Tuesday, July 01, 2014

My Name Used to Be Muhammad

“I never thought I’d cry when my father died, but I wept like a baby.  I miss him terribly.
What I really miss is what we never had.  I would have spent another fifteen years
in prison in exchange for the opportunity to be close to my father as a boy.
I so badly wanted to please him.  I wanted to hear his praise.  I wanted to kick a soccer ball with him.
I wanted to paint him a picture and have him tell me he liked it.  I wanted to tell him
I met a girl and fell in love.  I wanted to ask him for advice.
I wanted to talk to him about something other than religion.  I wanted him to say something
to make me laugh.  I wanted him to put his hand on my shoulder and tell me about a time
when he made a mistake as a boy.  I wanted to see him miss my mother.
I wanted to be his boy.   Most of all, I wanted him to want me.”

Tito Momen

One of the most fascinating classes I took in college was a comparative religion class.  This was arguably my introduction to Islam.  I had run into some Muslims while on my mission in Russia, but my understanding of their religion was superficial at best.  It was in my world religions (I think that was its actual name) class that I learned more about the religion that claims more adherents than any other on our planet.  Since then, my travels as well as the events that have often taken center stage in the news have increased my knowledge of this fascinating religion.  As a staunch member of my own church, I find conversion stories to be miraculous, inspiring, and simply interesting.  Islam is known — rightly or wrongly is up for debate — for being extremely harsh in dealing with those who turn against it.  Conversions from the strong traditions of Islam to the all-encompassing doctrines of Mormonism are especially interesting from this standpoint.

Tito Momen, in My Name Used to Be Muhammad (ISBN: 978-1-60907-710-5), told just such a story.  His background was one of utmost Islamic piety in northern Nigeria to accepting Jesus Christ as his Savior and embracing the other doctrines and scriptures of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  The journey was an interesting one, often wrought with peril.  Momen’s childhood and teenage years were fairly typical for boys in the area where his family lived.  His father was extremely strict, occasionally abusive, and based everything he did on his religion.  His plan for young Momen involved formal schooling with the ultimate goal of becoming part of the Islamic clergy.  Momen wasn’t entirely opposed to the idea, wishing to please his father and rather enjoying his schooling.  The only thing he didn’t really get was the lack of an outlet for his natural talents and the lack of room in his culture for questioning those in authority.  At a college in Damascus, Syria, he tired of abusive, extremist professors, eventually getting in a physical altercation with one that he despised the most.  While having the potential to be a real disaster, it ended up putting him on a path toward his eventual conversion.  He was able to go to Cairo, Egypt, to continue his schooling.  There, he met a very diverse group of people, including within the faithful Muslim community.  He learned that the northern Nigerian brand of Islam wasn’t the only one, and that many of those people were still good, faithful members of the faith.  He also ran into those who weren’t.  This diverse crowd led him to think a lot about his faith, and while he admits to making some choices that were not becoming of him, his upbringing, or really anyone, the process of change was something very foreign to someone coming from a background of total, blind obedience.  Eventually, he was kicked out of school in Egypt, too, having written an essay questioning Islam.  A French friend had converted to Mormonism in the meantime and introduced Momen to the Church.  After his conversion was complete, there were troubles with some of his former friends and acquaintances who were considering violence as an option for dealing with the apostasy from Islam.  An attempt to leave Egypt on a fake passport landed him in prison, where he languished for fifteen years before miraculously being let out.  Like the conversion story, the story of Tito Momen getting out of prison showed that God loves us, cares about us, and is involved in the details of our lives.

The book was, as I expected, incredibly interesting.  I know relatively little about the part of the world in which these events were set, so learning about them was neat.  Momen’s conversion story was, of course, incredible and displayed an incredible about of faith and humility.  His is one of those stories that makes a person think something like, “If this guy could go through all that he did, of course I can get through my middling problems.”  It’s an inspiring story that held my attention throughout the book.  The only thing I think could’ve been improved on was that his life story was told in decent detail, but maybe there could’ve been a little more detail given to his conversion to Mormonism.  I realize that it’s a deeply personal thing and that the impressions, thoughts, and feelings we have as we seek answers to our earnest prayers are personal and hard to describe.  Still, they are real, and there are events and thoughts associated with them that would be of interest.  It would firmly be rated PG-13 were it a movie, but it all accurately depicts life in North Africa and the Middle East.  I’d recommend the book as one of general human interest and religious interest that I really enjoyed.

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This work, including all text, photographs, and other original work, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial No Derivatives 3.0 License and is copyrighted © MMXIV John Pruess.

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