Prior to 9/11, I had been searching for the “truth”, meaning the proper way to worship God. I grew up in
a Catholic home, served as an alter-boy, attended Catholic school, and studied a good portion of the Bible in my youth. I always believed in God no matter what stage of my life I was in; be it my Catholic school boy years, my brief dabble at Christianity, my quest for knowledge of Buddhism, Hinduism, and other “isms”, or my research of Darwinism and the Theory of Evolution.
Throughout my days prior to 9/11, I felt like I experienced enough of all faiths and ideologies and came to a conclusion that there was a God or a Supreme-Being, but the question that I always asked myself was how do I come closer to Him, how do I worship Him, and how to do I make sense of all the faiths that exist in the world. This was my state-of-mind prior to 9/11. Up to this point I never heard about Islam. It amazes me, when I reflect on my youth, that I did have Muslim friends growing up like Hasan, Mahmood, or Tamir, but I never knew they were Muslim or what Islam was.
It wasn’t until 1999 when I first started to learn about Islam and Muslims during my college years at Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey. I met a Muslim by the name of Ahmer Siddique who is one of my greatest friends to this day. In the hallway right before we were supposed to take a Chemistry exam I panicked because I felt unprepared and wondered, “how I will get out of this one?” I suddenly overheard Ahmer talking about how he knew what was on the test, so I asked him to help me even though he never met me. Not only did he have the answers to the test that day, but he also had the answers to life, as well.
I befriended Ahmer and we became very close that semester. We’d hang out with other common friends and discuss current events, political issues, social issues, and of course religious issues. Being that I had a Catholic background, I challenged him with questions on the trinity, the belief of Jesus as God and the son of God, the belief in Mary, signs of the Day of Judgment, along with other controversial topics. They were questions common to me from asking priests and ministers years before only to realize they didn’t have a clear answer, rather their answers increased my confusion and decreased my desire to affiliate myself to any religion.
However, the answers I received from this 18 year old young man were answers I never heard before. The explanations to the topics at hand were ones I never considered nor were they ever presented to me in that fashion. For the first time things made sense and were not only easy to mentally accept, but also spiritually. I recalled a night at the age of 15 or 16 years old, looking up at the sky, my face and shirt wet from tears that ran from my eyes, pleading to God to guide me. After meeting Ahmer and learning about Islam, I felt that cry was answered.
During the spring of 2000 my relationship with Ahmer was put on hold as I focused on pledging to a Latino fraternity. Later that summer, I became a tutor-counselor for a high school program on campus. It was during this program where I met two bright, young ladies who were different from the rest. Instead of being loud, obnoxious, and fashionable according to society’s standards, they were quiet, mature, and extremely modest in their dress and character. This was the first time I ever came across girls wearing hijab. I felt drawn to them, curious to learn why they did what they did. The funny thing was I don’t recall ever learning about Muslim women in my discussions with Ahmer so I never knew what they looked like or how they dressed. When I think about it now, as I write this, it astonishes me how Allah put people in my life to expose me to Islam bit by bit. I learned a great deal from them, such as the concept of hijab, the concept of modesty and Islam, the history of the Qu’ran and how it has never been changed since it was revealed, as well as how to become a Muslim by saying the declaration of faith or Shahadah.
I appreciated everything they taught me even though I was technically the teacher’s assistant and they were my students. However, when it came to learning about Islam, I was their humble student. My admiration for Islam grew more and more, but I didn’t think about accepting Islam yet.
Fall of 2000 and spring of 2001 came and went. I continued to learn about Islam from conversations with Ahmer, however, I was caught up in the college lifestyle, and didn’t desire to leave my old ways behind in exchange for a devoted life to Allah. I was busy partying, dancing, listening to hip-hop and rap, and hanging out with my fraternity brothers.
One big milestone that I do remember, however, was asking Ahmer for a copy of the Qur’an before the summer break. That summer as I worked in New York City, I would take it everywhere I went — on the subway and on the bus. I’d read as much as I could whenever and wherever I could. I remember sitting next to one of the engineers on the bus and pulling out the copy of the Qur’an. He asked me, “Are you Muslim?” I kindly responded, “No, but I am learning.” He told me he was Muslim and he could answer any questions I might have. Sometimes I wish I could run into that brother now and tell him, “I am Muslim now”. I’m sure he would be so happy. I stuck to this routine for the entire summer, reading the Qur’an on the way to and from work in New York City.
After a while I felt overwhelmed with the information. I became more and more scared with every verse that I read. I understood what Islam desired from me, but I was not ready mentally or spiritually to jump into it wholeheartedly. I decided, shortly after that, to stop reading the Qur’an and just focus on other aspects of my life.
Soon after, I found myself on campus again starting my 3rd year of college in the fall of 2001. To me it was the same old thing; freshman mixers, social events, parties, orientations, hanging out, and road trips for the first week or two of school.
