Webster University student Jasmin Kenjar had gone from being almost atheistic to a devout Muslim. He said this decision may have saved his life.
Kenjar said that he had always been a good student in school, but trouble at home had kept his self-esteem low. He started hanging out with the wrong people around his junior year of high school. Kenjar said he started going to more parties and trying new things, including drugs.
“I don’t judge people who smoke weed, but for some, it can be a gateway drug,” Kenjar said. “And that’s what it was for me.”
Kenjar said he started with marijuana, but had moved on to pills by the time he was 18 years old. And he did not stop there.
“Eventually I tried cocaine once and a few times heroin,” Kenjar said. “I would go through these periods where I would sober up, maybe for a month, but I would always relapse.”
Kenjar said his problems with drugs got him into conflicts with his family and with the law. He began stealing from friends and family to satisfy his drug needs.
Kenjar’s mother eventually kicked him out of the house when he was 19 years old. He lived outside the following days, having nowhere to go and no idea what to do. Kenjar’s grandmother took him in after a few days. He was not going to school, did not have a job and did not own a car.
“I had nothing to my name,” Kenjar said.
Kenjar was charged with trespassing and was sentenced to 30 hours of community service. His grandmother, who Kenjar said was not very religious, told him to serve his sentence at the local mosque. It was there Kenjar met with the imam (prayer leader), who asked Kenjar if he knew how to pray and sent him home with diagrams on proper prayer. Kenjar said he was a borderline atheist up to this point.
“To me, all religions were a joke,” Kenjar said. “But I’d go home and start studying this stuff like a madman. It’s just fascinating.”
Kenjar completed his community service, attended prayer on Fridays and eventually learned how to pray. He said he also stopped using drugs.
“I think I was definitely back to being Muslim,” Kenjar said.
Kenjar began to fully pray after an especially bad argument with an uncle who also lived with his grandmother.
“Who would have thought an argument would have been my breaking point?” Kenjar said. “I went to the bathroom, washed up and prayed. It was the third prayer.”
After, Kenjar completed the fourth prayer. And then the fifth. He had prayed three out of the five Islamic prayers that day.
“It was like a relief, and then I started praying all the prayers every day,” Kenjar said.
Kenjar said he completely sobered up, gotten his driver’s permit and his license within the first month he started praying. He called his favorite uncle, who then bought him a car.
“I knew he’d be proud of me,” Kenjar said.
Kenjar is currently seeking a degree in computer science, but has dreams of continuing his religious studies beyond Webster.
Kenjar’s dreams of educating others on the realities of Islam may not be as far off as he thinks; people are already learning from him. Adjunct professor Janis Valdez taught Kenjar in her media literacy class and said he offered both the class and herself better insight on the religion.
“I was not so knowledgeable about it beforehand,” Valdez said. “He explained the difference between mainstream Islam and what happens when it is radicalized and how that differs from the true beliefs and intent of Islam.”
The eight-week class began at the beginning of the spring semester of 2017, followed by the inauguration of Donald Trump and the controversial travel ban which blocked citizens of seven Muslim countries from entering the United States.
“There was a time coming into the class, he felt really, kind of self-conscious about being Muslim,” Valdez said. “He became much more open, which was so helpful in the class.”
Valdez said that Kenjar shared many valuable stories with the class about his experiences as a Muslim. She said she was impressed by Kenjar’s diligence in learning about the different aspects of Islam as well as his understanding of the Quran.
“There was a quote [in the Quran]… he made it much more clear for me, but it was about being tolerant of other religions, and it was kind of live and let live,” Valdez said.
The quote Valdez referred to is “There is no compulsion in religion,” one of Kenjar’s favorite passages in the Quran. Kenjar said that the quote means that Muslims cannot force their religion upon others. The faith must be openly and readily accepted.
“You can’t say they’re not tolerant if that’s what it says in their holy book,” Valdez said.
Kenjar’s knowledge of Islam makes for an educational experience for others. But for him, it marks a new lease on life.
“It increased my will to live,” Kenjar said. “I want to live and I want to do good things now.”