Seeing the Light

John Marshall McCormack Henshaw Mahboob: A preppy

WASP's conversion to Islam.

By Beth Carney, 11/16/2003

Fourth-graders at Milton Academy have just completed a

year studying the Middle East, and they are

celebrating with a party. Tables at the private school

are spread with plates of hummus, falafel, and dried

fruit. Children are posing for photos in head scarves

and robes. A bazaar has been set up in a classroom,

where guests are encouraged to haggle over the price

of postcards and tiny souvenir cedar trees.

About a dozen students from the Islamic Academy of New

England have joined the Milton class as part of an

exchange. After lunch, a teacher from the small Muslim

school in Sharon, known to his students as Mr.

Mahboob, leads the noon prayer in the gym.

Wearing a long black tunic, a skullcap, and leather

socks, the teacher goes through the ritual of bowing,

standing, kneeling, and lowering his forehead to the

floor while praising Allah in Arabic. Behind him,

students from both schools arrange themselves in

segregated rows, boys in front of girls, and try to

follow along.

Mahboob, born John Henshaw, doesn't fit the typical

profile of an ambassador for the Muslim world. Blond

and more than 6 feet tall, he is a former prep-school

football player who grew up in nearby Dedham, the son

of a private-school teacher and a lawyer. His

ancestors sailed on the Mayflower and fought in the

Civil War. He was christened in the Episcopal Church

with a string of family names, John Marshall McCormack

Henshaw, or Marshall for short.

Yet he is a Muslim, what he calls "a traditional,

conservative Muslim." Ten years ago, as a teenager at

St. Mark's School in Southborough, he accepted Islam

as his true faith and added to his lengthy name a new

tag, Mahboob. That adolescent decision has shaped

every aspect of his life since then and landed him on

the far side of a cultural divide.

"That was funny," says Henshaw as the service breaks

up. "I've never led a bunch of non-Muslims and Muslims

in prayer in a gymnasium before."

Even before the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks,

a preppy American teenager's converting to Islam was

an unusual step. Choosing to become a conservative

Muslim means embracing a lifestyle completely outside

the American mainstream. At age 25, Henshaw doesn't

drink alcohol, date, or listen to popular music. He

has spent months in Pakistan, India, Saudi Arabia,

Egypt, and Syria, worshiping with other Muslims and

visiting mosques. When he's in the United States,

whether at the nondescript triple-decker that serves

as a mosque in Roxbury or the Islamic school in

Sharon, Henshaw is used to being in the minority, one

of the few white, American-born men in a room full of

Middle Eastern and south Asian immigrants, children of

immigrants, and African-Americans.


LIVED across the street from my parents' home in

Dedham for 25 years, and his older sister is my

lifelong friend. I remember when Henshaw became a

Muslim at around 15. I sat next to him at his mother's

Christmas Eve party, where he declined to eat a

dessert made with vanilla because it contained

forbidden alcohol. The general impression then was

that he was going through a phase.

Indeed, he strayed from strict observance for a couple

of years at college, where he partied, had a

girlfriend, and hung out with what he calls "preppy,

private-school, frat-boy types." But over time, he has

made Islam a focus in his life. At Harvard, he majored

in Near Eastern languages and civilizations, and at

the baccalaureate ceremony during graduation, he read

a passage from the Koran in Arabic. He's had jobs

teaching at the Islamic school and working for a

finance firm that specializes in investments that

comply with Islamic law.

For Henshaw, negotiating life as a


involves constantly shifting between cultures. It

means praying five times a day, yet not objecting when

his sister plays Eminem in the car. It means spending

a weekend in Maine worshiping with Somali immigrants

at the Lewiston mosque before visiting his father at

the family's Brunswick farm.

"It is a struggle," he says. "I feel more like I am

something of an outsider on both sides, because I'm

straddling two worlds, but I don't feel

Until recent government restrictions on immigration,

Islam was the fastest-growing faith in the United

States, thanks to a combination of Until recent

government restrictions on immigration, Islam was the

fastest-growing faith in the United States, thanks to

a combination of like people are rejecting me."

Until recent government restrictions on immigration,

Islam was the fastest-growing faith in the United

States, thanks to a combination of immigration,

population growth, and conversion, says Yvonne Haddad,

a professor at Georgetown University who has studied

Muslims in the United States. There are no US

government numbers on Muslims in the United States;

estimates range from 2 million to 8 million, depending

on who is counting. But without question, the growth

in the Muslim community has been dramatic, Haddad

says, considering that a 1960 survey reported 78,000

Muslims in the United States. A 2000 study released by

the Council on American-Islamic Relations reported

that half of the 1,200 mosques in the country

researchers counted that year had been founded since

1980. According to that report, some 20,000 Americans

converted to Islam in 2000.

