Patricio Pace, a 31-year-old Spanish American convert, shares his story about life as a new Muslim in the United States.
Assalaamu alaikum, Patricio, how are you and your family doing?
Walaykom Salaam, alhamdulillah we are doing well by the grace of Allah SWT.
I understand that you’re a new father now. What is that like?
It’s an amazing experience with a lot of responsibility. Being a father is a huge blessing and an incredible journey as I discover new things about my daughter each day. She makes me smile even when I’m stressed and I forget my worries when I’m around her.
You have been in an intercultural marriage for 4 years now, correct? What is that like now that you’re raising a child together?
I’ve always been exposed to and appreciated diversity from a very young age. I believe that we all have humanity in common yet it is the differences which allow us to appreciate each other. As Allah SWT says in the Qur’an: “O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. Indeed, Allah is Knowing and Acquainted.”
I hope my daughter carries on this same mentality and appreciation for diversity. I don’t feel that the difference of ethnicity plays a major factor in our marriage though, we have more in common in regards to culture than not.
Has Islam shaped your views on marriage and family? If so, how?
Most definitely! Prior to converting, I had values and morals but they would fluctuate based on my mood, desires, and mentality in the moment. With Islam, I have a moral compass (Qur’an) and guide (Prophet Muhammad SAW). After converting, I put Allah SWT at the top of my list above all else and was inspired by His message to honor my family. It changed my priorities and I worked much harder to fulfill my obligations to my family such as keeping ties, visiting them, treating my parents with the utmost respect, etc. With marriage, it was a huge mental shift for me. I was accustomed to the American dating scene which devalues marriage and places emphasis on self-enjoyment. Islam teaches us that marriage is half of our deen. It is about honoring your spouse, being charitable and kind to them, and struggling for the sake of Allah SWT. You put your spouse and family before yourself and that respect and commitment starts from the very beginning.
Subhan’Allah, it’s very refreshing to see these principles being exemplified in a young couple. Can you tell us a little about yourself; where you grew up, your ethnic and religious background, etc?
I grew up in the Bay Area, Northern California, but spent my summers in Spain with my family. Spaniards are typically Catholic, but only my grandmother was practicing, so it was not passed on to me or my siblings. We spent a lot of time outdoors hiking and camping, and my family would always gather around the table to share good home-cooked meals. I spoke both English and Spanish at home and that is a tradition that I am carrying on with my daughter now.
How did you come across Islam and what made you want to study it?
Allah SWT guides you with signs. Some are subtle, while others smack you right in the face. For me it was many things all nudging me in the direction of Islam, piquing my curiosity.
It all started with a trip to Spain where I had been many times before. This time, my uncle arranged a trip to the South where I saw the remnants of the Islamic Golden Age. He praised the Muslims of Cordoba, the most advanced and populous city of its time and explained that many words in Spanish are derived from Arabic, including the frequently used ‘Ojala’ which is the Spanish equivalent of insha’Allah.
There were other factors (like the autobiography of Malcolm X, the events of 9/11, and pure curiosity) which drove me to learn about Islam. I knew almost nothing about it but it was primarily a desire to understand my heritage that made Islam intriguing.
You mention that it was many things nudging you to accept Islam. What pushed you over, made you decide with certainty that you wanted to officially become a Muslim?
That’s a great question! I had a lot of interest building up in Islam as well as religion in general. I was at a point in my life where I wanted more depth, more meaning. Living life for the sake of fun and pleasure alone was no longer appealing for me. I wanted direction and purpose, so I turned towards religion mostly out of curiosity but also out of a need for fulfillment.
At the time I considered myself agnostic/atheist and was against organized religion, viewing it as an opiate of the masses. Nevertheless, I had a drive to learn more. I was very impressed by the Muslim’s claim that the Qur’an is the preserved, unaltered, word of God, unchanged to this day from the day of revelation. I decided that it should be very easy to find contradictions and errors if the Qur’an was manmade so I decided to start there. Everyday I would read the Qur’an and learn about the basic beliefs of Islam. I would strongly question what I was reading yet keep an open mind and put myself in the other person’s shoes, so to speak. Strangely enough, I found myself agreeing with what I read. Islam was very logical and practical – even easy to understand. After 3 years and 2 complete readings of the Qur’an, I decided to accept Islam.
The moment that pushed me over was when I was taking a shower and reflecting on life and Islam. It suddenly struck me that I had already been a complete believer in Islam for quite some time. I found it ridiculous that I would delay acting on something I realized I was certain about. I had thorough belief and even memorized Surat Al Fatiha as well as the 5 daily prayers in Arabic. The actual process of converting was a little more challenging, however.
Well, I didn’t actually know any Muslims. The masjid in the town I lived in at the time was tiny and never open. I eventually came to find out it was only open for Salat al Jumu’ah. I made it there one day, but was quite nervous. It was a foreign place to me. I didn’t know anyone, and converting was a really big deal to me. After the khutbah and prayer, I let them know I wanted to become Muslim. Unfortunately, I was referred to a much larger masjid about an hour’s drive away. At this point, I already considered myself Muslim and was practicing the fundamentals of the religion.
Maybe a week or so later, I visited the larger masjid to participate in a New Muslim class they were offering. The vibe was much different with a lot of converts and a much more friendly and welcoming environment. Immediately after class, I prayed dhuhr and took my shahada in front of about 120 people. It was an amazing experience and it completely felt right.
Masha’Allah that sounds incredible. You’ve been blessed in so many ways, Patricio. May you be triply blessed in this life and in the next.
Do you feel like you’ve been accepted into the Muslim community now? Has that somehow distanced you from your old community – the American non-Muslim one?
