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EXCERPT: The Price to Pay

Aleteia - published on 01/28/13

Joseph Fadelle (formerly Mohammed al-Sayyid al-Moussaou) tells the story of his conversion

EXCERPT: The Price to Pay
Joseph Fadelle

Religious conversion is a one-way street in Islamic culture, in which those who leave Islam are subject to great punishment — even death. In The Price to Pay, Joseph Fadelle (formerly Mohammed al-Sayyid al-Moussaou) tells the story of his conversion, and how ultimately, it was the knowledge of the love of God — or, more specifically, that God is Love — that allowed him to make the leap of faith from Islam to Catholicism. Yet in so doing, he risks losing his family, friends, inheritance, and even his very life.

To read the entire story of Joseph's conversion, purchase your copy of The Price to Pay from Ignatius Press.

The Call
May 1987

That morning when I woke up I was in a singularly good mood, as though I had been cured of a long illness, spe­cifically of the illness that had made my soul so languid throughout those past weeks.

I gladly breathed the spring air, which suited my joyful spirit at that moment, as the dry heat of the summer approached but was for the moment quite tolerable.

What made me so lighthearted was that for perhaps the first time in my life I remembered one of my dreams. That was something that had never happened to me throughout my childhood; this made me extremely jealous of my broth­ers and sisters, who in the morning all related their extrav­agant dreams! I never got to be one of those celebrities for a day, to whom we listened avidly, hanging on their every word, fascinated by the marvels of the imagination. I had developed such a grudge over it that I went to consult a doctor to make sure that I did not have some abnormal condition!

That morning, I finally had my revenge for all those years of fraternal humiliation: I had become like everyone else, capable of telling a dream, and not just any dream. How I wished that my brothers were there to be present at this exceptional event.
The dream, then—I remember it very clearly—situated me on the bank of a stream that was not very wide, not quite a meter [yard]. On the other bank was a figure about forty years old, rather tall, dressed in a beige one-piece gar­ment in the Middle Eastern style, without a collar. And I felt irresistibly drawn toward that man, impelled by the desire to go over to the other side to meet him.

Then when I began to leap over the stream, I found myself suspended in the air for several minutes that seem­ed to me like an eternity. Somewhat alarmed, I even feared that I might never be able to come back down to earth.

As though he had sensed my growing uneasiness, the man on the other side stretched out his hand toward me, so as to help me cross the watercourse and land beside him. At that moment I was able to have a leisurely look at his face: blue-gray eyes, a thin beard, and medium-length hair. I was struck by his beauty.

Looking at me with an infinitely kind expression, the man slowly spoke to me a single enigmatic sentence, in a reassuring and inviting tone of voice: “To cross the stream, you must eat the bread of life.”

When I awoke the next day, that incomprehensible sen­tence was nevertheless clearly engraved on my brain, while the charm of the dream in the night gradually wore off. Still overjoyed, in an almost childish way, about finally hav­ing had one dream of my own, with a smile on my face, I did not feel the need to try to understand the meaning of the mysterious words. That dream was my treasure, and that was enough to make me happy. Therefore I had no desire to know its real value.

When I opened my eyes, I was no longer alone in the bar­racks room. Massoud had returned from leave, and he greeted me calmly with his smiling eyes.

Then he held out to me a book with his rough, peasant hand. “Here is the Gospel”, he said to me very simply. Five months after I had asked him for it, he remembered my request after all!

And he added right away, as though to anticipate my criticisms: “Do not worry if there are four different versions of the life of Christ. These four Gospels tell the story in four different ways.”

It is true that for someone as uninformed as I was—a Muslim, moreover, who was accustomed to the one Qur’an—these distinct versions seemed to be an aberra­tion. But that morning my mood was too impulsive to stop and linger over that detail. Besides, the Qur’an had lost its credibility, in my view. So I impatiently opened the book of the Christians and came upon the part enti­tled “Gospel according to Saint John”.

“Begin instead with some other passage, the Gospel of Matthew, for example. It is easier to start with that”, Mas­soud advised me over my shoulder.

By what mysterious plan did I not follow his advice while taking this book of the Christians over to my mattress? Defi­ance, stubbornness, the desire not to bend completely to the orders of a Christian, especially in religious matters? In following my own idea, I started my reading with the last version, the one by the author named John. Absorbed in my work, I even forgot to have breakfast and did not notice the passage of the hours.

When I got to chapter 6, I stopped short, dumbfounded, in the middle of a sentence. My brain was seething. For a second I thought that I was the victim of a hallucination, so I plunged again into my reading, at the precise place in the book where I had stopped. No doubt about it, I had not been mistaken.

By what miracle I cannot say, but at that moment I had just read the words “the bread of life”, exactly the same words that I had heard several hours before in my dream.

To get to the bottom of it, I reread slowly the passage in which this Jesus speaks to his disciples after multiplying the loaves for the crowd and tells them, “I am the bread of life; he who comes to me shall not hunger” [ Jn 6:35].

Then something extraordinary happened inside of me, like a raging fire that swept away everything in its path, accompanied by a sensation of well-being and warmth—as though all at once a dazzling light illumined my life in an entirely new way and gave it its full meaning. This is how I imagined a lightning strike, and it was even more than that!

