Brandino and The New Convert

I received this from a friend a few weeks ago:

 

Hello Brandino

Here is an interesting article I came across.

I hope you are well.

Abbas

 

As-salam alaykum all: 

BELOW is my shahada speech. It expresses my journey thus far, and the embrace of Islam that I have come to MashAllah. I appreciate any suggestions you may have for me as I grow in my faith and observance. The speech is entitled American Shahada: In the event that I become Muslim…

 

I hope you enjoy, and thank you.

 

--Michael

 

Bismillah hir-Rahmaan nir-Raheem 

 

It’s hard to see, my Islam, but I feel compelled to write even the little of it; and how I got to the occasion of my shahada. It’s not going to happen on a whim as I drive by a white mosque, or after hearing the azan blasting from the speakers of the masjid on the corner of Fulton and Bedford, or after talking to a complete stranger, Yasmine, on the F train (who just might have shined it bright enough for me to convert that very night this past June). I’ve been planning this, and it has a time, place, and a date. I could say I have been a Muslim most of my life, and I don’t think that would be a lie; and I could say that every room I walked out of on my religious journey was housed in a bigger room. I’m not leaving those rooms behind, but rather entering the biggest room in the biggest house. A house that has room for all the rooms. Some may disagree with that metaphor (Muslims and non-Muslims alike), but it seems to me, to be true.

 

My truths will have flaws, because I’m new to this particular this, which is why I want these thoughts to be as unceremonious as possible, even as they are charged by the most ceremonious of acts: the proclamation of allegiance to a faith, to a lifestyle, to a renewed relationship with God. The undeniable truth being God. The catch though, the difference between me and “you” — and the “you” in this case is the room full of Muslims where I make my shahada, most of whom were born into the faith — is that I was not. I was born into a room in the house. I was born in America, where the notion is that religious freedom is an inalienable right, unless it is alien, and to many Islam is. Because of that, the “you” to whom I refer is also my family and friends, and most of all, those people who have been misguided enough to associate Patriarchy with Islam, or 9/11 with Islam, or Homeland with Islam. I don’t want to give energy to these fallacies, but only offer duas to those woefully baited by the thorns wrongly fastened to a religion of submission and of peace. Furthermore, in the event that I become Muslim, I also pray for anyone so arrested by birthright and culture that they shame God’s design and not make room: for people like me.

 

From where I sit, I don’t know if I have more privileges or challenges. Up until now, and for some time moving forward, my practice will be an approximation of true practice. My discomfort will be tantamount to every aspect of my learning. This discomfort will not be because of doubt, second thoughts, hesitation, or disbelief, but because of the newness of it all, and probably because I am a perfectionist. Like I said, I believe I’ve been a Muslim since I believed I believe in God. I could claim that many of the non-Muslims I know are Muslims too, because I’ve heard them call God by His Most Beautiful Names. Because of this, I don’t lose fellowship with them in my process. Imam Ali famously taught us, “Know that people are of two types, they are either your brother in faith or your equal in humanity.” I find comfort in this, and you (both “yous”) should too…

 

 

Then I stumble:

 

I stress out over the suffix (alayhi  wasallam) I should have added after Imam Ali’s name, or I trip on the Arabic word for “path,” and I stumble (for sure) over the pronunciation of “gayril magzuubi” for the 108th time. Every head turns when I enter the masjid (like I might be F.B.I.), where I struggle to unlace each loop of my shin-high Doc Martin’s boots (I should have never wore there!). My face is flush in all of these instances. In the beginning it’s a lot of memorizing, a lot of complicated words for eternal truths. A lot of new ways to say what I’ve believed for a long time, and have professed a certain way even longer. You can imagine the anguish a writer feels trying to spell correctly, (in English), Arabic words with multiple transliterated options! Sheesh! Every experience, down to the letter, is new…

 

And these new experiences aren’t “new” like going on “a cultural tour” of Pelourinho this past summer, in an air conditioned bus. These are new like learning to ice skate: very hard – you have to stretch to find your balance & footing – until you finally hit your stride. Each surah I memorize, and there’s only one right now, feels like I won the spelling bee! Every Arabic word I recognize is like finding a dollar in an old coat pocket! When I see a woman wearing hijab on the train I want to shout out, “Hey, I’m down with you!” But that’s not cool at all. However you can see, with struggles come small victories.

