Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus
Posted by Nabeel Qureshi on November 6, 2013Topic: Just Thinking MagazineTopic: Theology and PhilosophyTopic: World ReligionsTopic: Worldview
I lay prostrate in a large prayer hall, broken before God. The edifice of my worldview, all I had ever known, had slowly been dismantled over the past few years. On this day, my world came crashing down. I lay in ruin, seeking Allah.
Fading footsteps echoed through the halls of the mosque as the humid summer evening drew to a close. The other worshipers were heading back to their homes and families for the night, but my thoughts were still racing. Every fiber of my being wrestled with itself. With my forehead pressed into the ground and heart pounding in my chest, my mind scrutinized each word my lips whispered into the musty carpet.
These were not new words. I had been taught to recite this Arabic phrase 132 times, every single day, from a time before I even knew my name. It was the sajda, the portion of the ritual prayers in which Muslims lower themselves before Allah, glorifying His loftiness. The words had always flowed with ease, but this day was different. As my lips exercised their rote rituals, my mind questioned everything I thought I knew about God.
Subhana Rabbi al-ala.
Glorified is my Lord, the Highest.
“Glorified is my Lord … Who is my Lord? Who are You, Lord? Are You Allah, the God of my father and forefathers? Are You the God I have always worshiped? The God my family has always worshiped? Surely You are the one who sent Muhammad (SAW) as the final messenger for mankind and the Quran as our guide? You are Allah, the God of Islam, aren’t You? Or are You …” I hesitated, fighting the blasphemy I was about to propose. But what if the blasphemy was the truth?
“Or are You Jesus?”
My heart froze, as if indignant at my mind for risking hell. “Allah, I would never say that a man became equal to You. Please forgive me and have mercy on me if that’s what I said, because that’s not what I mean. No man is equal to You. You are infinitely greater than all of creation. Everything bows down before You, Allah subhanahu wata ‘ala.
“No, what I mean to say is that You, O Allah, are all powerful. Surely You can enter into creation if You choose. Did You enter into this world? Did You become a man? And was that man Jesus?
“O Allah, the Bible couldn’t be right, could it?”
As if on parallel timelines, my lips continued to pray in sajda while my mind relentlessly fought with itself. The Arabic phrase was to be recited twice more before the sajda would be complete.
Subhana Rabbi al-ala.
Glorified is my Lord, the Highest.
“But how is it conceivable that Allah, the highest being of all, would enter into this world? This world is filthy and sinful, no place for the One who deserves all glory and all praise. And how could I even begin to suggest that God, the magnificent and splendid Creator, would enter into this world through the birth canal of a girl? Audhu billah, that’s disgusting! To have to eat, to grow fatigued, and to sweat and spill blood, and to be finally nailed to a cross. I cannot believe this. God deserves infinitely more. His majesty is far greater than this.
“But what if His majesty is not as important to Him as His children are?”
Subhana Rabbi al-ala.
Glorified is my Lord, the Highest.
“Of course we are important to Him, but Allah does not need to die in order to forgive us. Allah is all powerful, and He can easily forgive us if He chooses. He is al-Ghaffar and ar-Rahim! His forgiveness flows from His very being. What does coming into this world to die on a cross have to do with my sins? It doesn’t even make sense for Allah to die on the cross. If He died, who was ruling the universe? Subhanallah, He cannot die! That is part of His glory. There is no need for these charades. He can simply forgive from His throne.
“But how can Allah be just if He ‘simply forgives’ arbitrarily? God is not arbitrary. He is absolutely just. How would He be just if He forgave arbitrarily? No, He cannot ‘just forgive us if He chooses.’ The penalty for my sins must be paid.”
Rising from the ground and sitting on my heels, I recited the takbir.
God is great.
“God, I know that You are great in reality, but some of what the Holy Quran teaches is far from great. I am having a very difficult time understanding it, Allah. Please, have mercy on me. I don’t mean to doubt You, and I ask for Your mercy on my lack of knowledge and understanding. Please, Allah, may all this doubt not anger You. I must have misunderstood something, but there’s no way You, being good and loving, would have given some of the commands found in the Quran. I have found so much violence and contempt in its pages, the pages of a book I have read and loved every day because it is Your word.
