My name is Maria João. My story of conversion to Islam is painful to recall, and probably will be for the rest of my life. Like so many others, I went through pain and suffering, but at the end, conversion was the best thing I have ever done.
To fully understand my situation, take into consideration my country: Portugal.
When you hear that word, what do you think of? Not much: Portugal is one of the least familiar European countries to outsiders and Muslims. If you hear the word “Spain”, you will most likely think of something, probably the great mosque in Córdoba, or the glorious Muslim history there. Getting back to the point in my story, a bit of history is mixed in. When the Moors conquered Spain, they conquered the entire Iberian Peninsula, including Portugal. Both countries are known for their hate of Muslims, even though they were glorious under Moorish rule. I don’t mean to bore you, so with this information in mind, here is my story.
I was born in Faro, the southernmost town in Portugal. Growing up, I was extremely patriotic and a devout Roman Catholic. My mother used to call me a “Portuguese Joan of Arc” – not that I saved my country, but that I had so much love for Portugal and was such a pious Catholic. I made my parents promise that we would have Mass at least once a month in the huge cathedral that was in the center of the town. My parents worked late hours, and I was the only child, so I used to spend long periods of time praying at my local church, to God, Jesus, and the holy saints.
Looking back, how naïve can a person be?
When I was 10, my family and I moved to Lisbon, the country’s capital. It was wonderful and exciting – Lisbon was more than 9 times bigger than Faro! The district of the city in which I lived was called the Alfama, and I had heard that the Moors founded it, and that the house in which I lived in was built by Muslims a long time ago, but I just looked over these facts. In the midst of all of this, however, I never forgot my faith. I enrolled in a Catholic school, went to confession every day, and held Sunday as my favorite day of the week. But then, the day that I turned 21, everything changed.
My friends and I were at a restaurant. They had surprised me and taken me out to eat at an expensive, high-class bistro. As always, we said prayers before eating. None of my other friends were as pious as I was. We laughed and ate and drank and had such a great time. But then, a serious issue came up. As we talked, we wandered into the topic of why I was so religious. I said that God had created us, and so why should we be thankless? One of my friends, Beatríz, said that it didn’t matter; we were Catholic, and so we were automatically guaranteed entry into heaven. I strongly disagreed with her, but it turned out that all of my other friends had this ideology, too; it was how they were brought up. This made no sense whatsoever to me – could you be a prostitute and still go to heaven just because you were Catholic, like those flashy French actresses?
That night, I went home and read the Holy Bible. I thought it would comfort me, but was terribly mistaken. Things just started not making sense – religious law was a curse? And after contemplating, two more questions popped up: Why did God have to choose his own son for forgiving the world’s sins; couldn’t he just choose someone else? And how could Jesus be the son of God and God himself at the same time? Before, when I read the Bible and didn’t understand something, I just skimmed over it. But that fateful birthday of mine, by the will of Allah, things just stood out in my brain. I went to sleep feeling restless, thinking it was the worst day of my life. It was the best.
The next day, I went to my priest, Pastor Pedro, and asked him about this; surely he would know. To my surprise, he said that these were “mysteries of Roman Catholicism” and gave me a penance for doubting my faith! I was in a state of confusion.
Some weeks later (I was still Christian, but with doubt in my mind), I saw a group of Muslims praying inside a small building. This was surprising, for there were not many Muslims in Lisbon. I ignored them and went on with my business.
There they were the next day, praying again. The verses they were reciting while praying sounded beautiful to me, but I resisted the temptation and went on as usual.
The next day was a Friday. This time, more Muslims were there. I couldn’t resist the temptation, and after most people had left, I asked a man who the head of the group was. When I was directed to the imam, I was surprised, for he looked Portuguese. I looked over this. I asked him to tell me about the Islamic faith. He told me the basic ideologies of Muslims and gave me a book about this subject. I thanked him and went home.
That night, as I was busy with college exams and other things, the book sat there waiting to be read. I picked it up and looked through it. The pages were filled with impressive details I didn’t know about Islam. When I was growing up (as I said, Iberians aren’t fond of Muslims), I was taught that Islam was a militant religion. My teachers said that it was made up, that Muhammad copied the Bible, and that the Muslims brought destruction to Portugal. Even the national hero of Portugal, Luís Vaz de Camões, was anti-Muslim: in his book Os Lusíadas, he had propaganda against the Moors, and in real life he fought them in Morocco, where he lost an eye. I learned in those hours of darkness that my fellow Portuguese could not have been more wrong.
I had exams at college all that week, and I couldn’t get Islam off of my mind. On Friday, once again, I visited the imam. This time, he went into more detail, and gave me a copy of a Portuguese translation of the Holy Qur’an. When I went home, relaxed after the exams were finished, I read the Qur’an. It impressed me so much that I didn’t sleep all that night. I finished the whole book in a few hours. And that is when my torture began.
This whole story, I have not said much about my parents. They were, like me at one time, pious Catholics. However, they didn’t have much time to spare for me, because they had to work hard and long hours, as they did in Faro. When they could, however, they spent time with me. One of these days, when we were at an outing, I admitted to them that I had been interested in Islam. Their reaction wasn’t so good.
