My Muslim friends were not just going to church on Sunday. They were committed to Allah every day. I felt like I was missing out on something special.
I was Roman Catholic. I was an altar boy in high school. I sang in the choir. I participated in church-related plays. My mother was the choir master, and my father played the guitar. We spent hours at the church either for religious education purposes or to practice our ministry. I attended and led a variety of Catholic youth events, and eventually I was confirmed in the faith in 1993 (my high school graduation).
I knew the faith and the Catholic religion. I was content, or so I thought. I was content because I didn’t know any other way. It was just familiar, and I was merely complacent. Catholicism was just the natural course of things. It was the same way for my parents as it was for their parents. As a youth, my world was very small and simple. I did as my parents did, and life moved accordingly.
In my senior year of high school, I began to look at varying colleges to see what would be the best fit for me. I had numerous choices, but I opted for the college that appeared to be the most different from the current hometown experience. I elected to attend George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. Fairfax is a very diverse county in Northern Virginia. It was close to Washington, DC, and appeared to me that I would have an opportunity to absorb more culture than I had ever encountered before.
In the first semester of my freshman year, I decided to take a Middle Eastern studies class. That was really my first exposure to Islam. I was studying a part of the world all together unfamiliar to me and learning about civilizations and individuals that I had no reference for. It was really at this point where I started hearing the terms Islam and Muslim. I also was introduced to Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him and his progeny) for the first time. The class was filled with interesting discussion and my interest was piqued.
I started to engage my peers in the classroom and ask questions. What did it mean to be Muslim? Who is Allah? How is your faith different from mine? What I got in return from these questions was a perspective that I never knew existed. I saw how Muslims embraced God into their everyday lives. God wasn’t just on Sundays. God was a central part of life. In watching my brothers at George Mason University, I received the answers to these same questions every day. Every day, five times a day, each time they offered prayers, my friends were showing me a dedication that I never knew. Each time a friend put off playing basketball to make wudhu and pray, I saw his devotion.
I had taken my faith for granted. It was given to me. I inherited it. I was shocked and appalled. I was shocked and appalled, because I did not have this level of commitment to my faith. What I was hearing and witnessing was unparalleled at the time. My Muslim friends were not just going to church on Sunday. They were committed to Allah every day. I felt like I was missing out on something special. Why was I not privy to this relationship with God?
At the end of my freshman year, I came home to find out that my mother and father were getting a divorce. It is impossible for me to relay my feelings at the time. It was inconceivable. The family I had known for so long was breaking apart at the seams. It was earth shattering and rocked my belief in the Almighty and the Catholic Church. I felt let down and demoralized. I stopped attending church services and cut myself off from all religious affiliation or activity. I no longer prayed. I simply ceased my relationship with God.
In 1998, I worked at First Virginia Bank in Centreville, Virginia. I went to school during the day and worked the drive-through at the bank in the early evenings. At this particular branch, there were two Muslim sisters from Afghanistan. It was the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, and these sisters were fasting from sun up to sun down. I was once again in awe of their dedication to their faith. As a Catholic, you give up ice cream or soda for a month, but nobody I knew was willing to give up food and water from sunrise to sunset! It was an incredible testimony to their love of Allah. They would often times bring me food because I had nothing at the time. I was fasting because I had little money and hardly any food. One of the sisters saw I was interested in Islam and gave me the name of the resident scholar at Manassas Mosque, Shaikh Abu Nahidyan.
I contacted Sheikh Nahidyan by phone, and we set up a time when we could meet face-to-face. We spent a lot of time discussing the fundamentals. We discussed what was going on in the news. We also drank a lot of tea! He nurtured my faith without pressuring me. He let me sit in on meetings and prayer. I found him to be inspirational by his knowledge and his kind demeanor. I met him once a week, and my time with him was a reprieve from my otherwise hectic world. Sheikh Nahidyan was going to be the catalyst to my reversion. He was no more than himself, but his generosity with his time and knowledge meant the world to me. However, at the time, I was living in squalor. I was staying in a house that was used by migrant workers who moved up and down the East Coast. The house did not have proper plumbing, heating, or cooling. It was dangerous, and I had to leave. I left Virginia for Texas in December of 1999. I felt Islam was the right path, but I failed to follow through. I felt unworthy of the title “Muslim”.
