Journey to Islam: Tavis Adibudeen
Many of the things people go through prepare them for life and mold the choices they make in the future. Islam, now the fastest growing religion in the US (at approx. 500,000 new converts a year), relays this very well. All of the converts (or more appropriately: reverts) to Islam have some significant or collection of insignificant events or people that shaped their concept of Islam. This concept, for them, became action. It is fair to say that many of the things that introduce a person to Islam are difficulties and misunderstandings. It has been said that one must crawl before they can walk, or you must get knocked down before you can be picked up again. This is often the case for new Muslims in America. They don't realize how precious Islam is, until they realize how hard life can be. We are not prophets, and therefore there is no revelation to us. Instead, we must come to terms with our reality before touching our spirituality. For African Americans in America, this is a difficult road in which to travel. Today, there is an estimated 10 million Muslims in the United States, 2 million of which are African American. Furthermore,
most of the new Muslims are of African descent. For them, it is a story of self discovery erased by 200 years of slavery. Some identify with Islam firstly because it was practiced by many of the their ancestors from Africa, and Christianity was forced on the slaves by Europeans. Others, because it clears obvious mistakes and exclusions of African Americans in Christianity. Most, however, find a combination of all these things with Islam. This is the road I had to travel. This was my light at the end of the tunnel.
I was raised in Indianapolis, Indiana from birth to Christian parents. My mother, raised in Tennessee, was a Methodist Christian and a frequent church attender. My father was non-denominational and an occasional church attender. My mother was a very religious person, so my father, my sister, and I usually went to church with her.
From as early as I can remember, I was always surrounded by Christianity. My father and mother both worked, and they were trying to finish school. This meant that someone would have to take care of me during the day. Until I was about three, I had a baby sitter. Then, I started going to Noah's Ark, a private Christian preschool. By this time my sister had started elementary school. Noah's Ark was like living in Sunday school. We learned Bible verses, sang church songs, and also did general child type activities. I often remember bringing home little cards that had bible verses on them. If you memorized the verse, you would get a reward. I don't really remember what the reward was. I guess I didn't memorize enough to know what it was.
On Sundays we all put on our best clothes and went to church. To me it seemed to be mostly singing and nodding of heads. At my youthful age, I had little understanding of what purpose any of the things we did served. In fact I still question that today, but I thought my mother knew everything (and compared to what I knew she did), so I did what she said. As I grew older, things seemed to drift away and eventually fall apart. My father began going to church less and less. For the first time, I was in a public school where the teaching of any religion is illegal, and I suddenly found myself in an environment much different from Noah's ark. At this point in my life, there were two religions; one was Christianity, and the other one wasn't. At ages six and seven, I had never heard of Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, or anything else. Actually, I knew of one other religion: Jehovah's Witnesses. They seemed to just be strict Christians to me. My friend who lived across the street from me was a Jehovah's Witness, but my impressions of them mostly came from the people who dressed up and went door to door trying to interest people. Often times, we tried to avoid opening the door, so they wouldn't bother us.
The earliest church congregation that I remember was the one my mother stayed with until
recently. In Christianity the minister preached for a living. He was paid by the congregation, and he lived in a house especially set aside by the church. Our first minister was energetic, but they got rid of him. The second was a women, who I thought was nice, but they got rid of her too. Then came a man who changed the way I looked at the religion. Maybe it was just because I was older, or maybe he actually had something to do with it. Regardless, I actually went to church to hear him, but that wasn't until later in my life.
They say, however, that children identify with their same sex parents, and I identified with my father. By the time I was in fifth grade, he usually only went to church on Christmas, Easter, and Mother's Day. I soon followed. It actually wasn't until several years later that the third minister would come to our church.
