Convert to Islam to speak in Temple Emanu-El


Saliha Malik dispels myths and stereotypes

The Jewish Voice sat down for a conversation with Saliha (Carol) Malik, a British convert from Christianity to Islam. Malik will appear at Temple Emanu-El’s Fishbein Chapel on Sunday, Nov. 17, at 2:00 p.m. to discuss what it’s like to be a religious Islamic woman. In her talk, she will debunk some prevailing media-perpetuated myths and stereotypes about her faith.

I began the conversation by asking Malik to tell me about herself and the circumstances through which she arrived at the decision to convert. She divulged that, in England, she trained to be a teacher of the Alexander technique – the system of reeducating the postural mechanism. After she finished her studies, she came to the United States in 1984 to establish a drama school in Berkley, California.

While there, she met a young Islamic man whom she describes as “extremely gentle and kind.” Malik elaborated, “I had been acquainted with men in my own culture as being rather pushy and presumptuous in terms of interaction.” Referring to her contact with men in the Islamic community, she said, “I was struck by the difference in their respectful treatment of a woman.” Continuing, Malik shared that this man gave her the writings of the Promised Messiah, the founder of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community she currently belongs to, and she thought them to be compelling and moving: “I felt his teaching seemed to fit my direction entirely.”

When asked if she still kept in touch with the young man, she smiled and said that he was her husband. For a moment, I was having flashbacks of Austen’s “Reader, I married him,” but Malik quickly ended my Jane Eyre reverie by emphasizing that she would have converted to Islam regardless of whether or not she was in a relationship with a Muslim, saying, “I was very attracted to this path.” She feels that her life is richer through her belief in God. In her community, they emphasize to people that, through devotion, “their lives will be in a state of peace and bliss. Without God, the world is at risk. The ego gets big, and then we get a state of chaos.”

As I wondered about the supposed inequality within a Muslim marriage, she assured me that women have equal rights. According to Islam, a group works better if there is a leader within it, so the family unit recognizes the husband as the leader. He is given the responsibility to provide for his wife and children, so that they all could live in the way that he sees fit. Malik clarified, “Being the breadwinner, he has the last say on a decision.” So, even though his wife and he work together on any problems that might arise, “they have to operate within his framework.” She was quick to note that a husband has an incentive to take care of his wife, so that she could be a good mother to his children. Malik quoted a Muslim saying, “The person who treats his wife well is the best of the Muslims.”

She also addressed the misconception that Muslim women cannot ask for divorce: “It’s perfectly stated in the Quran in the seventh century that women have permission to seek divorce.” Malik said that a woman should go to the judiciary board of her community to declare that her rights are not looked out for. The board will then grant her a divorce due to incompatibility.

Asked about her family’s reaction to her conversion, Malik disclosed that her mother was no longer living and that her father had some questions for her. Despite knowing her as a methodical person who gave much thought to her decisions, her father wondered about her immersion in an unfamiliar culture. Malik conceded, “You do feel alone when you are going through that journey.” Her brother and sister tolerate her decision but they don’t like to talk about her religion, changing the subject whenever she brings it up.

Raised Protestant, Malik loved spiritual poetry. She was particularly moved by Gerard Manley Hopkins, a Victorian poet who converted to Catholicism and became a Jesuit priest. Recognizing how much she enjoyed poetry, her husband gave her the Holy Quran in the form of a poem. Malik was very taken by its message, “If you read the Holy Quran, you can’t accept that Muslim women are subjugated by the religion. It’s by the cultural traps that those countries have fallen into – that’s why the women are subjugated. It’s not the teachings of Islam but the old cultural traditions that have reasserted themselves, causing the women to be put down in many ways. The Quran is very supportive of women. It speaks about the importance of women having rights, the same capacity for spiritual progress as men, as citizens of society.”

Malik did admit that not everything about the ways of Islam appealed to her. She really struggled with having to cover herself up. An emancipated woman in the time when shoulder pads ruled and women asserted themselves, Malik hoped that the custom of having to wear scarves would soon be changed. She even asked her husband, “Surely this is under review now?” Laughing, he explained that Quran has remained unchanged since its revelation.

Malik wrangled with the decision until she had a revelation of her own. In a dream, she was dressed in the full covering – the exact way that she disliked to dress because she felt that it was unfair to women. She woke up surprised because she experienced a complete state of peace in that dream. Malik had an epiphany: “What I realized was – when you go towards God, you don’t bend the rules to fit you. You have to make those changes within yourself to come close to him so you can be at peace.” She confessed that she did receive some negative comments when she started wearing the garment, but had dismissed them because such ridicule is part of normal suffering: “When you accept the teachings of the prophet, you’re likely to be mocked and persecuted. You have to withstand that attack and be steadfast in it. Then God says, this person is serious.”

I wondered if it ever bothered her to suppress her attractiveness. Malik explained that she still has the opportunity to present herself in the best light to her fellow female community members and to her family – she just can’t go out into society looking the same way as she appears in front of her close ones. Summing up, she said, “You don’t show the world your adornments.”

Malik has plenty of chances to present herself to the women’s organization she oversees. Currently, Malik is serving as the national president for Lajna Ima’illah, the local women’s auxiliary to the Ahmadiyya Muslims. The organization’s website states that their pledge includes the promise “to always be ready to sacrifice my life, property, time and children for the cause of the faith and the community.” Malik’s duties in this organization, whose name she translates as Maidservants of God, consist of overseeing 72 communities throughout the U.S., approving leader elections and supervising activities. Members educate young women and children because they believe that women advance and develop best under the guidance of other women. She said, “We encourage each other towards proper modesty and spiritual progress.”

One of their new annual traditions is giving blood for a month, starting on September 11. Malik explained, “9/11 is a wound on our community because the authors of it were Muslims in the so-called name of Islam, which is, of course, completely wrong. We want to heal that wound.” Malik emphasized that Islam is not an aggressive religion: “It’s a religion of peace – even the meaning of it is peace.”

To illustrate, she told an account of a British journalist who traveled to Afghanistan to get the inside story on the conditions in which the local downtrodden women live. Wearing a shuttlecock burka (only the eyes are uncovered), the journalist went on an exploration. Unfortunately, her poorly hidden camera was discovered and she was captured by the Taliban. Tortured and interrogated, she was able to come out of the horrific ordeal by promising her captives that she would read the Holy Quran. The journalist kept her promise and found that Islam was so supportive of women that she became a Muslim.

Noticing my skeptical look, Malik pointed out that she sees the irony of the situation. She exclaimed, “So why don’t they [the Taliban] read the Holy Quran? They’re obviously not reading it! Isn’t that strange?!” According to Malik, the Taliban people have been indoctrinated. Without thinking about their religion, “they are doing a huge amount of harm to their own people, to women, and to the world.” She believes that this presents a really serious problem because “when people have issues with Islam, they really have issues with the political agenda.”

Discussing various religions, Malik says that the one common thread among Christianity, Judaism and Islam is Abraham. “He’s the founder of prophets, the forefather, and our prayers include him.” Another similarity between Islam and Judaism is monotheism. While the two religions share the belief that there is only one God, Muslims believe that all prophets receive revelations from God, who, in turn, supports and protects them. Islam also has a great regard for Moses, who is mentioned 40 times in the Quran. Muslims believe that he and Mohammad led very similar lives: “They both came bringing a law.”

Malik invites people to come to the Temple Emanu-El event bringing an open mind and a readiness to ask questions.

For more information: contact Miriam Abrams-Stark at Temple Emanu-El, 331-1616.