In this two-part interview originally appearing on Ancient Faith Radio, Kevin Allen of the "Ancient Faith Today" podcast interviewed "George" who became a Sunni Muslim at age fourteen and studied to become an Imam at a madrasa, studying the Quran, Arabic language, Islamic theology, hadith, and jurisprudence. He left Islam and became an Orthodox Christian twenty years later. Among other things, Kevin and his guest discuss Islamic theology, common misunderstandings of Christianity by Muslims, differences between "orthodox" Islam and the Nation of Islam, the true understanding and practice in Islam of slavery and jihad, and the extraordinary journey that led "George" to Orthodox Christianity.
—In this program we’re presenting part two of the fascinating interview with “George,” a recent convert to Eastern Orthodox Christianity from Islam to which he converted at the age of fourteen and went on to study Islamic history, theology and jurisprudence with the goal of becoming an imam. In this interview we’ll discuss George’s personal journey from Islam to the Orthodox Church. Welcome back, George. It’s great to have you on Ancient Faith Today.
—Thank you Kevin, again, it’s a great blessing to be here.
—So, picking up from where we ended in our first part, would it be fair to say that in your experience Islam is not really an experiential faith tradition, but mostly about following their prayer rules, fasting disciplines and their jurisprudence or Sharia and just obedience in general?
—Yes, I would definitely agree with that. There are some teachings that can be found within Islam, what’s known as Sufism, that speak about experiencing a union with God, however many of these ideas taught in Sufism as compared with the traditional orthodox teachings of Islam, are questionable at best and other teachings are outright heretical and even blasphemous.
Since in Islam there is no real concept of God dwelling in His creation through his Holy Spirit, to experience God in a real sense is impossible. In fact when the Quran does speak of God being close to His creation, it always means this in a metaphorical sense. A good example of this would be in chapter 50 verse 16 where it says, “... and we are closer to him than his jugular vein.”
This idea is only meant that God is close by his knowledge or through his knowledge and in no way it means any real presence, that God is close to His creation. Even to say something like, “God is everywhere,” has been very controversial topic in Islamic theology throughout the centuries. So much so that to say such a thing must always be qualified by the phrase, such as, “He is everywhere only through his knowledge but God is established upon His throne.”
—But having said all of this, were there positive aspects of Islam in your life as you were practicing Islam?
—Yes, I believe that Islam did give me much needed direction in my life, as it has and still does for many people. Anyone can hardly argue that having a life centered around one’s Creator and performing acts of prayer, fasting, charity, etc, are a bad thing in and of itself. Especially when we compare such a life with the alternative that so much of the world around us partakes in—life completely devoid of any God consciousness or any sense of a higher morality.
The problem I see, though, is that Islam stunts a person’s spiritual growth. Without acknowledging, believing and confessing God as He truly manifested Himself as, that is, through the Holy Trinity, a Muslim actually restricts God and in fact creates an idol of sorts, and in turn this restriction or limiting of God, carries over into a Muslim’s life and their view of themselves in others. I think a person’s view of God definitely can affect his or her life and their worldview.
—I want to follow up with this, because you mentioned Islam not being experiential. So, would you say looking back over your life as a Muslim that there was no experience of God for you in Islam?
—There was not so much an experience of God for me, as there was an acknowledgement of Him. I acknowledged that God existed, that I should believe and worship Him, but like I said recently, my concept of God as a Muslim did not allow me to experience Him.
I see it like this. The God of Israel was not fully realized until the Incarnation of the Word of God, that is Jesus Christ, which was the greatest and most profound giant step forward and I would say the biggest game changer in the history of mankind.
Then about six centuries later you have Mohammed, who turned back the clock, so to speak, and by rejecting the Incarnation and the salvific acts of the Lord Jesus Christ, Mohammed in effect returned mankind back under the Law and robbed those who followed him of the truth about God, as revealed through his only begotten Son and His Holy Spirit.
—You said something interesting to me. You said that although you’ve followed the external rubrics of Islam, you still often felt like a “monster” inside. Please explain.
—Yes I did. One thing that must be understood is that the external practices of Islam are so greatly stressed that this usually will lead a person to neglect and even look past the need for real spiritual development and growth. This lack of spiritual growth then effects how we deal with those around us. This is what happened to me, and I have seen this happen to countless others.
