Journey Into Islam – A Converts Tale Part I

The Ka'abah - Photographed by Marc Manley 2008

 One of the questions that is most often asked of me, both by Muslims and non-Muslims alike, is how did I come to Islam. Often this query is framed around a supposed single instance, a distinct and defining event that overwhelmed my being and thus causing me to embrace Islam, as I have often heard it described by others. I have heard this very same rhetoric espoused by so-called Muslim converts (such as myself) who often characterize their own accounts of coming to Islam in the very same singular fashion. I am always stuck by the simplicity by which these voices engage such a diverse and often elusive subject, to speak nothing of how converts (or reverts, as some prefer) short change themselves in their abridged assessments of their own journey to Islam.

During a speaking event, in which I was asked to give an autobiographic account of my own experience as an American Muslim, one questioner in the audience asked, “what was it about Islam that made you want to become a Muslim?” Apparently I had delivered such an intriguing talk, that upon being asked this bold question, the crowd fell into a hush, awaiting a thunderclap. I believe I duly disappointed them when I replied, “perhaps the more important question is not why I became Muslim, but why I choose to remain Muslim.” The disappointment and confusion that befell their faces was apparent. I attempted to recover by telling them that it was everything; everything in the nineteen years proceeding my choice to become a Muslim had an effect, be it profound or not. It was a mixture of my parenting, my childhood experiences, encounters with people—good and bad—and of course, those innate aspects of my personality that the Muslim tradition calls “fitra”. While I had answered his question, I left that day with the feeling that most of the attendees were not satisfied with the answer I had given them. It is mainly my belief because the experience is much more epic than it is dynamic, evolutionary versus epiphany. It is still my hunch that for those converts/reverts who assert that they did have any epiphany, there’s still quite a bit of back story that’s not being told. And in cutting out all of that back story, they do a disservice to the story that is unfolding before them at this very moment.

Detroit race riots of 1967 I was born in was Detroit, Michigan, in 1973, seven years after the 1967 Race Riots. Though in reality the decline of Detroit proceeded the race riots by as much as ten years, my family, a working-class family of five, was thoroughly effectd by the repercussions of a city poisoned by the disease of racism (we were forced to abandon our home). In fact, I have often contemplated the Qur’ānic verse, by which God compensated me through the trial of living in desolate Detroit:

ونريد أن نمن على الذين استضعفوا في الأرض ونجعلهم أئمة ونجعلهم الورثين

“We desired to show kindness to those who were oppressed in the land and to make them leaders and make them inheritors.” [Qur’ān 28: 5]

In time, the ravages of drugs and crime had certainly come to oppress my family. The neighborhood had become so unsafe that our father would sit on the porch with a loaded gun so we could play in the yard. Ultimately, after having our house shot at and fire bombed, we were forced to abandon ship and move to the suburbs.  The economic impact on our family was devastating.  Our time in Detroit would play such a defining role that its specter still haunts some of my family members to this day.

Despite the urban hostilities, there remained one single hindrance that would go on to define my family and my youth: race. Race more than anything else dogged my family’s footsteps—maternal and paternal sides alike. This dilemma was due to the remnants of Jim Crow America and the psychological deficiency that many of my family members struggled with. My family had most certainly imbibed the value system of white supremacy and its byproduct of self-loathing. In one conversation with another Blackamerican friend of mine, he asked if my family had tried to “pass”. I pondered this question at length. “No”, I replied. “Our experience was more akin that that of Anne Frank: we hid in the attic of white suburban America and prayed no one would discover we were black.” So powerful was the ghost of Jim Crowism that my family didn’t even attempt to pass; white values and aesthetics were admired, but from afar. So deep had the inferiority complex of white supremacy penetrated the psyche of my family that to go all the way and “pass” was still viewed as off limits. Instead, my family shrank into a more insidious despair by attempting to deny any trace of blackness entirely. The consequences of this were devastating, both internally and externally for family dynamics, for we had now ostracized ourselves from the rest of the extended family. The rest of my childhood and early adult years would bear witness to the humiliating and heartbreaking effects that self-loathing had on my family members and myself, as it corrupted us from the inside.

You are reading Part I of this post. Stay tuned for the second installment. The banner image above was photographed by yours truly at the Haram in Makkah, Saudi Arabia, in 2008, while on ‘Umrah with the Medinah Institute.

The Best Is Yet To Come

2342 Broadway, San Francisco

The Dunyā [الدنيا]: this word would have to list very high on words that are both emotionally charged and misunderstood by Muslims. This is partially due to its ambiguity, its meaning depending on the context: to be or draw close to something; to be vile or base; and of course, its common understanding [which is valid] to be that of this world or mundane, temporal life. Without a doubt, Dunyā is a location, a place, and yet the nuanced perspective that the Qur’ān has on This Life seldom gets articulated.

While coming across an online article today, I was reminded of how the Qur’ān speaks to mankind’s deep-seated desires: we love beautiful homes and many of us fantasize about “dream homes”. I have been privy to such conversations where people have been reproached for their apparent materialism, and yet, something about that desire speaks to a core characteristic of Banī Adam. The Qur’ānic passage came to mind my immediately:

وجوه يومئذ ناعمة لسعيها راضية في جنة عالية لا تسمع فيها لغية فيها عين جارية فيها سرر مرفوعة وأكواب موضوعة ونمارق مصفوفة وزرابي مبثوثة

“Faces on That Day will be radiant, happy with their efforts, in a elevated garden, within they will hear no harsh speech.  Inside is a gushing spring, raised couches, set goblets, lined cushions, and spread out carpets.” [Qur’ān, 88: 8-16]

How funny it is that God would speak to the human being about rugs, couches, and goblets? As to whether the designers were trying to accomplish this, I cannot say, but it did remind [ذكر] me about The Next Life [الآخرة], where our deep-rooted human desires can be fulfilled. It also reminds me that the Dunya is filled with opportunity. Opportunity for us to strive towards seeking God’s pleasure, God’s reward, and endeavoring to extrapolate what reminders of The Life To Come as we can from This Existence.

Our conversations about this life must embrace the nuance and richness of the Qur’ānic narrative:

فمن الناس من يقول ربنا ءاتنا في الدنيا وما له في الآخرة من خلق

“And from amongst men are those who say, ‘O’ our Lord, give us good in this life’. They will have no share in the Next Life.” [Qur’ān, 2: 200]

If the above āyah were read in and of its self, we would be short changing ourselves of the big picture:

ومنهم من يقول ربنا ءاتنا في الدنيا حسنة وفي الآخرة حسنة وقنا عذاب النار ألئك لهم نصيب مما كسبوا والله سريع الحساب

“And from them are those who say, ‘O our Lord, give us good in This Life and The Next, and save us from the torment of the Fire’. For them is a just share fromwhat they have hearned. God is Swift in Reckoning.” [Qur’ān, 2: 201-202]

The Dunyā is where we can seek God’s bounty, God’s mercy, God’s favor.  It is where we build the foundation for our proverbial castles in the sky.  It is where we put our mettle to the test.  It is where we enjoin the good, forbid the evil, make our pilgrimages, our friendships.  It is where we acquire the correct knowledge, master the correct deeds. It is our layover, our way-station towards, God willing, a better, a purer, a more real existence.  So for now, I will look and dream at “dream houses”.  Not as a materialist, coveting the illusory nature of this world, but in wonder and amazement: if this is what man can do, I stand in awe and inticipation of what the Creator of the seven heavens has in store for me.