Monday, 2 June 2014
Write Us Among the Believers: Ishaq Mohammed's Conversion
بِسۡمِ ٱللهِ ٱلرَّحۡمَـٰنِ ٱلرَّحِيمِ
The following is the conversion story of our brother who is also known as Ishaq Mohammed.
This is my story of being guided to the beautiful religion of Islam. I have removed the names of persons and changed certain dates as to not cause discomfort to myself or my family, as my faith in Allah (s.w.t.) is not very popular where I live. However, I am very proud of my religion and feel blessed that I have been guided along the ‘Straight Path’.
This is how it began. I was born and raised in Dallas, Texas to a Christian Family and first baptised at age of 6 in the Baptist denomination. Then as I got older, I went with my family to a much larger, non-denominational church. As a youth, I generally enjoyed church, with of course the stories of heroes like Noah (a.s.), Samson (a.s.), Samuel (a.s.), David (a.s.), Solomon (a.s.), Elijah (a.s.) and of course, the greatest of them all, Jesus (a.s.). I even had one of those comic book Bibles and I read it cover to cover often. Being African American, I had heard of Muslims before, like Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali. However, I did not know anything about the religion itself, only their ‘strange’ names. My mother worked with a Muslim friend, who despite being very pretty, always covered her head with a scarf, and I never understood why.
My first true personal encounter with Islam was in 5th Grade when a little Turkish girl started going to our school. I noticed, besides her exotic looks, that she wore a similar headscarf to my mother’s friend. We rode the same bus, and I would discuss with her about the religion (as much as 5th graders could, I suppose) and she would tell me of praying five times a day toward a place called ‘Makkah’ and bowing to God instead of just standing up like we did in church. So, like all curious kids who like ‘new’ things (and it probably helped matters that ‘Aladdin’ had just come to theaters) , I up and decided I wanted to be a Muslim just like her, and told my mother about it. Sweet woman that she is, my mother, despite not knowing much about Islam herself, replied, “Well, you can choose any path you want son, but you should just know they don’t really believe in Jesus like we do…” What? No Jesus (a.s.)? My favourite hero in the Bible, the son of God, who died for all of our sins? No way was I going to give that up! So that brought my interest in Islam to an immediate and grinding halt. Also, the Turkish girl left my school after three weeks. I think the school did not accommodate her prayer times and diet.
For a few years, I drifted in and out of my faith. In junior high school, I started going to a weekly evangelical Bible Study, and even attended their summer camp and alternatives to Halloween, called ‘Harvest Festivals’. I then moved down to Austin, Texas for a semester to live with my uncle due to family issues, and stated attending his Catholic church on occasion, which I sometimes felt was preferable to the Christianity I was used to. It was more peaceful; relaxed, beautiful. But besides meeting a few Muslims teenagers who went to my school when I lived in Austin, an Iranian and a Sudanese, I had no other contact with the religion of Islam.
Fast forward a few more years, I moved to Japan to study the language and culture, then moved to Hawaii where Japanese language is often spoken and needed. I went to college for a short time, dropped out due to financial difficulties, worked odd jobs, and eventually got a nice high paying job at a resort. I sporadically went to a church I had gone to at my college campus, but mostly I just enjoyed life as a young, single, well-to-do man. That is, until September 11th happened. It brought down my world financially and otherwise, to the point I went on unemployment and did not know where my next dollar was coming from. God, however, was Taking Care of me all along and praises be to Him, I ended up with a full time position back at the resort a few months later. However, like other Americans, I personally blamed Islam and Muslims for my misfortune and regarded it as the most evil and demonic religion known to mankind. I bought into the whole ‘Al-lah is a moon god’ belief held by Jack Chick and other Evangelical Christians. But for my own spiritual journey, I stopped going to Church except for here and there all together. On occasion, I would attend a Japanese speaking church, but for the most part, I only cared about the life of this world, working when there was work to do, clubbing, eating, playing video games and drinking alcohol when I was not working.
