After some time with another Christian based organization, I moved on to a small village. This was my first close encounter with practicing Muslims. In the beginning, I was especially uneasy around the women. They seemed strange to me; all covered up and keeping themselves separate from the men. But, being a woman, I was sent to spend my time with them, which I did, reluctantly at first. Their kindness quickly put me at ease. Without a common language, I felt their warmth and hospitality.
I was taken aback by the generosity of the Muslims I met. In every home we went to, we were honored, greeted with beaming smiles, starkly contrasting the destruction and devastation of the environment. Before they ate, they fed us. In most cases, I saw that they ate only what we left behind – preferring our contentedness rather than their own, in spite of their dire situation.
In a historic, 1,000-year-old city, during a strict 20-day, 24-hour curfew, no one could go out to get food or even for emergencies without risking being shot dead. In this context, I was astonished when I found out the meaning of Alhamdulillah, because nearly every person I saw said it, even when they were standing in front of the ruins of their lives. Even when their child had been killed, even when their existence appeared to me utterly hopeless and helpless. I couldn’t believe they were praising God amidst what looked to me, like misery.
Not only that, overall, they handled extreme hardship and destruction with such grace. True patience. What is this? I wondered.
I remember sitting at a relief center where we stayed for a few days. Sitting out under the stars and hearing the call to prayer; its sweet sound floating up into the night sky, offering an unexpectedly beautiful and hopeful alternative to the occasional sounds of small arms fire and tank cannons. I took out my audio recorder and captured it. The athan touched my heart. It was a beauty I hadn’t really experienced before.
I had been reading the Quran in bits and pieces for nearly an entire year at that time, as research for what I imagined would be a groundbreaking study of religions alongside Political philosophies. I had intended to prove all religions were mere fabrications, but the Quran eventually dominated my reading and I found an affinity for it I didn’t expect. But until that time, in a faraway land steeped in strife, I had not yet heard the Quran recited.
When the 20-day curfew was finally lifted from that ancient city, enabling the people to come out of their homes for food, activity filled the previously deserted streets. I heard a beautiful sound. A sound that, to me, was symbolic of the life now thriving where there had previously been desolation. I told a journalist I was walking with, “Ah, It’s so good to hear music!”. She laughed at me and shook her head, “That’s not music. That’s the Quran!”. Her statement stopped me in my tracks. When the Quran I had been reading, connected with the sound of its recitation for the first time, a new burning desire was ignited inside me. That recitation, coupled with my experience living with Muslims in the weeks I spent there, resulted in an insatiable thirst to know more about Islam.
As the days went by while I was living with Muslims in their homes, my respect and awe for their tolerance, kindness and fortitude grew. In a building occupied by military personnel, causing most of the tenants to gather in the first floor apartment – I sat with these smiling ladies and one of them said to me, “You are so nice. You should be Muslim like us.” It was a statement I would have normally scoffed at and repelled, but when she said it, I felt flattered.
When I returned home to New York, I was thirsty like someone who had been wandering a desert for 22 years. The only thing that would satisfy my thirst was more knowledge about Islam. I had to know more. The library became my oasis and I read and read and read. I drank in every bit of information I could about Islam. I read books by Muslims and non-Muslims. For months, I studied and I pondered and I deliberated within myself.
Finally, one evening in the library with a pile of open books in front of me, I stared in disbelief at the words on the pages. There is nothing worthy of worship except God, and Muhammad is His messenger.
This can’t be happening. I couldn’t possibly believe that. I couldn’t possibly be certain. The library had to close its doors. I mechanically made my way out through the campus and onto the sidewalk. The streets of Brooklyn glisten in the warm artificial light of the street lamps.
My shock culminated in elation. It was true. I gratefully surrendered to the Owner of the heavens and the Earth, under the streetlamp on a balmy autumn night. It was as if the trees and lights glistened and danced in happiness with me as I continued the rest of the way to my apartment. To my new life.