The day I became a Muslim

At an Indian mosque on a blazing summer afternoon, a moment that I had only dreamed of came true.


Zachary Karabell
December 11, 1999 10:00PM (UTC)

It was hot. It was hot like no heat I had ever experienced. Hot to the point where nothing else registered. I later learned that it was 125 degrees that afternoon, and the humidity was high, as it often is in northern India just before the monsoon arrives in mid-summer. Words like sauna come to mind, but that doesn't do justice to the feeling. As my pores expanded, and drops of sweat evaporated before they had a chance to trickle down my body, I entered an altered state. At least, that's what I'd like to believe, because that afternoon, 12 years ago, I might have become a Muslim.

I'd fled the heat of Agra for the nearby village of Fatehpur Sikri. Agra is deservedly famous for the Taj Mahal and the Red Fort, in which the builder of that building, the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, spent the last years of his life in prison staring at a sliver of the resplendent Taj, the mausoleum constructed for his beloved wife, Mumtaz. But only a few miles away sits a village that was once the marvel of the world.

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Constructed over a period of five years by the emperor Akbar in the late 16th century, Fatehpur Sikri was meant to commemorate the miraculous pregnancy of Akbar's barren wife. In desperation, he had gone to visit the holy man Selim Chisti, who would in time become the founder of a Sufi holy order that bears his name. After being blessed by Chisti, Akbar and his empress were rewarded with a son. In thanks, Akbar built a glorious city of palaces and mosques, which flourished briefly and then fell into disuse after the emperor's death. His grandson Shah Jahan surpassed the wonder of Fatehpur Sikri with the edifices in Agra, and today, all that remains of the former glory of the village are a palace and a magnificent mosque called Jami Masjid. It is there, in the room of the imam, that a book sits with the name of the believers, and one of those names may be mine.

The mosque is designed in the "medresa" style, with a vast courtyard flanked by colonnades and symmetrical towering arches in which students would study the Koran during the years when the mosque also served as an Arabic university. In the middle of the courtyard is a shrine to Saint Chisti, made of cool white marble, and women come from the surrounding towns to tie little pieces of clothing to the grates of the shrine. They hope that some of the saint's posthumous holiness will give them an added edge in the fertility game.

Contrary to what some of the locals in Agra had told us, Fatehpur Sikri was no cooler. Granted, there was a dilapidated ice cream cart in front of the entrance to the mosque, and I watched in fascination as a withered old man churned a wooden handle and then proudly showed us a goop that he called ice cream. I was so thankful for the wisps of ice cold air that I bought a few servings and asked him to keep the lid off as long as possible.

After a futile attempt at sightseeing, we retreated to the shade of the colonnade and planted ourselves there. I had no intention of moving until the sun went down, and as the afternoon rays burned, I couldn't have moved even if we had wanted to. The stone in the central, exposed courtyard had become dangerously hot. Having removed our shoes at the entrance, I could no longer cross the courtyard to exit.

I must have dozed off, because the next thing I remember I was surrounded by a group of about a dozen young men seated in a circle. Bearded, studious, they had clearly taken to heart the Persian inscription on the side of the gate overlooking the town: "He that standeth up to pray and his heart is not his duty, does not draw nigh to God but remains far from Him. Your best possession is what you give in alms; your best trade is selling this world for the next. Said Jesus -- on whom be peace -- the world be a bridge, pass over it but build no houses on it. He who hopes for an hour may hope for an eternity. The world is but for an hour; spend it in devotion. The rest is unseen."

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Though the men in the circle were speaking Urdu, I could make out the occasional word in Arabic, and noticed that they each carried a copy of the Koran. A slightly older man seemed to be leading the discussion, and given his demeanor and the white skull cap, I assumed that he was their imam. As their teacher cum prayer leader, he asked questions, elicited responses, posed challenges. I had spent a portion of my first years in college studying Arabic and Islam, and I found the scenario fascinating. Here I was, half a world away, in the middle of something I had only read about. It was Islam in practice, and I was hooked.

