“Midway on our life’s journey, I found myself
In dark woods, the right road lost. To tell
About those woods is hard–so tangled and rough”
Canto I (1-3)]
The ritual of sabbath keeping in my grandmother’s household was one that was strictly adhered to. “Six days shalt thy labour, and do all thy work: But the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work” (King James Version, Exodus 20:9-10). Our favorite after school pastimes, was to make way on Friday afternoons for the humming of the vacuum cleaner, and the inevitable arguments about who’s turn it was the clean the bathroom.
“No, Grandma said you had to clean the bathroom.”
“I did it last week. It’s your turn.”
“Nah ah. No way Jose.”
The fresh aroma of Pine-Sol infused with the chalky perfume of Ajax cleaner is to this day entangled with my memories of sabbath preparations. Intoxicated by the cleaner fumes a sense of satisfaction washed away the chagrin I felt for having once again been duped by my brother into cleaning. The words of my favorite hymnal rose up from inside of me, and encircled the clouds of steam that fill the cramped space. “Rejoice ye pure in heart. Rejoice give thanks and sing,” the wish wash of the brush gliding across the porcelain enamel, accompany my song leaving the bathtub sparkling with my achievement. A crimson hue spied through the tiny window tucked awkwardly in the upper left corner of the room, welcomes in the sabbath.
Our two bedroom apartment normally filled with the sounds of cartoons, or video games, gave way to the tranquility of sabbath. Family Radio blanketed the background as we gathered together in the living room, bibles in tow. My grandmother, brother and I each taking turns to pray. This scene would replay itself throughout my childhood and teenage years. By the time I entered university, sabbath was my favorite time of the week. Long gone were the memories of the little girl whom without fail would hurriedly skip towards the exit of our church where pastor Williams and the deacons lined up to bid the worshippers farewell.
“It’s sister Henry’s granddaughter,” the deacon standing to the left of pastor Williams said laughingly. The two men chuckled with anticipation. Our dance of question and answer, followed by the birth of more questions, conceived by my dissatisfaction of the pastor’s answers, always ended with the same question.
“How can Jesus be the son of God, and God be God and the Holy Spirit be God?”
“It’s a matter of faith, little sister Henry.”
“But I believe in God, pastor Williams, I just don’t get it?”
“When you have faith you will understand.”
I could feel a dissatisfied yet a polite smile would creep onto my face and my eyes would lower as my grandmother’s fingernails gently dug into my shoulders nudging me along. “If I have faith,” I muttered. This issue of faith would haunt me until I learned to tuck away my doubt into the attic of mind, where all of life’s unanswered questions came to dwell.
Only a shadow memory remains of the little girl. She has grown into a college freshman and my new role in life exempted me from sabbath preparations. My main responsibility was to continue bringing home straight A’s and making my family proud. Friday afternoons were spent studying at school. Taking a break, I would linger through the rows of books in the basement of the college library. The musty bouquet of books untouched by human hands for decades, often lured me to a darkest corner of the library. Surrounded by books, I tilt my head to the right and silently read the titles, grabbing those that appeal to me. With an array of books, tucked under my arms and spilling out of my hands, I found a corner and spread them on the floor. Kneeling down besides the substantial pile, I got into a comfortable position, and flip each book to the back page, removing the library card from its pocket. “Wow, 1950,” I thought . The book in question had last been checked out in 1950, and therefore the chosen one to flip through first.
I can no longer remember the title of the book that would rock my faith to its very core. All I recall is that as I read and reread the pages, an overwhelming sense of dread overtook me. Suppressed tears clouded my vision, as I continued to read; my head spinning with this newfound revelation. A string of words dominate the memory, Council of Nicaea, battle over the divinity of Christ, a claim that Jesus had never said he was the son of God. Could this be true? Months of research followed. Each book reconfirming what the other had propagated. The question regarding the Trinity, the Christian doctrine that one God exists in three distinct Divine Persons, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, that I had tucked away in my mind violently imploded, leaving a gaping hole of doubt. How could I be saved from Hell if Jesus had not died for my sins?
The nineteen year old me carried this unspoken burden of knowledge with a heaviness of heart. It weighed on me, dragged me down, invaded happy moments, tormented me with a stream of unanswerable questions. Maybe I should become a Jew? But how could I be a Jew, I can’t give up on the belief in Jesus. I knew he must have existed. And I love him. What else is out there?
