Thoreau, Train Rides, and ‘Iftaars’

Thoreau, Train Rides and “Iftaars”

“To set down such choice experiences that my own writings may inspire and at last I may make whole of parts. Certainly it is a distinct profession to rescue from oblivion and fix the sentiments and thoughts which visit all men more or less general, and that the contemplation of the unfinished picture may suggest its harmonious completion. Associate reverently as much as you can with your loftiest thoughts…. My thoughts are my company. They have a certainly individuality and separate existence, aye, personality. Having by chance recorded a few disconnected thoughts and then brought them into juxtaposition, they suggest a whole new field in which it was possible to labor and think,. Thought begat thought.”

(From the Journal of Henry David Thoreau)

The dawrah (the intensive program of Islamic lessons) is over. The “invasion” is over. Nevertheless, many Brothers still remain, so they can be close to the Shaykh, acquire more knowledge, and contribute to this community, which promises so much potential. Things are kinda-sorta back to my “new normal.” It’s winter, and it would be another brutal winter—although I was 200 miles south of the Valley. “The Traveler”–another one of the Brothers of the Amherst “Valley Guy” crew had now moved to Philadelphia. He made frequent complaints about the city. Albeit, I was less than content, I had never lived in a big city before. Springfield, Massachusetts doesn’t count as a big city, and I had done a stint in Dallas, but Dallas was more of a giant suburban sprawl than a “city,” as one would think of cities on the East Coast. What I did know is that it was cold, and it was gray, and I still was homesick for rolling hills, and walks in the woods, silence, and solitude.

Amongst us, we had a running joke about “Na’im’s Window.” On the landing to our “penthouse” there was a large window looking west. Every morning Na’im, a Bedouin Brother from Jordan, would stand there and forlornly stare out the window… and when he left his perch, I was one among several who would take his spot. I could relate to how Na’im felt—i was dealing with culture shock and homesickness. And one of the challenges of big city life for me was that there were few places where I could “stretch my scope.” I was suffering from ocular claustrophobia, but at least from “Na’im’s Window” I could look out for several blocks and see West Philadelphia High School in the not too far distance.

There were probably a couple of dozen guys staying at the mosque on a regular basis. Some of them were local Brothers, who simply wanted to stay close to the knowledge, and others, like the Valley Guys, who had come from other parts of the country or Canada to seek a new direction in life. After the lessons in the evening, we would often have ping pong tournaments in the basement. This was done in part for exercise and fun, and in part to stave off the cold. Later in the evening, we would have various cleaning chores. Some of the Brothers would sit together, we were all young men at the time, and share our aspirations regarding love and marriage and having families and being involved in the da`wah (i.e., Islamic proselytizing).

I am also finding much solace in my Journals. Indeed, the Journals provided many new fields in which to labor and to think. I could see how my past influenced my present, and how the decisions (both bad and good) had led me to where I was (by the Will of God). The Journals provided me with a steady reminder of what I wanted to do and who I wanted to be. Much of my Journal writing and reading was taking place at the UPENN library; that era was coming to a close, but it did not end before I dove into the writings of Henry David Thoreau. Of all the writers I had read, none resonated so completely as did Thoreau. In the beginning of his magnum opus, Walden, he says: “Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb nail.”

I immediately connected with Thoreau’s love of the outdoors and drawing inspiration from Nature. Although, he wasn’t a Muslim, Thoreau had many Sufi sentiments regarding minimalism–living with few material things, but having a rich intellectual and inner life. This is reflected in a quote from Walden: “Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind” (it should be kept in mind that this was his criticism of mid-nineteenth century American society).

Also, Thoreau was fiercely independent and not a fan of conformity. Among his most famous quotes is: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Maa-shaa’ Allah, I saw it in college: young folk eager and willing to enter into the vortex of the corporate world—selling their lives for base, worldly rubble. Thoreau also had a strong sense of social justice. He opposed slavery in America and said favorable things about black people—which was an anomaly for a white guy of that period. Thoreau even came to the defense of John Brown and his followers after the latter’s failed attempt to instigate a mass slave rebellion at Harper’s Ferry. The legacy of Thoreau would influence the thinking of both Gandhi and Martin Luther King and the practice of civil disobedience and non-violent resistance. Also, during the 1960’s, many of the environmentalists took drew their inspiration from the writings of Thoreau. He was a man far ahead of his time… and he was from Massachusetts—the place I missed dearly.

The reason that the UPENN library days were coming to an end is that I now had a “Justice-Cipher-Born”–in other words, I had a jay-o-bee. One of the leaders in the community had a small warehouse from which he sold electronic and computer parts. This wasn’t the kind of work I had come to Philadelphia for—I was planning to be a school teacher—but it was a job. And a job meant that I didn’t have to make a choice between laundry or lentils (in-shaa’ Allah). Not only that, I could get back on a more health-conscious diet.

It was about a ten block walk from the mosque to the suburban rail line that we (another Brother and Sister and I) took to Media, PA. Although it was cold and inconvenient getting to the train station, the train ride was relaxing. And on the way out to Media, we would pass the Swarthmore College. Swarthmore College is a small, selective Liberal Arts college with a beautiful campus not unlike Amherst—a suburban version of Amherst College. Although, the campus could be viewed for not more than a minute or so from the train, memories of Amherst would come to mind—happy memories of Amherst.

The impressive stone architecture of Swarthmore College.

The impressive stone architecture of Swarthmore College.

The job was easy. We merely picked up call-in orders from the shelves. Among the perks of the job was that around back there was a stream that I believed I saw a fish or two dart through the water. I am anticipating that once the winter breaks, I will do a little fishing during my lunch breaks in the upcoming months. Also, the daily trips outside of the city were therapeutic. For one, it was much quieter in Media, and two, I could breathe clean fresh air. And it was a pleasure to work with and for learned and observant Muslim. Problems that Muslims often encounter on the job—such as, having a place and time to pray were not an issue at the warehouse. We worked together and we prayed together. The pay was modest, but I was grateful to have a job and earn some money, and I was glad to work around Brothers from whom I could learn more about Islam.

About a month into the new job, Ramadan began. Ramadan is the month of fasting—that doesn’t mean that we go without eating for an entire month, but that Muslims are required to abstain from eating, drinking, and intimate intercourse from the dawn until sunset. Muslims eagerly await the sunset and then break their fast. For us at the job, we would typically arrive at the mosque right around the time people were having iftaar, that is, the meal Muslims have after fasting. At this point I was pretty keen on my health food diet, but I would indulge occasionally indulge in the standard American cuisine. I would later learn that at many Islamic centers, down home American food wasn’t often to be had—not saying that is a good thing or a bad thing, for there is lot’s of good food from around the Muslim world, but I can also sympathize with folks who might want to have a few fried drumsticks (with the skin still on them) and some corn on the cob every now and then for iftaar.

After the iftaar, we would go upstairs to the lecture hall and take a lesson. After the lesson, there was the Night Prayer and the Taraweeh Prayer (the Taraweeh is unique to Ramadan and might take nearly an hour (or longer) to complete—and this in keeping with doing lots of extra acts of worship during that holy month). After most of the people left, the “Artist” (and Imam) would put us to task, and we would go about cleaning: vacuuming the basement, doing dishes, mopping the floors, in preparation for the next day.

Life was busy. But also, the time was rich. Religiously, I learned a lot, maa-shaa’ Allah. A brotherhood was established in those early years in Philly that has lasted for more than two decades. And I gained memories that can’t be replaced or replicated. And for all of that, to Allah I am grateful.

Praise be to Allah, the Lord of the Worlds.

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In This Journal: The Project

IN THIS JOURNAL: THE PROJECT

In this video I share what I hope to be the realization of a long time aspiration.  I am working on a project to convert my more than fifty journals (extending back to the last days of high school) to an autobiography.  I do need your support in this project, however. For one, I would greatly appreciate any feedback you may have to offer.  I am also humbly accepting contributions to this project.  Please feel free to contribute by way of PayPal at:

memphismuslims@yahoo.com

or to contact me for further information at:

https://inthisjournal.wordpress.com/

or at the Youtube link.

Also, please share this video with your various social media connections.

Finally… a BIG shout-out to my Hibster Sister for her help!

Identity Theft (Entry #33)

Identity Theft

Winter weather has come to Philadelphia, and I ain’t feeling it.  In spite of the seasonal weather change, I am still steppin’ on the semi-regular to Van Pelt (the main UPENN library) to stick my nose between book covers and to ink up pages in my Journal.  I am now in the “Pink Journal.”  How I ended up with a pink one hundred page college ruled notebook, I remember not, but I assume it was the only college ruled notebook available when I bought it.

Color selection aside, this Journal and the Tan Journal preceding it, are among my favorites, for they would be a record of the accelerated transformation I was experiencing at the time.  I was spending a lot of time in my earlier Journals excavating memories.  I was more than a little discontented with life in the inner city of an American megaopolis.  This Journal would give me a sense of solace and a sense of direction in my life.  Reading previous Journals would now be the inspiration for new Journal entries wherein more insights and connections could be made.  The earlier Journals reminded me of the Home I missed so much.  I yearned for the stillness, and the deep-breath solitude, and the Valley-strolling reveries that had become an integral part of my being, but that wasn’t to be.  Growth, now, would have to take another form.

More reflections than a Moorish garden

alhambra 5

A good number of the Journal entries I was reading were of about the conversations Khalil and I had years earlier: conversations about our belief that there had to be something beyond this mundane plane of existence.  Human existence had to be more substantial than living to work for the sake of purchasing consumer items.  Furthermore, there was the creepy, corrupt, and sadistic nature of the Orwellian, “Big Brother,” society in which we were dwelling.  We were dissatisfied with being dissatisfied.  I did not want to submit to a way of life that demanded that I sacrifice my ideals.  I was not interested in committing spiritual suicide.

Before it was called the “Matrix,” I had already decided that I would have to “opt out.” One indicator that I would have to opt out occurred when I went to visit my former dorm mate neighbor (the same person I had sat in on a class with at UPENN).  It had been at this point multiple months since i had been in the presence of a TV.  He and the visitors were watching some late afternoon African-American sitcoms that were the standard fare of the time.  It all seemed completely contrived–fake, phony, artificial.  I was all the more realizing that I had gone past the point of no return.  I couldn’t go back, I couldn’t pretend to live a “conventional” life–even if I wanted to.

Something was amiss in myself; something was amiss with my former dorm mate–amiss in the sense that he was profoundly dissatisfied with the academic life; and something was amiss in my classmates in general at Amherst.  The Journal entries I was reading at the time constantly reminded me that wealth and intelligence were not insulators from the spiritually numbing life in the American cult of mindless consumerism.  My journey to Islam and to Philadelphia was a quest to find out what was missing from my life.

Among the subjects I became immersed in during my UPENN library visits was the history of Islam in West Africa. I had taken an African anthropology class in college, and Islam did come up in the readings, but at that time, my understanding of genuine Islam was marginal, and I was still trying to make African history conform to the race-based paradigm I was trying to formulate at the time.  This time around–after having sat with knowledgeable Muslims–I could now better understand the Sunni tradition in West Africa.  Since I now had a better sense of what constituted traditional Islamic knowledge, I could have a much greater appreciation of what the observant Muslims of the region followed in terms of Islamic doctrine and law, and I could have a greater appreciation of the institutions of higher learning in West Africa.

The Grand Mosque in the ancient city of learning, Djenne, Mali in West Africa.  It is regarded as the largest adobe structure in the world.

The Grand Mosque in the ancient city of learning, Djenne, Mali in West Africa. It is regarded as the largest adobe structure in the world.

Knowing this also gave me a sense of continuity.  In Sunni Islamic law, there are four surviving schools of jurisprudence.  The Sunnis of West Africa are followers of Imam Malik.  I was studying in the school of Imam Ash-Shafi`iyy.  Imam Ash-Shafi`iyy was a student of Imam Malik.  In the matters of the details of theology, I was studying the Ash`ariyy school–the same school the Muslims of West Africa follow.  It was becoming all the more clear to me that I was plugged into an extensive scholarly tradition, and it was not inconceivable that perhaps some of my African ancestry, too, were part of that same tradition.

Have you forgotten that once we were brought here, we were robbed of our name, robbed of our language? We lost our religion, our culture, our God… and many of us, by the way we act, we even lost our minds.

The more I read about Islam in West Africa, the more I felt I felt connected to something far greater than myself–but also the more that I felt that something had been taken from me.  No doubt some of the Africans who had come off those wretched slave ships were Muslims, and some of them were learned and pious people–but I knew them not.  I knew nothing of them.  Their legacy had been stolen from me, and I had been given something else in its stead: I was given a legacy of nothing more than slavery, second or third class “citizenship,” and the worship of a human being who looked like the people who enslaved my ancestors–I had been given permanent social inferiority.  I had been a victim. I had been robbed of a sense of self.  I had been a victim of identity theft.

It was not long after my “African Renaissance” that the UPENN library was closed for winter break.  My retreat into to realm of books would have to interrupted for a couple of weeks.  All was not lost however.  A few days after the library closed, the mosque would have, what would become its annual end of the year “invasion.”  This would be the first of many “dawrahs”–literally, circles of knowledge–in which Brothers and Sisters from all over North America would come to Philadelphia for a week long intensive of Islamic studies.  This time there would be even more people than the previous intensive session, and I was starting to feel the culture shock of the largely Lebanese visiting community.

It is here, that is the culture-gap, that many African-American Muslims struggle with upon their embracing Islam.  As I mentioned earlier, very often Immigrant Muslims will tell African-American Muslims that they don’t need to be “so focused of race.”  After all, they will say: “We are all Muslims.”  This, of course, is near complete failure to consider the warped and twisted classism, nationalism, tribalism, and racism that can be found in many parts of the Muslim world, and it is a grave disregard for African-American sensibilities.  Our identity and raison d’etre is one based upon race as it was/is constructed in America.  We are not a people of a single tribe, or even a collection of tribes.  As for our nationality, historically, we were outcasts from the society in which we were born and helped build.  We did not belong here, as many a white racist made abundantly clear.  We were, we existed, we survived, and maintained our identity and some semblance of unity through a racial identity that was imposed upon else and we had little else.

Also, it is a failure on the part of (many) Immigrant Muslims to realize that for centuries other people have told us who we are and what we could be.  We were not a self-determined people, but rather, we were determined by others, and those others did not–and could not–have our best interests in mind.  As for the Immigrant Muslims (at least in the Old Countries) it might be said that they have told their stories–they are in the books of the Muslim chroniclers and historians. But we have yet to tell ours–and we should not be discouraged from telling our story–for our story can be a story worthy of telling.

Many African-Americans who gravitate toward Islam do so not only because they reject the unsoundness of the Christian doctrine that they grew up with, or because they see Islam as an alternative consumerism and materialism, or as a means to resist Western imperialism, but they also see Islam as a means to reclaim a lost heritage–a stolen legacy.  It seems odd in the mind of such converts that many Immigrant Muslims (or those living in Muslim countries, for that matter) have voluntarily chosen to abandon the Sunnah (Prophetic Way) for an American lifestyle that is devoid of substance and is saturated with hypocrisy.  We long for a home in the lands of Islam–whereas, many Immigrant Muslims have left theirs to come here.  This is one of several causes for the cultural rift between the Immigrant and the African-American Muslim. For this rift and others to be mended, there must be an open dialogue and not a one-sided discourse–where one party is determined to dictate to the other how the other should feel, think, and view the world.

“All the creation is subjugated by Allah’s Power.  No particle moves except by Allah’s Will.  Allah existed before the creation.  Allah does not have a before or an after, an above or a below, a right, or a left, a whole or a part.  Allah created the universe and willed for the existence of time.  Allah is not bound by time, and is not designated with place. “

The ultimate call of Islam is the invitation of humanity to the sincere worship of the One True God.  In spite of differences in our languages, ethnicities, nationalities, or races, Islam reminds us that our time on this plane of existence is fleeting; there is something momentous beyond this life, and what we do and believe has consequences beyond what we may perceive in this world.  Our cultures may be many–but the true belief in the Creator is one–and genuine unity is predicated upon having the proper belief in the One who created us.  It was during that dawrah that the Shaykh taught and commented on a brief but profound treatise on Tawheed (Islamic Monotheism) as taught by a well-know Sunni scholar, Fakhr-ud-Deen Ibn `Asakir.  Lesson after lesson, the Shaykh talked about the Oneness of God–that Allah is the One and Only Creator, that Allah knows everything without exception and nothing is to be unless Allah wills.  Every object and image, every motion and stillness, every thought and intention is created by Allah.  And Allah does not need or resemble anything among the created.

No size, color, image, or limits–Allah is not in a dimension.                                                                                                      Allah exists without a place–it’s an indication of His* Perfection.

During that dawrah, while lined up in the ranks of the prayer with perhaps a hundred other Brothers, the tears began to stream down my face.  I had an epiphany.  I realized that although I may be the product of a discarded or stolen legacy, and that I may not have some of the advantages of those who were born Muslim, I now had the opportunity to reclaim that legacy and to excel as a human being by sincerely striving to obey the Incomparable Creator of the Universe.  The choice was mine.  I now had no more excuses.

*The use of the masculine pronoun in reference to the Creator is a means of speech and does not connote that Allah has a physical gender.

Young, Gifted, Black, and an Eye Transparent

Young, Gifted, Black, and an Eye Transparent

I am still in the “Tan Journal.”  And I am still going to the Van Pelt library at UPENN almost daily.  I am trying to put it all together: I am trying to link the traditional Islamic knowledge I was learning with my studies in college, my independent research into ancient civilizations and various religions and metaphysical practices, with the social and political history of Islam, with my experience as a Sunni Muslim convert in America.

In the process, I was pulling a lot of books down from the shelves of Van Pelt.  I had a lot of questions, and I needed clarity.  Unlike during my days at Amherst, however, I did have a framework in which to operate.  Traditional Islamic knowledge was the means by which I was to evaluate what I was reading.

One day while at the library, I came across Lorraine Hansberry’s “autobiography,” To Be Young Gifted and Black.

Hansberry

Even as I write the title and look at the book on Amazon, my heart strings are pulled.  The title resonated with me profoundly, for it expressed what I saw in the black community at Amherst and what I was hoping for for black folk with the final arrival of traditional Islamic knowledge (coming from a black African man!).  At Amherst, during my nationalist days, I saw the tremendous potential in young black folks who, to varying degrees, were becoming politically, socially, and racially conscious.  As we unfolded into the knowledge of self, and we embraced self and embraced kind, we could finally fulfill our potential here in America.  We could: “Be all we can be and more….”

The image of Lorraine Hansberry and the book title not only reminded me of the latent potential in “the souls of black folk,” it reminded me of a different time: a time before the killing of Malcolm, of King or of Robert Kennedy–before the systematic assassination and destruction of black activists and their organizations by J. Edgar Hoover’s COINTELPRO. Reading passages and looking at the photos in To Be Young Gifted and Black reminded me of a more hopeful time in black America—a more “innocent” time.

With that sense of innocence came the sense of duty to raise a generation of children—to have self-loving, gifted, and black children guided by the light of Islam—and help them realize their, what would have been previously unfathomable, potential.  That is, we would raise children who would grow up being encouraged to let their talents bloom; they would be so filled with wholesome self-love and accomplishment that they could not be traumatized by any sense of inferiority or racism.  We would through them—through these young, gifted, and black children—heal ourselves from the centuries of trauma that permeated our own psyches.  They would be the living expression of a triumph against multiple generations of struggle against racism, self-hate, self-ignorance, and worst of all, ignorance of God.  That had been my hope, and when I saw Lorraine Hansberry’s book, those sentiments enveloped to my heart.

Although at this stage I was no longer what I would call a “black nationalist” (although some folks might think otherwise), one could not ignore that the overwhelming majority of converts in Philly were African-Americans, and that these converts brought with them into the Deen the challenges that black folk, in general, were confronted with.  Also, there could be no denying the tremendous talent that is in African-Americans, but this talent needed to be harnessed, and it needed to be given a positive and life-affirming expression.  Genuine Islam—I was certain—would provide African-Americans with that.

We could stay in touch with our past.  Our past  should not be dismissed or discarded with what has almost become a platitude from the immigrant brethren in Faith about how “we are all Muslims,” and we don’t need to be obsessed with color and race.  As I would write in the Journal: “By knowing the past, in-shaa’ Allah [God-willing], African-Americans can gain understanding of who they are, where they’ve been, and by the Grace of God what they can be.”  We could learn our history to empower ourselves; however, unlike before, we could evaluate our past from an Islamic perspective to attain proper understanding, proper direction, and proper guidance.

I was also doing a lot of Journal reading during this period.  I was spending a lot time in my memories of Amherst.  And as I skimmed, To be Young, Gifted, and Black, and I reflected upon that era, I reflected upon an occasion when, perhaps arguably, the hippest Brooklynite in the Valley (I’ll call her “Spice”) picked me up at the bus stop and we drove down Route 116 in the Saab (maybe the top was even dropped), while Sly, and the Family Stone’s “Everyday People” blared on the radio.  It was a beautiful day; I could feel the sun on my skin, and in my face, thinking about the warm, deep, centered vibe I picked up from “Spice” (the vibe which she usually gave off), and the warmth and optimism of the music of that time.  This is what it meant to be young, gifted, and black, and I was diggin’ it… diggin’ it to the maximum.  And it was this sense of warmth and wholeness that I wanted to see a generation of black children grow up upon—with Islam, of course, and without the haraam.

It was also during this period that I discovered the “Transcendentalist writers” of Massachusetts.  Khalil had been telling me while I was in college that I have to read these guys.  I refused—largely because I wasn’t interested in what some DWMs (DWM = Dead White Men) had to say.  I wanted to learn about my people and my history.  As I said, by the time I made it to Philly, I was largely over my hardcore black nationalist sentiments, and I was more read to give these DWMs a read.

The same day that I discovered To Be Young Gifted and Black, I also read some of the Essays of Emerson.  This was a turning point in my early days in Philadelphia.  For one, Emerson (and even more so his student, Thoreau) helped me endure the long cold winter to come in the city.  More significantly, they spoke of the value of language, its relation to the natural world, and the importance of purity of expression.  Among the quotes that struck me and I copied down into my Journal was:

“A man’s power to connect his thought with its proper symbol, and so utter it depends on the simplicity of his character, that is, upon his love of truth and his desire to communicate it without loss….”

Immediately, when I read this, I thought of “Jazz Man,” and his ability to speak to the heart of the matter free of all pretense.  Also, I copied:

“Words are signs of natural facts.  The use of natural history is to give us aid in supernatural natural history; the use of the outer creation to give us language for the beings and changes of the inward creation.  Every word which is used to express a moral or intellectual fact, if traced to its root, is found to be borrowed from some material presence.”

Also from Emerson I copied:

“Have mountains, and waves, and skies, no significance but what we consciously give them, when we employ them as emblems of our thoughts? The world is emblematic. Parts of speech are metaphors, because the whole of nature is a metaphor of the human mind.”

It was those walks late into the Valley night with the “Jazz Man,” the discussions we had and his ability to speak in images—in verbal hieroglyphics—that had encouraged me to go on my “Quest”–to seek the Truth.  And it was during the time after Jazz Man left the Valley that I would go on long walks in the woods with my Yusuf Ali,* pondering various verses commanding people to reflect on the natural world.  All of Nature was not merely a “metaphor for the mind,” but it was all a sign of the Existence of One, Perfect, Incomparable God, and I was trying to make sense of who God was and how to submit God.

Above all, Emerson reminded me of Home.  The night before, I had had a conversation with the “Artist” (and Imam) that among the things I missed most about the Valley was having a sense of vision—of having the sky overhead and the feet planted on earth.  Then, I discovered Emerson the following day.  Emerson gave words to the feelings I experienced in the Valley.

I would copy: “The health of the eye seems to demand a horizon.  We never tire as long as we can see far enough.” And:

“The sky is the daily bread for the eyes.  What sculpture in these hard clouds; what expression of immense amplitude in this dotted rippled rack, here firm and continental, there vanishing into plumes and auroral gleams.  No crowding, boundless, cheerful and strong.”

In my mind’s eye, I was transported back Home, to breathing fresh air deeply into my lungs, cloud gazing, silence, and trying to drive my insight to pierce through the veils of this world so I could realize the Truth.  One passage from Emerson’s “Nature” struck me harder than any other:

Standing on the bare ground–my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite spaces–all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball….”**

And although I believe this image was drawn with the intention to mock Emerson, I could totally relate:

eyeball2

In those final weeks of Amherst when I spoke of wishing to devour horizons with my eyes, this is what I meant.  I felt like  nearly disembodied vessel of perception that nourished itself in the beauty of Nature.  I was glad to see that I was not alone in what I had experienced.  Emerson was helping me make sense of the experiences I had had in my beloved Valley.  As I would copy into the Journal from a book that I did not record its title: “By the height of Emerson’s perceptions, he was able to bring a part of New England closer to the mind….”  I could see, I could feel, I could smell  Western Massachusetts.  And I could soar again to those exhilarating elevations of thought and feeling that I had come to love while being in the Valley—although, I was currently dwelling in the inner city of West Philadelphia.

_____________________________________________________

*  I’m not claiming that Yusuf Ali’s so-called “translation” of the Qur’an is reliable—quite the contrary–but it is what I had at the time, and I didn’t know any better… not that ignorance is an excuse Islamically.
** One should not understand that “space” is absolutely infinite, but rather that space is vast.  Also, it’s important to note that Emerson’s claim in that passage that he becomes “one with God” or a “particleof God” are not Islamically valid. As profound as these experiences may feel, the person does not person “unite with God”–not his physical body, nor his mind, nor his soul.  The body, mind, and soul and all their states are  not God nor a “part” of God.  These different states of are creations of God.  God is not a temporal or spatial being.

The Tan Journal (Entry #31)

The Tan Journal (Entry #31)

I don’t usually think of my Journals in terms of their colors.  There is the first Journal that got it all started.  That Journal was a quadrille (graph paper) notebook I had found around the house.  Then there is the yellow paper Journal of the summer before going away to Amherst (and records the initially weeks there).  And then there are the Tan and the Pink Journals.  These two Journals, of all my Journals, stand out because it was during this period that I underwent an accelerated transformation–and I had the fortune to record a lot of it.

Going to the Van Pelt Library at the University of Pennsylvania was becoming almost a daily ritual.  I am going there to read, research, and keep up with my Journal writing.  I am also going there to get some silence and solitude.  I was reading widely in order to improve my writing skills.  From my writing, I hoped to be challenged to my core–to attain self-understanding and clarity and to express those feelings and thoughts on paper.

