Michael Wolfe, Journalist, USA

"I did not want to 'trade in' my culture. Iwanted access to new meanings." - How an American writer born of a Jewishfather and a Christian mother found spiritual fulfillment in Islam.

Michael Wolfe is Co-Founder ofUnity Productions Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to creatingpeace through the media.  He is the author of several books of poetry,fiction, history, essays and travel.  

Wolfe’s writing has appeared in many magazines andhas been recognized by the Academy of American Poets, the National Endowmentfor the Arts, the California Arts Commission, and the American Travel WritersAssociation. He has been a MacDowell Colony resident and a three-time recipientof the Amy Lowell Traveling Poets Scholarship. His verse has been published inthree small-press volumes over the years. Wolfe has read and lectured atHarvard, Georgetown, Stanford, SUNY Buffalo, Princeton, and many other universities.He has taught Writing and English at Phillips Exeter and Phillips AndoverAcademies, the California State Summer School for the Arts, and at theUniversity of California, Santa Cruz. He holds a degree in Classics fromWesleyan University. For many years, he was the publisher of Tombouctou Books,Bolinas, California.


Aftertwenty-five years as a writer in America, I was searching for new terms bywhich to see. From a pluralist background, I naturally placed great stress onthe matters of racism and freedom.  Then, in my early twenties, I had goneto live in Africa for three years.  During this time, I rubbed shoulderswith blacks of many different tribes, with Arabs, Berbers, and even Europeans,who were Muslims.  By and large these people did not share the Westernobsession with race as a social category.  In our encounters, being oddly coloredrarely mattered.  I was welcomed first and judged on merit later.  Bycontrast, Europeans and Americans, including many who are free of racistnotions, automatically class people racially. 

Muslimsclassified people by their faith and their actions.  I found thistranscendent and refreshing.  Malcolm X saw his nation’s salvation in it.  “America needs to understand Islam,” he wrote, “because this is the one religion that erases from itssociety the race problem.” I was looking foran escape route, too, from the isolating terms of a materialisticculture.  I wanted access to a spiritual dimension, but the conventionalpaths I had known as a boy were closed.  My father had been a Jew; mymother Christian.  Because of my mongrel background, I had a foot in tworeligious camps.  Both faiths were undoubtedly profound.  Yet the onethat emphasizes a chosen people I found insupportable; while the other, basedin a mystery, repelled me. 

These were the terms my earlylife provided.  The more I thought about it now, the more I returned to myexperiences in Muslim Africa.  After two return trips to Morocco, in 1981and 1985, I came to feel that Africa, the continent, had little to do with thebalanced life I found there was looking for a framework I could live with, avocabulary of spiritual concepts applicable to the life I was living now. I did not want to “trade in” my culture.  I wanted access to new meanings.

After a mid-Atlantic dinner Iwent to wash up in the bathroom.  During my absence a quorum of Hasidimlined up to pray outside the door.  By the time I had finished, they weretoo immersed to notice me.  Emerging from the bathroom, I could barelywork the handle. I stand with my head thrust into the hallway, staring at thecongregation’s backs.  Holding palm-size prayer books, they cut animpressive figure, tapping the texts on their breastbones as they divined. Little by little the movements grew erratic, like a mild, bobbing form ofrock and roll.  I watched from the bathroom door until they were finished,then slipped back down the aisle to my seat.

We landed together later thatnight in Brussels.  I found a discardedYiddish newspaper on a food tray.  When the plane took off for Morocco,they were gone. I do not mean to imply here that my life during this periodconformed to any grand design.  In the beginning, around 1981, I wasdriven by curiosity and an appetite for travel.  My favorite place to go,when I had the money, was Morocco.  When I could not travel, there werebooks.  This fascination brought me into contact with a handful of writersdriven to the exotic, authors capable of sentences like this, by Freya Stark:

“The perpetual charm of Arabia isthat the traveler finds his level there simply as a human being; the people’sdirectness, deadly to the sentimental or the pedantic, like the lesscomplicated virtues; and the pleasantness of being liked for oneself might, Ithink, be added to the five reasons for travel given me by Sayyid Abdulla, thewatchmaker; “to leave one’s troubles behind one; to earn a living; to acquirelearning; to practice good manners; and to meet honorable men”.

The Beginning

I could not have drawn up a listof demands, but I had a fair idea of what I was after. The religion I wantedshould be to metaphysics as metaphysics is to science.  It would not beconfined by a narrow rationalism or traffic in mystery to please its priests. There would be no priests, no separation between nature and thingssacred.  There would be no war with the flesh, if I could help it. Sex would be natural, not the seat of a curse upon the species. Finally, I did want a ritual component, daily routine to sharpen thesenses and discipline my mind.  Above all, I wanted clarity and freedom. I did not want to trade away reason simply to be saddled with a dogma.

