Did you know that Islam is the second largest religion in the world after Christianity? Until God opened my eyes to see the truth, I was one of 1.2 billion Muslims blinded by Islam.
I was born into a devout Sunni Muslim home in the green, fertile nation of Bangladesh. My father, an Islamic leader with a prominent Islamic political party, and my mother, an Islamic schoolteacher, together reared me to be a model Muslim boy and future Islamic leader. Their dreams for me seemed to be coming true until a “miracle” took place and their world came crashing down. This is a story about how God snatched me from the clutches of hell and introduced me to the eternal Savior, Jesus Christ.
About 130 million people live in Bangladesh, a country approximately the size of Wisconsin. Our cities overflow with people, apartment buildings, shops, industrial buildings, rickshaws, motorcars, and pollution.
Yet in the midst of our increasingly modern cities, one can still see hints of the exotic beauty of this ancient land, especially in the villages scattered across the countryside. Mahatma Gandhi said of his own beloved homeland, “India lives in the villages.” The same is true of Bangladesh. The Bengali way of life can be best appreciated in the thousands of villages that dot the tropical landscape. The beauty of Bangladesh finds its highest expression in the colors of its land, people, and culture.
Many villages nestle so far into the tropical foliage that one can reach them only by crossing on foot over narrow bamboo bridges, weaving between rice and mustard seed fields on paths carved out of dense clusters of broad-leafed trees. All around, lush green reflects from leaves to the long irrigation canals. Women walking along a well-beaten path might skillfully balance large water pots upon their heads, their dark, thick hair tied back loosely in a long braid. As they pass, you hear the gentle jingling of jewelry and delicate swish of saris, richly designed in lavish, bold colors. Young men also pass by, bamboo sticks in hand, casually herding a small group of goats to the next village, less than a mile away. The aroma of curried fish and rice hangs in the air, floating up from an open fire pit.
Beneath such external beauty, however, there lies an emptiness and oppression. A disease of hopelessness plagues the nation from the inside out, holding captive the souls of its people and lining their faces with despair.
Many years ago, under British rule, the region now known as Bangladesh was called the East Bengal. Hinduism dominated the area’s religious practice. West Bengal, on the other side of the Ganges River, provided the site for Mother Teresa’s work in Calcutta.
In 1793, a Baptist minister from England named William Carey journeyed to this land to share the gospel. He accomplished many notable things, including the translation of the Bible into Bengali (and related dialects). Carey lived and died in the Bengal, winning many to the Lord and enjoying a fruitful ministry that improved the Bengali way of life. Today he is called “the father of modern missions.” Yet after him not many others arrived to carry the light of the gospel to the Hindu Bengalis.
Years later, Muslim missionaries from other countries settled in present day Bangladesh. The religion of Islam offered a system the Bengalis eagerly embraced, such as abolition of the caste system. The people heard that once they became Muslims, they would be equal, not dominated or segregated by caste, regardless of their family background. Eventually Islam claimed a majority of the country’s citizens, and in 1988 Bangladesh became an Islamic nation.
During the months of my birth and infancy, an intense civil war ravaged my country. East Pakistan fought for its freedom to live as Bangladesh (a “country of Bengalis”), hoping to sever its ties to West Pakistan, a country that shared little in common with Bengalis other than a framework of Islamic beliefs.
My father, grandfather, and uncles joined thousands of other brave men to fight in this conflict. Eventually the violence grew so severe that my expectant mother could no longer reside in the capital city, Dhaka. She, along with other female relatives, secretly rushed away at night through rice fields, thick tropical underbrush, and humid marshland to a tattered bungalow in a remote village. There, in a little hut made of bamboo and straw surrounded by canals and marshland, I was born.
Days, weeks, and months passed as my family waited to hear any word about our loved ones. My mother clung to me, her firstborn, as if to hold on to life itself. After nearly a year of such fear and anxiety, one day a thin, battered figure walked heavily toward our bungalow. As the fatigued man approached ever closer to our hut, tense silence gave way to a cry of joy. My father had survived and had finally returned home!
It was a bittersweet homecoming, however, as he delivered grim news of less fortunate family members. My grandfather had been among those who paid the ultimate price. I never had the opportunity to meet him.