By my sophomore year I landed a job as a tutor, and my afternoons were spent tutoring members of the basketball team. How the question of my chastity had arisen I cannot recall, but what I do remember is one of the players asking me if I were a Muslim. No of course I wasn’t, I didn’t even know what a Muslim believed. The only girls he knew who guarded their chastity were Muslims like him.
“I’m a Christian,” I protested.
“So you believe Jesus is God,” he retorted.
“No, no I don’t.”
His question pierced me. But I knew that only one answer was possible.
“I believe God is one. Jesus is Jesus and not the son of God. And he’s not God. There is only one God.”
“What about the Holy Ghost?”
“I don’t know. All I know is that the Holy Ghost isn’t God. God is one.”
A sparkle in his eyes shot a smile in my direction. Leaning towards me he beckoned me to come closer.
“Then you’re a Muslim,” he whispered. “You need to read the Quran.”
“The unaltered word of God.”
Our conversation was interrupted by other players gesturing him away. It was time for basketball practice.
Before leaving he turned to me and said, “Stay sweet and pure. Allah loves the pure of heart.”
Over the next week I watched the door nervously as students entered, eager to continue questioning him about his…wait…I didn’t even know the name of his religion.
“Hey Ivan where’s Talik?”
“He went back to Turkey, some family thing.”
My eyes lowered in disappointment. A quizzical look formed on Ivan’s face.
“Why you wanna know? You his girl or something?”
“Nah,” I replied.
“Then why you look like you wanna cry?”
Shifting in my chair I hesitantly allowed the words to form and spill out of my mouth.
“I wanted to ask him about his religion.”
“Oh, hey girl you don’t wanna know ‘bout his religion. He’s a Sunni Muslim. I’m a Nation of Islam Muslim.”
“What’s the difference?”
“I’ve seen you with your brother. You black right?”
“Yeah, but what does that have to do with anything?”
“You look so white.”
“Ivan, come on.”
“Since you a sister I’m gonna be straight with you. The white man enslaved the tribe of Shabazz, from the Lost Nation of Asia. Black people in America are the descendants of those people. The Master Fard Muhammad is the Mahdi, the Messiah, see girl Jesus wasn’t the Messiah, that’s a lie the white man uses to enslave us. Honorable Elijah Muhammad taught us that there is one God and his name is Allah. 85% of the population is deaf, dumb and blind. And these dumb fools are brainwashed by 10% of the population, the white man, who enslaves their minds with a slave mentality…”
“Stop, boy you crazy.”
This was long before Facebook or widespread use of the internet. There would be no way to contact Talik. But I remembered his suggestion that I read the Quran. In the weeks that followed I would replay our conversation in my mind. The Bible is the word of God. So how can the Quran be the unaltered word of God. And who is Allah?” No longer able to resist my desire to read the Quran, I put my guilt aside. My faith in Jesus as my Savior had been shattered and I was racked with guilt for my blasphemous thoughts. As I read the table of contents of the Quran, the word surah, sent me into a tailspin. After consulting the dictionary my confusion only intensified. “Surah, noun, a soft twirled silk fabric,” I read out loud. Slamming the dictionary shut I decided to just start at the beginning, Surah a-Fatihah: The Opening.
- In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful.
- Praise be to Allah, Lord of the Worlds,
- The Beneficent, the Merciful.
- Master of the Day of Judgment,
- Thee (alone) we worship; Thee (alone) we ask for help.
- Show us the straight path,
- The path of those whom Thou hast favoured; Not the (path) of those who earn Thine anger nor of those who go astray.
My hands began to quiver uncontrollably. “I’m going to burn in Hell forever. No, no, no way I’m a Muslim. God is God not this Allah.”
A shadow of doubt lingered in my heart. A few months later, as I scanned a row of books in my favorite bookstore, I chanced upon a brightly colored Quran. I felt courageous enough to try re-reading al-Fatihah. I quickly slammed the book shut and reaffirmed my idea that Muslims were devil worshippers and I certainly wasn’t one of them.
Over the years that followed, I drifted further and further away from my Christian beliefs. Eventually I stopped praying. My life slipped into darkness. Following the death of my parents, I became utterly, painfully, and hopelessly lost.