The more I learned about Islam,the more it appeared to conform to what I was after. Most of the educatedWesterners I knew around this time regarded any strong religious climate withsuspicion.  They classified religion as political manipulation, or theydismissed it as a medieval concept, projecting upon it notions from theirEuropean past. It was not hard to find a source for their opinions.  Athousand years of Western history had left us plenty of fine reasons to regreta path that led through so much ignorance and slaughter..

Regardless of church affiliation,secular humanism is the air westerners breathe the lens we gaze through. Like any world view, this outlook is pervasive and transparent.  Itforms the basis of our broad identification with democracy and with the pursuitof freedom in all its countless and beguiling forms.  Immersed in ourshared preoccupations, one may easily forget that other ways of life exist onthe same planet.

At the time of my trip, forinstance, 650 million Muslims with a majority representation in forty-fourcountries adhered to the formal teachings of Islam.  In addition, about400 million more were living as minorities in Europe, Asia and the Americas. Assisted by postcolonial economics, Islam has become in a matter ofthirty years a major faith in Western Europe.  Of the world’s greatreligions, Islam alone was adding to its fold.

My politicized friends weredismayed by my new interest.  They all but universally confused Islam withthe machinations of half a dozen Middle Eastern tyrants.  The books theyread, the new broadcasts they viewed depicted the faith as a set of politicalfunctions.  Almost nothing was said of its spiritual practice.  Iliked to quote Mae West to them: “Anytime you take religion for a joke, thelaugh’s on you.”

Convert to Islam

Historically, a Muslim sees Islamas the final, matured expression of an original religion reaching back to Adam. It is as resolutely monotheistic as Judaism, whose Major Prophets Islamreveres as links in a progressive chain, culminating in Jesus and Muhammad. Essentially a message of renewal, Islam has done its part on the worldstage to return the forgotten taste of life’s lost sweetness to millions ofpeople.  Its book, the Quran, caused Goethe to remark, “You see, thisteaching never fails; with all our systems, we cannot go, and generallyspeaking no man can go, further.

Traditional Islam is expressedthrough the practice of five pillars.  Declaring one’s faith, prayer,charity, and fasting are activities pursued repeatedly throughout one’s life. Conditions permitting, each Muslim is additionally charged with undertakinga pilgrimage to Mecca once in a lifetime.  The Arabic term for this fifthrite is Hajj.  Scholars relate the word to the concept of ‘qasd’,“aspiration,” and to the notion of men and women as travelers on earth. In Western religions, pilgrimage is a vestigial tradition, a quaint,folkloric concept commonly reduced to metaphor.  Among Muslims, on theother hand, the Hajj embodies a vital experience for millions of new pilgrimsevery year.  In spite of the modern content of their lives, it remains anact of obedience, a profession of belief, and the visible expression of aspiritual community.  For a majority of Muslims the Hajj is an ultimategoal, the trip of a lifetime.

As a convert, I felt obliged togo to Mecca.  As an addict to travel I could not imagine a more compellinggoal. The annual, month-long fast of Ramadan precedes the Hajj by about onehundred days.  These two rites form a period of intensified awareness inMuslim society.  I wanted to put this period to use.  I had readabout Islam; I attended a Mosque near my home in California; I had started apractice.  Now I hoped to deepen what I was learning by submerging myselfin a religion where Islam infuses every aspect of existence. I planned to beginin Morocco, because I knew that country well and because it followedtraditional Islam and was fairly stable.  The last place I wanted to startwas in a backwater full of uproarious sectarians.  I wanted to paddle themainstream, the broad, calm water.

Michel Wolfe Achievements

Michael Wolfe is the author ofbooks of poetry, fiction, travel, and history. His most recent works are a pairof books from Grove Press on the pilgrimage to Mecca: "The Hajj"(1993), a first-person travel account, and "One Thousand Roads toMecca" (1997), an anthology of 10 centuries of travelers writing about theMuslim pilgrimage. In April 1997, he hosted a televised account of the Hajjfrom Mecca for Ted Koppel's "Nightline" on ABC. In 2002 he workedwith the nonprofit Unity Productions Foundation to produce a two-hour PBSdocumentary, "Muhammad: Legacy of a Prophet," which won a 2004 CineAward Special Jury Prize for best documentary and aired around the world in adozen languages on the National Geographic Channel. The same year with theeditors of Beliefnet Wolfe helped produce ""Taking Back Islam,"a collection of articles by 40 Muslims responding to the 9/11 crisis. Thecollection won a 2003 Wilbur Award for best book of the year on a religious theme.Wolfe is currently working with Unity Productions to produce two new historicaldocumentaries.

BY Ahmed Yousef





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