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Page last edited on 23 April, 2003

Islam in America

by Giovanni Ruffini

Some people from obscure Southern towns say they can remember the first time they ever saw a black person. That used to strike me as an odd concept, but now that I stop to think about it, I remember very clearly the first time I ever met a Muslim. In retrospect, it seems downright ridiculous to me that I went the first eighteen years of my life without knowing a single member of one of the world's largest religions. But then again, I did spend nine years in a Catholic school, and I didn't get out much anyways.

It was in fact the very first day of my college career. I was moving into one of the larger dorms on campus, and one of the older students there had volunteered to help the first-year students move in. I didn't consciously realize right away that he was Muslim. In fact, it did not actually come up in conversation for several weeks. In the meantime, he was not much more than one of the guys across the hall, different only because he seemed to be a little more quiet than the rest, more watchful, of me, and of all of us.

I was having the classic experience of an encounter with the Other. For the first few months at least, I was unable to separate the various aspects of his personality from the very fact that he was Muslim. If he was quiet, even withdrawn at times, that was because of his religion, because of the way he felt like some sort of hidden minority. Looking back, I probably wasn't giving him enough credit as an individual, in the same way that I've seen some of my relatives talk somewhat LOUDER to Chinese or Koreans, just because they assumed they had to be defective, or different in some way.

So admittedly, the whole thing started off as somewhat of a curiousity. Who the hell was this guy, anyways?

In my own typically over-imaginative way I created a history for him, a pseudo-biography that attempts to explain how this Muslim kid named Bilal has landed smack in the middle of a Chicago ghetto. I talk to myself, philosophizing in typical University of Chicago fashion, using phrases like "cultural dialogue" and "dramatic shift in religious world views," but the bottom line is that none of that means a damn thing. Being a Muslim, being a Catholic, even being a student at the University of Chicago, isn't in any way definable on a scientific level. The only thing that matters is the chasm of unknowing, and the cosmic leap you have to take to get to the other side. Simply put, he, or at the very least, someone in his mythic ancestral past, accepted the word of a prophet, a man, Muhammad.

But what made that stick? It's rare these days to find someone who's religion is truly a matter of faith, as opposed to some sort of genetic accident of birth.

One day, we were sitting alone in my room, and he gave me the whole story himself. Picture if you will a skinny little kid, a Pakistani, a Muslim, nineteen years old, cigarette in one hand, beer in the other. Dark room, loud music, lots of bodies. College life in America. Apparently this was Bilal, about a year before I met him. At first glance, nothing particularly significant about this one night. Who was he, in his own mind? A student, probably nothing more. Maybe an American, if it means anything to say that. But at every crucial turning point in one's life there is an accident, a
random, unexpected occurrence that has an impact only because it happened then and there, when for some unknown reason the time was right.

A girl: anonymous, faceless from my point of view, thinking about the story several years later. In all likelihood, probably holding a similar cigarette and yet another beer. Who this girl is, what she is doing now, even what HER
particular, twisted religious outlook on the world might be are absolutely irrelevant. She is a trigger, a catalyst, and nothing more. She says:

"Bilal, I thought you were Muslim," a blank and more than somewhat naive look on her face, not yet understanding the idea that not all Jews celebrate Passover, nor do all Catholics even remotely CARE what the Pope has to say
about abortion.

Double take; confused reaction; exhaled burst of smoke. Perhaps he was annoyed by the distraction, or worse, could sense what was coming.

"I am. Why?" Probably the first time in his life that he had made that statement... I AM Muslim. Those among the Muslim faithful who live in predominately Muslim lands probably never even have to think about that fact; it just IS. You only really need to define yourself, who you are and what you believe in, when you find yourself surrounded by millions of people who are distinctly different from you, and that's what makes this event so peculiar. Bilal should have been forced to define himself years ago; the fact that his "I am" was delayed until now would only make it that much more powerful.

Anonymous white America speaks again.

"But I thought Muslims weren't allowed to drink or smoke." Same blank look, same ignorance of her OWN roots; Jews don't always eat Kosher, some Catholics DO commit adultery.

Sometimes you ask a stupid question, you don't get a stupid answer. Sometimes the magnitude of the effect is grossly out of proportion with the triviality of the cause. So it was on that night. A somewhat drunk, and more than somewhat annoying little college girl makes a random remark concerning a religion she knows nothing about. Cause. A somewhat drunk and more than somewhat annoyed wayward Muslim is jarred, abruptly made aware of the fact that he has been untrue to his own roots. Effect.

