Changing faith: Finding Islam in the ruins of 9/11
By Justin Cox
Just across the Hudson River from the Twin Towers, on the Stevens Institute of Technology campus where he studied engineering, he watched in clear view plumes of smoke billow from gaping openings where the planes just hit. All at once, he was overcome by the realization of life’s fragility.
“What if tomorrow’s not promised for me?” he recalled thinking. “What state will I die in?”
He’d been toying with the idea for months. But now, watching monuments to American commerce and prosperity—the American way of life —collapse in a heap of gnarled concrete and steel, a mushroom cloud filling the air where they once stood, he was moved to action. He knew there was more to life. And on September 11, 2001, Hernan Guadalupe—a 20-year-old Ecuadorian raised in Union City, N.J., an occasional pot dealer and hip-hop enthusiast who step danced for his Latino fraternity— made the most important decision of his life. He decided to convert to Islam.
It was an unlikely time to convert to Islam, a religion that would become the subject of intense scrutiny and, in many cases, scorn in the months and years following the attacks Guadalupe witnessed. Moreover, like many Latinos, Guadalupe had strong cultural and familial ties to Catholicism, making him seem an improbable candidate to add to the growing ranks of American- Muslim converts. But he’s no anomaly.
Part of a rising trend
As Latino and Muslim immigrants populate increasingly diverse U.S. cities, and have more contact with each other, members of a younger generation of Latinos are finding answers to their spiritual questions beyond the traditions provided by their family’s native cultures.
For Guadalupe, it was in college, long after growing disillusioned with Catholicism, that he was introduced to Islam by a Muslim-American friend. And despite appearances, even the time he decided to convert wasn’t all that strange.
Since 2001, scholars have noted a marked increase in U.S. Latinos embracing Islam, popular media estimates placing today’s number between 70,000 and 200,000 nationwide.
Some experts explain this phenomenon by pointing to the link between Latinos being the fastest growing group in America, and Islam being the fastest growing religion in the world.
“There is no way you cannot see the relationship,” Hjamil A. Martinez-Vazquez, a religion professor at Texas Christian University, said in a 2008 St. Petersburg Times article on the subject.
For other experts, the causes are more complex.
"It's a natural process for Hispanics who are dissatisfied with the church in their own spirituality, their own level of morality and are looking for answers outside of their own traditional kind of religious traditions," said Ihsan Bagby, a professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Kentucky, in the St. Petersburg Times article. "Beyond that, Islam is a fairly conservative culture that probably dovetails very well with Hispanic culture."
To Guadalupe, Bagby couldn’t be more on point. Growing up as an altar boy, Guadalupe became disenchanted with the church when he couldn’t reconcile certain contradictions he found in its doctrine.
For one, he couldn’t understand why wine was served at communion when the Bible discourages drinking. He also couldn’t square the notions of a single God and Holy Trinity. But most importantly, he couldn’t understand why he couldn’t understand.
“If religion is from God, this Supreme Being, and he wants good for his servants, good for his creation, why would he make a religion so complicated for us to understand? Why can’t there be something simple? Why does there have to be mystery in it?” Guadalupe wondered.
One night when he was 17, Guadalupe said he was looking out the window above his bed, trying to fall asleep. He was staring at a full moon through clear skies when, all of the sudden, he was seized by his mounting spiritual confusion and began pleading with God, if there was one, to give him a sign.
“I’m hearing about all these religions; I came from a religion. I got all these friends that are part of different religions and now I’m learning about this science thing, Darwinism,” he recalled saying to God. “I’m confused. How am I supposed to live my life? What is my reason? What is the order that I’m supposed to follow?”
At one point, he recalls, his supplicating became so desperate, he broke down in frantic tears, gasping for air as he begged God for direction.
After somehow falling asleep, Guadalupe woke the next morning, expecting something to fall from the sky, some dramatic message to hit him on the head that would once and for all answer his questions and bring him peace. But when that didn’t happened, he started drifting.
For the next three years, he says his spirit wandered aimlessly. His heart always drawn to the idea of one true God, but never sure if there was one and oblivious to which, if any, religion offered the best path to follow.
In the interim, he started drinking and getting into minor scrapes with the law. After starting college, he joined a Latino fraternity where he competed in step dancing and lived a lifestyle laden with girlfriends and parties. Then, during his sophomore year, he met Ahmer Siddiqui, and things began changing.
They met in chemistry class and just “clicked,” said Guadalupe. They were both majoring in engineering, were into hip-hop and shared several mutual friends. And at some point, their discussions moved to the topic of religion.
The concept of God, the Day of Judgment, heaven and hell — these were the things Ahmer liked to talk about with Guadalupe. He especially liked to point out what he saw as signs of an impending Day of Judgment.
Some such signs, like cell phones and beepers — what Ahmer thought the Qur’an was describing when it said the end will be near the day men’s hips tell them what’s happening in their homes while they’re away — piqued Guadalupe’s curiosity, and he asked to borrow the book Ahmer got his crazy ideas from. Instantly, Guadalupe found himself fascinated like never before.
“I knew of every other religion … but nothing ever drew my heart to it,” Guadalupe said of his spiritual investigations prior to Ahmer and Islam. “But immediately when I started to learn about Islam…my heart was drawn to it,” he said, his right hand clenching his chest then quickly shooting to the desk in front of him, as if to show how his heart literally leapt toward the religion upon discovering it.
He was attracted to Islam because it did away with the mysteries and contradictions he found in other religions, particularly, it made the concept of a single creator easy to understand.
