I arrived at college with two cases of beer...
My college roommate was my best friend from high school. He and I arrived at college with barely any supplies for school, two cases of beer, and ready for the college party life. My best semester in college was my first semester, which was a minor miracle since a good bit of the time I was drinking. But by the second semester of my freshman year, dissatisfaction rooted itself in my heart. Life was empty. The routine bored me, and I yearned for more, though I didn’t know what.
Having started reading ’60s radicals in high school, I continued to read everything available about African and African-American history and culture. I devoured the stuff, angry that my high school education so dismissively skipped over this part of my identity and history. Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, and Martin R. Delaney became heroes. I wanted very much to be a Garvey or Malcolm to my own generation.
I committed myself to the Afro-centric ideal and spent those formative college years attempting to see the world from the distinct vantage point of African people, to be African-centered. Names like Molefi Asante, John S. Mbiti, Yosef Ben-Jochannan, Ivan Van Sertima, Na’im Akbar, and Wade Nobles dotted my bookshelves and shaped my thinking about African peoples and the world. As the president of a student group called the Society of African-American Culture, I had the opportunity to host many of these men and others at campus events. Through these authors and others, I tried my best to identify a “return address” and to chart a return route to an ancestral history lost to me. I had mail to deliver and hoped they had been saving family letters and heirlooms for me.
One day, several striking men appeared at a campus lecture. They were clean-shaven, well-dressed, upright. They spoke of the African-American community and the need for black men to be men—to clean up, to lead and care for their families, and to live devout spiritual lives.
They enthralled me. I'd never seen black men like these...
They enthralled me. I’d never seen black men like these— confident, focused, and somehow able to channel their anger into a cause. I discovered they were Muslims, members of the Nation of Islam, which I had read so much about as I studied Malcolm X and the history of the Civil Rights Movement. I wanted to be like them; I wanted to be manly. I wanted to fill that hole left by my own father’s absence.
I ended up befriending a couple of these men, learning from them what I could. To their disappointment, I learned enough to know that the Nation of Islam was a cult and not true Islam. For the rest of my freshman year I learned as much as I could about Islam from reading and from friends.
My sophomore year in college a classmate returned from summer vacation dressed in traditional Muslim garb. While spending time with an uncle in New Jersey, he converted to a more orthodox brand of Islam. He asked us to call him Fahim, his new Muslim name, and he disavowed the rowdy life we had all lived during our freshman year.
Studying with Fahim gave me enough understanding and courage to convert to Islam. We reflected together on the pillars of Islam, prayer, and the Qur’an. For me Islam was the answer to the discipline, the brotherhood, and the longing for adult male leadership that had eluded me since age fourteen. Its promise of a simply-understood God, of a philosophy and discipline that provided for all of life’s needs, and of a universal religion for all men made sense to me.
The night I converted to Islam was an emotional one.
I sat across the dorm room bed from the young woman who would eventually become my wife. I told her with a rush of joy and resolve that I had decided to become a Muslim. She had seen it coming, but to my surprise and hers she wept in grief at the news. That night, despite her tears, I recited the Shahaddah: “There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his messenger.” I was Muslim.
Content modified from Thabiti Anyabwile's chapter in Glory Road: The Journeys of 10 African-Americans into Reformed Christianity.
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