By Karen Schwartz, Daily Staff Reporter
October 22, 2003
LSA sophomore Michael Dann was raised as a Christian, going to church and Sunday school in Amherst, Mass., as was his family's tradition. But four years ago, he decided he was destined for a different path. Dann converted to Islam, which he said has changed his life.
Dann said he went from being involved in "the drug culture" and party scene in junior high school to looking for something more in life - thanks to the example set by his tennis coach, a black Muslim man from New Jersey.
"Through my contact with him, and especially through tennis, I got to see there was something more serious about life, something more serious than gratifying your immediate desires," he said, adding that his coach did not often talk about Islam explicitly but rather led by example.
"It was just through his approach to life and his character, being around him - I was attracted to something I knew he had, something that was motivating his life," Dann said. "He gave me different books to read, not mostly about Islam except for the Quran, but those books served more to wake me up to that there's more to life than partying and fun, and that God should be in my life."
Dann, who also goes by Abdullah, which means "servant of God," helped organize a panel held last night in Hutchins Hall as part of Islam Awareness Week. The panel featured testimonies from three people who converted to Islam, who told an audience of 50 their stories and answered questions about their experiences with the religion.
"It's important because it's a chance to speak for ourselves, for Muslims to present Islam as they understand it and not as other people understand it," Dann said. He added that the event was a chance for people to learn about the process of becoming Muslim and the diverse experiences that bring people to Islam.
"Ultimately all we can do is present Islam as we've experienced it and understand it," he said. "What other people do with it will be different according to who they are and what they want. I'm looking at it more from our angle, that we have a responsibility to express ourselves."
Law School student Felix Chang said he attended the event out of curiosity and was very impressed with the testimonies he heard.
"I think they were really honest and open about the decisions they had to make, something very personal to them that they shared, and I appreciated that," he said. "I think their stories are really interfaith, that their stories of conversion can pretty much be applied to any belief system, so it has universal appeal."
Muslim Students Association President Omar Khalil said the panel drew positive response last year, and that people commented that they enjoyed seeing how panelists were introduced to Islam and what aspects of Islam affected them the most.
"We had a lot of feedback last year saying perhaps that was people's favorite event of the week, so we felt it was something we should continue," said Khalil, a Rackham student.
He said the event also showcases the diversity within Islam and gives campus and community members a more familiar angle from which to approach understanding Islam.
"First of all, what we wanted to show is that Islam isn't just a foreign religion (and that Muslims are) not just from the Middle East or Pakistan or from Indonesia," he said. "We wanted to show that there are people like the students on this campus who are born American, raised American, and yet they felt this for them was the religion they chose for themselves."
Dann remembers being 14 years old and having a short discussion about Islam with his coach, but it was not until later that he said he realized the impact the discussion had on him and the process he had embarked upon.
"I didn't realize it at the time, but suddenly it had an attraction to me. When I met a Muslim I would ask him what he believed and if he had anything I could read. The seed was already there," he said.
His conversion was a gradual process, Dann said, but it didn't entirely negate his previous beliefs.
"Becoming a Muslim to me wasn't disbelieving in Jesus or leaving everything from Christianity behind. It was about believing in what I considered to be a more accurate version of God's message."
He added that Islam has changed his life and his interactions with his family for the better.
"Without Islam I don't know where I would be today. My motivation for succeeding academically and succeeding professionally - all that stems from Islam, and I don't think it'd be there if it weren't for Islam."