I was raised in a religious Christian family where religion was intertwined with all aspects of life.
As a result, even at a very young age, I took religious matters seriously, and played a role in teaching the other children at church.
This was also facilitated by the fact that we didn’t have a television at home (for reasons of principle) and thus I would spend a great deal of time reading anything I could get my hands on, religious books included.
When I was around twelve, I started having serious doubts about Christianity, and by fourteen I had reached the conclusion that it could not be the truth… although I didn’t have anything else to take its place.
From that time, I began to form a philosophical framework of the components that I believed the true religion must include. Among the most important elements of this framework were that it must be the first religion known to man, it must be textually coherent (i.e. not contradictory within its own text), it must be factually correct, it must be in harmony with the logical principles that govern normal human behavior.
And, most importantly, it should call to belief in one God…
As I researched what I believed to be the oldest religions, I found many that were polytheistic, and none which met the framework I had set. Of course, at that time, I didn’t even think to look into Islam due to my misconception that it is a new religion that was born after Christianity.
After some time, I began to feel hopeless that I would ever find the truth, and tried to fill the void within me with Buddhism, which intrigued me on some levels, though deep inside I knew that it wasn’t what I was looking for.
Starting My In Depth Research
I spent my senior year of high school in Japan as an exchange student, and this was a pivotal experience for me. My views on many social principles, such as feminism and concept of family were greatly impacted.
It was in Japan that I realized that men and women can have equal roles, yet not identical; and it was there that I experienced the deep cohesion within families and the ongoing support that they provide, which unfortunately is often lacking in the West. At the same time, the Buddhist practices that I saw there convinced me that I could no longer continue to pull the wool over my eyes, trying to content myself with something that deep inside, I knew wasn’t the truth.
When I returned to the US, I happened to get into a car accident, and heard about a mechanic who could fix my car at his home inexpensively. When I took my car to him, his wife invited me to sit inside and have some tea with her. She was dressed in a long skirt with a long white scarf wrapped around her head, an image that I had only seen in National Geographic magazines. I began to ask her about her beliefs, and one by one, the answers she gave me seemed to address the core principles that I was searching for.
Before her husband was finished with my car, she had invited me to attend a weekly study circle for women that was held at her home. I attended for nearly six months before someone finally asked me if I was ready to take my shahadah. At that point, I agreed, however, it was only because I believed at that time that Islam seemed to be what I was looking for, and that I could never know for sure unless I actually committed to it and saw it from the inside.
Striving to Seek Full Knowledge
Looking back, I realized that I was missing the absolute assurance, which is a condition for faith. At that time, I neither knew that it was a requirement for faith, nor did I even realize that it was possible. For me, doubt was a rule; even the most demonstrable scientific laws could be subject to doubt, so how much more for something that required me to ‘believe’ in the unseen!
While I can’t say that I was actually Muslim at that time, it was the beginning for me. A beginning from which I began to learn and grow… with a great number of growing pains along the way. It seemed like no sooner had I learned something, that someone else would come along and tell me the opposite…
At the masjid, the Arab sisters had their circle in Arabic, and the Pakistanis in Urdu… but none took the initiative to teach anything in English… so, although I was the newest to Islam, I began to try to prepare lessons, in the course of which I learned a great deal.
Learning without a teacher to guide the student, however, is not without its perils. After several years, I had begun to study Fiqh, the sciences of the Quran, and ‘Aqeedah… when I arrived at a perplexing point for me related to an issue involving all three… which, at the time, seemed to me to be an issue of contradictory texts and teachings. I consulted some sheikhs in the US, all of whom were not able to resolve the issue to my satisfaction, causing me a great deal of frustration.
While the thought did occur to me to leave Islam, instead I decided to put the issue on hold until I had better resources to research it in depth.
Nearly a year later, I woke up one morning to find all of my joints swollen and aching. My condition deteriorated, and I began having serious memory problems. After a month of tests the doctors informed me that they believed I was in the last stage of lymphoma, and that I had little time left to live. What a shock!
Later however, they changed their opinion, diagnosing me with sarcoidosis, a chronic disease that can affect a number of organs in the body. At that time I was still too sick to celebrate the new lease on life that this gave me, rather than the previous terminal diagnosis, but with time my condition gradually improved and I was able to shift my thoughts to how to live, rather than preparation for death.
As I gradually became better, I decided that I could no longer afford to put off addressing the issue that had caused me doubts regarding Islam. I decided that the only way to deal with it would be for me to learn Arabic and research for myself, rather than depending on others to translate the texts for me.
I consulted with other students who had studied in Morocco and Syria, and with people who had lived in Egypt and the Gulf, and finally I decided that Egypt would be the best for me.