I first encountered Islam in a brutalist building in Toronto’s east end. There were prison-grey walls, decor in uninspiring browns and beiges, several thousand seeking minds, including me — a then student of philosophy and politics at the University of Toronto Scarborough campus. The building was nestled between a residential area and an expansive forest. During the spring, I would set my gaze away from the concrete facade and towards the lush greenery, believing that the rustling leaves were inviting me to take contemplative walks. Pulling back from the forest, past a smokers’ area, and through the doors led to the Hall of Excellence, one of the main arteries that connected one section of the building to the next. This hall led to a classroom where Islam presented itself in the form of a young East African man. He and I first engaged as equals in an introductory metaphysics class where our 18-year-old minds were set ablaze with new and unfamiliar philosophical inquiries.
I wore leather jackets and aloofness to class. My freshly done box braids hung down my back and I rarely smiled. I doodled intensely, sitting somewhere near the back. With a cultivated cool, a steeliness even, that I carefully crafted throughout high school, I never displayed the curiosity that I had. And so while I rarely engaged in class I became consumed by metaphysical questions. At this critical juncture of my early intellectual life, this young man approached me in a quiet way. He wanted to know my opinions before my name. He and I engaged in a spirited debate about ideas we were only just introduced to, full of force and naive certainty. I conceded defeat. He reigned supreme. I became intrigued.
Over time, I started to take notice of details—apparent and revealed. His expansive mind, rapper aspirations, and calm demeanour. Sleepy eyes that he mostly avoided meeting with my own. The richness of his speech and the slowness of his gait. His African-American accent despite having grown up in the Gulf region. He had many qualities that were not clear to me then that one person alone should possess, and I wondered about what forces could craft such a character and way of being. I later realized that he embodied the duality of a person that had lived one way for much of his life but then suddenly lived another, almost opposite existence.
“What are you about?” I remember asking him. He told me something surprising. Something incompatible with my understanding of an 18-year-old man. Faith. He’s about faith. Something within me shifted.
For a time, I sat with him in complete reverence, transfixed by his melodic cadence and speech which he peppered with profound proverbs. I quickly adopted the religion, converting to Islam on a day like any other. I remember how unremarkable it was, that fall afternoon or evening when I uttered the testimony of faith in imperfect Arabic. It was 2004, and with the terrorist attacks still fresh in the West’s collective consciousness, I was suddenly one of those peculiar post-September 11th converts who, if my attention had been diverted in another direction, may have become critical of Islam instead coming to the religion with an open heart, embracing all aspects, uncritically at first and then with greater discernment as time went on.
He later disappeared from my life and my hair disappeared behind a veil, a red scarf that I used to wear around my neck. I started to wear loose-fitting clothes. I prayed and prayed, mastering the repetitive movements, but still fumbling the sacred Arabic words. It took only a few months for a complete transformation to take place, from non-belief to a devout believer.
My world opened up in unexpected ways. Islam, for many new converts raised in the West, has the effect of broadening one’s world in surprising ways even as it constricts one’s range of beliefs and expressions of self. Curiously, I became cosmopolitan. By inheriting a tradition spanning 1400 years, previously unfamiliar languages, cultures, customs, and histories of the Muslim world became accessible and folded into my own sense of self. The politics, in particular, started to affect me in a visceral way. I took a stand against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict being the Muslim political cause du jour, I quickly became staunchly pro-Palestinian, even without a great deal of knowledge on the issue. As I endeavoured to learn Arabic, the language of the Quran, which would enrich my spiritual experience of prayer, I discovered Arab and Persian poets and writers and explored translations of their works. And then, the wanderlust started to set in. It was, and remains, incurable and all-encompassing. Prior to the Arab Spring, many Muslims in the West dreamt of sitting at the feet of scholars in Damascus, retreating to the mountains of Tarim, or roaming through gardens in Andalusia. But I, like many others, was consumed with thoughts of Cairo, and the solitary moments that would facilitate the kind of spiritual growth many of us sought.
In all of this change, which seemed to happen at a frenetic pace, there was a pursuit of spiritual quietness that I attempted to slowly cultivate within myself. But there are things you lose when you grow quiet. I began to shed aspects of my former self that were not incompatible with my newly adopted religion. Particular expressions of Blackness that had come to define me up until that point became part of my past.
My variety of Blackness stretches from Trinidad across the Atlantic to Zimbabwe and traverses the ocean once more to Canada. From an early age, I saw too little of myself in every space I entered, in every knowledge system I tapped into, in almost every encounter I’ve had. The closest approximation of my type of diaspora Blackness was the African-American experience layered with a uniquely Toronto Jamaican vibe. The hip-hop, the literature, the politics of resistance, the history even, for a time, became mine. Though with the embrace of a new faith came an unconscious shedding of my Black identities, both the borrowed Blackness from the U.S. and my diasporic African-Caribbean self in favour, sadly, of a more Arabized Muslim identity. The kind of orthodox Islamic community I entered into, there was no meaningful engagement with race and so my spiritual imagination had no place for the nations, cultures, peoples, literature and aesthetic that forged me and reflected my particular experience of the world. But at the time, I did not see it as a loss but rather becoming part of a universal faith community that promised to transcended race. I could not have been more wrong, and time would reveal this. But during the early period, I was willing to forsake all, as I sought out spiritual quietness in this tradition, a pursuit that would be undermined in the years to come.
On one of the last and most treasured days of Ramadan a few years back, I witnessed a conversion in a mosque, a decade removed from my own. Before the sunset prayer, which ushered in the breaking of the fast, the Imam called the congregants to direct their attention to the front. A young woman stood in front of all of the worshipers. And with the instruction received from the Imam, she somewhat shyly repeated the Shahada, the same testimony of faith that I had said on a chilly fall day in 2004. I felt, with great shame, no happiness at this moment of her conversion. Curiously, there were little feelings of peace that I had felt during my own transformation. I imagined, foremost, a life of hardship. Beginning within the community who by turns embrace and reject their own. I foresaw identity complexes, facing the seemingly unresolvable question of belonging. I thought about the political climate and about terrorism coming to define Islam in the West. I thought about the indignity of having to apologize for the actions of a deranged few and about the friend of a friend who was accosted in the streets for wearing a veil. I did not see what she must have felt and indeed what I felt when I first converted: a beautiful, pure religion that would deliver spiritual guidance through a direct connection to God. After welcoming her to the faith, the Imam said something peculiar: “Follow Islam,” he said, “but don’t listen to Muslims.” What a curious thing to say to a new believer. I suppose, like me, he felt the strange feeling well up inside of himself, envisioning a life of challenges ahead. But still, what a curious thing to say. The young woman, whose first steps into Islam were witnessed by all, disappeared back into the crowd. I looked around. I saw South Asian aunties in bejewelled scarves greeting friends with cheek kisses. Teenage Somali girls whispering to each other off in the corner. Wide-eyed children running about the place in their finest mosque clothing. Elderly bearded men in crisp white robes. The call to prayer was made. It was a moving, melodic summoning that reverberated throughout the hall. We all grew quiet.
Tendisai Cromwell is a Zimbabwean-born storyteller and the former Executive Director of the Regent Park Film Festival in Toronto, Canada. She has nearly a decade of diverse writing experience through their pursuits as a creative writer, independent journalist, and documentary filmmaker. Cromwell’s fiction, which most often explores faith, spirituality, and the nuances of identity and belonging, has been published in digital publications and in an anthology highlighting the works of Black creatives in Canada. In 2017, one of her short stories was shortlisted for the Ross and Davis Mitchell Prize for Faith and Writing. Cromwell lives in Brampton, Ontario and is currently writing her first novel.