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An American English Language Instructor
Every culture has its own strengths and weaknesses. It is well known that American life has a considerable amount of personal freedom. So much so that many parents give a long rope to their children. They generally do not interfere in religious matters and in the personal pursuits of their children. As such, the personal activities of parents and children tend to be mutually accepted and respected. Don was the product of one such liberal home. He related his life story to me as follows.
My Religious Background
My religious background was as a typical American. I was a Christian and occasionally attended church with my family when I was growing up. It appeared that morality was the most important thing in Christianity. My lack of Christian knowledge and practice helped me to keep an open mind for other religions and cultures.
Experience with New Cultures
There is lot of mobility in American life. My father moved from place to place to follow his professional job. Fortunately, we had the chance to live in Latin America for several months when I was a high school student. I encountered a new culture and language there. I fully comprehended that there were other lifestyles in the world, not just the American lifestyle. This experience broadened my mind and outlook. I was, therefore, curious to know more and more about other cultures and languages. I returned back to America with my family and completed my high school in Indiana. Thereafter, I joined the University of Texas in El Paso, which is on the border of Texas and Mexico, as a Business Administration major.
After a few years of study, I knew that this major was not for me. I felt I needed something more interesting and cultural. It was during this time that a friend invited me to go with him on a three-month camping trip all over the USA and Western Canada. I cheerfully accepted because I knew this experience in the marvels of nature would be an appropriate setting to reflect upon personal goals and objectives. As a result of this experience, I didn’t arrive at any decisions regarding my academic pursuits, but I did realize that this world could not have been created by mistake, and that it was clearly a wonderland of signs pointing to its Creator. I was, however, not sure how to worship or appreciate our Creator.
Then one day while sunbathing, I suddenly realized that I could combine my interests in business and culture by majoring in Latin American Studies. I went back to the university at the beginning of the next academic year and transferred to this major.
While back in the university, my Hindu friend invited me, along with his Saudi friend, to a church gathering, which included sports activities and a home-cooked meal. As a student, you do take advantage of every opportunity for a home-cooked meal. The dinner was very sumptuous. At the end of the evening something unexpected happened. The leader of the church started singing a song scribbled on the blackboard in Hebrew. He wanted us to repeat it after him. We noticed that our Saudi friend, Abu Hussein, suddenly stood up and asked us to leave the gathering with him. The host tried to persuade us to stay, but we hurriedly left the church. Ironically, this incident made us closer friends. A few weeks later Abu Hussein and I decided to rent a house together, along with a student from Kuwait and one from Iran.
This new living arrangement provided me with a closer interaction with their cultures. I loved their meals and tried to prepare some of them. I noticed that my housemates often liked to eat with their right hand without the use of silverware. They also preferred sitting down on the floor to eat instead of sitting at a table. I did not know why they took a pitcher of water with them to the toilet for cleaning purposes. I also noticed that they offered their guests unparalleled hospitality. Regarding their character, I was impressed with their high level of self-confidence, which seemed to stem from some special kind of certainty about what they were doing and where they were going in life. I understood later that most of these mannerisms were according to the teachings of Islam and not necessarily cultural behavior.
By partially experiencing both the Latin American and Arab cultures, I observed many distinct similarities. Moreover, these findings were confirmed through my university studies on Latin America. I learned this affinity resulted from the 800-year influence of the Islamic civilization on Spain and medieval Europe. Thus, through their historical bond with the Arabs, some Islamic practices continue to be part of the Latin American culture of today.
After graduation, my housemates went back to their respective countries. I remained in touch with Abu Hussein. One year after our graduation he invited me to visit Saudi Arabia for two weeks. I accepted his invitation and traveled to Saudi Arabia where I was received like a king. I spent most of the time in a village situated a few hours south of Riyadh. I came across a very different lifestyle. I slept in an open space under the stars on big beautiful red carpets. Abu Hussein sacrificed several sheep and invited all the villagers for a dinner. I never had attention like this in my whole life and we were mutually appreciative of each other. One evening after dinner, we went out to the desert to look at their camels. One of the boys milked a camel and offered me some of this fresh milk. After drinking some, I commented that this camel milk was absolutely delicious. Then Abu Hussein’s father said to me, “If you become a Muslim, I shall give you ten camels.” I responded promptly, “If you become a Christian, I shall give you ten camels.” After briefly experiencing life in the desert of Saudi Arabia, I returned back to America.
