“This day I have perfected your religion for you and completed My favor upon you, and have chosen for you Islam as your religion.”
“Whoever treads a path seeking knowledge, Allah will make easy for him the path to Paradise. And the angels lower their wings out of contentment for the seeker of knowledge. And verily, all those in the heavens and in the earth, even the fish in the depths of the sea ask forgiveness for the scholar. And verily, the virtue of the scholar over the worshipper is like the virtue of the moon on the night of Badr over all of the stars. Indeed, the scholars are the inheritors of the prophets, for the prophets do not leave behind a dinar or a dirham for inheritance, but rather, they leave behind knowledge. So whoever takes hold of it has acquired a large share.”
—Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him (Abu Dawud, At-Tirmidhi)
People have often asked me to recount the moment that I recited the shahaadah, the testimony of faith marking my soul’s initial purification, my official entry into the religion of Islam. And each time that I part my lips to find words for the indescribable, I am met with the welling of tears instead. There are moments that I can blink them back and deny that they were ever there. But still, I detect them in the slight breaking of my voice at the onset of speech, or in the deep sigh I take to recover from my faltering emotions, or in the extended pause and purposeful smile I offer to appear as if I am deciding the best way to explain.
In reality, there are no breaks in my memory, no hesitations or pauses in my mind, and no mental breaths taken in preparation. There is only the memory, tenaciously engraved, of that day—that night, even as my present countenance masks its vividness. No matter how much time passes, my mind still holds on to that which I can’t hope to forget—although there were moments, much later, that I wished that I could.
As compelling as the memory is, I have never relived it, at least not in the complete sense, even in recollection. Although, on occasion the moment haunts me, or rejuvenates me, in a dream as a symbolic reminder of my journey, or of life itself. The only parallel the moment has ever held to the present in truth is the welling of moisture behind my lids. Yet even then, my soul’s bridge to that night is foggy, if not broken, and I wonder if I would ever be granted opportunity to rest my soles upon its splintering wood and gather strength from the purity God graced me with back then.
During those unfortunate moments of recollection that I cannot contain myself and my tears spill forth—their spilling forth a silent testimony louder and more profound than words—I know, even so, my tears are not fully comprehended, or understood, even by those who share the story of a soul lost then found, of an amazing grace granted to one who was once blind.
My tears, initially, were inspired by the lingering euphoria, that immense, uncontainable spiritual joy I felt at realizing that I had taken the step, had actually surrendered to the nagging of the spirit that had called from a voice deeply embedded within, to simply let go and submit.
Yet there are moments that the tears are evoked by guilt, that dead weight that sits in the pit of my stomach and grows heavier with each moment that I neglect my soul, and religion. It is these tears that come from a hollow space within, and hurt more than the neglect itself, enveloping me with the desire to blot, irrevocably, the moment from my mind. It is also these tears that I wonder at and I ask why my eyes haven’t become dry, why my heart isn’t sealed, and why, even as I am neglectful, the soft spot for that moment has not left my heart.
And there are still other moments that the tears are evoked by my sudden realization that I am still holding on, even as my palms burn from the hot coals of the religion in my hand. Or perhaps it is trepidation that I feel, that haranguing fear that my recital will be recited back to me on the Last Day and that I would have met the solitude of my grave without it on my tongue.
But never has anyone understood my tears. This I know because I do not understand them myself. Yet, there remains, in its own quiet space of my mind, the memory of that night, that life-altering moment that inspires a host of emotions depending upon the occasion for which it is called up.
The feeling I had that night is one I can relate to nothing I’ve known before it and nothing comparable, even still, that I have come to know following it. I recall repeating after Hadiyah and the sense that something inside me, something dark and corroding, was dissipating with the utterance. When I finished, there was only one word to describe how I felt, in body and soul—pure.
I remember the moisture of tears still behind my lids as I settled under my covers in my dorm room, sleep lulling me. I knew then, after the recital, that I could rest peacefully.
I also recall, quite precisely, that my slumber was disrupted by the shrilling of the phone, an unwelcome reminder that my spiritual seclusion, and euphoria, was limited to the confines of my own heart. I didn’t want to answer it because it was most likely for Felicia, but then again, I thought, it could be Hadiyah calling me back, giving me one last officiating into the religion.
“Hello?” I could hear the grogginess in my voice and was stunned that, despite my spiritual transformation that set me apart from my former self and life, I was still subject to the mundane realities of this world.
“Thank God,” a male voice crackled through the receiver. “I thought I had the wrong number.”
The voice was faintly familiar, but I couldn’t place it.
“I’m sorry. Who would you like to speak to?”
The sound of my name jolted me awake, and I sat up, recognizing the voice. His voice was awkward in its familiarity and sent my heart racing at the reminder of a world separate from, but somehow loosely connected to, the new me. I thought momentarily that he had somehow heard of my conversion, although this was a logical impossibility given that I hadn’t even been Muslim for a full hour right then. But fear has a way of perverting perception, making a possibility more palpable than it could be in truth.
