By Masud Masihiyyen.
I was born into a Muslim family, but my personal interest in religion (Islam) was supported only by my mother. My father was a Muslim, but he went to mosque for public worship only twice a year. I rarely saw him recite the Koran in Arabic. However, he did his best to keep the Islamic fast for the whole month of Ramadan. My mother was comparatively more religious, but she could not perform any of the Islamic rituals because of her medical problems. She often recited the Koran in Arabic and repeated to herself the Islamic creed.
My sister, on the other hand, delighted in considering herself a Muslim, but she somehow did not practice her faith.
My journey of faith with and for Jesus started when I was a child around the age of ten. I used to stay with my father’s uncle when the first semester at school was over. My father’s uncle had a son who traveled often and saw several European countries. He made a collection of the presents he got from his acquaintances living there. His collection also had a small cross that attracted my attention. When I wanted to find out what that cross meant, the son of my father’s uncle briefly recounted the story of Prophet Jesus.
My conversion did not happen all of a sudden nor did it go smoothly, but it contained different steps and painful stations that corresponded to my frailties and defeats. My growth in Christian faith occurred slowly as God prepared me for the right time. The period of my preparation also had some miraculous coincidences. Jesus talked to me in different ways and chose for me the best time for conversion.
Despite my interest in religion, I had never attended the Islamic communal worship on Fridays. This was mostly due to my extreme shyness. However, I recited the Koran often and performed daily worship on a regular basis for several years. I also observed the Islamic fast in the month of Ramadan. Even when I was a child, religion was the prevalent issue that attracted my attention. I delighted in listening to the tales about the prophets and pious people of Islam. Of all those stories, I liked the ones about Jesus the most. My special interest in the stories about Jesus’ life eventually made me recite the 19th chapter of the Koran almost every day.
Although I had never even thought of entering a church, one day I accidentally saw part of a Christian worship service on a Greek TV channel. Somehow, and despite the fact that I did not understand a single word, this experience fascinated me so much that I started to imitate the acts of the priest. I formed a cross-like shape with the help of my toys and tried to sing at the peak of my voice. At the same time I started to learn about Christianity by asking almost everyone about it. However, I could not get satisfactory answers to my questions because some people (my father, for instance) talked about what Christians did rather than what Christianity taught and some other people (old and respected relatives) said that there was nothing worth learning in Christianity because the only truth was in the Koran.
The more often I read the Koran, the more questions arose in my mind and bothered me. Two long chapters of the Koran narrated the story of Jesus’ miraculous birth, but almost no verse explained why and how the cross became a significant and indispensable part of Christianity. Some of the movies I had seen depicted Jesus as a crucified person, but the Koran only denied this through a single verse incurring more doubts about the event.
A Muslim professor from school whom I consulted had said that the Koran gave a long and detailed account of Prophet Jesus’ miraculous birth because Christians had misinterpreted this miracle as a sign of his divinity. However, the same Koran was almost totally silent on the significance of the cross in Jesus’ life although the cross was the main symbol that represented Jesus in Christianity.
This was something weird. Back in those days I did not know that Christians celebrated Christ’s resurrection.
When I was at secondary school at the age of 13, I had the opportunity to learn more about Christianity with the help of my religion class. The comparative analysis of religions had the purpose to convince us that Islam was the first and only religion from above. All messengers and prophets had been sent to preach Islam, and the last messenger Mohammad had established Islam on earth permanently and with no possibility of deviation.
When I told my teacher that I had read the Koran and would like to read the other books of God he said that it was impossible because Jewish rabbis and Christian leaders had distorted those revelations prior to Islam. This argument did not at first sound implausible to me, but my teacher’s additional statements made me more curious and doubtful.
He said that after Prophet Jesus had been taken up into Heaven by Allah, Christians lost the truth taught by him and many people wrote false copies of the book revealed to Jesus by Allah. When the people failed to know which one was the true Injeel (Gospel in Arabic) as a result of the number of contradicting copies written, Christian priests gathered a council and chose the current four Gospels from a heap of hundred different copies. This story sounded ridiculous to me because I knew it was impossible for a Christian not to know about this council and to remain a Christian after knowing about it!
