My name is James Frankel. I’ll be talking a little bit to you about my experience of coming to Islam.
I’m speaking to you now from Honolulu, Hawaii, and it’s September 2010.
I’m a professor of comparative religion. I teach classes of Islam also at the University of Hawaii. I’ve been living in Hawaii now for just over 2 years and I’m just entering my third year
Some brothers asked me if I could speak about my experiences so hopefully insha’Allah I could do this today and I hope this will be helpful to anybody. May Allah give us all hidayah.
The Early Years
I came to Hawaii 2 years ago, and before that I lived in New York city where I was born and raised. I was born in 1969 and grew up in Manhattan, part of the time in Brooklyn for a few years in my life. For the most part, I had a very happy family life. My parents raised me not with any particular religion but I think with basic set of moral values. Actually, by heritage I have a Jewish background, but I grew up in a very secular household where there wasn’t a lot of religious practices.
The only connection I ever had with a religion was from my father’s side, my grandmother who was a practicing Jew. It’s from her that I learned a few things, bible stories, stories of the prophets. For a brief period my parents actually attempted to send me to a Hebrew school to learn more but I was not very comfortable there and actually got kicked out for asking too many questions, so this is probably my character that brought me to where I’m today. As a professor and as a Muslim, I continued to ask a lot of questions.
So, I grew up in this way without any religious foundation. This continued through my life and my late teens. I had actually 2 experiences that are worth mentioning. One, at the age of 13, I read the communist manifesto of Karl Marx and decided that I was a communist. I thought the values were sound and thought the philosophy was potentially beneficial to people.
Also at that time, I suppose this might be one of the earliest exposures to Islam that I can remember, my best friend at that time was from Pakistan. I went to an international school so I had friends from all over the world. My Pakistani friend gave me a copy of the Quran and he wanted me to read it. He said “I don’t want you to go to Hell”. Of course at this period of my life thoughts of hell were not really in my consciousness. I think I took the book and put it on my shelf and there it stayed for many years without being opened.
A Couple of years later I think I became quite disillusioned about communism as I learned more about the way that communism is actually practiced in many countries of the world and so I gave up the philosophy as well. It really wasn’t until I entered university that I began to ask the questions that will lead me directly onto this path. I think as a child I was always thoughtful and I always wondered about the meaning of life. Those basic questions about why we are here, where we are going and why we suffer, all of these things were always present in my mind even when I was a child. But as I got older and when I went to university, I focused a lot more on my studies until I had a particular experience.
Remember the grandmother that I mentioned before? In university, I was living in Washington DC and I got a phone call from my cousin who was going to school in Maryland and there was a surprise visit from my grandmother, my aunt and another cousin and they took me out for dinner. I spent the evening basically just talking to my grandmother. I told her about my plans to start studying Chinese which I was doing at that time. I told her about my plans to move back to New York and my transfer to Columbia University. It was as if she was giving me her blessing on all of these various decisions that I was making in my life as a young adult.
At the end of the evening, I was walking with her to the car and at the parking of this restaurant, she turned her ankle and she tripped and I asked her “Grandma, are you OK?” and she said don’t worry about me, just worry about yourself “OK” I thought and I continued to walk with her to the car, I opened the door, she got in and I kissed her goodnight and I said, “Well, I guess the next time I see you will be in thanksgiving when I get back to New York” and she said to me “God willing”. I didn’t think of it that much at the time. I closed the door and off they drove.
My cousin took me back to my dormitory and I went to bed. Early on the next morning I got a phone call and it was my cousin. I asked him why he is calling so early and there was no other way to say it, he just said “Grandma died”, and I said “Really?!” I thought he was joking maybe. I said “What are you talking about?” and he explained that she had a heart attack in her sleep. Of course her final words to me were echoing in my ears. I said I will see you soon and she said God willing, and I said are you ok, and she said take care of yourself. So to this day, it was an unexpected visit and of course unexpected departure for her. And to this day I can only wonder about the meaning of that encounter with my grandmother who of course as I said was my only link to traditional religion.
I went back to New York for the funeral and it was a traditional Jewish funeral and the Rabbi who was doing the eulogy spoke about my grandmother and said “Sarah was a rare treasure and God has taken that treasure back.” I thought OK, that is what the Rabbi would say. When the Rabbi came to my grandfather’s house to pay his respects, I wanted to ask him some questions about certain practices that are practiced in the Jewish home at the time of someone’s death. He told me not to worry about those things. He said that’s just a tradition. I said “OK, but how about this, in your sermon you said that my grandmother, I don’t know how well you knew her, but you said that she was taken by God, so where is she? And for that matter, where shall I go? Where will you go? And why are we here", and all those questions that well up in the human heart.
The Rabbi, I remember very clearly, looked at his watch and said “I have to go”. I don’t think he realized how angry that made me. Also, I don’t think he realized that he set me on a course that would lead me to where I’m today because I became very interested in those questions.
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