A little about my journey to Islam…

 

My name is Jeremiah (I was named after the Hebrew Prophet, the name means ‘chosen by God’). I was raised as a Reform Jew by my mother but I was exposed to Orthodox Judaism by my father, who is an Orthodox Jew and Chazzan (similar to a Qari). My spiritual journey started in 1992 when I graduated High School.  The first thing that made me curious of Islam was reading the autobiography of Malcolm X. And later, in 1995, I read Elijah Muhammad’s book, “Message to the Blackman” to learn more about Malcolm’s original beliefs and inspiration.  One of the things that totally encapsulated me about Traditional Islam (as compared to the Nation of Islam and Judaism) was the universalism of it, that you had people from all over the earth from many different nations, tribes, and colors coming together in unity to worship God. His description of going on Hajj was very inspirational.  Malcolm X said that only when there is a belief in the oneness of God can there be a oneness of humanity.

 

In Judaism, you have this idea that one family on earth (the Children of Israel) had been chosen for a special relationship with God by being given the revelation and covenant of the Torah to be a light onto the Nations (to teach them monotheism).  It should be kept in mind that any non-Jew can convert to Judaism, but it is not a proselytizing religion.  So even though, in modern Judaism, you have Tawheed, it is lacking a universal message.  In relation to Christianity, besides the issues of massive pagan influence, such as a belief in a man-god, God incarnating into a man, the Trinity, God dying on the cross for everyone’s sins, the lack of the law of God, etc…the issue that Malcolm X brought up was that when people believe in a blonde-haired blue-eyed man as their god, in addition to the fact that Genesis says that man was created in the “image of God”, if taken literally, causes racism by implying that God is a white man so thusly superior to the black man.  What Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam (NOI) did, is that they reversed this by saying that God was in fact, a black man, W.D. Fard.  So instead of rejecting the idea that God is a man, they just reversed it and said that the black man is superior, because their god is black, which in turn taught black supremacy.  What true Islam (and Judaism) does is that it totally rejects the idea of God being material in any way thusly abolishing the idea that one race is better than another.

 

I was raised and always was very anti-Racist.  And I always felt very bad about the horrible conditions that African-Americans are in as a result of slavery, Jim Crow laws, Racism, bad schools, etc.  Out of these feelings, I really wanted a religion that I could present to black people as a solution to their problems, the same way of how when Malcolm X entered the NOI, it totally transformed him and his condition in America.  Despite their many false beliefs (contrary to traditional Islam), there are many great qualities of the Nation of Islam that caused this transformation in Malcolm…the sense of order, respect for yourself and others, brotherhood, and the discipline and rules that one had to follow caused this great transformation in him.  Without sacrifice, law, and order, there is no way to go down the path towards spirituality and bettering your condition.  Some examples of what they gave up in order to change their condition was giving up Alcohol, Drugs, Popular Music, TV, Movies, unhealthy food, dating and fornication, and to quote Malcolm, “White Women and Pig’s feet.”  They wore suits and spoke proper English (without slang and cursing) and carried themselves in a moral disciplined fashion.  Whenever they would see each other, they would greet each other with “As Salam Aleikum” and there was a real sense of brotherhood.  So while the belief system is much better in Sunni Islam than the NOI, I believe that many of these wonderful qualities of discipline and brotherhood are lacking amongst traditional Muslims.

 

