A Search for Meaning
A woman recounts her voyage from inner emptiness to Islam
By Halima Toure
A few years after I embraced Islam, a woman I worked for said to me, “You seem so intelligent. Why are you a Muslim?” I responded, “Because Islam appealed to my head as well as to my heart.”
If anyone had told me a year before I became a Muslim that my head and heart would be open to Islam, my response would have been, “You’re out of your mind!” So how did I come to this point in my life?
On the outside, I had a good life. As a beneficiary of the civil rights movement, I became the first black editor at Redbook Magazine in the mid-60s. Then I freelanced for magazines and did research for television.
I had a rich social and professional network. I believed, along with my friends and colleagues, that we could help make a positive change in America. It was the time of “Say it loud: I’m black and I’m proud.” My Afro hairstyle and my support for the black arts movement expressed my black pride. The knowledge of Africa’s great past awakened my African identity. My family was supportive of my accomplishments. I’d made it. On the inside, though, a creeping emptiness had begun to spread. I’d joined freedom rides, picket lines, and boycotts with the Congress of Racial Equality. I had volunteered with the National Urban League. But the bullets that killed John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr. each killed a bit of my spirit and hope. Cynicism began to take root.
“Stress on family and fraternal bonds impressed me. The Eidul Fitr congregation was a colourful tapestry of humanity - white, blacks, brown, yellow - all bowing to the same Creator. It was in sharp contrast to the racial separation of the United States on Sunday mornings”
Meanwhile, I had drifted away from organized religion and turned agnostic. The death of a 24-year-old relative left me angry that God would take such a nice guy when so many bad people were creating mayhem. Neither my childhood beliefs nor my adult agnosticism could satisfy me.
The deeper questions of life began to surface: If I’d “made it,” why did I feel so empty? Material goods, careers, family and friends alone did not fill my inner space. Is life just a free fall from birth to death? Is this all there is? Why am I here? I became hungry for meaning.
Then I met the Muslim man who would become my husband. He talked of our African Islamic origins, along with his dream of a new future for them. He emphasized how our African past was linked to Islam in empires like Songhai and Mali, and in renowned centers of learning like Timbuktu.
I was particularly impressed with the Muslim men talking to the children, even holding hands of the infants
I read literature about the basic tenets of Islam. Several were similar to Christianity, although there were fundamental differences. The concept of Tawhid touched a deep chord in me. I saw how all parts of me—mind, body, spirit—connected to my total environment.
At Friday services in the mosque, the imam, an African-American and alumnus of Al-Azhar in Cairo, described Islam as a scientific way of life bound by God’s spiritual, physical, and social laws. He believed it was just the medicine needed to uplift humanity, but especially for African- Americans suffering the after- effects of slavery.
I was impressed by the focus on family and by the fraternal bonds. Given the popular perception of the absentee African-American father, I was particularly impressed by the Muslim men talking to and laughing with young children, even holding infants. The sisters drew me into their circle and freely answered my questions.
I had met Betty Shabazz, the late widow of Al-Hajj Malik El Shabazz (Malcolm X), when I was helping to edit a book about her husband. When she learned of my engagement, she extolled for me the benefits of being married to a Muslim man. She pointed out that the ideal of Islam was free of racism and classism.
An Idul-Fitr prayer service at the Islamic Center revealed the international character of Islam. In contrast to the racial separation of the United States on Sunday morning, the colourful tapestry of humanity worshiping together impressed me as just what Allah intended. With the diversity was the unity—black, brown, yellow, and white prostrating themselves before their Creator, reciting the same prayers and intoning in unison, Allahu Akbar (Allah is the greatest). On the evening that I sat in hijab (headscarf) on the carpet in front of the imam to make my shahada (witness), I was convinced that I needed Islam for me and not just to please my future husband. Before witnesses, I professed that there is no God but God (Allah), and that Muhammad is His prophet and messenger. Then the imam said, “You’ve taken the first step toward becoming a Muslim. Now the work begins.”
That work is never-ending. It began with studying—learning what is halal (lawful) and haram (prohibited), and why. It continues with trying to incorporate its principles into all aspects of my world. I gave away the clothes of my old life, covered my hair, and made ankle and wrist-length garments that both cover and conceal. The duty-free alcohol went down the toilet, the cigarettes went into the garbage. I scrutinized food labels to avoid haram ingredients. I learned wuzu and the prayers. Gradually, I changed my work schedule in order to attend Friday services. The Islamic holy days replaced the holidays of my old tradition.
These were traumatic enough. However, my inward shifts were, and continue to be, the most astonishing. For one, I was unaware of the extent of my arrogance and ignorance until I had to bow down to Allah in prayer. My credo had been, “I am the captain of my ship! I am the master of my fate!”
A wise person once said, “A problem cannot be solved on the same level of consciousness at which it was created.” The hopelessness, cynicism, anxiety, rage, and despair that mark contemporary life— symptoms of an individual’s and a society’s loss of meaning— threatened to consume me. But on that day nearly 30 years ago, I opened a door to become something else, and I am still “becoming.”
I could not comprehend how seeing life through the lens of an Islamic consciousness would change me. One friend was turned off by my zeal, screaming, “Give me a break!” Time and experience have since mellowed me.
My hijab and peaceful demeanour surprised another friend who saw me about eight years after my shahada. He remarked, “It suits you!” Yes, it does suit me, and I have yet to feel empty again.