According to the dictionary an epiphany is described as a sudden manifestation of the essence or meaning of something or a comprehension or perception of reality by means of a sudden intuitive realization. I always believed I would have such an experience while I was in some sort of meditative state, kinda like you see in the movies where one would go to some isolated mountain in China and awake with the realization that they had finally figured the meaning of life. However, romanticized the idea, I did in fact have an epiphany, however not as glamorous as I had always imagined. September 11, 2001 was such a time and such a day for me. In retrospect it was the day I died and at the same time I was reborn. It was a day of great change for me and a day of internal strife and recognition. It was a day that I will never forget, not just because of what happened to this country or how many lives were lost, but more so for how many lives were changed and primarily my own.

Many often mark this day with the question “Where were you on September 11th?” for me, I remember it like it was yesterday…

I was still in the Marine Corps, I was a 20 year old Sergeant who at this point had been in the Marine Corps for a little over 3 years. Like most 20 year olds, I hadn’t quite figured out what I was doing or where I was going in this thing called life, but I just took it day by day, doing what I already had made a choice to do, for now that is, and that was be a Marine. I’m not going to sit here and tell fanciful stories about how good of a Marine I was or how great of a Sgt I was, because the truth of the matter is, I was what I would call a middle of the road Marine. I wasn’t the best, I certainly wasn’t the worst. I excelled in some things and in others I had work to do. The funny thing is, even at this point in my career and leading up to this day, I had already been married and separated at this time, had been to see the Colonel once or twice, I lose count, and even though I loved the Corps and still do, I wasn’t what in the Marine Corps they would coin a hard-charger.

I was the product of a twisted, to say the least, drama filled childhood that led me to this point. I wasn’t I was one of the statistics, my parents had me when they were young, never married, hell I don’t even know if they actually dated, went their separate ways, and to make a long story short I was left with my maternal grandmother. My maternal grandfather had died when my mother was only 10, he was 26yrs old when he died, and the most I knew about him was the fact that I was named after him. Anyway, my grandmother worked really hard and still does, and never really had time to give me affection and things like that, but she did buy me anything I wanted. I was an only child and that made it easy for her, but in retrospect I think it turned me into a monster, figuratively speaking of course…

Now I know by now if your still following, “what does this have to do with 9/11?” well I’m getting there. To understand where we are or going, we have to understand where we have been…

Moving right along…anyway, being a product of the urban jungle with little to no oversight of the parental nature, I soon began to develop into something more of a statistic, I started disrespecting my elders, my grandmother, and I skipped classes, etc… you know the routine. By the time I reached my Freshman year of highschool I was well on the way to dropping out and doing only God knows what, however, my grandmother did the best thing she could have ever done…she sent me to live in North Carolina with my paternal grandparents, whom I lovingly refer to as the Pastor and his wife.

Prior to my “detention” in NC, I really didn’t have any idea what I believed. I mean, traditionally, my family was Baptist, and I distinctly remember being baptized, but truth be told I can’t ever remember going to church outside of the routine Palm and Easter Sundays. All this changed when I got to NC. My grandfather “the Pastor” ran a tight ship. Not only was our house holy, but my grandfather was an Army Korean War Vet, and you would think that he was still there at times. Even to this day, if one was to give him a surprise room inspection, he would pass with flying colors. Open up his dresser and its a thing of beauty…nicely folded and cover and aligned shirts, socks, etc… man that house was so clean most of the time you could eat off of any of the floors…

I know I’m rambling….

Anyway, it was during this time that I begin to ponder the universal order of things and begin to want to know about God…fortunately I had/have a great teacher and mentor in my grandfather, we would debate and discuss for hours the Bible and God, theology and religion in general. Oftentimes, when I thought I learned something in school, I would come home ready to challenge my Grandfather, he always won by the way. During this time I not only developed my deep love of the Church and Jesus more specifically, but I also fell in love with religion in general. I would study everything from the occult, paganism, to Christianity, and everything in between, the one I never learned was about Islam, for some odd reason. I remember in 1995, I came home and my grandfather was watching this “Farrakhan” guy on TV. He had this Million Man March thing in DC and was speaking. I didn’t know who he was at that time, but I surely knew he wasn’t a Christian and didn’t believe as he did, but I couldn’t understand why my grandfather was watching so intently. I just brushed it off, and went to go play video games or something… Later that day, when I asked my grandfather why he was watching that “crap” he said the most profound thing to me. I didn’t know it then, but it was a life changing thing, he told me that even though, he didn’t believe exactly as Farrakhan did, and even though they don’t agree on various theological matters, he believes that God speaks in a myriad of ways, and oftentimes, if we concentrate less on the messenger and more on the message, we would be able to decipher which is which. Now it wasn’t those exact words, but it was something like that:)

Fastforward a little, so you guys don’t fall asleep…

I finished highschool and joined the Marine Corps. My grandfather and I grew very close spiritually, and for those that know me personally, you know that much, as I barely speak or type without mentioning him. While I wasn’t a perfect Christian, I sure was a zealous and deeply spiritual one. I read the Bible cover to cover many times, I took Bible classes in school and in Church, I got baptized again(just in case), and there wasn’t and hasn’t been a day since that I haven’t read the Bible. When I got married at the age of 19, I went to every service the Church had, and increase my zealotry, as my marriage started to decline, my spirituality went on the incline(thank God for that)…

Oh yeah, 9/11….

