My path to Islam

AUSTIN BURTON, Ummah Sports editor

Although I was raised in a traditionally Christian family, it took me a quarter-century on this earth to become certain of God’s existence, let alone accept religion into my life.

Two of the women most instrumental in my upbringing — my great-grandmother on my father’s side and my grandmother on my mother’s side — were very much involved in their respective churches: One of them a Baptist church, one a Church of Christ. The two buildings were actually just a couple of blocks apart in my hometown of Seattle. My parents were, at varying times in their lives, also deep into the Christian church.

While I wouldn’t say I actively practiced Christianity growing up, I didn’t actively reject the faith, either.

One of my favorite books as a child was an illustrated collection of Bible stories. I still have the personalized Bible my great-grandmother gave me when I was maybe seven or eight years old. I went to church when the grown-ups made me, I said grace at family dinners when I was told; I even spent one summer at Bible study camp.

Many of my heroes were Christians. I played sports from the time I could walk, and some of my athletic role models — Deion Sanders, Aeneas Williams, David Robinson — were outward Christians. That didn’t stop them from becoming my favorite players.

After high school I went to a Jesuit college, and on my way to a Journalism degree, I went through the handful of required Theology classes without problem, class that that focused on Catholicism and Christianity.

As much as I was surrounded by Christianity, however, I can’t say it was forced upon me. And so throughout my childhood and young adulthood, I had the freedom to not only question God’s role in our lives, I also questioned his existence in general.

That changed around the time I was 25 years old.

At the time I was dating a woman who was the sort of the stereotypical “church girl.” She was very strong in her faith and knowledgeable about the Bible, and many of our deeper conversations were about religion and addressing some of my long-held questions about Christianity. At that age, I found not many of my peers were thinking about things like the meaning of life, where we’ve come from and where we’re going.

It seemed even fewer of my peers who’d been raised in the church were up for critical discussions regarding their religion. One issue I had with Christianity was that it was used by White American slave owners to keep African slaves docile and subservient. Another issue I had was that Jesus and almost every other “good guy” in the Bible was often portrayed as White in movies, on TV, in art and in books — like in that illustrated storybook I had as a kid — even when history clearly shows they weren’t. As a Black man, it was hard for me to embrace that religion. Not that I had a problem with the idea of Jesus being White; I had a problem with Christians clearly ignoring the facts and falsely portraying Jesus as White, it seemed, just for their own comfort.

It was during this time, however, through these critical conversations and plenty of contemplation and a few epiphanies, that I did confirm my belief in monotheism and my belief in God as the creator.

Meanwhile, as I was coming into my belief in God and learning more about Christianity, I began studying Islam in earnest.

I had actually been aware of and interested in Islam since I was about 10 years old. Spike Lee’s X biopic on Malcolm X had come out around then, which inspired me to read The Autobiography of Malcolm X and learn about the Nation of Islam, the true religion of Islam, and the Muslim way of life. When I was 11 or 12, my father brought home a book he’d picked up on the street called Islam in Focus. And while I don’t believe he looked at the book much after that day, I regularly took it and read it on my own. It was basically a how-to manual on being a Muslim that was originally published (I believe) in the 1970s, when a lot of Black people in America were joining groups like the Nation of Islam and a lot of Americans saw blurred lines regarding what the Nation preached and what was true Islam. Another influential book I read as a kid was Giant Steps, the autobiography of NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, which talked about his journey to Islam.

So even when I was 11 or 12, Islam felt more “right” to me than any other religion.

But back then, I wasn’t ready to dive into any religion because I was still not completely sure about God in the first place. I hadn’t seen God. I didn’t feel God in my life. And, honestly, I was still a kid just beginning to come into puberty and figuring out what manhood meant to me. All the rules and prohibitions of Islam — washing yourself five times a day, no sex until marriage, no dating until you’re ready to marry — just were not appealing to me at that age with my rebellious streak and pre-teen hormones running amok.

I was not ready to be a Muslim back then, but I couldn’t deny I was drawn to what I’d learned about the religion.

So fast-forward to when I’m about 25 years old, after I’d come to the realization that God is real and God has a presence in my life. What do I do now?

I was living in New York City at the time, and at the subway newsstands I’d buy copies of The Final Call, the Nation of Islam’s publication. I also lived in a neighborhood in Brooklyn where, at certain times of the day, I could hear the Muslim call to prayer over the loudspeaker at a nearby mosque.

I think those two things put Islam back on my radar, and then one day I found myself in a little corner store looking for some incense when I see this book: Islam in Focus. The same book my dad kept in our house when I was a kid. I can’t say that it hit me like a sign, but I bought the book and started reading it again, and like most things, it made much more sense to me as an adult than it did when I was younger.

