It was a crisp, cool evening in the fall of 2004. I stared up at the night sky, smiling at the dazzling city lights of New York that made it one of the few places in the world where even at night, the clouds were more visible than the stars. As I looked up, I noted that there was no moon tonight—and that that was no coincidence. It was the new moon that marked the beginning of the month of Ramadan, when Muslims believe the first verses of the Qur’an were revealed to the Prophet Muhammad.
As I strode up the massive ramp leading to the huge open doors of the Islamic Cultural Center of New York, I found myself slightly nervous, but awed by the exotic beauty of the architecture and the intricacy of the geometric designs adorning the mosque’s exterior. I entered the giant, domed hall at the center of the building, slipped off my shoes, and found a place to sit on the soft, lush carpet. A guest imam was speaking on the holiness of the season and God’s great gift of the Qur’an to humanity. As I sat enveloped by the space’s simultaneous grandeur and coziness, I found myself recounting to myself the conversation that had led me to this place.
Over the past couple years I’d been studying a form of theatre called Community-Based Theatre, or CBT, a way of using drama to tell the stories that make human communities what they are. This year, I had conceived of the Faith and Religion Project, a CBT production exploring the many faith communities that called New York home. I began by making visits to several and scheduling interviews with their leaders. In early October I scored an interview with the spiritual leader of the Islamic Cultural Center, Imam Omar. He was a thin, wizened, grandfatherly fellow with thin, sharp features, and a joyous high-pitched laugh that reminded me of a Palestinian leprechaun.
As he spoke to me of his faith, I was moved by the depth of his trust in the wisdom and goodness of God. He found rest and calm in God’s benevolence, not because he was supposed to, but because he had had firsthand experience of the Divine. He was radiant with the peace of God. Whatever it was that he had, I wanted. As our conversation drew to a close, he said to me, “You know—Ramadan begins next Friday night. We would be honored if you would join us for prayer.”
“Wow,” I said. “Thanks for the invitation. Yes—I’ll be there.” And here I was. As I’d been fondly remembering my time with the imam, meditating on the deep serenity he exuded, I hadn’t noticed that the people all around me had been slowly standing up and moving around the hall. When I finally noticed and stood up myself, I looked around and found myself smack in the middle of long line of hundreds of men, stretching clear across the room and facing the qibla, the beautifully decorated alcove in the Eastern wall that marked the direction of Mecca.
I looked around, panicked. There was no exit route. I couldn’t leave my place in the line without causing interruption and embarrassing myself. Ah well, I thought to myself, I’ll just do what they do. So I did.
When the men cupped their ears, I cupped my ears. When they kneeled, I kneeled. When they prostrated, I prostrated. This isn’t so hard, I thought. I think I’m pulling this off.
Near the end of the prayer, though, I was pretty sure I’d screwed up.
My fellow worshipers turned their heads to the right and then to the left, saying in each direction, “Asalam alaykum warahmatullah.” I knew those words. Imam Omar had taught them to me. They meant, “May the peace and mercy of God be with you.” This must be like passing the peace, I thought. Later, I learned that this was not like passing the peace.
My neighbor was not greeting me, he was greeting the angels perched on his right and left shoulders, the Noble Recorders who the Qur’an says write down a person’s good and bad deeds for assessment on Judgment Day. But I was clueless.
When my neighbor turned his face toward me, I stared straight at him, and said with a grin, “Asalam alaykum warahmatullah!” He gave me a look that communicated something between embarrassment and pity. Shoot, I thought, I’ve blown my cover. I must look like such a moron. I turned beet red.
As the prayer line dispersed, my neighbor tapped me on the shoulder. “You’re new around here, aren’t you?” he asked, kindly if unsuccessfully attempting to mask his pity. “Um… yeah.” I said.
“That’s great!” he said. “What brings you here?”
“Well,” I explained, “I’m a student at NYU. I spoke with Imam Omar last week, and I was impressed. I really admire his faith. He invited me to come for prayers tonight, so I did.”
“Alhamdulillah! How wonderful!” he shouted. “Have you said the shahadah yet?”
“Um, no,” I said, thinking this must be some sort of Islamic prayer, “but I’d love to learn.”
“Alhamdulillah! Follow me,” said my new friend. He brought me to the imam I had heard speaking earlier. “He wants to say the shahadah,” my friend told the imam.
“Wonderful!” said the imam. “Repeat after me: La ilaha illa ‘Llah.”
“La ilaha illa ‘Llah,” I stammered.