So I sat alert in the darkness of my room, hoping that even if Reggie knew, he wouldn’t have told my parents, and he wouldn’t judge me for it.
“Yes,” I said hesitantly.
There was an awkward silence. Because I was too distracted by the knowledge of my conversion and fear of its exposure, it wouldn’t be until months later that I realized that the uncomfortable silence was foreign to us and, thus, I should have been prepared for the weightiness of what he was about to divulge. I should have known it would change everything between us, and prove a greater test of faith than my initial fear of being discovered.
“I can’t talk long,” he said, apologizing in his tone. “But I talked to your father and he said I could call.”
I didn’t know what to say, as his calling had never been a problem before although he had never called my room. Suddenly, there was a distant fear that something was wrong. But this fear was quickly assuaged as he spoke his next words.
It took several seconds for me to register what he was saying. It had been so long since I had spoken to him, thought of him even, that I didn’t know what to say to his confession. It was then that his talking to my father became clear, because it was Reggie’s only way of legitimizing his desire to date me that summer. I would be home in three weeks, he knew, and he would be finished high school, and he wanted to celebrate, or commemorate, this achievement by having what he had desired most for years—me by his side.
The heart, I believe, is the strangest and most phenomenal piece of flesh in the body. It can retain so many emotions at once, each contradictory in nature but somehow finding place, undisturbed and not at odds with each other there.
At the moment of his revelation, there was flattery nestling within, and a distant recollection of my heart years before. Yet there was the firmness of the faith I embraced, creating light years of distance between me and him, and a sense of sorrow in my heart that I could not respond favorably to his request. And still there was a visceral affection for him that I could not hope to ignore, even as I felt a twinge of pain that my answer would be no.
What words could convey my inability to fulfill his desire, a shared desire, without hurting a soul, his or mine?
Because I could neither bring myself to tell the truth nor hurt him, I chose a comfortable place in between.
“It’s too much for me to consider right now,” I said. “I have to think about it.”
Although my words to Reggie hung heavy in the darkness of the room after placing the receiver on its base, by morning they were but a distant whisper as my thoughts were stampeded by impending final exams, and the weightiness of what I’d done the night before, for my soul.
Today I’m amazed at how quickly I forgot Reggie after that. I marvel still at how the maturing of the spirit transforms even the most intense desires of the heart.
Two days later I was sleeping in the guest room of Hadiyah’s home and being carted to and from my exams in her car, even as my mind was far from being concerned with menial academics. I don’t recall studying much for my exams, spending perhaps an hour, two at most, each evening preceding the final to be written the following day, a preparation most likely hurried through as a formality so I could focus on what I really wanted to study—Islam.
Because knowledge has a way of settling and becoming part of you, as if part of the plasma in one’s blood, I cannot separate who I am today with what I learned back then, nor can I pinpoint each piece of information and credit it to a particular lesson or time. But what I know for sure is that those last three weeks of school were the most unforgettable, even as minor details escape my mind.
My most vivid memory is of waking early when the stillness of night had not yet completed its retreat for morning, and feeling the spiritual camaraderie of praying at dawn. I stood next to Hadiyah, the cloth of my khimaar brushing her at the shoulder from where the fabric fell around my head. I remember standing, unmoving, and listening to her husband recite Al-Faatihah, the opening chapter of the Qur’an. I also remember the Qudsi hadith I learned of this pillar of prayer and have, since then, never tired of hearing of the poetic conversation my Lord has with a lone worshipper standing before Him.
Allah has said,
“I have divided the prayer between Myself and My servant into two halves, and My servant shall have what he asks for.” When the servant says, “All praise belongs to Allah, the Lord of the worlds,” Allah, Mighty and Sublime, says, “My servant has praised Me.” And when he says, “The Most Gracious, the Most Merciful,” Allah, Mighty and Sublime, says, “My servant has extolled Me.” And when he says, “Master of the Day of Judgment,” Allah says, “My servant has glorified Me.” And when he says, “You alone do we worship and from You alone do we seek help,” He says, “This is between Me and My servant, and My servant shall have what he asks for.”
There are moments, too, that I rather not remember of those last weeks of my sophomore year in college, but in all honesty, those moments would become significant, and painful, only later. During those few weeks, the unfavorable moments were like small blotches on a perfect image, and felt only like one feels the prick of a thorn on a fresh rose. Hadiyah, may God bless her, in her wisdom kept me distracted from those whose words and actions could have sullied my pure experience, or those who, in fact, could have shattered irrevocably the little confidence I was gaining in embracing my religion wholeheartedly.
In retrospect, I remember Hadiyah teaching me only about Allah and the prayer, and leaving all other issues unless they were somehow inextricably related to these two. Naturally, three weeks isn’t an enormous amount of time, and the daily interruption of final exams didn’t do much to quell my anxiety of not knowing enough before returning home. So even after I had a firm grasp of prayer, at least in the ostensible sense, she gave me but one parting piece of advice.
