Samaa Kabbar and Fatima Sidaoui, The Circle

The modern individual has it all: absolute individual freedom, unprecedented technological advances, and material wealth.

But could we be missing something?

What surprise can Islam—stereotyped in the media as a religion of extremism and terrorism—offer to the modern individual who believes s/he has reached the crest of human existence?

In comparison to the promises of modernity, the teachings of Islam seem backward and obsolete. That is, while modernity favours individualism and permits full individual freedom, Islam demands its followers to observe certain social and religious duties. While modernity portrays material wealth as the ultimate goal and the secret of happiness, Islam commands Muslims to not let material possessions lead them astray of their true purpose. And while modernity allows individuals to do with their bodies as they please and encourages them to fulfil their carnal desires unrestrictedly, Islam imposes rules to regulate one’s physical and social interactions.

In short, Islam has way too many constraints to the liking of the modern individual whose worldviews have been largely influenced by the ideologies of secularism, atheism, and feminism.

Indeed, it is not easy to be a Muslim. You are supposed to pray five times a day all year round, and wake up to the dawn prayer every single day, weekends included. You have to fast once a year for a whole month straight, never mind the hot long days of summer. You have to cover certain parts of your body even if it means defying the constructed norms of beauty.

And this is arguably just the easy part.

Being a true Muslim requires a continuous purification of the heart and soul from hatred, jealousy, arrogance, selfishness, and ingratitude. It requires struggling against the desires of the self, putting God’s will before your own, and adhering to a high moral code. Many times this means swimming against the current.

Easier said than done.

Yet despite the apparently taxing conditions to being a Muslim, not to mention the stigma associated with such an affiliation, a significant number of Western individuals—most of them well educated—choose to embrace Islam as a religion.

So while Islam is considered restrictive to those liberties otherwise granted by modernity, what has compelled new converts to embrace Islam, leaving behind the luxuries of the materialistic culture and all its glamour?

At a time when some Muslims are perhaps second-guessing their affiliation with Islam, what value have these new converts found in it? Why would anyone choose to become part of a controversial group that is stigmatized in various parts of the world?

This is what we learn from Tom Facchine, himself a new convert who visited the Islamic Centre of Cambridge (ICC) in Ramadan. As part of the Ramadan festivities organized by the Muslim community, Facchine gave a Friday sermon and opened a community Iftar that was attended by public figures. Facchine shared with The Circle parts of his journey to accepting Islam, the value that Islam has added to his life, and his views on the challenges faced by North American Muslims, especially youth.

Please tell us about yourself and background.

My name is Tom Facchine, I was born in southern New Jersey to a family of Italian heritage. My father is a Catholic and my mother a Protestant (Presbyterian). Growing up, my mother made sure that my older sister and I were at church every Sunday. I took church and my faith very seriously for most of my childhood and adolescent years. I remember being gifted a Bible when I was 12 years old and reading from it in my spare time. I went to Sunday school and participated in other church programs. Once I became a teenager—and this is the case for many Western youth—I drifted from the church and Christianity, becoming an atheist who was convinced that religion was just a fairy tale that people told themselves to feel better about their own mortality. After graduating from high school I was granted admission to Vassar College where I studied Political Theory and International Relations. That is when my ‘faith’ in atheism wavered (more on that in a bit) and at the same time I became exposed to Islam. I accepted Islam in my senior year, before graduating with a BA in 2011. After graduating I spent the next four years or so working in restaurants and then on farms, educating myself about Islam and learning Arabic in my spare time. Upon the advice of a mentor I applied to the Islamic University of Madinah in Saudi Arabia and was granted admission. I’ve been studying there since 2015; after completing the Arabic Institute I began study in the Department of Islamic Law in which I am currently enrolled.

Before you embraced Islam, what was your perception of it?

