Friday, March 03, 2006

How did I come to Islam?

I was raised in an agnostic, socialist home. Even my grandparents were all agnostic. Both my grandfathers grew up in strict religious homes, one Catholic, the other orthodox Jewish. The Catholic married an Episcopalian who converted to appease his mother and, tourism aside, neither ever entered a church again. My Jewish grandpa came to America and after a couple of other marriages met my nana who came from a very reform Jewish family in Berlin. My parents raised their children without religion… for the most part. For reasons more pragmatic than religious we went to a Unitarian Church for a year. Being active in the Civil Rights movement, and then the peace movement opposing the war in Vietnam we had a lot of contact with black and peace-oriented activist churches. Our parents taught us about different religions and said we could make up our minds when we grew up. When they divorced, my father decided that his three pre-teen children would all be Jews. A rabbi said some words over our heads, and they are since long forgotten. My brother is an adamant atheist and my sister attends a Protestant church.

As a young adult I read the Gospels and became a Christian, and eventually Roman Catholic, but always critical of institutions and fundamentalism. I remained open to learning other ways, studied Wicca, and always had friends of many different religions. For all that I never really knew any Muslims, although in the 10th grade I’d read “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” and that was for a long time most of what I knew about Islam.

In February of 2001 I was studying in Florence and had the opportunity to visit Istanbul. What I found there astounded me, a vibrant city that had been truly cosmopolitan for centuries in ways that no European or American city came near. I was then only dimly aware of medieval Arab empires that stretched from China to Iberia, but in Istanbul one could see an incredible legacy of many diverse arts and cultures. I was hungry to learn more.

I returned that summer to San Francisco and signed up for classes in the “History of Islamic Societies” in the fall of 2001. The class had been meeting for a few weeks before the attack on the World Trade Center. On September 12, we were as shell shocked as the rest of the country, and very aware that we were strangely privileged to be in that class at that time, that after a few weeks we already knew far more about Islam than most Americans and that what we were learning would be crucial in healing wounds and building bridges.

The next summer I went to Morocco to study Arabic, which strictly for studying Arabic was a mistake, like going to Italy to study Latin. What they speak in Morocco is a form of Arabic rather removed from the standard language of the Arab media, much less the dialects of other Arab countries. Still, it was very eye-opening to live in an Arab country, poor in their economy, but rich in history, culture, and the good manners I would learn were integral to Muslim society, “al-adab” which means manners, culture, and literature, depending on context, but always suggests polite grace and education.

Back in San Francisco I continued learning about Islam and the Muslim world – never intending to convert. I was really quite happy as a Catholic, thank you very much – but with a sense of duty that Americans and Europeans needed to know about this world that was so close to us in so many ways, but so far from our knowledge.

It always seemed to me that to judge any matter you always have to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. To know another person’s way of thinking you have to learn her language. People only resort to violence, let alone suicide, when other means fail. What were we not hearing from the Muslim world, what did we need to know? Aside from the huge geo-political questions what are the underlying religious and philosophical beliefs?

It came clearer and clearer that– despite the institutional overlays, and the huge political problems that they create – the Abrahamite religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have at their common core a belief that the dignity of humanity is a divine grace that we share in by acts of compassion and forgiveness. There is really very little that separates these religions – differing opinions about Jesus and Mohammed (peace be upon them) – but the moral teachings are essentially the same. The rest is little more than cultural and political history.

In my study of Islam I had to ask myself if I could or would be a Muslim and why (not)? As a Catholic I believed in Jesus Christ as God incarnate. There is a wonderful, beautiful mystery in this that links humanity with God. The Incarnation was very important to me, and even believing in this as an historical (if historically unverifiable) fact, I knew that if we believe in Christ as the salvation of man, that excludes the majority of humanity that never had the opportunity to know of Him. Therefore God either turns His back on most of humanity or “knowing Christ” has to be as valid in metaphor as it is in literal interpretation.

The Qur’an, on the other hand, affirms Jesus as prophet, but no more, and also affirms that while some prophets are known to us through the Qur’an and the Bible, there are many prophets and they share God’s word in all communities. And also that we are made in different nations and cultures that we may all learn from each other. This understanding helped me to let go of the Incarnation.

There is also the not inconsiderable problem that I have always and only loved men. Women as friends and sisters, sure, but never “that way.” Along with my other research I looked into Gay Muslim organizations and scholarship and found that the homophobia that is indeed very strong in most contemporary Muslim cultures is relatively new, that it flourished with the spread of European colonialism, and that sexual diversity had been known and accepted throughout most of Muslim history. Islamic arguments against homosexuality are based on readings of the story of the “people of Lut” – familiar to Christians and Jews as the Sodomites – but this is a story about robbery, rape, and murder, that has nothing to do with men loving men or women loving women.

All this came to a head for me when I attended the 2003 conference of Salaam Canada, a Gay Muslim organization. I felt there was no reason I could not make the declaration of faith, but should probably wait to do so until I got home, rather than doing something rash in a setting so removed from my daily life. But then there were two Sufi dhikr. The first one was ecstatic, leading me into an openness of spirit.

The second one was more structured, strictly choreographed dances with chanting ayat (verses from the Qur’an). The first two were general recognitions of human spirit… but the third, “En’shedu na la illaha il allah wa Muhamed rasul allah,” was the declaration of faith: There is no god but God, and Mohammed is his prophet. Could I say it without meaning it? One participant, who was not Muslim, bowed out, which crystallized my choice, and I asked the leader if this would qualify as a Shahadah. She said that it would if I meant it. Could I, should I say it and mean it? I could, and despite the sensible reasons for waiting it seemed a perfect setting in which to make the Shahadah. Besides, I am a professional astrologer and my horoscope for that day signaled a major change in my life.

I danced and sang,
En’shedu na la illaha il allah wa Muhamed rasul allah.
“En’shedu na le illaha il allah wa Muhamed rasul allah.
“En’shedu na le illaha il allah wa Muhamed rasul allah.”

And I have never regretted it. I find joy in prayer and fasting, and I find in Islam not easy answers to questions, but simple principles that offer endless challenge.

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