My New Career
After working for two years as a marketing representative for a publishing company in America, I found a job as an English as a foreign language instructor in Abu Dhabi, UAE. I really enjoyed this kind of work. I decided that teaching English as a foreign language would be my career from then on. Moreover, this two-year experience provided me with more exposure to Arab culture. As with my former Muslim roommates, I also found the people in this country to be extremely generous, confident and social. Nonetheless, I was feeling a bit homesick and decided to return home.
My Experience in Las Vegas
After a short time, I went to Las Vegas, Nevada since it has a high concentration of foreign immigrants who mostly work in the casinos. I put an advertisement in a newspaper offering to teach English as a foreign language. Fortunately, I got a few students quickly. I taught them in my kitchen with the use of a small blackboard placed on the wall. At that time I realized that Las Vegas didn’t have an English language institute, so my colleague and I established one in the heart of the city. The business of the institute flourished. However in my free time, I took part in some of the sinful activities of Las Vegas. This kind of lifestyle made me sick of myself. I soon got tired of these social evils in the society. Life appeared meaningless and confused. I wanted to have a change again so I faxed my resume to Abu Hussein for him to help me find work in Saudi Arabia. To my surprise, I was offered a job to teach English to employees of a petrochemical company in Jubail. Within one month I was there.
I took many books to Jubail on various topics. One day I was reading a book on philosophy. The book suggested the need for making sincere repentance to God. I had never made repentance in my life. I started recalling all people I had wronged and the wrong I did to myself in that process. Then, I repented hoping for the best. After a short time, I thought that perhaps God had accepted my repentance. A clear indicator of this acceptance was that God put specific people in my life and allowed certain situations to occur that guided me to the right path. I would like to share some of these circumstances with the reader.
The Meaning of Freedom
I was with Abu Hussein. He also had a friend visiting him. I mentioned to them that I was used to having a lot more freedom in America than what was present in their country. The visitor said, “It depends on what you mean by freedom. In your part of the world, no matter how well parents teach morality to their children inside the home, as soon as they go outside, they generally encounter the society in contradiction to that morality. On the other hand, in most Muslim communities, the morals taught to the children at home are very similar to what they find away from home. So who really has the freedom here?” Like it or not, I was inclined to agree with his interpretation of freedom in which immorality tends to be prevalent in societies that are overly liberal. In this case, too much freedom often becomes a negative aspect of society, not a positive one. From his analogy, I also understood that the Islamic guidelines and restrictions sanctioning human behavior in Muslim societies are not meant to curtail human freedom; rather, they serve to define and dignify human freedom.
The Game of Roulette
A further opportunity to learn about Islam arose when I was invited to sit with a group of Muslims over dinner. After mentioning to the group that I had been living in Las Vegas, Nevada before coming to the Middle East, a Muslim from America said, “You must make sure you die as a good Muslim.” I immediately asked him to explain what he meant. He said, “If you die as a non-Muslim, it is like playing the game of roulette in which you put all of your chips (all of your life, including your deeds and your particular belief in God) on only one number, just hoping that perhaps by the Mercy of God, you will enter Paradise on Judgement Day. In contrast, if you die as a good Muslim, it is like spreading your chips all over the roulette board, so that every number is covered. In this way, no matter what number the ball falls on you, you’re safe. In other words, living and dying as a good Muslim is the best insurance you will not go to Hell, and at the same time, it is the best investment that you’ll go to Paradise.” As a former resident of Las Vegas, I could directly relate to this example with the game of roulette.
At this point, I recognized that it is the duty of all human beings to seek the truth to this life and not just blindly accept the religion that their society or parents follow. I also determined that I would not find the truth until I established a relationship with God. That being the case, I decided to concentrate on those religions emanating from Divine revelations linked with specific prophets and messengers. Hence, I chose to continue my search for the truth within Judeo-Christianity and Islam.
