بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم
After spending a year studying Arabic and investigating religion, I developed an urge to travel and see the world, to practice my language skills, to experience life in a new way, and to find my inner self. At the age of 19, I loosely put together a trip schedule that included Egypt, Russia, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, and the Netherlands, and I set off alone into the unknown, with my newfound faith in God and the belief that I would be guided, as I had started to realize that everything happens for a reason and that God possesses the ultimate wisdom.
The first stop on my journey was Egypt – the place I was most excited to visit, as Arabic is spoken there and it holds importance in the three major religions. Also, I had contacted my friend from military school, who was now back in Egypt and studying at the American University in Cairo (AUC), and let him know I would be visiting the country, so he offered for me to stay with him.
Egypt is an absolutely amazing country to visit. While it is nice to see the ancient monuments, which is what most organized tours focus on, I was much more interested in the people and experiencing life as an Egyptian, not as a tourist. Luckily, I had about a month to stay and my own personal “tour guide”.
I fell in love with Egypt during my time there and decided to apply to AUC. After applying, I continued on the rest of my journey through Europe and then flew back home a couple months later. Soon after I returned home, I received my acceptance letter from the university and spent the next few months preparing to move to Egypt.
As a full-time student, I enrolled in intensive Arabic, so the study of Arabic took up the majority of my time. While I was studying Modern Standard Arabic in class, I was making Egyptian friends and learning to speak the local dialect through conversation. At first, I was amazed at how I was able to communicate with people even though I barely knew much Arabic; it was as if there was a universal language that didn’t require words. The more I continued to study Arabic and interact with people, the faster I picked it up and began to actually be able to hold full conversations. I felt the enthusiasm of a small child learning something when I would talk with people; there was the aspect of acquiring the language, but I was also interested in learning about the customs and about how people think, so that I could better understand our similarities and differences and come to a better understanding of myself and my fellow man.
While I was first staying with my friend from military school, who comes from a wealthy family, I met the bawab, or doorman, of the building, who was from the lower class, lived in the garage, and knew only the most basic of phrases in English. While I can now speak with him normally, my Arabic was basically as good as his English when we first met, and so we would communicate through my friend translating. While many of his fellow citizens may look down on him due to his social status, I couldn’t help but look at him as a human being who, while relatively poor materially, possessed wealth in generosity, friendliness, and contentment. There were countless other people I met while living in Egypt who shared such characteristics, and I found myself drawn to them; I couldn’t help but notice those overlooked by society, and I discovered that I preferred their company.
For the first time in my life, I had witnessed both extreme wealth and extreme poverty, and I couldn’t help but feel concern for both – for the lack of livelihood but increased virtue of the poor and the frequent greed, arrogance, and tyranny of the wealthy. While these generalizations obviously do not reflect everyone, at the time, it was how I witnessed the majority in various degrees, to the extent that it stood out to me.
Earlier, my Egyptian friend from military school had given me an Arabic name that was similar to my name. As I was born Jeffrey, he decided to name me Ja’far, and I went by that name in Egypt. At some point, I was interested in learning about anyone from early history with that name, and I came across two: Ja’far bin Abi Talib (may Allah be pleased with him), known as Ja’far al-Tayyar, or Ja’far the Flyer, and also Ja’far al-Sadiq, the great-grandson of Imam al-Husayn. I was especially enthralled by Ja’far bin Abi Talib, the cousin of the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) and brother of Imam Ali (may Allah ennoble his countenance), whom the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) had nicknamed Abu al-Masakeen, or the father/caretaker of the poor. When I read his story, I thought to myself that this was the kind of person I wanted to be like. I went on to read about the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) as well and was fascinated; there was no doubt that this was a very spiritual man who was most likely very close to God – someone who should be followed and someone whose followers were transformed into those who should be followed.
After a year of studying at AUC, I was forced to drop out due to finances. One of the last courses I took was Classical Arabic Literature. We started learning about pre-Islamic poetry, before moving on to the Qur’an with a focus on the early, short chapters, and then followed by early Sufi poems and texts. I was mesmerized by the Qur’an and by the depth of meaning expressed by the Sufis. Two texts that really stood out to me were Ibn Tufayl’s story of Hayy ibn Yaqdhan, in which a child is miraculously born on a deserted island and comes to know God through the observation of nature, and Bayazid Bastami’s story of Mi’raj, or traversing the seven levels of heaven, in which each level of heaven is 1,000 times more magnificent than the previous, yet none are desired until they are all surpassed and one enters into the eternal presence of God’s radiant countenance.
Once I dropped out of university, I continued reading different Sufi texts. Everything I was reading from the Sufis was making sense to me, as though it had already been in my heart and they just knew how to bring it out and express it. Meanwhile, my level of Arabic was improving and I began trying to read the Qur’an in Arabic, starting with the shorter chapters. I was overtaken by the beauty, simplicity, depth, and profound meaning of what I was reading, and at the same time, I was able to hear the beauty of it being recited echoing in the streets. As I was now truly able to appreciate the Arabic of the Qur’an, I realized that there was no way man could have written it and that it could only have come from God. If the Qur’an was from God, then the messenger through whom He revealed it, Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him), must certainly be a prophet. At this point, I believed that there is no deity except God and that Muhammad is the Messenger of God, but I still didn’t exactly consider myself Muslim, because I was somewhat turned off by what I viewed as a lack of Islam being practiced.
During Ramadan 2008, I was attempting to fast and I also asked a friend to show me how to pray, and I found the prayer beautiful and filled with meaning. Shortly after, I had run out of funds and decided I needed to return home and try to get my life together. After roughly 2.5 years in Egypt, I boarded a plane for the United States. As I sat in the plane taking off from Egypt, my mind raced with thoughts of my experiences there and I was already missing the country. While sitting there thinking in the skies above Egypt, I realized that since I believed in the one true God and accepted the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) as His Messenger, then I believed in Islam and was Muslim. At that moment, I said the testification of faith to myself and to God with the intention of becoming Muslim. I didn’t really know much at all about Islam, but I firmly believed that its essence was true and that I would continue to learn and increase my knowledge of the sacred.
Thus began my journey on the path of Islam, which has been filled with many magnificent wonders over the past 10 years, as well as an increased understanding of myself and the world around me. I can’t claim to be a perfect Muslim or even a very good one, but I can claim that Islam has guided me to be a better person and taken me from wanting to change the world around me to seeking to change myself from within and becoming a means of others wanting to improve themselves as well.