Though I have spoken at a number of functions about how I came to Islam, it is much more difficult to put the experience down in the written word.
This document must be published in two parts because of its length. I have created the following links within this document so that you can jump to areas that interest you. However, it is recommended that you read the whole thing from beginning to end.
It is quite fitting, on a number of levels, that the Arabic word for "mother", umm, comes from a root which means "beginning, source, and foundation"; as our mothers are these very things. They represent our earthly beginnings, they are the soil from which Allah springs us into existence, and they are the water with which He nurtures us. They construct the very foundations of the family in which we are reared. It is for this reason that I begin this story with my mother, a woman to whom I owe a debt that can never be repaid.
Anyone that has ever known my mother can tell you that she is the type of person to change those around her as she changes. Be it a difficulty or a blessing, a trial or a victory, she is quick to offer a fresh perspective and to extract a lesson of life from even the smallest of matters. Though not religious, she is spiritual, always seeking Truth, and always quick to credit the One Who deserves all of the credit. She never fails to maintain an open, empathetic mind, and she did her best to impart this to me. This is the woman who raised me, to whom I am so indebted.
My motherís family, like my fatherís, consists of many people of varying degrees of religious practice and spirituality. With the majority of them being Catholic, they range from nuns and Catholic school teachers to those who jest and mock religious rituals...a wide range. My mother has always found herself hovering in the middle, every once in a while swaying more toward one side or the other. It is for this reason (and many others) that she refused to send me to a Catholic school. Not fully decided for herself, I guess she wasnít comfortable deciding for me.
Instead, she raised me with an open mind and an open heart. And for this, I am most grateful. Without it, it is not likely that I would have proceeded down the paths that have led me to where I stand today, as a Muslim, as a son, as a husband, and as a human being. Should she ever stumble across this web page, it would be a grave disservice to not let her know how much I love her, appreciate her, and respect her.
Iíll never forget the day my mother and her husband dropped me off on that mountain of a campus, Cornell. They had helped me find my room and move all of my stuff in, and they stood in line with me for hours in the August heat to register for classes. When late afternoon began to roll around and it came time to set up my room, my mom looked at me, knowing it was time for me to nestle in "my space" and fix it to my liking...she looked at me as if to say "Do you want us to leave now?" I looked back with a nod, knowing it was time for them to leave and we walked to the truck. My momís eyes were welling up and each tear whispered as it rolled down her face, "Iíll miss you....I love you....Youíre my best friend."
However, I knew it was time for them to go. They drove me to Goldwin Smith Hall for my next meeting and as I leaned on the window looking in the car, saying goodbye, I remember being excited for my new journey and frightened for the very same reason. As I watched the truck drive away I could do nothing but lean up against the building and try to grasp the intense realization that I was alone.
Over the next few days though, I found my niche. I met most of the people I would be closest to for the next four years. Rodrigo, Carlos, Beijoo, and Chris, each quite special in their own right. However, one in particular deserves mention for the purpose of this story...Rodrigo.
Rodrigo had a huge hand in me becoming Muslim, though he may not even know it. You see, from the very beginning Rodrigo and I clicked. We loved the same music (rap, R&B, etc), we both loved to go dancing, we loved drawing and painting, and we both loved to sit up into the wee hours of the night talking "deep". When we went to frat parties with everyone else, Rodrigo and I were at each othersí hips. We were the only two who did not drink alcohol. And I am sure that we both made it easier for each other to say no. And whenever discussions about women came up, there were times that I could see his look of disapproval.
Iíll never forget that look...I would say something inappropriate or about having done something inappropriate and he would cock his head slightly up and off to one side. He would grin something that was not his normal smile...looking more like an expression of pain than a smile. And the look was confirmed when he would end the conversation in some way or change the topic.
Despite our common interests and our great times together, these do not make him so special. Rather it was his ability to make me a better person with a look. When I was little, my mother told me (in reference to a friend she did not want me to hang around), ďEddie, when you hang around monkeys, youíre going to eat bananas.Ē How right she was. My relationship with Rodrigo was such that we tried to nurture what was right and forbid what was wrong between us and around us.....a very Islamic teaching, though we had no clue at the time.
One other aspect of my early college years deserves mention. During my second semester of my freshman year I moved into a dormitory called Ujama, Ki-Swahili for "Community". Quite a unique dorm on the Cornell campus, Ujama was built around a theme, Africa and the African diaspora. I was one of two white people living in a dorm capable of fitting 148 students.
I received mixed reactions from both whites and blacks. There was a Jewish guy who lived down the hall from me during my first semester who refused to come into Ujama for me to cut his hair. And there were people from the Nation of Islam in Ujama who refused to recognize my existence. In fact, one night, there were ten or eleven people in my room talking to me and my roommate about history. They were pointing out the atrocities that Europeans had visited upon peoples of all colors throughout the globe. We touched on the Slave Trade (The African Holocaust), the Jewish Holocaust, the Crusades, the Inquisition, Colonialism, the Native Americans (yet another holocaust), Ghandi, and Imperialism.
