I’m beginning this on 2nd Shawwal 1428 or October 14, 2007. It is now 13 years since I pronounced and committed to my belief in One God, the message of the Qur’an , the role of the one who came with it, Prophet Muhammad (saw), and the impending Day of Judgment.
In many ways, it was not a large step from how I was raised, but in others, it was crossing a great chasm. In my core, I already believed in the Oneness of God and recognized that Truth, but until I found Islam that knowledge was confused and muddled by my Christian upbringing. The Qur’an was the primary factor that led to my choice to adopt Islam as my religion. When I read it, my heart resonated with the clarity of its message of Tawhid. Here, finally, was a scripture that was understandable, made sense and did not muddle the Truth. When I completed it, I knew that I had no choice but to be Muslim. To me, anything else from that point forward would be hypocrisy against what my mind and heart recognized.
I was young, just embarking on adulthood, and I was afraid of how my decision would play out in my future. I knew it would bring some difficulty with my family and society in general. But I made the decision to trust God with my affairs – Who better to trust?
Now, the month of Ramadan has just completed and in its nights I read a translation of Qur’an. At the same time, but at a slower pace, I have been re-reading the Bible. The Qur’an brings peace to my heart always – it is a meditation, a spiritual salve, a deep communion. By contrast, reading the Bible has reinforced my love of the Qur’an because of the former’s confusions. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry reading the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis when it mentions God walking through the Garden looking for the pair – God, with a human body, with His Creation able to hide from Him. Thus, I am made all the more grateful for Islam.
I still live in my hometown, which has grown around me, but which remains, to my knowledge, devoid of others trying to follow the path of a Shia Muslim. I have spiritual friendships cultivated primarily online with Shias in many places, and they are very dear to me and highly valued. I feel rooted here, in love with the natural beauty of this place, and maintain strong connections to my family.
My family underwent its own journey these past 13 years. For some time, my change in religion was a source of conflict and heartache for a family that already had enough of both. But ultimately, my mother’s powerful love and the behavioral consequences of my faith have helped bring my family together, so that we are, at least, a family.
I have occasionally looked back at parts of what I wrote in Seeking the Straight Path: Reflections of a New Muslim. It remains an accurate reflection of my early journey in Islam. But I have continued on the journey and am now at a different place than I was then. Meanwhile, many others have also found Islam and some of them, like me, no longer classify themselves as “new” Muslims. For me, the “coming of age” in Islam occurred when I went for hajj in late winter of 1999. Effectually, my whole adult life has been lived as a Muslim. I am comfortable in my new shoes. However, I am ever more humbled by my faults and inadequacies and made ever more cognizant of my total reliance on Allah for any success in anything. I used to harbor a sense of accomplishment for whatever education I obtained, for improved relations with family, for success in work, for finding Islam, etc. Now I understand that had the will of God been otherwise, the outcomes in my affairs could have been different at any turn. Therefore, all praise and immeasurable gratitude is due to the Creator.
One thing that has evolved over the past 13 years is my view of knowledge. There were some things I used to think I knew. But now, there are very things I would feel comfortable saying I know. It is a joke with my brother that if he asks something and I reply, “I don’t know,” that he says back, “You sure don’t know much, do you?” All I can do is agree with him. I regard much knowledge as fluid in nature. If you think you know something, you are often later confronted with new knowledge that makes you realize you didn’t know it as well as you thought you did. But I am comfortable to say there are many things that I cognize, or of which I have recognition (ma’arifah). I cognize the unity of God, the prophethood of the prophets, the imamate of the imams (peace be upon them), the dependency of all creation on the Creator, the truth in the message of the Qur’an, and I cognize the temporary nature of this world and the reality of the Day of Judgment.
Another evolution is my view of myself in relation to others. In the beginning stages after my conversion, I sought out answers, often by turning to people who might have them. I felt needy of others to help me find that knowledge I sought. Yet, I recognized that the filter of that knowledge, the decision of what to keep and what to reject, was a responsibility squarely on my own shoulders. Today I feel largely independent of other people, but totally dependent on God. I see myself as a journeyer among journeyers. Each of us has his own path to tread. My status or place amongst fellow journeyers ought to be irrelevant; what really matters is the status of my progress on the journey. But to achieve progress on the journey, I have to behave in the context of the interconnected nature of all our journeys. You and I are not competitors for rank such that for one to move ahead the other must move back. To the contrary, if one moves forward, it opens a way for another to move forward. If one moves forward, it is often due to helping another.
In the early period of my conversion to Islam there were a few questions that were most important to me – particularly how and why questions. “What?” - What is the din, what is our duty, what is hijab, what is prayer…. “How?” - How do I pray, how do I wear hijab, how do I eat…. “Why?” – Why do we pray the way we do, why do some women wear hijab, why do we avoid certain foods…. Those are important questions, many of which I found answers for to the extent that I needed, and many of which seeking answers to is part of a continuing quest. I am trying to make reality of ideals, to conquer the nafs, to fulfill duty with the best manners to fellow man and creature, to pursue the expansion of my heart, to chase the illumination of the enlightened, to save myself by losing myself. All of these things are the same thing – the same as what I started out on and the same as one another.
