Coming Home To Islam
Muhammad Beck Architect, Maryland
"I believe that a person's Islam changes all the time."
Early in my life I wanted to learn about Muslim culture and often visited my elementary school's library to read about Islam. I remember media coverage of the Iran-Iraq war, the Russians in Afghanistan and the siege of Beirut, all of which occurred in the early 1980's. I started to realize that the politics of the world were very much against the Muslim people of the Middle East and, as I would later learn, against Muslims everywhere.
In High School I wanted to visit Yugoslavia because I watched the Olympics and learned about this country where the people sounded like Russians but followed Islam. I studied Islam every chance I got and developed the habit of introducing myself to anyone I recognized as Muslim. I never drank alcohol nor indulged in illicit sex. I avoided drugs and gossip circles, that dominate so many schools. I knew that one day when I became a Muslim I would not be allowed to do those things, and recognized that such indulgences are not healthy, so I distanced myself from them.
When I enrolled in a local college I met Muslims from Pakistan who explained many things about Islam in a gentle, non-forceful way. This is a theme in Islam from the Holy Qur'an: "There is no compulsion in faith." I enrolled at the University of Maryland after my parents refused my request to study Islamic and Arabic Science at the American University of Egypt. I was devastated, but realized that if I disrespect my parents my Islam would be incomplete, so I accepted their decision. The situation helped me realize that you do not have to be in another country to be Muslim, you do not have to be from a particular ethnic group or even a certain age. I then considered myself a Muslim regarding my relationship with Almighty Allah and I converted at age twenty-one.
I began a daily reading of the Qur'an, studying how I was living my life and if my actions reflected this profound "message" from Allah (swt). I changed my dietary habits, the way I interacted with people and my basic views of life around me. I was "Islamisizing" myself.
I visited Islamic Centers around the Washington area and became active in an awareness campaign on the war in Bosnia. One day a brother called me to talk about the situations of the Bosnian Muslims and we made plans to go the offices of our Congressional Representatives. I had familiarized myself on the matter and thought that if we could change the American foreign policy on Bosnia that our effort would save innocent lives. Senator Barbara Mikulski was impressed with our presentation on Bosnian genocide, which totally changed her views. That cause was the start of my activism in Muslim politics. I began to write articles criticizing the aggressors in the conflict and demanding a halt to the Balkan holocaust.
I believe that a person's Islam is something that changes all the time. If you area good Muslim today you can not assume you always will be. One must continually work towards improving their submission to Almighty Allah. Life is full of challenges from Allah (swt) and there are many tests that we must pass. I try to promote peace and kindness in this world because here we are given a chance to submit ourselves in goodness.
Muhammad Amin Bootman Vice President, Bank of America
My wife and I converted to Islam a few years ago and, more recently, some of our older children have as well. Admittedly, our path to this religion has been traveled in slow motion. I had studied the ideas of George Gurdjieff for over 30 years, all of my adult life.
Here in California, where New Age religions and Eastern philosophies flourish, there has been a decided lack of popular interest in Islam. Negative press is certainly part of the reason, but at a personal level I can only say that Islam was simply invisible.
In this culture, everyone loves to shop. New malls, subcultures and belief systems seem to pop up overnight. Ironically, locked within the confines of the ultimate secular state, increasing numbers of people are shopping for religions.
As a convert, I can now see that it is a great pity that this religion is not at the top of the shopping list because, in some strange way, Islam includes everything else. As a newcomer it was something of a shock over the last few years to encounter the marked Islamic reverence for all the prophets of the Torah and the Gospels. There seems to be a lot more about Moses and Abraham in the Qur`an than the Prophet himself, (peace be upon all of them). When you think about it, such deference and innate modesty would, indeed, befit the bearer of God's final and perfected message to all of mankind. A faith such as Islam, which resolutely focuses on the unseen One, has an uphill battle to get noticed at all.
My hope at this point, as a husband and a father, is that Islam will provide a much-needed balance for my family. Children learn by example, and this religion presents a standard of behavior quite beyond anything I've encountered in my own culture. This religion is imminently practical and yet profound. In fact, Islam seems to be constructed along the lines of a whole series of balances. It is direct and yet sophisticated.
Dr. Robert Crane Center For Public Policy Research, Washington, DC
And so I told him about this. And he said, "Oh, that's very simple. You experienced Allah."