They must have noticed my attentiveness, because one of them came over and asked me my name. Pleasantries were exchanged in simple English, and he invited me to join the circle, which I did like a wide-eyed little kid asked to sit with the grown-ups. One of the advantages of traveling in India is the prevalence of English-speakers, thanks to the several hundred years of British rule. Politely adapting themselves to the stranger that they had invited into their study group, they did their best to continue the discussion in English, though not everyone was able to communicate. For the next hour or so, I listened and occasionally asked a question. I can no longer remember what verse of the Koran they were discussing, only that the conversation flowed quietly in the heat, punctured by digressions in Urdu and Arabic.

At some point, I realized that all attention was on me. They wanted to know about me, about why I was there, what I was looking for. They wanted to know my faith, and I answered honestly that I wasn't sure. They pointed to the shrine of the Sufi saint and asked me if it was like the shrines of Catholic saints. I answered yes, in Europe and Latin America there were such places of pilgrimage. They gestured around the courtyard and asked if there were places like it in the West. I looked at them, and I said no.

I've come to realize in the years since that I was wearing rose-tinted glasses that afternoon, that in every culture, there are men and women engaged in a tradition and committed to the search. But for me at that moment, it was a window into a reality that I had only dreamed of. It looked perfect, and it felt pure. Their eyes were open to life, and they seemed to want to see. They seemed to revel in the devotion to he who created us all, to Allah, and his prophet Muhammad, and to the revelation of the Old Testament, the New Testament and the Koran. Trimmed beards, gleaming white teeth, the melodious sounds of chants and questions, it all was as it should have been.

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And what more could anyone want? In college, I was used to discussions about how much 150-proof vodka an average male could drink before going into shock, yet here were men slightly older than me asking about God's will. I was accustomed to the bored looks of other students when philosophers and thinkers were debated in class, yet in front of me were a dozen faces utterly focused on the imam and the text and the real questions: Why are we here, what does it all mean? That was immensely appealing, and seductive. Just to my right lay the body of a mystic who had passed a life dedicated to drawing near to God, to touching the ineffable. Just in front of me sat a group of men trying to walk the same path. And there I was, and they were inviting me to walk with them.

"Why do you not believe?" one of them asked.

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"But I do," I replied. "I'm just not clear about what tradition feels most right to me."

"Why not the way of Islam?" another suggested. "You could start now. It's easy. You simply state your belief, and we will go and write your name down in the book."

I was stunned. It hadn't even occurred to me. Convert? There and then? On the spot, impulsively? But then again, was Paul impulsive when he was struck on the road to Damascus? Was Muhammad impulsive when he heard the thunderous voice of God and was told to recite? Was Buddha? Was anyone who had an intense, unexpected, wrenching experience of conversion and belief? Who was I to say what was impulsive and what was the moment beckoning me? What if I missed the opportunity to respond? What if that moment, that singular once-in-a-lifetime moment were presenting itself to me and I refused to embrace it? Maybe it was all as simple as it seemed.

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Islam followed on the heels of Judaism and Christianity, and took liberally from each faith. In the century after Muhammad's death in the year 632, Islam slowly changed from a religion intended solely for the Arabs into a proselytizing faith meant for the world. When Muslim armies invaded India beginning in the 11th century, they also attempted to convert the Hindus who fell under their rule. That is why today there are more Muslims living in India and Pakistan than anywhere else in the world (Indonesia is a close second).

As the realm of Islam expanded, the process of conversion was simplified. All a prospective convert needed to do was state the basic tenets of the faith, and in doing so, accept them. That remains true today. To convert, an individual must simply stand in front of witnesses and declare, in Arabic: "La Illah Allah, wa Muhammad rasul Illah." Or rather, "There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his prophet." Known as the shahada, this statement is the basis of Islam. All else flows from that creed: the acceptance of the Koran as the literal word of God, the submission to his authority and the respect for the tradition (hadith) of the prophet.

I knew all of that. I had read books. I had studied. But not for the last time, I was brought face to face with the insurmountable gap between books and reality. Nothing I had read had prepared me for that moment, and nothing could have. In that heat, everything was calm and still. Everything seemed so simple. I was being offered a choice. I was being asked to join. This wasn't a college fraternity or a volunteer organization or the glee club. This was a religion, and a dozen smiling, curious, excited faces stared at me and waited for my decision.

