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.
Becoming a Muslim satisfied me in personal ways, too. For one thing, a concrete and meaningful practice had emerged from my years of seemingly aimless travel. It is not every day that a wayward youth winds up rewarding your spirit in lasting ways.
It took other people to make me think I had done something strange by becoming a Muslim. Indeed, until just the other day, it was only when faced with their joking remarks and quizzical expressions that I felt at all uneasy in my skin. Among Muslims, and on my own, I have always felt at home with the decision. Then, a few days ago, a trio of passenger jets slammed into the New York Trade Center towers and into the Pentagon, and things changed.
The unrecorded suffering of the thousands dead in New York and Washington D.C., and the life-long agony those left behind must live with, will be the proper focus of our thought and prayer for a long time to come. And yet there is an undercurrent attached to these events, a potential for violence based on a lack of understanding, that is worth addressing quickly, before it surfaces more starkly in our society and darkens the lives of innocent citizens.
Today, you might say, I feel like three people.
As an American, I am filled with horror by what has occurred. My shock derives from the violence of the actions and coldness of their execution. It isn't hard to feel the agony of having loved ones ripped from your side, so that a handful of fools can make a point. Like most other Americans, I am angry too. For one thing, we live in an open society; and now, in a couple of hours, a handful of desperate people have jeopardized the spirit of that society. I am also afraid that in the days ahead cooler heads will not prevail. Gandhi once said, "An eye for eye, and soon everyone will be blind."
It is complicated enough to feel these things. Yet as a Muslim I have other, different feelings. As a Muslim, I'm appalled by the actions of the extremists who, very likely, will claim to have been acting, at least in part, in Islam's name when they committed these atrocities. This is a flagrant case of political desperadoes wrapping themselves in a religious flag. Islam teaches that when a person takes another life unlawfully it is as if he were killing all humanity. There is no political rhetoric that can reverse this moral law. The people who turned commercial airplanes into flying bombs and murdered thousands of innocent people will, in the imagery of the Quran, now burn in a spiritual Hell. Their families and remaining friends should confess their shame and ask God's forgiveness, for starters. The actions of the perpetrators have nothing to do with Islam.