I don't remember how old I was, but I could not have been more than eight. I dreamed that I was by myself in a huge room with a domed ceiling, sitting in a position I now recognize as qa'dah. The floor was carpeted, and there were narrow openings along the wall in front. It was very brief and I never had the dream again, but it made such an impression upon me I never forgot it.
When I was about ten, I was standing in my backyard at a time I now call maghrib. As I watched the red glow of sunset, I thought about what I had been taught in Catholic school about Jesus, the Trinity, and all the convoluted means one had to follow in order to enter heaven according to that religion. And I thought about how many other worlds there must be in the universe, and what an impossible coincidence that I, on this small planet, just happened to be born into the "true" religion, particularly when this religion was so full of strange, seemingly meaningless requirements. And on that day I stopped being a Catholic.
I still had to attend Catholic school, however. And while there we were taught a bit about other religions. When we were introduced to Islam we were told that Muhammad, salallahu alaihi wassalam, claimed to be the last of the prophets beginning with Abraham, alaihi salam, and that Jesus, alaihi salam, was one of the last prophets as well. Our teacher told us that Muhammad, salallahu alaihi wassalam, was adamant that he was only a man and a prophet, and I thought, "how heroic. All by himself, never claiming any supernatural power. That's so much more courageous than anything the Christians ever taught about Jesus."
I began reading the Bible, and found in the Gospels truly great messages. I believed I had found Christianity in following the example of Jesus, alaihi salam, but disregarding the notion that he was "the son of God." But the Christians told me I was wrong, that unless I accepted that Jesus, alaihi salam, was God incarnate I could never enter heaven. And I stopped being a Christian.
I tried transcendental meditation, and achieved some inner peace. But without a guide I lost my way and began to despair at the sense of loneliness I felt. I realized that without God I couldn't find my way.
When the Iranians seized the American Embassy, I was curious as to what sort of religion Islam was and how it could produce such extremism in its followers. The first book I read was about a Sufi saint. He determined that passionate love was inferior to spiritual love because passion made him feel in need of something more, while spiritual love made him feel good all by itself. I read about the life of peace and privation he led, and something didn't add up. This was not the Islam that was being presented in the media. I struck up a conversation about it with a friend, and he surprised me. He said, "Muslims must think Christians are a bunch of lightweights. None of this "no meat on Fridays during lent," they fast for a whole month." And I thought about how they prayed five times a day. And it was at about this same time that Billy Graham made his infamous proclamation that God doesn't hear the prayers of Jews. And I realized that Muslims were truly devout, and that God most certainly heard their prayers, and well as those of anyone who sincerely turned to Him.
However, at this time I was asked to join a rock band, and within a few months my entire life was absorbed by my own success. I had so much money that no matter how fast I spent it (and I spent it very fast) I always had plenty more, women threw themselves at me, and I was a local celebrity. And I was only 23 years old. So for two years I worshiped myself and my fortunate circumstances, and considered myself indestructible. And, of course, I nearly destroyed myself. So I decided to finish college, and was accepted into grad school. I found a new purpose: I would educate myself and become a professor.
In 1994 I went to a conference I couldn't afford to go to, and there read a paper about children's literature. There was a Muslim scholar there who found my work fascinating and asked me if I would, in the future, form a conference panel with him about colonialist literature. I really didn't understand why he was so interested in my work; I only briefly mentioned a theory about cultural colonialism as a side issue to my main ideas. But he was absolutely enthusiastic. So I agreed, and went home somewhat befuddled over the whole affair.
I did become a professor, and my future seemed pretty secure. One day I was thinking about it all, and realized I could now plan the rest of my life, right to the grave. And I realized I was as lost as ever. So I started praying again, after many years of neglect.
We did indeed form a panel, and it was very successful. We agreed to form another one for a conference the following year in Florida. It was to be about appropriations of Islamic imagery in Russian literature. I knew nothing about the subject, but was researching an eccentric poet who had visited Iran once. So that summer I went to Moscow and found a handwritten manuscript of his called "My Koran." It was a series of collated dates with which he was attempting to determine if history had mathematically predictable rhythms. Well, this had nothing to do with Islam as far as I knew, but when I got home I decided I should read the Qur'an to see if there was any connection between it and this poet's bizarre theory.
While still in Russia a terrible tragedy occurred, and on top of that I became deathly ill. I had been praying quite a bit up till then, and things looked so terrible that for a second I told myself I was going to give up on prayer. I immediately changed my mind, realizing there was nowhere else to turn, and I told God that no matter what happened I would never turn away from Him. Within five minutes, the phone rang. From the most unexpected place the tragedy had been rectified as if it had never happened. I asked God, "that was You, wasn't it," and a feeling rushed over me such as I had never felt before. So I asked God to guide me, because I clearly needed guidance. I also regained my health within just a few days.
I returned home and started reading the Qur'an. Within the first ten pages ( of the Yusuf Ali translation) I looked up at my wife and said, "I can see why this religion is so popular. This book is really pleasant to read." I very quickly came to the conclusion that it had nothing in common with my poet's little manuscript, but I continued to read it. I became absorbed in it, and every once in a while a verse would grab me as if it had been written for me alone:
"5:83 And when they listen to the revelation received by the Messenger, thou wilt see their eyes overflowing with tears, for they recognise the truth. they pray: "Our Lord! we believe; write us down among the witnesses."
This is exactly what I felt was happening to me.
"20:40 "Behold! thy sister goeth forth and saith, 'shall I show you one who will nurse and rear the (child)?' So We brought thee back to thy mother, that her eye might be cooled and she should not grieve. Then thou didst slay a man, but We saved thee from trouble, and We tried thee in various ways. Then didst thou tarry a number of years with the people of Midian. Then didst thou come hither as ordained, O Moses!"
I thought about all I had been through, I remembered the dream of my childhood, the strange circumstances that led me to read the Qur'an.
"46:15 We have enjoined on man kindness to his parents: In pain did his mother bear him, and in pain did she give him birth. The carrying of the (child) to his weaning is (a period of) thirty months. At length, when he reaches the age of full strength and attains forty years, he says, "O my Lord! Grant me that I may be grateful for Thy favour which Thou has bestowed upon me, and upon both my parents, and that I may work righteousness such as Thou mayest approve; and be gracious to me in my issue. Truly have I turned to Thee and truly do I bow (to Thee) in Islam.""
I was forty years old. I asked God, "You led me to this, didn't you?" And that same overwhelming feeling engulfed me again. And I realized that, although I had long ago decided organized religions were out of the question for me, I had become a Muslim.