Getting to Know a Friend
By Yahiya Emerick
My best friend from childhood was a mixed Lebanese/Polish American boy. I met him when I was around ten years old. I knew he wasn’t a Christian because every year for a month he would do something he called "fasting Ramadan." All I remember was seeing him and his brothers lying all over the couches in their living room, looking like they were suffering, while outside the beach beckoned and play enticed. As we grew a little older we did things we thought were risky. One summer we began to sneak out of our houses after midnight and meet on a hillside overlooking a lake to talk about life, religion and what it all meant. Sometimes we would walk the roads in our subdivision and talk about the stars. It was an awe-inspiring practice that brought our friendship to a new level and evoked in us a sense of grandeur.
One night my father found that I wasn’t in my room and when I returned, I found him sitting on our front porch. I could tell it was him because I saw the faint glow of a cigarette ahead dimly in the darkness. I knew I was in trouble. He called my friends parents as well. The next day we both traded stories of how much beating we received. I guess our parents thought we were sneaking out to do drugs or something. Many youth in our community did so it was understandable. My father just didn’t listen when I told him that we were just walking, sitting, talking and musing over life. The late night excursions were abruptly halted.
The deep discussions with my friend did not, however, abate, but grew in intensity. He was by no means a righteous Muslim teen. He did all the things that any other teen growing up in America with little supervision did, but unlike his two younger brothers, and his own father, he had a greater interest in the concept of Islam, though he knew precious little about it. I, too, was something of an expert in nothing in particular, at least where religion was concerned. I went to church with my grandma for years. I attended innumerable Sunday schools classes, youth camps, prayer meetings, etc… But my simple Baptist dogma lacked force and applicability and I merely followed along as a good boy.
Eventually my friend and I began to discuss religion more thoughtfully. It wasn’t high level, by any means, for he was the only quarter-practicing Muslim in twenty miles and I was an average Christian with little Christian enthusiasm. It was fun, nonetheless, to compare ideas and what he said made me think, though I was sure I would win the arguments with a smug ‘my-dad-can-beat-up-your-dad’ kind of confidence.
High school came and went and my friend and I drifted apart a little as the new realities of life intruded themselves upon us. He went off into the up-and-coming world of computers and I followed my dream and went to a distant college to study Spanish, Tourism, Political Science or whatever my fancy of the moment was. I looked for religion on campus because though my Christian faith was not fervent, I did pay attention on church all those years and avoided a shameful way of life. I wanted to ‘fellowship’ with others who also shunned evil (rock music, drugs, alcohol, illicit relations, etc…).
While I was still settling in I got another taste of interfaith religious discussion. Campus preachers from the evangelical Marinatha organization stood outside of one particular college hall every Wednesday and drew great crowds with their fiery calls to Christ. Most of the students gathered in the wide circle listened politely, while a few just jeered and yelled. (I could never imagine someone insulting a worker for Christ!) But after a few weeks I noticed an older man, who looked like a professor, listening intently to the handsome young preacher, as he stood on a stone bench, crying about salvation and repentance. Then one day it happened: the evangelical made a statement about calling Jews to Christ as well and this old man virtually came to life. He walked into the center of the huge ring of perhaps eighty students and began tearing everything down that the preacher said.
He explained that he was a Jew and that Christians didn’t have the right to use ‘his tribal literature’ (i.e. the Old Testament) for their own interpretations and theology. The debate was fascinating with the old Jew disarming every Christ-centered point with a counter verse that the obviously startled preacher tried to posit. This then became a ritual every Wednesday. The preacher, who was joined by four or five other helpers to work the crowd, would begin talking and drawing a crowd of passersby and the Old Jew would come and harass him to no end. It was then that I finally realized that Christianity was not an invincible fortress, incapable of being shown to have weaknesses.