My interest in Christianity increased day by day, and my teacher of religious studies deemed it necessary to advise me not to trust Christianity and its scripture, dedicating himself to showing me some of the contradictions in the Gospels. One day he found the opportunity to talk about Christianity and criticize the textual consistency of the Gospels during a break. He said Christians believed Prophet Jesus to be the Son of God, but their first canonical Gospel denied this doctrine by calling Jesus the son of Joseph even in its introductory chapter. Some of my friends who were present to hear this conversation nodded their heads and grinned to confirm what the teacher said, but my reaction to the teacher’s words surprised everyone. I said,
“We need to ask Christians and get their answer on this issue. They must have a good explanation for this problem.”
As a Muslim what directed me more to the examination of Christianity as an alternative faith was the way the Koran highly praised and exalted Jesus, whom it considered one of the former prophets. According to the Koran, Jesus was identified as the Word of Allah, as a Spirit proceeding from Allah, and the only Messiah. His entire life was based on miracles that distinguished Him from the rest of the prophets. It was written in the Koran that Allah had even allowed Jesus to create birds from clay.
Despite all these distinctive attributes, Jesus was claimed to be only a prophet whose mission was confined to Israel. More to the point, the Koran accused Christians of deifying their prophet without providing an explicit reason for this process of deification. Some Muslim writers whose articles I read asserted that Jesus was turned into a semi-god by some Christians who went extreme in venerating Him. Thus, Jesus’ deification was a result of the exaggerated respect paid to Him by His followers.
When I did some research on the Christian perspective concerning Jesus’ divinity, I felt rather disappointed and shaken in my Islamic faith. First, Christianity had no doctrine to support the Islamic hypothesis about Jesus’ modification into a semi-god. In the first place, Christians believed Jesus to be the true God rather than a semi-god. Second, Christian theology perfectly explained why Jesus, who was also called a prophet, was worthy of worship.
In sharp contrast to the allegation in the Koran that Christians made a human equal to God out of their respect, Christianity taught that God made Himself equal to humans out of His love for their salvation. Finally, some of the vague designations attributed to Jesus in the Koran (the word from God) strikingly gained sense in the fundamental Christian tenet about Jesus’ divine personality. Christian theology taught that Jesus was equal to God because He was God’s uncreated and eternal wisdom and word that became the agent of the whole creation, He being excluded from the group of all created beings.
Another Islamic objection to Jesus’ divinity actually enabled me to answer the vital question why the Koran was not pleased with the Christian idea of Jesus’ equality with God. The Koran refuted Jesus’ divinity and relegated His mission to that of a local prophet because it only endorsed a monotonous and repetitive prophetic system. Islam was said to be the name of the only true religion sent by the only true God.
All the prophets mentioned in the Koran had preached Islam to their respective folks and tried to establish it as the true faith system. However, constant deviations from the only truth occurred as soon as the prophets passed away, which made it impossible for Islam to be firmly established on earth until Mohammad’s advent. The idea that Mohammad could do what all other prophets had failed to do (the first successful establishment and spread of Islam) bothered me a lot since this implicitly made all the messengers apart from Mohammad incompetent and pathetic religious figures.
Besides, the Islamic assertion about the inauthentic nature of the former faiths (Judaism and Christianity) was based on the supposition that God had oddly chosen to forget about His message once His messengers passed away. Instead of preserving the truth He had revealed, he kept sending it over and over since some evil people falsified it. In Christian theology, however, God preserved His word and allowed no discrepancy between His former message (the Old Testament) and the new message He taught through Jesus (the Gospel). Thus, Islam contended that there was an inevitable disruption in the communication of God’s divine truth until the final revelation was given to Mohammad whereas Christianity argued that the same communication was continuous and progressive and that it reached perfection in Jesus, who was God incarnate.
