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Interview with Jerod on Life and Islam

Harun Pirim

Can you introduce yourself? Where were you born? Your education background?

MY NAME is Jerod Evan Michel. I was born in Ventura, CA which is a kind of outside the LA area. I grew up in another place outside LA area. I finished elementary school there. I finished high school in Oregon. I got my undergraduate at Southern Oregon University. I got my masters at Oklahoma State University. I was a teacher in Seoul, Korea. Then I came to Mississippi for my PhD and finished the first year. I study Mathematics. I want to study linguistics and philosophy.

What is your story for coming to Mississippi State University?

Actually, it was not my first choice, to be honest. I had to apply to schools which have late deadlines. I also wanted to find a school with a geometer and there was a geometer here named Kevin Knudson. When I was accepted here I came.

In your life what are three things you can never live without?

One thing I have to be able to do face all of my fears; I have to find what causes a certain feeling in me. Describing emotions are difficult so I will describe it with biological associations. That is, feelings that make you breathe heavy, and heart beat fast.

Other thing is I have to be able to pursue knowledge. There are certain things that I may never find definitions for, but; I have to be able to pursue the definition. For example, what is freedom? It is very difficult to define. What is life? What makes a living organism? What are the ingredients of life? I think there do not exist definitions for these things. And it may be true that no human can ever write definitions for these things. But I want to pursue these definitions and knowledge.

Why do you want to pursue this knowledge? Why are you eager to know and why is it important to you?

I believe they are very fundamental. Until these are understood I am not interested to understand other things.

I can understand why life is important and fundamental. But how about freedom?

I think they are very close to each other. Freedom is maybe more related to the question “what is free will?”

The third thing that I am seeking to find is an arrangement for my life such that I won't feel threatened and I won't feel like my family is threatened when I want to act according to what is best in my heart. I feel like I want my PhD. I feel like that will be important. If I act according to how I feel in my heart, it may be that I cannot get my PhD. This is a problem.

What may make you threatened?

I may not agree with people's behaviors who decide whether to give PhD degrees. If I want to act according to how I feel, maybe that will put my PhD at risk. My goal is to get my PhD at the moment. One thing that makes me very uneasy is facing prejudices and racism.

What is your limit, how tolerant are you?

Not that tolerant. It's very subtle in my department. If it was slightly worse I would not be able to contain myself. These two concepts are strongly connected with core human values. I relate prejudices to conflicts in society and conflicts in education.

Einstein has a quote “it's easier to disintegrate an atom than a prejudice”. Why is it so hard?

Sometimes, in certain places, these feelings are very deep rooted. It is something that children learn from parents. Parents learned as children from their parents. Deep rooted in this sense.

Being unable to think freely may be a source of prejudices. This generates prejudices. Last night we were discussing with you that, in general, some people in the USA live very confined lives. Do you think this is also a kind of structure from which prejudices may find a place to grow?

Yes. One of the several reasons is that when a human mind reaches a certain age, that mind may feel threatened by what it doesn't understand about the world outside of its comfort zone. If something or someone comes with a new idea, or new thoughts, human minds can do funny things because of the threat. It won't accept the new idea and it will do anything to discredit the new idea or the value of the change. It doesn't have the ability to ask “why?”

Is racism a very bad thing?

It is, in fact, one form of prejudice, and there are other forms as equally ridiculous. Maybe racism came to my mind because, in the last few years of my life, I have been in places where the races are very naturally segregated.

For example, in a class there are Indian, white, and one African American student. The teacher is incredibly hard on the African American student and insults them incessantly. It is the one and only time. I mean I should make the teacher feel embarrassed otherwise I will lose my character.

I'm seeking an arrangement of my life such that I can be effective in making it difficult for prejudice people and racist people. I don't know how this sounds, but I get pleasure from making life very hard for those kinds of people.

In your life did you have deep questions? Do you remember the cases or happenings that make you question deeply? I want to understand on which concepts you had questions.

