Danielle LoDuca is an American author from Oakdale New York. Although she was raised Catholic Christian, she later chose to be agnostic (i.e. skeptic of God) and viewed all religions with disdain. In 2002 she accepted Islam after studying the Quran and travelling to the middle east. Here is her story:
I never aspired to be a Muslim, I didn’t even want to be a Christian. The whole concept of ‘organized religion’ was distasteful. I sought to use my mind, not resort to some ancient book for assistance in living my life. If you had offered me millions of dollars to join one faith or another, I would have declined. One of my preferred authors was Bertrand Russell, who maintained that religion is little more than superstition and generally harmful to people, despite any positive effects that it might have.
I remember laughing out loud while reading the book ‘Hey, Is That You God?’ by Dr. Pasqual Schievella, in which he derided the concept of God through satirical dialogue. It all seemed so logical. Thinkers like us were surely above religious devotees, I thought smugly.
On September 11, 2001, I had class at 9am at my university in Brooklyn. We had a large window facing the Twin Towers. I arrived in my classroom that morning to find one of the Twin Towers burning. I joined a few other classmates looking out the window at this very startling sight, wondering what had happened and imagining all the damage done and possible lives lost.
We were all utterly shocked as we watched the second plane slam into the other tower. To me, the plane looked like some sort of military plane due to the angle I saw it from and the shadow causing the plane to appear black. My class was dismissed. I went back to my apartment and by the time I got up to the roof of my building the towers had collapsed. It really bothered me that the message of the perpetrators of the attack was not made clear at that time. I wanted real answers. My peaceful fantasy world was shattered on this day.
I really cannot be sure of whether or not I had ever heard of Islam before September 11 but obviously with that abhorrent attack came the knowledge that there was this other religion out there called Islam. My disdain of religions was really validated when I thought about a religion being related to this atrocity. This propelled me to embark upon a project I thought would be groundbreaking. I decided to prove all religions were man made. I was going to do it by methodically comparing them to political philosophies, which I had begun studying that same semester and found strikingly similar to religion. Flawed and conflicting with one another, they provided the perfect medium to show the world what I had come to believe: Religions were human falsifications and religious adherents, dupes.
This grand idea required me to read religious “scriptures”, so I bought a Bible, the Hindu scriptures, books on Buddhism, Taoism and thankfully, I managed to get a free copy of the translation of the Quran some time after I had begun my studies of the other books. The Quran stood out and quickly dominated my reading. It began to accompany me everywhere I went. I didn’t realize what was happening at the time. Its flow, accessibility and its message was so much more digestible, easy to understand and strikingly applicable. The other books, in comparison, had become a struggle to complete and my interest in them, and my project, slowly faded.
Meanwhile, I felt so disturbed by this new post-9/11 reality that I decided to take some time off from college. After that semester, I flew to Australia. I was running away, but the Quran and the other books came with me along with books by Bertrand Russell and other anti-religious “critical thinkers”. My goal remained intact, albeit weakened.
From Australia, I decided to travel to Southeast Asia, where I travelled through Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. In Vietnam and Laos, there are some people who still have enmity and resentment toward America, lingering since the Vietnam War. To this day there remain signs of the war on the streets, such as people born with birth defects caused by Agent Orange, the toxic defoliant dropped into jungles by the US to expose enemy fighters during the war. It was difficult for me to see them begging on the streets, living a life of suffering, because of a war waged before I was even born. I don’t know how to describe the feeling; it was like remorse, shame. Seeing, in person, the suffering humans can cause one another was a profoundly overwhelming experience.
This itself did not lead me to Islam, but it primed my heart. Before all of this, I was pretty arrogant, but slowly through these experiences my heart softened and my mind expanded. My perceptions and understanding shifted and matured. I decided that I did not want to allow myself to feel that just by being American I am somehow better than anyone else.
During my stay in Australia, an Israeli who was leaving to go back home for some time owned the apartment I sublet. Prior to that, my knowledge of the conflict in the Middle East was murky. I had heard about it in relation to the 9/11 attacks; that it was possibly a motivating factor in the seemingly new world disorder, but I knew virtually nothing else. Through my new landlord, I garnered enough information to fuel insatiable curiosity. What I was hearing seemed peculiar, like reading a book with pages torn out. I needed to fill in the blanks, so I began reading. I checked out book after book on the Middle East and the enduring conflict that was supposedly at the heart of so much unrest.
Upon returning home to NY and seeking out more information, I felt that books weren’t enough, so I began attending lectures on the topic. I experienced conflicting stories. Contradictory views. It was black and white, polarized. I began seeking out lectures and classes on this topic in the hope that I would be able to satisfy my longing for understanding.
One night, I attended a lecture in Manhattan. After the talk, a man stood up in front of the small audience. He announced that himself and others were soon traveling to the Middle East for humanitarian initiatives. When I heard him speak, everything clicked. I knew I had to go. I had to. I made the decision right there on the spot. I was going to the Middle East into one of the most unpredictable, explosive places on Earth. I would finally find out for myself and see with my own eyes one of the root causes of my own country’s untenable vulnerability.
It was after I was all set to go that I announced my decision to my family, who were utterly floored by my clearly poor choice to enter a troubled region. They begged me not to go, but my resolve was unwavering. It was as if I was programmed, unflinching, unfeeling. My drive overrode my compassion for my own family and their concern for me. The worry of my mother was surmounted by my thirst to know the truth. Looking back now I can’t believe the way I disregarded their wishes like some kind of heartless robot.
We didn’t speak for days. They must have been in turmoil, not knowing what to do as the days and hours ticked by and my departure neared and neared. The silence was broken as I sat in the airport terminal awaiting my flight. Literally minutes before boarding, my cell phone rang. It was my family. They didn’t want me leaving (and maybe never coming back!) without saying goodbye. And so, I said goodbye and boarded my flight all alone, into the heart of the Middle East conflict.
After my group arrived to Jerusalem, we met with Christian organizations and priests with whom we coordinated our efforts. Each of us would be sent to different areas in occupied territories to help provide food and other humanitarian assistance.
One of the first places where I interacted with the locals was a Christian school not far from Jerusalem. The staff and children were so kind and welcoming. I began taking pictures of the children and noticed one Muslim girl, maybe 8 or 9 years old, wearing hijab. I wasn’t sure if it was okay to take her picture because I didn’t know the meaning of her dress. She smiled sweetly and allowed me to snap a photo.
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.