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From Muslim to Catholic

Zubair Simonson
February 25, 2021 No Comments

I was born in Massachusetts on September 18, 1982. My mother was a Muslim from Pakistan. Her mother was pious and her father nominal. In 1975, she emigrated to the United States for graduate studies. My father was from Michigan. His mother was Catholic, his father Lutheran. He converted to Islam shortly before he married my mother. At the time I was born, he worked for a company that was contracted by the Department of Defense.

My family moved to Raleigh, North Carolina, when I was six. From a very young age I had a sense that God — Allah as I was taught to call Him — was very powerful.

My childhood was, for the most part, typically American. Demographics assured that the majority of my friends were Christians, at least nominally. Pepperoni pizza, which in Islam was a forbidden food (pork), did occasionally remind me that I was also a little different from my friends.

I began attending Muslim Sunday school at our local mosque in Raleigh when I was six. It was there that I began to learn the details of how to pray (in a language I didn’t understand), perform wudu (ablution), etc. Over the years, I went on to learn that Islamic instruction includes a great many details. For instance, I learned that two angels hovered over each of my shoulders, one recording my good deeds, the other recording my sins. My spiritual goal was to make sure that the record of my good behavior outweighed the bad.

The life of Muhammad, a story of piety followed by triumph, taught me that obedience to Allah, by imitating the Prophet, would bring me happiness and prosperity in this life as well as in the hereafter. And if any of us kids had questions, such as, “If a Muslim man is allowed four wives, why did Muhammad have more that four when he died?” there were ready answers.

My mother was very proud of her faith. When I struggled to read Arabic in Sunday school, she took it upon herself to teach me. With her by my side, I began to read the Quran in Arabic at the age of ten, finally finishing the holy book at age seventeen. It was important to her that I be a good Muslim, and I often saw her as overly strict when she cared enough to yell “change the channel!” She was willing to stand up for our faith. When I was in the fourth grade, a couple of my classmates told me I would be going to hell since Jesus wasn’t my Savior. My mother spoke about this to my teacher, who agreed to let my mother make a presentation to my class about Islam. She did all this without knowing that my faith, which she had encouraged so much throughout my youth, would eventually collapse. To this day, she blames herself for having failed me.

At age ten, I began fasting during the month of Ramadan. Prior to then, my mother wasn’t fasting on weekdays during the holy month. Her young son’s resolve inspired her to fast on all of the days as well, and it made her very proud of me. To this day, I miss the family bonding and sense of community that comes with Ramadan.

At about age fifteen, I began to pray the five daily prayers. I was considered old enough, according to Islam, to distinguish right from wrong, and going to hell was something I preferred to avoid.

My exposure to Christianity was more than average for a Muslim. My family celebrated Christmas with my father’s side; we just believed that Jesus was a great prophet rather than the Son of God. Both of my parents worked. Preferring that the house not burn down while they were away, they would drop my brother and me off at day camp at a Methodist church on weekdays during the summer, where all us kids got to sing along to “Yes, Jesus loves me…”

I was proud to be a Muslim and an American. The world headlines occasionally reminded me that my faith and certain policies of my country could be at odds with it. Chief among the “wrongs” in American policy was support for Israel. It was common for the khutba (sermon) during Jum’ah (Friday, the Muslim Sabbath) prayers to be politically focused. Fellow Muslims frequently blamed the failures of the Muslim world on “conspiracies” spearheaded by the Jews or the CIA.

Some of my fellow Muslims were also proud to be Americans, having no qualms with befriending non-Muslims. Others deemed those in the larger non-Muslim community to be kafirs, spiritually unclean people. Why such Muslims had immigrated into a country which they so loathed was beyond my comprehension.

Collapse

The collapse of my faith was the result of many events and much thought.

In 1993, during spring break, I went on a camping trip for the Muslim boys of our mosque in the mountains of North Carolina. Several of the men took it upon themselves to mold us boys in a very rigid fashion. When we hiked, our instructors made us repeat military-like cadences. They shouted at us constantly. We would be awakened before dawn for shifts to “guard” the campgrounds from any phantom enemies. On one of those nights, I watched as a friend of mine was struck in the face by one of my Sunday school teachers. When the camping trip was ending, our instructors acknowledged to us that yes, they had been strict, but that was how men are treated in the army. I wondered whom they were teaching us to fight.

In January 1994, my best friend from Sunday school died. He was eleven. He had had a rare allergic reaction to a common medicine after going to a hospital for high fever. His parents were cousins. Cousin-marriage is common in the Muslim world, and my friend’s death made me resent this.

