Friday, August 05, 2005

My Conversion to Islam, Part 2

When I was in my early twenties I began meeting some Muslims at college and at work. The Muslims at school were completely unapproachable. They were all engineering students, had heavy dark beards, spoke in Arabic and took up half the student lounge. They didn't talk to anyone outside their group and were intimidating. There was one girl too from Iraq that I met but she didn't practice at all. In fact, upon landing in this country, it seems she went the exact opposite way. None of these people would give me any real insight to Islam.

At work, I met a few Moroccan guys and their girlfriends and got to know them all pretty well. They left me very confused though as they didn't seem to practice the religion at all. One of their girlfriends was an American and appeared to be a convert but really confused me. She would wear a full length abaya and scarf to work one day and the next day wear a mini skirt and heels. She seemed very confused and didn't know where to fit in. I thought it was strange. During Ramadan, one of the guys was fasting and explained it to me but he said he couldn't fast, that it was too hard so he drank water only but fasted the rest of the ways. His explanation wasn't very good so that night i went home and looked up Ramadan and found some islamic website and sort of understood what it was all about - Ramadan anyhow, not the religion. The names weren't familiar...Jibril - who was that? I didn't realize that was Gabriel and I didn't really understand what i was reading because of the terminology. I decided I would be more culturally aware and learn about more religions. I had taken a side step and started going to a Hindu Buddhist temple at around 19. I enjoyed the lifestyle, the freedom, the lectures, and peaceful mentality but I never considered it a religion. For me religion meant God and the God i knew wasn't in Hindu Buddhism so I practiced it and started calling myself an agnostic and Taoist and lived my life that way for some time.

Then... I went to Europe for a summer to backpack. I visited all the churches and cathedrals and never felt further from God in my entire life and missed the connection. I went ready to re-embrace my religion and see the grand cathedrals and Vatican and hopefully I'd get to see the Pope wave out of his little window in St. Peter's Square. I really liked the Pope.

Well there I was standing in these churches with unGodly amounts of gold and naked statues of white men and immense decor. Enough to feed a poor country. The statues bothered me for several reasons. I had read the Bible and in it Jesus had hair the texture of wool. And Jesus was of Jewish heritage. Therefore Jesus probably wasn't white skinned, blue eyed, and hippie haired like he was always depicted. He was probably dark haired with some curls or at least a rough texture and brown eyes are probable. I didn't like the overwhelming whitifying of God's messenger.

But the straw that broke the camel's back (me being the camel) was standing outside the Vatican and seeing the obelisques and other war booty taken from Egypt. I began wondering why the Vatican had all these relics from Muslim countries. When I went inside my gut dropped. Yes, it was beautiful and the Sistine Chapel is just how i imagined it - except for the smell of the room...something i'll always remember. It smelled old and it was as though you could still smell fresh paint. I love art and had taken many classes in art history and was so excited to see the ceiling...Michaelangelo's Creation of Adam - the closeness of Adam's hand to God's and the beauty in that I also loved the painting School of Athens. I stood there in the two rooms for hours just staring at the paintings and thinking.

I walked outside and thought to myself "this city was built on hypocrisy"... the slaves, the raping and pillaging of foreign lands, the prostitution and sexual deviance of the Romans, the killing of Christians, the grandness of it all and the sick pride. I thought of the US and how we are so much like the Romans. Abusing the power and privilege that we seem to have been blessed with. Instead of using it for good, we use it for bad. I decided I was no longer Catholic, I wanted nothing to do with the Catholic church, and Christianity in general was out too because of those unGodly churches. It made me sick that there were people starving all over the world and the least a church could do is to humble themselves and maybe sell of some of that booty and feed some starving people. I was disgusted. Mother Theresa to this day is one of the only people from the Church that i have any respect for...and i have a ton of respect for her.

Excerpt from my travel journal:

"Today was Pope Hypocrisy Day. Started with the Vatican Museum and ended with learning the truth about Popes. Popes were rich. Real rich. They were also originally the emperors of Rome and only accepted Christianity when the people (the poor people) were rising up against them. They traded their emperor hats for pope hats but kept the same morals. It's so sick. The more I learn, the more the Catholic Church disgusts me."

I also decided that I was my own religion. I believed in God, but I didn't believe in any church or ideology anymore because they were all corrupted and no longer acted in God's name if they ever did. (I think of a recent trip to Spain where there were depictions on the pulpit of Muslims being beheaded for not converting to Christianity... This is on the pulpit, where priests preach from. It's still there. What does that say?)

I left Italy and kept on traveling. A stop soon after was the Swiss Alps and if those monstrous beauties don't show the majesty of God to a person I don't know what does. I walked from one Swiss town to the next (about 3 miles) in the early morning (about 4:30 am) as the sun began to rise casting a pink glow on the icy faced giants. I passed a cow with a bell on his neck (i laughed because i seriously thought that stuff was only in movies) almost made me feel like singing some cheesy musical song from the Sound of Music or something...i know that was set in Austria, but still... Anyhow, that day on top of the highest peak I pondered God once again. I really was craving a relationship with God...but one that was logical and real, not dressed up in ideology.

Portugal was another spiritual stop. The Moors had set up house in the southern tip of Portugal and built a castle there sometime around the 1100's. It's up in the hills and not easy for tourists to get to. No one goes's just a piece of Muslim and Moorish architecture so who cares. Portugal fought off the Moors and that small Moorish success isn't important to them. On the crazy busride up the mountainside, no one speaks English, and the main "scenery" is the squatters camps (Moroccan refugees). There isn't even an entrance fee, nor is there any upkeep at the castle. It is just a broken down castle - simply there and forgotten. I loved it. The view from the cliffs and the tangled web of trails without people around was refreshing. Then, i found a little hut dome house looking thing and walked inside. It was dark and smelled musty. I wondered what it was and then I flashed my flashlight (yes, i'm a travelling dork and actually had one thanks to Rick Steves packing list) and there was Arabic along the walls. Aha! It was a mosque. I stood there and wondered many things. Why was this place not kept up? What did these walls say? Why is it that I feel strangely familiar when standing inside a mosque? I usually only feel close to God in nature where I can truly feel separated from man, concrete, and all that.

I could go on and on about my experiences in Europe that got me thinking about religion but I won't because this is getting long and probably quite boring to my readers. But I will say, when you look for something and really try to find answers, you will find them. Mine came about 10 years later. By the way, I did see the Pope wave out of his little window and was disgusted that the man was offering his blessings on me. Who is he to offer blessings? He is just an old little man in a window. He's no closer to God than I was. I didn't want a middle man anymore. I wanted a one on one relationship with God.

The next part should be more exciting than this was.... How I finally found Islam.


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