How did an eighth-generation German-American growing up in Rockford, Illinois, proud of his ethnic heritage, baptized Lutheran, educated in Catholic schools, come to convert to Islam? As Aaron, “Abdul,” and I sit down at the Richard John Neuhaus Memorial Conference Table, that question hangs in the air.
“I came from a broken family, basically,” Abdul begins. In 1973, when Abdul was born, his father was 17 and getting ready to leave for Vietnam. (He would do two tours of duty.) His mother was 14 or 15 and living in New Jersey. His ancestors had lived in Winnebago County for over a century, and his extended family decided that it would be best for all concerned if Abdul was brought up in Rockford by his great-grandparents.
His great-grandfather never wanted to discuss religion or politics, though he would ask his wife why she, a devout Lutheran, would donate baked goods to St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church, in southwest Rockford, for fundraisers. Most of his great-grandmother’s friends were Catholic, including the head of the Altar Rosary Society at St. Anthony’s, and she enrolled Abdul in kindergarten at St. Anthony’s school, a few blocks away from their home on Loomis Street. The neighborhood had been heavily Italian, but, starting in the late 1940’s, Italian grocers and factory workers who had the money to do so moved out, many into brick ranch homes in new subdivisions on Rockford’s northwest side. The construction of Boylan Catholic High School in the new neighborhood in 1960, and the influx of blacks in the old neighborhood throughout the decade (ending in race riots), accelerated the migration.
Through it all, St. Anthony’s, the school, and the walled convent of the cloistered Poor Clares nuns just to the south provided stability to the neighborhood. Abdul was a shy boy who had few friends, but he recalls his days at St. Anthony’s school, including the fabled Catholic-school strictness, fondly. Outside of class, he spent much time attending Mass, studying “creeds and ecumenical councils,” visiting the nuns and buying their handmade wall rosaries—living, in other words, as a Catholic without the benefit of actual conversion.
From the beginning, then, Abdul’s religious observance was characterized by religious practice rather than by the self-caricatured faith of many modern American Christians who are always looking for “A Different Way to Do Church!” He longed for structure, uniformity, strictness of practice—all of which he regarded as part of the beauty of religion—and, for a little under a decade, he found it in Catholicism.
By 1984, however, his great-grandparents moved him out of St. Anthony’s for financial reasons, and he spent a couple years at Barber, a public school, before attending West High School. When West was closed, Abdul was bused to East High, across the city from his neighborhood.
His intellectual interests had broadened to include religion in general—but “not Hinduism; I never had any interest in polytheism” (though he had a cultural interest in both American Indian religions and Germanic paganism). His great-grandfather would take him to the bookstore to pick out scholarly works on his latest religious interest, and, one day when he was 15, while looking for books on German paganism, he stumbled across an English translation of the Koran and asked his great-grandfather if he could buy it. Neither knew anything about Islam, but his great-grandfather purchased the book for him.
His initial experience with the Koran was frustrating. The English translation was literal and had very few notes, and the modern arrangement of the Koran—from the longest suras (or chapters) to the shortest, rather than chronological or topical order—added to his confusion. Traditional Christians—Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans, some mainline Protestants—understand that it is not wise to approach the Bible without proper instruction or outside the context of the Church and Her traditions (especially the liturgy).
The Koran, however, is another case altogether. Read in a vacuum, outside of a Muslim community (or, for a non-Muslim, outside of an extensive study of the historical circumstances in which the Koran was written), it is, at best, incomprehensible, and, at worst, easily twisted to support one’s own political or religious ideology—as, Abdul argues, many (even most) Muslim immigrants to the United States have done.
Disappointed in his studies, Abdul set the Koran aside. Then, “I met an African-American in my neighborhood” who convinced him that he shouldn’t read the Koran by itself but should start by reading the hadith, the sayings of Muhammad, which are, in orthodox Islam, the first line of interpretation of the Koran. He restarted his studies and, slowly, began to make some sense of Islam’s holy book.
By now, Abdul was in high school, a good student with excellent language skills, still shy but participating in sports. Stocky, and of average height, he was a running back on the East High football team, combining speed with physical determination. Even as a teenager, he was unhappy with the moral state of American culture, but he did date, and he fell in love with his high-school sweetheart. She was an Egyptian, living in Rockford; her mother was a Muslim, and her father, a famous artist and sculptor, was a Christian.
Unbeknownst to his classmates, he continued studying Islam and began to see in it the strictness that he had admired in Catholicism. “I went to a Catholic school and became a Muslim,” he says, with no sense of irony. “I needed structure,” and Islam, like Catholicism, stood against the moral degradation of the culture that had continued, or even accelerated, under Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America.”
