He doesn’t know this, nor would it inspire in his heart any affinity for my decision, but it is my father who laid the foundation for my acceptance of Islam. He is the one who taught me about God and the angels and the Day of Judgment. He told me, us, about the universal message and spirituality of Christ. And it was he, during his weekly sermons at his church and daily guidance in his home, who insisted that we were Christians in the purest sense of the word, and that it was only this pure, unadulterated understanding of Jesus’ message through which a person found salvation. It was a dishonoring, a disrespect, he said, to relegate God’s religion to sects, to denominations, as if a person had a right to choose his method of submission, his extent of surrendering to God.
This made my childhood church, and upbringing, unique. It bore no Baptist, Episcopalian, or Methodist affiliation, nor did it bear the empty Protestant label. We were Christian, and in that term alone lay the essence of our belief, our existence. My father’s church, like our religion, was not even Unitarian or non-denominational, nothing a person could fit easily into an ideological box or label. Christian. That was the only affiliation my father and his congregation ever used to differentiate themselves from the rest of the world, and from sectarian Christians.
It might be said, and certainly it has been, that my father’s Christianity was his own, of his own making. Our church followed not only the injunctions of the Bible, but the injunctions of my father. It wasn’t until years later, after I had already converted to Islam and married, that I came to realize that the rules with which I was brought up, the rules of our church, were not my father’s inventions at all. They were, rather, a result of my father’s sincere eclectic selection of true righteousness, much of which was borrowed from a host of world religions that he had, most probably, come across during his obtaining his master’s and subsequent doctorate of theology and religious sciences at Harvard University.
Among the rules that I and my sisters, and later my younger brothers, followed, or at least were instructed to follow, was that of not listening to worldly music, of dressing modestly by never wearing tight or revealing clothes, and the women’s covering their hair with a hat or loosely draped scarf at church. We were not allowed to date until we turned eighteen, and even then the date had to be chaperoned by my mother, father, or one of the trusted elders of the church. Needless to say, our social life was almost non-existent, and as could be expected, not all of us viewed this stringent lifestyle with fondness. Now, when I think back to those days, I realize that most of the congregation were married and over the age of forty. Which probably accounts for my and my siblings’ restlessness to meet other youth, and my oldest sister’s fate as a successful model who accepted a sectarian version of worshipping Christ after she secretly eloped, choosing to spend the rest of her life with a Christian professional athlete who truly felt Jesus died for his sins, thus relieving him of any responsibility for his.
It wasn’t the religious parallels between my strict upbringing and the Islamic lifestyle that accounted for my childhood lessons laying the bricks in my path toward Islam. If anything, these parallels would have turned me away, for I longed for reprieve from an upbringing in which I felt I could, rightfully, do nothing. It was the purity of faith, the singleness of truth, the embracing of God’s religion in the purest sense that opened my eyes, and heart, to Islam. Only then was I willing to submit, to fully embrace the lifestyle that I would have in youth viewed restrictive and suffocating. My only mistake, in retrospect, was in not taking it one step at a time, and not taking a breath between steps to examine, truly determine, whether or not the principles I was embracing, whether the choices I was making, or being encouraged or directed to make, were really a requirement of the God of my new faith.
When I look back on my life, I can find nothing to indicate that I was to stray from my parents’ faith, from my Christian past. I had, for all intents and purposes, a normal childhood and youth. If anything, my life suggested that I would tread in my parents’ footsteps.
My greatest joy in childhood was visiting or, more often, accepting a visit from my cousin, my neighbor, and my neighbor’s good friend. Ironically, they were all boys. I had no female friends aside from the marginal friendships I’d formed at school; no girls my age were members of my father’s church, not counting the ones who came once or twice a month at the behests, or pleas, of their devoted parents. My sisters had already decided, before I was yet twelve, that I was out of their league, or rather beneath theirs, mostly due to my “insistence” on siding with my parents, particularly my father. I, in sincere ignorance of their turmoil and concern, didn’t understand that there were any battles to be fought, let alone sides to take, in the disagreements we had with my father and mother, or, more specifically, my father’s church.
