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Muslim to Anglican to Catholic

Reza Akhtar
December 8, 2022 No Comments

I was born in Vancouver, Canada in 1973 and lived there until I started college in 1991. My parents were Muslims, and my religious education began early. When I was about four, my mother taught me to read Arabic script so that I could read the Quran, although at the time neither of us knew the meaning of most of the words. She also taught me about God, emphasizing the importance of faith in Him and how it should shape our actions, so that we could enjoy eternity with Him in Heaven and not end up in the despair of Hell. Most significantly, she reflected the love of God in her manner of living. This convinced me thoroughly of His existence, goodness, and love for us.

A Muslim Catechesis

As I grew older, my training was supplemented with other catechetical materials. Those presented a far more juridical view of religion that contrasted sharply with what I had been exposed to before. Some of these teachings were unproblematic. Even though my family may not have prayed five times daily (the Musim standard), I could see regular prayer as a good thing that brought us closer to God. Others, however, seemed arbitrary. Why were women allowed to wear silk, but not men? What did that have to do with faith?

My parents viewed religion as important, but largely private, so there was little interaction with the broader Muslim community. I would typically accompany my father to the two annual Eid prayers (on the major feast days of the end of Ramadan, the month of fasting, and the commemoration of Abraham’s sacrifice), but that was the extent of our participation in public worship. Although the religious education I received at home was relatively free of legalism, it bordered on indifferentism. (This is what we believe, so we follow these rules. Christians have their own religion; they follow different rules. Hindus, too, have their religion, etc.) Even from an early age, I could tell that this was at variance with the fundamental teachings of the Quran. Why would God insist that we follow his guidance if different groups of people faced different expectations? And if expectations were different, then how could the Quran — to use its own words — be a message “for all people”?

My early religious education emphasized the Quran as the word of God, but subordinated it to the Hadith and Sunnah (sayings and practices of Mohammed). As I grew older and began to read the Quran in translation, I conceived of God as a benevolent monarch who deeply desired that every person be reconciled to him through an act of faith. Most of all, God was close and intimately involved in our lives. He was rational in a sense that far transcended, but in no way contradicted, our own rationality. There was no trace of the voluntarism characteristic of so much Islamic thought. Although my understanding lacked depth, I can see in hindsight how God was at work in those days, laying the foundations for the faith I hold today.

A Christian Catechesis

At home, I was not taught much about Christianity. I was told that Christians claimed to follow Jesus Christ, but made the grave mistake of worshipping him as God, instead of simply acknowledging him as a prophet. Christians believed some of the same things we believed, but had also invented priests, religious orders, saints, and other elements that distracted from the pure worship of the one true God. As “People of the Book,” Christians and Jews were not as far removed as pagans — our men were allowed to marry their women (but not vice versa) — and yet their rejection of the Quran put them definitively outside the fold.

When I started fourth grade, my parents sent me to a private school, which I attended until college. Although not affiliated with any denomination, the school was modeled on an English prototype, and so bore the marks of Anglicanism. Those were expressed primarily in prayers at morning assembly, grace at meals, and chapel services on Friday. Although there was no official promulgation of Christian doctrine, some came through in the hymns we sang. Some, like “Come, ye thankful people, come,” were in complete consonance with my faith and made perfect sense. Without exposure to Christian teaching, though, I was unable to make theological sense of “There is a green hill far away.” And I wondered why Islam had no tradition of liturgical music. Why did so many Muslims consider music sinful? Was music not a beautiful vehicle for offering God praise? In my teen years, I happened to attend a handful of Christian services. Each time, I was moved by the sincerity of the worshipers, regardless of whether or not there was music. The people there clearly wanted to serve God, even if (as I then believed) their doctrine was faulty. I noted the charity of their communities and wondered, with a tinge of envy, why I was not allowed to be part of something like that.

Life Away From Home

While at Harvard for college, I attended Muslim Friday prayers on campus, although mostly out of obligation. I was struck by the disjunction between the Islam preached there and what I had learned from the Quran. I quickly became convinced that Islamic tradition was unreliable and compromised beyond redemption. I also sang in the choir of the nondenominational university church for two years. Musically, it was an excellent experience, but spiritually it was a desert.

