My name is Tarik Preston. I embraced the religion of Islam in 1988 at the age of 19.
The story of how I came to embrace Islam is not a very long story, and in many respects, I think that the story of how Allah (God) continued to guide me after I entered Islam is more of an inspiring story.
Nevertheless, this story begins with my name. I was given the name Tarik at birth. In the 60s, the 70s, and even the 80s, it wasn’t all that unusual for some Americans to give their children African names. Many times, the names they chose from Africa were actually Islamic names, which is what happened with my name.
[…] Someone who knew the significance of my name […] would ask me, “Do you know what your name means?” I would reply proudly as I had been taught: “It means ‘star of piercing brightness.’“
[…] I started college at the age of 16 majoring in pre-med/biology with the intent, at that time, of becoming a doctor. […] During my freshman year, I attempted to read the Bible, but Christianity had begun not to make sense to me.
While studying the marvelous complexity of cell biology that year, several of my classmates and I reaffirmed our belief in the Creator and that creation was not an accident as some scientists speculated.
During spring break, I had a theological discussion with my grandmother, with whom I was very close. And she, despite being a Christian, made a remarkable statement that I paid close attention to.
She said: “I worship God and I don’t worship Jesus, because I feel safer worshipping God!” She advised me not to pray in the name of Jesus anymore and to just pray to God!
When I returned to college after that conversation, I continued to pray every night before sleeping as I had been taught. But I decided that I would no longer pray in the name of Jesus, and to direct my prayers only to God. […]
Still searching for something that would guide me safely through life, one day I asked God to guide me while walking across campus.
During my junior year in college, a fellow student who I knew embraced Islam saw me walking across campus, and he greeted me. […] He then asked me if I was a Muslim, to which I replied (at that time), “No. I am a United Methodist.” He replied: “Oh! I thought you were a Muslim because your name is Tarik!”
Not long after that encounter, he came to a study session that a few classmates and I were having, and he attempted to inform us about Islam. He was very young and very new to Islam himself, so he didn’t know very much. […]
[…] When I returned home that summer, I took a summer job as a telemarketer where I met a Muslim named Ahmed. Despite being a Puerto Rican convert to Islam, he had the same distinct look and demeanor as my friend from college. […]
He began talking to me about Tawheed (the oneness of God). I was impressed with the concept of Islamic monotheism.
Eventually, he invited me over to his house and showed me a copy of the English translation of the Quran. I was very impressed by the respect that he had for this Book, and I asked him if I could borrow it in order to read it. He reluctantly agreed, saying that it was his only copy of the Quran, and he sternly advised me to respect the Book and keep it clean and in a place of respect in my home. I couldn’t wait to read it!
Two weeks later, I invited Ahmed to my house, and we sat and talked again about Islam. I informed him that I believed the Quran was the truth and that I wanted to convert to Islam.
The very next day we went together to the Islamic Center in Washington D.C., and I embraced Islam.
A few years after my conversion, Allah blessed me to be able to study Islam at the Islamic University of Medina where I earned an Associate’s degree in Arabic language and a Bachelor’s degree in Hadith Sciences.
I hope the story of how I came to Islam encourages others to convert to Islam. I also hope that my story encourages my fellow Muslim brothers and sisters to share the true message of Islam with those around them in word and deed.
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Two Muslim boys in Switzerland have declined, on religious grounds, to handshake with their female teachers. The school district says Swiss custom should override religion and is now threatening to fine the parents of the boys $5,000 if the boys continue to refuse to comply.
Some years ago, I worked with a male Muslim intern who refused to shake my hand for religious reasons. The experience challenged me to think more deeply about tolerance and diversity, and I think the lessons I learned are worth sharing.
In the summer of 2010, as Director of the Islam and Civil Society Project at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, NJ, I hired my first Muslim intern, a young man named Muhammad. I was eager to move beyond studying Islam from a distance and to develop the project into an opportunity for Muslim and non-Muslim Americans to collaborate together as partners on issues of shared concern.
I was impressed by Muhammad’s resume, which included a rigorous education at an excellent college that left him just as prepared to attend graduate school in Islamic studies or medical school (he has since done both). We had never met in person, as the internship had been arranged via e-mail. But on paper, he sure seemed like a rising star.