I remember a lot of them. They are equally as effective in producing questions. The first important questions I was seeking to find answers for were: “what should be important to me in life?” and “What would be a waste of time?” These questions came from seeing how easily death comes, and how easily drastic changes in life can come. There were friends who were there one day, but not the next. I will never see them again. At a young age it did shock me. How can the world so quickly seem like a completely different place? Times when people come close to death. My brother and I are one example. I did not know, at the time, that these were the questions for which I was seeking answers from ages 5 to 14. Another example from when I was 14 is that of one close friend of mine. I know his personality very well. He took too much of some psychedelic drug. One day he was normal, and he was a completely different person another. He was a person who could communicate very well. He used to communicate very well. After this event, he could never reach the conclusion of anything he was trying to say. He was talking in circles, jumping from topic to topic. How easily can life change? I mean, how can a person become a completely different person? It was amazing to me. What happened to my friend?

Also, my parents split up. Before that time I had some idea about family. After they split up, it made me realize that things will never be the same again. My family will never have such peace again. I was really feeling like life can change too much in a small amount of time. For a long time, I acted on emotion. I followed my heart. I indulged in every kind of pleasure you can imagine. It was all I lived for. When I wasn't studying, this was what I was doing. I was searching for some emotion that I could not ever reach again. What is this feeling I was searching for? What is this emotion inside me? Why is it there? I was trying to put my hands around it and feel its definition. I couldn't get enough of it. I feel very lucky that I am not in jail. I think I hurt a lot of people, and came close to death, losing my mind, being a prisoner. I was very lucky to go on in school.

How could you go on in school?

Somehow, I was able to protect my education. I had good rules for myself. If I needed to study then I definitely was studying. I always suspected that having my PhD would be valuable to me one day. I always felt that, because of these events, I had some knowledge which I wanted others to know, but didn’t know how to put it into words. Many people follow money and simple, petty pleasures. These are the things people seem to follow. I feel that I know something about why these should not be the things to follow in life. I feel that I learned this from experience.

Can you tell me how Islam came into your world? How did you become aware of the religion of Islam?

Since I was very young, I was interested in different cultures, and history. These were the kinds of books I liked reading in my free time. I would spend a lot of time questioning people's cultures. Finally I started traveling. As an undergraduate I went to Germany, Balkans, and, after my masters, Korea. In these times I was able to learn about religions as well as philosophy. I was also able to find hypocrisy very early on when certain philosophies and religions were introduced. I was able to find contradictions in the words and in the statements. Unfortunately the very moment I noticed contradiction or hypocrisy I became infinitely less interested in pursuing such a philosophy or religion. It was amazing. I don't know if it is good to say or not, but the most contradiction and hypocrisy that I noticed were in Christianity. The Christians don't pursue the original events and writings of the people they follow. Please don't think that I am comparing Christianity to Islam. I am giving some examples why Islam was so easy for me to follow. Still to this day I haven’t found any contradictions in the writings or the behaviors of the people. No contradiction, no hypocrisy. Also, Islam seemed to be so much in harmony with me and everyday-life. There was a friend of mine from Turkey in Oklahoma. He never tried to tell me about Islam, but I somehow knew by his humble and intriguing behavior that his religion was a big part of his life. I knew that his religion was a big part of his life. He never felt any need to talk to me about Islam, but I knew that religion had a powerful effect on his life.

Did you think of becoming a Muslim at that time?

Not until I came to Mississippi. I made a lot of Muslim friends in Mississippi. I first went to a Mosque in Mississippi.

I first met you in the mosque on Friday. I saw Qur'an translation by Yusuf Ali in your hand. I don't question people's lives and did not question yours either. One week later you became Muslim. You told me that you wanted to do good things for people without expecting something in return. This feeling arose after becoming Muslim?

I can say Islam was very much in harmony with how I felt and with plans I have for the future.

Which thinkers were you most affected by? Which books did you read? Why were you affected by these?

