New York - I recently finished reading the autobiography of Malcolm X. I believe it should be required reading for all Muslims, and for that matter, for all people. His life is a testament to the power of Islam to transform a human being to the core, bringing him from the lowest, most miserable of conditions to becoming one of the most influential figures in history and a shining light for humanity.
New York – I recently finished reading the autobiography of Malcolm X. I believe it should be required reading for all Muslims, and for that matter, for all people. His life is a testament to the power of Islam to transform a human being to the core, bringing him from the lowest, most miserable of conditions to becoming one of the most influential figures in history and a shining light for humanity.
I was surprised by how much I identified with Malcolm X’s story. I felt as if he had looked at my heart and expressed exactly how I felt. His before-Islam and after-Islam selves could not have been more opposite. Malcolm X went from being a hustler who cared only about getting high and drunk, making easy money through crime, having women and being famous in the underworld to entirely reforming himself, becoming an outstandingly moral, disciplined, completely sober, deeply religious (in the good sense of the word), and incredibly courageous individual. Malcolm X, through Islam, overcame his destructive behaviors and made of his life an enormous contribution. He devoted his existence to empowering black people through Islam. His belief was unshakable because he experienced first hand Islam’s infinite power to redeem even the most cynical and hardened of individuals, which, as he states in his book, he was.
The Glamorous Life and My Perpetual Search for Meaning
My life before Islam was also less than admirable. In appearances, I had accomplished highly desirable goals, such as graduating from Columbia Law School, passing the New York State bar exam, and being an associate at a top firm in Manhattan. (I moved alone to the U.S. from a border town in Mexico, so all this was a huge deal). I had boyfriends; some wonderful, others not so much. I traveled all over the world, including, thank God, long trips to Muslim countries such as Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Tunisia, and Turkey. I also had plenty of social activities every night of the week. My life appeared glamorous and full of excitement. In reality, I felt empty and certain that these things, and even life itself, were meaningless.
For years I looked for meaning in all the wrong places. I was lost and engaged in many forms of self-destruction. I sought to escape and fill the emptiness by drinking excessively, obsessing over wrong men and abusive boyfriends, and spending money I did not have in parties, expensive restaurants and travels. I quit law after convincing myself it was the source of all my inner problems. I was sure being a lawyer was inherently evil, was a prison and it was corrupting my soul. I began to work at all kinds of jobs, including modeling and bellydancing. Sometimes, I didn’t work at all for long stretches of time. My full time job seemed to be partying every night at Arabic clubs and, when they closed, going to after-hours bars with my friends. I barely, if at all, used the talents God gifted me with. To summarize, I was wasting myself in destructive pursuits.
I was deeply depressed yet completely addicted to this lifestyle and I couldn’t imagine anything else. I would have never, under any circumstances, imagined I would one day be a Muslim. I was not religious at all. I believed in God, but didn’t see what the existence of God had to do with my ‘worldly’ life. I attempted and struggled constantly, and without success, to straighten myself. I tried a wide range of methods: different therapists, expensive courses to “empower” women, “energy healing”, endless self-development seminars, life coaching, twelve-step groups, medication, dozens if not hundreds of self-help books, silent meditation retreats, Nichiren Buddhism (which, by the way, is a great and empowering philosophy), expensive yoga teacher trainings, tantra seminars, and new age spiritual gurus. I am certain I am forgetting some things. It was an exhausting and painful search that led nowhere. None of these things worked.
Islam and Arabic Music
Throughout this time, I read extensively about Islam. Due to my love of Arabic music and my constant patronizing of Arabic cabarets in New York City where loud singers and bellydancers perform nightly, just as they do in Cairo or Casablanca, a large part of my friends were Muslim. Most of them drank, smoked and didn’t practice or know much about Islam. Still, their values were different from those of mainstream society and more in line with my own. I continued to investigate and the more I learned about Islam, the stronger my conviction that it was the truth and that it had the power to change me; yet, it seemed too daunting.
