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Young woman takes precepts to heart, converts to Islam - South Bend Tribune, USA

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  • Zafar Khan
    Young woman takes precepts to heart, converts to Islam By SARA TOTH Tribune Staff Writer
    Message 1 of 1 , Dec 19, 2004
      Young woman takes precepts to heart, converts to Islam
      By SARA TOTH
      Tribune Staff Writer

      (Click on the link to see the Photographs)

      A young woman with a pink head scarf and blue eyes
      doesn't speak during a Quran study group at the
      Islamic Society of Michiana.

      She just smiles and nods intently as the other three
      women in the group discuss the Quran, capping most of
      their English sentences with the Arabic phrase
      "Insha-Allah," which literally means "if God wills

      This quiet woman is 21-year-old Brandy Korman. But
      soon she will be Zahra Abaza. In the spring, Korman
      converted to Islam, then married a Muslim from Egypt.

      She has replaced sweaters and jeans with long dresses
      and scarves, and switched from being a single woman to
      a wife who didn't date her husband before she agreed
      to marry him.

      Even as Christmas -- a pillar of her old faith, Roman
      Catholicism -- draws near, she voices few doubts about
      her new creed and new life.

      Curiosity leads to faith

      Shortly after the attacks of Sept. 11, Korman, then an
      18-year-old church-going Catholic freshman at Penn
      State University, typed the words "Islam" and "Quran"
      into Google.

      "It was just out of curiosity," she recalls during a
      recent interview. "I was thinking, 'What kind of
      religion tells their people to kill?' "

      She began reading. From Web sites she moved on to
      library books, then to the Quran. She read thousands
      of pages, she says.

      And with each page, the idea of Islam as a faith that
      promotes killing faded.

      She began to see Islam as a way of life of submission
      to God -- a God who forbids killing innocent people
      even in the name of faith, she says.

      "Just as God provided laws for nature, he provided
      laws for us through his scriptures," she says.

      "When I read the Quran, I didn't really see things
      that I would disagree with, like I did when I read the
      Bible," she says.

      She discovered that Muslims didn't believe in the
      Trinity. She had always questioned the Trinity.

      A few months after that initial online search, her
      study of Islam dwindled to make time for schoolwork.
      Instead of spending whole days reading about it, she
      spent a few hours a week, she recalls. Meanwhile, she
      and her mother moved from Pennsylvania to South Bend.

      Korman increased the intensity of her study of Islam
      again last January, when she began to talk with some
      of her Muslim classmates in the business department at
      Indiana University South Bend.

      In the spring, Korman e-mailed her IUSB classmate
      Osama Abaza, 24, who is from Alexandria, Egypt, and
      asked to go to the mosque with him.

      She stood in the back of the mosque at the Islamic
      Society of Michiana, 3310 Hepler St., South Bend and
      watched the women and men on their respective sides of
      the room pray in a routine of standing, kneeling and
      bowing their heads to the ground, she recalls. The
      Quran commands Muslims to pray this way five times
      each day, no matter their location.

      Because she had done her own extensive research, she
      says, she felt comfortable at the mosque and didn't
      see or hear anything unexpected from the members

      She began visiting the mosque each week with Abaza.

      During these visits, she talked at length with Abaza
      about Islam, she says.

      Abaza was in the midst of rediscovering Islam. Before
      he left Egypt for the United States four-and-a-half
      years ago, Abaza did not consider himself a devout

      It was only after living in the United States that he
      began going to a mosque on a regular basis, he says.

      "I felt like I needed something to belong to in this
      very divided society with many ethnic groups," he
      says. "You can't feel any better than belonging to
      God." Fueled by her extensive research and
      conversations with Abaza, and three months after her
      first visit to the mosque, Korman recited her new
      beliefs in Arabic and English in front of two
      witnesses, becoming a Muslim.

      Another change in life

      Shortly after Korman's conversion, Abaza invited her
      to lunch at the Olive Garden restaurant.

      Korman says she didn't consider it a date because she
      thought Abaza was married.

      "Then he pretty much started talking about how we were
      going the same way," Korman recalls. "He didn't really
      ask me (to marry him). He just hinted at it."

      (Abaza was married but going through a divorce.)

      Later that day, Abaza called Korman and asked her to
      marry him.

      Korman was stunned and scared. She hardly knew Abaza,
      she recalls.

      Abaza, however, seated next to Korman in the couple's
      apartment, says the proposal "was very rational." He
      could help her in becoming the person and Muslim she
      wanted to be. And she could provide companionship for
      him, he says.

      They talked about the idea of marriage for about two
      weeks, they recall.

      Then, Korman says, she discovered "we both wanted the
      same things. And we are going the same way."

      She felt that Abaza could help guide her into becoming
      a better Muslim. He also has the same goals in life,
      she says -- to have children, to raise them Muslim and
      to live outside the United States.