I was also delving a lot into my previous Journals.  In particular, i was spending a lot of time reflecting upon my Amherst experience.  Also, I while at the library, I had read Barron’s Top 50 Colleges and Universities.  It had an article about Amherst, which instantly transported me back to the campus.  I was suffering from Home-sicknesses and a longing for the beauty of the Happy Valley.  I would write: “I haven’t seen a patch of woods since returning from Massachusetts.”  Urban life is wearing on me, and reading about life back Home was a source of solace.   Another part of my Journal reading was I was trying to distill from my past what I wanted to do with my future.  The Journals helped keep me inspired and keep my dreams in focus.

As for research, like I said before, I was trying to cross-reference the material I was learning in the lessons at the mosque.  I wanted to be sure that what I was learning was in sync with mainstream classical Sunni Islamic scholarship.  The more I researched, the more I became convinced that it was.  For one, there were the debates that I witnessed some of the Brothers engaged in with people from other groups.  I saw that they soundly–by both Scriptural and rational proofs–defeated opponents.  Also, on more than one occasion, I would read in an Orientalist’s work about one heretical or blasphemous sect or another and the Sunni response, and then I would hear the very same argument (and counter argument) in the lesson at the mosque in the evening.

Another aspect of my research was to try to reconcile what i had learned in Academia, my own independent studies into ancient black and African history, comparative religion and philosophy with traditional Islamic knowledge.   My goal was to synthesize this information into a grand thesis of world history that I would use for my Master’s Degree (…such were my hopes of the time).  My plan was to attend graduate school the following fall–but time was running out, and I hadn’t taken my GRE and done applications, as of yet.

I would write: “I want to devote my life to activating the intellect.”  Although, as per my recent experience in a UPENN classroom, I knew that Academia had its limitations, but I figured it was still the best fit for me, as far as a career.  In fact, I knew little else, and I preferred the thought of teaching at a university, writing books, and spending my time discussing ideas to working in a corporate veal pen for some transnational megaconglomerate entity.

I came across one book that was particularly influential upon my thinking at the time. The book compared the lives and influences of Aristotle and Al-Ghazali on their respective civilizations (i.e., the “West” and Islam).  The book mentioned that one of the differences between Islamic civilization and the “West” is that the West was not able to reconcile its Christian tradition with logic as expounded by the Greeks.  Thomas Aquinas and other Church thinkers tried to meet the challenge of Greek philosophy and the science of logic, but try as they may, they could not reconcile the Trinitarian doctrine with reason.  As a result, the West, in essence, suffered a schism between religion and reason.  The people of science and logic went in one direction, and the people of “faith” went in another.

Muslim theologians, like Al-Ghazali (who was not the first, but probably the most famous in the West), stood up to the challenge of the ancient Greek philosophers, and discredited their doctrines with concise rational proofs.  Al-Ghazali’s, Tahafatul-Falasafah (The Incoherence of the Philosophers) demonstrated the use of reason in understanding the proper belief in the Creator, while at the same time showed the inconsistencies and absurdities of the claims of those who were enamored with the Ancient Greeks (such as, Avicenna and Al-Farabi).

This book also gave me a framework for the intellectual history of Islam.  Not only did it reinforce the idea that what I was learning at the mosque was part of the mainstream of Islamic scholarship, this book also showed the influence of the Muslim world upon the West.  This is something that is typically overlooked by Muslims from the “Old Country.”  They see the “West” as the other, and by and large, have little concern for its intellectual tradition.  As for the convert Muslim (especially, one who has gone the academic route), he is a product of the Western tradition and is trying to understand Islam, at least in part, from a Western perspective.  To show the depth of influence that the Islamic world has had on the West by way of culture, trade, literature, science and math, and theology helps the convert get a better sense of his place in Western society.  And with this knowledge, he can refute many of the assertions that anti-Muslim bigots make about Islam (such as, claiming that Islamic civilization has contributed little or nothing to the world).

As was mentioned in previous entries, Al-Ghazali was not merely a Muslim intellectual or scholar; he became an ascetic, who left his teaching position at the prestigious Nizamiyyah University in Baghdad to become an itinerant Sufi.  It was only after attaining a high station of piety that he returned to his teaching post and elaborated on his experiences and how pure spirituality does not contradict the true Islamic creed.  Pure spirituality was not based upon logical absurdities or flights of fancy.  Such experiences are real and do not contradict the tenets of Islam (nor are they attained by abandoning Islamic Sacred Law).  The West could not produce such a personality as Al-Ghazali, because, in reality, it did not have the benefit of genuine prophetic guidance (as a matter of fact, much of the “Western identity” is based upon its opposition to genuine prophetic guidance).  The West had Christianity, which was a pagan perversion of the true monotheisitic message that Jesus taught.  Given that polytheism is inherently absurd, it should not be a surprise to anyone that much of the current Western intelligentsia has turned to agnosticism or atheism in one form or another.

LAUNDRY OR LENTILS

One day as I was walking in the “penthouse” (the penthouse how the Brothers referred to the upper level of the mosque where most of us had migrated when the weather outside, and consequently the temperature inside the mosque, had dropped) digging through my pockets, I let out a very audible laugh that got me some looks.  No, life in the big city had not driven me insane–but I had just about run out of money–and had to make a choice between doing a load of laundry or buying a bag of lentils for dinner.  As a recent college grad, this was not the trajectory I had hoped my life to take.  Anyway, I opted for the lentils.  Clean clothes were going to have to wait.  Times were, indeed, getting hard on the boulevard.

I was now going to have to struggle to maintain some degree of equanimity in the face of poverty.  To my advantage, I wasn’t alone.  Most of the Valley guys who had made “hijrah” to Philadelphia were suffering financially, as were many of the local Brothers.  This is not to say that we (or I) made the most prudent decisions at the time, but we also had before us numerous examples of pious Muslims who had lived in a state of penury.  They lived their lived devoted to obedience to the Creator and empty of the desire for worldly vanities.  We did want to follow their example.

The statements of the righteous regarding piety, virtue, and detachment  resonated with us.  One quote struck me so much that it made its way from one of my Islamic notebooks to my Journal was:

“That which Allah has willed to happen, it is going to happen at precisely the time and manner Allah willed to happen.  Nothing can prevent it.”  

And then in commenting on that statement Imam Ali Ibn Abu Talib (the fourth Caliph) said:

“One’s Faith is not complete until one understands and lives by this statement.”

Similarly, at this time,  I had learned the saying of Imam Ahmad Ar-Rifai`yy, one of the leading Sufis:

“My heart is at ease, because I know whatever was meant for me will never miss me, and whatever misses me was never meant for me.”

This was a spiritual challenge: to subdue the base self and train it in contentment with what has been predestined.  If one sincerely wished to attain Islamic piety, there would be no room for hubris.  God owns us and does not owe us anything; hence, it is far more prudent to subdue the putrid ego and submit than it is to rebel against the Creator of the universe because you didn’t get what you wanted.

Among the things I wanted was to go to graduate school.  But I had no money to take the GRE, and I didn’t have money for applications.  My academic education was going to have to wait.  Nonetheless, I was still determined to go to the library and continue with my research.  I wasn’t going to allow my lack of money to deter me from the pursuit of knowledge.  And although in one sense I was increasingly feeling like circumstances were cutting me off from the outside world, the quests down Locust Walk to the Van Pelt Library reminded of my responsibility–my responsibility as a Sunni Muslim with traditional knowledge–to share the message of Islam with the larger society.

Locust Walk on the University of Pennsylvania Campus

Locust Walk on the University of Pennsylvania Campus

A New Normal (Entry #30)

A NEW NORMAL (Entry #30)

It took not long for me to start feeling homesick for the Valley.  This was more than a homesickness for that which was familiar.  This was a homesickness for that which was “Home” with a capital “H.”  Amherst wasn’t a place where I had simply lived for nearly four years; Amherst had been the embodiment of many of my ideals; it and cultivated and instilled new ones.  I was transformed in Amherst.

From childhood, I had yearned to live in the country.  Amherst gave me that.  It provided me with an escape from life in Springfield, which I had been deeply dissatisfied with.  Amherst wasn’t merely some little hick village, but rather, it was a college town where I could find plenty of interesting people and intellectual stimulation.  Furthermore, Amherst had become a sort of refuge for former hippies.  In addition to the health consciousness of the hippie culture, there was the political activism and sense that young people should be socially and politically active, and it was our duty to strive to make the world a better place.  I embraced that.

The natural beauty of Amherst and the Valley was a major impetus to my incipient spiritual yearnings.  My eyes could rove over the contours of the Valley and feast upon the beauty of the area.  In nature, I had found ample pasturage for my mind.  That, along with frequent journeys into solitude, had led to me ponder about the purpose of life, what happened after we died, and who or what is God.  I think if i had gone to school in a big city and had the temptations of consumerism stuffed in my face day and night, that those thoughts probably would have never visited me.  God knows best.

About a week into my stay in Philly, I had one of what would be for awhile periodic “Valley Dreams.”  Those were dreams in which I would realize that I am back Home, and I would tell myself to either look up to the blue sky or to the wide vistas and try to absorb as much of the scenery as I could.  When I did, my heart would swell and it would feel like it was going to jump out of my chest.  I would then awake often upon saying, “Allaaaah!”  In this dream, I was with someone, probably another one of the Valley Guys, and we were on the train trestle-recently converted to a bike path that spanned the Connecticut River.  I told him: “Look at the beautiful scenery.”  I look up and out; I am in awe; I feel reverence; and I am overwhelmed.  Upon awaking, I reflect that I was saying “Good-bye with the eyes” just a few days prior to coming down to Philly.  Life now was dramatically different.  The scenery was dramatically different.  I would write of the dream: “The Vision: the big sky, the hills, and the green-green-green.”  Indeed, I was missing Home. I was suffering from a spiritual homesickness.

Bike Bridge

The bike bridge spanning the Connecticut River

On the flip side, because I was so busy making adjustments to my new life in Philly, the homesickness did not get as acute as it could have.  The local Brothers–the responsible and serious Brothers–began to school me about life in Philly and the da`wah (da`wah is what some might call Islamic missionary work) in the street.  These Brothers were active, and it wasn’t long before they were taking me with them when they would go into the projects to knock on doors and talk to people about Islam.  Maa-shaa’ Allah, a lot of people took their Shahadah (that is, said the Testification of Faith: There is nothing worthy of worship except Allah, Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah) to embrace Islam.   We had a room in the community center where lessons were given;  a few people were consistent in attending, but most of the new converts were sporadic at best.  Allah knows what happened to most of those people.

“Grafitti on walls, bricks, and concrete:
Nothing is soft, when the city’s under your feet.”

One Brother was my primary mentor.  He was a lot more learnt than I was Islamically, and he was also very widely read about various black activists and black nationalists movements.  On our way to and from doing da`wah in the streets or in between lessons, we would kick it about Malcolm X, the Black Panther Party, and Pan-Africanism and what was needed to wake our people out of their mentally-dead state.  Often his gambit with black folk who were still under the influence of Christianity would be: “If they didn’t treat you right, then they probably didn’t teach you right.”  That is, given that since Christianity was imposed on black people during slavery by whites to keep black folks subjugated, it didn’t make a whole lot of sense to think that Christianity would empower black people today.  He said another thing that contributed to a shift in my thinking.  I was talking to him one day about white racism, and then he said: “If they [i.e., many white people] are unjust to themselves [by rejecting the proper belief in the Creator], then it is not practical to expect them to be just to others.”  This meant that if black folks wished to improve their condition, then they would largely have to rely upon themselves.  This was one of the most sensible things I had heard about race and the black condition in America.

West Park Towers in Philadelphia

West Park Towers in Philadelphia

The crack epidemic had done a lot of damage to black people in Philadelphia.  On one occasion i was sitting on the curb in the projects talking with some of the Brothers.  I kept hearing a “pinging” sound behind me.  I’d look around and see nothing.  After this happened several more times, i looked down (instead of around) and the ground was covered with empty crack vials (or “viles,” if you prefer)–I then looked up and saw someone was pushing crack vials out of a broken window of one of the apartments.  I was up and close to my first confirmed crack house.

It is now starting to sink in that the problems here are massive.  Some people had the notion that if African-Americans simply learn traditional Islamic knowledge, then their problems would, by and large, go away.  In the back of my mind, i knew this wasn’t going to be the case.  The immigrant Brothers might fall into sins because of ignorance of specific religious judgments; some were just crooked and did crooked things; nonetheless, more often than not, they came from relatively stable families and from societies where general Islamic values prevailed.

This was not the case with African-American Muslim converts coming from the inner city.  Not only were they coming into Islam with A LOT of unresolved psychological race baggage–middle class, high functioning African-Americans often have this problem–many African-American converts were coming from circumstances where depravity (by any standard) was the norm.  Imagine, for instance, growing up in a home where the mother prostitutes herself for crack.  A child four, five, six, twelve years old watches her mother turn tricks to get high.  Or imagine the father, when does happen to be home from jail and chooses to show up, sticking heroin syringes into his arm, and prostituting his daughter so he doesn’t have to “jones.”  This isn’t just one or two outcasts in a neighborhood of dozens of families and hundreds of people.  Drugs, and the felony crimes related to drugs, and violence were commonplace and inescapable.

You’ll admire all the number-book takers
Thugs, pimps and pushers and the big money-makers
Drivin’ big cars, spendin’ twenties and tens
And you’ll wanna grow up to be just like them, huh
Smugglers, scramblers, burglars, gamblers
Pickpocket peddlers, even panhandlers….
(Melle Mel, “The Message”)

It would be one thing if it were the case that you just happened to have a deeply dysfunctional and pathological family.  You could possibly dismiss it as being just you (and your family).  It’s another when that is all you see around you.  And even if your family was stable but just happened to be poor and living in government housing, you are living under the constant threat of theft and robbery (after all, hardcore drug addicts usually can’t hold down jobs and need money for to support their habit), and random or drug related violence.  Then there are the neighborhood gangs, the substandard schools, the general ignorance of the people you encounter, the goons and hoodrats, a lot of open immorality, a police and legal system that doesn’t have your best interests in mind, and you can sense that this isn’t all “by accident,” but rather more like by design.  You have little to counter this–you may have never been exposed an alternative way of living—or thinking.  And then this is all exacerbated by you not liking yourself very much, and you feel a strong sense of inferiority to other people because of the color of your skin.  It became clear to me that simply teachings people about Islam without tending to the pain and misery that many of the converts suffered from would necessarily be an inadequate da`wah for African-Americans.

Although the mosque was fortress of knowledge and a refuge for the most part from the life in the street, life at the mosque was busy and chaotic.  A lot of renovation was being done–many of the local Brothers were contractors with different trades, so they’d spend the day doing the plumbing, roofing, dry wall etc.  Everyone was contributing, and this gave the mosque a sense of community and a sense that everyone had a vested interest in a common and lofty cause.

For myself, I didn’t have such skills, and I didn’t intend on being in Philadelphia long enough to consider it the best use of my time to spend learning them.  Furthermore, I was longing to quiet and solitude.  It wasn’t long before I discovered the Van Pelt Library at the University of Pennsylvania (UPENN).  Originally the plan when going to Philly was that I would work at the Islamic school at the mosque.  Because the enrollment was less than expected, however, I wasn’t needed as a teacher; hence, my plan was revamped.  I would be (so I thought) in Philly for 6-9 months.  I would load up as best I could on Islamic knowledge and then go to graduate school, either in the Philadelphia area or elsewhere.  I wanted to keep my academic skills sharp, so during the day, i would go to the UPENN library, research, write in my Journal, and read; and to the best of my ability, I would try to cross reference what I was learning in the Islamic studies lessons I was taking in the evening at the mosque.

Among of the differences between the Western academic approach and the traditional Islamic approach is that much of the traditional learning is centered around memorization; whereas, the in the academic model, one tries to consume (and somewhat) retain as much information as possible.  Another difference was that the academic approach to Islam is more “date and historically oriented.”  Timelines and maps were laid out on the Islamic dynasties, various factions, migrations, major battles, and the likes.  In the traditional Islamic way, one often learns about history by way of stories that are interspersed in lessons on other topics and not necessarily in a chronological manner.  Also, in the academic approach, the events in Islamic history are understood vis a vis events in other parts of the world.    And this is one of the things I wanted to gain a greater understanding of: I wanted to be able to see myself, as an American convert Muslim, in the greater scope of the expansive history and geography of Islam.  (This not to say that Muslim chroniclers and historians didn’t record events; they did so meticulously; it’s just that this isn’t the focus for a beginning student of traditional knowledge.)

What was woefully missing from the academic perspective was a sense of “truth.”  The credo of the Academy was and is moral relativism.  Many academics don’t learn so that they can apply their knowledge and become a better human beings.  They learn so that he can show off what they know and attain high positions in their field of choice.  I was reminded of this when I attended a class at UPENN during that fall semester.

It was one of those synchronicities (by the Will of Allah, of course) that my dorm neighbor in Drew House was living two blocks down the street from the mosque in Philly.  He came into Amherst as the angry radical black nationalist type–as much as you could be at Amherst.  It took a year at Amherst for me to adopt that persona.  He turned me on to Louis Farrakhan with the box full of tapes that he loaned me.  He also had a book about the impressive achievements of the (so-called) Nation of Islam, which i have never seen since.  He was one of the main factors in my black consciousness awakening at The College.

The dorm mate was a diligent student and had graduated at the upper end of his class as a triple major.  UPENN had given him a free ride, and that was where he was for graduate school.  I got in contact with him (or perhaps, bumped into him), and he invited me to class.  It was a graduate level course on African-American historiography.  Some of the same books we had used at Amherst were used by the students in this class–Blasingame and Genovese come to mind.  It was standard what I call “Academic Negro history stuff.”  In the course of class discussion, the teacher threw out the phrase, “A benevolent patriarchy,” and an apparently “gender-challenged” angry black female intellectual muttered: “That sounds like a contradiction in terms.”  I was then jarred into remembering how in the universe of academia there is (allegedly) no truth; no one has the right to say something is right or wrong; everything, as they present it, is “relative.”

I could see in my former dorm mate that he was disillusioned with this attitude in graduate school.  He wanted, like i did, knowledge that would help empower black people–not mere intellectual self-gratification.   I saw him a couple of times thereafter.  He even came to the mosque once with me for a lesson.  But at some point, it seems he just kind of fell of the radar screen.  As for me, I still wanted to go to graduate school, become a professor, and bring the truth of Islam to academia and present the creed of Ahuls-Sunnah wal-Jama`ah to the general public.  That was my plan… but Allah does not always enable us to execute our plans.

After about a month into my Philly experience, the former Brittany Manor roommate and I return to the Valley.  He had some business to take care of, and I could go and visit my family in Springfield and see friends up in the Valley.  As we get closer the the Connecticut-Massachusetts border, the contour of the land changes; hills start to roll, the foliage begins to dazzle the eye, and the sights become increasingly familiar–I am back Home.  We spent nine days in the area, and I would write in my Journal: “Amherst was a blast.  I could ‘ceiling-out’ with the sky over head.”

Upon returning to the Center, I come to find that there has been an “invasion.”  The Shaykh was in town, and he was giving a multi-week intensive of Islamic lessons.  Brothers, mostly Lebanese Brothers, had come from all over the US and Canada and some from overseas to acquire the knowledge.  And although I was happy for the opportunity to learn, what little semblance of structure and order that I did have in my life was beginning to dissolve.  The life I had envisioned for myself while living in the Happy Valley was starting to seem (in my best imitation Axl Rose voice): “So far away… so faaaaar away.”  I was now entering a “new normal” in which many of my previous plans and dreams would start to disintegrate, and I would have to try to make adjustments to my new circumstances.

Not in Kansas Anymore (Entry #29)

Not in Kansas Anymore (Entry #29)

“More than six years now have past [since the events of this journal]; yet, the words and experiences resonate like they were last month.” (Upon reading this Journal sometime in the late 1990’s)

“K.” who is now “Khalil,” and I drive down to Philadelphia with my relatively few possessions: some clothes, my book collection, and journals. The previous week, much to the chagrin of Jazz Man, who had come up to the Valley for a visit, I had dumped my record collection, including, classic rap 12 inches and my albums, into a dumpster at Brittany Manor. I had by this point conquered my music addiction, maa-shaa’ Allah, and considered it all part of letting go what no longer was of “service” to me.

I am filled with excitement and anticipation. Yes, I am leaving Amherst and the environs of the rolling hills of my beloved Valley, but I saw myself going to Philly so I could be part of what I saw as a black cultural and religious revolution that had the potential to transform American society. I would later reflect while I was in Beirut that the culture shock of going from Amherst to Philly was considerably greater than going from the United States to the Middle East. One of the Valley Guys used to joke with me that investing in a teflon vest before going to Philadelphia might not be a bad idea. That joke had more truth in it than I could have then imagined.

I had less than liked Springfield. It was too urban for me–too much, too many people and too much negativity. I longed to escape, and Allah enabled me to do so by attending college in a small college town. Springfield had its “hood,” and there was no lack of those with the “crabs in a barrel” mentality. There were the drug boys and the acts of stupid random violence, and just “ghetto” elements, in general. I did expect much of the same in Philly or at least in parts of Philly. After all, every major American city has its less than desirable neighborhoods. What I wasn’t ready for was the size and scope of the problems that were to be encountered in America’s fifth largest city.

However, as I said before, I naively assumed that the sort of transformation I had underwent during my four years up in the Happy Valley were paralleled by black folk in general—or at least many young black folk in the Northeast. As a reminder, this was an era of Spike Lee’s  Malcolm X movie, “black conscious” movements, and hip hop had its share of acts that were—presumably–transforming the consciousness of the black America. These groups made some difference at the time, but all in all their influence on fundamentally changing the trajectory—and mindset—of black America were probably nominal. After all, black America still suffers from the same problems it suffered from prior to this “conscious era” in hip hop (and one could easily argue that the situation is worse).

Anyway, what I expected when I got to Philadelphia were “El Hajj Malik Shabazzes with traditional Islamic knowledge.” Yes, it was conceivable that there could be a Muslim who had a drug problem, or a Muslim who might fornicate, or might be a thief, but by and large, such people would be a marginal and fringe element of the community and their impact on the dynamics of the community would be negligible. I had such high expectations because, in my mind (at the time), I assumed that the Sunni Muslims, especially those with traditional Islamic knowledge, would simply ride the wave of social consciousness (that I thought was more prevalent and transformative than it actually was) and pick up from where the (so-called) Nation of Islam (“Nation”) left off.

Regarding `Aqidah (Doctrine), the “Nation” was deviant in the extreme with its creed of race-hate and human worship; this has to be rejected by every genuine Muslim. Nonetheless, the “Nation’s” social analysis, and more importantly their understanding of the black psyche were the most profound of any nationalist movements I know of. The “Nation” addressed the need for institutional independence. They established business enterprises; they built schools; they stressed the importance of stability in the household. The “Nation” established what they called “Muslim Girl Training,” wherein women were trained in various domestic skills (cooking healthy foods, sewing, child-rearing, etc.) and educated on how to maintain good relations with their husbands.

The men were trained to live organized and disciplined (relatively speaking) moral lives. This doesn’t mean that all the people in the Nation practiced what the “Nation” preached—even Elijah Muhammad didn’t do so. But all in all, the “Nation” demanded higher standards from its followers, and gave many black Americans a new sense of self that could potentially resolve African-Americans’ feelings of inferiority and self-hatred.

Perhaps one of the major shortcomings of the African-American Sunni community at the time was that in its eagerness to distance itself from the cultishness and the various blasphemies of the “Nation,” that it threw the baby out with the bath water. As a result, that which was good with the “Nation” and relevant to the material and psychological needs of the demographic that was being proselytized were abandoned. This is a failure that the African-American Muslims are still feeling the repercussions some two decades later.

The trip down to Philadelphia was uneventful. I remember nothing in particular of the trip, and there is no mention of it in the Journal. Upon arrival, Khalil is absolutely blown away. In all the years I had known him, I had never seen him so filled with excitement. He’s exhilarated by the size, the diversity, and the energy of the community. His mind is racing with ideas and plans to also make his emigration down to Philly sooner than later. Khalil had graduated from UMASS earlier that summer with a degree in journalism and was looking to make his way in the world. We, now, had both found our calling in life. That evening we sat under the illuminated dome of the mosque with the another Brother (he, too, was a former Valley Guy) who was the acting Imam. He told us stories about the awliya’ (ultra-righteous Muslims) and their detachment from this ephemeral world and the karamat (astounding wonders they performed by virtue of their piety). We, too, are ready to emulate them and make the sacrifices to take to the path of Allah in the pursuit of knowledge and the propagation of Islam.

Khalil drove back to Massachusetts the following day. I now had some time to start to soak in my new life and my new environment. Now that I was in Philly, I knew not what to expect. My attitude was that I would make tawakkul on Allah (i.e., rely upon the Creator) and take things as they came—God-willing with patience. There is a well-known Hadith: “Trust in God, but tie your camel.” That is, be certain that everything happens by the Will and Preordainment of the Creator; hence, we should rely upon Allah, but at the same time, one should take practical measures to protect oneself from harm. Philly taught me a lot about tying my camel.

On the second night while at the mosque a “Brother” with whom I shared a room helped himself to the contents of my wallet and took my cash. (At least he was “kind” enough not to inconvenience me totally by taking my wallet and identification and the likes. I later found out he was known to be a thief and drug addict—after the incident he disappeared for a long while, and when i saw him many months later, he greeted me with a big ole Cheshire Cat grin… like nothing had ever went down… like he didn’t owe me my $40!) I was getting initiated into the other side of Philly Muslim life. I was going to have to learn quickly—with or without Toto—that I was not in Kansas (or Amherst) anymore.

 1-oz-twister

It’s Been a Long Time (Entry #28)

It’s Been a Long Time

True indeed. I did intend to step away from In This Journal for awhile. Typically, when I do my journaling, whether with pen and pad or for the blog, I like to do it out of doors. I find it easier to get into my groove with the sky over head and the sun in my face, while breathing fresh air and listening to the birds do their thing. As most folks in the US know, we have had a long and harsh winter nationwide. Being down South, the weather wasn’t as nearly brutal as it was for my Yankee compatriots, but it was still difficult to string together more than a couple of days of decent weather in which I could get outside and get on the “Launch Pad” and unscrew the lid off the wig.

A view from the Launch Pad.

A view from the Launch Pad.

