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Faith

Bible Belt Revert: A Personal Story of Finally Finding Islam in the American South

The thing I remember most about that day wasn’t saying the shahada; it was being in the rows of other Muslims saying salat – all together, in unison, reciting the prayers; bending over with my hands on my knees, raising back up, reciting more prayers; but most of all, kneeling and prostrating, all in a row, all together- Kneeling and submitting before Allah, before my Creator. 

The thing I remember most about that day wasn’t saying the shahada; it was being in the rows of other Muslims saying salat – all together, in unison, reciting the prayers; bending over with my hands on my knees, raising back up, reciting more prayers; but most of all, kneeling and prostrating, all in a row, all together- Kneeling and submitting before Allah, before my Creator. 

My legs were like jelly. Not just because of the lower back injury that had affected my legs for two and a  half years; but here I was, staring at the president of the masjid, repeating after him, a few syllables at a  time – “Ashadu”…“Ash Hadoo”… “Ala ilaha”… “Uhlaw ill ahaw”… “Illa-llahu”… “Ill law law”… “Wa  ashadu”… “Wash hadoo”… “Anna”… ”Ah nuh”…”Muhammadan”… “Moo ha mud in”… “Rasulu llah”…  “Raw sool uh law”- then came the English translation. That one was much more familiar.

Here I was, at the masjid in my area. The next closest masjid was over an hour away from me. After I said my shahada,  all of the 16 men who were present at the Jummah service came to shake my hand and welcome me to the faith. I was excited, proud; and at the same time, the most uncomfortable I had been in a long time. 

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t believe in God… that’s what we called the Creator. Well, that and “The Lord Jesus”. All the times I went to church with my grandparents, and the brief time my Mom and  Dad had decided to go to church…Some years later, I would wind up at a different church, on a different corner, in a different part of town; but still southern baptist.

Walking the path, going through the motions, and studying as much about God and Jesus and the bible as I could – but never realizing the things I would find in it – Years after becoming a youth pastor at a different church, years after helping start a new church with a friend that had been the associate pastor at the church where I was a youth pastor. Years after leaving the church altogether; because I started seeing that things weren’t adding up. 

Important Lessons From the Early Converts to Islam

Roughly 10 or 11 years ago, I had felt God calling me to a different faith, but still one I would study, and just devour as much knowledge as I could find and afford in this new religion. Literally spending upwards of $1,000 on books and scripture and prayer books and books that could teach me how to defend the faith of the religion I now felt called to be a part of – Judaism. There was just one problem. There were literally no synagogues anywhere close to me. No rabbis, no Jewish book stores, nothing even close, besides the kosher section at one of the grocery stores in town.

So I wasn’t able to convert, because at this point I  was transitioning from being a divorced man to meeting and marrying my 2nd wife who happened to be Catholic. So being Orthodox Jewish was out of the question because my wife had no desire to convert. Well,  maybe another sect of Judaism; but how do you convert when there’s not a synagogue anywhere near you? Most online conversions are considered pretty shady by some rabbis, and may not be acknowledged as a legitimate conversion. So I guess I would be considered a Noachide. That would have to be okay. After all, unless I up and moved my wife and four stepchildren to a larger city, or a different state, being a Noachide would have to suffice. 

Funny enough though, after studying Judaism for ten years, I had contacted a rabbi who understood how much I wanted to convert, and they put me in touch with another rabbi who specialized in online conversions; and he was in good standing within an association of Conservative Judaism. I was finally going to convert. Wait. I needed to study to figure out how to defend my faith. I got the idea that I needed to read the Qur’an to understand a different faith. One that the media had portrayed as a  religion of extremists and terrorists and people who would fight day in and day out against the Jewish people in Israel.

I was going to learn about Islam because I wanted to see how in the world they could believe what they believed and why they hated the Jewish people so much. I needed to know what I was going up against if I wanted to defend the Jewish faith that I was finally going through the conversion process. I don’t remember where I bought the English translation at. I couldn’t even remember if I had ordered it online, or just googled “free Quran”. Either way, I got a copy in my hands and I started reading, studying, trying to grasp where this hatred for anyone who wasn’t a Muslim had come from.  Verse by verse, chapter by chapter, I had seen words, and phrases repeated over and over again. After about  5 days, I had made it through chapter 37 of that English translation of the Quran.

It was really quite similar to the stories I had read in the translation of the Torah that I had been studying for years. Time and time again, Hashem (the Jewish term for God’s name because the name of God is too holy to pronounce) had sent someone to stand among the people – a prophet – and he would tell them about the love that God has for his people, and how if they would just believe in Him and follow His lead, and just worship Him that their life would be so much better than anything they could ever believe.

The Torah and Quran seemed to be telling the same story, just one with Jewish tribes, and one with Arabic people. So, I struggled to get through chapter 37 in the Quran. Studying the Torah and commentaries and books about Judaism just seemed like it was so much easier, so I jumped headfirst back into it; but in the back of my mind, there was something there that I tried to push deep down and hide. 