Well, I had to give that old-time religion another chance so I, strangely enough, went to talk to that preacher after his ‘show’ was over. He seemed nice enough and he invited me to come to one of his campus ministry meetings the next night. I agreed and as I walked away, the strangest feeling that I ever felt came over me. As I was passing under a tree my entire body went numb for a moment and I was literally racked with a heavy sensation. I couldn't’ move, literally. My chest caved in and my lungs felt as if they were wrapped in iron. I’ve never told anyone this part of my story but I still think about it. The moment passed almost as quickly as it came and I immediately took it as a sign that God was pleased with me.
The next night I went to the appropriate building and entered a huge lecture hall that the Christian students group had permission to use. I stood in the back for a second and surveyed the scene. Before me, on a stage below, was the preacher, joined by about twenty others, all about my age. Behind him was a band set up with guitars, drums- the works. I had an uneasy feeling immediately. I sat down in a back seat and watched as more students came in, male and female. I tried to remain hopeful and full of faith but my demeanor was shattered when the preacher began to ‘jam’ on the guitar. A moment later the band was in full rock and roll glory, the only difference was that they were saying ‘Jesus’ instead of the more usual rock music themes. The growing crowd of forty or more people gathered in front near the stage and were clapping and saying ‘hallelujah’.
The church I grew up in taught that this kind of music was from the devil and here was a Christian group trying to woo faith in its members by modifying a contemporary form of expression that it otherwise would have shunned. I felt disgusted and left. I later reinterpreted my physical ‘sign’ as a warning.
I took the opportunity of living away at school to broaden my horizons and I began to read oriental philosophy books. This was a natural offshoot of my interest in martial arts. I principally found the works of Lao-Tzu the most appealing and after a while I considered myself something of a Taoist. There was just something about that whole ‘wind in the trees’, ‘be like the great nothingness’ that sounded cool. Continuing my newfound spirit of exploration, I enrolled in a beginning Arabic course for no other reason than I thought it would be fun to say a few Arabic words to my friend’s dad when I returned home for the summer.
Well, it would become a life changing class for my eyes were opened to a whole new syntactic expression. I really felt as if learning to write Arabic, as difficult as it was, was making me smarter. I felt like a code breaker or something. The class was also full of Muslim immigrants and people sympathetic to Muslim culture. Not that it was a proselytizing class or anything. The instructor was obviously a disillusioned Muslims turned agnostic who thoughtfully questioned the validity of any universal truth in our frequent open class discussions. But the charm was in being able to learn about Islam, Arabs, Muslims and all of it in a completely neutral setting, with no pressure to convert. (The four or five Muslims present were by no means fervent believers.) I also saw diversity. There was a Pakistani, a couple of Arabs, a few Caucasian non-Muslims and a very dear Irish-Muslim who made me feel as if the world was truly much bigger than my white, suburban experience.
I returned home for Christmas break and was amazed to find my friend in a new frame of mind. He had recently become more serious about Islam in my absence, even as I began to drift further and further away from a mere habitual loyalty to Christianity. It wasn’t solely due to college that I fell out with the worship of Christ, however, for as early as the age of fifteen I felt uncomfortable with the teachings of my faith. I couldn’t understand how God could be a father and a son simultaneously or how Jesus could be God when he was obviously praying to God all the time in the Gospels. Anyway, my friend decided to share his newfound verve with me and he gave me a Qur’an to take back with me to college with the words, "Just read it with an open mind."
I took the Yusuf Ali translation with me when I returned and didn’t open it for over a month. Then one day, bored with the meaningless banter of my fellow dorm-mates, I opened the book and began reading in a random surah. I don’t remember which passage I was reading but I can tell you that I was immediately struck with awe and wonderment. The Qur’an was completely unlike what I had expected, indeed, it was unlike anything I thought about any religious book. Up until then my only experience had been with the Bible. It is a jumble of histories, biographies, songs, letters- quite a smorgasbord really. Reading it is like reading a novel or encyclopedia- it’s all third person stuff obviously written for different peoples with no coherent structure.
