A winner of the 2003 Wilbur Award for best book of the year on a religious theme, author and poet appearing on Ted Koppel’s “Nightline” documenting the Haj, Michael Wolfe describes his motivations for accepting Islam.
I could not have drawn up a list of demands, but I had a fair idea of what I was after. The religion I wanted should be to metaphysics as metaphysics is to science. It would not be confined by a narrow rationalism or traffic in mystery to please its priests. There would be no priests, no separation between nature and things sacred. There would be no war with the flesh, if I could help it. Sex would be natural, not the seat of a curse upon the species. Finally, I did want a ritual component, daily routine to sharpen the senses and discipline my mind. Above all, I wanted clarity and freedom. I did not want to trade away reason simply to be saddled with a dogma.
The more I learned about Islam, the more it appeared to conform to what I was after.
Most of the educated westerners I knew around this time regarded any strong religious climate with suspicion. They classified religion as political manipulation, or they dismissed it as a medieval concept, projecting upon it notions from their European past.
It was not hard to find a source for their opinions. A thousand years of western history had left us plenty of fine reasons to regret a path that led through so much ignorance and slaughter. From the Children’s Crusade and the Inquisition to the transmogrified faiths of Nazism and communism during our century, whole countries have been exhausted by belief. Nietzsche’s fear, that the modern nation-state would become a substitute religion, has proved tragically accurate. Our century, it seemed to me, was ending in an age beyond belief, which believers inhabited as much as agnostics.
Regardless of church affiliation, secular humanism is the air westerners breathe, the lens we gaze through. Like any worldview, this outlook is pervasive and transparent. It forms the basis of our broad identification with democracy and with the pursuit of freedom in all its countless and beguiling forms. Immersed in our shared preoccupations, one may easily forget that other ways of life exist on the same planet.
At the time of my trip, for instance, 650 million Muslims with a majority representation in 44 countries (now 57) adhered to the formal teachings of Islam. In addition, about 400 million more were living as minorities in Europe, Asia and the Americas. Assisted by postcolonial economics, Islam has become in a matter of 30 years a major faith in western Europe. Of the world’s great religions, Islam alone was adding to its fold.
My politicized friends were dismayed by my new interest. They all but universally confused Islam with the machinations of some Muslim tyrants. The books they read, the new broadcasts they viewed depicted the faith as a set of political functions. Almost nothing was said of its spiritual practice. I liked to quote Mae West to them: “Anytime you take religion for a joke, the laugh’s on you.”
Historically, a Muslim sees Islam as the final, matured expression of an original religion reaching back to Adam. It is as resolutely monotheistic as Judaism, whose major prophets Islam reveres as links in a progressive chain, culminating in Jesus and Muhammad (peace be upon them). Essentially a message of renewal, Islam has done its part on the world stage to return the forgotten taste of life’s lost sweetness to millions of people. Its book, the Qur’an, caused Goethe to remark, “You see, this teaching never fails; with all our systems, we cannot go, and generally speaking no man can go, further.
Traditional Islam is expressed through the practice of five pillars. Declaring one’s faith, prayer, charity, and fasting are activities pursued repeatedly throughout one’s life. Conditions permitting, each Muslim is additionally charged with undertaking a pilgrimage to Makkah once in a lifetime. The Arabic term for this fifth rite is Haj. Scholars relate the word to the concept of ‘qasd,’ “aspiration,” and to the notion of men and women as travelers on earth. In western religions, pilgrimage is a vestigial tradition, a quaint, folkloric concept commonly reduced to metaphor. Among Muslims, on the other hand, the Haj embodies a vital experience for millions of new pilgrims every year. In spite of the modern content of their lives, it remains an act of obedience, a profession of belief, and the visible expression of a spiritual community. For a majority of Muslims the Hajj is an ultimate goal, the trip of a lifetime.
As a convert, I felt obliged to go to Makkah. As an addict to travel I could not imagine a more compelling goal.
The annual, month-long fast of Ramadan precedes the Haj by about one hundred days. These two rites form a period of intensified awareness in Muslim society. I wanted to put this period to use. I had read about Islam; I (attended) a mosque near my home in California; I had started a practice. Now I hoped to deepen what I was learning by submerging myself in a religion where Islam infuses every aspect of existence.
I planned to begin in Morocco, because I knew that country well and because it followed traditional Islam and was fairly stable. The last place I wanted to start was in a backwater full of uproarious sectarians. I wanted to paddle the mainstream, the broad, calm water.
n Courtesy of islamreligion.com