Abdul wasn’t studying Islam exclusively, however. He took Christian correspondence courses from the International College of Biblical Theology, and two doubts about Christianity began to form in his mind. The first concerned the idea that Christ had died to take away the sins of all, and yet, in order to be saved, each person had to believe in Christ. Why was that personal faith necessary? “If Jesus had died to take away our sins, why were only those who believed in Him saved?” He later, of course, would come to embrace the Muslim teaching against Original Sin and to adopt what Christians regard as the Pelagianism of Islam—the idea of salvation through practice rather than through faith that comes by the free gift of grace—but at that time, he was puzzled, as so many Christians are today, by this most biblical of Christian doctrines.
His second doubt was similar: Why did it take 300 years to compose a Nicene Creed and to confirm, as articles of faith, the divinity of Christ and the mystery of the Holy Trinity? The gap in time, he began to believe, made Christianity seem incomplete at the time of its origin. Again, this doubt wasn’t new to Abdul: Christian sects for over 500 years have tried to recover an “ante-Nicene” Christianity, with some explicitly adopting a form of Arianism, denying the divinity of Christ, while many others, especially in America over the last century, have simply fallen into a practical combination of Arianism and Pelagianism, by refusing to understand or examine the reasons why the Council of Nicea was convened in the first place.
While Abdul is an orthodox Muslim (and therefore obviously does not accept the divinity of Christ or the mystery of the Trinity), his concern at that time was not so much that he doubted the divinity of Christ but that he had come to believe in the need for orthodoxy to be coterminous with antiquity. He could not accept the idea of an unfolding Tradition that deepens our understanding of the Faith without contradicting any earlier understanding. This is not very different from many modern Christians who yearn for an apostolic Christianity, by which they mean not Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy but a Christianity stripped of all the accretions of history and tradition.
Abdul began to believe that, in the case of Islam, orthodoxy coincided with antiquity. Between the Koran and the hadith—the revelation of Allah and the sayings of Muhammad—everything was there; there was no need for further development of doctrine or practice. Indeed, Muhammad himself had said that his generation and the two following it would be the most faithful, and he predicted the rise of false prophets and doctrines after that. This made it easier to determine what is true Islam, and what is not. That which was believed by the first three generations, and that which was practiced by them, constitute orthodoxy.
Abdul uses the term orthodoxy to cover both what Christians mean by the word (sound doctrine) and what Christians (particularly Eastern Orthodox theologians) call orthopraxis, or right practice. This is not intellectual sloppiness on his part: In Islam, there is no real distinction between right belief and proper practice. When Abdul refers to the “structure” that Islam provides for him, he’s not talking about, say, something akin to the intellectual structure of scholasticism or the theology of the Eastern Fathers, but the prescription (and proscription) of actions for virtually every circumstance of daily life. This is why Muhammad’s religion is called Islam, submission. And it is also why so many Christians today, for whom faith is often almost completely sundered from action, have such a hard time understanding Islam or seeing it as something other than an incomplete Christianity, without benefit of Christ or the Trinity.
As Abdul moved from study into the practice of Islam, he was plagued with doubts. Though he had never actually converted to Catholicism, he still had an odd sense, he says, that his interest in Islam might be a sin, and he considered consulting the priest at St. Anthony’s. Abdul, however, was uncertain what to expect. Would the priest understand Abdul’s interest in Islam, or would he simply dismiss it? Would he even talk to him, or would he tell him that, since Abdul wasn’t a Catholic, they had nothing to discuss? Today, Abdul seems to realize that those concerns were overblown. In the end, though, he never went to see the priest.
At 17, Abdul married his high-school sweetheart in a courthouse ceremony. Both families were opposed, and the marriage would not last. He graduated from East High and went on to MacMurray College in Jacksonville, Illinois, where he planned to study social work. There, after making some Muslim friends, he began to practice Islam in earnest, and he soon decided to study Islam instead.
MacMurray, a United Methodist school, was obviously not the best place to pursue his interest, so, in 1991, Abdul and a few friends interested in studying Islam discussed their plans with leaders at the Rockford mosque. According to Abdul, Magdy Kandil, one of the board members of the Islamic school, was happy to help, and he suggested schools and teachers in Egypt. At Kandil’s recommendation, Abdul and his friends decided to study with Shaykh Usaamah Al-Qoosee, a follower of Sayyid Qutb. Qutb, who received his master’s degree in the United States while working for the Egyptian ministry of education, returned from America to become a prominent leader of the revolutionary Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan al-Muslimin), which to this day advocates a pan-Islamic state governed solely by sharia.
When Abdul and his friends arrived in Egypt to begin their studies in fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence), Magdy Kandil, Abdul says, was waiting for them, proud of his new young recruits to the Ikhwani movement. He helped them find a place to live and to get settled. Abdul would stay in Egypt for a few months, and then return to the United States, before going back to Egypt to complete his ijaza, his license or certificate, in fiqh.
“In the beginning, my Islam was very much like most ideologies—that we have to establish an Islamic country, have to establish khalifah . . . It wasn’t until the Salafis got a hold of me that they showed me things that went against that ideology, that our Prophet told us that there would be a time that we don’t have a khalifah, and this is when the day of judgment would come.”