I had always loved Christmas, not because of its religious significance, but because it was a tradition to exchange gifts on that holiday. Many songs were about the birth of Jesus (alaiy his salaam), but it seemed as though there were and are just as many songs about Santa Claus. So, many stories existed about Santa Claus, that seemed ridiculous to an adult but were sacred when told to a child. A big, round, rosy cheeked white man supposedly flew through the sky (propelled by flying reindeer) on Christmas Eve dropping off presents at people's houses. My sister and I believed in that for many years. We decorated Christmas trees, baked Christmas cookies, drank eggnog, and went to bed early on December 24 every year so Santa Claus could come down our Chimney at night and give us gifts. It seems so silly now, but it was something we believed and something our parents told us and helped us believe. Naturally, most children would eventually find out that Santa was fake and spread it to other kids. It was my sister that eventually told me. All those years Mommy and Daddy had been putting the presents there at night, not Santa! I felt violated. I was taught at Noah's Ark that we weren't supposed to lie, yet Americans lie to their children every year. These Christian children seemed to hold the mystical Santa Claus more dear to them than the real Jesus Christ (ahs). Strike one. At the age of eleven, Islam was introduced to me for the first time, although very briefly. In middle school we studied various cultures in my social studies classes. I only learned that "Muhammad was the prophet of Islam, and Muslims prayed five times a day." I didn't learn anything else. I did know of some famous Muslims such as boxer Muhammad Ali and basketball player Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, but I knew little about them. It was, however, the same year that Kareem played his last basketball game before retiring. This was also the first real extensive amount of time I spent in a normal public school with normal classes and normal kids. I was suddenly not special anymore. I was not in higher classes than other kids anymore. It was as though I had to start over for no reason, but it exposed me to a wider variety of people. I became more in touch with people who looked like me. Middle school had many more African Americans (due to busing children) than I had ever seen outside of my old neighborhood. I also began to realize things about white teachers and students. I had only read about racial discrimination until now. Suddenly, I was growing up, and teachers began to treat me like a "black male" instead of a student. This only made me realize other things about my religion. I began to wonder why all the pictures of Jesus (ahs) were pictures of a white man. Why was the son of God a white man? This seemed to indicate that black people were inferior to white
people. Strike two. As I progressed through Middle School, I became more aware of our differences. Blacks and Whites almost totally segregated themselves. It seemed as if all the things I read about were still happening. The more that white people did and said things that were mean and offensive to me, the harder I found it to love the son of God. I began to rationalize wondering if this white man was as racist as the white men with which I came in contact were. It came to the point where I almost became militant.
My grades began to fall as my black friends and I found little interest in the white school system. It seemed as though it wasn't meant to teach us at all. We were excluded from history books and literature books. When we did achieve things, it was played down by the white teachers. By the time I reached the eighth grade, I didn't even want to step one foot into a church. Ironically, it
was about this time that I met the minister that had a different approach to Christianity. His teachings were more understandable and down to earth. I still found it hard, though. This was because he was saying one thing, yet the things and people around him said another. It was nearly required that you dress up for church. People talked about people if they didn't or couldn't dress as nicely as they did. It was a fashion show. Most of the time was spent singing, or so it seemed. I didn't see the point in singing, but it was beautiful when done correctly. I could not, however, deal with the fashion show. We became the models as we walked down the
