Real & Wonderful Stories
Compiled by: Abdurahim bin Mizhir Almalki
Like everybody, I was born a Muslim (in a state of Fitrah, i.e., purity), but my parents raised me as a Roman Catholic. I was born in New York City of French and German heritage. My family moved to London, England, where I spend all my high school years in Catholic school. My mother is a devout Catholic, but my father became an anti-clerical non-Catholic when I was young.
As an avid reader of history, I first read about Islam’s rise in terms of its empire. I remember reading how ferocious the Arabs and Turks were, and that is why they were able to defeat the Romans and Byzantines. Much of the history I read painted the conflicts in terms of the civilized Christian West defending itself against hordes of savage Muslims. Even the crusades were presented as an honorable and defensive war.
The most terrible of events (the Children’s Crusade, the Crusaders Sack of Constantinople, the extermination of Spain’s Jews and Muslims, etc.) were depicted as justifiable aberrations in an otherwise thoroughly noble cause. And the destruction of Jerusalem, where 30,000 Muslim and Jewish men, women and children were massacred, was a great victory. I was taught that Islam was spread by the point of the sword and that people became Muslims because they would be killed otherwise. Only later did I find out that Christians, Jews, Hindus and others all lived freely in Islamic nations. So from my childhood I had some knowledge of Muslims (through virtually nothing of Islam), but it was all so terrible that I was convinced that these were terrible people, “our” enemies.
In high school I had tried very hard to be religious. I wanted to believe. But the hypocrisy of the people who called themselves Christians made it so hard. (Of course, the behavior of many Muslims is a shame also, but I thank the Almighty that I accepted Islam before I saw some of the unsavory Muslims I have known.) I tried to accept the trinity on faith, but it never really made any sense to me. And as my parents had separated and my father was agnostic at best, I wanted to see some men who were believers. Yet the church was full of women. A few fathers would come, and of course there was the priest, but it seemed that religion was a woman’s domain. I am not a misogynist, but as a young man I was hoping for some role models. It seemed to me that real men went to pubs, not to church.
Like most of my friends, my life as a teenager revolved around pubs and clubs, not around the church or family. In my later high school years I focused on studying French and German, which meant that I traveled to Europe in the summer to practice. I was fascinated to see new places and different people lived. I met travelers who told me how interesting places further afield were. I enjoyed traveling so much that I decided to do some more. After I finished high school in England, I decided to travel around the world. I worked as a laborer for a while and saved enough money to travel for a long time. Of course, when I traveled I stayed in the cheapest hotels and ate the cheapest food.
I traveled through Europe and then entered Turkey. I was not sure what to expect. Everyone I had met who had ever visited Turkey told me that it was a beautiful country and the people were unbelievably friendly. But what I had heard from people who had never been there, many of whom had watched movies or read stories about Turkey, was totally different. All the old stereotypes came out.
As I crossed the border from Greece into Turkey, a group of young boys came running to me laughing and smiling and handed me tourist information on Turkey, I was amazed at how kind, generous and hospitable the people were. They were nothing like the savage, warlike people some had told me to expect! In fact, after traveling in Europe, where many people had been rude and unwelcoming, it was a real pleasure to be in a land where you were treated as an honored guest. So many strangers invited me to eat at their homes or to drink tea with them or just chat a while that I came to have an immense respect and admiration for the Turks.
In the West few people have time for anybody else, especially strangers. Everyone is caught up looking out for themselves. The idea that people can just enjoy spending time with other people was new to me. My experience in Europe was that people only enjoyed getting together to drink alcohol; without it any gathering was a burden. I enjoyed my two months in Turkey immensely, and it was only after I had left that I realized that the whole time I was there I had hardly seen any drugs, alcohol, easy women or loud music that young men in my culture (and many other cultures) thought were the best and only ways to enjoy oneself. (I had traveled mostly in the less Westernized parts of Turkey.)
As I grew to respect the Turks I met, I became more interested in their beliefs and culture. I visited many mosques and enjoyed their serenity and beauty, especially in contrast to the hectic, noisy, cities outside. I started to read books about Islam. It was the first time I read about the religion from an Islamic perspective. It all seemed so simple. I couldn’t argue with anything I read, It was straightforward and coherent. It didn’t require the complex issues and logical leaps that had made my belief in Christianity so hard. I had started my trip towards Islam.