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I said yes.

"So all I do is recite the shahada?" I asked.

The imam nodded. "That is all, and then we write your name in our book."

"So I all I do is say, 'La Illah Allah, was Muhammad rasul Illah'?"

"Yes, that is all."

Over the centuries, there has been heated debate among Muslim scholars and theologians about how the shahada must be expressed. The point is for the believer to believe these words, but not everyone who says them believes them. Sometimes, they may be said under duress or pressure, or uttered hypocritically. Some theologians had declared that it was preferable for someone to say these words "in their heart," silently, than to utter them falsely out loud.

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As I sat there, I repeated the shahada to myself over and over, as if trying to hear how it sounded inside my soul. I had always wanted to go to Mecca, and now, if I became a Muslim, I would be able to. But the promise of an exotic pilgrimage wasn't sufficient. Did the words sit right? Did I believe? Islam respects the tradition of Judaism and Christianity and stresses that Allah is the same God that Abraham heard in the wilderness and that Christ beseeched on the cross. That makes the first part of the creed unobjectionable to someone raised in the monotheistic traditions of Europe and the Americas.

The trouble is with Muhammad. The idea is not simply that Muhammad is a prophet of God, but that he is the last of the prophets and that he and only he got God's message right. Because the Koran was revealed in Arabic, and not written down by subsequent generations (or so say Muslim theologians), nothing was lost or distorted in the process of recording God's message. Islam, for Muslims, is the same message given to the Jews and Christians, but where earlier people had misunderstood God's teachings, the Arabs got it right.

I didn't really believe that, but then again, I wasn't sure I really believed much of what I had learned about the Bible. The question wasn't whether I should relinquish one tradition for another but whether I was prepared to make such a major step so casually. Before I could fully consider, my mouth started moving, and I leapt.

It took all of 10 seconds, and I immediately regretted what I had done. The actually act of stating something so sacred was far different from running the words through my head, and the moment they rolled off my tongue, I knew that I couldn't in good faith honor what I had just said. But there it was, out of my mouth, hovering in the air and heading into their ears. Slowly, their eyes lit up. They had expected a day of prayer and study, away from the sun at its midday height, and now they had the added bonus of gaining a convert. I knew I had only a few moments to try to reverse what I had done.

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"So that's all there is to it?" I asked cheerfully.

"Yes, and now we go and note it officially," the imam said, beaming.

"Well," I said nervously, "I'm not sure I'm ready for that."

They looked perplexed.

I began to improvise. "In my country, it takes more than that to convert. I'm interested in Islam, but I still have doubts."

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They continued to look confused.

"You've shown me a lot, and given me a lot to think about," I said, hoping that the finality in my voice would offset my rash pronouncement of the shahada.

There must have been something in my voice, or in my eyes, or perhaps just in my body. Whatever it was, the faces around me began to register disappointment. They realized that though I had spoken the words, I hadn't absorbed them. I may have converted in form but not in spirit. A few of them nodded; others shrugged, and they began to drift away from the circle. The moment had passed, for them and for me.

"Well, perhaps we will write your name down, or perhaps you will return," the imam said, his tone suggesting a chastising parent who is at once resigned and bemused.

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"Yes, perhaps," I replied sheepishly. "Thank you."

He smiled. "Salaam alechem," he said as he departed.

"Wa alechem salaam," I answered in kind.

Peace unto you.

It was still a few hours before the sun began to set and I mustered up the energy to leave. I had approached the door of Islam, but I hadn't been able to walk through. I had done the right thing by not allowing the romance of the moment to override doubts that were still there and questions that the shahada could not answer. But to this day, I wonder how life would have been different if I had taken the other fork in the road, if I had gone with the imam to inscribe my name in that book, if I had joined those smiling men and embarked on a journey whose end I will never know.


Zachary Karabell

Zachary Karabell is the author of "What's College For? The Struggle to Define American Higher Education" (Basic Books). His new book, "The Last Campaign: How Harry Truman Won the 1948 Election," is published by Knopf.

MORE FROM Zachary Karabell

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