Henshaw describes his own discovery of Islam as

"miraculous." St. Mark's School is an unlikely place

for a young person to find Allah. The 138-year-old

Southborough prep school is nominally Episcopalian,

and the teenagers who go there tend to be more

concerned with getting into a good college than

finding their way to Eternal Paradise.

Henshaw arrived at St. Mark's in 1992, following a

long family tradition. At 14, he was a good student

but shy. In his first weeks, he struggled to adjust.

One Saturday night, he was moping around the dorm when

he followed the aroma of spicy food to a room where a

classmate was eating chicken curry with his brother.

The classmate, a Kenyan-born student of Indian descent

who was an enthusiastic Muslim, shared his meal with

Henshaw. That night, Henshaw made a new friend and

picked up a jocular nickname, Mahboob Chaiwala, or

"beloved tea seller," later shortened to Mahboob.

As Henshaw got to know his Muslim friend, the boys

would talk about Islam. The basic tenets of the faith,

with its emphasis on one God, made immediate sense to

Henshaw. "I think I always had an innate belief in

God," he says. He also describes himself at that age

as "very moralistic" -- shocked by classmates who were

smoking cigarettes or drinking -- and so the

strictures of the faith were appealing.

His conversion was gradual. He gave up pork early on,

as a test of willpower. When Houston Rockets player

Hakeem Olajuwon spoke at a St. Mark's assembly about

his life as a Muslim, Henshaw was inspired to pray for

one of the first times in his life, in a dorm room

alongside the basketball star.

At the same time, two other classmates from the Boston

area who were close to Henshaw's Muslim friend were

also developing an interest in Islam. One spring

weekend, the four boys took a road trip to New York to

visit a mosque. On the highway, they stopped at a

McDonald's, where they performed the ritual cleansing

of their hands and feet in the restroom and then

prayed together on rugs they laid out in the parking

lot. Henshaw had never prayed in public before. The

entire experience deeply affected him.

From the beginning, Henshaw was attracted to the rigor

of Islam and the conviction of the Muslims he knew.

The message was similar to what he'd heard in church,

he says, but it seemed more urgent.

"The purpose of life was put into much starker

definition. There is a hereafter, and this is how it

happens, and then they explain exactly what happens on

the Day of Judgment in great, great detail," he says.

"It made a lot of sense to me, and the people's real

belief had a strong effect on me."

As it happened, Henshaw was the last of the St. Mark's

group to convert. Before the end of that school year,

his freshman term, the two other classmates had

accepted Islam. Henshaw made his decision that summer.

Over the years, the four young men would become best

friends. During college, when three were in Boston and

one in Colorado, they kept in touch. When Henshaw was

at Harvard and had, for the most part, stopped

practicing, he continued to go to mosque on Fridays,

because one of his St. Mark's friends, Noor ad-Deen,

would show up at his dorm to go with him.

"I think having these friends has been extremely

important. It's a collective thing," says Noor

ad-Deen, who asked to be identified by his Muslim


Noor ad-Deen, who grew up in South Dartmouth in a

"nominally Christian" family, now lives in Cairo,

where he studies Arabic and is married to an Egyptian

woman. The other St. Mark's convert, who lives on the

North Shore, is married to a Bengali woman. The couple

is so strict about segregation of the sexes that

Henshaw doesn't know the woman's name. None of the

friends, Henshaw says, expected their lives to be so

shaped by their acceptance of Islam.

When you see Henshaw today, there's no mistaking that

he's a Muslim. He sports a full, reddish beard. He

usually dresses in a long shirt-dress (called a

dishdasha) worn over his pants, a skullcap, and

leather socks that allow him to pray throughout the

day without having to repeat the ritual washing of

feet. I have seen him wearing these clothes in Dedham

while shoveling his parents' driveway, with a parka

zipped over his robe, or trudging up the street from

the train station to his house.

Henshaw wears these garments to imitate Islam's

seventh-century founder, Mohammed, and to make a

statement about his identity. In his robe and beard,

he can go to any city in the world and immediately be

welcomed by other Muslims as a "brother." It's the

same reason why he generally uses his Muslim name.

"Listen, if I don't do these things, as a white

American, it's very easy to turn on and off my Islam,"

he says. "It'd be very easy to lead a double life."

Henshaw describes himself as "orthodox." He prays five

times a day, avoids prohibited food, and doesn't

socialize with women. At the mosque he usually

attends, only men meet to pray; their wives and

daughters gather separately, in private homes.

Henshaw's outlook on Islam has been greatly influenced

by a conservative Islamic movement called the Tablighi

Jamaat, a group founded in India in 1927 that is

considered to be the most widespread revivalist Muslim

movement in the world. Beginning when he was in

college, Henshaw has gone on Tablighi Jamaat

proselytizing pilgrimages in New England, the Midwest,

Great Britain, India, and Pakistan, and last summer he

traveled from Pennsylvania to North Carolina promoting

the practice of strict Islam among other Muslims.

