<< This piece complements Natalie Abraham's piece, “My book and my friend.” >>
On a summer day two years ago, I sat in my office lost in thought. A half written legal brief sat on my desk while I focused on the river beneath my office window, my stress level high and my spirits low. Often as a college student I would turn to prayer to pull me out of a rut, and in law school I would open the Quran to get re-energized when overwhelmed by classes and work.
Neither of those options seemed possible to me that day though. After graduating and starting my career at a large law firm, my faith had begun to erode. Sitting in a silent office and keeping track of my time in six-minute increments drained me both physically and spiritually. Though I had a prayer rug tucked into an office drawer, I hardly prayed. On the rare occasions I attended Friday prayers, I groused at the lack of equal prayer space for women, the crowd, the smells of old food and damp socks.
What had really strained my spirituality, however, was my pro bono work. I often represented individuals being persecuted under the name of Islam — Muslim women who had been battered by husbands who considered abuse a privilege of their faith, women trapped in forced marriages, and women whose inheritances and rights to alimony had been stolen from them under the guise of sharia. I had also represented people fleeing persecution by Muslim fanatics seeking to punish them for their different beliefs– some had even been coerced into conversion. These cases had dulled my faith and left me feeling depressed about my religion.
On that warm summer day, however, I was shaken out of my spiritual malaise. As I sat idle, gazing out the window, my friend Natalie’s email popped up on my screen with the subject, “Mosques?”
The title immediately caught my interest. Natalie was a law school friend and a brilliant attorney who worked at a prestigious firm in the city. She was a Catholic girl raised in the south and “western” in a way I never could be — she wore designer clothes, loved ballet, and was the product of an Ivy League education. I knew her to be a practicing Catholic, but it was a part of her life we had never discussed.
I picked up the phone and called her with a mixture of curiosity and anxiety. “Hey there Natalie….got your message. Thought it’d be easier if I just called you. Um, why are you asking me about mosques in your area?”
The apprehension in her voice mirrored mine. “Well, it’s kind of a long story.” She explained that she had recently had gone through some personal upheaval, and as she prayed she experienced a sense that something was missing. From nowhere, she got the urge to start reading the Quran, and she began reading it at night after work. She explained that the further she went through the Quran, the more engaged she became. She bought more copies so she could read during her commute and at work.
As I listened to her, chills began racing up my arms, and my face began to tingle. “So as I got to the last part of the Quran, where the language is so magnificent and the concepts so overwhelming,” she said, her words tumbling out in a rush, “I just had this thought that these words were not written by a man. I realized that they were divinely inspired, that this was the voice of God.” Tears began running down my face as I absorbed her words. My friend Natalie had converted to Islam.
I had reached adulthood in the shadows of 9/11, and my experiences as a Muslim American and an attorney since then had left me both defensive about my faith and fearful of anyone wanting to discuss it with me. I had been going through a painful phase of questioning my faith, but I had resolved never to discuss my wavering spirituality with any of my lawyer friends, who criticize words for a living and can be particularly trenchant in their analysis of religious arguments.
As Natalie described her perceptions of the Quran and its power, I was taken back to my time in law school. I recalled the many dawns I had spent praying and even weeping over the Quranic passages exhorting people to speak out against injustices committed against the weak and to safeguard the rights of the most vulnerable. Those were the very lessons which had led me to law school and motivated me to provide legal services to the poor, the weak, the orphaned and the abandoned. By now though, cynicism and mental fatigue had pushed these memories into the far recesses of my mind and muted my spiritual connection. I felt reawaked as I listened to Natalie describe how moved she was by the verses comparing the murder of one girl child with the cosmic shifting of the mountains and sky at the end of the world, how she marveled at the soaring beauty of this and other passages in the Quran.
For some time now, I had consigned the Quran to my shelf as just a book, but my conversation with Natalie reminded me that the Quran was a miracle given to the Prophet Muhammad, a living, breathing message. It had the power to move someone who had no overt connection to the religion—to touch her heart to the point of conversion. Unlike Muslim children, who are raised from infancy to love the call to prayer[Z5] , to revere Prophet Mohammad, and to tear at the sight of the Kaaba, Natalie was a blank slate. There was no obvious reason why she had been drawn to this book and this religion born in a desert a world away more than fourteen hundred years ago, whose adherents are broadly vilified today.
I had been disconnected from God and suddenly a miracle confronted me– this unimaginable conversion that seemed to be one of His signs. Natalie had heard His voice and without any encouragement or direction started reading the Quran. She had, with no guidance, read with His words with a clarity and openness that eludes most Muslims, that had for some time had eluded me. Knowing the analytical skills of lawyers, I was astonished that Natalie had worked past all the meticulous rules and historical anecdotes in the Quran, which had often frustrated me, to discover the purity of the message. Most miraculous of all, she had accepted His message without question or doubt.
That day and that conversation have forever changed my perception of the power of the Quran, and its power to turn the heart to God without any coercion. There is indeed no compulsion in Islam, and the truest believer is someone who comes to the faith with an open heart and an inquisitive mind. I had always known that many of the so-called Muslims oppressing the weak and seeking to forcibly convert others had grossly missed the point, but through my conversation with Natalie I realized that I had been doing myself a disservice by allowing such people to dull my devotion to my faith. I realized that I was doing exactly what I had dreamed of as an idealistic law student praying at dawn – defending innocents who are suffering at the hands of people maligning His religion. Natalie’s conversion reminded me that I could not, should not, conflate the injustices committed under the name of Islam with Islam itself.
God states in the Quran: “When My servants ask you concerning Me, I am indeed close them; I listen to the call of every supplicant when he calls on me. . . Let them (my servants) also with a will listen to My call, and believe in Me that they may walk in the right path.” (2:186) In leading Natalie to Islam, God answered the call of Natalie’s seeking heart, and helped sooth the tumult in my own. For that, I am so grateful.
(Photo Credit: Mylla)
Mariam Sheikh is an American attorney and writer. This article is written using a pen-name.