First off, you have to understand that I am 1/4 Syrian; all of my relatives are Christian. My dad worked for 14 years in the World Trade Center. Alhamdulillah he wasn’t there on September 11, 2001, and I got to spend another 15 years with him. I remember going there for Christmas parties and “bring your kid to work day”. Standing at the base of those incredible towers and looking up, I understood for the first time how small and inconsequential I am as a person.
I was raised Catholic. When I was confirmed in the Catholic Church (at age 14, when you become an official member of the Church), I took the “Saint” name Gabriel, since my grandfather did. His last name was Nunizatio, which I believe means “the announcer”. When the Priest announced my confirmation, he pronounced Gabriel as “Jibril”, which is never something I’ve heard a Christian do before or since.
I began my college education at The Catholic University of America in Washington, DC. At that school, you are required to take three theology classes. The first one is general Catholic theology. Since I was raised as a Catholic, and was attending this school due to a recent increase in my faith, I thought I knew most of what I should know. However, the professor of that class told us that the stories of the Bible were not true, they were just nice stories to live by. I think he even said that there was no evidence of Jesus AS being crucified. Perhaps this was the one thing he was right about, but I found it disturbing that scholars would say that the most critical aspects of the Catholic faith were untrue.
Having to fulfill my requirement, I decided for my next two theology classes to take “Intro to Islam”, and “Christian Muslim Relations”. I knew that Islam was the world’s fastest growing religion so I thought I would do well to learn about it. They were taught by a non-Muslim professor. I learned the basics such as the 5 pillars and how Muslims believe that God revealed the Quran to the Prophet Muhammad, SAW. I thought it was interesting but I had no interest in converting at that time. I had a sense that Islam was only for Arabs and Pakistanis.
After that, my dad got sick, so I transferred to New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) to save money and be closer to home. This was the summer of 2015. That summer, I also followed my dad into a black Baptist Church in Newark, NJ. This was the first time I felt welcomed by people who looked different and had had different experiences from me.
A few weeks into my first semester at NJIT, on September 11, a Friday, the school’s ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps, essentially military college education) was doing a memorial service at my school. Hundreds of small American flags lined the campus green, the only time I have seen this at NJIT. I had long since concluded that jet fuel doesn’t melt steel beams. I have always supported the military, both my grandfathers having served in the United States Military. However, I have not supported the wars that we have fought during my lifetime, and had long prayed for their conclusion and peace in the Middle East. In any event, the patriotic scene inspired me to say a prayer.
I prayed that America would come back to God, that we would come together to solve our tough problems, and learn how our leaders have led us astray as a nation. On the first day of classes, I noticed a girl in hijab, and immediately thought to myself “she has the “Holy Spirit” in her”. My sense of it now would be to say that she had a high level of Taqwa, God consciousness. As I was saying this prayer, this same girl walked from across the campus green to where I was standing, noticed a flag that was touching the ground, and set it straight. For those of you outside of America, it is a major sign of disrespect to let the American flag touch the ground. Something inside me made me think that only this Muslim girl could have noticed this flag touching the ground and fixed it, and that this was a sign for me. If I knew the word I would’ve said Subhanallah.
Over the next couple of weeks, I couldn’t get this event out of my head. Finally, I asked this girl “what does someone who wants to convert to Islam need to do?” She told me that the next week was “Islam Awareness Week” at NJIT, and invited me to come to one of the events.
I went to a lecture taught by a local Sheikh. He taught about how on the Day of Judgement, the people would go in succession to each of the Prophets- first to Adam, then Nuh, then Ibrahim, then Musa, then Isa, then Muhammad, peace be upon them all, seeking refuge. He explained that each of these Prophets, had minor faults that meant that they would not be able to help anyone, except for Prophet Muhammad, SAW. The way the information was presented, I got a sense that this was just a minuscule amount of the knowledge available in Islam. I felt I had learned more from this one hour lecture than I had in my whole life as a Catholic, and that this knowledge made more sense to me, and was free from contradiction. I said my shahada right then and there.
In the year and a half since then, I can attest to the major difference this deen has made in my life. I am closer to God than ever before. I truly understand that this life is a test for us, and I am learning about what God expects of us to pass that test. Slowly but surely I am focusing more and more on achieving that ultimate goal of Jannah, and remembrance of Allah and his Messenger. Though my mother is not accepting of my decision, I am closer to her and my other family members than ever before, because I understand that family and especially your mother, are one of the most important things in Islam. I’ve met some of the best people in my life through this deen. I have met many great brothers at my school and local Masjids, that have been great role models and great teachers. The Prophetic character that these people try to live by is evident in everything they do. It clearly makes their lives on this Earth far more meaningful, and Inshallah those I have met and all of the pious Muslims will enter into Jannah.
I want people to take away two lessons from this story. The first is that the smallest action can have the biggest impact on someone. That girl who raised the flag did a seemingly insignificant act. However, my witnessing of that was life changing, leading me to say Shahada. May Allah reward her for this action, and her parents for raising a responsible and respectful citizen.
The second is that in order to “Make America Great Again”, we need Muslims in America, whether the President will admit it or not. There can be no serious debate as to the fact that “Judeo-Christian” values are what made America great in the first place. Love and worship of God, love of family and a strong sense of community, prayer, hard work, and honesty, just to name a few. These same principles apply to Canada and European countries that some of you find yourselves in.
Sadly, many Jews and Christians today don’t practice these values anymore. These religions have become watered down and meaningless for many, and millions who come from formerly Christian and Jewish families now believe God doesn’t even exist. During the same time these values have been lost, we have seen the decline of Western society. Poverty and unemployment are on the rise. Mental illness and drug use are rampant. People don’t even know what gender they are anymore.
Muslims still exemplify these values and many more. It is evident from my experiences that Muslims upholding these values are why we are so successful. So many of us are doctors, engineers, lawyers, and accountants. We are respected community members and business owners. We raise solid families when other communities have rampant divorce and zina. We must spread our values and Prophetic character in these countries we now find ourselves in. We must find those Christians and Jews who still live by these values and work with them as well. If we do this to the best of our ability, and remember Allah in all that we do, I truly believe we can create a better world for ourselves and our children. And these same good actions will guarantee that no matter what we have in this life, we will have unfathomable riches in the Afterlife.
May Allah bless everyone who reads this, and all of your families and friends, and all of the believing Muslims. May he keep us firm on the straight path, and increase our worship and remembrance of him and his Messenger.
By Thomas Harrigan
June 22, 2017