The other thing that intrigued me is that in the Qur'an, Islam is never called the religion of Muhammad or the religion of the Arabs, it is in fact called the Religion of Abraham, the father of both the Hebrews (Israelites) and the Arabs (Ishmaelites). Now, if when I was originally introduced to Islam, I had been told that Muhammad was the founder of a new religion, I would have totally rejected it outright, and indeed that is NOT what the Qur’an claims.  Rather, it is the religion of Abraham that Muhammad was re-introducing to the Arab peoples after having gone astray into idolatry a millennium ago.  I always believed that Judaism (the revelation of the Torah) was the religion of the Prophets.  God had on numerous occasions revealed himself to the Israelites through these Prophets and gave them a message on how he wanted them to live.  He also had performed numerous miracles for them from the time of Moses to more recent times.  I had no intention of abandoning the religion of the Prophets (all of the ones mentioned in the Hebrew Bible).  But what did attract me to Islam was that certain practices of the Prophets had been abandoned in Judaism and were still maintained in Islam.  Examples include prostration during the daily prayers, making ablutions before prayer, the rules of ritual purity after marital relations, spreading the message of the One God to the Nations, and even such mundane examples as language, dress, and diet.  And then also, there was a lot of stuff that was added onto the laws of Moses from the Rabbinic Tradition for various reasons to form the Halachah of Judaism.  What I was really interested in was the true beliefs and lifestyle and practices of the Israelite Prophets, not anything that was dismissed or added onto later.  For me, I was also bothered by the adopted European Jewish practices such as the wearing of wigs.  I was interested in practicing the religion of the Hebrew Prophets, nothing more and nothing less.  I was not interested in traditions or cultural practices that did not stem from the Prophets of Israel.  So, while Islam had many of these things that Judaism was missing, and the Qur’an does incorporate many of the stories from the Jewish Oral Tradition, Islam seemed to be a synthesis of the pure Religion of Abraham and, in addition, some Arabian cultural practices (such as many of the rites of the Hajj and kissing the black stone in the Ka’ba), but it was missing all of the laws and practices that came from the Torah (laws specifically for the Israelites), such as keeping the Sabbath and Holidays, wearing Tzitzit and Tefillin, having a mezuzah on your doorpost, additional dietary laws, etc  This always bothered me, as following the Torah was very important to me since I had went to Jerusalem.  It seemed that if you just took the monotheism, laws, and the universality of the message of Abraham and then added some of the cultural practices of the Arabs (from 7th Century Arabia) that is what Islam is.

 

What the Qur’an actually does recognize is that it says that a special covenant was given to the Children of Israel, and that they were indeed preferred above all mankind, but that they failed in their mission, of which multiple examples are given, and thusly humanity is once again being presented with the universal message of Abraham, to go back to that pure religion, before any corruption (additions or subrtractions) was introduced by men.  And that is the religion that Muhammad presents, a going back to the Abrahamic religion, one that applies to all mankind.  It does say in the Qur’an that the extra dietary laws and the Sabbath were specifically just given to the Israelites, and of course we know that these were not practices of Abraham, but revealed later at the time of Moses.  When I was at the Rihla in New Mexico, Shaykh Hamza Yusuf made an interesting comment; he said that “Islam is just universal Judaism, an extension of the Hebrew Tradition.” In other words, Prophet Muhammad is the Prophet that brought the message of the One God of Abraham to the Gentiles.

 

The other thing that I liked about Islam was that nothing had changed in it over 1400 years. Muslims still prayed in the same way that Prophet Muhammad prayed, some even dressed how the Prophet dressed. I thought it was amazing that nothing had been changed to conform to political correctness. I didn't like how Ashkenazi (European) Judaism had changed over time. Examples include dress (some women wearing wigs and not wearing skirts down to their ankles and men wearing little tiny skullcaps and black suits and black hats as a uniform), language (speaking in Yiddish instead of their original Hebrew), and lastly, the fence around the Torah (Rabbis adding laws to the Torah so that someone does not actually break any laws of the Torah.). 

 

