It took a full three weeks for me to come to terms with the fear that had become more suffocating by the day. It numbed me into inactivity. I wasn’t inspired to go out with Felicia or Anita, and I withdrew from nearly everyone. I went to class, to the cafeteria, and back to my room, where I remained studying until I grew drowsy and fell asleep. I didn’t even bother to dress in my “sophisticated” clothes and found myself caring only about wearing something clean and presentable. As I tried to escape the trepidation that was tightening in my chest, I was sleepless at night and anxious throughout the day. I had no desire to talk to even Sumayyah, but I still felt a lingering pull to speak to Yusuf. I hadn’t yet learned of Sumayyah’s engagement to him, so I didn’t understand that this was impossible, at least if Sumayyah was to be our liaison.
It wasn’t until a phone call two weeks before final exams were scheduled to begin that I realized both the cause for my fear, and the fact that I had abandoned even my regular prayers to God to guide me to His Light and Truth.
It was late one Friday night in early April when the phone rang. I was still awake, and its shrilling sound inspired an awareness that I was sitting in bed staring ahead pensively and hugging my knees that were drawn to my chest. A music CD that Courtney had given me was playing in the background, and I didn’t want to get up. The phone was usually for Felicia even on my good days, so I wasn’t in the mood to answer. But I did.
“Is this Renee?”
The voice sounded familiar, but I couldn’t place it. I responded cautiously. “Yes.”
“This is William.”
At the sound of his name, I felt my senses return and my spirits lift. I stepped out of bed, the phone cord stretching behind me as I turned off the music.
There was a long pause on the other end of the phone. “I’m sorry to call you so late. Your mother gave me the number.”
That was shocking, but I didn’t say anything to that.
“I just wanted to talk to you about something.”
I recalled his asking me to the prom, but that seemed like ages ago. I wondered what it could be this time.
I heard him draw in a deep breath. “I don’t know how to tell you this.”
I couldn’t contain the flattery welling inside of me, and the corners of my lips turned up in anticipation. I remembered how difficult it was for him to give me the necklace. I sensed it was something related to his attraction to me. I waited.
“You need to become Muslim.”
His words registered seconds later, and they fell upon me until my heart dropped. My smile faded, and I felt my face burn with offense and shame. The burning sensation I’d felt upon hearing Hadiyah’s response returned to me.
“What?” The word was a challenge, as if his statement had been a disgusting insult that I dared him to repeat.
“I’m sorry Renee,” he said, sighing the words, “but I feel partly responsible.”
“Responsible for what?”
“I gave you that necklace. You can’t wear it anymore. It’s wrong.”
My heart pounded in fury as I realized this was not the conversation I’d expected. “If you don’t want me to wear your stupid necklace, I won’t.”
“It’s not that. It’s that you shouldn’t wear any necklace like that.”
I tried to control my breaths as his insults grew visceral. “Who the hell do you think you are? My father?”
“Renee, listen to me.”
His raised voice stunned me to silence although my lips had already parted in protest. I’d never heard so much frustration in his voice before.
“All I’m suggesting is that you do what you know in your heart is right. Don’t you want to be guided to the truth?”
His question made me acutely aware of my prayers for guidance that I’d abandoned.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I’m just saying this because I care about you.” He drew in a deep breath and exhaled as if this was taking more out of him than he could bear. “You need Islam, Renee. There’s nothing else out there.”
“I’ve heard enough.” I slammed the receiver down with so much force that the phone nearly fell from the desk. I had to steady it and return it to its place.
Shaken, I stood in the quiet of the room, indignant. The heat of anger still warmed my face and body, but it was evaporating against my will, giving way to the tepidity of shame and frailty. My eyes welled and I let my weight fall onto the bed until I was sitting on its edge.
I resisted the urge to cry until my mind cleared. I couldn’t understand why William’s words had disturbed me, and so intensely. I lifted my head and my eyes caught the small stack of Islamic books and pamphlets I’d taken from the “Ask About Islam” table. For a moment, my gaze rested there, taken aback by their intrusion. It took me a moment to accept that I had placed the books there myself, at no one’s urging but my own. But I hadn’t read anything from them.
