windows without walls (my improbably journey to Islam & a lot of other places, part III)

There was nothing but me. No one had been more free than I had. I
took that to mean that I was the one to blame for the troubles in my
life. It also meant that nothing could stop me. I let everything go,
literally thrown everything away, knowing that everything and everyone
that had ever really been there would come back.

To make a long story short, I took a vow of celibacy (which no one
took seriously) and went back home, the prodigal son. One sharp look
from my mom said all that needed to be said about my dredlocks and a
lot of other things. My first order of business was to get back into
school. Imagine telling people that you dropped out of your third
year in the Ivy League to be a player.

I got re-accepted- they were no match for my characteristic
hard-headedness- and ran into an old friend from the basketball court.
My suitemates and I were having a monthly party called “Last Friday”
at the end of every month, very low key for me, so I invited him.

“I don’t drink, I don’t dance, I don’t listen to music. I’m a
Muslim,” he smiled, and then I saw it.

He had changed.

Gone was the tight-lipped bravado and swagger of one of the nation’s
best high school ballers. In place of his usual cool was an
uncharacteristic constant smile and a beard. His whole face had
changed. And his clothes too. His pants were tucked into his
Timberlands.

At that moment I knew: this is it. I’ve been trying to change, a
believer without a way, and he’s changed. Whatever he believed was
the truth.

I wasn’t ready to cancel the party just yet, but I asked him to tell me more.

“And if you are in doubt about that which we have sent to our servant,
Then bring a single chapter of its equal and likeness,
and call forward your witnesses (to its making) besides Allah,
if you are indeed truthful.
And if you have not done (this)-
and you will never do (it)-
then be wary of the fire whose fuel is men and stone,
prepared for the rejecters (of truth and right).
And give glad tidings to those who affirm (truth and right) and work
righteousness that theirs are gardens (of paradise), underneath
which flow rivers…”
-Qur-an 2.23-5

I couldn’t believe it. I had to believe it. No one could say that.
I had read hundreds of books- autobiographies, encyclopedias,
textbooks of every subject, histories, diaries, fiction, poetry,
political manifestos, fables and folklore- and no one had ever made
such a claim, of infallibility, of supreme confidence, of ultimate
challenge. Even the most widely-accepted scientific knowledge was
mostly considered theory. Every textbook was in its umpteenth
edition; why? Because mistakes or updated knowledge had been
discovered since the last edition. No one- not Einstein, not Michael
Jordan, not Criss Angel, no one- had ever claimed to have done
something which could be neither surpassed nor approached, even in its
details. No one, of course, who had not been subsequently made a fool
of, if they were not already known to be a fool, and summarily erased
from history.

No this, this shocked me. Only God could say that, I thought. If
this book was indeed of a miraculous nature, then it was the greatest
miracle of all time. Why? Why would a book be greater than Ram’s
stringing of Shiva’s bow, or Moses’ parting of the Red Sea, or Jesus’
revival of the dead Lazarus? It was greater because, again, if it was
indeed a miracle, if there ever was a miracle, this was the only one
left standing.

No one claims to have Shiva’s bow, and even so, long deceased are the
witnesses of its stringing. The Red Sea- and I have been to its coast
and talked to someone as he sailed across it- is definitely back to
normal. And Lazarus has since died again. But the Qur-an, if there
is any miracle about it, is still standing, and the one in my office
is no different that the thousand year-old copy in Uzbekistan, or even
the oldest hand-written original. Anyone who can read Arabic can
verify that.

So is it a miracle? It welcomes your doubts as it still does mine.
Read this example:

“He has set free the two seas meeting together
Between them is a barrier which they do not transgress?
-Qur-an 55.19-20

Still not convinced? Check out the introduction to King Leopold’s
Ghost, a book about the Congo by Adam Hochshild. It describes how
this river pushes out into the sea for a great distance without its
freshwater mixing with the Atlantic. It is said that Jacques Cousteau
was the first to photograph this barrier phenomenon, which I’ve yet to
verify. At any rate, it is a known scientific phenomenon, and
research is even being done to use freshwater barriers to prevent
saltwater seepage.

If Muhammad, may Allah Bless him and Grant him peace, had invented the
Qur-an, how could he have known this? He was illiterate. Even if he
was educated, this knowledge was not available at the time. Supposing
he made it up and happened to guess right, for one, he would have had
to guess right for all the other scientific discoveries the Qur-an
preceded, which is impossible if not unlikely. Further, what value
would such a claim have had at the time? Because it was irrelevant
and unverifiable, and not altogether fantastic, it would have done
nothing to convince people towards Islam.

