American University Professor of Religion Shares his Islam Story
My name is James Frankel. I’ll be talking a little bit to you about my experience of coming to Islam.
I’m speaking to you now from Honolulu, Hawaii, and it’s September 2010.
I’m a professor of comparative religion. I teach classes of Islam also at the University of Hawaii. I’ve been living in Hawaii now for just over 2 years and I’m just entering my third year.
Some brothers asked me if I could speak about my experiences so hopefully insha’Allah I could do this today and I hope this will be helpful to anybody. May Allah give us all hidayah.
The Early Years
I came to Hawaii 2 years ago, and before that I lived in New York city where I was born and raised. I was born in 1969 and grew up in Manhattan, part of the time in Brooklyn for a few years in my life. For the most part, I had a very happy family life.
My parents raised me not with any particular religion but I think with basic set of moral values. Actually, by heritage I have a Jewish background, but I grew up in a very secular household where there wasn’t a lot of religious practices.
The only connection I ever had with a religion was from my father’s side, my grandmother who was a practicing Jew. It’s from her that I learned a few things, bible stories, stories of the prophets.
For a brief period my parents actually attempted to send me to a Hebrew school to learn more but I was not very comfortable there and actually got kicked out for asking too many questions, so this is probably my character that brought me to where I’m today. As a professor and as a Muslim, I continued to ask a lot of questions.
So, I grew up in this way without any religious foundation. This continued through my life and my late teens. I had actually 2 experiences that are worth mentioning. One, at the age of 13, I read the communist manifesto of Karl Marx and decided that I was a communist. I thought the values were sound and thought the philosophy was potentially beneficial to people.
Also at that time, I suppose this might be one of the earliest exposures to Islam that I can remember, my best friend at that time was from Pakistan. I went to an international school so I had friends from all over the world. My Pakistani friend gave me a copy of the Quran and he wanted me to read it. He said “I don’t want you to go to Hell”. Of course at this period of my life thoughts of hell were not really in my consciousness. I think I took the book and put it on my shelf and there it stayed for many years without being opened.
A couple of years later I think I became quite disillusioned about communism as I learned more about the way that communism is actually practiced in many countries of the world and so I gave up the philosophy as well. It really wasn’t until I entered university that I began to ask the questions that will lead me directly onto this path. I think as a child I was always thoughtful and I always wondered about the meaning of life.
Those basic questions about why we are here, where we are going and why we suffer, all of these things were always present in my mind even when I was a child. But as I got older and when I went to university, I focused a lot more on my studies until I had a particular experience.
Remember the grandmother that I mentioned before? In university, I was living in Washington DC and I got a phone call from my cousin who was going to school in Maryland and there was a surprise visit from my grandmother, my aunt and another cousin and they took me out for dinner.
I spent the evening basically just talking to my grandmother. I told her about my plans to start studying Chinese which I was doing at that time. I told her about my plans to move back to New York and my transfer to Columbia University. It was as if she was giving me her blessing on all of these various decisions that I was making in my life as a young adult.
At the end of the evening, I was walking with her to the car and at the parking of this restaurant, she turned her ankle and she tripped and I asked her “Grandma, are you OK?” and she said don’t worry about me, just worry about yourself “OK” I thought and I continued to walk with her to the car, I opened the door, she got in and I kissed her goodnight and I said, “Well, I guess the next time I see you will be in thanksgiving when I get back to New York” and she said to me “God willing”. I didn’t think of it that much at the time. I closed the door and off they drove.
My cousin took me back to my dormitory and I went to bed. Early on the next morning I got a phone call and it was my cousin. I asked him why he is calling so early and there was no other way to say it, he just said “Grandma died”, and I said “Really?!” I thought he was joking maybe. I said “What are you talking about?” and he explained that she had a heart attack in her sleep.
Of course her final words to me were echoing in my ears. I said I will see you soon and she said God willing, and I said are you ok, and she said take care of yourself. So to this day, it was an unexpected visit and of course unexpected departure for her. And to this day I can only wonder about the meaning of that encounter with my grandmother who of course as I said was my only link to traditional religion.
I went back to New York for the funeral and it was a traditional Jewish funeral and the Rabbi who was doing the eulogy spoke about my grandmother and said “Sarah was a rare treasure and God has taken that treasure back.” I thought OK, that is what the Rabbi would say.
When the Rabbi came to my grandfather’s house to pay his respects, I wanted to ask him some questions about certain practices that are practiced in the Jewish home at the time of someone’s death. He told me not to worry about those things. He said that’s just a tradition. I said “OK, but how about this, in your sermon you said that my grandmother, I don’t know how well you knew her, but you said that she was taken by God, so where is she? And for that matter, where shall I go? Where will you go? And why are we here”, and all those questions that well up in the human heart.