Yes, once I took shahada I felt immediately accepted in the community. I was full of enthusiasm and would drive out there several times per week. I made several friends pretty quickly. I noticed that, although I was taking new Muslim classes, no-one was really treating me as a beginner.
I decided to move much closer to my new community and also leave behind a less appropriate environment that surrounded me. That’s not to say that I cut off all of my friends, I kept almost all of them, actually. It was more of a gradual shift to hanging out with Muslims who shared my interests and drifting away from a party environment I no longer wanted to be immersed in.
What do they think of your conversion?
Friends and family have accepted it and almost none have talked about it in a negative way at all. The few who had some issues were the ones who felt I was imposing my views on them. My family was very supportive, but my stepmother was initially concerned about extremism, oppression of women, and those sorts of things. It took a lot of patience and explaining to show her the real Islam. Both of my parents have recognized that it has brought out the best in me even if they themselves don’t share my faith.
Are you optimistic about the future for Muslims in America?
I actually am optimistic. You hear a lot about discrimination against Muslims and Islamophobia, but I don’t let that deter me. I feel that Islam is getting more exposure than ever before and Muslims are becoming a part of the accepted norm. That doesn’t mean we should drop our guard. On the contrary, we must remain vigilant and support the organizations that protect our interests like CAIR.
Do you feel like you can use your position as an American convert to bridge the gap between Muslims and non-Muslims in the West?
That’s a big challenge and I feel that it’s every Western Muslim’s responsibility to contribute to the dialogue that will bridge the gap. That being said, I think that converts have a unique advantage of being able to fluently navigate both spaces. They in effect have personally bridged those gaps themselves. The next logical step is helping to highlight the commonalities and emphasize that we are all brothers and sisters in humanity.
There is also certain power in being perceived as being native to the American community you are trying to reach out to. I think you can reach more non-Muslims in your community by retaining the name your parents gave you, dressing culturally American yet Islamically modest, while at the same time exemplifying the beautiful teachings of Islam such as charity, kindness, duty to family, respecting women, etc.
At the beginning of your conversion, did you experience symptoms of “convertitis” (a term coined by converts themselves, describing the phase many of them go through in which the believe that their version of Islam is the “true Islam” and that any other is innovation or cultural)? If so, how did you recover from it?
My goal from the start was to be sincere. It is easy to get carried away with the incredible inspiration of having found guidance which leads to the logical conclusion of wishing others to be guided as well. For me it was less about making distinctions amongst Muslims as it was about distancing myself from jahiliyyah. There is a certain wisdom and patience that must accompany trying to advise someone and we must put our trust in Allah SWT as only He can inspire our hearts towards His guidance. As a new convert, I found myself at times looking down on others who did things that are Islamically unacceptable. We forget that we were not too long ago in the same circumstances. As time has passed, I have learned about the dangers of arrogance and being judgmental is a clear warning sign of that disease of the heart.
What are some of the best and worst things about being Muslim?
My favorite thing about being Muslim is the perfect justice of Allah SWT. You know that no matter what happens in this dunya, everything will be held to account and it will all be straightened out on yaum al qiyama. I also love the guidance of the Qur’an and the example of Allah’s Messenger SAW. We can apply the lessons of Islam in practical ways in our lives on a daily basis – actually 24/7, in fact. And of course there is the brotherhood and sisterhood of Islam. I have been to masajid in Spain, Chile, and many cities in the US, and I am always met with smiles, generosity, and incredible warmth from complete strangers. I have never encountered this anywhere but with Islam.
The challenge of being a Muslim for me is striving to live up to the ideals of Islam in a society where doing so is very unpopular. Societal norms can cause many awkward situations where you either get pressured to do something you don’t want to do or may have a difficult time explaining yourself and occasionally defend yourself against those who vehemently disagree. The silver lining is when a non-Muslim notices the positive affect that Islam has had on you and expresses their deep respect for it. It’s those moments that make me especially proud to be Muslim.
Do you have any advice for converts or people who are interested in converting (as well as the “born again” Muslims)?
Yes. When I was learning about Islam, I wanted to know everything about it before converting. I even wanted to learn to pray and make many incremental changes in preparation for conversion. Eventually I realized I had been thoroughly convinced for quite some time and decided to make it official. I recommend that those who are sincere in their desire to become Muslim don’t delay in taking their Shahada. It’s okay to not be perfect right from the start. This leads to my next piece of advice to new Muslims: Take it one step at a time. I can’t emphasize this enough! You don’t want to get overwhelmed or burnt out. You also don’t want to rush towards extremes which often swing back the other way like a pendulum. Instead, it is more beneficial to implement long-lasting change starting with the most important elements. We have to prioritize and create sustainable change. This starts with abstaining from the major sins, learning basic aqeedah, and making wuduh and salah a habit five times a day. You really can’t go wrong if you start with the five pillars and what is obligatory. Afterwards you can increase with what is recommended.
Are you at peace?
I feel that I’m much closer than I have ever been before. I try to remember my Lord when I’m blessed with abundance and remain thankful and patient when I am tested. When I am in touch with Allah SWT it brings me peace, and when I get too focused on the dunya I find myself more stressed. This is why it’s key to stay connected with Allah SWT as often as possible. I probably feel most at peace when I simply put my trust in Allah SWT. I know He is doing what is best for me and that everything is in His hands and I will be taken care of. That is not to say that one shouldn’t put forth effort. Rather, once you have strived and done your best, trust in your Lord and accept the results with patience and gratefulness.
May Allah grant you and your family peace, brother. Peace, contentment, success, prosperity, love, health, wealth, good fortune, ease of mind, and lasting happiness. Peace to you, and thank you. Assalaamu alaikum.
Ameen, and Jazakum Allahu Khayran. Walaykom Assalaam.