I was affected, firstly, by philosophers who ask ontological questions such as the very well known ones: Aristotle, Socrates, and Plato. These questions led me to linguistic thinkers such as Kenneth Burke and Chomsky. Logicians such as Godel, Church and Turing also affected me. So many conflicts in the world, I think, are coming from language barriers.

Darwin's book was also very informative for me. I am not saying I am a Darwinist. George Orwell’s “1984” too. The idea of using a totalitarian language really made me question what is in a language. What I mean by totalitarian language is that implemented by some powerful government in order to control masses of people. One of their targets is to restrict people from being able to express themselves in certain ways. People who hold power tend to implement totalitarian language. Chomsky’s “On Nature and Language” book introduces the idea of the minimalist program. It brought me to even more valuable questions in the theory of linguistics.

We have a trip to Turkey together. How do you feel? What do you expect?

I hope that I can optimize the value of the experiences and that I can definitely feel I learned something. I want to meet with people and share culture.

You are young and lived a fast life. What are your future intentions?

I am 24 years old. I will always be adventurous. I will certainly never stop my journey of learning about Allah and Islam. I would like to marry and have kids eventually. Also, I feel like I haven't had time to reconcile the events I met with. If I am not able to reconcile these events, my life may be difficult. Too many thoughts and memories are scattered and need to be organized.

How was Jerod before Islam? What changed after Islam for you?

The biggest thing for me that changed is that I no longer feel that I live for my PhD. Getting a PhD is not the only thing I care about. It is important but it was such a relief to realize that my work is not the only thing. My ultimate goal is not for my PhD. My goal is much further away, and much more important and profound. How I desire to put these things into words! In Islam I found myself asking, “How would it be if I am near the end of my life all I was living for were these accomplishments in this life?”

Did friends have effects on you?

Yes. The Starkville Muslims had similar qualities as me and it happened very naturally. Their personalities are so nice and learning-oriented. What is this feeling that I get when I try to jump out of an airplane? When I am swimming in the ocean? The feeling I was searching for? When I found Islam, it was as if these Muslims were searching for the same thing. Choosing Islam was, for me, a series of many decisions and consequences. At the time, I would have said I didn't believe in God. But I did believe in something and now I realize that what I believed in was Allah. What I was really looking for was Allah.

How do you feel when pray?

Very weak, insignificant, very blessed, lucky, gifts for which I need to be thankful, confused about what someone small could possibly have to offer the universe. I am not able to say in so few words how I feel when I pray.

Those who don't know essence of the Prayers consider them as rituals. Did you?

Surprisingly no. Thanks to the wonderful people who brought me to the mosque and gave good sources with which I could be introduced to Islam. I am able to say that it happened very naturally and that it was a pleasant introduction. Everything made sense, every statement logically followed from the statement before. It was a nice experience for me.

First books you read on Islam?

“The Faith” by Tantavi. Now I am reading “The Words” by Said Nursi. There is a profound difference between translations of the Qur'an and the Qur'an. Reading tefsir is very helpful for my introduction to Qur'an. Reading tefsir and discussing Ayehs is very helpful. In my mind, Said Nursi's Words is great. In this book He discusses very elegantly each Ayeh at a time. The idea that you can read so many pages about one Ayeh in the Qur'an and then so many pages about another Ayeh, and so on, is amazing. It is my hope that, when I get a chance to read Qur'an in Arabic, the experience will be a good one. Having a mathematical background, the idea that each Surah is a fractal representation of the whole Qur'an was very intriguing. I hold this a proof that the Qur'an is the book from Allah. The nucleus of an atom has electrons floating around it. The sun has the planets floating around it. And if we zoom out we can see the the Milky Way which is stars swirling around some object. This is the idea of something being a fractal representation of something much bigger. This is one connection that the Qur'an has with the universe.

Anything else you want to say? I wanted this interview to be beneficial for open-minded people. Someone's life may direct another one's life. We should learn from each other. Thank you.

Remember that life is transient. That's all.


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