By Akbar Ahmed
Every conversion to another faith is a miracle. Wardella Doschek, a white American born into the Christian faith, did not convert, or revert, to Islam until 2003, at a later stage in her life. Yet, as she told me several years ago, when looking back upon her life, she has found herself to be almost predestined for the faith. She sees a connection between her adopted faith and her own Germanic name – “warda” means flower or rose in Arabic, and “ella” is strikingly similar to “Allah.” From her birth, she says with a smile, she has been the “flower of God.”
When I first met Wardella several years back, I was impressed by her quiet sincerity. She is often in physical pain and sometimes even compelled to take to a wheel-chair; but no matter how her body feels, she exudes a spiritual glow andis always ready to encourage those around her with a kind word. She is a frequent guest-speaker in my class at American University and popular with the students, whatever their race or religion. Wardella received her Ph.D. in physical chemistry at the young age of twenty-four from the University of Pittsburgh. Once she joined what she calls “a unique sisterhood,” Wardella went on to work in research administration for several years at the National Science Foundation. After deciding to devote her time to being with her family, she continued to contribute to her community by volunteering at public schools in Montgomery County, Maryland and at Yale University, her daughter’s alma mater.
Wardella long felt something was missing in her life. Raised in the Lutheran Church, she eventually concluded that the Christian tradition was not for her. Come 2003, through what she describes as “a series of very ordinary yet in retrospect remarkable events,” Wardella began to explore Islam. On August 8, 2003, at her home, Wardella professed the shahada and became a Muslim. One of the books that influenced her decision, she has often recounted, was my Islam Today: A Short Introduction to the Muslim World.
Wardella has fully embraced the spiritual message of Islam at a time when Islam is frequently misunderstood and mischaracterized in the West. While pundits and politicians alike argue that Muslim and American identity are incompatible, converts like Wardella are living proof to the contrary. She is not practicing her faith in private either: she currently serves as the active secretary of the Muslim Women’s Association of Washington, DC, an active group which includes a number of dignitaries including the wives of Muslim ambassadors to the US. She hopes her recently published memoir, Straight and Sensible: My Journey to the Straight Path of Islam, “will be inspirational to others. I also hope that it will educate others about the true Islam, a faith of peace, and compassion and tolerance.”
When asked what keeps her awake at night, she cited her belief that “humankind has strayed from the many common tenets of the three great Abrahamic faiths.” She elaborated, in addition to her fears for the plight of the environment and divisions and hatred in our American society and those around the world, that “Judaism, as well as Christianity and Islam, emphasizes the importance of justice. Yet where is the justice today for many minority communities around the world? The grievances of the African American, Latino and Muslim communities in the United States, the plight of the Palestinians in Israel, and the genocide of the Rohingya people in Burma are just a few examples of communities in need of justice, yet it never seems to arrive.” However, Wardella is an optimistic spirit, and even in these challenging times finds much to be celebrated. “I believe, however, that we must not despair or lose sight of the voices of good that are also evident in our world. Malala and Pope Francis are two prominent examples of people who speak for justice, compassion, knowledge, bridge building and reconciliation. As a Muslim I am assured by Allah that the forces of good will eventually triumph over the forces of evil. My prayer is that the world will find a better, more peaceful and loving way in the not too distant future, insha’ Allah.”
Among the prominent figures who inspire her are “The Prophet Muhammed, peace be upon him,” explaining, “As the seal of the Prophets he brought the literal word of God to humankind in its best and most unadulterated form. Alhamdulillah”; M.A. Jinnah, as his “concern for the safety, well being and dignity of the Muslims of India led him to devote much of his life to their cause, ultimately resulting in the creation of a new, democratic, Muslim nation”; and Abraham Lincoln, as “his leadership during the US Civil War resulted in the United States remaining one nation and the eradication of the stain of slavery from American history.” Wardella often cites the Quran, as “its wisdom is deeper than the ocean. Every time I read it I become more filled with awe at its message. It is awesome in the fullest sense of the word”. To hear her speak of the Quran and the Prophet with such enthusiastic reverence and in the same breath as one of her great American heroes shows how fully Wardella has embraced Islam and emerged as a bridge between two worlds. May she continue to be one of the faith’s great bridge-builders in the West.
(The writer is an author, poet, filmmaker, playwright, and is the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies, American University in Washington, DC. He formerly served as the Pakistani High Commissioner to the UK and Ireland. He tweets @AskAkbar)