Bundled up against the November cold of Eastern Europe, Gyorgy Jakab waited to meet me outside the Hungarian Academy of Sciences as dusk turned to night. I pointlessly worried that I wouldn't be able to pick him out of a possible small crowd standing in front of the academy, and had instead told him to look for the Muslim woman wearing the large beige veil. I found and knew him at a moment's glance. It might have been the stubble of blondish beard that covered part of his face, or perhaps just his demeanor of humbleness that shines from the devout. Nevertheless, I smiled as our eyes met when I had hardly walked out of the door, and beckoned for him to join me inside the warmth of the academy's main lobby.
This was my first trip to Eastern Europe, let alone Hungary. I was interested to learn from Yaqub, as Gyorgy now prefers to be called, a bit about the country's Muslim community. I had always assumed that because of the country's long historical relationship with Islam, there would be a group of indigenous Hungarian Muslims within its bosom. This assumption turned out to be very wrong.
Yaqub, a 32-year-old high school teacher of geography and French, explained that although indications show that Hungarians have known Islam as a religion among their countrymen since the country itself began forming in the 8th century CE, not one of their ancestors remains in the country to this day. Islam practically disappeared or was prohibited as a religion thrice in Hungarian history: at the end of the 13th century when King Laszlo IV prohibited the practice of the religion, despite the fact that his mother was reportedly Muslim; after Ottoman rule of the country ceased in the 17th century and Austrian rule commenced; and with the arrival of communism after World War II when religions went “underground.” As a result, in 1988, when the first modern Islamic group was being founded in Hungary, only 14 Muslim converts to Islam could be found. Another group of six non-Muslims would have to be added to the list of founding members of the Hungarian Islamic Community for the organization to be officially recognized.
Yaqub was only 15 at that time and was just getting to know Islam through his travels around the world, frequently in his father's company. His first recollection of acquaintance with the religion was during a trip to Skopje, Macedonia's capital, where a third of the population is Muslim. Both he and his father were impressed with the city's mosques, and went from one mosque to another in search of one that was open. Finally they found an open mosque and entered in the hope of finding someone who could explain its architecture and history. But alas, only an old man was to be seen, who happened to know only his native Albanian tongue.
Through gestures from father and son, the old man understood that they wished to learn more about Islam. He took them both to the water tap and showed them how a Muslim performs ablution before the daily prayers. “It was so nice and so pure,” recalled Yaqub. “This stayed with me for my whole life,” he said.
The following year, father and son visited Turkey. Their tour guide, realizing the interest of Hungarians in political change as communism was drawing to a close, spoke with them about social justice in Islam.
Since then Yaqub has visited a total of 47 countries. “We spent all of our money on traveling,” chuckled Yaqub. From the age of 23 he continued his travels alone. “I also spent all of my money on traveling,” he said.
Yaqub feels it is fate that sent him to so many Muslim countries. “One year I was planning on going to Cambodia,” he explained. “But I found it was cheaper to go to Kuala Lumpur, so I went there instead,” he said.
Yaqub was 25 at the time he visited Malaysia. He had already accumulated a substantial amount of information on Islam along the years and had started to consider embracing it. “In one of the mosques, I saw a paper that said, ‘If you want to become a Muslim, come to the Islamic information center in the garden.’;” Yaqub went to the pavilion only to find it closed. “So I said, ‘No problem. Then I won't become Muslim.’ Maybe next time,'” he smiled.
This trip was followed by several others to Arab countries where Yaqub found the locals to be very nice to foreigners. “In Morocco, for example, they would start to talk about football first, and then slowly, slowly move to talk about Islam,” he said.
In 2002, Yaqub visited West Africa. In the city of Ouahigouya, Burkina Faso, he saw a huge mosque. In the mosque, Yaqub relates, was an old man. “I went to him and said, ‘I have questions about Islam. Can you answer them?’ He said, ‘Yes.’ So we had hours and hours of conversation,” said Yaqub, rolling his r's as the Hungarians do.
As the call for `Asr Prayer echoed under the mosque's dome, the old man said, “You know so much about Islam. Why don't you come and pray with us?” Yaqub replied, “You know I am European and it is difficult for Europeans. But I'll tell you one thing: I will not die without becoming a Muslim because I read in a Hungarian translation of the Qur'an [and die not except in a state of Islam].” But the old man surprised Yaqub by saying, “Do you know when you die?” Yaqub replied, “It is out of our control.”
