As some of you know, I have recently converted to Islam. I have decided the best explanation I can offer for a decision involving radical lifestyle and value changes is no rational explanation at all; to merely leave you in wonder. This is simply the way things are now, and my reasons for suddenly becoming religious after nearly 40 years of atheism, and for being called into this particular religion, have been shared only with other Muslims.

In other words, I’m sitting on a big juicy secret. 😀

It is safe to assume that my work in funeral service played a huge part in this conversion, although I have not been part of a Muslim funeral service, nor have I even made arrangements with a Muslim family in over ten years. However, this profession has changed me in innumerable ways, and any values and beliefs I hold today are those which have been influenced by years of assisting families through grief, loss and horror. But after an extremely gut-wrenching and difficult service a few months ago, I was saved only by being worked up into what I now recognize was a state of religious delirium, and I haven’t looked back. This service is one I wish I could write about, but due to its high-profile nature, I cannot, until a significant amount of time has passed. Some services are like that; in order to maintain confidentiality, I often have to wait years before discussing the case at all. This is one of them.

I also did not know I had jumped into Islam right near Ramadan, the Muslim holiday involving 30 days of fasting from sunup to sundown. In the summer months, this means a solid 18+ hours a day of no food or water, and of course nothing to make it easier on oneself, as Islam forbids all intoxicants. And the point isn’t to try and find ways to make it easy, the point is to reach out for God when it gets too hard, because that is all we have. I actually completed this fast, with no cheating. It could be my years as a competitive bodybuilder gave me an edge, but I have cheated on my diet with every contest. Ramadan is harder physically, but cheating was out of the question. The price to pay for even one instance of cheating is to fast for 60 days! Who wants to do that?! I even baked a whole cheesecake for one of my kids, knowing I couldn’t have any of it, or even lick the bowl.

So, from about 9pm to 5am, I was allowed to eat and drink all I wanted. But on a few occasions, I overslept and didn’t take the 5am meal, making the fast 22+ hours instead of the usual 18. Those days were hard. There were a few times when I would embalm a body and then have to crash in the back of the van, face down on a cot with my headscarf and shoes still on. (I do wear a head covering at work, but I keep it simple and in line with an office dress code. In the funeral business, and with many other religions, covering the hair isn’t out of the ordinary.)

Here is how I spent the 30 days:

I read the entire Qur’an out loud to myself (in English). I also listened to it read in Arabic, either on a phone app or during prayer services.

I memorized the first chapter of the Qur’an in English and Arabic.

I went to mosque every day, and on three occasions I stayed up for taraweeh prayers, which go from about 11pm to 3am and are all in Arabic. I had no idea what I was saying, and at times got so sleepy that other sisters had to physically correct my postures and movements, but it was a very uplifting experience.

I kept up with the five daily prayers, which many people know is a requirement of Islam. However, from what I observed, most Muslims pray well over five times a day! The five daily prayers (pre-sunrise; afternoon; early evening; evening; night) are considered mandatory, but there are several other prayers one can do in between, ranging from “highly recommended” to “optional.” I haven’t even learned all of them, but I started to add in many to my personal regimen.

I stayed away from weed and alcohol. Both are explicitly haraam (forbidden). I had already been sober for about 9 months, but the weed I just quit for Ramadan, and now realize I must stay off that as well. It wasn’t good for me anyway.

In the beginning, I decided I would read only Qur’an in the daytime/fasting hours, and pick up my novels and other books at night. But I quickly discovered I wanted to read nothing but Qur’an at any time.

Early in Ramadan, I spent a week in the hospital. People are excused from fasting during times of illness, but since I wasn’t incapacitated, I decided to continue the fast. The staff were very understanding and they saved all my meals and snacks for me to eat after sundown, as well as letting me keep my hijab and take time out for prayers. I also had people from the Islamic community visit me with books and flowers, as well as two funeral directors and my family.

I set a personal goal of listening only to Islamic prayer calls, rather than music, and while I did not hold fast to this, I ignored most of my playlists and listened mainly to the prayer calls and other Islamic music. Music and its acceptability seems to be a point of debate among Islamic scholars, but I have found many Muslim recording artists that I listen to more often than any other type of music now. There are even hijabi rappers!

I dealt with literally hundreds of marriage proposals, though I suspect they were looking for citizenship (plus they were all too young). The Imam suggested I get married, but clearly I will need his assistance here, to assure that only the right sort of people even get through to the process of speaking to me directly. It’s difficult for a woman to get married in Islam without a male relative to serve as a go-between, and I’m certain my non-religious father would be horrified at the thought of screening strangers for his adult daughter to marry. This wasn’t a goal of mine, but insh’allah, it cannot be ignored.

Now that Ramadan and the big Eid celebration are over, I’m a little depressed. It’s similar to looking forward to Christmas, and all the little celebrations and rituals and parties leading up to it in the month of December, only to have the holiday disappear as fast as it arrived, and with it, many of the connections you formed. I met several great women at the mosque and the celebrations, but in the way some Christians only go to church on Christmas eve, there are Muslims who only attend mosque during Ramadan. I’m still attending every day.

I also made friends with other new converts, so I have people with whom I can study basic Arabic, middle eastern cooking (I thought I was good until I tried everyone else’s!), and hijab-wrapping 101 (is it cheating to use safety pins?). It sure is a lot better than smoking weed and crying by myself!

And, I will of course be immeasurably useful to the community in the event of a death. Most Muslim funeral services do not include embalming; they are much like the Jewish people in the way they emphasize a return to the earth from which we came. But of course, if the body is to be shipped internationally, or if the family is interfaith and some people want a viewing…that’s what I’m here for.