I said, "Wow, you have a word for it!"
I studied and studied, and I spent years reading Saint Thomas Aquinas, all the great philosophers, and wanted to become...well actually, I wanted to become a Jesuit priest, and then I decided to become a Franciscan because the Franciscans had been commissioned by the Pope to convert Russia. I spent a year writing about the spiritual dimensions of resistance against a Totalitarian state, and I escaped from communist prisons twice.
I figured there must be a secret to opposing evil. The ones who continued and were successful were all spiritually very deep. I figured the Franciscans are not intellectual--I was much too intellectual. That's why I didn't become a Jesuit, as I thought, "This intellectuality isn't going to lead anywhere, so I'd better become a Franciscan." And I did. As a matter of fact, because I've never left the Order, I'm--probably--the world's only Muslim Franciscan!
I was a Muslim, actually, because of a religious experience I had when I was 20 years old. I almost died. The doctors told me later that they assumed I was dying. It must have been a massive infestation of trichina worms, millions of them, all through my body. Every muscle of my body was full of little worms. Normally if you have an infestation like that you die. And I actually think I did. But then I had this religious experience, and I lived.
I didn't make shahada until 1980, until I was in Bahrain. I was doing some sight-seeing with my wife in Muharraq, which is the old merchant town, you know, winding alleys...we got lost and I met this old old man, the last of the pearl-diving captains. He loved me and he loved everybody--you know, a really remarkable person. And so I told him about this. And he said, "Oh, that's very simple. You experienced Allah." I said, "Wow, you have a word for it!"
Jennifer McLennan Former Marketing Officer, British Columbia
It happened so gradually that I didn't recognize what happened until I sat down to tell this story. I bought a computer with a free CD-Rom encyclopedia, and the first thing I did was look up "Islam." A colleague at work learned of my budding research and asked very casually if I'd learned about the Sufis. He was from the South Pacific himself, but had read extensively about them. So off I went to the library and checked out all the books on Sufism. I didn't get very far, though I enrolled in a course on Islamic Art.
I was floored. The professor's approach was to teach the basic tenets of Islam before delving into the art. Since everything in Islam is done in the Name of God, I learned, it seemed to make sense.
It was like everything I had come to believe on my own--through informal explorations as a teenager, formal schooling as a university student, and self-analysis--was rolled up into a neat little package and handed to me. I had never felt so much like I belonged to something and that something was made for me. The Islamic concepts of God and angels, its recognition of all holy books, its respect for other religions and policy of tolerance for other religions, and many other truths rang true to me.
I went to my professor after the course was over and asked what I should do. At that moment she became the guiding light in my life that she remains today.
A few people questioned my conversion: they thought it too hasty and not well thought out, but most expressed their apprehensions, however gently, about the religion of Islam. The funny thing is, I didn't know what they were talking about. Born in 1975, I wasn't exposed to the fame Islam was subject to until the Gulf War. Even then I didn't understand enough of what was going on to develop prejudices against Islam. What I learned, I learned in my heart, and when I converted it was because my heart was telling me to, not because it made sense in any other way, because in the worldly sense, it didn't.
I know now that it was the greatest decision I have ever made--the first one I made for my heart and soul. And I know now that I was right to do so because the obstacles I might have expected to encounter early on this path have not appeared for me. My family and friends have been beyond supportive, and the Muslim community has been very open in welcoming me. Alhamdulillah.
Abdul Jalil Under-Grad Student
While living in Minneapolis, I had been attending martial arts classes for some time, when I came to learn that the instructor also led a small dhikr group. At the time I was around 16, and was interested in Malcolm X, revolution, poetry and, among other things, the religions of the East, although in reality, I knew very little about the religion of Islam.
I went to check out the group. Considering I knew next to nothing about their practices, but was full of zeal and interest in the subject, I came with an open mind and desire to learn. I was greatly moved by their practice of reciting the Qur`an and the names of Allah (swt) together in a harmonious, yet very simple and humble way. I was intrigued as they spoke of the careful succession of tradition from the time of the Prophet Muhammad (saws), and further so when they explained the principles upon which Islam was founded and the ideals which it encompasses, those of love, understanding, and peace.
The only definition of Islam I had previously known was "submission," although never fully explained as was the meaning they offered, that one achieves peace and balance in this world when one fully submits to the Divine Will that exists in all things. Needless to say, this peaked my fascination and drew me to return and learn more.
