Growing up in Kentucky, I attended churches of all kinds. From general Baptist to southern Baptist; from Missionary Baptist to Pentecostal, and more. Many of my childhood memories involve witnessing the Sunday morning gospel being preached up & down the aisle with vigorous enthusiasm, conviction, & shouts of “Amen!” and “Hallelujah” in reverberation.
I have Uncles on both my Mom’s & Dad’s sides who are still preachers, and I have great respect for them.
I often saw people go up to the altar to get saved or to have hands laid on them. There were tears & shouts, and sometimes entire congregations falling to the ground to pray for individuals to be healed. These were powerful experiences that stuck with me. I always felt & believed in the power of Almighty God & our ability to communicate with Him through prayer.
My Grandmother still tells the story of how I was sick with a stomach virus as a very small child & how I prayed as I stood over the commode throwing up. Suddenly, the vomiting stopped. My Grandmother taught me to pray, & to believe in a merciful God who hears us & doesn’t want us to suffer.
My early childhood was filled with Bible stories of Moses & the ten commandments, Noah’s ark, many, many stories of Jesus’ message & the miracles he performed, and tales my Grandmother would paint about streets paved with gold, mansions in heaven, the angels, & how very much God loved us.
I never would have imagined that all that I learned about God & the Bible would be the basis of the beloved faith that I practice today – Islam.
Islam in passing, & Questions:
My first awareness of Muslims & Islam came with the devastating terror attack that happened on September 11th, 2001. I heard that Muslim terrorists had flown planes into buildings in New York City. I thought, “These people really must be crazy. They think they are killing people in order to get to Heaven.” At 19 years old, I wasn’t yet searching too deeply for a spiritual experience. I didn’t even have a complete concept of who I was. I was fluid – flowing with the changes of the new people I met & places I went. At the same time, I was taking a religious studies class taught by a Nun at a Catholic college. It was a course about the gospels of the Bible; Matthew, Mark, & Luke; and how their three accounts of the death & resurrection of Jesus all differed. It was then that I realized I had never really read my Bible. I had been taught about what was in it, but I didn’t know what it actually said about anything. I didn’t know who wrote the individual books, that there were numerous other books that I wasn’t taught about, that each individual book was written at a different time, in a different place, & that these people didn’t all know Jesus personally. I hadn’t been aware that there were actually a group of people who had decided which books to include & which to exclude before presenting this book as God’s holy word to the masses. Even some stories of Jesus were missing.
I realized that I had many questions, & when I began asking the people in my family that I viewed as knowledgeable, devout followers of the Bible & the church, I received shame & sometimes even anger in return. How dare I question the Bible – that was the reaction from some. Others just said, simply, “I don’t know.” I was pointed in the direction of preachers who gave their best efforts, but often just told me that my faith would lead me to the answers. If I had enough faith, that things would become clear to me & my doubt would subside. I stopped asking questions. I stopped going to church. As a young adult, I felt a yearning to know God, to have a belief system that was solid, to identify, but I always felt there was something missing.
I lost my way. I felt like I was expected to just follow along, blindly, & blend into the herd, discouraged from questioning anything. It just didn’t feel right.
I ended up drinking. A lot. I smoked marijuana regularly. Although I knew neither were fixing my problems, I was masking my feelings. I never felt like I fit in with “religious” people because I asked too many questions. I wasn’t an Atheist, because I believed in God. But to outsiders, I felt I could never be good enough. I didn’t have the magnificent stories of having “found God” & living happily ever after, with a solid sense of faith & daily sense of God guiding me along the path. I wanted to be a good person, but I felt damaged & abandoned. I felt that for me, true faith was unattainable. Years of abuse had left me disconnected from myself, from my family, & unable to build solid, safe relationships. I walked around loathing myself for the anger & pain I felt. My abusers had been regular church-goers, respected & liked. I felt the stares I got by distant family & people who didn’t know the truth & had labeled me a “troubled child.” I felt my life was just an endless stretch of pain, loneliness, & guilt. I continued to search for God, while I masked the pain.