So all of this tenuous work, all this spiritual-emotional sweat, is not only the challenge of the American convert, but also our privilege. When I went to Midnight Mass this past Christmas with my sister, nothing was new to me, and I suspect, because I learned these prayers, these rituals, from early on, (I was born into them), they were never new. But when the priest said, “Lord I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed,” I heard the Islam in that. When he talked about Abraham, I thought of him perfect: a Jew, Muslim, or Christian. What could I have learned as a kid if his name was not second nature, just a name in a book placed over my head when I was baptized? How would the words resonate back then if I had to learn them in a different language? Maybe not at all still. As a kid all I cared about were sports, and more sports. But what a privilege now to be better late than never.  

So why Islam? Why tack more work onto the zillion hours of service I already put in each week? I could tell you because of Love, and that would be true. I could say I want to be down with the struggle, and those who know me might agree, but maybe I wouldn’t, because who wants to struggle? The Quran says: “We have created man in the embrace of hardship.” (90:4) Hardship has most definitely played a role, as has Buddhism and its first noble truth that: “Life is suffering,” but even more so the subsequent truths revealed to Buddha after: that suffering can be alleviated, and that there is a path to salvation. Islam became that path, that enlightenment. When Dante described his falling off, I related. He wrote:

 

            In the middle of the journey of our life

            I found myself in a dark wood,

            For I had lost the right path.

 

My boots have stomped many paths. Most of my life I took the Robert Frost route: I embraced vegetarianism with Krishnas; volunteered with Presbyterians at a halfway house in Birmingham, England; I lived in a Tibetan Buddhist community in Berkeley; and studied Zen with the exiled Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh at his Plum Village Monastery in Southern France. My parents, my golden parents, were open-minded, loving and supportive, even if most of the time they were probably scared as hell. Even now, I choose the precarious vocation of writer. But when something as formidable as losing the right path hits a life, there are rarely more choices than: to give up, to surrender, or to pray. And because give up is not in my word bank, and because prayer is a form of surrender, I also got closer to Islam. At my lowest, I leaned on five prayers ironically: first I asked God for the strength to accept with courage the place I was at; next I went to the go-to prayers given to me since my birth, the “Our Father” and the “Hail Mary”; in between I also did that superstitious-type prayer when you’ll do things like throw a crumbled piece of paper at the trash can and if it goes in, the answer is: YES!, and if not, it means NO or most likely try one more time; and finally I moved to the Surah Fateh, the first surah in the Holy Quran. Almost immediately — the 4th, 5th and 6th lines! — Muslims are instructed to ask for help and guidance on the straight path, the path that God has favored.    

I’ll always remember when I first started to learn the Surah Fateh, and unfortunately it is stained with heartache. On October 30th, my uncle Vincent left this world as I was watching a Youtube video trying to pronounce those first seven lines in the Quran. I know it was the exact time, because when you lose a loved one the way my family did, you track every minute of his last day, and we all know exactly what we were doing. I was learning to pray. I was focusing on two qualities of God that also come to us immediately in the surah, His Mercy and His Compassion (ar Rahman, nir Rahim). Just as the priest explains “only say the word and I shall be healed,” so too does Islam absorb our mistakes and heal us. When I was scrapping along, the Buddhist in me felt Karma was heavy handed in doling out my payback, it added more sting than I believed I deserved. I became depressed and bitter. I resigned myself to the American holy land of The Couch & The TV. Prayer was the only thing that kept me in the lineup—prayers in the morning, prayers in the shower, prayers in the sock drawer, in the kitchen sink, prayers on the walk to the train, prayers with my Dunkin Donuts coffee, a tickertape of prayers streaming through my head. One day, in mid-prayer, I walked by the Panamanian restaurant on my block, Kelso, and saw a sign on the back wall, with one of my most beloved phrases (from my Agape days in Los Angeles, yes another church), it said: God Is Good All The Time. I had known enough about Islam at this point to know that this is Muslim cosmology too! There’s nothing more ideologically Islamic than the rightness of God, right on! So maybe I was gifted just the right amount of karmic pain I needed to re-find Him. Or more profoundly, maybe I was shown the path to end all paths, one that consists of more than prayer alone, more than an unquestioned-unchecked- unanswered resignation to the divine (which Islam is as well); and that even in the face of hardship God proves that God is, Good, all the time, and that God gives, (amongst Everything):  Guidance to those who have fear (2:2). For I certainly have fears, and who doesn’t need guidance? More than anything that has brought me to Islam, it is this guidance that has captivated me. The blueprint for living as transmitted through the Quran, though not easy, offers someone like me a way to formalize my faith, a faith that has touchstones in many. I come from a hard working blue collar family. Nothing we have came easy, except for Love. We own a diner, we’re cooks and waitresses and dish washers, and we work off of prep lists and to-do lists. In many ways, the Quran is a sanctified prep list, and this makes sense to me. And from everything I know about it, and thus far I know over six feet of books stacked high (from Shia, to Sunni, to Sufi, to Henry Corbin), I don’t lose me in the process, I just give me to God, The Most Compassionate, The Most Forgiving. I rally against all the hardships, and embrace the tuff growth, and most of all I marvel at the proofs: sometimes sitting on a surfboard at Rockaway Beach waiting for a wave, and others at the counter of my parent’s diner, the place more home to me than anywhere on the planet. 

