So there I was…a Muslim. I was excited to say so, yet also a bit afraid of the repercussions of what that truly meant. I knew that what I was getting into was something good but to be perfectly honest I was a bit blind to what it was I was actually becoming a part of. I think that is the case with most people who join something new at whatever stage in their lives they are in. You won’t know where you fit in or if you do at all until some time passes and you’ve done some learning, experiencing and feeling about that which you’ve just chosen to be a part of. All Muslims believe that God calls who He wills to Islam yet it is up to the individual to accept the invitation. I say that because I don’t want to skirt away from the fact that I believe my becoming a Muslim was a choice. It was indeed. Of course I believe in divine will and decree, this is one of the creedal aspects of Islam, but one can’t deny the reality of choice in this world. My mother and I used to go back and forth in full argumentative form when I was in High School about pre-destination vs will. I used to take the argument that everything in this world has already been planned and “written” so we just have to let things happen. My mother being the beautifully wise, aware and spiritual person that she was and is, knew that this is a very dangerous path for a young man to travel down without a lot of knowledge. Her argument (which is now mine ;)) is that we are fools if we do not recognize the fact that our own choices don’t have consequences She did an outstanding job of teaching me this throughout my youth despite my trial and error approach to life. “Think about the consequences Tom,” she would say in that piercing, one eyebrow up sort of way parents speak to their kids when they are about to do something wrong. But she would also make me think about the consequences when I was about to do something she knew was right. I used to hate it but it was a beautiful way to teach a child the power of choice. Eventually I saw that these choices didn’t necessarily interfere with there being divine decree yet the two co-exist in a beautifully complex and frankly incomprehensible way. I’m fine with that now, but being fine with that forced me to look at why I chose Islam and nothing else.
REASON 1: The Hard Truth (The surface reason)
I needed to belong. Most people, if not everyone has a need to belong on some level but some more than others in order to help them be comfortable with their identities…or have one at all. I suppose I’m one of those people. In fact, many years ago in Seattle-but after I had became Muslim-I had a bit of an identity crises and forced my self to sit down and write all of the “identities” I had attached myself to and the tools of their attachments (ie. Hip Hopper; baggy camouflage clothing, and rap music) in a list so that I could actually see what I thought I was.
It was an amazing exercise I was or had been a business owner, Muslim, Hip Hopper, barber, boyfriend, good son gone bad (well not really…but that’s how I saw it) and the list went on. For the first time in my life I saw my self outside of my own box so-to-speak. It feels funny to do this but I highly recommend it if you are at all like I am. The need to analyze myself in this way stemmed from my a fore mentioned Chinese/Italian brother calling me out in many deep conversations when I would clearly be focusing all of my attention and energy on the things I was attached to rather than on the development of myself. I had a hard time seeing myself as something separate from the things I was doing or people I was involved with. He would tell me in words that I still re-visit today for support, “Never forget there is a Thomas with out a ________.” You can insert the attachment of choice; girlfriend, barbershop, Hip Hop, etc. The first time he said that was the first time I had saw myself as something precious on its own.
So yes, Islam fulfilled that need to a very large extent. It gave me something to identify with, something to hang on to. It gave me the chance to say “I am a _________” once again. It gave me more people to hug, be friends with, identify with on a deeper level. These were all things that I suppose I felt I didn’t have anymore or were slipping away for various reasons. I am a person who commits fully to an identity as well (while remaining a chameleon in various social circles) so I became a Muslim in my hat, my words, my prayers, my social activities my reading choices, etc. However when I would come around my family I would hang up the identity coat a bit out of fear of losing them. When I would be around certain intellectuals in the barber shop I would let it be known I was Muslim but was very quick to say that I am more attached to the spiritual side of the religion and not the dogma. But in another conversation with an imam for example the kufi would go back on and I would agree with everything he said (even if I didn’t-hence the chameleon description.)
So how Muslim was I, I would ask myself. Was my identity issues the real reason I had became Muslim? Was being Muslim just another mask of sorts to add to my list? I liked being a part of a bigger world family and looking the part and this led me to think that clearly it hadn’t settled in my heart yet. On the other hand I officially said the creedal statement making me a Muslim shortly after 9/11. Who in there right mind would want to try on the Muslim identity during that time? The rap Muslims were getting (and get) was quite atrocious at times and believe you me that it made the loved ones around me bit nervous. And me as well to be honest. My feeling about the aftermath of 9/11 would probably be of dissertation proportions so I’ll leave it to this. With the world’s eyes specifically on the Muslim identity as opposed to life altering lessons it can provide, I knew this had to be a matter of the heart. Being identifiable as a Muslim was a very real aspect of my conversion, however true belief in one’s heart is usually a different animal altogether than that of the identity.
REASON 2: Oneness (The deeper & real reason)
That animal was starting to growl louder and become unavoidable. The verb “to growl” is mixed with connotations of anger or violence in animals, but it can also signify urgency and great need. I believe that Truth lives in all of us. We can sit and argue all day what Truth is for each and every one of us and with this in mind, I also believe that Truth presents itself to us in the way that we will best be able to understand it in our present lives and in our present conditions. There is no one in this world who can or should judge another based on their current understanding of the world and life itself. Trust me, and I hope you already know this, we are ALL still trying to figure it out.
