Dr. Legenhausen: How Islam Came To Me

Written by: Fateme Salehi

Published on: May 20th, 2017

This lecture was given by Dr. Legenhausen at Imam Ali Centre, Toronto. He shares with everyone his journey to embracing Islam and connecting with the Ahlul-Bayt. Dr. Legenhausen holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from Rice University (1983) and was a professor in numerous universities including Texas Southern University and Islamic Iranian Academy of Philosophy.

In the name of God, I am very happy to be with you here again at the Imam Ali Center. I want to thank you first of all for having invited me. I was asked to speak about how I came to Islam or rather how Islam came to me. Among Americans who have become Muslims after having grown up in other traditions, often times we refer to ourselves as reverts to Islam and not as converts, because when we talk to one another, we always find that everybody has a story of some indication in their past of their inclination toward Islam. For example, I met a person whose Christian friend never ate pork. He just intuitively felt that it was not right to eat pork; later on, he converted to Islam.

I converted to Islam about 22 years ago. For the last 15 years, I have been in Iran teaching and studying in Ghom and every summer, I come back to New York to visit my mother. One of summer, I found an old briefcase I had in grade school- this was about the sixth grade. There was a little piece of paper in there, among my medals and report cards, on which I had written in Latin script, not in Arabic, “La Elaha Ella’llah”. This reminded me of when I was a boy studying geography. The textbook mentioned that Muslims believe “La Elaha Ella’llah va Mohammada Rasul ‘ollah (s)”. I remembered that as a boy, I really had liked the sound of the slogan with all the syllables: “La Ellaha Ella’llah.” I forgot about this incidence, until I became a Muslim.

I was brought up Catholic and at the age of 18 or 19 I stopped going to church and didn’t have any religion at all until I finished my MA degree in philosophy at Rice University in Houston, Texas. I then started working on a PhD, and simultaneously taught at Texas Southern University (TSU) in 1979. TSU had a lot of Muslim students, including Iranians. Around that time, I visited a secondhand bookstore in the neighborhood and I found a Quran. As I started looking through, I read that it said decent people go to heaven and bad people get punished. As it seemed curious to me, I began talking to some students. I had an Iranian student with whom I conversed about Islam. I told him that I was interested and curious to find out more about Islam, and he provided me some books and started meeting me in my office; we became friends and after he finished his degree he left. Afterwards, I didn’t hear anything about him.

I still wanted to know more about Islam and I missed the contact with the Muslims, especially the Iranians, so I reread one of the books of Dr. Shariati that he had given me and I put up a poster on campus about a lecture I would give on Dr. Shariati’s views on free will and determinism. Some students attended the lecture, and one in particular said to me, “What right have you to talk about Shariati, when you don’t even know Farsi language and you have only read a few of his books in translation?” After he attacked me very pointedly, we became very good friends and started debating and discussing these issues more often. I also started going to “Jalas’e Quran” that some of Iranians had in Houston. As this was mostly in Farsi, I didn’t understand most of it, but every once in awhile somebody would sit next to me and explain. Further, I started going to an Islamic center. During this time, I was merely interested and had no idea and no intention of becoming a Muslim. In fact, once, during this period, at an Islamic center in Houston, a prayer leader asked to see me after the Friday prayer. When I went to see him, he said, “I see you coming here every once in a while and I wanted to know how you became Muslim.” And I replied, “oh, I am not a Muslim and I will never be a Muslim.” “Well, why?” he asked me, “I see you coming and you pray with us.” I said, “I have learnt the prayers and do like them, but I don’t want to be a Muslim.” “Why not?” he asked me, and I told him, “because, I’ve read from Imam Ali (a) about what it means to be a Muslim. Imam Ali (a) said to be a Muslim is to be a person who doesn’t defame others. It’s a person who puts the interests of his brothers ahead of his own. It’s a person who doesn’t lie. It’s a person who is always willing to help.” I said, “I am not like that, so I cannot be a Muslim. I’m not good enough to be a Muslim.” He told me, “listen, we all have these problems, but we have an ideal; we are trying to be real Muslims.” It wasn’t very much longer after that, when once, as I was in the parking lot of the Mosque after the Friday prayers, a few American Muslims came to me and said, “We see you coming here and praying with us. We don’t know you and we wanted to know how you became Muslim. You are a Muslim of course?” While the other ones told him, “don’t say that! Of course he is Muslim! I saw him say prayers with us.” Following this incident, I thought about it, and I asked myself what I could do.

