Well, it has been quite a while since I posted on my blog which is holding true to Thomas fashion and what better way to stick to my guns than to come back on blazing dramatic terms. For a very long time I’ve contemplated sharing publicly my conversion story and for one reason or another I’ve opted out except in more intimate conversational settings. I’ve had the opportunity to publish it on websites and such but really never felt comfortable with doing that. For me it is just something that happened…another one of life’s interesting occurrences which my personal life happens to be full of, give thanks. But alas the tides have turned and now I believe that there is some benefit in me trying my best to explain my story a bit. My family and friends have never pushed me on the issue and seemingly if not genuinely (but at least seemingly) have been satisfied and patient with my vague and sometimes esoteric answers as to why I chose this path in life. So I hope to fill in some details for those who are interested in this several part series which will look at my conversion to Islam in a few different angles, because I think a conversion story deserves just that; a chance to describe the phenomenon in a way that does all of the emotions, angst, happiness, contentment, and peace felt from such a dramatic event, justice. Thank you for reading…Let’s hope the Thomas’ “don’t finish what you start” fashion can be put on hold for a bit.
Part 1: The Simple Part…The Conversion Itself
To be perfectly honest I think that one reason that I have never gone into details about me converting to Islam is 1) because of the true simplicity of the event itself and 2) because of my complicated emotions which have shifted and changed naturally over the course of 10 or so years now about that event. Speaking about point 1 before I get started, many converts to Islam have amazing conversion stories. There are many examples of Westerners converting to Islam, dedicating their lives to gaining and spreading sacred knowledge, and then word leaks out about how they came to Islam and we hear some really amazing things which took place. Near death experiences, out of the ordinary events taking place leading some one to the study of Islam, and other somewhat supernatural occurrences have lead many people to fully dedicate their lives to this particular belief in God. I mean there are some stories out there which bring tears to the eyes of those who listened and warmness to the hearts of those who truly value how God leads people to this religion. People who have been Muslim all of their lives (meaning they were born into Muslim families) and especially those living in ‘Muslim countries” LOVE to hear stories how some one found, or better yet, was shown Islam. I never felt that I had one of these stories and worse than that I suppose that I’ve always felt that one needed a “miraculous” story to be taken seriously as a convert. This is absolutely not true. Each story is special and personally I believe that in the subtleties of life’s simplistic events lie deep reservoirs of meaning and guidance. For many years I abated the telling of my story with a passive-aggressive response to tell it with a “It was just meant to be” or ” The beauty is in why I stayed Muslim and not how I became one.” Or better yet, ” We were all born Muslim anyway and have just found our way back!” The reason why I use the word aggressive is because after a while I felt that people were prodding with this question and therefor deserved a smart response which was merely my own insecurities finding their way to the surface. These are all suitable answers to the question ” how did you become Muslim” if one doesn’t want to get into it for the moment. However my problem was that I wasn’t “getting into it” myself and passively felt that people wouldn’t truly understand me honestly because I didn’t understand the depth and preciousness of my own story. I no longer feel that a spectacular event is necessary to validate one’s Islam, and although they are fun to listen to and extremely valuable in their own right, a subtle story is also special. Quite frankly I’m a person who always down plays things in my life out of what I wish was humility but more often is insecurity. I still to this day put more emphasis on the “why I stayed Muslim” part of the story (to be told God willing) but I know now that the conversion itself was a very important and special time in my life worth sharing.
The story itself:
I had actually been interested, at least some what, in Islam from quite a young age. I can’t remember exactly what age it was but it must have been some time close to my late jr. high/early high-school years when I learned about the Black Panthers and Malcolm X through some report I did for a class. These references became much stronger in my mid to late high-school years when I became immersed in the world of Hip-Hop music and culture. I wanted to live it and breathe it and I think in some degrees that part of that process is trying your best to understand and relate to where the culture started and who was producing it first. I have to admit I really wanted to be able to identify with African-American culture in general and therefore plunged my identity into Hip-Hop as the means to do so along with a genuine passion to express myself through such a free and empowering art form. Listening to Public Enemy, Brand Nubian, KRS One among a slew of others showed me that even though I wasn’t going through their struggles as young black people in America, striving to be a conscious person and to consequently look cool doing it was where I wanted my life to move towards.
