I could hear my parents’ concern when I told them I was applying to Union: They were, after all, only reflecting the doubts and questions I had been wrestling with for the past year. What could I possibly learn about Islam through classes on the Old Testament? Wouldn’t I just be taking on more loans with no promise of a job when I graduate? Ultimately why was I, a brown Muslim-American immigrant named Mohammad, called to New York City to study Islam at a seminary grounded in the Christian faith?
While I like to believe that I’m the one who chose to pursue Islamic studies at Union, I recognize that the choice was made long before I was ever aware. In Islam there is a tremendous significance to the names we give our children,—they ascribe not only our aspirations but the character we hope will be cultivated within their lives. Mohammad, which means praiseworthy in Arabic, was a name my grandfather gave me because he believed I would be a leader who stood at the crossroads of faith and intellect. Yet in bestowing this name upon me, he spoke into being a path of challenge and strife; a calling I have long resisted.
As an immigrant to the United States shortly after 9/11, I never knew the privilege of discovering the beauty within Islam. Instead I found it reduced to a primitive religion of terrorists, and the Prophet Muhammad denigrated as a pedophile, while I was transformed into the enemy of freedom. Amidst the bullying I found common cause amongst black and hispanic students, each of us resisting our own systems of exclusion rooted in legacies of policing and violence, both domestic and abroad. Despite attending Friday khutbah’s hoping my mosque would speak to this political climate, I often left bitter wondering what relevance Islam had as I struggled to resist injustice.
My political and ethical questions continued to guide me at Colorado College, where I channelled these thoughts into independently designing a major in Existential Activism. At the heart of this was a concern with what it meant to be a human being, but more importantly, how could one become human in a society intent on reducing you to nothingness? After four years of deep engagement in philosophical traditions and student activism, I began to sense that the solutions to the persistence of injustice lay beyond mere policy changes and electoral politics. While my intention upon graduating had been to apply to PhD programs in African-American studies, a lingering doubt began to bubble as I wondered where I was being called.
For a year I wandered through the wilderness trapped in the tension between doubt and certainty. While I recognized a calling to higher education, I struggled to determine the question that was guiding me. On a rainy Thursday afternoon in December, I found myself scouring the shelves of Half Price Books when the title of a slim red book grabbed my attention, A Black Theology of Liberation written by the late Dr. James Cone. I pulled the book off the shelf and read the first paragraph. Three hours later I was sprawled out on the floor halfway through the book with notes scrawled in the margins. Despite my relative unfamiliarity with Christian theology, I was deeply moved at the possibilities of reading sacred texts from the position of the oppressed. The words to a question I had been longing for seemed to blossom within me, what would an Islamic theology of liberation look like within the context of the United States?
While I didn’t know much about Union, I quickly discovered through Cone that some of the intellectual giants that shaped my outlook have passed through its hallowed halls; Cornel West, Michelle Alexander, Walter Brueggemann, Delores Williams, Kelly Brown Douglas and so many more. When I discovered that Union offered an Islamic Studies program that merged a deep theological engagement with a commitment to social justice, I knew I had found a home for the spiritual and intellectual yearnings so absent from my life. With a mere 30 days until the deadline I scrambled to write a compelling personal statement, secure letters of recommendation, and coordinate the logistics of applying to graduate school.
I am now just three short weeks into my first year semester at Union, and already I am experiencing the calm confidence of walking in the light of my calling. It has come through cultivating community amongst fellow students of color, engaging in late night conversations on overcoming the trials of the world, and having my mind blown daily by class readings. My most moving moments have come while sitting in a class taught by Professor Jerusha Tanner Rhodes, Quran: Engaging a Sacred Text. For as we’ve meditated upon mercy and explored the depths of taqwa, I have experienced the deep joy of discovering the beauty hidden within Islam.