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Islam Did not End at the Borders of Saudi Arabia

A Middle East Anthropologist Submits

I submitted to Allah on 6 Rabi’ al-Awal 1424 (May 7, 2003) at the office of the Grand Imam, Sheikh of the Noble al-Azhar University, in Cairo.

I stated in Arabic, “I bear witness that there is no god but Allah, and I bear witness that Muhammad is His Servant and Messenger.”

I acknowledged that Moses, Jesus, and all other prophets (upon them be peace and blessings) are servants and messengers of Allah,renounced all religions other than Islam, and I said that henceforth I adhere to Islam as my faith and sacred law. I was personally received and formally welcomed into Islam by the sheikh of al-Azhar, Muhammad Tantawy.

I was 62, had lived, researched, and taught in the Muslim Arab world for 35 years, and was very familiar with Islam in both theory and practice. Yet, a long-time Egyptian brother who accompanied me that fateful day said that he had cried as he saw me listening to and answering the questions of the sheikh who interviewed me and authenticated my submission. What had been my journey to Islam and why had it taken so long? What has been unfolding since my submission?

My first direct contact with Islam was in Berkeley, California in the days of the Free Speech and anti-Vietnam War movements. I had been raised in Texas as a Presbyterian and had gone through multiple, albeit not atypical, identity changes in the 1960s at the University of Texas in Austin and in a wide range of student travels, including my studies in Mexico, Chile, Spain, Guatemala, Bolivia, and Argentina.

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I broke ties with the Presbyterian Church, saw Roman Catholicism as a gross exploiter of the poor and a supporter of the reactionary elite in Latin America, and seriously questioned United States foreign policy and business interests outside its borders. Within WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) America, I came to feel like a foreigner.

When I was a junior in college, I wanted to leave home and all things American in order to dedicate myself to the “revolution” in Latin America, which, led by Salvador Allende, was gaining momentum among socialist students and activists in Chile.

My mother and a kind anthropology professor at UT-Austin talked me out of that bold move, and so I eventually moved into anthropology, a discipline on the fringe where cultural relativity and the pursuit of knowledge primarily among third-world peoples prevailed.

As a graduate student at the University of California in Berkeley, I plunged into social anthropology and was encouraged by my graduate advisor, Laura Nader, to focus on the Arab Middle East. I struggled with Arabic, studied Islamic institutions with a well-known professor who was Jewish and also, it was said, a Zionist.

I met and interacted with Arab graduate students, both Christian and Muslim. I fasted for a few days one Ramadan just to feel the experience. Non-Christian religious experience had become fashionable at Berkeley and it was fashionable to sample as many such experiences as possible along with other exotica.

Today, I see that period as a step on the return to paganism in much of the West; but it also reflected a search for a more meaningful spiritual life by some of America’s best. The predominant materialism and the pursuit of capitalist values had become spiritually vacuous and even destructive.

I was not a flower child during that period, but I was close to them and I learned from them and from other counter-culture students to take religion in itself seriously. To do so went against the grain of much of anthropology, where religion was taken simply for the role it plays in society and culture and not for the power inherent within it. That I accepted the power of religion as religion did not, however, make me a believer. Yet, I was never an atheist. I remained neutral and content to observe what others did and said in the name of their religious beliefs.

18 Months in the Empty Quarter

Thanks to student deferments I escaped going to the Vietnam War and instead spent from 1968 to 1970 in Saudi Arabia doing field research for my PhD dissertation. Allah Almighty, I believe now, blessed me back then. I was able to know the old Riyadh and I can never forget the calls to prayer from Riyadh’s 1000 minarets. They were powerful, and I wanted to respond; but I walked alone and without religion through dusty streets while mosques were filled with the faithful.

I later lived for 18 months with Bedouin nomads in the Empty Quarter and Eastern Province. During my first night in the desert with them, when the sunset prayer was called, I found that I could not just sit alone and not pray with them. I could not deny their religion by saying that I was a Christian as others in similar situations before me had done.

I knew in my heart that their Allah was the same God that I had known as a child. And so I prayed with them that prayer, and then every other prayer, five times a day throughout the year and a half that I lived, herded, and migrated with them. Their leader, Talib, taught me the Fatihah (opening chapter of the Quran). I proclaimed the shahadah (declaration of faith) many times, and in public. I fasted the two Ramadans that I spent with them.

Islam was seamlessly integrated into everything we did. It punctuated and regulated our whole life from the most mundane to the most sublime, and it embraced everybody in the community. No one was left out. This was not particularly religious in a spiritual or intellectual way; the Islam we lived was “normal,” how everyday life was constituted. I wrote long ago that the happiest days of my life were those I lived among these Muslim Arab Bedouin. That is still true today, 35 years later; but I feel a new happiness now as I return once again to Islam.

A Bedouin brother and friend asked me if I would continue to pray and fast after I left them. I asserted that of course I would continue and said that Islam did not end at the borders of Saudi Arabia. But back in Berkeley life was different. My notes show that in the first course that I ever taught, I talked about Islam being a “beautiful religion.” I expressed strong positive vibes for Islam but I no longer prayed and none of the nominal Muslims whom I knew in Berkeley prayed either.