Without mentioning the details, as I learned more of the many scholars and saints that have lived over time, and their many inspiring stories and triumphs, I began to think that this was a religion I would want to follow. When I chose to accept Islam, I too accepted the belief that all the mystical, contemplative and enlightening aspects of all the religions of the East--and indeed, all religions of the world--were encompassed in this single, most perfect and most refined religion, Islam.
I found a place in which I was welcomed: as if it were a home built and waiting for me; or rather, it found me.
Jamaluddin Hoffman, Journalist Iman Meyer-Hoffman, Under-Graduate Student San Francisco East Bay Area
It has been just two years since my wife and I embraced Islam, and were embraced by it. But the change wrought in our lives by the utterance of one simple phrase—There is no God but God and Muhammad is his messenger--has been so profound and so all-encompassing that it is, at times, difficult to remember what it was like not to be Muslim. Our journey to Islam began long before we met.
Iman and I were both born into Christian families and baptized in the Roman Catholic Church. However, neither of our families were anything resembling devout, so our religious training was informal, at best. We both developed a keen interest in the questions of faith at a rather young age.
By the time we were in high school, Iman and I had begun searching for alternatives to Christianity. We found many. While America has failed to realize its goal of becoming a racial and ethnic melting pot, it has succeeded in becoming a nation in which all of the world's faiths are blended to the point of absurdity. Iman and I plunged headlong into this confusing melange of religiosity. We tried everything, but ended up with nothing. I was the first to encounter Islam. There were many Muslim students at the university I attended, and we American leftists made common cause with them on the Palestinian and other issues.
As I got to know them, I was increasingly impressed by their sincerity, their sobriety, and their lack of hypocrisy. More than anything else, I was impressed by the way in which their religion was integrated into every facet of their lives. I sensed that they had found what I was looking for. My interest in Islam continued, but I found little to satisfy my curiosity in a country that has made the demonization of Islam a matter of foreign policy.
I may have been the first to encounter Islam, but Iman was the first to see it in our future. One night, as I was reading a verse from the Qur`an to her, Iman turned to me with a serious look in her eyes. "You are going to be a Muslim," she said. "I am certain of it."
One night, I had an inspiration. I ran into my office, turned on the computer, connected to the Internet, and typed in the word "Islam." In a matter of seconds, the names of dozens of Internet sites with information about Islam were flashing on the screen. On one specific website were volumes of writings by learned men of the faith. When I began to read what was there, I knew that I was approaching the end of my quest. Here was what I had been looking for. Here was Islam as presented by scholars who clearly penetrated the essence of this religion. Here was the missing piece of the puzzle, the key that unlocked the mystery of Islam for me. At that moment, my heart opened to Islam.
However, while Islam has proven the solution to the puzzle of faith that had confounded Iman and me for so long, our conversion has not always been easy. Wearing hijab (head scarf) was a challenge for Iman. "Today, I can't imagine not wearing it. It protects me, and it also continually makes me aware that I am a Muslim."
The path of Islam may be clear to those who have spent a lifetime walking it, but to newcomers like ourselves it often seems like a maze fraught with pitfalls and dead-ends. In this regard, Iman and I have been most fortunate. We have found sheiks to guide us, to illuminate our way with the light of their knowledge and understanding. With their help, and with the mercy of Allah (s.w.t.), we will continue our journey into Islam.
A few years ago, I had the honor to meet with special beings who are beacons for mankind. I met the Sheikh and his wife at someone's home in Canada. I immediately felt attracted to both of them. The Sheikh with his turban and his wife's sweet smile seemed so familiar, as if my heart knew them though I could not place them in my memory. My feelings of love and trust toward them were instantaneous. Therefore, I took shahada at this first encounter.
There I was invited for dinner by an Eastern African family. I was surprised to see that the women of the household were served first--by the men, who then proceeded to clean the table and the dishes. I was flabbergasted and told the young leader of this family that I had never witnessed men behaving this way. He answered that the Prophet (saws) loved three things above all, "women, prayer, and perfume" and, therefore, women should be honored and treated kindly. Before then my only image of Islam was of political violence, appalling treatment of women and intolerance.
