How I came to Islam! (Umar)
bismi llaahir rahhmanir rahheem..
assalaamo `alaykom warahhmat ollaahi wabarakaatoho..
I was born Thomas Francis Crescenzi at Mid-Island Hospital in Bethpage NY on July 15, 1975 at 6:13 am. Now, I am 19 years old, on my way to 20.. and i don't think my parents nor anyone would have been able to foresee all the changes i have gone through since that day i was born in 1975. My "return" to Islam (I absolutely *hate* the word "reversion".. "revert" has a very negative connotation to it.. as in "revert to childhood pranks," etc.) was purely a religious one. There was no underlying social or familial influence to it. I first became aware of "God" when I was about 5 years old. My mother taught me how to say the "Our Father" prayer (the main Christian, especially Catholic prayer: "Our Father, Who art in heaven, Hallowed be Thy Name. Thy Kingdom come, Thy Will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day, our Daily Bread, and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us, and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. Amen."). As a child, I was very enthusiastic about prayer and God. I used to enjoy going to my Catholic catechism classes, and I would beg my mother every Saturday evening to bring me to church. As I got a little older, maybe about 10 years old, we did more Bible study in my catechism class. My favorite book of the Bible was Exodus, which starts just before the birth of Moses (`alayhissalaam) and tells of Moses' prophethood and leadership of the Jews up until they wander into the desert after fleeing Egypt. A recurring theme in the book of Exodus is the Oneness of God. My teachers had tried to explain the trinity to me and the class, but it made no sense. Especially since it was in complete contradiction to what my favorite book, Exodus, was saying. So from that point on, I lost interest in the catechism class, and I would just read Exodus to myself over and over on my own.
At age 13, it was time for me to complete the required catechism and undergo the sacrament of "confirmation." In confirmation, one stands up in church and swears before the entire community to God that one believes in the trinity. In fact, you practically say "I swear to the Father that Jesus Christ is His son and that He sent the Holy Spirit to the apostles." This was a very hard thing for me to do. I did not believe in the trinity, and here I have to swear before God that I do?! That's lying!! I couldn't lie to God. I tried everything I could to try to get out of having to go through the confirmation, even going so far as trying to convince my parents I didn't believe in God at all! But that failed; I was powerless. So I prayed to God to forgive me for what I was about to do and that I really didn't mean it. And I went through with the ceremony. I never set foot inside any church ever again since then. Not for my sisters' sacraments, not for my cousins' weddings. Never.
Later that year, in my eighth grade social studies class in my public junior high school, we were studying world cultures. And the topic for one unit was "The Arab World." Because it is very difficult, in fact, probably impossible, to explain Arab culture without explaining Islaam, we were taught some basic tenets of Islaam. We were taught about the five pillars and about the Prophet (sallaa llaaho `alayhi wasallam)'s life. What was very surprising was that I got authentic information and un-biased facts on the subject. From a Jewish teacher, no less. There is not one thing that was said in that class that I can say was not completely correct, knowing now what I do about Islaam. (May Allaah open the heart of Joel Mencher, my teacher, to the light of His deen inshallah, so that he may be rewarded for introducing me to the Truth inshallah. Aameen.) The idea of One God appealed to me greatly, especially hearing that Jesus (`as) was accepted as a prophet, as was Moses (`as). I got a translation of Qoraan from my public library (a really horrible and hard-to-understand George Sale translation with no tafseer) and began to read it. I got pretty deep into the book, but I didn't understand much of it. I even tried fasting during Ramadhaan when it came, but that only lasted about three days because my mother was concerned, and I gave in because I didn't know very much about what I was doing anyway. My father even threw me out of the house once for reading that George Sale Qoraan translation at the kitchen table. He went out looking for me and found me a couple hours later and brought me home and told me not to read it in front of my sisters, because he didn't want them to get any ideas from me. Mind you, I was still thirteen years old when all of this happened.
For the next three years or so, until I was about sixteen, I thought of myself as a Moslim who was just in need of some education. I had not taken shahada; I had never even met a Moslim. But the basic principles of the religion made a lot of sense to me. When I was about sixteen, I had heard that there was a chance my great-grandfather may have been Jewish. Then it occurred to me that Jews are monotheists. And I remembered a verse from Exodus that said: "I am an impassioned God, visiting upon the guilt of the third and fourth generations of those who forsake my name." I thought that maybe this was God's way of reclaiming a soul that had been lost, exactly three generations before me when my grandfather left Judaism. I read up on Judaism and looked into the various movements that existed and talked to Jewish friends. Then when I was 17, I decided to visit a conservative synagogue nearby and talk to the rabbi. He explained to me that I didn't have to convert, that Judaism doesn't require that one be Jewish to go to heaven. And he explained to me that becoming a Jew would just be an added burden and more responsibilities to undertake, but I told him I wanted to do it anyway. So he gave me a reading list, and I would meet with him periodically after the nightly prayer service to discuss what I had read.
