One woman’s conversion from Catholicism to Islam
BY LAUREN KAWAM
DUBLIN, IRELAND—Her hair could have been red or blonde or even gray, but it was wrapped in a cream-and-gold-colored hijab. Only her blue eyes and full, rosy cheeks peeked out from behind the traditional headscarf worn by Muslim women.
Summayah Kenna was born into a traditional Irish Catholic family but has been practicing Islam for 33 years. She says her adopted faith has strengthened her trust in God and her love for her family. Over the years her family has come to accept her Muslim husband, Ibrahim, because they see how happy he makes her. “Seeing my family happy strengthened their belief in that I had made the right decision,” she says.
When Kenna was a 16-year-old high school student, she didn’t know of any religion other than her own Catholicism and the “foreign other one,” which was Protestantism. One day in class, her curiosity was aroused when a teacher talked about different world religions. “Something sparked when it came to Islam,” she says.
The negative way the teacher presented Islam motivated Kenna to learn more. She asked one of her classmates where she could find a Muslim to speak with about Islam. “This person says to me, ‘Try a hospital.’ And I did. I found two Muslim doctors, who pointed me to a small, apartment-sized mosque.“ Here, she got her first taste of Islam.
Shortly after Kenna left the mosque, she “just had this almost burst inside of me. And I just felt compelled to go back into that mosque” and convert to Islam.
Over the next year and a half, Kenna experienced a growing love for the Islamic faith. She began dating the man who would eventually become her husband of more than 30 years, Ibrahim Kenna, originally from Libya.
She changed her first name to Summayah, inspired by a story about a woman with the same name. “[In the story] she spoke of a huge love for the faith that overcame all her fears, and I felt I was reading about my own life.… She suffered immensely, and she was tortured and then killed for taking the Islamic faith.”
THE NEXT STEP
Between 2002 and 2009, the number of Muslims in Ireland has increased from 19,147 to almost 33,000, according to the Central Statistics Office Ireland (CSOI). Most live in the of Dublin or Leinster, a city southwest of Dublin.
These figures suggest that interfaith marriages are on the rise. Hussam Achour, a member of the Islamic Society at Dublin City University, knows at least three Muslims in committed relationships with Catholics. Among the younger generation Achour has noticed more acceptance of people of different faiths because they have grown up in a multicultural society.
When the Kennas married more than 30 years ago, they met little resistance even then. After the henna, which resembles a bachelorette party, the bride and groom became husband and wife during the walima. “The men are in one room having a great celebration, and the women are in another area having another great celebration,” Kenna says. “The men bring the groom to meet the bride, and they leave the venue together.”
Kenna also had her marriage to Ibrahim recognized by the Irish government. This isn’t required, but she wanted to make it official in the country where she had spent her formative years.
With her husband and children, Kenna lived in Libya for 11 years before returning to Ireland, where Ibrahim earned both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Since 1996, she has been working as Sister Summayah at the Islamic Cultural Centre in Dublin. Part of her job is speaking with others about Islam and helping those new to Islam integrate into the community.
When Kenna converted from Catholicism to Islam, she felt no resistance from the Muslim community, but she says Muslims still face backlash from some Irish people. “‘Oh, you must have married one of them,’ is what you’ll find when you do meet that antagonizer, that person who doesn’t appreciate [me being a Muslim]. It’s from a very small minority, but it does happen.”
Kenna raised her five children as Muslims but encouraged discussions about Catholicism. She tried to explain one religion by using examples from another. “I believe if you don’t draw parallels, the children will either feel above others or deprived,” she says. “And particularly when you’re living as a Muslim in a country where you’re the minority, you’ve got the likes of Christmas, you’ve got the likes of Easter, and you have to draw those parallels.”
In the case of holidays like Christmas and Easter, Kenna says she and her family didn’t celebrate them but instead acknowledged their special meaning to Christians.
One thing that preyed on Kenna’s mind during her conversion was her relationship with Jesus. She couldn’t let go of the love she had for Jesus. Doubts constantly plagued her. “What if I’m wrong? What if I’m wrong? Where do I go?”
A faint smile dances on the corners of her mouth. She talks about how she got over these doubts about her religion. Everything about Islam has felt natural since the day she made her conversion. She knows she chose the right path.
Hijab: Headscarf worn by Muslim women because of the Qur’an’s instruction on modesty. Islamic teachings say a girl should start at puberty, but many families have their daughters wear the scarf at a younger age.
Islam: Religion based on the Qur’an and Sunnah, which are the books that help define the teachings. Second largest religion in the world after Christianity. Founded by the Prophet Muhammad in seventh century Mecca.
Muslim: A follower of Muhammad and the Islamic faith.
Qur’an: First holy book of Islam, which Muslims believe is the direct word of God as dictated in Arabic to the Prophet Muhammad. It contains laws, descriptions of heaven and hell, and warnings about the end of the world. Also spelled Quran and Koran.
Shahada: Meaning “testimony,” it refers to the conversion from another faith into Islam.
Sunnah: Second holy book with similar teachings to the Qur’an.
Walima: Celebration leading up to the marriage ceremony where the bride-to-be and groom-to-be are allowed to be sexually intimate.
Click here to see Sarah Whitmire’s visual component to this story.