“But maybe You are showing me that the Quran is not Your word after all? So much of what I’ve been taught about it has turned out to be false. I was taught that it has never been changed, but hadith and history show that it has. I was taught that it has supernatural knowledge of science and the future, but when I asked You to help me see it with my own eyes, I could find none. So much that I thought I knew about the Quran simply is not true. Is it really Your book? O Allah, have mercy on me.
“Who are You?”
At-tahiyyatu lillahi, was-salawatu wat-tayyibatu. As salamu ‘alayka ayyuha n-nabiyyu wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuh. As salamu ‘alayna wa-’ala ‘ibadi llahi salihin.
All compliments, prayers, and good things are due to Allah. Allah’s peace be upon you, O Prophet, and His mercy and blessings. Peace be on us and on all righteous servants of Allah.
“I praise You, Allah. All homage is certainly due to You. But there is so much I do not understand. Why am I speaking to Muhammad (SAW) in my prayer? He cannot hear me. He is dead! I should not be praying to any man, even if it is the Prophet. And why am I wishing peace upon him? I am not his intercessor. I know these words were first recited when he was alive, but why does Your greatest prophet need anyone to pray peace over him? Could You not have given him assurance and peace? If he cannot have peace and assurance as the Prophet, what hope is there for me?”
Following the traditions of the Prophet and the guidance of my parents, I pointed my forefinger skyward while reciting the proclamation:
Ashhadu alla ilaha illa llahu wa ashhadu anna Muhammadan ‘abduhu wa-rasuluh.
I bear witness that there is none worthy of worship except Allah, and I bear witness that Muhammad is His servant and messenger.
“O Allah, have mercy on me. How can I bear witness that Muhammad (SAW) is Your messenger? It used to be so easy! Ammi taught me to love Muhammad (SAW) because he was the greatest man who ever lived, and there was no close second. She taught me that his generosity was abundant, his mercy was incomparable, and his love for mankind was beyond measure. I was taught that he would never wage war unless he was defending the ummah, and that he fought to elevate the status of women and the downtrodden. He was the perfect military leader; he was the ultimate statesman; and he was the exemplary follower of Allah. He was al-Insan al-Kamil, the perfect man. He was Rahmatu-lil alameen, God’s mercy personified for all the world. It was easy to bear witness that such a man is Rasul Allah, the messenger of God.
“But now I know the truth about him, and there’s too much to sweep under the rug. I know about his first revelation, his raids on caravans, his child bride, his marriage to Zainab, the black magic cast upon him, his poisoning, his assassinations, his tortures, and…”
My thoughts slowed as they arrived at the one issue that I simply could not overlook. “And how could Muhammad (SAW), my beloved Prophet, have allowed … that?”
Awash in empathy, my mind drifted from the prayers. I was still grappling with what I had come across while investigating the Quran. How could he? I envisioned the horror from the vantage point of the victims. What if that had been my family? Where was the Prophet’s famed mercy?
I imagined that I was there, under the red sky of the desert, at that very moment. Anger quickly swelled within me as I surveyed the ruins of my people. Blood and death. A few young soldiers hungrily made their way through the corpses and approached Muhammad. They made their barbarous desires known and asked Muhammad for his guidance. Muhammad’s face flushed and began perspiring. He was receiving revelation from Allah. When he announced it to his soldiers, an evil glee spread across their faces. They disappeared into their tents, eager to proceed. Allah had sanctioned their activities. For a moment, all lay calm.
Suddenly, an unbearable noise pierced the desert sky and my soul.
It was my mother, screaming.
My eyes shot open as I snapped back to reality. I was still in the mosque, still praying the salaat. My overwhelming revulsion toward Muhammad suddenly met with immediate contrition. I had been impudent before Allah. Muhammad was still my Prophet. I still swore allegiance to him. I had gone too far.
How could I continue like this? Astaghfirullah.
Quickly, I finished the rest of the ritual prayers, ending by turning my head to the right and the left:
Assalaamo alaikum wa rahmutallah.
The peace and mercy of Allah be upon you.
After a pause, I let my face fall into my hands. Tears blurred my sight. The ritual prayers had ended, and now it was time for my heart’s prayer.