I did my research, and decided that that this verse, and the many
others like it, was a sign left by Allah not for the early Muslims,
but for all the generations that would follow them. As every copy of
the Qur-an is identical to the original scrolls, they are proof of a
wisdom that could only have come from above. They are a taste test
that everyone can individually scrutinize individually and openly.
They are miracles. Just as such verses were unobservable but
ultimately proven true, so, the Qur-an argues, is the case with its
claims of resurrection, recompense and reward and much else.

But there was something else, too, something besides all the eloquent
logic I was starting to read in translation. Something inside me. I
felt like I was finding something I’d already found, something I’d
known inside me like the vague, disparate recollections of a dream.
The signs I was reading were confirming and explaining signs I’d been
seeing in my self for years, great and small. Years earlier, without
knowing why, I’d resolutely given up eating pork. When I was in
Australia, I once fasted from morning to night for one month. I just
felt that it was right, that I needed it for strength and discipline.
I had stopped shaving because I found it unnatural. Also when I was
in Australia, I woke up everyday at sunrise and prayed, then washed. I
had begun to see it as an obligation to give, and in New York, let me
tell ya, there are plenty of people to give to. And why, I asked
looking back to my childhood, did my brother and I have a habit of
prostrating on our foreheads before we went to sleep? Maybe you can
imagine how many times my heart stopped, or how many times my eyes
still burst in tears at finding out that what was in me was true

As an intellectual, I’d made the world my classroom, and people and
places had become my books. I was a scribe of the spoken word, with a
library that catalogued thoughts and lives. That’s not to say that I
wasn’t well-read. I was, and perhaps extraordinarily so. In time my
interests turned toward religion. I don’t think I was looking for
something to believe. I just found it all interesting. Soon, and I
presented this theory at Sydney University, I surmised that all
religions were variants of some original, and differed on grounds of
culture based on the parts of the world they were in. After all,
language limits and allows the concepts its speakers are allowed to
think in, so it seemed natural to assume that the same religion would
vary on the surface across cultures. Some form of prayer or
meditation, asceticism, and other elements seemed to universal to be
independent. As such, I postulated that God must have spoken to
somebody somewhere, and that, those words and none other, were exactly
what I wanted to read. So I decided to study Hebrew and Sanskrit,
because those were the oldest languages I knew about, to find and
decipher just what God had said. I guess I was looking for something
to believe in.

Arabic is not the oldest language, but it does contain the oldest book
which is universally held to be untainted. Moreover, and this excited
me about my theory, Islam seemed to contain all those universal
elements of religion, in a unified, congruent system. It has the
asceticism of Buddhism without going to the extreme of monasticism.
There is the rhythmic profundity of the Vedas with no contradiction or
mystery.
The all-embracing love of Christianity is honed with discipline, while the
moral guidance of the Torah is found without descending into formalism.
The social code is as comprehensive as Confucianism, and the
unifying theory of nature resonates with the principles of Daoism and
many other natural/mystic belief systems. It even deals masterfully with
the skepticism and rightful demand for the right to inquiry of atheism,
agnosticism and modern science.

I have suffered, admittedly at my own hands, for so long. It took me
years of searching to even realize I was searching. And now I
realized that I didn’t have to find my own way, that I had something
to which I could bring my doubts, and that I had been right, in some
way, all along. The Straight Path stretched before me. I took my
first step one night by declaring that there was no deity but Allah
and that Muhammad was his Messenger.

So what happened, right? Did my parents kick me out of the house?

Well, I wasn’t living at home at the time, for one. And knowing my
wiles and caprice, no one probably took it seriously at first. But
from surrendering to Allah, I started to affirm his truth, with the
hopes of one day perfecting my self and practice. I think that has
kept me, elevating my struggles to strivings and tempering my
successes with humility. I’m a better grandson, son, nephew, brother
and cousin than I was before, and I think my ties with my family are
stronger because of Islam, even though we differ about it. To be
sure, I lost a few friendships, but some of them were very surface and
false anyway, so I don’t miss what I never had. Anyway, who’s to say
we wouldn’t have fallen out of touch anyway, as much as I move around.
Due in large part to Facebook, I have to admit, many, many of my
friendships are graciously intact.

I still travel, still love nature. I spent a year teaching in the
lost valley that borders Mexico. There was a beautiful bird sanctuary
with a crocodile there, close to the Gulf of Mexico. I traveled to
Pakistan and got married, and saw the beautiful hills of Murree at the
foothills of the Himalayas with my wife. My Spanish came in handy in
Mexico City and Monterrey, where I met the bravest and most innocent
people I can remember. After a year in Oman, where my daughter was
born, I was relieved to see the rain and lush green of northern
Thailand last summer. And I’ve still got miles to go before I sleep.