Anyone who has ever listened to late 80’s/early 90’s Hip-Hop knows that it is inundated with references of Islam (albeit usually the Nation of Islam…another discussion completely.) It was clear that these men and women were being influenced, in my eyes, by something so wonderfully powerful that I wanted to know more…AND I wanted to look cool shaking hands with accompanying hugs along with the words “As Salaam Alaikum!” I didn’t know exactly what they meant but didn’t care either. It was truly engaging to me. However we all know that Hip-Hop is full of all kinds of other things that are extremely appealing to youth and I was no exception in being drawn in by their lure. So the interest of Malcolm X and his conversion to Sunni Islam became a small thread in the fabric of my identity as a “conscious Hip-Hopper” and the interest in Islam became somewhat dormant under worldly delights and mixed philosophies of life.
It wasn’t until my mid-twenties when that small thread of Islam would stand out among the mix and match world views which constituted my identity and personal view of life. At that time in my life I was really and truly what I would call a “seeker of Truth.” I had been raised as a Catholic Christian and although I was allowed a break from going to church because I wasn’t all that interested whilst growing up, I found myself back into the faith late in high school. Later on I stopped going to church again in my late teens and early twenties but despite this I still felt that my relationship with Jesus (peace be upon him) remained at the foundation of my belief system. It was just that my belief system was expanding at a tremendous rate as an exploring, hungry 20-something mind might do. I enjoyed the expansion and that period of my life still brings a smile to my face.
I was immersing myself in the philosophies of Kung-fu, Tai-chi, Taoism, Indian philosophers such as Krisna Murti, Ghandi, and others such as Malcolm X, Henery David Therou, Orthodox monks ,movies such as Baraka, spoken word poetry and conscious Hip-hop, just to name a few influences. It was a time of healthy eating (for the most part) deep conversations and fun. Some where in this mix of tofu and incense I had decided to read/study every major book of every major religion with a person of each said religion. A daunting task, but I was thirsty and deeply felt that Truth lied in everything and in every religion. This was a turning moment in my life. Even just a decision itself without the follow through can shape a person’s life incredibly. Because I honestly didn’t know much about it other than wise quotes from incense packages, I started with the Quran.
I had very quickly developed a deep relationship with a friend of mine who was a bit younger than I was during this “enlightenment” periodl, and he and I had traveled down this questing path together for the most part. So much so that we felt that we were more than friends and actually more like brothers. His parents treated me as their “white son” as they were Chinese by way of Italy. My love for them was and still is one of the deepest running rivers I have discovered to date. He is very important to this story because I had no idea where to begin reading the Quran and with who. It just so happened that the Universe had placed him contact with a Muslim man who owned an oils and incense/bookshop in the Central District of Seattle. I trusted my brother so much that I knew who ever he lead me to it was what was meant to be. He had been to this shop many times and had many conversations with this man and was quite impressed by his character and the way he did business not to mention the way he smelled when he left the shop.
The man’s name was Abdul Latif. He was a tall African-American man, sure in stature, soft in voice and had an uncanny resemblance to Osma Bin Laden of all people. He wore traditional clothing such as a thobe and a turban and often the Saudi red and white checkered kufiya or shawl around his shoulders. I respected him very much so from the first time I met him. In fact when I asked him if he would help me read the Quran he said that he would but he must first let me know that he is what some people call a “hardliner.” To this day I respect those words so much. Much later I would find out that he held what is now referred to as a Salafi/Wahabi perspective of the religion which is very different from how I perceive things. I disagree with him on many issues however he treated me with so much kindness that I will always respect him and what he taught me.
We read the entire Quran in the translation of its meaning along with commentary over the course of about a year or so. I would read a translation at home and then come to him once a week with questions. I remember some very distinct emotions and thoughts about reading this vast and deep book for the first time. One of them was that it didn’t seem so vast and deep. It seemed incredibly upfront and to the point especially about what to believe and heaven and hell. In fact it was the fire and brimstone of the Bible that turned me off from it in the first place but I muscled through the harsh reminders each day to find some really remarkable ties to and examples of nature. I also was quite blown away by the tales of the Prophets who most of them I had been taught about in Christianity and its biblical links to Judaism. In fact I didn’t know that Moses, Abraham, Noah or even Adam were at the foundations of Islam and I began to view Islam as a “part three” in worlds most important trilogy. As I read I couldn’t really find much that I disagreed with but yet living out of fear from hell was not how I wanted to live. Yet I kept going back and I even found myself asking Abdul Latif how to pray as a Muslim prays. I would take my grandmother’s old afghan and lay it on the floor of the town house I was renting and basically go through the motions not knowing really what to say. However something about the discipline of it felt uncomfortably good. I’ll explain this more later, God willing.