“God, I want Your peace. Please have mercy on me and give me the peace of knowing You. I don’t know who You are anymore, but I know that You are all that matters. You created this world; You give it meaning; and either You define its purpose or it has none.
“Please, God Almighty, tell me who You are! I beseech You and only You. Only You can rescue me. At Your feet, I lay down everything I have learned, and I give my entire life to You. Take away what You will, be it my joy, my friends, my family, or even my life. But let me have You, O God.
“Light the path that I must walk. I don’t care how many hurdles are in the way, how many pits I must jump over or climb out of, or how many thorns I must step through. Guide me on the right path. If it is Islam, show me how it is true! If it is Christianity, give me eyes to see! Just show me which path is Yours, dear God, so I can walk it.”
Although I did not know it, that peace and mercy of God which I desperately asked for would soon fall upon me. He was about to give me supernatural guidance through dreams and visions, forever changing my heart and the course of my life.
Prayers of My Fathers
At dawn across the Islamic world, sonorous voices usher the sun over the horizon. The core beliefs of Muslims are repeatedly proclaimed from rooftops and minarets, beginning with the takbir:
Ashado an-la illaha il-Allah!
Ashado an-na Muhammad-ur-Rasool Allah!
Allah is Great!
I bear witness that there is no god but Allah!
I bear witness that Muhammad is the messenger of Allah!
It is the start of the adhan, the call to prayer. The call reminds Muslims to dedicate their lives to Allah the very moment they awaken. From memorized occasional prayers to elaborate daily rituals, devout Muslims are steeped in remembrance of Allah and performance of Islamic traditions. The adhan calls the Muslims, resonates within them, rallies them, and brings them together in unified prostration before Allah.
To the alien observer, it might seem that the adhan is the very thing that rends the night sky, separating dark from day, infusing life into the Muslim lands and people.
It is no surprise, then, that Muslims use the adhan not just to awaken one another for the day but also to awaken one another into life. It is a hadith, a tradition of the prophet Muhammad, that every Muslim child should hear the adhan at birth. When I was born, my father softly spoke the adhan into my ear, echoing the words that his father had whispered to him twenty-eight years earlier. They were the first words ever spoken to me, in accordance with tradition.
My family has always paid particular attention to following the hadith. We are Qureshi, after all, and the Qureshi are the tribe of Muhammad. When I was old enough to realize the prestige of our name, I asked my father if we inherited it from the Prophet.
“Abba, are we the real Qureshi, like Muhammad (SAW)?”
He said, “Jee mera beyta,” Urdu for “Yes, my son.” “Muhammad (SAW) had no sons who survived childhood, but we are descendants of Hazrat Umar.” Umar was one of the four khalifas, the men that Sunnis consider the divinely guided successors of Muhammad. Our lineage was noble indeed; it’s no wonder my family was proud of our heritage.
When my father left Pakistan in the 1970s, love for his family and heritage was his motivation. He was driven to provide a better life for his parents and siblings. When he came to the United States, he joined the navy at the instruction of his older brother. As a seaman, he sent money from every paycheck back home, even when it was all he had. It would be a few years before he briefly returned to Pakistan, once his marriage to my mother had been arranged.
Ammi, my mother, had also lived a life devoted to her family and her religion. She was the daughter of a Muslim missionary. Her father, whom I called Nana Abu, had moved to Indonesia with her mother, Nani Ammi, shortly after their marriage to invite people to Islam. It was there that my mother was born, followed by her three sisters. With Nani Ammi working to help support the family and Nana Abu often absent on mission, my mother had a large role in raising her younger siblings and teaching them the way of Islam.
At the age of ten, Ammi returned to Pakistan with her siblings and Nani Ammi. The community received her family with great respect for dutifully performing the call of missionaries. Since Nana Abu was still an active missionary in Indonesia and returned to Pakistan only on furlough, Ammi’s caretaking role in the home intensified. Ultimately she had five siblings to manage and care for, so although she graduated at the top of her undergraduate class and was offered a scholarship for medical school, she declined the offer. Nani Ammi needed the help at home, since she invested much of her day volunteering as a secretary at the local jamaat offices. (Jamaat is the Arabic word for assembly, usually used to mean “group” or “denomination.”)