During Ramadan, at a boys’ sleepover at our local mosque, our Sunday school instructors walked up and down between the rows of sleeping bags with flashlights in their hands, making sure that none of us boys were lying down on our stomachs. It is recorded that Muhammad always slept on his back; therefore, we were supposed to do so as well. One of our Sunday school teachers also taught us, among his lessons, that it was haram (forbidden by Allah) to yawn without covering one’s mouth; otherwise, jinn could jump into our mouths. I wondered what such stuff had to do with good and evil.

When I was in high school, a student at North Carolina State University had converted to Islam at our mosque. Over the course of a couple of years, he became increasingly radicalized. I learned from this that not all conversions to Islam were for the better.

The September 11 attacks happened a week after I began classes at the University of Michigan. It shook me greatly that my country could be so viciously attacked by men acting in the name of my faith.

During the summer of 2003, I lived in Washington DC. I’d found summer lodging at Georgetown with a formal program for Muslim interns. I quickly made friends with my fellow Muslims. The downside was that, weeknights, we had to listen to lectures or discuss topics centered on Islam. During one of those nights, the topic was whether apostates should be executed, as prescribed by Sharia Law. It disgusted me, as an American, that this was considered debatable. What disgusted me even more was seeing my peers, all of whom were well educated, seriously engage in the discussion.

In the spring of 2005, I went to Jum’ah prayers at the mosque in Raleigh. The man delivering the khutba complained, over the loudspeaker, that the government of the United States was preventing American Muslims from serving their jihad in Iraq. I never prayed at that mosque in Raleigh after that. Such sedition was crossing a line.

In December of that year, a family friend told me of how a Muslim man had approached the imam of a mosque in North Carolina, inquiring whether he should honor-kill his daughter. The imam advised him not to do that, because it was illegal in the United States.

In February 2006, I finally renounced Islam. I was living in New York City. I had, by then, become a stranger to mosques, but a rather familiar face in several bars.

It was while walking through Times Square one day that I caught the scrolling headline on a ticker that the Al-Askari shrine had been bombed by an opposing Muslim group. Was Islam a religion of peace or of violence? Reading that news was the final straw. I still believed in God, but I considered all religions to be poisonous.

A Gentle Tug

I had viewed the Christian Faith as a religion, which has much overlap with Islam, but also some errant and incoherent teachings — similar to how a Christian might view Islam. The doctrine of the Holy Trinity seemed like really bad math. It didn’t make sense that God would have a Son.

Though the majority of my friends were culturally Christian, I had a sound social strategy of avoiding persons whom I thought of as “too Christian.”

Despite any walls we build, the Spirit knows how to extend an invitation. There were moments in which I would watch a film, such as The Miracle Maker, or The Last Temptation of Christ (I watched these, figuring they would discredit the Church), in which a certain scene would cause me pause. Similar moments occurred while I listened to Christmas music.

I was a comic book fan, and I stumbled upon The Big Book of Martyrs, a graphic novel, in my father’s library. It was my introduction to the story of St. Maximilian Kolbe.

I attended the University of Michigan when the landmark case of Grutter v. Bollinger (affirmative action) was heard before the Supreme Court. My college years were also the beginning of my affinity for South Park. Having a contrarian streak, I gained a distaste for political correctness. Between this distaste and a strong preference for beauty over blandness in art and architecture, I gained the conviction that much of western tradition was worth preserving, and I became a political conservative. I was still not ready, though, to acknowledge that a Judeo-Christian foundation was behind many of those things worth preserving.

In November 2004, I took my wheelchair-bound Catholic grandmother to Mass in Raleigh. The deacon joked about his own appearance during the homily. When my grandmother passed away in 2005, the priest joked during her funeral service that we grandchildren needed to be careful, because she can now see everything that we do. I found such humor, coming from religious persons, to be very refreshing.

Some months after I moved to New York, a former acquaintance of mine was arrested for stealing a credit card. His misfortune was the source of much laughter for some friends and me. About a month later, I bumped into him again. He introduced me to some new friends he had made, and those friends told me that our crossing paths was no coincidence. This old acquaintance struck me as strangely sincere in his determination to reform. After that chance meeting, it dawned on me that he had fallen in with a group of “Born Agains.” This again was the source of much laughter in my circle. Only in retrospect can I see that the Spirit was quietly doing His work there. I had never imagined that such moments would actually lead to anything positive.

Born Again

I began working for a marketing company in New York at the end of 2005. Our chief clients were New York-based film companies and Broadway shows. The job afforded me opportunities to travel and to also meet celebrities.

My boss seemed like a charming person when I first met him. He was, however, a pathological liar. I routinely caught him lying to clients, to my co-workers, to the man he called his “husband,” to me, and above all to himself. It wasn’t beneath him to manipulate data and reports. He frequently threw temper tantrums, and I was often the one on the receiving end of screaming and profanity-laden phone calls. Most awkward of all, he made sexual advances toward me on several occasions.

