Originally published in print and online here. Incidentally, after writing this article, I found that I was not done with Islam nor was it done with me. I would continue practicing it on and off for the next four years until I finally joined the Baha’i Faith. I compare my history with Islam like that of a fiery romance, and in the end we were bad for each other as lovers. Now, after the divorce, I feel that Islam and I shall make much better friends. — CS 13.06.2008 and 19.05.2010
Since the July 7 attacks in London, both Muslim and non-Muslim Brits have wondered: What is British Islam? Amazingly, Americans who are spilling much blood struggling against Islamic extremists are not wondering, What is American Islam?
I have long had a sense of what a peculiarly American Islam would feel like. Through my undergraduate years at La Salle University — before, during and after 9/11 — I struggled with Islam, for I sensed something great in it.
There was the faith’s grand history how Muhammad unified the crumbling Arabian civilization; how the rational sciences and delicate arts blossomed while Europe withered in the Dark Ages.
There was the faith’s scripture, the Quran, whose opening and final chapters burn with an apocalyptic urgency still visceral centuries after they were written. In between are the laws of the Quran, which, when I forgave their archaic brutality, stunned me with their intrinsic foresight.
Finally, there was the faith’s chief ritual, the salat, the elegant prayer performed five times a day.
I practiced the salat as best I could. After a while, it became a habit, and eventually I needed it. I would have loved Islam, but the Muslims here could not love me back. When they learned I was half-Jewish yet raised a Christian, they balked. When I spoke of romantic love, they mocked me. When I dared compare the Quran and the Bible, they denounced me as a “secret Christian,” a “secret Jew,” and greatest of all, a “crazy American.”
They were right, for as an American, I am crazy. I cannot tolerate simple answers, or survive if I try to bleach the tapestry of my being of all its differently colored ethnic and religious threads.
As an American, I demand vistas within myself as vast as the plains of the old frontier, wildernesses and cityscapes as intricate as the forests and metropolises of the East, temples as bare yet beautiful as the churches of my Pilgrim forefathers. I demand to be drunk on peyote, Californian gold and Appalachian moonshine, yet sober with the hard-fought and bittersweet wisdom of Abraham Lincoln and Malcolm X. I demand to live a savage and beautiful life with all the terrible powers within my heart that God has stricken me — and this terrifies my would-be Muslim brothers and sisters, so obsessed have they become these last few centuries with blindly obeying their leaders and dying for al-Jinnah, the “gorgeous” hereafter.
Throughout the world, Islam is like a hydra: a single body with an Indonesian head, an African head, an Arabic head and so on, each with its own unique face and mind. But it hasn’t yet developed an American head. It’s all imported.
The Quran says the life of this world is but a “test.” Muslims in America interpret this to mean that the test is for entrance into the hereafter. They are wrong. An American Muslim realizes that the test is to see if he can truly live! He is someone who can easily imagine the Prophet Muhammad sitting with Johnny Cash in a New Mexican cantina, sipping sangria and debating philosophy and lyrical styles. He is not afraid to free his imagination and wildly reinterpret his scriptures, to cultivate an inner private spirituality, to rejoice in — and fight for — the wonders of this life rather than the hoped-for treasures of the hereafter.
There is hope. The one Islamic congregation that accepted me — to my surprise — was the former Nation of Islam, long since reorganized into the Ministry of W.D. Muhammad. They believe that Islam is dying only to be reborn here, as a “new star rising.” For me, the moment that encapsulates who they are as a community was an exchange I had with Tariq, a skullcap merchant on Ogontz Avenue.
When I introduced myself, I remarked that I hadn’t a very “Muslim” name, to which he replied, “Christopher Schwartz was the name you were born with, as God willed, so that is a very Muslim name.”
Yes, there is hope for America’s Islam, but not for me. I never formally converted, and now I have walked too far from Islam to return. My prayers are with the followers of W.D. Muhammad, and all those Muslims in America who seek in their hearts to pioneer a new frontier for Allah.