On My Preconceived Notions about Muslims. [A True Story]

Jose Vilson Jose

Malcolm X in Africa, 1964

“You’re a Muslim now? Bullshit.”

“Nah, man, I’m on my dean. It’s great. I have a Muslim name and everything. It’s awoken me from inside, and it feels so different.”

Aquiles sits there, detailing his new views on the world, reformed after converting to Islam after having been a wavering devout Catholic for the 21 years prior to this undertaking. He tells me that his mornings are filled with Arabic chants and nights in meditations. He sees that nations can’t separate church from state, and that women and men shouldn’t date, but get to know each other for a while before getting married. My face shifts from a jocular disbelief to a nodding respect. Chris, in his jovial nature, says, “It’s cool, but he’s always playing that [chant] tape! EVERY MORNING!” We laugh.

Oswego was a place where I’d seen people drink mystery liquids from unsanitary coolers, meet face-to-face (and much closer) with some of the most attractive and vivacious Latina women I’d seen in my entire life, and mock demons with the amount of smoke that blew from nostril, ear, and mouth. From the few visits to Oswego in my time at Syracuse, I couldn’t have imagined he’s find Islam. Kids from the hood don’t find Islam. They either go from Catholicism to another Christian denomination or to agnosticism. They feel inundated with rosaries and sacraments that the guilt for not fulfilling their obligations turns to bitterness or they try to align their beliefs with their current lifestyles (and not vice-versa).

Plus, the only Muslims we ever ran into run the overpriced delis, the falafel place spots scattered around the neighborhood, and the garment and carpeting spots all across Orchard St. Often, the more ignorant ones would call them “habibis” and wonder aloud what’s hiding in their turbans, enlikening them to Toad from Mario Bros. Our own ignorance about them was the confluence of these influences, never having to take into consideration that Muslims, like Catholics and Jews who occupied the Lower East Side like us, just wanted their space to call their own.

Fortunately for those of us who went to college, we were thrown into an environment where our preconceived notions about everyone went out the window. Some of our notions about the way a normal (read: white) student lived stuck like a stereotype, but most of them made no sense in the face of the people I had to talk to on a daily basis. Plus, our curricula from years before never taught us much about Mohandas Gandhi, Malcolm X, or the real Martin Luther King Jr., and how religion didn’t mean they couldn’t speak up and out. Or speak.

He keeps saying the word Muslim with an ‘s’ and not the lazy ‘z’ American culture uses. It’s easy enough to adopt, so I took it on, just like one of my friends back in Syracuse took the ‘o’ out of G-d as a sign of respect for the indispensable spirit of G-d. As we’re driving back to my dorm, I think back to this transformation, and it stuck with me through the year. My advisor screwed me over, so I had to take a couple of extra summer classes to complete my computer science major. The Physics II class was compulsory, but Religion 101 should have been.

I went into the class hoping to learn a little something about every religion, touching upon the Bhagavad Gita, the all-too-familiar Old and New Testament, and read a little from other religions that never get discussed like santeria and vodun (or voodoo for some of you). Our final project pushed me from intrigue to elation. We had to choose one religion different from our own and go to one of their gatherings. I quickly chose Islam because of my friend Aquiles’ conversion, but also because I had a few friends going and they’d show me the ropes. Plus, it was within walking distance of the dorm I stayed in.

I remember waking up that morning to a dreary but temperate day, pensive about this new experience that I couldn’t understand. I’m hoping bricks don’t fall from the sky, or my heart doesn’t light ablaze from stepping into the mosque. I laughed a bit. After a bit of breakfast, I walk with my sandals to the place. As the people converge, I notice Aquiles walking into the mosque as well. I give him the usual pound, excited to see him. I tell him I need to concentrate, though, so we can’t do what we often did at masses years back.

This isn’t years back, though. I’m a much different person, a man with a keen eye for beauty. As I walk in, I’m asked to remove all my footwear and leave it in an open space. The New Yorker in me is skeptical and hopes he’s not walking barefoot back. “Alll riiight.” I sit on the floor, close enough to the imam that I could understand what he’s saying, but far enough so that I wouldn’t embarrass myself. The next hour felt like 20 minutes. In the middle of this teachings, I felt the winds caress my insides, my mind rinsed from the dead brain cells accumulated from a tumultuous spring and summer. None of it mattered. Black, White, and Arab men all bowing together, humming together, and breathing together, just like Malcolm said after his Hajj to Mecca.

I returned to class that week to recant my experience in that mosque, with Catholics, Muslims, Buddhists, and atheists reconvened and religiously confused. It’s probably the first time in years I’d had such a captive audience. The last time was actually as cantor for my choir in one of my high school’s Masses. I tried to take the magic I felt and put it in a jar so I could hand that in with my paper, but everyone in the class felt it, too, or at least I think so. I didn’t take off my shoes, either. I emphasized the ‘s’ in Islam.  And I flirted with the idea of dropping Catholicism right then and there for this profound experience I had there.

I never did. Which is all to the good. Because it’s important that members of every religion practice religious respect, tolerance, and consciousness, even when we disagree with the Higher Being they believe in. America’s relationship with ideas outside of the white, upper-middle-to-rich, Protestant-or-at-least-Christian male experience have equal parts ignorance and stupidity. Peace doesn’t work without fighting, but it has to be the right type of fight.

It’s not about the lesser jihad (warfare), but the greater jihad (spiritual self-perfection).

Jose, who encourages you also to go to a service than your own …