I had moved to New York wanting to conquer the world. Ambition called for me to endure the abuse and to do my best to act like the awkwardness was nothing, because my job seemed to have too much potential. I convinced myself that, by looking away and not directly engaging in any unethical behaviors, I was innocent.

I gradually became aware of how spineless I was. It turned out that by getting drunk at a bar on a given night, I would wake up with a headache, but still no spine. During the summer of 2006, I had the first of several prolonged depression episodes.

On a Saturday afternoon in January 2007, I was walking along the Hudson River, wondering whether it was a good idea to just hurl myself into the water. My boss had made a very aggressive pass at me the night before, later blaming me for leading him on after I had (again!) declined. “Is this what life is?” I asked myself.

A thought suddenly flashed in my mind: “Born again.” I immediately wondered where such a thought had come from. Born Again Christians were people I laughed at. But the thought of a fresh start, a chance to be someone else, had appeal. I went to the nearest bookstore and purchased a copy of The Purpose Driven Life.

I soon began reading the Bible (it took about three months to finish) and attending Sunday Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The statues of saints in the cathedral discomforted me; Islam associated them with idolatry. About that time, a former roommate of mine introduced me to a weekly gathering of Christian artists called the Haven, which became my very first Christian community.

I also read C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity to familiarize myself with Christian basics. That book was where I encountered an outright declaration that Christians believed Jesus Christ was God. My conditioned reaction was to think, “Blasphemy!” But much of what I’d been reading in Mere Christianity also made tremendous sense, so I finished the book.

In April 2007, I was walking down the sidewalk when something odd occurred to me: I believed in the divinity of Christ. In fact, I had believed it for some weeks without noticing it. I began searching the internet for a church — any church — which would baptize me with little to no preparation. On the evening of June 26, 2007, I was baptized at Times Square Church.

Learning to Walk

In October 2007, I finally left the marketing company on hostile terms. It didn’t help that the economy was on the verge of the Great Recession. The next year and a half was a season of scarcity for me, of barely scraping by and worrying that God had abandoned me already. I lost weight, walking several miles to avoid paying subway fare. When I finally found stability, working at a restaurant (a job I had once considered “beneath me”), I felt something pulsing in my heart that I hadn’t felt in a long time: gratitude.

Worries that God had abandoned me, or that I’d displeased Him, or that He never wanted me in the first place, drove me to increase my activity as a Christian.

I began praying often. At first it felt clumsy to speak to God in my own words, in English, rather than following a specific formula. I often wondered whether I was “doing it right.” Though I’d left Islam, Islam hadn’t fully left me.

I carried on with readings about the Christian Faith. Most of the earliest topics I focused on tended to be simple, such as prayer. I read more books by C.S. Lewis, but G.K. Chesterton soon became my favorite author. I read the entire Bible a second time in 2008, a third time in 2009, and a fourth time (with Apocrypha) in 2010.

In December 2007, I began attending Redeemer Presbyterian Church, joining that church in early 2008. I thought I could never get enough of Tim Keller’s preaching. At Redeemer, I went on to volunteer at the information table, to become active in a Bible study, and to serve on the ministry team for the filmmakers’ group.

I kept attending the Haven and began serving in a leadership role in 2009. A good friend from the Haven also introduced me to Jews for Jesus, where I had made even more Christian friends. It wasn’t long before the majority of people whom I spent time with were practicing Christians.

During the early half of 2008 I was blessed with several graces.

At the Haven I cried during an open reading of John 15, “I am the vine, you are the branches…,” having felt so honored by our Lord’s words that I was His friend. I felt in my heart that God wanted me as a son rather than a slave. It was the first time in almost a decade that I shed tears.

One afternoon, while praying to God, I suddenly realized that I was just as great a sinner as my former boss. I told God that, even if I was unable to forgive that man right away, I was at least willing to agree to forgive him. Later that evening, I joined some of my Haven friends at an outing. A couple of them asked me why my eyes looked brighter than before.

On another afternoon, while praying, I had a vision, something like a waking dream. Three hounds were trampling the globe. A dark overcast followed them. A woman, dressed in a white robe and holding a candle, stood at the eastern edge of the globe. The hounds charged at her, but they evaporated the moment their snouts touched her. The woman began walking. A procession of men and women, all in white robes and holding candles, appeared and began to follow her. Wherever they stepped, the dark clouds rolled back. “Who was that woman?” I wondered to myself. The answer, I think, would have been pretty obvious to a Catholic.

Questions

New York is a transient city. People constantly move in and move out, so that the set of friends surrounding a denizen in a given moment are often different from those surrounding him or her a year later. There’s a poetry in it.

The Haven disbanded in 2010. A few of my friends, having suffered trials, lost their faith. Many of my Redeemer friends had moved on to other churches or even to other cities, and I was going to church by myself.

