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 A Truth Seeker who Found the Truth

 

You were pretty as a picture
It was all there to see
Then your face caught up with your psychology
With a mouth full of teeth
You ate all your friends
And you broke every heart thinking every heart mends

You speak of signs and wonders
But I need something other
-U2, ďCrumbs From Your TableĒ*

The contrasts between the two nights werenít exactly stark, but they were considerable. The first night took place in early 2002, in a glitzy Ontario nightclub so loud the music drowned out my shouting. The second night occurred in a college city in central New York early in 2005 at a house almost too small for all the guests. My drinks of choice on the first night were the flavored types: Long Island iced teas, screwdrivers, and margaritas, with some scotch thrown in for good measure. On the second night, choices were limited to beer (not even very good beer) and and a smooth, delicious whiskey. The first night, I was with friends, as opposed to a cast of near-strangers the second night. However, the spiritual conclusions I reached on both of those nights revolved around two things: Alcohol and guilt. The first night, guilt set in on my conscience with the first sip of scotch. Having researched Islam and its fierce stance against alcohol for several months leading up to the first night, I had drawn the conclusion that Islam was the way, and so less than two months later I found myself at a local mosque reciting the words la ilaha ilallah, Muhammadun rasoull Allah. In the months leading to the second night, I had seen the terrible underbelly of Islam both in books and in practice. I had questioned many of my adopted religious beliefs and received unsatisfactory and illogical answers. Until the second night, my faith stood a chance of rebounding, but my guilt-free drunkenness made me realize that Islam was dead to me. After a few more weeks of clinging, I became an apostate.*

I canít figure out exactly what made me accept Islam. The trick wasnít done by one big factor, but more of a variety of small ones: I was disillusioned with my Christian faith and wasnít quite ready to face the possibility of the non-existance of a deity, I had familiarized myself with the more rational (ie: less religious) past of Islamic society, the Muslims at the local mosque had put their secular feet forward, and I just plain didnít do my homework to the extent it should have been done. I had done research on certain beliefs and practices, and they made sense to me. My research, in retrospect, was very one-sided. My politics were always left of center, and Islam looked like a uniquely liberal religion that embraced kindness, acceptance, peace, and the free expression of ideas. So in March of 2002 I decided I had nothing to lose by taking the plunge, and I recited the shehada in front of a very small group of people.*

Islam as presented to potential converts looks like a nice alternate version of Christianity, only with more praying. After all, I didnít see any of the morals or ideas I held changing one bit. And for a short time, I didnít have to present myself like my morals had changed, because Islam was exactly the way it was sold to me. It wasnít long before I became Super-Muslim, that shiny new convert who spoke of the brilliant morality of Islam, never missed a prayer, picked up on certain aspects of the Arabic language very quickly, and was able to dive right into self-starvation and deprevation when Ramadan rolled around. However, even throughout my Super-Muslim period, my inner critic never gave up on me. Whenever I noticed a connection between Islam and pre-Islamic Arab culture, such as the belief in jinns, an alarm would always quietly sound off in my head. Usually I was able to shut it up, thinking it could all be explained in a rational, demonstrable way. As all devout Muslims do at one time or another, I slowly became afraid to question anything that Islam ruled for me. This was disastrous for my inquisitive personality, which I was suppressing. When a convert to Islam first starts learning the truth about Islamís rules, one of three things happens: Either the convert blindly starts following them, or the convert starts looking toward more liberal interpretations of Islam to make them fit their pre-concieved image of it, or the convert becomes an apostate. *

The flaws in Allahís logic started to appear later in 2002. On a ride to the local mosque one night, a friend told me that it was considered a sin to listen to music. No wiggle room - it was a sin, plain and simple. I simply couldnít accept this. My newfound faith, which was supposed to be respectful of other cultures, decrying an essential part of every culture? It was then that I decided I wouldnít be able to follow the hardcore version of Islam that this ďfriendĒ followed. And so began my journey into the liberal version of Islam promoted by scholars like Khalid Abou al-Fadl. I was personally able to get by clinging to that for some time because it gave my suppressed inquiries a bit more room to roam, much like a prisoner in the yard of his prison. I couldnít tell anyone at the mosque about my liberalism, though, because they would have probably considered me a kafir. Even if they didnít, they most certainly would have called me a hypocrite, because I had somehow given off the impression that I was more hardcore in my practices than I actually was.*

