Saturday, April 10, 2010

My journey to Islam - How Malay martial arts led a theologically dissatisfied American Protestant to Islam.

Abdul-Lateef Abdullah (Steven Krauss)
My journey to Islam - How Malay martial arts led a theologically dissatisfied American Protestant to Islam.

My experience in Islam began as a graduate student in New York City in 1998.
Up to that point in my life, for 25 years, I had been a Protestant
Christian, but had not been practicing my religion for quite some time. I
was more interested in “spirituality” and looking for anything that didn’t
have to do with organized religion. To me, Christianity was out of touch and
not relevant to the times. It was hard for me to find anything in it that I
could apply to my everyday life. This disillusion with Christianity led me
to shun everything that claimed to be organized religion, due to my
assumption that they were all pretty much the same, or at least in terms of
their lack of relevance and usefulness.

Much of my frustration with Christianity stemmed from its lack of knowledge
and guidance around the nature of God, and the individual’s relationship to
Him. To me, the Christian philosophy depends on this rather bizarre
intermediary relationship that we are supposed to have with Jesus, who on
one hand was a man, but was also divine. For me, this difficult and very
vague relationship with our Creator left me searching for something that
could provide me with a better understanding of God, and our relationship to
Him. Why couldn’t I just pray directly to God? Why did I have to begin and
end every prayer with “in the name of Jesus Christ?” How can an eternal,
omnipotent Creator and Sustainer also take the form of a man? Why would He
need to? These were just a few of the questions that I could not resolve and
come to terms with. Thus, I was hungry for a more straightforward and lucid
approach to religion that could provide my life with true guidance, not just
dogma that was void of knowledge based in reason.

While in graduate school, I had a Jewish roommate who was a student of the
martial arts. While I was living with him, he was studying an art called
silat, a traditional Malaysian martial art that is based on the teachings of
Islam. When my roommate would come home from his silat classes, he would
tell me all about the uniqueness of silat and its rich spiritual dimension.
As I was quite interested in learning martial arts at the time, I was
intrigued by what I had heard, and decided to accompany my roommate to class
one Saturday morning. Although I did not realize it at the time, my
experience in Islam was beginning that morning at my first silat class in
New York City back on February 28th, 1998. There, I met my teacher, Cikgu
(which means teacher in Malay) Sulaiman, the man who would first orient me
to the religion of Islam. Although I thought I was beginning a career as a
martial artist, that day back in 1998 actually represented my first step
toward becoming Muslim.

From the very beginning, I was intrigued by silat and Islam and began
spending as much time as possible with my teacher. As my roommate and I were
equally passionate about silat, we would go to my teacher’s house and soak
up as much knowledge as we could from him. In fact, upon our completing
graduate school in the spring of 1998, upon his invitation, we spent the
entire summer living with him and his wife. As my learning in silat
increased, so did my learning about Islam, a religion that I had hardly any
knowledge of prior to my experience in silat.

What made my orientation to Islam so powerful was that as I was learning
about it, I was also living it. Because I studied at the home of my teacher,
being in the presence of devout Muslims allowed me to be constantly
surrounded by the sounds, sights and practices of Islam. For as Islam is an
entire lifestyle, when you are in an Islamic environment, you cannot
separate it out from everyday life. Unlike Christianity, which lends toward
a separation between daily life and religion, Islam requires its followers
to integrate worship of Allah into everything we do. Thus, in living with my
teacher, I was immersed in the Islamic deen (lifestyle) and experiencing
first-hand how it can shape one’s entire way of life.

In the beginning, Islam was very different and powerful to me. It was also
very foreign in many ways and the amount of discipline it requires was
difficult to understand. At the time, I was liberal in many ways, and was
used to shunning anything dogmatic or imposed, regardless of where it came
from! As time went on, however, and my understanding of Islam grew, I began
to slowly see that what seemed to be religious dogma was really a lifestyle
put forth to us by our Creator. This lifestyle, I would later learn, is the
straight path to true contentment, not just the sensual and superficial way
of life that my society and culture promote. I realized that the question is
quite simple actually. Who could possibly know better what the best way of
life is for human beings than the all-wise Creator?

From that first silat class in New York City to the day I took my shahadda,
July 30, 1999, I had undergone a thorough self-examination that was
comprised of two major processes. One was to question the culture of the
society I was brought up in, and the second was to question the role I
wanted religion to play in my everyday life. As for my culture, this one was
not as difficult as most people would think.

American culture is highly influential on how we see life because it
constantly bombards us with sensual gratification aimed at appealing to our
worldly desires. In America, happiness is defined by what we have and
consume, thus, the entire culture is geared toward the marketplace. Unless
we are removed from this type environment, it is difficult to see its
drawbacks, which are based on worshipping and putting faith in everything
but God, the only One that can provide us with real, lasting contentment in
our lives.

