To call on all

To commit to no one faith, but call on all: what would this look like on day-to-day practical terms?

With no official place of worship to call home, my spiritual practices will be mostly self-guided. I can dedicate time each day to meditation and prayer, even if just a few minutes here and there. I will try to utter words of thanks more often, especially first thing in the morning and before eating. This should be easier to remember when I witness something unique like a rainbow or if I travel someplace new or see something I’ve never seen before.

Annual holidays can provide some structure to my ad-hoc multi-faith endeavors. I can imagine participating—in my own way—in the Jewish high holidays of Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah. When the days shorten and the weather gets chilly, I’ll know to review the previous year. I’ll conduct an honest accounting of my behavior, my relationships, how I opted to spend my time. I will make amends, challenge myself to do better, and then release the guilt.

As winter trudges forth, I can take some extra time to think about Jesus. I want to remember his example, the care he showed others, the unconditional love he demonstrated. When the days get short, it shouldn’t be too much of a stretch for me to reflect on his death. Such reflections are likely to put me in a somber frame of mind as they will bring up thoughts of my own mortality, but I can look forward to the hopefulness of Easter. This, combined with the triumph of Passover, should rescue me from despair. In the end, life and freedom prevail.

I don’t believe I’ll ever live through another Ramadan without being transported back to my own experience. As I write today, it is several days into the next year’s Ramadan and even though I am not officially fasting, I can feel the loneliness of my remembered hunger and thirst so acutely it brings tears to my eyes. I can’t help but think of everyone around the world abstaining during daylight hours—so much so that it’s as if I am participating on some level, emotionally if not physically. I feel solidarity with the intent of the fast and with the people for whom going without is not a choice, an affinity that I hope will expand when my multi-faith calendar swings back around to Eid Al-Adha. From now on, when I see this date on my At-A-Glance planner, I’ll think about that day at the Dallas convention center and remember that the world’s most populous belief systems share common roots, bound to one another in our collective imagination.

But for how long can I practice my solo patchwork religion before my devotion begins to ebb and the finer points fade from memory? Maybe I’ll have a good reason to allow my faith to flag, like my schedule gets super busy. With no community, no accountability, I can see that a day may arrive when I fail to take the time. The connections I’ve fostered with my religious endeavors are far-reaching, but they are theoretical. I don’t have to come face-to-face with another living soul to practice my faith. Wouldn’t some actual companionship on this path do me some good, especially as I get older? Some Nones have committed to a place of worship, perhaps even attend regularly, but continue to pledge no allegiance to a particular religion. These Nones appear to have found a balance that doesn’t force loyalties but meets practical needs.

A friend asked recently what I thought my future held, faithfully speaking. I joked that I could continue to make the rounds to various places of worship, A-to-Z, over and over again, circling back so many times that people begin to recognize me, perhaps even welcome me—not as a potential convert, but for the None I choose to be. It’s a daydream that makes me happy. By showing up at the doorsteps of the different houses of worship, hat in hand, I draw the boundaries of my spiritual identity ever larger; it’s not just a single dwelling, but an entire town, a community both more real and bigger than I ever could have hoped. Perhaps some congregations would come to appreciate me as a little tie that helps connect them to a grander network of worshippers. But how realistic is this vision, really? Could it possibly provide the intimate connections and structure I’ll crave, especially as I age? As I tip toe into my golden years, and all the existential issues become more pressing, will my slap-dash independence continue to accommodate me? If not, what then?

Hour of None

Early Christians had a custom of dividing up the day into four blocks of about three hours, each with its own mood and prayers to say. It was actually a practice that historians say was adopted from Judaism as a way to structure and honor the passage of time. I was surprised to see the third portion of the day referred to as the “Hour of None.”

The None in this instance was derived from the word “nine,” referring to the ninth hour of the day, which generally fell at about three in the afternoon and led into evening. But what I found most interesting was how this particular chunk of time was characterized. It was considered the portion of the day when businesses closed for the night and people returned home to bathe and eat. It offered both a break from work and a transition before the last prayers; it played the role of sort of spiritual exhalation. I wondered about the synchronicity of the names—if, culturally speaking, we aren’t in our own “Hour of None.” Perhaps we’ve entered something of a pause, a retreat from the normal course of things, an opportunity to reflect and prepare for what comes next.