While we were deep in discussion, a schoolmate knocked on the door and came into my room. He proceeded to slap everyone five or at least shake their hands. When it came time for him to do the same to me, his eyes shot daggers into my eyes and he skipped right over me. He only confirmed what most white people think of Muslims, as he was in the Nation of Islam. Of course, at that point in my life I had known only one other Muslim, a Pakistani, and it would be two more years until I came to know just how different their beliefs were.
Those deep discussions about history not only sparked my interest in "the other side" of history, they actually got me angry. I felt as though I had been lied to throughout my schooling. In middle school and high school to learn about the Slave Trade was to learn its role in boosting the economy of the colonies and, later, the US. To learn about the Crusades was to learn about a valiant attempt to recover the Holy Land from the infidels, the savages, the Muslims. Those discussions in the middle of the night painted a different picture. I was angry, both at my schooling and myself. It was time to seek the truth.
I enrolled in a number of different Africana Studies courses and I found my intellectual thirst being quenched. I could not stop reading. Even when my other classes should have taken precedence, I was reading Africana Studies books or heading back to Ujama for more late night discussions.
Up to this point in my life I had viewed Muslims as either terrorists or radical blacks, both of whom oppressed women. I had no interest in Islam or Muslims. In fact, it was more animosity than disinterest. There was even a time I contemplated entering the Gulf War just so I could help rid the world of this angry people.
However, as I studied Africa and her history, Islam was painted in a new light. The African Muslim contribution to history was far more rich than I had ever imagined. In addition, there was a stark contrast between the way Islam treated Africa and the way my European ancestors had treated Africa. As Islam spread across the trade routes, it incorporated itself into peoplesí lives. Though rejecting idolatry and ancestral worship, it allowed for most cultural norms and mores to continue. There was a harmony and smooth transition. While the Europeans instituted something that was anything but harmonious.
Furthermore, the stated intentions of the Muslims were quite different from those of the Europeans. The Muslims were out to trade goods and spread their knowledge of God. The Europeans however, were quite openly there to steal....to steal gold and people. In so doing, they stole a multitude of cultures, religions, languages, and souls. I could not help but question my previous conclusions and alliances as Islam ceased being something I hated and became something I wanted to know.
One night Rodrigo and I went with a bunch of friends to a frat party at Sigma Nu. Rodrigoís first year roommate let us in. We did not pay anything for a wristband since we were avoiding the drinking rooms. Instead, he and I were dancing in the crowd for a couple of hours. At one point, I was dancing when all of a sudden I was overcome by a strange and scary feeling. I staggered off of the dance floor to the wall and just leaned my face up against it trying to rid myself of this strange feeling. It was like I was being sucked away. The sounds faded and the people seemed to be at a great distance. When I turned to look at the dance floor I heard no music. However, everyone continued to dance.
I saw Rodrigo coming over to see if I was alright. I am not so sure of what he said to me only because his voice sounded so distorted. To whatever he said I responded, "What am I doing here?" And I made my way to the door. He followed me to the outside and asked, "Are you okay?! Where are you going?" As the words left my lips I saw the condensed water vapor dissipating in front of me, "To church," I said.
As I walked in that crisp Ithaca air up the hill toward Sage Chapel my words echoed in my brain...to church?! What was I thinking? I felt this intense draw to it. And at the same time I felt an extreme abhorence for what I was leaving. I thought back to my feeling as I leaned against the dance floor wall. I recalled the dancers, dancing without any music. What a ridiculous sight. I could think of nothing except, "Is this what life is all about? Is this why weíre here? To go from one form of entertainment to another? While during the interim weíre only longing for our next opportunity to entertain ourselves?" This stuff seemed more a distraction than something to long for.
It took quite some time, but I made it to Sage Chapel. At first I just stood there looking at the building with the crescent moon hanging overhead. It was quite beautiful against the backdrop of star clusters. I felt at peace.
Not sure if I was allowed to go in, I walked up to the door and went straight in as if I knew where I was going, and why I was going there. The fact is, though, I knew neither. Upon opening the inside door, I was embraced by a warm blanket of air. Having enjoyed the moment, I then walked back to the fifth pew and sat down. Not sure why I chose the fifth pew, I stood and hesitantly stepped up to the first one. I hesitated out of uncertainty. I was uncertain why I was there, and even more uncertain as to whether I deserved to be there.
I sat there....for about an hour, perhaps two. I just sat there reflecting, pondering, and organizing my thoughts and questions. For a while I stared at the huge cross in the center of the altar, with a carved image of a bloody Jesus (peace be upon him). But it disturbed me more than anything else. Instead, I was more comfortable with my head bowed, looking at the many shades of wood in the floor.
It took quite some time before I realized that it was time to stop conjuring up my own notions of God and manís purpose. I knew that the next step was church. Though I had previously rejected organized religion as a bunch of senseless rules and regulations, developed and maintained by men for their own benefit, I was overcome with an understanding that if God were truly the Creator, then surely He would know what is best for creation. Rules and laws ceased to be senseless, and were understood to be guidelines...parameters; parameters for healthy living and healthy dying. My first trip to church as a knowledge-thirsty, consenting adult would be in two days.
