Part 1 if this interview takes us deep into the life of a young man who converts to Islam at the age of fourteen, and goes on to devote his life totally to his newly discovered faith, not only robustly practicing all the Islamic precepts, but going on to study for three years in a Muslim seminary to become an imam, where he learns Arabic, and intensively studies the Quran, Hadith, and Islamic theology and jurisprudence. Gradually he becomes disillusioned with the Islam he has learned, discovers an authentic Christianity that he had not known existed, and converts to Orthodoxy. Even as he retains a certain respect for for his former religion, his comparisons of Islam and Orthodoxy Christianity are vivid and compelling. Drawing on his own life-experience, he shows us Islamic faith and practice from within, indicating point by point its differences from the Orthodox Christian faith.
Podcast and transcript courtesy of Ancient Faith Radio.
Listen to or read Part 2 of the interview.
Kevin: Welcome and thank you for joining me on this edition of Ancient Faith Today.
You know there is a lot coming from the media and news about Islam these days. In this two part series of which this is part one, I will be discussing Islam and the personal experiences of a recent convert to the Eastern Orthodox Church.
My guest converted to Islam at the age of 14 and 20 years or so later left Islam to become an Eastern Orthodox Christian, and I have communicated with his priest by the way, who’s confirmed his history and that he is in good standing with the Orthodox Church. And my guest who for purposes of safety we’ll call “George” and will not reveal his location or parish, is a Caucasian American who studied Islamic theology, history, and jurisprudence in an Islamic seminary to become an Imam. Learned the Arabic language and memorised a percentage of the Quran in Arabic. So in this first part of the interview we’ll discuss my guest’s conversion to Islam, some theological and historical facts about Islam through the mind and heart of a convert from Islam to Eastern Orthodox Christianity. George it is wonderful to welcome you to Ancient Faith Today.
George: Thank you very much Kevin. It’s a great blessing to be here.
Kevin: So, as we’ve discussed before the interview, you said you started even in your early teens studying various religions and philosophies.
George: Yes I did. I researched some of the eastern spiritual traditions such as Buddhism and Hinduism. I also read a bit of Greek philosophy, in particular the school of stoicism. I quickly lost interest in both Hinduism and Buddhism though, even as a kid of 12 or 13 who was pretty open minded, these two beliefs systems were just a little too out there for me. The polytheistic beliefs of Hinduism and non-theistic beliefs of Buddhism just didn’t feel right to me. I still believed and felt that there is only one God.
Kevin: So why was Christianity George, not even an option or of interest to you?
George: I didn’t see any value in the brand of Christianity that was readily available to me. Whether it was the images of the TV evangelists jumping and hollering, telling people that they can buy their way into the Kingdom or the constant hypocrisy and self righteousness of people I encountered every day. I didn’t see Christianity had anything to offer me or anyone else for that matter. Then there were the problems I had with the Christian theology, as I understood it as that time. The Holy Trinity was just too confusing, the crucifixion and the western understanding of the atonement, seemed like nothing more than just a scapegoat in order to make people feel better about their own shortcomings and to just let them off the hook, from having to make any effort to change their lives in a profound way.
Kevin: What specifically attracted you George though to Islam?
George: Well it appeared to offer some absolutes that I was in search of, the discipline. The theology I can more easily wrap my mind around. Historically it didn’t seem to have the baggage of Christianity that has almost become with, such as slavery, racism, bigotry, the crusades, the inquisition and the general intolerance that Christians have been accused of having through out the centuries.
Spiritually, it seem to offer a real worship using your voice, your mind, your body, not just waving your arms around in the air and shouting and singing. Then there is the practice in Islam known as “Dhikr” which literally means to remember, to bring to mind. In this practice one just tries to clear their mind of everything but God. Through this practise one recites short prays repeatedly in order to help them try to gain more of a presence of God. But of course the centre of worship in Islam is the five daily prayers which are obligatory in Islam.
Kevin: So George you joined a mosque at age 14. Very unusual, very early. What was the demographic make up of the mosque you joined?