“You need to stop living a worldly life,” my grandmother said over the telephone. By this time, I had moved back to Amsterdam, the city I had called home until the age of 9. At which time my brother and I were sent to live with our grandmother, in New York City, my birthplace.
“Go back to the church,” she commanded. Her words fell on deaf ears. Responsible for the upbringing of my little brother and sister after our mother’s death, I felt I needed to instill within them the love of God. I taught them what I knew of the Bible and studied the Seventh Day Adventist quarterly my grandmother religiously sent to us. I taught them to turn to God for everything and to pray each day. Yet, I myself, still couldn’t believe in the Trinity.
It was the movie Agora in 2009 that finally helped me acknowledge I was no longer a Christian. It chronicles the last days of the life and death of Hypatia of Alexandria, a Greek mathematician, astronomer, and philosopher, who lived in Egypt, c. 350-370 AD – 415 AD. Her death scene in the movie is mild by comparison to how she actually was murdered by a Christian mob. Stripping her naked inside a church they stoned her to death, then dragged her naked bloodied dead body in the street for all to see before tearing it to pieces. The story of Hypatia resonated with me like no other story of history. I couldn’t figure out why. Finally, after months of searching my soul for answers I realized why I had been so profoundly moved by Hypatia’s persecution and death. She had been murdered because she was a pagan. She rejected Christian doctrine and affirmed her belief in her pagan gods. It was the hypocrisy of the Christians who killed her I could not accept. They preached love, and that God is love, and yet they would kill a great thinker for her religious beliefs. Was is not up to God to judge her? And did God want us to compel people to worship him?
Drifting without a religion, I tried praying over the next few years. My mind would wander before I could even formulate my first thoughts to God. Prayer, which had been my solace, was now lost on me. “Satan get thee behind me,” I uttered in the darkness of those desperate nights. I begged God to show me the right way. As I prospered in my professional life, privately I was slowly dying. Enjoying success at work I earned the respect of my all-male team, with me as the only female exception. I became well known within the company. I was the golden girl at work, loved by my managers, rewarded financially for my hard work and dedication; working long hours and volunteering whenever needed. Work had become my escape from the disconnection I felt. Single, I rarely socialized outside of work expect for the odd coffee with a select few. My little brother was now 21, and although he still lived at home, my life no longer revolved around his upbringing. My younger sister had moved out on her own years earlier. I didn’t know what to do with my free time. I began tutoring friends and friends of friends and in October 2012 met Amine.
“You teach Dutch me,” he said in broken Dutch.
“Okay,” I replied.
Nearly a month of intensive two hour daily conversational sessions followed. My little brother sometimes joined in ensuring I didn’t assimilate my Dutch to make it easier for Amine to understand.
“You have to speak properly,” he would interject. “Don’t speak like him. If you don’t speak properly he won’t learn to speak Dutch correctly.”
I had a tendency to dumb down my Dutch but my brother was correct and soon Amine was formulating complete sentences.
Tea and cookies became our favorite treat after our sessions. It was while we were enjoying a cup of mint tea and chocolate chip cookies that Amine surprised me with questions about the Bible.
“Tell me about Isa. I read the Bible in my country but I don’t understand about Isa.”
“Wait, I google.”
“Oh, Jesus. Sure, well….”
Amine listened intently. I spoke slowly, after all, it was my chance to convert him, and save him from a life of ignorance and possibly Hell. As I drew my story to a close, Amine laughed.
“That’s crazy. Islam is the truth.”
He searched his telephone and handed it to me.
“Read,” he said.
“What’s this?” I replied.
“Read. It’s Quran.”
1 Say, “He is Allah, [who is] One,
2 Allah, the Eternal Refuge.
3 He neither begets nor is born,
4 Nor is there to Him any equivalent.”
Closing his eyes Amine recited the verses in Arabic.
بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم
قُلْ هُوَ اللَّهُ أَحَدٌ
لَمْ يَلِدْ وَلَمْ يُولَدْ
وَلَمْ يَكُن لَّهُ كُفُوًا أَحَدٌ
He explained to me that Jesus (peace be upon him) was a prophet, a man, who was born by virgin birth, as a prophet of God. Allah, I learned that night, was Arabic for God. And Mohammad (peace be upon him) was the best of creation, the last prophet to be sent as a Messenger of Allah (subhanahu wa ta’ala). The language barrier faded away and I could no longer detect any mistakes in his speech requiring correction. Instead, his words penetrated my heart, I could feel something move inside of me. I knew immediately I wanted to be a Muslim. This was the truth I had been searching for since I was a little girl questioning pastor Williams. A lifetime of questions were answered.