During my senior year, a Protestant friend and I began to visit various churches in the area. Each had its own character, but the Catholic Church was the one that stood out to me as the most reverent. That same friend invited me to meetings of a Bible study, sponsored by the undergraduate Christian Fellowship. There, I heard God speaking directly through the words of Scripture, and I became convinced of its authenticity — at least that of the Gospels. But what to make of the irreconcilable dogmatic differences between the Christian doctrines of the Trinity and Incarnation, as against the strict monotheism asserted by the Quran? I had been taught the predominant Muslim view that the Bible was a direct revelation from God that became corrupt over time. Searching the Quran, I found no evidence for this view; instead, I found multiple passages encouraging Jews and Christians to believe its message on account of its similarity to that of the Bible. If, I reasoned, God was using the Bible as motivation for the truth of the Quran, then surely the Bible must be trustworthy, although perhaps misinterpreted. The more I read of the Bible, the more I became convinced that both scriptures were true expressions of revelation, and I sought to understand how this could be so. In 1993, I took a year-long Arabic course and learned enough to make sense of much of the original Quranic text. In 1997, I took a course in biblical Hebrew, hoping to discover linguistic and stylistic indications that the Old Testament and the Quran came from a common source. I hardly found any, and this discomfited me greatly.

Catholic Catechesis in Stops and Starts

When I started graduate school at Brown in 1995, I knew I wanted to worship at a Catholic church, so I sought out the university Catholic community. I joined its choir and eventually slid into the role of pianist and organist. It was there that I met my wife, Mary. We were married in 2001, a year after I received my PhD and just prior to her graduation from medical school. However, the next few years, in which I began my career as a mathematics professor, were marked by great spiritual frustration. I felt drawn to the Catholic faith of my wife but unable to participate in it, on account of the teachings in which I had been raised. While I found some elements in the Quran troubling, I also recognized a great deal of truth in its teachings about God and the moral life, and those teachings made it difficult to justify rejecting the text outright. The tension I felt was compounded by a sense that I had “maxed out” in my understanding of the Quran. Unfortunately, I succumbed to vicious emotions: envy of Christians (including my wife) for being able to participate in something my conscience told me was off limits, and bitterness against God himself for ostensibly fencing me into a faith community to which I felt little social or theological connection. My spiritual and moral life began to suffer as I became increasingly resentful. I stopped identifying as a Muslim, but still smarted from a feeling of not belonging anywhere.

In spite of having lived in Cincinnati, Ohio for five years, my wife and I still had not settled into a parish. We attended some for stretches of months, but ultimately moved on, not because we experienced anything negative (except maybe lukewarm liturgy), but because I never felt any connection to the parish. My mistake, I eventually realized, lay in looking for fulfillment in human community rather than in God himself. Once I became aware of my error, things began to fall into place.

In 2006, we joined a Maronite Catholic parish, that became our spiritual home for nine years. Around the same time, I read an article that reflected on the Quran’s description of Jesus as God’s Word (4:171). That was a key moment: it turned my perspective from the conventional Muslim understanding of Jesus as “just another prophet” to that of the logos.

I began to read the Bible in a new light and came to understand Jesus as the pre-existent Word. At that time, the Bible seemed to me largely compatible with my non-trinitarian theology. Certainly, there were problems. For instance, I could not reconcile the language of the Bible with the Quran’s absolute proscription of even using the phrase “Son of God.” I could not explain how “the Word was God” (John 1:1) or why the Apostle Thomas should proclaim “My Lord and My God!” (John 20:28) upon meeting the resurrected Christ. In spite of these inconsistencies, I welcomed the reinvigoration of my spiritual life and convinced myself that I could be happy as a “church of one,” worshiping God according to all that He had revealed. It was also in this period that Mary and I were called to our vocation as parents: our daughters were born in 2009 and 2013, respectively.

A Temporary Anglican Catechesis

By 2014, I had reached something of an impasse. While I still harbored reservations about extrascriptural religious tradition, it was equally clear that key elements of the Christian tradition — the celebration of the Eucharist, for example — were confirmed, rather than contradicted, by Scripture, and as such, were surely authentic. I also felt a deep longing to partake of the sacraments. Because I had always believed that God was close and intimately involved in our lives, I had no problem accepting that He could (and indeed did) communicate grace through these earthly channels. The distance between my beliefs about Jesus Christ and those of the Church had narrowed to the point that it no longer made sense not to be part of it.

That year, my wife and I enrolled our older daughter at a nearby Episcopal school. The practices observed there — hymns, chapel services, lessons and carols — brought back memories of my vaguely Anglican primary school and made me wonder if I could, in good conscience, seek baptism in the Episcopal Church. The Catholic Church still appeared too authoritarian and theologically rigid, but the Episcopal Church seemed to forge a middle course, valuing holy orders and sacraments, but not insisting too strongly on its own authority. However, I discovered very quickly that the Episcopal Church had evolved to embrace moral positions that I found entirely inadmissible. Bringing to mind stories about separated Anglican congregations I had heard from an Episcopalian friend, I found St. John the Evangelist, a parish of the Anglican Catholic Church (ACC), a “Continuing Anglican Church” that had separated from the Episcopal Church in 1978.

