The conversion was an unlikely story.
For over two decades, Professor Philippe Halston had been the rock star at Rudyard University’s history department who brought in grants, acclaim, students, and visiting lecturers from afar, an expert on the Enlightenment and pre-Industrial Revolution secular European thinking. He lived an immaculate life with an immaculate house and an immaculate career untainted by failure. After getting his Ph.D., Rudyard had offered him the best deal: a low teaching load–and only graduate classes when he did have to teach–and a joint appointment in the history department and the magnificent-sounding Institute for European Studies, which was just an office with its own letterhead and three professors to its name. Philippe spent most of his days–and some of his nights–in the grand graduate library of Rudyard, with its elegant, molded, white, high ceilings. But one humid night, Philippe pulled the wrong volume from the shelf while trying to read up on Spanish Enlightenment thinking in the 18th Century for a book he was reviewing.
The glossy, fuchsia-jacketed book was about Averroës, subtitled The Father of Western European Secular Thought. Philippe had heard the name discussed maybe once or twice in grad school, as the Andalucian Muslim scholar was given less recognition than other philosophers. He opened the book and skimmed the table of contents, as was his wont, thumbed through the illustrations and paintings, and landed on Chapter 3. He found it so fascinating that he devoured chapter after chapter of the brittle, yellowing pages while standing there at the stacks, and vowed to read the three other volumes on Averroës on the shelf. Philippe recognized a huge gap in his knowledge and felt immensely humbled that he knew so little about someone so influential to European thought. Only at 2 a.m. did he hear the thunder outside and decide to drive home before the storm hit. Though Philippe welcomed this intellectual diversion, he soon forgot it in the throes of his main research.
A year later, Philippe attended a large historians’ conference at the Sorbonne to present his latest book, The Thinking Man vs. The Godly Man: How rational thinking helped France break free of the church. After the grayness of Paris, he had wanted to go somewhere Mediterranean, a place to which he had never been before; luck would have it that he found a last-minute discount flight on Iberia to Seville. There, he rented a car and drove through the Andalucian countryside, stopping at small villages to sample the local olive oil or fruits. He took in palaces, cathedrals, museums, and historical sites. He enjoyed dining at 10 p.m. at sidewalk restaurants that overlooked wide plazas with a glass of fruity garnacha at hand as he gazed at the architecture, the trees, the couples, and groups of people on their evening paseo.
But it was while standing in the Mezquita of Córdoba with his guidebook in hand and expensive Nikon slung around his neck, surrounded by tourists that were Japanese, Dutch, American, French, Argentinian, German, that Philippe felt a sudden, inexplicable, profound sensation within. It was something he could not fully give voice to, but there was something speaking to it from the gardens, fountains, calligraphed archways of the mosque that had once been a church. He was aware of an inner calm that felt warm and glowing, as though he were being lit from within. Philippe wanted to examine it, yet it was too mysterious and precious to be analyzed. He sat by a fountain in an ethereal state for what must have been an hour, oblivious to the curious looks from passersby. He drew deep breaths, his eyes half closed, and exhaled softly, as though he were expunging that which was unnecessary from his mind, body, and soul. “Yes,” he said to himself, “I must! I don’t know what it is, I only know that I must know That!”
Back at Rudyard, Philippe felt the warm glow infuse him from time to time, even under a chilly autumn sky or in a drab office. He became so engrossed in his writing that he often skipped meals to get the paragraph just right or forgot meetings when he became absorbed by a footnote. He glanced from time to time at the postcard of the Mezquita tacked to his wall while he wrote a couple of essays related to his new interest in Islamic scholars like Averroës (whose real name was Ibn Rushd) and the influence of Islam on Western European thought. He thought back to his student days, and the views he espoused then. “Was not religion an impediment to progress and freedom?” he wrote in a paper during sophomore year in college, for which he won an award. Though he was no libertine by any means, he freely approved of (and practiced) sex before marriage. “It was these very freedoms that the Europeans of the Enlightenment fought for, not to be condemned to hell for mortal sin or secular thought or physical pleasure,” he said while presenting a paper in a seminar as a graduate student at Chicago. “The individual has his or her own moral compass.”
Among his own graduate students at Rudyard, Philippe was known for his quiet, patrician demeanor that inspired their confidences, his intellect, and his appearance: tailored clothes and a profile like a Roman sculpture, with round glasses perched upon his nose and his chin covered by a dark, trim beard. “Philippe Halston is like someone from a bygone era,” they said to the secretary, Carol, as his speaking voice was airy and elegant but deep, his words eloquent; every utterance revealed a born orator. His French-Canadian ancestry added to his mystique, even though he was raised Presbyterian in Chicago. Students were mesmerized by his knowledge and how easily it flowed from him, humbled by his copious notes in red ink on their papers. “I’d love to talk philosophy with him in bed,” the women swooned after seminar. And during the brief time when Philippe was married, they stood in line hoping for an affair. “I don’t care if he’s taken,” they would protest. “All the great thinkers had mistresses!”
But his mistress was his love of his new intellectual interest. His essays, which were soon published, were a radical departure from his usual papers, creating some talk in the historians’ community. His work had taken on a more personal tone, and it was met with some skepticism. “What’s this about Halston and religion?” his colleagues murmured among themselves. “We had no idea he was so interested in God.” A month later, at the annual picnic at the beginning of the school year, department chair Henry Huizenga cornered him. Philippe had emailed Huizenga about taking an extended leave of absence after his sabbatical was up, and now he was getting his answer.
“A sabbatical...you leaving us, Philippe?” Huizenga asked. “Are you quitting history? Joining a cult?”
Philippe said airily, “Maybe that would be a good idea.”
“You’ve gone on an interesting tangent with your scholarship,” Huizenga began, biting into a carrot.
“What do you mean by ‘tangent’?” Philippe raised an eyebrow as he took a sip of his syrah.
“Well, that piece you wrote for the Journal of the American Academy of Religion seems to be quite out of sync with your usual work on godlessness in Europe.”
Philippe cocked his head and widened his eyes. “Since when was this an academic dictatorship? I would expect my own department to embrace Enlightenment ideals of intellectual freedom rather than dogma about what constitutes scholarship.”
“Now, Philippe, we know all scholars need a diversion now and then, but–”
“Why do you assume my interest in religion is a diversion?”
The chairman paused for a moment and drew a deep breath.
“Well, this is a history department after all, and students are funded to be here to work with you on European history, as you might remember.” Huizenga turned and headed back to the buffet.
As he lived alone, and saw friends only on occasion, Philippe devoted himself completely to reflecting upon Europe’s long-standing aversion to Islam. He threw himself into his work, oblivious to when daylight had faded to indigo. “Do you know how many wars have been fought, endless wars, and how much bloodshed and destruction to defend Christianity from Islam?” he asked his editor Janet at the University of Pennsylvania Press on the phone late one night. “And it doesn’t just stop there–there are things ingrained in the psyche of Western Europe that are institutionally biased against Muslims!”
“Yes, just like what you wrote about European images of the exotic Middle East and harems, or the bad Moor in Othello.”
“There are too many ‘triumphant’ histories of the Spanish Inquisition with ruthless victories over the Muslims. If that isn’t evidence of a genuine contempt toward Islam, I don’t know what is.”
And Philippe saw it in modern times when visiting Berlin, post-Wall, saw the prejudice against the Turkish Gastarbeiter who were never fully integrated into German society, or in the endless stream of evangelical Christian television programs that praised Jesus and condemned Muslims in a way that made Philippe’s stomach churn. Worst of all, in Philippe’s opinion, America’s foreign policy was ignorant of the history of the Middle East and Muslim culture. “It would be impossible,” he began one night in a letter to the editor of the Washington Post, writing under a bright bulb in a dim corner of the library, “to ignore the importance of religion in any culture that refused to separate religion from politics. Anyone who had been exposed to Islam would be familiar with its influence on politics and would develop policies accordingly to avoid further debacles like the Gulf War.” The letter was published, much to Philippe’s delight.
Philippe asked himself how many meaningless hours had he spent in his library carrel, typing away furiously at some article, surrounded by dozens of books piled high with notes wedged in between the pages? It had become rote in the end: hours of research in the library, presenting his paper at a conference and allowing ample time at the end for discussion among his colleagues, and then returning home, exhausted, in need of a glass of merlot and a cozy couch.
While getting a cup of coffee in the mailroom, Jonathan Kriegenberger, a fellow historian at Rudyard, remarked on the changes in his colleague after a lackluster faculty meeting.
“Morning, Phil.” Kriegenberger’s habitual use of ‘Phil’ annoyed Philippe to no end, along with his gratingly jocose manner. “You didn’t seem to show much enthusiasm about our history symposium next month,” he laughed.
“Oh, really?” Philippe rifled through a stack of envelopes.
“I’d think you would, given that you’re the head of the Institute.”
“Aah, if they’ve heard it once, they’ve heard it a million times.” Philippe waved his hand as a dismissal. “There are other more interesting things.”
“You got something else exciting going on?” Kriegenberger turned his Pillsbury doughboy figure toward Philippe and laughed, his girth heaving up and down in rhythm.
“What secret could a middle-aged, unmarried professor possibly have going on in his life that’s so intriguing?” Philippe asked, a sardonic smile twitching at the corners of his lips. “A financial imbroglio? A torrid love affair?”
“Boy, that Cindy was a piece of work, wasn’t she?” Kriegenberger shook his head. Philippe glared at him and left the room.
Philippe was still puzzled by his divorce from Cindy a few years back. After two years together, his wife had taken her two kids from her first marriage and left him for another man. Philippe had tried his best to get to know her daughters even though they were spoiled and bratty, always comparing their clothes with their friends on the phone or pestering their mother for the latest expensive techno-gadget at the mall. Once, when he gently tried to interest them a little in the history of Western thought at the breakfast table, the older one rolled her eyes and said to the younger one, while twirling her hair, “What-EVER. This is so boring, who cares? Totally irrelevant.” The younger one emulated her sister and said, “Yeah, so boring,” and followed her out of the kitchen, dumping out her entire bowl of cereal in the sink, as a disappointed Philippe sipped his coffee in silence. When they were not at Philippe and Cindy’s house, they were at their father’s, frequently calling their mother and complaining about how their dad was spending more time with his latest girlfriend than with them. Rumor had it that Cindy and her first husband were now getting back together for the sake of their two girls.
