Learning to Breathe
By Yahiya Emerick

The conversion experience is one of the most unique feelings that any person can have. When a person's heart and mind have opened up to something that they never knew was possible, the exhilaration, the passion can be tremendous. If you ask someone who recently underwent some type of religious conversion, the responses will range anywhere from elated to having come into true reality.

Many people base the truth of their beliefs on how intense their experience was in accepting them. Many Christians undergo extremely emotional conversions which are often accompanied by singing, dancing, clapping, crying and such. Buddhists report a quiet sense of "calmness" entering their soul as they give up all love and desire for anything and everything in the world, while people who convert to Judaism (the few) often speak about how they are impressed with the rituals, tradition and history associated with their new-found faith. The experiences here range from the emotional to the vague ethereal.

I haven't been privy to very much data on the experiences of people who convert to Hinduism, other than seeing white American college students with bald heads, yellow and red robes and incense, beating drums and singing about Krishna on campuses and in airports. Invariably, most of them don't remain Hindus and eventually give it up and enter corporate America.

But what about the experience of converting to Islam? Does it have any defining characteristic which one can use as a generalization? It would be wrong to automatically assume that the experience I had in converting would necessarily be the general rule, so one must look for empirical data and common threads in the experiences of many converts to try and identify a singularly focused trend.

This task is not very difficult as we have the records of converts to Islam which span almost 1500 years. The experiences of the first converts, the Sahaba, were recorded with startling detail and such "records" continue to be compiled even into our own time with new anthologies of convert experiences being published all the time. (I'm consciously avoiding the use of the term revert here because most people are not as familiar with the import of this term, although I recognize it is better to use than the word convert.)

Conversion to Islam, as any cursory glance at the lives of the Sahaba will show, was almost never emotionally based. It could be said that part of the reason why Islam was so attacked in its early days by the dominant powers in Arabian society at that time is precisely because of the fact that Islam was not based on superstition, emotionalism, or any factor that the common unprincipled person would be attracted to.

Think about it. The Arab idol-worshippers were confirmed drunks, heathens, cheats and especially uncouth and uncivilized, even by the standards of the day. The law of the jungle prevailed in Arabia, as it did in many other places, and the only control over a man was his tribal leaders and perhaps the limits of his own individual conscience.

Islam didn't come offering a party-like atmosphere and an absolution of any guilt or personal responsibility. Nor did it offer a new man-god or other idol-like fetish that simple barbarians could understand and latch on to.

Instead, Islam offered an abstract-seeming God, a detailed set of rituals and teachings and a lifestyle which forbade most of the vices that were prevalent (and popular) in society. To the average wine-swilling Arab, it probably sounded pretty dull.

When we read about such primary personalities as Abu Bakr, Khadija and Ali, we find that their conversion was influenced as much by their absolute trust in the integrity of Muhammad as it was of the strength of his message. He never lied to them and was never false. If he said something was true, those who knew him best could believe it. They accepted it willingly and calmly with full conviction.

A second, wider circle of individuals such as Rumaiysa, Abu Dharr and Abu Hurairah, were more discerning individuals who wanted to find out what this man named Muhammad was teaching. They listened to the Prophet and made an intellectual decision that what they were hearing made sense. They compared the beliefs and traditions of their society, which were brazenly unjust and demeaning, to what they were now hearing, and they accepted Islam as the only alternative that could be believed rationally, even though their conversion might get them into trouble. But so deep was their conviction that they often were subjected to torture, harassment and even death for their beliefs. This second group describes nearly all the first converts in the Meccan and early Medinan period. Conversion to Islam was based on an intellectual choice, requiring one to compare the merits of Islam with whatever else was current in society.

A third group of converts could be termed the tentative people. These are the people whose conversion to Islam was based on factors such as the apparent success of Islam, following the crowd, not wanting to be left out, etc... Such converts, whose hearts were fickle, often made it difficult for the true Muslims to move forward. They represent a large number of converts in the later Medinan period and further on. (There are many verses in the Qur'an which address these types. Hypocrisy was rife among them.)

When you read the stories and autobiographies of the first two types of converts, one can't help but notice the common thread running through the accounts of these people who chose Islam when it was unpopular to be a Muslim. They were people who knew what society was about and then learned Islamic teachings and compared. People in Arabia knew something about idol-worship, Judaism, Christianity, Zoroastrianism and gnosticism; but few if any ever converted to those things.

