THE NEW YORK TIMES — November 20, 2018 — Tuesday is the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday. It’s the 12th of Rabi al-Awwal, the day most Muslims believe he came into the world some 1,400 years ago.
I first met Muhammad in August 1998. I was fresh out of high school in Somers, Conn., and my brother and I made the road trip from Jidda, where he was working for the summer, to Medina to pay our respects at Muhammad’s tomb.
I must have looked ridiculous. I was drowning in elephantine JNCO jeans and carried a backpack with a Pearl Jam patch ironed on. I was probably wearing the boisterous baseball cap of some snowboard manufacturer; I hope I left the wallet chains at home.
I was on my way out of Islam when I made my way with the rush of tens of thousands of pilgrims shuffling from the prayer hall southward toward his tomb. I was headed to atheism. Or Catholicism. I was 18 years old and hadn’t decided which way of life would give me the warmth I felt my faith lacked, and the freedom I believed it denied me.
But I showed up in Medina that summer because I thought I’d give Islam one more chance. I hadn’t expected the moment to mean much to me, because Islam didn’t mean much to me. But there I was, facing the resting place of the prophet, overcome with emotion.
I’d memorized Muhammad’s life story in Sunday school, cramming facts, dates, lineages into my head as if I was preparing for an A.P. exam, a good Muslim like my parents wanted me to be. But it had thus far been so much data — cold, abstract and inhuman.
In Medina I realized I actually believed all the stories about him. That he buried the least loved of his fellow Arabs with his own hands. That he put two of his fingers together and promised that he and the orphan would be that close in the life to come. That he so loved the vulnerable that God loved him in turn.
Sitting facing his tomb, pilgrims pressing against me on every side, I honest to God missed him. I still feel that way today, as absurd as it might sound. He is a living presence in my life.
My connection to him was — and is — peculiarly American. It was initiated by my parents’ piety, inflected by my numerous ailments, was thrown into relief by extremism and today inspires me to help build a United States to which all of us belong.
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