Many people have asked me whether I have ever written up the story of my spiritual journey in book form — the answer is no. But earlier this year, in anticipation of a book project collecting the stories of twenty former Muslim converts I was contacted by the editor and asked to tell my story in under 2500 words. Knowing the editor personally, I was glad to agree. Unfortunately, he passed away in an untimely fashion and the project was abandoned. I’ve decided to post the material here for any who might like to know something of the grace of God grabbing hold of one particular human being….
My patrilineal roots reach deep into the ancient soil of Syria, with ancestors tracing our heritage back to ‘Amr ibn al-‘Aas, companion of the Arabian prophet and commanding general of the Arab Muslim armies that swept across north Africa. Whether that is true or not, my father was born and raised in a small village called Jabata Zayt on the shoulders of Mt. Hermon in the region known now as the Golan Heights. He was the first-born of my grandfather’s third wife, and was destined for success. Raised to be a devout Sunni Muslim, he began to adapt his faith to more Western, Enlightenment thinking as he studied law (under the French system) at the University of Syria in Damascus. Upon graduating, he seized the opportunity to do graduate study in the USA, at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. It was there he met his wife to be, an American of Roman Catholic background. They married, he received his Masters degree, and planned to continue for a Ph.D., but in the meantime my older brother had been born, and then I came along. He needed a steady job, and so hired on with Aramco Oil Company, then headquartered in New York City. After two more children were born, the family headed over to Aramco’s main facilities in Saudi Arabia. For us kids, it was a time of fairy-tale adventure and excitement.
Our home life in the town of Dhahran was very secular – my mother had informally renounced any ties to the Catholic Church (and to organized religion in general) and my father contented himself with retaining cultural ties to Islam while rejecting its religious practices. As we were growing up, our parents encouraged us to think and explore, but gave us no guidance in spiritual matters. We were, however, immersed in the highly religious world of Wahhabi Islam, and as such confronted regularly with the beliefs and traditions of devoted Muslims. Though my siblings showed no apparent interest in such matters, I was deeply intrigued, enough so that at age 12 I rather ignorantly imitated my Arab, Muslim friends in their religious practices and considered myself privately to be a Muslim. But that didn’t last long. The strictness of ritual observations, the inaccessibility of Allah to my seeking heart, and the impenetrability of the Qur’an to my mind all led me to conclude that Islam was a dry, legalistic religion of endless works and uncertain hope. I turned elsewhere for spiritual sustenance.
As the son of a Muslim, I knew implicitly that investigation of Christianity or Judaism was out of bounds, so my hopes turned toward the world of Eastern mysticism. Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda introduced me to a blend of Eastern and theosophical thought which intrigued my young mind. A few years later, through study under a relatively young Indian guru, I plunged more deeply into classical yoga. As I was turning 19, he told me he had taught me all he could; if I wanted to go deeper, I’d have to study with his master in India. So that summer, prior to returning Stanford University as a sophomore majoring in philosophy, I spent the better part of a month in an ashram on the outskirts of Bombay (now better known as Mumbai), learning from a 90+ year old, Brahmin caste guru. At the end of my stay, I was licensed by his school to teach classical yoga. But even more important to me was the private “exit interview” he granted me my last day in India. I had two burning questions that needed answers, and he was at the apex of Eastern philosophical wisdom. What an opportunity!
But where I was looking for certainty, he was more interested in process (the Eastern way). So I asked my first question: “Does God exist?” His response: “If it helps you to believe in God as you walk the eightfold path, then believe. If it does not, then do not worry over it.” For me, that answer was decidedly unhelpful. So I pressed on with my second question: “Many of my Western friends believe that Jesus is God. What do you think of that?” His response: “Jesus was an avatar, just as Krishna, Buddha, Moses, Muhammad, Zarathustra, Lao-Tzu, and others. They materialize in this world as human beings need new guides and exemplars throughout history.” Again, my hopes were dashed. I had used this same argument in late night bull sessions with fellow college students. But this didn’t deal with the claims that my Christian friends were making for their Jesus. He’s not just a prophet, they told me. He is not like any other religious leader or philosopher. He is one of a kind. He is the eternal God who has identified with the human race by becoming one of us in the person of Jesus – fully God, fully human. I found that claim to be outlandish, but I didn’t know how to respond to their arguments. My guru apparently didn’t either.
I left India spiritually depressed, with my burning questions unanswered, but with the practical conclusion that Eastern mysticism did not hold the answers to the deepest questions of life. If my guru, who was of the most spiritually advanced Hindu caste and who had plumbed the depths of Eastern thought for eighty years, could not answer these profound questions, why should I give seventy more years of my life only to have no more certainty at the end of my days?
With little conviction and purpose, I drifted the next year. Two more general questions emerged, which I saw as separate pursuits: “Is there some Truth at the center of the universe to which I must respond?” and “What is love – is it possible to love others with no strings attached?” I thought perhaps the answers to these questions might be found through readings in my philosophy and psychology classes. They proved to be wonderfully engaging, but not convincing.
That next summer, back in Arabia, my circle of friends contained many Christian students. I peppered them with questions, I observed their interactions with others, I argued with them about Truth, I emptied my philosophical arsenal of atheistic arguments upon them. Though they didn’t always have strong arguments, they never ejected me from their midst. In fact, they continued to love me and welcome me in their gatherings. One young lady captured my heart romantically, and we dated through the summer, but she told me she could never get serious with me since I was not a Christian. I replied that I couldn’t rearrange all my beliefs about reality simply to be in relationship with her. We agreed that we would date through the summer, and then go our separate ways when fall terms began.
