“Lâ ilâha illallâh, wa Muḥammadur rasûlullâh.”
The young hijabi woman said the words again in English, and I looked down the terraced auditorium desks to stare at the blank wall behind her. She said, “There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah.”
She was a convert to Islam. The Muslim Students’ Association at the University of Chicago, the university I attend, was holding their annual Muslim Awareness week and I was sitting in on a panel discussion given by a diverse group of converts, who were discussing their conversion experiences. The present speaker was beautiful, nineteen, and Latina. She was recounting how she had first spoken this declaration of faith, the Shahada, to herself alone one day in her bedroom, only to become public about her new religion later. Apparently her Catholic relatives weren’t too happy about the situation.
Sitting there, I was hot, too hot. I put my head down in my hands and listened, wondering if I had come down with a fever. I wanted to take off my jacket, but I didn’t. Why was I suddenly so uncomfortable? It felt as if I was hiding in my jacket, clandestine. I remembered when I had started to practice Wiccan rituals alone in my own bedroom, terrified that the tiny thread of smoke coming from a tiny candle would set off an alarm, waking my mother. As I remembered, I felt kinship with this young woman who spoke of praying in secret.
Next up on the panel was a white, middle-aged man. He was a professor and had grown up not too far from the mid-Missouri town where I was born. I immediately felt another sort of kinship with this man, the kind that comes from both having come from the same part of the otherwise-forgotten “fly-over zone”. He spoke of his conversion to Islam after having read the Autobiography of Malcolm X. Apparently he had given many other talks like this one and that after some of them he had been approached by students in the audience who wished to profess the Shahada in front of him and those gathered. This is a simple act that would suffice as a legal conversion to the faith. Several audience members were crying with empathy, and I too felt like crying.
The back of my neck was burning, and I was wondering whether the occasional glances I was getting from the other audience members were simply happenstance or if they all thought I was beginning to look crazy. For all I know, I looked like I was about to turn into a blueberry and be rolled out of the room by a posse of small orange men! The hair on the back of my neck and arms stood on end, and I was suddenly chilled through and through.
Then I felt it. The Light.
I think I know what brain scientist Jill Bolte Taylor felt when she experienced a stroke but, given her research background, was able to rationalize her way through the experience. There I was, a sophomore studying Islamic history and specifically Islamic theology and mysticism, and I was having a full-on mystical experience of my own, and even in an Islamic context. Go figure, I thought to myself.
The Light had no brightness. It was more like a pressure that hovered just upon the surface of my skin like a bedsheet on a warm morning, or like rain. An immense presence above me. I thought, “Is this God?” I told myself that I thought it was. I looked around the room quickly, still feeling the Light, and looked at the dozen or so smiling young people there, Muslim and non-Muslim, and I saw happiness in their eyes. I wanted that happiness, and I wondered if Allah could give it to me. I looked down at the row of converts sitting before microphones and wondered whether one day I would be sitting in their place, the ex-pagan Muslim convert. I could do it right here and now, I thought, and wouldn’t that just be some sort of glorious cinematic moment, my conversion in a room full of converts? It would only take a few words, I already knew them: ʾAšhadu ʾan lâ ilâha illa Al– … I testify that there is no god but G– …
But the Light was gone as quickly as it had arrived and doubt flashed through my mind. What would my life like tomorrow as a Muslim? How would I learn to pray properly? What would my friends (most of them pagan) think? These fairly mundane concerns quickly gave way to academic ones: Did I really think that Muhammad, that o-so historical guy we talk about in class, had really received a new gospel from the angel Gabriel? Did God really “speak in Arabic” in order to reaffirm his law, which was that same law given to Abraham and Moses? I was struck by the many commitments I would have to make: Was I to avow myself to Sunni legalism or to Shi’a piety? In situations like this it may be possible to know too much about a thing, and my mind was flooded with names and dates and movements and theologians. As a convert, where could I find a place for myself in what seemed like an endless ocean of traditions?
The survey of Islamic history text used by the University of Chicago is written by Marshall Hodgson and called The Venture of Islam. The work is “magisterial,” a watershed text in the field, and I was at the time most of the way through reading its first volume. Hodgson’s title comes from his assertion that the prophet Muhammad set before his fledgling community the task, the venture, of spreading the word of Allah to all peoples – a task not unlike that set out by Jesus or Buddha or any other leader (pagans included!) who has radical ideas that they mean to spread to the world. The last question I asked myself was whether I was prepared to enter into this venture. Was Muhammad’s ideal community, the Umma, that which I saw as the most virtuous? In becoming a Muslim, I would not only be taking up an avowed belief in the existence of the One God, the Ultimate Reality, but I would also be taking up the mantle of an economic and social vision. Put simply, was I ready to sign up for a new (though not singular, instead quite varied) civilization?
I breathed deeply and began to calm down. I asked myself in plain language, “John, are you going to convert to Islam here, now?” I replied, “No.” I told myself that I could always change my mind later, once I had given it some more thought. No need to rush into things, I assured myself. So, I did not that day, nor have I since, become a Muslim. Perhaps by this point you are wondering why I have gone into such detail about this experience, here on this “Pagan Blog at Patheos”, and even as my inaugural post? But what more intimate interfaith experience is there than such a brush with the possibility of self-conversion? As I remain, often disgruntled, a pagan, I struggle with issues surrounding exactly what that designation implies, and I am more and more convinced that the pull toward Islam for me was in fact my awareness of that tradition(s)’s more concrete self-awareness. There is an inside as well as an outside to Islam, and I had brushed up against that gate. I believe that many of the things I seek in the life religious (theological coherence, deep embodied, communal practice) are only possible in such well-articulated, demarcated environments.
Just to be clear, I do not wish to imply that I think paganism should adopt the Islamic model: A scriptural doctrine, a religious law. Nor am I hoping for some sort of confessional or kerygmatic thrust to our own “venture.” What I am looking for is that moment, that glorious moment, of feeling oneself part of a culture; all I am left with is a series of questions: How can we inculcate a more coherent sense of community? A deeper, more satisfying tradition of theological discourse? Where can we find a unity of vision and a sense of purpose? Perhaps I was yearning for an experience like that of praying five times daily and knowing that all across the planet, or simply just down the street, people are praying along with me, like me. We must keep in mind that although we so often think that we can rest assured in the complex histories of our predecessors-in-spirit, we as modern pagans are essentially constructing something new, from scratch.
Islam, and any individual’s relationship with it, is of course a complex thing. I hope that no one reading this will take my decision not to convert (and it was only mine!) as a condemnation of Islam. Islam is vast, beautiful, and terrifying. What I do wish for in relating my experience is that others might consider for a moment the nature of belief, of conversion, and of community. I didn’t know that day that my life would come so close to being forever changed – and, in a way, despite my decision not to convert, it was. My experience has in many ways galvanized my participation in our varied communities – to build real community, to strive for integrity in my theology, to really dig in and work, rejecting the impulse that the “grass is always greener,” as they say, and to look into the eyes of Mother Earth. What can we create for ourselves, and what can we learn from those around us who, though in different ways, have walked the same path toward creation?