Home Base: San Diego
Occupation: Executive, Computer Storage Industry
My Formative Years
I was born in Egypt, where I lived for the first 13 years of my life before coming to the US with my family over 30 years ago. For me, Islam was always something noble, beautiful, and valuable in my life. My family was not overly religious and yet Islam was still at the center of our lives in so many ways; the sound of the Qur’an was usually present in our home, Ramadan was our perennial special time of the year when we fasted, listened to beautiful stories of the prophets, ate special dessert treats and woke up before dawn to have a special meal to help us through the day’s fasting. Our holidays were festive and happy occasions that we anticipated with excitement every year. Prayers and blessings were often exchanged in normal, daily interactions between relatives and friends, and God was living and present in our daily language with such expressions as "God willing," "God is greater," "God knows best," "God keep you," "God be pleased with you," and many others. In our language, the most basic expression of delight, pleasure, love, and happiness is to simply say, "Allah!"
Growing up in Egypt, we were always taught in school and at home to respect people of other faiths. A rich interfaith life was normal for us. One of my father’s best friends was a Christian, as were several of my school friends. My mother told me how, before the 1956 war, there were many Jews in Egypt and she had many dear friends who were Jewish. Most of them left after that war. We participated in celebrating each other’s holidays. We used to decorate a Christmas tree at home and color Easter eggs, and our Christian friends used to celebrate the Muslim holidays with us as well, eating special pastries and sweets during Eid Ul Fitr (celebrating the end of Ramadan) and Mawlid Al Nabi (The Prophet’s Birthday).
Jesus and the Virgin Mary held a very special place in the hearts of Muslims and Christians; I grew up hearing many beautiful stories about Moses and Jesus, and there were many sightings and visions of the Virgin reported in the news by both Christians and Muslims that caused throngs of people from both communities to gather at the sightings in hope of receiving blessings from her. I remember my mother telling me about one of her neighbors when she was growing up who was Christian and who loved to hear the Qur’an every day and would weep as he heard it recited on the radio.
There was something very special about this openness and acceptance of others, and I knew from my parents, relatives, and school that this tolerance and acceptance was a basic part of Islam. I understood that it was due to Islamic values that we had such an accepting culture in Egypt. We understood that even though most Christians and Jews didn’t accept Prophet Muhammad, we accepted Jesus and Moses and all other prophets and we were bound by our faith to respect and protect our non—Muslim neighbors. This acceptance and tolerance always held a very special meaning for me, and it made Islam especially precious for me. It was hard to explain, but I think it gave me the feeling that our religion made peace and love possible among people no matter how different they were. I felt safe and secure knowing this. There was a reassurance that God was kind and merciful and we were all somehow protected because of Islam.
Another aspect of our faith that touched me deeply was the value of respect and kindness for the poor and the elderly. Respect and honor for the elderly was a deeply ingrained value in us. We understood that old people brought blessings and wisdom to our world and that goodness came from how well we treated our elders. I remember how my father and grandfather used to take care of the poor doorkeeper and his family, who lived in a single room under the staircase of my grandfather’s home. We played with their children and we were taught to call the father "uncle" to show him respect. The mother was a very special person to all of us. She was like a dear aunt to me. She took care of us and had so much love for us that I felt as safe and warm with her as I did at home. I remember how after years abroad in the US when I first returned to Egypt as a young man, the mother, old, wrinkled and nearly blind, recognized me instantly as if I was her own son, and how she embraced me and kissed my hands as I wept in her arms.
These were fundamental aspects of Islam. We knew that this was the legacy of the Prophet, whose way was kindness, love, and respect for the poor and the weak. I can never forget how I was taught in our religion class at school that the poor have a right over the wealthy and that we are bound by our faith to provide for them. All wealth belonged to God and we only hold it in trust during our lives on earth. This special relationship that Islam established between the poor and wealthy, the weak and the strong, created an environment of lovingkindness and mutual appreciation between people. The world was a safe and welcoming place because we took care of each other. There was no reason for fear, resentment, or violence because of social or economic differences between people. Our relationships were defined by mercy and love. This deep kindness and affection is still palpable among the people of Egypt. One can still sense it in the daily interactions among people, how they greet each other, how they respond to each other, and how they honor and respect one another.
Another aspect of Islam that touched me deeply was humility and simplicity in life. These values were such a strong part of the Prophet’s life. He turned his back on worldly pursuits and chose a life of poverty even though he had ample opportunity to amass wealth and power. As children we heard many stories about how the Prophet and his companions chose hunger, lived with few possessions, and gave away most of their wealth in the way of God. This way of life always struck me as the most noble that a human being could ever aspire to. For me it seemed to be a way so full of love and life, it filled me with a sense of longing that I still cannot explain. I felt such desire to be like them. I used to cry with love and longing whenever I heard or read such stories. I still do.
I grew up knowing another very important value; that the strong must protect the weak. I saw this in how my older cousins took care of us. I felt safe, loved, and protected. I knew that people looked out for each other. Children were safe because adults protected them, women were safe because men protected them. There was never any question about safety in the streets or at school. Violence was almost unheard of during my childhood. People would not allow anyone to get hurt, they would immediately intervene if they saw or heard any sign of trouble. We grew up with this sense of honor about coming to the aid of those in need.
These values and others were imparted to us primarily through storytelling. I loved listening to stories. We heard stories about Prophet Muhammad and his companions. We also heard stories about Moses and Jesus. And we heard stories about the great heroic figures of Islamic history, such as Saladin and Harun Al Rashid, who symbolized honesty, justice, tolerance, and wisdom. We also heard stories about the mythical heroes of the One Thousand and One Nights (The Arabian Nights), who symbolized the human quest for truth and the understanding of our real self. During Ramadan every evening after we broke our fast, we would listen to these stories on the radio. That was one of the most special treats for us children during Ramadan.
These were the imprints of Islam on my young heart and mind. I grew up with a sense that I was given a very special gift, a deep heritage that honored humanity. I felt that I held a trust that I was bound to honor and fulfill. I often heard from the adults around me that we were the Muwahideen (The Unifiers), we were the community of Muhammad and we were bound to uphold the banner of unity in the world. The meaning of this would grow and deepen in my heart as the years went by and my understanding of Islam broadened and matured.