Islam found me when I had no intention of being discovered.
I grew up in Southern California during the 1960s in a non-practicing Christian home. I don't recall feeling particularly religiously inspired growing up, except maybe while singing "O' Holy Night" with Johnny Mathis on my parents' hi-fi. Some years we went to church on Easter Sunday, and some years we barbecued a steak instead.
Matters of faith were not discussed with any depth in my home; I remember my stepfather saying, "Kari, did you leave this milk out on the table? No? Well, Jesus knows if you're lying...Jesus knows." But, there was no further discussion about what Jesus would do about the spoiled milk. "Jesus knows" was just left hanging cryptically in the air.
My mother felt uncomfortable discussing anything, well, personal. Her way of instructing me on topics of any delicacy was to deliver the message via books and pamphlets. So, I learned about the facts of life through a pamphlet, and I learned about Christianity through the Golden Children's Bible. I read that Bible in its entirety many times as a child, taking comfort from the stories of the Prophets. Abraham, Noah, Moses, Solomon and David, John and Jesus -- I read all their stories, but what I lacked was the context and relevance of their lives to mine. Without a thread linking the words on the page to my life, they were only stories.
I memorized the Ten Commandments and the Lord's Prayer because I heard kids at school reciting them. I longed for the religious surety of my classmates: "Have you been Baptized? No? Well, you're going to Hell." This frightened me; I worried my entire family was floundering around without being baptized, and we were sure to burn in Hell.
As a young adult I took the attitude of "as long as I'm a good person, and live an ethical life, God will love me." That was fine, except as my world became more complicated I realized I was living a life full of loose ends and selfish decisions. I was floating through the years, reacting to whatever came in my direction, without a definitive plan. I thought I was aiming to fill the void I felt inside of myself, but I didn't have a sense of what was actually missing. I got married, made a home, had a successful career, and started a family with the birth of my precious son, but none of it brought real contentment. By the age of 30, I found myself a divorced, single mother of a little boy.
Against all advice, and despite the worried looks and words of consternation from my WASP-ish family, I met and married my second husband, Ahmed, the foreign, dark-skinned Muslim guy I met at work.
Ahmed is a soft-spoken artist from Bombay. When we married, I made it very clear that I had no intention of embracing his faith, and he made it very clear that it was fine with him. His only caveat was that if we had children they would be raised as Muslims. This sweet man was the opposite of the media's portrayal of the crazy or sinister Arab or Muslim, and so I had a different window on Islam through him, and I agreed to marry him. It didn't feel like a threat to our future children, or me; he fasted quietly, he prayed quietly, he lived and let live.
Being married to a spiritually confident person like my husband began to have a negative effect on my "God will love me if I'm a good person" philosophy. I knew I was missing out on something much more profound than the "it's all good" theory. I realized that I had no connection to God. I wanted what Ahmed had -- a solid relationship with the Divine -- but I was afraid of Islam. It seemed kind of tricky, and you had to actually work at being a Muslim; that didn't sound easy, or let's face it, fun. I just didn't want to consider it.
A couple of years later we had a baby girl. Ahmed whispered the Adhan, (the Muslim call to prayer) in her ear only moments after she was born. She would be a Muslim.
Reminiscent of the promise made by the miller's daughter to Rumpelstiltskin, the time had come for me to keep my promise to raise my daughter as a Muslim. As I looked into her sweet, tiny face, I told her I'd figure out this Islam thing for her and give her what I didn't have as a child -- open discussion about God and faith, and a framework with which to structure her life. I would make sure that she would have confidence in her relationship with God and an identity that would hold her true. I told her I would read the Quran, and learn about Islam to make sure it would be good for her.
I kept my promise. As I began to read the Quran, a miraculous book of verse and wisdom, I found my beloved and blessed Prophets Abraham, Moses, Joseph and Jesus. I found common-sense instructions about commerce and trade; I read beautiful verses that described the magnificence of the earth, its creatures, and my responsibility towards their care.
I studied the life of Prophet Muhammad, God's blessings be with him; and because every aspect of his life on earth was chronicled by his followers and carefully preserved, I was able to consider his story as a historical document.
Muhammad laughed; he cried; he showed displeasure and frustration. He was gentle, but firm; and he was strong yet vulnerable. I was inspired and moved by the fact he took the counsel of his wife, Khadijah. I loved it that he needed her comfort and strength as he began to receive Divine revelations through the Angel Gabriel. The early female followers of Islam questioned the blessed Prophet in the mosque on matters of law and social justice, and he gave them equal time and an equal voice. In his last sermon, Muhammad admonished the future generations of Muslim men to respect and cherish their wives and daughters.
After about a year of reading and thinking, my brain made a connection to my heart, which sparked my soul into life. I felt God speaking to me through the Quran and the life of this pure-hearted Messenger. I had set out to vet a religion for my daughter, but while doing this promised research for her I found God, and Islam found me.