I had such a deep sense of satisfaction in myself, through my practices of the rituals and laws of Islam, that this created a deep sense of what I would call “pharisaism” and after time this made such an effect on me that I began to look down upon anyone who was not Muslim, even those who had loved me and cared for me during my whole life. This in turn transformed me into a monster, I think.
—Maybe you can expand just a bit on what you mentioned, that Islam creates a sense of pharisaism, that is, a judgmental and critical attitude in true believers rather than love.
—Certainly it can and has in many instances that I have personally seen, beginning with myself. The Quran states in Surah 5 verse 51 it says, “All you who believe do not take the Jews and Christians as friends and allies. They are in fact friends of one another and whoever is an ally to them among you then indeed he is one of them.”
Verses such as this one can cause people to take on an “us versus them” attitude which turns into, I would say, a fanatical zeal to stay on the right path—through the “straight path” which is what is called in Islam—and this turns into a general feeling of distrust, paranoia and contempt for non-Muslims in general and even towards other Muslims.
—Speaking of peace, as you are well aware, some people speak of Islam as religion of peace and jihad as strictly as spiritual struggle, and groups like Al-Qaida and ISIS are in fact hijacking the religion—we hear a lot about this. What did you hear about jihad and the teachings of the Quran in this regard behind the scenes?
—First off, literally the word “jihad” does mean “a struggle” in the generic sense of the term. It can mean a military struggle as well as a spiritual one. However most often when jihad is mentioned in Islam it is speaking of a military struggle or as it is called in Arabic, “qital.”
I don’t believe however that the groups you mentioned are simply hijacking the religion of Islam. There is text after text supporting their actions that cannot just be explained away, as some people attempt to do by claiming that those particular texts are speaking about specific historical events that have no relevance in a Muslim’s life today. This idea however poses a doctrinal problem for anyone who believes in the absolute divine and eternal nature of the Quran.
Behind the scenes I would say many Muslims I encountered seemed almost indifferent towards the so-called hijackers of Islam. Many of them will neither condone the actions of the terrorists, nor will they outright condemn them either. Rarely do I even see any public condemnation of the terrorists by Muslims. Even if the lack of empathy shown by Muslims is brought up, they will get very defensive and evoke such events as the Crusades, as an example, to somehow justify the actions of a terror group.
As a bit of a side note, I think it is very strange that we still have Christians apologizing for the Crusades, including the late Pope John Paul II. Yet, how often do we see any public condemnation by Muslims of the horrific acts done in the name of Islam? To this day, for example, the Turkish government denies the Armenian genocide and a country such as Saudi Arabia, the center and birth place of Wahhabism, has been cited for one human rights violation after another and nothing is done about it.
—George, would you say that the so-called radical terrorist practices of these groups that we are hearing so much about are those of selective extremists or is this what you heard was the norm in Islamic teaching? Will you talk a little bit about that?
—Given the vast amounts of material available in Islam condoning violence against non-Muslims, and then add to that the historical reality which shows that Islam from its very beginning has used force and terror to spread its faith, I do not know how anyone could come away with any other conclusion other than this is the norm and not the exception.
I would even go so far as to say that, to better understand Islam and its teachings one should not look at it so much as a religion but rather as a political movement heavily influenced by the pagan and Beduin culture of Mohammed’s time with Judeo-Christian undertones to give it some sort of an Arab legitimacy.
—As well as we’ve discussed, along with many misunderstandings that came from heretical versions of Christianity.
Moving on with your conversion experience, which I know our listeners are going to be very interested in, you told me your mother died at the early age of fifty, may her memory be eternal, when you were still a young man. So how did this event affect your relationship to Islam?
—Well, it shook me as anyone could imagine. It forced me to ask myself some very difficult questions. Islamic teaching is pretty cut and dry when it comes to the fate of non-Muslims when they die. The very thought that my mother, who loved God, was one of the most loving, generous, and kind people I’ve ever known, was going to be condemned to eternal damnation just because she wasn’t Muslim terrified me.