As we nursed my father back to full strength, Bangladesh became its own nation. Soon we returned to the capital city and tried to resume normal life.
Although Muslims consider age seven to be the age of accountability, every child born into an Islamic household is automatically born a Muslim. When I reached age seven, my parents, wanting to make sure I was a Muslim, required me to repeat the shahada, or creed of Islam: “There is no god but Allah, and Mohammed is his messenger.” The creed must be said in Arabic—“La ilaha illa Allah, Mohammed rasul Allah”—regardless of the native language of the speaker. After I recited this creed for the first time, my parents required me to practice the Islamic religion in full force. From that moment on, I recited the shahada at least five times a day in my prayers.
Visitors to a Muslim country will hear the ritual call to prayer announced over a loudspeaker five times a day from the city’s mosques. The melodious Arabic chant floats through the air, inescapably reaching all parts of the community. Whenever faithful Muslims hear the chant, they stop their daily activities, prepare themselves with ritual washing, and complete their required set of prayers, including special motions and positions on their prayer rugs.
In addition to these prayer rituals, I also memorized much of the Qur’an, a book that contains messages reportedly given by Allah to Mohammed, the supreme prophet of Islam.
Devout Muslims also are expected to fast during the entire month of Ramadan. As a young boy, I remember how much I struggled with this fast, especially during the stiflingly hot days of summer in which the month of Ramadan sometimes fell. If we wanted Allah to accept our fasting, we were told we could take no food or water from sunrise to sunset. (Some teach that you cannot even swallow your own saliva during this holy month.) Hence, my mother would not give me even a drop of water to drink.
I remember one particular day during Ramadan when I was seven years old. My friends and I had just finished playing a rigorous game of soccer under the hot sun. I rushed home desperately thirsty and said, “Mother, I am very thirsty. Please give me some water to drink.”
“Son,” she replied, “you must not drink until after [the breaking of the fast].”
“Mother,” I complained, “if you don’t give me water to drink, I will die!”
She had a simple answer: “You must complete your fast. You can do it, son.”
Despite my pleas, she would give me nothing to drink until the sun went down. I remember lying on my bed, waiting in anxious pain for the moment when I could quench my burning thirst.
And so my parents determined to train me to live as a devout Muslim.
Each adherent to Islam usually is assigned a mentor, someone who can disciple the young believer in the Islamic faith. As the firstborn son of my family, I had to set an example for my younger siblings; in particular I was expected to mentor my younger brother, Jamal. Since my father wanted me to have the best training, he hired the leader of our community mosque—our imam—to be my private mentor.
I was taught to memorize the surahs, or chapters, of the Qur’an, learned how to be a good Muslim, and became familiar with the origins of our religion as recorded in the Hadith, a commentary on the Qur’an. At times these teachings puzzled me, but I never questioned them. A good Muslim is taught to never question the Qur’an; it is the absolute word of God and cannot be questioned, for Allah will punish every disobedient, prideful individual.
At the age of thirteen, I joined the Islamic organization in which my father had become actively involved. There I received training to become an Islamic leader. Group members often traveled to remote villages to instruct the people on the teachings of Islam. They also greatly influenced our country’s political system.
As a part of my involvement with this organization, I gave the prayer call from the local mosque. By giving the prayer call, I would remind all Muslims of their duty to pray to Allah. Five times a day I would climb the tall tower (called a minaret) and call out the melodious Arabic chant: “Allah is great, Allah is great. Come for prayer.” The first call goes out at 4:30 A.M., before sunrise. At four other set times throughout the day I would return to the mosque to give the prayer call. For each prayer missed, a careless Muslim is condemned to many years in hell.
As a devout Muslim, I would have died for my religion. My heart was devoted to Allah and to His cause. Still, when I read the Qur’an, I would often fear Allah’s severe punishment for any wrongdoing. I passionately taught others that, according to the Islamic faith, their only hope of attaining heaven lay in doing good deeds. Yet deep inside of me, I feared the capricious nature of Allah, as described in the Qur’an. I knew that no one could know whether he would go to heaven, regardless of his exemplary deeds. Allah was unpredictable, and one could only hope that he or she would find favor with the
Almighty. To this point in my life, I had lived as a very devout Muslim, carefully trying to obey all of Allah’s commandments. Yet even the most exemplary Muslim cannot be assured of his salvation.
