Another Convert for Islam
A young woman with a troubled past is touched by the reverence of a Masjid wedding. She becomes a Muslim, but her friends wonder if it will last.
By SOLOMON MOORE, Los Angeles Times Staff
No one expected Dia Richardson to get religion, and certainly not the one she got.
After all, she had lived fast for many years. If the clubs were open, Richardson was there. At Thanksgiving dinner one year, her uncle--one of three Christian ministers in her family--asked her reprovingly, "Just how many beers are you going to drink?"
"As many as I brought," she sassed.
Then her friend Khadijah Shabazz, who is Muslim, invited Richardson to a masjid wedding in Culver City. Richardson accepted, even though she knew she would have to wear a skirt that covered her legs, "my best asset."
It was the first time she had been inside a masjid. The simple reverence of the ceremony, the Arabic prayer resonating in the domed hall, awakened something in her, Richardson said. So did the sound of her 10-year-old son's voice when he intoned the Qur'anic verse Shabazz had taught him: Bismallah Ir-Rahman Ir-Rahim. In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful.
But not until Sept. 11 did Richardson begin to imagine what it might be like to be a follower of Prophet Muhammad. As reports of anti-Muslim incidents mounted, Richardson witnessed Shabazz's forbearance.
"People told her to take off her head scarf to be safe, but she wouldn't do it," Richardson said. "I saw how disciplined and calm they were. And I don't know any Christian who prays at the same time five times a day."
Richardson, 30, became her friend's protector, and eventually, her fellow believer.
Richardson's story is a dramatic contrast to the recent saga of John Walker Lindh, the white suburban youth from Northern California who joined the Taliban and was captured by American troops in Afghanistan. If Lindh is the most extreme representative of American Muslim converts, Richardson personifies the majority: African American, urban, in search of answers and a more disciplined form of worship.
Islam, a 1,400-year-old religion with as many as 1 billion adherents worldwide, has been growing steadily in the United States. American Muslim groups report anecdotal evidence that enrollments have been surging since Sept. 11 as more Americans became aware of the religion, though there are no reliable statistics. There also is no way to predict how many will backslide. Joining may be the easiest part of being a Muslim. The challenges usually come after converts commit their daily lives to Islam's sacrificial demands.
Converts such as Richardson must forgo drink, pork, church, old boyfriends and miniskirts for a regimen of prayer, fasting and study. And often, they face skepticism and disdain from friends and family.
Relatives Less Than Enthusiastic
One of her uncles laughed aloud when she told him about her new faith: "Uh-huh, whatever." Yolanda Smith, Richardson's aunt and an evangelist minister, says, "I won't be running to her with congratulations."
One of the first people Richardson telephoned after she converted to Islam was her uncle John Wood, who lives in Riverside and is also an evangelist minister.
"You did what? Are you out of your mind?" Then she heard him scrambling for his Bible. "Wait a minute, let me read something to you." He found a passage from the Book of John: "He gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish. . . ."
"I knew you were going to try to preach it out of me, Uncle John, that's why I didn't call you before," Richardson told him wearily. "But I've been reading the Qur'an, and I think it's the best thing for me."
But Richardson's family and friends are skeptical about that, because Richardson hasn't done so well in finding those best things.
The man who fathered Richardson's son out of wedlock has been in and out of jail. Richardson herself was arrested in 1999 after she fought with the father of her 4-year-old daughter and wounded him with a knife.
She dropped out of college. She tried cosmetology school. She ran through jobs like she ran through boyfriends and flamboyant hairstyles. She caroused at night and slept till noon.
That's why Richardson's mother, Le'Jeune Fletcher of Acton, is so doubtful that Islam is for her daughter. The other reason is that Fletcher spends time in Saudi Arabia, where her second husband sometimes works as a petroleum engineer. Fletcher is not a Muslim, but says she has learned something about what it takes.
"These people are very serious about their faith and have very strict beliefs," Fletcher said. "They pray five times a day. I just don't think Dia has that kind of discipline."
Like many new converts of any faith, Richardson came to Islam at a time of crisis. A few weeks ago, she lost her latest job, her apartment in Acton, and then her father broke his hip and slipped into a coma during surgery.
One of the few bright spots in Richardson's life was her friendship with Shabazz.
Shabazz, who runs a Muslim day-care center out of her home in Central Los Angeles, had agreed to home-school Richardson's son, Christopher.
Shabazz, 41, was a Jehovah's Witness when she married a Muslim man 20 years ago and converted. She never chided Richardson about her lifestyle or tried to proselytize her. And Shabazz taught Christopher about Islam only after he asked why she bowed to the east at noon.
One night a few months ago, staying at her father's home in Silver Lake, Richardson pressed her hands together to pray with Christopher at his bedside. Christopher stopped her and reached for her hands.
"Don't pray like that," he said, turning her palms skyward. "Pray like this so you can receive the blessings."
Eventually, he started asking Richardson whether he could be a Muslim.
"Why do you want to do that?" she asked him.
"I just like it," Christopher said. Shabazz, he said, was "so calm and you're so hyper."
Christopher saw the fight when his mother brandished a knife. He was there when the police came and arrested her. He was there when she and her friends got drunk, and when she woke up hung over and interested in little more than going back to sleep.
"I just didn't feel that we were living nice," Christopher said. "I didn't like staying with baby-sitters. I just wanted to stay with my mom. I was mad. I was depressed."
