It was the most devastating assessment that had ever been leveled against me, and possibly the most offensive. I sat staring at the man who cast the judgment—reeling from the impact of what he said and shocked that he would utter it so blatantly. His words hung in the air, seeping into my pores and penetrating my mind.
“You are a sinner and not worthy of heaven.”
Time came to a standstill as I surveyed his face. Stolid. His tone had been resolute and devoid of vitriol. All the same, my reaction was visceral. How could he accuse me of deserving hell? Did he know who he was talking to?
Long before I could remember my name, I followed the precepts of Allah. My mother had taught me the ways and recitation of the Quran, and I had dedicated countless hours of my life to memorizing its chapters. My father had led me in daily prayers since the time I was able to stand and perform its postures. From the days I could first think and make my own decisions, I chose to live as an upright Muslim, embodying the Islamic life and following Muhammad to the best of my ability. It was in my very DNA; I was a Qureshi, a descendant of Muhammad’s tribe.
Proud of both my noble heritage and my faith, I stood confidently in Islam, knowing I would be justified before God on the day of judgment. Yet this man had the gall to declare me hell-bound? Who did he think he was?
How could he accuse me of deserving hell? Did he know who he was talking to?
His name was David, and he was a Christian. Years earlier, in college, I had seen him reading a Bible and decided to challenge him with the arguments against his faith that I had learned in my mosque. I questioned the Bible’s reliability and inspiration, as I had with many Christians before, but to my surprise, he was ready to respond and defended the Bible with impressive skill and insight. Our dialogue continued, venturing into matters concerning Jesus, the Trinity, historical inquiry, and the like.
We started spending more time together and passed innumerable hours dialoguing during meals, homework, and road trips. Some of the times spent together were momentous: In addition to births, funerals, and graduations, we were together when he first met the woman who would become his wife, and I ultimately stood by him as a groomsman at his wedding.
So who did he think he was? He was my best friend, and that was the only reason he could say what he said without causing me to leave in disgust. We had been through thick and thin together, so I knew his judgment was not a personal attack, offensive though it was.
I continued to scrutinize his face while considering his words. His oddly misshapen nose stood out, a testament to a former way of life. He had not always been a Christian. Raised in trailer parks by atheist parents, he had gotten into more than his fair share of fistfights and lawlessness in younger years. Unlike me, who spent as little time as possible contemplating my own sins, he was transparent about his past. And it was ugly.
He couldn’t really condemn me when his past was so much worse than mine, could he?
But he had somehow left those years behind. The David I knew was one of the most loyal, generous, and thoughtful individuals I had ever encountered. His transformation was—in a word—miraculous. How this conversion came about was anyone’s guess, but he was adamant that Jesus had changed him.
Of course, I knew that couldn’t be true. As a Muslim, I had the utmost respect for Jesus, believing Him to be the most miraculous man who ever lived, even the virgin-born Messiah. But Islam taught me that Jesus was not God, and He did not change people today. I believed that people who thought these things were either misled or deluded and that even the most basic consideration of the facts would clarify these false notions.
But then, here was David, staring right back at me. He was an intelligent young man who had thought deeply about what he believed and had come to the conclusion that it was true. I might not agree with him, but the sheer fact that he was a thoughtful Christian was forcing me to reframe my understanding of his faith.
Instead of causing David’s words to fade away, the silence only amplified them. Could it be true that I was a sinner, unworthy of heaven? That I was a sinner was no surprise to me, but Islam had taught me that if I did more good deeds than bad, I would go to heaven. Considering myself to be on the positive side of the scales, I was able to ignore my sins. What David was saying turned everything I believed, everything I had built my life upon, on its head. It caused me to confront my depravity, something I wanted to avoid at all costs. But David’s gaze held me there.
Did he know what this meant, though? If he was right, it meant Islam and everything my family had ever taught me was wrong. All we had ever stood for was false. How could he expect me to believe this? It would cost me everything. My Muslim friends would consider me a traitor, my family might disown me, and my life would be devastated. In some circumstances, my life might be forfeit.
The cost of the message made me want to run, but his loyal friendship made me stay right there, forcing me to consider his words. They were unpleasant, but his relationship with me covered over a multitude of offenses. He must have known his words were an affront to everything I stood for, yet he held to its truth because that truth held him. His entire life had been changed by this message, and there was no arguing with that.
Only when I tried to figure out why God would give mercy and grace to someone who deserved none did the gears start turning.
After a few heavy moments, I spoke. “If I am a sinner unworthy of heaven, what hope is there for me, David?”
David smiled reassuringly and said, “Only the grace of God.”
“But why would He give me His grace?”
“Because He loves you.”
He loves me? God, the Creator of the universe, loves me? How could that be? The Quran teaches that Allah does not love those who sin.
“Why would He love me, a sinner?” I asked.
His smile unrelenting, David said. “Because He’s your Father.”
Those four words hit me hard. I had heard Christians call God “Father,” but it had never clicked. Only when I tried to figure out why God would give mercy and grace to someone who deserved none did the gears start turning. David’s simple assertion reminded me of my earthly father, who would love me no matter what I did. Of course, if God is the greatest being, His love would be greater than my earthly father’s. Unconditional.
And just like that, because of my friend’s courage and conviction, I understood the gospel for the first time. The power of the message, combined with the evidence for its truth, meant I had to make a decision: the life I had, or the life God had for me.
When I left Islam, my family was fractured, and it has never been the same. That was the most painful time of my life, and I had to lean on God completely to get through the storm. Nine years later, my life has been blessed in ways I could never have imagined, and I now have the privilege of speaking at university campuses around the world, sharing the same life-changing message that David shared with me. And I wouldn’t change that for anything.