“The religion is easy, Renee, and in sticking firmly to the Qur’an and Sunnah is where you’ll find your strength, and peace. Do not let the unrest and unhappiness of others distract you from this simple truth.”
There are moments that, on occasion, these words settle upon me, and I feel the familiar throbbing at my temples and moisture building in my eyes as I recall my ignorance, and ultimate arrogance, in forgetting this deceptively small, yet profound, piece of advice. Or perhaps, it is just that, for me, it would take years of living in stark opposition to it before I could grasp, finally, the enormity of its meaning in full.
In my defense, I did not intend to oppose this simple wisdom or abandon my good sense. But convictions, like knowledge, have a way of seeping, unnoticed, into a person without her registering how they got there in the first place, and without her knowing on what they were founded, or why she had ever allowed something so wholly disconnected from righteousness and sense to find its way there at all.
In the beginning, I think, I had but one flaw—zeal. But it was the innocent zeal that one might count years later as an ailment of youth and inexperience more than ignorance or ill intention itself. It was the kind one could laugh about, decades later, reclining in her rocking chair as the chair’s gentle movements creak the floorboards beneath, and the friend who sits knitting next to her nods in shared recollection of this innocent flaw that plagues, without exception, all of the young.
Yet, if zeal is an affliction, it is equally, if not more so, an antidote. It is that necessary cure for the diseases of the mind and heart, that might, if left festering, prevent one from going forward with what she knows is right, that might prevent one from overlooking the ominous obstacles in her path, obstacles thwarting her spiritual journey—within and without.
I’ve heard that one has not lived until she regrets, and although in my teens I hadn’t time, or mind, to ponder the adages that so often peppered the tongues and lives of elders, I can say now without hesitation or thought, I have lived.
My sins are not ones that would turn the head of one immersed in the dark, cavernous channels of this world, drinking from the transient sweetness that poisons the heart. They would not earn me a spot opposite a talk show host, and, perhaps, they would not inspire even the slightest flicker of interest from a publisher of memoirs. But for me, they are real, and unalterable, as with all things past—and future, if one includes fate.
So it is with this knowledge that I uncover my past and try to understand in the strokes of my pen what I couldn’t in the reflection of mind and heart.
I returned to Indianapolis during the summer of 1995 a new person in many senses of the word, but my zeal had not yet inspired the youthful confidence that grants one such self-assurance as to not care what others think. So my Islam remained a secret that year, or for those few months at least. And I cannot honestly say I kept true to my commitment to, at least, perform all of my prayers. In reality—and how often does reality disrupt the purest intentions of heart?—I prayed only when it was safe to, when my siblings or parents or friends were dutifully distracted by the intricate affairs of their own lives.
So no one suspected. There was no reason or occasion to. I offered no information, and no one happened upon it, as I was careful to conceal all evidence of my conversion. Despite my being an avid reader, which would make for a plausible cover if any, I didn’t carry with me even innocuous pamphlets or books on Islam. So there was, that summer, no one who discovered my new faith.
The uneasiness that settled over the house one Wednesday night in mid-July should have been my first hint that I would be tested as to where I stood. My father’s church was packed more than usual, which I attributed to the rows of cameras along the rear and sides of the church. I had been so engrossed in my own religious study that I forgot that this was what my father had worked so hard for, a televised casting of his sermons. I was unmoved, uncomfortable even, by this remarkable achievement. I hated the looming cameras, the businesslike manner of those situated behind them, and so many people’s sudden interest in The Church. It was as if only after some reputable network decided its teachings were worth their time could others make it worth theirs.
Perhaps, my discomfort, and even harsh judgment, was due more to my realization that my hypocrisy could possibly be made public, my face on national television—a conspicuous testimony to my weakness of faith—than any real belief that the cameras and crowd were all for show. No one knew of my new religion, save Hadiyah and possibly Sumayyah, who I was sure would not waste their Sunday mornings viewing such evangelical programs as these. Yet, it was not Hadiyah or Sumayyah I feared would see my hypocrisy broadcast so plainly, but myself.
I felt I should have made up some excuse to miss church, but I could think of no plausible reason, at least not any reason that could be used twice a week for more than two months. So I sat, uncomfortably, in the front pew, head draped with a sheer headscarf, ashamed that I didn’t do even that much for what I believed truly in my heart. Reggie sat next to me, his arm brushing mine, more at ease in my second home than I was myself. This summer marked his first visit to The Church, or at least his first visit with me; I sensed that he had been in attendance earlier this year, if for no other reason than to be granted permission to court me.
My father spoke of Jesus being the only path to Heaven, a person’s only savior in the confusing sinfulness inevitable in this world. He spoke of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, this remarkable gift to humanity, a gift that only the most blind and misguided would refuse.