I was recently surprised, however, when I saw that my last Journal-Blog entry was on Septermber 30th. Even with my intention to shut it down for the cold season, I wondered why I had stopped so early (we had about another 5 weeks of decent weather down here after the last entry)? The other factor that led to my cessation of Journal-Blogging was that I am (in the Journal) entering another phase in my life. I am moving to Philadelphia, and I felt a need to give more thought to how I would approach my Philadelphia experience.

I strive to write sincerely and honestly. I know that I have my own set of biases, but I like to think that I can be fair and objective enough to recognize and acknowledge those biases when I express them. Philadelphia was a challenge for me personally on many levels, and it took a long while for me to gain some objectivity about that experience. Reading Journal entries from my early days in Philly also brought a lot of things to the surface that I hadn’t given much consideration to in a long time. Some of the naivete and shortsightedness of the time would be comical—if it weren’t so painful. In spite of the challenges and pitfalls of my Philadelphia experience, Philly, no doubt, was a place from where I benefited from tremendously regarding traditional Islamic knowledge and the people I met. By the knowledge, maa-shaa’ Allah, I was transformed, and the friendships I made have endured more than two decades later.

One of the reasons for this blog, and God-willing forthcoming book, is to contribute to the nearly non-existent Muslim-American literary tradition. This is especially true for the African-American Muslim. In spite of the hundreds of thousands of African-Americans who have professed Islam as their religion since the assassination of Malcolm X nearly 50 years ago, African-American Muslims have left practically no literary tradition behind. We have oral traditions that might be exchanged in post-Jumu`ah ciphers or “urban legends” about the exploits of some of the older Brothers back in their younger days, but there is practically nothing written and preserved about the Muslim American experience written by Sunni Muslims. One academic book comes to mind, and what Umar Lee wrote (although, he’s not an African-American, he’s very familiar with the black (inner city) experience and is sympathetic to it) about the East Coast Wahhabis are about all I know of.

One of the problems of not having a literary tradition is that the history and experiences of those who preceded us disappears when they go to the grave. Their insight and advices are lost, and the living are left to the same trials and errors of those who preceded them—and the same mistakes are repeated. As a result, typically little traction is gained and even less progress is made. Instead of having an increasingly expansive vision of oneself and place in the world, the African-American Muslim finds, at best, that he’s just trying to maintain the unsustainable status quo of his ethnic forefathers in Deen.

The legacy of the African-American Muslim is all the more in jeopardy given that many of the second generation Muslim youth are only tangentially connected to the religion that their parents converted to. For many of the African-American youth, their ethos and identity is largely derived from the pop culture and the streets and not from the Qur’an and Sunnah or the learned and the righteous Muslims who came before us. It is unlikely that a young African-American in the midst of a deep identity crisis engrossed in street life and little knowledge or attachment to Islam will be able to produce a third generation of functional Muslims. Hence, if that third generation Muslim does wish to be observant, he (or she) typically has to go back to square one to figure things out… if they are lucky.

With that said, within the ethnic tribe and beyond, there are Muslims (and non-Muslims) who wish to know and understand the American Muslim experience. By leaving a literary legacy, the succeeding generations of Muslims can gain a sense of continuity with the past. They can learn from our mistakes, and surpass us in learning, piety, and their efforts to share the message of Islam here in America. I hope, “In This Journal,” can be part of this much needed legacy.

Another Interlude

Another Interlude (Entry #27)

 

I think it is apropos before speaking about my stay in Philadelphia to talk a little about what was going on amongst Muslims (and those who self-identified as such) during this era. Umar Lee, in his blog series he entitled, “The Rise and Fall of the Salafi Movement,” I think, does a pretty good job of capturing the time, although we were on different sides of the `Aqidah (Doctrinal) battle.

As “The Rise and Fall” mentions, during this time there was for a few years a brief cultural and social-political awakening in black America—or more particular, in the urban Northeast. This was in no small part spawned by the more “conscious” (and I use the word loosely and only relative to the typical party music that pervaded rap prior to that time) rap acts, such as, Public Enemy, KRS-1, X-Clan, and a variety of the rappers of the Five Percent ilk. Likewise, there was the hype surround the production of Spike Lee’s, Malcolm X and the impression the movie itself made upon the minds of many young black people.

Conversely, this was also during the era of the Crack Plague (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crack_epidemic_%28United_States%29). This transformed the nature of street life—making it far more violent, and it also led to an explosion in the number of young African-American males being incarcerated for either drug related or violent crimes. The “conscious” hip hop and the Malcolm X movie, helped counter this—to a certain extent. Young African-Americans, via (some) rap were offered an alternative vision to the drug trade and street life.

After the death of Elijah Muhammad (the leader of the so-called Nation of Islam) in 1975, there was a power vacuum among African-Americans who self-identified as Muslims. Wallace D. Mohammed tried to step in and fill that gap by steering his followers away from the vitriolic racism of his father, but some African-Americans were seeking what they would consider a more “traditional understanding” of Islam. What better place to look for that that “traditional understanding” than from Saudi Arabia—the land of the Prophet Muhammad?

It was at this time also that the Saudis, became increasingly active in promoting its Wahhabi ideology in the US. It should be made clear, that contrary to what is said in the mainstream media and amongst many Muslims who may not actually be familiar with what Wahhabism (so-called “Salafism”) teaches, Wahabism is not a form of conservative or strict “Islam.” The foundation of Islam is the belief in One, Perfect, Eternal, Omnipotent, Incomparable, Transcendent Creator (Allah). The Creator has no beginning or end. Allah is not subject to time or age. The Creator is does not have a size or shape or dimensions, because the Creator is not a spatial entity. The Creator is not in a location (or a direction). Allah existed before any of the creations, and Allah absolutely does not need or resemble any of the creations. Whatever a person’s imagines, the Creator is different from that. The person who does not believe in Allah properly cannot rightfully be called a Muslim. The person, who for instance, prays to an idol, or a planet, or a human, or a spirit, or a body of light, or to everything is not in reality a Muslim. To be a Muslim, the person must worship the Creator only and not any of the creations.

As for the origins of Wahhabism (quasi-Salafism), it starts with a man named Muhammad Ibn `Abdul-Wahhab. He lived during the 18th century. And he was dispraised and refuted by his contemporaries (including, his father and own blood brother, who were both scholars). Although Muhammad Ibn `Abdul-Wahhab claimed to be an adherent of the Hanbali school of Sunni Islamic jurisprudence, in reality, he resuscitated misconceptions from a faction of early pseudo-Muslim literalists. As a result of their distorting and misconstruing Qur’anic verses and Hadiths (Prophetic statements), these people (i.e., Muhammad Ibn `Abdul-Wahhab and his predecessors) promoted the idea that the Creator was a giant shadow-casting extraterrestrial being with a smiling face and various organs and limbs. Muslims believe there is only One Creator. There cannot be two correct beliefs in Allah. It should be clear that the one who prays to an object located in a distant place with large body parts is not praying to the Creator of all places—the One Who is not an object and is not composed of parts. Muslims worship the latter and not the former. The Wahhabis worship the former and not the latter. From this we know that the Wahhabis don’t worship the One the Muslims worship; hence, the Wahhabis (quasi-Salafis) are not Muslims.

The Wahhabis went beyond just masquerading as Muslims, while inviting people to object worship. Part of the doctrine of the Wahhabis was (and is) to claim that the Muslims who do not follow them are deviants, or pagans and disbelievers… and, according to standard Wahhabi ideology (as taught by the earliest Wahhabis), slaughtering such people is considered an act of worship. This is the root of the terrorist ideology we see plaguing Somalia, Libya, Syria, Mali, Pakistan, Nigeria, and elsewhere. This is the ideology of Al-Qaeda and its affiliates.

To be fair, I don’t know of any African-American Wahhabis (as a group) engaging in acts of terrorism, and I would suspect the reason being that international terrorist cells with a modicum of intelligence would know that the typical opportunistic goonish African-American Wahhabi could not be trusted with sensitive information, like a bomb plot or an assassination. (Although, there was the case of some characters from the the main Wahhabi center in Philadelphia robbing a bank and killing a police officer (or security guard) while dressed in niqaab.… Oh wow… I just went to googled some of the details about the incident I was familiar with, and it turns out in the past year or so there have been multiple robberies by men wearing niqaab in the Philadelphia area). Nonetheless, even if the African-American Wahhabis have not been guilty of terrorism, they praise and follow the ideology that enables terrorism. And, they praise and follow an ideology that makes a travesty of the Sunni Muslim belief in the Creator.

As for myself, although I was very jacked-up and confused in my first couple of years in trying to learn about Islam, praise Allah, I never embraced Wahhabism. When I try to talk to the younger second generation Brothers or to the more recent converts, it’s hard for them to relate to the dearth of what could remotely be considered “traditional Sunni Islamic knowledge” available to the converts of twenty years ago. There was no widespread access to the internet. You had the public library and books written by non-Muslims. You might find some pamphlets or booklets and the IMMENSELY problematic Yusuf Ali mis-“translation” of the Qur’an, and a few collections of Hadiths (which were hideously misinterpreted) at your local Islamic center. Works on the Sunni Doctrine (much less detailed explanations) were virtually non-existent in the English language. Most of the English material that was available came from the publishing houses in Saudi Arabia (i.e., they were works of Wahhabi propaganda).

One Wahhabi book, in particular, did mess my head up. While I was in colllege and taking a course purported to be about Prophet Muhammad and the Qur’an, I read (on my own—not part of course work) Bilal Philips’s book that he called The Fundamentals of Tawheed. This was for probably a decade or more, the main book in English that elaborated upon the doctrine of Wahhabism. The book disturbed me not because I detected its gross corporeal Wahhabi doctrine (one of the amazing aspects of “before and after” learning authentic Sunni teachings is that the contradictions and errors that one may have previously overlooked now jump off the page), but because of Bilal Philips’s hatred toward Sufism. Even prior to reading Montgomery Watt’s translation of Al-Ghazali’s work, it seemed to me that Sufism was the ultimate path of Islam. I wanted (and I say this ideally and not because I make any claim to having achieved such a level) to conquer my lower self by the route of full-fledged asceticism; I wanted to flee from this world of deception and transient pleasure to devote my heart (and body) to obeying God.

From my readings (typically of Orientalist writers ), I saw that the Sufis had a vast science of “spiritual psychology” which charted the different stages one passes through while traversing the path of internal transformation. I wanted this deeper level of self-understanding. Given my readings about Buddhism and yoga philosophy and my experiences with meditation, I knew that self-mastery was no easy task, and that it required pulling the senses away from this fleeting world and concentrating my mind on the remembrance of Allah. As for Wahhabi “spirituality”–if someone wanted to call it that—it entails imitating (some of) the outward acts of the Prophet Muhammad, but it seemed (and is) devoid of the understanding of the spiritual states behind those acts. The Wahhabis failed to recognize the importance of rectifying their hearts and adorning themselves with good character. And it should be of no surprise that the Wahhabis are notorious for their brutish and thuggish behavior in mosques all across the world.

The Brothers warned me early on about Wahhabism—and they warned me frequently about it. My initial attitude was that these people (i.e., the Wahhabis) simply had a misunderstanding. I figured that once someone explains to a Wahhabi that Allah exists without a place (for Allah is the Creator of place, and Allah existed before place existed, and Allah is not dependent upon any of the creations), and it is explained to the Wahhabi that not every Qur’anic Verse can be taken in its most literal sense, for the Arabic language is vast and is filled with figurative usage and metaphors—and the Qur’an is the greatest form of Arabic expression—then such a person would recognize his error, repent, and become a genuine Muslim.

I could readily understand (and sympathize with them—at least initially) that they, like myself, had read mistranslations of books (purporting to be) about Islam, that misled them. They had read books that deluded them into believing that Allah is a giant smiling faced object with organs and limbs located above Paradise. Once the absurdity and contradictions of such a belief were presented to such a person, they would feel disgusted with themselves for ever believing such ugly things about their Creator… so I thought. Reality, however, did not correspond with my thinking.

My early face-to-face encounters with Wahhabis showed me that they had little regard for reasonable discourse. They were, as the media portrays them today, irrational fanatics. Where as part of my search into religion and into Islam was for a doctrine that was rationally consistent, the Wahhabis have disdain for explaining the Sunni creed in a logical manner. The Wahhabis see logic and reason as a threat to their ludicrous doctrine, and this was another big turn-off for me and their ideology.

Another big turn-off for me with Wahhabism was that it had no historical connection with mainstream Sunni Islamic scholarship. Wahhabism has no historical continuity. And it seemed strange when I first arrived in Philadelphia that the average Wahhabi had no concern about history. In my mind, I could not help but wonder how could someone be so devoted to an ideology and have no grasp of the history behind that ideology. (Later, this became clear when I came to realize just how abysmally ignorant the average Wahhabi was—reading and reasoning simply are not the fortes of the typical Wahhabi.) And as I’ve said elsewhere, the African-American Wahhabis seemed to have no understanding of international affairs and the politics of the Saudi regime. These are the main reasons, praise Allah, Wahhabism never appealed to me.

Umar Lee speaks about the decline of African-American Wahhabism. He ascribes it to the in-fighting amongst the Wahhabis (and deeming each other deviants), standard ghetto antics (like, men having multiple marriages (like, in the dozens) and not taking care of their children, and then after 9/11 the government arrested, harassed, deported, banned from entry some of its main proponents. “The Rise and Fall” speaks of the disillusionment that many so-called Salafis faced as the movement began to disintegrate. Later, people would blog about what they called “Salafi Burnout,” that is, the recuperation process many people were struggling with after having been involved with the movement. The tragic thing—and Umar Lee fails to mention this—is that whoever was in that movement who believed as the quasi-Salafis believe (meaning, believing that the Creator is in a location or has real-actual limbs and organs) was never a Muslim to begin with.1 Many of these quasi-Salafis have never come to grips with the fact that their acts of prayer, or going to Hajj, or their charity, marriages, fasting, etc. were never valid, because they were doing their forms of worship to an object and not to the Creator. They were in a state of kufr (disbelief). This is the greatest tragedy for the African-American Wahhabi.

Philly was one of the main battlegrounds where the Sunnis would clash (sometimes physically, but mostly theologically) with the Wahhabis. Although the fitnah of the Wahhabis remains there, the Wahhabis, as a movement have lost much of their momentum. And where at one time they had the potential to become a dominant force in representing (what might be seen as) “Islam,” they have, praise Allah, become more of a bearded joke—or punchline—in more recent years… as we see with these characters here:

For folks who do not know, this is too real to be a parody.

For folks who do not know, this is too real to be a parody.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yVdUBQv8mHo

Praise be to Allah, the One Who gives success to whomever He wills.

 

 

1 This is not much different from the followers of Elijah Muhammad and the so-called Nation of Islam.  Many of those people believed they were devoting their lives to Islam, while in reality, they were worshiping a (human) object.  As a result all of their acts that they deemed “worship” were invalid.

Farewell (Entry #26)

FAREWELL (Entry #26)

I am in the final weeks of my stay in Amherst. I know ahead of time that I am going to miss this place, so I am trying to make the most of it while I can. A few days after the return from Camp, a now sophomore student and I head down to the Oxbow of the Connecticut River to get in an evening of catfish fishing. For those who don’t know much about catfish fishing, it is much more relaxed than the sort of trout stream fishing I described earlier. When fishing for catfish, you just throw out some bait (I am thinking that we used shrimp) and just wait some something to come along and take it.

The Oxbow of the Connecticut River

The Oxbow of the Connecticut River

The Sophomore and I get our lines in the water, and then proceed to chat about life at Amherst. We talk of the almost enchanted nature of Amherst in the autumn—the crisp air that the lungs joyfully quaff, the bright starry nights, the peacocking foliage, the youth, the optimism and the hope. We speak of rockin’ the Eastland moccasins, the over-sized Amherst sweatshirts, and khakis. The Sophomore and I exchange fantasies of snuggling under blankets with our J. Crew model girlfriends (or in my case, wife) at the Amherst College homecoming game. We are, at least for that evening of catfishing, living out the life.

Life would have to move on, however. As much as I loved Amherst, I knew that I would have to leave the “Womb.” I would write that I have to pursue knowledge that is beyond books. And I have to seek love that is beyond women—I would have to seek the knowledge and love of God. This knowledge and love would be the ultimate, and I would not being doing right by myself, if I did not seek that which I needed most.

Nonetheless, I was seeking balance. During this time, I would be a guest lecturer for a class that the Mentor was teaching at UMASS. I spoke about the black presence in Ancient Europe and the Middle Ages (the latter being largely the Moorish influence on Western Europe). Although, the lesson was largely “book knowledge,” I liked teaching. I liked learning, and I liked transmitting what I learned. I wanted for myself to rise out the darkness and chaos of ignorance and confusion and attain the light of clarity and understanding, and I wanted that for others, as well. So although I wanted something more than the knowledge found between book covers, I knew that if I wanted to earn a living, teaching (in the more conventional manner) would probably be the more sensible thing for me to do. The other interest I had was writing, and upon being liberated from the ultra-intellectual and hyper-critical environment of the College, I had over the past year felt free to explore myself and my interests in the best way I saw fit. I was beginning to find myself.

I was hoping to bring this newly “coming into self” person to Philadelphia. My intention is that I could work at the Islamic school for a year, and then go to graduate school. My aspiration would be UPENN, but if I didn’t get accepted there, I could go to Temple. Temple was the home base of “Afrocentricity,” and I was hoping to be able to put my own Muslim spin on the history of Islam in African and the history of black folks. After graduate school, I assumed that I would look for work teaching at the university… such were my plans… such were my plans.

In those final weeks in Amherst, I do for the first time, a serious read of my previous Journals (I typically didn’t read my Journals upon completion). The Journal entries of that summer are filled with memories of the early days of Amherst and even the days prior to matriculation. Sometimes Homeboy and I would drive up to Amherst via the scenic Route 116, and sometimes we’d take the highway to Northampton and then Route 9. As we would drive up Russel Road, the high rise dorms of Southwest would appear—I knew then that I was where I wanted to be. During one of my post-acceptance letter visits to Amherst, I record in my Journal the impression that it made upon me when an Asian student, a senior, was asked by the clerk at the Amherst College bookstore what were his plans after graduation, and he said, going to law school, and when she asked where, he said, “Harvard.” It made me realize that these were the kind of kids I would be sitting next to in the classroom, having lunch with in the afternoon, and perhaps having deep conversations with in the evening. I was entering a “new normal.” I was going to have to have different expectations for myself.

Since that time—that is, prior to entering the College, then graduating, and then spending a year in town—I had undergone so many changes. I had grown and been transformed in ways I could not have previously before imagined. Things had not turned out in any way remotely like what I had anticipated or wanted for myself. But I did feel that I was closer to the Truth now than I had before I had started at the College. Unlike when I first arrived at the College, I had realized that there is a Truth, and that life only becomes truly significant when one seeks to abide by it. A person must cut through the layers of skepticism, the opinions of others, and self-doubt, so that one can realize the Truth. I would need perseverance and sincerity (and the Creator’s Mercy) if I hoped to live by that which I deemed to be true—or the Truth.

********************************

“This is a delicious evening, when the whole body is one sense, and imbibes delight through every pore. I go and come with a strange liberty in Nature, one with herself.”

–Henry David Thoreau

On the 21st of August, I would experience one of those delight imbibing days. I would write:

“I’m at Amherst College… and very few people are here. It’s been a more than memorable day. Today, regarding the weather, it can easily be classified as one—if not the—nicest day of the cipher. It’s in the mid-70′s with a steady breeze from the north and much-much sun. Finding a cloud in the sky would be difficult.”

I believe I had taken the bus to the UMASS campus, and then I found myself walking back to town, and then to the Amherst campus, and then to Brittany Manor. The walk is over three and a half miles, but the day was delectable. And as I walked through town and campus, I would cast my vision as far and as deep as I could. I wanted to take it all in. Wherever I looked, I saw memories; I saw that which had impressed my mind and had molded me, whether it be the cafes where I would write, the libraries where I had read books that had changed my view of myself and the world, the quaint boutiques, or the rolling hills off in the distance. It is time to give thanks. And it is time to say goodbyes with my eyes.

I reflect that soon there will be a new class on campus, and that someone among them might set forth on the path of Islam and yearn to attain a state of piety. And as I entertained such thoughts, the optimistic lyrics of Donald Fagen’s, “I.G.Y.” (“What a glorious time it will be….”) are dancing around in my mind. I won’t be around to see them, but I wish those students all the best.

On that day I would sit on the fire escape of the Octagon, a place where I would meditate during my shifts at the Black Cultural Center, and look off into my beloved Valley.

The view from the Octagon fire escape: a former meditation perch.

The view from the Octagon fire escape: a former meditation perch.

My departure is imminent. I would write that Amherst will cease being food for my mental eye, and that I need to give thanks to the Creator for this layover in the Valley, but the real home isn’t here but the perpetual abode of Paradise.  I would now need to go to Philadelphia to seek the route to that Garden of everlasting bliss.

Completion of a Cipher and a Camp (Entry #25)

Completion of a Cipher and a Camp (Entry #25)

“My cipher’s complete….”

 The Sudanese Brother used to frequently say to the Teacher and me: “Don’t forget.” By that he meant for us not to forget him when making “du`a’,” that is, when supplicating God for good things, we should ask God to also grant him the good. But also, given his Sufi tendency to play on words, he meant for us to “remember.” “Remembrance,” i.e., dhikr, is central to the Sufi path. Dhikr is the practice of reciting the Names of Allah or other specific invocations in praise of the Creator or benedictions upon the Prophet Muhammad (and others). From the habit of making dhikr—with presence of heart—it is hoped that one will earn reward from the Creator. And instead of the concerns of this transient world occupying the central point of one’s mind, a person will have in his (or her) heart a constant remembrance of God. As the Qur’an mentions:

Those who believe, and whose hearts find satisfaction in the remembrance of Allah: for without doubt in the remembrance of Allah do hearts find satisfaction.”

Dhikr beads used for the remembrance of the Creator.

Dhikr beads used for the remembrance of the Creator.

The Journal itself formed a sort of extended “dhikr”–a form of remembrance. On the 17th of May, I would write that it had been a year since I had embarked on this journal journey.1 And I said on that day about the Journal that it’s “a passageway to the past.” When I would write or read about my experiences and give them reflection, it led me to the remembrance of God. From the Journals, I gained a hawk’s eye view of my life… or my living…. From such a vantage point on my life, I gained a sense of wholeness, circularity, connection, and completion. It was evident that I had not guided myself. I could not be responsible for orchestrating this masterpiece of an experience called “life.” There was an Omnipotent and Omniscient Creator that I needed to submit to and surrender to wholeheartedly in order for my life to truly be fulfilled.

I would write:

This Cipher in Amherst has been very good, but I realize that it is time to move on. I’ve been granted time to see the streams flow, hear the birds sing, smell the flowers and the farms, to soar in the wide blue sky above wise old hills—I’m always willing to explore more of that, but it’s time to make that move.”

I had now lived under a full circuit of the Amherst sky and sun on my own terms. It was a year earlier that I began to strip myself down and asked: What do I want to do? I wrote and wrote during the previous summer and remained (fairly) consistent through the year. As I reflected on my life through those Journals, through a journey of compressed memories, I became more and more convinced that there was a Paradise—a place more glorious than this. If God had created such experiences and wonders on earth and in this mortal flesh, it seemed to naturally follow that God could have prepared something far more sublime for the human once he surrenders his physical frame. The person, however, would need to have the sincere desire to want to know and to obey the One who created him. He would have to be ever vigilant from allowing the heart to become encrusted with the filth this world, or attached to its vanities, or forgetful of its Creator. He would need to be grateful if he wished to be successful; and wretched was the ungrateful who refused to recognize the bounties God had bestowed upon him at no obligation.

Early on during the summer break, the Sudanese Brother moves in. I find it difficult living with another person at this point. He was a social, as many Africans are. I, on the other hand, was the opposite. I wasn’t very social before I started my “quest.” Actually, my quest was driven, in large part, because, of the sense of alienation I felt for much of my life. And when I did start questing, it was a process of eliminating more and more people from my life. We either just parted paths, or I ceased sharing common interests with many peers. I only wanted to be around those people who could assist me in getting where I felt I needed to go—i.e., I only wanted to be around those who could somehow influence me to be a better human being. After I started calling myself a “Muslim,” I became even more selective about that people I associated with, and that circle of friends further contracted when I not only considered myself a Muslim but became interested in following traditional Islamic knowledge.

Furthermore, the writing habit is something that is largely pursued while alone. Where as the Sudanese Brother sought camaraderie, and would like to sit up telling stories about his shaykh and other righteous Muslims, my focus at the time was on writing and trying to reconcile discordant thoughts in my head, or exercising, and maintaining a schedule, and establishing a greater level of discipline, order, and structure in my life. I was beyond content to sit at the Writer’s Window inking up pages in the Journal or being engrossed in reverie while strollin’ solo with the blue vault of the Valley over my kufi. It would take years of being around immigrant Muslims before I realized how different their cultures were from “my culture.” And it would take me even longer to make some personal adjustments. I say this, for there are many challenges that a convert Muslim faces. The cultural divide is one of them. But if one is patient and keeps an open mind, God-willing, one can take what is good from the various Muslim cultures and grow as a human being.

During this time, I give Fitzgerald’s, This Side of Paradise, another read, and finish it in remarkably few sittings. This was the book that started it all. It still would make an impression upon me, and the last line of the book: “I know myself, but that is all,” had been the theme of my life for the last few years—even though, I couldn’t claim to have reached a state of satisfactory self-knowledge, it was what I was seeking.

In mid-June a formal position is offered to me at the school in Philadelphia. Wow, I think: I can go to Philadelphia, seek the Islamic knowledge, and have a real job! In-shaa’ Allah soon after, I’d get “wifed-up” and be content about as content as I could possibly be. After the offer is made, we (Teacher and I) are invited to go down to Philadelphia; we are going to be introduced to the community as the “new teachers in town” for this new school. I would be involved with the Social Studies program. History, after all, was my thing.

Although writing was my ideal, being involved with a school, being involved with the education of the next generation, was one of the interests I had had for a while. In the June 25th entry, I describe my ideal home. I mention that I’d have my wife and babies in a farmhouse located on a dirt road with a nearby trout stream and a lake (in which I describe, of course, what kinds of game fish would be therein). Near the lake would be the school that I saw myself running.

