| 1. Tell us about your background and how you came to Islam.
I was born into a somewhat musical family, albeit amateurs. My lullabies were the strains of Sweet Adeline choruses sung by groups of women who would rehearse at our home in the evenings. It seems I had a natural ability to hear and sing harmonies, inherited my mother’s pretty voice and also had an early interest in the piano. A babysitter once taught me a childlike version of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata and I guess I was hooked! Although my parents were more into the popular music and crooners of their day, I gravitated to classical music early on. My piano teacher always had a small group of girls who sang locally at talent shows, nursing homes, and various clubs in the area. We were always paid so I say I was singing professionally by the age of 8! Makes a good story anyway.
From there I entered middle school, chorus and started taking roles in the yearly musicals. In high school I had the lead! I was fortunate on two counts to 1) have a super teacher and mentor all the way through middle and high school plus lots of classes related to music, and 2) music was a great way to keep kids out of trouble, away from the peer pressure and taught us a lot of responsibility and maturity, especially doing ensemble work where you could not let the group down by slacking off or coming unprepared. By then I knew I wanted to perform and so set my sights on a degree in vocal performance, taking classes in music history, literature and foreign languages in preparation.
So college and after that into internships and singing anywhere for peanuts to hone my craft. Singing as a soloist or section leader in church choirs and synagogues was a lucrative way to finance a singers fledging career, so I was early on exposed to many different Christians denominations, had a regular Friday night synagogue job and also sang the Jewish High Holy Days services. What I wanted to sing was concert work and the Art Song repertoire, just the singer and a pianist interpreting great lyrics and text set to incredible music, but opera was more lucrative and a lot of fun!
After several years singing regionally throughout the US and auditioning in Europe, I ended in New York City where my career started to take off. Again I supplemented my singing contracts with church and synagogue work. I saw how the People of the Book worshipped in many ways. However, my music was honestly my religion. I saw God equally in nature and in music. So much of the classical and romantic era of music is very much God-inspired. And fortunately for me, although I sang in all those churches, I never grasped the ‘Jesus as God’ idea. I loved Jesus the man (peace be upon him) and of course at Christmas time I made as much singing in one month as I would all year! Like many other Christians, music provided a very emotional attachment through Christmas songs, hymns and the tons of concert work I did that was largely religious in nature. When I prayed, I prayed to God and asked Him to make my voice appealing and without flaw so that my audiences would hear the message within the music. How so like the dua’ of Musa (as) as I later learned! Worship was using the talent God gave me.
Also my colleagues dabbled in Buddhism and explored other theologies and philosophies. I went along to learn but it wasn’t for me. I was at a point in my life where I believed one’s religious affiliation was an accident of birth. If one was born in the US he was probably a Christian; born in India, Hindu; born in Israel a Jew; and so forth. What you called yourself didn’t so much matter as that you got to Him. How could a loving and merciful God punish everyone over where they were born and to whom? How could one faith be right and all the others wrong?
By this point, I was in my mid-30s, was well traveled and well read. Funny how I was particularly interested in how and why the architecture started changing to more dome shapes the further East I got when I would sing in Europe. I remember a favorite cathedral in Vienna that, except for all the gold and glitter, could have been a mosque, minarets and all!
Back to New York and exceedingly happy and busy with my career, I ran into a local coffee shop where I met the Egyptian owner. I was quite fascinated that he was Egyptian and wanted to know all about Pharaoh and the Pyramids. As we talked, he mentioned he was Muslim. I was quite embarrassed to tell him I didn’t know anything about his faith. I was dumbfounded to learn there was yet another monotheistic faith in addition to Judaism and Christianity and also that all of the figures of the Bible that I had read and sung about were in the Muslim holy book and that is was part of the faith to believe in them all! This was so striking as I had been brought up with all the Hollywood and cartoon stereotypes about Arabs and Muslims, thinking them honestly to be heathens and idol worshippers! To this day in the large retail book stores you still find Islam grouped with Eastern Religions. So what was an American to think?