My relationship with God was less important than the life of this world; I did not even consider it. Sure, I would pray on a rare occasion, or read a Left Behind book, get spooked and declare myself ‘Re-Saved’ again, but overall, spiritually, I was disconnected with God. In 2006, I joined a fraternal organization, looking for spiritual guidance, and during the interview, one of the gentlemen asked if I had ever read the Qur’an. I stared at him in shock and horror, wondering why someone would ask if I ever read ‘that’ book, but he recommended it. He, himself, was a Muslim. So the next day, on a whim I went out and picked up the Mawlana Muhammad ‘Ali translation which I later found out was by the Ahmadiyyah sect. Flipping through it in the book store, I saw the footnotes had some Biblical references, so figured that was a good place to start. I read maybe two or three pages, flipped through the rest, declared I had just thrown away $20, and that was it. I found it confusing, its structure strange, its language (this god, ‘Allah’, why is He Saying “We”?) confusing. So, I put it on my bookshelf and never looked back.
A years later, I met a lovely woman who would eventually become my wife, had a beautiful daughter, moved to another smaller Island, went through various trials and tribulations, lost a job, worked multiple jobs, changed careers, and so forth. Eventually, I started going full time to a Pentecostal Church, and after a few years, became the music ministry’s worship leader and web designer, a lofty title for a Facebook profile manager. I enjoyed leading songs and worship every week, and would even sometimes denounce other religions in my speeches: “It ain’t Buddha! It ain’t Mohammed! It’s Jeeeeesus!”. I finally felt closer to God than I had in a long time, and the new found responsibility as worship leader gave me a sense of importance. Then, a few months later, the church caught fire and burned down. So, the members of our church packed up and moved to another place of fellowship. My family and I, however, grew discontented with the church, despite my leadership role. It began taking a toll, causing arguments and instead of being a wonderful thing to praise God, it became a burden I wanted out of. After attending a ‘Vacation Bible School’ at another church on the far opposite side of the island, we prayed as a family, and we decided to leave the church I was doing ministry for, which understandably upset the pastor and the congregation, and attend this new church.
For the first time in a long time, my family felt spiritually fresh and all three of us felt specially connected to God at long last. But soon, I was having trouble at my workplace and marriage. My hours were being cut, which the upper management blamed on lack of occupancy; income from my job, plus my wife’s home business was down. It was near impossible to make ends meet and overall I felt a sense of frustration and distance, from my family and from God. So the nights that I would have work, while on dinner break, I would go to the ‘Smoking Shack’ and pray to God for Guidance. I did not know what sort of Guidance; just something, something to bring me closer to Him, something to change my home situation, something to make me actually want to live for, because at that point, I felt I had nothing. Around that time, a good friend of mine who occasionally attended the same church we were going to, worked overseas for private contractors, and recommended I look into contract work. I did, and it offered great pay and benefits, plus I am sort of the explorer type guy who is not afraid to travel the world and do things, plus being away from my home might just be the break I needed for the issues in my marriage. So I figured, why not?
The best paying jobs were in the Greater Middle East, countries like Afghanistan, Jordan, Kuwait, Iraq. So that was where I started applying. In addition, I started trying to learn Arabic, figuring it would give me an advantage, and then thought, with my evangelical mind: “Hey, the Middle East is full of those evil, moon-worshipping, jihadist religion people known as Mooz-lums. I had better study the culture so I don’t get my hand chopped off!” So, that is what I did. I searched for, and eventually found, that dusty green Qur’an hidden away in my packed up books. I was initially afraid to open it as I was told it was a book full of ‘demons’, and reading it would cause them to attack me. I said a prayer, and started reading, “In the name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful. Praise be to Allah, the Cherisher and Sustainer of the worlds; Most Gracious, Most Merciful; Master of the Day of Judgment. Thee do we worship, and Thine Aid we seek. Show us the Straight Way, The way of those on whom Thou hast Bestowed Thy Grace, those whose (portion) is not wrath, and who go not astray.” I had read the same words a few years earlier, but reading them this time felt ‘different’ to me. They actually sounded beautiful. And this name, ‘Allah’? What did it mean? Is it a moon god? Far be it for me to read something praising a moon god, so I went and did research. I found out that the Name ‘Allah’ simply meant ‘God’ in Arabic, or literally, ‘The God’, as in no others. I also learned that the Name Allah for God had been used by Christians and some Arabic speaking Jews as well prior to Islam. So, the Name literally meant the same God! As Yahweh? As Jehovah? As Elohim? It was fascinating.