Nani Ammi herself had spent virtually all her life sacrificing in the way of Islam. Not only was she the wife of a missionary but, like Ammi, she had also been the child of a missionary. She was born in Uganda, where her father served as a physician while calling people to Islam. Raised as a missionary child, transitioning into the role of missionary wife, and living her last able years serving the jamaat, she had garnered great respect and prestige from the community. Through it all, Nani Ammi was perhaps Ammi’s greatest role model, and Ammi wanted nothing more than to carry on the legacy through a family of her own.
And so, though I did not know it at the time, the man who whispered the adhan into my ears was a self-sacrificial, loving man who bore the noble name of Qureshi. The woman who looked on was a daughter of missionaries, an experienced caretaker with an ardent desire to serve Islam. I was their second child, their firstborn son. They were calling me to prayer.
A Community of Four
As I grew, I felt like my family and I never really fit in with the people around us. I have always felt disheartened thinking about it. Aside from the Islamic traditionalism, my life was a mix of 1980s cartoons, plastic toys, and temper tantrums. I should have fit in with the other boys just fine. Unfortunately, people are afraid of what they do not know, and my Muslim heritage was a deterrent for many would-be friends and their families. I was very lonely.
What made it even worse was that the navy moved my family fairly regularly. We never had time to develop any roots. Most of my early memories are snapshots of either moving out of a house, traveling to a new one, or settling in and learning to call a new place “home.” But these memories are still dear to me, and I vividly remember, for instance, our move when it was time to leave Virginia.
As strangers took our furniture, I stood by the screen door on the front porch crying. I cried inconsolably, not understanding who these men were or what I had done to deserve this fate, but Ammi was there to comfort me. True, she chuckled at times, and I do remember some teasing when my favorite chair was taken away by a stranger. But I also remember her consoling caress and her comforting voice.
“Kya baat hai?” she asked, as she took my face into her hands and drew it close in embrace. “Kya baat hai, mera beyta?” “What’s the matter, my son?”
“They took the chair! The one with strawberries!”
“And is the chair more important to you than your Ammi? I’m still here. And so are Abba and Baji. Allah has given you everything! What more do you need, Billoo?” Billoo was the nickname that only my parents used for me, and they used it specifically when they wanted to express their love. They rarely said “I love you” directly; that is too crass for traditional Pakistani ears. Love is implicit and understood, expressed through provision by the parents and obeisance by children.
That implicitness is one reason why a child’s obedience is paramount in Muslim culture. In my teen years, Ammi would often reprimand my obstinacy by saying, “What good is it to tell me you love me when you don’t do what I say?” Later still, when I was considering following Jesus, I knew I was contemplating the one choice that would be far and away the greatest disobedience. Not only would my parents feel betrayed, they would be utterly heartbroken.
But at the sheltered age of four, heartbreak and family strife were the farthest things from my mind. I just wanted my strawberry chair back.
When everything was packed and we were ready for our journey, Abba gathered the family and said, “Let’s pray.” I raised my cupped hands to waist level, copying Ammi and Abba. We all prayed silently, asking Allah for a safe and swift journey.
When we finally arrived at Abba’s new duty station, we were in Dunoon, Scotland. Looking back, I still feel like Dunoon was my first real home. It wasn’t that I built any friendships at school or that I knew many boys in the neighborhood—even the strawberry chair went missing in the move—it was that I grew closer with my family and deeper in my faith during those years. I had my Ammi, Abba, and Baji. I did not need anything besides them.
The Perfect Book
By the time I arrived in Scotland, I had not yet learned English well. We always spoke Urdu at home, and if we were going to learn any script, it would be Arabic. The reason for this was simple: the Quran was written in Arabic, and it was imperative that Baji and I learn to recite it.
Muslims believe that every single word of the Quran was dictated verbatim by Allah, through the Archangel Gabriel, to Muhammad. The Quran is therefore not only inspired at the level of meaning but at the deeper level of the words themselves. For this reason, Muslims do not consider the Quran translatable. If it is rendered in any language other than Arabic, it is not Quran but rather an interpretation of the Quran. A book can be a true Quran only if written in Arabic.
