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The Daily Tar Heel

UNC junior reshapes lifestyle after converting to Islam

This installment of Close ups focuses on Matt Stevens, a junior business administration major who decided to convert to Islam from Christianity.

Before sunrise, Matt Stevens is closest to God.

He wakes up every day between 6 a.m. and 7 a.m. for fajr.

He washes his face and kneels toward Mecca, then puts his head to the ground to bow before God. The first thread of light has just appeared on the horizon.

He is closest to God at least four more times each day when he performs the five daily prayers obligatory to the Islamic faith.

He prays the dhuhr, asr, maghrib and isha’a , some silent and some aloud. For Matt, these are five daily reminders of what’s important to him and what his life really is.

When he kneels before Allah, you hardly notice his blond hair and blue eyes.

Same god, new religion

Matt hasn’t always prayed this much. He always prayed to the same God. But he’s only been calling him Allah for about two years.

He used to go to church with his father every Sunday. He went to youth fellowship and Bible study, and he volunteered at vacation Bible school programs and went on mission trips all at the same church where he went to preschool.

He digested what the minister told him in his sermons. He got it. He understood.

But he didn’t feel anything.

“Who is Jesus?” he asked a Sunday school teacher.

He’s the son of God, she told him. He’s also God. Sometimes he’s God, sometimes he’s the son of God.

But how could he be both?

He brought the question of the Trinity to his father. Try, his father told him, and you’ll get it eventually.

As he waited for answers and none came, his interest in the answer only grew.

An identity crisis

Their junior year, Matt asked his friend Farris Barakat who he was taking to prom.

“I can’t date,” Farris told him.

Matt started asking questions. Farris, now a student at N.C. State University, was the first close Muslim friend Matt had ever had.

At the same time, Matt was taking a world religions course. He knew he believed in God. But he opened himself to learning about Judaism and Islam. Conversations about Islam grew out of simple curiosity: Why can’t you date? Why don’t you drink alcohol?

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He opened his textbook to the Christianity chapter. On the first page, the author declared that the Trinity is at the foundation of Christianity.

“It hit me: I don’t think I can be a Christian anymore,” he said.

As he continued the chapter, the thought of letting go of Christianity scared him immediately — and he sought his father for advice.

He asked: How does someone continue in a religion if he doesn’t believe in its very foundation?

But you don’t always agree with everything in your religion, his father explained. Things take time. Continue going to church. Just see the Trinity from a different perspective.

To Matt, that translated into going to church but not believing in the most important parts. But the concept of living that life was harder for him to conceive than the Trinity.

Yet for a while, that’s what he did. He sat down in a mall and told his father.

“I started on this quest for comfort in what I believed in,” he said. “I wasn’t comfortable going to church with the definition they used.”

But his dad offered the same advice: Keep trying, and wait until you’re out of college to look for something else.

“Everyone’s going to question it sometimes,” his father said.

But Matt was entering college soon at UNC, and to have lost Christianity but be prohibited from other options terrified him.

Struggle at home

As Matt was struggling with Christianity his senior year, an opportunity he and Farris had joked about became more and more real. Farris had a huge family in Syria, was going to spend a month there in the summer and had invited Matt to accompany him.

His parents knew nothing about Syria other than the travel advisory warning they found through Google. At the time Matt wanted to visit, the U.S. Embassy was closed.

“With no U.S. Ambassador, if you get in trouble in that country, it’s a real safety concern,” Jerry Stevens said.

His parents were convinced after they met with the Barakats a few times, and the family showed the Stevens their neighborhood in Idlib, far away from Damascus, the part of Syria that had earned the travel advisory. Every home on their block had a member of their family. At that time, Farris had 46 first cousins, many of whom lived in Syria.

His mother felt safe that Matt wouldn’t just be visiting. He would be a part of a family.

“Matt always had two plates in front of him there,” Farris said. “It’s that Arab hospitality.”

And so Matt paid for about half of his $1,400 plane ticket. He wanted to learn. But a part of him continued to fear.