There is a lot of energy stirring around the Islamic center in Philadelphia. I am meeting lots of new people and getting prepared for a new life. I am also scoping around for a prospective wife (hey, hey, hey!). I didn’t write much about the visit, but there I one incident that stands out. During the first trip to the Center, one of the leaders of the organization was chewing out some guy over a letter that he had written, which involved slandering someone or “someones” of the organization. This time the same guy was in an argument with one of the regular Brothers who worked at the Center. They are in the adjacent alleyway, and the former gets thrown into a pile of trash and the latter pulls out a large caliber automatic pistol. In my mind, I am thinking: “Well, I’ve never seen anyone get shot before. That would be different.” As it turned out, the incident was over some ex-husband, baby-daddy, stepfather drama. For the good of all involved, no trigger was pulled, but it was sort of my initiation into Philly Muslim street culture, even if I was only a mere bystander. Although I chalked it up (at the time) as an anomalous incident with an apparent trouble maker, it was more like a foreshadowing of what would later be taken as the norm.

After the trip, I suffered several days from what can be describe as “spiritual exhaustion.” Something is going on inside. I am losing nearly all interest in worldly matters. My job decreases in significance to me; I end up sleeping and dreaming a lot; I am now anticipating the Camp and just hoping that I can make it to Philadelphia and start my life in a Muslim community. I would write of my my anticipated move: “Whatever happens in Philly, Allah knows best, it’s going to be a big change.” What little did I know… what little did I know.

The Camp came a few weeks after the school visit. Subhanallah, during this time of my life, I was having many “turning points,” and the Camp was certainly one of them. The Valley Guys were all excited and telling me stories about their previous experiences and how it would be a chance to meet other Brothers from all over the USA and Canada. Some of those Brothers were said to have lots of knowledge, and some were strong in the matters of Islamic spirituality. Not only that, this year one of the main students of the “Master Shaykh” would be coming to America for the first time.

As for our journey to the Camp, the Sudanese Brother, and the Traveler (as I’ll call him), and I would be riding in the Behemoth (the Teacher sold the Behemoth to the Sudanese Brother several months earlier). The Behemoth was old and not up for the trip. In addition to getting lost, we had car trouble, and a trip that should have taken six hours took us twelve. While at the Camp, things don’t go very well for me. I have to deal with a lot of new people. I have to deal with the different cultures—for unlike the trips to Philadelphia where the majority of Muslims were African-American, now I was immersed in a largely Lebanese cultural environment.

Furthermore, I feel overwhelmed by the knowledge. The teacher (who I will call the “Shaykh” from now on end), was going over the same book I had taken on the fundamentals of the personal obligatory knowledge, but with more detail. In the process, he went into depth about matters pertaining to apostasy and how one could inadvertently fall out of Islam. The waswas (satanic chatter) was nerve racking. All the doubt and skepticism that is part and parcel of the academic education system started to arise in my mind. I am struggling to resist it, but it’s one issue after another. And when it’s not doubt and confusion being insinuated into my mind, other ugly ideas would come to the surface, and instead of digesting the lessons, I am at war with the dialogue going on in “Herman’s head.”

Being plagued by waswas is not an uncommon experience for the new Muslim—especially, for the one who is trying to get serious about practicing his religion. As one Brother would tell me, “The thief doesn’t go to an empty house.” Likewise, when a person attempts to do the right thing, it shouldn’t be surprising that the forces of evil–from both the seen and the unseen—would try to confuse or disturb the person.

 Thankfully, the Camp wasn’t only about fighting deviant thoughts dancing around in my skull. Just in meeting the Shaykh, I sensed that I wasn’t in the presence of someone who merely read a lot of books or sat in a lot if Islamic lessons. I was convinced that he was a man with spiritual gifts and treasures. I’m not the type of person to wrapped up into the “cult of personality,” and I am not prone to get overly emotional, but I could feel subtle physical changes in my heart just by sitting next to him. On the third night of the Camp, I had a dream that I was walking down the street where my aunt lives in Springfield. I was talking to some teenagers about the non-linear sense of time in dreams, and the next thing I knew I was in the Symphony Hall (in Springfield) attending a reception for the Shaykh. One of the Philadelphian Brothers I had befriended was leading the Shaykh around, and I started pleading to the Shaykh not leave, and I was telling him how much I loved him. Then I began to realize that the power of the Shaykh was a glimmer of the power of the Master Shaykh. I then began to feel the Master Shaykh’s grandfatherly presence in my heart, and I woke up crying.

I had received, by the Mercy of God, another initiation that summer. Although, I felt comfortable about how my Teacher and other Brothers of the Association explained the matters of the Islamic Creed—especially, the proper belief in the Creator—and how they clarified what was wrong with and refuted various heretical and blasphemous doctrines, I was now getting a taste of Islam’s vast spiritual ocean. This is what I had read about in the books purporting to be about Sufism, and now I was being afforded direct exposure to it, by the Grace of Allah. Everything else paled in comparison.

The Behemoth was not up for the trip back to the Happy Valley. I don’t remember exactly where the last place she broke down on us, but I do remember riding through New York City with the car on the flatbed of a tow truck. The drive, which was suppose to take six hours, took us this time twenty-four. On the back road to Brittany Manor, the tow truck driver observed: “This is a very beautiful area.” And as Jazz Man would say: “True indeed.”

By the time we get back, I am not exhausted, I am WIPED OUT. In spite of us being in the midst of a heat wave and not having air-conditioning in the apartment, I sleep about twenty hours straight. It wasn’t the drive that was so tiring, it was all the stuff that was going on internally (and since I am no expert in that area, I can’t tell you what it was). How could I turn back to this world after that Camp? Although Amherst is a beautiful area, life in general looks narrow and dark at this point. I would (kinda) joke in the Journal that if I could find a nice, warm, dry cave (I might add, with in-cavern heating and plumbing) on a hillside somewhere I’d “be straight.” Spiritual circumstances are becoming such that I am going to be forced to exit “The Womb.” My days in Amherst are numbered, and Philadelphia is the only place for me to go.

1That is, I made the intentionally to write on a daily basis, or at least regularly. I just noticed upon reflection that I started the two phases of my Journal writing upon major transition points in my life: graduation form high school and then graduation from college.

In the Pocket (Entry #24)

In the Pocket (Entry #24)

 After the trip to the University of Kansas, I am back in Amherst and back to the prosaic state of hibernal being. The trip to Philadelphia remained in my mind, and the thought of going the standard post-Amherst route seemed more and more unlikely. I can’t go back to the Big House—i mean, Drew House—and I cannot get myself motivated for a career. I would write:

Life becomes very difficult not knowing. The fact of the matter is that ll these folks who are off to law, medical, and graduate school or working on Wall St. are going to die. And most of them don’t have the foggiest idea as to what’s going to happen [after death]. I’ve pretty much exhausted this dunya [the material world: a world of vanity and deception] and have found no peace in it.”

The Prophet Muhammad told us: “Keep reminding yourself of the reality of death, for it is the interrupter of pleasures and the terminator of desires.” I am struggling with what many new Muslim converts struggle with: the desire to throw oneself headlong into the Islam, to abandon worldly concerns and just focus on learning and trying to be a better Muslim, while at the same time having to deal with the reality of life in modern Western society. This is something, I’ve struggled with for many years, and it is only very recently, by the Mercy of Allah, that I’ve been able to conceive some semblance of a balance between the two. Nonetheless, at the time, it was a no-brainer. The Deen (Islam) was definitely to prevail over the dunya.

The dreams were a succor. I had one of what I would later classify as a “sky dreams,” in late February. In the dream, I was looking at the sky, when I began to reflect on Allah knowing everything—that is, Allah knows every-thing of everything. I felt my consciousness expanding and expanding: there was nothing beyond the knowledge of Allah. And whatever I became aware of, even in this expanded state of consciousness, Allah is the One Who Knows and Creates all that I know and all that is known to creation. I said: “Allahu Akbar” (Allah is Greater than everything else) and woke up.

This wasn’t merely a cognitive act of acknowledging a point in standard Sunni dogma. Earlier that night, I had contemplated that Allah’s Knowledge is absolute and is greater than all the thoughts and feelings that run through my body. I thought about the Qur’anic verses speaking about on the Day of Judgment: “And whoever does a particle of good shall see it. And whoever does a particle of evil shall see it.” Nothing I’ve done is concealed from Allah, and all the things I’ve done, including my attempted acts of worship were all according to the Will and Creating of God. Even my personality itself and my self-awareness were both creations of Allah. I could not know, or do, or be anything unless Allah has willed it. In the dream, I not only recognized these facts cerebrally, they formed my very being.

Although my certitude regarding the superiority of spiritual knowledge over standard academic knowledge is growing, I am still interested in the world of books and research. The Truth is the Truth, and I wanted to demonstrate that what I was striving to follow could be realized not only by relatively subjective experiences, but also could be demonstrated by history. Among the subjects I became increasingly interested in was the influence of the the Muslims upon (Christian) Europe in the Middle Ages. Not only had the Crusades or the eight hundred year Muslim rule of Spain had a profound impact on the development of Europe, the Muslims had ruled Sicily and parts of mainland Italy. In particular, the Sufi tariqahs (Islamic spiritual fraternities) would inspire segments Europe to adopt chivalric codes of honor and their own fraternal orders.

Furthermore, some of those Muslims in Europe were black Africans, and their presence can be found in European lore. Africans were not always relegated to a slave status. But some Africans went to Europe as masters and not as the mastered. Again, my idea is that not only a broad history of the world needs to be rewritten, but also the history of Europe—and Islam and the presence of black folk would have to be included.

Also, along academic lines, my fellow “black radical” at Amherst had turned me on to the Amherst College archives. He told me about a senior thesis that had been written about twenty years earlier by a black student struggling to survive the culture shock of “The College.” I would copy from the thesis:

“’This place is like heaven [of course, not literally]; don’t nothin’ go wrong here….’ People who have graduated in the last two years have spoken of the ‘Womb.’ These are my last days of my Time in this Space called the Valley. This place of education has brought me only to a point. With this study I hope to travel to other points of Space and Time on Universal Coordinates.”

I had decided to hang around outside of the “Womb” for an additional year, but I could appreciate the student’s sentiment about moving beyond “The College.” There was a sense of security at Amherst, but it was more than just being sheltered from the concerns of the “real world.” Amherst provided me with ample time to engage in stimulating conversations with fellow students, to read extensively, to be engaged in the world of ideas. Amherst provided me with the long walks, and the solitude, so I could become intimate with myself. But I knew sooner or later I would have to leave my beloved Valley.

In the midst of the internal turmoil of the year before, I did find pockets of respite. One of places I discovered in my final months of matriculation at Amherst was the Vincent Morgan Music Library. Although it was now a year later, and I had for the most part kicked my music addiction, one day in late March, I did go to to the second floor of the music building to put the needle to the groove. I would write:

Where am I on the most beautiful day of the year so far? I’m in the place where I spent a good portion of my life a year ago… the Amherst College music library with my friend, Mr. Coltrane (as his horn begins to rise above the opening clutter of ‘Ascension’). What an experience it was this time a year ago. There was my return to Amherst [after the “Texas Sojourn”], the hours in the music library just trying to ‘Return,’ or better yet, ‘Become.’ There was Professor Rushing’s class and the taste of blackness at the lily and ivory white school. This was just a year ago.”

As I sat there, I was reminded of a quote I had copied into my Journal the year before by Leroi Jones (Amiri Baraka) on his seeing for the first time John Coltrane perform. He said it was fascinating and scary, for watching Coltrane play was like watching a grown man trying to speak for the first time. I would say: “I often felt that way last year.” I felt that way, for I was trying to make sense of what was happening to me, and I wanted to give it expression. I wanted to share it and to shed clarity… although, I didn’t yet have that which I wanted to give.

*****************

Thoughts bounce around till my skull is fractured.” (Rakim)

It would be two weeks later before the next entry. Things are shifting. The roommate has has temporarily moved to Houston. I have finally gotten the upper hand on the one-eyed monster, and put an end to my TV habit. Winter is beginning to succumb to the spring. We are getting a few nice days strung together on occasion. The Writer’s Window could now be kept open, and I could have stereo headphones to Nature. Among the sounds to savor were the recently returned robins and even the blue jays, and the toads are making noise in the spring run-off ditches and streams—that is, it is mating season, and toads doing their groove thang is a sort of harbinger of spring in Western Massachusetts.

The days are lengthening and warming, and I am able to put the blue vault over my dome and do more and more strolling through the Valley. On the 19th of April, I walk the back roads home past the cow pastures from the Hampshire Mall.

Farm house on the road to Brittany Manor

Farm house on the road to Brittany Manor

I had gone to the mall to fulfill a mission.  And the mission was, maa-shaa’ Allah, accomplished.  …Ya, I got them—I purchased an ultra-light rod and reel and some lures. I’m going to start fishing again. This would resolve my protein issue, if my wet-a-line skills are up to par, and it would afford me the opportunity to engage in my favorite pastime.

The Fort River, which is more like a brook that isn’t much more than 15 feet wide for most of the year, was a few hundred yards from the “Writer’s Window.” I could go fish in the morning before work, catch a few trout, stick them in the frig, come home later in the day, clean’em, and get piscivorous. Small stream ultra-light fishing would take me back to me pre-Amherst, wannabe yuppie days, that when I wasn’t in class, or studying, or working at Burger King, I was in the tan Fiesta driving around looking for spots to fish on the Westfield, the Quabog, or any one of dozens of small streams and ponds in the area. I was finding a forgotten, and cherished, mode of mind, again.

The first day out, the water was high, murky, and cold, and I wasn’t successful. But in the weeks that followed, the weather and water quality improved, and I got into the trout on the regular. Also, the Teacher was also an avid fisherman. We, that is, he, his wife, a Brother from Indonesia, and I went down one day to the Connecticut River to see what we could do during the shad run. (For the record, the shad I am speaking of are ATLANTIC shad, which are good to eat, and not those stinky bait fish that are used to catch catfish).

While most folks are standing almost elbow to elbow throwing shad darts blindly into the main river, I slip off down stream and find an inlet. As I approach the water, a fly fisherman is in a battle royale with a very large fish. I watch with anticipation, and finally, he bends over and cradles an Atlantic salmon, that if I remember correctly weighed in the 15-20 lbs range, which was a tremendous catch given at the time the salmon restoration project on the Connecticut was new. In addition to the salmon, this inlet was filled with hundreds if not thousands of shad. Given that I don’t know if there is a statute of limitations on the fish taken beyond the creel limit, I won’t say how many shad we caught that day, but I will say that for the rest of the summer, whenever I went to the Teacher’s house for a lesson, his wife had prepared for us “dal” and shad for dinner—and I wasn’t complaining!

Most of my fishing, however, was on the stream right next door to home. On one occasion, the Mentor dropped me off where South East St. crosses the Fort River, and I walked downstream the mile and a half back to Brittany Manor. I had the “river” to myself, as I worked the stream looking for the pools and the pockets that might harbor a lunker stream trout—or even an acrobatic smallmouth bass. I was conscious that I might not experience days like this for a a long time to come given that I would be moving to Philadelphia at the end of the summer. Consequently, I tried to suck the marrow out of each moment I spent on that stream.

One Sunday, on a sublimely beautiful morning, I went the Fort River in pursuit of finned quarry. On one miscast, which landed about six feet behind me, a brook trout snatched my lure as soon as it touched the water. It was my first “native brookie,” and it was a beautiful fish.

A native brook trout

A native brook trout

As the water purled around my legs, in the distance I could ever so faintly hear a school band and then later what sounded like names being announced for a commencement event. A year has passed since my own graduation. That evening, after having three trout and spaghetti for dinner, I walk down the road to one of the nearby farms, sit down, and watch the sun sink into the horizon. Of the worldly things, it doesn’t get much better than this—i am, maa-shaa’ Allah, in an earthly bliss. I had found my pocket, however fleeting it might be.

 

…And an Exodus (Entry #23)

… And an Exodus (Entry #23)

After having my world rocked by the Philadelphia trip, I return to the cold barren Valley. It’s winter break, and there not much happening. The buses are running infrequently, and there isn’t much to do other than hunker down and hibernate. This would be a particularly brutal winter. Nonetheless, I did love the blizzards. Even as a kid, I liked blizzards not only because it meant a day or two off from school, but they served as a reminder that someone other than “man” was in control.

By the time the students return from the winter break, and the Happy Valley has regained some vitality, it is almost February. And February is Black History month. It was then that my black nationalist sympathies underwent an accelerated transmutation. My “unconventional” views about race and black identity were significantly influenced by what would occur that month.

I am a person who demands intellectual clarity. This is why I found non-Islamic and quasi-Islamic doctrines inadequate for me. I could not believe that the Creator of the universe is a human being, or a or a statue, or the sun, or the moon, or a “force of energy” inside our bodies. The Creator is Greater than everything else, and the Creator absolutely does not need or resemble the creations. The Creator, and the Creator alone, deserves to be worshiped. This is what Muslims believe about God, and this is the reason why I became a Muslim.

I like to see and understand things for what they are. And ideally—in spite of my character flaws—I want my behavior to conform with the truth. I would like to think that I have this same attitude towards race and identity. I want to think about racial matters in a clear and honest way. Growing up I could not help but notice the differences between black and white cultures (and, yes, I am going to dare make generalities… so, reader, get over it). I could see that white racism was motivated to a large degree by the BEHAVIOR of black folks as much as “pure” white racism. After all, East Asians were not regarded the same way as were blacks (or Puerto Ricans, for that matter) by white people. To the contrary, white folks often admired Asians. Also, I realized that it was black BEHAVIOR that kept us at the bottom of the social order, more so than white racism.

When I had my “Great Racial Awakening” upon reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X after my first year at Amherst, I finally understood WHY black people were the way they were. Something had happened to us on those slave ships and on the plantations that distinguished us from the rest of America. And this distinction has defined us. During slavery, black men were humiliated, and black women were degraded; psyches were broken, and we were left to be consumed by a culture of self-hatred that was passed down from generation to generation. Black (social) inferiority was not the result of some sort of genetic deficiency. It was the legacy of a socially engineered slave culture that was not designed to ever be functional—to ever challenge the white hegemony. This line of reasoning explained a lot to me, and it complied with what I saw as the truth. This was not to excuse black pathology and dysfunction, but it was to explain it—and explaining is not the same as excusing.

As I said before, one of the appeals of the so-called Nation of Islam1, was that it was EXTREMELY critical of black culture. Malcolm X, a product of the Nation said:

“The black man in the ghettoes, for instance, has to start self-correcting his own material, moral, and spiritual defects and evils. The black man needs to start his own program to get rid of drunkenness, drug addiction, and prostitution. THE BLACK MAN IN AMERICA HAS TO LIFT UP HIS OWN SENSE OF VALUES.”

And what could be seen amongst the followers of Elijah Muhammad were a people who were committed to living disciplined lives. They had (moral) standards that the members were expected to live by—and as a result, the so-called “Black Muslims” (who were not, of course, Muslims in reality) had the respect of black and white folks alike. The Nation did not overlook or excuse the prevalent self-destructive behavior in the “hood.” To the contrary, it challenged black men to step up and be men and take responsibility for the black condition.

I say that to say with the growth of hyper-liberalism among the black leadership—with the occasional Uncle Tom thrown in for black folk to hiss at—the concept of morality and discipline has been removed from the discourse regarding the improvement of the black condition. The discourse has been subsumed with litanies about the evils of white racism… and the need for more and more government handouts. Even at the zenith of my red-black-and-greenism, I could not turn a blind eye to the counterproductive behavior of black folk. For instance, on the one hand, you would have folks talking of grand conspiracies about black genocide, and on the other hand, these same folks would feel compelled to have “parties” and “after parties” for every imaginable event. A people who are serious about resisting extermination aren’t thinking about shaking their rumps at two o’clock in the morning. They are thinking about getting organized and building institutions that can safeguard their existence—and their children’s existence.

Upon studying a book covering “The Personal Obligatory Knowledge” (of Islam), with the “Teacher,” I finally felt I had a sound standard by which to judge myself and others. Many of the Islamic rulings contained therein seemed common sense and were in line with how I was raised: don’t lie, don’t steal, don’t show-off, don’t brag, don’t cheat, don’t do drugs, stand up for worthy principles—even if they are not popular. The black “get-over” mentality just doesn’t work in Islam. And although black folk have not been treated equally in America, it does not justify that one cheat or steal from whites folks (or anyone else). In Islam, a wrong should not be reciprocated by another wrong. With the Personal Obligatory Knowledge, it became clear that if black folk (genuinely) wanted to improve their condition, they would have to get serious about obeying their Creator.

With that said, during February Bobby Seale came to Mount Holyoke. Mount Holyoke and Smith are two elite all-female colleges in the Happy Valley. Having become a big fan of the Black Panthers during the summer of my “Racial Awakening,” I wanted to see what the former chairman of the BPP had to say. This would be my first “black social event” since the summer. I was at an all-women’s college, I was single, and I was having a difficult time controlling my organs of sight. I had been striving very conscientiously to avoid the “lustful looks,” but under those circumstances—and my weaknesses—it was difficult to resist. I say that not to broadcast some sins committed years ago, but that it was becoming clear to me that black folk could not have a build stable communities if their nafs (lower self) were constantly agitated by carnality—and I say that as someone one who was consciously trying to resist his lower impulses. This experience was very different from the sort of modest and subdued environment I had become accustomed to while with the Muslims.

As for Bobby Seale, his professing “humanism” as his (then) current philosophy, brought me to the realization that black nationalism was not necessarily a phase one passes through to reach the Truth. Seale knew about Malcolm, and there had been plenty of Sunni (and self-professed Sunnis) in the black community, yet somehow, Bobby Seale was satisfied with humanism? The speech drove home the fact that the black nationalists (or black humanists, for that matter) could not adequately answer the big questions I had–the questions about God, about the purpose of life, about death and the Hereafter—or about the role of Prophet Muhammad in the history of the world. To content oneself with “humanism” after knowing about the message of the Prophet Muhammad seemed like the ultimate sell-out and betrayal of the soul.

On another occasion that month, I attended a play at UMASS. It was about what was happening to the urban black male. This was during the time when the crack plague was ravaging the inner cities of the Northeast. An untold number of young black males had become crack addicts or crack dealers or had been incarcerated for either selling crack or committing other crimes to sustain their crack habits. And, of course, there was the black on black carnage that was taking place because of the street level drug wars for crack. Young black males were killing each other by the thousands annually in drug turf wars.

I don’t remember much about the play, but I remember the feeling. I remember a general sense of despair—despair not only from the actors but from the audience. I wasn’t feeling it, per se, but the people around me were. There was this nearly overwhelming sense of victimization. And this was something that I could never relate to in black culture. As a child, I did very well in school—better than most if not all the white kids. I didn’t feel they were smarter than me, and I felt that I could do whatever they could do. Later, when I became racially conscious, I realized that I had been done wrong—in a PROFOUND manner—but I didn’t feel like there was nothing I could do about it. I knew I had to empower myself through knowledge and discipline, be wiser, and do better. I knew I was up against powerful interests and institutions. I did not, however, feel defeated.

I had never been the kind of person to just allow my reason to be overwhelmed by emotions. I didn’t see any benefit in it. And I think this was in part due to have never been to church. The black church, in particular, is a place of unadulterated emotionalism. The black church encourages folk to harbor pain and then release those pent up feelings during the Sunday morning services. The black church, however as a rule, does not encourage black folks to discipline themselves so as to avoid the CAUSES of those pains. A person who is disciplined and orderly is a whole lot less likely to have a bunch of drama in his life or feel the need for weekly emotional purges. Instead, the person will live by the dictates of reason and strive to rationally solve his problems—and not just emotionally wish his problems would somehow magically vanish… or that the white man would have a change of heart and come along and fix them. It made no sense to me to think that one could cry or beg his way to manhood and freedom.

At the end of February, the Mentor and I take a trip to the University of Kansas for what was called (if I remember correctly) “The Big Eight Black Student Conference.” African-American college students from all over the Midwest would be there in attendance. The Mentor was going to do a presentation and had a table for selling his goods. I was to watch watch the table and try to sell some books (which I shouldn’t have been selling), incense, and oils, which was the standard fare of what one used to find amongst Muslim vendors back in the day.

On a side note, we rode with Sonya Sanchez from the airport to the university. On the way, she was like a griot filling us in on that black history that isn’t found in books. Also, I have to say that she was the most powerful speaker I have ever seen (with the exception of one Shaykh I saw give a khutbah (sermon) when I first arrived in Beirut). There were 700 people in the room, and you could literally (almost) hear a pin drop. We were all, I think, spellbound. Her subject matter was the same as the play I had attended earlier in the month: something was going on on the streets of black America. Something was going on with the black male and the crack plague. Something, perhaps, irrevocable was going on. A seismic social shift was taking place.

(This has some very graphic lyrics, but this is the reality of what crack addiction did to a multitude of people at the time of which I am speaking):

The famous poet, Sonia Sanchez, decades ago.

The famous poet, Sonia Sanchez, decades ago.

As for me at the vending table, it was torture. It was Ramadan; I considered myself to be fasting; and I was, again, having ocular problems. Once more, there I was, a young single guy, totally committed to the idea of marriage (but with no practical means to get married), in a sea of (many) attractive black females. It wasn’t only my weakness, however; it was the nature of the entire scene. To call it a “meat market” would be an understatement. It was more like as if someone had chummed the sea red and sent the sharks into a feeding frenzy. There was no shyness or modesty in how the males approached the females—or how the females allowed themselves to be approached. Something just isn’t right here. I am striving to be “righteous”—but this environment is only conducive to its opposite. It is getting clearer to me that a culture that doesn’t value self-restraint, especially a culture that is already “behind in the societal race,” isn’t going to be able to compete with cultures that are more well-established or more disciplined.

Furthermore, it was clear, given what Sonya Sanchez and other speakers were saying, that a somewhat “soft genocide” was taking place in (or against) black America. But the black males (the overwhelming majority, at least) were concerned only about being “gash men.” I was sitting at a table full of books on black social movements, black politics, black empowerment, and black history—but the black folk (the males, in particular) were not interested in that. They were more concerned about where they could put their reproductive organs than they were about the issue of black survival in America.

At the end of the day, I am released from the “torture table,” and the Mentor and I go down to the campus Islamic center.2 As I said, it was Ramadan. We enter the building and there are men sitting on the floor chatting and eating. There are people of all different colors, from different nations, speaking different languages, and enjoying each others company. I felt that I was experiencing a micro-version of the Malcolm X’s Hajj experience. But instead seeing an alternative to the racism of white America, I was seeing an alternative to the lack of moral structure in black America. After being amongst “my racial kinfolk” and witnessing their petty scheming for boudoir conquests–and my own struggle with my nafs (lower self)I enter an environment of tranquility. I can now find the stillness within. “With hardship comes relief. Certainly with hardship comes relief.” I am making an exodus from “blackness.”  I have found my people. This is where I want to be.