I was shocked to think that as a well-traveled, well-read woman I knew nothing about this and neither did anyone else I knew! I came to the café for coffee and conversation every day. One day I walked in and my new friend was reading the Qur’an. As an artist the beautiful calligraphy attracted my eye. I didn’t suppose there was one written in English but of course he said yes and brought one to the store the very next day. However, this first English language version left me feeling as if there was more underneath ready to reveal itself. He brought me the ever popular Yusuf Ali meaning and I settled in to read and ask questions. I would finish reading, ask questions and go back and start reading the Quran again for about six months. I felt so assuredly that this was The Truth. It was so clear. It made sense religiously, it made sense historically and was for me the greatest book of human psychology I’d ever read. Within 6 months I took shahada.
| 2. How did your life change after becoming Muslim?
I started to think that it was not appropriate for a Muslim woman to stand on stage with costumes and makeup and sing love songs, so I began canceling my engagements for the next year. I held on to one with the New York City Opera Education Department that was merely going out to elementary schools and teaching kids about opera. I thought that was the safest thing I could do as I still needed to make a living. I stayed in New York for a little while longer and I studied my Qur’an. My friend brought me books of hadith and other books of notable scholars. I was further convinced about Islam as when I read the Qur’an and formed my own conclusions, I realized many scholars shared that same opinion. There was a consensus of opinion that I never found in Christianity.
I left the music business with no regrets or looking back. Allah blessed me with the ability to sing at the highest level of my profession, then made the closing of that door or chapter of my life so easy. My last professional engagement was in singing the Mahler Resurrection Symphony. Shortly after, I started a whole new life, being literally born again as Allah tells us, like a newborn babe! Subhanallah!
From the time I became Muslim I wanted to wear hijab as a walking illustration of Islam. If I wore hijab with my white skin and blue eyes I thought others would have all kinds of questions for me. Once they learned about Islam, they would be Muslim, too, just like me. It was so clear! I later learned how relevant the verse is about hijab as a means of identification and a protection from unwanted advances. As a tall, fair artist in the NYC I’d had all too much of that! I also learned I was very naïve about others accepting Islam as easily as I did.
Because of all these blessings and the Haqq of Islam, my way to express gratitude is to work to further the cause of Islam and share with others its beauty and meaning. I am currently active in interfaith in our Dallas community and often am asked to do motivational talks for sisters and teens. I am a regular contributor to Family Flavors in Amman Jordan, in their Divine Perspectives column, penned by me and my Christian co- columnist. I am a monthly power blogger and first Muslim contributor for Plaid For Women, a national resource. I’m also proud of my position on the ‘Mother Board’ for the Dallas International Women’s Day festival. Bringing in so many diverse Muslim women has given a whole new meaning to the name! I learned about this group after being chosen as honorary mention in their Words of Women Essay Contest in my essay on Khadijah Bint Kuwalid(ra) as my role model.
| 3. How did the idea for NoorArt come about?
After a few years of being Muslim in New York, I went back home to Wisconsin to help my mother move. I got involved in the local masjid and I started attending Jum’ah prayer and getting involved with the community. After working with kids for New York City Opera, I was offered a job teaching the preschoolers. Using my music background I made up little songs and stories and we used them in community programs. Parents were so impressed that they requested I record the songs as they had found nothing like them on the market at the time. My classical music background obviously made a difference!
Shortly after, I married and my husband was very supportive of this idea. We produced a first audio product, We Are Muslims, children’s’ favorite Barney songs set to Islamic texts. Although we didn’t have this term then, it went viral! Ever on the lookout for good child appropriate material for our young son, we thought why not start out own media outlet just for Muslim children and their families living in the West. At this time there was a first explosion so to speak of Islamic media with companies like Sound Vision and Astrolabe. The timing could not have been better! So we started Noorart. We found though that illegal piracy was hurting all the multi media companies and we’d close soon if we only stuck with production and offering books, etc. My husband then had the brilliant idea of offering curriculums for the many new Islamic schools and centers that were opening fast and furiously in the US and Canada. Eventually this became our primary target and we are now one of the largest producers and distributors of Islamic and Arabic curriculum. We also produced a Muslim doll called Razanne well before Fulla. We set the bar high by offering our doll with varied skin tones, hair, eye color and with a look toward Muslim girls being able to do and be anything. So the doll offered a lot more than Barbie doll for Muslim girls.