The first thing that happened when he arrived in Princeton to start his internship was that he refused to shake my hand. The shock was my initial response. I tried to hide how stunned I was, but it was difficult. He was absolutely gracious in declining. I felt angry when he refused to shake my hand just because I am female, but it was hard to be angry at someone who was so kind. It wasn’t even clear to me what or who the object of my confused anger was. He explained that it was due to his religious beliefs that he does not shake women’s hands. Was I, who had hired this intern to help with religious freedom work, going to reject his freedom to follow his religious beliefs?
I suppressed how baffled and worried I felt. I moved right along as if nothing had happened. I welcomed him to the Witherspoon Institute and began introducing him to the work we would be doing that summer. But inside, my head and heart were spinning.
I have zero patience—I mean zero—for misogyny. I’ve had boys in Yemen throw stones at me and another woman. I’ve been treated like a dangerous toxic substance by a Catholic priest who seemed to wish desperately that women just didn’t exist. “Misogyny” is a word I don’t use lightly, but there are times when it is the appropriate descriptor of some men’s attitudes. I could not help but wonder: was misogyny what I was experiencing? What I would be in all summer long?
Yet, because I recognized that I did not understand why this young man refused to shake my hand, I did not jump to conclusions. Instead, I took a “wait-and-see” approach. He was an American. A kid from the Jersey shore. His refusal was religious, not cultural. I realized that I knew almost nothing about this young man. Who was I to judge him? Moreover, I badly needed an assistant at work and had prepared a mighty long to-do list for him. I knew we needed to work together in a spirit of collaboration to get through the busy summer ahead. An antagonistic relationship seemed like it would only get in the way. I swallowed my fears and acted as nothing had happened.
But something had happened: my assumptions about my own tolerance had been jolted with a radical challenge. Was I tolerant enough and sufficiently appreciative of diversity—particularly of religious diversity—to live and let live, even if it made me feel slighted?
That summer with Muhammed, along with subsequent collaboration at the Witherspoon Institute with Orthodox Jewish men who did not shake women’s hands, taught me many lessons.
Lesson one: I was reminded concretely of something I knew abstractly: namely, that Muslims are diverse. This young man was from a particular interpretive school of Shia Islam with which I was not very familiar. In over twenty years of academic studies and professional work related to Islam, I had never met a Muslim who, for religious reasons, would not shake a woman’s hand. Well, here was one. And then I met Orthodox Jewish men who would not shake my hand. And here too I was reminded: Jews are diverse. Moreover, for religious reasons, some Muslim women and some Orthodox Jewish women do not shake men’s hands. Issues of modesty, chastity, and ritual purity can involve both men and women; this is not just an issue of male attitudes toward women.
Lesson two: the reasons some religious men do not have social physical contact with women outside of their direct families should not always be reduced to misogyny. Where there is actual misogyny, it is something to be taken seriously. But painting all males with a broad brush is neither fair nor accurate. Men should be given the opportunity to speak for themselves, to explain their own thoughts, intentions, and consciences.
Lesson three: refusal to have physical contact with women is not necessarily equivalent to a refusal to recognize that women have professional abilities. This intern had absolutely no problem having a woman as his boss that summer. He was eager to assist me, and he always listened attentively to directions I gave him. He consistently did an excellent job carrying out the tasks I assigned to him.
Lesson four: refusal to have physical contact with women is not necessarily equivalent to a refusal to recognize that women have intellectual abilities. That summer, starting from that very first day, this intern and I had fantastic discussions about some of the greatest minds in Muslim intellectual history. He asked me lots of questions about my dissertation and treated me as a person from whom he thought he might learn something. He gave me brilliant reading recommendations in modern Islamic theology, all of them profound and challenging sources. He never treated me as if he thought I was stupid. Never.
Muhammad was a fantastic intern. We were lucky to have him work with us that summer at the Witherspoon Institute. He was a delightful colleague for all of us at the Institute and, significantly, he treated all the women with respect.