“Ash’hado’alla’ellaha’ella’llah va Ash’hado ‘anna mohammada’ rasulo’l-lah (s).” That is how I became Muslim.

Later on, I found out that the first Iranian with whom I had conversations about Islam, the one who had graduated and whom I hadn’t seen again, had gone back to Iran to the front lines in the war; he was martyred in the war with Iraq. Therefore, wheneverI speak about him, I always request those who are listening to recite one Fatehah for Akbar Maleki Nojdehi.

When I was thinking about becoming Muslim, it was challenging for me given the background in philosophy that I had, and also having been a nonbeliever for about ten years, I had a difficult time with the concept of God. Believing in God was not easy for me at all.

However, I really liked Amiro’l’momenin, Imam Ali (a). I thought that his personality and the kind of stand that he took for justice were really appealing and admirable; so admirable that if Ali (a) said Islam is a good religion, it has got to be a good religion. Also, if he said that there is a God, than there must be a God. Hence, even though I came from a philosophical background, I did not come to believe in God by any of the proofs of the philosophers, at least not the ones I had studied in the university. Rather, it was much more the idea that following and being a follower of Imam Ali (a) is a really excellent thing to be. However, a condition for that was the belief in God, and therefore, there must be a God. That was the type of reasoning I was going through.

There is a Hadith saying that every prophet had a Vasi (an executor) – the word Vasi is translated in English as Executor-and the Executor of Moses was Harun and the Executor of Jesus (a) was Simon Peter (who in Arabic, they call Sham’un), and the Executor of Mohammad (s) was Ali (a). And this connection between Peter and Ali struck me as something very fascinating. In the Bible, where Peter is called Simon, Jesus says to him, “Simon, you are Peter, meaning rock, and upon this rock, I will build my church.” The Greek word that is translated as church is Ecclesia. The root meaning of Ecclesia is those who are called together, those who are called out. As a result, the church consists of those who are called out as followers of Jesus. Similarly, we are the Shia of Ali; we are also those who are called out to follow Ali. I find this connection in the Hadith, between the idea of a church or an Ecclesia and being a Shia.

When I first came to Ghom about 15 years ago, I was asked to teach Christianity which wasn’t something I sought, since I had left Christianity years ago and I didn’t really have any interest in reviewing Christian doctrine. However, the students told me that they were really fascinated. Some of the professors also said that since I had experience and had spent a large part of my life as a Christian, they would like to learn from me. Accordingly, I started teaching Christianity and in doing so, I acquired a better appreciation of Christianity and who Jesus (a) was, than I ever had when I was a Christian. I feel like I understand Christianity better as a Muslim than I could as a Christian. Also, the Holly Quran says, “Address the people of the book and say, ‘Oh people of the book! Let us come to a common word between us and between you, that there is no God but God, and we will not take man as Lord above us.'” I take it to be an injunction and obligation of this faith, and obligation of what it means to be Shi’a, of those called on to follow Ali, to try to find this common word; because as a Shi’a, I want to follow the example as best as I can of how Ali lived and behaved.

Approximately in 1905, in one of the monasteries in Armenia a text was found allegedly written by Imam Ali (s) in Kufi script; the scholars did their best to verify its authenticity, and there is no reason to doubt its validity. This was a letter from Ali during his Khalifeh to Christians in his realm saying, “I come to you in peace and I hereby, command that all Muslims will allow you to live in peace, and will allow you to take up any occupation you want to take up. I will allow you to build your churches, and to preach.” I do not know of any other religion in which there is so much respect given to another religion explicitly, as the respect shown in Islam for the Ahle Ketab (People of the Book). It’s an obligation for us as Shia to show the same sort of respect.

In Ghom, a couple of years ago when we had some Christian guests from the Mennonite Denomination of Christianity, I was invited with other gentlemen for Iftar in Ramadan. Even after having spent so many years in Iran, my Farsi was not still so good, so I did not understand that the invitation was just for gentlemen, and thought that the invitation was for the whole family. So we went to the house with my family with me and host who had invited us looked surprised when he saw my wife and another lady, but he was very gracious about it and promptly called his wife, asking her to prepare a Sofreh for them in another room. The lady later told me an incidence.

