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The Convert

One man’s road from atheism to Islam.


For years, on these Fridays (similar to Sundays for Christians), Hinton could be found inside, where he would give sermons and pray with other Muslims, many of them immigrants from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Arab-speaking countries.

But since the terror attacks on Sept. 11, when the mosque received some hate calls, Hinton has taken to guarding the center and directing traffic as more and more Muslims — by the looks of it, 100 on this day — gather here.

As for that bulletproof vest, it’s not that Hinton feels besieged, just cautious. He readily says that what began as guard duty has evolved into parking detail. And on this day, the sheer volume of cars shows how needed Hinton’s traffic cop is.

Indeed, from the start, he has played a big role in seeing that this mosque flourishes. That role may not seem out of the ordinary, considering that Hinton is a Muslim. But what is unusual is his background: While Islam is one of the fastest-growing religions in America, especially among African-Americans, the same isn’t true for whites. That makes Hinton, who proudly claims Scotch-Irish-German descent (and plays the bagpipes at that), a bit of an anomaly.

But Hinton doesn’t harp on any cultural divide. Ever since he converted to Islam in 1988, he has found purpose in his adopted faith, and since then, at this mosque, among worshippers who are mostly immigrants. Now, on this Friday, as Muslims from countries such as Sudan and Pakistan pass by and raise their hands to their hearts as they greet him in Arabic, it’s clear that any differences are insignificant. He is, simply, “Brother David” here.

“They say that Muslims who guard the backs of their brothers while praying — their footsteps are heard all the way to heaven,” says Hinton, who drove about 25 miles from his job as a mechanic in Rockville to be here today.

His own journey to Islam was unexpected. Born in Richmond, Hinton was about 4 when his parents divorced. While his father was away, serving in the Air Force, his mother was left to raise him. But when mental illness overcame her, the task was left to his parents. As for religion, what he got came courtesy of the local Episcopal church. “When I was young, I was a believer in Jesus,” he says, “but as I got older I saw inconsistencies.” Namely, Hinton found it harder to accept the concept of Jesus as God. He remembers days when his ailing grandmother, Dorothy, struggled with cancer and would ask him to read a prayer that she had found on a bookmark. Out of respect to her, Hinton would read those words — “In times of loneliness, Jesus help me; in times of sorrow, Jesus help me,” but all the while, he never believed a word.

By the early 1980s, Hinton was calling himself an atheist. “It didn’t bother me one bit,” he says. But then, he found himself slowly learning of Islam, first through a Native-American hunting buddy who had converted, and then through a chance meeting with an ex-girlfriend during his high school years. It had been nine years since the two had seen each other, and one day, when Hinton called her, and later drove to Northern Virginia to see her, she shared the news: In the last few years, she had converted to Islam. Hinton didn’t think much about her faith at the time, but gradually, he began to learn and connect.

For a man with an interest in the sciences — astronomy and physics, especially — many aspects of the Koran made sense: The universe, it was written, had been “cleft asunder,” as in some big bang. Allah was not some entity or energy, but an incomprehensible creator who could not be begotten, who could not beget, but who simply was. For Hinton, there was purpose to be found in this creator, and after six months of study, he declared his faith at a mosque in the Washington, D.C. area, and married his one-time girlfriend. Today they have two daughters.

In the years since, he has learned basic Arabic and pronunciation and worshipped at the Islamic Center of Virginia in South Side. But when a fellow Muslim, someone from Pakistan, told Hinton that there was a need for a mosque in the West End, Hinton took notice. Soon, he and four other Muslims decided the time was right for a mosque in an area that was seeing a growing number of worshippers. In 1997, the Islamic Society of Greater Richmond was established, and today, the mosque includes both a prison program to minister to inmates at the Henrico jail and a summer school.

For Tariq Jangda, the coordinator of the mosque, Hinton’s help has been invaluable, as Jangda has often turned to Hinton when he has questions about Islamic law. “The reason I prefer to work with Americans is that when they come to Islam, they study more,” says Jangda, a Pakistani immigrant. For Jangda, those questions include determining the start of prayer, which is based on the position of the sun.

As for Hinton, he calls himself a Muslim “for life.” Hinton’s routine includes praying five times a day. Does he ever feel the presence of God?

“No,” he says. “I don’t feel the presence because Allah may or may not be right here. He may not be on the same plane as us. I just feel that I have certain duties toward Allah.” And for Hinton, the mosque he helped establish is one of them. S