Instinctively, I stood and pulled the stack from the desk in irritation, feeling the anger well in my chest all over again. I walked to the trash can and dropped them all inside, the warm satisfaction of revenge soothing me at the thudding sound of their falling against its bottom. A tinge of guilt pinched my heart but I quickly dismissed it. In a show of contention for my decision, I lifted the plastic bag from the small bin and brought together the sides into a knot. I walked over to the door, opened it, and marched down to the end of the hall, where I tossed it into the large plastic garbage bin that would be emptied into the dumpster outside.
I returned to my room, and in a show of defiance, I resumed listening to the singer Aretha Franklin, humming along with her words, “Don’t play that song for me…” as I sashayed in rhythm to my bed. I even pulled from my desk a text that I primly opened and skimmed as I continued singing and bobbing my head.
The song ended and in the brief silence before the start of the next song, I was struck by the sore emptiness that I felt. Sadness enveloped me until my throat closed.
What are you doing with your life?
The question hung in the air until my despondency was complete. When the next song began, I couldn’t muster the energy to move my head to the music. I tried, but instead my head fell as if in exhaustion, or perhaps submission, at my pathetic state. What was I doing with my life, with myself?
I had no answer.
Don’t you want to be guided to the truth?
I felt my teeth clench in recollection of the audacity of William’s inquiry.
You need Islam, Renee. There’s nothing else out there.
This time, the words were not coming from William, but from a dead weight that had lain dormant in me for years and was only now stirring to life. My right hand lifted and rested over the left side of my chest, an instinctive gesture to calm the growing discomfort there.
But I also knew it was an indication of where my last thoughts had emerged.
People prefer ambiguity to clarity and searching to submission. It was a realization so distinct that it paralyzed me momentarily as I sat in the cafeteria Saturday afternoon eating my lunch. Students gossiped, laughed, and snuggled with girlfriends and boyfriends, as if there was nothing to life but this. Their carefree manner upset me, and I couldn’t help envying them for their ostensible denial of spiritual unrest. Were they pretending, or were they really oblivious to having a purpose in life, to having a Creator, to one day meeting Him to account for their sins? Perhaps, religion itself was a joke to them, or merely a prerogative with no actual implications beyond the constraints of one’s mind.
I couldn’t accept the possibility that a person actually believed in no accountability other than that which she carved for herself. It was almost painful to conceptualize this mindset as a person’s concocted reality.
If only it were true.
I wished for an easier life, any life except the one before me. I didn’t want to be Muslim. The very thought unnerved me. Imagining all the restrictions was more tormenting than any horrific memory I carried of The Church. I’d heard that the men married as many wives as they wanted, and I couldn’t bear the thought of voluntarily relegating myself to someone’s harem.
There was the tiniest flutter of a memory, that of a philosophy class I’d taken, and one I’d enjoyed thoroughly. It was empowering, rejuvenating to sit and ask questions for the sake of asking, reflect for the sake of reflecting, and never needing, or wanting, any definitive answer. The process. That’s what distinguished philosophy from religion, or even beliefs themselves. Philosophy was an unfettering of religious and personal imprisonment, allowing the mind to wander at its own will and direction. It could rest at any place it pleased, or it might not rest at all. Because, in the end, philosophy was the search itself. By its nature, there was no end, no finish line, no arriving.
I recalled a feeling of exhilaration in the class, in not having to come to any conclusion, to not having to view my life through anyone’s narrow lens, not The Church’s, not my father’s, and not even my own. In a word, I was free.
The fear that was afflicting me lately was in giving that up. My glorified rebellion against my upbringing was drawing to a close, and my search had actually led me where I had wanted, or at least where I had professed I wanted.
Had I really wanted to find the truth, or was my praying merely a selfish confirmation of a righteousness I had convinced myself of in childhood, but one that did not exist in truth? Had I merely wanted distinction from my sisters and classmates in that which intoxicated me with an air of superiority rather than endure the truth of my deepest desire—distinction in their world of which I could never be part?
The possibility terrified me. I knew this was my moment of truth. I’d asked God for guidance, and although I was still lost on all that Islam entailed, there was in my chest a deep, penetrating sensation that I had stumbled upon that Truth.
There was a thread of doubt as to whether or not this was what I had been searching for, but there was a lingering sense that told me, quite distinctly, that this was the end of the journey.
I felt betrayed. But this was a feeling I didn’t understand. Or perhaps it was merely one that I was afraid to understand. For if I felt betrayed, there could be only one who betrayed me—the One who had brought me to this place of adjournment in the first place.