On paper (or on the Web), the ACC presented itself as a church in apostolic succession, preaching not Protestantism, but rather the doctrine of the universal (i.e., Catholic) church as preserved in the English tradition. At the time, it seemed exactly what I was looking for: conciliar, pope-less Catholicism. After some vacillation, I made an appointment to speak with Father Timothy Butler, then Priest-in-Charge at St. John’s. I went into that meeting with no prior expectations, aware of the possibility that any hope of welcome might be dashed. Instead, I found an extraordinarily humble man, deeply devoted to Christ, who had traveled miles to get where he was, both literally and spiritually. (Fr. Tim had driven nearly sixty miles from his home to meet with me, and did so every weekend for years, until his parish finally acquired a rectory.) That day saw the beginning of a highly treasured friendship. I told Fr. Tim about my situation and asked point blank whether my theological leanings would constitute an impediment to baptism. After reflecting a bit, he answered in the negative, explaining that my Christology was unlikely to remain the same over time. Over the next few weeks, I realized that I was actually on the brink of Trinitarianism. The sense that God was calling me to the Church, and that there was no way I could grow further on my own, was so intense that I made the leap. The next few months saw a flurry of activity as my family transferred its parish membership to St. John’s, and I began preparation for baptism.

I was baptized on January 10, 2016, the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. It had been more than 25 years since I had first heard the call of Christ. My last theological qualms about doctrine had been set to rest in the preceding months. As the beautiful words of the Anglican baptismal liturgy went by, I could not help but feel confused. True, I was entering into a solemn covenant with the Lord, but had I not already done that, in some way, years ago? The next few years would teach me about the nature and power of sacramental grace. What had begun earlier as a trickle became a flood on that day.

The next year and a half saw much spiritual growth and happiness for my family. Since St. John’s was a small parish, we became established in it rather quickly. Mary developed catechetical materials and taught Sunday school for children after Mass, and I served first as cantor and later as organist. I received confirmation from the Anglican bishop in August 2016, and our older daughter first received Holy Communion in April 2017. The size of the parish also had its drawbacks: fewer people meant fewer resources, but it did not bother us as we continued on, blissfully unaware of church politics. Suddenly, in August of that year, a group of disgruntled parishioners — including some we thought of as friends — launched an attack that ended in their storming out of the parish in protest. Although personally upsetting to us, their exodus also meant that there were no longer any young children in the parish other than our own. We tried to soldier on, but it became increasingly difficult, and the episode had rattled our confidence in the integrity of the ACC. Some people left because I had begun chanting the proper texts of the Mass, which they felt had no place in the service. Others thought we were “too serious” about ministry or “too Catholic.” The response of the clergy, while sincere, was disheartening. Complainers and liturgical terrorists were informed of their errors, but then we were instructed not to rock the boat. Chant had to be rolled back, because other people might get upset and leave. No Latin, because that could be perceived as “too Roman.” The reality of the situation within the ACC became clearer to me: the clergy were well-catechized and preached the Catholic faith, but many lay members still identified as Protestants who liked ceremony but thought that they — not the clergy — were in charge of the parish. I had sought baptism in the ACC because I thought it was faithful to Catholic Tradition, but many others seemed to be there because they wanted either the 1928 Book of Common Prayer or some form of diet-catholicism. After several months of discernment, we made the difficult decision to leave St. John’s.

Swimming the Tiber

Before resolving to leave St. John’s, I had to wrestle with the implications of doing so. My wife was a cradle Catholic, and I had already dragged her to enough places on account of my theological foibles. What was preventing me from becoming Catholic? By that point, I had accepted virtually all the tenets of the faith; it only remained for me to submit to the authority of the Roman Pontiff. The last question I had to answer was: does he have the authority he claims? After reading the Catechism from cover to cover, I became convinced that Jesus really did give Peter a particular mission and that the foundations of papal authority were there, even if I didn’t understand them completely.

In June 2018, we registered at St. Gertrude, a parish of the Dominican friars, where we remain parishioners to this day. Instead of going through RCIA, I was asked to read the fourth book of Aquinas’s Summa Contra Gentiles, along with several Church documents. After three meetings, the friars determined that I was ready to be received into the Church. Thus, I was confirmed and received into the communion of the Catholic Church on the night of All Souls’ Day in 2018. The clergy were vested in black and only nine people were present: two priests, my confirmation sponsor Brian Zappia (a former student), my wife, my daughters, myself, and a couple who happened to be praying in the church that evening. I arrived at the church about fifteen minutes before Mass and stopped briefly in the parish’s adoration chapel. I saw Jesus looking at me from the monstrance, and knew I had made the right decision.