I’m as aware of wrongdoing Muslims as anybody, but Islam is not
constituted by the Muslims. It’s a framework. One looks through it,
and acts within it. I do not feel that it limits my vision or walk.
Rather it frees from the debilitating, inhibiting effects of the
faults that we all have, the false lures of life, the limitations of
ignorance, and the misguidance of satan. It is a window without
walls, through which I invite you all to look and transcend.

And peace be upon whoever follows guidance…
-Qur-an 20.47

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i thought that i was living all along but i was wrong… (my improbable journey to Islam & a lot of other places, part II)

Little did I know where it would take me. I landed in Perth, as far from Sydney as I could afford, and tried my luck with a hostel that promised a job. I needed a change. I needed to change. My logic was that the further I was from everything and everyone I knew, the easier it would be. After a while I met a Dutch guy who was driving around Australia from Sydney to Sydney. He invited me to the rest of the journey. I said I didn’t have enough money. He said he didn’t either, when we ran out of dough we’d just pick fruit or some other work. So I said why not, and we recruited two others and began.

What I saw was more than a frame should attempt to hold, wonders so beautiful that they only belong in the heart, and so permanent that nothing is lost if they’re forgotten. What I felt was absolute freedom- no cellphone reception, no task except our next target, no walls except the horizon. We went to places where the only signs of human life were us. There was Shell Beach, whose name is self-explanatory. We visited the Pinnacles, a white sand field where meters-tall calcium deposits stand as the sole survivors of millennia of erosion. We even saw a shark, just a baby who didn’t know where it was supposed to be hunting, but I met a surfie who had seen her friend get snatched off of his surfboard by a Great White. And kangaroos. They were like deer in Texas, in the desert, on the beach, everywhere. Sunsets replaced television, and the moon and stars, freed from their competition with city lights, reassumed their natural role. And yeah, I picked a lot of fruit, canteloupes and capsicum to be exact. I even did 3 weeks as a glassie in a bar. This was a 3-month trip, mind you.

But what impressed me the most were the signs. Everything I saw was awakening thoughts in my mind. Everything was too beautiful, too calm, too perfect and utterly real to be a mistake. I started to see the order and notice the cycles of living and life, and realized that I could have died before I’d ever lived. In fact, I realized that I had been dead to a higher reality that I was just beginning to awaken to like a sleeping man jolted fully awake by a tremendous roar of thunder. My heart was racing. My mind was reeling. I was filled with two sentiments. One was shame and guilt at the death I’d been living.

The other was God.

Who, after all, decreed the ‘laws’ of physics and nature? How are such laws maintained to immutability? Where, to refer to the Big Bang Theory, did that infinitesimally dense particle of matter come from? Why, if you think about it, did explode at all? Why did it explode exactly when it did, instead of not later or sooner? Who provided the force behind its explosion? Most of all and after all, why?

Didn’t there have to be a one wise with all wisdom? An undeniable authority? An independent creator and source? One who sets time and is at the same time free from it? An unsurpassable power and strength? A chooser with the power to fully execute any choice? A love eternal and unconditional?

At my furthest straying, I’d never stopped believing. But I’d forgotten that I believed. And I was born into my fading beliefs, I’d never consciously chosen them. Now, I asked myself, as I thought of the thousand nights of parties that celebrated nothing, filled with fake friends covering our misery with fake smiles, hiding our isolation behind smoke, drowning our thoughts in music, gyrating our tormented selves as we blinded our consciences with poison. Now, why do I believe in one thing and not give it time or energy, and not believe in another, but give it all I’ve got?
My life was completely backwards. I’d wasted all of it. But one thing gave me hope in all the despair

I was still alive, more than ever and for the first time…

uluru uhuru

nothing’s so fast
as choosing your own path
further we fled
breathing peace after being dead
and it’s not just uluru
it’s that and everything
every little thing

take your turn, your turn others take
as we share this air, so we share this fate
and the water’s clear for the coral’s sake
not a single soul can the whole earth sate

wake by sunrise
when it sets we die
so we live each life
like the first and final tide
and it’s name’s not ayer’s rock
’cause he don’t own a single thing
noone owns a thing

take your turn, another’s turn take
as we share this air, so we share this day
and the water’s clear for the coral’s sake
not a single soul can the whole world sate

even birds understand:
it’s more than just songs that they sing
at the end of the road that’s paved for me
there’s nothin’ but me

* “uluru” is the pitjantjatjara name of ayer’s rock, australia’s inselberg of many colors
* “uhuru” is swahili for “freedom”