Islam wasn’t really on my radar until the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001. After that, it was all anyone talked about. All of a sudden, questions I had never considered—questions that seemed very critical—kept coming up: who deserves blame in this situation? What motivated the attack? How can justice be reached? I quickly confronted the fact that, while up until that point I had been able to coast through school while getting good grades, I was woefully ignorant of history, politics, other cultures, other religions, etc. So those attacks lit a spark when it came to my own desire to learn and understand the world around me and how we got to this point. I began to read history voraciously and follow current events. I would bring books by Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky to class in high school and argue with my history teachers, who were uncritically nationalistic. At this time I was drifting from religion so I can’t say that I thought very much about Islam per se; however I quickly developed sympathy for the Muslims, who I identified as victims of Western imperialism and neocolonialism, and this was my attitude throughout college, where I became more meaningfully exposed to Islam.

What was a turning point in your life at which you decided to embrace Islam as a religion? What attracted you to Islam specifically?

Embracing a new way of life always has multiple push factors and pull factors. The push factors began in high school with my dissatisfaction with Christians and Christianity. I found most Christians to be merely “Sunday Christians” as they are called, quite complacent regarding the relatively few spiritual commitments they had. From a very young age I craved a more rigorous and daily spiritual experience and practice, one which I never found in the church. Nor did I find compelling answers for my questions about the more convoluted elements of Christian theology such as the trinity, the nature of Jesus, etc. Add to all that the largely reactionary political commitments of many Christians in the US—enmity toward Muslim nations, support of the apartheid state of Israel, and the lack of sympathy for immigrants and refugees—and I felt compelled to look elsewhere for a moral compass. As I mentioned, I eventually became an atheist, looking to leftist political ideologies like Marxism as a guide. That lasted until college, where much of my coursework revolved around studying European colonialism both historically and theoretically. I came to see how leftist ideologies carried the same imperialistic and ethnocentric imperatives as the earlier, more religious expressions of colonialism which they sought to overthrow. So that left me really adrift intellectually, with a big void to fill.

The pull factors came in first through a Moroccan professor I had at college. Her courses were very engaging, even provocative at times. She taught an entire course on the life and works of Al-Hajj Malik Al-Shabaaz, who is more widely known as Malcolm X. We basically read everything he ever wrote and the transcripts of all his major speeches and interviews. I took to heart his evolution as a person and how much more constructive and substantial his thought became over time, especially after leaving the Nation of Islam and coming into the fold of orthodox Islam. Another course taught by this professor was titled something like “Arab-American Encounters,” and it detailed the history of Western colonialism and imperialism in the Arab world while paying special attention to the Islam-inspired resistance movements that sprung up in response. This was my first real encounter with Islamic thought, as many of the works were translated from Arabic and included citations from the Quran and the Prophetic statements. I was impressed by the strength of conviction that the leaders of these movements had in the Islamic tradition and their pride in it. Most children in the West are taught history in such a way that makes Western civilization seem like the main driver of human progress, with North America (excluding Mexico!) and Europe, with its Greco-Roman inheritance, ostensibly monotheistic faith, and enlightenment rationality, as its pinnacle. With this timeline firmly rooted in our minds and constantly reinforced by the narrative of “everyone wants to be here” it’s hard to imagine—let alone appreciate—the contributions and trajectories of other civilizations. I was amazed that these Muslim thinkers whom I was now reading were not only saying that there was a system of values and beliefs outside Western civilization, but also in their unflinching belief in its superiority. That got me very curious to read and explore more. Also, these thinkers were citing the Quran and the Prophetic traditions in their works, and even though it was translated material I was struck by how specific yet comprehensive Islamic guidance was. I knew the Bible, I knew its voice, its scope, and how it moved. The Quran immediately felt different to me. The Bible reads like a history book, the Quran had a much more instructive, direct tone that plausibly could be from a Creator. It also intuitively made sense to me that any religion or ideology claiming to be universal should have instructive guidance for each area of human activity, from internal struggles, to how one ought to deal with their family and community, as well as how to conduct government, economy, and war. What I found is that most religions have much to say about inner spiritual struggles and interpersonal relations but were largely silent on macro-issues such as governance and economy, e.g. “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s.” On the flip side, secular ideologies address issues of governance and economy but have very little to offer in terms of becoming a better person, how you should treat others, etc. So I was very much drawn to Islam because it seemed to be a one-stop shop for human needs.

