The Journey of a Convert
Finding Faith, Then Interfaith
by Ruth Broyde Sharone
Her lineage offers no clues. Martha Alice Perkins was born in La Fayette, Indiana in 1947, the daughter of a state policeman and devoted church-going Methodist mother, as well as the granddaughter of a member of the local Ku Klux Klan.
Who could have predicted that Martha would become a Sufi, marry a black man who would convert to Buddhism, give birth to two children (a son who would become a Taoist and a daughter who would marry a Choctaw Native American) then change her name to Noor-Malika Chishti? Or predicted that she would formally convert to Islam and don a hijab?
Her exceptional life story is also a sign of things to come as more and more people leave their birth religion and family traditions in search of a new path that beckons to them. It was as a convert that Noor-Malika found her spiritual home and a place at the interfaith table.
Her first demonstration of social activism, at age five, came when she refused to play Ring Around the Rosie because the last line of the children’s dance had the “N” word in it. “I didn’t want the black children across the river to hear that rhyme.” Her father, in addition to being an Indiana state policeman, was a construction worker during the summer. His best friend, Major, was a black man, she recalls. Noor-Malika knew something was “off” when Major wasn’t allowed in their house for a glass of water but had to get a drink from the hose outside.
She knew nothing at the time about her grandfather’s membership in the Klu Klux Klan. She would be an adult with children of her own, when her mother – shortly before she died – confessed that they used to hold KKK meetings after church services in Rochester. It didn’t make sense to Noor-Malika that her grandfather, whom she remembers fondly, was a KKK member, since her father was the only white man in town who would go with Major to the local black bar.
The Power of a Dream
In 1971 she had a dream that changed her life. She was a member of a hippy commune living in a huge house in Nichols Canyon. In her dream she saw a bearded man in a long golden robe, standing behind the arch of a white picket fence. Behind him was a garden with yellow roses as far as the eye could see.
“In my dream, his glance was so loving – a piercing love,” she recollected.
Two weeks later, a good Sufi friend of hers, the late Hamza El Din, a master oud player from Nubia, gave her a book about educating children. Lo and behold, opening the book, she saw a photo of the man from her dream. She recognized him immediately. She couldn’t put the book down. “I felt like I was a dry sponge, and the book was my source of water.”
A few weeks later Noor-Malika was sitting at a vegetarian café on Sunset Boulevard called “The Source.” A woman with an infant came and sat at the table next to her. When their food arrived, Noor-Malika put her book down and offered to hold the baby while the woman ate. The woman glanced at the book and said, “My teacher’s father wrote that book.”
The man she had seen in her dream was Murshid Hazrat Inayat Khan, a world-famous Indian musician who gave up a phenomenal musical career to become a Sufi teacher. “He was sent to the West by his teachers, hoping he would use his music to teach, but he discovered that Western audiences needed lectures, as they did not understand the music,” Noor-Malika explains.
She learned from the woman at the restaurant that the son of the man in her dream was Pir Vilayat, designated as his father’s successor in the chain of teachers called Silsila. And he was coming to town the following week.
She began a class in Sufi training, “going through all of the disciplines designed to develop concentration, meditation, and contemplation, to help us become one-pointed,” she underscored.
“There were so many things in the way I was raised that felt wrong. For instance, I was told that if children died and didn’t know Jesus, they would go to hell. I knew that wasn’t right. And that stayed with me. For many years I didn’t practice any religion except for my Sufi practice.”
The Path to Conversion
But she did attend a weekly Universal Prayer Service in Los Angeles where participants study holy scriptures from many sources and light candles invoking the masters of different traditions. The last candle is lit for religions “whether known or unknown who uphold the light of truth through the darkness of human ignorance,” she quotes from the liturgy. “My whole young adult life became steeped in the unity of religious ideals, the main teaching of Hazrat Inayat Khan.”
In the meantime, her family back at home was understandably shocked both by her new-found faith. But it didn’t detere her.
She read the Quran from beginning to end and discovered that the source of what she had learned in Sufism came from the sacred text. In 1988, while exploring of the roots of Sufism, she decided to observe Islam’s annual month-long Ramadan fast.
Her next teacher was the grandson of Murshid, Pir Zia, who was designated as successor and became the head of the Order shortly before his father died. Pir Zia told her that her first dream about his grandfather was her “dream of initiation” and that his grandfather had also had a dream which led him to his own teacher, Abu Hashim Madani.
Subsequently, Noor-Malika had a dream in which her teacher sent her to a local imam in Southern California to formally convert. On the twenty-seventh day of Ramadan in 1999, she took the Shahadah, affirming the oneness of God, that all of the prophets are real, and that Mohammed was the Prophet of God. Her teacher, Pir Vilayat, had explained that Mohammed was considered the last prophet or, as he is called, “the Seal of the Prophets,” because it was time for humanity to awaken to the divinity within themselves.
“It wasn’t that other prophets wouldn’t come in the future,” her teacher emphasized, “but that in the future a prophet could be the head of an environmental group or a person like Martin Luther King, Jr.”
A Convert Drawn to Interfaith Community
While she was raising her children in Los Angeles, the converted Noor-Malika was also working in development and fundraising for the Crossroad School for Arts & Sciences. She supervised the Parents Association and is proud that she was able to unite the Parents Association for white students with the one for students of color.
Her journey as a convert led her to the local interfaith community in the 1990s, in particular becoming active in the Culver City Interfaith Alliance, the West Side Cousins (a dialogue group of Muslim and Jewish women), and the Southern California Parliament of the World’s Religions. Most recently Noor-Malika has been active serving as vice president for reGeneration Education. Founded and led by Shepha Vainstein, reGeneration promotes teacher training and peace education in Waldorf-oriented elementary schools in Israel and Palestine. They also hold an annual conference in Jerusalem on teaching children who live in conflict zones.
“Coming to Islam grounded my Sufism,” Noor-Malika explains, but she acknowledges she had to struggle with the not-so-welcoming reception she first received as a convert when she started attending local Los Angeles mosques. But Jihad Turk, now the director of the Bayan Claremont Islamic Graduate School, was especially welcoming to her. “He opened the door for me.”
She also alluded to a comment made by the late Dr. Maher Hathout, a prominent Muslim leader, who had a profound influence on her and cemented her feeling of acceptance as a Muslim. “He told me he envied my love of Islam.”
Struggling with medical issues of late, Noor-Malika is currently working on an illustrated children’s book about a boy with autism, called “The Boy Who Spoke from His Heart.” She leads a quiet life, a life in nature, working on her memoir, and researching her grandparents’ history.
“Personally, I don’t believe in proselytizing. I think God calls people to a religion. I felt God called me to Islam, and it straightened my life out.” Noor-Malika believes that when you get the call, you should answer it promptly – especially if it comes in the form of a dream!
Header Photo: Salaam. Calligraphed Oil Paintings, C.c. 2.0 nc sa