Around that time my simple but zealous research on Christianity was nothing more than reading from various encyclopedias that contained an objective presentation of Christianity as well as from some books that allowed the reader to make a comparison of the three “Abrahamic religions”. Nevertheless, my increasing knowledge on Christian theology was not complete since I did not have a chance to access the Christian scripture until the day one of my cousins requested that I go and help him with his school project. We met and went to a small shop where second-hand books were sold. On a shelf my eyes caught a dusty book that was very thin. When I took it into my hand, I saw it was the Gospel according to Mark! I felt like people who are excited and overjoyed because they know that on the next corner they will see their relatives that they have not seen for ages. I thought my feet were about to be off the ground because my impatience was unendurable. I wanted to fly home and read the Gospel of Mark, which was the second Gospel chosen at the Nicene Council according to my teacher and some other Muslims.
I read the Gospel of Mark more than three times on that same day.
Frankly, I failed to understand several things in the book no matter how thin it was in comparison to the Koran. I was eager to read and admit the things almost with absolute conviction, giving priority to the act of reading rather than to comprehension. When I read the first sentence of it to my sister, she objected from the start and said that Jesus cannot be the Son of God, for God cannot be divided. At the time I did not actually know why the Gospel identified Jesus as the Son of God. The footnote comment only said that this title meant a spiritual relation between God and Jesus rather than a physical one connoting sexuality. This distinction sufficed to hush my sister, who said she still did not want to read or hear the Gospel because it was not authentic unlike the Koran.
My examination of the Gospel of Mark focused on its differences from the Islamic scripture with regard to the style of narrative. The Gospel was only about Jesus with a few references to other prophets and messengers. The Koran, on the other hand, contained long accounts and tales about the prophets prior to Mohammad. The second difference was that the Gospel was not concerned with the denial of Judaic tenets whereas the Koran laid emphasis on the mistakes and deviations of the former religious communities and denied the veracity of the basic Christian doctrines. I must confess that the thing which surprised me the most in the Gospel of Mark was that it lacked the narrative of Jesus’ miraculous birth! Although it called Jesus the Son of God on many occasions, it never made an association between this title and Jesus’ birth from a virgin. Nonetheless, it perfectly explained what the cross meant in Jesus’ life and how the cross came to represent Jesus.
Once it was announced in the house that I had bought the Gospel of Mark, my mother blazed her wrath against me. She was a conservative Muslim woman that recited the Koran often although she could not observe the other obligations of Islam due to her health problems. My father was the last family member to realize that I had been examining the Gospel of Mark. To everyone’s surprise, he primarily seemed more curious than indignant or indifferent since he said he also wanted to read the Gospel. He read the Gospel at a weekend and said to me that it was not an impressive book since it depicted Jesus only as a miracle-worker that was similar to a famous magician. He added that he did not consider it a powerful or prevailing ideology.
Since I naively believed that reading a Gospel would make me a Christian, I wanted to give the first signs of my new religious identity by attaching Christian names to my fish. More, I prepared a Christian graveyard for the dead ones. Since these actions sounded humorous to my parents, they did not see anything threatening or serious in them. However, my furtive plans to celebrate my first Christmas would eventually lead my parents to take some precautions against the possibility of my conversion.
When Christmas coincided with a day on which my family came together with the families of my cousins, I suggested to my two cousins that they join me in celebrating my first Christmas ever. They liked the idea not because they were interested in Christianity but because they delighted in doing something secretly and experiencing some adventure. Our hidden Christmas party was perfectly organized, and all went right until we discovered that Christmas Eve had actually been the previous night! I had mistakenly presumed that Christmas Day was 26th December. Despite my disappointment and my cousins’ derision, I kept celebrating my first feast day with the same joy and excitement. I added some spirit of worship into this secular party when I dipped a piece of bread in a glass of red wine and swallowed it after uttering a few Aramaic phrases I had memorized from the Gospel of Mark.
The next day I bravely confessed to my parents that I had celebrated my first Christmas and once more proven my Christian identity. This confession unfortunately caused many difficulties that would make me quit my faith in a month. My parents invited a close friend of theirs over and arranged a session of bashing Christianity. Our guest claimed to know a lot about all religions and talked of his particular comprehensive research on Christianity. He contended that Christianity was not a religion from above because God wanted His creation to have one true religion named Islam.