The Qur’an, however, was presenting itself to me as an essay, a letter addressed to me. The verses rang out with first and second person grammatical structures that addressed "O you people, if…," and "I am your Lord so worship Me." I wasn’t prepared for such a personal address and I felt a sudden kinship and tie to the Qur’an that kept me reading it, night after night for the next several weeks.
The questions began to stir in my mind: where did this book come from? Why haven’t I seen it before? That was when I really began a desire to know who Muhammad (p) was. I didn’t have any knowledge of him prior to my Qur’anic readings as he wasn’t really covered in my public school education so I had to literally learn how to properly use a reference book and the local college library. The first place I looked was in the front of the Yusuf Ali translation where he gave a moving, almost prosaic rendition of the story of his life. It was beautiful, though cryptic, for I was not yet versed in the worldview from which Muslim thought is originated. The library came next. Now that was an adventure in itself as I came face to face with the great debate about the validity, or impossibility, of Muhammad’s being a true Prophet of God. In the second part of this article I will let you know what I found, and it was really quite an amazing journey into the last five hundred years of Christian-Jewish-Muslim dialogue.
Getting to Know a Friend: My Introduction to Muhammad (p) Part 2
The Michigan State library is really quite a cavernous place. Set near the middle of the campus, it is an imposing structure of glass and stone that also includes several basements. The object of my search, the Islam section, was on one of the higher floors, thankfully. I remember passing the huge Judaica section and I almost missed the Islam selections altogether, so few books were there. At that time there were perhaps only enough books to fill up one and a half bookshelves and almost all of those books were bound in that drab green and blue covering that libraries frequently clothe books in to protect them.
Starting with general books on Islam, I picked a couple by Western authors and took them back to my dorm to read. The first book was by Watt and the second was by Arnold. Neither of them painted an overly flattering picture of the Prophet, though they didn’t seem overly critical either. I learned the basic story outline of Muhammad’s life and got a grasp for the type of world he lived in. The account of his life seemed pretty straightforward and the parameters of his environment rang slightly in my mind as almost Biblical. He lived in a harsh desert among heathen idol-worshippers. He shunned the immorality of his times and was rewarded later in life by being chosen by God to bring his people to monotheism. The seemingly insurmountable struggle against overwhelming forces and the sheer ignorance of the Bedouins is an epic in itself.
I found that my initial assumption, that Muhammad wrote the Qur’an himself, began to fade rather quickly. In fact, that notion was all but gone a few days after I first started reading the Qur’an. It just wasn’t the sort of book a person who had author-like tendencies would write. I had already read the Bible through and through, both the Jewish Old Testament and the Greek-Latin leaning New Testament, as well as several selections of Eastern religious writing and the Qur’an did not have anything in common with any of those types of writings. The Bible is essentially a third person narrative of events interspersed with personal reflections by the authors and an occasional song, poem or essay on one subject or another (usually concerning laws, Israel, philosophy or commentary on events that were current at the time of that particular passage’s writing. The Tao Te Ching, Chuang Tzu, the Sutras and other Buddhist/Taoist writings are basically high order philosophical conundrums to tease the brain. While the Ramayana and other Hindu scriptures are basically fantasy stories of gods and wars interspersed with oddball talk of nothingness and nirvana and such.
The Qur’an, I found was none of those, and after carefully considering where Muhammad lived, it became increasingly apparent to me that an illiterate in the desert doesn’t suddenly come up with such a book out of nowhere, a book that grew with him over 23 years and had such a tone about it as to make one feel that it was a higher being talking to you. Even the structure was quite unusual for me to explain as well. This is where the notion that the Qur’an is just a poor knock-off the Bible really gets dismissed. The Bible tells stories in chronological order and rarely gives any moral to the events. The Qur’an, on the other hand, rarely tells the complete story of an event in one place, but scatters episodes of it all over the place in different chapters to illustrate moral lessons. Extraneous details such as the names of everyone’s cousins, what the maid was wearing, who begat who to the thousandth degree and what size the grapes were are all thankfully absent with only the main events of each story told and their moral significance.