I believe all humans have an instinct to seek truth, to aspire to justice, purity and beauty. And that the self-centered values of consumerism and profit will always leave us empty and disconnected. I also believe these values are destroying the world, but that is another subject. We are God’s representatives on Earth, but have been reduced by the materialistic world to waste our lives in entertainment, in maximizing pleasure, self-satisfaction and profit at the expense of oppressing and even eliminating others and of wasting the lives and talents God gave us in these meaningless pursuits. The ideals of accumulating possessions and living in a world of nonstop entertainment, distraction and leisure are far from fulfilling.
Years passed and my interest in Islam grew, despite my chaotic and completely un-Islamic life. I obsessively listened to lectures, read books on Islam, and read the Quran. I also listened to the Quran constantly. I suffered from anxiety and severe insomnia and hearing the Quran recitations soothed my heart. I took prescription sleeping pills and anti-anxiety medications that barely helped me. They just made me feel foggy and indifferent. If I felt depressed or anxious, I would listen to the Quran at night and wake up feeling calm. I found myself constantly thinking and talking about Islam. I eventually realized, and had to acknowledge, that I believed in Islam completely. I had to accept it. And I did, right before Ramadan in 2013.
The first months were difficult. I had not found the right teachers or community. I returned to my old ways when I got back together with a Moroccan musician I dated, and whom I loved deeply, but who was just as lost as I was. Because of his job, he lived by night and slept during the day. And so did I. I adored this person and didn’t care about anything else (this is a huge source of misery: if one worships anything but God, life becomes a living hell, and mine did). So, on the outside my life seemed the same as before Islam.
But it was not the same. That Ramadan, I fasted and did everything right. I even got a temporary legal job and existed during the day. And I prayed a lot. I felt a peace, strength and joy that I had never experienced before. So now I knew first-hand that this peace existed. And while living in hell because of my codependent dysfunctional relationship and my drinking and anxiety-attacks, I kept praying that God would help me to get back there. It took a few more months, but He answered my prayers.
The Quran and the Life of Excellence
Last year, I discovered a book that changed my life: The Quran and the Life of Excellence. When I found this book, I was transfixed. I would read it for at least half the time I was at work. I downloaded it on Kindle to my work computer and would make the Kindle window smaller to hide it and make it look from the distance like I was reading a legal document. This book was magical. There is no better way to put it. It expressed in the most eloquent, yet simple, and enormously powerful and deep ways, what I had intuited about Islam when I decided to accept it.
I did research online to find out more about the author, which led me to find a discussion group based on this book which took place in Manhattan. On my second time at this group, I was happily surprised to discover that the author, Dr. Sultan, personally attended and led these meetings. The ideas discussed were life changing and Dr. Sultan explained they all came from the Quran. His view of the Quran, which I share, is that it is an empowering book that can radically change our lives. It is not a religious book to be recited mindlessly or idolized. It is the live advice of God guiding us personally. The Quran is meant to be applied to our individual life circumstances and its wisdom will propel us into action and lead us to live a life beyond our wildest dreams.
After the discussion ended, Dr. Sultan spoke to me for about fifteen minutes. In these fifteen minutes my perspective of life completely changed. All the grievances I had over the “evils” of the world dissolved and I even stopped hating being a lawyer. Now, this is no small feat. The idea that the law was ‘evil’, that studying it was my most fatal mistake, and that I had to get away from it at all costs, had been the drama of my life since I finished law school in 2005. And all those therapists, life coaches and courses I mentioned before were unable to help me change these views. I am a pretty stubborn person.
Dr. Sultan and the Evils of Being a Lawyer
Without preaching or lecturing me, Dr. Sultan, using the logic and wisdom in the Quran (his superb understanding of it of course), caused me to stop seeing my life through self-centered lenses and to view it instead as a contribution and source of uplift for others. We are God’s representatives on earth, he stated, and we serve Him through serving His creation. I had never considered this. Charity and helping others were separate from my actual life, something I did to be a good person. But what did being a representative of God have to do with my work as a lawyer or with my reality?
I used to think the criteria for choosing a job were: identifying something tolerable I was relatively good at, or could fake being good at, in which I could make the most money with the least amount of effort and time and, preferably, get attention, recognition and admiration. I managed to get by but was never happy or fulfilled. But, if I changed my focus as Dr. Sultan suggested and asked instead how I could contribute the most to others, things became simpler and meaning and satisfaction seemed within reach. A new world opened up.
