Friday, 17 June 2011

From WASP to a Muslim

From WASP to a Muslim

Jonathan Brown


From Washington DC to California

I would like to start the story of how I became Muslim with a bit
about my background prior to embracing Islam. I come from a white,
upper-middle-class Anglo Saxon American family from Washington DC.
Growing up I would accompany my parents to soiree’s, potato-salad
laden outdoor luncheons at friends’ houses and church on Sundays.
My parents were very well educated and both successful in their
respective fields. My days were spent in a coat and tie at private
schools. I was not exposed to much diversity, unless by diversity
you mean different kinds of rich white people.

Despite my excellent education, I certainly had little real understanding
of how people from other countries or other religions perceived
the world. I was religious as a child, but I did not care too much
about the Protestant doctrine my Sunday school teachers tried to
teach their students. I was religious, I suppose, because I believed
in God in the same way so many people in this world do: I called
upon Him when I needed Him, pledging my undying service and devotion
if only He’d grant me whatever wish I desperately wanted at
the time, only to forget Him later. But I suppose I really did believe
in God, for throughout my life I always knew that some higher truth
existed and going off to California for boarding school further
constricted the role of religion in my life. My father could no
longer make me go to church, and California’s rich and liberal
environment has never been known to welcome any religious expression
other than vapid adulterations of Eastern faiths such as Buddhism
and Hinduism. When a teacher at my school suggested having a private
Bible study at his house after formal dinner for any students interested
he drew criticism from faculty and students alike.

With such issues cast aside, then, I spent my high school days
studying, drinking when I could and desperately trying to hook up
with whatever female would let me near her. Time slipped by as my
friends and I knocked tennis balls back and forth in the warm California
sun, hoping to impress girls and reaping the inevitable heart-aches
with which spoiled youths are constantly stricken. Beyond my English
classes, clumsy attempts at getting drunk and days at the beach
I knew in both my heart and mind that my life was not complete.
I knew, with perhaps too much perspicacity, that all the fleeting
delights of my life and all its momentary agonies could come to
an end with the wrong turn on a highway or a freak accident. I knew
that all my hopes and dreams as a person had to have more significance
than simply the transitory whims of an animal born and bound to
perish without history even noticing. I knew all this, so I kept
looking for the truth that could grant my life meaning.

Encountering Islam

Soon I went off to college. There, among stacks of required readings
and friends smart and arrogant enough to provide stimulation conversation
for each other, I pondered these questions. Motivated and excited
by my classes, my mind was always racing from thinker to thinker,
from book to book. My university had a theology requirement, so
I decided to take a class on Islamic Thought and practice. My professor
was a Palestinian Muslim woman who made no apologies for her faith.
She presented Islam in a fair and reasonable light, stating on the
first day of class that she expected her students to “step
into the shoes of a Muslim in order to understand Islam.”
I was initially averse to sympathizing for a religion spread by
the sword and so closely associated with terrorism, and I took every
opportunity I could to argue with the professor about the merits
of the religion. As the semester progressed, however, I found myself
identifying more and more with the image of Islam that she presented:
One God, totally beyond our comprehension, the Creator and Shaper
of a rational and ordered universe; a message sent from on high,
over and over again to the various human communities that had thrived
on and then vanished from the earth; men corrupting this message
out of the desire to hasten felicity, out of greed or the lust for
power; one last messenger, sent to the dry earth of Arabia, that
Near-Eastern crucible of human faith, to deliver the pronouncement
one last time; God is, and you must worship Him, when you do, you
will be free from fear and pain, and all the trials and vicissitudes
of this life will gain meaning; one last book, intact, preserved
for all time for the generations that would ponder it as the centuries