I thought too of Jesus as being the only path to Heaven, as were all prophets and messengers, whose lives and words instructed us in the only means of atonement for the sins we would inevitably commit in this world. I thought of people’s own sacrifices they would be asked to make, and of God’s mercy, the remarkable gift to humanity that only the most blind and misguided would refuse.
He spoke of God, the Heavenly Father, who sent His son to bring the lost back to the path, and I thought of God, the Creator and Sender of prophets and messengers, sent to guide the lost back to His path. He spoke of the necessity of obedience to God’s laws instead of relying on Jesus’ sacrifice alone, and I thought of the necessity of obedience to divine laws instead of relying on God’s mercy alone. He spoke of true faith being reflected in one’s words and actions, and I too thought the same.
My mind drifted, and shortly thereafter, my eyes. My gaze rested on the likeness of Jesus before me, the blood spilling from his hands, his head cocked in exhaustion to the side, his sallow white skin, long hair. I thought of Darnell, then Hadiyah, then, finally, myself. I wondered at the different paths people took in life, and why they were so varied when the truth was one.
Was it possible that my father and my aunt and uncle truly believed their religion to be that one truth? My father’s savoir a White man, my aunt and uncle’s a Black? What was so wrong about believing in one God, the Sender of prophets and messengers, who were the torchbearers of truth sharing no attributes or kinship to the Divine?
The coolness of Reggie’s palm on the back of my hand stunned me, and I, by instinct, pulled away. I stole a look at him, but at that moment, he turned his attention back to my father, apparently too ashamed to meet my gaze. My discomfort was suffocating then, and my heart pounded in my desire to be released from incarceration in the church and pew—and from the budding flattery in my chest. I couldn’t bear the anxiety of my growing ease next to my former best friend. I felt myself falling into a place I thought I had left, thought I would never want to return.
My face grew warm in my desire to leave and stay at once, my curiosity for the possibility of a friendship turned fond threatening to overtake my newly born Islamic sense.
The choir sang a sweet spiritual and I relaxed in the sound, wishing this could be the entire sermon itself. Next to me, Reggie hummed along imperceptibly and patted his hand against his thigh. Other members swayed their heads, waved their hands, and some were not shy to sing along. This surprised me, as we’d never done that before. I attributed it to the cameras and crowd, as I did much else.
Upon arriving home, I sensed something was wrong when my father tugged thoughtfully at his tie in the foyer, something he normally did when retreating down the hall to his room. He paused in the living room, my mother already standing still there, arms crossed, disappointment written in the creases above her brow. Even Michael and Elijah looked on expectantly and Courtney halted her ascent up the stairs, distracted by what was about to unfold. For a moment, I thought I had been discovered, and I held my breath.
“Did you talk to William?” my father said. I started to respond until I saw him looking pointedly at Reggie.
Reggie dropped his head slightly and nodded in regret. “Yes, I did.”
“So you know?”
A sigh. “Yes.”
My father shook his head, pulling the tie from his collar then unfastening the top button. “I invited his parents to church. I’m not sure if they came.”
I stood silent, watching this exchange between my neighbor and my father, as if they were long time friends, only partly sensing the undercurrent of their words, only partly registering my dread. My heartbeat was a soft rhythm then, as if it too was fearful of discovery.
My father’s shoulders lifted slightly as he tilted his head in sad reservation. “I don’t know what else to do.”
“There’s nothing you can do.” My mother’s voice was awkward in its effeminate tone. It didn’t seem to belong in this conversation. Or perhaps it was my own feminine voice that did not belong in the exchange.
“He called here asking for Ray’s phone number some time ago.” My heart skipped a beat at my father’s words as I recalled vaguely that William had indeed said he’d gotten my number from my parents. “I hope it wasn’t with ill intentions.”
My father was looking at me now.
I furrowed my brows and shook my head, my heart beat now threatening to betray me. “What did William do?” I was surprised by the sincerity of my voice, the marked concern even, as if I had no idea in the world what was going on.
“I don’t want him near my family, especially not in any romantic fashion.”
Inside I exhaled. So the “ill intentions” my father was thinking of were ones of natural male affection for the female, and not of evangelical tendencies to a lost soul.
“He says he’s Muslim,” my mother said, her nose flaring as she rolled her eyes. There was the slightest sense of déjà-vu, as I recalled the melancholy atmosphere in the house after discovering Patricia’s betrayal more than a year before. Why William’s religious choice was any of our business, let alone concern, was lost on me.
“Did he call you?” my father asked, a look of intense concern on his face.
I narrowed my eyes as if trying to recall, shook my head slightly as if having trouble remembering, then said finally the truth. “Once that I can remember.”
I felt as if I were on trial. I didn’t know what to say, fearful that the tables would turn quickly, and I would be the culprit instead of William. Then, mercifully, the answer they wanted came to me in the form of truth. I chose my words carefully before I spoke. “The necklace he gave me a couple of years ago. He was asking about me wearing it.”