In addition to the intellectual component there were other emotional and relationship factors that affected me. That same college professor lived close to campus with her mother. My circle of friends was often invited for dinners of couscous or tajin with plenty of Moroccan tea afterwards. We helped them move furniture to another apartment when they moved and gave them rides to the supermarket when they needed groceries (neither of them had a car). We all became very close. She sometimes invited a local Imam from Egypt to her house for these events and so I was able to watch him and pick his brain. I was very much taken by his character, gentleness, and his willingness to field and respond to literally any question. He was also the furthest thing from being pushy, which I really appreciated.

I had the opportunity to take more coursework related to the Muslim world. I took a seminar on the Iranian Revolution, another class on Secularism in Turkey. That later course led to a semester abroad in Istanbul. I was blessed to sublet an apartment in one of the more religious neighborhoods. The people there were so humble and welcoming. I’ve never been to a place like that where if you ask someone for help they will literally drop everything they’re doing and accompany you half the day until you get what you need. I had been a musician before accepting Islam so the melodiousness of the call to prayer and the recitation of the Quran were huge draws for me.

All of these forces kept working on me until I was sold. Eventually I admitted it to myself and started praying and fasting on my own secretly. I loved it. The worship made so much sense. It was only a short while later that I formally pronounced the testimony of faith.

How has Islam changed you as a person and how has it changed your perspective on life?

Islam has given me a clear sense of purpose and a wellspring of motivation and discipline. It has also taught me the value of people. I think much contemporary Western thought focuses too much on institutions at the expense of the individuals who work through those institutions. We’ll talk, for example, about the ideal form of government and economy, weigh the merits of capitalism versus socialism, republicanism versus other forms of government, how to establish the separation of powers and checks and balances. All the while we don’t talk very much about the quality of the people making up these institutions, which is a shame, since a pool of lousy people can ruin even the most carefully thought-out institution.  How do you cultivate qualities like dignity, integrity, loyalty, honor, honesty, and generosity in people? Islam has tuned me into these sorts of questions and provided answers. Islam has also taught me tact, discretion, and wisdom. For example, we are currently saturated by a culture of exposing other people’s mistakes. If someone says or writes something we find problematic, we are much more likely to take our grievances to social media and put it up for the world to see than to reach out to that person and attempt to establish a meaningful dialogue. However, that super-confrontational style invites our egos to step in and defend our reputation and is thus a major barrier for people changing their minds. Islam has taught me the importance of nurturing relationships and honoring other’s dignity. Dialogue is difficult and takes time, longer than we’d often like, but I find it a far more effective tool. Even a moment of correction should be a loving invitation to the truth, and not a public shaming.

What activities or projects are you currently working on? 

Well, being enrolled at the Islamic University, many of the projects I’m working on revolve around my education. Memorizing the Quran is at the top, along with the other texts I’m studying in law, legal theory, Arabic grammar, hadith, etc. Summer break is the time where I get to reconnect with the Muslim communities in the West and communicate some of the perspective I’ve picked up studying overseas. I currently direct an after school program in Cherry Hill, New Jersey for boys aged 8-13 that runs the duration of Ramadan. The theme is ‘Diseases of the Heart.’ Each day we talk about a spiritual disease, like greed or jealousy for example, we talk about it together to tease out what it looks like when it happens, what it feels like, what makes people fall prey to it, and how we can intervene when we catch ourselves succumbing to it. I’m trying to get it out of their heads that these things exist exclusively in the domain of comic book style villains and show them how they affect us all in subtle ways and build the emotional intelligence and spiritual awareness that can combat these things.

In addition to that program I had the opportunity to visit you all in Cambridge and do an extended weekend of programs at the ICC. I gave the sermon at Friday prayer on how to become an ambassador of Islam in the West, and later said a few words at an open house/community iftar held by the ICC that some local leaders, including the mayor, attended. The following two days we did two lectures, one about some essential characteristics that every believer should possess, and the other on establishing Islam in our hearts and homes. I made a lot of friends; the community was so welcoming!