What occurred in the weeks that followed my mother’s death was just as unnerving for me. I remember the day she passed away. That evening I went to a mosque to pray, to reflect, to find some comfort. There I met some of my brothers in faith and told them what it happened. Instead of their condolences, the first thing that they asked me was if my mother embraced Islam. When I said, “No she didn’t,” the general response was, “Oh, I’m sorry to hear that. Well it wasn’t the will of Allah, I guess.”
I felt disgusted to say the least, but I knew that this is what Islam teaches, so how can I argue with it? I can only try to tell myself that there must be something wrong with me to question Islam. I fought against such thoughts but they still remained no matter how hard I tried to remove them.
—So you began to drift from Islam and religion in general?
—Yes, it wasn’t like I woke up one day and said “Forget all of this” and gave up practicing Islam entirely and renounced it. It was a very gradual process which took years.
For such a long time, I only saw life through the lens of Islam. I wholeheartedly devoted myself to its teachings and its concept of God. I even went so far as to pray at times that I would rather have my life taken from me than to die a non-Muslim.
So going from this to actually despising Islam, had such a huge effect on my mind and soul, both of which I felt I was losing. I was giving up everything that had defined me. I had not only been a practicing Muslim, but I had spent years studying to be an imam, or an Islamic cleric. I taught Islam, I preached it, I invited others to it and now, I was turning my back on it. So in the end I was left with a very bitter taste in my mouth, not only for Islam but for religion, period.
—And what happened? Did things, as you mentioned, start to get dark?
—Yes it did. I was left with a huge void in my life. I had spent so much of my time searching for God, thought I had found Him, only to come to the conclusion that I was wrong. I felt mentally and spiritually exhausted. I actually felt betrayed by God as I saw Him. I was heartbroken. I felt nothing but darkness inside. I still held on to a very superficial belief in a higher power but my belief in a real and personal God was seriously damaged. And I had no idea on how to mend this damage, and to be quite honest, I didn’t even know if I cared at that point.
—So it’s fair to say that you were having a very serious crisis of faith.
—Oh, yes I did.
—Why do you think that was?
—Well, after the events of my mother’s death, 9/11 and its aftermath and my many personal struggles with Islam and just with life in general, I began to look at the world with grown-up eyes. St. Paul says in 1 Corinthians When I was a child I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child, but when I became a man I put away childish things.”
In a manner of speaking, I had outgrown Islam, its rituals, its laws, its very concept of God. I felt that all of the structure and discipline in the world is meaningless if it doesn’t lead to an end, and I realized I didn’t even have a clue what that end was.
—Tell us about what was going inside of you and how you were drawn to Jesus Christ.
—I was stuck in a sort of limbo I would say. Spiritually I felt dead inside. My personal life was full of hate and inexpressible anger. I hadn’t prayed in I don’t know how long and I felt if I did, what was the point? What could I say, how would I go about it and was there even anyone listening?
I began reading books on philosophy as I had years before when I was in my early teens, trying to make some sense of everything and trying to come up with my own answers. Then I had a dream one night, and I’d just like to note that I didn’t put a lot of stock in dreams and visions and that sort of thing. I’ve always been more of someone who doesn’t go by his feelings or by his heart but more by his mind.
But one night I had a dream in which I felt the presence of Christ. I didn’t see Him as such, just felt that He was there. It was as if He wanted me to come to Him but I had kept pushing Him away, denying Him, and then I heard weeping. When I woke up I had no idea what to make of it. I had never been a person who put any great value on dreams or visions like I said, or thought of myself as important enough to have any remarkable spiritual experiences.
At first I just dismissed it as a strange dream, nothing else. Then sometime after that I was outside walking somewhere when out of nowhere I began reciting the Lord’s Prayer. The really odd thing is that I never memorized it, let alone ever recited it. Then one day, while I was at home, I felt this huge weight overcome me that I could physically feel, actually feel pushing me down. I just began to cry like I hadn’t cried in years. I fell down on my knees at the edge of my bed and buried my face into my hands. I didn’t know what to do or say, something just came over me and the only words that came out were, “Jesus Christ, if You are there, please help me.”