Cindy had not been much better either. Philippe had originally liked the fact that his wife was not an intellectual or a scholar–she helped run a local arts organization–and that she was a lively lady with a hint of a free spirit. He enjoyed attending gallery openings with her and fixing her dinner when she was working late at a concert. Over time, her flightiness turned out to be a hindrance rather than an asset; she never seemed to take an interest in Philippe’s work or anything he did, never attended his talks or read his work. Rather, she nagged him about which dry cleaners to go to, or insisted he buy the organic and not the regular goat’s milk at Whole Foods on his way home, and spent Philippe’s money on pricey cosmetics that laid piled up in the bathroom drawers, unused.
As Philippe’s scholarship veered away from Western secularism, he became more frustrated by his graduate students. Each year, there was a new crop of them: corduroy-clad, geekily chic in their odd haircuts and plastic frame glasses. They descended upon his office every fall in hordes, brimming with ideas for their theses or dissertations, and left Philippe with a dull weight in his head and an emptiness in his stomach. For years, Philippe had looked forward to this, to the transmission of knowledge from the older to the younger, the discourse and debate. He had enjoyed opening their minds to thinking critically, seeing their opinions form as they understood the underpinnings of freedom. But now, it had become a meaningless, cerebral head game:
“What actually interests me is the influence of Enlightenment thought on the periphery of Western Europe, such as the body of work by philosophers and scholars from Scandinavia.”
“Professor Halston? I’m Smeeta. Do you remember me from the new admits’ reception last spring? I talked to you about looking at ways of secular individualism as the basis for feminism and reproductive rights,” with a long stretch of thigh exposed as it emerged from the slit in her black spandex skirt.
“Well, the question that seems to be developing is why it took scholars so long to get the idea of ‘God’ out of the picture.”
And of course, there was the student with whom Philippe discussed the title of his dissertation for nearly one hour as the sunset bled across the sky, leaving Philippe’s office swathed in the shadows of the impending evening. “I’ll still have to think about it,” the student concluded. “I just don’t know if it works.”
“I’m not cut out for this anymore,” Philippe said to Carol. “I’m getting too old for this. Had I lived in the Middle Ages, I would have been a monk.”
While he continued the tedium of supervising the history grad students, Philippe began exploring modern Francophone scholars’ critiques of Enlightenment philosophy and its lasting hegemony over the North African colonies. His work became more globally collaborative as he tracked down rare books from Paris and Madrid. He enjoyed the 7 a.m. calls to a fellow at All Souls College at Oxford–a man with a pleasing cut-glass, public-school accent–whenever he had questions about the subtle nuances of Arabic words that he could not ascertain from one of three dictionaries in English transliteration. Philippe’s old life seemed, now, like a dry desert, the department lifeless: cold, tiled offices with big doors and wood beams, professors who were analytical, dull, and cerebral. Now, he felt himself entering a body of knowledge that was like a vast garden full of ripening fruit and lush flowers. Philippe’s head swam with new ideas as he lay awake at night, his chest swelling with excitement. How had he lived such a narrow life before?
“Professor Halston isn’t working so much on European history anymore,” Carol would counsel prospective students on the phone. “Yes, I know he’s the head of the Institute, but you might want to talk with some of the other faculty members.” Philippe was a tenured professor, after all, and as the secretary told the meddlesome Kriegenberger, “I think it’s great when a scholar likes to explore new frontiers.” But after Kriegenberger happened to gossip with Chairman Huizenga, the latter raised the issue with Philippe.
“We’ve got some concern about who the grad students will work with, Philippe,” he began. Huizenga leaned his tall, lanky frame back in his tall leather desk chair, and ran a hand through his silver hair.
“You know that my appointment is first and foremost as a scholar. Only after that comes my duty to the students.”
“But if the prospective students want to work with you on the Enlightenment, what are we going to tell them? You can’t load off all the students on the rest of us. We already lost one to Harvard, and another one is on the fence about going to Yale. And we have the Institute for European Studies to take care of, too.”
“I’m not loading the students off on anyone. I’m perfectly happy to take on students. It’s just that our interests are diverging, that’s all. They want to study secular Europe, and I want to study Islam, or rather, the relationship of Islam to European thought and culture.”
Huizenga pursed his lips, and then drew a deep breath. “Students are coming here to study European history. Not theology. They can go elsewhere for that.”
“Such as where? Oral Roberts University?”
“I don’t want this to come down to war the next time there’s a School of the Humanities meeting. But I can tell you now, that’s exactly what there’s going to be.”
“Why should there be? I’m still a professor in the department of history. But the legacy of Western history is very anti-Islam.”
“You bring in money and you know the university gives us money because we’re specialists in European history and are known worldwide for the Institute. The money supports students, and the Dean counts the number of graduates, and our faculty is–”
“I have sources of support greater than this department.”
“Like whom? God?”
“I’ll talk to the administration.” Though the statement was neutral, coming from Philippe’s stern countenance and glare, it was a threat.
“So will I,” Huizenga’s eyes leveled Philippe’s.
As winter set in, it was the perfect time for curling up with a good book by the radiant fire that warmed Philippe within and without. He needed the coziness at home to counteract the growing hostility toward his work: it was reasonable that people would be surprised, but he had not expected mockery. How ironic, given that scholars in the earlier centuries were grounded in religion! But why should he be considered less rational now that he was interested in religion? What was so unreasonable if he would rather read than be with others, even if his spiritual quest was happening at the expense of his personal life? The few friends he talked to stopped suggesting suitable women with whom he might go out on a dinner and symphony date on a Friday night.
From a stack of books on the table that sat perpendicular to the fireplace, Philippe pulled out a copy of the Holy Qur’an in Translation, white with a blue floral cover. He had found it many years ago while riding the bus when his car was at the mechanic’s. When Philippe told the bus driver that someone had left the book behind, the driver shrugged and said, “Might as well take it with you. We got tons of stuff at the lost-and-found that nobody ever picks up.” Recently, Philippe had rediscovered it on the bookshelf, much to his delight, wedged between a book on Giotto and an old encyclopedia volume. He opened the holy book to the first sura, to the powerful opening line that never ceased to move him every time he read it thereafter, the coup de foudre of divine omnipotence:
In the Name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate, Praise belongs to God, the Lord of all Being, the All-Merciful, the All-Compassionate, the Master of the Day of Doom.
He drew a deep breath, and let the phrase resonate with him. He looked in the index to see the list of topics covered. Philippe thumbed through more pages, sipping his vintage Barolo, and landed on:
...it is surely a noble Qur’an in a hidden book, none but the purified shall touch, ascending down from the Lord of all Being. What, you hold this discourse in disdain, and do you make it your living to cry lies?
Cry lies: was his scholarship false, based on things he no longer believed? Why had his scholarship always looked down on religion? The index listed a sura on women. Philippe flipped to that section of the Qur’an and skimmed it. His own impression of Islam was that it was often oppressively patriarchal and misogynistic, so he was surprised to find:
O you who believe! You are forbidden to inherit women against their will, and you should not treat them with harshness...
How often had this been misinterpreted by the West! God was not a vengeant being, but a protective one. Philippe set down his glass of wine and relaxed into the deep pillows on his couch. He had never been so fascinated by a text in such a long time. Sura after sura shook him to his core, questioning the beliefs of freedom and individuality that he had built his life upon. There was a certainty to the words so unlike the questioning skepticism of the Enlightenment. When he woke up at one o’clock, the room had grown chilly; the dying embers in the fireplace were soon to become ash.
The winter semester often led Philippe to read more by the fire at home instead of at the office. It was also a pleasant way of avoiding his colleagues whom he suspected were angry with him, fearing they would have to take on extra graduate students. He had also overheard Kriegenberger remark to a student, “Philippe has gone all PC on us these days. He’s anti-‘Dead White Male.’” The department’s anger was also fueled by Philippe’s latest teaching venture, an unexpected situation that turned out to be a stroke of luck. “Please call at your earliest convenience,” the voicemail message had said, and Philippe scribbled the name and number on a notepad. The program coordinator for the Culture and Civilization program was desperate to find someone to teach a few lectures on Islam in the place of a professor who’d just had a heart attack. Somebody had suggested Philippe’s name. Philippe smiled and dialed the coordinator right away but hesitated. “I’m by no stretch of the imagination a Middle Eastern scholar, nor someone used to teaching undergraduates. But thank you for thinking of me.”
“It’s just for three weeks,” the Culture and Civilization program coordinator tried to gloss over the challenge. “You’ve been doing more research in this area, so we thought it would be perfect.” She told him there was a syllabus all ready for him but added quickly, “You don’t have to stick to it–you have complete flexibility,” lest Philippe back out of the arrangement due to a perceived lack of respect. Philippe committed to the task before mentioning it to Henry Huizenga, whom he knew would not be pleased.
“You won’t work with students in your own department, but you’ll teach freshmen about religion?” Huizenga leaned back in his chair and eyed Philippe up and down.
“Why not? It’s nice to be sought after, after all these years, instead of being taken for granted.”
“You haven’t even taught an undergraduate class in our department, ever. In fact, you hardly ever teach any classes here, and when you do, it’s just seminars for the grad student elite,” Huizenga’s voice rose.
“You seem to forget I bring in lots of money for this department, not to mention recognition, thanks to the Institute.” Philippe’s voice became more nonchalant, a move that he knew would provoke the chair. “I seem to do twice the work of any faculty member here.”
“Philippe, I just can’t wait till the Dean gets word of this!” Chairman Huizenga threatened.
“He already has. Remember I said I had other sources of support?” Philippe smiled and pulled out his trump card: he told Huizenga to expect a call from the Dean.
Philippe, to his amazement, found himself captivated by being a guest lecturer and was enthusiastic about teaching Islam to eager freshmen. A new brightness shone in his face, and he offered a kind-hearted smile whenever the students offered opinions; his hazel green eyes lit up as though a lamp or glittering star were behind them. At each lecture, when he looked out over a sea of heads, he felt renewed by the curiosity in their youthful faces, some of which were framed by a headscarf. He never felt annoyed when students stayed after class to further argue a point with him or ask him questions. In fact, he even encouraged them to do so; they were far more interesting than his self-obsessed, dour graduate students. Philippe found it stimulating to debate the meaning of various religious teachings and proud to answer questions the students feared were naive.