This particular morning September 11, 2001 I got up as usual at around 5:00 Am to start the day. Fortunately, I didn’t have to work in my office as usual, because I had been assigned to manage the geedunk for that week. For non-Marines/Sailors, a geedunk is a location in most units where you can by snacks and such outside of going to the store or chowhall(cafeteria) and the Marines/Sailors running it, normally take the profits and put them toward some cause. In our case, we were raising money so that junior Marines didn’t have to pay so much for the Marine Corps Ball. Our geedunk was a serious operation, we served breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and the manager(this week me), had to try to keep the profit margin as high as possible. So I went to work and everything was normal that day so far. I wore a T-shirt and jeans, as a uniform wasn’t required for this job, and pretty much sat around watching the privates do their thing. I really don’t remember what time it was, but about 5-10 minutes before the first tower was attacked, I distinctly remember going to the Maintenance Control Room to use the phone. I had decided that this particular day the geedunk was going to serve Pizza and I was going to call Domino’s to ensure the pizza was there by 11:30 am.

I remember looking in the yellow pages for the number and when I found it I picked up the phone and at that very instant, I remember a Staff Sergeant telling everyone to be quite and turn up the radio….

We all listened in amazement and utter disbelief when we heard the craziest thing…”I’m sorry to interrupt, be we have just been told that an airplane supposedly crashed into the World Trade Center…” a few seconds later all the phones in the control room started ringing in everything is still a blur to me. The only things I remember were stuff like “You gotta be kidding me” “This can’t be happening” “What the f…?” and the most important one…”We are under attack…”

It was in this moment that everything in my life came to a complete stop. See, like most young guys like me who joined the military, we joined for a variety of reasons, but rest assured the least common reason was not to go to war. Somehow, most of us had convinced ourselves that even though we were Marines, we shot weapons, and were basically trained killers, that all that was just part of the “job” and in real life we were just mechanics, administrators, IT guys, etc… who were fortunate to have one of the most prestigious jobs in the Marine Corps: Presidental transportation Support, or better yet we worked in Marine Helicopter Squadron One(HMX-1).

I can’t tell you I remember my exact thoughts that moment, but I will tell you this, I remember the myriad of emotions all flooding my brain at once. I couldn’t even decipher what was going on, but I did know that something had to be done. It was then that I had my first epiphany, I had never given it much thought before or even considered the possibility, but it was then that I truly committed to being of service to this country. Now when you join the Military you take an oath and all that, and yes I had been in the Corps several years, but it wasn’t until this very moment that I truly accepted my oath. It was in this moment that I realized that I was a man who swore an oath, and I was ready to die if necessary to defend this country. Even now I still get teary-eyed thinking of this moment…

I rushed over to my Master Sergeant I remember it clear as today, his name was Msgt Linscott, and I told him quite frankly, “Top, I don’t know what’s going on, but give me the word, and I will run down to the Barracks and put my uniform on and do whatever you need me to” he nodded in approval and I took off…runing down that street seemed like forever. It was as if I was crossing some threshold, it was as if I was truly understanding what service meant. It really wasn’t about me. This thing called service is about others and I swore an oath to defend all of them even if it cost me my life…

I ran so fast, all I can remember is that it must have taken less than five minute to get from the hanger to the barracks and in uniform…I remember as I was leaving my room that I really should make a phone call to somebody just in case I would die today, I wanted somebody to know I went down fighting. I picked up my phone and hit redial the last person I spoke to was my stepmother Karen and she answered the phone. She was hysterical and crying, I don’t remember my exact words, but I do remember telling her “Mom I’m OK, just know that I’m going to do what I get paid to truly do..” and with that I told her I love her and I dashed off…

Once I arrived back at the hanger, I stopped for a second to catch my breath and pray. I remember kneeling down outside in the grass and calling on the Lord. I remember asking for forgiveness and telling God that He told us he would never leave us nor forsake us and that I was a humble servant, it wasn’t my will but His will, I remember as I do now the tears rolling down my cheeks as they are as I type this. I remember this most sacred of moments. For the first time I truly felt like I had an audience with God, I remember reciting the Psalms of David, and crying out like never before, I remember asking God to protect and guide this nation, I remember, asking to be washed white as snow and asking for the anointing I remember crying to Jesus asking him to cover me with his blood, I remember this to this day, and even still, I cant stop crying…

I had to pause a moment to catch my breath and dry up my tears…

Anyway, I went inside the hanger and I saw the most impressive display of service. I saw Marines of all ranks ready to go. These very same mechanics, supply, and avionics guys who I brushed off many times as “nasty” “unprofessional” worker bees would are just not fit to be killers(I should talk) were transformed like myself, ready to protect this Nation to the death. I remember the uncertainty we all had, because we didn’t know exactly what happened, what was going to happen, etc. But we didn’t even care. All we knew was that we were attacked and somebody was about to pay.

