When Catherine Houlihan made the decision to convert to Islam, the self-described “type A” personality approached it like she does many things in her life ― with deliberation and intent.
Houlihan, who was born into a Irish Catholic family, told HuffPost her conversion story spans 13 years. She spent years reading books about Islam and books that were critical of the religion, so that she could view it from multiple perspectives. She sought out mentors, listened to sermons, kept her family informed about her spiritual search, and plugged into a local network of young professional Muslims in her home city of Miami, Florida.
In 2016, she decided to give herself one final test before converting: fasting during Ramadan.
The holy month, which began at sunset on May 26 this year, is a time of deep introspection and spiritual cleansing for the world’s Muslims. Believers are encouraged to fast during the daylight hours. Along with food and water, many Muslims also abstain from sex and try to avoid bad habits like lying, swearing, gossiping, and arguing.
Houlihan said that she viewed Ramadan in 2016 as a trial run, just to see if she could make the leap of faith into Islam.
“I just knew that was the final step,” the 32-year-old told HuffPost. “If I saw the benefit of it, understood it, felt more connected to God that way, that was that.”
But even Houlihan, with all her careful planning, found that she wasn’t immune from the trials that converts often face during the month.
Converts to Islam are spiritual seekers who are looking for meaning in their lives, and better ways to connect with God. While people who have grown up in the faith have years of experience with the holy month, and a built-in social network to help them celebrate it, new Muslims are starting from scratch.
Some experience isolation in pockets of the country where there aren’t many other converts, while others struggle to explain their conversion to members of their former religious communities. Some find that the spiritual challenges of the month bring up ghosts from their past, while others use Ramadan as an opportunity to dive deeper into Islam’s tenets.
No matter their circumstances, many converts find Ramadan to be a time of the year when their new faith is put to the test.
During Ramadan, Community Is Essential
Ramadan is by nature a very social month for Muslims, with families attending mosque services together, or inviting friends over to break the fast during iftar, an evening meal.
Since Houlihan had made an effort to connect with Muslims in South Florida, she said she had a few Muslim friends who would check in with her during the month ― offering advice about nutrition, or inviting her over for iftar. But many days in the month were also lonely. She said her morning meal would be fruit from the gym where she worked out, and that she would cook for herself in the evenings.
On the last Friday of Ramadan last year, Houlihan decided to take her shahada, a statement of faith that marks a person’s conversion to Islam.
This year, Houlihan said she is looking forward to the challenge of her first Ramadan as a full-fledged Muslim. She told HuffPost she’s entering the month with big dreams. Much of it centers around community building and expanding her network in South Florida. Houlihan said she plans to regularly break the fast with other young Muslim professionals, explore local mosques with the hopes of finding a permanent spiritual home, and participate in service projects.
“Now that I’m officially Muslim, I’m more excited because now I have a community,” Houlihan told HuffPost. “I’m not going to be by myself.”
Community building is also important to Lester Guijarro, a 28-year-old convert from Los Angeles, California. Guijarro, who was also brought up in a Catholic household, told HuffPost that one of his first interactions with Islam happened after a friend invited him to a Ramadan meal. It ended up being a life changing experience ― Guijarro said that afterwards, he got a copy of the Quran to read for himself.
“I really love love the community I was in,” Guijarro told HuffPost in an email. “Love the people and eating with everyone after sunset. It was really nice.”
After taking his shahada in January, Guijarro said he’s hoping that this Ramadan will help him begin his relationship with Islam.
“My first Ramadan will be something I’m excited about. To meet with people in the community is something I love and eating and talking with them is special,” he told HuffPost. “Physically, I’m trying to slow down eating and prepare to eat after sunset and before sunrise. Spiritually, I’m [going to] let Allah and the people I surround myself with do the rest.”
Finding Community As A Convert Is Difficult For Some
While Houlihan and Guijarro had the benefit of living close to thriving and diverse Muslim communities, converts in other parts of the country have a harder time.
Glenda Mitchell, a recent convert from the small town of Clanton, Alabama, was introduced to Islam through an old friend. Most of her education about the faith happened online, through sermons and blog posts. Like Houlihan, Mitchell also practiced fasting for Ramadan last year ― waking up early in the morning for the pre-dawn meal, and trying her hardest to fast throughout the day.