Even though I grew up as a Christian, I had been bewildered about Christianity. I felt like I inherited a mysterious religion beyond understanding. I believe it was for this reason that I was a Christian by name but not in practice. What’s more, I realized my confusion about Christian beliefs caused me to be in a state of non-religiousness. Nevertheless, while I was searching for the truth, I had a chance to sincerely re-examine those beliefs I inherited from my parents, yet never bothered to scrutinize.
Not an Ordinary Picnic
Some Muslims in Jubail arranged a special picnic for non-Muslims. After playing some games, we ate a delicious dinner. Finally, we heard a short lecture about Islam. I was shocked to learn that the Muslims believe in all the prophets and also in all the revelations of God in their original form. Moreover, I learned the Qur’an was the last revelation sent for the sake of all mankind, and Mohammad(pbuh) was the last Prophet and Messenger who received this revelation. As the Seal of Prophets, he has served as the best example for all to follow.
Upon leaving the picnic, they gave us a few booklets on comparative religion. One of them contained a dialogue between a Muslim and a Christian. The following conclusions were evident from the study of this booklet.
a) The real competition in this life is racing with one another to do good deeds to please the Creator, not the competition of pursuing more and more wealth or fame.
b) Hell is surrounded by lustful desires. These desires lead you to nothing else except to the roaring flames of Hellfire. On the other hand, Paradise is surrounded by challenges and if you look beyond them, you will find Paradise.
c) I found out that the Bible warns against adding or removing information from its teachings, which is evidently what happened. (See Jeremiah 8:8-9; Revelations 22:18-19). God addresses this point in the Qur’an as well, “So woe to those who write the “scripture” with their own hands, then say, “This is from God,” in order to exchange it for a small price. Woe to them for what their hands have written and woe to them for what they earn.” (2:79) Consequently, I was surprised to find out about hundreds of verses in the Bible which reveal a lack of harmony in Christian beliefs. According to these materials, God was One prior to Jesus(pbuh). Likewise, Jesus(pbuh) propagated the belief in One God. However, after Jesus(pbuh), Christianity emphasized the Trinity instead of the Oneness of God. Also, before Jesus(pbuh), God was without sons and equals. Similarly, Jesus(pbuh) said he was God’s messenger, whereas after his time, Christianity stressed that he is God’s son or God Himself.
After reading these booklets, I finally determined that the Christian perception of God is very illogical indeed: God becomes man, which He created, and then allows himself to suffer and die as a sacrifice at the hands of His very own creation to cleanse mankind of sin inherited from Adam(pbuh) and his descendants. Belief in this concept became the source of salvation according to the Church.
Visiting a Mosque as a non-Muslim
I happened to be shopping with Abu Hussein and another friend when it was the time for prayer. We went to a mosque where they advised me to wash up in a certain way and then follow them in the rituals of the prayer. I did this by looking out of the corner of my eye. I sat still after this peaceful experience and was somewhat nervous since I did not know what else to do. I, however, realized that non-Muslims are allowed to enter mosques under certain conditions. My friends asked me to wait outside the mosque during the congregational prayer to avoid any misunderstandings with the Muslims.
Correspondingly, I was with my Saudi friends on another occasion when it was again prayer time. They said, “Why don’t you pray with us? Ask God for forgiveness, guidance to the truth and express gratitude to Him.” At the end of the prayer I felt relief and contentment, which I had never felt before. From that point, I was always looking forward to praying with them, even though I was not a Muslim and I was not praying correctly.
There were several obstacles preventing me from converting to Islam. The fear of losing life-long friends and family members was predominantly on my mind. Furthermore, leaving certain vices in one go was not easy since conversion demanded a total change in lifestyle. I was mentally not yet ready to overcome these hurdles, even though Islamic practices were very soothing to me both mentally and spiritually. I admitted to an American Muslim friend in Jubail that I was very close to embracing Islam, but I needed a push forward. Consequently, he gave me an Islamic video to watch.