If only I could have continued in merely searching, in enjoying the insobriety of the ambiguous.
This was not the answer I craved. But I had already searched frantically for another option, another interpretation of God’s answer, even as I was unaware of these actions of the heart.
Consult your heart, Hadiyah had said, and I hated her right then.
It is there you will find your answer—if your intentions and prayers are sincere.
Hadiyah’s home was set in a lush cul-de-sac of Potomac, Maryland. The driveway curved around the side of the expansive brick house and disappeared somewhere behind. Hadiyah had told me that she would send her daughter Nicole to pick me up because Nicole was already out running errands near the campus.
During the drive, Nicole was cordial, but it was clear that she preferred the radio to conversation and staring ahead to acknowledging my presence. I sensed something about my presence was unsettling to her, but, naturally, I didn’t inquire as to what it was.
Nicole’s impeccable appearance did not escape me, and I couldn’t help noticing how she was strikingly different from how I recalled her mother. Neatly cropped permed hair framed the walnut complexion she shared with Hadiyah. Small gold hoop earrings adorned her ears, and she wore a snug, low-neck white T-shirt and fitting jeans that accented her figure attractively. I wondered if she considered herself a Muslim, but again, it was not a question I felt I had right or place to voice.
I trailed behind Nicole to the front door, which was apparently already unlocked because upon reaching it, she merely turned the handle and went inside.
“You can sit in there.” She motioned a hand to the room to my left, but she did not wait to see me inside. She disappeared somewhere around a corner, and I walked into the room, admiring its beauty as I crossed the threshold.
The living room was mostly a soft peach color, its couch, loveseat, and curtains exuding an aura of coziness. For a moment I stood, studying the dark wood framed painting that extended almost the width of the couch. Soft peach strokes were delicately interspersed on the natural landscape, creating the illusion of blossoms all over, even where they could not logically be. On the waterfall, the rocks, and even on the glistening lake surrounded by lush greenery.
“Renee, it’s good to see you again.”
I turned at the sound of my name and found a woman entering the room with her hand extended toward me. It took a moment for me to realize I was looking at Hadiyah. The woman’s hair bore the thinnest locks I had ever seen, and the most beautiful. Gray strands shimmered like silver threads in each. The small hair plaits curled and twisted, creating a fullness in her hair that fell to her neck. She wore an emerald green dress that reminded me of the wide-cut African styles I’d seen sold by vendors, but the fabric was so soft that it moved like silk as she approached.
I accepted her hand, suddenly conscious of my own braids whose grooming was much overdue. I’d brushed them and pulled them back by an elastic band and had realized how from a distance one would never know I had braids at all. Even my outfit was drab. I wore only a faded white University of Maryland T-shirt and baggy dark blue jeans.
“Please sit down,” she said, gesturing to the couch.
I obeyed as she took a seat on a chair at an angle to me. She held an expectant smile, as if waiting for me to say something. My heart thumped in my chest, realizing I was the one who requested this visit. I had foolishly assumed she would do all the talking. But what could she say? She had, at best, only a vague idea what had prompted the visit in the first place. I would have to fill in the blanks.
“How are you?” she asked, relieving me of having to explain myself, at least for the moment.
One side of my mouth creased in an effort to be cordial, and I shrugged. “Okay I guess.”
“You like school?”
I started to laugh but it came out as a humph. “Yes.” I hoped my response made up for my expression.
“How are your studies going?”
I parted my lips to speak, but the sound of someone entering disrupted my thoughts. I lifted my gaze to find Nicole bringing a tray of juices and cookies. I remained silent, my lips parted, until Nicole left.
“Where are you from?”
The shift in conversation took me off guard, but I replied as if it were natural. Our talk ran smoothly for several minutes as I told her of The Church, my family and my upbringing. When she asked about my first introduction to Islam, I thought briefly of Darnell but couldn’t bring myself to mention him, so I mentioned talking to Yusuf at the “Ask About Islam” table. Without understanding the connection to Islam, I went on to share how impressed I was with Yusuf’s poetry and monologues.
“Yes,” she said, nodding, “Sumayyah has definitely found herself one talented young man.”