For example, I found that the story of Moses is contained in over a dozen chapters of the Qur’an, interspersed with other topics. In this way, the heart of each story is given just enough life to join with other parts of each chapter to render a completely unified moral imperative as the result of one complete essay. Looking at chapter 28 of the Qur’an, we find that the first 42 verses tell a basic outline of Moses’ life, but then a discussion of the significance of God’s revelation follows for the next few verses, moving over into times contemporary to Muhammad, asking why his tribe obstinately would reject such an important gift from God (i.e. guidance). Then objections from unbelievers are answered, followed by a snapshot of their fate on Judgment Day. An appeal is made to seek God’s forgiveness before a return is made to Moses’ story, this time centering on Korah (Qarun), one of Moses’ people who rejected faith in God. The chapter ends with a discussion of punishment and reward for our faith and actions concluding with a few words to Muhammad directly not to give up and to always serve the one true God.
Nearly every chapter in the Qur’an is set up this way. I remember reading a book by a Christian Evangelist, also taken from the same library, in which he accused the Qur’an of being disjointed and confused in its structure. After seeing the structure for myself I realized that that author must have been so used to the linear approach of the bible that he couldn’t appreciate the style employed in the Qur’an, a style I couldn’t find duplicated elsewhere, even in novels and memoir writing.
I still didn’t convert, however, because I didn’t know one could do such a thing easily. I still felt unconsciously that one had to be born into Islam and that’s just the way it was. Undaunted in my investigation, I continued to read and among the most fascinating books I borrowed were the hadith books, those books that contains Muhammad’s sayings. I thought it amazing that you had a revelation from God (the Qur’an) and a whole other corpus of teachings spoken from Muhammad’s own volition. The hadith provided a fascinating glimpse into the real world dealings of the Prophet. From simple sayings to entire conversations with others, one could read about Muhammad through his own life experiences. As a side note I also began to read about Muhammad’s companions, or Sahaba, many of who narrated their own biographies. Yet another angle allowed me to get to know this man further.
With Jesus, you only have the gospels. You don’t have any other writings, save for Acts, in which to read about Jesus for the early church banned hundreds of other biographies of Jesus, simply because those sometimes clashed with the Greek/Roman Trinitarian view. There was a Unitarian view prevalent in the Middle East, where Jesus lived, but the Greeks and Romans, under the influence of a converted Rabbi named Paul, turned the one God into a three-in-one God. Ironically enough, I already began to doubt the gospels when I was a teenager. You see, in my Baptist church read the Bible a lot. And I developed an image of Jesus, from reading the Gospels, that was different from God Al mighty. Jesus just wasn’t God to me and the Gospels never gave me that impression. Then, one day during the regular service, the pastor proclaimed proudly that Jesus is God. I was completely at a loss to fathom such a thing. Who was Jesus praying to all the time then, himself? Why would God have to die to forgive us? Couldn’t he do it otherwise? How could God spend three days in Hell? The Old Testament never spoke of a three-in-one God. If it were so important, wouldn’t it have been mentioned before? Although I remained a Christian all through my teens, I didn’t have as much loyalty to Christian theology after that.
Momentous change occurred when I signed up for the next level of Arabic classes, and also took a class on Islam. The professor was a non-Muslim academic who gave a dry presentation on Islam, mostly covering history, but it gave me the impression that my high school and junior high education was defective. Here was a whole world that I don’t ever remember being covered. Maybe it was sandwiched between the China and Japan units in sixth grade or something, but it seemed to me that I was not properly educated about a major world civilization. Meanwhile, in Arabic class, I began to make friends with a few of the people in there. One was an elderly Irish Muslim lady who told me of generations of Muslim Irishmen living in a small village in the countryside. Another man was an American student who was enamored of Middle Eastern culture, yet another was a foreign exchange student from I don’t remember where.