Then I went off to college the next year, to The American University in Washington DC. There I came into contact with more religious Jews and started to attend an orthodox shul (synagogue) for prayer and classes. As I read more, and got more deeply involved in my Torah studies, I became more and more attracted to chassidus (Jewish pious mysticism), and I attatched myself to the Lubavitcher chassidic movement (also known as "Chabad"), although I was not a blind follower of Chabad. I found a lot of Satmar teachings that I liked as well. (Satmar are another chassidic sect.) Anyway, I ended up being accepted on a full scholarship to an *extremely* prominent yeshiva in Far Rockaway NY to study torah and rabbinics. When I was younger, before my problems with the trinity, I had dreamed of becoming a priest. Now I had my chance to enter into the rabbinate and eventually become a Jewish rabbi. This was just before the Jewish festival of Peisach (Passover). My official conversion ritual (which consists of pricking and drawing blood from the penis with a needle, since i had already been circumcized as a baby, but not according to the proper Jewish ritual, and also being submersed in a pool of rainwater) was supposed to take place in two weeks. I was observing all the dietary laws, prayer times, and social conduct laws at the time. This was an incredible burden on my family and it caused me to think: "Why didn't God just make me Jewish at birth? Why was I born to a goyishe (non-Jewish) family? Why would God guide only this small group of people, numerically insignificant on a global scale, leaving the rest of us to fend for ourselves?" I could not get satisfactory answers to these questions, so I decided not to go through with the conversion.
Ironically, the day I told my mother this was the day she mailed me a letter telling me that I was no longer welcome at home. She told me to ignore the letter when I got it, to just throw it out. But when it finally did come, I read it anyway.
Now I had a problem. I had no idea how I was supposed to think of God or worship Him. I decided that maybe I wasn't giving Jesus (`as) a fair chance as a prophet, so I read over the gospels again and decided to go to a Unitarian-Universalist church in SE Washington DC. Unitarians believe in the Unity of God and see Jesus (`as) as no more than a prophet. But they also believe that all people go to heaven regardless of their deeds, and as a result, most of them are homosexuals, including almost that entire congregation that i visited AND THE MINISTER HIMSELF!!!! The minister's sermon was about how hard his breaking up with his boyfriend was on him. And I felt so embarrassed because I had dragged a male friend of mine along to this church and I don't even WANT to know what the others were thinking about us!!! This left me extremely disillusioned. So one day, it just occurred to me. "What about Islaam?" I never had any problem with any of its teachings, and besides, Mohummed (saaws) was illiterate (I knew this from my 8th grade social studies class), so how could he have made anything up? So I went to the MSA office at American U. (which has a very visible and prominent MSA and Moslim student body.. 25% of the students are Moslims, mostly Arab graduate students from overseas).. I asked the brothers to give me information and tell me about Islaam. And of course they obliged eheh *smile*. You should have seen their eyes light up when I asked this. *grin* But anyway, they gave me a Yoosuf `Alee translation of Qoraan and several booklets. I read everything they gave me. And one book in particular clinched it for me-- "The Qoraan and Modern Science" by brother Dr. Maurice Bucaille of the French Institute of Medicine. I thought "My God, if this isn't proof, then what is.. I mean, how on earth would some illiterate Arabian in the 7th century know any of the scientific facts that were being shown here? Half of these things weren't even discovered until recently." That week, after Jum'ah I visited the brothers from the MSA and told them how I felt, so they asked me if I wanted to take shahada. I told them yes. So everyone huddled around me (about 60 in all eheh) and watched me say three times "Ushhado al laa ilaaha illaa llaah wushhado ana mohummedor rasool ollaah." And there was a lot of rejoicing and everyone was hugging me and congratulating me, and that night they took me to an ISNA conference at a masjid in Virginia, Dar al-Hijrah, which lasted three days. And all the brothers at American University were so helpful in guiding me and teaching me the deen. May Allaah swt reward them all greatly for their work in His cause inshallah. Aameen. Anyway, that is how I came to al-Islaam. I hope that this somehow benefitted someone, and perhaps gives someone that extra "push" or convincing they need to go ahead and take shahada.. Like one brother, who had also returned to Islam, had told me: "It is the best decision you will ever make." (Isma`eel Akhdar, formerly Troy Green).. Peace upon all my brothers and sisters in Islaam inshallah.. Assalaamo `alaykom warahhmat ollaah!
`Omar Jalaal Crescenzi
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