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 came to the fork in the road and went straight… (my improbable journey to Islam & a lot of other places, part I)

i came to the fork in the road and went straight…

I love travel. It is a love that began without me noticing. I grew up in Texas, far from my mother and father’s Rhode Island and Virginia roots, so annual trips to see the grandparents were probably my first travel experiences. Those were road trips, by the way; it’s expensive to fly four kids cross country. My dad’s parents had bought a huge recreational vehicle, or camper, and I still remember our trips through forests and up and down the Atlantic coast.

After that, sports took me a long way. Between basketball and soccer tournaments and track meets, I’ve spent as much time on a school bus and crammed in a van as I can stand. All us cool guys would sit at the back of the bus, but that was also where going over a speed bump can pop you out of your seat, or jolt you awake from a nap. Once on the way to a soccer tournament, I was the only guy in the van who couldn’t speak Spanish. Someone would tell a joke and they’d all laugh while I waited for a translation, only to find that the funny part was often untranslatable.

Travel came to me with a sense of adventure. The colleges who recruited me flew me to their campuses in my senior year of high school, and I saw all different kinds of climates (Imagine a Texas boy seeing snow in May!) and people. I broke up a fight on the streets of London, and then literally had to flee- for my life, I presumed- back to my hostel. During a trip to Europe, I saw currencies, languages, architecture and geographies change several times in less than the time it took to drive across Texas. I was an extra in the Matrix II and got free entry to premier nightclubs because of people who had seen me there. In many ways, my life was like a movie, and I won’t say what rating.

I love nature. After 3 semesters at Columbia University in the thick of New York City, I enrolled at Sydney University (Australia) as an exchange student. The orientation took place in the Blue Mountains, so named for the hue it reflects from a distance. After our first night there, I walked out of my cabin, took a breath, and smelled nothing. Absolutely nothing. It was clean fresh air, as far as I could remember for the first time. That one moment, that single impression, has left more of a mark on me than any book or lesson or song or conversation.

It was a sign.

I almost got killed. It was all a mix-up where someone’s bag was stolen that looked like mine, and the word got to the local gang, who felt there ethnicity had been slighted by an outsider. They pulled a gun on me. I don’t brag when I say that I wasn’t scared, but I wasn’t, so what else can I say? I didn’t beg for my life, I just played it cool, my usual strategy. But I was nervous, sorta like how you feel walking toward your new school for the first time. What’s gonna happen once I go inside? Bottom line, I didn’t want to die. My life didn’t flash before my eyes, but the next day I asked myself what would have happened if they’d killed me. I wouldn’t have just died. I would have died for nothing. To date, I’d achieved nothing with my life, had made no contribution, had left nothing worthwhile behind.

This was the fork in the road.

My intelligence told me to run, that the danger was sure to resurface. The guy whose bag was stolen came back at the gangsters that threatened me, but how many more people had gotten the wrong story? My ego told me to stay. I had the Friday night set up at the local nightclub, with DJ Smoove and the Turkish Delights, two twin dancers from Turkey! I wasn’t gonna let that money or prestige go. Besides, I wasn’t afraid anyway. Then I chose the other path, the one that wasn’t really being offered. I wasn’t going to go right or left. I followed my heart and went straight…

jahiliyyah (part 1)

each night & every nap i dream

i can’t remember what happens

i don’t know what they mean

maybe shaytaan is playin’ wit’ me

are these visions of events my eyes will soon see?

what’s gonna happen to me? i aint ‘fraid

i’ll give my life but i wanna die in Peace

i remember when my whole plan shattered to pieces

i & my friends scattered like winds on stormy beaches

i walked the desert & faced the sun

i learned from my deeds, every one:

i used to tell lies to my own mother

i hid & ran for cover in the lives of others-

the others were those i was trying to be;

but an image & crew couldn’t make a new me-

i used to die in my sleep:

i woke & couldn’t move or even breathe

my whole life was a game:

the goal was to get mine before i got old

or went insane

when you’re on the way to nowhere

the journey never ends

when you’re nowhere you’re alone,

even with friends everywhere you turn,

you’re still trapped within

your escape is to repent

while you still can…

* ‘jahiliyyah’ is árabic for “period of ignorance”