An Inspiring Video
Once again I was invited to a gathering at Abu Hussein’s residence. There were many young Saudi men in this group. After dinner they engaged in conversation, but I wasn’t able to speak Arabic. I noticed that there was a TV and VCR in this room. I remembered I had that video from my American Muslim friend in the car. Shortly thereafter, I started watching this video which posed a very important question: What is the purpose of life? I was uncertain just as many other people in the world are unsure about the answer to this question. Needless to say, I learned a few important points from this video.
The lecturer in the video commented very precisely on what the purpose of life is. He said that the purpose of life is Islam or total peaceful submission to the Will of Allah(God). I was surprised to hear such a short answer to what I thought was such a complex question.
An additional point was that, unlike other religions or beliefs, the term ‘Islam’ is not associated with any particular person or place. God has named the religion in the following Qur’anic verse: “Indeed, the Religion in the sight of God is Islam…” (3:19) Anyone who embraces Islam is called a Muslim regardless of that person’s race, sex or nationality. This is one of the reasons why Islam is a universal religion.
Prior to my search for the truth, I had never seriously considered Islam as an option because of the constant negative portrayal of Muslims in the media. Similarly, it was disclosed in this video, that although Islam is characterized by high moral standards, not all Muslims uphold these standards. I learned the same can be said about adherents of other religions. I finally understood that we should not judge a religion by the actions of its followers alone because all humans are sinful. On that account, we should not judge Islam by the actions of its proponents, but by its revelation (the Qur’an) and by the sayings and actions of Prophet Mohammad(pbuh).
Lastly, the lecturer guided the viewer in decision making by presenting simple examples, as in the following: “If you are a Christian and want to become a Muslim, it is like having an expensive suit that is a bit too large. Instead of throwing it away, you just make certain alterations so it fits you better. In other words, you do not cast away all your previous beliefs and practices that you’ve had since your childhood. You rather take them with you to Islam and incorporate them into your life as a Muslim, with modifications and due refinements.”
After viewing the video my heart and mind were absolutely convinced that Islam is the truth. I experienced the weight of disbelief and sins flying off my body. I felt so light as if I were rising above the earth. This experience, coupled with the long process of reasoning, solved the ‘purpose of life puzzle’. It revealed Islam as the truth, thereby replenishing my ‘spiritual landscape’ with belief, purpose, direction and action. From this experience, I deduced that man might neglect the guidance of God and establish his own standards of living. Ultimately, however, he will discover it was only a mirage that eluded him.
My Insistence on Accepting Islam
I called Abu Hussein and walked with him to the passage leading to another room in order to get away from the gathering. I told him that I wanted to accept Islam right now. He advised me to study more about Islam before embracing it. I insisted that I wanted to accept it now and then without any delay. On my insistence he led me in saying the shahada or the formal testimony of faith to become a Muslim. Abu Hussein then announced my conversion to the group. They were surprised and overjoyed. Everybody hugged me one by one. They advised me to take a bath for purification purposes and start offering prayer as best as I can. I started praying regularly in the mosque the next day.
I was subsequently reminded that this formal testimony to become a Muslim confirms one’s belief in all the prophets of God, along with all of His Divine revelations in their original forms, thereby updating and completing one’s religion to the last of the prophets [Muhammad(pbuh)] and to the final revelation of God[the Qur’an]. The following point became overwhelmingly clear to me: Had Jesus(pbuh) been the last prophet of God and had the Gospel been the final book of revelation, I would have just followed that creed. As a result, I have naturally chosen to follow Islam, which represents the final revelation from the Creator with Prophet Mohammad (pbuh) as the seal of the prophets, who is the best example for mankind to follow.