When I met my future husband, we decided to visit London during Ramadan where we could take shahada and get married by the Grand Mufti of Cyprus, Shaykh Nazim Adil al-Haqqani. At the time, I was aware of Sufis but thought they were a thing of the past that had thrived mostly in Africa, the Middle East and Asia. I had no idea that their teaching was alive today nor that it was thriving in North America.
It has always been our conviction that holy people exist on earth. We were blessed to have met holy people such as these.
It is not by the demonstration of their knowledge that we were attracted, but by their behavior. Our hearts knew them as saints. While they are still physically present in this world, their souls have reached heavenly stations.
But through the perfection of their manners and their deep sense of humanity, we were no longer repelled by Islam and the infamy it suffers in Western countries. Finally, it was in hopes of imitating them that we pledged to be Muslim and follow their path.
The Lutz Family of New Mexico
As narrated by Rahmah Lutz
We first encountered the teachings of Islam over twenty years ago when we were a young married couple with two beautiful children. We had sought a spiritual path for awhile and had met many good and sincere people from different disciplines. Every path had benefits that we enjoyed, but none of them "fit" comfortably. We were seeking the "Divine Order" for our own destiny.
We experienced a great attraction to the writings of Sufi masters, and had come to realize that these saints who had lived over the past centuries were all practicing Muslims. This led to a study of the teachings of Islam, and we began to repeat the key word that surfaced over and over: "Allah." We fasted during Ramadan although we still didn't understand the regulations of the fast, and we made simple attempts to pray as best we could.
At the time we were isolated in a small town in southern Colorado and had never met any Muslims. In the summer of 1977, I attended a Women's Weekend at Lama Foundation, a spiritual center located on a beautiful and remote mountain top in northern New Mexico. For the first time I prayed with Muslim women and asked questions about Islam. I returned home convinced that Islam was the "way of the family."
My husband, Abdur Rahim, then visited the Lama Foundation himself, and we were invited to spend the winter studying Islamic texts at the Intensive Study Center. There were available copies of Qur'an al-Karim and collections of ahadith. Abdur Rahim accepted the invitation, came home, quit his job, packed up our family and we moved to the mountain.
We were directed to some young American Muslim families living in Santa Fe. When they discovered we were interested in Islam, they took us into their homes so we could pray with them and ask questions. Never once did they suggest we might be burdening them, although they were struggling to support their families on very little income. Never once did they suggest we should pay for spiritual instruction. They believed that Allah had sent us to their door and they opened their doors wide to receive us. We not only studied Islam from books; we directly experienced the way of Islam--the beauty of people striving to live a spiritual life, who share their knowledge, provision and blessings without question.
Eileen Rodan Psychotherapist, New Jersey
For most of my life, off and on, I was what some describe as a "seeker". I was particularly drawn to the mystical path. As a teen I would rush to chapel to pray before lunch and kneel in the dark by candlelight to pray, feeling much inner joy.
After years of agnosticism, I found God again through a twelve-step program, evolved through "new age" and meditated with Quakers until the day I was moved by God to take shahadah in 1995 during Ramadan. I, who usually talk a lot, felt total peace and wanted not to talk for weeks.
It had taken me a year of struggle to read an English translation of the Qur`an and to work through my typical Western stereotypes of Islam. I worked hard to reconcile my liberal feminism with Islam and was able to embrace my new faith wholeheartedly because it is pro-woman, and is based on equality, peace, justice and brotherhood.
Nevertheless, I was "turned off" by rigid, dogmatic Muslims who refused to acknowledge or respect differences in perspective and scholarship on various issues such as hijab, polygamy, obedience, male dominance, and sufism. I could not have become Muslim that day if it was not at a Sufi mosque. I read everything I could to find my way and place in this religion. Two years ago, I joined a local Muslim women's group in order to live my belief in tolerance, diversity, and unity.
For me, Sufism is the heart of Islam. My soul's journey is to reconcile my Islam with my life
as an active American woman.
I found love, but the rigid insistence on one perspective, and harsh judgments has caused me much pain. It has made me lose my serenity, become angry and, more than once, regret becoming a formal Muslim. I remember being told I could not associate with non-Muslims, and the Qur`an was actually used to bolster my opponent's debate. I read that I can't pray for the souls of my non-Muslim loved ones. I've been told many things which may be majority teachings, but any scholarship regarding minority views are rejected, invalidated, and not permitted to be shared.
