In October of 2009, Ashley Wolford found herself reciting the shahada - the Islamic declaration of faith - in front of hundreds of people at Inner-City Muslim Action Network’s (IMAN) Community Cafe event in Chicago. Three years later, she still has a hard time articulating what brought her there.
“Some people research Islam for years,” said Wolford. “[For] me, it was just a feeling that I had. It was just something my spirit was attracted to.”
With her round-faced and dark, almond-shaped eyes, the 25-year-old Wolford is frequently mistaken to be Asian or Latino, but never who she really is. She’s Native-American - a fact that often manifests itself in the way she dresses, feathers hanging from ears and swathed in colorful embroidered clothing. After converting to Islam, instead of forsaking the spiritual beliefs of her Native-American heritage, Wolford found ways to combine them with her new Qur’anic ones. “They’re not all that different,” she says.
She believes the Native-American tradition of recognizing the natural elements harmonizes with Islamic traditions of esteeming God’s creations. “It’s not like Native-Americans believe in more than one God,” she said, “We're praying to the same God in different rituals.”
The beginning of Wolford’s pilgrimage to Islam is difficult to pinpoint.
Wolford’s first experience with Islam would come in high school. She participated in a theatre program called ‘Free Streets’, where they performed “post-9/11 stories”, comparing them with the Iranian hostage crisis.
Wolford’s perception of Muslims before joining Free Streets was typical of the mainstream. She viewed Muslim women as submissive and the hijab as a restrictive component of their religion that was imposed on them by a patriarchal culture. At Free Streets, she met two Muslim girls.
“I was following them around, they would leave to pray and I was like, ‘Hey! Can I go with you?’” remembers Wolford, “That was my first experience seeing people practice Islam.” And it wouldn’t be her last.
Throughout much of Wolford’s life, she dealt with problems with drug abuse, be it herself or important members of her family. “There was a point I was consuming alcohol and getting completely out of control,” she said, “And there was also a point where I was like, ‘okay, I need to check myself’ and I was just like... I can't do this. There's no way I'm going to be anything like my family.”
Her family was a hub of drug activity. Her father was dealing drugs; her mother, using. “She was a vegetable,” Welford says, describing her mother. Her mother’s drug-use spun out of control and she eventually died after overdosing from a combination of cocaine, alcohol and prescription pills when Wolford was just 11 years old. “At the time, I didn’t know the severity of what was going on,” Wolford said, “I just remember my mom, like, reeled out.”
Drug also took the lives of two of her uncles - one was too high to escape from a house fire, the other too high to save himself from a fatal asthma attack. In high school, she would go on to live with a “father figure,” who later was arrested for dealing narcotics.
“It was something that most people didn't talk about,” Wolford explains of her family’s history with drugs. “But it absolutely severely affected me.” It affected her to he point where she knew she had to make a clean break form her drugs abuse.
In comes Gon, a Palestinian-American rapper, and Khaled M. a Libyan-American hip-hop artist, who were both friend’s of Wolford, and who were encouraging her to look into Islam. “I really didn't know anything about Islam,” she said, “I just knew that part of the rulings are 'you don't do drugs. You don't consume alcohol’... Anything that can keep me away from that is something that I want to have in my life.”
Was her converting an escape from drug abuses? Was it about finding a belief system that allowed her to build on her Native-American traditions? Or was it simply a matter of finding herself as she mature into early adulthood? Whatever the reason or reasons, Wolford decided to take the next step. Already familiar with IMAN, a Muslim-led non-profit social justice group that hosted ‘Community Cafes’ to showcase local talent, Wolford decided to take her shahada there. On that day, after years of tests and trials and bouts of triumph, Wolford begins a new stage - clean, sober and Muslim.
Wolford’s living in West Virginia with her grandparents now, attending Bluefield State College to earn her degree in child development. Her grandparents just recently discovered her conversion to Islam - they told her they didn’t care what her religion was as long as she didn’t “flaunt it”. Her brother, who was raised with his grandparents, stopped talking to her. Bluefield, she says, is a long way from Chicago
“I'm coming from a place in Chicago where I've created my own community, my own family,” she said, “and then I came here and people who I'm actually related to pretty much only care about themselves.”
Tasbeeh Herwees is a Libyan-American writer in Los Angeles, CA. She's currently earning her undergraduate degree in Print and Digital Journalism at USC.