After two days I went to the mosque to participate in the Friday congregational prayer. Abu Hussein suggested that I repeat the shahada again in front of the congregation to have more of an impact. I agreed. We were both sitting in the mosque waiting for the sermon. Abu Hussein asked me, “What Muslim name you would like to have so that the Imam(prayer leader) can introduce you with your Muslim name?” I told him, “I am not sure. He should introduce me with my American name.” Abu Hussein kept reciting the Quran sitting by my side. Then he came across the word ‘Yahya’. He touched me with his elbow and said quietly to me, “How does Yahya sound to you as your name?” I asked, “What does it mean?” He said, “John the Baptist. Its other meaning is to live.” I said, “That will do since I know of John the Baptist from the Bible. Furthermore, this name signifies a new life for me in Islam. It is, indeed, an appropriate Muslim name for me.” After the prayer, the Imam invited me to repeat the shahada in front of the very large congregation. About three hundred people congratulated me and hugged me individually waiting anxiously for their turns. Many people said, “Accepting Islam is the best decision you have ever made in your life.” I was surprised that all the people cared to personally congratulate me. It raised my morale and spirits very high.
When I look back on this experience of becoming a Muslim, I believe it happened because it was the Will of Allah that I had an intense curiosity to learn about other cultures, followed by a sincere desire to find the truth of this life. Allah knows best and all Praise is due to Him!!!
Goal of Life
I was told to learn more about Islam every day and try to put it into practice. I was also told that I was not responsible for what I didn’t know about in Islam initially. I appreciated this flexibility in Islam. After a short time, I understood that Islam is in direct contrast to the western focus on the self. Islam tells us to look beyond ourselves and our vain desires. Islam guides and motivates us to focus on Allah. By doing so, we begin to fulfill the purpose of our life, which is to believe in and worship Almighty God and thus attain peace with our Creator and ourselves. Hence, Islam serves as the goal and the purpose of life.
Islamic Education and Growth
I was fortunate to be in an Islamic country when I accepted Islam because of the presence of many knowledgeable Muslims along with an abundance of Islamic materials. I could readily understand and appreciate what I was learning because Islamic teachings were being put into practice in the society. I attended a weekly Islamic meeting with individuals from many lands. We met once a week for four years. We studied Qur’anic reading and interpretation, along with some memorization of the Qur’an. We also received extensive education in various aspects of Islam at a basic level. This Islamic education provided me with a good foundation upon which to further purify myself.
Marriage is highly recommended in Islam. I realized that by marrying an Arabic-speaking Muslim, I would be giving my children one of the best possible gifts, which is the Arabic language. Hence, I married a Syrian lady, and with the Mercy of Allah, our children are doing well in Arabic and are learning the Quran. When I visited America, my family inquired about marriage in Islam. I explained to them that the obligations of spouses are assigned by the Creator and are not man-made rules. For that reason, these guidelines are perfect and there is no fear of any foul play if we adhere to them sincerely.
Reaction of the Family
My acceptance of Islam stunned my family initially. Finally they said, “If Islam makes you happy, we are happy for you.” Thus, we mutually respected each other.
The Shahada of My Mother
My sister called me from America and said that our mother was extremely ill. My wife and I rushed from Saudi Arabia to America. During our stay there, I asked my mother, “ Do you believe in one God?” She said, “ Yes.” I said to her say, “La ilaha illa Allah.” She repeated this in Arabic. She also repeated the translation of this sentence in English, ‘There is no deity but Allah’. After a few days I asked her, “Do you believe in all the Prophets like Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Mohammad?” She said, “ Yes.” I said, “Then repeat after me, “La ilaha illa Allah Mohammadan Rasoolu llah.” She also said it in English, i.e., ‘There is no deity but Allah and Mohammad is His Messenger.’ She left us about five days after her acceptance of Islam. I thank Allah for guiding my mother to the right path during her last few days in this world. When I reflect upon it, I recall that she usually cared for others’ needs more than her own. Evidently, Allah has been very merciful to her. Allah knows best!!!
Her Extraordinary Observation
It was amazing what my mother said to me during her last days in this world. She said, “There is a golden light coming out of your forehead.” I told her that it is there because we believe in and pray to Allah. Her observation is described in the Holy Qur’an: …the Day that Allah will not disgrace the Prophet[(Mohammad(pbuh)] and those who believe with him. Their light will run forward before them… They will say: “Our Lord! Keep perfect our light for us [and do not put it off till we cross over the Sirat(a slippery bridge over the Hell) safely] and grant us forgiveness…” (66:8)