By the next year, Philippe had read the Qur’an forward and backward a few times, as well as several critical studies. He would move in closer to the TV whenever journalists talked about the Middle East, the endless political turmoil and violence, letting his pasta boil over on the stove. Through a fortuitous mistake, the cable repairman connected his TV to a box that contained one hundred fifty channels instead of the basic plan of fifty he had requested. Thus, Philippe became a fan of Al Jazeera and Israeli sitcoms and mesmerized by Egyptian films with buxom sirens like Berlenti Abdul Hamid, whose picture he tacked onto his office wall. He began to appreciate the quarter-tone scale of Arabic music that he had previously found cacophonous, trying to whistle it as he set the table for dinner. He perused maps of the Middle East and Central Asia in his spare time, looking up cities in atlases and learning the native ways of pronouncing their names: Damascus was, for instance, Dimashq.
Since his guest stint as a lecturer in the Culture and Civilization class had been so positively received by the students, the program invited him to give two lectures on the institutionalized nature of anti-Islamic sentiment in Western European thought. Philippe was more than happy to oblige. A by-product of the two lectures was a new article that his editor at the University of Pennsylvania Press thought fantastic. “You should turn this into a book, Philippe!” Janet shouted over the phone. “Just as there has been so much scholarship on anti-Semitism, there needs to be a great body of work on anti-Islamicism. Is that even a word–Islamicism?” Philippe took up his editor’s suggestion and began writing with a renewed zeal. He felt the glow that he had first felt at Córdoba, loved the unspoken sensation that spurred him on as he wrote and rewrote, the words tumbling and jumbling themselves on the page.
Philippe did still have a coterie of scholar friends elsewhere who read his drafts and gave him feedback. Sometimes they disagreed so vehemently with Philippe’s championing of religious practice in scholarship that Philippe questioned why he had gone off in this new direction. He had never wanted to fully abandon early academic training, as his roots were in Western thought, but he knew he had to progress intellectually. His proudest accomplishment was when Edward Said invited him for lunch, and their lunch lasted until dinner as they discussed Orientalism and every Western philosopher from A to Z. But when the first article by Philippe was published in the New York Times, not a one in the tenured ranks of his department congratulated him, even after Carol had taken the trouble to cut it out and post it on the refrigerator in the mailroom, despite the increased visibility it gave to the history department at Rudyard. Kriegenberger even came into the mailroom, glanced at the article, and simply wished Philippe a good morning. Philippe’s offended eyes followed his doughboy figure out the door.
Meanwhile, Huizenga tattled when the provost asked after Halston. “Philippe keeps to himself. Even though we support him, he doesn’t seem to engage with the students. He seems to forget we’re a history department.” The two men were discussing the errant professor’s pursuits when Carol returned with steaming coffee and biscotti. When the provost said that he was aware of the difficulty of the situation, and that the funds to the Institute would have to be cut if there was not more output from the students, Huizenga said he would see to it that Philippe would not sink their ship. He smirked and said, “There’s no way I’ll let him destroy the Institute. Since he’s so highly regarded, he thinks nobody can tamper with him.” The secretary informed Philippe of the news, but Philippe shrugged.
And that was exactly what Philippe told himself–nobody could tamper with him. He was a tenured professor, and nobody could tamper with his mind or his newly forming religious beliefs. Nobody in the department could say anything if Philippe was now secretly annoyed by some of his students who were pot smoking, endlessly searching, God-doubting. For some reason, Philippe’s calm, confidential demeanor and his sympathy to finding one’s personal philosophic path seemed to inspire their private confessions and intimate details of their personal lives. Though he always listened without rolling his eyes, his gaze fixed on the students, he grew impatient inside, desperately wishing to tell them that their lives lacked purpose.
However, one day he reached his boiling point when a student made an unexpected admission during office hours. “I know it pushes the bounds of individual liberty at the cost of ethics, Professor Halston. I feel bad about it–she is married and all. I’ve carefully considered the moral consequences of my actions, but I cannot help it. I’ve been sleeping with my best friend’s wife.”
With a stunned look, Philippe blurted out, “Whatever for?” and the student began to cry, apologizing profusely, then gathered his belongings and left.
Philippe’s personal life had developed a stronger sense of virtue and purpose as a result of his academic studies of Islam: the philosophical was now bleeding into the personal. One evening, he took out a paper-wrapped package of pork chops from his refrigerator, took one long look at it, and then tossed it in the trash. He had never cared much for pork anyway, having been forced to eat it often when growing up, and who knew where and how it was raised? Besides, there was something rational about knowing where one’s meat came from and how it was butchered–in other words, halal. If one was going to take the life of an animal, Philippe believed that one should do it in a spiritually significant way. He could now appreciate the diligence of friends in grad school who had kept kosher, roommates who did not want to consume flesh in any improper manner, religious observers who practiced rites, though at the time, it had seemed so silly and ritualistic to him. Now, he felt clean, that diet and religion were being integrated in a streamlined way.
His own upbringing was very unrestricted; questioning religion and philosophy was an accepted part of life. Raised by his single, working mother in a comfortably middle-class area of Chicago with his grandparents living on the next block, Philippe had a childhood in which nobody interfered in anyone else’s life. When his brother brought his rock band over to practice at his grandparents’ house after school, nobody objected. When Philippe brought home a dozen frogs when he was thirteen, telling his mother that he wanted to see Darwin in action, his mother paused for a moment and told him, “Well, clean up after them.” Though they all attended church on occasion, ate together, and discussed the many books of philosophy and religion at his grandparents’ house, the family never forced their ideas upon one another, respecting everyone’s right to think as they desired. Philippe’s grandfather Bill had gone to Presbyterian seminary, but then had become a professor of philosophy instead. It was an atmosphere of personal freedom and space, each family member pursuing his or her own desires.
When Philippe declared philosophy as a major at Carleton College, Grandpa Bill called him and said, “I’m so proud of you, Philippe! You have made a choice worthy of your intellect.”
“I can’t wait, Grandpa Bill,” Philippe replied. “I’ll tell you what I think of Kant. We’re reading him this week.”
However, the summer after junior year, Philippe’s grandfather died. It was indeed a blow to Philippe, but his grandfather had been getting old and weak. The man who had been his rock and his sounding board had now perished from the Earth, his presence no longer there to mentor Philippe. He had longed to talk to Grandpa Bill for hours about books, philosophy, history, and theology when they went to the lake in August. He had wanted Grandpa Bill to see him publish his first book, years from now, breaking it open, bending the stiff spine to make it more flexible, wanted to see the old man’s eyes light up with delight. Philippe channeled his grief into his senior thesis, which was impressive enough to get him into the University of Chicago’s Ph.D. program in history without any GRE scores. It was yet another thing Grandpa Bill had not lived to see, though his mother was thrilled and had told everyone she knew of her son’s accomplishments.
Chairman Huizenga got word of the adulterous student’s upset and summoned Philippe into his office to chide him for being unsympathetic to the boy. “This is the last straw. Since when were you the moral police or Father Confessor, Halston? You should have been more understanding. That kid is now going to counseling twice a week and they put him on Xanax!”
“I simply asked the young man ‘Whatever for?’ out of surprise. Surely, you cannot expect me not to express my shock at such a revelation.”
“Well, how you said it was really inappropriate.”
Philippe stood up and leaned in. “I will enlighten you on what is inappropriate. When students come to me, I primarily expect them to conduct discourse on relevant subject matter. But over the years I’ve been privy to several confessions that seem to be beyond the scope of my academic duties. These include sexual peccadillos, family dysfunctions, existential crises, et alli. May I also inform you that they also include allegations about conduct between female students and certain male faculty members who are in a position of power?”
Huizenga went from pale to crimson in two seconds. “How dare you!”
“No, I believe the question is how dare you?” replied Philippe calmly.
“You’ll pay for that, Halston,” the chairman muttered, but Philippe turned on his heel and swiftly exited the office.
Philippe found himself grappling with morality more than before. With pork gone from his life, he began to question some of his other habits and beliefs and view them in relation to the five pillars of Islam. While looking at his finances as he prepared his tax returns, Philippe reflected that he was quite well-off: a single man with a tenured professor’s salary from a prestigious university who generally spent little on himself, save for overseas travels and some fine red wines. The zakat, or practice of alms giving, was teaching him to be more generous. Sure, there were taxes to crank out and pay every April, but there was something more obligating and principled when it was linked to religion. Why, throughout the history of Europe, had not the practice of tithing been in place? It was not so different in Islam. It made sense that he should donate a percentage of his income to his religion, and not just the IRS, to the less fortunate as a means of expressing gratitude for God’s bounty; man was but the keeper of money during a lifetime, and it was only natural that he should feel obligated to share it with others. It was a bit odd, though, to see less money in his bank account, and he made sure to talk with his financial advisor about his retirement funds.
Giving up pork was easy, but not wine–Islam forbade alcohol. Any intoxicants were forbidden to Muslims, as they polluted the body and were temptations of the devil that hindered spiritual progress. Philippe understood, though, the singular nature of Islam that obliged the follower to integrate one’s lifestyle and religion. It was one of the things that appealed to him most about the faith. Yet there was a philosophical question here: many religions embraced alcohol. Wine was a part of so many religious rituals and tradition in the West, like communion; there was also beer, for that matter made by, say, monks in Belgium. The Jewish Sabbath was always celebrated with wine, too. He felt a twinge of guilt when he opened a French Bordeaux that had been rated highly in Wine Spectator. He still enjoyed a good stiff whiskey with his canapés when they took a visiting scholar to dinner.
Praying five times a day did not always seem possible, as he might have a meeting during midday prayers or office hours during late afternoon prayers, and he might sleep in after a late-night of research, thereby missing the first prayers of the day. He felt he needed guidance on this aspect and wondered how literal an interpretation of the religious texts this pillar was based on.
One Saturday morning, Philippe was out looking for a special light bulb for his Danish lamp. On his way back home, he was forced onto a detour and drove onto a one-way street that turned onto another road where he saw a sign that said, “The Path Masjid.” Without signaling, he pulled over into a “15 Minute Loading/Unloading Zone” in front, eliciting a loud honk from an angry driver. The times of services were posted on the sign, which was in front of a large stone structure with a small minaret no taller than the clock tower at Rudyard–the mosque. Philippe removed his shoes in the large entryway and saw a couple of men chattering away in what was probably in Urdu or Farsi–he could not quite discern the language, much to his scholarly embarrassment. There was a large office area to the left, and staircases to the right, and signs for various rooms: the mosque functioned as a community center as well. He drew a deep breath, finding the place awe-inspiring and simultaneously nerve-racking.