From there, I began looking for any information on Islam that I could find. I read pieces of the Quran. I discovered “The Deen Show” on YouTube and watched every episode. I watched lectures by Islamic scholars like Khalid Yasin, Yusuf Estes and Omar Suleiman. I watched interviews with Muslim athletes like Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf and Shareef Abdur-Rahim. I read books and articles on Islam. I read books and articles on other religions in order to make a comparative analysis. From the rational (scientific proofs and evidences in the Quran) to the emotional (it just felt right in my heart), everything about Islam made sense to me.

I believed there was no God but God, and that Muhammad was God’s last and final messenger. I believed the Quran was the verbatim word of God. I believed that on the Day of Judgment we would all be judged by our deeds and beliefs and sent either to Paradise or to the Hellfire. I believed Islam was the truth and that the Muslims had it right.

And yet, as my 30th birthday came and went, I still had not officially converted or declared my religion. If you’d asked me about my religion back then, I would’ve said something like, “I’m kind of Muslim,” or that I was “90 percent Muslim.”

Why not go all-in?

First, I had some hesitation around telling my family. Although my great-grandmother on my father’s side had passed away when I was in elementary school, my grandmother on my mother’s side was still alive and a very important person in my life. My father had become a born-again Christian. My older sister, one of the closest people to me, had become very involved in her church. My family was still a Christian family. While my then-fiancée (now my wife) is more spiritual than religious, her family is a Christian family. I had gone against the grain from my family before — from my choice of high school to my choice of career — but something on this level would be a big break from tradition. And if I couldn’t be proud enough of being Muslim to tell even the people who loved me the most, did I even deserve to call myself a Muslim?

Second, upon examining the exceptional people who had come and gone in my life, many of the best examples of humanity, grace, selflessness — the attributes I admired — were Christians; including my great-grandmother and my grandmother, my parents and my sister. By becoming a Muslim, I felt, I’d essentially be telling all of them, “You’ve lived your life wrong. You picked the wrong path.” It seemed disrespectful to my elders to make a statement like that. And if they were Christian, shouldn’t that be a good enough reason for me to be a Christian, even if my head and my heart told me Islam was truly the path God has chosen for us?

Finally, I didn’t feel like I was ready to be a good Muslim. I respected the deen of Islam too much to think I could enter the religion without knowing everything I was supposed to know and basically being the perfect Muslim already. With most things in life, I feel like I have to master it before I can claim it, and Islam would be the most important thing I could claim. It’s like how an honest and flawed man might tell a woman, “You’re too good for me” as a way to explain why he can’t see her anymore. I was too flawed. I felt like Islam was too good for me and I couldn’t measure up to its standards.

So that’s where I was in 2013: Back living in Seattle, all grown up, married, and conflicted. I was studying Islam on a near-daily basis, fully knowing in my mind and heart that Islam was the right path, reading every National Geographic article and watching every Netflix movie I could on Islamic countries, and yet I was still not a Muslim.

That summer, a couple of months after my grandmother had passed away, I finally decided to visit a local mosque. I needed answers to the questions I had about the issues that were holding me back from converting. Plus, I just wanted to see if I felt comfortable and welcome in a masjid.

I talked to a brother named Farid at a local Islamic school, then to a brother named Ahmed at a local mosque. Both gave me the answers I was looking for: I didn’t have to be the perfect Muslim before or after taking my shahada, and it wouldn’t be disrespectful of my elders to choose a different religious path.

Two days later, on July 22, 2013, I took my shahada at an Islamic center in Tukwila, Wash.

In the weeks and months after converting — or “reverting” as many Muslims call it — I wondered what I could do to fulfill my duty of spreading the word of the Quran and recommending others to the truth, referred to as dawah. Eventually, Allah put it in my heart to launch Ummah Sports; combining this way of life I was blessed to discover with the skills I was blessed with and honed during my career in sports media.

I’m a Black man by birth, a sports writer and editor by trade, and a Muslim by the grace of Allah. This is my dawah.

Categories: CONVERSION STORIES

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4 replies

  1. Austin, Thank you for launching Ummah Sports. This is a wonderful way of sharing Islam through people’s love of sports. I run MuslimGoodNews.com and added a link to this website. Would love to collaborate with you.

  2. Being true to who you are and what you believe is what matters most. Your journey to embracing Islam as described by you in this article is both truthful and heartfelt. I am very proud of you. I know your Dad is. Your grandfather (my dear partner) was and would be proud of you now.

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