My Conversion Was My Most Formative Religious Experience
By Imam Zaid Shakir
My most formative religious experience was my conversion to Islam in 1977. At the time I was serving in the United States Air Force. Like many of the young people currently fighting and dying in Iraq, I was recruited by the â€œpovertyâ€ draft.
My mother, who had struggled valiantly to raise seven children alone, functioning as what she referred to as a â€œmother-father,â€ had recently passed away. At the time our cramped apartment in the sprawling Pinnacle Heights housing project in New Britain, Connecticut, had been occupied by me and my five younger siblings. We were soon joined by my older sister, her husband, and their three young children. Cramped changed to overcrowded.
I decided that I needed to leave. I moved to Michigan and tried briefly to live with my father, who had reappeared soon after my motherâ€™s passing. However, he was essentially a stranger. That fact, coupled with the animosity I felt towards him for abandoning us made the few months I spent with him tumultuous in many ways, empty in others.
When my mother passed away, I was in the second semester of my freshman year at Central Connecticut State University. After the failed endeavor to live with my father, I reasoned that the best way to put a roof over my head while continuing my education would be to join the military.
Having recently been confronted with such a huge loss, and being away from home with a lot of time to think, I began to reflect deeply on the â€œbigâ€ questions. That reflection led to the examination of many different religious and spiritual paths. I was on the altar of a Pentecostal church, kneeling on the ground, as the preacher implored me to accept Jesus as my personal savior. Although the emotional appeal was strong, my reason would not let me take that step.
I studied Zen Buddhism, Confucianism, and other eastern mystical traditions. I went on Arnold Ehretâ€™s mucousless diet for about six months, and for a period of about eighteen months I was an active practitioner of transcendental mediation.
For one reason or another, I found all of these paths unfulfilling. Finally, by mere chance, I happened to meet a fellow airman, who happened to be a Muslim. She had heard of my â€œquestâ€ and gave me a copy of an Islamic book to read. In the pages of that volume I found what I had been looking for. Shortly thereafter, I converted to Islam.
That was my most formative religious experience. It helped me to understand and gracefully accept my motherâ€™s early demise. It provided me with the insight needed to reconcile with my father. It provided me with the spiritual path I had futilely sought in transcendental meditation. Finally, it has helped me to gradually overcome the baggage that comes with growing up as a racial minority in the American underclass, and it has helped to direct me towards a life of study and service to others.