I began to ask questions about Islam to them, even to the professor, whom I knew didn’t follow it, just to see what he said. His answers were dry and lifeless. Someone must have hurt him in his life or something for him to be so bitter and dead inside. But the students I befriended were jovial, relaxed and level-headed. Nothing like the only images of Muslims I had seen heretofore on television during the Iranian hostage crisis.
After a while, I somehow began to feel like Islam was good for me. I continued to read books written by Muslims and non-Muslims and after balancing the arguments it seemed that Islam was reasonable and built upon a foundation I could believe in. Now, of course, one doesn’t convert to another religion just like that. In my readings I intentionally looked for anything I could to object to. Women’s rights, for example, popped up. I had heard that Muslims don’t treat women well. I couldn’t find anything in Islamic sources, however, to justify it, and I realized that if bad things do happen to Muslim women, it can’t be blamed on the religion. After all, how many women are beaten, raped, murdered, used and slandered by men with Christian names, all of it against Christianity?
It was about this time that I realized that there was a difference between what a religion says and what its followers do. The great parallel for me is today, where the whole world seems to be blaming Islam and Muslims for the World Trade Center, when the attack was the work of fifty guys at most whose main grievance is the Palestine issue and the U.S. army in Arabia. It’s like blaming Christianity for Timothy McVeigh, the Holocaust, the Inquisition, wiping out the American Indians, abortion bombers and so on. All the perpetrators are or were Christians, acting out of Christian motives, but were are the American leaders saying Christianity is a "vile" and "wicked" faith. Why aren’t the Jews waging war on Europe to this day for the Holocaust? Why aren’t they blaming all Christians for a thousand years of murder? That’s how upside down our world is and how ignorant Americans are of Islam and the Muslim world. A religion doesn’t attack another country, people do, and if it was only a small fanatical group, you don’t blame everybody, (but fundamentalist Christians and Zionists have taken this short-sighted opportunity to turn world opinion against all of Islam to "win souls for Christ" and expand Israeli control of the occupied territories.)
It was this new found sense of tolerance that I developed which allowed me to consider Islam with a truly open mind. Previously I had allegiance to Christianity, then I drifted towards Taoism, but by that time I considered myself without a religion, or vaguely a Christian at best. Muhammad seemed to fit the mold of a prophetic figure. He was kind whenever he could be and stern in the face of falsehood. He never taught people to worship idols and even his enemies testified to his nobility and honesty. He wasn’t a poet before but suddenly at the age of 40 he began to recite what he called revelations, words that are structured unlike any book I’ve ever read. He triumphed against odds that were nearly impossible to attain and he taught a noble and good way of life centering on prayer, fasting, reflection and good deeds. He also was undeterred in his belief that faith in the one God was the most important thing to have. Even the morals are of the highest standard.
What could I do? After about six months I asked the Irish Muslim lady about a mosque and she introduced me later to a Jordanian man who graciously agreed to take me to the Islamic Center of East Lansing. Of course, it was Friday, the busiest day of the week, so I was very scared when we went in. But the man, sensing my unease, took me into a side office and showed me how to perform the basic movements of the Muslim prayer known as Salah. It felt really weird at first to bow with my forehead on the ground, but it quickly seemed like such a natural and pure way to reverence the Creator.
Later, during the full prayer service, I felt a sense of awe, seeing hundreds of people sitting quietly on the floor, listening to a sermon that was thankfully in English. After the speech was finished the people lined up in even rows to pray in unison and I remember distinctly feeling like this was superior to sitting on comfortable cushions in church. During the prayer service itself. when the Muslims declared, Ameen, after the Imam recited the opening verses of the Qur’an, I was stirred to the roots of my soul. Such power, I thought, and it only comes after relinquishing all your will to God. I decided that night that I was a Muslim, or a person who surrenders their will to God. My journey for faith was over, and a new life with a new Prophet, a new friend, was just beginning.