aisle. Gossip constantly circled about people in and outside the church. The things that I didn't like about the world outside of church suddenly seemed to be a part of the church. Strike three. It was at this time, my freshman year in high school that I declared I would never go to church again. I saw it as stupid and pointless. I didn't feel comfortable there. Instead it felt like I was in a theater and the minister, my friend, was on stage. If he performed well he'd get paid and keep the seats filled. If he didn't, his fate would resemble the two before him. As if almost by fate, I first became aware of the religion called Islam. I had a friend in my English class who was a Muslim. After all this time, this was the first time I had come in contact with a Muslim. He mostly talked about the things that Muslims did. I listened, but I really didn't show much interest in it. He never really said what their beliefs were, and I never asked. At age 15 I met another guy who was just a militant as I, if not more. I'll call him MC. MC was the first person to ever tell me how bad pork really was. My mother, raised in the south, naturally cooked a lot of it. We had bacon, ham, sausage, hot-dogs, ribs, and she even ate chitterlings (pig intestines). It didn't take long for me to give up pork totally. I realized how damaging it could be to my health, but I also realized something deeper. So many black people eat pork because it was the meat that white slave masters didn't want, so they gave the scraps to the black slaves. It became a regular food for our culture. It is no wonder that black people have a higher rate of heart attacks and high blood pressure that whites. When I read deeper beneath the surface, MC helped me also realize that the Bible actually said that people were forbidden from eating the flesh of swine. Furthermore, other things, such as alcohol, fornication, adultery, and gambling were also forbidden, yet many Christians did it anyway. Luckily, I had never done any of that stuff. My parents and my early Noah's Ark teachers had told me not to do that. That, however, did not necessarily apply to them. At age 16 I began to feel totally betrayed by everyone, even Jesus (ahs). Everything, if anything, that ever appealed to me about Christianity had been yanked out from under me by the realities of my society. The more I look back and think about it, the more I understand. I never stopped believing in God, I just didn't believe in all the extra things others associated with God. All my life I had just prayed to God. I truthfully rarely thought or even cared about Jesus. We were supposed to live our lives like him, but all I ever heard about his life were miracles. How are we to perform miracles? It seemed contradictory. I then began to look for something else. Jews had
never been on good terms with African Americans, so I never really looked towards that. There was a group of Black Jews who believed that the actual children of Israel are African Americans. We have been here for 400 years, but many of the things they said seemed distant and unrealistic if not totally unimportant. The more I thought, the more curiosity that arose in me about Islam. Many images had been placed before me about Muslims being terrorists and oppressing women, etc. I, however, had seen and lived real oppression. I had witnessed terrorism, and I knew that the things the Muslims I saw were doing were not bad. If anything, they were better than what I saw Christians doing.
Based on this principle, I began to read about Islam. I'm not really sure what I read first. I read many articles about Muslim men and women. The articles touched me. One in particular which I still have today called, "Converts to the Faith" seemed to fit my situation exactly. It was then that I decided to buy a Qur'an from the book store. That summer I read the entire book from front to back. It shocked me vividly. I had long been taught all of these miracles of Jesus and mystical things such as Santa Claus, but the Qur'an had a humanity about it. It seemed like a book that was meant to be read by human beings, not supernatural beings. It plainly told the rules and ways of living that all people should uphold. It was common sense. It was what everybody seemed to know but unconsciously denied it. For some time it was all I needed. I did nothing more than read parts over and over again trying to understand every part. It all made sense. There were no contradictions. God was but one God, Allah. It stressed showing compassion for the poor and the brotherhood of Muslims. For a long time, I didn't even let anyone know I had bought it.
The only reason I had waited until when I did was because I had learned to drive. That way no one would know I was considering this.
For a long time I wondered what my mother would think if I became a Muslim. So, I did nothing for a little longer. I continued to pray as I always had: head bowed praying to my One God, only now I called that God, Allah. I was already a Muslim at heart. I watched a lot of TV shows and read a lot of books on Islam that year. Naturally, my mother became aware of the pattern. I don't know how much she knew about Islam, so it probably scared her. My father, who had since moved out when my parents got divorced, definitely seem worried that I might be getting into something bad. This was in part because my grades had not yet improved, and I was
somewhat of a rebellious teenager.
