Morpheus: “You take the blue pill – the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill – you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.”
“What you have to understand is your father was your model for God. If you’re male and you’re Christian and living in America, your father is your model for God. And if you never know your father, if your father bails out and dies or is never at home, what do you believe about God? What you end up doing is you spend your life searching for your father and God. What you have to consider is the possibility that God doesn’t like you. Could be, God hates us. This is not the worst thing that could happen.”
Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club
بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم
In the Name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful
One of my favorite movies of all-time is the 1999 action, science-fiction (in the form of cyberpunk) film The Matrix. As a convert, born-Muslims sometimes ask me the question, “What’s it like being a convert?” To this I almost always respond, “For me, it’s a lot like being unplugged from the Matrix, metaphorically speaking. I made a conscious decision to take the red pill and that has made all the difference.” I can’t imagine very many born-Muslims, especially so-called FOBs (Fresh Off the Boat immigrants), are able to make the connection: I feel like most take it as a joke. But it’s not a joke. The application of the simile is, for me, quite serious. (If you’ve never seen the movie, do yourself a favor and go watch it. You might understand what I’m talking about.)
Near the end of my tumultuous adolescent years, a choice was presented to me, just like in the movie: the blue pill, symbolic of blissful ignorance (“ignorance is bliss”) or its contrapositive, the red pill, symbolizing the harsh and bizarre reality of truth (“the truth hurts,” “how deep the rabbit-hole goes”). Since I believed (and still do) I had the mentality of an amateur philosopher dominated by what Nietzsche calls the “will to truth”and an engineer, which, by definition, made me realist of sorts, I chose the red one. In doing so, I was ushered into a world I could not even begin to fathom prior to my conversion, a world much darker than my young sensibilities could have perceived at that time, even for someone like me who grew up Black and poor in the still racially charged South. Yet, there were also beacons, sparse and scattered, but nonetheless present in all their brilliance, almost like a Muslim-style yin-yang. The whole process was both exhilarating and traumatizing at the same time.
Most people, I would think, who convert to Islam – or perhaps anyone who changes to another religious or irreligious perspective – might liken their experiences to a transition from darkness to light, going from a state of jahiliyah (ignorance) to a state of cognizance. Not me. “Not I” said the cat. I try not to think in binary terms because I don’t believe such thinking captures the essence and complexity of life and human experiences. After all, we’re not light switches, with only ON and OFF buttons, something which many people don’t seem to understand. The extent of our experiences are as chromatic as the visible light spectrum. I thus much prefer spectrum thinking. As such, whenever I contemplate on my experiences as a convert, whenever I contemplate on my spiritual trek along this trodden path, I think not of light and darkness, but rather of darkness and more darkness or light and more light, darkness upon darkness or light upon light. I think of going from darkness to abyss, from light to incandescence: in a sense, that which was dark becoming darker and that which bright becoming brighter.
I’m aware that in the space of conventional Muslim discourse (which, in my humble estimation, isn’t very spacious), conceiving my conversion in such a manner may seem odd, maybe even offensive. Sure, everybody loves light imagery, but how could I possibly equate becoming Muslim with something pejorative like “darkness” and “abyss”? How could I even think to use such words to describe my affiliation with something so beautiful, so sublime, so immaculate, so pristine? To this I would riposte by saying that seeking the truth is an onerous task, one that can have painful, enduring consequences: “Battle not with monsters, lest you become a monster; and if you gaze into the abyss,” Nietzsche said, “the abyss also gazes into you.” “The end of man,” wrote Robert Penn Warren in his classic novel All the King’s Men, “is to know.” How right both men are.
I use this term “truth” with great caution as I know 1) philosophers have been coquetting with this entity since the days of our early progenitors and 2) people often appropriate it and appeal to it suit their own ends. “Truth” is pretty heavy word, one that shouldn’t be used frivolously as it is. As Kahlil Gibran advises in his masterpiece The Prophet, “Say not, ‘I have found the truth,’ but rather, ‘I have found a truth.” My intention therefore is not to embark on a philosophical discussion on truth, but rather to provide an exposition into my experiences as a Black convert to Islam.