A young man in a white cap and white traditional garb who was passing by asked Philippe, with a smile, “Hey, what’s up? Can help you?”
“Uh, yes, as a matter of fact...well, I was just passing by, and I was wondering if there is someone who I could speak with to know a little bit more about–about the faith and–well, maybe attending services.” Philippe’s cheeks reddened a little with his blunt admission that startled even himself.
“Oh yeah, yeah dude, that’s cool, no problem–”
“Like maybe the imam, perhaps?”
“Yeah, totally. The imam is rad. Lemme see what I can do,” he said, blurring his words together and dashing into the office. Philippe shook his head and smiled. So even in a house of worship, youngsters of this generation were informal!
A moment later, the young man led an older man who was also clad in white out into the lobby before he dashed off. The old man had a gnarled face with a knobby nose and tufts of graying hair on his chin. Yet despite his worn appearance, there was something kind about his eyes. “May I help you?” he asked in a very soft voice.
“Uh, hi, my name is–” flustered, Philippe quickly bowed his head and said, “Assalumu alaikum,” hoping he was pronouncing the greeting properly.
“Wa alaikum assalam,” the man responded in a quiet voice, returning the bow.
“Yes, I was wondering–well you see, I–my name is Philippe Halston, I’m a professor at Rudyard, and I have a deep interest in Islam. Not just scholarly,” he added, “but in practice. I’m interested in the practice of Islam.”
The man smiled and said, “We welcome all spiritual seekers to the masjid.”
“You must be the imam, and I was wondering where to start. I mean what should I do or what should I attend?”
“No, sorry, I am not the imam, but I am involved in religious matters here. And yes, I have heard of you, Professor Philippe. I have heard that you are trying to show a positive image of Islam in the university.”
“Well, I try,” Philippe said with a nervous laugh. In the presence of this man, who was an active believer, a true man of the faith, he suddenly felt inadequate that he had only been teaching about Islam in a classroom. “I’ve been a professor of Western history and philosophy for many years at Rudyard, but I’ve developed a personal interest in your religion after spending quite some time doing academic studies of it.”
“You are interested in becoming Muslim?”
“I just feel drawn to it. There’s no other way I can explain it. I can’t rationalize it. It’s like I’m being drawn to the light, a flame, and I want to know more. There’s something very unified about Islam, mind, body, and soul–”
The man put up a hand to stop Philippe. “I know,” he murmured. “To come to Islam, one must come to it from here.” He put the tips of his delicate fingers on Philippe’s heart. Philippe looked at him with great intensity, seeking answers in the old man’s eyes. His breath was rapid and shallow, and for an instant, he could not utter a word. The man did not flinch or move or even remove his hand but smiled with benevolence. “I know.”
Philippe wiped away the tear from the corner of his left eye. The old man took away his hand and said, “You must talk to the imam when he is in his office. He will guide you. If Islam is your faith, you must talk to him.”
Philippe nodded. “Yes. I think it is important to talk to him.” He drew a deep breath and thanked the man repeatedly. The man took Philippe’s hands in his and squeezed them, as if to give him strength for the task he was about to undertake. The man told Philippe he would talk to the imam about him and gave him a small piece of paper on which the imam’s office hours were written. He also gave him two books: one was a Qur’an annotated with many notes about how to practice what was written, and the other was a simple, slim, black-bound volume with gold letters bearing “About Islam” on the cover, a layman’s guide to the faith.
Philippe got to know the imam over the next few months. They spoke over the phone, and twice in the imam’s office. Philippe was irresistibly drawn to the masjid and the imam. He was a man in his mid-fifties, a father of five who was respected in the community for his fairness, tolerance, and wisdom. He was of Lebanese origin, a tall man whose physique indicated that he liked to eat plentifully, with black hair and eyes. He could speak Arabic, French, English, Farsi, and he could read and understand a little Hebrew. However, despite the imam’s origin, people of all nationalities attended the masjid: Lebanese, Palestinians, Jordanians, Iranians, Egyptians, even a handful of Malays and Pakistanis. Many students from Rudyard came to worship there as well, given its proximity to campus. Philippe liked that the masjid was so open to everybody, but he especially liked that Islam was so inclusive of a variety of cultures that might have had little in common except for the faith. He expressed his deep admiration for the faith and the world that it embraced, and his concerns about practice. The imam gave him suggestions on how to incorporate prayer and his daily routine.
To Philippe’s surprise, when he first went to see him, the imam had hesitated to recommend prayer. “To pray to Allah” the imam said, “one’s heart must be pure and sincere. I do not say that you are insincere by any means.” He grabbed a handful of nuts from a glass dish on his desk and began munching away. “However, prayer is for the believers, and if you are not yet a believer, the time is simply not right for you to pray five times a day. Of course, you may attend a service if you are curious, my friend.” He slid the dish of nuts toward Philippe, who declined, and then he indulged in another handful.
“But I feel ready. I mean, I don’t attend any other church, and I am not interested in the secular lifestyle I used to lead. I do want to explore the possibility of conversion.”
“No, not conversion yet. You cannot force it.”
“But it is not forced. It is something I have voluntarily come to of my own volition. I’ve been taking huge risks even as a scholar, going in new directions that aren’t related to history at all, but on religion. I would at least like to come to services regularly.”
“Yes, but you mustn’t label yourself a Muslim too quickly. These things take time and careful consideration.”
“But I have been considering this carefully for years! I want to take the next step, and I’m ready.”
The imam tossed a burnt cashew into the trashcan. “Continue to do what you are doing. Maybe teach an entire course on Islam. You would be the perfect person to bridge the gap between Western and Muslim thought.”
Philippe was disappointed that the imam had not given him more details on how to pray or observe the five pillars, and even seemed slightly dismissive of Philippe’s desire to convert. He drew a deep breath and stared at his hands that lay folded in his lap, listening to the imam crunch away at the nuts. “You know, I could consider that. I’ve really enjoyed the few lectures I’ve given on Islam before.”
“Yes! You start by doing this, you teach, you come here to the masjid as is right for you, and over time, we will see.”
“Yes, yes, I will do that. I will do that, sir. But my personal interest is sincere, I do want to convert.”
“You are a good man, Mr. Philippe. I know this. I welcome your spiritual inquiries,” the imam concluded, dusting the salt off his hands, and extending one to shake Philippe’s hand. “One step at a time. I apologize, I have a meeting to run to. We shall talk again soon. Assalamu alaikum.”
After that conversation with the imam, Philippe marched straight to the department of religion on Monday morning to talk to the administrative assistant. As luck would have it, she said the demand was indeed great for the Intro to Islam class, so much so that they wanted to add another section. She scheduled an appointment for him to meet with Chair Lainie Brown. Philippe went to see her the following Tuesday, where he was met with bewildered humor.
“Yes, the administrative assistant briefed me. We do need someone else, since Naguib is on sabbatical. So, you want to teach Islam?”
Philippe did not react to Brown’s surprise. “As you may know, I have begun exploring various aspects of the faith not only as an academic but also in a personal fashion. I don’t often make the latter known publicly,” he added by way of explanation in response to Brown’s raised eyebrows. “But it is meaningful to me. I have the desire, I’m reasonably well-qualified, and I see no need for further explanation on my part.”
Brown sucked her lips in and tapped her fingertips together. And then she said, almost as if to herself, “Usually, it’s the people who’ve been raised religious who can’t wait to break free,” and laughed. “I couldn’t wait to get out of Yeshiva!”
Philippe frowned and she stopped laughing. “I see no reason why I should have to justify this further. The student demand is high, you need someone to teach it, and I have done work in this field. My perspectives as a Western historian can only serve to illuminate the differences and perceptions between East and West.”
“Well, you’re right on all fronts. There really is no reason why you shouldn’t. Speak with the faculty coordinator Debbie in Room 242 to schedule the time and room and get all the details. Just beware if you have to take the bullet now and then, because you’re not a Muslim by birth and are a white male. You’ll have your work cut out for you.”
“Then it’s work I want.”
“Professor Halston, I welcome you to the task. Like I said, talk to Debbie for all the details, she’ll be in charge. Good luck!” Brown extended a hand to Philippe, and he shook it heartily. She even mentioned that they might be able to get him an office in the department, though it might have to be shared.
Philippe was met with greater opposition in his home department in the mailroom on a hazy summer morning.
“Morning, Phil. We just got a postcard from Huizenga. He seems to be enjoying Antwerp, though he says the library is open so little,” Kriegenberger said.
“Mmph.” Philippe tried to engross himself in a letter from a future visiting scholar.
“So, I hear you’re going to teach Intro to Islam.”
“No one is going to question your scholarship, Phil. You’re respected enough that no one would question you.”
“Thank you,” Philippe said, hoping that his terse reply would end the conversation. He knew where it was headed.
“But since when did you decide to bill yourself as a complete Islamic authority? Did you realize you’re going to be challenged by students who have a much greater knowledge than you, especially since they practice?”
“Number one, just because I gave a few lectures on Islam before doesn’t mean I consider myself a ‘complete Islamic authority.’ Number two, yes, I was challenged by students who had a much greater knowledge than me, but they respected what I had to say, as I did them. Number three, what makes you think I don’t practice?”
Kriegenberger whipped his head around. A couple of the letters that had been bunched up in his hand escaped his grip and floated to the ground. “You mean...?”
“Holy Moses. A European history professor and a practicing Muslim!”
“Why is it any different than, say, an American Jew teaching Latin American history or a WASP teaching Buddhism or–or–the son of German immigrants teaching about the Civil War?” The latter was a direct jab at his colleague.
Kriegenberger recoiled for a moment before he retorted, “You know, Huizenga was right–I don’t know why you’re still a part of this department.”
Philippe paused and glowered at Kriegenberger, who was standing stock-still.
“Perhaps you can help me move my things into my office at the department of religion. 2154 Oldenberg Hall.”
“Well, I, you know, I didn’t mean to, it’s–”
“Have a good morning, Jonathan,” said Philippe dryly. “Or should I say, ‘Assalamu alaikum’?”
One week before the semester started, Philippe picked up his copy of the course reader at Hal’s Photocopy Shop, a Rudyard institution. He looked at the cover and beamed–it read “Intro to Islam, Religion 131, Philippe Halston.” Some of the students were surprised to see that name on their course readers, and even more surprised when they saw the professor in the flesh. Philippe gazed over the sea of heads in his lecture. Approximately seventy registered students, and another twelve on the waiting list, were squeezed in the rows of benches and into the aisles of the auditorium. Some of the students’ heads were covered with scarves. Other ones had dark brows and thick features, likely indicating Middle Eastern origin. And there were still more students: redheads, brunettes, blondes, fake blondes with streaming hair that spilled onto their bare shoulders. There was even a brown dreadlocked head. Backpacks and skateboards and notebooks and chewing gum crowded the room as well. Philippe cleared his throat and looked up at the students.
