Excerpt: “How I Became a Muslim Reformer”
In the States we didn’t have the same larger grounded sense of community like we had in a small German town. It was easy to get lost in America. Everything was already so spread out and disconnected. I just sort of disconnected too.
And then – in the most impossible way – I met Stephen. From the North of England with a thick accent and a cheeky wit, he had a gravitational field that just pulled people in. He was magic. We had endless conversations, some setting the groundwork for who I was to become. He’d recommend a book and I’d start reading; 8 hours later I’d have read the whole thing to him over the phone and he’d just listen. It was like that. It was an effortless free-fall without labels or expectations. There was deep trust, total honesty, and an unshakeable bond. He was the landscape I wandered in for 7 years. Nothing would make me happier than the sound of his laugh. He was, and still is, completely sacred.
He was a force of nature and he birthed me. From one of our many talks, I realized that I wasn’t comfortable with Islam or my understanding of it. “Muslim” was a label that held no real value or meaning to me. Like most other Muslims, it was badge we wore and a dutiful allegiance we pledged – but we didn’t know much of it. We couldn’t have a deeper conversation on Islam in a way that mattered or explored boundaries. It was the first time I was curious about Islam.
Stephen pointed to a door that only I could open, and I opened it. There was no going back.
Those were an uncomfortable few years as I tried to reconcile my upbringing with the questions that began surfacing after 9-11. I didn’t struggle with identity because as a transient early on, the idea of a pegged concrete identity was smashed. You adapted to new ideas and they became a part of you. My family wasn’t so flexible, perhaps because they weren’t as young when we started immigrating. They’d already formed an identity. For me, a set identity is a prison. To say I am just one thing or another would be like walking into a cage. There are markers I’d picked up along the way that would act as guides, but I wasn’t confined by them either. Sufism was one of those markers.
In seeking answers, I stumbled across Sufism – and I knew I’d found home. Considering a third of all Pakistanis are Sufi, and that Afghanistan has its own diverse tradition of shamanism and Sufism, it’s tragic that it took so long to be aware of a rich cultural heritage that housed Islam’s mystical branch.
Sufism holds a tradition of master and disciple and I realized I had one already – Stephen. He was Shams Tabrizi. He was V from Vendetta. He was Herman Hesse’s Demian. And the total devotion and unconditional love disciples have for their teacher, I had – and have – for him.
Stephen cracked the egg and I think he knew exactly what was inside, what he was awakening. Years of almost daily conversations with him laid the foundation for a new path in my mind, unknotting barriers and reworking pathways. Breaking old thought patterns and making room to let new ones form.
During that time, I started digging into faith. I threw myself into independent studies in Islam, Christianity, Kabbalah, Hinduism, Hermetics, Paganism – I threw myself into the rabbit hole. I went to Bible studies, on spiritual retreats with new age Hindus, and met with as many diverse groups of Muslims as I could get my hands on. I explored and experimented. I studied people and I learned to read between the lines. That side of faith and discovery never ends; you have to keep prodding.
Stephen unlocked potential. He showed me how holy humanity is what we’re capable of once we destroy old systems. The next natural step was reform, but I still wasn’t a reformer. That was still years away as experience after experience continued to nurture an awareness to hear the call.
Category: LETTERS TO MY SON