Once a friend of mine, a new shahadah, filled with love and joy in her new Islam, was immediately told she must not wear nail polish, must wear hijab, must remove all body hair, must this must that, must divorce her non-Muslim husband, and must learn Arabic so that God can understand her in Heaven. She lost all joy and seriously considered leaving Islam.
After a recent confrontation with some Muslims over the above issues, I came home in tears and said to my husband, who is a born-Muslim from the Middle East, "Why did I become a Muslim? I can't undo it but I am being pushed away from Islam."
My experience last summer at the International Islamic Unity Conference in Washington D.C. was like cool water in a desert. I found myself in a sea of love, joy, and tolerance. The focus was on Allah and self-purification. I was "high" for weeks. The recording of NAMIRA women's group from Indonesia (who performed at the conference) always brings me back to that tranquil state.
I look at my experience as a Muslim over these four years as like breaking in a new pair of shoes, nursing blisters and making the hard leather softer, until the foot and shoe find a comfortable accommodation to each other. For me, Sufism is the heart of Islam. My soul's journey is to reconcile my Islam with my life as an active American woman.
The Qur`an tells us not to associate with those who try to pull us from Islam. I believe we must also answer to Allah if we rigidly impose our practices, customs, and devotions--beyond the core requirements--on to new Muslims and potential Muslims, driving them away. We all have a duty to reflect the love, peace and brotherhood of Islam and attract others to the light of Allah reflected through these qualities.
Leonardo "Khalid bin Waleed" Stoute Martial Arts Master, Michigan
I got the first scent of Islam as a student of the greatest of martial arts, "Pencak Silat," which traces its lineage back to Sayiddina Ali (kw) through an unbroken chain of masters. My guru always began with Allah's name, but refrained from discussing Islam. The principles of the art, however, were full of Islamic references, including the spelling of kalimat ash-shahada in the well-rehearsed movements we practiced daily.
After many years, one of the students of my guru, a Muslim, said, "You must know that Pencak Silat has its spiritual roots in the Islamic tradition. Why don't you come with me to meet a spiritual teacher?" I didn't know what to say, so I accepted his invitation. Little did I know my whole life would be changed.
I entered the hall where the teacher met every Thursday night for Islamic remembrance of God, dhikrullah. Immediately I could sense the roots of the Silat tradition originated in this spiritual path. As the teacher spoke--about essential and deep concerns that were deeply rooted in my own heart, about God, and about man's relation with the Divine--I was overwhelmed. He had read me like an open book.
I said to the teacher, "Whatever it is you have, I must have. I am asking you to grant me that permission.' He assembled those present and they all joined in helping me say the shahada. I always remember that night, because my watch stopped right at that moment--11:11pm.
The teacher never once pressured me to practice, but used to say, "Islam will grow on you, and you must always dress it like a suit of clothes. It must fit, and it must not be a suit tailored for any other person." With that kind advice I soon found myself drawn to the prayers. I gave up all kinds of vices and subhanallah, have never returned to them.
Ismaeel ZhulQarnain Computer Programmer, California
I embraced Islam while serving in the United States Navy. I was stationed on the small Aleutian island "Adak" near Alaska. My isolation offered a lot of time for reflection. I wanted to know who was God and what was the purpose of my life. And then it was that Allah (swt) brought Islam to my little-known outpost.
My spiritual journey started when a friend of mine, the most intelligent one in our company, traveled home on a military leave. Somehow he knew--even before he left the island--that he would return as a Muslim. The military personnel were both shocked and amazed over his conversion. And his change of character earned him the respect of those who new him and those who did not. I was very impressed, and asked him about Muslims. What do they do? As a recent convert he knew little, but the details he shared with me seemed like a deep fountain.
SubhanaAllah, how Allah (swt) places everything in its right time and place. We were in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with very little outside contact with anyone. I was trying to decide if I could handle the conditions of becoming a Muslim, and my friend began to learn his new religion. Miraculously, an Egyptian contractor arrived on a temporary assignment, certainly not expecting to meet any Muslims. He placed an ad in the local newspaper for Muslims or anyone interested in learning about Islam to come to such-and-such building.
To his surprise, we joined him, and my conversion came shortly thereafter. As I look back, I remember that after my Shahadah everything seemed different: the air, the walls of the room, even people. After my Shahadah our prayer ranks grew five worshippers. We engaged in interfaith dialogue with the Church of the Base, which was a big success. All this, from the Blessings of Allah (swt).