Instinctively, their eyes rested on my neck.
“Thank God you had sense enough to take it off,” my mother said. I knew what she meant—that my wearing it would give William a false impression of my feelings for him.
I nodded. “I took that off a long time ago.”
“Good,” my father said. He sighed.
“Now you and Reggie go out and get some fresh air. Your mother and I want to rest.”
I knew what was happening. They were encouraging Reggie’s pursuit to ensure that I had no opportunity to develop a relationship with William. I still had another month before I turned eighteen, but apparently desperate predicaments granted exceptions where they would not otherwise be bestowed.
“I can’t believe he would do something like that,” Reggie said from where he sat next to me on the back porch of my home.
“It is surprising.” It was a weak response, but I didn’t know what was safe, or right, to say, especially since I was guilty of the same crime.
“I can understand Darnell, but William?” He shook his head.
His mention of Darnell surprised and disturbed me. I was offended, perhaps, because Darnell was dead and because William’s religious choice was so completely different from my cousin’s.
“Why is it so hard to understand?” I looked at Reggie, brows furrowed. “People can believe whatever they want.”
“That’s not my point.” Under the porch light, I saw his gaze lift thoughtfully, as if it pained him to explain. “It’s just sad.”
“Of all the things to choose in life.” He shook his head, as if that were an explanation in itself.
He met my gaze in confusion. “No I didn’t.”
“Yes you did.”
“When I asked you what you thought of Darnell’s new religion.”
“I don’t remember that.”
He shrugged. “Anyway, that’s not what I think now.”
“What do you think now?” My question came out more challenging than I intended.
Reggie studied me curiously. “That Jesus is the son of God, my savior.”
“So you joined The Church.” It was more a statement than an inquiry, and it sounded mechanical, as if I was mocking.
“Yes.” I could hear the defensiveness in his voice.
I couldn’t mask the sneer on my face, revealing that I was humored. “Since when?”
“Since I thought of how Darnell wasted his life and I didn’t want to do the same.”
His words stunned me, in both their raw emotion and their uncanny parallel to my own emotions reflecting the same sentiment.
I didn’t know what to say.
“Don’t you ever think about his soul, Ray?”
I let my gaze fall to the grass glistening under the pale glow of the moon and the trees aligning the fence rustling softly in the gentle wind. “Yes.”
There was a thoughtful pause. “I just don’t want to make the same mistake.”
I nodded, understanding, forgetting momentarily that Reggie wouldn’t comprehend this gesture of agreement. “I had the same feeling.”
“I just can’t understand how someone could throw their soul away.”
“I don’t think he threw his soul away.”
“Instead of assuming, you should ask. You’d be surprised at what you’d learn.”
A moment later, I had the sudden sense of Reggie studying me, and I met his curious gaze. “I was talking about Darnell.”
Oh. And I was talking about William.
“Ray, what’s going on?”
I could think of no sensible response. “What do you mean?”
“Why would I be surprised by what I learn?”
I shrugged, searching for some defense. “I was just saying.”
“You weren’t just saying, Ray. You said that as if you asked him yourself.”
“Goodness, Reggie, what difference does it make to you?”
“It’s not just about me, Ray. Your father wouldn’t like to know you and William have talked more than you said.”
I felt my face growing hot in anger. “You’re not my keeper, Reggie.”
“But is your father?”
“Since when do you care about my father?”
“When did I stop?”
“You didn’t care about him when you were out drinking the sins of this world with all the Michelles and Shaunas it had to offer.”
There was silence as he continued to study me, and I grew furious at this.
“Are you speaking of him or you, Ray?”
As I registered his meaning, I became more offended, more humiliated. “Who said I give a care about what you do? I’m talking about my father’s church.”
“The church isn’t your father’s. It’s God’s.”
“And so is my soul. So mind your business.”
“I didn’t say anything about your soul.”
My heart pounded in realization of what I’d implied. My upset at Reggie faded in comparison to this slip of the tongue. I didn’t know what to say to cover it up. The quiet made my torment worse, and I wished he’d say something, anything to relieve me of the obligation to speak.
“What’s going on with you, Ray?”
It’s not what I had in mind, but it gave me a moment to gather my thoughts. I drew in a breath to calm myself, for fear I would slip again. Honesty was less perilous than shame, of covering the truth, so I chose that familiar middle ground.
“Look, Reggie. I’m just not ready to judge the world by my father’s religion. I don’t know what’s right or wrong. And while I think Darnell’s choice was definitely not right, I can’t say that I think William’s is completely wrong.”
“How is William’s religion different from Darnell’s?”
It was my turn to study Reggie. Was it possible that in the last couple of years he knew nothing more of Islam than he had explained to me, that of the Nation of Islam and Arabs and Indians whose religion was nothing more than the belief in the sin of exposing a woman’s face? Did he really imagine that William was a member of the former? Did my parents?