Itís funny how some Muslims are bent on finding the hypocrites in their ummah while being completely oblivious to their own hypocrisy. Everyone at my mosque talked about how much they really loved the Jews. Yet, in my three years as a Muslim, Iíve heard just about every dumb conspiracy theory about the Jews that exists. I remember going to someoneís house and learning about how suicide bombers were an invention of the Israeli media. I also remember one about how the Jews knew that the September 11 terrorist attacks were coming, but they just didnít tell anyone because they wanted a few Muslims to die in the attacks. One man told some guests at the mosque all about how the attack on the Pentagon was an invention of the Jewish media, and that it never happened. While the views about the Jews were the worst of the local ummahís hypocrisy, they were not the only. In three years of practicing Islam and getting to personally know several hardcore Muslims, only one of those hardcore Muslims introduced me to his family, which included his wife and three teenage daughters. Most of the others kept their wives out of sight and were vocal about how women were inferior in intellect, and the ultimate danger to the piety of a good Muslim. Then there were the countless condemnations of other cultures. Some show of respect to other cultures. The most shocking aspect of it, of course, was that they were using quotes from the Quran and hadiths to back it all up.*

I was appalled. I couldnít help but wonder that if my new ďfriendsĒ were saying such things about non-Muslims, then were they just my ďfriendsĒ for no other reason than that I was a Muslim? In the meantime, the more I read about Islam, the less sense it made, the less it seemed human - and the less I felt comfortable in my skin. I wrote a conversion story which I sent to some Islamic websites (I donít know if theyíve posted it, and I donít care to find out), but at the time of its writing, I had become depressingly automatic in many aspects of my practices. My prayers had become a series of quick movements and incoherent jibberish. The reading of the Quranís chapter of the cave that Muslims are advised to do every Friday was rushed, and my head during the Friday sermons was always someplace else. My brain and heart had basically turned to mildew and were fighting to rationalize the mental self-abuse I was making myself endure. Spiritually, I was dead, and all the robotic cut-and-paste rationalizations I was telling myself and everyone else sounded unnatural in my head. I still clung, however, because by then I was indoctrinated enough to have a deep fear of Allah programmed within. (As a result, I like to joke that suicide bombers arenít killing because of Islam, but committing suicide because Islam left them depressed.) I really shouldnít joke - suicide might have been my way out of my mental hell if Islam didnít forbid it. By the end of 2003, I was wondering how much longer it would be until things began to make sense again. Muslims pride themselves on being slaves to Allah, and thatís what I honestly felt like, but without the pride. *

I wonít pretend that the force that guides the universe - if there is one - is any kind of personal friend to me, or even that I know anything of it. But I know that if it exists, it was watching and feeling me at that time. In 2004, it began to intervene (or a series of coincidences just happened). Early that year, I joined an online message board for Muslims, which I continue to frequent. Itís a heavily populated forum, with many different kinds of Muslims, and even a lot of non-Muslims who just sign up to chat. It was on this board that I began to notice that liberal, peaceful, and tolerant Muslims werenít as influential as I had previously thought. I saw more hypocricy there, but after one particular exchange, I set out in search of some information I needed to spite a member and stumbled into some information which I otherwise wouldnít have seen. I canít remember much about that information, and it doesnít really matter anymore anyhow. But it was also on this message board that I first heard of a woman named Irshad Manji and a book she wrote, ďThe Trouble with Islam.Ē Everyone else on the message board of course continues to rail on her with the standard kill-the-questioner mindset, and Iím ashamed to admit thatís the stance I took at first too. One day while casually walking about the local library, however, I noticed the book and picked it up out of curiosity to glance at a couple of pages. After reading a few random paragraphs, I checked it out. While it wasnít enough to de-convert me, ďThe Trouble with IslamĒ made me realize that it was okay to ask questions. So I did:
- What makes the Arabic language so special when so much of it can be interchanged, misinterpreted, or have its meaning completely changed with the subtlest mistake?
- Why does Allah say Satan is an angel AND a jinn?
- If women are so highly regarded, why do they get the lionís share of the blame for over-active male hormones? And what do they get in Jannah?
- If Muhammad was illiterate, how do we know his scribes wrote everything he said?
- Most importantly, how could a religion that claims perfection have so many people literally killing each other over little doctrinal discrepancies that supposedly donít even exist?
These questions are only a sampling of what disturbed me. After reading Manjiís book, my long-imprisoned inner critic broke out with a mighty roar! I felt human again!*