Just the other night I redid the ‘essential characteristics’ talk at a mosque in Philadelphia. Later this summer I’ll probably be putting together a weekend seminar with some other folks in Madison, Wisconsin. I just love travelling and meeting with Muslims from all different backgrounds and walks of life, hearing what their concerns are and seeing the different ways of doing things from one community center to the next. Seeing all the work that needs to be done provides me with lots of motivation when I go back overseas to resume my studies.

The theme of this issue is being a Canadian Muslim. In your opinion, what role does being a Muslim play in shaping the identity of youth in North America? (I am thinking here about the struggle that we as humans go through in order to find our place in the world, and the role of Islam in settling/resolving some of this confusion).

Places like Canada and the US are multicultural societies. The strength of multicultural societies is that everyone has some perspective, some unique way of thinking about things or doing things that other people stand to benefit from. For us as Muslims, most of us come from heritages that are doubly rich: rich from the particular part of the world our ancestors come from and rich by virtue of our faith. We do a really good job of enriching the spaces around us with that first kind of ethnic richness; many people love the cuisines we bring and our elegant ways of dressing, etc. But we have yet to really put forth how our faith can enrich the societies in which we live. There are a million ways to do this, but the one that really jumps out to me is sharing what Islam teaches us about where we can find a true sense of fulfillment and satisfaction in life. Canada and the US are inundated with material wealth, but research has shown that above meeting basic necessities, this wealth doesn’t actually make anyone happier or more satisfied. Quite the contrary, people who have made wealth their goal rather than their means to other ends find profound emptiness once they finally obtain it. Observe how many people struggle with substance abuse, addiction to painkillers, etc. Our society values wealth so intensely that if someone can’t obtain a certain level of material wealth they’re considered lazy, a failure, a mooch, etc. There’s a strong unspoken assumption that those with wealth have reached their station by their efforts and cleverness alone. In this regard Islam is liberating in the truest, deepest, most personal sense of the word; you work hard, but realize that the results are up to your Creator, so no blame is doled out for failure and there’s no sense of undue pride for success. In addition, you use and enjoy the good things in this life but you’re not attached to them; rather they are a means for helping other people in this life and obtaining eternal paradise for yourself in the next. Sharing this kind of wisdom and showing, by our example, an alternative understanding of success and wealth, and a healthy, wholesome relationship with this world can go a long way to help our societies heal some of their greatest ailments and live more fulfilling meaningful lives.

Based on your experience, what are the major challenges that Muslims—especially youth—in North America face? What would be some ways to handle such challenges?

The dilemma of Muslim youth in the North America boils down to the fact that for most youth, our parents or grandparents—whoever emigrated to the West—knew very little about Islam back in the old country. That didn’t really matter back then, since part of the luxury of living in a Muslim-majority country is that you have a strong social fabric that reinforces your values and norms for you. Uproot your family and come to Europe or North America, however, and that social fabric is gone. Now you live in a society that has significantly different values and norms, and literally nothing except your immediate family working to enforce the old values. Add to this scenario the tremendous pressures of conformity that operate through schools and other institutions, add again to that the fact that our society values challenging tradition and questioning authority—very different values than those our parents and grandparents grew up with—and the result is our youth coming home confused and demanding to know why they should have to do (or not do) certain things that make them stick out. Why should I have to wear hijab? Why can’t I have a girlfriend? Why can’t I just follow the Quran without worrying about hadith? Why doesn’t Islam stand up for the right of people to marry whoever they want? Unless you come from a family of Islamic scholarship you’re probably not going to have your questions answered in a satisfying way.

