If you are familiar with the writing of Jeff Benedict, it is probably from the articles he writes for Sports Illustrated magazine. However, Benedict also writes books, mostly related to sports. Thankfully, he also helps out with memoirs.
This year he helped Tito Momen write his autobiography, My Name Used to Be Muhammad: The True Story of a Muslim Who Became a Christian. Conversions of Muslims to Christianity are so rare that a story like this is newsworthy. In Momen's case it a journey of extremes. Momen was the Nigerian born son to a Muslim father who held extremist Muslim beliefs that are associated with the radical Muslim Brotherhood, the Taliban, and Al-Queda. Tito was not Momen's original first name. His father named him Muhammad.
Momen story is a journey from strict Islam to a doubting follower of Muhammad, to a new Christian convert who was imprisoned 15 years for his religion. He was disowned by his father but had an amazing reconciliation the day his father died.
Back in 1965, when Momen was 5 years old, his father started him on a course to become a Islamic imam. He gave young Muhammad a copy of the Quran and a bunch of notebooks with instructions to copy the scriptures in full as a method to memorize the book. He was allowed no toys or any forms of entertainment. He was allowed to go to the local school which was 80% Muslim and 20% Christian. One of his teachers gave him a book of African stories to help him learn to read. When he took it home to read to his mother and other children in the area, his father took the book away because he was only allowed to read the Quran to the children. When a teacher noticed he had a talent for drawing, he began practicing at home, but his father put a stop to it, and warned he would be beaten if caught again. He was allowed one hour to play soccer everyday, but after he got in fight with some boys at age 10, his father took his ball away telling Muhammad that he could have it back when he turned 16.
The strict form of Islam followed by Muhammad's father was very detrimental to women. His father regularly beat his wife for breaking Islamic laws such as failure to properly cover herself. He arranged the marriage of Muhammad's 14 year old sister to a 30 something man she had never met and without telling his wife first.
Muhammad was a good student and wanted to please his father. He did not always make the choices his father would wish. Once he went to see a movie which was forbidden by his religion. His father found out and punished him. Muhammad recognized that he was a disciple of a religion of fear, but he knew no other life.
When he was fourteen he earned a scholarship with some of his neighbor cousins to attend a Muslim college prep program in Damascus, Syria. He thought he was going to continued learning all subjects, but when he got there he discovered the only subject covered was the Islam religion as understood by the radical Muslim Brotherhood. It was mostly just memorizing and rote repetition, which he was good at. Students who did not recite the Quran correctly were beaten. Once he questioned a verse that said the Prophet Muhammad was told it was sometimes necessary to kill people. Young Momen asked his professor who told this to Muhammad since it was not clear from the scripture. For this he was beaten. He was branded a troublemaker for thinking too much. He really got in trouble when he had his friends got back to school late and because they had not eaten for a whole day, they fixed some food during Ramadan when Muslims are prohibited from cooking and eating. They all ran when discovered and all were initially caught except for Momen. When he turned himself in, he found his friends in the school courtyard in front of all the other students. They had been beaten by the professor. He knew what they had done was wrong but he was very familiar with the Quran and could not understand why his teachers never displayed forgiveness. Seeing his beaten friends, his temper flared and he hit the professor. For this, he and the others kicked out of the school and sent home.
His father was furious with Momen when he came back. He was banished to a remote village for a year, but because he showed remorse, his father arranged for him to attend college in Cairo. When he graduated he would be qualified to be an Islamic cleric.
Despite the predominance of Muslims in Cairo, it was a very secular city in the early 1980's. Away from home, Muhammad slowly fell away from his strict upbringing. He took up smoking, drinking, and partying, even getting a part-time job as a DJ. He also started reading banned history books that were critical of The Prophet Muhammad. When he mistakenly showed his notes to his professor, he knew he was doomed and that it would be reported back to his father. Around this time he met up with a friend to listen to music records. This friend had been a regular smoker and drinker, but he had recently given up these bad habits and converted to Christianity. Intrigued, Momen got a Bible from his friend and read it in just a few days. He found a religion of hope and love, nothing like the religion of fear and oppression he learned from his father.
Momen took the rare step in Egypt of being baptized a Christian. He changed his name from Muhammad to Tito. When his father found out about it, he held a public funeral for his son. He blamed his wife for his son's betrayal and she committed suicide under the persecution of her husband. Momen had received death threats for his actions, so he knew he had to get out of Egypt to a Western country. A friend got him a false passport that would get him to Canada, but he was caught before he was able to get there. He was put in jail and tortured. He was released on probation but later imprisoned for life on falsified drug possession charges, but he knew the real reason was his new religion.
For the next 15 years Momen was in prison in terrible living conditions. He developed health problems that almost cost him his life. Although it took years, Christians from Western nations and concerned diplomats worked tirelessly to get him free. He finally, left Egypt and now lives in Ghana.
One day in his new home he was surprised to see his cousin, one of the boys who he had studied with in Syria. His cousin told him that Momen's father was dying and wanted to see him. He had never heard from his father since he became a Christian. He returned to Nigeria and found his father in the hospital. His father told Momen, ¨Allah has answered my prayer. I asked Allah that if what you believe in is true, I should see your face before I died. Allah has shown me your face. So I believe in whatever you believe in.¨ Momen told his father that it was not too late for him, ¨Christ died for everyone. Everyone can be redeemed, Father.¨ They visited for two hours and Momen's father died later that day.
In the book Momen writes, ¨The next time I will see him will be on the other side. I do believe he'll be there. At that point, he won't be a Muslim and I won't be a Christian. We will simply be children of God. . . . My mother will be there, too. I expect her to be at my father's side. She will be proud of me. She will know what I believe. And she will be forever grateful.¨
Some of the passages of this book are pretty rough, so it might not be a good read for younger teens, but it would be a great read for older teens and adults.
Many liberals and secularists are quick to criticize Christianity, but blindly overlook the narrow mindedness of Islam as practiced by millions. This book is a great example of how Christianity can bring peace, hope, and love to people. It is unfortunate, but telling, that countries that are predominately Muslim will not allow freedom of religion and the ability of people to choose for themselves what they want to believe. What are they afraid off? At some level do Muslim leaders know that the message of the New Testament is superior to their message of fear and oppression?
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