I have been suspicious of conversion stories since I read Augustine’s Confessions and saw how he agonized over stealing some pears from his neighbor’s tree and yet forgetting to mention his illegitimate child and any contrition about that. On the other hand, actually that cause for me to trust his Confessions because the juxtaposition of those two events in his story is just so human—getting the point and missing it in fundamental ways.
After many years, I am finally sharing some of my story of why I think it took me so long to leave Islam and become a Christian. I am sure that I focus on some things and fail to see some of my own personal failures, pride and otherwise, that contributed to the timing of my conversion. I pray that you give me a break and read it as a Christian who was, is, and most likely will always be a mess—getting some points and missing larger more fundamental points.
I am sure that you have heard Christians say that we do not convert someone, only God does. I get it, believe it, but I am tired of hearing it. Why tired of hearing it? I think it is because I know that dynamic within myself and more often than not it comes not out of humility, but out of laziness and a desire to give myself permission to be rude. The fact is that God uses people and their relationships with non-believers as the vehicle for relating the truth to others. I don’t know why God does that, but perhaps it has something to do with the importance of relationship to God. God is relational in His being, and thus the Trinity. However, I would be claiming to know more than I really know if I presumed to grasp why God uses people as vehicles for the truth.
So, since God tends to operate in a relational fashion, we can’t legitimately dodge one of God’s favorite means for disseminating truth and ignore that more often than not, He has a role of us in leading others to Him.
So, what took me so long to declare myself a Christian after years of being a Muslim? Of course, there were my own intrinsic weaknesses and faults, but I would be hiding the truth from you if I didn’t acknowledge that one major factor in keeping me away from living the truth was Christians. I lived in the buckle of the Bible belt and was surrounded by congenital Christians—people who read their Bible, faithfully attend church, could craft an elegantly worded prayer, and knew by heart the words of more than ten hymns. It was these same Christians who baffled me because they told me that God was love; that Jesus called them to love all people, including their enemies; and yet I just didn’t seem to see the love.
What I experienced in my life on the buckle was hateful words directed toward gays, liberals, Muslims, Catholics, and the list just seem to grow more and more. I also experienced being on that list and was the recipient on more than one occasion of those hateful words. It just didn’t add up. What did add up was that I knew that I didn’t want to have anything to do with those Christians. The problem was that they were unavoidable. In life on the belt buckle, they surrounded me in Walmart, the Dairy Queen, college classes, sitting around me in the DMV, the doctor’s office, just about everywhere. As soon as they heard that I was a Muslim, out came the Bibles that were used as a weapon against me, my beliefs, and the ones I loved. When that tactic didn’t work, I was either labelled as deceived by Satan or just ignored, cut out of their lives. The latter was the most common occurrence.
The wild reality was that inwardly I loved Jesus and had come to believe that He was not only the Lord and Savior, but He was my Lord and Savior. I just couldn’t stand being around Christians. I will never forget one interaction with a Christian who told me what I believed as a Muslim and when I responded that I didn’t believe that, he said that I was practicing taqiyyah (a form of planned lie). Unfortunately, I got angry and told him that if he wanted to know what taqiyyah really was he might look at Christian missionaries who lie about why they travel to Muslim populated countries and live there. Instead of saying that they were professionals hired to convert Muslims, they said things like they were helping build the infrastructure. While it wasn’t a total lie, it was what my Roman Catholic friends called, lying by omission. That scene didn’t go very well. It was not one my proudest moments, but hey.
I was baffled when Christians told me that they loved me, but they wanted me to change because I was unacceptable to them the way I believed and practiced my faith. They said that they loved me, but they called the founder of my faith a pedophile and said that they couldn’t understand how anyone could fall for that set of lies and set of deceptions. I tried to be nice to them because I was born in the Midwest and that is what a nice Midwest boy does even when he knows that he is just a project to them, someone to convert.
So I remained a closeted Christian until I met two wonderful Christians who didn’t try to convert me, make me into a project or object of a tactic or strategy, didn’t criticize my faith, didn’t label Muhammad as a war mongering pedophile who oppressed women, refrained from saying that Islam is the cause of backwardness in the Muslim populated world, never said that only an idiot could believe Islam.
These two Christians did radically Christian things like invite me to dinner, went to my mosque and politely asked questions about things they didn’t understand, listened to my religious doubts and shared some of their own, cried with me when my best friend died, invited me to a Christmas celebration but didn’t force me to sing Christmas carols, discussed overlapping intellectual interests, didn’t try to slip me a pulled pork sandwich calling it the other white meat, laughed at movies we attended together….they prayed for me and let me pray for them. They were real. They had both been missionaries and they told me that fact about themselves right up front without hiding the reality that their hope was that the people they ministered to would hear the truth about Jesus.
One Christian was a physics professor and the other was a philosophy professor. I was finishing my first doctorate in philosophy with concentrations in mathematical logic and analytic epistemology, but our time together was not a total nerd fest. We had some of that, but we enjoyed eating fat-filled Chubby Hubby ice cream and debated whether the Yankees or the Red Sox were the best as if it wasn’t already totally apparent that the Yankees ruled.
These were nice men who helped me heal from my previous experiences with Christians. They didn’t just talk about love; they lived it. They didn’t just say that God loves me; they showed it. They showed the truth more than told me about it. I liked that because words are so cheap and that from someone who is a philosopher.
Through their love I dared to call myself a Christian. Through God’s love shown through these wonderful men, I allowed myself to let my outside match the reality of my inside and embrace some measure of peace and joy in my life.
I think my history contributes to my current grief when I hear what Christians often say about Muslims and Islam. I hear Franklin Graham declare that the United States should not permit Muslims to immigrate to this country and that the presence of a mosque in a Florida airport is an abomination. I shake my head and relive those days when I was surrounded by this kind of Christian and the feelings I had in those days come back. The prevailing feeling is sadness. Sadness is what I feel when I hear about Qur’an burning days, “Draw Muhammad” contests that end in increased hatred and violence, when another mosque is burned or a swastika is drawn on the front of a mosque along with the words, “Go home.”
I am getting old now, and these things sadden me. Sure I am saddened when I hear about al-Qaeda and ISIS and the other haters among the Muslims. How can we not be saddened by that level of human-on-human hatred. But you know, I am also more hopeful than I have ever been. I am hopeful when a young man from Texas says that he is going to give up the possibility of a good job in business making lots of money so he can live among Muslims because he loves them and when you love someone you want to be around them. That is beautiful! I am hopeful that the Zwemer Center can publish articles from diverse views with a common theme of love for Muslims because I knew all too well that just five years ago this would have been impossible. I am hopeful when I teach a course in Muslim studies and I see the light go on in the eyes of a 20-something young lady who “gets it” and wants to work among the Palestinians so they have a better life and their kids have a better life and Jews and Christians in the area have a better life.
Things are changing—in some ways for the better and in some ways for the worse. But I am hopeful because I get to hang around some Christians who understand that as good as apologetics is they know that winning an argument and losing a heart is far too big a price to pay.
So while I can’t hide that it was a particular kind of Christian who delayed my declaration that I was a Christian and while those Christians are still out there in unfortunately large numbers, I am hopeful because slowly Christians are learning what it means to be a Christian and are daring to love without reserve with respect to Muslims.
You can find them. It’s not that difficult. They will be the ones who are smiling and hanging out with Muslims, showing what love looks like.
As a Muslim the author held key positions in large influential Muslim organizations. He travelled throughout the world introducing Muslims to the tactics of Christian missionaries and designed methods for reaching Christians in the hope they would embrace Islam. He still loves Muslims, but his hope for them is that they see Jesus as the only way of salvation.