As I continued to grow in my service to Allah, one night I had a deeply disturbing dream. In my dream I had died, and when I went to heaven to face God, Allah threw me into a lake of fire. I knew very well from my study of the Qur’an that the lake of fire was, in fact, hell. All around me I could see nothing but blazing fire. I felt the searing pain of my body burning in that intense flame. The dream felt so real and so painful that I began screaming in my bed until my parents came rushing in to wake me.
Between sobs and gasps for air, I described my dream.
“Satan is trying to disturb you,” my parents replied. “You’re not to worry; you are a good Muslim.”
Their words gave me no comfort, however, and the dream continued to trouble me for many days. As a devout fifteen-year-old Muslim, I could not understand what I had done that would bring Allah such displeasure.
A few nights later, I had the same disturbing dream. I had died, faced God, and He threw me into the lake of fire. Again I felt the sweltering pain of my body burning in the lake of fire. When I awoke, I decided to seek counsel from our imam, my private mentor. He gave me the same explanation that I heard from my parents.
“Satan is trying to disturb you,” he said. “You’re not to worry. You are a pious Muslim, and you do many good things for Allah.”
I hoped I would feel better after hearing this message, but still the fear lingered; in fact, my troubled heart grew heavier. What had I done that would make God so displeased with me?
Several nights later, I had the same terrifying dream for a third time. Once again I had died, faced God, and was thrown into the lake of fire. Again I felt the intense agony of burning in those superheated flames. I awoke, feeling desperate. I saw only one thing to do: go to the mosque, pray, and ask Allah to reveal the meaning of my dream.
That next evening after finishing evening prayers, I remained in the mosque after the other worshipers took up their prayer rugs and went home. The beautifully painted tiles decorating the walls and inside of the huge dome had darkened with the dimming of the sun’s rays, and a few electric light bulbs hanging from the ceiling and walls provided artificial illumination. Finally, night had come, and I was left alone on my prayer rug—the only item remaining on the clean, mosaic tile floor. Silence filled the large room, except for an occasional birdcall from outside and the gentle hum of insects in the warm night air.
I knelt down on my prayer rug with my head to the ground, the customary prayer posture for Muslims. As I desperately sought after God, my troubled heart had only one plea: “God, please speak to me and tell me the meaning of my dream. What have I done that You are not pleased with me?” I prayed with resolve, declaring, “I will not lift up my head until You tell me the meaning of my dream.” I prayed with expectation, desiring to hear an audible voice from God, telling me what I had done wrong. I felt that by asking forgiveness of this sin, whatever it might be, I could still have hope of heaven, if God might choose to have mercy on me and forgive me.
Whenever I grew tired, I would stand up and walk around, and then return to my place on the prayer rug and plead to God, time after time. All night passed by. I did not hear from God.
Despondent, I sat in the middle of the huge, vacant mosque. I glanced at the clock—almost 4:30 A.M., time for me to give the morning prayer call. All night I had prayed, asking only one question, but God did not speak to me. My heavy heart ached with disappointment. I paused for a moment and closed my eyes as tears began to fall down my face. I cried out to God, “Why didn’t You speak to me?”
Suddenly, something mysterious happened. At first, I heard a noise like a rushing wind. Drops like rain began falling where I sat, dousing my clothes, head, and hands. Immediately I opened my eyes and looked up to see if the ceiling was leaking, but saw no sign of it. The drops had fallen all around me, on my Muslim attire, on my head covering, and on my prayer rug. When I rubbed the drops on my hand, they felt like oil. The whole mosque filled with a sweet fragrance that I had never smelled, before or since.
Immediately afterwards, while I remained seated on my prayer rug, my imam walked in to lead the morning prayers. He immediately noticed the sweet fragrance permeating the room and witnessed the drops all around me. With astonishment in his voice he said, “I have never seen anything like this. Maybe Allah likes you!”
At that moment a tremendous peace came over me, such as I had never experienced. I still didn’t know the meaning of my dream, but it no longer terrified me. My family and friends noticed an immediate difference in me and asked me what had changed. I didn’t know how to explain my miraculous experience—but I still sought God’s answer.