I felt suddenly that I had left the confines of childhood and matured, only to return and find that all that was once familiar, exemplary even, was infantile, and regressing.
No wonder my parents were so concerned for William’s parents, especially if there was any truth to his father’s addiction to alcohol. Who wouldn’t be concerned for a young man who returns home to announce to his family that they were all devils, himself included? I could only imagine what my parents thought William’s father’s reaction to this would be.
“You really don’t know what a Muslim is?” The question was so compelling to me that I didn’t have time to discern whether or not it was judicious to put into words, and before Reggie.
“I know what Darnell said it is and—”
“—the Islam of Arabs and Indians,” I finished for him.
He held my gaze for a moment, as if searching for something there. “Yes.”
“There’s only one Islam, Reggie,” I said, surprised by the sound of my voice as instructor instead of student. “The one that teaches that there is only one God, the Creator, and that Jesus, like Noah, Abraham, and Moses, was a prophet.” I stopped short of mentioning the last prophet. I didn’t want to overwhelm him, or myself.
“Jesus is a prophet,” he repeated, more out of shock at my words than any agreement on his part.
“Yes, he’s a prophet, Reggie. What else would he be?”
He contorted his face. “You believe that?”
I parted my lips to speak, but caught myself, realizing the imprudence of such a confession. “I know that this is what his followers believed.”
Silence created a wall between us, and I found myself comfortable, confident even, in my speech and spiritual distance from my friend.
“How do you know that?”
“I read, Reggie.” It sounded sarcastic, but I didn’t mean it that way. “You should too.”
Despite his expressed disappointment with his friend’s decision, Reginald spent time with William that summer, behind the walls of his home and that of his friend’s. Other than the absence of Darnell, it was like old times, because I too was with Reggie when he was with William. I suppose my conversation on the back porch sparked questions Reggie hadn’t thought to ask before.
I remember quite distinctly one day, a Monday afternoon, when our parents, at least our fathers, were at work, and we were sitting in Reggie’s living room playing cards.
“So you don’t believe that Elijah Muhammad is the messenger of God?”
William laughed. “No, I don’t.”
“I believe that Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, is the messenger of God. He was born in Arabia centuries ago and was the last prophet God sent.”
“Is he a prophet or a messenger?”
William raised his gaze from his cards momentarily, that same look of shock that I had felt the night I realized his and my parents’ confusion about true Islam. “Both.”
“What’s the difference?”
“All messengers are prophets, but not all prophets are messengers.”
It sounded condescending, but I, like William, knew it was Reggie’s way of getting a further explanation. “Messengers bring a new law, like the Torah or Gospel, and prophets are sent confirming what the messengers already brought.”
“So anybody can be a prophet.”
“No, they can’t.”
William’s firmness stunned me, and I sensed he was offended. “Prophets are taught by God through the angel Gabriel. Anybody can’t be a prophet.”
“So Jesus was just a prophet.” Reggie snorted at this.
“He was a messenger too. He was the one with the Gospel.”
Reggie seemed to ponder this. I could tell he didn’t agree, but he didn’t know what to say. I knew, or at least I assumed, he was like I had been in devotion to The Church, not well versed in the Bible despite my professed belief in everything it said.
“That’s not what the Bible says.”
William shrugged, laying a card face up on the carpet in front of us. “Maybe it’s not. Or maybe it is. It makes no difference to me.”
“You can’t be serious.”
Because he was looking at William’s card and not his face, I thought for a moment Reggie was speaking of William’s play in the game.
“You’re just going to throw away God’s Word like it’s nothing.”
“I don’t believe the Bible is God’s Word.” William kept his eyes on the game. “Partly maybe, but not entirely. So it makes no difference to me what is or isn’t in there.”
I could tell Reggie was bothered, and I imagined that he wanted to push William as he had Darnell on my porch years ago. But he laid down his card, and I followed suit, collecting all the cards because I’d played a spade. I remained a quiet observer of the argument, neither Reggie nor William knowing fully whose side I was on, though I’m sure both imagined they had a good idea.
“Don’t you care about your soul?”
William met his gaze then. “Don’t you?”
“Then why wouldn’t I care about mine?”
“Because you just accept any religion that comes to you and throw away the truth.”
“What makes you so sure you have the truth?”
“What reason do I have to doubt it?”
“Have you even read anything besides the Bible? The history of it even?”
“Why should I?”
“It seems to me if you’re willing to give your soul to what it says, you’d at least want to know how it got here in the first place.”
I grew uncomfortable in the tension. “Hey, we’re trying to play a game here.”
“Forget the game.”
It was Reggie. In my recollection of this moment, I don’t remember if he said “forget” or something inflammatory instead. It was most likely the latter, because I recall stiffening in realization that his anger was real.
