Twin Towers Viewed from A Western Minaret

A muslim, an American, a Muslim-American

When I became a Muslim a dozen years ago, it never occurred to me that one day I might feel like three different people. At the time, I was simply immersed in a process the textbooks call Spiritual Awakening. Little did I know.

For some people, inner transformation arrives with the speed of a lightning bolt, through a mystical experience. Or it develops in distinct, well defined stages by way of a particular teacher or formal practice. In my case though, it was more like a slow turning, the way a tree turns toward sunlight, the way a compass needle finds its North.

This long, semi-conscious inner relocation took more than twenty years. It began with my first exposure to Muslims while living in North and West Africa. And it continued, like water flowing underground, over many more years here at home while going about my daily life.

Like most Americans, I came late to the basic facts about Islam, which naturally makes for difficulty. Only gradually, in the 1980s, did I finally discover that Islam is a practical religion, and not an exotic cult or a set of political responses. What's more, I found that this underrated faith had generated a sophisticated literature as well as a rich vocabulary of spiritual practice, including a form of prayer joined to physical postures that I found satisfying to perform.


At this point, I think, it finally dawned on me that I was engaged in deep religious change. Until then, I had considered myself a cheerful skeptic, spiritual in a general way, but without a truly religious bone in my body. Sometimes, the patient is the last to know.

Even then, becoming a Muslim didn't strike me as a radical step. I had to wait for others to point that out. To me it seemed natural, if somewhat surprising. Islam respects the prophets of Judaism and Christianity, and broadly speaking, it is cut from the shared theological cloth of prophetic monotheism. It also has a sacred book, the Qur'an, that on first reading seemed to stand in a plain relation to the Old and New bibles, which I loved. I had American-born friends who had become Hindus, Buddhists, and practitioners of Zen, all traditions a light year away from their actual cultural roots. Islam, by comparison, felt familiar.

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