Omar stood on my doorstep, smiling and peering at me through square, outdated glasses. He placed his hand over his heart in a traditional Muslim greeting and stepped inside. His disabled son shuffled in too with a mischievous smile, as if the joke was on us, dragging half his body behind him like heavy luggage. A friend of my Libyan-born husband’s, Omar had lived all over the world but moved to our hometown to care for his elderly father, whom he visited each evening in a nursing home. That afternoon he sat cross-legged on our living room floor in pressed pants and a collared shirt, drinking tea and having a passionate conversation with my husband about politics, social justice, and Islam.
The headlines often linked Islam with violence, but Omar was one of the most peaceful people I had ever met. I wanted to know what made him so humble and patient, what inspired him to care so deeply for the oppressed and take such good care of his family, and, when I asked him how he was doing, to respond with a smiling “Alhamdulillah”—“All praise is due to God”—as if every bit of it was a blessing.
So when he sent me a one-line email—“For anyone on a spiritual path, this is a must-see”—I clicked the link. A grainy video transported me to a windowless room where dark-skinned men were crowded shoulder to shoulder in cheap plastic chairs. A bearded man stood before them: intense, near-black eyes, his head swaddled in a white turban. This was no prestigious university or Western conference center; this was the stuff of American nightmares: a poor, dark, faraway place where violent, irrational men plotted our downfall. Why was Omar sending me this?
If the major world religions were schoolchildren, Islam would be the outcast. Buddhism, Judaism, and Christianity would roam the playground together, swinging from the monkey bars and making up games and resolving their own disputes. Hinduism would be more solitary—flamboyant and misunderstood. Islam would be the troubled one, mired in conflict, battling a reputation that preceded him.
It’s surprising, since Islam is really so much like the other Abrahamic faiths: touched by sexism from the get-go, adapted to various cultures along the way, open to a range of interpretations, marred by violence, and eternally in dispute. But the living heart of Islam, always just beyond reach of the faithful, is beautiful and pure. The famous comedian Dave Chappelle, who converted to Islam in 1998, said: “I don’t want to talk about my religion publicly, because I would hate for people to associate my flaws with this beautiful faith.”
The sheikh on the video began to speak. Was that a California accent? It was! I leaned in to listen as he reminded me that I would not find happiness in status or possessions, that I must take my fleeting life seriously. “Every breath takes you one breath closer to your final destination.” Like a splash of cold water to my face, his words startled me awake from vivid dreams of vanity and immortality. He taught that this body I cherished and adorned was just a temporary home for my spirit, which would one day fly away like a bird released from its cage. Stripped to its essentials, his message sounded like the dharma teachings at the Buddhist temple where I sometimes went to meditate.
Raised in Northern California, the son of an academic and an activist, Mark Hanson didn’t think much about religion until, at the age of 17, he nearly died in a head-on collision. Grappling with his near-death experience, he set out to learn what the major world religions taught about the afterlife. His quest led him to the one religion he had never considered: Islam. Shortly after he converted, he was given the name Hamza Yusuf. Now a sheikh, or Islamic scholar, he lives with his family in the Bay Area, where he cofounded Zaytuna College, the first Muslim liberal arts college in the West. Having advised President George W. Bush and the United Nations, created educational TV shows in the Arab world, and taught Islam globally, he is arguably the most influential Muslim in the Western Hemisphere.
I’d been married to a Muslim for 12 years, but I’d never explored the faith—nor did my husband press me to. According to Islam, he explained, every people have their own prophet; many paths lead to God. So he kept to his prayers, and I kept to my morning meditation. Each day during the month of Ramadan I prepared a plate of dates for him at dusk so he could break his fast, and each December he sorted through our photos to help me select one for our family Christmas card. But mostly we steered clear of each other’s baffling rituals.
Buddhism had been part of my life since college, when I’d stumbled across Charlotte Joko Beck’s illuminating Everyday Zen. But there were two words I still tripped over: nothingness and emptiness. No matter how many years I spent counting my breaths or naming my thoughts, I could not bring myself closer to that abyss, the vacuum that Buddhism said was the center of my life.
Maybe that’s partly why I was drawn to this American Muslim who taught that at the heart of our existence were infinite mercy and divine unity. “Meaning is everywhere,” he preached. “May God open our hearts to the meaning of our existence.” I was struck by the love I heard in his voice, and by the way he wove God into every other sentence. In the nominally Christian household of my childhood, I’d been taught to never take God’s name in vain; Jesus Christ was an epithet reserved for moments of great exasperation. In Islam no circumstance was too trivial, intimate, or explosive to warrant invoking God’s name.
Fervent spiritual seekers once made long, treacherous journeys to study with the great masters. Today even halfhearted seekers can find them: the best teachers of every tradition are just a mouse click away. I downloaded the sheikh’s teachings, originally delivered to audiences in Canada, Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. At dawn, as I jogged along a dirt trail beside the creek, he spoke of a merciful God. He explained that the Arabic word for mercy—rahma—came from the word for womb and that women had a spiritual advantage over men. “Humanity’s best qualities are found naturally in women but must be acquired by men,” he taught. He went on to say that, like Christians, Muslims honor Mary as the mother of Jesus, but that in Islam, Jesus is also honored because he was her son. Muslims revere her; many scholars believe she has the stature of a prophet, and she is referenced more often in the Qur’an, Islam’s holy text, than in the Bible.
I did not expect a Muslim teacher to speak so reverently about women—or to refer so eloquently to great Western literature. He cited Shakespeare and Yeats alongside ancient Muslim teachers, and he spoke with insight about the human condition. “To validate our own pain, we deny the pain of others,” he said. “But only in acknowledging others’ pain can we achieve our full humanity.”
