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“I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

-John 8:12

Islam to Catholicism; Finding Love and Community – Shoaib’s Story

11 years ago, I was a student on campus at IUPUI. I was living a wayward lifestyle, similar to other students on campus. I dove into secular things that the culture had to offer — chasing women, drinking, partying. I partied. I did all the typical college stuff. Growing up in a Muslim household, I remember how my friends were allowed to partake in certain celebrations and activities that were prohibited in our Muslim faith. This made me resent my background, so when college came around, I rebelled and wanted to do everything I had been prevented from doing. However, this lifestyle ultimately left me feeling exhausted, unfulfilled, and unhappy.

When anybody hits rock bottom regardless of their faith tradition, they tend to go back to the roots they that they grew up with. For me, that was Islam. I decided to really try and understand what it meant to be a Muslim. Not just proclaim it by name, but really understand the theology and the Quran. I continued to study and teach myself the faith, and a restlessness grew. I asked questions of local imams, and began making friends with some of the Muslim students on campus. I realized I wasn’t alone in my desire to understand my faith more deeply, and that’s when I found the Muslim Student Association.

Funny enough, since I was already pretty involved on campus, I was asked by the members to be the leader. I was already in a fraternity and involved in other organizations, and I knew the intricacies of like how to get things situated on campus. However, the deep restlessness wouldn’t go away. As much as I tried to surround myself with fellowship and good Islamic teaching, it mysteriously just wasn’t enough.

DEPARTURE FROM ISLAM

In the fall of 2012, without telling anyone, I privately apostatized from Islam. I had a fraternity brother who was probably the most virtuous guy I knew on our campus, and found out he was a Christian. I started meeting with him regularly, asking him questions of faith and theology. I found out he wasn’t just a Christian, but a Roman Catholic. I kept asking him why he chose to live his life so differently compared to the rest of my fraternity brothers. The way he lived and his openness to spak about his faith was inspiring, and made me wonder if there was something to his faith.

However, I was no Christian at the time. I held that Jesus Christ of Nazareth was no more than a mere Prophet. I believed he was a good virtuous man that lived, but couldn’t bring myself to profess that Jesus is truly God.

So my friend invited me to a Bible study, but I was nervous to go. What would it look like if the president of the Muslim Student Association came to a Catholic Bible study? Keeping a low profile, I decided to go.

To my surprise, it just so happened that the Scripture reading of the day was Jesus’ question to Peter, from Matthew 16:15: “Who do you say that I am?” I felt like I had walked into a setup. However in hindsight, it was actually part of the Bible study program and was a complete and total coincidence — God’s Providence at work.

So everyone went around and said that Christ is Lord. Yet, when it reached me, I had a different answer. “Well, he was just a good man, a good virtuous human and that’s all there is to it. He was a prophet of God and that’s all we can say about him” I said.

It took many people by surprise, but afterward, my friend encouraged me to study the Scriptures privately and come to him with questions I might have. He gave me a Bible and told me to start with the Gospel of Matthew. I read the entire thing in one day. I was struck by how poetic it was. At thi point I had only ever read the Quran, yet there was never anything as poetic as The Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes. With each “Blessed are you”, I felt like I was being spoken to directly — something I had never experienced with the Quran. Fast forward a couple more months, and I devoted myself to the Scriptures.

Later on, I was invited to Mass for the first time. I had a good experience, but didn’t yet believe that Jesus Christ is God. I had read the majority of the New Testament, but I just couldn’t bring myself to believe. I couldn’t believe that He came and died for my sins, and rose again. Around this time it was December 2012 — Advent — and it was around this time that Mary, the mother of Jesus, started to enter my journey.

I was already familiar with Mary. In Islam we’re taught that she was the holiest woman to ever live, and is honored in the Islamic tradition. If you were to ask Muslim women like why they wore the hijab, they would say it’s for modesty and to imitate Mary, and there’s a certain beauty to that. Muslims don’t venerate her as much as Catholics do, but that veneration does exist as a model of holiness for women.

Coming to Jesus Through Mary

Just three days after that first Mass, I was invited to a Hispanic parish over on the west side of Indianapolis. They were celebrating the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and until this point, I had no idea what the intercession of saints was, or what role Mary played in Catholicism.

When I first looked into it, I thought it was as pagan as pagan gets. However, since I had already privately apostatized from Islam, I was open to the possibility of anything being real. If it was, it would deserve my my full devotion. So I go to that church and we have Mass. It’s in Spanish, and I didn’t understand anything except that the structure of the Liturgy was the exact same. After Mass they did a procession and were asking Mary for intercessory prayers. At this point, my friend turned to me and say “Whatever is on your heart, just give it to Mary and she’ll bless and pray for that to her Son, and He will answer you.”

So prayed a humble, sincere prayer. I prayed something like “Mary, I’ve left Islam, the one thing I had as an identity. I’m struggling to keep it a secret, help me tell my family that I’ve left Islam and accepted Jesus as my Lord and Savior. Amen. “

“Wait, what did I just pray?!” I asked myself. My friend did a double take.