Mitchell told HuffPost it typically takes her an hour to drive to a mosque in Birmingham for Friday service. She’s contemplating finding a job closer to a bigger city so that she can feel like she’s part of a community.
After taking her shahada in March, the 47-year-old said that she’s still trying to get to know fellow Muslims and build a community. She’s hoping that her first Ramadan as a Muslim this year will help her achieve that goal.
“I made a commitment to myself that no matter how far it is, I would go at least three times a week to break fast with people at the mosque,” Mitchell said. “It might be difficult for me, but I really need to gain community ties because I’m in a terrible spot right now. Mostly all my support comes from texting and [the internet.]”
Ramadan Magnifies New Muslims’ Spiritual Challenges
For other new Muslims, Ramadan presents a completely different personal challenge. It’s not so much about finding a community, but about the spiritual reflection and cleansing that the month demands of its participants.
Zahraa Zuniga is a 33-year-old convert from Long Beach, California. Zuniga grew up in a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses, but never really connected with her childhood religion. She told HuffPost that she learned to cope with a difficult childhood and unstable family life by becoming dependent on an eating disorder. She said found Islam at a particularly low point of her life, when she was struggling with addictions, anxiety, and depression, and felt she had nowhere else to turn. Reading about a merciful and loving God in the Quran changed her life.
After taking her shahada last October, Zuniga said she felt peace for the first time in her life. But that’s also when the real internal work began.
“The 32 years of issues you didn’t want to work with, you’re forced to work on in Islam, you’re encouraged to change and modify your character and behavior, to be a good person, to be good to others, to have good thoughts,” Zuniga said.
“I know I have Allah holding my hand every step of the way.”
As she enters her first Ramadan, Zuniga said she feels all of these challenges will be magnified. She said she’s particularly worried about fasting for Ramadan as someone who is recovering from an eating disorder. She practiced fasting before the month, so that she could prepare for the emotions that the experience triggers.
“I’m scared, absolutely, but not as scared as I would be in the past because I know I have Allah holding my hand every step of the way,” Zuniga said. “I’ll grow from it. If I can get through Ramadan and not regress back into my eating disorder, I can get through anything.”
Ramadan Can Be Tough For Converts Without Family Support
For some new Muslims, the hardest part of conversion is sharing the news with their family members. Zuniga said that her family has had a hard time accepting the fact that she has changed from her childhood religion ― especially because they have distorted views about Islam.
Megan Marie Aksamit, a 27-year-old convert from Puyallup, WA, is worried that family tensions may be amplified during Ramadan.
Aksamit began exploring Islam after meeting her partner, who is a Muslim. She started taking classes about the religion at a mosque near her home.
“I felt so much peace. It just felt right,” she told HuffPost in an email.
But her family isn’t aware of this great change in her life. They don’t know that she has converted.
“I’m really scared to say anything because my family is very conservative in their political way of thinking, which makes me feel they won’t be understanding,” she told HuffPost. “The hardest part is praying when I’m around my family. I currently have to wait to pray if they are around. “
Before Ramadan began, Aksamit said she practiced fasting on Thursdays to prepare for the month.
“I think the hardest part will be fasting around my family,” she said.
Many Converts Feel Ramadan Is A Challenge Worth Taking
Mitchell, the convert from Alabama, told HuffPost that her children are supportive of her spiritual journey. But most of her friends and family just think she’s “crazy” for accepting Islam. She said she quit her job as a bartender in her small town, and she feels that much of her life is still in chaos.
But despite everything that’s happened since she converted, Mitchell said she isn’t looking back.
“I wasn’t looking for this [religious experience], but my whole life is changed because I can’t deny it. So I have to live it, I have to make changes in my life,” she told HuffPost. “Just imagine you’re 47 years old and you finally feel God. That is an incredible feeling. So no matter what else you have to give up, no matter what you have to do, you’re going to do it. Because that is the most precious thing in my life, beside my children, nothing has been this important to me.”
That’s why Mitchell is hoping for change this month.
“I really feel that this [Ramadan] is going to be pivotal for me,” Mitchell said. “I feel like that’s going to be the time I can make friends and feel more part of something.”