George: It was primarily African-Americans with some people of middle-eastern and Asian decent.
Kevin: You know, I just read a Pew poll of a few years ago, that said that 59% of all converts to Islam in the US are African-American. So I’d like to ask you this. Why do you think so many African-Americans in the US convert to Islam?
George: Some of the reasons that African-American convert are some of the same reasons that I converted, which I mentioned earlier, and many others who aren’t African-American. I do however believe that there are reason unique to the African-American communities. Through experiences I’ve had, the people I’ve encountered and spoke with, and just from a lot of reading that I have done, I think Islam had been seen as a means for many African-Americans to re-connect with a piece of their culture that they feel they have lost through their ancestors being captured and slaved and brought to the western hemisphere, and systematically being stripped of their traditions and identity.
It has been a way to strip themselves of the eurocentrism that had been forced upon them. Christianity became synonymous with the oppression and persecution that Americans of African descent faced in the west.
Kevin: But wasn’t it Muslim slave traders who actually went into Africa and then slaved Africans for sale to the European and so on?
George: Yes, what is known as the Arab slave trade begun in the 7th century, with the rise of the Islamic Empire and lasted well into the 20th century in some places such as Saudi Arabia, Somalia, and the Sudan, where there are still reports of slave trading to this present day. The Arab Muslim slave trade reached a vast area including the subsaharan east and west Africa, which was the major supplier, then there was central Asia, the Mediterranean region, Eastern Europe including the lands of the slavic peoples.
There are even reports of the slave trade extending as far north as British Isles and Iceland. America at the time of it’s infancy fell victim to the Muslim traders to what was know as “Barbary States,” which were independent Islamic states that run along the coast of North Africa.
One thing I’d like to note is that in Islamic law it is not permissible to enslave free born Muslims. Therefore only those born into slavery and non-Muslim captives are allowed to taken as slaves. This could account for the fact that the vast majority of the people enslaved were those who inhabited the regions that bordered the territory of the Islamic empires and in particular the Christians were targeted.
Kevin: But we see radical Islamic groups now like ISIS regularly kidnapping and enslaving and selling women and others. Is this practice of enslavement approved of in the Quran and the Hadith?
George: Yes it has. It not a very popular notion but I mean it definitely has been sanctioned by the Quran and Hadith. Groups such as ISIS look at the atrocities that they are committing as a Holy War and as such any non-Muslim women captured become their property, even if these women are married. In the Quran such captives are frequently referred to as “ma malakat aymanukum” or “what your right hand possesses.” One such reference can be found in the Quran in surah or chapter 4 verse 24, and it says, “And also forbidden are all married women except those whom your right hand possess. This is the law’s ordinance to you.”
What I just quoted is a part of a longer section that speaks about the women who are lawful for a man to have sexual relations with. In connection to this verses the Hadith, the tradition from the life of Mohammed that gives the reason or circumstances in which this verse was revealed, it says,
“The apostle of Allah sent a military expedition to Awtas on the occasion of the battle of Hunain. They met their enemy and fought with them. They defeated them and took them captives. Some of the Companions of the apostle of Allah were reluctant to have intercourse with the female captives in the presence of their husbands who were unbelievers. So Allah, the Exalted, sent down the Quranic verse, ‘And also are forbidden, all married women except those whom your right hands possess. This is the law’s ordinance to you.’”
And then there is another example that can be found in the Quran, surah 33 verse 50, where it is actually speaking through Mohammed himself personally. It says,
“O Prophet, indeed we have made lawful to you your wives to whom you have given their due compensation and those whom your right hand possesses from what Allah has given of you of the captives…”
I can give many more examples but I think you can get an idea of how the Quran Hadith sanction the actions of vices. Of course a Muslim may argue that these verses and Hadith I quoted were historical events specific to the time of Mohammed, but the problem with that reasoning is that Islam looks at the Quran as being the unchanging internal word of Allah. So if the entire Quran is the absolute perfect, infallible world of Allah directly dictated to Mohammed, how can it only be specific to a particular event or time?