If we have arrived at such a time, this “time off,” then I have the opportunity to consider what to bundle up and smuggle with me into whatever phase awaits. From Judaism I’ll take monotheism, which I’ve come to appreciate as the birthplace of the radical notion that all beings on this planet—human and otherwise—originate from the same source and are, therefore, intrinsically connected. I want to remember the intent of Sabbath—a designated time to surrender productivity and allow myself to relish the freedom of simply being. I must not forget to take a moment or two each day to focus my thoughts once again on how miraculous it is to be alive, perhaps letting a simple but amazing sight—a cloud formation or a fragrant bloom or a loved one’s smile—trigger the thought. I would like to keep the Jewish custom of keeping the word “dayenu” on the tip of my tongue, letting it tumble out in those moments when I am suddenly overwhelmed with appreciation or, perhaps more importantly, urging myself to say it when I feel slighted or cheated or preoccupied with someone who appears to have it better. Dayenu! I have everything I need—more than enough. I only need tap a deep well of gratitude.

I refuse to go forward without the story of Jesus tucked close to my heart. Here was a free-thinking rebel of his day who broke with tradition so he could best demonstrate his love and care for others. He lives on as a powerful example: all that is noble and good can exist in a person, the divine can be embodied, we are capable of greater heights of love—for ourselves and others. I can’t not think of the way he died, how exposed he was on that cross; how he literally shared his death with the world, demonstrating that strength is possible even in our most vulnerable moments—maybe especially at those times. Even in my darkest hours, I can rest assured that I am loved because I am not exempt from that most personal message Jesus sent to every single person: I love you. But I must strive with all my might to complete the assignment he left humanity. He was quite clear that we are to experience joy and to love others, two things that one might assume are easy but are perhaps the greatest challenges any of us face.

From Buddhism, I’ll borrow the daily practice of sensing “the oneness” to which monotheism points. It shows me how to go beyond recognizing my interconnectedness as an intellectual concept to feeling the truth of it with every fiber of my being. I want to occupy that space of knowing for as often and long as possible, and when I forget I want to find my way back, because great comfort is found there. I can cultivate this sense of wellbeing and then I can turn around and share it, projecting it out into the world where it will manifest in ways too mysterious for my mind to comprehend.

If Buddhism helps me nurture a sense of belonging by focusing inward, then Islam encourages me to fix my gaze outward and translate this unity into a sense of duty. It urges me to assume a position—on knees, forehead to the ground—conducive to embracing my own vulnerability so that I am better able to empathize with people in need. Ultimately, it would have me transform empathy into action, finding concrete ways to help society’s weakest members. Then, as further challenge, it nudges me to expand the collective to which I identify. It wants me to push beyond the obvious affinities such as nationality, race, socio-economic status, gender, or religious affiliation to ever-widening circles of humanity. Perhaps, at last, I can arrive to place where I feel beholden to every living creature and the earth itself.

What am I?

After my trip to D.C., I was officially finished with my religious explorations. From the initial visit to the Catholic monastery on an island off Washington State to jummah prayers at the Pentagon Chapel, it had taken roughly four years. I had sung, chanted, meditated, and prostrated along with thousands of others. At times, I had felt painfully nervous or confused or left out. Other moments brought unexpected calm, clarity, and connection. I had interacted with people whose lives were utterly unlike my own. I had formed genuine bonds with a few. I was different from the young woman who had started this endeavor—and not just because I crossed the threshold of age 40 while chipping away at it.

I had put in all this information and now it was my soul’s turn to do its mysterious calculations and spit out an answer. Shouldn’t it work like that? What was I?

My spiritual house had been spiraling around in this strange cyclone for years. Now, presumably, the winds were dying down and it was time for it to land…but where? I kept asking myself: what do you believe? As I was cooking dinner or walking the dogs or waking up first thing in the morning: what do you believe? Then I would take another approach. Just pick one, I would tell myself. Perhaps it wasn’t important what I selected. The goal was to settle in one spot, grow roots, develop, and evolve. I just had to commit to something.

The problem, as I began to see it, was that in selecting one version of one belief system, I was rejecting all the others—or at least that’s how it felt. In my imagination, I would make my choice. I would picture signing some official declaration of faith. Trumpets would sound. I now had license to declare myself a practicing such-and-such. But this scenario always made my stomach turn. My mind would wander to the options I wasn’t picking and I would feel queasy at those potential paths I had refused.