For Yaqub, this was “the last push.”
Yaqub returned to his homeland and bought a Qur'an to read from cover to cover. Before this incident, he had only read parts after borrowing the Noble Book from the library.
In the same year following his return from Burkina Faso, Yaqub heard on the local news that Ramadan was starting. “So I said, ‘I will try to fast Ramadan, and if I fast this fasting month, I will become Muslim on the last day.’; This was because I had read about the great reward of the last 10 days of Ramadan,” said Yaqub.
Along the years, Yaqub remembers seeing invitations posted on walls around Budapest to attend lectures on Islam. He refrained from attending such lectures as he was concerned that they would influence him to convert. But this particular Ramadan he found himself lured to attend a lecture after seeing an invitation to visit an Islamic cultural center in the city.
“I was the only one who went!” Yaqub exclaimed. He spoke with the lecturer for some time. The lecturer finally said to Yaqub, “Please, you fast. Come to the mosque to discuss this topic again.”
A few days later Yaqub went to the mosque, but couldn't find the lecturer of the previous evening. Instead he found brothers Abdel Naser, an Afghan; and Abdel Aziz, an American, who spoke more with Yaqub about Islam that day. “But I didn't embrace Islam and they were very mad at me,” Yaqub said.
Yaqub went home and spoke with his father and wife about his plans to finally convert to Islam. “They were a bit surprised, but not too much,” said Yaqub matter-of-factly. His wife was more concerned about whether she would have to convert if he did than anything else. When Yaqub asked about this and discovered she didn't have to, his wife's concerns were appeased. “Even she converted later on, though,” Yaqub smiled.
On the very last day of Ramadan 2002, Yaqub revisited the mosque, where he found Abdel Aziz. “I sat down in front of him and said, ‘Say what you need to say,’” recalled Yaqub. “He understood immediately and said, ‘Say: ash-hadu alla ilaha illa Allah wa anna Muhammadan Rasulullah’ (I bear witness that there is no God but Allah and that Muhammad is His Messenger),” recited Yaqub, eyes closed, with a slow, deep tone in his voice as he remembered this important moment of his life.
“I started to tremble for half an hour after I recited the Shahadah,” he said. “If it really comes from the heart, it has this kind of effect.” Yaqub explained that he discovered this after having spoken with several other converts to Islam who underwent the same experience.
The 25-year-old convert to Islam was then brought to a scholar from Saudi Arabia who happened to be in the mosque at the time. Yaqub imitated the sheikh for me and sternly repeated his message as he pointed his forefinger as if scolding a young child, “Now you have become a Muslim and tomorrow it is `Eid. You have to come to the “Eid Prayer,” said the sheikh.
Yaqub humorously recalls thinking, “Do I call my boss and tell him I'm not coming to work? Who is this man? Does he know Hungarian reality?”
On the ride home on the subway, Yaqub speed-read in only 8 minutes through more than 60 pages of a book given to him at the mosque. Through the rest of the night Yaqub completed the full batch of books he had received.
“In one book there was a chapter on the day of `Eid,” recalled Yaqub. “In this chapter I read that Muslims should wear their best dress on `Eid. So I thought, ‘I can't go to the `Eid prayer, but I can wear my best dress.’ So this is what I did.”
Yaqub went to the school where he teaches wearing his best outfit. “Everyone told me I looked so smart and asked if I was going to a wedding party!” Yaqub said. He explained to his colleagues that he had just become Muslim on the previous day, and that today was a Muslim festival and this is why he was all dressed up.
This created a heightened interest among his colleagues and students about Islam, which eventually led one of his own students to say the Shahadah and embrace the religion. Since 1988, when only 14 Muslims could be found in Hungary, the total number of Hungarian Muslim converts now ranges from 3,000 to 4,000.
Standing—rather shivering—in front of the Danube as I awaited my turn to take a short boat trip up the river that separates Buda from Pest with the remainder of my colleagues who were attending the World Science Forum, I asked Yaqub if he still travels. “I have become poor since I became Muslim,” he smiled. But Yaqub believes his money was well-spent. It was money spent on a journey to Islam.