After that event, some months later, I had a dream of St. Paul the Apostle. I saw him on his way to Damascus as it’s narrated in the book of Acts and then I saw St. Paul fall to the ground. I looked at his face but instead of seeing St. Paul’s face I actually saw my own. It was then that I knew all of this wasn’t just some sort of coincidence. I felt I had to do something even though my mind told me to reason away everything and make rational sense of it all. Something deeper inside was saying to me, “Tell your mind to shut up and just listen to your heart for once in your life.”
—George, tell us about what first made you aware of Eastern Orthodox Christianity and what drew you to Orthodoxy after having rejected Christianity as a child and being in an anti-Christian religion for over twenty years.
—After everything I had experienced I still had the problem of not knowing what to do next. I didn’t know where to turn, I wasn’t interested in one of the thousands of Christian denominations and I wasn’t looking for just an emotional experience either. I needed something tangible as well.
I remember being at the state fair where I lived with my then girlfriend who is now my wife, who I must say has been an incredible example for me of what Christian love, patience, kindness and understanding can and should be. We stopped by a Christian outreach tent that was giving out Bibles. I went over there, told them my background, they gave me a Bible—the first of which I ever owned in my life—and then they asked me if I would like to recite what I later found out was called the “Sinner’s Prayer.” The people were nice enough but it just didn’t feel right. Something inside told me to keep searching. I kept wondering if there were any remnants of the historic Church that I began to learn about from my reading of the New Testament.
All of the denominations around me claimed to be “The” Church. Having been a Muslim I knew the value of religious tradition and historical continuity and I just didn’t see it in any of these denominations.
The Roman Catholic Church was the only one that seemed to have any real connection to the Apostles and to the original Christian community. However I had many issues with the Catholic Church that I just never could come to terms with.
One day I was searching the web and started putting in keywords such as ancient, Christian, Church, first Christians. I searched the list of results and one that caught my eye right away was a particular jurisdiction’s website. On the website was the quote from Acts 11:26 which says and the disciples where first called Christians in Antioch. From this I saw a connection between a historical community of believers in Christ and an actual place. I was intrigued and I wanted to know what this Church believed, its connection to the first Christians and its manner of worship. I began reading more about the Orthodox Church, its teachings, practices and history. Then I told myself that this is what Christianity was meant to be and I’ve said it many times since then, that I wish I would have known about this Church a long time ago.
The more I learned the more everything seemed to click. I would have to say that one of the main features of the Orthodox faith that truly drew me was the concept of “theosis,” and it being a main focal point of a Christian’s life. I then contacted the priest at my local Orthodox church, met with him, and after about year I became a catechumen. Also I must say that Ancient Faith Radio was and has been a Godsend which I came to know about when one day I was searching for stories of ex-Muslims who became Christian and I actually came across an interview that you had done with a former Shiite Muslim who converted to the Orthodox Church.
—Right, Anthony Devar. So it was a spiritual experience of the person of Christ that drew you to Him or was it both that and your intellectual search?
—It was a combination of both, but the spiritual experience was definitely the more overwhelming of the two in my conversion to Christianity, unlike when I converted to Islam.
Throughout my life I have always been the type of person who has a tendency to overthink and over-rationalize things, even spiritual matters, which can be detrimental to someone in search of God, I feel. This has proven to be a real obstacle for me. Believing in God cannot just be some sort of mental exercise.
One day, about a year ago, something occurred to me while looking at an icon of the Crucifixion of Christ. I was sitting at home, staring at this icon of the Lord’s Crucifixion. I found myself fixed on the posture of his arms stretched out. Something just hit me then. I didn’t see this posture as one of pain and suffering. I am not downplaying in the least the horrific pain and sorrow surrounding this event, but at that moment I saw so much more than that. I saw something so beautiful, as if Christ was telling me, “I did this for you, and the whole world, because I love you and I want you to come to Me and follow Me.” This feeling just came over me. Something like when I was a child and I would hurt myself and then my mother would hear my cries and come rushing towards me, and I would see her with her arms stretched out and then she would embrace me, and then this feeling of calm, love and safety would just overcome me.
—I forgot to ask you this before, but Islam also rejects the Holy Spirit as God. Is that right?