Dr. Sultan told me I could contribute greatly with my present skills and that if I changed careers and started from zero in a different field, the experience and knowledge that I’ve accumulated throughout the years would be wasted and I would always feel I had failed. He explained I would be unable to accumulate as much knowledge or skills in any another field simply because I could not go back in time and use the time I already put into law into a new field.
These two ideas: making my life a contribution and using the talents I already possessed seemed revolutionary. Something clicked and, overnight, I was finally at peace with being a lawyer. I used to drink over this, complain about it on a daily basis, work hard to dissuade any person from studying law, etc. When asked what my profession was, I would always reply “I am a lawyer, but I don’t practice anymore because I hate it. All lawyers are evil and the law is like a mafia.” I of course no longer say or feel this and it seems completely ridiculous. As The Quran and the Life of Excellence teaches us, what we focus on expands and what we repeat to ourselves becomes true and we see it confirmed everywhere. Both sides are true, the good and the bad. What we give our mental energy to becomes the reality of our lives.
The Natural Religion
People ask me why I say I “accepted” Islam. I use this word because in my heart, I am positive we are born in Islam, that Islam is the nature of all forms of life and therefore, the natural religion. Our instincts and original state are often corrupted by the outside world and we forget. I never “converted” to anything. I am more myself today than I ever was. I feel inside as I felt when I was as a child and a teenager: pure, full of excitement, energy and passion. My life is filled with possibilities and objectives. I feel joy and peace. I regained my dignity, self-respect and self-confidence. And my desire to use my life for a higher purpose. I am grateful for my life and in a good mood every single day. The things that used to greatly disturb me, like New York winters, don’t bother me anymore. I feel love for most people and a desire to be of service and a source of uplift. I was miserable during my “moveable feast” days because I had betrayed my nature. My life today is a complete miracle.
Once I began to understand the wisdom of the Quran as it relates to my individual life, my inner self and outer life began to transform in an almost effortless way. I could now easily do things that I could never before, regardless of the excruciatingly painful fights I had myself. I can set goals and actually follow through. I can think clearly, focus, and write. I can sit still with my thoughts. I can reflect. I can function. The anxiety completely left me. I sleep well naturally. I am no longer paralyzed or addicted. Most of my destructive habits dissolved with maybe a tenth of my past effort. Drinking became unappealing and entirely irrelevant to my life. It is not as if I am “controlling” myself and trying not to do the things I did before. They seem so foreign that I see them as if they had happened to somebody else.
Wasting time and filling my life with ‘entertainment’ became, somehow, naturally disgusting to me. I began to treasure myself, value my time, and find my actions and my life enormously meaningful. I began to meet the most extraordinary human beings. People so wonderful and exceptional that I never even dreamed existed.
All this happened in a matter of months. I became a person who, to this day, cannot comprehend how I was able to live as I once did. I may not understand how this transformation happened but I do know with absolute certainty that it is completely due to Islam. The uphill path is life long and inshallah my life will continue to get better every day in every way. I never forget, even for a second, that I owe my life, my health, my sanity, and my peace to Islam. And I never cease being grateful to God for it.
Some Final Mafia Theories
Sometimes, when I see all the effort and money that the media and other industries invest in demonizing Islam, the “conspiracy” and “mafia” theories that I previously directed at the legal profession come back. I imagine that some anonymous collective wants to keep people away from Islam, because it is so powerful and so transformative, that, should progressive people of intellect study it in depth, understand it and accept it, most of the self-help, weight-loss, cosmetic surgery, much of the retail, luxury goods, entertainment, processed food, alcohol, tobacco, and consumer debt industries would collapse. People would no longer be desperate to fill their emptiness, but fulfilled, busy and satisfied with meaningful pursuits, using their brains and their high self-esteems. But of course, depicting Islam as the ideology of a bunch of crazy, backward, violent Arabs screaming “Allahu Akbar” before blowing something up, ridicules the religion and makes it less likely people will be attracted to it. Or maybe not, because by now the charade has gotten so ridiculous that anybody with half a brain probably investigates the nonsense.
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