I lived out my twenties with a single question that seemed to interrupt my every attempt at an act of worship. With every prayer, every church service, every sermon, & even every song I heard on Christian radio, a nagging question rang out – WHO is Jesus?
I went through life carrying a constant, heavy sense of doubt. The inconsistencies in how we worshiped & how we sometimes referred to Jesus as God, the refusal of anyone around me to acknowledge it or explain it to me left me dumbfounded.
I felt I couldn’t pray right, distracted when some of my family prayed directly to Jesus & others to God, while sometimes we prayed in Jesus’ name. I even began stumbling over & searching for the right words when I prayed alone, unable to feel the same assurance I once felt that my prayers were being heard.
Church was so uncomfortable. I noticed our entire worship service was often dedicated to Jesus instead of God. I thought, “If GOD loved the world so much (John 3:16), then WHY are we spending all of our time dedicating our prayers, our lives, our thanks, & our worship to JESUS?” We would sing about how mighty & powerful God is, but then refer to him as Jesus. It went fluidly back & forth in the songs on the radio.
My birthday cards were always signed, “Jesus loves you!” by my most devout family members. I wondered why they were so focused on Jesus, if God was the Master; the one with the plan & the whole reason behind Jesus’ mission to save the world. I wondered why they thanked Jesus for their food, money, or anything good that happened, while praying to God to meet our needs when bad things happened. We seemed so drawn to Jesus, but so distant & disconnected from God.
How Motherhood restored my faith:
I was 28 when I became pregnant with my first child. I had only known I was pregnant for a few days when I began to suffer a miscarriage just 7 weeks along. Driving to the hospital alone, I cried & begged, “God, please don’t take my baby,” over & over. In the emergency room, an ultrasound revealed my baby’s tiny heart beat, flickering on the monitor. My baby was alive. I was humbled. It was as if time stood still, & instantly I knew that the same merciful God I had once had such inherent faith in had heard my prayer.
It was a short pregnancy – at 19 weeks my water broke, & my baby wasn’t expected to survive. I was admitted to the hospital on bed rest. High-risk specialists advised me of all of the disabilities my baby would face if it survived. I was given the choice to terminate the pregnancy & go home.
In shock, I barely cried. A sense of peace came over me. I told my Husband, God has a plan. We will wait. What is meant to be will be. We will love our baby & know that if God has plans for her to make it…she will. If not, we will endure this journey & be grateful for this pregnancy; this gift.
At first, I felt so alone. Days & nights stuck in a hospital bed. The season changed, the leaves fell, & I missed fresh air. I had faith, but I still felt scared. No one wants to lose a child. No one wants to think their body failed to protect & provide for their unborn baby. I knew God had a plan & a reason for this, but I felt sad at the same time. Acceptance doesn’t turn off your emotions. It gives you a reason to continue through them.
5 weeks later, my daughter was born, weighing a mere 1 pound, 4 ounces. She could not breathe on her own, and I didn’t get to hold her or touch her. She was whisked away to neonatal intensive care. My introduction to Motherhood was not kind or joyful. My recovery room was cold & empty. My Husband shuffled family members in & out to view our tiny, sick, child, connected to tubes, behind the incubator glass. I could not go to her. I was helpless, & realized that for the first time in my life, I had no choice but to depend fully on God.
For months, my daughter struggled to survive. Through life support, seizures, & infections. I was fortunate to be able to stay by her side on most days. One morning, the nurses stopped me from entering the unit. The chaplain had been called in to meet me. They had called my Husband, also. We were told my daughter had been suffering constant seizures & they didn’t know how much brain damage she had suffered. She was completely sedated. When I touched her hand, her fingers no longer grasped my finger. They advised us that a decision needed to be made – to remove our baby from life support, or to continue on with the knowledge that she was near death, & if she survived, she would almost certainly suffer lifelong disabilities.
