This story is republished here with the author’s kind permission.
Today, while out with my family at the Ashby Flea Market in Berkeley California, I ran into a man who changed the entire course of my life fifteen years ago. And he did it with a smile and one simple question. I have no doubt in my mind that had I not met this man on that cold day in February, that I would either be dead or in prison.
Fifteen years ago while on my way to a college class, I ran into a familiar looking guy who pointed at my shirt and said “good looking out” and stood up and shook my hand. I was sporting dread locks, wearing a Haile Selassie shirt, baggy jeans, suede Pumas, sunglasses and a Sessions snowboarder jacket. I was the quintessential hard to label California Bay Area pseudo hip hop hippie skater. Happy because of my Rasta shirt the guy said to me:
“Hey I think I know you dude, we met at such and such a place. My name is Whitney Canon (who we now know as USAMA CANON).”
I answered in the affirmative and we struck up a conversation and realized we had several mutual friends. This “chance” meeting would prove to be “one of two” of the most important random occurrences in my life.
Strangely it ended up that we had the same Spanish class together and ended up sitting next to one another. Over the course of a few days we learned that we were both musicians / artists. Usama had the code to the piano room in the music hall so we’d sneak into the room and sit and play music for hours and talk about spirituality. We did this just about every day for an entire semester.
One day while eating sushi at a popular Japanese restaurant near campus I confided in Usama and told him I was burnt out and tired of my life and that I had decided to get things back on track. I was living by myself in downtown San Jose, working nights waiting tables and going to school during the day. There were many things about my lifestyle (that I won’t go into detail about here) that were preventing me from success. I also had the burden of past demons that would sneak up to torment me from time to time. So, the only real solution I knew of to deal with problems of this magnitude was to get religious and go back to church.
I told Usama that I was considering going back to the Catholicism to get my life in order. He asked me if I’d ever thought about Islam. I told him that I hadn’t thought of it for myself because I felt it was either an Arab religion or a separatist black movement (which I couldn’t join because my mother is white) and that I felt the only Muslims I had ever met were hypocrites and that I’d never seen a good practicing Muslim.
He told me about his older brother (ANAS CANON) converting to orthodox Islam after a short time in the Nation Of Islam and that it wasn’t just for Arabs but that from what he knew it was a pretty universal religion. (NOTE: Usama wasn’t Muslim yet when he was telling me this).
He asked me if I knew about Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon Him) and I told him that I just knew of Elijah Muhammad but that even Malcolm X said he wasn’t a real prophet. He then explained to me that there was a different man named Muhammad that was a real Prophet from Arabia and that I should look into him. At this point I started to get turned off as I usually did whenever anybody spoke to me overtly about religion. Plus once he said “Arab Prophet” I knew that Islam wasn’t for me. We ended the conversation and I headed to work. This was a Wednesday.
That night after work I went to the bookstore to buy a Bible and I walked past the “Eastern Philosophy” section and looked up and saw a green book that had the name ‘MUHAMMAD’ written down the entire spine in gold letters. I stopped and thought for a moment and then reached up and grabbed the book. The cover said ‘MUHAMMAD – His Life Based On The Earliest Sources” by Martin Lings.
This phrase “earliest sources” intrigued me because although I was there to purchase a bible, I was aware of the theological debate about the number of mistakes found in the bible and it was something that troubled me greatly. So, I opened up the book and tried to read it but the Arabic names were really difficult for me to pronounce and so I was struggling to get through even a couple sentences. The four or five sentences I did read mentioned the “QUR’AN” several times. The Arabic names solidified the reality that this was an Arab religion and not something I would want to be a part of so I put the book back up on the shelf.
As I began to walk away the gold letters “MUHAMMAD” caught my eye again and looked back up at the book. This time, I noticed another book titled “THE QU’RAN.” I was going to keep walking but I remembered that I saw that word a few times in the Martin Lings book so I reached up and pulled it off the shelf. I opened it to a random page which just happened to be the very first page of Chapter Maryam. I read it from beginning to end and remember getting chills in my body as it explained in great detail the miraculous birth of Prophet Jesus (peace be upon Him). I had no idea that Muslims also believed in the miraculous birth of Jesus nor that they did not believe He was God’s son. As a Christian it never made sense to me that God would have a son.
Without understanding why, I found myself weeping in the bookstore holding onto a copy of a translation of the Quran. I decided to buy it so I could read more about what Muslims believed. In my emotional state I completely forgot to buy a bible and left the bookstore.
The next morning (Thursday) I went to school and on my way to class I passed by a stall where a Senegalese man was selling some crafts, wallets, and African dolls. He was busy with a customer when I walked up so I just picked up a wallet and was looking at it. The customer left and the man turned to me and smiled. His smile was something I had never experienced before. The only way I describe it is that it was filled with light and love.
I remember exactly the words he spoke to me. I remember them because these words would change my life. He said: “Hello brother, how are you?”
I said: “I’m fine thanks.”
