Why an American Became Muslim by James Campbell
April 1, 2017
[Brother James Campbell is a new contributor to CIP, alhamdulillah!]
First things first: I am white, and thoroughly American.
I am a registered and informed Democrat, I like dirty jokes and I speak with a vague Long Island accent. And, in a little over a week, I will be celebrating the one-year anniversary of my conversion to Islam.
Coming to Islam felt entirely natural. The famous scholar and convert, Muhammad Asad, described his first impression of Islam as “a perfect work of architecture,” its every pillar and crossbeam serving a practical, healthful end.
To him, it felt conceived as if to perfectly meet the Godly and bodily needs of all human beings, race and sex aside. Sheikh Asad is a rare exception. Far more common are stories of converts being drawn to the religion by the sound of the Qur’an alone. While I wish I had had the initial insight of Sheikh Asad, it took me some time to arrive at the wisdom of al-Islam. In the beginning, like so many others, I was just a sucker for the sound.
And wallah, is that sound singular on this Earth. As I have written elsewhere, my first experience hearing the recitation of the Qur’an was nourishing of my anemic soul in a way that nothing else has ever been. It was like a rush of warm, crimson blood into a tingling, shriveled limb.
A background in Arabic was not even necessary. In fact, no sophisticated understanding of language is required at all. The words of the Qur’an hit you somewhere a little further south than the brain. Haven’t heard it? It’s time.
Now, let’s stop here for a second. I can guess what you’re thinking. As the Arabic settles in your head — as you read this and you pass by words like Qur’an, and wallah — your perception of me is changing.
I am no longer a Democrat, or a Long Islander and I no longer like dirty jokes.
Suddenly, I am sprouting a beard. A kufi appears out of mid-air and sinks onto my head. My skin darkens. I shout in a harsh, guttural language at a passing woman wearing clothes that I deem too promiscuous. You have now made me into a capital-M Muslim, the “common” kind of Muslim, and I would guess that there’s very little I can do to reverse that in your mind.
But allow me one more chance to course-correct this knee-jerk descent into harmful stereotypes before it’s irreversible: I am a white, American man. I play the guitar. I listen to Drake. I drink Coca-Cola (more than I should). And on top of all that, I pray to Allah five times a day.
I have been told time and again, by people both Muslim and not, that my white American-ness has granted me a unique position. The same word is always used: mediator.
We all have pet peeves. One which I’ve recently discovered for myself is the word mediator — especially in the circumstances that I’ve described above. There are a few assumptions lying underneath the use of that word that don’t sit right with me.
When, after all, do we need mediators? When groups of people clash. When there is so much difference or discord, that a third party needs to step in to force the groups together in reconciliation. What, then, are these well-meaning people asking me to do when they call me a mediator? To bring together two groups (Islam and Americans) that are inherently at odds in what they value. I call this a false premise.
So, put simply, I decline your invitation to mediate. Why? Because there is nothing to force together. You may not have noticed them before 9/11, but Muslim people have been living quietly alongside you all along. They vote, they play video games, they fall in love and get married. And these things are easy for them — not just because they are American, but also because they are Muslim.
As you’ll find, these words could very well be synonyms. Let’s take a moment to look at some facts:
- According to research conducted by Sylviane Diouf, around one fifth (that is 20 percent) of all slaves brought to the New World from Africa were Muslim. The number grows to nearly half when you count the slaves that lived in Muslim-ruled territory.
- The enlightenment thinkers who would go on to influence the ideals of the American founding fathers were open about the fact that they were, in turn, influenced by Islamic philosophers like Avicenna, Averroes and Imam Ghazali.
- The Qur’an speaks in explicit terms about religious freedom, the equality of genders, races and ethnicities, and economic and social justice for the least among us.
This is, by no means, an academic work. I do not pretend to be a scholar of law or of Islamic theology. But it seems to me that these basic facts that I have listed above give voice to a powerful and essential twofold message.
One: Islam has been here since the beginning, playing a role in both the physical and philosophical construction of our country, and two: the Holy Qur’an and its calls for pluralism and justice for the oppressed read with shocking similarity to America’s own foremost legal document: our Constitution.
Of course, there have been times in our history when we did not live up to our ideals. Take, for instance, the fact that our most progressive president interned an entire ethnic group during World War II. Or perhaps, if you prefer, the fact that women in our country were deprived of the right to vote until the year 1920 (and even then, it was really only white women).
Or, my favorite, slavery. But it would be unfair, bordering on absurd, to condemn the entire American experiment based simply off the failures of a few insane men with too much power — almost as absurd as condemning an entire religion for the crimes of less than one percent of its adherents.
Now, you are an Elite Daily reader. Chances are, you are a Millennial and you are liberal. Chances are that you value universal human rights, freedom of expression and all of the other ideals that we as Americans strive daily to honor. Perhaps you are more Islamic than you think. But I am not here to convert you to Islam.
After all, the Qur’an teaches us that there is no compulsion in religion. What I would like you to do instead is consider that I, as a natural-born American, am no different now that I have converted to Islam. In fact, converting has probably brought me closer to what a true American ought to be.
Maybe — just maybe — the kufi belongs on all our heads.