Being raised as an Ashkenazi (European) Reform Jew, I never felt attached to either of those traditions (Ashkenazi Cultural Traditions or the Reform Movement).  As I had mentioned earlier I was very attracted to the Middle Eastern/North African Tradition of the Hebrew Prophets.  If you read the history of the Reform Movement that started in the early 19th Century among German Jews, it was essentially an effort to “Christianize” the Jewish Religion, so that everything that made the Jews separate or unique from the Christians would be abandoned in an effort to assimilate with their Christian neighbors.  Examples, includes following the laws of the Sabbath and keeping Kosher, a unique style of dress (wearing a head covering, having a beard, and Tzitzit, etc.).  The idea was to act like a moral human being but to abandon things that were uniquely Jewish or of a ritual nature that separated Jews from their non-Jewish Neighbors.  That form of assimilationist religion never was attractive to me.  After I finished my first year of college, I did go to Jerusalem and at the request of my father, I did enroll in a 3-day class called the “Discovery program”, where Reform or Secular Jews like myself can learn more about Traditional (now called Orthodox) Judaism, meaning how Judaism was taught and practiced for over 3000 years before the Reform movement was invented.  I was so impressed with the class, that I actually dropped out of college, called my mom and informed her that I was going to become a full-time Yeshiva student (at the same Yeshiva that offered the class, which obviously is the main intention of the class).  This Yeshiva was specifically designed for English-speaking Baal-Teshuva (literally “back to repentance”) Jews.  Jews that were not raised Orthodox and who had become Orthodox later in their lives.  In the course of the following year, I attended that Yeshiva and another smaller Chasidic (English-speaking baal-Teshuva) Yeshiva.

 

I remember after I had been at the Yeshiva awhile, I told my father and stepmother that what I was really interested in was the Sephardic (North African/Middle Eastern) form of Judaism, not the Ashkenazi Minhag (similar to a madhab).  Sephardic Jews are Jews that fled Spain in the 12th-15th Centuries and settled in North Africa and Palestine.   I wanted to learn the Judaism that was more closely practiced by the 12 tribes of Israel and the Ancient Hebrews, not what had been developed later by European Rabbis.   And my stepmother replied that it was mandatory to follow the Minhag of your father.  This would be similar to a son in Egypt whose father is of the Shafi Madhab, saying that he wanted to follow the customs of the people of Morocco and follow the Maliki Madhab instead of the customs of his father and their people.  It is just not a generally accepted practice to switch Minhags when you are not of that heritage. 

 

When I came back to America for my sister’s wedding, I decided to stay for a while, and that was when I decided that I really wanted to learn about Islam and meet actual Muslims.  When I decided to start learning about Islam, it was not because I was dissatisfied with Judaism or was looking for a new religion.  In fact, I was always deeply attached to Judaism and my Jewish roots.  I only wanted to learn about it for two reasons.  First, because primarily I wanted to learn more about a religion that was still very Middle Eastern in nature and also I wanted to know what Palestinians believed in.  Coming from a smaller city with essentially no Sephardic Jews and no Sephardic Synagogues, it was difficult to pursue Judaism in the more original form that I desired.  Even America, on a whole, has hardly any Sephardic Jews, the vast majority live in Israel.  Whereas there are more Ashkenazi Jews in America than there are in Israel due to the fact that when many Jews fled Europe prior to the Holocaust, they came straight to New York City, as the State of Israel did not exist at that point as a place of refuge.  An interesting point is that the whole Zionist movement was invented by solely Ashkenazi Jews, due to the persecutions in Europe and Russia, and it was these founders of Zionism that encouraged Sephardic Jews to leave Muslim countries and come to Israel.  (Please read: “We look like the Enemy: The Hidden Story of Israel’s Jews from Arab Lands” for more on this topic.)  Whereas the vast majority of American Ashkenazi Jews have stayed put and have not migrated to Israel.

 

So, the first step that I took to learn more about Islam and meet Muslims was I went and found a store that sold white kufi’s (skullcaps) and then I went to my local Mosque.  I remember the first time that I walked into a Masjid, and I saw that there were no chairs, and people were prostrating themselves on the ground before the God of Abraham, with no shoes, just how Moses at the burning bush was commanded to do, I was so impressed.  It was so utterly beautiful in its simplicity.  Then I got a job at a Natural Foods Co-op where a number of Muslims actually shopped at.  There was one particular Muslim that really intrigued me, he was an African-American who had a beard and always wore a white kufi or turban and jalabiyah, and always smelled very good from the scented oils that he would put on.  I asked him if we could meet sometime so that he could teach me about Islam, (just so I could learn about it from an educational standpoint, not that I was interested in converting.)  He replied that he thought it would be better to actually meet with a Shaykh who was also a Hafez (a religious Scholar who had memorized the Qur’an) who was very knowledgeable and friendly and who was right near the University where I lived (and whose actual sole purpose of being in America was to proselytize to College Students and others; to get them to convert to Islam).  I found out later that he had an extremely high success rate in this mission, as I would personally witness on numerous occasions.   I spent about a week or two with him; I would get there at about 5pm right after I got off of work and stay talking to him to 2 in the morning.  He was just one of the most friendly and gentle persons that I had ever met and very knowledgeable of Islam.  He would have the native-born Muslims cook and serve me Curry Chicken and Chai every day and always wanted to feed me more.  You know what they say; the way to a man’s heart (or soul) is by feeding him!  He seemed to treat me as an honored special guest, as almost everyone else that he did Da’Wa to was of a Christian background, he was very intrigued to talk to a Jew about Islam and its similarities to Judaism. 