“Good morning,” Philippe said. “I suppose you might be perplexed that a person like me would be the instructor for such a course, as I am a Western historian and of Western European origin. I am, however, indeed the instructor, so you’ll have to bear with me for the next twelve weeks.” A titter went across the room and some of the students smiled.
“This is Introduction to Islam, as it is more commonly known, or Religion 131, if you must be exacting. You can see on the syllabus what we will be covering over the semester in terms of exams and papers due. But what I would like to know most about is your own experiences with Islam. Many of you are Muslims by birth. And for those of you who aren’t, I ask for your respect and for your tolerance of viewpoints that might differ greatly from your own. This is a course on critical inquiry, and my foremost concern is to examine the underpinnings of Islamic thought. It is not about–yes?” Philippe acknowledged a young man with curly brown hair and headphones slung around his neck.
“Is it true that you converted to Islam?”
The room went dead quiet. Philippe saw eighty-two pairs of eyes facing him, eyes filled with curiosity, shock, puzzlement, or mild scorn and even outrage mixed with admiration at the student who had had the audacity to ask.
Philippe raised his eyebrows and drew a deep breath. “Well, I...” and then responded decisively and–uncharacteristically–in a direct and personal manner. “Yes. Well, not officially, but rather, I am in the process of spiritual inquiry on the path to Islam, and I follow no other religion. I have adopted several Muslim practices: I eat no pork and I buy only halal meat when I can. I have been giving a portion of my income to charity, which is the zakat, one of the five pillars of Islam. I find myself believing in Allah and the words of the Prophet and I try to do the daily prayers. But like I said, I’m still on the inquiring path, and I am a European historian of European descent, so I don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Of course, in time, I will make the hajj. I don’t drink alcohol much, but I find it hard sometimes with the whole idea of giving up red wine,” Philippe smiled, and a polite laugh went across the classroom, as the students did not want to offend their venerated professor. That broke the ice, and a flood of questions erupted:
“How long have you been trying to practice Islam?”
“How did you get interested?”
“Have you ever been to The Path mosque?”
“Are you Shia or Sunni?”
“What religion were you raised in?”
The students barraged him with questions, and Philippe tried to answer them as honestly as possible, one by one. He found the candor to be much easier and more refreshing than he had imagined.
Their questions continued into the subsequent classes, complemented by comments about their own experiences. After a lecture on the Crusades and hostility among Peoples of the Book, a petite, red-haired student named Cassie spoke of her own struggles about converting to Islam after growing up Baptist.
“It’s hard because my family really disapproves and thinks I’m crazy or something.” She drew more courage as she spoke. “So, you know how you were just discussing the similarities with Jews, Christians, and Muslims? Why should my family hate Islam so much when we have a common thread, and think nothing of the Crusades and what they tried to do to Muslims for hundreds of years?”
“That’s an excellent question, Cassie. It’s one that scholars have been grappling with for many years. The tension between Islam and Christianity. Do you remember what we discussed in the last lecture, about the religions of the book and the messiah figure–or should I be more accurate and say that Jews are still awaiting the messiah figure? Well, anyhow, let me put the question back to the rest of you. Why should Christianity hate Islam so much?”
“They hate what we stand for, our values,” a headscarfed girl named Shazia spoke out boldly. “We are the enemy from the Middle East, on their periphery. We have our own ideas of purity that don’t fit theirs. To them, we are the infidels. They cannot accept our unity and our submission to God. They want to hate everything we do, and we are something to be suppressed.”
Philippe nodded as he paced the front of the lecture hall, stroking his beard with his forefinger. “But let me put this question to you–aren’t both religions the same in that regard, then? Both value purity. Both scorn the infidel. Both embrace a messiah. And both are monotheistic religions that discuss submission to God in their texts. Why should that be any grounds then, for such deep-rooted hatred? You must give me a better answer than that.”
“You’re not including other factors as well, too,” said another headscarfed girl to Shazia before turning to Philippe. “What did the Muslim world and the Middle East have that the Europeans wanted? Access to trade. They were the people blocking the access to the Silk Road that led to the Far East and China. It’s easy to let religion be a scapegoat–is that the right word?–for all kinds of things that have nothing to do with it. Look at even now. The only reason they hate the Middle East so much is because they are blocking the oil, and the West wants the oil. Professor Halston,” her plea was impassioned, “if we are now the ‘evil people,’ it’s because of what the West did to us and how we must react.” Several of the other students nodded and murmured in assent.
Over lunch, Philippe munched his panino caprese with a San Pellegrino and made notes about topics to include on the midterm. He had no idea the class was going to be quite like this, so charged full of opinions and beliefs that were volleyed back and forth in the classroom, students’ own experiences and practice driving their readings of texts. What a far cry from the neat, orderly research he had been conducting into the wee hours of the night, the ideas neatly packaged into paragraphs, dictionaries there to explain the meanings, citations to back up assertions. How unlike his own internal personal journey to the faith! No, this was messy, peopled, and real. He began to question his adequacy and knowledge, the way in which he presented the information, and the topics he had chosen. His syllabus had been a neat roadmap upon which to base his class; now, he found it was only a catalyst for something more fervent and living.
The impassioned classroom discussions continued when they spent a day on women and Islam. The student who had spoken of colonialism in the last class, a girl named Sayeeda, had been arguing with a boy in the class. He sported bleach-blond hair and blue eyes and a shell necklace that complemented his laid-back surfer demeanor. “I’m not saying you’re not right, Sayeeda, but I don’t get why the women in Saudi Arabia have to be veiled from head to toe. You know, last summer I was in London, and I saw these Saudi women all in black, and you just can’t tell them apart. Their religion is taking away their identity and who they are.”
Sayeeda was panting with impatience to respond to his comments, tugging on her headscarf. “Identity! You are judging Islam with Western standards. You are expecting people who practice Islam to subscribe to the same post-Enlightenment, individualistic way of life? That is not Islam. You think–”
“Everyone’s got an identity, come on! We just read the homework for last night about women and modesty of dress in Islam. Modesty,” he emphasized the word. “But making a woman wear a burqa and making her follow a man like a shadow and be buried away so she doesn’t even exist in the world–that’s not modesty. That’s extremism. And I think that’s oppressive to women.”
Philippe had watched the discussion grow more heated, as the pain in his head grew too. “Excellent point. Where do we draw the line between modesty and oppression? I guess I never quite thought of that before,” Philippe admitted, as he paced the front of the room. “And our individualism does have roots in the Enlightenment, as Sayeeda said. When I was in college–if you can fathom that Mesozoic period–it was the era of great experimentation and personal freedom. We considered the expression of sexuality the highest form of individual rights in a modern secular society such as ours. Yes?”
“I think sometimes modesty is a good idea,” said a blonde girl named Lauren sitting in the back of the class. “There’s something kind of nice about not flaunting oneself, about staying humble and not putting so much emphasis on appearance, because that’s what takes away from your devotion to God. Why should a woman prostitute herself in public? There’s almost something sexier about being visible just to one man.”
Fortunately for his headache, Philippe broke the discussion with a quiz, though he felt slightly guilty when he saw dirty looks pass between Sayeeda and the surfer boy. He spent lunch going over the corrections Janet had made on his most recent work, corrections that were five weeks overdue. But try as he might, he could not focus on his article. He found himself reading about the various styles of head coverings and robes Muslim women wore looking at different pictures and trying to guess where some of his female students were from, based on their dress.
Later that afternoon, Lainie Brown knocked on the door of Philippe’s shared office as he was grading. “How’s it going with the kids?” she smiled. “Keeping you on your toes?”
Philippe sighed, and then paused. “Well, you were certainly not in error when you said I’d have my work cut out for me.”
Lainie was all concern, and she took a seat immediately. “Is everything OK? They’re not behaving badly in the classroom, are they? Disrespecting you because you’re a white male?”
“It is nothing to be alarmed about,” Philippe said with such authority that Lainie nearly sprang up out of the chair. “It is simply the nature of the beast. Often, we veer into personal territory, as the students make connections with the theological roots and their lives. Controversial topics.”
Lainie Brown laughed and laughed. “Well, then, Professor Halston, it seems to me you are doing your job.”
“I should hope so.”
“What was the topic today?”
Lainie nodded. “Political correctness stifling the debate?”
“No, quite to the contrary. The kids want to discuss everything, and it’s more than I imagined. It’s quite...”
“Yes, that would be a good word for it.”
After checking her watch, Lainie jumped up and said she was late to a meeting. “Talk to me anytime, Philippe.”
Philippe was so stimulated by the discussions that he often lay awake at night. He was not used to this sort of uncertainty. He searched for answers to their questions in the Qur’an and myriad other texts, but sometimes he did not know if he was interpreting the beliefs correctly. One Muslim student had emailed him in response to a comment Philippe made on his paper and said that Christians like Philippe always got it wrong when they tried to explain why Muhammed was not visually represented. Philippe tried to tell himself that it was just like what his graduate students had to go through: to draw their own conclusions from critical inquiry, doubt, testing. Only then one would know one’s answers for sure. He himself was going through the same process, examining the five pillars and his own practice.
Philippe felt the conflict within from time to time, and there was an incident that flustered him deeply. They had been talking about the tension between Western values of freedom and secularism and Muslim values, and the students had been fierce in their opinions on either side. It had come to a boil, when Philippe saw there was one student who had not yet joined in the debate.
“Yes, Khaled,” Philippe called on the Pakistani-American student whose eyes were downcast, and yet he was following the discussion intensely. He was clad in stylish hip-hop wear, with his baggy pants hovering at his knees and his fashionable nylon puffer jacket cocooning him.
