How I went from Straight-A Varsity
“Come home, son”
Shame and relief contorted my face.
Alhamdulillah, this was an email, so my father would not see.
Neither would he hear the surrender in my sigh, as I typed “Yeah, ok.”
And then added, “I need money for the ticket.”
“For food too,” I thought, my stomach twisting. For the past week, I had been surviving on sugared black tea, and scraps stolen from my roommate …
This was the second time in my life I had been broke, starving, and about to be homeless.
The tearful goodbye
Six years earlier, it had been a different story. One of pride and expectation.
As we stood in the departure lounge at Bandaranaike International Airport, Sri Lanka, my mother’s cheeks shone with tears – her first-born son was off to college.
She pushed a silvery ring onto my finger. I remember it had a moonstone insert – my ‘birthstone’ – and the underside was open. The gem was supposed to touch your skin and channel cosmic rays for good luck. (We Sri Lankans are a superstitious lot!)
It was a kind trinket. A parting gift. I didn’t give it a second thought.
If leaving home caused me any sadness, it was drowned in a bubbling glee I was struggling to disguise.
With the most serious face I could muster, I hugged my mother stiffly and was swallowed by the shifting crowd.
I was finally free.
I was jetting off to Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago, USA to get myself an engineering degree – and a life of success and acclaim.
In fact, I was heading for a life of hedonism and degeneracy – funded first by my father and then, when I had burnt my bridges, a minimum wage job paying cash under the table.
The promising life of a suburban Sri Lankan kid
We were not a wealthy family but we never wanted for anything, growing up in the Sri Lankan capital.
I guess, as kids, we were a little pampered – raised mostly by our mother because father was a sailor and often at sea. But we were in high school before we ever got an allowance (which, even then, was tiny.)
A generation before, our parents had grown up dirt-poor in the Vauxhall Street slums of Colombo. They were pretty tough, street-smart – something I wish I had picked up from them.
Instead, I was your typical nerd. Above average intelligence. A gamer.
My only saving grace of ‘coolness’ was that I played varsity basketball in high school and was a (terrible) rapper.
School came easy – I didn’t have to do much to get decent grades – and I arrived at IIT in the fall of 2000 arrogant and overconfident, with a scholarship and a year’s worth of AP credits to my name.
Within four years I would flunk out.
Sliding into degeneracy
I’m hesitant to describe this part of my life. As Muslims, we shouldn’t mention our sins, unless there is an overriding benefit.
Let’s just say, imagine any sin and I probably committed it. I was a scumbag.
I want to speak about one sin in particular, though – gambling.
It seems so innocuous but it is catastrophically dangerous. It can, and will, drive you to do things you could never imagine as a moral person.
And it was probably the sin that had the most profound negative impact on me.
I can’t remember how I got into it exactly. I do remember being fascinated by no limit hold’em poker after watching Chris Moneymaker win the 2003 Poker World Series on ESPN – and then watching the movie Rounders about a dozen times …
I have an addictive personality – and poker had me hooked.
Over the following months, I spent as much time as possible playing no limit hold’em with friends for small stakes.
I became a student of the game – bought my own chips, collected books on poker theory, spent hours on strategy forums and playing in online poker rooms. I’d even take the shuttle to a casino boat to play.
I got pretty good at it.
So good, I thought I could play professionally.
Broke, homeless, and starving
The thing about poker is it’s like a job. You can earn a steady hourly rate if you know what you’re doing.
BUT you need a large stake to ride out bad streaks and continue playing smart when you’re losing.
I didn’t have that stake. So when I had a bad session I played stupid.
And lost everything. Down to the felt. TWICE.
The first time was in 2004.
I was dead-broke, with no money for food – I was surviving on a tub of whey protein. In desperation, I sold most of my possessions on Craigslist.
My landlord kicked me out because the rent was weeks overdue – I had one afternoon to find a place to stay.
In a flicker of fate, I probably didn’t deserve, I landed a job as a gas station cashier. It was in a sh*tty neighborhood and paid minimum wage, cash in hand.
It wasn’t much – but it meant I could survive, Alhamdulillah.
I worked my ass off, regularly pulling 12 and 16-hour shifts.
Once I was robbed at knife-point – the scar from the struggle took years to heal.
Another time, I forgot to ask a kid for her ID when she bought a pack of Newports. Five minutes later a plainclothes cop walks in. The girl was underage. And undercover. Of course.
It was my boss’s third strike selling tobacco to a minor – about six months later he lost his tobacco license, because of my f*ck up.