Christopher just about dragged his mother to the masjid wedding of one of the teachers at Shabazz's day care.
"I have something to do," she told Christopher. "I have to work late."
"Na-uh, no you don't," Christopher said.
When Richardson arrived at Shabazz's house, she was told that she would have to borrow some clothes before entering the masjid.
"Everything I have is all short, short and cleavage," she said.
One of the women gave Richardson a long-sleeved ankle-length gown. Another pitched in a scarf to cover her head and neck. Richardson looked in the mirror--and was pleasantly surprised: "Hey! I still look kind of good."
The wedding was at King Fahd masjid. Built in 1998 with some Saudi funding, the masjid cost more than $8 million and is one of the nation's largest. Richardson said she was immediately struck by how reverent the atmosphere was.
"At my uncle's church, everyone is always whooping and hollering," she said. "But everything is quiet in there, and peaceful."
Then an undulating voice came blazing through that silence, an Arabian melody calling the gathering to prayer: Allah'u'Akbar! Allah'u'Akbar!
"What does that mean?" Richardson whispered. Shabazz whispered back, "God is great."
Great or not, Richardson had a party to go to after the wedding, "so I put on my miniskirt and went out."
A few days later, Muslim terrorists took over four American airliners and crashed them into buildings and a field, killing thousands. Richardson wanted to know why Muslims would do such a thing--and does Muhammad say such men go to hell?
He does, said Shabazz. "That was not an Islamic act."
As reports of attacks against Muslims came in following Sept. 11, Richardson spent more time with Shabazz. "I was like her guard dog," she said.
On a shopping trip one day, Richardson noticed people giving Shabazz the evil eye because of her traditional dress. Sometimes Richardson returned the sentiment with a hand gesture that isn't in any holy book.
During those trying days, Richardson saw reflected in Shabazz's certitude her own emptiness and confusion.
"I was just smoking weed, being with guys, having no job. I was just wild.
"One time I was getting my hair braided up and I thought: 'Look at all this trouble I'm going through getting my hair done when it's very obvious the whole world is going to hell.' God or an angel or some voice in my head was just telling me: 'You need to do something.' "
Back at her father's apartment, Richardson found the book of Islamic supplications Shabazz had given her and opened it.
My forelock is in your hand . . . your decree over me is just.
And she seemed to hear the words she read reverberating within her.
You make the Qur'an the life of my heart and the light of my breast and a departure for my sorrow and a release for my anxiety.
She went to see Shabazz.
"I walked in in my miniskirt and was like: 'I'm going to take shahada [testimony of faith] today.' '
Compared with the rites of study and ministerial approval required of new Jews and Catholics, Muslim conversion is relatively simple. In most of the Islamic world, only a witness and a promise is necessary to join the faith community. Christopher was at Richardson's side when they recited the ancient oath: "I bear witness there is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his Messenger."
With that, she took a baptismal shower and for the second time in her life donned a borrowed hijab.
Facing Challenges of a New Faith
She enjoys reading the Qur'an in English, and has been committing to memory her obligatory prayers in Arabic. Other aspects of her new faith have been more difficult. Muslims have been fasting from sunrise to sunset for almost a month now in observance of Ramadan. She misses listening to rap music, especially the bawdy Oakland lyricist Too Short. Richardson's birthday party is this week, and she wonders how fun it will be sober.
Old boyfriends keep calling. "They keep trying--'One last time for the road?' "
Richardson has been careful so far. But she knows she has a long path in front of her, and she has so many doubters in her life.
"Muhammad didn't save nobody," her Uncle John thundered from the other end of the phone. "Muhammad didn't say, like Jesus: 'I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.' "
Richardson's aunt, Donna Wood--also a minister--took an even dimmer view: "I think it's a cult, and it's going to end up leading Dia straight to hell."
For the first time in many years, Richardson skipped the family Thanksgiving meal.
Last week, she went to her friends, hairdressers Simone Richardson and Maurice Mitchell, at the Silver Slipper Salon for a little respite. Richardson strolled in wearing a head scarf and Simone Richardson--no relation to Dia--looked at her old friend quizzically.
"I'm a Muslim."
Simone's jaw dropped. "No you didn't."
"Yes I did."
Mitchell didn't look up from the hair he was curling. "If I hadn't seen it, I wouldn't believe it."
After an awkward silence, Simone told the woman whose hair she was styling: "She's out of control. I'm praying for her. You know when Muhammad went into that cave, and he was supposed to hear from God or whatever? Well, when he came out, he seemed to have a lot of the same issues that are in Christianity. It seems like a knockoff of Christianity."
"It is a knockoff of Christianity," Richardson said. "Just like Christianity is a knockoff from the Jews."
"Six months," Simone said, combing out a kink. "I give her six months."
"What temple do you go to?" Mitchell asked.
"It's called a masjid."
"You're not supposed to date?"
Simone sounded concerned: "What about the submissive part?"
"What do you mean, submissive?" Richardson asked with slight annoyance. "You've been watching too much Sally Field in 'Not Without My Daughter.' "
The questions continued. By the end of the visit, Simone Richardson and Mitchell seemed more worried about their friend than convinced by her. But they tried to be supportive.
Richardson offered them the Arabic salutation, "Assalam-al-aikum"--God's peace be upon you--and left in time for her evening prayer.