 

After meeting with him for about a week or two, and learning about Islam, he asked me if I wanted to become Muslim.  I replied, “NO!  I am quite happy being a Jew, that is what I believe in, I don’t want to convert to anything!”  He said, “Well do you believe in One God?”  I said, “Of course, but that is a Jewish idea, there is nothing unique about that in Islam, that is a shared belief.”  (In that both religions reject the trinity, incarnation, a man-god, etc.)  He said “Well do you believe in ALL of the Prophets?”  I said, “Of course I do!  (But once again, according to Jews, we believe in all the Prophets also, because according to Judaism, Jesus and Muhammad are false prophets.)  He said “Well do you believe that the Qur’an is from God?”  And I said “Yes.”  (Because there are certain miracles in the Qur’an, things only God knew 1400 years ago when it was revealed, such as how a fetus develops, etc.)    He said “Well if you believe in One God, you believe in All of the Prophets, and you believe that the Qur’an is from God, then you are a Muslim.”  I said “OK, but I don’t want to cease being Jewish, Judaism and my Jewish Heritage are extremely important to me, I very much enjoy the Jewish Holidays and I believe in the Tanakh (Old Testament).”  He said, “That is fine, but if you believe that there is no other gods except the One True God of Abraham and you believe that Muhammad is the Messenger of God, then you are Muslim.”  I said “Yes I do believe that.”  And then I recited the Shahadah, “la ilaha illa Allah, Muhammad Rasoolulah!”  And that is how I became Muslim in January of 1996, the Friday before Ramadhan was about to start.

 

Then I introduced ‘Sabi’ to this Shaykh, and after about an hour or so, he asked me to go to the kitchen to get some Chai, and when I returned, she was crying.  I asked him what he had said to her and what was wrong?  And through her tears, she replied, “I just became Muslim.”  I said, “In the 5 minutes it took me to go get Chai??”  Anyways, a few weeks later, I asked her to marry me and we got married about 6 weeks after she had embraced Islam.  About two and a half years later, we had our first daughter, Aliyah. The word Aliyah means to ascend towards God.  It is both a Hebrew and Arabic name.  Al-Ali is one of God’s names in the Qur’an and means ‘The Most High’ and Yah is one of the Hebrew names for God.  The word Aliyah is used in Judaism in two ways: when someone moves to the Holy Land and also when someone is called up in the Synagogue to read from the Torah.  It was at this point that I took the Arabic name, Abu Aliyah, meaning ‘the father of Aliyah’. 

 

Everything was going relatively fine in the Deen until the spring of 2000.  I went to a Jummah prayer at one of the Universities and an Arab Muslim got up to give the khutbah.  He proceeded to give the most anti-Semitic tirade I had ever heard.  Everything you would expect to hear from a Neo-Nazi, not someone who is supposed to being giving a spiritual speech within the context of a religious framework.  He said all of those things, which now, 10 years later, I have heard so many times since that point from an abundance of Anti-Semitic Muslims.  Examples include, “All Jews are cursed by Allah and Prophets David and Jesus”, that “Allah’s anger and wrath is on them”, that they are “the children of monkeys and pigs”, that the Dajjal and his followers will be Jewish, that the Jewish Messiah is in fact the Dajjal, the Jews run the banks, media, and foreign policy, that they worship Ezra, and of course, the now famous Hadith about Jews hiding behind a rock or tree, etc.” And besides those standard remarks about Jews, he went on to say that they were the dirtiest and filthiest people on earth, etc.  I was so much in shock during the hateful speech and the fact that no other Muslim in the audience seemed to have any issue with what he was saying that I did not say anything until the Jummah prayer was over, when we then proceeded to get in a loud, heated, argument at which point I eventually just walked away shaking my head in disbelief.  It’s a good thing I’m a very non-violent person, as I had never been so mad in my life!

