“I will not break beneath your suffocation, although you stalk within my mind, in constant oppression. Now I decide, now I arise, now I defile the disguise, that you employ to destroy me, we will destroy you. He is my unbounded fountain of power, and rising within my heart, infuses me to overpower, although you try to slip me into your chilling choke hold the infinite within will ever oppose you and devour. Rise, rise, rise, rise, rise within my heart. Rise within me, madhusudana.” – 108’s “Invocation”
As with any convert to a new religion who has been asked a million times over and over about their conversion process, I am no different in receiving puzzled looks and typically the question, “How did you become Muslim?” Thus, for some of you who may be reading this blog, I may not have ever shared the story behind my decision to transition into the Islamic faith. I mean, hell, I had it all going on before to the outside world: white, middle-class, raised to two loving parents, a safe suburban upbringing, access to power all around. Why would anyone sane person do something, especially in the current political environment, to jeopardize that type of power? Simple: I have never felt much at ease with oppressing others, living a life driven by the pursuit of accumulating material wealth, or generally being apathetic to anything beyond my carnal instincts.
I guess the most logical place to begin with my road to conversion would be my sophomore year of college, which involved numerous transitions in my life. The previous year I had entered an elite Northeastern private, liberal college as a pre-medical student whose only real care in the world was managing my stress through wasted weekends and barely getting by with my work during the week. Over the course of my first semester of undergrad these tendacies grew worse and worse, to the point where I began to lie to my parents about my grades (I had never done that before; I was the star student!) and eventually ended up failing a chemistry course. All of these bad habits climaxed with my first bout of depression sinking in over that winter break; my parents tried their best to console me and encouraged me to find a better fitting major, that of history. While this did alleviate some of my anxiety with regards to school, I still felt like something was missing and my depression grew worse upon going back for the spring to the point where I took a leave of absence. To be clear, my point in sharing this is to NOT solicit sympathy; depression has never been my crutch, fuck that. Rather, I hope to offer some context to where my mind was in the build-up to my conversion junior year.
Fast forward a year and a half, spring semester of sophomore year: after a brief break from college, I had returned renewed as a history major focusing on the Middle East and taking Arabic courses. It was through these language courses that I feel my affinity for Islam first emerged, much to the efforts of one professor that I would later take Islamic Studies courses through, too. I do not know how to describe the feelings associated with falling in love with something; it almost transcends language and is only known by being experienced. For all we talk about “love,” our words always seem to fall short of capturing the emotional response it creates. In this particular case, work ceased to be seen as a duty and something to fret over; the same type of change occurred with my Islamic Studies courses eventually. Looking back on those classes, I think what drew me in the most, especially a seminar on the Prophet Muhammad, was that I found myself relating to the issues being talked about. Here was an individual, orphaned at birth, threatened constantly by opponents with violence/public shunning, who still managed the strength to overcome it all and inspire others.
At the same time that this was all going on academically, I had also been fortunate enough to make some new friends who introduced me to punk music, specifically the hardcore variety. Bands like Minor Threat, Black Flag, Descendents, Kid Dynamite, etc., etc. were constantly played when we would hang out. Despite the chaotic nature of the genre, there is a lot of positive messages being conveyed that began to shape my world outlook, often critiquing how I had been raised to think. Ranging from straight edge (the abstaining from drugs, alcohol, and promiscuous sex) to animal rights to Hinduism, hardcore punk opened my eyes to a lot of new ideas to investigate, all the while providing an outlet for my frustration with a peer group that seemed to not give a shit about the world. At the time, it seemed that it was very much “me against the world;” I have since learned there is a lot more gray in the world and therefore, I cannot just write off others so easily. With that being said, I still have yet to find another type of music that is able to convey a variety of emotions so directly and offer catharsis; there is something beautiful among the grittiness of it all. I think also the culture and the people I have met through the hardcore punk and related scenes drew me in. The majority are far from the social deviants that punks are often portrayed as; they are loving partners, friends, parents, individuals working to provide for themselves and others, people who care about the world’s well-being. As for the cultures surrounding the scenes I have encountered, many placed great emphasis on a DIY (do it yourself) approach, which has sustained me time and again in my everyday when shit has seemingly hit the fan, so to speak. Instead of placing the blame elsewhere or looking for someone else to solve my problems, this ideology empowers the individual to take control of their lives and shape it as they see fit.
With this mixture of two apparently opposing interests in my life, the orthopraxy of Islam and the anti-authoritarianism/individualism of hardcore punk, I decided by the end of my junior year that I wanted to apply to study abroad in Cairo, Egypt for a semester the following fall. Mind you, I had never been outside of the country at the time and had not even really seen much of the US save for the East Coast so you can imagine people’s reactions when I told them I would be traveling to the Middle East. Reflecting back on the lead-up to that semester I remember my emotions ebbing and flowing a lot between excitement and sheer terror; having a girlfriend at the time did not help matters. Despite the uncertainty that loomed, I went through with going to Egypt and part of me knew that certain aspects of my life henceforth would never be the same. It would not be until November 2008 (I cannot recall the exact date unfortunately) that I finally decided that in order to be true to myself and follow something I felt a deep connection with I would take shahada at Al-Azhar masjid and deal with whatever consequences later. Soon enough I would come to realize that being true to oneself and adopting a new faith simultaneously brought about positive and negative changes that still live with me today.