Still, I was a hard worker and he seemed to have taken a liking to me – he even promoted me to a manager of one of his gas stations in another neighborhood.
That came with a big pay bump – for the first time in about a year, I was financially comfortable.
Broke and broken, once again
Of course, that comfort couldn’t last.
The grind of managing a 24-hour gas station, convenience store, and car wash – six days a week (sometimes seven) – was draining.
I started resenting the job, and my boss.
And to be honest, at my pitiful level of maturity, I was also totally unqualified to manage staff, schedules, book-keeping, reports, and everything else …
By this time, I’d long broken contact with my parents. I had only been home once, during my freshman year summer break – since then, nothing.
But now, my father and I somehow got back on speaking terms. And with his guidance, I decided to try to go back to college.
Unsurprisingly, my application to University of Chicago was rejected outright. My transcript sucked balls (obviously.) Fine, I was expecting it.
But I’d made the mistake of telling my boss my long-term plans. He fired me with zero notice. My last paycheck of a few hundred dollars lasted two weeks.
So this was it. I had no more outs.
I decided to throw a Hail Mary.
I borrowed $600 dollars from a friend and got the shuttle to the casino boat. With $500 of chips, I dug in at the $5/$10 Limit Hold’em table. This was my only shot.
I left with $100.
Now I was proper fracked.
Weeks passed. The money was spent. My stomach was empty.
It was 2006 and I was broke and starving for the second time in my life. Any day, I’d be homeless again too.
“Come home, son.”
It was five years before I paid my friend back his $600.
To my father, who payrolled my decadence to the tune of $100,000, I owed a debt I could never repay. I pray for his, and God’s, forgiveness.
Out of the abyss
Six years had passed since my hurried goodbye.
Much of that without a word to my parents or sister.
Faint from a 48-hour journey, I walked into the arrival lounge at Bandaranaike, scanning for my mother. She waved.
She looked old. Had she gotten shorter?
“They lost my f*cking bags!” Smothering my shock at her diminished frame, I fell into my mother’s all-forgiving embrace.
Alhamdulillah, she too couldn’t see my shamefaced relief.
The comeback kid
I spent a few months with my mother in Colombo before heading to Dubai, where my father worked and my brother went to college.
The plan was to finish my education. So I showed my college transcript to the American University of Sharjah.
They refused me on the spot – didn’t even let me submit an application.
Still raw from this, when I tried Middlesex University I used my high school A-Level results instead (not too shabby – three As and a B), and BS’d my way through their questions about what I’d been doing for the past six years (‘working.’)
I was accepted.
Since I was so old (for an undergrad) they couldn’t give me a student’s visa, but my father rescued me once again. He pulled strings to get me a resident’s visa.
So, at last, I was back in school and putting the shattered pieces back together.
Finding my religion
While life gained some degree of normalcy in Dubai, I was still spiritually empty. Still basically the scumbag I was in Chicago.
I just didn’t have the money to implement my scumbaggery. No disposable income – just a small monthly allowance.
In the winter of 2006, my father and brother headed home to Colombo on vacation.
I was alone for an entire month.
I had grand plans of hosting parties with all the bells and whistles of debauchery. Then I realized the impossible cost …
Bizarrely, I decided to be as frugal as possible instead.
Purely for entertainment during these scant times – and this certainly hints at a personality prone to extremes – I started reading a translation of the Quran.
Now, we were your typical brown Muslim family, growing up. The Qari came three times a week to teach us to read the Quran, and when we were old enough he taught us to pray.
But we never prayed. Why would we? Our parents didn’t.
The only Islam to speak of in our lives was fasting during Ramadan, a few begrudging Quran readings a week, and the superstitions of the Sri Lankan Muslim community.
So picking up that old Marmaduke Pickthall edition of the Quran during those lonely days in Dubai was … kind of weird, to put it mildly.
I read the entire translation cover to cover in about a week – alternating between that and playing Mass Effect on Xbox.
And that was that, I thought, when I’d finished. Interesting, but … no fireworks happening.
Until a few nights later, when I couldn’t sleep.
The adhan blared through my closed bedroom window as I tossed around in bed.
“OK. Since sleep is giving me the finger,” I thought, “why don’t I pray Fajr?”
I stumbled out of bed and into the bathroom. I made wudhu. I prayed Fajr.
Then I prayed the next prayer. And the next. And the next.
Inching my way forward to reclaim my faith. Like Bruce Wayne climbing out of the pit in The Dark Knight Rises.