 

Right now my family is still grieving, but again, the Quran gives us Rhode Islanders hope, an anchor: Verily, with hardship comes ease (94:5), and like all things this too shall pass. I remember my uncle, one of the most just and forgiving people I have ever known, one of those who needed the least amount of forgiveness. But it’s usually people like him who ask for it the most, so he sleeps well now. Even at fifty, he switched churches to have better conversations with God (where he is now), continually striving to “have faith and do good,” like I am now…so I thank my uncle for his final lesson.    

My shahada is a week away; I sit here and rattle off: an elegy, a journey, a question & answer, most of all a declaration of faith. I’m not surrounded by ancient letters emblazoned like holy graffiti onto Persian rugs, but rather a few paintings, two longboards, a framed cover from the Brooklyn Rail of Obama, and the football game is simmering on the TV in the background. This is what an American in Islam looks like, still smitten by the swagger of Gronk slamming the football in the end zone, and dizzy from the dazzletronics of hip-hop and consumerism from which I also come.  I was clearly made in a small rare room in the house I described earlier, and with the love and support of a strong family, I moved about the house freely, and at times haphazardly. But now I’m finally settling into where I want to be, maybe in the basement looking up through all the glass floors, or on the roof in a recliner surveying the undefined distance; and I am grateful to have a pen in my hand, the first instruction to the Rasul, Read!, in my heart. I am different than “you,” but I work off the same prep list: I got check marks next to prayer (and am learning more!); I have the “striving” that is jihad; I’m knee deep in nonprofit work; standing with an unshakable tawid; and I embrace the gallant path of the Shia*.

 

Just as in Christianity, there is no absolute Christian, there are Catholics, Anglicans, Protestants, and more; I have also treaded the treacherous road of Shia vs. Sunni Islam, and all of the regionalism and cultural baggage implicit, the tedium of schools and lineages. When Imam Ali proclaimed, “Know O Muslims! Our enemy is not the Christians or the Jews; our enemy is our own ignorance!,” I contend that this extends to our relationship with Sunni brothers and sisters as well. So when I walk in solidarity with the twelve Imams, I do so with an asterisk. As you can imagine, a person like me who has come to Islam, with a hippy-progressive-neoliberal-social-justice-oriented agenda, someone who has meditated in monasteries and prayed in cathedrals — clearly does not like to choose sides. An American Muslim of my ilk, would rather just be just Muslim, but Islam, like most religions, is rooted in remembrance and interpretation. Therefore I go back to the six feet of books that I stand on thus far, and survey the values that speak loudest to me. This again is a slippery slope for someone who doesn’t want to undermine anyone’s traditions, and sees more the similarities than differences between all of us: Shia, Sunni, Buddhist, and Catholics alike. I have ultimately gravitated to the tradition saved by a woman revered, Zaynab, so rare in today’s faith systems, and the heroism of Imam Husayn, which has been celebrated by Gandhi, Charles Dickens, and Nehru! I march down the path of equity and social justice, and of peace.