“Wa Muhammadun rasulu ‘Llah.”
“Wa Muhammadun rasulu ‘Lah.”
A great cheer went up. I hadn’t noticed, but several of my fellow worshipers had gathered around me as I was repeating the words. “Congratulations!” someone shouted. “You’re a Muslim now!”
My draw dropped. I’m a Muslim now? How did that happen?
The men who surrounded me were giving me hugs and handshakes, leading me to person after person, exclaiming triumphantly, “This is Ryan! He just said the shahadah!”
“Alhamdulillah!” they would invariably exclaim as they embraced me. “Welcome!”
They showered me with gifts: dates to break the fast, piles of books on Islamic theology and prayer, even a kurta, a long tunic traditionally worn for prayer. I didn’t know how to say no. Finally they brought me to Imam Omar, who was simply delighted at the speed of my conversion. “Come with me,” said the imam. He brought me to Khalid, a graduate student at NYU. “Khalid is a fine young man,” said Imam Omar. “He’ll help you become a good Muslim.” I gulped.
The next day I took the Long Island Railroad out to Levittown for a weekend visit to my grandmother, a severe but brilliant Jew who came to America in 1939 as a refugee from the Third Reich. She wasn’t the most demonstrative or affectionate grandmother in the world, but I loved her dearly and our geographical proximity during my college years had turned us into good friends. I decided to tell her about the previous night.
“Something… interesting happened to me yesterday,” I said to her.
“Oh?” she responded.
“Yeah. Um… it’s kinda funny, actually. I went to visit the big mosque on the Upper East Side for the start of Ramadan. And I agreed to repeat the words of this imam to learn what I thought was a prayer. But, actually, it’s not a prayer, it’s the Muslim proclamation of faith. So, um, apparently I’m a Muslim now.”
She looked at me silently and sternly for a moment. Finally, she spoke. “I didn’t say anything when you became a Baha’i. And I didn’t say anything when you became a Christian. But if you become a Moslem, you and I are through.”
When I returned to the city on Monday morning, I called Khalid as I had promised. We met up at the NYU Student Union, which housed the Muslim Student Association. Khalid taught me how to perform the ablutions before prayer, even demonstrating the easiest way to get my feet up onto bathroom sink to rinse them in water. As I nearly fell backward and split my head open on the tile floor, I found myself thinking, I don’t think I can do this. It wasn’t the last time I had that thought.
I took the chicken’s way out. After a couple of weeks of dutifully showing up for prayers and going out for lunch with Khalid, I just disappeared. I ghosted my Muslim friends. I felt terrible about it, but I just didn’t know how to explain to them what had happened, that my apparent conversion was really just a big misunderstanding.
Finally, toward the end of the semester, the caller ID on my cellphone displayed Khalid’s name. I really need to tell him, I thought. I was terrified, but I answered the call.
“Hey, man,” he said. “What’s going on? I haven’t seen you at the MSA meetings, or at the mosque. You haven’t been returning my calls. Are you okay?”
“Yeah, I’m fine,” I said. Voice shaking, I told him, “I don’t really know how to say this, but I never actually intended to become a Muslim. When that guy asked me if I wanted to say the shahadah, I thought I was just going to learning a prayer. I’m actually planning on going to seminary next year—you know, to become a Christian minister.”
There was silence. Great, I thought, I’ve just totally insulted him and his faith. I suck.
Finally he spoke. “Well that’s hilarious!” he laughed.
“You’re not mad?”
“No, I’m not mad. It’s fine. The Qur’an’s totally clear that people have to convert intentionally for it to be valid. You made a mistake. We should have been clearer with you.”
I breathed a giant sigh of relief.
Little did I know. It was a mighty strange few weeks. Would I do it again? Probably not. But everything’s material, right? And it makes a decent story: that time I accidentally converted to Islam.
Ryan Dowell Baum is the pastor of First Congregational United Church of Christ and the host of Beer & Theology, a forum for the exploration of spiritual and theological themes on Sunday afternoons at Jackson Street Brewing in Sioux City. Ryan is married with two kids.
Ode is a storytelling series where community members tell true stories on stage to promote positive impact through empathy. It’s produced by Siouxland Public Media.
Our next show is Friday, October 6 at ISU Design West in downtown Sioux City. The theme is “Home.” We’ll have live music by Angela Lambrecht and Shawn Blomberg of Ultra Violet at 6:30 p.m., followed by stories at 7 p.m. Tickets are $10 in advance; $15 day of show.