While answering my questions about the origin of Christianity, he blamed a certain man called Paul for forging a new religion and destroying the true religion preached by Prophet Jesus. I objected to him by simply reminding him that the Koran did not have any verses to support his assertions. My objection did not only make him speak more loudly and vehemently, but also caused him to change his strategy. He started to describe the life conditions in the Middle Age and recounted how Europeans had not been familiar with the notion of cleanliness. I politely asked him not to confuse cultural peculiarities with a religion’s doctrines.
As the last resort, he put the Koran next to the Gospel of Mark on a coffee table and reached the conclusion that the Koran was better because it was far thicker than the Gospel. At that moment I made two fatal mistakes: first, I said that his conclusion was not logical; second, the Koran was naturally thicker because it repeated the same stories over and over.
My defense incurred the hostility of my parents and especially of my father, who attempted to beat me. He was furious because I had become insolent and disrespectful towards an elderly man and criticized the Koran, the only scripture he believed in and venerated. I was asked to choose one of the two options: either forget about Christianity and be a Muslim again, or leave the house. I was desperate and scared, being a young person.
While tears were rolling down my cheeks, I promised to leave Christianity and stop criticizing Islam. The next day my father asked me to let him burn the Gospel of Mark because he wanted to be sure that I would keep faithful to my promise. My mother insisted that my father not burn the Gospel because it would be a sin burning a text having the name of Jesus. My father reluctantly agreed and ordered me to take the book back to the store where I had bought it from. In order to convince my father that I had left Christianity, I said that the Gospel was a book full of inconsistencies and pointed at Jesus’ final word on the cross in Mark’s Gospel. Jesus had exclaimed,
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
although He had always relied on God, who was considered His father. My example worked and cleared all the doubts regarding the sincerity of my return to Islam.
Actually, my return to Islam did not mean the resumption of Islamic practice. I never again recited the Koran or performed the daily worship. Since my faith was not replaced with Islam, I gradually started to have spiritual hunger for faith. This instigated me to have a new religion of mine! I would be neither Christian nor Muslim, but the first prophet and follower of a new rivalling religion. I decided to ponder over the peculiarities of my new philosophy and combined various teachings from different religions. I was pretty fast in fabricating religious festivals for my new faith and devising a new scripture. One night my absurd dreams came to an end when my father discovered the pages of my new scripture and threatened to send me to a mental asylum.
A few months later I resumed observing the Islamic fast with my father. However, I could not resist my interest in Christianity. Some nights I dreamed about Jesus descending from the sky on the Day of Judgment. In the first year of my high school I selected the class of comparative religions and volunteered to make a presentation of Christianity. My teacher was amazed by my success and zeal. This presentation increased my curiosity about Christian tenets. I started to read from various encyclopedias even in my relatives’ houses whenever I visited them. Since no one could guess that I was reading only the pages on Christianity, there was no problem. Nonetheless, in a short time I could not conceal my wish to be a Christian again, which made everyone in my family furious.
My mother begged me to remain a Muslim, adding that this could be her last wish from me, for she was very sick and almost late for an open-heart operation. The news struck and choked me, but I still wanted to go and see – maybe for the first and last time – how Christians in my hometown worshipped on Sundays. By sacrificing my sleep at a weekend, I went to the nearest Church under heavy rain in both joy and fear and waited for the main gate to be opened. Unfortunately, the gate was not to be opened as I had gone there two hours before the time of the liturgy. The only thing I could do was return home as the rain was getting heavier. It was not meant to be the time of my first visit to a Church.
Until the day my mother finally decided to surrender herself to the doctors for the operation I went through a hard time and walked on the verge of depression. One day a distant relative came to visit my mother and had a few words with me. She was a kind of fortune-teller that had psychic abilities. Her conversation with me was very scary because she blamed my depressive mood on my decision to convert and brought up the possibility of my seizure by Christian jinn! My depression and fear caused me to betray my faith a second time and give in to the opposition. I wept and wailed, asking God to show me the true path.