“I want to know what your story is.” It was a challenge, and I worried that Reggie’s taunt would inspire the altercation to become physical. “Don’t tell me you’re tired of the whole White man is God thing.”
“I never believed that in the first place.” William’s voice was decidedly calm, but I detected that his composure was the result of tremendous effort and conjured patience.
I laid my cards down, face up, in realization that, like the Monopoly game after my brother’s feet had ruined it years before, the game was over, and not at all like I would have wanted—with my win. I was disappointed, angered even, that they would choose such a moment to quarrel. My hand was promising, and I was on my way to being victor.
“What exactly did you believe?”
“Nothing?” I couldn’t tell if Reggie was more perturbed with this news or with learning William’s new religion itself.
“What about your family? Didn’t they have some religion?”
“Yes, they did.”
Still, Reggie’s voice was on edge, William’s calm. I couldn’t understand why Reggie was so upset.
“They were Christian,” William said. “If that’s what you want to call it.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means they went to church, hung a cross on their wall and around their necks, but it did nothing for their souls.” It was the first indication that William was more bothered than he let on. His words were even and controlled, so much so that I could tell that he was one step from being infuriated himself.
“And what the hell has it done for yours?” It was William’s question, his taunt this time.
“Nothing,” Reggie said sarcastically, “nothing if you count this world. Your soul is saved in the next.”
Reggie had a point. This even I couldn’t deny. There was no way you could look at a person and see evidence of salvation. Only God could do that.
I looked at William, wondering what he would say to that.
He shrugged. “Then be happy and wait till your soul goes to Heaven, if that’s where you think worshipping Jesus will take you. And leave me and my family alone.”
“Worshipping Jesus?” The explosion of the inquiry was so sudden that my shoulders jerked, startled. “Who said anything about worshipping Jesus? We worship God.”
“And so do we.”
“You don’t worship God.” Reggie’s face contorted. “You worship some man named Allah.”
William grew silent, and I looked at Reggie, shocked again by his ignorance. Did he really believe that the Arabic word for the Creator was in reference to some man? I couldn’t believe it. I was so stunned that I started to speak up myself. But William spoke instead, this time with a calmness devoid of effort, as if Reggie’s comment took the last bit of impatience, and edge, from him.
“Allah,” William said, “is not the name of some man. Arab Christians call God Allah. It’s just Arabic for God.”
Reggie just stared, upset still, but he listened nonetheless. Because William reminded me of Hadiyah right then, I too listened, taken aback by how much he knew.
“We say Allah because the English word God can be plural or refer to idols or people. The Arabic word can’t be plural or used for anything but the Creator. A different word is used for other things people worship.”
Reggie decided to leave Islam to William. “Still, we don’t worship Jesus.”
“Yes you do.”
“How are you going to say what we worship? You shouldn’t assume all Christians think Jesus is God. The Church doesn’t.”
His reference to my father’s church took me aback momentarily. I had never before heard it defended, at least not by anyone other than myself.
But Reggie was right. We didn’t worship Jesus, that was the divider between our church and Christian sects.
“If you believe Jesus is your savior, then you worship him.”
Even I was lost on William’s point.
I couldn’t keep quiet any longer. “William,” I said, conscious of the awkwardness of my voice, much like my mother’s had been some nights ago, “The Church believes in worshipping only God.”
“Do you pray in Jesus’ name?”
I paused at that, mostly because of his use of the present tense and because the question was directed at me. I had wondered if he had any idea that I converted, now I knew he didn’t. “Yes,” I said, remembering that all our prayers had included “in the name of Your son Jesus.”
“Then that’s worshipping him.” I started to say something, but William’s point distracted me into silence.
It wasn’t until some time later that I understood his point, that worship was not merely to whom or what you directed your prayers, but it included any intermediaries resorted to in the process, and also anything given divine attributes—like a physical kinship to God.
“Can we talk about something else?” I said, tiring of all the bickering.
“I’m not the one insisting on an argument,” William said.
“I’m not arguing,” Reggie said. “I just want to know why you don’t care about leaving the church.”
“I never was a part of the church.”
Oh boy, I thought. Here we go again.
“Your family was.”
“That’s the difference between me and them. I never believed any of that crap.”
I winced, embarrassed by William’s bad choice of words.
“Reggie,” I said, foreseeing a catastrophe in the sound of his voice, “I think what he means is that he never believed what you believed, so he didn’t really choose Islam over Christianity. He just chose Islam.”
“I did choose Islam over Christianity.”
“But you just said you were never Christian,” I said.
“That doesn’t mean I didn’t consider it.”
“Whatever.” I turned back to Reggie.
“You just believe different things.”
“Who made you the peacemaker?”
I was growing irritated with Reggie’s edginess. He wasn’t usually like this.
Later, I would learn his fury was born of jealousy more than religious conviction. He feared that William’s religion was more attractive to me than his, which included all sorts of obvious implications that he didn’t want to face right then. But that afternoon, I hadn’t the slightest clue why religion was so important to him.