I also had the fortune to meet a pair of remarkable women in 2004 who changed the way I looked at my religious practices and my worldview. The first was an Ahmadi Muslim who I met on the message board. Iíve never met her in person, but she was (and still is) the kindest, sweetest person Iíve ever met. All though sheís still a Muslim (though her faith is wavering), she believes in evolution and that religions evolve. She is also compassionate to everyone she knows, and she doesnít pray because she feels automatic when she does. According to Islam, automatic prayers are meaningless, so even if you do pray, your prayer doesnít count unless you feel it in your heart. Itís her compassion that stuck out to me, however, and earned her her nickname. She just tries to be nice and respectful to everyone she meets, and she doesnít defend herself for doing so. The second woman - who Iíll call Ann - was my employer for the last seven months of the year. She professed a devotion to Catholicism, but was the most vociferous proponent of self-empowerment I had ever met. She was ambitious, fiery, and a positive thinker who was living the American Dream - and she was eager to share the secrets of her success with anyone who asked. Ann preached an ethic of hard work, goal setting, and motivational speech about what it took to be the best, and I bought into every word of it. Her tough but positive talks were just what it took to repair my then-shattered self-esteem, and I slowly began to realize that many of the things I had attributed to Islam were really just results of my own willpower. I realized that I didnít avoid alcohol because of my religion, but because I just thought it was stupid and was strong enough to stay away. Itís the same with drugs. My routines as a Muslim - prayers, fasting, eating with my right hand when Iím a very natural southpaw - were not the results of faith, but strict dicsipline. The bottom line was, Allah wasnít forcing me to do these things - I was, and if I applied the very same type of dicsipline to every aspect of my life, I could also live the American Dream. *

For two and a half years at that point, I had never missed a prayer. But the more I prayed, the more I resented it, and a summer business trip to Detroit during which I was unable to find any privacy to pray in showed me how un-feasable a prayer routine is. The beginning of the end of my faith in Islam happened one fine Sunday afternoon in October 2004. While I had performed my morning and noon prayers, the third took place in the midst of an NFL contest between the Oakland Raiders and the Buffalo Bills, my two favorite teams. Earlier that day, I had had a conversation with the Ahmadi girl about prayer and the use of performing it if you hated to do it. It forced me to admit to myself that my prayers, in that case, hadnít meant anything in months. That day, my noon prayer became the last I ever made outside of a mosque. Then my other hollow practices as a Muslim slowly began to fall away. When Ramadan came, I fasted but didnít bother with a daily Quran-reading ritual. I attended taraweeh prayers at the mosque that month, but after Ramadan, I never went back to the mosque. At this point, I was no longer a Muslim in practice, but I was still a Muslim at heart and by ommission. That it to say, I was Muslim through the things I avoided, and because of the idea that my faith could be saved. In February 2005, that idea was obliterated by several beers and a tall glass of Southern Comfort whiskey (which was actually more than I could handle or should have drank). After that night, I was faithless. It took me another month to finally admit it, but Islam had lost its grip on me - and for the first time in years, I truly felt like myself. *

Thatís the end, really. However, I did take one positive thing away from my experience with Islam: I was ready to accept the idea that there is probably no one true religion, and the idea that there may be no all-powerful being that magically sneezed out the universe. I was prepared to carry on my own existance by following the golden rule and not worrying about having to answer to a deity for doing so. Iím young and have better things to do anyway: Soon Iíll be graduating from college and looking for a career, and finding friends who judge me by who I am instead of what I am. No matter what happens, this much wonít change: Iíll continue to stand against human suffering and injustice in all their forms. And while I donít claim to know anything more about Islam than I did when I converted to it, I know that I just didnít feel right following it. *

I believe in what I see
I believe in what I hear
I believe that what I'm feeling
Changes how the world appears
-Rush, ďTotemĒ
_________________
They call me the Seeker
I've been searching low and high
I won't get to get what I'm after
until the day I die
- The Who

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