I am grateful and blessed to say we are now on the second generation of children listening to our CD’s. And although Razanne has stopped production I hope to see her rise again! Some of our most popular products are the We Are Muslim and Qur’an for Little Muslim audio series and We Love Muhammad CD and DVD. Between the vast experience and musical and stage expertise and being just a kid at heart, has helped the success. And of course Allah (swt) is Al Razzaq and the best marketing agent ever!
| 4. How have you been able to grow your business?
Al hamdulilah we have been in business for 18 years now and our company is not only growing but still viable while many others have had to shut their doors. We are extremely proud of our reputation for exemplary customer service. We had always insisted on Western quality and standards to the best of our abilities. Islam demands no less! We have a viable presence on Amazon and are staying relevant using Elearning technology with our curriculums.
Our approach to teaching and sharing Islam is one of love and enthusiasm and this I think separates us from others. Our mission is all about helping Muslim children and families establish strong identity and pride in Islam.
| 5. How do your run the backend of your business?
In Dallas we have our fulfillment warehouse where we store and ship our products. It’s a relatively small staff except for our busy season when we must hire a dozen or so in the shipping/warehouse area. Our admin office operates out of Amman, Jordan where we have the website and graphic designers, operations managers and staff. We recently opened a branch in the UK so we are expanding internationally, al hamdulilah.
| 6. What has your business done for your deen?
It definitely helps feed my passion. Working with children is incredibly inspiring. They are still open and eager to learn and are not so set in cultural ways as the adults. If Islam is presented with love and sincere enthusiasm, the children respond amazingly! When I produce a CD it requires a great deal of initial research and so refreshes my knowledge about many things. Also we must be careful to convey what is correct and universally accepted.
I am the type of Muslim that lives and breathe her deen. In becoming Muslim I have developed a thirst for knowledge that I never had before. I am a great student of history now, especially Islamic history. When we travel to Muslim lands I do a ton of research about what we are going to see. It’s fascinating to learn of the Muslim contribution to the Renaissance and how Muslims lived their Golden Era while Europe was experiencing the Dark Ages. Even most Muslims don’t know these things!
| 7. So many young Muslimahs are entrepreneurs these days Mashallah. What advice do you have for them in terms of starting and running their own business?
I hear from women of all ages they feel limited because they are women. In America the sky is the limit! We don’t have the cultural, often non-Islamic restrictions we find in many Muslim countries. Women and girls can be what they want to be. Put your heart and soul into your work, being mindful of Allah, in all you do. Ask Allah to guide you to what He wants you to do with the talents He gave you. Seriously make a lot of du’a about this and then remain ready to act on what He guides you to. Make your intentions and if you are doing it for Allah, He is either going to facilitate what you are doing or He will turn you in a different direction. Road blocks are often created by Allah (swt) to make you change your direction or focus. And it has to be all about quality and the best you can. You are working or creating for the sake of Allah, the Creator and Sustainer of you and the universe. So you must give it your best and your all! Do the best you can at the each particular stage in life. And don’t be afraid of sacrifices and setbacks. I have lived long enough to know that when Allah tests a believer, there is always baraka in the test!
| 8. What advice do you have for other converts?