Surrendering to God

This was the God I had believed in as a child, the God and the
message cleansed of human accretions and worldly corruptions. This
was the message that sat peacefully both in man’s heart and
mind, bringing reason and faith together in submission to God. Yes,
the manifestation was foreign; I knew no Arabic, barely understood
the world into which the Qur’an was revealed and could hardly
grasp the manifold transformations that would affect the Islamic
tradition as time and space moved Muhammad’s revelation away
from its origins. Nonetheless, I felt that I had alighted upon the
truth that had evaded me for so long and that at last my nagging
fears and doubts had come to an end. I spent the summer traveling
in Europe and Russia and was able to ponder these questions with
the seriousness and depth that only long hours of traveling afford.
When I returned home to Washington to start my sophomore year of
college, I decided that I had already become Muslim. I believed
in God’s message, as delivered through the Prophet Muhammad,
and all that remained was to formalize my commitment and begin living
as a Muslim. I had already weaned myself off liquor and, quite unwillingly,
put a stop to my attempted womanizing. I said the shahada (testimony
of faith) in front of some of the Muslim friends I had made while
learning about the religion and began to pray. God made this transition
very easy for me. My family gradually understood the change that
had occurred in my life, and they have never been anything but supportive
and sympathetic. They are very result-oriented; when they saw that
I no longer came home drunk or acted like an idiot they realized
that my life had improved.

Little can be compared to the euphoria of those first days. With
every step I took and every glance at the green trees around me
I felt that I had begun life anew. My life and everything in it
took on a new purpose. Gone were the doubts and fears of yesteryear.
All I wanted to go was serve God and worship Him…all I asked
was that He grant me peace in this world and the next. I continued
to take classes on Islam and gradually focused on Middle Eastern
history. As my college career continued it occurred to me that studying
and research were my forte and that pursuing graduate studies in
the study of Islam and Islamic civilization would allow me to best
serve God.

Understanding Islam

But I suppose I had another reason. It is difficult to explain
to someone who has not experienced it, but Muslims have long conflated
culture and religion. As a convert to Islam it is thus very difficult
to distinguish between Arab, Indian or Iranian culture and the actual
faith and practices of Islam. Moreover, Muslims have not exactly
carried themselves well in the modern era. Their societies and states
are poor, uneducated, backward, decadent, and torn by pathetic and
pedantic racial or class conflicts. In addition, it is difficult
to know when a Muslim is actually committed to their religion, when
he is just waving it as some kind of flag to make himself feel better
in a world in which secularism, modernity and the West have become
paramount. Studying the history and development of the Islamic community
helped me answer the important questions “How should I live
as a Muslim in the modern world? What elements of Islamic tradition
are authentic and which are just the cultural additions of Muslim

These problems are all interesting, but the Muslim ailment that
has affected me most personally is the parochial visions of marriage
that abound in the Muslim world. In Islam race should mean nothing.
A person’s merit is determined by their belief in God, good
deeds, and character alone. Unfortunately, many Muslims are overly
concerned with race when it comes to marriage. Whether they are
Muslim immigrants in the United States or families that have remained
in their countries of origin, an alarmingly large percentage of
Muslim parents are only interested in marrying their children to
members of their ethnic community. Syrian immigrants in the United
States want their children to marry other Syrians, Indian Muslim
immigrants want their children to marry Indian Muslims, etc. This
is all well and good for those people involved, but it presents
somewhat of a dilemma for an American convert to Islam.

This attitude is completely antithetical to the original spirit
of Islam. The Prophet Muhammad was cast out of his hometown of Mecca
because his preaching irked the city’s elite. He was welcomed
in the city of Yathrib by noble folk who had embraced his message.
As more and more Meccans converted, they made the journey to Yathrib,
newly named al-Medina, to be welcomed into an emerging believing
community. The Prophet wove these new emmigrants into the fabric
of the community and, although tribal divisions did remain, the
fraternity of Islam trumped them. Like these early immigrants I
long to be accepted and welcomed into a Muslim family.

Nonetheless, these problems amount to little when compared to the
blessings that God has given me as a Muslim. He has allowed me to
explore new peoples and cultures far removed from the white suburban
fences and gin-and-tonic cocktail parties of my youth. He has given
me a passion for learning and a mission to fulfill in contributing
to man’s understanding of history and the world of Islam.
He bestowed dignity upon me by leading me away from habits and vices
not befitting an upstanding man. He has given my life meaning and
saved me from the fear that plagues those whose mortality and life
styles haunt them. He has given me brothers and sisters in faith
who have embraced me as one of their own.


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