Satisfied with the meaning of the Name ‘Allah’, and knowing that it was not a ‘different’ God, I begin to read on. I found it fascinating. Poetic, melodic, different in tone and style that The Bible, but it talked about Biblical heroes and saints I knew. Moses (a.s.), Noah (a.s.), David (a.s.), Jesus (a.s.). Wait… JESUS (a.s.)? I paused with a raised eyebrow. “These Muslim guys know Jesus (a.s.)? But I heard they hated Christians? I heard they do not even believe in Jesus (a.s.)! So of course I consulted Google and Wikipedia, as well as a few library books about Islam. I learned that Muslims know of and ‘respect’ Jesus (a.s.) as well, but they do not worship him as ‘Son’ of God or as God and that most of them do not believe he was crucified. “Well,” I thought, “these Muslims just have wrong beliefs. They seem to love God, but they don’t know Jesus correctly. That’s why they are demon possessed. Maybe I can do missionary work and convert them to the truth! I’ll learn about their religion, point out what’s false about it, and where they are wrong, and win some real souls for heaven! Halleujah!” Now, not knowing any Muslims here on my Island personally, I was not sure how to go about meeting, discussing and converting these lost souls. I needed a good training ground for my eventual foray into the actual Middle East as a missionary. So, I went to the only place you can have a civil conversation with people different from you: Facebook.
I began by participating in various Christian-Muslim ‘debate’ groups. A lot of the Muslims were born-Muslims from the Middle East, and some were very Orthodox in their approach and would say negative things about Christ or Christianity. But, there were a few people in the groups who converted from Christianity to Islam. At first, I was baffled about why anyone would want to convert from knowing and loving Jesus (a.s.) to not worshipping him. Was this not a sin? Do you not lose salvation? But I figured it best to learn about this religion from those who knew my own faith, so I would talk to them about it. Through them, I found it was not the evil head-chopping, little girl-marrying, Christ-hating religion I had heard of it as. And that as Muslims, it was not that they turned their back on Jesus (a.s.) or hated him - many of them still loved him; they just worshipped the God that he spoke and taught of instead of worshipping him. So I would speak with them more, and learn more. And I kept reading the Qur’an; at times moved by its message and beauty, at other times, confused and bewildered. I also, still as a church going Christian, started keeping swalah times and would stop and say a short prayer five times a day when the adzan application I had downloaded would go off. I would always turn it off as soon as it started, because I still was not sure what the words meant, and I did not ‘believe’ in Muhammad (s.a.w.) as of yet.
I began to wonder why, as Christians, we did not stop throughout the day and thank God for His Blessings. Interestingly enough, right around this time, I also got ‘re-baptised’ in a ceremony at the new church I was going to, hoping it would pull me stronger into my Christian faith. That same very night, I began to actually study about Muhammad (s.a.w.) himself. Who was he? Do these Muslims worship him? I had not gone far enough in the Qur’an to see if they did or not. But I also certainly did not see any verses about needing to become a suicide bomber to have 72 virgins, or orders to kill pregnant women and Christians, or to fly airplanes into buildings. And so I studied and read about him, about his life, growing up as an orphan, about his trustworthiness from a young age, his marriage to Khadijah (r.a.), his pilgrimages at the cave of Hira to pray, which kind of reminded me of my prayers at the smoking shack, in that he was seeking direction in his life from God. And then of course, how the Angel of Revelation, Gabriel (a.s.), the same who announced Jesus’ (a.s.) birth, came to him telling him to recite the Words from God. And of how he was Given a mission to free the people of Makkah and the world from the bondage of paganism, idol Worship and various sins; how he and those who followed him were persecuted for believing that there was only one God, without partners, sons or daughters, as the idolaters’ believed; and at last, how he was given victories in battles and destroyed the false idols of the Ka’bah, dedicating it to only Allah (s.w.t.), the One God of all faiths.
