Though my search for religion gained momentum as I grew older, even in junior high I was searching for spirituality. My parents were decidedly against organized religious institutions, mainly for their misogynistic reputations and patriarchal leadership structures. Left with few answers, I wondered why I existed, and my mother's humanitarian answers (like Òyou're here to pay taxes, then die") did little to comfort me. By the time I was in my early teens, I had begun a quest to find answers. My parents weren't terribly thrilled, but they allowed me to accompany some of my friends to church.
Embarking on a spiritual quest while so young did not manifest from some unusual religous deepness on my part. There was another factor at work. The absence of a spiritual outlet did affect me more and more as I grew older. I probably could have gotten through the rough spots, except for the bitter loneliness. My father had left the family when I was only a baby. My mother buried herself in a career by the time I was ten and a few years later, my step-father followed.
We moved about four times before I was in high school, which repeatedly displaced me from my friends. I had only cordial friendships and limited family interaction throughout my early teenage years. There was never really anyone there for me, thus, I had always had a strong attraction to a higher power. God would always be there. He wouldn't leave me, as everything else had.
For a while a sense of semi-permanence came with high school. I was able to attain a few good friends whose support replaced the void I once looked to God to fill. I thought I'd learned how to shut off the part of me that screamed for answers and peace. The truth was, I learned to ignore it, but its volume was steadily growing.
My earliest real exposure to Islam was in high school when my friend, Omar, would repeatedly excuse himself to pray. I'd been raised in a very tolerant household. I didn't know much about Muslims, but I vaguely began to wonder what was so important that it diverted Omar every few hours; no matter how much fun we were having, it could wait. However, at that time, I was too comfortable with my lifestyle to truly care.
I still remember the day that things really began with crystal accuracy. I was talking and joking with Omar and some other friends, when 0mar mentioned that he was thirsty. I, obnoxiously, gave him directions to the nearest water fountain. However despite his thirst, he did not drink. Omar was fasting Ramadan. By the middle of Ramadan, I wanted to know more about Islam. Alhamdulillah, Omar's mother turned out to be a religious teacher, so I could not have asked for a better family to cultivate Islam in. She taught me about Islam, the pillars, the articles of faith, and then she gave me a Qur'an which I began to read.
When I did, the dam broke. Years of ignored cries from my heart poured out through floodgates that I didn't even know still existed. I felt my soul rip at me, and demand that it would go unheard no more. I felt lost. Yet, I finally found my way. Everything within me honed in on the reality that I was not alone in this vast, cold universe. God is there. He is everywhere. And if I never did anything else in my pathetic life, I had to find him.
But Islam? Even without the parental indoctrination against religion, I had barriers of social ostracization to deal with. Not eating was one thing, but being openly Muslim was another. I didn't particularly want to be Muslim. My liberal upbringing led me to some deeply disturbing problems with Islam. I found some of the laws dealing with women particularly difficult to accept. I wanted to escape from Islam, so I began to try.
I spent nine months seeking another religion to fill the void. However, the ethnocentricity of Judaism strongly put me off, and the anthropomorphism base of Christian doctrines was unacceptable to my rational side, strongly derived from my parents.
In the realm of this world, however, the Christian church seemed to offer the solace I desired. They had a level of fraternity which goes beyond the surface hugs and smiles of so many Muslims, and which seemed more sincere. Despite my eventual conversion to Islam, I never forgot the way Christians treated me. My heart is saddened by an enormous group of the Muslim ummah, wherein once past the paper thin veneer of unity, become so cold and insensitive. Muslims are so busy pretending to care about each other that they've long forgotten that they really should.
I grappled with many conflicting issues for months; drawn inexorably towards Islam, but at the same time, repulsed by it. My upbringing simply could not cope with Islam, although my love for my ethereal experiences would not let me forget. I clung to Christianity. Convinced of the presence of an Islamic equivalent within the boundaries of societal acceptance, I continued to go from church to church searching for a religion. All were compared to Islam as a litmus test for success; none even came close. The memory of the spiritual bliss I received from fasting, and reading the Qur'an sang to me in a hypnotic lilt became increasingly difficult to ignore.
Nine months went by from that fateful Ramadan, yet still I balked. Watching Spike Lee's Malcolm X revitalized my interest, but not quite enough to take my shahaddah. At first after seeing the movie, I was willing to deal with Islam for all its perceived Òfaults". As time went by, I reverted into a spiritual impasse. I was once again torn between what I felt to be the truth above all and what I wanted to believe; what I'd been trained in all of my life. Yet, at that point, I actually began to move towards Christianity again. Until one night I had a dream.
I was in an airport church alone. Errie organ music filled the room, the whole room was overrun with ivy, and I remember that the moment had a surreal, heavy quality. There was no crucifix, but rather a stained glass image of Jesus on the cross. I vividly remembered how I felt. I was confused, filled with the feeling of truth battling desire. I stood staring at him, enchanted. I wanted him to give me answers. Then his eyes, closed until this moment, opened slowly and fell upon me. I remember not being surprised, but greatly fearful. ÒI am so disappointed in you," he said. ÒYou do not define me. I am not whatever you want me to be." Then a beam of white light flooded into the room from behind the window, shattered the stained glass and blowing it out towards me. In that instant I woke up.
Most Muslims who convert describe a time before their shahadda when they knew that they would convert. I had run out of excuses, and I knew, I knew, I was going to convert, it was just a matter of when. I took a list of questions to Omar's mom as more of a perfunctory gesture than of any sort of doubt on my part, and after two nights she had answered them all to my satisfaction.
There was an awkward pause. I was afraid, mostly because of the rigorous prayer of which Muslims must partake, to take the final step. If Omar's mother had not asked me if I was ready to take shahaddah I don't think I'd have volunteered. Allahu Ôalim (Allah knows).
But she did ask. Omar thought she was being pushy. I thought she was being pushy as well, but I realized at that moment, that I'd never wanted anything so badly in my life. And with my head spinning, more and more rapidly, I asked her what to say. Ashhadu alla ilaha ill Allah wa ashhadu anna Muhammad ur-Rasul Allah. And then I was Muslim. No angels sang hymns for me; no beam of light hit me, but I was filled with an enormous sense of peace and hope. However, it seemed somewhat anti-climatic -- it was the one moment in all my life that I had ever desired to live over.
My journey toward Islam was over, and I realized that I had arrived on a battlefield. My coming conflict with my parents would last for four years, and my experiences as a new Muslim would open my eyes up to a world of conflict and strife.
Nuh Brecheen is a first year Near Eastern Studies major.