I had the impression of being inebriated, while an extraor­dinarily strong feeling arose in my heart, almost a violent, amorous passion for this Jesus Christ about whom the Gospels speak.

At the same moment I understood that my dream the night before had been more than a dream: there had been in it, I sensed very clearly, something like a call or a per­sonal message that was addressed to me through those words, by whom exactly I did not know; I was incapable of saying what that man meant to me, or what the significance of all this was.

All that I knew was the joy that event brought me. I was certain that from then on my life would never again be like before.
In the days that followed I had only one thing in mind: to prolong my inebriation, to feed it again by reading all four Gospels. I wanted to know everything about this Jesus—to be inspired by his way of life, to absorb every last word that he pronounced, to be indignant about what those people said about him.

And for the first time I had the impression that a breach was opening in my disdain for Christianity. The religion that I had considered as inferior appeared to me henceforth in another light. I vaguely sensed that it contained a pure source of love, of freedom—so many benefits that until then had been totally absent from my practice of religion.

Instead of the precepts and formal obligations, such as praying five times a day, the words of the Our Father in the Gospel resounded in my head and in my heart like a heal­ing balm. If Allah speaks like a father who loves his chil­dren, if he pardons even the sinners, then my relation to him could no longer be the same. I was no longer in sub­mission or in fear but rather in love, as though in a family.

Even repentance, which does exist in Islam, seemed to me to be liberated here from a load of conditions and duties that made it a heavy burden.

At that time everything that Islam had inculcated in me, that had shaped my personality and my thinking, was mixed up in my mind with this new way of looking at faith that, I must admit, I found extremely attractive.

And so I had in my head all the names of Allah given in the Qur’an. There are ninety-nine known names: Eternal, Unbegotten, One, Inaccessible, Firm, Invincible, Glorious, Wise, Benevolent, Merciful, but also Avenger.

And yet there is another name, the one hundredth, which no one knows. I had the impression that I had discovered that day this mysterious and unknown name of Allah: it is Love.

From then on the conquering spirit in me was completely calmed and I had no intention of converting Massoud. I had only one desire: to be able someday to eat this “bread of life” too, even though I did not understand exactly what it was.

Among all the new things that I was now encountering on the order of faith, there were some that contradicted my old convictions head-on—for instance, the status of Jesus: for the Christians, he is the Son of God, which is totally unthinkable for a Muslim. That would be tantamount to saying that Allah is married and has a wife! Despite my uncertainties in matters of religion, I was not ready to accept that. In my view, the Christians were wrong: Jesus was only a servant, an illustrious one, to be sure, but nothing but a servant of Allah.

To make sense of all this and to emerge from the confusion into which I had plunged, I saw no other solution this time but to open up to Massoud. I would therefore have to swal­low my pride and admit to him that I had lost all confi­dence in Islam.

A bit sheepish, but at the same time thrilled to be able to communicate my joy, I took the trouble to tell him about the extraordinary adventure that I had just experienced, just a few days earlier.

Still carried by the first wave of enthusiasm, I savored the pleasure of announcing to him that from now on we shared more or less the same faith in Jesus. And above all, like a child who is preparing a gift in secret, I took delight ahead of time in the joy that I was going to bring him by this good news—at least that was what I imagined.

But it was not the anticipated smile that I saw appear­ing on Massoud’s face. On the contrary: he went pale, his expression remained cold, his jaw clenched. Only the intense activity that I read in his eyes told me about the feelings that agitated him at that moment. What I saw was fear, a fear close to panic that shook the interior of that sturdy man.

Positively disarmed by his demeanor, I no longer under­stood it at all and looked at him inquisitively. For this change in him had taken place rudely, at the end of my story. At the beginning he had given me the impression, rather, that he was listening to me carefully, encouraging me by his kind attention.

I had said nothing extraordinary or especially daring, apart from the strangeness of my dream. I was just telling him my intention of announcing to my family my new faith in this Jesus Christ when Massoud exploded: “You do not real­ize! They will kill you.”

I had never seen him like that. He was beside himself and seemed to have lost all self-control.

“But that is not possible! My family loves me; they can­not want to do me harm.”

“Listen, I beg you”, Massoud told me, changing his tone abruptly. “You are putting your life in danger, and mine with it. In this country you cannot change religion just like that. It is punishable by death!”

At that moment I had a flash of insight: I finally under­stood why at the beginning of our acquaintance Massoud had seemed so hesitant to speak to me about his faith, about his way of life. He knew the risks he was taking.

But still inflamed by my very recent reading of the tragic story of Jesus, I replied, “Christ died, too, and afterward his disciples faced great dangers in order to follow him. I read it in the passage that follows the Gospels: the Acts of the Apos­tles. Why shouldn’t I do the same, after all, if I love Christ?”

“But Christ does not want you to die. If you really believe in him, then let’s pray to his Spirit to enlighten us. And I beg you once more, calm your excitement, and swear to me that you will never speak about all this when you return to your family!”

I was not sure that I actually understood the reality of the danger that Massoud was talking about, but to tell the truth I really did not have a choice. If I wanted him to guide me along the path of faith, a path that still appeared to be obstructed by obstacles connected with what Islam had taught me, I was obliged to comply with his demand, since he was the only Christian I knew. 

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