1This does not free this organization from numerous doctrinal deviance: http://facetofloor.wordpress.com/2012/08/10/refutation-of-farrakhanism-the-so-called-nation-of-islam/

2For the record, I do not know what school of thought or school of doctrine prevailed there at the Islamic center. What was of note was just the difference between the two cultures (i.e., general African-American culture and Muslim culture).

A Quest… (Entry #22)

A Quest (Entry # 22)

The New England winter is in full e-f-f-e-c-t. The days are short and often gloomy; the nights are long; and it’s cold all the time. I am slacking off with my writing. And as I would realize later, that my writing sort of revolves around the seasons. I like to write outdoors, and in December and January in Western Massachusetts, writing out-of-doors is pretty much out of the question.

The struggle continues between trying to get acclimated to life after college and trying to orient my life around Islam. I have too many questions. I am trying to understand what I had learned at Amherst regarding world history, social theories, and the pretty much standard (liberal) liberal arts classroom indoctrination (as well as, my own Afrocentric-“black radical” independent study) in relation to the worldview of traditional Islamic scholarship. I also need to sift out those things I had read purporting to be about Islam but were representative of varying heretical viewpoints.

And like I said previously, there was the need for community. I wanted to acquire traditional knowledge, and I wanted to reach “my people,” for they were in such sad shape and in need of self and collective reformation that traditional Islamic knowledge (and practice) could provide them. My learning opportunities were relatively limited in Amherst, and “my people” were few and far between.

For the New Year’s weekend, we, that is, my Teacher, his wife, the Sudanese Brother, another African-American convert and I, would hop in the “Behemoth” (the name for my Teacher’s very large 1960’s model American car) and head to Philadelphia. I didn’t know what to expect, and I didn’t write very much about the time spent in the city of “Brotherly Love,” but I was blown away by the experience.

(Famous Philadelphia "Love Statue")

(Famous Philadelphia “Love Statue”)

The North American headquarters for the the organization my Teacher (and now myself) was studying with was in Philadelphia. The organization had recently bought a very large building in West Philadelphia that had formerly been a church and and at another time a synagogue. Some of the Valley Guys had already made hijrah (emigration) from Massachusetts to Philly. I was down for that, but I wasn’t going to act on impulse, however. I needed to see Philadelphia for myself. I wasn’t disappointed. Although the building was still being renovated, it was an impressive edifice. There was the buzz of activity with people doing the extensive repair work, and there was the opportunity to sit in lessons and talk with people with far more knowledge than I had. Also, there was the sense of deep spirituality. On one of the nights during our stay, I slept under the minbar (the minbar is a platform, “pulpit,” that the prayer leader will stand upon and give the speech before the communal Friday prayer) and had one of the most a powerful dreams I’ve ever had—and this was at a time when I was, maa-shaa’ Allah, having many profound dreams.

Also related to spirituality were the discussions about zuhd (Islamic asceticism and detachment from the world). The Valley Guys who had already migrated to Philadelphia didn’t seem to be doing too well regarding their financial situations. I didn’t have a problem with that. And given my experiences with meditation and reading about Buddhism and the yogis of India, i was of the mindset that I wanted to withdraw from (much of) this world. I wanted (or needed) to be in it but not of it.

Nonetheless, along with the discussions about Sufism and detachment from the world were the discussions about Destiny. And these discussions struck me in a way, especially seeing the circumstances of the Brothers there, that made my nafs (lower self) feel uneasy. Although, this is a matter of great philosophical and theological debate in the West, the issue of Destiny was easy for me to grasp, and I had some sense of it even before I started calling myself a Muslim.

If one accepts that there is a Perfect Eternal Creator, then presumably, one wouldn’t believe that the Creator is ignorant. And since the Creator could not (rightfully) be attributed with ignorance, then the Creator knows everything. And since the Creator knows everything, then the Creator knows what we shall do before we do it. Our endings and everything else is sealed. Furthermore, the One who created the universe isn’t obligated with anything. We cannot command the Creator to do what we want. Instead, we are command by the Creator (through Divine Revelation bestowed upon the Prophets) to be obedient to God’s Sacred Laws. Allah is the Creator and Owner of everything and does not owe us anything.

Nonetheless, turning over more and more in my mind that if Allah has not willed for you to get something, then you will never get it, forced me to radically re-evaluate my whole post-Amherst College life. If you go to a place like Amherst, then after graduation you either go work in corporate America or go to an elite professional or graduate schools. That’s the norm of things, and that is what is expected of you and what you expect of yourself. However, if Allah has willed for you not to get the pretty wife, and the upper five or six digit income, and the Ivy League grad school degree, but instead Allah has willed for you to live in bachelorhood and poverty—or not even live long at all—then there is absolutely no escaping Destiny. Whatever Allah has eternally willed to be shall be.

The thought of this was a shock to my system. It’s not that I found it difficult to grasp intellectually or felt any emotional objection to it. I had already known and accepted this in principle. Unlike a lot of educated Westerners who often reject the existence of God because they feel that since things have not turned out the way they would like, then there must not be a Creator (which exposes their hubris in thinking that God owes them something), I never felt that God had to do what is best for me. What shocked my system was the realization that my dreams might not materialize, and that true detachment was not only getting accustomed to having fewer comforts, but also relinquishing one’s hopes in this world. When all was said and done, however, I could not dispute with myself that this emptying the heart of worldly hopes was not but the high path to spiritual mastery.

On one of the nights in Philadelphia, we played a video of the “Shaykh” (or “Sheikh”—used in this sense to mean spiritual guide and leader) of the organization. He turned out to be an African black man! I don’t know how I missed the memo on this. In the almost two years since I had first encountered the Brothers, I was struggling with race and Islam. When I read Malachi York’s books about the oppression of the “white Arabs” (in particular, the Saudi-Wahhabis) and their denying the “black Arabs” their rightful place in history, it forced me to look at the racial dynamics in the communities I was exposed to and the Muslim world, in general, in a different light. And it wasn’t a favorable light.

In this case, however, here was a black African man with “white Arabs” thronging at his feet. They were there not for displays of athletic prowess or adeptness with a microphone and turntables. They sat at his feet to drink from the vast reservoirs of his knowledge and wisdom and witness a living example of Islamic piety. This would be (so I thought) a rewriting of the history of Islam in black America, for time and time again, African-Americans ended up in deviant sects, like the Moorish Science Temple, the so-called Nation of Islam, the Ahmadiyyah, the Wahhabis (so-called “Salafis”), the Malachi York cults, and other sects that were wholly inadequate to guide African-Americans to know the Truth about their Lord and how to obey the One Who created them. This time, however, we would have one of our own—or at least someone who looks like us—who was teaching the rationally indisputable truth about Allah. We now—after all these decades—had the means to get it right. My black brothers (and sisters) were going to finally work it out.

One of the many highlights of the trip was that I sat with one of the leaders of the organization to seek personal advice. His insight was trenchant to the point that it was unsettling. He advised me to “acquire the obligatory knowledge” and to come to Philadelphia to be involved in the community that was in the process of being built. I was sold. I now, for the first time in my post-Amherst life, had a definite goal in mind. My plan would be to finish up the contract I had working at the School of Education at UMASS and move down to Philadelphia in the summer and be part of this spiritual revolution I envisioned for black America—and possibly the entire society.

The Right Orientation (Post #21)

The Right Orientation (Entry #21)

Journal #18 begins on the last day of October. I am feeling an increasing need to be part of a Muslim community. It’s not that I am the kind of person who needs to be in a group to feel a sense of well-being, for by nature I am a loner. It’s the fact that I am trying to adopt a new set of habits, and given my circumstances at the time, those habits were not reinforced by those around me. I wanted to live amongst like-minded Muslims who were striving to obey Allah.

As the cold season approached, I was having a harder and harder time with my semi-vegetarian diet. I say semi-vegetarian, because I would eat a can or two of tuna fish (often eating the recommended serving size on the can—which wasn’t much at all) per week. I needed some kind of protein in my system given that I am thin and have a very high metabolism. Unlike the winter the year before at Amherst, where there were plenty of vegetarian options, I was now trying to work out a practical diet given my metabolic needs. I wanted to eat healthily, with little animal protein as possible, and do so on a low budget. This would be a challenge I would have to struggle with for the next five months.

Although I would start to write less (one reason was cold mornings in the apartment sucked away a lot of my motivation), writing was no less significant to me. As I said, I was looking for a means to consolidate and express my concerns, my interests, and my aspirations. I needed a medium by which I could get my goals into focus.

Writing reminded me of the need to develop a material base—i needed a means by which I could earn a living doing something meaningful. I wanted to monetize my passion. As was typical of life in Amherst, you tend to frequently meet interesting people. One day while working at the “Shop” (i.e., the shop owned by the Mentor), a professor from UMASS stopped by, and we got into a conversation about life and self-development. She paraphrased a quote (which I just found out is from Francis of Assisi) about using the head, the heart, and the hands. Writing fulfilled that for me. Writing certainly had an intellectual aspect to it. When my writing feels the best, I touch upon chords in my psyche that give me greater self-understanding. And writing not only is a product of my hands but could be a tangible legacy of my internal life that I could share with others.

Among the happenings of this time was Leonard Jeffries came to UMASS to give a lecture, and like Stokley Carmichael, he was met by resistance from some of the student body for some of the less than prudent statements he had made. Jeffries was one of the more radical Afrocentrists, and he wasn’t known to be a very good guard of his tongue. I went to the lecture because I wanted to hear his side of the story, and I figured he’d drop somme knowledge about ancient African civilizations. It was this event, and several more that would occur over the next few months that would gradually lead to my abandoning my black nationalist sentiments. It was inspiring to hear someone talk about the achievements of ancient black civilizations in the Nile Valley (and if one wants to cavil over the “race” of the Ancient Egyptians, it’s safe to say that most of them would not have been allowed to sit at the front of the bus here in Memphis circa 1950), but something was missing.

Jeffries used the occasion to take the usual Afrocentric snipes at Islam. And that made me call into question what was it that the Afrocentrists were ultimately calling people to? Being proud of long ago achievements by people who look like you or some of your family members is understandable—especially for a people for whom it was implied or said in standard high school text books had no history worthy of mentioning. Such knowledge alone, however, would not transform the person, and it would not inform the person about the the Creator of the universe and the ultimate purpose of life.

I was sympathetic to many of the things said by the Afrocentrists—indeed, (Western) history had been largely written by openly white racists who had an agenda to deny or at least diminish the role people of color had in the making of civilization—but after the dust settles from the cultural cheerleading, what else would the Afrocentricists have to offer? My interests in Islam (or what I considered to be Islam), on the other hand, was multifold. As I said, it started with the reading of The Autobiography of Malclom X. I saw Islam as a means of establishing social cohesion for African-Americans. It would provide African-Americans with a set of values upon which they could be united (so I figured at the time). Also, Islam was a way, perhaps contrary to Leonard Jeffries worldview, of connecting black people to their more recent civilizational accomplishments in Africa, in particular those of the major Sahelian states, such as Ghana, Mali, Songhai, Kanem-Bornu, and the Swahili Coast, as well as, the lore regarding the “Moors.” Furthermore, I saw Islam as a global counterforce to the greedy imperialistic cult of corporate consumerism.

But what was driving me with Islam above and beyond my racial, social, and political interests was my wanting to have clarity about who is God. Many of the Afrocentrists did not strike me as very “religious” people—meaning people concerned about obeying God (or who or what they thought to be God) or their condition in the Hereafter. I also had no interest in praying to jinn or making animal sacrifices to blood encrusted statues of Shango, Elegba, and Yemoja. I wanted a rational, logically consistent understanding of who my Creator was, and I couldn’t find that in traditional African religions nor in the religious cults of Ancient Egypt. Additionally, I had an interest in metaphysical states, and I wanted to know the difference between pure spirituality and simply the experiences of an over-active imagination or satanic influences. I wanted to conquer myself through asceticism. I wanted to know how could one subdue the desires of the body and of the ego, so that one could be fully devoted to the obedience of the Creator. Afrocentricity and black nationalism could not provide me with that.

It was at this time, that the brother from the banks of the Nile (the “Sudanese Brother”), met my Teacher. A couple of days after their first encounter, the Sudanese brother went to my teacher’s apartment, and they talked, and talked, and talked until three in the morning about various doctrinal and spiritual issues that were well beyond my “pay grade.” For those who do not know, many of the Muslims who come to America are NOT trained in traditional Islamic knowledge. They may have some experience with memorizing the Qur’an in school or at the mosque, and they may learn the very basics of Islamic creed, and elementary matters of Islamic law and Prophetic biography; however many Muslims are unfamiliar with the method by which traditional Sunni scholarship refuted various heretical and blasphemous ideologies and sects. That being the case, many Muslims themselves are susceptible to adopting unorthodox ideas or being influenced by deviant groups.

The Sudanese Brother, however, had a Sheikh back home who was learned in the traditional Islamic sciences, including tasawwuf (Sufism). Sufism, contrary to the claims of the Orientalists (and the Wahhabis) is not a “new religion” or something alien to traditional Islam. Sufism is the branch of Islamic science that concentrates on the rectification of the character through following the example of the Prophet. This entails having the proper belief in the Creator and the Prophets, as well as, abiding by the Islamic law, while having a pure-hearted intention only to obey God and not to impress or seek recognition amongst the creations. As one person said, Sufism is the “science of sincerity.”

My Teacher was delighted and intrigued by this new Brother. For myself, if was the confirmation that I was seeking. I was trying to verify through other channels that what I was learning with the Teacher was authentic. The creed, as it was taught, made sense. There is only One Creator. Everything other than the Creator is a creation. The Creator does not need any of the creations. The Creator does not undergo change or development. The Creator, Who existed before time, place, and direction, exists without being in time, place, or direction. The Creator does not resemble the creations; whatever one imagines, the Creator is different from that. That all made perfect sense to me.

Furthermore, the Teacher warned me that there are people who misconstrued Qur’anic Verses and Hadiths (sayings of the Prophet), and as a result, they think that Allah is a giant object of some sort with fingers, hands, eyes, a face, and is located above the ceiling of Paradise (Al-`Arsh). Also, there were other blasphemous beliefs that were prevalent in books purporting to be about Islam. In accordance with my “conspiracy theory” interests, some of these deviant ideas and factions were initiated or supported by the Western colonial powers to weaken and fragment the Muslim world, as was the case with the Ahmadiyyah in India, the Freemasons in Egypt, and the Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia. Again, this all made perfect sense to me. Nonetheless, not to have this knowledge and methodology confirmed by an outside source still kept me at a little bit of a distance. The Sudanese Brother, however, provided the confirmation that I was plugged into the historical mainstream of traditional Islamic scholarship.

Not long after the Sudanese Brother met my Teacher, he wanted to go to West Springfield, which was the location of the nearest Islamic center in the area at the time, to get to the bottom of a controversial matter. When I had first met the Brothers, they advised me not to attend the mosque in West Springfield nor the Friday services at the university campus center. They told me that the people there were praying northeast. This was one of the things that spooked me when I met these “mysterious” people.

First there was their practice of speaking out against very well-known writers and books that purported to be about Islam. Joined with that was their discussing apostasy and that one could inadvertently leave Islam. When I was told that many Islamic centers prayed northeast, I didn’t even bother to investigate. I dismissed such an assertion as absurd. I thought that this was simply a ploy by these guys to keep me away from other Muslims. In my dorm and in my apartment I faced southeast when I was (calling myself) praying. It was evident to me that Mecca is indisputably closer to the equator than Massachusetts. As it turned out, however, one Friday soon after having met the Sudanese Brother, we were leaving the Jumu`ah service at the UMASS campus center, and I looked at the surrounding area outside, and it did turn out that we were facing northeast!

The Sudanese Brother and I went down the West Springfield, and requested to speak with the imam (prayer leader) there. (I was just an observer; I did not have enough knowledge to discuss matters of Islamic law with people—but I did know some basic geography.) The Sudanese Brother, who was one of the most well-mannered people I have ever met, politely implored the imam to read a passage from a book of Islamic jurisprudence about how to determine the direction for the prayer. The imam firmly—but politely—refused to read the passage (I am, in retrospect, of the mind that it may have been the saying of Abu Hanifah, in which he says to the effect: “If one is north of the Ka`bah, one faces south; if south, one faces north; if east one faces west; and if west, one faces east.”) The imam refused to read the statement, saying that the book was merely a compilation of Islamic judgments (which, even in my untrained mind did not mean that the statements in the book were invalid).

The whole time the discussion went on, and it might have done so for a half hour, there was a middle-aged African-American man sitting and listening intently. After the imam left, he came over to us and said emphatically: “I remember when they changed the qiblah [prayer orientation] in America!” He went on to describe how much “fitnah” (strife) this caused amongst Muslims at the time. Communities and families were torn apart over this issue, and he said that he and his wife were praying in two different directions at home. He said he went out and got aeronautical maps, and still came to the conclusion that prayer direction was southeast. This pretty much sealed the deal for me. There was something fishy going on in the “mainstream” (if I may so generalize) North American Muslim community.

It wasn’t only this episode that made me abandon what I call now the “standard immigrant center” scene. For one, there was the huge cultural gap, and more significant than the cultural gap was the value gap. On Fridays, (some) immigrant Muslims would pull up in their Mercedes and BMWs to attend the service and then go back to their medical practices. These people didn’t seem like the kind of folks who would be interested in the kind of social activism I had envisioned for the American Muslim. I didn’t consider it likely that these kinds of people would be going to the inner city of Springfield and cleaning up the crack houses or calling black folk to Islam.

 These immigrants had come to America to live the dream that I considered to be a nightmare and was desperately trying to escape. Likewise, during the period of the Gulf War and the killing of hundreds of thousands, I don’t recall a peep being mentioned about American foreign policy. This was totally unacceptable from a black nationalist wannabe “Islamic revolutionary” who was accustomed to the fiery mordant social and political criticism of Louis Farrakhan and Malcolm X.

I could excuse the absence of politics being discussed (to a certain extent), for it being the better part of wisdom not to discuss such matters and get labeled by the alphabet cops as a subversive or “unamerican.” But I couldn’t excuse the lack of doctrinal clarity. I sat through khutbahs (Friday sermons) week after week waiting for the imam to “drop it” about the various factions, and how one knows what is the correct Islamic belief, and how to demonstrate that belief with rational proofs to educated non-Muslims. I wanted to know what was the role of Sufism in Islam, and how does one subdue his nafs (the ego and carnal driven self) and overcome one’s attachments to this ephemeral world. I wanted CLARITY. That talk, however, never came—not at least while I was there.

I get the sense that any “deeper” discussions (not actually deeper, just clarifying the mere basics) on creed would be suppressed with the claim that doctrinal discussions would be “divisive” for the community. This was another one of those points that I never accepted. How could discussions about the proper belief in the Creator be divisive? If a person has the correct belief, he (or she) isn’t going to object to it. And if a person has the incorrect belief, then that is either due to a misunderstanding, which they can easily correct by rejecting the bad belief and adopting the correct belief (and saying the Declaration of Faith to embrace Islam if that misconception reached the point of blasphemy), or the person would be someone who prefers to stubbornly cling to falsehood. If the person insists on adhering to creedal falsehood, then it would not be possible to unite with such a person under the banner of “obeying Allah,” which is the basis of sincere Islamic solidarity.

By teaching people the correct belief, the doctrinally deviant would be exposed and alienated from the Muslim community. As things were (and I think they largely remain this way in many of the American Islamic centers), the most elementary matters of doctrine are discussed (without details) under the guise of maintaining a facade of “unity.” And that is assuming that egregiously wrong things are not taught—although they are, and more often than not it is is some form of Saudi-backed Wahhabi (so-called “Salafi”) ideology. As a result, one encounters many Muslims, or at least self-professed Muslims, confused about fundamental matters of the Islamic creed. And this is the basis for the mess that the American Muslims are suffering from today.

It was not hard for me to cut ties to the “standard immigrant scene.” The knowledge I was seeking wasn’t made available and my questions weren’t being answered. I was content learning with my Teacher and the Sudanese Brother. And it would be with them that I would make a pilgrimage that winter to Philadelphia to further my pursuit of knowledge and community.

Image

(The mihrab (niche for the prayer orientation) in the Grand Mosque of Cordova, Spain.)

Autumn in Amherst Entry #20

Autumn in Amherst: Entry #20

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells….
Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,-
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

–Ode to Autumn, Johnathan Keats

Foliage Close

 The ultimate praise, thanks, and gratitude is due unto the Creator: “It’s autumn in Amherst. Nothing more, perhaps, needs to be said.” It is the time for that annual ocular feast, when the eyes can tirelessly dine upon the yellow, the scarlet, the orange, and the green rolling hills surrounding the Valley. It is the visual crescendo before the long, cold, and somber winter sets in. Amidst the maturity of the season, the Valley also welcomes the college students and the youth they bring to the area. Granted many will dedicate themselves to bacchanalia and campus debauchery, but there will also be many young people who are entering college with exuberance and hope that they can make a difference in the world.

Perhaps it’s the medley of academia, of used bookstores, of youthful idealism, of droughts of intoxicating autumn air, and that foliage that contribute to that unique state of being that I’ve not remotely experienced anywhere outside of the Happy Valley. At this point, I am liberated from the ivory tower of the College and can enjoy Amherst life on my own terms. I could get to know the area much better than in my previous two and a half years there.

I would write at the time (in part probably inspired by some deep stretching exercises): “There is so much vision inside this body.” There were the memories of childhood, and the daily sights for one to enjoy and ponder throughout the area. Since I didn’t have a car, and usually was not in a rush to get anywhere (and winter had not yet come), I did a lot of walking. And that meant that the time and the sights could be savored. Among my favorite places to visit that fall was Atkin’s Farms on Route 116. It was, at least to me, the quintessential New England market. It sits almost at the base of the Holyoke Mountain Range. Inside local produce could be found. There was the smell of fresh cider and all sorts of other locally produced goodies that remind one of the old traditions of life in New England….

Atkins Apples

 As I reminisce about that period, and I am reminded of times past, it is as if a hole in my heart is opened. Those evanescent days have passed, and all that’s left are the memories of another time. And memory was one of the dominant themes of the Journals. I would write: “There is so much vision inside this body.” That was probably inspired by one of those morning deep-stretch exercise sessions, in which embedded emotions and old faded memories would rise to the surface of my consciousness. Time is passing.

 And my fear of perdition in the Afterlife is growing. I need to get right with God. I know that although I am trying to rectify myself, I certainly am not doing my best at doing so. I am going to have to overcome many weaknesses of character and be more self-disciplined. I know that I need to endeavor for my salvation, but at the same time, there is the problem of this… there is this obstacle that I must surmount, and that is this mundane world and my lower desires.

Do I really want to be a devotee of Citicorp and Chase Manhattan? Do I want to consider going to the ATM, like a visit to an ancient Greek oracle, thereby I would (allegedly) be informed of my terrestrial well-being? As one of the Valley Guys used to say at the time: “That’s not the way to go.” Furthermore, reading books, like, Dell Jones’, Black Holocaust: Global Genocide (http://www.amazon.com/dp/0963999583) and other conspiracy books didn’t inspire me with a whole lot of motivation and ambition to go live in a cubicle for corporate America.

At the same time, I understood that I needed to find my way through this world and take care of mundane responsibilities. I understood that I needed to do something to make my earthly life meaningful (and provide me with a means of sustenance) if I wanted to have those: “Power’s on, shower’s on” kinda mornings every morning. This meant that I could not compromise my values or sacrifice my ideals. I saw writing as the means to do that. Writing was helping keep me grounded—it focused my thoughts and provided me with a medium to express my ideals and my aspirations. As a matter of fact, the writing was a form of “remembrance;” it kept reminding me of what I wanted to do with my life (God-willing). Furthermore, my eclectic interests (and angst) could be explored… and there was the possibility of someday monetizing my passion without compromising who I am—or who I wanted to be. As I would write: “I must establish myself here, but also keep my heart on the world to come.” I need to live a balanced life.

Amidst the inner struggles, relief came in various forms. Among them was, a trip down to the Amherst College bird sanctuary with Delta. I was showing her where I would used to go to do my yoga and meditation routine during the previous two summers. Of the visit I would write: “Returning to the sanctuary was not an attempt to recapture the past but to be reassured about the cycle.” Delta, being the expressive person she was, kept me entertained by acting out her version of the “Isis” character from the Saturday morning program Shazam (she had a mystical bent about her, like that). Typically, in a lifetime, there are only a few people you can bug-out with over Saturday morning children’s TV programming, and Delta was one of them.

On a more serious note, one Friday while at the UMASS campus center, I encountered a student dressed up in full traditional Sudanese garb. It was Jumu`ah day, and he had on his turban and jalabiyyah. I approached him, introduced myself, and told him about the Brother I was learning with. He was eager to meet him, and within a few weeks, that “chance” encounter would result in a relationship that would forever change my life (maa-shaa’ Allah).

“Education,” meaning the furtherance of my academic studies, comes up a lot at this time. The plan, presumably, was to take this year (or possibly two) off and then go to graduate school. I attend a graduate school fair at UMASS that fall, and the “international education” program at Harvard strikes my fancy. I could work as a teacher and travel. Furthermore, I was already working at the School of Education at the University (with occasional gigs substituting at Amherst Regional High School). Although I am not passionate about classroom teaching, I do know that I want to be involved with learning and in an intellectually stimulating environment.

My real interest for graduate school was history. I was trying to develop a sort of “meta-history” of the world that I anticipated would be my Master’s thesis. The plan was to link ancient history, especially the civilizations of the Nile Valley and ancient (pre-Aryan) India, with Islam. Back then, I was intrigued by models of cultural diffusion in ancient times—in particular those “Afrocentric” models that challenged the very often racist status quo version of history.

My interest wasn’t simply in the retelling of past events, but it would be related to metaphysics and religion. The Western model of “civilizational evolution” needed to be reconsidered, for there is ample evidence that ancient people had developed advanced technology (e.g., the pyramids of Giza) and had a far more profound understanding of the universe than was generally acknowledged by conventional historians. Also, given the centrality of metaphysics and religion in the cultures of these ancient peoples, one could not understand their worldview unless one shared some of their sympathies. The conventional Western-minded historian couldn’t possibly understand people whose social structure was centered around preparation for an Afterlife, when the materialists make no allowance for anything existing beyond their senses.