Being a social scientist by trade, much of my professional time is spent
trying to address the social ills of our society. As I learned more about
Islam, I came to the conclusion that many societal ills are based on
unhealthy social behavior. Since Islam is a lifestyle focused totally on the
most healthy, positive way of conducting our lives in every setting, then it
is, and will always be, the only real answer to any society’s social
dilemmas. With this realization, not only did I decide that Islam was
relevant to my everyday life, but I began to understand why it is so
different from other religions. Only Islam provides knowledge and guidance
for every aspect of life. Only Islam provides a way to achieve health and
happiness in every dimension of life – physical, spiritual, mental,
financial, etc. Only Islam provides us with a clear life goal and purpose.
And only Islam shows us the proper way to live in and contribute to a
community. Islam is what everyone needs, and what so many who have not found
it yet, are searching for. It is the path to purpose, meaning, health and
happiness. This is because it is the straight path to the source of truth
and real power – Allah.

It was only until I actually became Muslim that I realized just how
encompassing the Islamic lifestyle is. Literally everything we do has one
underlying purpose – to remember Allah. The lifestyle provides us with the
way – not just the understanding – but an actual method of constantly
remembering our Creator in as simple an act as greeting someone, or getting
dressed in the morning, or waking up from sleep. Islam shows us that by
remembering Allah, everything we do becomes focused on Him, and thus becomes
an act of worship. From this, our energy, our thoughts, and our actions all
become redirected away from unhealthy and useless causes, and focused on the
source of all goodness. Thus, we are continuously tapping into His divine
strength, mercy and grace. So, by remembering Allah constantly, we become
stronger and healthier in every aspect of our lives and not distracted by
self-defeating thoughts and behaviors.

There still remain some minor aspects of Islam that have proven to be
somewhat difficult adjustments for me. Nevertheless, I thank Allah everyday
for the ease to which he has allowed me to make the necessary changes in my
life so that I can continue to live in America and still be, Insha-Allah, a
good Muslim. As a white, middle-class American, many cultural aspects of
Islam are quite different from the way in which I grew up. In fact, when I
finally broke the news to my family that I had become Muslim, almost all of
their questions and concerns were related to cultural differences –
marriage, social life, family, etc. They were much less concerned about my
general beliefs about God and religious practice. For my family, friends,
and co-workers, becoming Muslim was not seen necessarily as a negative
change, but it has required a great deal of education about Islam.

Because acquiring knowledge is a critical component to a Muslim’s
development, having a teacher who has taught me how to apply Islam in
everyday life has made all the difference in managing whatever difficulties
I have experienced from my reversion. Having someone knowledgeable you can
turn to whenever you have questions is a wonderful support that every new
shahadda should go out of their way to find. Islam is not a religion that
can be rationalized, in the way that Christianity and Judaism are. It is a
clear path that must be followed just as Allah has laid out for us through
the Qur’an and the lives of our beloved Prophet Muhammad (SAW), his
companions, and the saints of Islam.

In this day and age, in this society, discerning the path can often be
difficult, especially when we are constantly faced with questions and doubts
from people who on the surface may not be hostile to Islam, but whose
general lack of faith can have a harmful effect on someone who bases
everything they do on their love for Allah. It is also not easy being in an
environment where we are constantly bombarded with sensual temptations that
are seen as ordinary, common aspects of everyday life. But when we have the
support of a knowledgeable, experienced teacher, who is able to apply the
universal teachings of Islam to his life, then the truth becomes clear from
error, exactly how Allah (SWT) describes in the Qur’an. From this, we are
able to understand how to apply Islam correctly to our own lives, and
Insha-Allah receive Allah’s many blessings. The ultimate test, however, of
anyone who claims to have true and right knowledge, is to look at how they
apply it in their own lives. If their actions support their teachings, then
and only then should we look to them for guidance.

My journey to Islam has been a life-altering experience. It is one that with
every passing day, makes me more and more appreciative and thankful to
Almighty Allah. The extent of His mercy can only fully be understood from
the perspective of a Muslim – one who prostrates regularly and submits their
will to that of the Creator.

I look back at my life prior to Islam and reflect on the different ways I
sought guidance. I think back to all the different ideas I once had of who
God really is, and how we can become close to Him. I look back now with a
smile and perhaps even a tear because now I know the truth. Through Islam, I
know why so many people who do not believe have so much fear inside them.
Life can be very scary without God. I know, because I once harbored that
same level of fear. Now, however, I have the ultimate “self-help” program.
It’s the self-help program without the self. It’s the path that puts
everything is in its proper place. Now, life makes sense. Now, life is
order. Now, I know why I am here, where I want to go, what I want my life to
be, how I want to live, and what is most important not just to me, but to
everyone. I only hope and pray that others who have not found the path yet,
can feel the same that I do. Ya arhama rahimeen wal hamdulillahi rabbil

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