 

I proceeded on in the path of Islam until later that fall, when the Palestinian Intifada broke out.  The way in which this immediately affected me was that the person that I had grown to love, the Shaykh that brought my wife and I into Islam and married us, the man who had always been my best companion (I would walk to the Musallah where he lived and we would take long walks and talk for hours after Fajr and Isha prayers).  He would take me everywhere and always introduced me as the Muslim who had converted from Judaism and that I was very knowledgeable about both Judaism and Islam.  He always praised me whenever he would introduce me to anyone.  I was his favorite student.  This very humble and gentle man who lived very simply on a little mattress on the ground turned into a raging anti-Semite.  What I mean by that, is that every Khutbah, tafseer class, etc. would turn into these tirades quoting from the Qur’an and Hadith about those above mentioned verses (the ones from the other Khutbah that I had heard previously)… it was if now, he had nothing else to say except to talk about the Jews and that they had “usurped and stole Palestine.”  I wrote a long letter to him explaining that I did not mind if he criticized the State of Israel and the actions of the State, but what I did mind very much were all these comments about “Al Yahud”, which formed the majority of what he said.  His reply was that everything that he was saying was Islam, taken straight out of the Qur’an and Hadith, and that if I didn’t like it, I should not be Muslim.  Of course, I was in utter disbelief.  I liken this experience to Malcolm X and his devotion to Elijah Muhammad for 12 years of his life.  Just like Malcolm, I would have gladly stood in front of a bus in order to save his life that is how much I adored him. And now after almost 5 years of having an extremely close relationship, I guess he decided that he needed to come clean on his position on the Jews.  Whether he had just found all of these verses after the intifada started (being that he was a Hafiz, that is unlikely) or whether this event caused him to not be able to hold it in any longer.  Why, in the four years leading up to the intifada had he never mentioned any of these verses?  I would have loved for him to tell me all this before I embraced Islam!  Of course, the Islam that people get presented when interested in the religion, is the “Pamphlet-version” of Islam where everything sounds so nice and pretty… everybody of all races and tribes getting together to worship the One God of Abraham in peace and unity.  In reality, it isn’t so pretty!  These 2 events weren’t the first times I had heard this.  In fact, about a week after I embraced Islam, another Arab Muslim told me that now that I was Muslim, he could tell me the truth, where he proceeded to quote for me the Hadith about “Jews hiding behind a rock or tree, etc.” and that it was good that I was now on the right side, the side of Allah. And another time, I heard from another Muslim that when the inevitable battle between the Muslims and the Jews happen, I should be prepared to kill my own father! And that if I was not prepared to do this, I was not a real Muslim.  There are quite a few more examples of this, but too numerous to mention.  I could always somewhat handle it as it hadn’t come from my own Shaykh, so I had figured they were just nuts.  But after hearing it from my own Shaykh, on numerous occasions, whom I so adored, I thought to myself, if Islam equals hatred of Jews, then I am definitely out of this!  It was at this point, that I told my wife, that I wanted her to convert to Judaism and we would follow that path instead as I could just not take it anymore!!  (That did not happen, but we were both quite unhappy in our current condition and looking for some spiritual light.)