Khaled stood up. “You know, I just want to say something,” he said. “I just wanted to say I agree with what Jacob said a while ago about the difference between modesty and extremism and dress. I don’t buy into that shit about having all these rules about how you should dress, how you should sit, how you should talk, how you should eat. As far as I’m concerned, it’s really between you and God. If you haven’t done things good in this world, if you haven’t given your zakat and you’ve got plenty of money rollin’ in the bank; if you don’t believe with all your heart that there is one God and Mohammed is his prophet; if you don’t take the time and the trouble to make that pilgrimage to Mecca that says that you put God first even before your job–if you don’t do all that, then the rest is all bullshit as far as I’m concerned. It doesn’t matter if you have the right length of beard or if your woman is completely dressed or aren’t observing every rule if you’re a hypocrite. I don’t think you’re any less of a Muslim if you have a beer now and then or if you’re a girl and you’re wearing a miniskirt.”
“Yes, exactly. In my country, Turkey, we drink, we dance, we smoke,” said a girl named Meliha. “We are a Muslim country, but it’s Muslim in name. Turkey is secular, remember, because of Ataturk. And why should we set back all the years of progress that Ataturk fought for because of the growth of the fundamentalists?”
Philippe checked his watch. “Oh, my goodness, we’re over time. Great discussion today. Please, for Monday, don’t forget to read both articles in the reader about Britain in the Middle East.”
The students filed out of the classroom, but Sayeeda approached Philippe. “Professor Halston? Hi, I’m Sayeeda. I just wanted to say that I think it’s really brave what you’re doing, that you’re converting to Islam.”
Philippe looked up from the stack of papers he was collating to put into his bag. “Why, thank you, Sayeeda. But it’s not that brave of–or difficult a thing to do.”
“What do you mean? How can it be easy? You see what we are surrounded by all the time, all these people who are nonbelievers and who mock the faith. Like–what is his name? Khalil?”
“Khaled. Well, remember, they’re not mocking the faith. This class is not just about personal reflection, but a critical inquiry into the nature of belief. And though you may not like hearing me say this, it may force you to consider your own beliefs as well.”
“I took this class because I wanted to take something comfortable and familiar to me with my faith.” There was a pained look in her eyes. “And all I seem to hear every time is how bad things are or how little I really know. I practice Islam, I live and feel Islam. Please tell me I am not wrong,” she pleaded, her eyes wet with sorrow.
“You’re not wrong,” Philippe said softly. “But feeling is not mutually exclusive with understanding and questioning one’s faith. Think back to the age of all the great Muslim scholars who were writing at the time of the Dark Ages in Europe. Critical inquiry can be an even greater tool to lead one into deeper faith.”
“Yes, but one must live and feel.” Sayeeda turned to go out the door and hung her head like a small child shamed by her mother’s scolding. “Professors like you think and write, but you don’t feel what it means to be Muslim. It’s different.”
Philippe drew a deep breath and paused for a moment, remembering Lainie Brown’s comment that he had to be willing to take the bullet. Only it felt not like a bullet, but rather, like being bled slowly, the blood draining from him, butchered halal-style. He walked to a tapas place that was a few blocks from Rudyard, and with some guilt, asked for the happy hour special house red to be brought to him along with the mushrooms and tortilla española to help him relax.
He increasingly ate alone because his friends did not know how to talk to him: none of them were amid a religious conversion. Sometimes their phone calls went unanswered, because Philippe did not feel like explaining himself and his decisions to well-meaning, kind friends. Even when he did go to dinner, he felt ill at ease. “Why don’t you want to go to the French film fest with us?” the hostess asked, as the guests all gulped a quick pre-cinematic dessert of chocolate mousse. “The reviews were good, and it’s with your favorite actress,” she said with a hopeful smile.
“I can only take so many stories about secret lovers and trysts,” Philippe said, rising from the table and folding his napkin. “Enjoy the film.”
“This from a guy who used to be one of the donors!” lamented the woman after Philippe had left.
During those reflective moments between sleep and wakefulness, Philippe realized that Sayeeda had a point: he could no longer just think and write about Islam. He needed to involve himself more in active Muslim and Middle Eastern life, he needed to feel it. Instead of frequenting the library or his office or occasional dinner parties on weekends, Philippe now found himself haunting various ethnic grocers, learning the names of previously unknown food items, and trying restaurants in different neighborhoods in town. Never one to cook much, he might have kibbee and tabouli for lunch at a Lebanese café one Saturday, jahnoon on another, halal kebabs at a Pakistani kebab house for dinner, or indulge in selections from a box of shredded wheat-and-syrup-laden pastries that he brought home from a bakery, in place of a meal.
Despite his interest in others’ cultures and religion, this did not translate into instant acceptance. Sometimes he was the only American in a store, met with stares that were either curious, or even worse, with oblivion, as the other customers were greeted by the staff. He tried greeting the shopkeepers in Arabic and was equally responded to in Arabic and in English, much to his chagrin. Once, when Philippe tried to order some pepper spread at a Syrian deli, the owner told him it would be too hot for him and handed him a containerful of baba ganoush, gratis. “But I love spicy food!” Philippe protested, grateful for but not satisfied by the smoky spread. He sat alone at large tables in restaurants that were intended for extended families, it seemed. Once the venerated, sought-after professor, he was now the solo, unwitting anthropologist.
What Philippe liked most about the ethnic restaurants were the families; people of all ages seemed to congregate there, cheerfully and noisily arguing over who would order what and who would share. One Saturday afternoon seated next to a large family’s table at a Lebanese restaurant, he listened to a mother lecture her oldest son about his lack of attention and interest in Islamic school. He was a boy of about nine or ten.
“Habib, you are not paying attention,” she said, wiping some juice that was dribbling down her son’s chin with her napkin. Philippe thought she could have easily been central casting’s archetype of The Middle Eastern Mother: robust, beautiful, with her dark eyes framed by carefully arched brows, shiny manicured nails, talking loudly with a thick Arabic accent, nurturing her brood like a mother hen.
“You go to the Islamic school every Saturday morning and what do you learn? Nothing. Your grandfather in Beirut he will be so disappointed. You know your great-grandfather? Baba’s grandfather? He was a great learned scholar, people came from many miles to listen to him speak in Arabic, because his speaking was so beautiful and he was so wise...Nadine, stop eating all his French fries, you’ll be sick!” She smacked her daughter’s hand lightly. “Habib, don’t disappoint the family like this. If you don’t learn now, then–ah, here,” the waiter interrupted the mother’s monologue, much to the gratitude of her son, by bringing a big platter of sizzling meats to their table. Philippe was both amused and touched, watching as the mother managed to serve all four of her children and her husband the meat, cackling and scolding and loving and feeding all at the same time.
He remembered this scene with fondness as he sat alone on his sofa on a Saturday night, a fire roaring in the fireplace. He had become, effectively, a persona non grata in his department. No one talked to him much, and consequently, he spent time in his shared office at the religion department. However, a visiting scholar who seemed to hold endless office hours usually occupied the office when he wanted to work, so Philippe’s time there was limited. Chairman Huizenga had stopped his outward hostility, given Philippe’s knowledge of his less-than-admirable conduct with female students. But Philippe knew that Huizenga could retaliate at any point, as the provost was threatening to close the Institute for European studies, and the chair did not want to see that go. Philippe’s only regular social activity was the weekly conversational Arabic class taught by a retired Rudyard professor who would occasionally have coffee with Philippe afterwards. The rest of the time, he worked on his Western anti-Islamism book, launching off a draft to Janet after he had finished six chapters. It was clear to Philippe now, even when he felt content with developing his inner spiritual path, some element was missing. He had inadvertently traded in a known, comfortable lifestyle for something uncertain, new, and repelling to others. It was indeed a lonely sacrifice.
Philippe’s schedule was free from classes the next semester, so he concentrated on writing either at the library or at home. He had developed a morning routine of waking at 7, doing prayers and having coffee, starting writing at 8, pausing for a croissant or roll at 9:30, then working until noon, when he prayed then fixed himself a pita or salad, or ate some pasta from the gourmet market. He felt like he had indeed become the proverbial monk he had described to the secretary once before, only instead of illuminated manuscripts, he had the Qur’an and dusty books from the library. From time to time, he held office hours and supervised dissertations, but a grant had enabled him to focus on the anti-Islamicisation book. His editor Janet, he noted, always sounded just a trifle impatient when she said, “Well, I’m sure it’s underway, Philippe,” before bidding him a good afternoon and hanging up.
One bright morning, when the buds had just begun to emerge on the branches, Philippe could not bear his solitary habit anymore. He put on his jacket and walked to the faculty club, which was located adjacent to the student union. There, he could enjoy a more elegant lunch than the soggy pasta salad that sat at the bottom of his fridge. As he passed the Rudyard Student Union, he saw a large banner bearing the words “ARABIC STUDENT ORGANIZATION LUNCH TODAY, CHEAP FOOD 11-2” and quickly made a U-turn. He had missed the intelligent chatter of his students, their youthful energy and presence.
Philippe had only planned to peep in, grab a pastry or pita and go. However, when he arrived in front of one of the student activity rooms, he found a long table full of various Middle Eastern dishes and a swarm of students trying to sample them. There were also a few professors and administrators among the crowd, all of whom were shouting over the din of some music blaring from the activity room behind. Apparently, there was going to be dancing.
Philippe managed to elbow his way to the table to get the combo meal, which was only a few dollars for a smattering of every imaginable dish from the Middle East. His plate threatened to collapse, thanks to the liquid that oozed from the tabouli. As he was digging in, one of the young women serving the food exclaimed, “Aren’t you the professor who guest lectured for us? You were so amazing. Oh my gosh, did they make you pay for that? They should have given it to you for free. Here.” She handed him another plate upon which she piled some more fava beans and some muhammara, to make up for the fact that he had paid for his meal. “Enjoy. The baklava is really good, really fresh–it’s made by that lady who’s a dessert caterer.” She pointed to a woman who was cutting up the pastry in a long tray, with a small child with curly hair clinging to her and wailing, “Mommy!”
“Thank you,” said Philippe, unsure of what else to say and overwhelmed with gratitude. He ate, taking huge bites, absorbing the food as well as the smiles of all the people around him. He found his way into the activity room where the chairs were arranged in a huge ring around the empty central space, with an instrumental band setting up at one end of the room. He saw an Islamic art professor whom he had met at his Arabic classes, an Istanbullu woman who was an expert on miniature painting. They warmly greeted each other and chatted for a few minutes. She invited Philippe to come to her house for dinner next month when her sister would be visiting from Turkey; she would also invite a Turkish doctor and his American wife. Philippe accepted, “Thank you. It’s one more night when I won’t have to cook for myself,” he laughed.