Now we didn’t even clearly know the definition of pay, nor did we know who was going to feel the Marine Corps wrath, but we knew this: We were in Quantico and at this point NYC was attacked, the Pentagon, and there were rumors the White House was next. Considering who we worked for, we knew at the very least we would have to evacuate some people.

For the record, we weren’t called to do anything, we were on standby for like 16 hours and I stood there the whole time pondering. We were waiting for our rifles to be handed out and go to combat, we were ready…

As the day went along, we learned that it was possibly someone from the Middle East. I remember asking myself who would do this and why? I pondered on this intently, what would make someone do such a horrible thing? I finally resolved to get to the bottom of this. To defeat your enemy you must know him I thought so I sought out to figure out who these people were I why they did it.

In the next few days I learned that these guys were Muslims. This was my first real introduction to Islam. I knew absolutely nothing about the religion outside of the name. I found that strange considering I studied religion, that I never sought this one out. I had read other books outside the Bible even the book of Mormon once, but never the Quran.

So as any good leader that wanted defeat the enemy I sought out to learn about this Islam and Quran to see if there was anything in it I could find to help defeat the enemy…

I remember maybe a week or two later after we were able to leave the Base going to the book store to find a Quran. I bought one, and sat down to read it….

It was then that I had another epiphany…I read this book initially with hatred, anger, and confusion in my mind and in my heart, but by the time I reached the second Surah or chapter, midway I believe, all my emotions changed. This book was nothing what I expected. It wasn’t too different from what I already believed or knew. The biggest question was, what was it in this book that caused the actions of Bin Laden? I mean, I never saw any Christians do anything to this magnitude…But I continued to read nevertheless. I remember reading the entire Quran in less than three days. I consumed that book. I was amazed at the beauty and the poetic expression of the words, the context the layout, it was a work of art to me. The strangest and most astonishing thing to me was that it wasn’t the Bible, yet I believed in those moments that this was the word of God! I couldn’t explain the how’s or whys, but I felt this very deeply. I never felt this reading any other book like that of the Mormons, Hindus, etc… the only other book that made me feel this way was the Bible.

I immediately called my Grandfather. I told him the turmoil in my spirit and I couldn’t understand why, but I felt I had a new calling. I wasn’t to be the Pastors grandson and future Minister of the Church but I was to be a Muslim. Feeling this wrangling and praying to God yielded the same results. This went on for weeks if I remember correctly, but I knew I couldn’t do it without talking to my Grandfather. I asked him matter of factly what he felt about Islam. He told me the strangest thing I ever could have expected from a Christian Minister. He told me that he felt it was one of the paths to God from Abraham, and even though he wasn’t one, he didn’t think it wasn’t a parallel path. Perplexed, I asked him how would he feel if I became a Muslim and he told me that path is for me to decide and he would still love me no matter what.

After soaking that all in and meditating and praying on it, I read the Quran maybe two or three more times, and it was then that I said my shahaddah. “There is no God but God, and Muhammad is the messenger of God” It was this simple statement of belief that changed my world and made me something new. With all the answers there were still many questions. How is it that an action that was done supposedly in the name of Islam that was filled with so much hate, be the same action that actually led me to Islam? Why is it that this book that filled me with joy and peace be the same book that filled these guys with anger and rage? Who was right? Could I be wrong? Could they be wrong? Could we both be wrong or right?

Many people questioned me and still do today, and can’t understand how or why I made this choice. Some say I left Jesus, I say I never have nor has me, I just calmly say while my understanding of who he is has changed, my love has remained constant if not grew stronger.
There are many questions that I deal with day to day. There are many debates and discussions I participate in. However, one thing is for certain. I believe God is using me to do a great work, I don’t know what it is or how to do it, but I remain ever so much in service to Him. I have dedicated my life to bring about understanding and peace between the different religions and beliefs and at the same time dedicated my life to exposing and destroying those who will lie in the name of God only to destroy the innocent. This is the true meaning behind my “Muslim” name Abdur Salaam. I took this name because I felt it represents me. The translation loosely means “The servant of the One who gives Peace” I’m forever conscious of my servitude to God and I live everyday learning and growing in Him and hoping to one day help establish peace and help in this great work.

I’m not perfect and I fall, but as Donnie McClurkin sung, I fall down but I get up, for a saint is just a sinner who fell down…

September 11, 2001 was many things to many people. For me not only did I accept my oath, but I also understood what it meant to serve and I also found the way of life that helped me grow into the man I am today and continues to sustain me. We all have many stories and experiences of that day, no matter what or how diverse the experiences, I believe one thing is universal, 9/11 was the day we all had an epiphany. If it be the will of God, that epiphany was the one that would bring about a universal peace and understanding. I may not see it in my lifetime, but I pray that God gives me and us the strength to lay down the foundations that will establish that day and age.

May the Peace and Blessings of God be upon you and yours,
As Salaam Alaikum

You humble brother and servant,

Robert Abdur Salaam


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