His idealism and intensity reminded me of my college friend, a wild-eyed philosopher who burned with passion to know God, save the world, and do something extraordinary with his brief and precious life. But unlike my old friend, whose insights were dulled by alcohol or marijuana, Sheikh Hamza’s intellect was razor sharp. His mind and heart were engaged at full throttle and in perfect balance, like the twin engines that lift a massive jet improbably toward the heavens.
"What’s the name of that guy you’re into? Osama Sultana?” a friend asked, and the others giggled. We were seated around a fire pit in my backyard on a cool spring evening. I’d recently told her the name of the Muslim teacher whose lectures had moved me so deeply. The Arabic syllables had swirled in her imagination with billowing black smoke, Arabian Nights, crumbling twin towers, a man with coffee-colored skin in a mountaintop cave. Osama Sultana.
One friend had just completed a triathlon, another was starting her own company, and a third had returned from a business trip to Africa. They were smart, funny, and adventurous, willing to explore any subject in conversation—except God. Even my friend who takes her twins to Sunday school avoids the subject, as if she visits God only once a week in the sprawling church off the freeway.
When I told my girlfriends Sheikh Hamza reminded me of a prophet, they flashed one another warning looks. They’d much rather discuss controversial subjects like polyamory or pot legalization than prophets.
“Like Martin Luther King reminds me of a prophet,” I hastened to add, to show I was no zealot. I once saw a photo in Guinness World Records of a man pulling a steam engine by his teeth. Men like Martin Luther King and Hamza Yusuf reminded me of that guy: they bore down on truth and refused to let go, leaned into it, and gave everything they had to move this great sluggish engine of humanity forward just a few inches before they gave out.
The first time I saw my husband put his forehead to the ground in prayer, through a crack in his bedroom door, I was as disturbed as if I’d caught him piercing a voodoo doll with a needle. What kind of god, I wondered, would want us in such a compromised position? But worship is Islam’s fundamental practice; Muslims cultivate a direct relationship with God through their five daily prayers. The more I listened to the sheikh, the more I wondered about those prayers. Five times a day seemed excessive—unless I counted the number of times each day I lost focus, compulsively checked messages, got too distracted by busyness and daydreams to remember the single most important thing. Then it seemed infinitely small.
I knew from my writing and running routines what rewards came over time from disciplined practice, so I decided to perform the salat, or Muslim prayer, for one month—just to see what would happen. I did not discuss my experiment. Meditation was hip, but prayer put me in league with strutting televangelists, histrionic abortion-clinic protesters, and homophobic politicians with lurid sexual secrets. Muslim prayer was even worse.
It was not easy to pray first thing in the morning, just before bed, and in stolen moments of privacy in my small workplace during the day. I discussed my experience only with one wise and luminous friend. Her serenity and strength did not come from taking yoga classes, listening to Eckhart Tolle CDs in her car, or attending Buddhist retreats in Big Sur. She had paid dearly for her maturity a few years ago, when her husband was struck with leukemia and died a few months later, leaving her on her own with a five-year-old son.
“A strange thing has happened,” I told her. “I’ve begun to pray—and it actually helps me.” After two weeks, the change was subtle but undeniable. I was more patient and grateful. Anxiety was loosening its grip. Meditation emptied my mind, but prayer filled my heart.
My friend hugged me. “I’m so glad for you,” she said, her happiness brightening the room like sunlight.
“I just can’t understand why it works,” I went on. “Do I sound crazy? Is it a placebo effect? Am I deluding myself?”
She put her hands over her ears, groaned, and rolled her eyes.
“Please, stop! For God’s sake, if it’s working, don’t overanalyze it!”
After I’d been praying and listening to the sheikh’s teachings for over a year, I had the opportunity to attend one of his public lectures while I was on a cross-country trip. A low-budget Internet video denigrating the prophet Muhammad had recently led to explosive protests in Egypt, Libya, and Pakistan. Sheikh Hamza had been giving impassioned speeches against violence and fundamentalism. “I adopted this faith,” he said at a Friday sermon in Northern California, “and I am sick of defending ignorant, backward, reactionary fools.” At the same time, he challenged non-Muslim Americans to consider why this country refuses to tolerate the denigration of a gender or ethnicity but allows the vilification of a faith. Did Americans realize that Jesus and the other prophets were as beloved by Muslims as was the prophet Muhammad? He had thrust himself into the middle of a volatile confrontation and was taking on both sides. He looked exhausted: smaller, more fragile than he’d seemed on video.
The only memento I wanted was a photo of him, so after his talk was over, I approached him to ask for one. He smiled a tired smile, then put his palm out like a gussied-up Indian at a roadside tourist attraction, and made a joke: five dollars. Perhaps to him I looked more like a sightseer than a seeker. I wanted to tell him I was no tourist and he was no prop; I was looking for far more than a souvenir. But in a sense he was right: I wanted to capture his soul in a picture, to steal some of his spirit to take with me.
Beside my bed is a bookshelf that holds all the spiritual texts I’ve acquired over the years. Some nights, unable to sleep, I lie on my side and study the spines of those books: so many years of searching, so many different ways to describe the mystery at the heart of our lives. Back home, I propped Sheikh Hamza’s photo on that shelf. Later, as I thumbed through my closet looking for just the right outfit, I glanced up and saw his face, and I remembered that not just the dress but also the body is a costume, that it will grow wrinkled and worn and finally be gone. I began to think about beautiful actions instead.
Krista Bremer’s essays have appeared in O: The Oprah Magazine and The Sun. Her memoir, My Accidental Jihad: A Love Story, will be published next year.