In 1960s America, a lot of young people were questioning the assumptions of their society and their place within it. This questioning led to the Hippies, a host of progressive social advances, and the growth of alternative religious and spiritual movements such as the Hare Krishna. Rebellion was the norm.
Yet when one thinks of the various forms of rebellion against tradition that abounded in that time, converting to Sufi Islam probably is not one of the first things that springs to mind. And yet that is exactly the road that young American Michael Fitzgerald took in the late 60s.
Today, Fitzgerald goes by Abdurrahman and is a Moroccan citizen. He lives in Marrakech, and is the co-founder of the Center for Language and Culture. He spoke to Inside Arabia about his unique journey from Californian college student to an adherent of the Sufi way.
“I think if you reach a certain age and don’t begin to ask existential questions, it’s a little bit strange.”
“I think if you reach a certain age and don’t begin to ask existential questions, it’s a little bit strange,” said Fitzgerald. “And the United States was not giving any answers to questions like: Why are we here? What is the purpose of being here in this world? So that began a search for me.”
The beginning of Fitzgerald’s search was somewhat typical of the hippy travelers of the period. In 1968, a year of revolutionary change like no other, Fitzgerald set off with his college friend Kenneth Honerkamp in search of deeper meaning. “We were heading to India. We took the Orient Express – that was pretty overwhelming,” Fitzgerald shared. “Maybe it was our imagination but as we traveled east everything seemed to become more spiritual and less material . . . and older – it was like we were traveling back in time in a way.”
Early on, there was no indication that it would be Islam that would eventually provide the answers he was seeking. “Islam hadn’t been that apparent to us along the way and to us it was supposed to be Buddhism or Hinduism or something like that, that we were looking for,” he admits. “In those days, the place to go was India . . . to go find a Guru. Some of us didn’t quite make it that far.”
However, it was Islam that provided the backdrop to their voyage east and Fitzgerald now regards this, with hindsight, as an enormous factor in his development. “We might not have realized it at the time, but I think, looking back, everything was having a huge effect on us,” he told Inside Arabia.
Initially, the role of Islam was subtle, and the religion came to them almost by osmosis, filtered through the acts of kindness of its followers. Fitzgerald still tells the story of an American couple they met in Tehran. They had fallen asleep in the train station in Istanbul and all the money they needed to continue their trip had been stolen. “The guy was still furious about it,” recalled Fitzgerald. “He was saying: ‘These people are all thieves!’”
So, I asked him how they had managed to continue with their trip. He explained how an old man in the station had gone around collecting money from other people who were there. “These were poor people themselves who had given, but their religion told them to help travelers, so that’s what they did. Imagine if that had happened in Grand Central Station, or anywhere like that in the US! It would be very far-fetched that anything like that would happen.”
It was when the pair reached Afghanistan and Pakistan that discussion of Islam became more explicit. “When people there spoke to us about religion, they didn’t use many softeners,” recalled Fitzgerald. “They would say: ‘Who is your prophet? Is it ʿĪsā (Jesus), is it Musa (Moses)?’ And so on. I would tell people the last religion I officially recognized was Christianity and they would say: ‘Ah, so ʿĪsā!’” People would even encourage them to pray to their preferred prophet in front of a group.
By the time Fitzgerald and Honerkamp had reached the Bamiyan Valley in Afghanistan, their minds had truly begun to open to new ways of seeing the world. There they saw with their own eyes the Bamiyan Buddhas, the two magnificent statues, 115 and 170 feet tall, that were heinously destroyed by the Taliban in March 2001. “At that time, it was pristine, a beautiful place. We weren’t in Islam then, we were just travelers and seekers, I guess,” Fitzgerald told Inside Arabia. “We said, ‘let’s camp the night on the top of the Buddha’s head. The head is big enough that there is enough of a flat space to camp.’ It had this fantastic view of the valley and the mountains behind it.”
It is difficult to know how and why people make such monumental personal changes as converting to a new religion.
It is difficult to know how and why people make such monumental personal changes as converting to a new religion. While Fitzgerald accepts that there is an inherent mystery to these things, he recalls how his own journey hinged on a humorous irony in the Bamiyan Valley.
“At the hotel, at which we were the only guests, we met this American family of Christian missionaries who saw us as good targets for conversion,” Fitzgerald explained. “I said I would listen to them, but Ken said ‘no, absolutely not!’ My dear friend Ken was always more single-minded than I was. They asked me: ‘Do you want to accept Jesus as your savior?’ And I said: ‘Well okay’ – I was open to everything; if they had said ‘go and juggle in Jema el-Fna’ [the main square in Marrakech] I would have tried it.”
In his words one can hear the open, experimental, 60s spirit of curiosity; a spirit that one can tell, from his twinkling eyes and the rapturous tone of his storytelling, has never really left Fitzgerald.
“When evangelicals in the US would ask me if I had accepted Jesus’ plan for me, I would say, ‘well, yes I have . . . in a way.’”
“‘Alright,’ they said, ‘we want you to get down and pray to Jesus.’ I had never prayed to anything, anyone, any creature in my life,” confided Fitzgerald. “I don’t remember what I said exactly, but it was something along the lines of: ‘Oh God in the name of Jesus Christ, please lead me in the way that is pleasing to you.’ Within one month of that incident, I had become a Muslim.” We laugh at the delicious irony of the story. “We’re laughing,” said Fitzgerald, “but I half believe that’s what happened . . . perhaps that was what Jesus wanted. After that, when evangelicals in the US would ask me if I had accepted Jesus’ plan for me, I would say, ‘well, yes I have . . . in a way.’”
Shortly after this experience, Michael Fitzgerald and Kenneth Honerkamp crossed the border into Pakistan and separated. By the time they met up again, in the Swat Valley some three months later, Fitzgerald had converted to Islam. To his surprise, so had Kenneth!
After leaving Pakistan, Fitzgerald returned to California. When asked how his family reacted to his decision, Fitzgerald shrugs: “They didn’t understand it that much. My father had been raised in an Irish Catholic family, hence the name Fitzgerald, but he revolted against the Catholic Church and eventually against the idea of religion in general . . . He wasn’t very receptive [he laughs]. My mother was more or less fine with it.”
While in California, Fitzgerald met his wife, Barbara, also a convert who had taken the name Jamila. Believing the United States was unsuited to their desired lifestyle, the couple began to discuss where they would move. Both were interested in Sufism and the mystical dimension of Islam. Morocco seemed like a good place to try their hand, as Sufism was more protected in that country than in many other places.
“The United States in the 1980s was not very appealing . . . We looked at our little girls and decided they were probably better off in Morocco.”
Abdurrahman and Jamila have often considered returning to the US but, for different reasons throughout the years, they ended up staying. “The United States in the 1980s was not very appealing – things like cocaine were running wild, even at the high-school level. We looked at our little girls and decided they were probably better off in Morocco,” he explained.
Kenneth Honerkamp, who now goes by Dr. Abdel-Hadi Honerkamp, is presently a lecturer in the Department of Religion at the University of Georgia in the US. He regularly brings groups of students to Morocco to practice Arabic and learn about Moroccan culture, including Sufi traditions. Also an expert on Sufism, Abdurrahman has been involved in the translation and publication of several books, largely in collaboration with the US publisher Fons Vitae, which is run by American Muslims.
A more complete account of the life-long friends’ journey into Islam appears in a book called “Hearts Turn: Sinners, Seekers, Saints and the Road to Redemption” by Michael Sugich.