This brings me to the next question in the logical sequence of inquiry from born-Muslims which usually goes like this: “How did you find about Islam?” or “What made you convert?” In my first blog entry, I said that I would write about this. It seems my Sustainer has given me the chance to do so, al-hamdu’ilah. I can’t promise my story is Nobel laureate material, but I can promise my story is PG, maybe even G. I was a good Catholic boy…mostly good.
To make a short story even shorter, for many sleepless nights of my middle-school years I assumed the role of a hoodlum peripatetic, walking for miles within the streets of my neighborhood (which, in hindsight, wasn’t the safest idea) or wondering for miles the highways near my neighborhood (which likewise wasn’t a safe idea either), trying deconstructing the veils that had been placed before my eyes, all the while unconsciously heeding the advice from Qu’ran: “[and] verily, the hours of night impress the mind most strongly and speak with the clearest voice.” The ritual started when, back in the fifth grade at a predominantly White Catholic school, a White kid said to me “all you Blacks should still be slaves!” after I bested him in a game of basketball. This altercation haunted me for years and because of it, those nights were spent agonizing over theological issues, like the Trinity, the doctrine of Original Sin, the Problem of Evil, and the doctrine of Vicarious Atonement, and over socio-economic issues, like racism, classicism, sexism, capitalism, and possibly any other -ism you can think of. When all my family was asleep, I would lay awake at night, sitting in the bed of our old ’87 B2000 Mazda truck, pondering, looking at heavens and asking myself, or perhaps Allah, “What’s out there? What’s waiting for me?” In high school I used to work the closing shift at Mc’Donalds and there I would continue the meditations while washing dishes or cleaning the hamburger grills: they were mindless activities, so I could expend my mental energies on other more pressing issues. I used to think so much I thought God Himself would descend from His Throne and tell me to chill out. I pretty much demolished the ignorances and unquestioned assumptions which had constructed the psychological and intellectual edifices within my mind. I sent them crashing down upon me in all their metaphysical heft. I was the source of my own insomnia. I couldn’t help it. I just wanted both to know and understand my reality, to grasp hold of it, to examine and critique it, and, most importantly, to explain it. With such a contemplative bent, it is no surprise that I eventually encountered Islam, and knowing what I know now, it’s also no surprise that I converted given that the religious, theological, and social sensibilities I acquire through contemplation aligned themselves, more or less, with Islam.
I must, however, say that although I was at odds with certain tenants of Catholicism and Christianity in general, I still nevertheless believed in God and His prophets – without question. Whatever Islam was to offer me in the future, God would not necessarily be part of the equation because I do not believe there was every a point in my life where I wasn’t without Him: I was never spiritually or morally bankrupt individual, despite the many vices in my surroundings: drugs, alcohol, wanton promiscuity and lasciviousness, racism, etc. My crisis wasn’t of a spiritual nature, as Black people in America are by and large still very spiritual people, notoriously religious; my crises came in the form existential and identity issues. As a teenager, I believed with sincerity that God did not like Black people, that He preferred White or lighter-skinned people over Blacks, that maybe He did in fact hated us. I just didn’t understand back then: why else would He allow us to live in squalor in the ghettos and projects without our fathers while the White people lived in the suburbs with both their parents? Why else would He allow the powers that be to shove us in underfunded public schools? Why else was His Son White and His Mother (the Virgin Mary) White? Why else did the standards of beauty omit Black folks? Why else could the White people who looked down on us still go heaven without paying a price for their sins? In my eyes, those of us in the ghettos were like God’s bastard children He abandoned, just like our fathers abandoned us. We were the source of His shame, we were His “mistake,” just like we were our father’s “mistakes.”
This is something I don’t discuss with many people; this is the part of America that many people from overseas don’t understand – Hell, many native Americans don’t seem to get it either: I am part of the “generation of men raised by women:” I had NO father figures whatsoever for my ENTIRE life – NONE; and the resulting tension between my belief in God and what I observed in society through the prism of my own life was almost enough to make me snap. I had a major inferiority complex about being Black – not to the point where I was bleaching my skin and straightening my hair with harsh chemicals (Thank God), mind you; yet, it was something which had invaded my mind notwithstanding my belief.