Kevin: It is interesting to me in terms of African-Americans who comprised a very large percentage of those who convert to Islam in this country. There is also a very deep Afro-Centric history of Christianity long before Islam, no?
George: Yes there is. Christianity has had a very strong presence in Africa from the very beginnings of the Church. One even finds in the Gospel of Matthew that the Lord himself with his Holy Mother and Saint Joseph fled to Egypt. The Ethiopian that Saint Phillip encountered in the book of Acts. Alexandria is one of the ancient Holy Patriarchates. Then you have such great holy people such as Saint Athanasius, Saint Anthony of Egypt, Saint Moses the Black, Saint Mary of Egypt and blessed Augustine of Hippo, just to name a few.
I feel it is a crime that so much of the rich history of Christianity in Africa has been forgotten and I’d even dare say intentionally discarded by Christians particularly in the western churches.
Kevin: What are the differences George or the significant differences for example between the “Nation of Islam” and the teachings of people like Louis Farrakhan from what one would consider “orthodox” Islam?
George: Well, there are too many to discuss in the time that we have but the most striking difference I would say would be the Nation of Islam’s belief that the black man is God while the white man was genetically created by a mad scientist named Yakub which is the Arabic name for Jacob who is said to have been born in Mecca and created a pale devil race “through scientific experimentation on the Greek island of Patmos” which we know from the New Testament. It is said that Yakub did this after he had a falling out with God. This one belief alone I feel is enough for anyone to determine that the Nation of Islam would not be welcome in the fold of orthodox Islam.
Kevin: So Nation of Islam followers are not really considered orthodox Muslims?
George: No, they are not.
Kevin: OK. So George, getting back to your story. What did it take for you to officially become a Muslim at the age of 14?
George: Oh it was very simple. The recitation of what is known the Shahada or the declaration that there is no God but Allah and Muhammed is his messenger.
Kevin: And that is all that’s repeated in the presence of Imams and other witnesses?
George: Well the minimum would be two adult male witnesses and of course they would have to be Muslim.
Kevin: Where there other caucasian non-African-American converts at the Mosque you attended?
George: There were a few, one of which was one of the co-founders of a national Islamic organization that has gained a good amount of press in recent years. However, I was still pretty much a novelty at the time, especially due to my age and how I came into Islam, without any form of evangelization on the part of a Muslim.
There seemed to be more caucasian women converting to Islam. From my observations this was due to, in a large part, to the marrying of Muslim men that emigrated here from other countries.
Kevin: And you strove to live a pious Muslim life, beginning at age 14. How strict were you and what practices did you follow?
George: Yes, I was 14 years old. I never looked at myself as being pious. Like you said, I did strive to be pious. I wanted to be closer to God. I would say that I was much stricter than the average cradle Muslim. This is not unusual however in many people who convert to a faith that they were not brought up in, are usually more zealous, at least for some time.
I wanted to immerse myself into Islam. Learn all that could. That is why I left my home town at the age of 18 and moved to another state, in order to study in an Islamic Madras, in other words an Islamic seminary.
I stayed there for about three years. I studied Arabic grammar, the Quran, the Hadith, Islamic jurisprudence and history. Besides that of course I prayed five times a day. I also said extra prayers that were encouraged but not obligatory. I fasted during the month of Ramadan and also fasted throughout the year, outside of Ramadan. I followed all the dietary laws, the laws of purification, abstaining from sexual relations outside of marriage, even to the point that I would not even shake a woman’s hand or look directly at her if she wasn’t related to me.
A huge part of a Muslim’s life is following what is known as the Sunnah. The Sunnah are the practices of Muhammed that encompass each and every aspect of a persons life. How to eat, how to sleep, drink, dress, speak, use the restroom, even to the point of how a married man should punish his wife. I wholeheartedly practiced as much as I could.
Kevin: George the Quran and Islam in general have many what I would say and most Christians would agree, misinterpretations of Orthodox Christianity. What sort of heretical Christianity or heterodox Christianity was Muhammed exposed to where he got these ideas from your studies?
