How I Came to Islam
Written on the 19th of Ramadan 1417 (28 January 1997)
I was born and raised in a typical middle-class Lebanese Catholic family in Beirut, Lebanon. Two years into the war I was forced to leave, and completed high school in England. Then I went to Columbia College in New York. After my BA I went back to Lebanon and taught at my old school. Two years later I left Lebanon again, this time of my own free will, although it was a more wrenching separation than the first. I left behind my war-torn country and made for my new land of opportunities. I was demoralized, and spiritually at a complete impass. With my uncle’s support I went back to graduate studies at Columbia. This is the brief story of my conversion to Islam while there.
While in Lebanon I had come to realize that I was a nominal Christian who did not really live according to what he knew were the norms of his faith. I decided than whenever the chance came I would try my best to live according to my idea of Christian standards for one year, no matter the cost. I took this challenge while at Columbia. A graduate student’s life is blessed with the leisure necessary for spiritual and intellectual exploration. In the process I read and meditated abundantly, and I prayed earnestly for dear guidance. My time was shared literally between the church and the library, and I gradually got rid of all that stood in the way of my experiment, especially social attachments or activities that threatened to steal my time and concentration. I only left campus to visit my mother every now and then.
Certain meetings and experiences had set me on the road of inquiry about Islam. During a scholarship year spent in Paris I had bought a complete set of tapes of the holy Qur’an. Back in New York I listened to its recitation for the first time, as I read simultaneously the translation, drinking in its awesome beauty. I paid particular attention to the passages that concerned Christians. I felt an inviting familiarity to it because undoubtedly the One I addressed in my prayers was the same One that spoke this speech, even as I squirmed at some of the “verses of threat”. After some time I knew that this was my path, since I had become convinced of the heavenly origin of the Qur’an.
I was reading many books at the same time. Two of them were Martin Lings’ Life of Muhammad and Fariduddin Attar’s Book of Secrets (Persian “Asrar-Nama”, in French translation). I found extremely inspiring Lings’ account of Shaykh Ahmad `Alawi’s life in his book “A Sufi Saint of the Twentieth Century. I did not finish the latter before I became a Muslim; but I am jumping ahead. At any rate, it now seemed my previous experience of religion had been like learning the alphabet in comparison, even my early morning and late night Bible readings and my past studies in the original Latin of Saint Augustine, who had once towered in my life as a spiritual giant.
I began to long almost physically for a kind of prayer closer to the Islamic way, which to me held promises of great spiritual fulfillment, although I had grown completely dependent on certain spiritual habits — particularly communion and prayer — and could hardly do without them. And yet I had unmistakable signs pointing me in a further direction. One of them I considered almost a slap in the face in its frankness: when I told my local priest about the attraction I felt towards Islam he responded as he should, but then closed his talk with the words: Allahu akbar. “Allahu akbar”? An Italian-American priest?!
I went to two New York mosques but the imams there wanted to talk about the Bible or about the Middle East conflict, I suppose to make polite conversation with me. I realized they did not necessarily see what drove me to them and yet I did not find an avenue where I would pluck up the courage to declare my intention. Then I would go home and tell myself: Another day has passed, and you are still not Muslim. Finally I went to the Muslim student group at Columbia and announced my intention, and declared the two shahada: The Arabic formula that consists in saying “I bear witness that there is no god but Allah” — the Arabic name for God — “and I bear witness that Muhammad is His Prophet.” They taught me ablution and salat (prayer), and I gained a dear friend among them. Those days are marked in my life with letters of light.
Another close friend of mine played a role in this conversion. This devout American Christian friend had entered Islam years before me. At the time I felt in my silly pride that it was wrong for an American to enter into the religion of the Arabs and for me, an Arab, to stand like a mule in complete ignorance of it. It had a great effect on me from both sides: the cultural one and the spiritual, because he was — is — an honest and upright person whose major move meant a great deal to me.
I had also come to realize that my early education in Lebanon had carefully sheltered me from Islam, even though I lived in a mixed neighborhood in the middle of Beirut. I went to my father’s and grandfather’s Jesuit school. The following incident is proof that there is no turning away of Allah’s gift when He decides to give it. One year, when I was 12, a strange religious education teacher gave us as an assignment the task of learning the Fatiha — the first chapter of the Qur’an — by heart. I went home and did, and it stayed with me all my life. After parents complained he was fired — “we do not send our children to a Christian school in order for them to learn the religion of Muslims” — but the seed had been sown, right there in the staunch Christian heartland, inside its prize school. Now here I was in the United States, knocking at the door of the religion of the Prophet, peace be upon him!
Days after I took shahada I met my teacher and the light on my path, Shaykh Hisham Kabbani of Tripoli, after which I met his own teacher, Shaykh Nazim al-Haqqani of Cyprus. May Allah bless and grant them long life. Through them, after some years, my mother also took shahada and I hope and pray every day that my two brothers and stepfather will soon follow in Allah’s immense generosity. Allah’s blessings and peace on the Prophet, his Family, his Companions, and all Prophets.
© 2016 As-Sunnah Foundation of America