The Rabbi, I remember very clearly, looked at his watch and said “I have to go”. I don’t think he realized how angry that made me. Also, I don’t think he realized that he set me on a course that would lead me to where I’m today because I became very interested in those questions.
Searching for the Truth
So at first I thought I would try to answer those questions in respect to my grandmother’s memory. I would try to find a Jewish community where I could answer those questions. I was 18 or 19 years at that time and the communities I found were not satisfactory to me. I asked the questions which I asked many times as a child and I was told that God is only the god of the Jews! There are only 20 million Jews in the world, and yet there are billions and billions of other people, and God created them also, right?
So I began to study on my own. I began to read The Bible and that summer I was in England where I was there for an internship, and there were some evangelical Christians who sort of approached me and wanted to socialize. Of course they also wanted me to accept their faith. I thought OK, why not try Christianity? I’ve never really thought about it.
In reading The Bible I came to develop a very strong feeling of love and respect for Jesus. But they wanted me to make an extra leap; to accept Jesus as my lord and my savior, and that’s what I couldn’t do. Jesus for me was like a big brother or like a teacher. Jesus for me was a Jew, and I couldn’t accept the claims they were making about him, but as I said I did develop strong feeling of affection towards him. I thought OK I’m not going to find any answers to my questions.
studied other things on my own. I studied eastern philosophies like Buddhism. I studied western philosophies particularly Greek, Roman and historic philosophy. But nothing really was answering the profound questions that I have. And one day I was back in New York just before I began my new semester, and I was at Times Square which was very different than it is today… There were all sorts of religious preachers there. I always love to talk to people about religion, often as a skeptic.
I remember speaking to one guy who was a Jew for Jesus. He was telling me what he believed and I heard that before and to me it was basically Christianity. He asked me if I agree with him and I said “I’m sorry, I don’t believe in what you believe” and he said “You believe in God, don’t you?” I said “I think I do” and he said “Then pray with me, just pray to God”. He put his hand on my shoulder, closed his eyes and started speaking to the father.
With his eyes closed, I started to look around and I saw at the other corner these men with long black beards, white robes (jalabiyahs) and white turbans. They were Africans or African Americans but they looked like as if they walked out of the pages of The Bible. They looked like Noah or Abraham or something like that. So I thought, I know you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover but I thought, why not?, why not to talk with them.
After the Jew for Jesus man finished his prayer, I went over there and asked them what they were and what they were preaching. They told me that I probably wouldn’t be interested about that.
I said “Why not?”
They said “Because you are the devil”.
I said “Really?, I’m the devil?”
And they said “Well, all white men are devils.”
I replied “If I’m the devil, just let me ask you this one question, if I’m the devil, why am I so thirsty to know God?”
They explained to me that even the devil believes in god. I asked them from where did they get this knowledge, I actually knew, I mean I’ve read in a paper in college about Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam, and so I understood they were probably related to those black nationalist movements.
But I asked them what’s their source for this claim of my satanic nature and they gave me some verses from The Bible, Book of Daniel I think, and I said “No no no, if I want the bible I would go down the street to the Jew for Jesus guy or some other Christian, what about your book? Don’t you read the Quran?” They said yes and they gave me some verses to read from surat al-Kahf and I took it home.
Reading the Quran
I took home the paper that the verses were written on and immediately I went up to my bookshelf where I had the Quran copy that was given to me about six years earlier by my friend Mansour. I started reading, I looked for the passages they directed me to and of course I read it and there was no indication there that I was a devil or that any other white person was a devil.
But since I started reading, I went to the beginning of the book and I just began to read. I read and I read until I fell asleep with the book in my hands. The next day, I read over and over again when I had free time.
The Quran moved me in a way that other books hadn’t, certainly in a way that The Bible didn’t due to the Quran’s directness and the fact that the lord of the worlds, the creator as the book describes, the author, is speaking directly to you, very directly and very intimately. It moved me in a way that I had not felt before. I can’t tell you when or where exactly, I know that there were times that I would read it and I could feel tears in my eyes running down on my face. Sometimes I would read it and the hair of my arm would stand up and on the back of my neck. I can’t pinpoint precisely the time and the place, but at some point I think I had realized that I was reading the words of God.
Well, in January 1990, I was out with some friends from high school. We were having coffee and we were just talking about what’s going on in our lives. They asked me “What do you believe in these days?!” Because they knew me when I was a communist and then when I went through many different phases as a young person and they knew me as someone who didn’t really believe in anything. So they asked me and I said “Well, I believe in God.”
They said “Really, what god?”
I said “There’s only one god”
They asked “Where did you get this from?”
I replied “Well, for me it was from reading the Quran”
One of them who was a Muslim said “You have been reading the Quran, so you must believe this is the message of God and that Muhammad is the messenger of god” I said “Yea, I guess so”
He said “OK, let me get this right: you believe that there’s only one god and that Muhammad is His messenger?”