I didn’t want to talk. I didn’t want to cry. I didn’t want to think.
I only wanted to pray. I remembered the feeling of knowing God heard me cry out in the car when I was so sure that my baby was lost. I remembered how it felt to see my baby’s tiny, flickering heart beat on the monitor when I found out that God had chosen to let her live. My Husband & I stood at our daughter’s incubator, placed our hands upon it & I put all of the strength & conviction I could sum up into a prayer as I reached my hand upward toward the sky. We prayed for His will to be done. We prayed & thanked God for the gift of our baby. For how she had already changed our lives in her short existence. We thanked God for the gift of parenthood & for the love it had taught us & given us. We prayed that our daughter would not suffer, & if that meant that she was to leave this earth, then we would be grateful for her time here. We prayed, & we walked out, with tears, but with peace, knowing that God had heard our prayers & that He had a purpose & a plan for our baby – just the same as He had created each of us with a purpose & a plan. He loved our baby just as He loved each of us. I was not in control, & I was not afraid. I saw God’s mercy & His love so much more clearly when my daughter was born.
After 4 months in the NICU, my daughter came home. She was small, but she was strong. So many people were touched by her journey. God Almighty did have a plan for her & He granted her life. I am so grateful and amazed every single day! Through my journey with her, He built in me my own solid sense of faith, trust, peace, and love that nothing could ever cause me to doubt.
Back to church:
After such a whirlwind of change, upheaval of normal life, & restoration of my faith in God, I wanted to find a church again. I wanted to have a place to worship God & people to share my faith with. I wanted to take my daughter to church, too.
I started attending a non-denominational church in my community, where I had felt more at ease on a visit before. They held a class where one could explore all of the basic things the church taught, like the basis of Christianity & who Jesus was. Bells went off in my head. This was my opportunity to finally sort out the conflicts in my faith & once & for all, find somewhere that I could belong & take my family. I began taking my daughter to church. I wanted her to experience church & see me & other people worshiping God. I wanted to share with her the experience & the feeling of being gathered to pray & worship & love our God Almighty.
I found out, it was not so simple. During worship service, I was so affected by the music, but once again, I was stopped in my tracks by lyrics referring to Jesus as God, how all-powerful Jesus is, & how Jesus makes things happen in our lives.
I realized with conviction that I didn’t believe this, and it bothered me. It was no longer about why I didn’t fit in. It was clear to me that this church & it’s teachings didn’t fit what I had experienced & knew to be true. I couldn’t stand among a crowd of people and claim to worship God, while worshiping Jesus. The problem wasn’t me. I was going into the wrong places. I went home.
Just one prayer:
Many conflicts had been going on in my life when I found myself in tears, behind my closed bedroom door, alone. I felt frustrated and alone. I knew God loved me, but I felt unable to pray. I had nowhere to worship. I had no community of people to call my people. There were long standing conflicts within my family that often left me feeling isolated & disconnected. I needed guidance & I felt I had no person to turn to who knew me, cared, & would give me sound advice. I wanted to pray, but had felt I couldn’t for days.
“I just need to get quiet,” I thought. “I just need to be completely humble & show God that I am ready & waiting & I need Him.”
I sat on the floor & put my head down, completely to the ground. I thought of people begging a king or ruler for mercy. I stayed remained there until my thoughts were quiet & I wanted to fall asleep. I prayed for help. For guidance. I prayed for my loneliness. I prayed for my family, my children, & my marriage. I prayed for God to guide me to be who He wanted me to be. And I remained there, silently, for what seemed like hours. I cried quiet tears.
Learning about Islam:
A short time after that prayer, I was watching television one evening & saw two young football players in a special documentary about their life as Muslims; The Abdulla Brothers. First, I was surprised that they were black. I hadn’t known that there were black Muslims; I’d assumed that Muslims were all Arabs from the middle east. Secondly, I was surprised to see their wives, who were American, wearing gorgeous gowns & scarves covering their hair, speaking about how happy they were. They were so beautiful, & they did not look oppressed or unable to speak for themselves. It piqued my interest. The show went on to follow the brothers on their religious pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudia Arabia. I was both shocked & impressed to learn that they had given up their careers in the NFL to leave & make this trip because they felt it was an obligation of their faith. They expressed that their faith assured them that whatever they “sacrifice” out of religious obedience, God would restore to them & more.