“I’m just saying it’s not worth arguing about,” I said.
Reggie glared at me. “Not even for your soul?”
Okay, he had a point. “But you don’t have to get angry.”
“I’m not angry. I’m upset.”
“But it’s not worth it.”
“I think it is.”
Irritated, I stood and went for the door. “Then argue by yourselves. I want some peace.”
“Don’t you care about your religion?”
At the foyer, I turned to Reggie, who still sat on the floor. “I care about the truth.” With that I opened the front door and let it slam behind me, hoping that I could contain myself for another four weeks, when I would return to school.
We didn’t discuss The Church or religion after that. Or at least, Reggie and I didn’t, and it was never again discussed in my presence when we were all together. But there were moments that we sat watching William excuse himself, even in Reggie’s home, and go to the bathroom to prepare for prayer. It was at such moments that I felt unbearable shame, and urgency to do the same. We watched as he returned, face and arms moist, at times dripping wet. He quietly and dutifully performed prayer, unperturbed by our stares, Reggie’s of curiosity (though I detected a sense of admiration), and mine of shame.
We never spoke during William’s praying, and I would study how his forehead touched the carpet softly, his relaxing there for an extended time. The most intriguing moment was when we saw him pray at night and we heard his melodious recitation, a sound barely above a whisper, but moving nonetheless. There were moments I excused myself, giving in, saying I’d be right back, rushing home to lock myself in my room to pray myself, though I could never muster the calmness and intrigue of William’s. I wasn’t yet familiar with all the Arabic, or English even, of what I was supposed to say. Because I didn’t want to be caught practicing Islam, I’d left all evidence of my religion along with my belongings in the storage room I was sharing with Felicia, so I wasn’t even able to improve my prayer by reading along with books or cue cards.
I spent most of my free time with Reggie, but William, interestingly, never acknowledged my presence beyond a simple hello or hey, and spoke nothing further unless I was with Reggie. It was as if I’d never seen him speak of his conversion, as if we’d never spoken after that. I was saddened somewhat, as if my hope was deflated somehow. But I could only understand this as my desire to learn more about Islam, and my thinking perhaps he could be the means for me to do just that.
The night before I returned to school, Reggie invited me on a walk, which wasn’t unusual because we’d walked dozens of times before then. But during this one he asked, outright, if we could be officially a couple. He had been accepted at the University of DC, as well as other schools, but had chosen it because it enabled him to be closer to me, and also because they offered him a full scholarship whereas the others hadn’t.
I was flattered, I can’t deny, but I wasn’t tormented any less. I don’t know why I didn’t just tell him outright my reason for hesitation. It would’ve made things much easier and less strained between us.
“I can’t.” I couldn’t look at him. It would hurt too much.
I shook my head. “It’s too much to go into right now.”
“That’s the same thing you said on the phone.”
“It is?” I looked at him then, trying to remember.
“Or something like that.”
It pained me to see the hurt in his eyes. I looked away. “Well, it’s true. I’ve got a lot on my mind.”
There was a pause, the silence of the night falling around us as we heard the stirrings of others’ homes. Soft music, a dog barking, distant laughter.
“Is there someone else?”
I creased my forehead and glanced at him. “No.”
“Not even William?”
My heart fell, and I ached for him. I wished I could just come out and say what I wanted. But I couldn’t risk my family finding out. “William?”
“Yes, William.” He kicked at something on the ground, his hands pushed into his pockets.
“No. I don’t talk to him like that.”
“You act like you do.”
“The way you’re all quiet when he’s around, and how you defend whatever he says.”
That was the closest he came to mentioning religion. “Reggie,” I sighed, shaking my head, “I do not. I’m just not the same Renee I was when I left. The world is a lot bigger than I imagined. You’ll see what I’m saying when you leave too.”
He exhaled abruptly, as if in contempt. “I’m not a baby, Renee. I know the world isn’t as small as it seems.”
I realized then that I’d insulted him. “That’s not what I mean, Reggie. I’m just saying, you’ll meet a lot of people, some of them far different from what you’re used to. At first it may seem like they’re the ones who have it all wrong, and then you’ll think that maybe it’s you who has to rethink things.”
“Said about what?” I said.
“You and me?”
I grew silent at the reminder. “Maybe.”
“Maybe or yes?”
“And there’s no one else?”
“I’m seventeen, remember?”
One side of his mouth creased in the hint of a grin. “Yeah, but you don’t seem to care so much about that anymore.”
“No, that’s something I’m pretty much set on. No dating.”
“Even in a month?”
“Even in a month.”
Of course, I didn’t say it was because of Islam. It was better, for the moment, to let him assume the best, at least what would appear like “the best” to him.
Next… Story 11 of 11 Posted every Friday
This series is derived from the UZ novel by the same name and does not feature the full book. To read the entire novel CLICK HERE.
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