George: Well, Islam in many if not most Muslims tend to lump together all the those who they perceive as Christians, even those groups such as the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses into just one homogenous group.
Pre-Islamic Arabia, particularly the area which Muhammed was born, known as the Hijash, was predominantly pagan. There were however some Christian minorities in this region. There are some accounts recorded in the life of Muhammed where he encountered Christians. It is difficult to know how Orthodox their beliefs were, but through examination of the Quran and Hadith and the misconceptions about Christianity contained in these sources, we can deduce that at least some of these people were heretical in their doctrines.
When Muhammed, for instance, was a youth he accompanies his uncle, by the name of Abu Talib, to Bosra which is in Syria. Here Muhammed met a Christian monk named Bahira. This Bahira noticed that wherever Muhammed would move a cloud would cover him. So, he called Muhammed over to him and gave him the news that he was chosen by God to be the last and final prophet.
The Islamic sources claim that Bahira had copies of the “original Gospels,” free from any errors or unadulterations, and in these Gospels there were prophecies foretelling the coming of Mohammed. This name Bahira has been linked in some writings to a monk named Sergius who some say was a Nestorian, others say he was an Arian. From what I know of Nestorianism and Arianism, I would lean more on the side that Muhammed was influenced by some form of Arianism due to Arianism’s view of Christ and its similarities of how Muslims perceive Him – him not being divine.
We find in other accounts from the time of Mohammed, when he received his first revelation in a cave brought to him by the archangel Gabriel, he was confused and scared so his wife Khadija brought him to her cousin. Her cousin’s name was Waraka who was a Christian, who some say was actually a Nestorian priest. The claim is that when he told Waraka about his experience, Mohammed was told that he was the final prophet foretold in the scriptures. There are other accounts of Mohammed meeting Christians but all seem to have the same theme, that Christians confirm that he was the last and greatest prophet, that was allegedly foretold of, but due to the Christians and Jews changing their scriptures, these prophecies speaking about Mohammed were removed or altered.
Kevin: According to Muslims obviously…
George: Yeah, according to Muslims, of course. One other long account even has the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius claiming that Mohammed was truly the long awaited prophet and that all Christians should accept Islam. I think it would be interesting to mention that there are verses in the Quran that one could see were taken directly from the Apocrypha. A very obvious example would be a passage from what is know as the “Infancy Gospel” of St Thomas where it says that when Christ was a boy, he took some clay and formed some birds out of it and breathed life in to them and they begun to make noise and fly. If you compare this with a portion of chapter 5 verse 110 from the Quran, it says, “Remember O Jesus, when you designed from clay, what was like the form of a bird with my permission then you breathed into it and it became a bird with my permission.”
Kevin: Which is very similar to the quote in the Apocryphal or non-Deuterocanonical canon of St Thomas. Good point.
I read, in doing some research for this interview George, among the 4th century heretics, there was one particular Arabian sect known as the Collyridians who were known for their worship of Mary as a goddess and some Muslims feel that this is in fact the sect which the Quran is addressing because the Quran speaks of Holy Trinity as being Father, Son and Mary.
George: Yeah, there is an interesting tradition found that could very well have a connection to the Collyridians. In the last few years of Mohammed’s life, when he returned triumphantly to Mecca, in what is know as the “Conquest of Mecca,” one of the first acts he performed was to cleanse the Kaaba of its hundreds of idols that were to be found inside and outside of it. It is reported that when Mohammed entered the Kaaba he immediately had all of the idols thrown out and all images effaced. All except an image of Christ with the Theotokos surrounded by angels. It is said he even went as far as stretching his arms out over the image so as to emphasize his order to leave it be. It is further reported that he finally has this image removed with some reluctance, so the ideal of an icon of Christ and the Theotokos in a pagan era temple could definitely suggest the presence of a group such as the Collyridians.
Kevin: It’s true is it not that Mohammed mistakenly thought that the Christians worshipped three Gods known as Tritheism – the Father, the mother Mary and the son Jesus, rather than one God and three persons – which of course Orthodox Christianity rejects, this idea of Tritheism.