This is why it is such an important belief for Muslims that the Quran has always been exactly the same—word for word, dot for dot. Imams and teachers regularly declare that the Quran was perfectly preserved, unchanged from the moment Muhammad heard it from Gabriel and dictated it to his scribes. Of course, Muhammad had nothing to do with composing the Quran; he was simply the conduit of its revelation to mankind, and he dutifully preserved its exact form. Had he not, and had the words been even slightly altered, the Quran would be irretrievably lost. But such a tainting of the words was unfathomable; no one doubted the perfect transmission of the Quran. The words must be perfect.
In fact, the emphasis on the words themselves leads many Muslims to neglect the meaning of those words. Muslims who recite the Quran regularly are regarded as pious, whereas Muslims who only contemplate the meaning of the Quran are regarded as learned. Piety is the greater honor, and most Muslims I knew growing up could recite many chapters of the Quran from memory, but rarely could they explain the meaning or context of those verses.
Ammi had it in mind to teach us both the recitation of the Quran and the translations, but recitation was first. Every day as far back as I can remember, Ammi would put a traditional Muslim skullcap on my head, sit me down beside her, and teach me to read Arabic. We began with a book called al-Qaeda, “the Guide.” It taught us Arabic letters in their various forms with their respective sounds. Right after moving to Scotland, I “graduated” from the Qaeda to the Quran.
I remember that moment vividly because my momentary elation was curtailed by horror. After finishing the last page of the Qaeda, Ammi reached next to her, picked up a Quran, and presented it to me. It was my Quran, the very first book I was ever given.
Thrilled, I ran to Baji to show it to her. Baji was playing on the floor near Ammi and Abba’s room, so I got down next to her, placed the Quran on the ground, and opened the front cover to show her my name.
All of a sudden, I heard Ammi emit a heart-stopping scream while running in my direction. “Nabeel!” I was too shocked to respond. I had never heard her scream like that, nor had I ever seen her run. In a flash she picked up the Quran. “Never put the Quran on the ground!”
“Always raise it high. Put it in the most honored place, wash your hands before touching it, and only touch it with your right hand. This is not just any book, it is the word of Allah. Treat it with the respect He deserves!”
“Jao, go.” She was deeply disturbed, and I did not hesitate to leave.
From then on, whenever I carried the Quran, I raised it high. Baji also learned from my mistake, so the next time Ammi called us to read the Quran together, we came holding our Qurans as high above our heads as we could, arms fully outstretched. Ammi was smiling. This was not exactly what she meant, but she was pleased.
Baji was the elder, so she went first. Ammi pointed to each word Baji was to read, slowly moving her finger across the page from right to left. Baji was not so much reading the words as singing them. We were taught to read the Quran melodically, making the sound of the recitation as beautiful as possible. Some men dedicate their lives to this practice, perfecting their pitch, tempo, pronunciation, and melody.
But Baji and I were no experts. She had a few years’ head start on me, and she had only just learned to recite the Quran acceptably. When she finished, it was my turn. I had never read the Quran before, and I was terribly excited.
“Billoo, what do we recite before we start anything?”
“And what does that mean?”
“In the name of God, the Most Gracious, Most Merciful.”
“Why do we recite this prayer?”
“So that we remember everything belongs to Allah, and so that we do only good things.”
“Shabash, good job. Do you know where this prayer comes from?”
“It is found at the beginning of every surah in the Quran.”
“Every surah except one.”
“Why did Allah leave it out of one surah, Ammi?”
“Allah was very upset with people in that surah, beyta, so He didn’t give us the blessing of the bismillah there. But He loves us very much, so He put an extra one into another surah. And how many surahs are there?”
“Shabash. And you will read them all soon, inshallah. Baji finished the Quran when she turned seven, and I want you to do it by the time you are six. Let’s go.”
As the days progressed, I became increasingly familiar with the Quran. I learned that there were two ways the Quran was divided: one was into 114 chapters, and the other was into thirty parts. The latter is a system that Muslims devised long after the Quran was compiled, mainly so that the entire Quran could be easily recited during the thirty days of Ramadhan. But the thirty parts were important to me for another reason: whenever I finished one, Ammi bought me a congratulatory gift. The Mario Bros. trash can was my favorite.