On some fundamental level settling down felt wrong. It occurred to me that perhaps my problem was emblematic of the criticisms regularly hurled at today’s younger generations. Our disengagement is a sign of some critical flaw manifesting in humankind. An aversion to hard work leaves us craving quick fixes. We want all the answers in our palm for no more effort than the light touch of an index finger.  We don’t have the patience for deep thinking. We’re too blasé and easily bored to struggle—especially with the intangible. I weighed these as possible causes of my indecision, but none seemed an appropriate explanation. In fact, it felt like the opposite. I suspected the problem might be too much interest, too much caring.

Nor was my reluctance to pick tied to a newly-discovered distaste for religion. On the contrary, I had found pockets of profound insight tucked within each faith. How was I to choose? In becoming a Christian, I could not be a Jew. In Judaism, I was not Muslim. In being Muslim, I gave up Buddhism. I had reached this strange crossroads where not picking among the religions felt like the best way to honor the religions. My not choosing wasn’t coming from a place of denial but, rather, a place of acceptance. And, if I chose no affiliation, wasn’t I also—in a funny way—opting for all of them? It made me think of the symbol of the open circle, so important in mystical traditions like Kabbalah. Represented in everyday parlance as a zero, it implies absence—but, at the same time, it is also suggests receptivity.

All Saints

Inside the Pentagon, we finally arrived at the Office of the Chaplain directly across the hall from the Pentagon Chapel. My escort introduced me to the head chaplain, a friendly Protestant minister, whose job is to oversee the spiritual needs of Pentagon employees. Each branch of the military also has a head chaplain who leads a squadron of chaplains that provide spiritual guidance to troops in the field. One of the deputies from the Chaplain’s office agreed to take charge of me, so my original escort handed responsibility for me over and said he’d come back later. I thanked him and bade him farewell.

My new escort asked if I was ready. I didn’t know for what—but I said I was. We set off again, walking briskly up and down more hallways. As we went, he explained that today’s Catholic service would be especially large and would take place in an auditorium, not the chapel. I tried to hide my disappointment. I thought wouldn’t that be something to have made it this far and fail to even lay eyes on the Pentagon Chapel.

By the time we got to the auditorium, almost every seat was filled. The Pentagon is said to have roughly 30,000 employees; several hundred had come to honor the individuals throughout history who, according to the Catholic Church, represent the highest embodiment of the Christian faith. The front of the room was transformed into a make-shift altar: a priest in robes, candles, a table set with a chalice. This space was not really a church and the people present weren’t congregants in the traditional sense—presumably they were tithe-paying members elsewhere—yet it was as authentic a place of worship as any I had visited. I marveled at the distance I had come that elements of the ceremony could feel familiar to me: calls and responses, readings from the Bible, communion. I remember agonizing in the beginning over whether to partake in the sacrament. Today, I didn’t hesitate. I believed I could approach it with the understanding and intention it deserved. I had earned my stripes.

The service concluded and my escort introduced me to the priest. A fresh haircut made him look as bare as a new recruit. He agreed to speak with me and my escort gave him the job of returning me to the office; I was a baton in a chaplain relay.

We sat in the now-empty auditorium and he told me about his years ministering on the front lines in the Middle East. He explained that “ministering” in the military was not necessarily what it sounded like. His job wasn’t to preach his beliefs to soldiers, but to support their spiritual needs regardless of their religious identifications. Within every large group of soldiers, a spectrum of affiliations might be represented including Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, and Atheists—not to mention the variations within those categories. Given certain constraints—particularly those in war—only one chaplain may be available for all those soldiers. So the situation is likely to arise that a Christian chaplain will make sure that Jewish soldiers have the necessary accommodations to celebrate Passover or that Buddhists soldiers have time to meditate or that Muslim soldiers are given a chance to perform daily prayers or that an Atheist soldier be permitted to avoid it all. In one particularly memorable instance, the Catholic priest explained, he had even ministered to a soldier who identified as Wiccan.