“Did you just say that you accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior?!” he said. I paused, and I felt something shift internally. So I said it over and over again. I prayed again:

“Jesus, I’ve been getting to know you, but I feel like I’ve known you all my life. I think that you came and died for me, so from this day forward I accept you as my Lord and Savior.”

I realized that this was all I wanted. It just took some time, it was something that needed to be done for me to get out of my own way. I think that’s why the Blessed Mother was there, for me to come to her with true humility and ask what I need — and she delivered. Here it was, the season of Advent, when she’s literally the Tabernacle carrying Christ into the world — and to me. It’s like what she says at the Wedding at Cana, to do whatever Jesus tells us.

She pointed me to the Savior of the world, and I followed.

A replica of the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe

BREAKING THE NEWS

I went through a six-month RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults) program at St John’s, and my sponsor was very diligent in working with me multiple times a week. However, I was still a closeted apostate from Islam. I was very worried that my family would find any of it out. Despite my anxiety, I wanted the Sacraments and to fully embrace Christ in the Catholic Church.

I went to talk with the parish priest, Fr Rick. He was incredibly empathetic and understanding of my struggle. He knew I believed in my heart and mind that Jesus Christ is the Savior, that I wanted to be baptized, and that it could be even dangerous for me and my family to some degree. He encouraged me in my freedom to choose — he knew only I could decide because I have free will. Either way, I already had received Christ in my heart.

Through my process of RCIA and conversations with Fr Rick, I really experienced the love of Christ. Jesus is never going to force me to accept Him.

Jesus is never going to force me to do anything that I wouldn’t want to do. Knowing that I still had a free choice was very impactful.

BREAKING THE NEWS TO FAMILY

Right before Easter, I broke the news to my mom. I had been living at her house at the time, so I told her before anyone else in my family. It was a very tough conversation, and I knew afterward that I would no longer be able to live there because of my decision. I had never really lived on my own, and I needed some type of living arrangement.

After the tough time breaking the news to my family, I then turned towards my Muslim friend group at the Muslim Student Association. After I told a particularly close Muslim friend of mine, he tried to convince me to return to Islam and tell me how wrong I was for choosing Christianity. So I asked him point blank, “What is the punishment for apostasy according if we were’t living in the United States?” “Death” he responded. So I said “After all these years that we’ve spent together as kids and as friends, would you be comfortable with that?” He then responded “It’s a shame that we don’t live in one of those countries, because I’d be okay with carrying that out myself.”

Things continued to worsen with my family relationships as well. Every occasion with my family always devolved into uncharitable shouting matches as to why their theology was incorrect or why my theology was incorrect. We had irreconcilable differences that we just had to power through and live with, and it was like that for next couple years.

However, I was able to move into an on-campus formation house with a few other Catholic guys. If I didn’t have that community to really ground me, I would have probably fallen away from the faith. And, by continually engaging in the community, I met my wife through St John’s. Through growing closer to Christ with her and our children, many of those initial wounds of my family have begun to heal.

ROLE OF THE EUCHARIST

When I was first coming into the Church, I had a profound experience in Eucharistic Adoration. I sat before the Blessed Sacrament, which was exposed in the monstrance. For some reason, I experienced an overwhelming feeling of sorrow and joy at the same time.

I was hit with sorrow over how I had missed this for the first 20 years of my life — followed by joy, knowing I wasn’t too late. I’m not usually a sensitive person, but I think it was just an openness of heart to recognize Christ in the Eucharist without yet fully knowing all the theology behind it.

At that moment, I knew that there was something special there, but I didn’t know what that was it was. Only in my further study in RCIA did I learn that the Eucharist was the true Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus Christ.

THE ROLE OF COMMUNITY

I’ve formed some great friends here in the faith community, which is all centered around the Eucharist. My favorite Scripture verse is Acts 2:42. It’s after Peter’s sermon and 3,000 are baptized, and they all commit themselves to living what we call the sacramental life — the teaching of the Apostles, fellowship, the Scriptures, and the “breaking of the bread” which is the Eucharist. It’s amazing to be a part of that tradition 2,000 years later.

Nowadays, a lot of people today are wounded, whether because of religion or other factors, like bad relationships or jobs. We’re constantly trying to fix those things on our own. We think a lot of our problems can be addressed by somebody else. And it’s true. That Somebody Else is waiting for you here in the chapel.

It’s not easy though. It takes humility to admit that “I’m not in control and my life is not in my own hands.” When it comes to letting Christ address the anxiety, difficulties, and challenges that I face, I need to realize that I just need to accept the invitation He’s extended. Openness and freedom are key to accepting God’s grace.

It’s difficult to accept the idea that there is something else beyond yourself. It’s not easy when there’s so much noise from Church politics, tons of things to know about the Church that can often feel like barriers to a relationship with God. Just don’t worry about that stuff yet.

Just come to Christ first, devote yourself to Him, and then let Him change your heart.

Even if your only prayer is “Lord, if You’re for real, show me a way to know, love, and serve you,” He always wants to answer that prayer. He’ll put you on a path to Himself in the Eucharist, which is the greatest gift on Earth so that we can be with him for all eternity.

Disclaimer: This is a revised and condensed version of the original podcast transcript for storytelling purposes. You can listen to the full podcast to hear the complete, unedited conversation and story here.