Never once did my parents physically slap me, but their words did worse than that. My parents lectured me about how Islam was an evil religion. I didn’t listen though – I boldly disagreed. Looking back at that moment, I can’t believe how much energy I had, instantly springing to my feet. When we went home, my parents still tried to convince me, this time yelling loudly. All I did was simply put a copy of the Qur’an in front of them. And what did they do? My parents, who raised me, loved me, and fed me, that day cursed me, said I was a dog, and threw that beloved, noble book on the floor. This was not tolerated by me, and tears ran down my cheeks. My father sternly stated that if I was not Catholic, I had no room in the house. I packed my belongings and, as I walked out the door with my parents casually reading the newspaper, I said boldly, loudly, fearlessly: “Eu não pertenço à fé cristão. Eu sou agora uma muçulmana!” This translates to “I do not belong to the Christian faith. I am now a Muslim!” I could have died for fear of what my parents would do, but feeling satisfied, I ran out the door.
I loved my parents, and this devastated me – I can hardly type this up right now. It was 2:30 in the morning, and I had no one to pay for my tuition, feed me, clothe me, or house me. I cried myself to sleep in the streets that night.
The next day, Saturday (I was still worried about going to college on Monday), I went to that imam and explained my situation. He consoled me, as I broke down several times while narrating my story. The imam, who had looked Portuguese, said that he was a convert, too – but his family was atheist, and they didn’t care. When the people came to pray Dhohr, the imam, with my permission, told them some aspects of my story. I was amazed at the outpour of support I got – people whom I had no blood relation with donated so much money to me, I burst out in tears and told the imam that I wanted to become a Muslim right now. Publicly, on that day, July 12, 2003, I said the shahada and became a Muslim. Cries of “Allahu Akbar! Allahu Akbar!” rang out. My mood was changed and I couldn’t stop smiling, and under my breath, I repeated to my self, “Eu sou agora uma muçulmana.”
For self-explanatory reasons, I had to drop out of college for a while and support myself. However, the money that those Muslims had given me really helped. I attended a Portuguese equivalent of a community college later. Later still, I visited Faro, which I had not seen since I was 10, realizing that I had forgotten my roots. I went inside the cathedral that I had so loved and stared blankly at those statues and crosses. There was Nossa Senhora da Conceição and the Santo Lenho, that saint and that symbol I had revered during my childhood. At one time, I kissed their feet when no one was looking, but now, I doubted that anyone would feel comfortable spending a night in a Roman Catholic church with all of those statues and pictures.
Islam to me is like a colorful geometric pattern, where one part completes another in harmony and quickly becomes the favorite and most beautiful religion among humans. Now, I am still as religious as I was when I was a little girl. I pray many nafl, read the Holy Qur’an, and remain on the Straight Path. I have mastered 4 languages – my native tongue, Portuguese, and English, Spanish, and French, and I am working on Arabic (both Qur’anic and colloquial). Luckily, I spent enough time at the prestigious college I went to before Islam to get a sufficient education. Now, living in Lisbon, I plan to, with my specialty in the medical field, immigrate to the United States. Insha’allah, there I will lead a fruitful life, marry a Muslim, and not forget my roots by visiting Faro and Lisbon often. I still pray for my parents. I will stand tall, but in the middle of the night, as life is hectic and only gives me a slight pause, I will always say my personal prayers in Portuguese. “Eu sou agora uma muçulmana, eu sou agora uma muçulmana.”
I didn’t really change my religion – well, originally. Once, Portugal was predominantly Muslim. After research that stuck in my mind, I found out that the name for the region in which I was born, the Algarve, comes from the Arabic “al-gharb”, meaning west. Faro, my beloved hometown, is named after the family that once ruled it, the Banu Harun, and is even said to be founded by Muslims. (In Portuguese, “o” at the end of a word is pronounced “oo”; therefore, Faro is “fah-roo”, and Pedro is “pehd-roo”. Also, sometimes H and F are confused, hence the name Faro.) The district of Lisbon in which I have spent most of my life, the Alfama, comes from the Arabic al-hamma. Even the name of Lisbon itself is derived from the Arabic name for the city, al-Ushbuna! And Portuguese has many words derived from Arabic. I was darker than most northern Portuguese, and this was a sign of Muslim blood running through my veins. And my teachers who said Islam brought ruin to Portugal? Under Islam, Lisbon and the rest of al-Andalus flourished, and some areas were richer then than they are today. All this may not be related to my story, but it is important for me to tell you because, if you are a convert, or at least for me, it is important to know that your past had ties with Islam.
I have contemplated putting my story into the forum for months. I was, and am, afraid that people won’t believe me, as I have seen people acting like others. I had even saved it on a word processor so I could decide whether or not to post it later on. But my story is true. All I want is to lead life as a normal Muslim, and I haven’t shared my story with anyone. But it is time for someone to hear. So I recently joined this forum which I had only been reading and put my story into writing.
My final word: when I hear about Moorish Spain and Portugal, my heart sinks. Today, in Spain there are about 500,000-800,000 Muslims out of 40 million people. In Portugal, there are only 15,000 out of 10 million! Please, let’s help spread Islam in both countries, as it is sad to see that these once predominately Muslim countries have such a small amount of them today.