The American University in Cairo

Soon afterwards I was employed at the American University in Cairo where a secular agenda dominated. Back then, in the 1970s, Arabic was hardly heard on campus. Islam at AUC was then mainly history, art and architecture, and field trips to the museum and some exquisite old mosques. Later in the 1980s, “political” Islam began to be heard, veiling and a few beards began to appear on campus, and more students were fasting. Then the Muslim students at AUC asked for the unheard of: a mosque or prayer area on campus.

Many considered these changes a horrible slide backwards from modernity and progress. I, however, respected what these Muslim students were doing. I tried in my courses to present Islam and the changes underway in a positive light while also walking the tightrope of scientific “neutrality” or “value-free” social science. In my heart, and given my salafi (or Wahhabi) “upbringing” in Saudi Arabia, I liked what I saw happening and took offense at snide comments against these young Muslims made by colleagues—Muslim and Christian, Egyptian and American. Yet, I simply observed.

More recently have been a series of events that affected me personally, in addition to the wider world in which we all exist. There were the deaths of my elderly parents and thus freedom from the ties that bound me to them as a dutiful son and thereby to the ancient Presbyterian and Methodist lineages that they embraced.

There was the bombing of our Muslim brothers in Afghanistan by young men white, black, and brown who could be blood or milk relatives of mine from Texas and the South. There are the horrible scenes of barefaced torture of Muslim brothers, held without trial, in Guantanamo — a part of Cuba that the US took during a war in which my grandfather nearly had to fight. In 2002, there was the September 11th anniversary of the 1973 CIA-instigated coup against the popularly-elected government of Salvador Allende in Chile. I learned on that day that a friend, a brother, had miraculously survived the bloody coup and after years of torture and exile was alive and well in Santiago. Another friend, a sister, was found again in Paris after decades of incommunicado.

Around the same time, a Bedouin whom I had not seen for more than twenty years suddenly appeared at one of the gates of AUC, and I was soon in Saudi Arabia for a short visit. I was in the desert again. The magnificent desert Arabian night sky, miraculously without columns or any support, was overpowering. The camels were present chewing their cuds, just like before.

The people were the same, my brothers of long ago and now also their sons and grandsons. An old friend asked if I would call the prayer. I deferred, but of course I prayed with them. More than 30 years had passed since I had prayed together with others, but I had not forgotten. That night I knew that it was time for me to wake up. I could no longer remain an observer and an occasional participant.

Back in Cairo I asked an American Muslim who was taking a course with me how he had converted and he told me that he had simply said the shahada before a sheikh. I asked a couple of Egyptians, and they told me to go to al-Azhar University. I asked if circumcision was required. The unofficial verdict was no, not at my age. Then I was in Paris, the City of Light, with an Egyptian brother and his daughter as the Anglo-American war against Arab-Muslim Iraq raged.

Early morning, upon waking, I knew without doubt that I wanted to submit formally and officially. I told my brother. We met the next day after our return to Cairo at the office of the Grand Imam of al-Azhar. I submitted to Allah.

A few close friends who heard the news were very happy and congratulated me enthusiastically. A retired Egyptian police General, a close friend of a close friend, congratulated me but said that I must now pray regularly and in the mosque. I knew on my own that the purification (tahara) of circumcision was necessary, and so I had myself circumcised; it was not the big deal I had always imagined and feared.

I prayed at home for a few days. Then I ventured into the mosque, a large and important one across the street from where I live. The news spread like wildfire through my downtown neighborhood; many expressed their happiness at my becoming a Muslim.

At AUC, I now pray in our overly-crowded prayer area. The students, my younger brothers, have become my teachers and rightly correct me when I make mistakes. In the downtown mosque I have moved from the back rows to the front row and am now a regular. Workers, businessmen, officials, young, and old, we pray together in the unity of Islam that recognizes no classes, no ethnic groups, no races, no borders.

Towards the end of the summer of 2003, I went for a month’s vacation in eastern Saudi Arabia. My Bedouin brothers said that I should perform the `Umrah (the lesser pilgrimage). In a matter of hours, I was on an airplane from Dammam to Jeddah. When the pilot announced that in ten minutes we would cross the miqat, the line at which one must don the ceremonial robes, tears flowed and I cried like I have never cried before.

Makkah, the Great Mosque, the Ka’aba, the tawaf (circumambulation), the sa’iy (running between the hills of Safa and Marwa), the cutting of my hair were all truly beyond words. Never have I experienced or even imagined anything like the `Umrah, and then the praying and the sitting and the thinking in the Great Mosque. Islam does not belong to me. Islam does not belong to the reader. Islam belongs to Allah, Exalted is He!

Perhaps my real journey is just now beginning. I feel the pain of the Muslim nation and I also sense hope and the seeds of victory. My ears are open, for the first time in a long time — perhaps the first time ever. I am not anti-American, as one might think from some of the things I said above. I am an American though my home is in Egypt.

My ancestors were among the first European settlers in Virginia and the first Anglo settlers in Texas. They had escaped religious bigotry and political oppression and strove to create a new society with respect and freedom for all human beings, according to the Scriptures available to them. I follow in their tradition. They migrated across oceans and continents and so have I. They followed the Holy Bible. They did not know the Quran. But thanks to Allah, I am privileged to know it, and it is thus my duty to help spread the Message communicated therein.

My mother was a daughter of the American Revolution, and years ago when I told her about Allah she was sure that He and her God are one and the same. 

There is a lot of work for us Muslims to do and long roads to travel — and not only in (or even mainly in) America, but throughout the world.