Open Letter to the Student Who Tried to Convert Me to Islam
We never knew each other well. It is important for me to maintain some distance from my students, as close friendships can lead to compromises and troubling rumors. Whispers of favoritism. Intimacy. That would have been absurd in your case, but it wouldn’t have prevented people from whispering all the same.
You had two classes with me, Early English Literature and Shakespeare, at Governor’s State University, a commuter school south of Chicago. You wore a hijab, if I recall correctly. It may have been a Shayla. We did not spend much time together, but we could have been friends in a different life.
I think we recognized in each other a sincere wish to be helpful and kind to others, an understanding of the importance of humility, charity, gratitude, honesty, patience, and diligence, and a commitment to try to live by those virtues. Such people are, sadly, extraordinarily rare. We have to stick together.
When I told my wife you were trying to convert me, she was amused : “Huh. I didn’t know they did that,” she told me. It was the first time I had ever experienced it. I was fairly certain I was not interested in converting to Islam, but I heard you out, because I respected your sincerity. It was obvious that you were trying to help me, and you believed that converting to Islam would benefit me.
I was a little flattered. You were telling me through your actions that you thought I was worthy of partaking in your faith. You recommended some videos, which I watched. I was honest with you about them. They seemed cryptic. I was not inspired. You accepted my point of view.
I still have the copy of The Gracious Quran you gave me. It was an astonishing gift. Full-sized, hardcover, with one of those little satin ribbons for a bookmark sewn into the binding. A proper book. Nothing like the tiny, cheap onion-skin copies of the New Testament that the Baptists always left everywhere.
You defended me when some of my colleagues tried to slander me over holding students accountable for cheating and plagiarism. They started telling students I was a bad teacher and they shouldn’t take my classes. “I told them you were a good teacher,” you said to me. That was a difficult time for me and my family, and I was grateful that you stood up for me.
It’s been about a decade since we met. I watched Spike Lee’s film Malcolm X recently, and I thought of you. The film shows how Malcolm’s acceptance of Islam, and particularly his experiences on Hajj, transformed him into someone who had a radical respect for all people, which shows how Islam can affect people at its best. You always put your best foot forward, and you saw the best in me when others were trying to convince you to think less of me.
I did not convert to Islam, but I think you would be glad to know me anyway, and I will always think of you as my friend. I hope you are well. Peace be with you.