The Prophet Mohammed ﷺ said:
Allah the Almighty said: I am as My slave perceives Me and I am with him whenever he mentions Me. If he makes mention of Me to himself, I make mention of him to Myself. If he makes mention of Me in an assembly, I make mention of him in an assembly better than it. If he draws near to Me a hand-span, I draw near to him a forearm’s length. If he comes to Me walking, I go to him in a hurry.Sunan Ibn Majah
I had stepped forward, unsure and hesitant.
And my faith had rushed to meet me.
Shirk will destroy you
I struggled for some time to understand how I had let things go so wrong in Chicago.
As scrubby a Muslim as I had been in my childhood, I was never a mushrik. I had a strong aversion to anything that seemed like shirk.
But I was ignorant. I didn’t know anything beyond the basics of my religion.
I didn’t know about the ring.
During my time in Chicago, I was a frack-up. I take full responsibility for that.
I was a frack-up with a ring.
As a ‘lucky charm,’ that ring was an object of polytheism (shirk) – the antithesis of monotheism (tawheed) and utterly rejected by Islam.
Obviously, my mother intended no harm in giving me the ring – it was meant as a gift of love and protection.
But she was a victim of the superstition around her and the religious ignorance of many Muslims. May Allah guide us all.
The Quran and Sunnah explicitly forbid Muslims from using any talisman or amulet (though some scholars hold that written verses of the Quran can be worn for protection.)
The Messenger of Allah ﷺ reportedly said:
Whoever hangs up something will be entrusted to it.Sunan An-Nasa’i
From this, we understand that when someone takes on a talisman, the person is abandoned to it and leaves the protection of God.
A talisman is an inanimate object – it has no power to help OR harm. But if you carry it, you have lost the protection of God – and so put yourself in harm’s way.
In other words, the hadith is saying that if you wear a talisman or amulet YOU ARE SCREWED.
And that’s what happened to me.
That ring stayed on my finger the entire time I was in Chicago.
I remember asking myself from time to time why Every Single Thing I Did failed so spectacularly.
When the ring was gone – my life started improving.
I finally understood that if Allah is not with you, you are truly lost.
Becoming my best self
Once I’d rediscovered my faith, though, it still took years to understand that there’s more to being a good Muslim than taking time to pray.
I got myself a job after college – but I would arrive late, leave early, procrastinate … and somehow believed I deserved promotion just for showing up.
I became stagnant and demoralized, and the quality of my work spiraled.
Then a friend told me about the self-improvement guru Ramit Sethi – and a whole new landscape of personal development unfolded.
It took me reading the work of a non-Muslim to understand how to be a better Muslim.
I began to understand and internalize the concept of Ihsan.
Proficiency. Perfection. Striving to be your absolute best in every action and aspect of your life.
This is Ihsan.
As I began to work on my attitude to both my spiritual and everyday life …
… finally, I started to think like a Muslim.
To become my best self.
It’s now been over a decade since I opened Pickthall’s translation and read the words “In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful.”
Over 10 years since I prayed Fajr on that restless morning.
I now have a career and a side-business, a wife and children, a long beard and shortened trousers.
Though I’ve barely scratched the surface, I’ve spent several years formally studying our sacred tradition under my teachers.
I’ve memorized my way through a third of the Quran – it’s been a slow grind and I’m still not the Muslim I’d like to be.
But considering where I was and where I am now … Alhamdulillah.
Becoming the Alpha Muslim
I wrestled with the idea of publishing this post. Until now, only a handful of my closest friends knew my story.
But I want to help you.
I tell you all of this not to impress you, but to impress upon you what’s possible.
You too can experience the joy and success of discovering your best self – even from the darkest start point …
Of overcoming any challenge to grow into your rightful future …
Of Becoming the Alpha Muslim.
I don’t have all the answers. I do have a hard-earned understanding of how to negotiate the many challenges we face as we progress in our religiosity.
And I want to share all of that experience and knowledge with you.
I learned how to THINK like a Muslim. I want to show you too.
At Becoming the Alpha Muslim, you’ll find:
- actionable advice on how to thrive as a Muslim man – and stay true to your faith amid the practical distractions of everyday life
- inspiring Islamic content – that doesn’t routinely portray Muslim men as oppressive misogynists!
- the tools you need to inoculate your mind against media distortion and bulletproof your Iman.
The Quran tells us:
Becoming the Alpha Muslim is the journey every man must take to change what is in himself, and realize his ultimate virtue.
It’s about transitioning to a better version of ourselves – a continuous, conscious process of intent and action.
We may never completely reach our destination, but we grow in the journey itself.
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