That’s the overarching situation. The particular challenges align with the dominant ideologies that are so normative in academic circles these days that they seem beyond critical inquiry. The big ones are secularism, modernism, atheism, and feminism. I wouldn’t even include “Islamophobia” in this list; people who are openly hateful to our religion are a blessing in disguise—without meaning to trivialize the serious harm some of them cause—because at least we know what they’re about and they offer us a wake-up call and an opportunity to pull together as a community. The previously mentioned ideologies are much more dangerous because they attempt to redefine what Islam is and corrupt it from the inside. Secularism attempts to remold religions so that they are private, individualistic, and subservient to state interests. Modernism attempts to overthrow the spiritual or moral authority of anything occurring in the past. Atheism and the scientism upon which it is built provide an alternate human history, one that accounts both for the origin of humanity as well as the phenomenon of religion. Because of the unimpeachable currency scientific inquiry currently has in our society, its ideologues are able to merely bully uninformed people of faith into submission. Feminism attempts to overthrow Islam’s fundamental episteme by dismissing mainstream Islamic scholarship, even the understanding of the Prophet and his companions, as serving the misogynistic interests of patriarchal eras, flatten very real differences between men and women under the pretext of equality, and shove down our throats the notion that human beings are defined by their sexual desires by including principled, moral objections to their ideological program as “hate.” Admittedly, some of these ideologies have drawn attention to some troubling problems within our own communities. Less radical forms of feminism have helped highlight the pathetic way in which many Muslim communities neglect and even actively inhibit the intellectual and spiritual growth of their women. But we can’t throw out the baby with the bath water; our own tradition provides solutions to the deficiencies and excesses we have created due to our ignorance of our own tradition.

That’s why, regarding solutions, it all comes back to knowledge, which is what got us in this dilemma in the first place. A significant group of homegrown leaders isn’t going to appear out of thin air, we need to take the steps to grow them organically. That starts with establishing far more comprehensive and substantial facilities and institutions. We need adequate houses of worship, Arabic schools, Quran schools, youth centers, gymnasiums, after school sports leagues, the list goes on and on. We need to staff these institutions with qualified, dynamic leadership. We need our communities to sponsor youth to go study Islam abroad; we need communities to develop relationships with Western Muslims already studying the religion abroad and bring them in for internships and other programs. We need our communities to empower them financially and creatively when they return and are ready to lead. All this takes money. Muslims are one of the wealthiest minority groups in the West yet we pay our religious leaders far less than our counterparts do theirs. Some of us are literally living in mansions but consider it outlandish to pay an Imam a competitive wage. That has to change, and if it doesn’t change with the older generation it has to be done by the generation that’s about to graduate university or about to get married and settle down. Something has to give, priorities have to be understood and sacrifices have to be made. Even wealthy people in the West don’t typically have disposable income because they are constantly living at the very edge of what they can afford. They get a house they can barely afford, a car they can barely afford, go on vacations they can barely afford. Then when it’s time to give to the community everyone feels strapped. It might take the next generation living in a more modest accommodation and driving more modest transportation to have what it takes to establish Islam properly.

All that is looking to the next generation, when it comes to what an individual can do, I think we need to foster the prevalent attitude of critical inquiry. Let’s look at our religion critically but in a way that promotes true, not dismissive, engagement. But let’s also put these more normative ideologies under the microscope. Under scrutiny, Islam holds up as cohesive, instructive, substantive, and fair. Other ideologies, as I’ve found, don’t.

To close off, any final words you’d like to address to young Canadian Muslims?

I think we need, as a Muslim community, to stop flying under the radar, stop worrying about conforming, and stop apologizing for ourselves. Other minority groups have pride parades!! If they can double down on their identity, we should on ours. At the same time, literacy is key. Becoming literate in our own tradition is the most liberating tool in our toolbox. Everyone can learn Arabic if they want to and understand what their Creator said to them directly. I began learning Arabic in my mid-20s, if I can do it, anyone can do it. Then you start understanding what the Imam is reciting, then you start appreciating the eloquence of the Quran and the eloquence of our Prophet. Until you learn Arabic, get a decent translation of the Quran and try to read it cover to cover. Just a couple of pages a day is all it takes, be consistent and when you finish you’ll find a huge difference in your basic familiarity with the Quran. Finally, trust that answers are out there. They might not be online, they might not be with your local religious leader, but Islam has answers. Keep trying to understand, and eventually Allah will give you understanding through some means.