—Yes it does. In fact the Holy Spirit is referred to in the Quran but when it mentions the Holy Spirit it is actually referring to the Archangel Gabriel. This is the Islamic belief of what the Holy Spirit is.
—Did you struggle with the Christian but anti-Islamic doctrines of the Holy Trinity, Christ being the unbegotten Son of God, and the Holy Spirit being God?
—Yes I definitely had my struggles. I cannot overstate the transformation that I’ve had to undergo, of my mind, soul, the very essence of who I am and the way I see everything.
Islam has at its core the rejection of everything that the Christian faith holds as fundamental. The most profound example of this is Islam’s rejection of the Lord’s divinity and his Crucifixion. Even the name of Jesus Christ used in the Quran is different than the one that had been used by Arabic speaking Christians for centuries before Islam.
The matter regarding what Muslims call Christ and what Christians have called Him may seem trivial to some but I feel it speaks to a much more important point, that the Christ found in Islam and the one that we know as the Lord and Savior of the world are in fact not the same individual.
So now when I hear a Muslim say that they believe in Jesus Christ, I would have to say, “No you don’t.” There is only one Jesus Christ, not a Muslim one and a Christian one, and if a person does not accept and believe in Him, to be Who He truly is, then they do not believe in Christ at all and have only fashioned some new individual as Islam has done.
As I struggled I found that the more I read, studied, participated in the Divine Liturgy, and prayed, that so much became clearer to me. I realized that I didn’t have to, nor would I ever be able to understand everything, and that essentially God the Holy Trinity is a mystery, and I had to just accept that and believe and follow the guidance of the Church. I mean, that’s what faith is.
I have to say that two books that have been extremely helpful in my experience are On the Incarnation by St. Athanasius and The Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith written by St. John of Damascus. Overall I learned and, just as important, have experienced how wonderful, glorious and beautiful God, as the Holy Trinity, really is.
—Beautiful. George, as we are starting to come to the close, tell about your experience of Orthodox Christian worship and compare it to your experience of Muslim worship.
—I’d first say that nothing could have prepared me for the first time I attended the Divine Liturgy. All of my senses were engaged at the same time. It was quite overwhelming. I felt like a child. It was like nothing I have ever experienced in Islam.
There is really no comparison. I didn’t feel like I was just participating in the worship of God, but I felt that it was a mutual participation. The people singing and praising God and in turn God working with and through the people, if that makes any sense. It didn’t feel stagnant. There was this kind of indescribable flow to it all.
The external aspects of Orthodox Christian worship were not at all strange to me though, such as the bowing and prostrating. It did take some time for me to become comfortable with the use of icons, especially coming from such an iconoclastic background, but then I read On the Holy Images, again written by St John of Damascus. The way he defends the use of icons blew me away and after that I had no more doubts about how icons are not just religious art but an important component of the doctrine of the Incarnation of the Son of God.
—Yes it’s a very important book, and I am so glad you read the early patristic writers and not just interpretations of Orthodoxy. That’s so important.
Has your experience as a Christian, an Eastern Orthodox Christian, changed you and how would you describe that change?
—Well, it’s changed me in such a profound way I feel, and it’s not only changed me, but it’s an ongoing process. I can spend an entire show just speaking on this one question. I don’t feel I have even begun to understand the real significance of dying, being buried and resurrected with Christ. I know now that my life must be centered in dying to my old self, my old thought process, my old outlook on life, the way I see myself and others and how I deal with my neighbor.
It has been a wonderful life-changing experience, and to be honest, one of the most terrifying at the same time. Being baptized into Christ has been like having a mirror placed before me. It’s forced me to look at myself honestly with all of my sins and shortcomings. There is no deceiving God and I am learning that to have a real relationship with Him means I have to honest with myself first, before I can offer myself to God.
For the first time in my life I know what love truly is, and I know that sounds very clichéd but as the Lord says, Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends.” There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life, a husband for his wife, a wife for her husband, a parent for their child, anyone for that matter, and to die and empty ourselves for the sake of others is a truly divine act which Christ did for all of us first and foremost. This is definitely real love. By God’s Grace may I and each and every one of us put it into practice.
—George, thank you so much for sharing your amazing story and our prayers will be with you.
—Thank you very much Kevin and God bless you all.