I also learned that Muslims do not worship him as Christians do Jesus (a.s.), but they of course admire him for his message and character. And after studying about him more and more, I could understand why they did. About a week or two later, I was chatting with a new Muslim friend from the UK online. We discussed various topics about Islam, and he asked me questions, like, “So do you believe that God is only One, not divided like in the Trinity?” “Do you believe Muhammad is a legitimate prophet of His?” All of which I agreed in the affirmative. So, that very night, I declared the shahadah: “Ashhadu an laa ilaha illa Allah wa ashhadu anna Muhammad ar-Rasulullah.” Because through my reading, my research, my debates, my smoke shack prayers, I had found what I was finally looking for: the awesome truth that there is but One God, not divided, not abridged, Transcendent above all Creation and yet Closer to us than our jugular vein, Who Loves and Created us for His Purpose and Worship. And that after sending Jesus (a.s.), who is still known as the Messiah and the Word of God, he came to one man, an illiterate but beautiful of heart person who was seeking Him as I was, and Gave him His Message to humanity to recite. The man did not seek self glorification, wealth, fame or anything else, but wanted all of his brothers and sisters to love and submit to The Creator of the Heavens and the Earth. This man was Muhammad (s.a.w.).
At the moment I realized that, my life had been changed. I felt free, I felt closer to God than I ever have before in the 33 years of my life. I began weeping, knowing that God had Called me to be closer to Him and love and worship him in a way I never had before in my life. Although I now had inner peace, I was fearful to discuss my new faith with my family, and still attended church as regular, but I kept my swalah times and continued reading the Qur’an. A few weeks later, before Christmas, I searched out Google to see if there were any Muslims here on my island, and I found the location of a small masjid almost an hour’s drive away from my house. At that time, I had told no one about my conversion, but my wife noticed I was acting ‘funny’. I was still convinced somehow that I could be wrong, and that God was upset with me and going to Cast me into hellfire like a chicken in a roaster for not worshipping the Messiah, Jesus (a.s.) as Him or as His Son. So I prayed before I went on that fateful adventure, that if God did not want me to go to the masjid, I wanted Him to Prevent me from going; break my legs, stop the car from starting, do whatever it took: “Lord, but if this is against You, if You aren’t happy with me, don't Let me go to this ‘Muslim Church!’” But as Allah (s.w.t.) Willed it, the car started, and apparently I even reached the masjid before the imam even got there!
When I arrived, the door was bolted, so I took that as my sign not to go. As I walked away, a young man, now my very close brother in Islam, opened it and heard my story of coming to Islam in a much shorter form. He showed me how to make wudhu’, and I attended my first jumu’ah that day, the khuthbah being about seeking Refuge in Allah (s.w.t.) from grief - I have a copy of it still. And that was the first time I stood and bowed, and knelt shoulder to shoulder and prayed and prostrated to Allah (s.w.t.) with these other men. It was just as the Qur’an Says:
And when they listen to the Revelation received by the Messenger, thou wilt see their eyes overflowing with tears, for they recognise the Truth: they pray, “Our Lord! We believe; Write us Down among the witnesses.” (Surah al-Ma’idah:83)
So that is my story. That was the 27th December, 2013. al-Hamdulillah, it has been a beautiful journey thus far, and I praise Allah (s.w.t.) for every step of it and continually ask for His Guidance for me and for all my Muslim brothers and sisters. Amin.