In 2001, I married Marsela. We were the best of friends, and we relied on each other immensely. We found strength and resolve in each other. We loved each other completely and expected to spend the rest of our lives together. Yet shortly after our marriage, my wife was in a lot of pain. We went to the doctor, and after a battery of tests, they said she had uterine cancer. It was devastating news. We attempted a multitude of treatment options, but in the end, those treatments failed. We ran the risk of having the cancer metastasize if she did not opt for surgery to remove her uterus. It was a difficult decision but one that had to be made. In 2003, shortly after surgery, Marsela died of a pulmonary embolism that traveled from her legs to her lungs. It was devastating and heartbreaking. The grief was overbearing. I felt that Allah brought us together only to tear us apart. It was at this point that I had a one-way relationship with Allah. He was watching over me, but I wanted nothing to do with Him. I felt betrayed, and the depression of the event was taking its toll. I kept my smile bright upon outward appearance, but inwardly I felt like I was fading away.
A year of depression subdued me. I struggled to get up in the mornings and go to work, but my routine was the only thing holding me together. Then life took another turn. I came in contact with a most wonderful person. That person was to eventually be my present wife. I feel like I met Stacie out of divine intervention. I felt as though Allah was reaching out to me. She knew what it was like to hurt, and she knew I was hurting. She gave me rekindled spirit and a renewed vigor for life. Now, that didn’t just happen at the snap of her fingers. It was a gradual process. Allah saved me because He willed it and he brought somebody in my life to show me that He cared. He did not abandon me.
Even though I recognized Allah’s intervention, I still did not feel spiritually fulfilled. Stacie was a converted Roman Catholic. We tried going to church, and it was such an empty feeling. I did not leave feeling inspired or that the Holy Spirit had touched me. I simply did not believe in what the Church was saying anymore. There was a lack of spirituality there. How can you profess something you simply don’t believe? It cannot be done. So we didn’t venture to church anymore. We remained devoid of that spiritual fulfillment.
Then one day in the middle of February 2009, we began to talk about that empty feeling again, and my wife (who is Catholic) turned to me and said, “You should go to the mosque.” I was in shock. I felt like she was reading my mind and for her to have said that at that very moment was just another sign from Allah.
I contacted the mosque that evening in earnest. I wanted to start the process as soon as possible. I wanted to let the world know in seconds what it took me seemingly forever to figure out. I would have to wait. It was late in the evening and I could not call. No one would be there. I went to the ‘Ask the Aalim’ link on the Islamic Ahlul Bayt Association’s (Austin) website, and a few days later I got the reply that the scholar was not in the area and would not be available for a couple of weeks. I was deflated. I felt I needed to push harder. I needed to talk to somebody. I needed to make my Shahadah, or I was going to burst at the seams. I needed to speak to someone. I needed to talk to a brother about Islam. I needed to feel something spiritual. I was tired of feeling nothing at all.
I emailed again. A day passed, and the Shaikh gave me the name of a brother from the center, and we started corresponding via email. Eventually the emails lead to phone calls, and from there we decided to meet. There was excitement and apprehension. I was finally putting myself out there and taking the necessary steps to find a working relationship with Allah. I was ending a period of my life that was a spiritual null and hoping to find my relationship with God.
I met with two brothers from the mosque at a restaurant, and we talked about where I had come from and my story. They were trying to gauge what my interest level was in relation to Islam. I did have questions, but they were moot. I just wanted to tell them. I had made the Shahadah in my head countless times in the days preceding our meeting, but I wanted someone else to hear it. I wanted to make it well known that I was Muslim, a servant to Allah. I told them that day I was Muslim and asked for their help.
That day we created a plan. I would learn in stages. The object, one of the brothers said, was not to take too much on at once. He felt I should learn in stages and steps. This was hard, and at times I did push too hard and felt like it was too much. But for each step I went back, I took another two forward. We would continue to meet every week for a couple of months so that I could ask questions and they could gauge progress. Today, I am very proud to call these individuals my brothers and my friends. They have been instrumental to my development as a Muslim, and I met them only through the grace of Allah.
It has been seven months now since I made my Shahadah. I feel the connection between myself and my Creator growing each day. Each day my faith increases. The things that happened in my past have led me to appreciate my present. I am indeed blessed. I am in the perfect position to praise Allah for all that He has done for me.
At each stage of my journey, a brother or a sister reached out to me. They gave me a glimpse into their lives. They gave me their time and attention. They performed the ultimate Da’wah by simply being good Muslims in practicing their faith openly and honestly. It was through these interactions and the guidance of Allah that I am able to write this article today, as a servant, as a friend, and as a Muslim.