By the time I reached an acceptable pace, Ammi and I had developed a rhythm. We would sit down with my Quran, open it to the last page we had read, and Ammi would point to my ending spot for that day. For some reason I preferred to recite exactly eighteen verses. If Ammi picked more for the day, I would complain, and if she picked less, I would consider reading a few extra to make her happy.
And so the days went on. I ultimately finished the Quran just before I turned six, much to Ammi’s delight. Concurrently, Ammi had helped me memorize the last seven surahs to recite during the daily prayers. My favorite was Surat al-Ikhlas, number 112, because it was short, melodic, and memorable. Plus it was the first surah I memorized, and I repeated it many times a day during salaat. It was one of Ammi’s favorite chapters as well but for a different reason: in a hadith, Muhammad told his companions that Surat al-Ikhlas is so weighty and consequential that reciting it is like reciting one third of the whole Quran in one sitting.
What was the message that Muhammad considered so important? Essentially this: God is not a father, and He has no son.
Testing the New Testament
My lips continued to pray in sajda while my mind relentlessly fought with itself…
There is a simple reason I never listened to street preachers: they didn’t seem to care about me. It wasn’t that they were annoying. I found their passion admirable, and I appreciated people who stood up for what they believed. Rather, it was that they treated me like an object of their agenda. Did they have any idea how their message would impact my life? Did they even care?
Sure, there are street preachers who share their message while still greeting people kindly, getting to know others’ troubles, and praying over personal pains, but I never saw them. What I saw were men who would stand on street corners accosting the public with their beliefs. No doubt they reached a few, but they repelled many more.
Unfortunately, I have found that many Christians think of evangelism the same way, foisting Christian beliefs on strangers in chance encounters. The problem with this approach is that the gospel requires a radical life change, and not many people are about to listen to strangers telling them to change the way they live. What do they know about others’ lives?
On the other hand, if a true friend shares the exact same message with heartfelt sincerity, speaking to specific circumstances and struggles, then the message is heard loud and clear.
Effective evangelism requires relationships. There are very few exceptions.
In my case, I knew of no Christian who truly cared about me, no one who had been a part of my life through thick and thin. I had plenty of Christian acquaintances, and I’m sure they would have been my friends if I had become a Christian, but that kind of friendship is conditional. There were none that I knew who cared about me unconditionally. Since no Christian cared about me, I did not care about their message.
But that was about to change.
It took a few weeks after 9/11 for life to regain a semblance of normalcy. Baji and I started attending classes again, Abba was back at work, and Ammi felt safe enough to run errands. Although Islam was in the hot seat on the news and a general mistrust of Muslims still hung in the air, the wave of emotional attacks was not as bad as we had expected. True, our community mosque was vandalized, and we frequently heard of anti-Muslim sentiments, but we knew of no physical attacks against Muslims. We felt safe to return to our lives, and not a moment too soon.
The first forensics tournament of the year was upon us. Unlike the tournaments in high school, collegiate forensics tournaments were multiday affairs, often in other states. Our team’s first tournament was slated for West Chester, Pennsylvania.
On the day of our departure, Ammi decided to drive me to ODU so she could see me off. When we arrived at the Batten Arts and Letters Building, one of the other students on the forensics team came out to greet us. I had spoken with him a few times at practice, but we were still getting to know each other. He rushed over to us and starting helping with my bags while introducing himself to Ammi.
“Hi, Mrs. Qureshi. I’m David Wood.”
Ammi was glad to meet someone from the team before sending me off to who-knows-where. “Hello, David, very nice to meet you. Are you going with Nabeel on this trip?”
“Yeah. He told me you might be concerned, but we’ll take good care of him. Don’t worry.”
Nothing David could have said would have made Ammi happier. “Nabeel, I can tell this is a good boy. Stay close to him!”
“Acha, Ammi, I will.”
“Keep your phone on you, okay Nabeel? Call me when you get to the hotel so I know you’re safe and so you can give me your hotel room number.”
“Acha, Ammi, I will. I’ll be okay. Don’t worry.”
Telling Ammi not to worry was like telling her not to breath, so she just ignored me. “And don’t forget to call Abba, too, so he knows you’re okay.”
Ammi then looked to David. “Remind Nabeel to call us. He’s very forgetful.”
David couldn’t hide his smile. “I’ll make sure of it!”