But when Islam came, it had a fire to it, a compelling call that drew people's attention. It couldn't be ignored in the mosaic of religions which was Arabia. The intelligent and discerning studied it and accepted it after much thought and reasoning. The corrupt and arrogant drew anger from their souls and inflicted the most horrible torture in their fight against Islam.

If you fast forward to our own present era, we live in a world that in many ways resembles pre-Islamic Arabia. The idol-worship of choice today is basically atheism colored with a belief in personal invincibility. The worst behavior is committed by most people on a daily basis. Even in America, "the land of prosperity and goodness," poll after poll shows that the average person thinks lying is okay. Wife beating and child abuse are just as high here, if not higher, than anywhere else in the world and all the worst vices from alcohol, pornography and smoking to drugs are readily available on every street corner.

The uneducated masses in third world nations see flashy American movies and think that it's the reality in America, and so, to be like their idols, they throw away any and every traditional value that has held their societies together and embrace every immorality (and it's often rewarded with wealth and abundance! Ah, the reward of Shaytan!)) Bribery, lying and cheating become institutionalized in the governments themselves. This is done on such a scale that two Muslim countries top the list for the most corrupt nations to do business in on earth.

This modern religious atheism comes along with all its own idolatrous rituals and accessories. For contact with the supernatural, there are Tarot card and palm readers (big business), phone lines with psychic advisors (who charge a very spiritual fee), crystals, Zen rock gardens (for $39.95 you can achieve inner peace), Ouija boards, health clubs (where the scantily clad can worship each other's bodies) and artsy-secular, new age "interpretations" of Christianity or "spirituality" (such as Oprah's kind of Christianity.)

(Oprah was once confronted on a show by a Christian activist who challenged her liberal stand on pre-marital and homosexual sex- pointing out that they were outlawed in the Bible. Oprah merely responded, to the great applause of the audience, that the "god" she worshipped was a loving god who didn't judge people. Talk about following your own lusts and whims!)

So this is the modern, heathen world. There is a mosaic of religions everywhere and a prevailing style of atheist-centered "idol-worship." Christianity is relegated to the quaint cultural level of a minor factor in Christmas and Easter. It has no impact in people's daily lives, or in the world, other than to convert uneducated third worlders with offers of bread and Bibles. (Oh, the growth in gay-churches is tremendous.)

Judaism is hardly followed, even in Israel. Buddhism is so compromised that someone as promiscuous and immoral as Richard Gere is being declared a "non-celibate" monk by no less than the Dalai Lama, who is as fruity as they come. Hinduism, well, what can you say there? It's pure Neanderthal in the spiritual evolution of humanity.

What is happening with Islam and why are so many diverse people accepting it? And this, even though Islam is the most vilified ideology/religion in the world. Interestingly enough, the same factors which influenced the first two categories of converts from the Prophet's time are still in operation today.

It must be pointed out that in the history of Muslim civilization, from about 650 to 1600, the issue about whether to be a Muslim or not wasn't there. The Islamic world considered itself superior to all other civilizations and there were no rivals. If you were a non-Muslim in the Muslim empire, you would be constantly impressed with the power and glory of it and Islamic teachings were readily available, as well as a practical model for organizing community life.

With the decline of the Muslim world and the ascension of the secular West, the barbaric inclinations of human baseness rose to the surface. After all, to be accurate, Christians have been responsible for the cold blooded murder of more innocents than anyone else in history. The story of Islam is one of toleration and even modern Christians admit this, while the history of Christianity from Charlemagne until the Bosnian holocaust in 1992 has been written in repression and blood.

As much as the idol-worshippers opposed Islam in Mecca, we find that, in turn, the atheist Westerners and their followers in the third world oppose Islam today. Vilifying and slandering it at every turn. But two types of people are accepting Islam in the world today which, as was mentioned before, closely correspond to the two types which accepted it in Mecca.

People who become acquainted with the life, teachings and example of the Blessed Prophet Muhammad find him to be like no other as far as personal strengths and characteristics are concerned. He was truly honest, generous, compassionate and convinced of the worth of his cause. He can be taken as a hero or role model for anyone. Writers such as Martin Lings and Thomas Cleary were so impressed by his model that they eventually accepted Islam.