“Right after I got the ticket, my parents saw my interest in Islam growing,” Matt said. “They were really worried that I would run away, or at least convert over there without their consent. But that was never my intention. That was never my plan — I had never even thought about that. I saw it as a learning opportunity.”

Matt wasn’t a Muslim when he went to Syria — but he felt he was when he came back.

Waiting for the right time

Matt thought his father was giving him advice.

Jerry thought he and his son had an agreement.

It was part of an understanding before he went to college, he said, that Matt would not make major changes to his lifestyle, such as religion, so he could get adjusted to college life and focus on academics. So he encouraged Matt to join UNC Wesley, the campus Methodist Group.

But Matt still didn’t believe in its principles and felt that would be living a lie. So he joined the UNC Muslim Students Association right away with company like Farris’ older sister, Suzanne.

He’s tall with a medium build. He has an inviting smile. He’s frequently found in polos and khakis. He’s never had trouble making friends. But as he entered his first meeting, he was aware of his minority status.

At this meeting, Matt and Farris presented the best of their photos from Syria–between the two of them, they had about 10,000 from the four weeks. Despite his obvious differences, he made friends fast.

Just a few weeks into school, the association asked students to run for freshman representative. On a whim, Matt put his name on the ballot. He never expected to win. But he did. And turned it down.

“Ultimately, it was better not to pursue that path just yet,” he said, “because I still had a lot to learn.”

The last step

One cannot be an official Muslim until they make a shahada, or an oath to Allah before witnesses.

So six days before Christmas 2008, Matt went to the Raleigh mosque with Farris, Suzanne and several other friends to convert.

Matt already believed in Islamic principles. He already followed its teachings and went to mosque. It was a technicality. He put the ceremony together at the last minute. So he told his family the morning of the ceremony.

“He knew I would be upset, that’s why he told me at the last minute, because he knew I would tell him not to do it,” his father said. “He wanted to test his relationship with me, and I was very hurt about the whole thing.”

Matt didn’t see it as a family matter. He saw it as a personal matter. But when he told his mother, he realized its implications.

“I couldn’t have gotten off (from work) in that short amount of time,” she said. “It was a big shock. I think he did it too fast.”

His parents didn’t agree with his decision, but his mother wanted to be there with him, supporting him.

Family is a foundation of Muslim faith. And Matt wishes they could have been there with him.

Six days later, it was Christmas, which he’d celebrated with his family his entire life. He did not intend to convert so close to Christmas. His family informed him that he was getting Christmas gifts, whether or not he wanted them.

He spent Christmas with both families like normal. He exchanged gifts like normal. He read “The Polar Express” with his family like normal. It was a little awkward.

But it has worked its way out.

Finding his place

He doesn’t date, and he doesn’t drink. It’s a little awkward sometimes, although not as much as in the beginning. Now, he has something that makes him feel better than any of that could.

“When people come to college, it’s a time where either they lose themselves religiously, or they find their true passion, your settlement point,” he said.

“I found my place.”

He prays the isha’a every night, when darkness has arrived and the white twilight in the sky disappears. He bows every night, just as he does as the sun rises.

He doesn’t take these prayers for granted. It was a long process. He couldn’t pray until after he learned some Arabic, and he didn’t learn Arabic until after he converted.

“They’re deep moments, those moments after prayer,” he said. “They’re silent. No matter how busy you are, you remember why you’re here. You can ask God for anything.”

His father said it’s no longer a source of tension for his family — as long as he believes in God, he can accept the rest.

“I don’t understand those things, and that’s okay,” he said. “But for the most part, I ignore them. I’m not proud of that. I have no desire to understand those things. And that’s okay. We’re comfortable with Matt how he is.”

It’s a stricter lifestyle than Matt had before. But it makes faith, his life more defined.

He likes the boundaries.

Matt still believes in the same God. He lives by the five pillars. He knows why he lives. He reminds himself five times a day.

The word “Islam” literally means submission to God. As he washes himself and leans down, submitting himself to Allah for isha’a, there is more twilight in the sky than doubt in his mind.

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