While I do not know the particular reasons for the refusal of the two Syrian boys in Switzerland to shake women’s hands, I can’t help but think of my intern Muhammad. After his internship, he went on to do a Master’s Degree at Harvard in Islamic theology, and now he is in medical school preparing to serve others in society as a doctor. As an American, I feel my country is lucky to have such a talented man, who values public service, as a citizen. If these two boys are even half as talented and kind as Muhammad, the loss will be Switzerland’s if this family cannot stay there.
I can’t say that I genuinely understand why Muhammad won’t shake women’s hands, but having to live without fully understanding is something that I think comes with the territory of genuine diversity. Muhammad allows me the freedom to shake the hands of men who choose to partake of this cultural practice, and I allow him the freedom not to.
The principle of religious freedom demands that we allow space in our society for the difference. Genuine tolerance allows for the difference. Of course, this is something quite different from trying to pass off the imposition of the cultural norms of those who are in power as “tolerance” simply by labeling it so. I hope that the Swiss government is able to tell the difference between the two—not only for the sake of those boys and their families but for the sake of their own society.
Jennifer S. Bryson, PhD, is Director of Operations and Development at the Center for Islam and Religious Freedom in Washington, DC.
As a child, I always had access to a short-wave radio. I used to listen to the BBC World Service about the Middle East. I also loved the music from that part of the world, and I probably was listening to the Quran being recited but did not know it at the time.
As I grew older, I continued to listen to the BBC World Service. Back then, they had a program called Words of Faith in which they had a five- to an eight-minute talk given by a different religious speaker each day of the week representing all the major religions in the United Kingdom. Out of all the speakers, the Muslims were the ones I loved listening to most.
Every time the Muslim representative spoke, I wanted to find out more about Islam. My impression of the religion was that the person who practices Islam is a happy person, not like the mean people portrayed by the American media. I just refused to believe people that loved Allah so much could be like the people portrayed by the media. Because I come from a Jewish background, the thing that united me with Islam was the belief that Allah had no partners.
An important time in my life came when I met a real Muslim but did not know it yet. I was doing contracting computer programming work in New York State when I had a strong urge to visit the United Kingdom.
Sometime after I started working at LogoTech, I found out that my supervisor, Anis Karim, was Muslim. I asked him if he knew how I could get a copy of the Quran. To my surprise, he obtained a copy of the Quran for me within a few days. […] The next day, while eating breakfast, I started to read. Later I found out that “read” is what Allah had the Angel Gabriel instruct our beloved Prophet to do, even though he could not read or write!
Well, words can’t describe how I felt when I read just that small portion of the world’s most holy book. It took only 10 pages, when, at that point, I told myself that this religion was for me. This occurred around 1990. The more I read, the more I wanted to know, and I loved what I was reading.
At the time, I did not know anything about how to pray or any of the details of Islam. If Anis had invited me to go to the masjid [mosque] in London, I would have gone with him. […] At the time, I knew that Muslims prayed several times a day, and so I started to do so at night before I went to bed and in the morning when I woke up.
[…] My sister asked me if I could help her find Islamic jewelry as a gift. At that time I had no idea that there were Muslims in Huntsville.
Then Allah put things into place for me. I remembered that there was a shop called Crescent Imports, which I thought was run by Muslims. It was not. It was run by the group called Nation of Islam. […]
I do thank Allah for having them direct me to the masjid. […]I spoke to the imam, and he invited me to perform salat (Prayer) with the Muslim brothers. This was a turning point in my life. I loved it and started to visit the masjid once a week at night. Then I started to visit it several times a week at night. The urge to come more times was stronger and I now perform most of my prayers at the masjid, except `Asr and Maghrib prayers when I am at work.
In November of 1996, I publicly made Shahadah. At work, I pray Zhuhr and Asr by myself or with other Muslim brothers in a small mosque in my workplace. I proudly carry my prayer rug in the hallways at my work in an attempt to get people to ask me what they are. When they do ask me about it, I tell them that I am Muslim and the mats are what I use to pray on. Also, my work area, including my computer, is decorated with Islamic artwork. My background on my computer is usually the Kaaba or our masjid.
Now that I am a Muslim, there is no turning back to disbelief!
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