When a Conversion Separates a Family

An interfaith family struggles to maintain separate, authentic faiths, and mutual appreciation.

It’s almost Ramadan, a sacred time for my Muslim family. Unlike many families, I celebrate this holiday without my parents. Instead, I spend Ramadan (and other Islamic holidays) with my husband, children, and Muslim friends. This year is no different.

I converted to Islam in my twenties — and my decision was difficult for my Christian mother to accept. (Read Patricia Raybon’s corresponding piece here.) We argued and fought about my choice for years, gradually causing a tear in our relationship.

We don’t celebrate religious holidays together like we once did, and now my own family alternates between sharing traditionally American holidays like Thanksgiving with my parents and in-laws. While I don’t expect my Christian parents to know that the holiest of Muslim holidays is nearing, deep down I am bothered by their lack of awareness.

My mother didn’t accept my decision to convert, and Christian holidays were a painful reminder of our theological differences.

Every year Ramadan arrives, and my parents unknowingly treat it like any other day. Sometimes they call to ask what I’m up to, and I don’t have the heart to tell them that it’s a holy day. If they do find out, an uncomfortable discussion arises about how my family is observing the holiday.

Our lack of cohesiveness around the holidays has been especially painful for my mother. Soon after I converted, I stopped flying in on Christmas. I felt conflicted about engaging in a celebration related to the trinity. I don’t think I noticed my own absence as much as my mother, who spent her Christmases at home with my dad, sister, and niece.

I knew this gap bothered her, but we didn’t discuss it in depth until many years later when she shared her feelings with me in our book, Undivided. My mother didn’t accept my decision to convert, and Christian holidays were a painful reminder of our theological differences. I’m still not sure if she was more saddened by my absence or by my conversion. I was hundreds of miles away in a new city with my husband, distracted by our new baby.

It took me a while to see that the thread keeping my family and I close was beginning to wear thin. Each visit was strained with debates, arguments about religion dominating our conversations. My young children seemed to be the only reason we were held together at all — and deep in my heart, I wondered if my parents where only really visiting them.

This year, my mom wants to visit in the summer. I look at my calendar, checking the dates that Ramadan will fall on. It has always been awkward when they visited during previous Ramadans.

Though we were fasting, I’d spend the day in the kitchen making sure my constantly hungry dad had his three square meals plus plenty of snacks. We’d politely turn down his offers to share. Then every night we would leave for the mosque for prayers. I’d dress the kids up nicely and meekly say goodbye as we left, avoiding awkward eye contact with my mother on the way out.

I struggle with how to maintain authenticity in my faith as part of an interfaith family, especially when holidays coincide with family visits.

We’d get invited to iftars, meals for breaking the fast, and I’d always ask my parents to come. They reluctantly accepted one invitation and tagged along. The evening was awkward, with my mother sitting uncomfortably next to Muslim women who tried to engage in small talk with her.

I’d wince every time I looked over at her face as she tried to look comfortable among people whose faith she disagreed with so adamantly. The Muslim women would figure out she is a Christian and try to be more friendly and engaging. I’d pray for the dinner to be over quickly, relieved when it was time for my kids, husband, and I to leave for the mosque.

We stopped inviting my parents to these dinners and began to worry that their lack of enthusiasm for Ramadan would ruin our children’s perception of the holiday. So I tried scheduling their visits during times that didn’t conflict with Islamic holidays.

Lately, however, I find myself conflicted with this approach. I struggle with how to maintain authenticity in my faith as part of an interfaith family, especially when holidays coincide with family visits. I can’t fault my mother for not feeling comfortable visiting me during my holidays.

Still, I have come to realize that we need a way to celebrate our family without negating our commitment to either of our traditions. It’s a conundrum we haven’t yet solved because each of us holds on so strongly to our own beliefs.

I have some Muslims friends who don’t understand the approach I take with my parents. They lack empathy, since everyone in their families shares their faith. They don’t understand how different and difficult it can be when your parents disapprove of and reject your sincerely held beliefs.