From an Islamic perspective, Muslims believe that various communities of people had received Prophets, who came with the knowledge of Tawheed (the knowledge pertaining to the Oneness and Perfection of the Creator) and the call to worship the Creator alone and not any of the creations. For many of those Prophets, however, their teachings were altered and distorted through the centuries. This seemed to be in line with many ancient mythologies, in which they speak of enlightened men informing the people about the arts of civilization and the rites of worship. However, at some point those societies lapsed into idolatry, the worship of those “enlightened” men, or some other form of creation worship. I was of the mindset that the history of humanity needed to be radically rewritten, so that we could be reminded of our profound potential and not forget the momentous purpose of our life on this earth.

By the end of October, the New England winter is already making hints of its ominous approach. It’s something I am not at all looking forward to. Those mellow days of fruitfulness and bounty are winding down, and we would soon be besieged by New England’s frigid and barren hibernal season.

Getting Ahead of Myself Entry #19

Getting Ahead of Myself Entry #19

I’m going to start by getting a little ahead of myself. Typically, I read through my old Journals, while taking notes. I then sift through those notes, and turn them into bog entries. I start the reading of Journal #16 while sitting at the town center in South Deerfield, MA. This was during my momentous return to Springfield and the Valley in the autumn of 2011. It was my first trip back Home in seventeen years or so.

I had been planning an autumnal return to Western Massachusetts for many years, but for a variety of reasons, things wouldn’t line up, and I could not make the trip. For years, I felt like a character from epic mythology who was exiled from his home. I yearned to breathe my native air in my native land (especially my native air in the autumn), but circumstances seemed to conspire against me.

When the opportunity did arise, I anticipated disappointment. I anticipated disappointed not because of some sort of predilection for pessimism, but because I anticipated that things were not going to be the way I remembered them—that my memories had idealized the experiences I had many years earlier. During my time Home, I stayed in South Deerfield, and had an experience that, maa-shaa’ Allah, did not disappoint in the least. On my first full day in the Valley, I put some books, Journals, and a clipboard into a backpack and got to walking, and walking, and walking… and walking up to the summit of Mount Sugarloaf, where I could found myself above the low hanging clouds on that day (and found myself in the midst of a rainstorm when I had descended about half way down the mountain… and it rained all the way back to where I was staying; I had never been so drenched by rain in all my life).

On the second full day of the trip, I took the Peter Pan bus down to Springfield, then took PVTA bus out to Sixteen Acres, and retraced the haunts of my childhood, including a walk by Sixteen Acres School, and then down Barnet St. and to the playing fields of St. Catherine’s Church. From there, I walked past my old apartment in Hamden East. I hadn’t been there in over a twenty-five years. I then jaunted to what I used to call “The Big Woods,” (what is now called, “Woodland Park Conservation Area”) behind Hillcrest Cemetery. I had Google-satellited the area, and I was glad to see the trees were still standing. I took to the woods, and found them deeper and darker than I had remembered them, and I don’t think that was just my imagination. There was now plenty of undergrowth in places that had at once been almost barren forest floor. On my way out of the woods, I saw something that in particular delighted me:

DSC06497

In all the post winter storm trips to those woods to track rabbits, and raccoons, opossums, porcupine, and perhaps fox, I had never encountered hoof prints. Whitetail deer had returned to Springfield!

I stayed at my aunt’s house, and we went through old photo albums that stirred up memories of childhood, and also helped me gain some greater sense of familial continuity. I spent the night at her home—the same house she’s lived in and raised many children in over the past forty years. I returned to the Valley the following day, stopping in NoHo (Northampton) on the way. Over the next few days while in the Amherst area, I would revisit the places that broke me down and transformed in so many ways. The trip, praise Allah, was exceeded all expectations.

As for Journal #16, I am entering the Amherst mode of mind. I have elected to remain in the area. I would be staying in Brittany Manor, which was kinda like the Amherst “ghetto.” And eventually I would be working at UMASS School of Education as a research assistant. It would be in this time that I would start striking “stride with the Valley Vibe.” I would be living in Amherst not merely as a college student but as a resident. Being freed from the excessively academic and hyper-rational constraints of The College, I was now free to pursue the intellectual and metaphysical pursuits of my liking. Nonetheless I was overwhelmed by the ideological choices made available to me—how would I choose properly in this cornucopia marketplace of ideas?

Although I was starting to learn traditional Islamic knowledge with “The Teacher,” I still had a multitude of questions in my mind about a wide range of issues. And I was still trying to confirm what I was learning by independent sources. Readers have to keep in mind that this is in the era prior to the internet, the information about Islam beyond encyclopedia entries and books written by Orientalists, and those books written by heretical and blasphemous factions calling themselves “Muslims” was extremely limited. Books of traditional Sunni scholarship—especially, those in the matter of Doctrine—were few and far between (actually, I am not familiar with any Sunni books doctrine available at the time that weren’t filled with egregious errors).

I am profoundly perplexed at this time, and I feel that I can’t discuss any of this with my non-Muslim friends. They weren’t, after all, Muslims, and for many people in the Valley, knowing who is God did not play a central role in their lives. I did however, want some sort of “objective” input from people who could also be sympathetic to my plight. That was, however, wishful thinking. I would have to engage in this struggle largely on my own, and Amherst was about as ideal of a place as one could find for this spiritual battlefield.

The Teacher Appears

THE TEACHER APPEARS (Entry #18)

 “When the student is ready the teacher appears.”*

—ascribed to Buddha

Summertime in Amherst is not merely a season or a place, it is a state of being.

 

south_pleasant_street_amherst_ma

South Pleasant St. in Amherst–where “The Teacher” was pushing his wares.

 

This is my third time around estivating in the Happy Valley, and it is at some point in Journal #15, I decide that I am going to remain in the area for the upcoming year. I knew of no better place where I could potentially “get my head on straight,” get a lot of writing done, read, and continue my personal quest for self-understanding, and the quest to know the truth about God.

 Amherst (and the Valley, in general) has its share of interesting people—and they aren’t limited to the male gender. I was attempting to navigate four simultaneous crushes. Beauty is granted to whomever Allah wills. Coming from Springfield, which is a working class kind of town at best, I found the women of the Valley to be captivating, so when I met a Birkenstocks wearing “black Puerto Rican,” I was blown away. She was Bread and Circus (which is now Whole Foods) shopping, down to earth and into swimming and maybe also horseback riding, if I remember correctly, kinda female. She was nothing like the Puerto Rican girls I had been infatuated with in Springfield’s North End. There was another young woman with the Afrocentric thing going on, who was from Brooklyn and had that The City vibe about her, but at the same time could be comfortable at a small women’s college in a small New England town. My Texas Crush-Friend would be going to Egypt for the upcoming school year, so I wouldn’t see her until the next August.

Then there was the “flower girl,” who was named presumably after a certain Swedish actress. I remark in my Journal about the clarity of her eyes and her deep sense of self when she pondered whether or not she wanted to stay in college after the recent passing of her grandmother. As for her, just to share where my head was at the time, contrary to the stereotype, I didn’t have a fetish for “white girls.” Admittedly, I had a thing for them when I was in Springfield, simply because many of the women (of color) I encountered there, had such a narrow range of interests. My thing was an issue of class as oppose to color. Amherst was different, however. I could find many educated brown women, who had ambition and broad interests from the performing arts, to politics, to academia and just about everything in between. Also, and I’ll throw this in there, I felt a little uncomfortable about even thinking about pursuing a white female at the time, given that I was still identifying myself as a black nationalist. The last thing I needed to do was succumb to that “white kryptonite,” as the joke went about the many so-called conscious black Brothers who were involved with white women .

On a more serious note, marriage was increasingly becoming a central theme in my writing. I had made a commitment not to get intimately involved with members of the fairer sex outside of marriage. I wanted to find a like-minded person with whom we could go together on this quest seek to know the truth about the Creator and to live by the Creator’s Laws. Given that I was still in a state of confusion on so many matters, I was in no position to get married and guide a family. With that said, I flirted with the idea, but I didn’t attempt to pursue my romantic interest(s).

 Journal #15 would take me right to the end of the summer vacation and the end of the Upward Bound program. There were multiple experiences that were forcing me to rethink my black nationalism, and “The Bound” was one of them. On the one hand, I had this hope that “my people” would come out of their intellectual slumber–wake up–get organized, and get united. Putting my own personal and racial biases aside, it seemed only natural that African-Americans would be at the vanguard of this social transformation I was anticipating. The African-American Civil Rights Movement, after all, was a catalyst for many of the other 20th century social movements. Furthermore, African-American were in highly visible urban locations, and had the “culture of the cool.” If social consciousness were to take root amongst African-Americans, then it would expand to other groups and potentially transform the society.

Also, African-Americans, as a whole, had the least to lose and perhaps the most to gain from social transformation—or from revolution. The reality of the matter, especially after the coming of the Crack Plague, was the inner city black community was largely on lockdown by the Prison Industrial Complex, and although the black radicals of the late 60’s and early 70’s saw this siege coming, black folks 20 years later were actually living under it. When confronted with this low-intensity genocide, it seemed obvious to me that it was time to get our act together. However, although I had grown in ways previously unfathomable in my three years at college, Upper Bound reminded me that black folks, in general, had not changed very much. And as I noted even with the black community Amherst, the lack of moral cohesion was the root of black disunity.

The scenario plays itself out again and again in black America: predatory black males exploit black females—who themselves have grown up in fatherless homes—the girl ends up pregnant out of wedlock, and the cycle of single mother homes, very often in poverty and dysfunction repeats itself. With my newly found commitment to marriage, it was also becoming increasingly clear how the serial fornication didn’t only harm black females but also black males. The males, instead of taking responsibility, and planning for their roles as potential husbands-providers and fathers (in that order), they would jut see it as “open season” on females (black ones, in particular) to do their business with one (or multiple) females until they get bored and then move on to others. There was also the whole atmosphere of treachery, deceit, and betrayal that surrounds serial fornication that makes trust and honesty (not to mention self-restraint) almost impossible. We would not be able to build our “beautiful black nation,” unless their was a transformation of morals in the community—and I was getting the increasing sense that that wasn’t going to happen.

I was also slowly making a psychological exodus away from Academia. I loved learning, reading, and exploring ideas, but as I would write: “Western education is based upon information and not personal transformation.” I wanted learning to be a transformative experience and not merely a process of data collection and display. It was at this point that I had a re-encounter with one of the Brothers who would become my “Teacher.” I didn’t write the details of the encounter in my Journal, but he had been one of the Brothers I was introduced to after meeting the guys on the bus https://inthisjournal.wordpress.com/2012/10/22/behind-the-lids-the-back-of-the-bus-and-other-stuffs/.

Unlike many converts, with whom it would be pretty evident from the start—even in my state of confusion—that they were ignorant and didn’t know what they were talking about, “Teacher” was well-read and well-educated. At the time I started spending time with him, he was finishing up his second Master’s Degree. He at one point had been a musician, and was familiar with the jazz scene and didn’t seem ill at ease around African-Americans. Initially, I assumed that he was just a cool white guy who converted to Islam, but I later found out his father was South Asian (and his mother was European American), but he grew up like many second generation youth of his time with little or no religious instruction.

We shared interests outside of Islam, as well. He, too, had dabbled with meditation, was into alternative health, and as I would later find out, he was also an avid fisherman. Teacher had a table set up in the center of town where he and his Southeast Asian wife sold homemade jewelry. I approached him one day, and basically went through a checklist of questions that had accumulated in my head over the past two years. One question I asked did get mention in the Journal, and that was about the different stages one passes through on the path of Sufism.1 I asked him questions about different authors, different doctrines, the different sects, which purported to follow Islam, that I had read about. He was familiar with most if not all of them, and gave me brief and lucid explanations where those those people or groups went astray. I also asked him about conspiracy theory and jut general matters pertaining to social criticism.

Unlike the year before, in which my mind was overwhelmed with confusion, this time around, I could formulate precise questions about what was disturbing me and what I wanted to know. Instead of responding with (in my imitation gruff ghetto quasi-Salafi2 voice): “Akhi, the Qur’an says… and the Hadith say…” and then proceed either to recite something in Arabic or give some verbatim memorized (often mis-) interpreted Verse from Yusuf Ali or Saudi “translators” of Hadith, the Teacher gave me sound, rational answers.

Very often American converts of a certain ethnic persuasion would like to quote the Qur’an (in Arabic) in an effort to impress the listener into thinking that they are knowledgeable. However, it was clear to me that if the person—a native speaker of English–really knew what he was talking about, then he could explain in straightforward English. Furthermore, simply saying something in Arabic meant little to me at the time, because I didn’t know Arabic, and it was always obvious to me that this could merely be this person’s interpretation of a Verse, and not necessarily the right interpretation. And even when a person repeated the formal translation, from the little I did know at the time, the various translations could be influenced by the translator’s doctrinal bias.

I was looking for rational answers. From what I could make out from my readings (on what I deemed to be) “Islam,” there were many early doctrinal controversies between sects claiming to be Muslim. And as I had read from Watt’s, The Life and Teachings of Al-Ghazali, the Sunni orthodoxy had a system for explaining the true Islamic belief and could demonstrate and defend that belief with rationally consistent proofs. This is what I had been looking for, and Allah sent the me a teacher at the right time to share with me that knowledge.

Among the things that were clarified for me, because I had numerous confusing notions about the Creator, is that Allah exists without being in a place. I had heard one of the Brothers say that to me a year earlier, but I didn’t grasp its implications. I knew it was a profound statement, and I subsequently sought over the following year to find another religion that said the same (but I didn’t). But I did not (when I first heard the statement) have the ability to explain why that must necessarily be the case.

In brief, the Teacher explained that the Creator existed before the creations. Allah was and place was not, and after Allah created place, Allah did not transform and begin to occupy a place (or a direction). That meant that Allah is not an object or any other sort of spatial or dimensional entity. Allah is not in Heaven (or above Heaven), for Allah created Heaven and existed before Heaven. Furthermore, the Teacher explained the situation with Saudi Arabia and that its state doctrine of Wahhabism was not in conformity with Sunni Islam. I was already very confused about the Saudi regime and its relation to the West (especially, during the first Gulf War). The Saudis—with their Wahhabi doctrine of imaginary object worship—were put into power by the British to weaken the Muslim world. This made total sense, and fit in perfectly with what I knew of divide and conquer policies of the colonial powers.

Also, in understanding that Allah exists without a place, it clarified the confusion I had in my head regarding things I had read that were purported to be about “Sufism.” Among the things I had encountered in the those books (and much of the “New Age” literature) was the blasphemous misconception that Allah is everything and that everything is Allah; or that Allah is a spirit and that one could reach a spiritual state in which one’s soul would “unite with the spirit of Allah;” or that Allah was a giant beautiful illumination in a lofty location. Once it was fixed in my mind that Allah exists without being in a place (or direction) and that whatever one imagines, Allah is different from that, I could begin to clear the mess out of my head. I would now begin to read books that were suppose to be about Islam with a more critical eye.

The Teacher would go on to explain that Sufism was not some sort of hippie cult—or some “sect” of Islam wherein one could believe whatever he wanted and ignore the established acts of worship. He explained that Sufism was a genuine Islamic science that entailed having the proper belief in the Creator and abiding by the Sacred Laws revealed to Prophet Muhammad (sallallahu `alayhi wasallam). This was exactly what I had read in the book, The Life and Teaching of Al-Ghazali. Maa-shaa’ Allah, I felt that I was on to something now.

Although I was not completely sold, for it was conceivable that a person might be able to explain the proper belief in God but still be guilty of other forms of misguidance, I felt that this was a good place to start. Praise Allah, I had found someone who could begin to answer my questions. Praise Allah, my request for guidance and clarity had started to come.

* (For the record, I am not claiming that Buddhism is a religion of guidance, but the quote was relevant to the circumstances and state of mind I was in.)

1Sufism (Tasawwuf) is the branch of Islamic science that pertains to the purification of the heart and rectification of the character through the sincere implementation of the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad (sallallahu `alayhi wasallam)

2Salafism is a branch of the Wahhabi sect, which is discussed below in the text.

Human Becoming Post #17

Of Becoming (Entry #17)

 “You are a crystal reflecting fire. In your own becoming there is light—enough to lead you home.”

 (from the book entitled, Awakening Osiris)

The above quote was one of several epigrams for Journal 14. I was striving to rise above circumstance—not that my circumstances, in the worldly sense were all that bad, but I knew not what I could be, or what I wanted to be. In the first entry of Journal 14, I mention that I am reading Fitzgerald’s, This Side of Paradise, again. I had read it four consecutive summers after high school graduation. Granted, I didn’t find the sweetheart I sought (nor did I have novel published by the age of 23), but I had lived my Ivy League fantasy. This was a dream, or something even more ephemeral than a dream, when I first read TSOP. I couldn’t relate to the characters, or life on a college campus (much less an elite campus), or the literary allusions. I read knowing that I wanted something more than what Springfield had to offer. I knew I wanted to go some place where I could grow, someplace where I could be myself, someplace where I could re-invent myself. I had no idea about how this would happen. I just had hope.

The thanks and ultimate gratitude is due to God. Circumstances changed, my mind expanded, and I found myself having lived a life that had been a few years earlier inconceivable. As Reggie Jackson said at his Baseball Hall of Fame speech: “I’ve had a dream and I was able to live it and thank God it’s not done yet.” That pretty much sums up my Amherst experience. In many ways I didn’t exploit the time I had at The College. On the other hand, how could I have done so? I came in as a transfer student—i was a few years older than most of my classmates, and I was not from the upper five percentile of my high school graduating class. I had to struggle with the culture shock of the campus and of the classroom. I was not up to challenging myself academically the way, in retrospect, I wish I had done. But then, very early on at Amherst, I took up an interest in “separate realities” and psychonautic voyages. I was trying to transcend the hyper-intellectualism Amherst, while at the same being convinced there was a value in book learning and academia.

Furthermore, there was the deep disgust I had with the political realities of the world, and with my Political Science major. After taking course of Central American politics and becoming aware of the, what can’t be called other than diabolical military-industrial complex and multinational corporate dictated policies of the United States in the region, my stomach was turned. Did I really want to graduate and go work for “the System,” or work within “the System” to try to “change” it? No, I didn’t. I wanted to find an altogether alternative system, and if I couldn’t find such, then I would have to build it myself.

Because Amherst was heavily saturated with “Multiculturalism,” plenty of “identity politics” courses were offered. For that reason, and having my first encounter with intellectual black people, who were well-informed about their history and black social issues, I started to gain an interests in my own ethnic/racial place in the world. Personal experiences, classroom discussions, and my own reading material made me feel a growing sense of isolation from the larger (i.e., white) student body.

And then, and then… and then there was the reading of The Autobiography of Malcolm X right after completing my first year at Amherst. As some of my family folk would say: “And that’s all she wrote.” There was no selling out; there was no turning back. I started to devour anything and everything I could on Malcolm, black nationalism, and black radical groups. I wanted to learn more and more about the teachings of Elijah Muhammad and his organization. I wanted to learn about ancient black history and whatever else I thought would help empower “my people.”

In the course of this coming into racial consciousness, I also came to the realization that more important than knowing about history and previous racial achievement, was the knowing of what occurs to us after we expire… and the knowing of the One Who created all of “this.” I had to know the truth about God.

I had to contend with the aforementioned in addition to the typical growing pains of that stage of life, academic responsibilities, and a deep dissatisfaction with myself. It is no wonder that in 20/20 hindsight, I made some less than prudent decisions at that juncture in my life. I had no blueprint to work from and no network of support. But in spite of all that, things did work out… in their own kind of way, praise and thanks to Allah.

With that said, one of the (many) benefits of keeping journals is that it they mark those critical transitional points in life. My journals remind me about the immense transformative potential that exists when we embrace possibility and relinquish negativity and doubt. At present, as I struggle with the need to (in-shaa’ Allah) make some fundamental adjustments in my life, these Journals serve as a reminder that if want wish to grow, then I must have the courage to face uncertainty and change.

*************************

Journal 14 covers the middle part of the summer. I complete my research work on the WPA Slave Narratives and start working at the UMASS Upper Bound program. As I reflect upon this period, like at so many other points in my life, I see that I am spending a lot of time alone. I didn’t mind it, per se. I was the only self-identified Muslim in the program. There were certain behaviors and habits I was trying to pull myself away from, so I wasn’t into socializing too much with my peers. I had some serious questions in my head about God and the purpose of human existence that I could not shake, and petty conversations weren’t going to help me find the answers I was seeking.

One Sunday morning early during the program, I got up performed what I considered to be the Fajr prayer and went for a walk to watch the sunrise. The kids and the staff had all went home for the weekend; it was as if I had the entire UMASS campus to myself. I stood outside eagerly waiting the first glimpse of that yellow orb. The birdsong reached a crescendo as the sun rose over the trees, and I entered a state of subdued ecstasy. I am opening my heart to the unknown. I feel that I am becoming anew.

UMASS Campus Aerial View

(An aerial view of the UMASS, Amherst campus)

Later that day, I go to my first (and only) so-called “Self Realization Fellowship” meeting. I had read Autobiography of a Yogi, by Paramahansa Yoganda and was intrigued by his experiences searching for a guru (a “guide” in Hindu philosophy). I also liked the idea of building a school in a rural area where the youth could receive an academic education, as well as, extensive spiritual training. I didn’t write much in my Journal about the experience other than my attendance, but I do remember there were about a half dozen older (that is, middle aged) white folks. I remembered that there was an image of “Krishna,” who is usually portrayed as almost blue-black in color, but he had been lightened up considerably by the Fellowship.

Aside from the discomfort I had even then with the thought of praying to or invoking images, I could not help but think about the colorism and caste system in Indian society. I was, after all, at that time hyper-sensitive to all matters racial. The colorism of Hinduism, the iconography and outright idolatry of Hinduism prevented me from entertaining the thought of ever going to another one of those meetings. This wasn’t the Truth. I would have to look elsewhere.

Like a lot of Americans out there searching, as I was at the time, and probably for those people in attendance, they are looking for something that they can deem “spiritual” and that their access to spirituality would have to go beyond dogma and ritual. They want to have direct access to “other-worldly” dimensions. Such people recognize that tranquility can’t be found through the possession of trinkets in the materialistic paradigm. Tranquility has to come from within, and with meditation, some people can find a certain degree of peace, but finding some state of stability behind the lids does not necessarily constitute guidance.

I would have to continue to search and try to put together bits and pieces of “truth” as I encountered them until I could find someone who could show me the Way to Straight Path.

Blackman Move On, Ya Gotta Move On Blackman, Move on

Blackman Move On, Ya Gotta Move On Blackman, Move On

The two epigraphs to Journal #13—my first Journal after the completion of college course work—reflected where my head was at the time. The first epigraph was the lyrics (which are the title of this entry) from the Five Percenter rap group called “Brand Nubian.”1 The second epigraph was from fellow Amherst College graduate, Stephen Mitchell, in his translation of the Tao Te Ching, the foundational book of Chinese Taoist philosophy:

Number 67

Some say that my teaching is nonsense.
Others call it lofty but impractical.
But to those who have looked inside themselves,
this nonsense makes perfect sense.
And to those who put it into practice,
this loftiness has roots that go deep.

I have just three things to teach:
simplicity, patience, compassion.
These three are your greatest treasures.
Simple in actions and in thoughts,
you return to the source of being.
Patient with both friends and enemies,
you accord with the way things are.
Compassionate toward yourself,
you reconcile all beings in the world.

From the Five Percenters, like the group called Poor Righteous Teachers, and Rakim, and Brand Nubian, I gained a sense of a grand vision for my people. As Brand Nubian said, “We could live much better than this.” We would, however, have to get united and embrace a life of discipline and a higher code of conduct so we could attain our potential. We would have to heal ourselves from the pain, confusion, and frustration of our 400 year sentence in the “wilderness of North America.” We would have to transcend self-hate. We would have to be compassionate with ourselves… we would have to love ourselves.

Ralph Waldo Emerson said: “The reason why the world lacks unity, and lies broken and in heaps, is, because man is disunited with himself.” Through Stephen Mitchell’s book, I was trying to mend my fragmented self. I was trying to find peace. I knew I could only do but so much to change the world around me. Within, however, I could transform myself, if I were willing to do the necessary healing. Praise Allah, it wasn’t contending with some life altering traumatic experiences–but instead, I had to struggle with a lifetime accumulation of improper living, improper thinking, and improper being. I was going to have to get right with God. I saw no other option.

I felt that the Brothers of the Association I had encountered had a “fire and brimstone” approach to teaching Islam. This does not mean that the Creator of the Universe does not deserve to be feared. But I was, and think this holds true for many people out there who are searching for the Truth, looking to know God, so I could love God. When God is properly known, when a person knows the One Who deserves our ultimate state of subjugation and surrender—deserves our worship–one comes to love himself (or herself) for he understands what is the epitome of his purpose.

Although the Five Percenters, gave me a sense of vision and a sense of a mission, when all was said and done, I was not the Eternal Creator of the Universe. Whatever potentialities that might unfold in the black mind liberated from white supremacy, no human being could rightfully be called “Allah.” From Mitchell’s book, I garnered an abiding sense that there was a prevailing order to the world. This was an inescapable realization given the many summertime hours I had spent immersed in the beauty of Amherst and the surrounding area. Nature had become my mind’s pasture, and it was in that pasture of beauty, I realized this life has a momentous purpose. But again from Mitchell’s book, and other works of Eastern philosophy, I still knew not who was the Creator of this wondrous world. The natural order, as sublime as it is, still does not deserve to be worshiped. The ultimate degree of subjugation and surrender belongs to the Creator of Nature and not to anyone or anything else.

My Journals now take on a different purpose in my life. For one, I would begin to write almost daily for the next year. My goal was to fill up an eighty to one hundred page college ruled notebook each month, and for the most part with that, maa-shaa’ Allah, I was successful. Not only would I write daily, I would write almost anywhere and everywhere. Having graduated, I felt that the intellectual shackles of Academia could be shuffled off, and I could now pursue my own interests as I saw fit.

The Journal became, so to speak, a great “reconciler.” I wrote in the first entry of this Journal: “I want to write, I want to write. I shouldn’t forget that writing is what I wanted to do when I first came to Amherst.” I did intend to go to graduate school, but the first thing I needed to do was to explore and work out the ideas I had in my head. I needed to trust my intellectual-academic hunches. Also, typically in graduate school one tends to narrow his area of study. I wasn’t ready to narrow my studies; I was trying to broaden them in order to put things (in this case, with history, metaphysics, and religion) in their proper perspective. With my Journal, I could write without having to footnote, end note, and otherwise reference with primary sources for the critical eyes of my professors. I could write for me.

