and non-Muslims is, “Did you convert for a man?” No! I, like many other converts that I know, did not convert because we fell in love with a Muslim. Being asked this makes me feel like they think less of me, or that I am stupid. Why would I have risked all that bad treatment I’ve received from my family (and society — I live in the South now)? People stare at me with disgusted looks on their face and mutter hateful things like “Stupid Muslim” under their breath. I get asked many of the same questions that used to cross my mind before I met a Muslim. “Why do you wear that thing on your head?” I typically say the way I dress is between me and God. I even say I wear a veil because, Mary, the mother of Jesus did. I’m often worried that a white supremacist might attack me or tear off my hijab, but that makes me all the more unapologetic about my faith.
I tried to talk to my family about Islam before converting, but they never had anything nice to say about the religion. “Why do they have arranged marriage?” This is one of many popular misconceptions about Islam and Muslims. Arranged marriages, in fact, are not Islamic. Women and men have the right to say no to whomever they want. Questions like this is why I was scared to tell my parents about my conversion and stopped talking about the religion altogether. I never outright told my parents to their face, though I would try to give them hints. They eventually found out that I became Muslim after I posted about it on YouTube. My family’s initial reaction was to take the next plane down to Florida to “take me home.” They came and were disappointed to find out that my religion and lifestyle were not scary.
Which leads me to another question I get asked often: “How does your family feel about you converting?” I feel non-Muslims ask me that to smite me, by thinking I deserve to be treated badly by my parents. Of course, my family was not happy with my conversion, but becoming Muslim made me love them more. I cannot fathom the amount of times I’ve had hate-filled conversations with my family. (Especially, my Pentecostal dad’s side, who labeled me a “terrorist” or “crazy” on their Facebook pages.) Unfortunately, my family cannot see past my religion. Even if we are no longer talking about my religion, there is still a tension I feel in the room.
If you would have told me when I was 16 that I would one day convert to Islam, I would never have believed you. Before college, I thought all of the stereotypical things about Muslims were true. I thought none of them were nice. I thought they were hateful people and all terrorists. I was an ignorant bigot who believed everything the media said, since I’d never met a Muslim or went searching for what I believe the religion’s core values really are: peace, love, and generosity.
Read more about Muslim-American women in our American Beauty package: