Theresa Corbin converted to Islam at 21
She found the religion appealed to her intellect and
feminist ideals
“Muslims come in all shapes, sizes, attitudes,
ethnicities, cultures and nationalities.”
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Editor’s note: Theresa Corbin is a writer living in
New Orleans. She is the founder of Islamwich and a
contributor to On Islam and Aquila Style. A version of
this piece first appeared on CNN iReport.
(CNN) — I am a Muslim, but I wasn’t always. I
converted to Islam in November 2001, two months
after 9/11.
I was 21 and living in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. It was a
bad time to be a Muslim. But after four years of
studying, poking and prodding at world religions and
their adherents, I decided to take the plunge.
Questions and answers
I am the product of a Creole Catholic and an Irish
atheist. I grew up Catholic, then was agnostic, now
I’m Muslim.
My journey to Islam began when I was about 15
years old in Mass and had questions about my faith.
The answers from teachers and clergymen — don’t
worry your pretty little head about it — didn’t satisfy
me.
So I did what any red-blooded American would do:
the opposite. I worried about it. For many years. I
questioned the nature of religion, man and the
universe.
Theresa Corbin
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After questioning everything I was taught to be true
and digging through rhetoric, history and dogma, I
found out about this strange thing called Islam. I
learned that Islam is neither a culture nor a cult, nor
could it be represented by one part of the world. I
came to realize Islam is a world religion that teaches
tolerance, justice and honor and promotes patience,
modesty and balance.
As I studied the faith, I was surprised many of the
tenants resonated with me. I was pleased to find that
Islam teaches its adherents to honor all prophets,
from Moses to Jesus to Mohammed, all of whom
taught mankind to worship one God and to conduct
ourselves with higher purpose.
I was drawn to Islam’s appeal to intellect and
heartened by the prophet Mohammed’s quote, “The
acquisition of knowledge is compulsory for every
Muslim, whether male or female.”
I was astounded that science and rationality were
embraced by Muslim thinkers such as Al-Khawarizmi,
who invented algebra; Ibn Firnas, who developed the
mechanics of flight before Leonardo DaVinci; and Abu
al-Qasim al-Zahrawi, who is the father of modern
surgery.
Here was a religion telling me to seek out answers
and use my intellect to question the world around
me.
Taking the plunge
It was 2001, and I had been putting off converting for
a while. I feared what people would think but was
utterly miserable. When 9/11 happened, the actions
of the hijackers horrified me. But in its aftermath, I
spent most of my time defending Muslims and their
religion to people who were all too eager to paint a
group of 1.6 billion people with one brush because of
the actions of a few.
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I was done being held hostage by the opinions of
others. In defending Islam, I got over my fear and
decided to join my brothers and sisters in the faith I
believed in.
My family did not understand, but it wasn’t a surprise
to them since I had been studying religion. Most
were very concerned for my safety. Luckily, most of
my friends were cool about it, and even curious to
learn more.
The scarf
These days, I am a proud wearer of hijab. You can call
it a scarf. My scarf does not tie my hands behind my
back, and it is not a tool of oppression. It doesn’t
prevent thoughts from entering my head and leaving
my mouth. But I didn’t always know this.
Studying Islam didn’t immediately dispel all my
cultural misconceptions. I had been raised on
imagery of women in the East being treated like
chattel by men who forced them to cover their
bodies out of shame or a sense of ownership.
But when I asked a Muslim woman “Why do you wear
that?”, her answer was obvious and appealing: “To
please God. To be recognized as a woman who is to
be respected and not harassed. So that I can protect
myself from the male gaze.”
Surprisingly, Islam turned out to be the religion
that appealed to my feminist ideals.
Theresa Corbin
She explained how dressing modestly is a symbol to
the world that a woman’s body is not meant for mass
consumption or critique.
I still wasn’t convinced and replied, “Yeah, but
women are like second class citizens in your faith?”
The very patient Muslim lady explained that, during a
time when the Western world treated women like
property, Islam taught that men and women were
equal in the eyes of God. Islam made the woman’s
consent to marriage mandatory and gave women the
opportunity to inherit, own property, run businesses
and participate in government.
She listed right after right that women in Islam held
nearly 1,250 years before women’s lib was ever
thought of in the West. Surprisingly, Islam turned out
to be the religion that appealed to my feminist
ideals.
Getting married
It might shock you to know that I had an arranged
marriage. That doesn’t mean I was forced to marry
my father’s first choice suitor, like Jasmine from
“Aladdin.” Dad didn’t even have a say.
When I converted, it wasn’t a good time to be a
Muslim. Feeling isolated, alienated and rejected by
my own society pushed me to want to start a family
of my own. Even before converting, I had always
wanted a serious relationship but found few men
looking for the same.
As a new Muslim, I knew there was a better way to
look for love and a lifelong partnership. I decided
that if I wanted a serious relationship, it was time to
get serious about finding one. I wanted an arranged
marriage.
I made a list of “30 Rock”-style deal breakers. I
searched. I interviewed. I interrogated friends and
families of prospects.
I decided I wanted to marry another convert,
someone who had been where I was and wanted to
go where I wanted to go. Thanks to parents of
friends, I found my now-husband, a convert to Islam,
in Mobile, Alabama, two hours from my New Orleans
home. Twelve years later, we are living happily ever
after.
Not every Muslim finds a mate in this manner, and I
didn’t always see this for my life. But I am glad Islam
afforded me this option.
Living in a post-9/11 world
I never had to give up my personality, American
identity or culture to be a Muslim. I have, at times,
had to give up on being treated with dignity.
I have been spat on, had eggs thrown at me and been
cursed at from passing cars. And I have felt terror
when the mosque I attended in Savannah, Georgia,
was first shot at, then burned down.
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In August 2012, I moved back home to New Orleans,
where being different is the norm. I finally felt safe
— for a while. But now, with the continuous news
coverage of the un-Islamic group known as ISIS, I
have been subjected to much of the same treatment
I received in other cities. And I now feel less safe
than I ever have.
It enrages me to know there are some who call
themselves Muslims and who distort and
misappropriate Islam for political gains.
It weighs on me knowing that millions of my
countrymen see only these images as a
representative of my religion. It is unbearable to
know that I am passionately hated for my beliefs,
when those hating me don’t even know what my
beliefs are.
In my journey to Islam, I came to learn that Muslims
come in all shapes, sizes, attitudes, ethnicities,
cultures and nationalities. I came to know that Islam
teaches disagreement and that shouldn’t lead to
disrespect, as most Muslims want peace.
Most of all, I have faith that my fellow Americans can
rise above fear and hatred and come to learn the
same.

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