Summer has become my favorite season, with its sunshine, warmth, long days and long walks in the late afternoon; but when I was twelve, it was definitely winter, with its blizzards and snowball fights, ice-football, sled riding and ice hockey! It was also the time of year in which I could steal a few hours alone with my father every once and a while, because the rest of the year he had to work twelve hours a day, seven days a week, at his one-man refrigeration and air-conditioning business. On certain Sundays we would take our German shepherd for a walk along the beach. My father always picked the most bitter days: stormy ones, bleak and gray and frigid, that remind me now of the prize-winning photographs and paintings he had made when he was younger. On one of these walks, we had almost reached the point where we would usually turn back, when I looked up at him and asked, “Dad, do you believe in heaven?”

I knew that I could depend on a straight answer with no punches pulled. My mom would carefully estimate the possible effects of her answers to such questions before she finally framed one, while my father’s response would be the same irrespective of the questioner. But he would not answer thoughtlessly, nor for that matter dispassionately; he would personalize and internalize the issue.

He showed no reaction and kept on walking. We continued on into the cold, damp, pounding gales that were blowing back his thick, graying hair and stinging my face. I began to wonder if he had heard me, for it must have been a half mile ago when I had asked him, then he slowed to a stop and turned towards the shoreline. He was looking out past Long Island when he said, almost to himself, “I could believe in Hell easily enough, because there’s plenty of that here on earth, but heaven” – he paused for a few seconds and then shook his head – “I can’t conceive of it.”

I was not entirely surprised, even at that young an age. My father was extremely sensitive and already I understood that life had robbed him of his goals and dreams. Every night after work he would try to numb his anger, but more often than not it would lead to violent eruptions of his frustrated passions. Anguish is contagious, and his angry, dark and cynical view of life infected all of us – after all, we were only children and we were emotionally defenseless. When others of my generation felt cheated by the Kennedy assassinations or Vietnam or Watergate, I was hardly moved; they were only confirmations of what I had already learned.

Religious types will criticize my father for opening a door, but it had been unlocked for some time or I would not have asked the question. If anything my father’s answer slowed my inevitable progress towards atheism, for he was not an irreligious man. The fact that he had doubts seemed entirely natural – how can any sane and rational mind not have them? – but he was nonetheless a believer and he must have had some reason to believe. Whatever it was, I never found out.

I continued to have problems with heaven, because every time I imagined that it was within God’s power to create such a world, I had to wonder why He created this one. Why, in other words, did He not place us permanently in heaven from the start, with us free of the weaknesses for which He would punish us with earthly suffering? Why not simply make us into angels or something better? Of course, I heard all the talk of God’s infinite sense of justice; but I did not choose my nature; I did not create temptation; I did not ask to be born; and I did not eat from the tree! Did it occur to no one that the punishment far exceeded the crime?! Even if only an allegory, it does tell us something of the divine nature, something that is extremely difficult to reconcile with “love” and “mercy”.

How I came to despise these words! They made me sick with revulsion. Not only were we here for no good reason, but an infinitely innocent sacrifice and acceptance of a blatant contradiction were required before admitting us into paradise. The rest of us, not lucky enough to be born into the right creed or unable to suspend our reason, were destined to be consigned to eternal damnation. Would it not, for goodness sake, have been better to simply leave us as a bad idea never realized?

It was all the sugar-coating that made belief for me so unpalatable. I used to conceal my disregard behind an emotionless exterior as I listened to assurances of divine love; like when you halfheartedly humor someone you feel has lost his mind. When it was clear that I was hopeless, we would invariably revert to the real issue: The Divine Threat! “But what if you are wrong?” I was told; as if you should believe on a hunch, in order to hedge your bets in case this brutal, monstrous vision is a reality.

“Then if I am wrong, I will still be right: for refusing to surrender to the irrational demands of an infinite tyranny, for refusing to indulge an unquenchable narcissism that feeds on helpless suffering, and for refusing to accept responsibility and repent for a grand blunder which I did not commit. In the end, I will be an eternal victim of the greatest injustice and in this way, I will forever represent a higher sense of righteousness than the One that brought us into being. It may not ease my suffering in the everlasting torture chamber, but at least it will give it meaning.”

“So how in God’s name did you become a Muslim?”

This book is not meant to be an explanation, but the reader should be able to piece together a rational one, perhaps something of an emotional, psychological and spiritual one as well. Frankly, I am not entirely sure exactly how it happened. So much of it seems to have been outside my control, manipulated according to certain key decisions I made along the way. For the curious, they should know that to become a Muslim requires simultaneous commitment to three interrelated principles: the first: there is no god; the second: but God; the third: Muhammad is the messenger of God. What I have written so far outlines how I came to the first of these. 1

This book, however, has other motivations. It, like my first one, is written first and foremost to my children, with the hope that my struggle may somehow help them in their search for meaning. I want them to understand where I am coming from: that this subject was never for me an academic curiosity – an exercise in rational thought; that I have much more than an interest in it; that it is part of my past, present, and future, part of my seeking, suffering, and desire. The question I asked my father burned inside me, as does what I have learned from it, and I cannot but share that with them. Yet I would hate to see that their search end with mine. My greatest hope is that they begin where I leave off, because no human has a complete and final answer. To rely on someone’s past insights is the gravest error, for our knowledge grows with time, and to dogmatize an opinion is to stop our progress towards the truth and to make way for atrophy and decay.

I take no credit for whatever is good in the pages that follow – I did not find it, but it finds me – and for that which is not, I rely on the forgiving kindness of one whose wisdom illuminates our deeds according to our intentions.

REMARK: I am concerned that the nature of this book may lead the non-Muslim reader to an erroneous and one-sided image of Muslims. Perhaps the western media’s continued demonization of Muslims and their religion has caused me to be oversensitive about this matter.

The reader should keep in mind that this book is written primarily for Muslims by one who was once outside their community, who tried, especially in chapters three, five and six, to discuss those behaviors and conceptions of modern believers that he has had difficulty understanding, adjusting to, or accepting. It therefore contains a fair amount of criticism of Muslims. I also have shared with the reader many of the setbacks I have suffered in my own struggle to achieve surrender to God, and I fear that my example may be more discouraging than most

Let me take this opportunity then to assert that in the past twenty years I have met a multitude of virtuous, warm, noble, magnanimous, deeply religious Muslims, from whom I have gained so much in knowledge and friendship. If I wrote a book about the inspiring examples of Muslims I have known, and someday I may, it would be of greater length than this one. Similarly, if I wrote a critique of other communities to which I belong – for example, the American, the white Anglo-Saxon, or the academic – I am sure it would include far more numerous and more severe criticisms than this book contains.

REMARK: It is a long established and cherished tradition among Muslims to follow the mention of a prophet’s name by the benediction “may peace be upon him”. In time, this practice was adopted in writing, although the most ancient extant manuscripts show that this custom was not adhered to rigidly by Muslim writers in the first two Islamic centuries. To avoid interrupting the flow of ideas, I have not followed the customary practice. I will simply take this occasion to remind the Muslim reader of this tradition.

REMARK: The transliterations of Arabic words in this book are my own approximations. Each introduction of a transliterated term in the text is followed by an English translation in parenthesis. Experts should be able to discern the corresponding Arabic terms and the transliterations should pose no disadvantage to non-experts.

  1. I explain – or perhaps I should say interpret – my conversion to Islam in greater detail in my first book: Jeffrey Lang, Struggling to Surrender (Beltsville, MD: amana publications, 1994).↩︎