On the day that Islam's second Caliph, Umar bin Khattab, accepted Islam an associate named Khabbab said, "Just last night I heard the Prophet praying that Allah would strengthen Islam by bringing Umar bin Khattab into it."
(Note what Muhammad's prayer was not. It was not, "God please strengthen Islam by teaching Muslims to love each other, honor their spouses, forgive their enemies, and enable their sons and daughters to be all that they can be." It was, "God strengthen Islam by giving us more influential people.")
Why did Muhammad want Umar to become a Muslim? Early biographer Ibn Ishaq informs us that Umar was a strong warrior. Before he accepted Islam, Muhammad's Quraysh tribe would not allow the Muslim converts to pray at the Kabah. After Umar accepted Islam, he forced the Quraysh to allow the Muslims to pray there.
Islam has always taken pride when influential people become Muslims. In our day, this is particularly true when they are Westerners. As noted here, Al Jazeera did an entire interview with Kristiane Backer, a former MTV hostess who adopted Islam.
Although I am certainly not an "influential" Westerner, I experienced this years ago in West Africa when I met some Ahmadiyyas engaged in Dawah, calling people to Islam. They invited me to their house for further discussion and while there asked if I would accept a Quran. When I agreed, their next question was whether I would be willing to be photographed taking the Mus-haf. I had no problem with that, and was photographed in a formal shot of me accepting the Sacred Text. It was only as I later reflected on the evening that I realized the photo would be sent back to Ahmadiyya Headquarters in Pakistan as a trophy of another Westerner who had come to the Nur, the light of the Prophet.
To be honest, I find the stories of Westerners who do accept Islam to be shallow and uninteresting. Some are disullusioned ex-pastors who discover the Bible is not the perfect, literal Word of God they once believed it to be. Rather than use the experience to grow in their understanding of faith, they continue their search for a perfect book and become easily convinced it is the Quran. Others are attracted by Sufi culture or music, and still others are women who come under the influence of a Muslim boyfriend or Shaykh.
On the other hand, the stories of people who leave Islam are to me much more interesting. They seem to have gone through a spiritual or intellectual search, and often pay a great cost to follow their reason and their conscience.
I listened to another of these stories this week on Rashid's show Daring Question on Al Hayat TV, available here in Arabic. Yahya Zakariya grew up in a Muslim family in Egypt, where his father was a senior officer in the Egyptian army and his mother was an educator. Yahya became a musician, receiving his BA and MA in Arabic music and composition from Egyptian universities and a PhD from Cambridge in the UK. He was also a serious student of Arabic, and received a second MA in that subject. He returned to Egypt from the UK where he taught music in Egyptian universities and also directed Arabic classical orchestras in Cairo.
Yahya married a Muslim woman and had two children, but the marriage ended in divorce with him having custody of his children. This increased responsibility led him to study the Quran more seriously with the belief that as he got closer to God, God in turn would protect his children. Yahya smoked and drank, but believed as many Muslims do that if he fasted both during the month of Ramadan and six additional days afterward, God would forgive him for those bad habits.
Yahya then mentioned several questions that had bothered him throughout his childhood. Once he happened to be the only person praying in the mosque, and inadvertantly prayed in the wrong direction. The Imam then informed him that his prayer had been rejected by Allah because he was not facing the Qiblah. "Isn't God everywhere?" Yahya asked himself. "How can he refuse my prayer because I pray in the wrong direction?"
A second question that crossed his mind as a young boy in Islamic class was, "Why, every time we mention the name of Muhammad, do we say, 'May Allah pray for him and grant him peace?'. If Muhammad is perfect, why are we always asking Allah to pray for him?"
The third question was, "Why do we invoke Allah's curses upon the Jews and the Christians every Friday at the mosque? Why do we ask Allah to make their wives widows and their children orphans? What have they done to us to make us curse them?"
Yahya wryly commented that even though these questions came and went, he didn't spend a lot of time pondering them. Like most Muslims, he lived by the Egyptian proverb Saah li-Albik wa Saah li-Rabbik: "Do what you need for yourself, and then do what you have to do for God".
It was only after he seriously began to study the Quran that Yahya discovered that rather than leading him closer to God, it was increasing his doubts and questions. Surat al-Mu'minun (23:12-14), for example, states that Allah puts the Nuftah in a "safe place". Allah then turns the Nuftah into an Alaqah, and next turns the Alaqah into a Mudrah. The following step is to transform the Mudrah into an A-tha-mah, add Lahmah and Voila! An expectant mother goes into labor and a child is born.
To believing Muslims, this is an example of Muhammad's supernatural understanding of embriology and another proof of the miracle of the Quran. The Nuftah is supposedly the fertilized egg, the safe place the womb, the Alaqah the first stages of the fetus, the Mudrah the fetus as it advances, the Athamah the skeleton, and the Lahmah the flesh (comment: this theory was first proposed by a Greek philosopher named Galen one thousand years before Muhammad).
Yahya's question was simply, "How can the Quran say the bones are inserted in the latter part of the pregnancy, and flesh is added on after that? If a woman has a miscarriage earlier in her pregnancy, are their no bones nor flesh?"
As an Arabic scholar, Yahya next began to notice grammatical mistakes in the Quran that scholars could not explain (as an example for readers who know Arabic, look at 7:56. Why is the ta in rahmat an open ta and not a ta marbutah? And why does qarib have tanween in the nominative case, rather than the accusative case as it should with an open ta? And if rahmat is being used as an adjective in the feminine gender, why is qarib masculine?).
What was the response of Imams and Shaykhs when Yahya went to them with his misgivings? It was the same quote from Surat Al-Maidah (5:101,102) that thousands of Muslims receive when they pose similar questions, "O you who believe! Do not ask questions about things that might cause you problems when they are explained to you. People before you asked similar questions and lost their faith."
After a year and a half of finding no answers to his questions, Yahya simply and quietly left Islam. The thought then occured to him, "As Muslims, we believe that Islam came to correct the errors of the Jews and the Christians. If I no longer believe in Islam, perhaps I should examine the religions it came to replace." He knew nothing about Judaism or Christianity, and asked a Christian member of his orchestra to introduce him to a Jew so he could obtain a copy of the Torah. To his surprise, the Christian informed him that the Torah was the first part of the Christian Bible. Yahya obtained a copy of the Bible, began to read it for himself, and eventually decided to follow Jesus.
Just as he had wanted to follow Islam all the way by seriously studying the Quran, Yahya wanted to follow Jesus wholeheartedly by being baptized, but it took months to find a Christian church in Egypt willing to baptize him (comment: am I the only one who finds it sad that the same Muslims who demonstrated just last week to defend the alleged conversion of a Christian to Islam would threaten the pastor who baptized a Muslim into the Christian faith?). He finally found a courageous priest willing to baptize him, and publicly proclaimed his faith in Jesus.
Yahya then told an amazing story that might seem strange to Westerners who take dreams much less seriously than people in the Muslim world. He wanted his two children, who were now teenagers, to follow him in his new-found faith but they were reluctant to become "Christians", second-class and often despised citizens in Egyptian society. One night his son burst into his room announcing he had just had a dream accompanied by a light that filled the room. A voice informed him that his name would be Yusuf (Joseph), and his sister would be Miriam (Mary). The very same night Yahya's daughter saw a dream in which Jesus informed her that he wanted her to follow him. Both children were baptized soon afterwards.
As could be expected of one in Yahya's social position, opposition to his new faith was severe. His family disowned him and relatives threatened to have him killed. He was summoned to Al Azhar University, where Egypt's Grand Mufti Ali Guma cursed him and declared him a Kafir. But his faith remains strong.