The band was nearly all set up, and Philippe saw his former student Shazia go running by. She went to the microphone and announced, “Hi, I’m Shazia, the treasurer of the ASO. First, thank you everybody for coming, there’s still plenty more food left so feel free to help yourself–I don’t want to be taking home five pounds of tabouli.” A giggle went around the room. “But first we have announcements, so I’ll turn it over to our president, Samir Al-Wadi.” Riotous applause and cheering went across the room, especially from Samir’s fan club in the back.
Philippe’s attention was interrupted by a young man who asked if the seat next to him was vacant. The young man sat down, and whispered to Philippe, “Are you a professor here?”
“That’s cool. I didn’t think professors would want to be here, at stuff like this.”
“Well, I hadn’t anticipated coming here, I just saw the–yes, you’re right, it’s very cool here, isn’t it? Lots of people.”
“Yeah. All ages and sizes. That’s what I like best. You go to someone’s house or to church, you know, and there’s always a bunch of kids running around and then someone’s grandfather and grandmother visiting from somewhere in the Middle East. You someone’s dad here?”
Philippe resisted his urge to correct the student’s grammar. “No, I’m not,” he replied.
“Oh, because you look like you’d be someone’s dad.” A loud round of applause and cheering went across the crowd, and Shazia took the microphone again. Philippe looked at the boy with newfound tenderness, at a twenty-something student paternally and not professorially. Here was a boy who would make his parents proud by bringing home a report card with As in his pre-med classes, frustrated by his lack of interest in marriage, or worried when he coughed heavily in the middle of the night when he had a cold. Someone who would carry on their traditions by attending groups like these, and whose children would in turn do the same.
Members of the crowd began to link arms and the musicians quickly tuned up again before starting to play. The dancing started, and without realizing it, Philippe himself had stood up and approached the dance circle when the music began. He stood with his arms folded, watching as the others joined together and began pacing the steps, with some people trying to articulate their movements more clearly for the newcomers to observe and imitate. The circle moved slowly first, in synchronicity with the music, and then sped up as the music accelerated. Philippe studied the dancers’ feet, unconsciously bobbing his head to the rhythm and finally realizing that the meter was irregular. “Come on, Professor Halston!” a chirpy voice called out, and it was a moment before he realized that it was Shazia flying by. A middle-aged lady broke open the circle and invited Philippe in. He linked arms with her and another student.
He had never done anything like this before, but oddly enough, it felt natural. One of the students from his Intro to Islam class smiled to him from across the circle, a boy named Brian. Brian seemed to enjoy himself immensely, swinging and kicking his legs as though the entire dance were a mosh pit. Philippe laughed to himself at the boy’s enthusiasm. The circle went whirling and whirling around the room, and he wished he could catch his breath, but the heat and the momentum of the music kept him going. He felt drops of sweat bead up on his forehead, making his hair grow damp. The music kept going faster and faster, new steps and dances were added, new people came and left the circle, people of all colors, shapes, sizes, and ages. Men and women. Boys and girls. He recognized one or two other familiar faces from his classes weave in and out and acknowledged their presence with a nod. A circle of people with a space in the center, and yet that space was not empty. It was filled with something, something central to everybody, something that created a sense of oneness and unity among all the different dancers. It was the same circle swarming around the center that he would one day see when he made the Hajj, the holy pilgrimage to Mecca. The music got louder and faster, the circle went swirling more and more, and Philippe felt as though he, as though he–
As though he were in a dream. And sometimes he was. Philippe would wake from the dream, the same recurring dream, where he was dancing in the circle at the Arabic Students’ Organization. At times, he would see a bright light. At other times, it would be the pulse of the music beating in his heart. Once, he even called in sick, because he was overwhelmed with an emotion that he could not put into words: he had dreamed that a golden light had filled him from his stomach to his throat. Philippe’s chest felt oddly sore, as though he had endured an operation. His pragmatic explanation was food poisoning or the stomach flu, and yet he had no symptoms of either of those maladies; he felt fine. In fact, he felt better than before, as though nothing on the outside could touch him, disturb his newfound peace. When he awoke each morning, he opened the Qur’an or the Hadith and read a passage from it. But one morning, he opened the Qur’an, and then closed it shut. There was only one thing he needed to say, that he began to murmur it over and over until he was chanting it out loud in rhythm:
There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is his prophet.
He repeated the words over and over in Arabic. He found himself kneeling on the ground, his head touching the carpet in utter submission. The time had come to tell the imam, even though he would protest, that he was ready to convert.
Philippe dialed the imam immediately and spoke of his desire to attend the Friday services on a regular basis and to formally convert. After listening for several minutes, the imam said, through a mouthful of nuts, “You are more than welcome, but do not force anything.”
“I’m not forcing anything, sir. I feel ready–mentally, physically, and spiritually. Haven’t I proved myself enough?”
“These dreams, what you are doing–this is all a good sign. But many Westerners do not understand the full effects of how converting to Islam affects your lifestyle. You must not do anything–how should I say?–abruptly, and you must be aware of the difference between the academic study and the living. Go one step at a time, see how it suits you. If the path is meant for you, it will happen. Inshallah.”
Gradually, Philippe incorporated the lifestyle so smoothly, as though it were always meant for him. He understood the necessity of the pre-prayer ablutions, the wudu, as though to sanctify one’s body before entering the masjid. Attending the Friday services was a welcome spiritual release at the end of a long, stressful week at Rudyard. Even though he had been going to the mosque regularly, Philippe hesitated to officially call himself a Muslim, as he was not yet embracing all the aspects of practice. Praying five times a day was sometimes a challenge with an academic schedule in which one might be teaching during the second prayer of the day or grading midterms under a deadline during the fourth. And it was with a guilty conscience that he drained the bottle of syrah that was left over from the previous night, enjoying its full-bodied tang. The imam had been right–it was not to be an instantaneous conversion. After a lifetime of intellect and theory, Philippe found the hardest thing was the practice.
Philippe would drive home from services feeling spiritually invigorated but socially empty, wishing someone at the mosque would talk to him beyond a friendly greeting. Philippe often ran into former students from his Intro to Islam class. Shazia and Sayeeda were always there behind him, as were Amer, Frank (an African American convert), and a few other faces from his guest lectures at an earlier time in rows nearby. He was grateful to see them, as he had such minimal youthful contact these days. At first, they kept their respectful distance, looking over at him and whispering among themselves, as they were too shy to approach him. But once they did, they found their professor was simply a fellow Muslim at the mosque. They greeted Philippe after the service, answering his questions about both Islam and their own studies at Rudyard.
After the prayer on a cloudy Friday, he recalled that there was nothing worthwhile at home to call a meal, so he headed to a Lebanese restaurant for dinner. When Philippe got there, sure enough, it was packed with families laughing, talking, and shouting. The host squeezed him into a tiny table for two. A waiter tossed a menu at him, promising to be back with the water. Another hurried waiter spilled some hummus on Philippe, then returned with a stack of napkins, and apologized. As Philippe dabbed the sticky paste off his corduroy jacket, he realized he was the only one not part of a group, and he wondered if the others took pity on him or were oblivious. It was either dinner at home alone or in a restaurant alone.
Just after he had placed his order, he heard a voice behind him call out, “Professor Halston?” He turned around and saw Shazia and Sayeeda and a merry little group that had assembled at the restaurant. Shazia got up and walked toward him. “Are you eating alone?”
“Well, I hadn’t really planned to eat here but I–”
“Why don’t you join us?” One of Shazia’s friends, Farouk, had already gotten up and asked the waiter for an extra chair. “You shouldn’t eat alone.”
Familiar Lebanese standards as well as dishes that Philippe had never seen before were ordered. “I should come with you young people to every restaurant, because I never know what to get,” he said with amazement. In turn, the others took great pride in introducing him to different dishes. An older lady, Farouk’s mother, was also there.
“Nobody cooks as good as she does,” said Farouk with a gesture toward his mother. “You should’ve seen the food she made for Eid last year.”
“Yeah, that was awesome!” exclaimed Shazia with her mouth full. “Even my mom can’t cook like that.”
“That’s because your mom’s a businesswoman. Women can’t do two things well at the same time,” Mohammed joked, to provoke Shazia.
Shazia scoffed in mock disgust. “How dare you? Just ‘cause I’m a woman doesn’t mean I can’t be a doctor and a good cook at the same time.”
“That’s because they need more Muslim women gynecologists, because men shouldn’t–”
“Shut up, Tariq!” said Farouk to his cousin, glancing at the professor, as the two of them lapsed into dirty-joke laughter. Boys will be boys regardless of religion, Philippe thought, stifling a laugh.
Philippe and Farouk’s mother smiled at each other as she passed him the bread. She was quiet, with a very round, pale face contrasting with dark eyebrows and large, deep hazel eyes. She wore a headscarf and was on the short side. “Please, you take,” she said, ready to serve him a generous helping of sautéed lamb. Her English was heavily accented and limited, but her hospitality was obvious.
“Oh, there’s no need to, I’ve already–oh, OK, thank you.”
The next time he went to the mosque, Shazia and Sayeeda invited him to join them for dinner afterwards after every service.
“You must eat, Professor. You might as well join us, and the food’s so delicious at The Palms,” they said. “That’s where we’re going tonight.”
“Don’t worry, you won’t be the only guy there, because Mohammed and Farouk and Farouk’s cousins will be there too,” said Shazia, then giggled at her awkward invitation.
“It’s not like it’s a girl-guy thing,” Sayeeda added her own disclaimer, and then laughed with Shazia, who elbowed her in the ribs.
“It’s all right, ladies, I know the gesture is meant kindly,” Philippe smiled. He got directions and met them there.
They were all waiting for Farouk, but he did not appear. They concluded after ten minutes that he must have gone to dine with his mother and siblings. “She’s a widow,” Sayeeda explained in response to Philippe’s inquiry about Farouk’s mother. “It’s sad, her husband died in an accident at work. He lost a lot of blood, and they couldn’t save him.”
“I am so very sorry to hear that,” Philippe said quietly, moved.
“Farouk was still in school, I think he was only fourteen or fifteen, and he has two little brothers,” said Shazia.
“A little brother and a sister,” Sayeeda corrected.
“His mom works two jobs to support the kids,” said Mohammed. “I think it’s hard for her, but she never complains. We go to her house. She always cooks for everybody.”
The group had decided to go to The Palms because there would be live music and–the boys hoped–belly dancing. However, they were disappointed to find that the belly dancing would not be on until later. They contented themselves with stuffing their mouths with pita bread. “Mo, you’re such a pig!” scolded Shazia.