On September 11th, 2001, I woke up and got ready to go to my lab at 8am or so. I walked over to the chemistry lab only to find out that class was canceled. I remember being elated because I now had the opportunity to go hang out or get some extra sleep. I walked back to my dorm room through campus and I remember glancing at the New York City skyline. My campus was just across the river and the skyline view was a popular feature Stevens offered their students. It was always a beautiful sight and this day wasn’t any different. The sun was out, the sky was clear, and the temperature was awesome, and of course the view to the city was impressive even to someone who’s seen it all his life.
I walked into my room and immediately got a call from a friend who told me to turn on the news. She sounded freaked out as I turned on the television only to see that the buildings I just finished glancing at were on fire. I immediately ran upstairs to Ahmer’s room to inform him of the news. He had been sleeping so I rudely awakened him with this devastating information.
We turned on the television and watched the news while he got ready so we could go outside and see what was happening. As the news broke stating that a plane crashed into the towers, Ahmer kept saying, “I hope it’s not Muslims.” I didn’t understand why Muslims would have anything to do with this.
We went outside to a chaotic, frightened, nervous, and concerned student body. Everyone was outside looking out from Castle Point towards downtown Manhattan. We stayed there for hours, getting updates on the radio or from people. I kept thinking to myself, I hope people are getting out, I hope that help is on the way. I was also scared about the possibility of another plane striking the huge skyscraper we were standing next to that served as the administrative building.
After a few hours of tears, cries, concern, and fear, the towers collapsed. It wasn’t until then that reality really hit me. It became clear, at that point, that whoever was in that building was not making it out. There was no way people could survive that. I remember looking at my watch, watching the seconds pass by as if in slow motion. I also remember my conscience talking to me, reminding me how much I have learned about Islam, what my purpose in life should be, how I should be leading my life, and the reality of life and death. I thought to myself all those times that I read in the Qur’an the promise for those who do deeds of righteousness, the rewards with their Lord for worshiping Him alone and living a life according to His guidelines and standards, as well as the promise for those who disobey Him and His commands. I thought during those seconds about Heaven and Hell, the punishments of the grave, and how I arrogantly kept pushing off the idea of accepting my role as a creation of Allah in order to party, chill, have fun, dance, drink, and “live life.”
I remember reflecting about those times where I told myself how Islam is such a beautiful religion, but if I am to accept it, it will be later on in life when I’m old. However, this time, as death stood across the river, I told myself, “Well what if that day never comes?”
The people in the towers thought September 11, 2001 was just another ordinary day. They probably thought they were going to have lunch, make it home for dinner, and reunite with their families, children, or significant other. However, Allah had a different plan for them. This day was their last day and they did not have a chance to argue or plea their case. If this was their situation, then what should I think mine will be? Why should I think that I will live a long life, how can I be so sure that I will grow old, how can I be so sure that I will accept Islam once I am “done” having fun. The answer was, I wasn’t sure.
These thoughts rushed through my mind in such a brief lapse of time. I was snapped out of this state of deep reflection by Ahmer who tapped me on my shoulder to tell me, “Man, I can’t take this, I need to go pray.” Without hesitation, without even thinking it twice I said, “I’m coming with you.”
I followed him to his room and I told him I want to be a Muslim. His eyes filled with joy as he heard this. He taught me how to say Shahadah, how to make wudhu (ablution) and I followed him in my first prayer. I became a Muslim on that day, September 11th, 2001. It was the day my entire life changed. I have not looked back since.
The challenges that awaited me from my decision, I confronted with confidence and courage. The backlashes due to the events of 9/11 were difficult, but I had faith that no matter what or who was responsible, Islam had nothing to do with it and Allah would not allow His religion to be degraded regardless how hard people tried.
From that day forth, I have lived my life as a Muslim, learning how to worship and be thankful for the countless blessings that I have been granted in my years of life. Since that time, I’ve been blessed with my younger brother and mother embracing Islam, a wonderful wife who devotes her life to worshiping and pleasing Allah, and with two beautiful sons who are born Muslims. This decade that has passed has been the pinnacle of my life and Allah knows best what awaits me.
While some people become saddened by the events that occurred on 9/11, I see it as the day that I realized my purpose in life and had the courage to accept it. I am saddened about the tragedies of that day, without a doubt, however, I believe that Allah is the best of Planners and the wisdom for this event occurring goes beyond the scope of our understanding. One thing is certain to me though; it opened the door for millions of people to learn about Islam and even opened the door for millions to embrace Islam as their way of life, including me. For that, I will always be grateful to Allah.
I don’t know what 20 or 30 years down the road has in store for us, but I am confident that I will continue to ask Allah to guide me and keep me on this blessed path. I am certain that I will strive to teach my children about Islam and the events that occurred so that they grow up knowing the history of how Islam went from 20,000 Americans accepting Islam a year to over 100,000 Americans accepting Islam. Allah knows best what awaits us all; all I ask is for Allah to keep my family and I firm upon His path.
Hernan Guadalupe lives in Maryland where he works in real estate development & is one of the head instructors of Aqabah Karate