Ammi was finally satisfied. “Thank you, David. I’m so glad I got to meet one of Nabeel’s friends. After the trip, you should come over to our house for a meal. I’ll cook you real Pakistani food.”
There was no hesitation in David’s voice. “You don’t have to say that twice. Thanks, Mrs. Qureshi!”
“Okay boys, have fun. Be good! Nabeel, call me. And don’t forget to pray the salaat!”
Ammi took my face in both her hands and kissed me on the cheek, just as she used to do when I was four years old, except now I was the one bending over. David was almost beside himself with repressed glee, expecting me to be embarrassed by Ammi’s show of affection. But this was normal for our family, and I rather enjoyed receiving this much love from her.
As she started to get back in the car, she called out a traditional Pakistani valediction. “Khuda hafiz, beyta.” May God protect you.
“Khuda hafiz, Ammi. Love you.”
As she drove out of the parking lot, David just stared at me, a comical smile painted on his face.
“Oh, nothing, nothing. She does know you’ll only be gone for three days, right?”
“Yeah, but I don’t leave home very often.” I picked up some bags and started walking into the building to meet our team.
“Uh-huh.” David picked up the rest of the bags and followed, his silly smile unrelenting. “Hey, you know what? It’s been a while since you talked to your mother. You really should call her.”
I stopped and glared at David, then turned around and looked out at the main road. Ammi was still there, waiting at a red light to take a left turn. She was watching us walk into the building.
Out of playful spite, I turned back to David and said, “You know what? I will. Thanks, David, for your heartfelt concern about my relationship with my mother.” I pulled out my cell phone and called Ammi. David chuckled to himself.
And so our friendship was off to a flying start, skipping right past the niceties and straight into brotherly teasing. In the days to come, many would comment that David and I were foils of one another. We were both exactly the same height—six feet, three inches—but I had dark skin and black hair, while David had light skin and blond hair. I was a slender 175 pounds, while David easily had forty pounds of muscle over me. I was very meticulous with my appearance and image, while David preferred jeans and T-shirts. I had a pampered childhood, while David came out of trailer parks and a gritty past.
But what I did not know about David was to be the starkest contrast of all. David was a Christian with strong convictions who had spent the previous five years of his life studying the Bible and learning to follow Jesus. Even though the gospel was his passion, he did not bombard me with his beliefs straightaway. The discussions arose much more naturally, after we became friends, and in the context of a life lived together. In fact, I was the one who brought it up.
Opening My Eyes
… So the night continued in lighthearted frivolity. When we finally made it to the hotel, our coach told us there were two rooms to be shared among the four guys on the trip. It was a no-brainer for us, and before long, David and I were getting settled.
The rest of the team wanted to go out and celebrate. Most members left to go drinking or dancing at a nearby bar, while some of the others went looking for a suitable place to smoke various things. I had never engaged in any of these activities, and I was not looking to start. David also decided against joining them, which intrigued me. I wondered what made him different from the rest of the team and more like me.
I did not have to wait long to find out.
While I was unpacking, David sat down in an armchair in the corner of the room and kicked up his feet. He pulled out his Bible and started reading.
It’s difficult to express just how flabbergasted I was by this. Never in my life had I seen anyone read a Bible in his free time. In fact, I had not even heard of this happening. True, I knew Christians revered the Bible, but I figured they all knew in their hearts that it had been changed over time and that there was no point in reading it.
So in the same moment I found out David was a Christian, I also concluded that he must be especially deluded. Since there were no barriers between us, I just asked him.
“So, David,” I began, still unpacking my clothes. “Are you a … hard-core Christian?”
David looked amused. “Yeah, I guess I am.”
“You do realize that the Bible is corrupt, right?”
“Yeah. It’s been changed over time. Everyone knows that.”
David looked unconvinced but genuinely interested in what I had to say. “How’s that?”
“Well, it’s obvious. For one, just look at how many Bibles there are. You’ve got the King James Version, the New International Version, the Revised Standard Version, the New American Standard Bible, the English Standard Version, and who knows how many others. If I want to know exactly what God said, how am I supposed to know which Bible to go to? They are all different.”
“Okay. Is that the only reason you think the Bible isn’t trustworthy?” David’s calm and controlled response was surprising. People were usually caught more off guard.
