by Zakiyyah Al Zahid
My journey to Islam began when I was 16. I had been raised as a Christian with a strong sense of spirituality. Due to my mother’s nontraditional studies I developed a natural curiosity about Eastern thought processes. One night sitting in my room, I came to the realization that Jesus (AS) could possibly return in my lifetime. This thought was enough to catapult me into change. I figured it was time to get to know this figure of humility much better.
As a Christian, I thought the way to do this was to increase my presence in church. Sundays were no longer enough. I began to attend every Bible study I could find, going sometimes three nights a week on the Berkeley campus where I was studying. I also asked my advisor to sign me up for a class entitled “The Bible as Literature as a part of my English studies there. The deeper I delved into the Bible during group sessions at church, the more confused and frustrated I got. However, my Berkeley professor did a superb job clarifying the major issues I had with inconsistencies and contradictions. In his course I learned that the King James Version (which most Christians rely on) did not contain the original message of Jesus (AS). In fact, the oldest version of the Bible, the Greek Septuagint, was still very different from what Jesus (AS) actually taught. With this new information, I decided to increase my studies overall. Most importantly, I opened my heart and asked for guidance.
Within a couple of days, I got a tremendous sign. A flier reading “Who Is God?” was posted on campus. A debate was to be held the next day right there at Berkeley, and I was ecstatic. I attended and saw that the panel consisted of a Priest, a Rabbi, and an Islamic scholar: Jamal Badawi. As an English major, I knew the art of persuasion and rhetoric. I knew how to recognize circular reasoning, and other techniques that are used to mislead an audience. I saw these tactics put into use continually by the Priest and the Rabbi. The Muslim speaker, on the other hand, was very clear, direct, and to the point. I was convinced and I took shahadah the next day at a Sudanese family’s house. I felt so warm and complete as my life began immediately to take on meaning. I loved the feeling of modesty as I shrouded myself daily with many styles of hijab. The rest is history, but I am here to stay…still learning and strong as ever.
As I became Muslim, my life began to change. I immediately began to see that the truth surrounded me, and it had always been there. I paid a lot more attention to the debates on campus where Muslims, often led by Sheikh Hashim Ali Alauddeen, attempted to educate people who passed. A colleague of mine at the time, he was the first Muslim I met. I was blessed to meet Yusuf Ali Muhammad and worked with him teaching in the small school that he ran in Oakland with his wife. There I learned some of my most effective methods of teaching.
The benefits were immediate as I felt protected in public when I wore my outer garment, and I naturally attracted Muslims to myself. I no longer worried about being safe as I walked the streets of Berkeley where being harassed by male prospects used to cause me great distress. The attention I got from males was now always positive; in fact, this became an opportunity for dawah. I wrote about this phenomenon in an article in the Daily Cal, crediting my modest dress for the fact that my problems with unwanted attention began to melt away once I donned the hijab. In that article I put the responsibility on women to dress in a respectable manner if they were to demand respect from men. Not everyone was happy about the position I took.
Nevertheless, I was basking in the light of my new faith. A natural high took me over, and every new fact I learned made me soar with delight. My best friends became the Muslimahs who attended Cal Berkeley with me. I met beautiful sisters from all over the world. Without leaving the city of Berkeley, I was able to gain a world view of Islam. I began to hang out at the International House on campus where the Muslims congregated for Friday prayer. My best friends became sisters from the Sudan, Somalia, Syria, Iran, America, and Palestine.
On my first trip to the Berkeley masjid, which at that time was in a building down on San Pablo Ave., I met Ameena Jandali, Aafifah Fola Muhebi, and my dear friend Hadiyah. They formed the core of my support system early in the deen. Allah brought to me every opportunity to learn, for I had initiated the quest. I met sister Amatullah Sabrie at the Berkeley school of law, and I was blessed to teach for her in the years to come. As time passed I met Majeeda Hakeem, Nura Abdi and Sharareh Movafagh, who has since become a doctor. During those early days she helped ignite a blaze in me, a desire to discover the wonders of Allah’s creation…the signs within ourselves and throughout the observable universe.
I had always been drawn to the inner and outer worlds, as well as the metaphysical. I became intrigued with the medical and scientific proofs in the Quran. For each question I whispered in my heart, Allah answered me tenfold. As I was shown the signs in the Quran and all around me, my faith became cemented deep within my soul. This certainty remained throughout so many challenges I would face in the years to come. My faith was unshakable. I was also tested almost immediately. Within my first year, the Salman Rushdie debacle surfaced and the Muslims worldwide were livid. In our community the sentiment was no different. It was very much similar to the atmosphere today. There was outrage and backlash, some of which affected me directly. I had made myself visible on campus and aligned myself with the revolutionary spirit that is Berkeley.
Soon after attending, the “Who Is God?” debate, which led to me finding Islam, I listened to Imam Abdul Alim Musa explain the destructive relationship between the U.S., South Africa, and Israel as oppressive forces at a presentation called the “Devil’s Triangle.” I had already met Imam Musa at an earlier talk on campus, and I had visited his masjid in Oakland. His teachings resonated in my heart and mind, and I became drawn to serving the small inner city community that he had established in Oakland. I recall the simple lifestyle he led, living in the masjid and sacrificing his own needs to remain consistently available to new Muslims like myself who constantly had questions. In those early days he was always there for the five daily prayers. He would answer the pay phone in the hallway if we called needing clarification on the many complex issues that new Muslims face. I will always appreciate the time he dedicated to teaching all of us how to incorporate Islam into our lives as Americans. Through his travels, he too had gained an international perspective, and he taught us to stay open to all interpretations of Islam, ensuring that unity was primary. He welcomed Sunnis from all madhabs and Shias alike into the community. He sold books in the small bookstore covering all perspectives. We were able to read for ourselves to try to discern a direction.
A lot has happened since then. The people who seek to extinguish the light of Islam, I discovered, came from inside and outside of the ummah. It wasn’t just the Salman Rushdies of the world who sought to sow dissension and breed confusion amongst the ranks. I had heard a saying that I know now to be the absolute truth. People were always telling me, “good thing you found Islam before you found the Muslims”. Regardless of the challenges that followed for me, I appreciate the foundation Allah provided for me. May Allah protect and bless all of those who helped me in my early days. I am who I am today because of them. My journey continues.