The Tablighi Jamaat is expressly apolitical and, in

the United States, intentionally keeps a low profile,

although in the past two years it has received some

negative attention linking it to extremists. Notably,

American John Walker Lindh was reported to have

traveled with the Tablighi Jamaat before linking up

with the Taliban fighters in Afghanistan. The New York

Times reported in July that law enforcement officials

believe some terrorists have used the group as a

cover. Law enforcement officials were quoted as saying

that terrorists used the group as a recruiting ground

for terrorists looking for Muslims drawn to extremist

teachings, a charge that the group's leaders reject.

"I've definitely never seen anything like that

myself," Henshaw says.

In general, Henshaw bristles at the suggestion that

practicing a conservative brand of Islam is connected

to being an extremist. He sees fundamentalism as

"practicing the fundamentals of the religion" -- not

something dangerous.

"It's hugely problematic to say Islam encourages

people to adopt extremism. We don't suggest that

Christianity does that just because there are some

guys going around killing abortion doctors," he says.

"You can try to implement Islam in a traditional

manner while still acting in a positive way in the


With his robes and beard and well-worn passport,

Henshaw is aware that some people may view him with

suspicion. "The profile is similar to a John Walker

Lindh," he says. He tells me he's surprised that he

has never been detained while traveling. But Henshaw

insists the Islam he practices is spiritual, not

political, and he doesn't see himself as rejecting

American values: "I certainly don't see leading a

fairly conservative Muslim lifestyle as in any way

encroaching on the rights of others, if it's a

spiritual thing."

Practicing Islam successfully, however, does mean

creating an Islamic environment. Henshaw thinks it's

important for Muslim children to go to Islamic

schools. When he sets up his own household, he expects

that visitors to his home will socialize in

sex-segregated groups. He hopes to have a wife whose

primary focus, even if she has a job, will be raising

children to be good Muslims.

"Sometimes my dad's like, 'Well, we let you become a

Muslim, what if your kid wants to become Hindu?' "

Henshaw says. "And I say, that's not going to fly."

When Henshaw and I were talking last spring, he was

living with his mother and stepfather in their

320-year-old house in Dedham. He had finished the job

working for a finance firm in South Africa and had

come home to look for work.

Though he doesn't mingle with women on his own time,

he is comfortable meeting and talking with his

parents' friends in their home. The only surprising

thing I notice him do is shoo away the family's

beloved dog, Rocky, because, he tells me, he believes

touching dogs is impure.

Henshaw grew up in the Dedham house with his parents,

two half-brothers from his father's previous marriage,

and a half-sister from his mother's previous marriage.

When he was in the second grade, his parents divorced,

and his father moved to Hingham. By the time Henshaw

was in high school, his parents had remarried, and he

remains close to both.

Neither of his parents was especially religious, and

neither was fazed by Henshaw's initial interest in

Islam. "In some ways, having these liberal,

noncommittal Northeast intellectual parents has made

my life easier," he says. His mother and father liked

his St. Mark's Muslim friends, and they saw the

advantages of having their teenager adopt a doctrine

that prohibits drinking alcohol or taking drugs. It

didn't seem out of character that he would gravitate

toward a religion with strict rules, but they also

assumed he would grow out of it. Henshaw jokes, "I

think my dad probably saw it as a ticket to getting

into a good college: My son's too white. Oh, good, now

he's Muslim."

Over time, however, Henshaw's parents have accepted

that their son's religion is a central part of his

life and have continued to support him. His mother,

Tyler Knowles, recently took a course on Islam, and

she and her husband, Larry Flood, a few years ago

traveled to Syria with Henshaw on a family vacation.

"We have friends who sort of roll their eyes," Knowles


The September 11 terrorist attacks created complicated

fears for Henshaw's parents. At the time, Henshaw was

at a mosque in India, having just spent a few weeks in

Pakistan with the Tablighi Jamaat. Knowles and

Henshaw's father, Weld Henshaw, were worried for their

son's safety and anxious about anti-Muslim feeling at

home. Then came the news of the arrest of Lindh. Like

Henshaw, Lindh was the son of affluent, liberal,

divorced parents, and spent weeks at a time traveling

abroad with Muslim groups.

"I really did have the feeling, there but for God goes

my son," says Knowles. She wanted to write to Lindh's

parents but was afraid any sign of support would make

Henshaw a subject of suspicion. Henshaw's siblings

relate to him -- and his religion -- in their own

ways. Steve Henshaw, 39, who works for a medical

response company in Framingham, has for years

practiced a variety of Eastern and Western religions

and now goes to mosque as well.