How I got here is as American as a failed trip to India, and a Mayflower sailing away for religious freedom. In failure can be success. I didn’t lose anything at all—this is what’s called a win-win! I’ll be no less Muslim when I go home for Christmas and celebrate with my family, and I can also pound my chest with Shias around the globe InshAllah. Jesus didn’t lose Hanukkah as he became the leader of the Christians, and I don’t lose the culture and traditions that undoubtedly led me here. When a person, regardless of tradition, is “unmixed in their attention,” does good by herself and others, than she is worshiping God. And God is good all the time.   

I have written this all out, not to be scrutinized, but to share where I’m at for better or for worse. Across the doorway of one of the beacons of New York City, The Bowery Poetry Club, boldly painted is the phrase: Everything is Subject to Change. Whatever is next my friends, is Ok with me, as I walk with and towards Allah— I pull a dollar from that old coat pocket as zakat, send a warm breeze to you, and pray that you make it safely to your next destination.

 

And with that, I head to mine:

 

Ash-hadoo-an la illa-ha illallah

Ash hadoo anna Muhammadur Rasool-Allah

Ash hadoo an-na Ali-yan Walli-Allah, Wasi-eh Rasool-Allah

 

 

This was my response:

 

 

Dear Abbas,

Salaams, and I hope you and your family re well.

 

Thank you again for the article you have sent me. I would like to make some notes, for myself but perhaps of interest to you as well, about its contents.

This person, a young American who has recently converted to Islam, seems to me a typical product of the western (or perhaps in this case at least I would like to say specifically American) mentality. He is, to my mind, as far from being a Muslim as you can get; or rather, he could easily become, with time, a Wahhabi extremist, at best.

 

He treats religion like a product that you pick off the (mental) shelf. He has apparently ticked all the other religions that seemed appealing and has now parked onto Islam. Wo knows what his next stop might be.

 

His humility is concealed arrogance. He is self-centered and boastful. He is much more preoccupied with his, to him, cute, smart and intriguing juxtaposition of words than he is with what he is trying to say.

 

He gives me the impression of appropriating himself of the Qur'an which to me is offensive. His approach is instinctively aggressive and he expects to reason everything through, putting himself forward as an example of rational thinking and always capable of analysing and coming to conclusions. It is difficult for me, to explain, but I distrust his attitude because I know where it comes from and where it can bring....it's so similar to mine, who come from the same place!

This man - he may be the best man in the world - and his approach to Islam are all that I do not want to see in Islam. He conveys the scary feeling of what Islam might become if too many people like him were to become influential. To pinpoint it better: too many westerners. For his attitude, brash, confident, is so typical. That is why I wish too many 'whites' will never take over the Muslim faith: they would turn it into another Christianity.

 

I admit I am not capable of adopting a "religion", with all its beliefs and paraphernalia. Islam to me is a "life system". It is a continual search for God, not a finding of God. As Abbas Jaffer once said, I believe,: “Islam as a science of the understanding of God.” Not a dogma to induce us to accept something which cannot be understood.

 

My understanding of Islam stems principally from my frequentation of a close friend, who never had the pretence to teach me but who simply showed me with every day actions the honesty, the cleanliness of mind and of body, the respect for others, the importance of prayer, the importance of trust and the transience of life. It has sparked in me (within my narrow limits) a quiet humbling of myself, silently but with assured confidence, and a far greater understanding and love for the world. This has been the richness that I have gained thanks to my closeness to Islam.

 

But it has also allowed me to have a glimpse in the soil from which this life system has emerged, which, in my opinion, is a healthier, more honourable, less aggressive cultural background than the western one which, thanks to its extremely forceful aggressive and rational mind has developed not only wonderful civilisations in Europe, stunning art, music and literature and incredible science and philosophy but also the most brutal wars and genocides and the unremitting and arrogant conquest, be it military, commercial or cultural, of the whole planet.

 

The "West" is a fascinating phenomenon in world history, and probably still has a lot of life in it, but it needs to be curbed. For its own good, and for everybody else's. Islam, not by imposing Shari'ah law but by giving the good example in its quiet, unassuming way of every-day behaviour which comes naturally to those who are born with it, starting from its unassailably strong base of the Qur'an, could be the catalyst for this. As long as it does not allow itself to  get 'westernised', like everything else.

 

A difficult proposition, I admit. But these are the thoughts that came to me in reading the article and so I am passing them on to you, who have been one of the people who have , patiently and humbly and with great understanding, helped me to understand Islam a little.

 

Be well.

Brandino

 

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