The reference to Sumayyah confused me. I started to ask Hadiyah what she meant by that, but I stopped myself, unwilling to reveal that I cared as much as I did. Or perhaps a part of me already understood, but reluctantly. I didn’t know what to say to satisfy my curiosity, or disappointment, so I said nothing at all, unsure where to redirect the conversation.
“So, what brings you here today?”
The inquiry was so abrupt, so unexpected that I was offended momentarily. I didn’t want to talk about that yet.
I felt a laugh of discomfort escape my throat. “I don’t know.”
Hadiyah drew in a deep breath, and her eyes grew distant, resting briefly on the painting above me. She exhaled slowly as she shook her head. “Changing religions is a very difficult process. It involves more than you can prepare for.” She pursed her lips before continuing. “I had the same feeling myself. I built my whole life around the church. My whole family, in fact.”
I studied the way her eyes narrowed in deep thought, and I sensed she was recalling something painful.
“I can’t give you any illusions about what this step will mean for you, Renee.” The sound of my name made me realize her reflections were not completely separate from me, and the suffocating fear returned to me. “But I can tell you, in fact, I must tell you, that the step is necessary if you are to move forward spiritually.”
“I don’t want to change religions.” My voice sounded awkward to my ears in this sudden outburst as I gave words to the plea that had burned at the back of my throat.
She nodded almost imperceptibly but still did not look at me, as if her mind was still elsewhere. “I know. No one does.”
“I just want to find a way to be a better Christian.”
I suddenly remembered that Muslims viewed themselves as following the purest form of Christianity. “But it doesn’t feel like the right place. I don’t feel like a Muslim.”
“Islam doesn’t feel like the right place for you?” She met my gaze, wisdom emanating from her eyes as they met mine.
“No, it doesn’t.”
“What about it feels wrong?”
I bit my lower lip. “I don’t know. I grew up with so many rules. I don’t want to go back to that.”
There was a slight pause. “What is it that you imagine Islam to be?”
I didn’t know how to answer that. I thought of men marrying multiple women, but I couldn’t find the right words to express that. “I don’t know.”
So much had changed since that day Darnell first uttered the word Muslim in my kitchen. I hadn’t learned much more about Islam since then, but I had heard much more.
She reached toward the tray, lifted a glass of juice and handed it to me. I accepted it. She picked up a glass for herself and brought it to her lips to sip before setting it down again. Nervously, I sipped from my glass and was momentarily distracted by its pleasant taste. I imagined it must be natural or freshly squeezed.
“Do you believe that there is only one God?” She startled me with her directness.
I took another sip, delaying my response. I lowered the glass, holding it inches from my mouth, its coolness soothing my palm. “Yes.”
“Do you believe that He is the Creator, and that He is not manifested in any part of His creation, even in spirit?”
I leaned forward to set down my glass, gathering confidence in that motion, her questions reminding me of church. “Yes.”
“Do you believe that Jesus Christ is God?”
“Do you believe that Jesus Christ is His son?”
At that, I felt a throbbing at my temples as my head began to ache. It was a question I hadn’t dared ask myself, let alone answer. But I was acutely aware that I had not referred to Jesus as such for at least a month. The aching in my head pulsated until I rubbed my eyes, which began to burn.
Consult your heart, Renee. It is there you will find your answer.
At that moment, I thought of what Sumayyah had said, of her abandoning the belief in God’s fatherhood before the belief in His manifestation inside Jesus in flesh. “People and animals have children, not the Creator.” But I didn’t think of Jesus in that sense.
Then why was it so important to stick to the terminology of “son” if it wasn’t fatherhood in which I believed? What did I mean when I said Jesus was God’s son? If it wasn’t a parent-child relationship, what was it? And if it was a parent-child relationship, then what was it that distinguished Jesus from Adam? Or from, in fact, any of the humans on earth? Weren’t we all a result of His divine decree?
And why was it so hard to believe in him as a remarkable prophet? All prophets performed miracles by God’s will. Why not look at Jesus’ in the same light?
I became aware of Hadiyah’s waiting and grew flustered. I didn’t want to answer the question, but I found myself heeding the advice from her speech, to consult my heart.
I drew in a deep breath and exhaled.
“No,” I said, my voice cracking, “I don’t.” The words made my heartbeat quicken, but the throbbing in my head subsided, replaced by welling in my eyes. I felt relieved. Yet there was a weightier burden I’d accepted by removing that one. I couldn’t bear to think of that.