Before becoming Catholic, I was preoccupied with my quest for spiritual rest. However, entering into that rest (to the extent that one can in this life) has forced me to face the question of vocation. What is my place in the world? As a student, I had studied what interested me most, and I was later privileged to land a position in academia that allowed me to continue doing that. More recently, I have been drawn to the Catholic intellectual tradition and have taken some courses to fortify my understanding of it. The flip side of this experience is that I have come to realize how far the educational system, at all levels, has departed from the pursuit of wisdom and virtue. I sense that I am being called to use my intellectual gifts to address this deficit, although I am not yet sure how.

It is a blessing that God brought me to his Church while there was stability in other spheres of my life. Watching my parents age over the past few years has been difficult, but the virtues of faith, hope, and charity have helped to sustain me. The snowballing problem of moral confusion — and of those who deny it — have eroded any sense I had of belonging in the wider society, but the grace I have received through the sacraments has kept me grounded in these trying times.

Looking Back

After my baptism, I told the priest who had officiated at my wedding about it. His response was: “Do not think me ungracious if I say that it’s about time!” To this day, I am still perplexed by how long it took. It was all very gradual; there was no “Damascus moment.” Even more strangely, I never had to grapple with the common theological issues faced by those considering Catholicism. My early understanding of the operation of grace was very similar to the Catholic one. I had always prayed for the dead, and the sacramental system presented no difficulty. I also had no trouble accepting that the saints in heaven prayed for us, although it took some time to become comfortable with the idea of invoking saints for intercession.

Instead, what I struggled with most was Christianity’s insistence on detail. The Quran also teaches that humans are fallen creatures in need of God’s saving grace, but it says little about how He saves us. I used to wonder why Christians made such an issue about the mode of salvation. It took me a long time to understand that the reason for this is rooted in the Christian understanding of revelation, which (unbeknownst to me at the time) is quite different from the Islamic one. Islam takes the view that God sent the same message of monotheism over and over again through various messengers, prophets, and books. Christianity, in contrast, views revelation as progressive, finding its fulfillment in the person of Jesus Christ. I had to understand that the teachings about the incarnation, passion, death, and resurrection of Christ were not ends in themselves but rather key pieces in the greater story of God’s self-revelation. Once I understood the “full picture” of revelation — how many witnesses were involved and how the testimony of one supported that of every other — I saw that it could not possibly have been a human fabrication. The details of Christian revelation, far from being incidental, provide material for endless reflection on God, humanity, and the relationship between the two.

Perhaps it took such a long time for me to seek baptism because I was in possession of a partial truth that vigorously asserted itself as the whole truth. Although strongly attracted to Christianity from the beginning, I thought that any pull I felt towards it was merely emotional, and therefore untrustworthy, that it would somehow be a betrayal of God himself to “jump ship” on the basis of a vague feeling. Ultimately, it was by understanding that God reveals Himself to us, not only in words, but also through personal experience and the witness of others that I was able to recognize this pull, not as an emotion, but as a genuine impulse of the Spirit. Lack of confidence in the religious tradition in which I was raised did not help. For many years, I was in perpetual “evaluation mode” with respect to doctrine, and my mind could not rest. With baptism came the grace of greater trust and — at long last — a sense of peace.

It would be disingenuous to pretend that my conversion was all about growth and happiness. In the early years of our marriage, my wife endured plenty of defensiveness and irritability on account of my insecurity. The various changes we made in parish affiliation were almost all driven by my dissatisfaction with the status quo. After converting, it was impossible to keep the matter secret from my family forever, and when it came out, strong feelings of betrayal and failure emerged. Yet in all this, I count myself blessed to have had the support of those around me. My wife supported me even when I chose to be baptized in a communion other than her own. In spite of our theological differences and misunderstandings, my family has neither abandoned me nor treated me as an outsider. Our friends at St. John’s remained friends after we left. And God has walked with me through every stage of the journey.

Conclusion

Of all the titles of the Blessed Mother, one that speaks particularly strongly to me is “Star of the Sea.” The vicissitudes of life are the like the waves of the ocean and make it difficult to see the way. Yet, it is a great comfort to know that, through them, we all have a beacon to help maintain our focus on the Lord. Our Lady, Star of the Sea, pray for us.

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