"Allahu Akbar. I bear witness that there is no god but Allah. I bear witness that Muhammad is the messenger of Allah."
These are the first words of the Muslim call to prayer. They were also the first words ever spoken to me. Moments after I was born, I have been told, my father softly recited them in my ear, as his father had done for him, and as all my forefathers had done for their sons since the time of Muhammad.
We are Qureshis, descendants of the Quresh tribe—Muhammad's tribe. Our family stood sentinel over Islamic tradition.
The words my ancestors passed down to me were more than ritual: they came to define my life as a Muslim in the West. Every day I sat next to my mother as she taught me to recite the Qur'an in Arabic. Five times a day, I stood behind my father as he led our family in congregational prayer.
By age 5, I had recited the entire Qur'an in Arabic and memorized the last seven chapters. By age 15, I had committed the last 15 chapters of the Qur'an to memory in both English and Arabic. Every day I recited countless prayers in Arabic, thanking Allah for another day upon waking, invoking his name before falling asleep.
But it is one thing to be steeped in remembrance, and it is quite another to bear witness. My grandfather and great-grandfather were Muslim missionaries, spending their lives preaching Islam to unbelievers in Indonesia and Uganda. My genes carried their zeal. By middle school, I had learned how to challenge Christians, whose theology I could break down just by asking questions. Focusing on the identity of Jesus, I would ask, "Jesus worshiped God, so why do you worship Jesus?" or, "Jesus said, 'the Father is greater than I.' How could he be God?" If I really wanted to throw Christians for a loop, I would ask them to explain the Trinity. They usually responded, "It's a mystery." In my heart I mocked their ignorance, saying, "The only mystery here is how you could believe in something as ridiculous as Christianity."
Bolstered by every conversation I had with Christians, I felt confident in the truth of Islam. It gave me discipline, purpose, morals, family values, and clear direction for worship. Islam was the lifeblood that coursed through my veins. Islam was my identity, and I loved it. I boldly issued the call of Islam to anyone and everyone who would listen, proclaiming that there is no God but Allah and that Muhammad is his messenger.
And it was there, atop the minaret of Islamic life, that Jesus called to me.
Not the Man I Thought
As a freshman at Old Dominion University in Virginia, I was befriended by a sophomore, David Wood. Soon after he extended a helping hand, I found him reading a Bible. Incredulous that someone as clearly intelligent as he would actually read Christians' sacred text, I launched a barrage of apologetic attacks, from questioning the reliability of Scripture to denying Jesus' crucifixion to, of course, challenging the Trinity and the deity of Christ.
David didn't react like other Christians I had challenged. He did not waver in his witness, nor did he waver in his friendship with me. Far from it—he became even more engaged, answering the questions he could respond to, investigating the questions he couldn't respond to, and spending time with me through it all.
Even though he was a Christian, his zeal for God was something I understood and respected. We quickly became best friends, signing up for events together, going to classes together, and studying for exams together. All the while we argued about the historical foundations of Christianity. Some classes we signed up for just to argue some more.