The Internet is a modern marvel. It is also a haven for great misinformation. I knew this about the Internet long before I began searching for information on how to “officially” become a Muslim, but I was afraid I would look silly if I asked one of the two Muslims I knew – my wife and her mother.
Then an interesting opportunity arose. I had subscribed to a little email newsletter from our local masjid, and a notice was sent out that two guest Imams would be visiting for several weeks, and some special gatherings were being planned where anyone of any age could come and learn, ask questions without shame, and so on.
This seemed like a golden opportunity. When we arrived at the appointed time, I decided to sit in with my two children in the gathering for youngsters which had been arranged. The Imam was very friendly to the idea of me sitting in with them. Did he know that I, too, was but an infant when it came to Islam? I wasn’t sure, but if he did it didn’t seem to bother him one bit.
Through the course of conversing with my non Arabic speaking children, he came to understand that they (and I) lacked understanding of even the fundamentals of the faith. So he took out a piece of paper and wrote down some words – in English transliteration, thank goodness – and said these words were the most fundamental to becoming and being a Muslim. It was a simple yet complete declaration of the most important beliefs – summarized in one sentence. He wrote:
La ilaha illallah, Muhammadur rasulullah.
Which basically translates to:
There is no God worthy of worship except Allah, and Muhammad is his Prophet.
Saying that… believing that… testifying to that… THAT is the beginning and foundation of being a Muslim. The Imam referred to it as the “shahada” or testimony. I had never heard it before (though in retrospect, I’d probably heard it many many times as part of my wife’s daily prayers but just didn’t know what I was hearing). I had definitely never said it before. So was I ready to do so now?
Accepting the first part – declaring the oneness of Allah (swt), declaring that one God the only one worthy of worship – came right away. I didn’t even fully understand just how important that oneness was yet, but I knew I believed it. I wasn’t as sure about the importance of declaring Muhammad (pbuh) as Prophet / Messenger. But knowing next to nothing about the Prophet (pbuh), how could I be sure at that point?
Then I pondered. I remembered that I had read an English translation of the Quran years ago, and came away from it with a picture of a God who seemed mostly angry and eager to punish wrongdoers. But the peace I had recently experienced when hearing the Quran recited didn’t fit with that picture at all. Perhaps I had read it wrong… or my heart just wasn’t ready to receive a deeper message. Perhaps I’d been reading it as a knowing wrongdoer and had reacted defensively.
Ultimately, I was beginning to see that everything I thought I understood about God needed to be reevaluated in light of these new experiences. And these new experiences were in large part facilitated by a message (the Quran) which had been delivered to us through Prophet Mohammad (pbuh). So as I sat and pondered the meaning of the shahada, I decided that for now – in my relatively uneducated state – that was good enough reason for me to declare my faith, while committing myself to throwing off preconceptions and learning everything I can about Islam, about the one and true Allah (swt), and his Messenger Mohammad (pbuh).
I said the shahada. And I spoke further with the Imam. The Quran, he said, was the way Allah (swt) communicates to us. And the way we communicate back to Allah (swt) is through Salat. Prayer.
As I’ve said previously in my story, I wasn’t a stranger to Christian modes of prayer, though I hadn’t engaged in them in decades. This much more formal Salat – and the rituals to prepare for it, and the language in which it is best uttered – were hugely intimidating to me. I’m a forty-something English-speaking American who knows the tiniest bit of French and Spanish, and a handful of words in Russian and Uzbek. But nobody in my family or circle of friends speaks or reads Arabic. And even were I to find a teacher, do I even have the capacity to learn a language so different from my own at my age?
Doubts plagued me. But that sense of “gravity” drawing me to Allah (swt) was too strong to be deterred. Even if the task before me would be the hardest I’d ever undertaken… I knew I had to try.
I knew I needed to pray.