Journaling would enable me to slow down my thoughts and delve into the cranium and into the treasure chest of memories. I was pretty much alone at this point, and writing was a source of company and therapy. It was during this time that I would go to the Jones Library (the Amherst town library) and read. I don’t remember now off the top of my head the title, but I read a book of essays by Alice Walker, which further committed me to writing. I could see myself doing this for a living.

Before graduation day, I went to Springfield to visit family. At this point I was in a quandary about what I was going to do in my immediate post-College life. The plan at that point was to perhaps return to Springfield for a few weeks before I would start working at the “Upper Bound” program at the University of Massachusetts. Upper Bound was a program (which I believe is now defunct) for mostly inner city high school youth from Massachusetts to gain some academic skills and experience college life. I had the job lined up with help from the Mentor, but there was about a month before the program began.

My trip to Springfield told me that I could not return. During my three years up in the Valley, I had undergone numerous changes–I had grown in ways I could not have previously fathomed. Amherst opened up new worlds—new universes—to me. Of Springfield, I would write that it gives me a sense of claustrophobia. Although I did feel a responsibility to go back to my home city and help counter the black brain drain (many of the educated or at least moderately functional black folk I knew in high school tended to leave Springfield—as the number of my African-American high school classmates now living in the Atlanta area testifies), I knew that ultimately I could be of little good guiding others if I was still confused about the Truth. And chances were, that I would be less likely to find the Truth in Springfield than I would, perhaps in a major East Coast city.

Having come to that realization—that Springfield was a non-option for the summer or anytime soon thereafter–I decided to stick around on the Amherst campus until the Upper Bound gig started. I considered there were worse places to be than in Amherst, and there were worse things I could do than gaze off from Memorial Hill and meld my mind into the broccoli-crowned greenery of the Holyoke Mountain range. Amherst would be home for yet another summer.

The view from Memorial Hill

The view from Memorial Hill

I worked as a research assistant for the while I was living on campus. [After not seeing him for more than 20 years, I had a chance to reunite with this professor last year, when he came to Ole Miss (University of Mississippi) last year for a lecture.] I would be poring through volumes of the WPA Slave Narratives (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slave_Narrative_Collection) taking notes and helping the prof with a book he was writing about Booker T. Washington. My memory of the things I read is sketchy, but the narratives did drive home to me at the time how deep the legacy of the slave experience was embedded into black culture and the black psyche. Although that was the case, I was convinced that if black folks wanted to liberate themselves, they would have to look beyond slavery and the shores of America to gain a sense of historical orientation. That is one of the reasons why the ancient civilizations of the Nile Valley, Afrocentricity, and Islam appealed to me so much at the time.

I would stay at Tyler Dorm again for the summer. My schedule was flexible. I worked for the Mentor at his shop, and I would go to the library to do research. In the mornings I would steal off to the campus bird sanctuary. There was an underutilized garden at the end of the service road, where I would do yoga postures and meditate. I had returned to meditating in an effort to try to attain the level of internal tranquility and clarity that I had lost during the semester. Again, I had a lot going on in my head, and I had no one I felt I could turn to get the answers to my questions. I simply did what I considered was the best I could do: namely, look within and seek to know at least myself, if nothing else.

As I said, the Journal was also therapeutic. I had read a book by Natalie Goldberg entitled, Writing Down the Bones. One of the chapters was entitled, “Going Home,” in which she discussed the importance of being comfortable with where one is from. Unlike anytime before—or after, for that matter—i was striving to come to grips with the notion of “Home”—not merely in the geographical sense, but also in the sense of my past.

Many childhood memories that would have otherwise escaped me are recorded in those post-Amherst-Amherst Journals. As I sought greater self-understanding by taking trips through the head and excavating memories, I wrote them down, and have them preserved by a mind that is more than twenty years closer to the memories of childhood. It was in those Journals that the then current quest for Truth was merged with the past which had molded my personality, and with that came greater self-understanding and greater self-reconciliation.

 

1The Five Percent Nation, or the so-called “Nation of Gods and Earths” was a splinter faction from the so-called “Nation of Islam.” Both factions teach that the (black male) human being is “Allah.” Ascribing a bodily or spatial characteristic to the Creator is itself blasphemy; hence all the more it is blasphemy to claim that the Creator of the universe is composed of flesh, blood, and entrails.

The Homestretch (Entry #15)

The Homestretch (Entry #15)

In early January, I bus it back to Amherst. Dallas, as a city, was okay, but much of Dallas (at the time) was new and seemed contrived. Dallas, like Memphis, is a large sprawling mass, but Dallas was more modern, and cosmopolitan (that wasn’t necessarily the case for many of the native black folk, who were really my first introduced me to my first experience with Southern Negro culture). Furthermore, many people from all over the country were migrating to Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex. So although Dallas was a tolerable place, at the same time, I missed my Amherst; I missed my peers, and I wanted to return to a more intellectually stimulating place.

Amherst in January, ain’t a particularly fun place, however. It’s cold—i mean real cold—and the days are short. Nonetheless, I wanted to get settled in. I do not know if I am going to graduate, and I don’t care if I do. For the past seven months or so, I had been meditating almost daily. I had immersed my mind into more and more Afrocentric and radical black nationalists writers. My interests in globalist conspiracy theories had also expanded. In addition to that, I am still struggling to submit as a self-identified “Muslim.”

Things like “opening up the third eye” or “out of body experiences” were pretty alien to the hyper-rational skeptical mindset of the folks at Amherst. Similarly, the search for the “masters of the New World Order” hiding behind the curtain did not pique the interests of my peers except with rare exception. I didn’t care about a job or a career—I wanted to know the Truth. And I wasn’t likely to find the Truth working in a cubicle for Fortune 500 company on Wall Street.

It wasn’t that I just wanted the “Truth” for myself, I wanted to resist the endemic evil and injustice that enveloped our world. I wanted to, as Public Enemy said, “fight the powers that be.” It seemed that most students cared not, or at least not enough, however. Although I had a few friends with whom I could “kick it,” I am sinking fast into a world of social and spiritual alienation.

I spoke of Al-Ghazali, and how I thought he provided the blueprint for black liberation. First of all, he provided the “intellectual framework” that (I thought) we black folk could all agree: God is One; the ultimate objective of life is to sincerely worship God. Although I did not have detailed rational proofs for the Islamic Belief at the time, it was beyond evident that Jesus could not possibly be the Creator of the Universe. On the whole, however, most of the black students weren’t interested in hearing what I had to say about what I considered to be “Islam.” Most were content with simply being Christians.

In addition to the Creed, Al-Ghazali talked about the importance of adhering to the Sacred Law, or as I might have put it at the time: adherence to a code of behavior. To quote Malcolm X:

“The black man in the ghettoes, for instance, has to start self-correcting his own material, moral, and spiritual defects and evils. The black man needs to start his own program to get rid of drunkenness, drug addiction, and prostitution. The black man in America has to lift up his own sense of values.”

Although it wasn’t quite as bad as the black ghetto at Amherst, there was a need for moral rectification in order to have unity. My people would not be able to establish a community as long as they did not share a value system–and it had to be a value system based on more than anti-(white) racism. Alcohol and promiscuity were, of course, mainstays of campus life, and as a result, I had seen my share of attractive freshmen girls leave their first year of college as lushes, serial fornicatresses, and head cases. We could not build a community if my African-American Brothers were not going to do right by our black Sisters.

Furthermore, Amherst was a bastion of liberal elitism, moral relativism, and “Political Correctness” (as it’s called). If we could not agree on values (much less on who is God)—or if people considered morality “oppressive” or “evil”—then how could we possibly “unite” and build our “Beautiful Black Nation?” I was now, starting to have some doubts about my nationalistic sentiments. I was growing beyond “Blackness,” for I started to realize that “similarity” in complexion could not be the basis of lasting unity in the utopia I was hoping to build.

Lastly, what I took from my reading of Al-Ghazali was that the “System” I wanted to build would not only comprise a rationally consistent belief in the Creator and a general moral code, but it would have a means for a person to plunge into a world of metaphysics, self-mastery, and genuine spirituality. I understood, even then, that this path would not be for all, but this “System” I was devising had to make allowances for those who wanted something beyond this mundane plane.

With the climate the way it was at Amherst, however, not only did I find folks not receptive to the ideas I was trying to work out, I was also slippin’. Although I did stay pretty disciplined with the diet, I started slacking with my meditation practice. Part of the reason was that I did not have any guidance. The more I meditated, the more I realized there are oceans and oceans of consciousness within, but I knew not where I was going. With all the other things that were going on with me, I wasn’t trying to get lost somewhere in the outer limits of my mind.

The other reason that I stopped meditating was that I simply could not get grounded. It’s hard for a healthy male to get grounded when there are a whole bunch of co-ed thighs walking around. Especially when those thighs were attached to young women who were attractive, intelligent, and engaging. I. Am. Struggling. To. Submit.

It was clear to me at this point that serial fornication wasn’t good for the well-being of the community. However, it did not mean that I didn’t long for, as we would say at that time, “a meaningful relationship.” I did understand that in Islam premarital relations are strictly taboo, but this was something I was struggling with—especially, at a totally secular kind of institution, as Amherst was. Because of my background with yoga and meditation, I had a pretty open mind to celibacy (which is the practice of many Indian yogis and Buddhist monks). And even before I had any kind of religious sentiments, the casual intimacy lifestyle seemed shallow, empty, and pointless. Not only was there the possibility of catching disease and the dreaded “P-Word,” there was that void. There had to be more to life than just “relieving yourself.” I wanted something with depth. I wanted someone I could grow with… someone to come along with me on my quest. I wanted someone to quest with.

To exacerbate this crisis, my crush-friend was on campus—but she was involved with someone else. I had already been relegated to the “friend zone.” In truth, I was too confused to be involved withher or anyone else for that matter (much less, was I in a situation to “keep it halaal” and get married). I was in a struggle with my nafs (base desires), and had little hope that I could win.

I am very fortunate that at this time, the security agencies weren’t that active in entrapping young gullible “Muslims” in acts of terrorism. As I walked about the campus at what I would have called a “New World Order training camp”—struggling to attain self-mastery, and seeing that I wasn’t winning struggle by way of my enervated will power—i considered that perhaps in the moment of so-called “jihad” I could liberate myself from this world and liberate myself from my defects, shortcomings, and sins. Perhaps in this ultimate sacrifice, my “martyrdom” could be an impetus to wake my people up from their slumber.

There wasn’t a whole lot holding me back. I’ve never been a violent person by nature, and I didn’t believe in nihilism, but I knew not what I could do to encourage my people to wake up to the injustices of the world and take substantive steps to rectify them. I felt I had very little to lose. And the only things that held me back was the lack of an enabler (or one who pretended to be so) and a specific target to direct my anger… and the fear that I still did not have the proper understanding about who the Creator is. I was afraid of going into the Afterlife with a bad belief in God.

I just cracked open an entry from late April of that year. Spring is beautiful in Amherst, but my anxiety about graduation and what I would do with my post-College life preoccupied most of my mind. Like I said, I am still struggling with myself, and trying to understand Islam vis a vis Afrocentricity and the ancient Nile Valley civilizations. I am also trying to understand the reason for various religious injunctions, as well as, the position of women in Islam (again from a largely PC-liberal background).

One of the problems I have in this period is the absence of anyone I could deem to be a “guide.” I knew from my readings about Sufism (or at least purported to be about Sufism), the need for a Shaykh (a guide, in this case) was indispensable to making any sort of spiritual progress. My professors and peers didn’t have answers to the kinds of questions I had. The Mentor although he had a lot of life experiences to share and was well versed in black history, he did not seem to have much of a background to answer the questions I had about metaphysics, Sufism, and Islamic theology. As for the university immigrant Muslims I encountered, they were not at all comfortable in talking about racial issues, and I could not relate to the politics of the Middle East.

On occasion I would encounter the Brothers of the Association, but I kept them at arm’s distance. The reason being was that I did not want to let them see me in my obvious state of confusion and doubt—especially, since they were particular keen on talking about apostasy and how doubt (about the principles of Islam) would remove one from the fold of the Faith. I felt I had nowhere to turn, and I wasn’t very confident I could “guide myself.”

With some encouragement from my professors, I did stick with it and ended up graduating from Amherst. I am glad that I did, for I would have always wondered what would have happened if I didn’t (God knows, of course). Nonetheless, although I now had a piece of parchment from a prestigious institution, I was still without a plan and still without a clue.

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The Lone Star Sojourn (Entry #14)

The Lone Star Sojourn

 My hopes to go to take a year off from college are dashed—the course I need to take for graduation is only offered in the spring semester. That would mean that I would have to find out who is God, what is the purpose of life, and and what happens to us after we die… all within four months.

I am going to be Greyhounding it down to Texas—that’s a 36 hour ride on the bus. I had done it before, so I was ready. Not too much stands out in my mind about the trip except that at that time, while I was in the midst of trying to break my desires from the SAD (Standard American Diet), I realized that finding healthy food was at a premium outside of the Happy Valley. The foods at the bus stations were just slabs of highly processed meat steeped in grease. The meat thing wasn’t that big of a deal to me at the time, because I was vegetarian with the occasional fish to get some protein in my system. But it did make me consider what little consideration Americans, in general, gave to what they put in their body.

The other thing that occurred on the trip was I encountered some of Dr. Malachi York’s people in the Philadelphia bus stations. So little did I know that Philly would go on to play such a major role in my life in a couple of more years. At the time, Dr. York’s cult1 was in its quasi-Islamic incarnation of the so-called “Ansarullah community.” They were big in Philadelphia. He (and his followers) was another group I could potentially get with and “do the the knowledge.” From a guy dressed in a white thawb sitting at one of those bus station chairs with a TV monitor, I bought a book entitled (to the effect): The Pale Man is a Disease.

This returns me to the difficulty I was facing trying to have some standard to determine what is wrong and right, what is possible and impossible. At Amherst, a bastion of secular skepticism, the thought of an Afterlife, much less, a re-creation and resurrection of the dead, would’ve been considered a “fairytale from archaic patriarchal (and sexist) religions.” These were also the same people who would reject at all cost that the typical Ancient Egyptian would have been sitting at the back of the bus in Selma, Alabama circa 1955. I figured if they could be wrong about the latter, they could also be wrong about the former. I was skeptical of Amherst’s skepticism, so I was willing to open the wig up as much as possible… to explore the possibilities.

As for my feelings about white people at the time, I had no problem calling them “devils.” It could be possible that not ALL of them were that way, as the Jazz Man had demonstrated, and it was probably my friendship with him that prevented me from going over the edge altogether with race hatred, but the overwhelming majority of whites I had known were either racists, not necessarily white sheet and hood racist, but racist, nonetheless, or they were at least defensive of open racists or complicit with a racist system. They weren’t, as Jazz Man would say, “Down with John Brown.”

Genocidal policies were carried out in the name of white supremacy (it’s enough to consider the namesake of The College and his germ warfare relationship with the Native Americans to catch my drift). These policies were carried out not just by a people who happened to be “white” and were incidentally exterminating others who just happened to be brown or black. They massacred and genocided folks because of their color. And then set up silly, stupid, and schizophrenic social hierarchies based upon the amount of white blood one had—or didn’t have. And I could see how this, as the other Brother Ali said, “poisonous hate still flowed through (many of) their veins,” had sickened the souls of (many) white folk to varying degrees. That’s not to say that all the white folk I knew were like that. Others were trying to do better, but too often they were to wracked by guilt and neuroses to be effectual. And when the Great Race War broke out (ya, I was doing too many Final Calls and Farrakhan cassettes at the time), I couldn’t expect the them to have my back. The Brothers (i.e., fellow African-Americans) were going to have wake up to work this one out.

I had spent several multi-week stints before in Texas, but I had never “lived” there. When arrived, I was determined to increase my dedication to becoming more disciplined and maintaining my regimen. I continued doing stretching routine and took a six week course on hatha yoga. I was getting behind the lids and meditating, usually for two daily sessions: once in the morning for forty-five minutes to an hour and and about half that time in the evening. Frequently I would try to cogitate on the words of Rakim’s, “Follow the Leader”:

Let’s travel at magnificent speeds around the Universe
What could ya say as the Earth gets further and further away
Planets are small as balls of clay
Astray into the Milky Way – world’s outta sight
Far as the eye can see – not even a satellite

As I was within, I would imagine traveling deeper and deeper in space (outer or inner) searching for what I was searching for. I was trying to stretch my mind as much as possible while still maintaining my sanity. I knew that the Truth could not be found by convention. And although I valued research and wide reading, this Truth that I was seeking was not likely to be found between the two covers of a book. Nonetheless, this “Truth” would not contradict the facts of history nor those of common sense.

At this time, I was reading (and implement) Pantanjali’s, Yoga Sutras, which is a famous book of Indian philosophy that discusses many things about inner states of consciousness, among of which is “samhadi”: mental stillness. I wanted to reach a place beyond the fluctuations of the mind. I wanted to withdraw my senses from this ephemeral world. I wanted to attain tranquility; I wanted to attain peace. And I felt that peace could only come from within by gaining mastery over my emotions, focusing my mind, and taming the desires of this physical body. I didn’t have a whole lot to work with—just books, and my neophyte efforts of trying to live a disciplined life but I was willing to give it a try.

Of a most odd synchronicity, it turned out that a Maharishi’s Transcendental Meditation center was less than a ten minute walk from the apartment. I came across it one day while on the way to the Galleria Mall. I was seriously thinking about getting initiated into the TM group, but I had come across some conservative Christian book back in Amherst that was exposing the group saying that in the initiation ceremony, there was an invocation of Hindu so-called deities. Although I was terribly confused regarding Islamic doctrine, I knew that I did not want to commit shirk (take a partner with God) Although I was fascinated by the paranormal, I did not want to involved in practices in which I would be invoking these entities. And to whatever degree my curiosity might still have been piqued about Maharishi’s Meditation technique, the $300 initiation fee quelled further interests.

As for the Galleria Mall, I would work in a small souvenir shop with a couple of young white females. (Ironically, even at the apex of my black nationalist phase, I still found myself working for the “Man”—or in this case, for the “Wo-Man.” (To my credit, so to speak, I only took the job after the Afrocentric school I was to work at did not get up and running.) The job (I considered at the time—I’m not talking about from a Sacred Law perspective) was cool, and I had Fridays off so I would go to the W. D. Mohammed center for their program.

Regarding the W.D. center, I would attend their Friday events, which, as one person has said were akin to Baptist services with the attendees periodically shouting out: “Speak, Brother Imam! Speak!” I could put that aside—i didn’t know anything about rules discouraging one from talking during the khutbah (Friday sermon)—but I didn’t find there what I was looking for. Again, with Islam, I was looking for theological clarity. I wanted to understand the doctrines of the different factions that claimed to be Muslim, and I wanted to know who was right, and how I could logically demonstrate it. My questions were not getting answered.

It was there perhaps, I am not sure, like I said my writing during the time is sparse, that I met a guy named “Jihad.” He had been present at what the followers of W.D. Mohammed call the “First(?) Resurrection”—that is, when Elijah Muhammad died and W.D. Mohammed took over the leadership of the so-called Nation of Islam. Jihad was my mentor of sorts. He worked downtown, selling incense, and passing out fliers on black history from his large duffel bag. I would meet him there, cipher up, and various folks would pass through, whether they be the so-called Hebrew Israelites, some folks involved in neo-Ancient Egyptian metaphysics, a young Five Percenter, who if I remember correctly was from Brooklyn, or plain ole black folks.

Typically, on my days off, after my morning routine, I would throw my “Quest Pack” on my back, with some books, the “Quest Bottle” (a 1.5 liter bottle of Poland Springs) and some raw sunflower seeds (and maybe some pumpkin seeds). I would take the bus downtown to get my stomp on. Once downtown, I’d see Jihad, hit the main library, and the streets trying to “do the knowledge” with my people. Of my hang-outs were several black bookstores (this was a time when black bookstores still carried more than ghetto-drama romance novels), where I would get with folk and we’d call ourselves “gittin’ deep.”

Albeit there was A LOT going on in the dome, I put little of it down on paper. There are not many Journal entries from this period. I believe thirteen in total. I was trying to come to grips with yoga philosophy and meditation, Afrocentricity and the neo-Ancient Egyptian metaphysical system called “Metu Neter,” the works of Schwalller de Lubicz, George James, Anta Diop, the possibility of ancient black populations in Europe (a la David MacRitchie’s, Ancient and Modern Britons), the works of Ivan Van Sertima and the theories of a ancient global diffusion of black people/culture, and what I am calling “Islam.” I am utterly confused. But I am trying to work out some sort of over-arching thesis for ancient civilization that would centrally place the Black Man in history.

In these studies what I am seeing are a lot of cross cultural similarities regarding religion and metaphysical practices. It seems to me that there was a lot more cultural diffusion than the standard Eurocentric model admitted, and that this ancient history could not be understood properly, unless historians stopped trying to overlook, ignore, suppress, and deny the role that ancient black Africans (certainly “black” by standards in the USA) had played. The other thing that struck me was that in the mythology of many of these societies there was talk of “enlightened masters” who came and educated the people and instructed them in the arts of civilization. Furthermore, there seemed to be an acknowledgment of some notion of monotheism, but then over the millenia, people lost sight of the worship of the One Perfect, Eternal, Incomparable God and lapsed into polytheism.2

After about a six week wait, on the day before the 25th of December, I received a copy of Malachi York’s refutation of the Five Percenters…. I thought I was going to have to be institutionalized. He went after everybody: in addition to refuting the Five Percenters themselves, Malachi York attacked Louis Farrakhan, the Saudis, W.D. Mohammed, the “white Arabs,” Sunni Islam, and of course, the Jews and Freemasonry. All at the same time, he was, in essence, demanding that people follow him (and the blasphemous images he claimed were the Prophets… which all looked like him). The book sent my head swirling. I knew not what to make of it, but much of it had, at least a lot of truth to it—I am talking about the dubious political policies of the Saudi regime (even before I truly understood what Wahhabism was, it was clear that the Saudis weren’t straight), the racism in the mosques, and the mass manipulation taking place by the elite of the society.

For worse and for better there was no internet. For worse in the sense there was no way to even try to find out where Malachi York was getting his information from (later, I found out that a lot of York’s “knowledge” about Sumerian civilization and supposed ancient astronauts came from a Jewish author named, Zechariah Sitchin). For better, in the sense that having more data without any scale to weigh it does not lead to guidance but only more confusion. This book was “deeper” and broader than the so-called Pale Man book. Yet, again, I did not have the means to affirm or deny what York was saying. Although I was overwhelmed by the information he was providing, I did have enough sense to try to get to the bottom of the most essential knowledge: that is, Who is God? To that most fundamental of all questions, I could not see where he had a clear answer. After all, by this point, I had already heard our Brothers say: “Allah exists without a place,” and it was pretty much by that statement alone that I judged whether someone professing to Muslim was guided or not.3

During this Lone Star sojourn, I did come across another book that would eventually become pivotal in my being rescued from my heterodoxy and blasphemous confusion. At a used bookstore, I came across a copy of The Life and Times of Al-Ghazali, by the Orientalist, Montgomery Watt. It is a two part book. The first part is a fictional dialogue in which Al-Ghazali refutes a Batini-Shi`ite. Al-Ghazali demonstrates that the true religion would be rationally consistent and not based on “blind faith or “Hidden Imams.” Al-Ghazali asserts that reason cannot be disregarded when seeking to know the truth about the Creator and how to follow the true religion of the Creator. This was exactly what I was looking for given my situation at Amherst. I didn’t just want to call myself “a Muslim,” I wanted to be able to explain the Islamic doctrine, and Al-Ghazali said that it could be done in a rational systematic manner.

The second part of the book is autobiographical. Al-Ghazali was a brilliant Islamic scholar and professor at one of the leading Islamic institutes in the world. However while he was in his early thirties, he had a spiritual crisis and had doubt about his sincerity,4 so he left his post in Baghdad, and lived the life of an ascetic following the path of Sufism. After living in poverty for a dozen years and attaining a high state of spiritual purity and illumination, he returns to Baghdad and teach. And now he teaches not only the orthodox Sunni doctrine and Sacred Law, he also can speak about Islamic spirituality and sincerity from personal experience.

In part two of the book, he talks about the importance of having the proper belief in the Creator, and not adopting heterodox doctrines; he emphasized that one must also adhere to the Sacred Law. But having the correct belief in Allah and outwardly doing the acts of devotion is not enough to save oneself from torture in the Hereafter. A person must have and do the aforementioned with total purity of intent. This means that the base desires must be conquered, the attachments to this evanescent world must be transcended, and the love of showing-off for the creations must be sublimated by a profound and consuming love and fear of Allah, the Lord of everything. That was it. Although I don’t have the details, this is what I am looking for! This would be the formula for liberating my people, and I could get started soon when I return to Amherst.dallas-ultima-gaina-istock_54_990x660

1Dr. Malachi York is a black racist cultist, whose cult(s) have run the gamut from “quasi-Islamic” to pseudo-Israelite, to a fascination with Ancient Sumeria, to Native Americans. Currently he is serving a 100 year sentence for multiple accounts of child molestation.

2I would find out later that this is in essence what Muslims believe. Muhammad was not the first man to call people to “Islam,” but that God had sent thousands of Prophets before him to the various tribes and nations instructing people to worship the Creator and not the creations, and educating them in the arts of civilization. Some of those Prophets were rejected and some were followed by the people, but in time, the pure monotheistic Message of those Prophets was corrupted, and people began to ascribe godhood to one or more manifestations of the creations. This can be seen with how Jesus’ Sacred Message and call to monotheism was later corrupted and Trinitarianism became the standard doctrine of those claiming to following him.

3Simply believing in that statement does not make a person a guided Muslim, but the one who rejects that statement rejects one of the basic tenets of the Islamic belief: the Creator absolutely does not need or resemble the creations; hence the Creator is not a spatial entity and does not require a place or direction to exist.

4It’s not that Al-Ghazali was doubting the proper belief in Allah that caused the crisis but whether or not he was teaching and doing the acts of worship with complete sincerity to God.

Of a Hibernal Hiatus

Some people have asked me if I intend on doing more writing on the Journal blog https://inthisjournal.wordpress.com/. Far be it are my intentions from abandoning the project, God-willing; it’s just that time and more so circumstance have kept me away for awhile. What I have realized over the past few years is that my writing, my Journal writing (electronic or paper) in particular, tends to wax and wane with the seasons. I simply haven’t been successful to date at getting into those artistic modes of mind, when I am sitting inside under the fluorescent lights. I like to Journal write when, as Emily, my fellow Amherst dweller, wrote: “…I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off.”