The Pentagon

In the months of communicating with various individuals within the Department of Defense, a specific mental picture had taken shape in my imagination: it was of me participating in Jummah prayers at the Pentagon Chapel. I couldn’t shake the thought, even as I recognized that almost nothing in this journey had played out as I envisioned it. Instead, some variation or twist I hadn’t seen coming unfolded, and I would come to accept the discrepancy even when it struck me initially as a disappoint—like in the very beginning when I ordered my tome on Martin Luther, only to receive a children’s book. I had learned to maintain as light a grip on my expectations as possible. But this particular hope—that I could perform Jummah at the Pentagon—refused to be dismissed. For this reason, I feared a dramatic deviation. I thought even if I managed to get through security and my escort showed up, then something else would go wrong: services would be cancelled or, if not that, I wouldn’t be invited to witness them much less participate.

Cautiously optimistic, if a little nervous, I approached the first check point at the Pentagon. The man scrutinized my IDs and then turned his laser focus on me. He asked the purpose of my visit. I explained and he let me through. I waited again for the next probe—this one by x-ray machine. Once again I passed muster. I was permitted to leave the little security building and make my way through the entrance to the actual Pentagon. Just beyond the doors, I came to a large waiting area that had yet another counter, this one offering the final clearance once a visitor had been united with his or her escort. My contact had explained that he would meet me here.

I joined dozens of other individuals sitting in the chairs provided. I thought, perhaps, this was as far as I would make it; in fact, I was surprised to have made it this far. I took in all the details. The people waiting appeared to be others like me with meetings or perhaps some were family members of an employee who had come for lunch or an event. We sat adjacent to a small gift shop. Some of the items on sale included Pentagon-shaped refrigerator magnets and ball caps with military logos and pink camouflage t-shirts for the ladies. The mood in the room felt light, almost festive. I had to remind myself I was standing in what was probably the planet’s most powerful killing command center. Lest anyone forget, a huge emblem on the wall reminded us of our location.

I was genuinely shocked when my Pentagon escort showed up not just on time but several minutes early. He was a smiley guy who laughed between sentences. We made our way to the last counter. He vouched for me and they took my picture for a computer-printed badge that I attached to the collar of my jacket. We went through one last checkpoint and then I was officially inside.

We began to walk and only then did I get a first-hand sense of the enormity of the Pentagon. We walked up corridors lined with offices and down corridors lined with offices. We strode passed cafeterias, a drug store, and even a florist. We came to a big open atrium that was like a busy intersection with pedestrians going this way and that. We kept going. Even when I thought our destination must be just around the corner, we had further still to go. Now I saw that an escort was not just a security precaution, but a navigational necessity.

Clearance

When I was almost finished with the Dallas portion of my trip, my email request to the Pentagon was still traveling in circles. I tried to imagine what being denied access to the Pentagon was meant to teach me. Certainly, it was a powerful statement about religion and war. I understood that many people use religion as a means to create divisions between themselves and others, but I had come to see that the absence of such divisions was the one truth to which each religion pointed. The very notion of an “us versus them”—of enemies—is unity’s opposite. What could be more emblematic of enemies than the Pentagon? As if to confirm this point, the building itself would not open to my inquiries. Maybe I would go, shake my fist at the Pentagon, and be done with it.

I was reaching a place of gratitude for being given this powerful message when the email arrived: I had been granted clearance to visit the Pentagon Chapel.

The person who contacted me with news that my request had been approved was a military spokesman who said he would be my escort. We settled on my first Friday in D.C. as the ideal date. He said that would allow me to sit in for a Catholic service in honor of All Saint’s Day and the afternoon Islamic Jummah Prayers. He told me to allow an extra hour to make my way through security.

In all my years of using the Metro system when I lived and worked in D.C., I had never once disembarked at the Pentagon. On several occasions, I passed that station and went on to the Pentagon City stop, which leads to a shopping mall. But the Pentagon stop had only the military complex above it with nothing but parking lots and freeways beyond. There was no draw for anyone not associated with armed forces. When I was riding that line, I always wondered about the passengers who got off there, many of whom wore crisp military uniforms. Perhaps they had just flown in from front lines or lonely outposts to make reports to higher-ups. Their fresh-scrubbed facades seemed to invite speculation. What sorrows sights did those stern expressions conceal?