I’d also fallen into the habit of falling asleep during the sermons at Redeemer. I became careful not to sit in the front pews, so that the pastor wouldn’t catch me napping. After a couple of years, it just seemed like I was hearing the same message over and over again.

The pastors who weren’t Tim Keller were being given more opportunities to hone their preaching skills, in hopes that Redeemer’s attendance wouldn’t plummet once Keller retired. Over the course of three years, I’d also met several pastors who had moved to New York with the intention of planting new churches. Frankly, some of them were highly unqualified to be giving anyone spiritual direction. I began to question the wisdom behind continually planting new churches, of always having to start afresh.

Between sermons and my independent reading, I became familiar with the basic teachings and history of the Christian faith. The Christian-related topics which piqued my interest had become more detailed: exorcism, processes for investigating and confirming miracles, Marian apparitions, etc. G.K. Chesterton remained a favorite author of mine. The historical faith figures whom I admired the most included St. Francis of Assisi and St. Maximilian Kolbe. The Christian figure whom I most admired in living memory was Mother Teresa of Calcutta. I couldn’t help noticing that much of what piqued my interest, and most of those I most admired, had something in common.

Many of my Christian friends had grown up with reservations concerning the Catholic Church, usually for it being “non-Biblical” for some reason or another. Some even believed that Catholics were not Christians — a claim which can sound very ridiculous to a Muslim. I, on the other hand, had grown up believing that all Christians were equally wrong.

Having read the Bible, having read several books by Catholic authors, and having had access to Google, I learned that much of what was deemed “non-Biblical” (confession to a priest, the intercession of Mary and the saints, etc.) was much misunderstood.

Independent study had likewise done much to inform me of differences between Catholic and Protestant teaching, particularly the Catholic view of the sacraments. When I was first told about transubstantiation, by a Protestant pastor in January 2008, I found it incredibly bizarre that Catholics believed such a thing and was glad I wasn’t Catholic. But why was it that we were being encouraged to take miracles recorded throughout the Gospels as facts, yet not to take His words “This is My Body” and “This is My Blood” so literally as the Catholics do? Why were we drinking sparkling grape juice instead of wine during Communion at Redeemer? If we become what we consume, could it mean that the aim of the Eucharist was for a person to become much more than just “saved”? And wouldn’t it be a tremendous relief to hear authoritatively that my sins were forgiven, as compared to wondering whether my “Sorry, God!” had been good enough?

I wondered about other things: Why were the interiors of Catholic churches, with such lovely statues of Mary and the saints, adorned so beautifully? Why was the interior of the Protestant church I went to so plain? Why was it that the Catholic Church, of all the churches, was the least prone to bending to the modern world, especially with issues such as abortion?

Redeemer was the perfect church for me as an infant Christian with a Muslim background. But was my time at Redeemer really a transition? Should I become Catholic instead? Doing so would disappoint some of my Christian friends, but I was already used to disappointing people through my conversion. But then, how could I know that I wouldn’t just join yet another church a few years later?

The Answer

In September 2010, I was sitting in a pew in the Church of St. Paul the Apostle to have some quiet time with God before going to work. I’d been doing so for some weeks, because the beauty of the church had caught my eye from the sidewalk.

My quiet time with God was running into a snag: a woman was pacing at the back of the church, screaming in hysterics. The echoes of her screaming rang throughout the church.

“Will someone shut her up?” I wondered to myself.

A security guard at the church approached the crazed woman.

“Finally!” I thought to myself. I watched them out of the corner of my eye. The guard walked up and planted his feet in front of the crazed woman. “Let’s see what happens next,” I thought. And then he … hugged her! The crazed woman went silent. I could finally have that quiet time with God. But by then, the question which I would have brought to God in that quiet time had already been answered: I was going to become Catholic.

Since That Day

RCIA was a more rewarding experience than I had anticipated, and I was received into the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil in 2012, at the Church of St. Paul the Apostle.

I remained active in the Church of St. Paul while living in New York, serving on the ministry team for the Apostolists, the church’s young adult group. The Lord has blessed me with many beautiful friends, who have done so much to help keep my faith warm that it has survived through many doubts and even the occasional episode of depression.

In November 2015, I was professed in the Secular Franciscan Order. I was active in the St. Benedict the Moor Fraternity while in New York and have been active in the Padre Pio Community since moving back to Raleigh.

I’ve been blessed with many opportunities to share my conversion and faith through writing, and I pray that whatever talents God has given me will be used for His purposes.


Zubair Simonson

ZUBAIR SIMONSON, OFS, currently lives in Raleigh, North Carolina. His written works include The Rose: A Meditation, a narrative guide through the Rosary, now available on Kindle. The story of his conversion, and admiration for GK Chesterton, is included in the book My Name is Lazarus, published by the American Chesterton Society. He has contributed numerous online articles for The Catholic Gentleman.


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