For our family, Ramadan is an experience of the mind, body, and soul. It requires us to be completely present in the moment, relishing every second and worshiping as often as we can. It’s difficult for me to feel spiritually fulfilled when my mother outwardly opposes my religious practices. I try to ignore her disapproval, focusing inwardly on worship and my personal connection to God.

We can appreciate that we all love God — and remember that God wants families united in love.

Since my acceptance of Islam some 15 years ago, I have also tried hard to emphasize to my family that my relationship with God comes first. Although I love them wholeheartedly, I won’t compromise my beliefs to demonstrate my love.

At the same time, loving and treating my parents with kindness is a part of my faith. I sincerely believe in the importance of respecting my parents’ right to observe their own holidays, making sure to call during times I know they aren’t in church and accepting their gifts graciously.

I think that our love for one another and our commitment to remain true to our faiths can lead us to mutual appreciation and respect. I know that if each of us is sincere to God in our own ways, we can value the significance that our holy days hold in each other’s lives.

In the meantime, we can continue to create our own special times to be together. We can appreciate that we all love God — and remember that God wants families united in love.

The opinions expressed in this piece belong to the author.
Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Alana Raybon
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  • bakabomb

    It sounds as though the author has tried hard to make her parents feel welcome when they’ve visited during Ramadan, but she and her family haven’t returned the occasional visit on Christian special days. If so, it’s unclear whether her parents don’t invite them, have invited them but only on condition they participate in Christian-specific aspects of those occasions, or whether the author has declined to visit at those times. The answer to that question would tell me more about the overall situation.

    It’s a bit of a shame that we Christians don’t have the habit of fasting during Lent. That would make us much more comfortable with the Muslim daily fasts of Ramadan and the marvelous custom of iftar. Fasting does give us the perfect opportunity to focus on something deeper than our bodily desires (though I can’t recommend abstaining from water all day long). But there’s a natural connection between the two great Eid feast days and Christian feast days, and those at least are natural times when families of mixed faiths could celebrate jointly — though the Easter ham would likely have to be reconsidered.

    After all, both are Abrahamic faiths. Both worship the same One God. A little give and take on both sides would enrich the festival days of both groups. To paraphrase just a bit, how good and precious it is for families and generations to celebrate together.

    • Alana Raybon

      Hi Bakabomb,
      Thanks for your comment. Yes,celebrating together is so important for a family, especially for the grandkids. It’s true, the Abrahamic faiths have so many similarities! Our commonalities should be a unifying force, especially in a family. God bless!

  • Sam

    I can certainly appreciate the struggle you are having.

    I am the only Muslim in my family. My mother refound a depth to her Evangelical Christianness after my parents got divorced when I was in middle school. My father, who had primary custody, believes in the “divinity of Jesus Christ” but isn’t a church goer nor a proselytizer and always encouraged my curiosity. And my brother followed in my old foot steps and beyond into positive atheism. For my part I never thought such certainty could be ascertained. (If anything our ignorance always outweighs our knowledge.)

    Quite sometime ago my father moved a days drive away, with my brother who was still a minor at the time, and as the years passed it became tradition for me to visit them around Christmas. When I reverted this caused no issues with either my father or brother, nor with the tradition as our celebration on December 25th was more secular and traditional than religious in anyway.

    My mother was glad that I had found God even if I hadn’t got “where I was suppose to be” yet. But we had already found detente about religious affairs during my New Atheist days so we are still loving, caring, and inviting to each other despite our differences. We still send each other videos, emails, or websites every now and then to show each other why we each stand where we do.

    I love her and she is a great woman so many ways and while I anticipate that we may never come eye to eye on this. It’s okay though. It is just how things are.

    The important thing though is to continue to strive to respect and love her, and everyone, just as the examples of Muhammad (saws) and Jesus (as) show us. It is not easy to always to follow God’s guidance on this (4:36, 17:23-24, 31:14) but it is a far better struggle to have than many others.

    I wish you the best in your struggle and if I could give only one piece of advice it is to always make sure she knows you love her, insha’Allah.