Now I was joining them. As I exited the subway train, I could sense fellow passengers wondering about me. What was I doing getting off here? I was not dressed the part: neither military nor typical Washington business attire. I had debated whether to revert to my old pantsuit style for the occasion, but decided against it. I had entered a new chapter, so I opted for clothes appropriate to the present. I dressed as I had for the more traditional religious services on this journey, with a patterned skirt to my ankles and a long sleeve jacket. I was at once too conservative and too casual to fit in.

The Metro exit deposited me above ground just feet from one of the Pentagon’s outer walls, too close to gain a sense of the building’s size or shape. From this perspective, it looked like any other government building: pale stone adorned with decorative flourishes. I followed signs for visitors, which led to a small structure near one of the main entrances. Inside, a line snaked back and forth, feeding into various checkpoints.

Even as I inched forward with everyone else, I maintained my doubts. I was convinced something would go wrong. I worried that the forms of identification I brought would prove insufficient or my spokesman/escort would fail to meet me.

Jihad

I pictured the Pentagon and me standing near it. I formed this mental image before I even began making my way through Islam, and it grew clearer the further I got. I knew that the building’s gaping hole from 9/11 had been patched up and a memorial to the victims had been built. I thought I needed to see these things with my own eyes and that somehow the proximity would help me work through lingering issues. Time and experience had given me a new perspective on certain terms that I once found troubling. In the aftermath of 9/11, I heard people say that the word “Islam” itself means “to submit,” implying that the faith is designed to make servants of us all—perhaps with Muslims as our overlords. Now I understood differently. I saw that the submission in question wasn’t vis-à-vis another person, but something entirely private: a shift in perspective. Islam would have me remember that we are pieces of a vast creation, not the creation itself.

I hoped for a similar realization about the word “jihad.” It translated roughly as “holy war,” but I had heard two interpretations. The first, the “greater jihad,” is an inner struggle. I understood this as the effort each of us must put forth to make peace with the human condition—the “one-two punch” of life: granted and revoked. Exertion of this kind tends to grow one’s capacity to contribute to the greater good. But I’d also heard jihad used to refer to “violence waged on behalf of Islam.” Perhaps this was the “lesser” of the two jihads, but it certainly garnered more media attention; in the news, Muslim terrorists are often called “Jihadists.” I wanted this second version to be a misinterpretation, the result of twisted logic used to justify a selfish agenda.

While digging around for information on the Pentagon’s 9/11 memorial, I happened upon an article about the multi-faith chapel that had been constructed when the building was repaired. Apparently, the Pentagon has accommodated a variety of religious services for many years, but never before had a space been specially designated for the purpose. Now the location had been chosen by the nose of an airplane commandeered in the name of religion; the chapel itself was presumably a peaceful pocket within a giant monument to war. The juxtapositions were striking. I knew immediately that I needed to attempt to visit the chapel. Perhaps being there would help me make sense of it. But what were the chances I would be allowed in? Unlike most other places of worship, this one is not open to the public. It’s for Pentagon employees, military personnel, and those granted special authorization.

Several weeks after Ramadan, I sent my first email message to the Pentagon. I had no special contacts. On the Department of Defense website, I found the email address to the Communications Department. I sent my note to “whom it may concern.” Briefly, I explained my situation: I had been a D.C.-based employee for the federal government on September 11, 2001; I was now a writer exploring religion; I hoped to be given permission to visit the Pentagon Chapel. For more than a month, my request bounced around. Public Relations forwarded it to the Office of the Chaplain. Each new contact scooted me along. When my plea came back to the original Communications Department, I had to admit that my chances did not look good. I started again at the beginning, realizing my appeal may never reach a person who could give me the official green light.

So I made my travel plans anyway: Dallas to Austin to D.C. At the very least I’d see that the Pentagon building had been sealed back up and I’d walk around the memorial that looked from pictures like an outdoor sculpture garden. That had been the plan before I knew of the chapel. I told myself it would be okay if my request was denied, that whatever happened was meant to be. The story is that which occurs, after all. You can do your best to sway an outcome, but forces greater than oneself are at play; individual and collective karmas bump and swirl. The future unfolds with a message that might not be easy or fair. I was learning from religion itself: faith is greeting even the most unwelcome events with a level of acceptance.