It was a long journey, and I am still traveling as I try to improve myself. I believe that there was only one God. As I read about Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), I rejected the idea that he was an imposter and came to see that he was indeed a man of God. I believed that Prophet Muhammad was His messenger. I recited the shahadah in Arabic and English. I believed in it fully; yet, I did not consider myself a Muslim. My experience with religion together with the low esteem which those I knew had for organized religion made me hesitant to identify myself with any group. And while I accepted Muhammad as prophet, I accepted the other prophets as well and at that time was not sure that one’s message was superior to another’s.
Of course in Islam, Muslims accept the message of other prophets, for strictly speaking there is only one religion. The religion taught by Abraham, Moses, David, Jesus and the thousands of others was the same as that taught by Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon them all. The Qur’an is the only text that has not been changed since its revelation. Nevertheless, the Almighty has grasped me, and I praise Him for holding on to me for two years while I made myself ready to submit, al-hamdulillah.
Two discussions in Turkey still stay close to my heart during the past thirteen years. The first was with two young students in Bursa. They asked me if I believed in God. At that point I was not sure and said so. I then asked them and they were sure. I don’t think I’d ever met someone my age who had said he or she fully believed in God. The second was in Erzurum, where a man saw my beard and asked me if I was a Muslim. I said no, but it affected me deeply. I was still affected by the ignorant ideas that a person’s religion depended on his or her ethnicity. For the first time I thought a blond-haired, blue-eyed American could be a Muslim.
After I left Turkey I traveled in Asia and learned about Hinduism, Buddhism and Chinese religions. The beauty and simplicity of Islam had aroused my curiosity. If I was ignorant of all that it held, what about other religions of which I was ignorant? While I found good things and wisdom in these religions, none of them had the appeal of Islam. The intellectual complexity and polytheism did not appeal to me. And after seeing how easily Muslims could pray to the Creator of the heavens and earth without images, idolatry disgusted me. How can our simple creations, however beautiful they may appear, equal the glory of His creation?
The question of theology continued to interest me. When I returned to the United States, I continued to read from a variety of sources. At the time I was working as a bartender. It was an interesting job, and I got to see how alcohol really affected people. As it says in the Qur’an, there are benefits found in alcohol, but the bad affects outweigh them. This became clear enough to me. I moved closer to Islam.
I had enjoyed traveling and seeing the world so much that I wanted to go again. I had met people who had told me that Americans could find work in Taiwan teaching English and the one could save money while there. It sounded good, so off I went.
In the two years since I graduated high school and started traveling, I have seen so many new things and so many different ways of living. The power and beauty of this world impressed me so much and convinced me that there must be a Supreme Being, a creator of all the wonder in this world. But what did He want from me? What was my place in this world? What was my duty? I had already accepted that He was one, the Almighty. And I had accepted that Muhammad was His prophet.
Yet with so many other religions and philosophies, I was still hesitant. I had the knowledge, yet I still lacked the spark of faith to truly ignite my Islam. I called on my Creator in my confusion and pleaded for His guidance. I made the intention to sacrifice whatever I must and do whatever was required of me, if only He would show mercy and remove this terrible soul-wrenching confusion
I was grappling with these overwhelming questions when I arrived in Taipei. There were many Christian, Buddhist and tradition Chinese influences there, and I was trying to make sense of them when one day a bus took me past the mosque in Taipei. All the beauty and simplicity of Islam came back to me. All the powerful arguments I had read came back. I stopped at the mosque and took my shahadah and from that day on, Islam has calmed my soul and given me a sense of inner peace that I would never have imagined possible.
Although life has been full of challenges, some of which I have failed and some of which I have met, nevertheless the love of Allah and the peace of Islam have made them tolerable, and indeed almost inconsequential. Allahu akbar, literally, “God is greater” (comparative case). Whatever you have, whatever you see, whoever you know; anything, anywhere, at any time, God is greater.