Then he looked at me very closely while smiling at me and asked. “Brother, are you a Muslim? … You look like a Muslim.”
I was shocked at his question and assumption because nobody had ever made that assumption before ever and I had just bought a Quran and read some of it the previous night. Before that I didn’t know anything about orthodox Islam at all. I told him I wasn’t a Muslim but that I bought a Quran last night and read some of it.
Then, the man smiled very big, came from around his stall and gave me a hug and kept saying over and over “Oh my brother, this is so beautiful. This is so great brother. I’m so happy for you my brother. This is a good sign from Allah brother. You have made me very happy brother.”
I had never met anybody so genuine and was so shocked that he was calling me brother, smiling at me, hugging me and saying he was so happy for me. His name was Khadim.
Khadim walked back around his stall and then asked me if I could do him a big favor. I told him I could. He told me that as a Muslim he has to pray five times a day at specific times and that one of the times had come and so he needed to go wash for prayer. He asked me if I could stay with his stall and watch his things as he went to pray. I told him I would and he showed me the cash box and asked if I could sell the items while he was away so he wouldn’t miss a sale. He gave me the prices and walked off.
I sat there for 30 minutes waiting for this man. You cannot imagine the thoughts that ran through my mind. I was thinking “who is this guy?” He left me with this cash. I could just take it and leave and he’d never catch me. Then I started thinking about why he wasn’t worried about his money. What is it that was so important that he left his money to a stranger?
I thought about the prayer he mentioned and how important it must be if he left his worldly possessions behind. I remember thinking at that moment that I wanted something that was that important to me that it would make me forget my problems.
He came back 30 minutes later and his face was full of light. He hugged me again and kept saying “thank you brother, thank you so much.” I was blown away. I missed two classes just so I could stay with this man. I was afraid if I left him, that I would never find the peace and happiness that he carried with him.
A Pakistani student walked up and greeted him with Salams and then turned to me and asked “are you a Muslim?”
I said, “No, I’m not, you are the second person to ask me that today. What made you ask me that?”
He said, “I don’t know, you look like a Muslim.”
I was blown away again. I told him I was reading a Quran and he was also very happy and asked me if I had ever been to a mosque before. I told him that I hadn’t and he asked me if I would like to go see one tomorrow. I told him yes (as I was now far too curious to let this go) and we exchanged numbers.
The next afternoon (Friday) he came and picked me up and we went to his house. His mother had prepared lunch for us and we sat on the floor and ate. I had never sat on the floor to eat in a house before but it didn’t feel strange to me at all. After the meal we drove to the mosque (Muslim Community Association -MCA) in Santa Clara, California.
When we walked into the mosque there were about 40 men standing in a row waiting to greet me… all of them smiling at me and shaking my hand I walked down the line. They motioned for me to sit and they gathered around me kept asking me how I was doing.
One man asked me if I knew anything about Islam so I proceeded to tell him how I bought the Quran and had read some of it, etc. Then he asked me if I believed in the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon Him) and without hesitation I said YES. He asked if I believed that Jesus was God or son of God and I told him NO, that I believed he was a prophet. He then explained to me about angels, the different scriptures, sent down, the Day of Judgment, the divine decree, etc. After he explained all this to me he asked if I believed in all that he said and I told him YES. He said:
“This is what a Muslim believes so you believe the same thing. Would you then like to become a Muslim?”
I remember that I answered YES without hesitation. He helped me struggle through pronouncing the Shahadah and I became a Muslim on that 17th day (Battle of Badr) of Ramadan in 1416 H / 1996.
The smile that changed my life.
I first heard about orthodox Islam on a Wednesday afternoon, bought a Quran Wednesday night, met Khadim (the Senegalese man) on Thursday who “showed me the true essence of Islam” by his actions and character, went to the mosque on Friday and became a Muslim.
Six months after I converted Usama Canon called me and asked me to tell him about Islam. We went to dinner and talked about the religion. The next day I took him to the mosque and he took his Shahadah and officially became a Muslim. He was the person who first told me about Islam and then I had the honor of bringing him to the mosque so that he could become Muslim.
It was not theology or religious debate that brought me to Islam. It was music, culture, a friend I trusted, and a stranger who smiled at me. Ironically, it was Arab culture that first prevented me from seeking to know about Islam.
Then, after I converted I spent a decade trying to leave behind my own culture (the very culture that led me to Islam) and attempted to adopt Arab culture as my own. It wasn’t until many years later that I was able to return to my roots as an American and reconcile that with being Muslim… in a way that is a natural reflection of my own culture and symbiotic with my faith as a Muslim.
I wrote this story today because I ran into KHADIM (the Senegalese man who smiled at me) while Usama Canon and I were out with our families. It was a chance meeting today. Just like my two chance meetings with Usama and Khadim fifteen years ago. I took a picture with him today, the first picture I’ve ever taken with him because I wanted to show people the face of a man who won my heart over with nothing more than a genuine smile and good character.
“All praise be to God for the blessing of Islam… and it is enough of a blessing.”