I converted to Islam about 21 months ago. My journey to Islam was a long one that spanned over more than 2 decades.
An "All-American Boy"
Allah is a permanent reality that works in the lives of those who hear His message. Not having a personal relationship with my Creator tugged at my heart and mind for nearly two decades. Then, I discovered Islam. I would not be considered in the West as a stereotypical Muslim. I believe the popular Western stereotype of a Muslim male is something like the following: dark skin, dark hair, bearded, Middle-Eastern or Asian descent, dressed in modest clothing and possibly a head covering. No, I'm the complete opposite of this. I am in many ways the epitome of the "all-American boy": blond-hair, blue-eyed, corn-fed Protestant/Christian background. However, Islam and Muslims take on many faces, many backgrounds, many cultures, many nationalities and many tongues.
Our family moved a few times in my youth, but my world was limited to the heart of the "Bible-belt" in Augusta, GA, and Spartanburg and Greenville, SC all fairly large communities, but all offered little in religious diversity. I had normal, loving, God-fearing parents - they are still happily married today after more than 30 years and one younger brother.
I grew up as a "PK" (for those of you outside of Protestant Christianity, I was a "preacher's kid"). My father was a Southern Baptist minister for more than 25 years. As you can imagine, for the first 18 years of my life, I attended church every Sunday morning, Sunday night, Wednesday night and any number of other nights that the church lights were on. I grew up believing in God and Jesus, or, should I say, fearing God and Jesus. Like most adolescents, I was afraid not to believe in the religion of my parents. However, something was wrong. I can recall thinking, even at age 10, "this Jesus' story just doesn't make sense to me." Even at this young age, I didn't accept the divinity of Jesus and the notion of Christian salvation (i.e., Jesus dying for my sins).
As all my church friends were getting saved, baptized and confirmed during their pre-teen and teenage years (this all seemed like more of a rite of passage than a sincere decision for most, or just the popular thing to do), I quietly sat in the church pews questioning the fundamentals of Christian theology. My parents, my church-friends and the various churches my father pastored throughout my childhood all prayed for my salvation.
Then, one Sunday night, I succumb to the pressure. I was 12 years old and my family was at the First Baptist Church of North Spartanburg (in Spartanburg, South Carolina). After a fiery sermon, which obviously moved a lot of people, my father came to me and said, "Son, do you want to ask Jesus into your heart? It's about time you do so." Tired of all the solicitations, tired of all the "Scott, we're praying for you," tired of always feeling like the one who didn't belong, I lied to my father and said, "Yes POPS." That night, I repeated after my father and supposedly accepted Jesus into my heart. I was presented to the church as a new Christian, baptized and immediately became part of the Christian community; although, I was very empty inside. For the next 5 years, I put on the charade of a good preacher's kid. I attended Bible studies, went on summer mission trips and even had a couple "saves" (individuals becoming Christian) contributed to me. This was all under the veil of a big lie that night when I was 12 years old, the night that I supposedly became a Christian myself I never asked Jesus in my heart. True, I went through the motions, but it meant nothing to me.
When I graduated high school and it was time to go off to college, I only thought of one thing: religious freedom. I viewed the opportunity as the chance to move away from my parents and explore the religions of the world. I moved about 70 miles away from my parents to Rock Hill, SC, enrolled in Winthrop College and majored in religion. However, moving from one part of the "Bible-belt" to another part of the "Bible-belt" didn't help my search. Rock Hill was a smaller town than I grew up in and there were even more churches per capita. Once again, the only religious diversity was in the form of what favor of Christianity you wanted for the week. I did manage to run across a couple freethinking religion professors that mentored me in exploring religion. If anything, they pointed me to many different sources to satisfy my quest. I rarely pushed the envelope of my comfort level and only ended up exploring different forms of Christianity. During the two years I spent in little Rock Hill, SC, I attended Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Pentecostal and many non-affiliated/community churches. It would not be until another couple years before I would experience non-Christian religious expression.
Beyond the "Chosen People" Vision
Unsatisfied with the lack of religious diversity, I left Rock Hill, SC for the University of South Carolina in the state's capital of Columbia (metro population: half-million). I thought, "Surely I can find other religions in city this size." Once again, I majored in religion. While in Columbia for the remainder of my undergraduate degree, I became extremely interested in Judaism, but not on a spiritual level, but rather, on an academic level. I was attracted to the Hebrew language. I took more than 4 years of a combined Bible and Modern Hebrew and excelled at reading the original scriptures and reading Jewish prayers. In fact, because one of my professors was a local rabbi, I even taught 6-grade Hebrew school for a term (to this day, a decade later, I can still read the Hebrew texts).
I was very involved with Judaism in Columbia, SC, but much like Christianity, it's fundamental beliefs seemed empty to me. Inside, I asked questions like, "If the Jews are considered God's 'chosen people' where does that leave me? While at the University of South Carolina, I was exposed to a glimpse of Islam. I took a class entitled "Islamic Institutions and Traditions." It was taught by a non-Muslim who had taught university in Egypt, so he seemed to be an authority on Islam but the class did little for me other than provide a good textbook background for me. Half the class consisted of Muslims, so I think the class' integrity was kept in check. Half way through the class, I did visit the local mosque and witnessed salah (prayer) for the first time.
Although I didn't understand what seemed like an impersonal approach to prayer and worship I was impressed by Islam's simplicity and humbleness (e.g.: prostrating before almighty Allah) in prayer and worship. My brief encounter with Islam, both in a college class and my visit to a mosque, planted a seed that would grow for the next ten years. After my undergraduate studies, I went out into the workforce. For the next 5 years, I withdrew from religion and became what I considered to be agnostic. I knew there was a one God, however, I didn't know a lot about Him. For me, Christianity and Judaism did not address the issue of the proper worship of one God.
