I was already so drenched that the rain didn’t really matter anymore. Nevertheless, I was pedaling my bicycle full-bore to get to shelter, causing fat drops of rain to hit my face like bullets. Shelter was the Lucky Labrador, a high-end pizza parlor in Beaverton, where Azadi and I had agreed to meet. Because I didn’t know the area, Azadi was making the half-mile walk in the downpour to meet me. Later, he discovered that the hard rain had penetrated his coat pockets and killed his cell phone.
How many friends would make such a trip? I can think of several good friends who would probably call me and say, “Look, dude, let’s hold off and see if this rain lets up.” As for Azadi, he didn’t really know me. We started moshing on Facebook about six months ago and started making noise about getting together, having discovered a shared devotion to Christ through our posts. After a few false starts, including a trip to the Oregon coast I had been forced to back out of, we were finally doing it. As fate would have it, the hardest rain in months began right about the time I was reaching Beaverton on the bus.
I can only imagine what was going through Azadi’s head as he walked to the Lucky Lab to meet me. While we were coordinating by phone (the last call his phone would make), he said something like, “Just go to the Lucky Lab. I’m walking in the rain to meet you.” His tone of voice filled in the blanks, so that what I heard was something like, I’m getting soaked for you. You’d better not turn out to be some kind of whacko.
We got back to his apartment, and I met Azadi’s wife, Melissa, who is also a regular Facebook friend. Azadi brought me a tee shirt and gym shorts to wear while he draped my drenched clothes over the shower curtain rod in the bathroom to drip-dry while we got acquainted.
Earlier that day, while I was debating pulling out of the engagement because of fatigue, I recall having a distinct thought: This will be an occasion to remember. The thought did not seem to originate with me, although I was pleasantly aware of how unusual this engagement was. Here I was, invited to the home of a married couple I had never met for a home-cooked dinner. The whole thing had an extravagant, impulsive feel, but it was meaningful as well because of our shared faith. The fact that my new friends are both hard-core Christians is itself unusual since Azadi is of Middle-Eastern heritage, a former Muslim who now embraces Christ, and Melissa is an American of Ashkenazi Jewish heritage. While I was mulling all this over, I knew this was one of the last opportunities I would have to meet Azadi and Melissa. You can only back out of an engagement so many times before you become the Boy Who Cried Let’s Have Dinner. So I shook off my fatigue, slammed down a cup of coffee and hopped on the bus. Now here I was.
Dinner was chickpea curry, made in the Tajik/Afghan style, a dish made with garbanzo beans, heavy cream, tomato sauce, yogurt, cumin, coriander, cayenne, paprika, garlic, ginger and cinnamon, served over rice. Instead of measuring the spices, Azadi just shook in generous amounts as he was preparing the dish, which he served with tajik frybread, a delicious accompaniment (also a regional food) with prodigious amounts of garlic in it. Everything was very tasty — and new for me, which made it even better.
We ate while Azadi booted up a continuous stream of music by his favorite Christian artists, David Meece and Wayne Watson. I liked almost all of it, particularly since Azadi, an information junkie after my own heart, gave me the personal and religious histories of the musicians, supplied lyrics and told stories behind some of the pieces. It was like attending a filming of VH1’s Behind the Music.
I was a little nervous with Azadi at first. He has so much energy and enthusiasm that it was almost overwhelming to be in the same room with him. But I soon found that I was right there with him, grooving on all of it — the music, the dinner and the testimonies, which we both supplied. Azadi told me a story about how he had been overpowered by an enemy who had put a knife to his neck and tried to force him to recant his faith in Christ — or die.
This was what I had really come to dinner for: testimony. His and mine. Hearing about the faith of my new friends and sharing mine with them was enormously invigorating, so much so that I wondered why I don’t seek opportunities like this with breathless anticipation! My sharing with Azadi and Melissa was a transcendental experience. The Spirit of God was with us, and I wept openly with them.
Because of my FB correspondence with him, I had wanted to tell Azadi’s story even before we sat down to dinner together. Now, however, the project came to the forefront.
Azadi’s mother emigrated to the United States from Tajikistan before he was born and later married his father, who is American. The geographical roots he inherited from his mom are very much with him. The name Tajikistan literally means “Land of the nomads,” and it has a diverse population of “displaced” peoples from Iran, Russia, China and many other Asian countries. Azadi himself has both Russian and Iranian heritage.
He was raised Muslim and took his religion very seriously. However, when he was in his 20s, he began searching in earnest for God, having become convinced that Islam was failing him. He was blessed with comprehension and stamina, both of which he turned to a comparative study of the the Bible and the Qur’an, with the objective of showing the supremacy of the Qur’an over the Bible. As a scholar of the Muslim faith, he had become protégé to an Iranian Muslim, who introduced Azadi to Islam’s foundational texts. Azadi’s mentor believed in the Bible and Jesus, up to a point: where they contradicted the Qur’an, they were considered false. Such is the dubious homage paid to Jesus by a religion that shares Christianity’s watershed figure — Abraham.