“You need to wake up,” Courtney would say with a roll of her eyes.
In my mind’s eye I see her then as I see her today, which is odd because we are both older now, and my image of her through a child’s eyes is much fonder than the one I am burdened with today. Although, I cannot say I was ever enamored by her completely. Yet these two opposing images have somehow converged, allowing me to envision her in a kinder, gentler and in perhaps a more forgiving eye, than my current sentiments compel me.
As I hear her oft-repeated command to wake up echoing in my head, I see her deep brown skin, her dark luminescent eyes, outlined in full eyelashes and crowned with thick eyebrows that fade into each other rather than bear being completely separated. Her hair is straight, almost to a fault, because she spent hours with the cast iron hot comb wrestling its massive thickness until the tight, obstinate curls submitted to a plainness that allowed her hair to brush the collar of her shirt and resemble the photos of the Dark and Lovely models on the hair relaxer boxes.
“Wakefulness, my dear sister,” I would respond with exaggerated boredom in her limited, erred vocabulary, “is the opposite of a lack of consciousness that the human body experiences in a state of slumber, often termed sleep. And unless this is a dream that only feels like reality, I don’t think there’s any need for me to wake up.”
Because I was more into reading than watching television or listening to her forbidden music cassettes that she kept stashed in a jagged groove she cut into her mattress, I could get away with taking her words literally and feigning incomprehension. She really imagined I understood no subtleties of language, no inappropriate innuendoes that she and my oldest sister exchanged, nor any reality outside my father’s church and my stacks of “theoretical, book knowledge.”
“Renee,” Patricia would snap, abruptly turning her attention to me from the mirror in which she was carefully applying mascara, “shut up.”
I have often found it odd that Patricia would become the model. As a child, I never thought her beautiful, or attractive even. There were moments that I actually felt sorry for her, for her blandness. She looked too commonplace, too ordinary to earn any admiration in my heart for her physical attributes. Of course, I wasn’t yet a devoted student of the world, the instructor who would soon enough teach me that my eyes had lied—that Patricia’s pale skin was not sickly, that her tall, lankly shapelessness was not at all unpalatable or a cause for sympathy. That, in fact, it was my and Courtney’s “disproportionate” body measurements and rich brown skin that should be pitied, although neither of us were unhealthy or overweight.
Occasionally, when I’m in the shopping market and pass a magazine bearing Patricia’s image or catch a glimpse of her on a friend’s television, I study the person I once thought of as my sister and am enveloped by sadness at what I see. My eyes and mind are now trained to at least comprehend, if not accept, that Patricia’s light skin and long hair are, to many, tokens of beauty on Americans of African descent. But it is not what my eye beholds that inspires a sense of melancholy—I have long since developed an appreciation, if not pride, for beauty that is not limited or defined by the corporeal attributes of human flesh. It is what my heart beholds is beyond the deep brown of her eyes, beyond the skimpy fashions clinging to her anorexic torso and hips, that troubles me to near despondence. I am then overwhelmed in my own regret, and waning hope.
I know, perhaps too well, that her professed dedication to sectarian spirituality is a hypnotism she subjected herself to, to avoid the agonizing reality she would face if she were to truly submit to the guidance of her savior. I so ardently wish that I could tell her that the agony is brief, a stinging felt at only the moment of realization, lasting only as long as the heart procrastinates in facing its ultimate fate, and is lifted almost completely after formal submission.
Patricia knows, and actually had in one unguarded moment told me as such, that my path is the true path, the right path, the only one offering true salvation. And I know, although she has never told me directly, that it is my poor example in youth, and perhaps adulthood, that prevents her from proclaiming my truth—the truth—as the Truth.
I suppose I was too standoffish and self-absorbed, even before Islam graced my life, to afford me the gift of attracting others to what I would choose at any point in my life. Yet, it is my sincere prayer that she, as well as my parents, brothers, and Courtney, be guided in spite of me.
But I still search the annals of my past for what I could have done differently, and should do differently still.