My professional positions took me all across the United States where I finally settled in Fort Collins, Colorado. After waking up day after day to the beautiful mountains, prairies and expanses of Colorado, I began to question the concept of "God" again. How could there be so much beauty and order in the world and God not intimately reveal Himself to mankind? I began to recall the religious experience I'd had over the past 10-15 years. I looked at Christianity and said "No." I still could accept the Jesus theology. I looked at Judaism. Again, "No." I couldn't live with the Jewish customs and belief in a "chosen people." Finally, I began to look at Islam. My impression of Islam was a combination of several things. It consisted of the one class I took in university, my one visit to the mosque in Columbia, SC, and then the media (I've now discovered that the U.S. media does not accurately display Islam). I began researching the fundamental beliefs of Islam. I decided to strip away the stereotypes and examine exactly what Islam is all about. After some study, I found the following:
- Islam has the strongest declaration of monotheistic faith of any religion (I said to myself, "check, I agree"),
- the belief that God has no partners (again, "big check"),
- the belief that God has revealed Himself many times through prophets and messengers and His message has been confused and distorted by man (I always had a hard time believing parts of the Bible and its interpretation, so "check for now"),
- that Islam is not just a religion, but an entire way of life (very appealing, "check").
Reading the Qur'an
After reading about Islam, I set out to inquire a little deeper. I set out to find a Muslim. At the time of my inquiry into Islam, I was working in a very large company with more than 1000 employees. I thought, "Surely there's a Muslim or two that would be willing to answer my questions."
My search did not take long. I met a kind, quiet Muslim man named "Hani." I approached the man and told him that I wanted to learn more about his religion. The first thing Hani recommended was reading the Qur'an, the revelation of Allah to His Prophet Muhammad. Hani even gave me a Qur'an (In fact, the small Arabic-English Qur'an that Brother Hani gave me is still one of my prized possessions). Hani inscribed in it the following words that continue to touch my heart: "May Allah guide us to the right path." I began reading the Qur'an and to my surprise, it made sense to me. Coming from a Christian background with a good understanding of Jewish history/theology, the Qur'an connected all the dots for me. It confirmed so many doubts I had about Judaism and Christianity, and provided the roadmap that I was looking for. After reading only part of the Qur'an, I said to myself, "I believe in this. I should be a Muslim." But what would my family say? What would my friends say? What would my co-workers think? So, for months, I kept my feelings quiet and continued to study Islam silently. I began to read more books, subscribed to Muslim email lists, purchased Islamic videos and even began memorizing the prayers. Out of all the aspects of Islam that I observed, the prayer impacted me the most. Like the worshipers I saw in the videos, I too wanted to bow down and prostrate myself before my Holy Creator.
Finally, after more than eight months of inquiry with my friend Hani, he must have sensed I was ready to take the next step.
In early January 2001, he invited me to the Islamic Center of Fort Collins (Colorado). It is where more than 1000 Muslims in Northern Colorado go to pray and worship. He invited me the fajr prayer (before sunrise). At that time, it was around 6:15 a.m. You can imagine what I was thinking: "God, you want me to get up before 6:00 on a cold Colorado winter morning and go worship you?" I recall not sleeping too well the night before. I felt like I was being called to do something. I made it down to Islamic Center and met up with Hani.
When I went in, I was instructed to take off my shoes in the vestibule. I walked through a large communal area and Hani showed me the area that Muslims perform wudhu, the washing and purifying of one's body before going before Allah. Hani and I then went into the prayer area. The prayer area was a large, simple, quiet room. There were many books, mostly in Arabic, on several of the walls, and the room seemed to point in one direction (the direction to the ka'bah in Makkah, or the first house of worship to Allah).
When we walked in, there were 6-7 Muslim men praying. For the second time, I saw again in-person what I had seen only in videos - worshipers bowing before their Creator but with anew understanding after all the careful reading I did. It sent chills down my spine. I too wanted to worship as the men before me. The familiar call to prayer, the adhan, was called and Hani asked me if I wanted to pray. I nervously said, "Yes!" Hani said, "Just do as the rest of us do." And for the first time, I prayed and worshiped Allah as He commands. I didn't know all the words or their meanings, but it had a powerful impact. After the prayer, Hani asked me if I would like to become a Muslim. Again, I said, "Yes!" I had already practiced and said the shahadah dozens of times, and on that cold morning on January 3, 2001, at around 6:30 a.m., I said it in front of those Muslim men.
Alhamdulilah (Glory be to Allah), I became a Muslim.
The moment I said "la ilaha illallah muhammad rasulallah" (There is no god but Allah, Muhammad is the Prophet of Allah) in front of those men, I felt a huge burden lifted from my heart. I felt liberated from my search. For the first time in my life, I knew the Truth - the Truth of Allah. It's now been over a year since I became a Muslim. Has it been easy? Not always. Have I had struggles, setbacks and doubts? Absolutely, I'm human. However, the past year has been the best of my life. Allah has blessed me beyond belief. I've had a peace about me that is indescribable. And although I can't really describe how it feels, I know where it comes from it comes minute-after-minute, hour-after-hour, day-after-day, trying my best to follow Allah's true din (religion, way of life). My peace is knowing that Allah has revealed the Truth to me. To my Muslims brothers and sisters and all non-Muslims, may Allah guide us all to the right path.