Over the next couple of days I did some asking around and I discovered that three girls I knew very well went to church together every Sunday. Naturally, I asked if I could join them. Soon it became a regular thing. We would all meet outside of the church, weíd sit together, and then we would all go to brunch at Willard Straight Hall.
This lasted a little over a year. All the while, I was reading the Bible. I started on page one and read it to the end, only skipping over the lineages of each of the prophets (peace be upon them all). As I read the Bible, I discovered more questions than answers. Rather than expound on my questions and qualms, suffice it to say that I soon realized that attending church was nothing more than paying my guilty conscience. I continued to read the Bible, to read books about the Bible, and to venture into some Bible study groups. My questions became more pressing, and the answers I received did not sit well. I will intentionally keep my questions and qualms to myself so as to not offend any readers. It is enough to say that I left the Bible, I left the church, and I left the Bible studies, and headed straight for the library.
Still considering myself Christian, I began to search the aisles of philosophy, history, and religion. Again, this is a part of the story I will choose to leave out for fear of offending others with my conclusions. It is enough to say that after numerous endless nights in Cornellís libraries, I emerged with my criteria for discerning between right and wrong religions. These criteria included a belief in One God, the status of Jesus (peace be upon him), the status of women, science, and the status of other peoples who may have never heard of a particular religion. For deeper explanations of my conclusions regarding how Islam addressed all of these, please refer to My Personal Criteria in the Search for God.
During the summer between my sophomore and junior years, my mother helped me to secure a volunteer position at Pennsylvania Hospital in Philadelphia. It offerred a perfect opportunity for me to examine medicine as a possible career choice. Afterall, I had to look for something.....every family gathering I went to had people asking "What are you going to do with Africana Studies?!"
Since my mother worked at the same hospital, we would ride in together. We would drive to the high speed trolley and then take that to the subway. All the while we would talk, joke, or read. On this particular day, we happened to be reading. The trolley driver provided the background noise as he kept looking back at us, preaching about the destruction of the family and the exodus of the small businesses to the suburbs. I just turned up my walkman, perhaps thinking he was talking to my mom.
When I looked up, he was pointing at me. "Listen to me son! Listen to me. When you walk the path of the straight and narrow, sometimes it gets lonely, but somebodyís gotta lead by example." I quickly looked at my mom and she asked, "Did he just say that to you?" Unsure, I turned around only to see that we were the only ones on the trolley. So I turned back to our preacher and said "What, me?" "Sir, were you talking to me." He responded, "You got that right son. When you walk the path of the straight and narrow, itís gonna get lonely, but somebodyís gotta lead by example....And donít you forget it."
Having always been fond of deep statements, I wrote it down, knowing that our preacher was full of wisdom. He only needed a forum to pass it on.
The summer ended and I left home knowing that medicine was my new calling. I returned to Cornell with a new drive, thanks to my wonderful volunteer experience. I changed most of my classes to reflect material that would be needed for the MCATs. Keeping my major in Africana Studies, I used my elective slots for sciences. Still though, I was preoccuppied with the same questions, about life, about death, about religion, and about God.
I was beginning to think that I was crazy. Really. I was telling myself, "Why worry about religion at this point in your life? Youíre still young. These are the best years of your life, why restrict yourself with senseless rules? Besides, now you have to worry about medical school." Despite my brilliant reasoning, my hunger for knowledge was not satiated. I still wanted to know why we are all here.
So, truly questioning my sanity, I ventured over to the Cornell Campus Store to find some appropriate self-help books. While standing in the Psychology/Self-Help Section, an elderly gentleman tried to make his way around me. Upon noticing him, I turned around and positioned myself to allow him enough room to pass. As I did so, he looked up at me from his hunched position, placed his hand over his heart, and smiled the biggest smile I have ever seen...even up to this point in my life, years later. It lit up his entire face.
Perhaps by now I would have forgotten about him had a certain book not caught my eyes. Behind me had been the Religion Section and upon turning I saw Islam: The Straight Path by John Esposito. There it was....the straight path. Or as the preacher on the trolley put it, "the path of the straight and narrow." Pausing for a moment, I soon realized that Esposito was an Italian name, and for some reason that made it safe to pick up the book.
I randomly opened the book and began skimming. The first section I skimmed was about the climate in which Islam arose. Dr. Esposito pointed out that Islam emerged right smack dab in the middle of two super powers, Rome and Persia, an unlikely place for any ideology, movement, or way of life to spring up and sweep the world. I then jumped to another section where it explained the persecution of the early Muslims at the hands of the idol worshippers. And finally, when I skipped to the pages explaining Muhammadís (peace be upon him) conquest of Makka, I was intrigued to learn that he gave his oppressors amnesty as he rode into Makka with his head bowed. I was intrigued because it was not a victory parade, but rather a humble thankfulness.
So I bought it...Islam: The Straight Path, by John Esposito. That night I read it from cover to cover, with a strong sense of certainty that this was the way of life I had been searching for. Something just felt right, and at the same time, it agreed with logic. The only questions that remained were the treatment of women and the agreement with modern science. I decided to return to the Campus Store first thing in the morning to buy a copy of the Qurían.
Web Author: Abu Aasiya