But for me Truth was bubbling up inside me and forming my mish-mash system of “pick-and-choose” from every walk of life into one consolidated concept. (There is deep wisdom in seeing benefit in everything in the world…but one should be careful.) “Concept” is an extremely weak way of trying to explain more a feeling of Oneness. This is what I began to feel. With all my hooks sinking into all the lakes and ponds of knowledge (albeit the shallowest parts of them) I began to see that the water was just water and the fish were just fish. In my love for metaphors and analogies I’m trying to say that I began to see and believe that all of this knowledge and wisdom, all of the rightly guided actions I was reading about, and indeed all of creation in general were not necessarily one in and of themselves but more importantly all from one source-an inexplicable, unpredictable (most of the time), ultimately unquestionable, and most dramatically undeniable source of creation. I could have stopped there. And actually I did stop there. I lived in the state of belief in “oneness from an undefinable source” for some time and this is what actually led me to see the beauty in Islam.
Being 100 percent upfront and truthful, had I not been in this primed state of seeing everything coming from one source, I perhaps would have brushed Islam off completely due to the dogma issues I was having with religion in general and the scary depictions of hell and who goes in it. I would have closed the book, said something like, “Hmmmm that was interesting,” taken a few quotes here and there and been off to the next book while chewing on my licorice root and smelling of “Egyptian Musk.” (One of my favorite oils from Abdul Latif’s little shop…consequently no one in Egypt knows this scent…only Hip Hoppers from the 90’s and African-American Muslims in America…go figure.) And although I did stop my initial plan of reading every major religious text, I didn’t stop on my quest to understand this Oneness that was so beautiful and increasingly undeniable to me.
Just before I actually “became” a Muslim and also shortly after, I started seeing things in Islam that started to amaze me despite my view of religion as “limiting life box”. There was a particular African-American Muslim originally from the East Coast of the U.S. whom I had also been talking to about Islam before and after my conversion at the same time I was talking to Abdul Latif. We’ll call him Omar for identity privacy (I haven’t had the chance to ask if I can write about him…forgive me bro.) While Abdul Latif was showing me straight forward information about Islam, I started to connect with the words Omar was telling me more and more so. He had a shiekh (spiritual teacher), a madhhab (a school of jurisprudence-there are 4 major ones in Sunni Islam), and an outlook on the world that seemed to include the diversity of the world and its teachings…IF they weren’t in contradiction to the laws of Islam. He had a respect for the name Allah that was strict yet extremely beautiful. He used to pick up fallen coins off the ground because they have the word God on them. He wouldn’t put them in his pocket but rather put them up in a higher place so that the owner or someone who needed it more could retrieve it. In addition to a wonderful portrayal of the lessons of Muhammad (Peace be upon him) the East Coast of his personality (extremely upfront and bound and determined) was what I liked about Abdul Latif as well. Although the things I just mentioned about Omar were standing out to me in a big way. These men were sure about what they believed and that confidence gave me confidence in what I was feeling.
Through Abdul Latif I learned that all of the prophets of the Bible were in the Quran and in fact some of their stories (such as Joesph) were added upon and in greater detail. This made me feel secure that I was involving myself in something that I was aware of, and liked and appreciated before. In addition to that he taught me that Jesus, although was not divine, was extremely loved and revered in Islam along with the virgin Mary. This also made my heart settle. I had developed a relationship with Jesus that felt so warm and compassionate and even though I was not so clear on the divinity issue myself anymore, it was breaking my heart to think I would have to leave this relationship if I ever did choose another religion. One of the major reasons I chose to become Muslim was because I didn’t have to stop loving Jesus.
And although I used to argue tooth and nail with Omar in the barbershop about cosmological issues (I should have been a lawyer…although I wouldn’t have been a good one) slowly the things that he was was saying became lessons for me as well (when I let my ego down.) For example he taught me that Islam is a “mouth to ear religion.” Meaning that one can and should read books but the knowledge found in those books needs to come from sitting with and listening to a qualified teacher. This appealed to my Luke Skywalker, Yoda fantasies. I saw wisdom in this. He said the teacher must be firm in his beliefs and have a chain of reliable and trust worthy teachers which can be recited and linked all the way back to the Prophet Muhammad. This made way more sense than what others were saying. “Read Quran and Sunnah,” they would say…but the academic in me was completely afraid of misinterpreting things myself. And then it hit me. What Omar was saying was that my previous methodology of understanding life through religion by interpreting everything myself was problematic. And this is probably why I argued with him in the beginning so much. My ego didn’t like anything that contradicted the ability to understand everything on my own…with no authority to tell me how to live. But the Truth in me was forcing me to NEED some concreteness, some stability in understanding. And so what Omar taught me both directly and indirectly is that if I did believe in the Oneness of God and that Muhammad was a messenger of God, then it is OK to submit the ego to learning through a teacher and in fact we need a map in the vastness of understanding God and Sacred Law because it is clear and evident what misunderstandings of these have done in our world.
To be frank the discipline was very attractive and was needed by me at that time. And perhaps this sums up the main reason I became Muslim. I needed direction and discipline in learning about this new found “Oneness” which so beautifully orchestrated all of the wonderful concepts of truth I had found from Buddha to Lao Tzu, Adam to Jesus, Krishna Murdi to Malcolm X in to one package which honestly just felt… right. And “life cannot be defined by a box” became “all the wonderful variances of life can fit into one box.” For me this became a wonderful aspect of God’s mercy; a word that used to scare me severely but now has become one of the most soothing reasons why I believe in God in the first place let alone Islam.
For the sake of eye strain I’m going to talk about the emotions of my conversion in a separate post. i perhaps it is not everyone’s business as an old friend of mine told me but I think it is a crucial aspect of a conversion story and quite honestly it’s a good chance for me to vent…if you’ll listen. More to come inshAllah and thanks for reading.