I think we all come to the sad conclusion that Islam is one thing and Muslim are quite another. Judge the deen by the Qur’an but not always by its adherents. Know your Qur’an yourself. Yes, learning from scholars is important for fiqh issues but you must have a walking knowledge of your book. Start with English meanings and get all of them and compare. Do your best to learn as Arabic as much as possible. It opens doors that are unimaginable that you cannot derive from English meanings. Have patience. Allah guided you, so you are the most blessed of all creatures! You will be frustrated a lot. You may be lonely a lot. Allah is always there and waiting for you to call on Him! Work on developing khusuu’ in your prayer as if your life depended on it. (It does!) And learn the adkar in English to start with and start your day with it and end it if you can! As for the mosque, they might celebrate you like crazy when you first embrace the deen and your will feel like a celebrity. This unfortunately fades fast unless you show up frequently and make yourself known and visible. Every well-meaning sister and auntie will try to tell you what or what not to do. Smile and thank them! Muslims take the hadith about dispensing advice (naseeha) very seriously but often are not good at it. Your life now is being a slave to Allah and doing what He asks and what pleases Him – not at all about pleasing others except to be charitable and kind and take care of your parents and kinfolk. This is why it is so important that YOU know the Qur’an! Also if you enter the community with your sleeves rolled up and ready to work, others will start to know you appreciate you. Americans have a lot to offer our communities which are too often established on a back home model.
Be prepared as a newbie to be tested. Allah wants to make sure you are in it for the right reasons. If He has pulled you away from something in this dunya, then He will always be with you to help you through it and replace it with something better. If you can make it through the test with patience and sincerity, you will find a huge golden pot of blessings at the end!
| 9. Let’s talk about sacrifices, since you are someone who has happily sacrificed a lot for her deen. There are a lot of youth today that are not willing to make sacrifices. They want to be religious, but they don’t want to make any sacrifices for the deen. So they pray and fast and go to the masjid, but they also date, maybe have tattoos, think drugs are ok, and participate in other religiously unacceptable things. Now yes, these might all be their personal struggle, but we see an attitude of making their deen bend to their lifestyle versus designing their lifestyle around the deen and being very proud of it. They want to have it all without the consequences of their actions. What advice do you have for them?
I may have been more easily able to make those sacrifices of putting the temptations of dunia behind me as I was older when I accepted Islam. I think it’s particularly hard for young people whose parents are from overseas. They experience a sort of bipolar, duo personality thing: one face for the home, another for outside. I actually admire the Born Again Christians in that they make a conscious decision and commitment to their faith when they become adults. I think in a way, those blessed by being born Muslim must do the same at some time in their life. Preferably earlier rather than later but it’s all good.
With young people, peer pressure is incredibly tough and only getting tougher. Often they have not experienced enough of life to be convinced to make serious commitments to an Islamic lifestyle. Good friends are key and staying busy with halal activities and projects. As I said, being in music spared me a lot of misery in high school. Encouraging teens to be out there doing and giving to others produces a lifelong commitment to sacrifice and altruism – in our very selfie-selfish, times of entitlement. Although it’s the toughest age to get through this, it just doesn’t have to matter much what others think. You simply cannot please people. Fashions change every single year because they want to take your money! I have this corny saying that the only really ‘cool’ is with Allah and His Messenger, which is true but not an easy pill to swallow for a teen. So many born Muslims have told me they really became true Muslims here in America whereas back home they were only going through the motions. I think because we are a minority here we fight more passionately and strive to know our deen and our our rights. Although Islamaphobia is tough we see the rate of conversion to Islam growing ever more every year despite 9/11 and terrorist activities (Islamically related or otherwise). Know your Qur’an. Work to develop khushu’ in your prayer, learn Allah’s names. WOW! Once you learn a few and see how things work for you when you use them it’s incredible! Also you will find their derivatives and variations all throughout the Qur’an increasing your vocabulary immeasurably!
| 10. What are some current projects you are working on right now?
Actually I am trying a bit to slow down. My work has been my ‘ibadah for so long and I have neglected that very needed one-on-one time with Allah on the prayer rug and in dhikr. I still have lots of ideas for projects so I don’t think I am done yet. More audio/video and of course continuing to blog and do interfaith. Bi ismillah. If Allah is willing.
All praise, thanks and gratitude is for Allah Lord of the Worlds!
Check out Noor Art on their website www.NoorArt.com