I said “Yea, since you put it that way, I do”
He said “Then you are a Muslim”.
I laughed and said “I’m a Muslim? You are a Muslim, you are from Pakistan, I’m just a guy who believes in God.”
He said “No, you are a Muslim. You believe that there’s no God but the one god and Muhammad is His messenger.” “You are a Muslim.”
I was in shock…
A Closet Muslim
For the next few days, I had to think what that meant and I contacted my friend Mansour; the one who gave me the Quran when I was 13 years old. He was at university in Pennsylvania and worked at the Muslim Student Association there.
So I asked him if he can send me some literature that might serve as an introduction to Islam and the life requirements of a Muslim. He sent me a book or two, and one book in particular (Islam in Focus) provided a very good introduction, not only to the basic Islamic beliefs but also to the five pillars of Islam. I learned how to make salat, how to pronounce the shahadah, and how to make my wudu’ from that book.
I started praying. I guess you could say I’m a closet Muslim because I was living with my parents at that time and I closed the door and performed my prayers. Even the first time I’ve ever fasted in the month of Ramadan I did it completely on my own. I had no community. I just found out what time the sun would rise and what time the sun would set and ate at the times that were permitted.
And so for the first six or eight months of my life as a new Muslim, I did this completely alone and my guide was the Quran and the book of this scholar. That’s the story of how I embraced Islam actually.
At a certain point I had to tell my family and it was like coming out of the closet. One night at dinner, I told my family I’ve been reading the Quran, and they said “Yea, we’ve seen you carrying it everywhere” I said that I really believe it and what I learned that besides believing there are certain practical implications of that belief which I’ve chosen to follow also, so I guess that makes me a Muslim.
My mother’s reaction was very strong; she cried and I think she asked her self looked at my father and thought “Where did we go wrong, how did this happen?” I think my father’s approach was much more relaxed. He probably thought to himself “Well, my son was a communist when he was 13, he was a skinhead when he was 16. He went through so many different phases, so maybe this is just another phase.”
I suppose both my mother and my father were onto something. I mean this was a phase but it wasn’t just a passing phase, at least as I thought or hoped. My mother must have realized that I was serious but of course her reaction was one of fear and regret which I suppose is understandable when one is ignorant and only has distorted perceptions based on misinformation or limited information. So there were great challenges in those first years, trying to communicate with my parents.
I have to say that alhamdulellah they were very understanding and patient and we’ve come to a better understanding. At first my mother worried that I would turn into a kind of a monster. But I tried to assure that since I embraced Islam, I’m a better student and I think I’m a better son. It wasn’t as though I was a bad person before Islam.
Maybe for some people setting foot on this path is necessary for them to be able to reform themselves. In my case, I thanked my parents actually for giving me the values that I was able to recognize when I came to Islam. As I said it I wasn’t a bad person insha’Allah. Islam has made me, makes me and will make me, a better person. You know everybody’s path is different. How they get there and even once they embrace Islam everybody has a different way of understanding this path.
For me, it has a lot to do with learning and knowledge. I think that the basic purpose of life and Islam is to gain knowledge; knowledge of ourselves, knowledge of our world, of our universe, and knowledge of our intimate relationship with Allah.
This has propelled me into my career. I don’t know if I would have become a professor today if I haven’t become a Muslim. I’m not saying that everybody should be a professor. But for me it has been a long journey of learning and teaching. Along the way, I’ve gained great respect and appreciation for other religions also which I don’t think I would not have had if I didn’t have this grounding in Islam.
I think that something that new Muslims should take to heart is that when one becomes a Muslim, one doesn’t become a different person. The prophet (peace be upon him) said that people bring to Islam what they had before, so even among his companions there were people who had special talents or challenges and these were the ones who had to continue to work with or work on after entering the path. So similarly I can say that this applies too for me. There are many challenges and life continues to have its troubles. It just requires patience.
For me this is almost a 20-year journey and only Allah knows how and where it will end. So, my advice to new Muslims or even to people who have been Muslims for a long time is just to bear with patience and see what Allah will surprise you with; not with fear but with love and hope.
If there are non-Muslims who are hearing me today I think you owe it to yourself to know as much as you can about the things in the world around you. Islam is certainly present in the world. It’s almost unavoidable in the news and in the world around us. And if you don’t know any Muslims, probably you will at some points. I think we all should know each other so if you are curious, there are lots of resources out there.
If you are in Hawaii, give me a call. I’m at the university of Hawaii in the religion department, so if I can be of any help let me know. And even for those people who are from Muslim families we can always increase in knowledge and be in compassion and in love for each other.
So that’s my wish for all of you and thank you for listening and with that I say Assalamu’alaikum warahmatullahi wabarakatuh.