George: Yes, I would say that is very true. In one of the biographies of Mohammed, it mentions the arrival of a delegation of Arab Christians that came to speak with Mohammed. The account speaks about how the Christians were debating about the nature of Christ and then it goes on to say, “they argue that He is third of the Three in that God says, ‘We have done, We have commanded, We have created, and We have decreed,’ and they say, ‘if He were One he would have said, I have done, I have created and so on,’ but He is He, that is God and Jesus and Mary.”
Concerning all these assertions, the verse from the Quran that is connected to this tradition can be found in Surah 5 verse 73. “They have certainly disbelieved who say, ‘Allah is the third of three.’”
Kevin: Similarly, and correct me where I am wrong George, the Quran rejects the fatherhood of God and the sonship of God the Son which in Islamic understanding is that Christians believe, God had physical relations with Mary to give birth to Jesus which of course is absolutely not Christian doctrine.
George: Yeah, it says in the Quran, in reference to that, it says, “The most gracious had taken a son.” That’s in chapter 19 verse 88.
This misconception could have come from the fact that the polytheists in Arabia actually believed that the angels and even some of their false idols were the offspring of God through some physical intercourse, and so Mohammed I think only could understand the term “Son of God” through the human concept of sexual reproduction, which also led many Muslims to think that Christians believe that God begat a son in the same manner as when a human father begets a son.
This of course is completely ridiculous and blasphemous from not only the Islamic perspective but of course the Christian one also.
Kevin: Right. Muslims also deny that Jesus died on the cross. I picked this up in surah, or chapter, 4 verse 157, in line with the absence of the conception of sacrifice. So the Quran never speaks of the atonement or the saving work of Jesus. Is that true?
George: Yes, that’s very true. The verse, chapter 4:157 that you mentioned speaks about the Islamic belief that Christ was never crucified and that it was only made to appear so. I would like to note that some Muslim commentators claim that God actually changed Judas Iscariot’s appearance to look like Christ and that Judas was the one on the cross.
The Quran never speaks of the atonement or saving work of Christ because they deny Christ being the Son of God. They deny his divinity, so since Islam rejects Christ’s divinity, it also negates the whole purpose of his incarnation and in turn our salvation through him. They Islamic formula for salvation consists in proclaiming the Suhadda and doing the works and that’s it.
Kevin: As you now George, love is at the heart of Christianity, and you mentioned to me that there is not a real teaching in Islam of divine love and mercy from God towards mankind, or a real teaching of true communion or union with God in Islam, and that it’s mostly about, as you put it, “a slave-master and slave relationship,” quoting yourself. Please explain what you mean.
George: Well, in order to gain some understanding of how a Muslim will most likely see his or her relationship with God, first I think it is important to have an idea of why man was created according to Islam.
In the Quran surah 51 verse 56 it says, “I did not create Jin” – which are spirits, unseen spirits, “and man except to worship me.” Again in surah 11 verse 7 it says, “and it is he who has created the heavens and the earth in six days and his throne is on the water, that he might try you, which of you is the best in deeds.”
I think these two verses demonstrate the general reason why man was created. First to fulfill some need that God had, to be worshipped according to Islam, and second, to participate in a contest of sorts in order to see who performs the most good deeds. These two concepts are very common themes all throughout the Quran and Hadith. So for time’s sake the purpose of man’s creation, according to Islam, can be broken down in this way. To fulfill God’s need for worship and to appease him and second for man to prove he is worthy of God’s mercy and if he does that he will be rewarded. All of this I found, is in stark contrast to the Orthodox Christian’s view of the purpose of man’s creation and the purpose of man’s life and that is, communion with God and to share in his love and to become by Grace what God is by nature.
Kevin: And George you also said that the God or Allah of Islam, you would actually describe as a tyrant.
George: Yeah, it’s difficult to fully explain in a limited amount of time but I will do my best to touch on some of what I mean.