It was the first week of March when my mother took the operation. Since my sister and father worked, I used to stay with my aunt’s family. The operation went perfectly well and my mother regained her health. She returned home a week later. One of my cousins (with whom I had celebrated my first Christmas party) gave a birthday party on the 15th of March and I went to see him with my other cousin (with whom I had gone to the bookstore and bought the Gospel of Mark).
On our way back we were passing by the Church, and my cousin noticed that its gate was open. We both entered and saw the interior thanks to an occasional prayer service. That first step marked my eternal commitment to Jesus in my life!
The seed of my immature faith in Christ began to sprout when I encountered in that community an amazing and irresistible spirit of joy, peace and light.
That spirit instantly convinced me that Jesus was present in the church and that I needed no other religion to seek Him or His truth. It was the right time for my commitment and there would be no turning back. The next morning I was sitting in the front row and watching the liturgy very carefully and exchanging a sign of peace with an old woman who called me “the sympathizer of Christ”.
My entrance into a Church interestingly turned out to be one of the many stations of my journey of faith. As a person under the age of 18, I had to get my father’s consent to attend the liturgies. Surprisingly, my father signed a paper and allowed me to go to Church on Sundays (despite my mother’s objections) and said that he was pleased to see me happy in my life. Nevertheless, I was not mature enough to act wisely and gratefully and started to abuse my father’s good will. I mostly failed to control my tendency to bash Islam as well as Muslims, which resulted in arguments and my father’s subsequent aggression.
My mother systematically made my father oppose and discipline me, but she argued with my father when he resolved to throw me out of the house. Whenever my father smacked me and caught me by my neck before my mother and sister raced to my aid, I used to open the New Testament and read some verses for consolation. I rejoiced that I was considered worthy by God to share some sufferings of the apostles, who were oppressed by the religious authorities of their time because of their faith in Jesus.
Things started to change for the better when I passed the university exam and went far from my hometown. This enabled my parents to miss me and evaluate their love for me, and that would prevail despite my conversion. In the first year of my university education my success made my parents very happy and caused them to disregard my new religious identity. My father was actually happier than my mother because I was the only male member of his family to get a university degree. This had been his and my grandfather’s aspiration for years.
As a young Christian right after my baptism, I started to question whether I was worthy to follow Jesus. This primarily stemmed from my weaknesses and disappointments. I mistakenly assumed that my conversion would make me a perfect person in the twinkling of an eye as if touched by a magic wand. The way I easily gave in to temptations of the evil one made me feel defeated and humiliated before the Lord. One day I sinned once more although I had been sure that I would never let the same mistake happen in my life again. I was so desperate and upset that I did not even want to pray. I left the Bible in my room and went to the other room to turn on the TV.
The first thing I heard when I haphazardly tuned in was the sentence
“Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing”!
That was a scene from a film about Christianity (I cannot remember the name now, but it talked about Jesus’ cloak and a gladiator’s life) and I understood this coincidence to be one of the mysterious ways by which merciful Jesus chose to communicate with me.
This was not the only incident that convinced me about Jesus’ active presence in my life. Once I was very sick and away from my house. Some other problems worsened my situation and I went through a breakdown at a night. I did not know how to deal with the problems in my life and asked Jesus why he had called me although I was such a weak and ungrateful sinner. After repeatedly begging Jesus to take me out of this world, I became very tried of all the weeping and shouting. When I fell asleep, in my dream I saw the door of my bedroom open and a man in a white robe come to my bed and sit at my feet. I could hear him murmur a sentence that I had not seen or heard before
“Therefore we are always full of courage, and we know that as long as we are alive here on earth we are absent from the Lord”.
After saying this sentence, the man touched my feet, and I instantly woke up in awe. Later I found out that this was a verse from the Holy Bible 1 and concluded that the Lord was there as He is always with me to comfort and guide me.
My long journey of faith will continue until Jesus decides to take me away from this body. He is constantly teaching me to do the right things and cope with life no matter how difficult and even impossible things may seem. I am now what I am by Jesus’ grace. Thinking of His presence suffices to comfort and encourage me. Blessed be His name forever. I hope I shall keep growing in faith and becoming worthy of His call.