By the end of my month learning about Islam, I’d finished a few small books on the faith, attended a couple of Friday prayer services at the Islamic Association of West Virginia and listened to some Yusuf Islam records.
If I’m honest, I still preferred the stuff he did when was called Cat Stevens. “If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out” is my jam (or was until it was unceremoniously pulled from Apple Music), but I wanted to pick the brain of Imam Nasir Abdussalam and ask a few random questions about things that were interesting to me.
We met at the mosque in a little conference room and study just off from the entrance, where worshipers took off their shoes before entering the next room to pray.
While the imam stirred cream and sugar into his coffee from across the table, I luxuriated in the rich air conditioning.
We talked. I was interested in his perspective as a man raised in a culturally Christian country who converted to Islam and then studied that religion in a culturally Muslim part of the world.
When we’d first met, he’d spoken about his time in Egypt and Jordan. I’m a sucker for travel stories and the imam had been to the ancient city of Cairo.
The closest Cairo I’d been to was in Ohio.
He told me that in his time overseas, he’d been approached a few times by other Muslims with a bone to pick about American foreign policy.
“I explained that there were 300 million Americans and that America was a big place, but that we didn’t all always agree with everything our government did,” he said. “I told them that I loved my country. That you could love its very soil and still not be happy with everything that happened there.”
That’s as American an answer as I know.
As we talked, I asked him if there was any one thing in particular that Americans didn’t get about Islam.
The imam said he didn’t think there was that big of a difference between devout Christians and devout Muslims.
“There are some cultural differences, but they’re superficial,” he said.
When Imam Nasir had studied in Egypt and Jordan, he’d met many other Muslims from all over the world. Americans, he thought, tended to think of Muslims as being from the Middle East, maybe because that’s where the religion began.
“I spent time with Jordanians, Syrians, Palestinians, Iraqis and Egyptians,” he told me. “But I also encountered students from Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand. I befriended a man from Turkmenistan.”
And then there was Africa, the imam said.
With all of these people, the differences between them was really minor.
“You might not be used to eating on the floor or eating with your hand from a large platter where everybody takes something,” he said. “You’re maybe used to eating at a table, but that’s really just superficial.
“The thing is, everybody eats.”
The imam laughed and added, “And apparently, everybody eats chicken as well.”
Well, maybe not everybody. The imam also told me his brother had become a vegan. He didn’t eat chicken, but they do make some pretty decent fake chicken, which probably counts as close enough.
Anyway, his point was that there were more similarities between peoples of faith or conscience than there were differences. Just as everybody eats, all religious people worship. They pray. How they go about it is different, but the intent is the same.
People, he said, are really just people.
“When you get past the language barrier and just start having conversations with others, you’ll find that the content of those conversations is exactly what you’d be talking about with someone if you were just speaking English,” the imam said. “Everybody has the same hopes and fears. We’re all essentially the same.”
He did think it was interesting that the religious groups who seem to have the most contention with Islam are usually the most similar philosophically to Islam.
Islam is typically very conservative socially. It stresses modesty, humility and comes with a strong ethic of personal responsibility — similar to some conservative Christian denominations.
“I would not say we are twins,” the imam said. “I would say we look similar.”
Members of more radical elements of those Christian denominations might speak out or demonstrate against Islam or Islamic causes. They might denounce Muslims.
“The thing is the people who are ideologically on the more liberal end tend to be more welcoming of us,” he said. “They tend to be more understanding, more willing to engage, but have much less in common with us — and that’s so strange to me.”
The imam shrugged. People are weird.
The imam told me that while evangelical Christians did reach out to win converts to their faith, Muslims didn’t so much — at least, they didn’t send mission groups to the United States.
Many Muslims came to the United States for the same reasons immigrants have come to this country all along — opportunity and the hope of a better life. Proselytizing and trying to convert the neighbors might be a bit much to take on.
“The Muslim community is very ethnically divided,” he said. “Our attitudes differ, but when Muslims come to a country, there’s also assimilating into that country. It seems bad to be welcomed and then start telling people that you need to start following me.”
Americans do find Islam, however. The imam was proof of that and he acknowledged that Islam might hold more of an appeal in some communities, like the Black community, whose ancestors might have originally come from Islamic countries.
Imam Nasir said his conversion wasn’t that great of a switch philosophically. The Christianity he’d known had been similar. Most of the resistance he’d felt to converting had been misconceptions about some of the duties and restrictions being a Muslim included.
“Like ham,” he said. “I remember honey-baked Heavenly Ham, which is delicious.”
Could he give up eating ham sandwiches for God?
Sure, he said. It really wasn’t that hard, just a minor thing.
“And I haven’t thought about ham sandwiches in a long time.” He sighed and shook his head. “Of course, now that I’ve mentioned it, now I’m thinking about delicious ham sandwiches.”
It would pass.
And praying five times a day?
“I struggled with that one before I committed,” he said.
Five prayers seemed like a lot of time to commit and a disruption to your day, but the imam said when you really looked at how much time it took to pray, it wasn’t that big of a deal.
“I can usually get it done in about seven minutes,” he said. “A long prayer is 10 minutes, so at most, you’re looking at 50 minutes in a day. I can spend 50 minutes in a day doing nothing.”
Same, I told him. I can do that with Facebook.
The imam and I talked for about an hour. I told him I’d learned a few things about Islam and hoped to maybe learn a little more.
I asked him to please keep in touch.
We shook hands and then both went for a bottle of hand sanitizer. Welcome to 2020.
As far as my own religious journey, I’m still working on it. Over the past 100 days, I’ve muscled my way through all the books of the Old Testament up to Isaiah. It feels like progress, like I have a better understanding both of Christianity and the culture I’m part of.
It also feels like I don’t know anything at all.