I encountered my first Muslim back in the summer of 2005, right before I entered the University of Florida. Prior to this encounter, I had no interactions with Muslims or knowledge of Islam whatsoever. She was an older Black woman, mid-to-late fifties as I recall, that I worked with. As with many Black Muslims from the previous generation, she had been part of Nation of Islam, but then decided to embrace the Sunni tradition. It was this woman who pretty much gave me the rudiments of Islam, which, at that time, I was more than willing to accept. I declared shahada (“testimony” of faith that admits one into the fold of Islam) shortly after the commencement of my freshman year at college.
When I became Muslim my freshman year of college, like most converts, I was filled with such zeal: I wanted to learn as much about the faith as a could; I wanted to absorb everything. I still do in fact, hence all the reading and reflecting I try to do. But I soon discovered about two or three months after I declared my shahada that the grass, as the old saying goes, was not really so much greener on the other side of the fence, at least, not as green as some would have you believe. Given that I’ve lived on both pastures and given that I’m forced to jump over the fence quite often because of my non-Muslim family and friends, I’d assay them about the same, with possibly the Muslim side being a bit smaller and a bit more parched in some areas than the other.
These words don’t come easy, but rather, they are written with a heavy heart and hand. I had such high hopes for this community. I wanted to believe that I had finally found a community of people who possessed the wherewithal to look past issues of race and class, the two social issue the have played the most significant roles in my life. I, desperate for a haven against the whims and caprices of the greater society which seemed to privilege everything save Blackness (perhaps Hispanic-ness too) and poverty, yearned for such a community with such fervor. I wanted this so bad that I suppose my hopes and dreams became the source of my own disillusionment, sad as that sounds, and because of this, I spent many sleepless nights tormenting myself over the blatant inconsistencies I witnessed within the Muslim community, wondering all the while if my desire for truth, if taking the red pill, was worth the painful, heart-braking experiences of the alienation and “otherness.” I won’t comment on those blatant inconsistencies as I’m sure many who would read this might already know what I’m talking about. I will say, though, becoming Muslim has, in this regard, made my already aphotic world a little dimmer.
In truth, I should have known better than to place such high standards on a community, despite their claims of being Muslim. It wasn’t wise of me to do so. If there’s one thing my upbringing has taught me is that it’s a folly to expect people, in general, to uphold the ideals they profess to believe in, no matter how lofty or “correct” those ideals are. Supposedly, as Christians, we were all supposed to be brothers and sisters in Christ…and look how that turned out for Blacks. Why should Islam be that much different? The more exalted the ideal, the less you should expect people actually to adhere to it. As Slavoj Žižek points out in his book In Defense of Lost Causes, the more an ethic or ideal is universalized, the more you should expect people to succumb to a fetishistic disavowal of reality (a psychoanalytic term with the following logic, “I know very well, but…”) concerning that ideal. Dr. Sherman Abdul-Hakim Jackson once said in a lecture, “If you don’t move from the real to the ideal, you’ll be force to move from the ideal to the real” and “Islam doesn’t do race but it does do reality.” Moreover, Imam Muneer Fareed once advised, “You should always have higher standards for yourself than for the rest of society.” I wish I had heard these words before I became Muslim; it would have made a world of difference.
On the flip side, however, in spite of the negativity and alienation, becoming Muslim has put me in the company of some fantastic people, who, I doubt, I would have chanced upon otherwise. These Muslims–some converts, some born into Islam–I think, and Allah knows better, try to live out the ethics promulgated by the Prophet صلى الله عليه. They come from all parts of the world, from the States, the UK, Australia, Turkey, the Arab and Desi world, and they represent a vast cross-section of the variegated peoples of the world: they are African, Black, White, Hispanic, Arab, Desi, Chinese, Turkish, and Persian. Many of them can relate to and sympathize with my struggles as a convert; many of them have even helped me out. May Allah reward them for doing so.
