Bismillahi Rahmani Rahim
“Indeed, Allah will not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves.” (13:11)
I know what I am supposed to say. I explain the circumstances of my life leading up to my decision to enter Islam. I talk about my frustrations with my family and friends. This is only half of the story, and it is the half that matters least. The truth is I do not know why I became a Muslim. I accept the irreducible truth that my choice to become a Muslim was not in my hands. Allah, may He be glorified and exalted, is the most generous. In His infinite wisdom and His boundless mercy,
He remembered me long after I had forsaken hope; when I was lost and astray.
Looking back on my life, I am amazed to see that Allah has prepared the way for me. Little signs that seemed like personality quirks revealed themselves as clear guidance and protection. I was raised a Catholic. I was a choir boy, and for a time, even considered entering the seminary and becoming a priest. The more I learned about my religion, however, the further I felt from God. Even as a child, I was aware of the contradictions my religion presented as divine revelation. Core Catholic beliefs would not reconcile with what I felt, and when I turned to answers from my parish, I was told to stop asking questions. I drifted away from the church, though my belief in God remained. I felt like an orphan abandoned to the whims of the world.
Then something happened I did not expect. Years later, in a college philosophy class of all places, the professor asked whether God existed. Suddenly, the issue that had tormented me, this struggle that I had carried and buried since childhood, was thrust back into the moment. A Muslim student in the class explained to our group that we were all Muslims from birth. These words had a profound effect on my mind. I understood what she meant: She was not proposing that people were born practicing Islam, but rather that mankind is born in a state of peace and submission to the one true God. I wanted to know more, and she asked me if I had ever considered reading the Qur’an. Not once in my twenty-four years as a Catholic did anyone—even a priest—suggest I read the Bible. And so I read.
I read the Qur’an day and night as if the words alone sustained me. When I learned that the first word revealed to Muhammad, peace be upon him, was “read,” my hunger increased. Knowledge and reason were fundamental to Islam; no longer was I being told to blind myself in order to believe. Islam told me to open my eyes and bear witness to the miracles of Allah. It was summer now, the month of Ramadan. I remember waking for the dawn prayer in the dark before sunrise with fear in my heart. I did not yet know how to pray, but I stood in the still morning and waited for something, for anything. I opened the Qur’an and traced the letters with my finger and pleaded, “God, are you there? God, can you hear me?” There was power in this book. There was Truth. The verses of “The Thunder” brought me to my knees, and I saw the path I was meant to walk. Part of me worried. Part of me resisted the dawning realization. Then, I let go of my anxiety and placed my trust in Allah.
Between dhuhr and asr, the congregation at Medina Masjid in the East Village heard my shahada just three months after that morning. Five months later, I still have not processed my emotions that day. I remember best the moment just before, a moment of solitude on the second floor of the musalla while I waited to tell the imam what I planned to do. I sat against the wall and stared out the window. There was a veil between the world outside and my solitude. I saw the progress of pedestrians and cars, listened to the bedlam of that late summer afternoon, and it seemed so fleeting. Even though I was the only person in the room, I felt a connection and a unity I had never experienced out there in the throngs of hundreds of people. I was complete.
At the time, I may not have understood what was happening to me, but today I know why I am a Muslim, why I remain a Muslim, and why each day I submit myself more and more to the will of the Creator. I cannot recognize the life I lead even a year ago. My shahada humbled me. The challenges I face today, many a direct consequence of my Islam, are worth confronting. And I never face them alone. Though knowledge was paramount in my journey, I did not know everything about Islam before I offered my testimony. Instead, I took my first step into the unknowable with faith.