He also liked Islam’s straightforwardness in other ways. How there were instructions for what to do in every situation, codes to guide virtually every daily practice — from eating to dress — and that it wasn’t “just something you did on Sundays,” Guadalupe said.
As a sort of “bonus,” as Guadalupe put it, there were also similarities between Muslim and Latino culture. He liked how, in Muslim culture, much like in the Latino environment he was raised in, emphasis was put on things like respect for elders and loyalty to family.
It was at the time of these revelations, just months after meeting Ahmer and initiating his foray into Islamic teachings, that Guadalupe found himself watching the Twin Towers crumble to the ground.
Frozen in shock, screams of horror swirling around him, Guadalupe recalls a tap on his shoulder momentarily jarring him from his stupor. It was Ahmer, saying he couldn’t bear to watch anymore, and he was going to his room to pray. Almost without thinking, as if it were the only natural thing to do at such a time, Guadalupe said he would join.
In his cramped dorm room, facing Saudi Arabia, where the holiest spot on earth, the Kabah, is located according to Islamic doctrine, Ahmer recited in Arabic the Shahadah, or Muslim testimony of faith.
Having hardly ever heard Arabic, and having never attempted to speak it, Guadalupe remembers stumblingly repeating his friend’s words before following him through them again in English, so he could understand what was said.
“There is no god but God, and Muhammad is the Messenger of God,” Guadalupe and Ahmer said, reciting the words all converts say when committing themselves to Islam and a fundamental element of daily prayer.
Next, Ahmer directed Guadalupe to his sink and instructed him in the intricate process of partial ablution, or Wudu.
Guadalupe remembers being told to clean various parts of his body according to a strict set of rules and order, such as washing his hands three times to the wrist before cleansing his nostrils by carefully snorting water up them three times.
Afterward, the friends turned back to Kabah and Guadalupe listened as Ahmer recited verses from the Qur’an in Arabic. He did his best to mimic the required prayer prostrations Ahmer performed: kneeling with forehead to ground; standing with hands on knees, face down; standing. And afterward, just like that, with Ahmer and Allah as his witnesses, Guadalupe was a Muslim.
Life as a Muslim
Short and stout, the close-cropped hair on his head a sharp contrast to the straggly beard stretching to his collar bone, Guadalupe sits at a cluttered desk in his seven-by-seven cubicle at the Dar-us-Salaam offices. A multicolored Muslim calendar and inspirational phrases from the Qur’an, printed in black ink on white strips of paper, decorate the walls, adding some life to otherwise drab confines.
“Dar-us-Salaam, how can I help you?” he asks whenever answering the landline phone shoved in the corner on his desk.
“He is very busy this week, would you like to set up an appointment, or would speaking over the phone be OK?” he asks one woman, who is seeking advice on a “personal matter.”
As administrative assistant to the Imam, or spiritual leader, at Dar-us-Salaam—a Muslim community centered on a school and mosque in College Park, Md. — Guadalupe’s responsibilities run the gamut.
“He’s kind of a jack-of-all-trades,” explained Minhaj Hasan, a fellow congregant and Dar-us- Salaam employee.
“I’m basically on call 24/7. Whenever the Imam wants to text me or call me, he does,” Guadalupe said, describing his job.
For example, following a call from the Imam during a recent snow storm, Guadalupe hit the interstate around 10 p.m. to find a sister, the title used for Muslim females,whose car needed a jumpstart. On another occasion, he spent a day scouring the community to find a place where a sister and her children could stay and feel safe after someone tried breaking into their home the previous night.
Beyond such adventures, however, Guadalupe also handles many of the more mundane, day-to-day matters for the Imam. He arranges meetings for marriage counseling, talks to couples interested in getting married, or people inquiring about Islam or requesting the Imam speak in their communities.
Overall, Guadalupe says he likes his job, getting to be so involved in the community. Yet despite this, and despite having converted to Islam and all those pressing spiritual questions from his past being answered, Guadalupe’s life as a Muslim hasn’t come without challenges.
While he doesn’t like to say he “lost” friends because of his conversion, he’ll admit it has changed things.
To illustrate, Guadalupe talks about a recent reunion of his fraternity brothers he wanted to attend. He missed the friends from college and looked forward to catching up. Nonetheless, he had to set some ground rules if he was going — there could be no drinking, no girls, no music or dancing. He says he asked if they would abide his request for one hour, so he could swing by without breaking Islamic dictates. But when they declined, saying beer and music were essential to a reunion, Guadalupe had to swallow hard and pass on the event.
In a similar situation with his extended family during Thanksgiving, Guadalupe and his wife had to leave the festivities early when people decided to watch music videos featuring scantily clad women.
Fortunately, Guadalupe sees these events as small prices to pay for what he’s gained from conversion. Sitting in his cramped cubicle one day, he explained his position.
“Once I understood certain values, certain things were more important than others, I never regretted anything,” Guadalupe said, his hands folded in his lap.
He said those activities are means to temporary happiness. But by “living a life according to what Allah has ordered,” he says he’s found sustained happiness, “true happiness.”
Guadalupe leans back on the rolly-chair at his desk, his mouth curls into a slight smirk, and he looks up and whispers as if speaking to no one in particular: “Oh yeah, I’m happy.” His expression is triumphant. His face 100 percent satisfaction.
Seeing him like this, it’s difficult to imagine the confused 20-year-old Guadalupe described himself as, watching the Twin Towers fall. For a fleeting moment, it’s almost hard to believe in such a radical transformation. But then the evidence is right there, such comfort and security and authenticity in his expression, and it’s clear he probably wasn’t whispering to no one in particular while looking up from the rolly-chair in his cubicle.