 

The next thing that happened in our spiritual journey was that in 2002, she was referred to a week-long Deen Intensive Program by Zaytuna Institute at a campground that she wound up attending where she was introduced to a totally new set of Shiyukh: Imam Zaid Shakir, Dr. Umar Faruq Abd-Allah from the Nawawi Foundation, Shaykh Husain Abdul-Sattar, and others and realized that there was a totally different side of Islam, that we had not been introduced to by our former Shaykh.  After she came back, she had a real Noor (light) on her face that I had not seen before, and she told me that I had to experience this also.  So the following summer, in 2003, Zaytuna offered a month-long Deen Intensive, called a “Rihla” (a spiritual journey undertaken for the sake of divine knowledge) in New Mexico with Shaykh Hamza Yusuf and Imam Zaid Shakir of Zaytuna Institute amongst other Shiyukh; I studied Hanafi Fiqh with Shaykh Jamal Zahabi. I studied Hadith with Shaykh Abdullah Adhami and Imam Ghazali with Shaykh Abdul-Hakim Murad.   One interesting point is that during the course of the Rihla, I asked a great scholar of Islam, Shaykh Abdullah Adhami, whether when the Qur’an says “Al Yahud” is it referring to all Jews for all time for just a specific group of Jews at a certain time and he said that it was the latter. I realize that there are loads of “Shaykhs and Imams” out there who do not understand that, but that is because they are not true scholars of the Deen like this Shaykh and do not understand the intricacies of the Arabic language.

 

During the Rihla, we had to take a class on Fiqh, and so in order to do that, we had to choose a Madhab (for those of us who did not have one).  There were 3 different Fiqh classes to choose from: Hanafi, Shafi and Malaki.  I chose Hanafi as I felt it was more similar to Jewish Halachah. Examples of similarities include forbidding the eating of shellfish, the importance of wearing a skullcap and growing a long natural beard, and it is more woman-friendly (not mandating the wearing of the niqab (face-covering) as well as not requiring the covering of the hands and feet. It also does not encourage female circumcision! It is just a very moderate madhab (school of thought) that is middle of the road. I found the Hanbali and Shafi madhabs to be too extreme in certain matters.

 

It was during this Rihla, that I realized that what I had been taught over the last 7 years, was the “Wahabi or Saudi” form of Salafi Islam.  My former Shaykh was a Pakistani by birth who had studied in Saudi Arabia and who lived in London and had been sent to America to convert Americans to Islam.  He had always preached against Sufis and Madhabs, amongst other things.  And now I was being taught to choose a Madhab, learning how to purify our hearts (Tasawuf), sing Qaseedas and Nasheeds, have Zikr circles. etc.  What a different experience that was!  I remember one night after Isha, we were all together in the masjid, in the middle of the desert of New Mexico, doing Zikr, reciting “la ilaha illa Allah” in a very meditative fashion, and I started crying like a baby.  Imam Zaid Shakir stopped the huge Zikr circle and came right up to me and very gently asked me what was wrong.  I told him, nothing was wrong; it was just my heart opening up.  I think that often times, humans have such rock-hard hearts, and it is not until true genuine prayer, meditation, Zikr, and songs of praise to God, that our hearts just open up and that is when we really feel at One with the Oneness of God, true Tawheed (getting a true feeling in your heart about His Oneness, instead of it just being intellectually in your brain).

 

It was after this experience and numerous personal conversations with Shaykh Hamza Yusuf and Dr. Umar, that I started reading about Sufism and its influence on Jews in Spain and the Sephardic Jewish Community (Descendants of Jews who left Spain in the 13th-15th Centuries).  We often read that the Golden Age of both Islam and Judaism was in Spain, and what is interesting about that, was that it was the result of Sufi influence on the Spanish Muslims that caused the openness between the Jews and Muslims and a free society to pursue non-Islamic sciences such as Philosophy, Astronomy, Poetry, Math, etc.  And I started reading about how the Jews and Muslims really learned from each other in Spain, North Africa, Iraq, etc. which produced such great scholars as Ghazali, Ibn Rushd, Moses and Abraham Maimonides, etc.  And it was from this knowledge, that I formed my website, the Hebrew Sufi, a synthesis of two traditions, that of Abraham and the Hebrew Prophets, and that of the Muslim Mystics, the Sufis…. www.hebrewsufi.com