Also, when I became Muslim, I also became acquainted with a vast array of writers, thinkers, philosophers, theologians, jurist, and artists which I likewise would not have chanced upon otherwise. The very life of Muhammad ibn Abdullah صلى الله عليه; the lectures of Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, Dr. Khalid Blankinship, Imam Suhaib Webb, Dr. Umar Farooq Abdullah; the books of Dr. Jackson, Dr. Fazlur Rahman, Dr. Tariq Ramadan, Muhammad Asad, Charles le Gai Eaton, Martin Lings, Allama Muhammad Iqbal; the musings of Ibn Khaldun, of al-Ghazali, of al-Shafi’i, of al-Maturidi, of Rabia al-Basri (a woman Sufi saint, I had to get at least one woman in here), of Ibn Taymiyyah, of Ibn Rushd (known as Averroes in the West), of Ibn Sina (know as Avicenna in the West); the poetry of Rumi, Hafiz, and Iqbal (translated of course) have all enriched my intellectual and spiritual life, making them bright beyond belief; they augmented the spirituality I acquired as a Catholic. I have learned a great deal from these people. I suppose the old say is true, that “every dark cloud has a silver lining.
And as for my existential issues: they were resolved more or less when I read the Autobiography of Malcolm X and when I began to ponder certain verses of the Qur’ān. I also formed a long-lasting friendship with a Jewish sociologist while in college, and he pretty much assured me most of my ruminations on society and status of minorities, particularly Blacks, were right on the money. It was only when I looked back at my childhood and adolescent hood through a Qur’ānic prism that I started to understand why I was placed in that environment, the benefits I received from being raised in such a place, and even the beauty and majesty of being Black, things which I never got out of Christianity. I grasped hold of the religion as if I owed it, and in doing so I felt I was elevated. And while some racial and color issues in the Muslim community do make the inferiority complex relapse sometimes, I always try to bear in mind the story of my life and what Allah has taught me using it. Even though I entertained those thoughts about Allah as a teenager, I always believed He was All-Wise and everything which transpired in existence has some degree of wisdom assigned to it. I just couldn’t perceive the hikmah then. Now I do. I am not so hard on my former self for thinking the way I did.
So where does that leave me? On the brink of apostasy perhaps? Nah. In my quest for the elusive quarry that is truth, I was blessed enough even to find its traces in the loose sands in the distant, mirage-filled desert of human existence. Being that I’m from the bucolic South and being that I’ve never had the fortune or time to leave my homeland, I know nothing of deserts or camels, but I tied my camel as best I could, per the Prophet’s instructions, and set out. “The truth,” goes another old maxim, “will set you free,” but Charles le Gai Eaton, in his stunning, poignant, and articulate exposition on Islam entitled, rather grandiosely, Islam and the Destiny of Man, reminds us that “Islam is…above all, the religion of truth, and truth is pitiless in that it cannot be other than it is.” He further states, “There is no way in which black can become white so as to appease the grief of a human soul. Not even God, for all His omnipotence, can choose to make error into truth.” Truth indeed has no pity nor do the harsh deserts of reality, especially for the poor, the dejected, the alienated, and the weak of this world. It is therefore a relief to know that Allah سبحانه وتعالى has decreed mercy upon Himself.
Perhaps my conversion merely facilitated my destined entry into the adult world, the so-called “real world.” Maybe it just provided an appropriate segue into such a world. Whatever the case maybe, whatever the greater wisdom behind the ordeal, I can say I’ve learned lessons aplenty from my endeavor, some with great joy, others with great sorrow. Both are necessary. Both come from Allah سبحانه وتعالى. Even the most pulchritudinous flower needs both the sunshine and the rain to exist.
Whether abyss or incandescence, I feel I can weather the storm of human existence. I’ll appeal to words of T.S. Eliot, who, I think, does an excellent job of summarizing my outlook.
“Because I know that time is always time
And place is always and only place
And what is actual is actual only for one time
And only for one place
I rejoice that things are as they are and
I renounce the blessed face
And renounce the voice
Because I do not hope to turn again
Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something
Upon which to rejoice
And pray to God to have mercy upon us
And pray that I may forget
These matters that with myself I too much discuss
Too much explain
Because I do not hope to turn again
Let these words answer
For what is done, not to be done again
May the judgment not be too heavy upon us”
Peace Itself and Peace to all.