      So a few weeks after her conversion, Korman married
      Abaza in an Islamic ceremony in the apartment the
      couple now shares in Mishawaka.

      Both describe the marriage as the "beginning" of their

      They have yet to unite in marriage under state law:
      They plan to do this soon in Las Vegas, although no
      date is set.

      Identity changing

      In her apartment, Korman wears jeans and a fitted
      black sweater. Now that she is a Muslim, she would
      never wear this outfit, which clings to her slight
      figure, outside the home, she says.

      At first she didn't wear her head scarf to school or
      to her job. Only at the mosque.

      "I was really worried about what people would think of
      it," Korman recalls.

      Now she pretty much wears her head scarf everywhere
      outside of her apartment.

      "Sometimes you get people looking at you," she says.
      "It makes me feel uncomfortable sometimes."

      "Liking to wear it?" she asks, repeating a reporter's
      question. "I don't know about that. But the Quran says
      you are supposed to wear it."

      (While the Quran instructs men and women to dress
      modestly, it does not order specific clothing, says
      Rashied Omar, a Muslim and coordinator of the Program
      on Religion, Conflict and Peace Building at the
      University of Notre Dame's Joan B. Kroc Institute for
      International Peace Studies. But some Muslims
      interpret modesty for women to include a head
      covering, he says.)

      "It makes you stay away from things you are supposed
      to stay away from," Korman says. The head scarf
      prevents her from talking to men and hanging out in
      bars, she says. It would just be weird to wear the
      head scarf to a bar, she says with a laugh.

      Korman's conversion has required a lot of explaining.

      "(My mom) asked me how I could convert to Islam if I
      wasn't from the Middle East," she says with a laugh.

      Recently, a clerk at a grocery store glanced at her
      credit card, then at her head scarf and asked how her
      name could be Brandy, she says.

      She is, in fact, in the process of changing her first
      name to Zahra, which means "flower" in Arabic. Her
      e-mail account says her name is Zahra, but she still
      introduces herself to people as Brandy.

      One thing she is emphatic about is that her conversion
      to Islam happened independently of her marriage to

      (According to Islam, Muslims are permitted to marry
      Christians or Jews, two faiths with common roots, Omar

      A new life

      "To me it's not just a religion, it's a way of life,"
      Korman says about Islam. "You have to change the way
      you act, the way you dress."

      For Korman, this new way of life means not celebrating

      "It was hard to have my family calling and to know
      that they were all together and I couldn't be there,"
      she says. "But it

      wasn't the holiday that I missed; but just being
      without my family is hard for me in general."

      (Korman's family has moved back to Pennsylvania.)

      Omar, at Notre Dame, says that Muslims should
      celebrate Thanksgiving if they are American, and he
      says one risk for people who convert to Islam is
      giving up too much of their old culture and confusing
      cultural obligations with religious ones.

      "Are they also throwing off their cultural identity?
      The good things about their culture?" he says.

      At Christmas, she will meet her family in Florida.

      "But I am going with the intention of strengthening
      family ties and not to celebrate Christmas," she says.

      In addition to leaving her old way of life behind, she
      feels there is a long way to go in becoming a Muslim.
      That's why she attends the Quran study group every
      Thursday and reminds Abaza to use the simple Arabic
      terms she knows as often as possible.

      "There's always more things you should do," Korman

      Most Muslims feel like this, not just new ones, says
      Parveen Basher, a member of the Quran study group
      Korman attends at the Islamic Society of Michiana.
      There are always more ways to bring behaviors up to
      the standards set forth by God, Basher says.

      "It's the humility that keeps us going," Basher says.

      In keeping with that, Korman says that she doesn't
      approve of killing innocent people in the name of
      faith, as some terrorists claim to do.

      "But on the other hand, I don't agree with the
      American administration that is bombing people all
      over the world in the name of freedom and democracy,"
      she wrote recently in an e-mail.

      Something that does worry Korman is moving to a
      majority-Muslim country.

      "You always have to surround yourself with people who
      know God so you can't get turned away. It's sort of
      like a defense line," Abaza says. In principle, Korman

      But she doesn't speak Arabic. And her husband's
      suggestion that they move to Medina, a holy city in
      Saudi Arabia, makes her especially nervous.

      "Just the stuff you hear on the news, you know, it's
      kind of scary," she says. "And most of the women there
      are completely covered from head to toe, and that
      would be extremely different for me since I am just
      now starting to wear hijab."

      She has heard in her Quran study group that when you
      have belief and a fear of God in your heart you can
      accept whatever happens to you. If something bad
      happens, you should be happy because it's a test from
      God, explains Hunada Alkattan, a Granger resident
      leading the group during a recent meeting.

      Rabia Shariff of Granger, another member of the study
      group, adds that passing that test means God sends you
      more happiness.

      Staff writer Sara Toth:
      (574) 235-6442

      More about new Muslims at:

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