“No, there are tons of reasons.”
“Well, I’m listening.”
Breaking away from my suitcase, I collected my thoughts. “There have been times when Christians take out whole sections of the Bible that they don’t want anymore, and they add stuff that they wish were there.”
“I don’t know the exact references, but I know that they added the Trinity into the Bible. Later, when they were called out, they removed it.”
“Oh, I know what you’re talking about. You’re talking about first John five.”
I had no idea what “first John five” meant, but I practically jumped him for admitting the flaw. “So you’ve known all along!”
“I know what you’re referring to, but I don’t think you’re seeing it right.”
“How am I not seeing it right?”
“It’s not that Christians are just adding and removing things, as if there is some grand conspiracy with people controlling the text of the Bible. I mean, let’s just imagine for a second that someone did want to add stuff. Do you think he could just change all the Bibles in the world?”
“Well, maybe not all,” I admitted, approaching my bed and sitting across from David, “but enough.”
“Enough to what?”
“Enough to effectively change the text.”
He looked unimpressed. “Nabeel, are you telling me that Christians the world over would just let someone change their holy texts … and that this massive change would not be recorded anywhere in history? Come on.”
“Not the world over, but I can imagine someone getting away with that in a specific region.”
“So you agree, then, that if there were an interpolation in a specific region, we would find copies of the Bible without that interpolation elsewhere in the world?”
“I guess so.”
“Well, there you have it,” he said with an air of finality. “That explains the multiple versions of the Bible and the issue with first John five.”
“Umm, what?” I felt as if I had been playing a game of chess with David, and he had unexpectedly declared “checkmate.”
“The fact that there are manuscripts of the Bible all over the world means we can compare them and see where changes have been introduced. It’s a field of biblical study called ‘textual criticism.’ If anything is changed, like the verse about the Trinity in first John five, then we can easily find the alteration by comparing it to other manuscripts. That explains the major differences between various versions of the Bible. But don’t get the wrong idea; there are only a handful of major differences between them.”
“What about all the minor differences?”
“Well those are just stylistic differences in translation, for the most part. There are different translations of the Quran, aren’t there?”
“Yeah, but they’re all using the Arabic text to translate, not foreign language transmissions.”
“Well, it’s the same with the Bible. Most of the differences between Bible versions are just matters of translation, not the underlying Hebrew or Greek.”
I let all this new information sink in, and I looked at David in a new light. Where did he get all this information? Why hadn’t I heard it before? I found it all hard to believe.
My incredulity won out. “David, I don’t believe you. I’ve got to see this for myself.”
He laughed. “Good! You’d be letting me down if you didn’t look into this further. But if you’re gonna do this right, you better bring it!”
I got up and started walking back toward my suitcase. “Oh, don’t worry. It’s been brought.”
After I finished unpacking, we focused on final preparations for the tournament. All the while, I kept thinking about our conversation. I was still fully convinced that the Bible was corrupt, but I had to deal with more advanced arguments than I had previously heard. I was excited to return home and dive more deeply into these matters.
Nabeel Qureshi is a member of the speaking team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries.
 This symbol represents the Arabic phrase sall Alaahu ‘alay-hi wa-sallam, which means “peace and blessings of Allah be upon him,” a standard Muslim formula after mentioning the name of Muhammad.
 This formula, subhanahu wata ‘ala, is often repeated after the name of Allah, meaning “glorified and exalted.”
 A common Muslim formula meaning “I seek refuge in Allah,” this phrase is verbalized after something dishonorable, blasphemous, or otherwise negative is stated or suggested.
 In mainstream Islam, it is commonly understood that Allah has ninety-nine names. These are two, translated as “the forgiver” and “the merciful” respectively.
 A very common formula meaning “glory be to Allah,” this phrase is often exclaimed whenever good news is heard or something positive is stated.
 An Arabic term meaning “community,” referring to all Muslims.
 Sahih Bukhari 6.61.508: “the Divine Inspiration descended upon him … The Prophet’s face was red and he kept on breathing heavily for a while and then he was relieved.” See also Sahih Muslim 30.5763: “Allah’s Apostle sweated in cold weather when revelation descended upon him.”
 A common formula of repentance meaning “I seek forgiveness from Allah.”