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.
But some people in America obviously think otherwise.
In a few short days we have seen pigs' blood thrown at the door of a mosque in San Francisco, 300 marchers waving flags and shouting "USA" as they tried to descend on a mosque in Chicago, a disturbed individual wearing what looked like a bomb in the parking lot of a Muslim school in Silicon Valley, gunshots in Texas, and mosques vandalized in Washington D.C. Electronic hate mail has flooded the chat boards of ABC, NBC, CBS and CNN. (Example: "It's time to eradicate Islam.")
It is no surprise that huge misunderstandings persist in this country concerning Islam, but there is greater ignorance afoot. The ignorance of assigning guilt by association, for instance, as though a political murderer's claim to your religion must automatically tar you with his convictions.
We also hear people making a lot of noise about "Martyrdom" and Islam these days.
Concerning this confusion, try to remember that Christianity, America's mainstream religion, has in common with Islam a well developed conception of religious sacrifice, that people of both faiths hope to be rewarded after death for good actions, that they believe they may reach a better place by being better human beings. It is a belief that has sustained billions of people over the centuries, guided their actions and illuminated their lives. It is also, as we know to our cost, a belief that is easily twisted: by rulers (beginning with the medieval Crusader kings), by millenarian, self-serving, misguided 'leaders' (think of Jim Jones) and desperate social revolutionaries (Nat Turner, John Brown). In terrible times, religion has been invoked for the greatest crimes, genocide (Nazism, the destruction of Bosnia) and organized racism (the Ku Klux Klan). Yet Christians do not consider their religion tainted. And they are right.
If this is a time of mourning, it is also a time for acts of imagination.
If, for example, you are an 'ordinary' American, try to imagine how it must feel right now for any of the 3.5 million Arab Americans or the 6 million American Muslims, citizens all, simply to stroll down a crowded city street on the way to school or a bakery or a hospital. We have all just been reminded how fragile human life can be. Perhaps we can draw on that knowledge to bring some comfort to people who, in addition to their grief over what has occurred, must also walk in the shadow of guilt by association. Try to remember that there are Arab Americans serving in the White House, six Arab Americans in Congress and that, side by side with all the others, approximately two hundred Muslims were in the World Trade Center and the Pentagon when the airplanes struck on September 11.
Muslim Americans have the same job before them. If you're a Muslim, try to imagine how frightened a blonde, blue eyed woman might be, this morning, as she stands in line at the airport about to board an airplane while a perfectly innocent Arab or Muslim couple stand in line in front of her? What can you do for her? Can you think of some way to erase the line that separates you and offer some human gesture that she may recognize?
A friend of mine writes: "Brutality (the use of power to degrade and to wound) is the essence of social misery. And increasing the acceptability of brutality, whether through self-indulgence, evasion, or outright lie, is criminal. I can think of no human reality which it is necessary to rise above other than brutality. I can think of no human misery--personal, political, economic--to which it is not central."
Let good sense prevail. Let Americans see this terrible action for what it was-criminal terrorism perpetrated by extremists. The plotters and actors may call themselves Muslims, but they are religious failures. They have smeared the good name of a peaceful faith.
We should pray for protection when emotions run high. May God bring us sudden good and protect us from sudden evil.