When they had gone to the other room with the hostess, the hostess had thought that the Christian lady was a Muslim and she had said to her, “Well, how did you become Muslim?”

And the Christian lady had told her, “I am Christian, not a Muslim.”

The hostess had said, surprised, “Oh, what are you doing in Ghom?”

The Christian lady had replied that she had wanted to study more about Islam.

The hostess had then pressed on with questions about the kind of Christianity, and once being told that the guest was a Mennonite, she had asked about beliefs and religious practices of Mennonites. As a result, the Christian lady had been so flustered that she didn’t know what to say.

My wife, who is an Iranian-Muslim, had told to the hostess, “The Mennonites are very good Christians and they are very close in their sense of piety to us. They believe in caring for those who are less fortunate than we are, and they believe in peace, just like we believe in peace, and they have many martyrs who have died for their faith, just like we have many martyrs who have died for our faith.”

The Christian lady told me, “I was astounded that a Muslim woman could introduce my belief better than I could and I thought to myself, would there ever be a case in which a Christian would describe Islam in such laudatory terms, and as being such a praiseworthy belief system?”

She continued, “What I learned from that encounter from Muslims was that we should respect and defend the dignity of one anther’s belief.” That event was so significant to her that she wrote about it in a Mennonite newsletter circulating among all the Mennonites in North America, and many people wrote to her and were very much impressed.

I have been in New York now visiting my mother and I had the occasion to speak at the Imam Ali Centre in Queens New York and at another centre in New Jersey. In all my visits, I have urged the Muslims audience to reach out to Christians and I would like to do the same tonight. I urge you to visit a church, introduce yourself as a Muslim, and tell people what you believe. At times, you will be insulted or told that you are going to hell. I have had that happen to me before. Once, in an airplane, the gentleman next to me saw me reading a book on philosophy of religion. He asked me, “You are reading something about religion. What is your religion?” I told him that I was a Muslim, Alhamdo’liellah, and he replied that I would go to hell. “What makes you so sure?” I asked him. “Well, you don’t believe in Jesus,” he answered. I told him that I did believe in Jesus (PBUH) and as a matter of fact all Muslims believe in Jesus (PBUH). However, he said, “no, you don’t believe in Jesus as your personal savior.” Although I went on to tell him that I believed in all the prophets as my personal savior without any exception, by the end of the flight he was still unconvinced. He still, even as we were getting off the plane told me I was going to hell. I told him that I didn’t believe it was necessary that he should go to hell, and that God judges who goes to hell and who goes to heaven, and also that I would pray that

he would not go to hell. Apart of a verse of an Ayeh of Quran says, “Turn back evil, by means of goodness.” When you are insulted, when people say nasty things about you, such as terrorist, unpatriotic, no-good foreigner, turn back the evil with goodness. It is indeed difficult, and this is the reason I initially did not want to be Muslim, and had told the prayer leader in the mosque, “I cannot do this. It’s challenging.” However, I became a Muslim because I liked Ali (a), then through Ali, I became acquainted with Mohammad (s); and through him, God.

Once I was in Iran in a dormitory and one of the students asked me, “to be a Muslim you have a lot of rules and it’s hard. Don’t you ever think that you made a mistake and you would have a much easier life if you hadn’t become a Muslim?” I started kidding around with the students, “what do you think? If only I could go back to being evil!” Just then, at that very moment, a piece of the ceiling fell down, right in front of the desk that I was sitting at. “God, I am sorry! I was only kidding! I am not going back!” I said.

Some of our friends here are planning to start a new committee called Mennonite Shia Peace and Justice Committee. This committee will meet once a month with interested people from your community and the Mennonite community here in Toronto. The meetings will take place every month, at the Imam Ali Centre and in a Mennonite church in alternating months. Issues of peace and justice will be discussed, and hopefully, to be able to come to and agreement about practical steps to be taken in that regard. I advise you and encourage you to contact Dr. Seyed Mohammad Kazem Mesbah Moosavi for more information about planning and time and scheduling of those meetings of the Mennonite-Shia Peace and Justice Committee.

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