I began to show some of my articles to my mother. I really didn't show her much, and she really didn't ask much. It was a time when I was alone by choice. My friends had either moved, died, or just gone in a different direction than I. I saw no need for them anyway. It was just me, my Qur'an, and my thoughts. Then, I decided I wanted more. I wanted to become a Muslim, and I couldn't do it alone. I wanted to learn a better way to pray and glorify Allah. I wanted to learn more about Muhammad (sallahu alaiyhi wasalaam), and I wanted to meet people who believed in the book I had come to cherish. In the summer of 1995, I started getting into the internet. It had many helpful things about Islam. The knowledge that I attained just by reading the things posted on the world wide web finally
pushed me over the edge. I couldn't deny my birth right. My parents, sister, and friends have always been supportive of me. I could only hope they would continue to do so, in spite of what I was about to do. It was a late afternoon in September of 1995 when I began flipping through the yellow pages for something that said "Mosque." I found two entries in the yellow pages. I called the first one and
got no answer. Then, I called the second one, and the answer machine picked up giving an alternative phone number to call for help. I called the number, at this point shaking from nervousness. Many things were going through my head, "What if they don't want to be bothered with me? What if they don't accept me? What if I'm making the wrong decision?" I had always been a worrisome person. In fact, earlier that same year, I had worried myself into the hospital. All they could ever conclude was that my stomach was inflamed. The only thing I could do was see a Psychologist who taught me how to relax, and I adhered to a strict diet. It still happens
sometimes, but it is a rare thing. I dialed the number not knowing what to expect or who I was calling. A woman answered the
phone, and just said, "Hello?" That made me think that this must be a home phone number. I told her I was interested in Islam. I expected her to seem surprised, say she didn't care, or just say, "and....," but she didn't. In fact she acted as if it happened all the time. She told me her husband, the Imam, was at work, and she would have him call me. All of my foolish worrying suddenly ended. I was calm now. Later that night, he called me, and we talked for a long time. He too had reverted some 20 years ago. It was as though he had already lived through the same things I was telling him. Not only did he understand how I thought, but it seemed like he had once had the same thought process. It is natural to question the unknown, and that's all I had done. He invited me to Wednesday night Taleem at the Islamic Center. Oddly enough, it was a rainy night, and no one showed up that night. When I arrived, it was just he and I in an empty building discussing faith, politics, and life. After talking for at least an hour, one other person
showed up, and they prayed. The first night I just watched. The second night I participated, and from that point forward, I was committed to this wonderful religion. As I learned more about Muslims, I continued to study Islam. I started going to Arabic classes
on Sundays, and I began to grow even more appreciative of the Glorious Qur'an. About one month after the day I first stepped into the Masjid, I took the Shahada. It was an emotional night for me. I still remember the brothers that were there to witness it, and I'm sure they remember too. Those words had so much meaning, and so much power. I may not feel that much joy and emotion again until Hajj. It was that powerful. When it was over, I went home and told everybody important to me. My mother was the first to know. She didn't seem surprised. Instead she congratulated me as though she could feel my emotion. My father had a less emotional response, but it was equally as approved. I'm still not sure what my sister's feelings were about it, but she never objected. In fact, my whole family kept most of their opinions to themselves. That showed me that they trusted my judgment, and they were
right for doing so.
That was over one year ago when I took the Shahada. It wasn't long after that when I learned to do many of the obligations such as salat, wu'du, the athan, and other things. I had finally began my final journey. No longer would I turn around and go back. I knew this was a lifelong decision. Since that time, I have sometimes had to defend my decision to people, and maybe even justify my very way of life, but that hostility was often from people who were really interested but denying themselves as I had. People have often asked me how I do it. They think Islam is hard. I tell them that after going through what it took me just to realize Islam, this religion is easy. Allah does not wish any difficulty on you. The Qur'an puts it in the most beautiful words that I will humbly display in English, "This day have those who Reject Faith given up All hope of your religion: Yet fear them not But fear Me. This day have I Perfected your religion For you, completed My favour upon you, And have chosen for you Islam as your religion."--sura Al-M'ida, ayat 3.
The road which we travel to get where we intend to go is often worn by the time we get there. I have learned that Islam is a lifetime struggle. This is the essence of Jihad. Those who strive in the Name of their Lord are those who are the righteous. It has indeed been a ride for me. When I first became dissatisfied with Christianity, I entered a tunnel that appeared to have no end. My life seemed to be headed towards a fabricated way of living. With Islam, however, came my exit. It is the light at the end of the tunnel. No longer can I say that I live in self-inflicted solitude. No longer can I say I have lived my life in darkness. No longer can I worry what will happen next. No longer can I say that I am dissatisfied. All I can say is Al-Hamdulillah (praise be to Allah).
Topics: Church, Islam