    ‘Paradise lies at the feet of your mother’ [Musnad Ahmad, Sunan An-Nasâ’i, Sunan Ibn Mâjah].

    • Alana Raybon

      Thank you for your comments, Sam. Your journey is so interesting! I hope you and your mom and continue to work towards an understanding.
      God bless!

  • cken

    I have read a significant amount of literature on all the major religions of the world. I can see good and less than good things in all of them, but the Islamic religion seemingly offers the least hope for eternal life. I really have difficulty understanding the attraction of the religion.

  • cken

    I have read a significant amount of literature on all the major religions of the world. I can see good and less than good things in all of them, but the Islamic religion seemingly offers the least hope for eternal life. I really have difficulty understanding the attraction of the religion.

    • Alana Raybon

      Hi Cken,
      Thanks for your comment. For me, the pull is the idea that God is one, without partners or intercessors. It makes me feel like I have a personal relationship with God directly. Islam encourages believers to live for this life and the next equally, gaining the benefits of being on earth while simultaneously striving for an eternal afterlife.
      God bless!

    • bakabomb

      Religion doesn’t really play a part when it comes to the hereafter for us as individual souls. On the one hand, there’s the Divine; on the other hand, each of us. And, I suppose, some form of judgment as to how well we did in life and how that relates to our ongoing experience. All religions espouse their particular rules of life that are intended to prepare us for that moment, and certainly there are differences, but the similarities outweigh them (they all have the equivalent of the Golden Rule). Those guidelines to prepare us, well, that’s about as far as religion can go.

      Because when it comes to the details of the hereafter, the best any religion can do is offer an “educated” guess — the reality is what it is, and I suspect we’ll all be surprised by it. I don’t put much stock in being handed a harp, halo and wings, and I certainly wouldn’t be excited at the prospect of that kind of eternity. Nor do I count on a harem of eager virgins — physical pleasures are meant to be experienced in the here and now, and would surely pall over the long haul as well. What, then? It’s simple. I put my trust entirely in the Divine’s love and plan for me. That’s got nothing to do with religion, though — and everything to do with faith.

    • Sam

      If I may, I would like to answer the second (the attraction) first and the first (hope for eternal life) second.

      For me the attraction was multifaceted (in no particular order):
      1) The simplicity of God, tawhid, rather than the three-one formula of Christianity or the many-doors-to-the-same-room nature of the various polytheistic faiths.
      2) The anyone can simply join nature rather than having to be born in it or go through an arduous conversion process that isn’t recognized by the many or it’s member.
      3) The call to be peaceful and understanding but also the encouragement to defend oneself and one’s community rather than turning away from all defense.
      4) The community responsibilities that call for one to understand they are responsible for more than just themselves.
      5) The obligatory prayers, to be performed individually or communally, that provide a set time for you to take sometime out for God, dhikr.
      6) The one text that was not only written down quickly after the death of the Prophet (saws) but also its continued textual integrity.
      6a) With this, if you learn Arabic you can read it yourself.
      6b) Ayah such as 40:57, 109:6, 25:63, and many others.
      7) The lack of a clergy (by and large) and no supreme leader.

      That is a short list off the top of my head. The actually leap of faith is a different matter.

      Eternal life is spoken of often in the Quran. It was not a factor in my decision to take my leap and it has actually been an interesting experience coming to grips with such a concept. As with many things in Islam I think that God said it best in the Quran, so if I may just provide some ayah:
      This is just a very short list of places that the Quran speaks of eternal life.

      Go in peace. 🙂

      • cken

        Sorry for the delayed response, but as I near the end sometimes things take longer. I just wanted to say thank you for such a thoughtful and complete response. I will read some of your suggested readings. Personally as a Christian I am troubled with the trinity. I accept the teachings of Jesus and that he died and rose again which to me is well within the realm of metaphysical possibility and likely accomplished with things He learned as an initiate in the Egyptian Mysteries. I have difficulty with the Holy Spirit being a separate entity. But when it comes down to it man has always believed in a life giving creator and a life after death. Religions have simply found many different ways of expressing it over many thousands of years using symbolism relevant to the times.