Hello Convert: An Open Letter

Fast forward 10 months, and my Mom, who had been diabetic for 50 years, was struggling. Her body was worn out from the battle wreaking havoc inside her body. She fought and won the fight with so much strength that I promise you, she was the toughest person I knew. But her body just couldn’t do it anymore. The day I had known for years would come finally came, and I was fortunate enough to be there with her as her body began shutting down, and my best friend in this world fell asleep and didn’t wake up.

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She was essential to my belief in God. Her faith gave me faith. Seeing her fight, seeing everything she went through, instilled in me to never give up in life, and so I developed this philosophy to always find at least one thing that made life worth living; and no matter how hard life got, even when I couldn’t see the point, I wouldn’t give up.  

I knew God loved me, and I knew that He had something in store for me, but I was questioning everything I had ever known in regard to faith. Studying, asking questions, challenging, diving into more research. I had meant to pull a book about Judaism or Torah commentary or something off my bookshelf, because Abraham had been talking to God since before the children of Israel had come along and had Moses to stand in their midst. Abraham hadn’t given them the ten commandments, God delivered them to Moses, the prophet for the children of Israel. So, what had Abraham believed?

Instead of a commentary on Torah, my hand grabbed a different book – the copy of the translation of the Quran I had put down almost a year prior; still bookmarked at chapter 38. There was this weird desire to finish reading it… from chapter 38, all the way through 114. I had skipped around and read all through the bible and the Torah, and all the rest of the Hebrew scriptures. This time I was going to be able to say I  had read the Quran front to back, no skipping around, every single page ‘til the end.

And so, I started.  And all of a sudden, it was clicking. It was starting to make sense. It was nothing like what the media had portrayed it as. Allah called those who believed in the oneness of Allah to simply confess that they believed it, and to try to live in peace with others, to pray a few times a day, and fast during the day for one month out of the year. Why was it making so much sense? Why was I finding inconsistencies in the other scriptures I had studied for years?

Was I – a white man with a beard that came down to my chest, and a close-cropped balding head, who looked like I had been in a certain popular TV show from a  few years back that involved a handful of guys with beards and camo – was I seriously considering becoming a Muslim? What would everyone in my life think? This was Oklahoma, the bible belt – God, guns, and the Great Plains.  

A “Redneck” Muslim on converting to Islam and combating White supremacy (Podcast)

Over a year prior, I had come across a video online of a guy that was from the deep south, who loved his trucks, fried chicken, biscuits and gravy; and he was a Muslim chaplain! I decided I needed to reach out to him again, so I got online and messaged him. We messaged back and forth, and he let me ask a  few questions, including if my family supported me in my wanting to convert to Islam. My head dropped.

The last time I mentioned it to my wife, she almost lost it on me. You see, her ex had been a Muslim man, in a Muslim country – a very male-centric (is that even a word?) country. It took some explaining about what I had learned from reading the Quran, watching videos online, and reading articles online; but she was finally accepting enough to be okay with me converting. Sometimes I feel like she was waiting for me to go into the “I am man, you are woman, you are less than me” mode; not that anything like that would ever happen. 

But I got on the phone with the guy I had messaged online and said shahada over the phone. I didn’t really feel different. I just felt like I had a long way to go to get to where  I felt knowledgeable about Islam. Like starting at square one all over again. I searched and searched online to find a way to contact someone from my local mosque. No phone number I found was working. And the solitary message I had received from their old account on social media was extremely vague. I  took a deep breath, rolled up my sleeves, and searched online like a madman until I stumbled on someone’s social media account that had shared something about the local mosque. I messaged them and waited. One day, two days, three days, a week; five weeks later I got a reply.

Within a couple of hours of that reply, I was told the president of the masjid would contact me, and if he didn’t to call him at the number they provided to me. No phone call that night. But the next day, I got a text; and that text turned into a few texts and a phone call where I was asked about my desire to come to the masjid. After explaining that I had said shahada with a Muslim acquaintance online, he told me that I should come to the masjid on a Friday two weeks later when he would be giving the khutbah, and he would help me say shahada in front of witnesses.

The Thursday night prior to that Friday, I messaged the president of the masjid, and he told me that something had happened and that his schedule had changed, but if I could wait one more week, he would be there and I could say the shahada. I felt my teeth clench but dug down deep for just a little more patience, and a prayer that nothing bad would happen before then so I  would be able to say the shahada. 

That Friday came, and I said my shahada – in front of witnesses. I was a convert to Islam, but it was actually called a revert. In all the videos I had watched online, I hadn’t paid enough attention to the terminology. The thing I remember most about that day wasn’t saying the shahada; it was being in the rows of other Muslims saying salat – all together, in unison, reciting the prayers; bending over with my hands on my knees, raising back up, reciting more prayers; but most of all, kneeling and prostrating, all in a row, all together- Kneeling and submitting before Allah, before my Creator.  

I am a Muslim, in the “bible belt” of the country – a bible belt revert. Yes, my wife is still Catholic. But she supports me going to masjid and doing my five daily prayers, and pretty much everything else that comes with being a revert. Al-Hamdulillah. 

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