The Straight Path is a metaphor for the way of life for which we are created – that way of life that is just to ourselves and to others, that is in completely harmony with Truth. As we seek that path, we often find that our own journeys are anything but straight – they meander, they go forward and backward - and that we cannot clearly see the path ahead. We make mistakes, we harm ourselves and others, we get distracted, we waste time, we pursue that which won’t benefit us, we put our foots in our mouths, we are ungrateful, we lack humility but have too much pride. If there is one thing this world doesn’t need more of, it is self-righteousness. Few things hold us back from progress more than that digging-in-the-heels stubborn attitude that we’re right, that we know what we’re doing, that we have nothing to learn from certain people, and that we won’t concede an error, even privately to ourselves.
Much has happened in the world since 1994 when I said my shahada, and not all for the good. In the context of the Muslim Ummah and mankind at large, what I see is the need for people to dedicate themselves sincerely to the behavior of those people who are the best of creation, and to accept nothing less from themselves in all spheres of life.
In al Siraj: The Lantern on the Path To Allah Almighty
Husain ibn 'Ali ibn Sadiq al Bahrani wrote,
“Be informed, may Allah assist you, that the Prophet (s) has said,
“‘I was sent (to mankind) in order to perfect the virtues of ethics’ (Bihar al-Anwar, Vol. 68, p. 382).
“There is no confusion in this statement, for anything relevant to the Hereafter and to our sustenance cannot be in order, nor can its seeker be happy, except through good manners. Much of a good deed does not help without cultivating and correcting one’s conduct. Actually, a bad conduct only spoils a good deed just as vinegar spoils honey (Usul Al-Kafi, Vol. 2, p. 32). What benefit is there in anything the outcome of which is spoilage?
“Do not be misled into thinking that a great deal of knowledge without correcting and cultivating one’s conduct can be of any use. Never! Ahl al-Bayt (‘a) have said,
“‘Do not be tyrannical scholars so your falsehood may wipe out your righteousness (al-Saduq’s Amali, Vol. 9, p. 294).
“‘Nor should you be misled into thinking that a bad mannered person can be happy in the company of a father, a son, a spouse, a friend, a companion, a family, a teacher or a student. Nay! They all are harmed by him, and they find his conduct offensive; so, how can he attain the means of perfection which are scattered among the people while those who are perfect shun and run away from him?! And be further informed that anyone who discerns the path of Ahl al-Bayt, peace be upon them, studying their legacy, will find how they guided mankind, attracted people to the creed, all through their good manners, ordering their followers to do likewise saying, ‘Invite people [to your creed] but not with your tongues.’ (Al-Kafi, Vol. 2, p. 46), meaning through good manners and beautiful deeds, so that they may be role models for those who emulate.
“So, if it becomes obvious that seeking this life or the life to come can both be complete through good manners, and that complementing the code of ethics is the benefit of the Message without which life can never be good, it becomes also obvious that cultivating manners has a precedence over any other obligation and is more important than any obligation. It is the key to everything good, the source of everything beautiful, the one which brings about every fruit, the basis of any objective. “
I have repeatedly witnessed good deeds spoiled with bad conduct. I have seen people so obsessed with their rights and entitlements that they expect people to bend like reeds to accommodate their gruff personalities and lack of tact, with the excuse of, “I am who I am and people need to just deal with it – I don’t have to change for anyone! They just need to grow thick skins and not be so easily offended when I point out their flaws; after all, I am only doing my duty to advise them.” With behavior like that, it doesn’t matter if you have the best advice in the world, for you have made it ugly, and succeeded in turning people off to it rather than inviting them by your conduct.
Whatever vision I may have had for life as I graduated high school in 1993, I am sure this wasn’t it. I would never have predicted that before the end of my sophomore year at college, I’d be a Muslim. I could not have predicted that I’d love and marry a Muslim man, that he would break apart under the stress of the conflict between his love for me and the pressures of his family to return home and marry someone of their choosing, or that he would ultimately decide to leave me by returning to his country and disappearing, leaving me to wait for him and eventually decide not to wait anymore and find a way to divorce. I would not have predicted that I’d still be here in my hometown, living less than 3 miles from my parents and teaching high school math.
Nor can I predict now what my future holds. I do not know if I will live to the end of the day let alone what will have transpired in my life should I arrive at the age of my parents. But I am satisfied with the direction of my life, so that if I leave the world today, I could make no complaint to God about how He has cared for me.
One day a few years ago, I had an encounter with a minister of a new age church. She was at a fair doing things like tarot cards or palm reading. She said to me, “You have an old soul. You have things figured out already while most of us are wandering around lost. You are only partly here; you have one foot in this world, but your other foot and your vision is in the next.” My mother was standing there and I think she was slightly disturbed by the last statement, as if it were a harbinger of death. I regarded the lady’s statement with some skepticism due to her trade but considered it anyway. My thought was simply that this world is a test, a temporary illusion. We are not created for this world. I should see the next world better than this one, for it is the reality. I should act in this world with constant awareness of building my abode in the real world. I am here and there. So are we all. We need to remember it – in fact, there are few things more important to remember than that.