Two events follow, in rapid succession. The beer is put down, and a moment later the cigarette is floating in the foam, hissing slightly as it goes out. What exactly is happening here? What do these actions signify? To hear him tell it, that moment, that particular point in the middle of some obscure college party, was the start of some sort of mystical journey for him, perhaps the equivalent of Saul's blinding, and following rude awakening to the "truths" of Christ's divinity. Of course I can do nothing other than put Bilal's spiritual birth, or even rebirth, in Christian terms, even now that I've begun to understand a little of what Islam is all about. I am trapped within the constraints of my own background, and can do no justice to his tale simply by reformulating it in my own terms.

Even without my own blundering attempts at retelling, the story is common and clear enough. The fact that any religious faith manages to survive even past the third generation is remarkable in itself, and in fact only made possible because of the countless thousands of people like Bilal, who at some point in their lifetime rediscover what someone in their ancestral past knew all long. He started going to prayer, and in an irony only possible on a large American college campus, the Muslim students gathered for that event in an ivied, gothic chapel heavily laden with the Stations of the Cross, and other rich symbols unmistakeably Christian in their origin.

And of course, he started talking to others about it, to non-Muslims, working  on them, trying to share with them what impacted him so powerfully. He even made a wisecrack about it once: "Join the Muhammad and Allah Fan Club, one billion strong and growing!" The way his eyes glowed and his face became so focused. It was attractive, almost beautiful. With an ever-increasing attentiveness, I began to pay attention to him, with motives I'm not sure I understand even now.\

He gave me a free Qur'an... it was a Penguin Classic. I decided to enroll in a class called Islamic Civilizations, not ignoring the fact that it would fill my last elective requirements. It's hard to avoid disgust here; this isn't religion, I thought to myself, it's false intellectualizing. Am I, as a Catholic American, attracted to Islam in a purely clinical way, analyzing it at a distance, through a microscope? Is there some safety in believing that Islam is "over there," across the sea, kept out by border patrols and passport visas?

Bilal, as I have said, was Pakistani, or at least his parents were. I only recently learned why Pakistan exists at all. Muslims don't like Hindus, Hindus don't like Muslims, and I guess neither of them really like the British much either. Some clouded memory held over from high school mutters some news clipping telling me that they're still over there, fighting. I even remember some worry that they might have been trying to get the bomb. That always scares the hell out of America. Of course we've got it, and never stop to think what the rest of the world thinks about THAT, but it doesn't matter, see? We've got Christ on our side, and that makes us right. All we have to do is make sure the pagans and heretics don't figure it out, and we're set from there.

So, from this alone it's obvious that I started the whole affair with a pretty limited base of knowledge. Why my interest? Was it a simple case of attraction to the mysterious and exotic?

America has, for the last twenty or thirty years, been defined by nothing if not rebellion. Fight the power, any way you can, to the point of being nauseatingly cliched. Rebel simply for the sake of doing so, against your parents, your government, your religion. Hence the Lutheran runaway joining a Buddhist monastery somewhere in Southern California, or the rich Marin County Jew doing so much acid it "was a religious thing, man." Islam was like that for me, I guess, although it is a little unheard of: resistance to the bourgeousie materialism of Protestant America by conversion to "that terrorist religion," the grand cult of the outsider, the Arab, the other.

Islam is in fact SO alien to the average American that they find it nearly impossible to conceive of the traditional Muslim rituals taking place within the boundaries of the Fifty States. The only sort of Islam that most Americans will accept as having a place in America is an aberration, the sort of Black Islam that is already so warped in its own racial perspectives, and so separated from the Muslim mainstream that white America has even learned to feel safe with it. So long as Islam in America remains just that, a black, racist aberration, then we can feel secure in the illusion that the other Muslims, the true Muslims, the "towel-headed freaks" are still far enough away to be undeserving of our attention or concern.

And maybe it was against this I rebelled.

Of course, it wasn't much of a rebellion, at first. The Qur'an spent many long months sandwiched motionless between e. e. cummings and the Fundamentals of Physics, while I would nod and tell people, "Yes, of course I believe in God. No, no, I don't go to church. Why?" But I never could shake one of the stories Bilal had told me that first night we had talked, and of course somewhat blasphemously I always confused the main character of that story with myself.


"I cannot read." Picturing a cave somewhere in a foreign land, a man over a thousand years dead talking to an angel he couldn't see.


"I cannot read." But wanting to, really, because something new is needed in this life, to balance the confusion, and doubt. Sitting at my desk, looking nervously at e. e. cummings, and the books near it, and then glancing back
to the window, snow falling heavily outside.

"Read!" I picked up the Qur'an, no less than the 1993 revised edition, and began to read.

Giovanni graduated from the University of Chicago in 1996.

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