If anyone had told me a year before I became a Muslim that my head and heart would be open to Islam, my response would have been, "You're out of your mind!" So how did I come to this point in my life?
On the outside, I had a good life. As a beneficiary of the civil rights movement, I became the first black editor at Redbook Magazine in the mid-1960s. Then I freelanced for magazines and did research for television.
I had a rich social and professional network. I believed, along with my friends and colleagues, that we could help make a positive change in America. It was the time of "Say it loud: I'm black and I'm proud." My Afro hairstyle and my support for the black arts movement expressed my black pride. The knowledge of Africa's great past awakened my African identity.
My family was proud and supportive of my accomplishments. I'd made it.
On the inside, though, a creeping emptiness had begun to spread. I'd joined freedom rides, picket lines, and boycotts with the Congress of Racial Equality. I had volunteered with the National Urban League. But the bullets that killed John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr. each killed a bit of my spirit and hope. Cynicism began to take root.
Meanwhile, I had drifted away from organized religion and settled on the middle ground of agnosticism. The death of a 24-year-old relative left me angry and confused that God would take such a nice guy when so many bad people were creating mayhem. Neither my childhood beliefs nor my adult agnosticism could comfort or satisfy me.
The deep questions of life that periodically rise in us all began to surface: If I'd "made it," why did I feel so empty? Material goods, careers, family and friends alone did not fill my inner space. Is life just a free fall from birth to death? Is this all there is? Why am I here? I became hungry for meaning.
Then I met the man who would become my husband and the father of my child. He was a Muslim. He talked of our ancestors' African Islamic identity, along with his dream of a new future for people of African descent. He emphasized how our African past was linked to Islam in empires like Songhai and Mali, and in renowned centers of learning like Timbuktu.
I read literature about the basic tenets of Islam. Several were similar to Christianity, although there were fundamental differences. The concept of unity (tawhid--the interconnectedness of all things--touched a deep chord in me. I saw how all parts of me--mind, body, spirit--connected to my total environment. This, for me, was profound.
At Friday services in the mosque, the imam, an African-American who had studied Islam at Al-Azhar University in Egypt, described Islam as a scientific way of life bound by God's spiritual, physical, and social laws. He believed it was just the medicine needed to uplift humanity, but especially for African- Americans suffering the after-effects of slavery.
I was impressed by the focus on family and by the bonds of brotherhood and sisterhood. Given the popular perception of the absentee African-American father, I was particularly impressed by the Muslim men talking to and laughing with young children, even holding infants. The sisters drew me into their circle and freely answered my questions.
I had met Betty Shabazz, the late widow of Al-Hajj Malik El Shabazz (Malcolm X), when I was helping to edit a book about her husband. When she learned of my engagement, she extolled for me the benefits of being married to a Muslim man. In addition to their focus on family and responsibility, those men were sincere in practicing the faith and believed it was their duty to protect and support their wives, and treat them with love and respect. She also pointed out that the ideal of Islam was free of racism and classism.
On the evening that I sat in hijab (head scarf) on the carpet in front of the imam, ready to make my shahada (witness), I was convinced that I needed Islam for me and not just to please my future husband. Before witnesses, I professed that there is no God but God (Allah), and that Muhammad ibn Abdullah is His prophet and messenger. Also, I professed belief in Allah's angels, in the Books of Allah, in Allah's prophets, and in life after death. Then the imam said, "You've taken the first step toward becoming a Muslim. Now the work begins."
That work is never-ending. It began with studying--learning what is halal (lawful) and haram (prohibited), and why. It continues with trying to incorporate its principles into all aspects of my world. I gave away the clothes of my old life, covered my hair, and made ankle and wrist-length garments that both cover and conceal. The duty-free alcohol went down the toilet, the cigarettes went into the garbage. I scrutinized food labels to avoid haram ingredients. I learned the cleansing ritual before prayers and the prayers themselves. Gradually, I changed my work schedule in order to attend Friday juma' services. The Islamic holy days replaced the holidays of my old tradition.
These were traumatic enough. However, my inward shifts were, and continue to be, the most astonishing. For one, I was unaware of the extent of my arrogance and ignorance until I had to bow down to Allah in prayer. My credo had been, "I am the captain of my ship! I am the master of my fate!"
Yes, a measure of free will exists to make choices. What I came to understand, though, is that the great "I" played no part in providing the essentials of life that I took for granted: the air we breathe, the rain that nourishes our food plants, the sun that fuels life-sustaining processes. So shouldn't we humble ourselves to this powerful and generous Creator? Could there be a more appropriate gesture of reverence?
Another big shift came five years after I embraced Islam. My father died suddenly of a massive stroke. I was grief-stricken, but my behavior and attitude were different from what I had displayed 10 years earlier when my young relative died. True, my father was older, but 62 is not so old. What was different was me.
What Muslims say on this occasion had real meaning: "We all come from Allah and to Him we shall return." I could express my gratitude to Allah for long talks I'd had with my father over the previous year, evidence of a closeness we'd experienced that hadn't existed since I was a child. And despite my pain, I could be grateful that Allah took him swiftly.
A wise person once said, "A problem cannot be solved on the same level of consciousness at which it was created." The hopelessness, cynicism, anxiety, rage, and despair that mark contemporary life--symptoms of an individual's and a society's loss of meaning--threatened to consume me. But on that day nearly 30 years ago, I opened a door to become something else, and I am still "becoming."
I could not comprehend how seeing life through the lens of an Islamic consciousness would change me. One friend was turned off by my zeal, screaming, "Give me a break!" Time and experience have since mellowed me.
My hijab and peaceful demeanor surprised another friend who saw me about eight years after my shahada. He remarked, "It suits you!"
Yes, it does suit me, and I have yet to feel empty again.