Hadiyah, may God bless her, moved on to the next question before I could break down.
“Do you believe in the Day of Judgment?”
“In our entry into Paradise or Hell?”
“Do you believe in all of God’s prophets, including Adam, Moses, Abraham, and Jesus?”
I drew in a deep breath, mentally preparing myself for the result of my heart consultation. I had already admitted that I no longer believed he was God’s son. Could I say he was a prophet, a man inspired and taught by God, but a man nonetheless?
“And do you believe that Prophet Muhammad is God’s Messenger, the last of all prophets and messengers?”
That question I wasn’t prepared for. I met her gaze with my forehead creased. I shook my head. “I don’t know.”
She started to speak, but I continued.
“I don’t know anything about him.” I heard myself explaining, as if apologizing. “I heard that he married a lot of women, and I…” I shook my head. “How could a prophet do that?”
Hadiyah’s eyes reflected the same kindness I saw there moments before. “Many prophets married more than one woman.”
“But Jesus didn’t.”
“Jesus never married at all.”
“Then doesn’t that set him apart from them?” I had a distant sense of moving backward, of defending what I no longer believed. Perhaps it was my disbelief itself that gave me comfort in my argument.
“Yes,” she said simply. “Each prophet has traits to set him apart from another.” She paused.
“But Jesus will marry,” she added.
My eyebrows rose.
“When he returns.”
“Muslims believe he’ll return?”
There was an awkward pause, and my thoughts drifted.
“I don’t want to live in a harem.” I contorted my face with the confession. “Do Muslim women have to do that?”
Her eyebrows rose. “A harem?”
She was silent momentarily, as if choosing her response carefully, or whether she should respond at all. “No,” she said finally, “they do not.”
I relaxed somewhat.
“Renee,” she said, her voice sounding as if she had given a lot of thought to what she was about to say, “you need to read and study more if Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, is still unknown to you. God sent him as the last prophet and messenger, and each generation is held accountable for following their messenger.” She sighed. “Our generation’s prophet, like every generation now until the Day of Judgment, is Prophet Muhammad.”
She shook her head. “But I must tell you, it is not necessary to know everything before you convert.”
The last word took me aback, and I grew uncomfortable. Is that what I was doing? Preparing to convert?
“And honestly, I can’t tell if you’re holding back because you are really unsure whether or not Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, is a true prophet, or if it’s out of the natural fear we all have of the unknown, even as we know it’s what we need.”
She pursed her lips before continuing. “This is something only you can determine. But remember, your time is measured on this earth, and there is no guarantee that when you leave here today, you’ll wake to see another.”
I felt myself growing defensive.
“And before you leave,” she said before I could say anything to counter her, “I want you to think on this: Life is life. No matter what path you choose, you’ll still have to endure all that it entails.”
My eyebrows gathered, but I listened, searching for her meaning.
“And I also want you to answer this one question.” She waited until I met her gaze. “And for this one, you can only consult your heart.” She paused. “What is it that you want?”
Saturday evening I returned to my dorm, and before I made my way down the hall, I paused at the large dull grey garbage bin with black plastic spilling from its mouth. I knew it was the most disgusting thing to do, sanitarily speaking. But I also knew, rationally, it wouldn’t be as bad as having waited another twenty-four hours for pungent glass bottles and God-knows-what to cover it up. Or worse, for God to remove the second chance from my life.
Willing myself not to look down the hall for the possible approach of another student or visitor who would judge me harshly, I calmly lifted the grey top and quickly surveyed the contents until I spotted the small white plastic bag. It was peering from beneath orange peels, torn paper, and pencil shavings. A black sticky substance sprinkled the top of it, but I reached in with my left hand and withdrew it from the bin, lifting it artfully, wrinkling my nose as it presented itself. I shook the bag free from crud as best I could and replaced the top before hurrying down the hall holding it away from me.
Instead of heading straight to my room, I went to the hall bathroom, tore the white plastic, withdrew the books, and tossed the soiled bag into the trashcan. I set the books on a sink, turned on the tap and lathered my hands with soap before holding them under the water.
In my room, I put the books back on my desk, but in another place, as if they would be more protected from my volatile emotions there. I then grabbed another outfit, tucked it under my arm, and made my way to the shower after throwing my towel over my shoulder. I wanted to start fresh, in body and mind, while I read.
Next… Story 10 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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