Dhikr

I arrived at the appointed time. The Sufi Center was in a tidy little building near a school that was quiet on a Sunday. The area would have been free from all noise if not for a flock of black birds cawing loudly in the trees. I had learned online that today’s dhikr would be of the vocal variety. The description said we would be joining our hearts, souls, and voices in an ancient Sufi chanting practice.

Inside, the woman I had spoken with on the phone greeted me. Thin and tall, her blond hair was parted in the middle to let her face through. She had two names: the American one her parents had given her and the one she had given herself as an adult, Hayati, which means “life” in Arabic. Hayati explained that first we’d complete the evening prayers and then she would lead the group in repeating names of God. I knew that in Islam Allah is said to have 99 names, some known and some hidden. Each is a noun or an adjective (like “Nourisher” or “All-Wise”) that might help a person conceive of the attributes of God. Would we run through the entire list or pick a few? Whatever the case, I planned to just go with it.

More people arrived. They looked to me like a small cross-section of average middle-aged Austinites: open-minded creative-types. Maybe they had once been dope-smoking youths, but that was a phase on a long path of soul searching, the twists and turns of which had somehow landed them here. We gathered in a large room that appeared to take up the majority of the building. It had few furnishings and a beautiful woven rug covered all but the perimeter. Hayati retrieved a small stack of prayer rugs from a closet. I followed her lead, helping her spread them across the larger rug diagonally to face Mecca. The worshippers arranged themselves with men in front. The women pulled scarves out of their bags or lifted them from around their shoulders and draped them over their heads. I grabbed the one I had brought just in case. I was surprised at how conventional this seemed. One of the men played the part of the imam, reciting passages in Arabic. We went through the evening prayers just as we would have in a typical mosque.

After the prayers, we gathered into a circle. Hayati whispered to me that she had selected three names of God. We would focus on one at a time and I should follow her lead. She began. I think she was saying “Allah” but it sounded like “Ya…a…la,” each syllable a burst of breath from her belly. Soon the others joined her. Their eyes were shut tight, and they swayed back and forth. Together, their voices sounded like a train leaving the station, “Ya…a…la…Ya…a…la…Ya…a…la…” I was embarrassed, but I didn’t know what else to do. I closed my eyes and swayed. I was The Little Engine That Could chugging up a hill.

Hayati changed our chant to “Eh…la…la.” Around and around we went with these new sounds, each an exhalation. Time was not ticking at a steady pace. The bright dots against my eye lids formed patterns that shimmied with my breath. Our chant morphed again. “Hey…coo-a…la.” This one sounded hilarious and I wanted to laugh. It made no sense what we were doing. How was this different from the Pentecostal practice of speaking in tongues? Our mouths were making sounds our minds didn’t recognize. Then it was like Muhammad whispering across generations, telling me to just go with it. Hey…coo-a…la. Surrender. Hey…coo-a…la. Make peace with the bigger picture. Hey…coo-a…la. You are not in charge. The patterns behind my lids exploded into chaos, a million points of light shooting in all directions; the entire universe in my eyes.

A sharp blade

After lunch, Abdul prepared to leave. He had a date with a sharp blade and the throats of two goats. He explained that a farm about an hour’s drive offered this service for Muslims in the region. For Eid, its machinery was cleaned under the supervision of an imam. Abdul could select his animals and personally slit their throat, which allowed him adherence to some of the ritual’s finer details: he would make sure his knife’s tip faced Mecca and he would not turn away from the sight of the animal’s blood. I was relieved not to have to witness the slaughtering. Abdul would do it on our behalf.

The resulting meat would be divided into thirds, Abdul told me. Most importantly, one-third of it would be given to a family that lived on a limited income—a transaction arranged informally through the mosque. His family members would eat one portion and they would share the final portion with friends, most likely preparing it themselves and inviting friends over to partake. I learned that while it is important that the slaughter occur on the Eid, the guidelines about consumption are looser and the meat might stay in the freezer for weeks.

Once her father was gone, Salma asked if I would be willing to speak with her privately. We sat together on the sofa in the family room off the kitchen. She said she had waited for her father to leave because she didn’t want to be disrespectful, but she wanted me to know that she did not necessarily agree 100 percent with his interpretation of what it meant to be a faithful Muslim. Take, for example, the practice of women wearing hijab. “My father believes women should wear a scarf any time they leave their own homes,” she told me, “Whereas my mother and I think differently.” She explained that she and her mother interpret the Quran’s passages on the matter more loosely; they read them as referring specifically to Muhammad’s wives whose coverings were a show of discretion around the steady stream of foreign dignitaries and others visiting their house. Salma explained that she and her mom cover their heads while in the mosque but for busy days at the office or school, they opt to leave the hijab at home.

