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Michael B. Wolfe: ‘Islam Spoke to Me’

SHAFAQNA-  “I have no argument or differences with Christians, Jews, or any people from any other religion, but for me Islam was perfect. It spoke to me. It helped me be a better person,” Michael B. Wolfe [1]

Wolfe is an American poet, author, and the President and Co-Executive Producer of Unity Productions Foundation. A secular American born in Cincinnati, Ohio to a Christian mother and a Jewish father, Wolfe converted to Islam at 40 and has been a frequent lecturer on Islamic issues at universities across the United States including Harvard, Georgetown, Stanford, SUNY Buffalo, and Princeton. He holds a degree in Classics from Wesleyan University.

Following is the full text of the interview:

 You have converted to Islam and written books on the subject.  What was your reason for becoming a Muslim, given that you are from a secular family?

Wolfe: I became a Muslim in my early 40s.  When I read about the small community of people in Mecca, who became Muslims to find a better way of life, I felt some kinship with them across the centuries. I have no argument or differences with Christians, Jews, or any people from any other religion, but for me Islam was perfect. It spoke to me. It helped me be a better person, (Inshallah.)

 You have written an important book on Hajj from an American perspective. What attracted you most about the Hajj?

Wolfe: Performing the Hajj with three million people from all over the world, in one place at one time, praying together, eating together, performing the rites together, all of this had a powerful integrative force for me. It brought all the elements of being a Muslim together for me, personally and communally.  I was like an unbaked cake, and Mecca was like the oven that blended all the ingredients together. Al-Hamdulilah.

 What do you think leads some Muslims toward extremist groups such as Daesh (ISIL or ISIS), and how can this be prevented?

Wolfe: Most people join extremist groups because of some personal disappointment, because they feel powerless and disenfranchised. This makes them vulnerable to mixed up thinking and to feelings of revenge. It is easy, when you feel like that, to be led astray by extremist recruiters.

 What is society’s view of Muslims in America, and what challenges do Muslims face?

Wolfe: Muslims in America have it pretty easy.  The government and the critics of Islam certainly do give us trouble now and then, but by and large we can live our lives as we like and a lot of different religions have flourished here for hundreds of years. People are used to the idea.  Most of the Americans I know, while they may not understand Islam very well, are good neighbors. I didn’t become a Muslim to convince other people that Islam is better than other religions. I became a Muslim to help my soul.

How do you see the future of Islam and Muslims in the US?

Wolfe: I think Islam is already being successful here. There are thousands of mosques, 10% of American doctors (50,000 people) are Muslims. There are a lot of opportunities to improve your life here, if you want to make the effort. Some people want everything to be perfect, before they start.  That’s a prescription for failure.

Would you tell us about your new book?

Wolfe: I’m writing a nonfiction book about immigration. It’s called My Mother’s People. The book is partly about my family’s history. My eighth great-grandfather came to America four hundred years ago, in 1635, from England.  This was 150 years before the start of the United States. He came here fleeing a depression and religious persecution. A few years later, England had a terrible civil war. He couldn’t have returned home if he had wanted to.

With a few thousand other people from England, he helped settle the colony of Massachusetts. Today, Americans tend to romanticize these early settlers, but my grandfather wasn’t a romantic figure. He was, by the time he got here, a fifty-year-old carpenter of the lower-middle class with a wife and six children.  Because there was an economic depression in England, he had trouble getting paid for his work there. In addition, the King of England was punishing and imprisoning people whose religion was slightly different from the religion approved by the royal state.  My grandfather came to America for a better life. He helped build some of the first houses in “New England” on what is now the American east coast.

At first, he and his family were welcomed and given land, and they prospered. But the colony they helped settle had a rigid government. After seven years, my grandfather and his family were ostracized from the town they had helped build, kicked out more or less, for not having exactly the same views as the small group of people who governed the place. They managed to go on anyway, and one of their sons had children, and my mother’s family survived and continued.

This happened to a lot of early Americans. I want to tell this story against the backdrop of immigration to America today, in a world where tens of millions of people, mostly families, are fleeing persecution, civil war, gang wars, drug cartels, and the chaos of failed states. America is a unique country in two respects:  first, its population is mostly made up of people from other places all around the world. Secondly, the laws of the country are supposed to favor both immigrants and the people who already live here, and especially the middle class.  Almost everyone here was an immigrant once, but people forget quickly. I want to write a book to remind them that immigrants are a lot like the people who already live here.

Wish me good health and the time to write this book, Inshallah!  I write very slowly, I’m not a young man anymore, and I have to do a lot of research to get the story right.