The second type, which is much more numerous, are the vast millions in America, Europe and elsewhere who know what the beliefs and values of their society are. They're no fools. And when they hear about Islam somehow, they give it a fair hearing, never expecting to accept it. After they compare the facts and cross-reference and study deeply, they, too, accept Islam. This is demonstrated in such people as Jeffrey Lang, Aminah Assilmi and Hamza Yusuf.

There is, in my research, no overly emotional outburst, no screaming, "Hallelujah" and fainting, no dancing and feeling giddiness in their head. Is it any wonder that most people who are "saved" in the churches revert to their former ways quickly, when the emotional outburst and feeling wears off. While those who accept Islam, even hard-core felons, tend more to stick with it.

At the same time, there wasn't any hard to define "tranquility" or calmness which suddenly engulfed their soul in a fit of "realization." Instead, what research shows, (and anybody can talk to a convert and get similar results,) is that the conversion experience feels remarkably similar to the feeling one gets when they are returning to their family after a long and hard journey. A sense of belonging and place which resides deep within the psyche. The rational approach put to rest any and all objections and the absence of emotionalism ensures that the person knew exactly what they were doing when their mind and heart were in the position to see clearly. Satisfaction, certainty and contentment are hallmark feelings which accompany the new convert.

To illustrate this further, in my own case, I underwent two emotional conversion experiences to Christianity when I was younger. The first was when I was about twelve. Church services are the ultimate theatrical production and they have the techniques of swaying a person mastered into a science. After an hour of beating us down with our guilt and sin, making us feel low and dirty, the preacher suddenly offers a way out. The church organ plays a well-rehearsed soft melody as the preacher reaches out to us from the pulpit and offers us absolution, forgiveness and the wonderful joy of having our "burden" lifted.

Like the naive kid I was, I took the bait and walked to the front of the church so the pastor could pray for me and I accepted Jesus as "my personal Lord and Savior." Three hours later I felt as if nothing had changed, and not just because Christianity makes few real demands on a person's life. The second time came when I was in my first year at college. I was feeling disconnected and wanted spirituality in my life.

I was easy prey for those Campus Crusade people and when my meeting with their preacher ended, I felt a huge rush inside, it felt so supernatural that I was convinced it was true. I broke away from them, however, after only a couple of weeks, when I saw them playing rock music and singing like idiots in their evening services. My heart and mind knew that that wasn't what obedience to God was about.

When I came across Islam, it was through a friend who I knew all my life. He gave me a Qur'an and I took it back to college with me during my second year. I had already read so much of the Bible in my previous years that I was quite well versed in its contents.

To my utter amazement, the Qur'an challenged my perceptions from the first day. Before I started reading it I thought it was going to be just another "spiritual" book of sayings or fables like those Zen or Taoist new age kind of books. Boy, was I in for something different.

I literally felt that God was talking to me from the first page I read. You don't get that feeling reading the Bible or any other books. This book told the story of my life and asked me to compare what I knew to what it offered. Within just a few days I knew who was the winner. It was me. I found something that I could accept and know to be true.

I still didn't accept Islam yet, though, because I didn't know how. I was learning. I raided the campus library for books on Islam and read books both pro and anti Islam. I found that the books written against Islam were based on hearsay, opinion and some very strange conclusions. (One book said that Khadija was an agent of the Pope sent to deceive Muhammad. Who could believe such idiocy?)

Anyway, after several months, I came into contact with some Muslims from the Gulf states and was invited to dinner at one man's home. He started telling me that if I was "going to be" a Muslim that this and that would be a part of my life. I remember answering him back with, "But I'm already a Muslim!" It crept upon me without my even realizing it. The message of the Qur'an bonded so completely with my world-view, attitude and heart that it and I were one.

Read the account of Muhammad Asad contained in "The Road to Mecca" or that of Jeffrey Lang in "Struggling to Surrender" or even further in Maryam Jameelah's "How I Came to Islam" and you'll see a similar conversion experience at work. Islam reaches the heart through the mind so imperceptibly that before a person knows it, they already feel as if they are Muslim, i.e. surrendered to Allah. That's the kind of conversion that has lasting power. That's the kind of life change that is motivated by the informed man or woman; not one orchestrated by some outside influence playing upon a person's emotions with church organs, drums, singing, dancing or whatever.

The next time you're talking to someone or meeting someone who converted to something, ask them how it felt, and you'll get a good idea of how long their conversion will last and how much of an impact it will have on their life.

[Conversion] [Mainpage] [What's New?]