“Hey, at least we don’t eat pigs,” said Mohammed. “Oops, sorry, Professor Halston, do you?”
“No, I don’t. I’m pretty much a fully practicing Muslim.”
“Why did you convert?” asked Tariq. There was a sudden silence as everyone fixed their eyes on the professor and leaned in.
Philippe was used to this by now. “I just felt it was the right path for me. I like the sense of the singularity of purpose, where all your daily actions are integrated into something very meaningful.”
“Well, there’s a certain cleanliness to the lifestyle that I admire. And historically, if you examine the texts, there is a true sense of justice and fairness when practiced properly. I’m not talking about all that fundamentalist Muslim nonsense that goes on,” said Philippe, in a rare moment of bluntness. “But if you look at the history and complexity of Muslim cultures, you’ll find that they are very sophisticated and refined yet simple and accessible at the same time. There’s a certain equality behind that. I like that it appeals to all walks of life. A rich man must observe the same things as a poor man, and yet they are both Muslims.”
Mohammed ripped off a large piece of pita bread and chewed with his mouth open as he asked the professor, “You were raised Christian, right? There’s both rich and poor Christians. Equality. So, I mean, why become Muslim?”
“I like that God has no face or shape or form. You can’t depict Him, can’t depict God. It’s nameless, faceless, something mysterious and beautiful. Even the artwork is like that–all these little patterns repeated over and over. I find peace in that. Kind of frees up your mind, so that way you can let your soul connect with God.”
“So, you really believe, Professor Halston?” Sayeeda asked earnestly, sitting on the edge of her chair. “Can you say the shahada with full sincerity? As a believer?”
Philippe was silent for a moment. There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is his Prophet. How fundamental were those words to his very being–they were in the stone of the Mezquita of Córdoba, the yellow-worn brittle pages of texts, in the leaves and flowers woven into the intricate patterns of his green prayer rug, in his articles, on his computer’s screen saver, beautifully calligraphed on ancient scrolls in museums he had visited–why, they were even in his heart and soul. He believed, he believed! That night in bed he lay awake, his body pulsing with energy that he knew came only from God. He had come on this path, though it had been arduous, and now he understood it was worthwhile. All the ostracism, all the loneliness, the isolation, the letting go of the familiar–they had all led him here. But there was one last thing he needed to do with those words to cement his faith.
After a Friday service on a warm June evening, Philippe said to his dinner family, “You go on, and I’ll meet you at the restaurant. I have something to attend to, I’ll just be a moment.” They were all sweating, especially Shazia and Sayeeda in their long sleeves and baggy satin pants.
Farouk’s mother Farida, who had been staring at him from under her headscarf, broke into a smile. “Please, you come. I like so much you to come with us.”
Philippe smiled, his eyes lighting up. “Of course. I just need to talk to the imam a little bit. But you go ahead and order for me. I’ll eat most anything.”
“I order for you well-done meat. I know you like this kind of meat, you eat this every time.”
Philippe raised his eyebrows, and then grinned while turning pink. “Why, thank you, I’m surprised you noticed.” He watched as the others hopped into their cars, cranking the air conditioning to full blast, and driving away with a screech of their tires, anxious to get a table soon.
Philippe walked into the imam’s office. The imam was sitting at his desk going through a stack of papers. “Assalamu alaikum–please, come in, come in,” he said warmly. This time, he was not munching on nuts; the dish in front of him was full of wrapped sesame candies like miniature ingots. “What can I do for you, my friend? I see you have been coming here regularly. You have found your path?”
“I know I have, indeed.”
“And you are a believer? I ask you this not in jest, not to test your sincerity as an ‘outsider’ coming into our faith. I ask you this only to make sure that your faith is real and coming from you. Not from anyone telling you what to do.”
“Yes, it is. It is coming from me, all of it.” Philippe’s voice trembled. He walked around the room, gazing at the bookshelves and then finally stopping by the window. “What I want is for people to know that. I want it to be affirmed. My faith.”
“I think you know that–well, it is my interpretation–there is nothing official that you must do to make official your conversion to Islam other than to recite the shahada.”
Philippe dropped to his knees, effortlessly. He began murmuring it, gradually crescendoing until it was audible to the imam:
There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is his prophet.
He repeated the words over and over. The imam got up from his chair and walked toward his prostrate convert. He laid a hand on Philippe’s head, and said, “Welcome, my friend. My true believer friend.”
Philippe sat up. A new light was shining in his eyes, a light that was magnified by the tears.
“My friend, you have shown me your devotion,” the imam said softly. “But may I suggest that you recite the shahada in front of the community? There is something in ritual that makes our actions to God clearer and more visible when we perform them in front of our community. They act as our witnesses. And I will introduce you as an official member.”
“Yes, yes,” Philippe whispered, warm tears rolling down his cheeks. It was exactly what he had wanted to hear the imam say.
“I will do it at next Friday’s service. Just come to my office a few minutes before. Then we shall announce this significant event to our community, have you recite it to them.”
Philippe nodded, speechless. The tears still stained his cheeks.
“Is there anything else I can help you with?” the imam asked gently.
Philippe nodded again. He wiped his face with the back of his hand. “I would like a Muslim name.”
“I am sorry? You spoke so softly I could not hear you.”
“I want a Muslim name before I am introduced.”
The imam roared with laughter, the sound erupting from the depths of his stomach, and reached for a sesame candy. “So, ‘Philippe Halston’ is not Muslim enough?”
Philippe smiled through his tears and shook his head.
“That, my friend, I cannot help you choose. Most of us are given one at birth, but in your case, I think you must choose something that is significant. Something that is very meaningful to you. You should go home and think about it carefully. Don’t hurry, don’t be in a rush. It took you so long to get here, let it take just as long as is necessary for your name.”
Philippe thanked the imam, who gave him a hug. Then he proceeded to join the others for a hearty dinner.
A new identity in academia was also necessary. Given that he had been so successful in his Intro to Islam classes, Philippe had a couple of talks with Chairman Brown about being appointed as a professor of religion. The chair, despite her earlier skepticism, posed no obstacle to Philippe’s transfer of departments, and said that she was certain that the Dean of Arts and Sciences could be convinced for approval, though it might take some time.
“I would think you would still want to hang on to your appointment in the history department, have a joint appointment.”
“I have taken that into consideration for a while, but I feel that the nature of my obligations would be different were I to remain there.”
“Seems to me that the problem would be the Institute for European Studies. You’re pretty much the head of that, aren’t you?”
“But I am no longer working on European history. I’d be a hypocrite if I stayed on.”
Philippe’s own chairman, however, bristled when Philippe sat down with him in his office on a Friday afternoon.
“I just don’t see why you need to transfer departments to still do what you want to do,” Henry Huizenga said tersely.
“I already explained why. I have no more affiliation here, and my interests lie in religion, not history. I have been a pariah here in the recent past.”
“When you were made an offer here at Rudyard–albeit years ago–” the chairman made a jab at Philippe, “you were tenured through the Department of History. I’m not saying that people don’t change their interests, but you do have a responsibility to this department.”
“If you can remember clearly–albeit years ago–I was appointed as a university-level professor, which means my responsibilities and obligations are first and foremost to Rudyard, not to a specific department. And as the religion department is quite willing to have me, I have no obligation here,” Philippe countered.
“What about the Institute?” The chairman was desperate to strengthen his case, but he was on a sinking ship. “What about your obligation to the Institute?”
“The Institute is hardly of interest to me anymore.”
“Just think how much you’ve done for the department.” Huizenga tried to change his tactics. “What would the department be without you?”
“I am not your cash cow or your golden goose, Henry. Besides, there are so many newly minted Ph.D.s desperately trying to get a job who would want my position here. More than plenty.” Philippe got up from his chair. “Good day.”
Huizenga’s voice rose. “You’ll need the Dean’s approval.”
“Lainie Brown has already been updating him. Hopefully, there won’t be any resistance on his end.”
Huizenga drew a deep breath and held his head high. “Well.” He looked down his nose at Philippe. “Best of luck to you. It’s your decision, Philippe, if you want to adopt ways that are so regressive.”
Philippe froze in his tracks, but after a moment, red rage boiled up within him. “Regressive? Is that what you’re calling my faith? Regressive?”
Henry Huizenga turned pale and said nothing.
Philippe’s nostrils flared and he breathed like a furious bull. “Yes, the old cliché is true–history repeats itself. You struck me as a bigoted, arrogant, ignorant son of a bitch the first time I met you, and you have confirmed that impression again today. Good day!” Philippe stormed out of his colleague’s office and slammed the door, rattling the various diplomas and awards on the walls of Huizenga’s office.
On the seventh day of the seventh month of the year, a sliver of a crescent moon hung in the sky, punctuated by a tiny, sparkling star next to it. It was still warm in the evening, after a day as hot as the Sahara, the temperature climbing to one hundred degrees. At the mosque, Philippe was performing his perfunctory ablutions to prepare for the Friday service. Once done, he entered the imam’s office, dressed in a white tunic and white sirwal with a small cap on his head. The imam nodded with approval, adjusting the cap so it was not crooked. They went into the main hall, and everyone was there. He could see Mohammed and Farouk and Farouk’s cousins and a few other familiar faces that he had gotten to know over time. Behind the men, there were Shazia and Sayeeda and the widow Farida, who was flanked by her daughter and another little girl. She noticed the anxiety in his face, and she melted it with a kind smile, a smile that crinkled her long-lashed, deep hazel eyes. He was entering as Philippe, but he would leave as Almahdi. Almahdi–guided to the right path, the right-guided one.
Philippe had chosen the name last Wednesday. After poring through lists and lists of names for days, the right name came to him, of all times, while brushing his teeth one morning–he had been guided all along. He had been guided this way to the path of Islam, and there was no resisting it. Yes, he had lived a life of a Western scholar. In that life, so many thoughts had entered and exited his head over the years. Theories, histories, philosophies, but in the end, the most important guiding idea was:
There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is his Prophet.
Skepticism and doubt had formed the very backbone of his earlier existence, of his entire career. Knowledge, knowing–and not knowing. People had asked him things, people had questioned him, challenged him, derided him, speculated about him, wondered what secrets he held. But none of that mattered now when he was surrounded by the faces of believers and a holy man, all waiting to hear his complete and total surrender, waiting to include him, to be open to him. At earlier times, he knew, and he knew not. Now, it was perfectly clear:
All he knew was that he was waiting for the ummah. And the ummah was waiting for him.