Henshaw's sister, Stephanie Knowles, 32, a New York

artist, wrangles with her brother over women's issues.

"That's the one thing about his being Muslim that

really irritates me. How did he grow up in a house

with a single mom for a portion of his childhood and

now he's in this thing where the woman he looks to be

with is going to have all these restrictions?" she

says. "I feel like we were so different from that, and

it's sort of insulting in a way."

Henshaw doesn't rationalize the rules he follows. "If

you accept the fundamental tenet, that this religion

is coming from God, it is your responsibility to

implement the whole message to the best of your

ability," he says. "At the end of the day, we're not

the judge. God is the judge, and he knows best."

One of the challenges of being a 25-year-old devout

Muslim guy in Boston is finding what Henshaw calls

"halal fun." He learned this when he returned to

Harvard after a semester in Egypt, where he

recommitted himself to Islam. Upon his return, he gave

up his bedroom in a 16-person dorm-room suite in order

to live in a party-free off-campus apartment with

Muslim roommates.

Now, the friends he sees are virtually all Muslims. In

his free time, he plays a fair amount of basketball,

and he often spends his weekends at social gatherings

organized by his mosque. While I was with him, his

mobile phone rang regularly with calls from male

Muslim friends.

Still, Henshaw doesn't think it's normal for people to

spend their 20s apart from the opposite sex. He would

like to get married soon. "I think if I were not

Muslim, marriage wouldn't be something I'm thinking

about at this point," he says. "But the whole idea of

not interacting with women before marriage only works

in a society where you marry early."

Given his restrictions, in order to find a wife,

Henshaw must meet one through friends. He thinks

making a match would be easier if he came from a

Muslim family and his female relatives were involved.

Ideally, he'd like to find a wife who will be

comfortable mixing in non-Muslim environments, such as

Thanksgiving dinner with his mother's extended family

in Virginia. The most important quality he is looking

for in a wife is her commitment to Islam, which he

hopes to be the basis of his family life.

"I think when there's some spiritual basis of the

relationship, a sense of trying to live together and

grow together as good Muslims," Henshaw says, "I think

it will probably strengthen the relationship and put

it on a different plane."

I go to meet Henshaw at the school in Sharon where he

is teaching social studies. The Islamic Academy of New

England is tucked away on a former horse farm,

surrounded by woods. I pull in next to a car with a

bumper sticker that reads: "The most excellent jihad

is one against the self."

The school is cheerful. The walls are decorated with

children's artwork, including colorful drawings of

Arabic letters. A group of boys dressed in white

shirts and long dark pants is playing basketball on an

outdoor court. In the backyard, girls wearing head

scarves and long skirts play softball. As we tour the

mosque, Henshaw talks about one of his far-off dreams,

which is to start a Muslim prep school modeled on St.

Mark's but offering an Islamic environment.

At 25, Henshaw is still deciding what kind of career

to pursue. He found that he wasn't fulfilled working

at an Islamic finance firm. He's drawn to

college-level teaching about Islam, but he doesn't

know if there's room for devout Muslims in American

universities. He's not sure if he would fit into a big

law firm or bank.

"There are very committed Muslims, even Muslims with

big beards who dress in these clothes who work in

corporate America. People get used to it," he says.

"But I found when I've tried to do it that it has been


The question of what to do for work worries him only

so much. As long as he's practicing his faith, he has

peace of mind. "The big-picture questions are solved

for me, in terms of what life is all about, what

happens after you die, what are the things you should

really make the most effort for," he says.

In the meantime, he enjoys teaching. At the school,

Henshaw often sees immigrant parents who are anxious

about raising Muslim children in America. Although, as

an American, he knows the issue is different for him,

he often thinks about aspects of his life -- from

finding a wife to fasting during Ramadan -- that would

be easier for him if he lived in a Muslim country.

A few weeks later, he solves his dilemma for a year

when he accepts a job teaching at a private school in

the United Arab Emirates. It is not an Islamic school,

but the dominant culture in the city of Sharjah is


Henshaw can see himself staying in the Middle East if

he finds that he loves his job or if, as he puts it,

"something happens on the marriage front." For now,

though, he is thinking of the posting as a yearlong

commitment, after which he will probably return to the

United States.

Earlier in the summer, he explained to me the

conflicting emotions he feels about settling abroad.

It was a hot day, and he had taken off his robe, and

was sitting in his olive-green golf shirt talking

about heading up to Blue Hill, Maine, where his mother

and stepfather spend the summer.

"When I'm here, I'm always thinking it's so nice to

have a mosque around every corner. It's so nice to

hear the call to prayer," he says. "But when I'm in

the Middle East, I'm thinking about the climate in New

England. I'm thinking about Blue Hill. I'm thinking

about playing golf and tennis, and I want to go home."

Beth Carney is a freelance writer who lives in London.

 Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.


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