By Iman Sotiria Kouvalis
I remember seeing Muslim women at my university and feeling sorry for them. I didn’t know them but when we crossed paths at the cafeteria, I smiled at them because I thought they were oppressed. I never talked with them but I just assumed that they were forced to wear the veil.
It’s funny that I thought this way because I knew nothing about Islam. I mean nothing. I actually thought that everyone in the world were Christians! Remember, this was about 10 years ago (before 9/11).
But, my interaction with many Muslims made me reflect on my own disconnect with God and the Church. Although I was raised in a typical Greek Orthodox family and attended church every Sunday for most of my life, as I grew older, church no longer had meaning in my life and there were a lot of questions that couldn’t be answered by the Church.
As I grew older, a dichotomy started to appear where life and religion were drifting to opposite sides. I couldn’t see how I can make religion relevant to my daily life. On the one hand, we were raised to think that in order to be successful, we have to go to school, get a good job and buy a nice house and car and on the other hand, we were taught all we had to do is believe that Jesus died for our sins and we would be saved to be successful. On this side, we were taught to always think critically, to question why, to negotiate and on the other side, we were taught to just believe and never question or it would be like blasphemy. On this side, never do anything unless you know why and on the other side, perform all the rituals and never ask why.
And that’s how I started to drift away from the Church. It had no meaning anymore. I always believed in God and I desperately wanted Him to be part of my life but I had questions. And I was made to feel ashamed that I had questions. As if I was being a disobedient person.
So my only solution was to be away from the Church because I didn’t want to be seen as disobedient and at the end of they day, I was going to heaven anyway according to Christianity as long as I believed that Jesus died for my sins, it didn’t matter anyway. I could do anything and get away with it.
But my interactions with Muslims in university years later and seeing how spiritual they were reignited my passion to become close to God again. I guess you could say deep down I was a little jealous. How were they so devoted and at peace and I wasn’t even though I was going to heaven and they were not?
I started getting into religious debates with them. I was determined to convince them that they need to accept Jesus in order to be saved. But to my surprise, they already believed in Jesus! I started figuring out that they know a great deal about Islam and Christianity where I know next to nothing about Islam and even Christianity even though I attended Sunday school all my life.
Secretly, when no one was looking, I went to the library to read about Islam in order to convince them that they were wrong. I only found some really weird and old books. Remember, this was pre-Google days so there wasn’t that much on the internet either. One day, I was walking down one of the university halls when I saw some pocket pamphlets on the wall about Islam. I guess the Muslim Student Association put them there so after I made sure that the hall was empty, I quickly slipped a few of them in my bag. When I got home, I started reading and was amazed. One pamphlet even talked about Muhammad in the Bible. The Bible? I thought this must be a lie! But I checked the verse in my Bible, and I didn’t know if it was true or not because I was just reading a translation in English.
I made a sincere prayer to God to show me which religion is the truth. I wanted to know! I surprised myself though that I did that because I kept saying, of course, Christianity! I started attending church every week again, and then twice a week. This was very strange because I was practically the only young person there. I started reading the Bible again but this time in order to find answers to my questions.
After months of this, I couldn’t take it anymore and I decided to go to my priest. Now, anyone who is Greek can understand what a big event this is. I’m going to my priest to admit that I have questions in my faith and also to ask about the worst enemy of the Greeks: Islam. My questions were three:
- If Jesus died for our sins and we only have to believe this to be saved and go to heaven, then how does that make sense? That means I can commit any sin and be saved?
- How can God be 3 in 1?
- What do you think about Islam?
For the first two questions, he tried his best to explain but it was clear to me that there was a lot of ambiguity in his answers. When we got to the third question, his eyes bulged out and his skin turned a little red and he told me to just stay away from those people!
I left the meeting disappointed. For the first time, it caused a definite crack in my faith. I needed to find answers! But now I was on my own to find them. And I did.
After more months of intense reading, critical study of both religions and a persistent nagging of my soul to keep searching for God, the truth started coming to me, but I kept fighting it. I kept telling it to go away. I am Greek. I am Orthodox. I love my lifestyle. I don’t want to give up everything I was raised upon. But, in the end, it won. I submitted to my conscience. I submitted to the truth and declared that there is no object worthy of worship except God. Because that’s literally what the word “Islam” means.
Later, I started to realize that I don’t have to give up myself, my family or my culture. I realized that I can be Muslim and also be Greek, just like so many others around the world who are Muslim but also Pakistani, Arab, Somalian, Bosnian, Chinese or many other cultures. And in the Quran, I read:
“They are not [all] the same; among the People of the Scripture [i.e. Jews and Christians] is a community standing [in obedience], reciting the verses of Allah during periods of the night and prostrating [in prayer]. They believe in Allah and the Last Day, and they enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong and hasten to good deeds. And those are among the righteous. And whatever good they do – never will it be removed from them. And Allah is Knowing of the righteous.” (Quran 3:113-115)
I understood that as Muslims we are to respect people of other faiths for some of them are really sincere and they live God-conscious lives. In the end, it’s not me who will judge people, only God can do that.
I came to Islam through books. Through a critical and intense study just like so many other converts to Islam and just like so many other Greek converts to Islam. And I noticed that my story is not unique. So many other Greeks that I know today have similar questions as me and the same dichotomy in their lives. If you are in this situation, you owe it to yourself to find the answers now because we don’t know when we will die. And to know that God gave us a mind to think critically. It’s ok to ask questions and it’s ok to find answers.
That is why I started a website called Greeks Rethink. It’s a website where you can ask questions and find answers about life and God. You can go to www.greeksrethink.com and read about our stories and our lives or go onto the forums directly and interact with other rethinkers around the world.