After finishing reading the Quran in its entirety, which took about a year and half to complete, I didn’t know what to do exactly. I was under the impression that I was going to move on to the next book but instead I kept finding myself walking the 8 blocks or so once a week to Abdul Latif’s shop and just sitting and talking with him. Sometimes I would silently disagree while other times I was fascinated by what he had to say about the meanings of things within the religion. It was so new to me yet oddly familiar. It was then I decided to start learning some Arabic with him because I knew that a translation would not do any religious text justice. But doing this felt like some weird limbo and I wasn’t sure what to make of these feelings.
One day during Ramadaan Abdul Latif and I walked down to the mosque on the corner of MLK and Jackson which was run by East Africans from the Oromo tribe. He prayed with the congregation the mid afternoon prayer while I sat in the back and waited for him. I watched the men as they stood and then prostrated thinking about how they were all fasting for the entire day. The idea of stopping five times a day and contemplating God, although I still didn’t know the specific words of a Muslim’s prayer, was very appealing to me. And so I sat in the back of the room and closed my eyes and prayed along with the men even though I wasn’t standing next to them. In fact I did this every time Abdul Latif stopped to pray in his shop. I liked the fact that people just stopped and prayed from what ever they were previously doing.
After the prayer was finished, one of the younger men came back and sat down with me. Actually I was sitting on a metal, foldable chair and he asked me to sit on the floor. “It’s more comfortable,” he said. This struck me. In Western cultures we don’t really sit on the ground too much, at least not for ordinary conversations, but he was right it was comfy. As the other men finished they also came back and sat down with us in a loose form of a circle. The Imam of the mosque (which was an old garage turned into a prayer space) didn’t speak English so the young man translated for him. He asked me some questions about why I was interested in reading the Qur’an and such and then gave a bit of a talk about Islam in general but it wasn’t anything I hadn’t already learned from Abdul Latif. Recognizing this, he simply asked me via the translator “So do you believe that Allah is One, with out partners?” I said “Yes…that is easy enough.” I had been contemplating the oneness of all things and really thought that reading about this in the Quran was the first time I heard my own thoughts being expressed in a religion. I also was no longer hanging on to the belief that Jesus was divine or that anything else was in creation was for that matter. “Do you believe that Muhammad (peace be upon him) was Allah’s messenger and Prophet,” asked the Imam. “This is also not so hard to believe,” I replied. I thought Muhammad was a fascinating man and although I didn’t know too much about him at the time, I hadn’t learned anything that would tell me that he wasn’t a Prophet. (Of course I believed in prophethood to begin with) Then the imam said in words that will forever get me to stop in my tracks, “What are you waiting for then?” The men smiled and even I chuckled at the simplicity of his question however my slight laughter appeared out of insecurity. I didn’t know why I was waiting to become Muslim (meaning saying the words that “officially” make one bound to Islam.) I had lots of reasons before that moment but when he broke everything down to those two simple concepts, I didn’t know. It was a bit unnerving to be honest. And so I answered as a deer caught in headlights might, “I don’t know.”
“Repeat after me,” the translation came. “Ashadu an la ilha ila Allah wa ashadu an Muhammadan Rasul Allah.” I bear witness that there is no god but Allah and that Muhammad is the messenger of Allah. And that was it. I was Muslim. The men in the circle were weeping at that point, and every one passionately gave me a hug. I was fine, meaning more in shock, until I left the mosque a while later and everything hit me like a hurricane. What exactly does “bieng Muslim” mean I thought and how will my life change!? There was no actual hurricane that made me take this belief in God. There was no horrible car accident or near death experience, thank God. It was a simple question that felt as if this man had reached into my soul and clutched on to something that I knew was there but had no idea of what it was.
This is the “how” of the story. Simple and sweet. I will share the “why” and the feelings that came along with this in the next part inshAllah along with what I feel is the most important part of a convert”s story, why I stayed a Muslim perhaps in a third part. But I leave you with this. For years this remained one of the most simplified events in my live. ” What are you waiting for?” “I don’t know.” But it has since become the foundation for one of the most powerful decisions I have ever made filled with every emotion one can think of and to all extremes of them.
For now, ma’salaama (with peace)