“Wow. That is incredible faith,” I thought. I can’t imagine having millions of dollars in a contract, but letting it go or turning it down. These guys really believe in what they’re doing.
As it turns out, God did just as they believed He would do. They returned to sign successful contracts with the NFL again.
Days went on and I couldn’t stop thinking about that documentary.
I’d had no idea Islam was so positive. It actually struck me as beautifully devout. I couldn’t figure out how it had been connected to the attackers on September 11th. These brothers had described their faith as obedience & submission to One loving, merciful God. They were careful about what they ate. They gave up successful careers to take a trip to a place in the desert in order to try to erase the sins of an entire lifetime. Their attitudes were respectful toward women & other people in general. They washed up & made special prayers several times a day. Other than this, these guys seemed like average folks I would meet out & about in town. I was intrigued, & I wanted to know the truth about this religion & the people who call themselves Muslims.
Thus I began my studies of Islam. I read books, including the Qur’an, in its entirety, over the course of 4 days. I studied how they prayed & why.
I studied who & what they believed in. The Prophets, including Jesus & the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon them.
I learned the 5 pillars of Islam. I learned about the basic rights of all human beings in Islam. I learned so much & I hungered for more.
I searched my home town, wondering if there were any mosques near me. I seriously doubted it. I was wrong. There were at least 4. Within a few days I stepped foot into a mosque for the first time. I met women who wore long dresses & scarves & greeted me with a hand, a hug, & a kiss on the cheek. Big smiles.
Within a week, I was invited to meet with a women’s study group, comparable to a Bible-study group, but for Qur’an. So many of these women were actually American. White, Black, Asian, Latina, Arab…every different race & nationality. Some married & some not. Some wearing head scarves, & some not. There I learned more about the Prophets of the Qur’an, which happened to be many of the characters I had learned about as a child – Adam, Abraham, Moses, Noah, Jonah, Jesus, & more. Peace & blessings be upon them all.
I learned that Islam is centered upon the belief of One God, usually called “Allah,” which is the Arabic term for ‘God.’
I learned that Muslims believed in the worship of the One, Almighty God, alone, without any partners. This is what I believed.
I learned that Muslims believe that God sent many prophets over time, to teach His message to the people, including the same Jesus that I believed in. They also believed in Jesus’ virgin birth & there is an entire chapter of the Qur’an for Mary. I learned that Muslims have a high respect & love for Jesus & all of the Prophets, & never mention Jesus’ name or any Prophet’s name without adding (peace & blessings be upon him).
After several months of studying & praying, I learned that Islam was in line with what I had believed all along. I felt like God had led me to Islam and that my path in life was to become a Muslim.
The testament of faith (Shahada):
While at the women’s study group one morning, after I had been attending for several weeks, I made Shahada, which is speaking out loud my testament of faith. When one decides to become a Muslim, it is the first of the five pillars of Islam to make this profession of faith.
A sister helped me by reciting & I repeated after her:
“La ilaha illa Allah wa-Muhammad rasul Allah,” which means,
“There is no god but God and Muhammad is the prophet of Allah.”
I practiced making ‘wudu,’ which is the special washing up Muslims do before prayers, & I made my first prayers there as a Muslim.
I felt the weight of the world fall off of me. It’s a bit cliche to say, but I felt I had found the meaning of life. I felt at home in my own body & my own mind & my own soul for the first time ever. Like I was being & doing exactly what I had been designed to be and do.
It all started with one, simple prayer.
I knew nothing of Islam when I placed my head to the ground that day, unaware that I was making sujood, the most submissive position in the Muslim prayer, Salah.