I nodded as Salma spoke. I understood that not all Muslims see eye to eye despite efforts to reach agreement on even the finest points. After Muhammad’s death, his closest companions tried to ensure consistency by recording in writings called hadiths the wisdom the Prophet had imparted through his daily habits and personal opinions. Gathered into a volume called the “Sunnah,” this information serves as a supplement to the Quran and practical guide; it’s also the inspiration for the name “Sunni.”

But even with these sources, many topics were never mentioned by Muhammad or his confidantes—leaving shades of grey on issues as minor as nail polish. My first night at the mosque back home, my Egyptian acquaintance, Mandisa, caught sight of my painted toe nails and explained to me that polish is not allowed in Islam because it acts as a barrier to water during pre-prayer washing. That same night, as I was performing my first-ever communal rakahs, I noticed that the woman next to me had a pedicure. I was confused. In my reading, I had seen nothing about nail polish; I wanted to get it right before unleashing my bare feet at other mosques. One book had mentioned a hotline available in the U.S.—1-800-Fatwa—for obtaining rulings by contemporary experts on topics such as these. I dialed the number, but it was no longer dedicated to this purpose. Instead, I got a recording about a sweepstakes for a free Caribbean cruise. I decided to err on the side of caution and strip my toe nails bare.

Raj’s family

We made our way to an upscale subdivision filled with identical-looking brick homes. Theirs was at the end of a cul-de-sac, the front door dwarfed by the impressive façade. I parked on the street while Raj stood in the driveway waiting for me. He reminded me of my grandpa who was always affectionate with me, though I doubted my grandpa would have been as tender with a stranger as Raj was with me. Raj ushered me through the entrance in the garage that led directly to the kitchen.

Inside, the food was ready and the table was set. They insisted I take the head, facing the big picture window looking out to the yard. Through bits and pieces, I had learned that Raj was a retired engineer who dabbled in writing. He and his wife had lived in Texas for close to 40 years. Now he beamed with pride as his daughter explained that she and her husband, Abdul, were both doctors. To top it off, his granddaughter, Salma, was currently in medical school. I thought about how envious my grandmother would be—she had waged a many-decades long campaign to convince someone in the family to become a doctor but not one of her children or grandchildren had been swayed. Here, Raj and his wife were outnumbered by doctors.

Abdul asked what had brought me to their mosque and Raj said, yes, please tell us. They knew I was learning Islam, so I figured they wanted a longer version. As we ate, I gave it to them. I started at the beginning and explained everything. I had grown up with no religion. I got older and grew curious. Then I moved to a small town and began by going to churches. I worked my way through Christianity, Judaism, and Buddhism. It had taken several years, but I had finally made it to Islam. At home, I had done what I could to educate myself. Then I came to Dallas to visit my grandma and worship at mosques.

They nodded, but looked confused. I could see them trying to make sense of it. They wanted to know how my experiment would end, where exactly I would land. I didn’t know what else to tell them. I was trying to make sense of it too.

Abdul, especially, seemed baffled. He asked if I knew the pillars of Islam. I said them out loud, counting on my fingers: daily prayers, Ramadan, zakat (giving to charity), monotheism. That was four. What was the last? “Shahada,” Abdul said. Of course. The shahada, the statement of faith. He asked if I knew the Islamic view of Jesus. Yes, I answered, he is greatly respected and considered a prophet, similar to Muhammad.

I could sense the question—Did I intend to become Muslim?—on the tip of his tongue. Instead, he switched his approach. “You should become Muslim as soon as possible,” he said. What purpose did learning serve unless I planned to convert? I wasn’t sure he’d understand that, for me, knowledge was having the opposite effect: the more I learned, the less inclined I was to declare myself any one thing. But this hadn’t prevented me from developing a deep appreciation, love even, for the ideas and people I met along the way. I recalled Fatima saying she was eager for me to become a Muslim because then she and I would be sisters. I smiled at the sweetness of the sentiment. I wanted to say, “I hope we can be sisters no matter what.”