Three years ago, I embraced the concepts of Islam and made some large changes in my life. This year, a month before Ramadan, I returned from a trip to Morocco, emboldened to take the next steps in my faith practice.
My childhood household was secular but since the age of four I felt close to God. In my lifelong search for a spiritual home, Christianity was my first frame of reference among religions. My parents sensed my interest and kindly took me to Episcopal services in my pre-teen years. As an adult, I enveloped myself in Catholicism because I was attracted to its traditions. I spent many years studying Catholic doctrine and The New American Bible. I taught French at a Catholic middle school and sought to make faith a daily part of my life.
Yet as I taught students the French version of the Lord’s Prayer, I felt frustrated both by the lack of spiritual direction in Catholic schools and by prominent examples of corrupt leadership in the Church. As much as I respected Jesus and Mary and what they represent for believers, I struggled to know where to direct my prayers. To God? To the Holy Spirit? To Jesus? To the altar where the priest stood or beyond the church? It was all very confusing, as I wanted only to pray to God, and was uncertain what I believed in the Bible.
At church, I experienced a sensory and intellectual overload as I looked at multiple statues, stained glass images, and the Crucifix, and contemplated the promise that crackers and wine would turn into body and blood. The Biblical narrative’s multiple authors and eras also inspired doubt — not about the existence of God or Christian values, but about the legitimacy of Jesus as a Son of God and Savior. I love and respect Christians even if we disagree on this central concept, but these ingredients combined to lead me on a different faith path.
The final element that drove me away from the Church was the experience of writing my book Colonial Rosary: The Spanish and Indian Missions of California. I saw how religious and political leaders corrupted faith and justified mistreatment in Spain’s imprisonment of California’s Indian populations. Disillusioned, I continued to read the Bible and pray at home, still clutching my rosary for comfort and seeking a home for my belief in God.
While living in northern Virginia, I made friends from Morocco and Sudan and learned that Mary and Jesus were also prominent in the Quran. In fact, Muslims seemed to know as much as Christians about the history of their prophets, who except for Mohammed, were the same prophets in the Torah and Bible, starting with Abraham. Impressed by Muslim knowledge and respect for Jesus and Mary, I learned that Abraham was the father of all three religions, and that we were descended from common roots.
I admired how my Muslim friends were warm and hospitable to people of all faiths. They spoke reverently of God in daily conversation, and with admiration for the Prophet Muhammad, who is considered the ultimate positive example for all people, but not a savior or God on earth. Of course, the individuals I met were not all perfect, nor did they necessarily follow all five pillars of the faith, but their love for God and Muhammad was evident. In the Quran, I discovered clear, direct language acknowledging a line of prophets and one God. No Trinity or intermediaries on earth — only God. There were clear recommendations for how to live one’s life. Quranic language is poetic and meant to be read again and again.
Well before formally converting, I knew I wanted to be Muslim. I felt Muslim, and enjoyed spending time with Muslims. I began to avoid alcohol and eat halal (permitted) foods, changed my dating habits, and become more aware of how I dressed. As I continued to read, I became more aware of how our actions affect other people, and our futures. For example, Islam is centrally focused on community awareness and charity, so much that the entire month of Ramadan is devoted to good deeds and awareness of the feeling of hunger.
The word Islam means “submission.” That is all: submitting to God and admitting your humility. I love the Islamic phrase insha’Allah, or “God willing.” It admits that we (humans) cannot control everything. We don’t know God’s plan for us and should be humble to that and follow what we do know from Him. With that in mind, living my life according to what I believe is a little easier.
Alison Lake is a staff writer at The Washington Post and former editor of Islamic publications for a D.C.-area think tank.