After having written about 200 pages of his book, Azadi realized his research was taking him in the wrong direction. He had begun to find “glaring holes in the Qur’an,” a book that speaks of the death and resurrection of Christ, his position as Messiah, the herald John, and many other details in which it parallels the Bible. But, like the Buddha and even some quasi-Christian cults, Islam glorifies Jesus but stops short of identifying him as God.
This is the wavering conclusion of Islam’s leaders but not its own holy book. Azadi’s epiphany came when he discovered that the Qur’an calls Jesus “the messenger of Allah” (ar-rasoolah), a position ascribed only to Mohammed by Islamic leaders (Surah Maryam aya 33). In what would seem a blasphemous statement, Muslims are commanded to follow Christ until the Day of Judgment. The eschatological framing sets Jesus in a superlative light. Furthermore, although Islamic teaching places Mohammed over Christ, in the Qur’an, Mohammed, who lived after Christ, commands Muslims to follow Jesus (not himself) until the Judgment (Surah al-Imran aya 55). These are only the more salient of many contradictions between the Qur’an and hadith (collections of Mohammed’s sayings) and the Islamic establishment at large. Furthermore, Mohammed himself seems confused, given his statement: “Do not write anything I say but the Quran and whoever writes anything but the Quran should delete it” (Musnad Ahmad, Number 10713). Mohammed’s apparent schizophrenia can be seen in other contradictions: Jews are described in the Qur’an as the pinnacle of the creation, whereas hadith states that Jesus, himself a Jew, will destroy the Jews when he comes again.
Azadi’s studies took him past the point of no return. He despaired of finding hope in a faith whose holy book is contradicted by the religion and politics that have grown up around it. He could not say with certainty what Islam was, let alone put his faith in it.
After his moment of clarity, Azadi went through a season during which he sampled various religions and spiritual activities such as Buddhism, Hinduism and even Tarot and Ouija boards. From there, he tried a few socialite mega churches that hawked various flavors of the Prosperity Gospel. By this time, Melissa had become a Christian, but Azadi’s countenance toward Jesus was contemptuous at best. He challenged God to prove it to him if Christ was really his son. His searching seemed to be producing more turbulence than peace.
In the months leading up to his conversion, Azadi came home one afternoon, smoldering from a troubling experience at one of his university classes. In his frustration, he began arguing fiercely with Melissa about religion. When the discussion turned volatile, Azadi retreated into the living room to find the area filled with thick smoke. There was no explanation for the smoke; the windows were closed, and neither the stove nor the furnace was running. The smoke didn’t hamper his breathing. He writes that it was like “morning mist.” Melissa told him it was the “cloud of God’s glory,” but he dismissed her words as absurd and left for a friend’s house.
In the late evening of April of 2012, Azadi was preparing to take their dog outside, after which he planned to go to sleep. He walked from the bedroom into the living room and saw a man standing in the doorway. Even in his startled state, Azadi observed the incongruity of his being able to see the man even though it was so dark in the apartment that he couldn’t see his hand in front of his face. Moreover, he knew for a fact that his door was chained and bolted. He was on the verge of concluding that what he was seeing was a hallucination when the man turned his hands toward him. Azadi could see holes in his wrists. Then the man lifted his robe, and Azadi saw a scar between the first and second rib, directly in his side. The dog was motionless at his feet, transfixed by the man at the door. By this time, Azadi thought he was “going nuts,” but his wife touched him on the shoulder and told him it was going to be okay. She herself couldn’t see anything, but sensed the magnitude of what Azadi was taking in.
Azadi does not hesitate to identify the man at the door as Jesus, although there is some question whether the experience was a dream, a vision or an out-and-out meeting of the spiritual and temporal realms. Whatever it was, his understanding of life, the world and Christ was shattered. He has gained a robust, radical devotion to the Savior, toward whom he feels a passionate gratitude. Azadi’s testimony is that Christ showed himself to him “just like I had asked four months earlier.”
Azadi was baptized the following Sunday. He has shared his story in his book From a Slave’s Tunic to Royal Garments, available at Amazon.com. His assertions about Islam and his proclamations about Christ have generated hostility and anger in many of the Muslims he has engaged with. Since his book was published, he has received multiple death threats. All the while, he is selling his book at cost, or, as the situation warrants, giving copies away, as he did with me. I found Azadi’s story to be as honest, passionate and compelling as any Christian testimony I have read. Just like the man himself, with whom I have regular contact. In fact, the two of us are about to sit down for a Mexican lunch.