Ashhadu anla ilaha illa Allah wa ashhadu anna Muhammad arrasulullah.
On June 9, 2011, I stood in a serene grove on the side of a house of two dear friends in Bloomington, Indiana and repeated the Arabic phrase, “I bear witness that there is no god but God, and I bear witness that Muhammad is the messenger of God.” The slender Arabic words had escaped me effortlessly and with them I had made the “formal” conversion to Islam.
It was a moment that I had pictured a thousand times before I actually went through with it.
And I knew that my words were a revolution. They were a revolution against the society in which I had been raised, but they were, more importantly, a revolution against my Self.
I’ve attempted to steer clear of talking about my religious views too much on this blog, mostly because I have been trying to avoid the charge of spreading religious propaganda and I’ve also tried to be especially considerate of my idiosyncratic worldview clouding some of my more serious political pieces. By writing about this, I’m not attempting to be a polemicist, but rather simply sharing some of my potential biases and premises.
Many people have asked me what drew me to Islam. Was it the Qur’an? Were you friends with Muslims? Was it X,Y, and Z?
I have never given a complete answer and, honestly, I don’t think a complete answer could ever be given.
I never planned on becoming a Muslim. In the months and years prior, I had merely casually researched Islam as a point of interest. So much of the world seemed to be influenced by the so-called “Clash of Civilizations”, and if Islam was the counterweight to Western Christianity, then I felt it was imperative that I know something about it.
Like many people in the United States, my understanding of the religious tenets extended little beyond the five pillars. When Iraq was collapsing into civil war between ethnic factions and the Sunnis and the Shi’ites, I was as clueless as everyone else about the differences between the groups.
As I entered my adolescence, I became determined to make sense of the senseless state of the world.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the contentious relationship between the U.S. and Iran after 1979 all piqued my brazen curiosity. In my first semester in college, I took a course called “Oil, Islam, and Geopolitics” that sparked a fire inside of me.
I remember distinctly feeling the gravitational pull of the Middle East and Central Asia.
In the waning months of my sophomore year at Indiana University, I spent an inordinate amount of time neglecting my studies in order to check out sometimes 15 books at a time from the university library and devour them in my room. Books like “The Shia Revival” by Vali Nasr, “Muhammad” by Karen Armstrong, and “Daughters of Another Path: Experiences of American Women Choosing Islam” by Carol Anway.
At the same time, I found my old copy of “The Autobiography of Malcolm X”, which had lost its cover years earlier. I also managed to check out some different translations of the Qur’an from the library, but found them all to be rather impenetrable. Getting beyond Sura Al-Baqara, the lengthy second chapter, seemed like an impossible feat (although I eventually made it through unscathed).
It was around this time that I also began watching a series of documentaries on Islam that I had found across the internet. YouTube still hosts quite a few when you search “Muhammad” or “Islam”. At this point, I still had no interest in becoming a Muslim, I simply wanted to learn as much as I could about the religion.
Perhaps the most influential books on me at this point were the works of Michael Muhammad Knight. I discovered him through a documentary on Muslim Punk music and have since read all nine of his books. However, it was after reading “The Taqwacores” (MMK’s first published novel and the one from which he probably wants to disassociate the most) that I began to feel like a Muslim.
As far as I was concerned, I was still an atheist, although I was hastily softening my stances on the question of the existence of God.
One day at work, I was reading a book by Jeffrey Lang about his experience with Islam and a man came up to me and politely asked me what I was reading. I showed him my book and he immediately invited me to the mosque in Bloomington. Three months later, here I was, in his front yard with him and his wife, saying aloud what I whispered to myself so many times.
“La ilaha illa Allah”
There is no god, but God.
Just like that I became another head in the fastest growing religion.
Another check in the box.
I often wonder to what extent my comfort in transitioning into Islam was a result of my privilege. An act of white, heterosexual, male, American privilege. Unquestionably, every last one of my actions dances in a tremendous, terrible, inescapable vortex of privilege. And although I’m cognizant of that fact, it doesn’t make the self-analysis any easier.
I’ve been blessed to pray in mosques from Seattle to Saint Petersburg and from New York to New Delhi. I’ve been blessed to make Umrah (lesser pilgrimage) to Mecca and travel up to Medina with one of my best friends. I’ve spent Muharram sleeping on the floor of the Shi’a Islamic Center in Kochi and I’ve prayed fajr with a group of Wahhabis in Goa.
I’ve met with the highest-ranking Shi’i cleric in North America and I’ve shaken hands with the Imam of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul. I’ve prayed with the Salafis and the Sufis, the Sunni and the Shi’a, and throughout all of it, I’ve known that without my privilege, I probably would’ve experienced none of it.
Where does that leave me?
The materialist perspective might contend that religious conversion is sparked by traumatic events, the need to explain things, or an identity crisis. The religious perspective might rely on views on the ancient triad of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness. The social perspective might say that I’m a privileged white, heterosexual male and I can do whatever I want in our racist, patriarchal, trans/queerphobic society.
I could never tell you what pushed my conversion directly. I have vague ideas and feelings about the matter, myself.
It never was much of a clear thought in my head, because it was something I knew almost instinctively.
It’s as though the drive towards Islam was not unlike the drive towards eating after fasting or sleeping after staying up for days.
Picking up the Qur’an for me today is just like picking up my guitar. I never know what I’m going to get out of it and I’m always amazed by what I walk away with.
Recently, I’ve seen multiple statistics that say that 75% of converts end up leaving Islam or that many young people in the West are leaving Islam. And I’ve also personally seen a number of friends and acquaintances leave the religion for various reasons (sometimes as a result of no community and sometimes as a result of too much community).
And it always surprises me.
Despite the hardships and the struggles, I have never thought about leaving Islam for a moment in the past three years. I’m not a perfect Muslim by any means; I’m ignorant of plenty of important things, and I’m stubborn and I’m lazy. Yet it’s never even crossed my mind to be anything but who I am and who I am is a Muslim.
I don’t blame them, of course. How could I? I can’t possibly know all the experiences and ideas that have led them there.
Hell, I can’t even know all the experiences and ideas that have led me here.
And I’m sure my privilege plays a larger role than I could ever possibly see.
“So why did you become a Muslim, anyway?”
My friend asks me this as we’re driving around my hometown. Lorde’s album is playing and the lights from gas stations and convenience stores illuminate Indianapolis Boulevard a kaleidoscope of reds, yellows, and greens. I pause for a moment, going through all the usual responses in my head.
The Qur’an just spoke to me in a way nothing else ever has.
I just found a lot of accurate truth-claims in the central message of the religion.
I just felt at home in the mosque and knew it was the place for me.
While all of these are true, none of them tell the whole truth.
Why did I become a Muslim?
I could never begin to answer that question, much to the frustration of Muslims as well as the old friends and family who probe me. Of course, the only acceptable responses are ones that fit into the social paradigm of religious conversions.
The question feels bigger than I am.
You’re supposed to talk about a light-bulb spiritual experience or a radical self-discovery. Otherwise, you’re inauthentic.
But that’s never what I’ve wanted to say, because it doesn’t match what I feel. What I want to say is that it’s impossible for me to express in words why I became a Muslim and it’s impossible for me to express why I continue to be a practicing Muslim (“practicing”, by the way, does not imply “perfect”).
La ilaha illa Allah means more to me than these cliché religious experiences.
After three years, I no longer feel like a Muslim convert, I just feel like a Muslim. So instead of these responses, I say exactly what I’ve always wanted to say. For the first time, I give the answer I’ve always wanted to give, regardless of the socially-acceptable script.
“I just think Islam is super cool.”