“Read,” Amine said pushing the telephone back into my hand. “Al-Baqarah” he whispered.
“There shall be no compulsion in religion; the right course has become distinct from the wrong. So whoever disbelieves in taghut and believes in Allah has grasped the most trustworthy handhold with no break in it. And Allah is Hearing and Knowing.” Al-Baqarah 256
لَآ إِكْرَاهَ فِى ٱلدِّينِ ۖ قَد تَّبَيَّنَ ٱلرُّشْدُ مِنَ ٱلْغَىِّ ۚ فَمَن يَكْفُرْ بِٱلطَّٰغُوتِ وَيُؤْمِنۢ بِٱللَّهِ فَقَدِ ٱسْتَمْسَكَ بِٱلْعُرْوَةِ ٱلْوُثْقَىٰ لَا ٱنفِصَامَ لَهَا ۗ وَٱللَّهُ سَمِيعٌ عَلِيمٌ
His recitation sent shivers down my spine. With tears flowing down his cheeks, Amine took a deep breath and continued to recite.
يَٰٓأَهْلَ ٱلْكِتَٰبِ لَا تَغْلُوا۟ فِى دِينِكُمْ وَلَا تَقُولُوا۟ عَلَى ٱللَّهِ إِلَّا ٱلْحَقَّ ۚ إِنَّمَا ٱلْمَسِيحُ عِيسَى ٱبْنُ مَرْيَمَ رَسُولُ ٱللَّهِ وَكَلِمَتُهُۥٓ أَلْقَىٰهَآ إِلَىٰ مَرْيَمَ وَرُوحٌ مِّنْهُ ۖ فَـَٔامِنُوا۟ بِٱللَّهِ وَرُسُلِهِۦ ۖ وَلَا تَقُولُوا۟ ثَلَٰثَةٌ ۚ ٱنتَهُوا۟ خَيْرًا لَّكُمْ ۚ إِنَّمَا ٱللَّهُ إِلَٰهٌ وَٰحِدٌ ۖ سُبْحَٰنَهُۥٓ أَن يَكُونَ لَهُۥ وَلَدٌ ۘ لَّهُۥ مَا فِى ٱلسَّمَٰوَٰتِ وَمَا فِى ٱلْأَرْضِ ۗ وَكَفَىٰ بِٱللَّهِ وَكِيلً
Pressing the telephone back into the palm of my hand, he could not speak, overcome with emotion. Words were no longer needed. I read.
“O People of the Scripture, do not commit excess in your religion or say about Allah except the truth. The Messiah, Jesus the son of Mary, was but a messenger of Allah and His word which He directed to Mary and a soul [created at a command] from Him. So believe in Allah and His messengers. And do not say, “Three”; desist – it is better for you. Indeed, Allah is but one God. Exalted is He above having a son. To Him belongs whatever is in the heavens and whatever is on earth. And sufficient is Allah as Disposer of affairs.” an-Nisa: 171.
That night I lay awake in bed contemplating what had transpired. My heart full of joy and peace had no doubt that Islam was the truth. But what would people say if I became a Muslim? My grandmother would be heartbroken and spend her days worrying about my salvation. Who cares I told myself. God is calling me to the truth. I decided to confide in Suzanne, my Muslim friend at work. With my mind made up, I took Shahada two weeks later at Suzanne’s local mosque. The next day the office was abuzz amongst my Muslim colleagues. I discovered that we had a prayer room in the office. And was invited by a coworker, Mohammad to have dinner with him and his wife. She too was a revert, having accepted Islam, twenty something years earlier. I welcomed the invitation as I wanted to learn more about Islam. I felt so utterly overwhelmed by a wealth of information. Where to begin? The library, my home away from home would be my starting point. I soon found that the library, which had once been my friend, could no longer be relied upon. Desperate for the truth I turned to God in prayer, and began my quest for knowledge. Mohammad by proxy would become my first teacher. I was a Muslim now, but I had no clue what was next. All I knew was that I believed and finally my heart brimming with faith, understood.
Based on my memories by Nour M. Fox