May 8, 2012
“I worked hard to put myself together in those years…”
Huffington Post: Excerpt from Moving the Mountain
Excerpt from Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf’s Moving the Mountain: Beyond Ground Zero To A New Vision Of Islam In America (Free Press, May 2012)
I am an American citizen born in Kuwait of Egyptian parents. I grew up in Great Britain, Malaysia, and Egypt and have lived in the United States since 1965, when I was seventeen.
When I arrived in America, I experienced serious culture shock. For someone with a religious upbringing, the 1960s were an extremely difficult time. Even though religion was a big part of the civil rights and peace movements, in my college religion was treated as irrelevant, hopelessly stodgy, and behind the times. This was the heyday of the “God is dead” movement. Islam was almost always portrayed negatively in the media and larger culture. Most American Muslims were Black Muslims, members of the separatist Nation of Islam headed by Elijah Muhammad, of which most white Americans were terrified. Arabs were then considered uncouth, dirty, and uncivilized.
In Malaysia, where Western culture was extremely influential, I’d grown up listening to Elvis and the Beatles and watching American movies. People wanted to be like Americans. In contrast, when I got here, I saw prosperous middle-class American college students wanting to somehow join the Third World. I understood their anger about the military draft and the Vietnam War, but their talking and singing about revolution and idolizing Che Guevara and Fidel Castro made no sense to me at all.
Add my own search for identity to this mix, and the freedom that was everywhere—in the form of drugs, sex, and alcohol—was unnerving, to say the least. Staying chaste until marriage, a commandment of my faith, was one of the most difficult challenges of my young life. I had a powerful sense that if I did not get a grip on my identity, my ethics, and my religion, I would go off the rails.
For the first time in my life I had to decide whether, and to what extent, to be a Muslim. In a Muslim society like Egypt or Malaysia, practicing your faith is like observing Christmas for many in America: you do it almost without thinking, it is part of the environment. But in the morally free maelstrom of the 1960s, trying to be religious by choice required enormous effort. Finally, using that very individual freedom for which American culture is so rightly celebrated, I was able to consciously and deliberately choose the religion I had grown up with.
I was the kind of person who needed coherent rational understanding of what I was experiencing. As a physics major, I needed to put everything together into an integrated whole, a kind of Grand Unified Theory of my life, so I began to read books on religion, philosophy, and theology.
As the oldest son of an eminent Islamic scholar, I had also learned a great deal from my father. I had learned to type at age twelve, first typing my father’s thesis, and then his lectures, radio talks, and sermons. Reading what I was typing, I would ask him pointed questions that expressed my doubts as much as it expressed my need to be convinced of the truth of my inherited faith. In reading the Quran, I saw how God criticized those who blindly followed the religion of their fathers (Quran 2:170). And since I prided myself on being a good thinker, I felt that if I practiced Islam just because it was my father’s religion, I was opening myself to the same criticism.
I therefore had to adopt Islam based on my own genuine conviction, and I needed to have something substantial to build on if I was to adopt it sincerely at all. Learning Islam intellectually was different from feeling or experiencing this religion as my own choice, but a no less important part of integrating the whole gestalt of being a Muslim.
I worked hard to put myself together in those years, to reconfigure myself in a way that was true to my own deepest principles. I had to confront and absorb the meaning of my religion, its spiritual core as well as its ethical imperatives. How was I to deal with the drugs and alcohol that surrounded me, the free and open sexuality seemingly celebrated everywhere? How was I to relate to other people, Muslims as well as non-Muslims, to Jews in the wake of the 1967 and 1973 wars between Israel and my home country of Egypt? What about the racism I saw everywhere, and experienced directly and frequently? What to make of friends who were very different, who engaged easily in premarital sex, who smoked marijuana, who were gay?
What helped me through this period was to reflect on the fact that throughout my life, I had changed rapidly and continually in just about every way: physically, emotionally, and intellectually. My body had changed every few years since my birth. Starting at the age of six, when every English boy’s ambition was to be a train engineer, I found myself answering the question “What do you want to be when you grow up, Feisal?” differently every couple of years: a movie actor, then a director, then a musician, and then, at thirteen, a scientist. My emotional attachments followed a similar roller-coaster ride. At just seven years old I had such a crush on my teacher that I felt jilted when she married. Then every couple of years or so I would have a crush on another girl, without whom I felt I would not be able to live.
And yet, in spite of all these changes, in every measurable part of me I somehow knew I was the same person, the same Feisal—the same “I.” This deep conviction, combined with my spiritual search for, journey to, and personal discovery of God, made me recognize that my soul—and its values and needs—was the truly permanent part of my being. The very changeability of everything else demonstrated to me the need to have something about my life that was indeed permanent, starting with my deepest values and ethics.