According to the Quran, Allah guides whom he wills and he leads astray whom he wills, which is a quote from the Quran. This phrase is repeated countless times. Next I’d like to quote a well known saying of Mohammed that says the following, “It was said to Allah’s messenger, ‘has there been drawn a distinction between the people of Paradise and the inhabitants of hell?’ He said yes, it was again said, ‘If it is so, then what is the use of doing good deeds.’ Whereupon Mohammed said, ‘Everyone is facilitated in what is been created for him.’”
Another lengthy saying speaks about when a child is formed in his or her mother’s womb and an angel is sent down to record on a scroll every aspect of this person’s life, including whether they will be good or bad, happy or unhappy, and whether they will be amongst the inhabitants of paradise or hell. The saying ends with the words, “…then his document of destiny is rolled up and there is no addition to nor subtraction from it.” and that is the end of the saying of Mohammed.
I think these last two quotes speak about the fatalistic aspects of Islam. Then we can go on to surah 7 verse 179, it says, “Surely we have created many of the Jin in mankind for hell.” So from this verse we can see that there are those amongst mankind that are actually, specifically, created for hell. This is why is it mentioned in the Quran in multiples places, that the fuel of hell is, “men in stones.” From all that I quoted I came to the conclusion that in Islam we are not dealing with a just God. Instead it teaches that the creator fashioned everything almost like a machine, fixed in its ways even to the point that God himself couldn’t or wouldn’t diverge from the path in which the system he created has set.
Everything is locked into a sort of destiny, even to the point that actions that we perceive as being the product of our own free will, had in fact already been written for us. So according to Islam, mankind is basically given the illusion of having free will, when in reality we don’t have one at all. So any notions of love and mercy from such a God can be perceived as superficial at best and can be quickly voided and nullified.
Kevin: And not to get into a long discussion on aspects of Christian theology but some of what you just said sounds a little bit like the teaching of John Calvin and Calvinism on double predestination and so on.
And George you also mentioned to me that there were very differnt ideas of love and mercy in Islam from that that you learned in Orthodox Christianity. Maybe you could explain a bit about that.
George: Yeah, one such differnce can be expressed by asking you or any other Christian, at least one who knows the scriptures, does God love sinners or non Christians. The answer would most likely be yes of course. Then a Christian could quote countless verses such as from Romans 5:8 where is says, “God demostrates his own love towards us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” And then in the Gospel of John, chapter 13 verses 34-35 it says, “a new commandment I give to you, that you love one another as I loved you, that you also love one another.”
I am quiet aware that the concept of Christian love has not always been put in to practice through the ages including our time, and this is something we will have to account for, however I am speaking about scriptural differences between Christianity and Islam.
So, let me quote from the Quran surah 2 verse 276 where it says, “and Allah does not love any sinning disbeliever.” And then you have surah 3 verse 32 where it says, “obey Allah and his messenger Mohammed but if they turn away then indeed Allah does not love the unbelievers,” then you have surah 3 verse 31 where it says, “say O Mohammed, if you love Allah, then follow me. So that Allah will love you and forgive you your sins.” So we can see that love in Christianity according to the scriptures is a real love, an unconditional love, a truly divine love, which any average Muslim would scoff at, just as I did at one time. Islam only sees love as being conditional. In Islam Allah has 99 names or attributes, one of which is “the one who is loving” but in the Bible, through the Holy Spirit, we are told that God is love and it is out of his infinite love [that] he created us and he’s redeemed us through his Son and has given us the ability through his Grace to be his sons through adoption and to call him Father.
Kevin: Yes, so there is a very-very different spirituality and ethos obviously in Islam and Christianity and this will end part one. Thank you George for this fascinating first part of your journey from Islam to Orthodox Christianity and please join us for part two of George’s story which will be posted as well on Ancient Faith Today. Thank you George.
George: Thank you Kevin.
Listen to or read Part 2 of the interview.
About the Author
- Kevin Allen worked with Ancient Faith Radio since 2007. He was the host of The Illumined Heart and Ancient Faith Today, AFR’s first live call-in program. Kevin attends Saint Barnabas Antiochian Orthodox Church, Costa Mesa, California with his family.