Her university, a Baptist school in Arkansas, started up in late August. Mine didn’t begin till late September. After she left, I twiddled my thumbs in lonely pining for a few days, and then decided impulsively to leave Arabia and stop in unannounced to see her on my way back to California. She and her friends welcomed me warmly and found a place for me to stay. My intention was to stay two or three days; it turned into almost three weeks. There, in Arkansas, the Lord revealed Himself to me and called me into His flock.
From a human point of view, two elements stand out as factors that led me to offer my life to Jesus Christ. First was the remarkable love I observed in the Christian community directed both to those inside, and to those, like me, outside. I was not looking for a new “religion,” but anytime I saw what looked to me like love “with no strings,” my interest was piqued. As I got to know some of these Christians whose selfless acts I had observed, I would ask them, “What led you to act in such-and-such a way toward So-and-So?” Invariably they would talk about Jesus in their hearts. I would respond, “I’m not interested in the religious stuff; I just want to know where you get the power to love people like that.” They continued to attribute their acts to the life of Jesus in them. That led me to the second factor.
I had to find out who this Jesus was, so I asked them where I could learn about him. The Gospels, of course, they replied. I had no idea what Gospels were, so biblically illiterate was I. So a new friend gave me his Bible as a gift, opened it up to the Gospel of Matthew and said, “Keep reading till you get to the end of a book called “John,” and you’ll have read all you need to know about the earthly life of Jesus.” It took me nearly three days of steady, deliberate reading, during which time the outside world seemed strangely distant. I felt like a fly on the wall watching as Jesus healed the lame, cast out demons, authoritatively answered questions, loved the unlovely, forgave sins, and conquered death. When I surfaced after finishing John, my mind and heart had been captivated by the Jesus I saw in the Gospels. I knew that no philosopher I had studied, no religious leader or founder I had read about, no holy man or healer I’d admired, could compare to this Jesus. I thought to myself, “If Jesus were alive today, I’d find him and ask if he would take me as a student.” It dawned on me that if the resurrection really happened that first Easter, then Jesus indeed was alive, not bound by space and time, and I could ask him. I might not hear any answer, but I could still ask. And so, one evening soon after I did just that, and the presence and peace of Jesus enveloped me. My walk with him has continued ever since, now going on 42 years.
Three months later, I returned to Arabia for Christmas break, prepared to share about my new spiritual life with my father. After all, he had always taken an interest in my studies and pursuits, and had even helped make my trip to India possible. So after sleeping off my jet lag, when my father returned from work for the day, we sat down to catch up. Excitedly, I told him about my conversion to Christ and life now as a Christian. But instead of listening with smiles and encouragement as in times past, this time he exploded like a volcano, roaring that such a decision was not permissible, that I could not become a Christian, that I would be putting the family in danger, that such a decision would be like stabbing him in the back and repudiating my heritage. For four days, surging with molten anger, he tried to convince me to recant. I remember well four of his arguments. First, he said, “If the Saudi authorities find this out, your girlfriend and her parents could easily be convicted of proselytizing, paying a heavy fine and going to prison. And remember, prisons here make American ones look like playgrounds in comparison. So you should think about that.” Second, he said, “If you still follow this foolishness by next summer, you won’t be welcome under my roof. You’ll have to find somewhere else to live. You might want to think about that.” I knew that meant I would not be able to get into Arabia much less be near my family, and that my father was threatening to cut me off from the family for good. Third, he said, “If the Saudis discover that one of my sons has become a Christian, I will have to give up my job. You should think about that.” My father was at that time the senior vice president of Aramco in charge of government affairs, and much of his work was with Saudi officials, all Muslims of course. His argument was that my conversion would be such a mark of shame and disgrace that they would lose all respect for him as a business man – if you can’t even raise you sons to be good Muslims, how could you possibly run a high-powered business well? Fourth and last, he said, “You are officially a Muslim, regardless of what you say, according to Shari’a law, because the son of a Muslim is a Muslim by birth. So, if Saudi officials hear about you and pick you up for questioning, what will you say?” I told him I would be cautious, knowing this was a sensitive subject. “But what if they ask you directly if you are a follower of this Jesus?” I answered, “I would say yes, because I am, and I can’t turn my back on him.”
I can still picture my dad throwing his hands up in the air and saying, “Then by your own mouth you would be convicting yourself of apostasy (leaving Islam for Christianity). And the penalty for apostasy according to Shari’a law here in Arabia is death by beheading. You should think about that.”
After that conversation, my father shut down and would not talk to me for the rest of my holiday from college. He told my mother and siblings that my name was not to be mentioned in his presence – I was dead to him. As things turned out, none of the threats came to pass, except that my dad did cut me off from the family for some 14 years before his heart was softened. But family life was never the same, for any of us.
My life as a follower of Jesus has been filled with twists and turns. But the spiritual hunger that I could never satisfy through Islam or Eastern mysticism, or Western philosophy and psychology, has been more than satisfied in the person of Jesus. The two quests I had been pursuing of knowing Truth and finding Love, which all along I had thought were separate searches, turned out to lead to the same end, not some theoretical formula or esoteric practice, but the very real Person of Jesus, the God of love who proved Himself to be the Way, Truth and Life for all who will come to Him. I am grateful that He found and drew me to Himself, and that He continues to reshape my life for His glory so I may forever testify to His love, faithfulness and grace!