 Emily Dickinson's Home-Museum

I can do some social commentary and refutation writing indoors, but that isn’t the same kind of writing I wish to generate with the Journal blog. To get in such a writing mode, I need days in which I can marinate outside in the sun, push the eyes w-a-a-a-a-y to the back of the head, and unscrew the lid off the wig. That’s how, maa-shaa’ Allah, I like to get down.

Our winter this year, as described by one of the Brothers, has been “grimy.” The phenomenally mild winter last year (the mildest I experienced since my time in Dubai) spoiled me, I guess. Praise Allah, we haven’t been pounded by subzero temperatures and weekly blizzards, like the northern third of the nation, but our winter has had lots of rain, and when it wasn’t raining, it was cold and dreary, and when not cold, it’s been at least dreary. I think for the entire winter (until now) we haven’t had three consecutive days of seasonally decent weather. Praise Allah, that has changed as of late (my sitting comfortably around back listening to the robins and cardinals fifteen minutes after sundown bears witness to that), and I’ve been able to move my lab outside to where I can have the sun as my lamp and the broad blue sky for my ceiling. God-willing, I can now get into that “Zone” that I’ve been missing for the past four months.

To all those people who have lent support out there, I would like to say, “Thank you.” God-willing this will be a productive year that will bear magnificent results. Any suggestions, criticisms, or other forms of feedback are always welcome.

With Allah is the success.

My Summer Post #13

My Summer

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I have now finished four semesters at Amherst. I have one left (remember: I entered as a transfer student). Unlike many students who have internships, especially in D.C. and NY, I am going to stick around for another summer in the Valley. Not a bad choice. Furthermore, and this would be the prevailing theme for quite a while to come: how could one be concerned about embarking on a career and getting wrapped up in a whole lot of superfluous worldly responsibilities when one still doesn’t know who God is and what happens to us after we die.

By the time the summer comes around, I am meditating daily. I would write: “I went forth into self to seek knowledge.” I am implementing a level of discipline and consistency in my life I never had before. I also was, at least calling myself, praying pretty consistently (but at the time, I was distant from having the proper Islamic belief, so I wasn’t praying in reality). I was also working more and more on my diet.

1 yoga-meditation-5-tips-new-frequency-ftr

From the meditation, I could increasingly see how what one eats influences one’s thoughts and emotions. Different foods (and I could add, different combinations of foods) cause different thoughts to arise in the mind and different feelings to manifest in the heart. As I strove to attain deeper and deeper states of meditative stillness, the desire for unhealthy foods naturally decreased. Sometime that summer I went full-fledged vegetarian (sans fish on occasion). There were struggles—real struggles—against the cravings for my former diet, especially refined sugar cravings, but when I kept in mind how the unhealthy foods would make it harder to reach stiller states of consciousness, it made it easier for me to prevail. I also became very conscious of just how much of our psyche is driven by “gut stuffin’” desires. Among my fonder dietary memories of the time was eating what I used to call “Third-Eye Salads.” These forehead twitching salads were composed of romaine lettuce, carrots, celery, spinach, onions, alfalfa sprouts (sometimes), red and green peppers, yellow squash, sunflower seeds and whatever else that was natural, colorful, and healthy.

It is absolutely beautiful here in the summertime.” I’m experiencing another summer amidst the rolling hills of broccoli heads as far as one could see. It’s so green. It’s so lush that the eyes cannot get enough of the natural beauty of Amherst in the summertime. I would stay at Tyler House, which was in a more secluded area of the Amherst campus. This seclusion lent itself well to someone who wanted to meditate outside an hour or more daily, and read, and read, and read and ponder what life is all about. Unlike the summer before, which was more social, this summer not many people were around. But… but my Texas “crush-friend” was be there, and that didn’t contribute to having the kind of emotionally tranquility I ideally desired. Nonetheless, her presence—and the “not more than friends” relationship between the two of us—was, in part, the impetus for me getting behind the lids. There had to be something more substantial to life than having a girlfriend and a career in corporate America. I needed knowledge of self… and I needed to know who is God.

The meditation opened up the world of dreams. There was one dream I had in particular at the time that I still remember pretty well. (In the dream) I was with The Mentor at a park down in the Springfield area (the same park we had went to for a recent Eid picnic). Perhaps we were playing softball, but for some reason I looked up to the sky, and I see that the clouds are coalescing into the image of “Buddha.” The other people—who are suppose to be Muslims—also notice, and they start taking out their prayer rugs and putting them on the ground to prostrate to this “vaporous image in the sky.” I remember shouting at the top of my lungs: “I want to worship ALLAH!”—and then I woke up.

Something just occurred to me as I write above the above dream. Aside from rejecting the idolatry that was rampant in the yoga and New Age books on meditation I was reading, and rejecting some traces of Wahhabism1that might have infected me (although, I never was an adherent to the Wahhabi ideology), I remember now that when I was growing up that my “image of God” was that of an African man dressed up in tribal dress sitting cross-legged, like the Buddha statue that was on our living room table.

I never prayed to that mental image (or the statue), or thought that something like that image was the Creator of the universe, but that was the image that would involuntarily pop up in my head when the word “God” was mentioned.2 I think that having that image—as invalid and as blasphemous as I would say it is today—did prevent me from succumbing to the type of psychological slavery that many African-Americans who believe that Jesus (who is almost always portrayed as someone who could pass for a Northern European) is God have suffered from. As jacked-up as I was growing up in matters of race and religion, I never thought of God as being a white man.

Other things were also happening the metaphysical level that I would ascribe to the meditation. On the first day of July that summer I would write: “The concept of ‘spirit’ is truly beginning to materialize more concretely.” I don’t know if that was an intentional play on words or a “Freudian slip,” but I was increasingly becoming more aware of non-material realities. God knows how much of it was due to the influence of the jinn3 and how much was the result of doing the exercises and meditation, but I was now experiencing some of what is reported in the books on yoga meditation and in New Age literature, such as, having Kundalini awakenings, which were as terrifying as they were fascinating. Again, what is happening at this stage is a dissolution of my skeptical mind—there is something more to life (and death) than what is propounded by standard Western materialistic philosophy. Now although, I was becoming increasingly “open-minded” to other realities that couldn’t be realized by skepticism, I had no formal method to filter these thoughts to discern the fallacious from the consistent—nor the good from the bad.

There’s is just a whole lot going on in the attic, and I didn’t seem able to find anyone with whom I can share my concerns or get answers to my questions. My professors didn’t seem to be concerned with who is God, death, and the Afterlife. My peers, many of whom were fretting over law, medical, or graduate school, seemed to me more concerned about this life than what’s to come after it.

I was formally taking “lessons” with the “Brothers” at this time. However, the approach at the time seemed very rigid, overly legalistic and too dogmatic—that is, I was learning that one must do such-and-such (or avoid such-and-such) and believe such-and-such to stay out of Hellfire. Also, there was the matter of apostasy: I was being taught there were matters that a Muslim could believe, do, or say that would nullify his Islam and cause one to be condemned to Hell… forever. And this could happen (that is, one could fall out of Islam) without one knowing it. But I, on the other hand, wanted to know how to still the mind in meditation, activate the pineal gland, and go astral traveling. I was looking for that “deep stuff”—i was trying to understand the metaphysical nature of self, so I could gain self-mastery, so I could break myself from the distractions and attachments of this world, so I could be devoted to nothing but God.

Nonetheless, I had to acknowledge that if these Brothers were right—if it were the case that a Muslim could do (or believe or say) something that would take him out of the fold of Islam and that the consequence of such would be absolute perdition—then I could not afford to be wrong. However, I had no way of independently verifying what the Brothers were saying, so I continued to search.

It seems that something did not stick with me, or that I just missed the lesson about how Muslims know Prophet Muhammad was a Prophet. What the standard literature purportedly about Islam of the time said was that the Qur’an was Prophet Muhammad’s miracle—and some sources said his only miracle. Groups, like the W.D. Community, regarded the miracles of the Prophets as matters merely “symbolic” in nature. I had no real understanding about how the Qur’an was supposed to be a miracle—and the college course I had taken that spring didn’t help in that regard. Consequently, I had no firm knowledge or certitude that the Prophet Muhammad was absolutely truthful in all that he conveyed from the Creator.4 It just seemed that many Muslims just accepted Muhammad’s Prophethood as a matter of “faith” without offering any persuasive proofs.

What I tried to do was understand the Islam, especially the eschatological5 teachings of the Prophet, by way of other religions—in particular, Eastern religions and what sense I could make of traditional African religions, and what was available of the teachings ascribed to the Ancient Egyptians. The belief in One Perfect Creator, Who alone deserves to be worshiped, Who exists without time or place seemed so self-evident and indisputable that I figured there had to be other religions or philosophies out there that taught the same. But I couldn’t find such teachings in the yoga-Hindu philosophy I was reading; Buddhism didn’t have it; and the New Age authors I was reading would speak about different religions and what they called “enlightened masters” but would almost without exception ignore the life and teachings of Prophet Muhammad (sallallahu `alayhi wasallam).

I was also at this time still trying to figure out “what happened to the Black Man?” Wherever I looked in my studies, black people—or dark-skinned people—were typically at the bottom of the social order. This applied not only to the areas that had come relatively recently under the rule of European colonial powers. This was also the situation in India where a caste system/social order was developed wherein the “outcasts” happened to be the darker skinned people. The same could be said in other parts of Asia and the Middle East. The “Afrocentric” literature I was reading had all sorts of theories for this seemingly worldwide phenomenon. This issue would lead down a long line of historical investigation and research over the next couple of years.

That summer I worked part time at the Mentor’s shop and made enough money to keep crunching on “psychedelic salads” and to keep buying books. This was my summer. This was a summer fertile with contemplation, self-discovery, and solitude. I would reflect: “Who could conceive of such a plan—regarding the transformation(s) that have taken place at Amherst?” I was worlds removed from the micro-minded universe I dwelt in while residing in Springfield. But my time at Amherst was rapidly coming to an end—and I was far from ready to leave my Western Massachusetts Shangri-La. I decided that I would take the year off, and stay with some family down in Dallas, Texas, where I could work, buy books at the black bookstores, meditate, and find the Truth about this life and what’s beyond, and find the Truth about the Creator of the Heavens and the Earth.

Praise be to Allah, the Lord of the Worlds.

1Wahhabis, although they refer to themselves typically as Sunnis and “Salafis,” actually are a faction of literalists and extremists who claim that the Creator is a giant shadow-casting object with organs and limbs that exists above Paradise. (True) Muslims, on the other hand, believe that Allah is clear of all bodily and spatial characteristics and that Allah exists without being inside a place or in a direction.

2Muslims believe that the Creator is absolutely Incomparable and cannot be imagined. Since God is not a temporal or spatial entity, and since God existed before light and before darkness, it is impossible for the human mind to imagine Allah. One of the golden maxims of the Muslim creed is “Whatever you imagine in your mind, Allah is different from that.”

3The “jinn” are interdimensional beings that are normally unperceived by humans. In different cultures, they are called different names (“spirits,” poltergeists, “ghosts”—although not truly the disembodied dead, but the jinn taking on the form of the deceased) but are virtually universally recognized by all religions. The jinn account for much of the (genuine) paranormal activity that occurs. And what many cultures/religions refer to as their so-called “gods” are in reality jinn who have deceived people into worshiping them.

4Muslims say that the Prophets are select men who receive Divine Revelation from the Creator (usually conveyed by the Archangel Gabriel). The Prophets are men of the highest moral order; they do not lie, betray, cheat or engage in any behavior that would detract from reliability in conveying the Divine Revelation. God empowers the Prophets to demonstrate their Prophethood by the performance of miracles, which are extraordinary acts, that can’t be matched or outdone by an opponent, and that these acts are in accordance with that Prophet’s claim. Prophet Muhammad performed hundreds of miracles; some of which have reached us by tawaatur (that is, events that were witnessed by large numbers of people and conveyed to large numbers in such a manner that it is inconceivable that all those people conspired to lie or fabricate). From this, one is required to believe in everything the Prophet Muhammad conveyed from his Lord.

5Eschatology is the branch of religious doctrine that deals with the events at the end of the world and the Afterlife.

Behind the Lids, the Back of the Bus, and Other Stuffs (Entry #12)

Praise and thanks to Allah,

 Behind the Lids, the Back of the Bus, and Other Stuffs

Other stuffs first…. I am, to the best of my ability and resources, going to try to figure this whole thing out—about black history, about politics, about religion… about God.

In the latter part of my third semester at Amherst, several students went to the “black Dean’s” house for Turkey Day. Although I was thinking about going off to the big city—to New York—after (or even before) I graduated, the Dean asked me a question that would there on end have me re-evaluate whether that was what I really wanted to do. It was with my runnin’ partner, my “co-revolutionary” half-Jewish/half black brother on campus, who put the thought in my head. He brought up the topic of raising children. I had to think that raising my kids in the inner city, while I was doing “radical-revolutionary” grassroots organization probably wasn’t the best idea.

 The Dean asked me if I liked Amherst? Now unlike all the other black students at Amherst, I was the only “homeboy.” (Actually, there was a guy that I was in Algebra class with back at Classical High, who transferred to a prep school, and then went to Amherst, but he graduated the semester before this time.) I grew up in Springfield, which is just twenty-five miles away. But Amherst was a world removed from life in Springfield, and I was suffering from a decent amount of culture shock at “The College,” and this was exacerbated by my recent “racial awakening.” I had considered “being urban” was part of “being genuinely black,” I had to concede, however, that I actually did like life in Amherst. There were plenty of well-to-do kids with their share of issues and hang-ups at Amherst, but I liked the fact that there was little crime, the people were in general friendly, they were well-read and could engage in stimulating conversations, and many were widely traveled. The people on campus were not narrow-minded. And much the same could be said about the people of the town of Amherst. I appreciated that.

I also, in my heart of hearts, was a country guy. As I mentioned earlier, some of my most memorable times in childhood were being alone in the woods of Sixteen Acres in Springfield and then later in my community college days fishing some of the many ponds and streams in Western Massachusetts. So my answer to the Dean’s question was, “Yes.” Indeed, I did like Amherst. To that her response was: “We should all live in places like Amherst,” and I know exactly who she meant by “we.” That short exchanged has continued to inform my life—that to make a difference in “my people’s” lives, it doesn’t require that I necessary have to live and work in the inner city, but like for myself, being offered an alternative to the “hood” and seeing another way of living could make all the difference.1

For this wannabe radical, there was a lot going on at Amherst. For Black History Month, the Black Student Union had invited Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stokely_Carmichael)2 to campus to speak.

Stokley Carmichael (AKA Kwame Toure)

Stokley Carmichael (AKA Kwame Toure)

Johnson Chapel was packed to the rafters, because of the controversy surrounding him and some statements that he said in the past that didn’t make some Jewish folks happy. I introduced him, and it was first time since childhood that I had spoken to a large group of people. To put it mildly, I was nervous. Stokely spoke about how the Gulf War—Desert Storm—which had just begun, would be the catalyst for a worldwide “people’s revolution” (just in case you didn’t get the memo, that didn’t happen).

We also had the opportunity to spend some time with him—we even went to a “soul food” restaurant down in Springfield. I remember him saying that he couldn’t become a Muslim because he couldn’t give up pork.3 And although I loved the revolutionary rhetoric, there also seemed to be something missing. Fundamental matters, like who is God and what happens to us after we die did not seem to be a major concern of his. I was going to perhaps, look beyond black radical politics to try to get answers to these questions.

 I don’t remember precisely when it began, but at some point I started to become more concerned about my diet and health. I hadn’t been too far removed from almost living on Double Whoppers with (extra) cheese back in my Burger King days, and my dietary habits hadn’t changed much in the early days of Amherst. I did go vegetarian the year before for about two days after seeing what was probably a PETA sponsored documentary about the treatment of factory farm animals. That experiment didn’t last long because I didn’t know how to replace the animal protein. I’ve always (maa-shaa’ Allah) had a high metabolism, and going without meat made my knees knock. Anyway, now that I was becoming a “conscious black brother,” I also started to become more aware of my eating habits. Perhaps, it was the prompting of the Mentor, or the Five Percenters speaking about the “poisonous animal eaters,” or reading Elijah Muhammad’s book called, How to Eat to Live, that I started become more aware of the importance my dietary habits.

I could sense that my body was seriously out of balance, and that I needed to gain more discipline over myself. I wanted to exercise (and I did lift weights) but I wanted a type of routine that would bring my body into balance. My first year at Amherst I played quite a bit of basketball, but after listening to a Farrakhan tape that fall about the “Black Athlete,” and how he compared the black athlete to the modern day slave (replete with trading seasons), I stopped playing basketball almost altogether. I was now thinking about how to heal and strengthen my body more so than just seeking physical activity.

At some point, and I am not quite sure when, I took up an interest in yoga,4 and I am not quite sure if it was first motivated by my desire to try to improve my physical health or it was a desire to seek a deeper “knowledge of self,” which I felt might be found through meditation.5 What I was seeking was a knowledge beyond books. I wanted to find the Truth and experience the Truth.

During the winter break, the Mentor had taken Jazz Man and I to the Islamic center in West Springfield (back then it was just a ranch house). Unbeknownst to me at least, it was expected that we were to say the Declaration of Faith6 to embrace Islam. It was an awkward moment for me. At the time I still had a multitude of questions and doubts that were circulating about in my mind: whether it was about the history of the “Asiatic Blackman,” Islam and democracy, women’s issues, revolutionary politics, how do I know for sure that there is an Afterlife, or that Prophet Muhammad was a Prophet,7 how do I understand Islam vis-a-vis other religions. I also, would soon come to realize that there were more theological controversies than just “orthodox Muslims” and the so-called Nation of Islam—or Sunni Muslims and the Shi`ah Muslims.

Amherst’s, and the approach of Academia in general, towards matters “metaphysical,” “spiritual,” or “religious” is one of extreme skepticism. I was also skeptical by temperament about such matters, and Amherst fed that skepticism. Yet, I still held in my heart, especially after my existential crisis of the year before, that there simply had to be something more to existence than this mundane material world. But how would I gain certain knowledge about that, and how could I demonstrate it to others?

I did say the Declaration of Faith—but, like I said, I had lots of doubts and confusion about elementary matters of Islam; hence, in reality, I did not become a Muslim. Nonetheless, I started thinking myself to be Muslim—although, I knew myself to be confused and utterly incapable of rationally defending what I believed. I couldn’t defend what I believed because I didn’t know what I believed.

What I did “know” at the time is that only God deserved to be worshiped (whoever or whatever God) may be). I wasn’t going to worship statues or animals or Jesus or shining things up in the sky.8 I knew that the Bible couldn’t possibly be the “Word of God” (and that was never an issue for me anyway). I believed that Prophet Muhammad was a unique man in history—not only was he the leader of a government but also a religious and spiritual leader and that his religion transformed a multitude of people on three continents. Given my mindset at the time, I considered the Prophet Muhammad the world’s greatest “revolutionary,” and that his life could form the model for the revolutionary society that my black people were going to bring about.

During this time—my fourth semester at Amherst—i took a course that was suppose to be about “Prophet Muhammad and the Qur’an.” The class, for me, was a disaster, for although the professor was from Muslim ancestry, the approach was the typical approach of the Orientalists. (Although to the credit of the professor, he did try to dissuade me from taking the course saying that this wouldn’t be best for a a new convert—nonetheless, I took the course because I wanted to learn as much as I could about (what I thought to be) my new religion.) The materials that we read were not to prove that Muhammad was the Prophet of God or that the Qur’an was true, but they were attacks on him and his character and the Qur’an. Not having any training in traditional Islamic sciences left me defenseless, confused, and having even more doubt. I had no standard by which to weigh these criticisms other than by the standards of those making the criticisms.

As I said, I came to realize that there were many theological controversies among those who self-identified as Muslims. How could I get to the bottom of things and know who is right? Again, I had a sense (not the proper sense, but some sense) that there is One God and that God alone deserved to be worshiped. I also figured that a person maligned as much as the Prophet Muhammad was by the “white man” that there had to be something special about him. And it was the simplicity and purity of the Prophet’s call to the people to the worship the Creator and not the creations that made me continue to identify as a Muslim amidst my doubts and confusion.

At some point in this period, I came across writings about “Sufism”—or at least purported to be about Sufism. Sufism seemed to be the ultimate path, for the Sufis were the people who had conquered themselves by subduing their physical and egotistical desires for the sake of God. They had seen through the veil of this deceptive world and devoted themselves to preparing for the Hereafter. It was at a point that I was beginning to realize that my Happy Valley college sweetheart (“Miss J. Crew in a Hijab”) might not materialize. I was also starting to read the likes of Eustace Mullins, and other conspiracy theory authors. If I wasn’t going to get the pretty co-ed, and if this world is controlled (at least on the human-political level) by dark diabolical forces, then the most prudent thing to do would probably be to withdraw from this world the best I could.

I was also in the middle of a “crisis of faith” with the religion I was identifying with. The theological controversies that I was reading about regarding the “Philosophers,” the “Shi`ah factions,” the “Sufis,” the “modernists,” the “Sunnis,” the “Mu`tazilah” were all too arcane for me to grasp. The names were too foreign for me to keep track of. The geographical locations too unfamiliar. It was during this latest crisis that one day while sitting in the back part of the bus, I heard some guys behind me talking about Islam. I turned around to introduce myself, probably with something like: “Salom-laikum.” In all likelihood, these Brothers could instantly tell that I was a real work in progress.

They invited me to their apartment, and I got my first introduction to genuine traditional Islamic knowledge. Although, at that earliest stage, little stuck. I had just too much jumbled confusion up in my head, and I had no standard to evaluate the legitimacy (or illegitimacy) of what was in my discombobulated brain. I do, however, remember one day getting a ride back to Amherst College, and sitting with one of the Brothers for a while outside of North Dorm in his car talking about Sufism and his previous experiences with meditation. I also, remember in one of those earliest sessions one of the Brothers saying to me: “Allah exists without a place.” Although I didn’t have the proper understanding of the statement at the time, I knew that these guys had some sort of systematic approach to explaining the Muslim belief—something that I desperately longed for.

Nonetheless, I was not completely sold. For one, as I asked around, it reached me that these guys were a “controversial group.” They even had an incident with my Mentor—and he let me know about it. Also, these guys were warning me about different books on the market and different, what I deemed at the time to be, “Islamic” personalities. It was too much too soon for me. They seemed too strict and too rigid for me. Although, I continued to learn for a while, I kept my confusion and doubts to myself.

I figured the best way that I could try to get at the Truth and find peace would be through “knowledge of self”—a knowledge that I could not have doubt about. I elected to get down behind the lids. Breathing exercises, yoga postures, and the meditation helped dissolve the skepticism that once had encumbered my mind. I am not the type of person who is likely to accept something just because someone says so. I want either a logical demonstration or experiential knowledge to convince me. Meditation seemed to suit me, for it isn’t something you just read about and then theorize—one has to do it. One has to apply his knowledge and use it for self-transformation. Through the meditation, I came to realize that there were other—deeper—levels of consciousness, and I had different experiences that made me realize that the Western academic skeptical-materialistic worldview was wholly inadequate for realizing human potential—the potential I felt that my people needed to achieve.

While I was embarking on this metaphysical quest, I met X’s, as I’ll call him, roommate. X was a student at UMASS, and one might say he was ideally, the quintessential “black Renaissance Man.” He was a tall handsome guy with athletic build, who had his way with the members of the fairer gender. But there was also something in him that made him yearn for something more. X had some academic and intellectual aspirations and he, too, yearned for something beyond the mundane. That spring, X had a Caribbean roommate who was on an entirely different metaphysical level. This roommate was involved with Maharishi’s “Transcendental Meditation” movement.

One evening while visiting the apartment, the roommate sat down with us and started talking about meditation and the different stages that the mind goes through before attaining, as he called it, “enlightenment.” This was a talk that totally fascinated me. According to him, by self-discipline, control of the thoughts, and detachment from the material world, one could attain—in this life—a state of contentment or even bliss. It was also clear from his persona that he was not just theorizing, but that he had developed the discipline to attain certain states of consciousness. I wanted to know more. And he briefly acted as a sort of “guru” for me, encouraging to meditate, get on a vegetarian diet, and even to keep up with my studies of Islam.

I am quickly starting to exhaust my stay at Amherst. I would only have one more semester left at The College, and I felt there was no way I was ready to go out into the “real world” without knowing who is God and what happens to us after we die. I would now plunge even further behind the lids.

_____________________________________

1Recently, I came across this quote ascribed to Albert Einstein that reflects my sentiments regarding the “Black Problem” today: “You can not solve a problem from the same level of consciousness that created it.” That is, the problems of the inner city are not likely to be fixed while people still live in the inner city and have “ghetto mentality.” Part of the solution is to get those young people who show promise out of the inner city and introduce them to different ways of living.
3It is not a condition that a person give up pork (or other sins) for a person to embrace Islam. The person converts first, and then works on fulfilling other religious duties.
4As for the philosophy of yoga, it contains many ideas that are contrary to the basic principles of Islam, such as, believing in pantheism (the erroneous belief that God is everything and everything is God), which is one of the reasons for Hindus praying to a multitude of entities, because they claim that all things are a “manifestation of God.” (Muslims say that the creations are not God, but are all signs that demonstrate God’s Existence). Also, yoga philosophy promotes the blasphemous idea reincarnation.
5As for meditation, in Islam, there are meditaion practices, but these should be done under the supervision of a qualified Shaykh (spiritual guide).
6The Declaration of Faith is the saying: “Nothing is worthy of worship except Allah, and Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah.” With the proper understanding and desire to become Muslim, this is all that is required for one to embrace Islam (one doesn’t, for instance, need to have witnesses or take a ritual bath beforehand).
7At the time, I didn’t even have clear understanding of what a Prophet was, much less the necessary and befitting attributes of the Prophets.

Poor Righteous Teacher (Entry #11)

Poor Righteous Teacher

(Entry #11)

That fall I plunged into black nationalism. I believe I was “sincere” in that pursuit, that is, I wasn’t trying to get knowledge so I could take advantage of others or gain notoriety. I just wanted to find the Truth and wake myself and my people up. I read Eric Lincoln’s and Udom’s books on the “Nation.” The interviews with Elijah Muhammad and the leading ministers in those books, and their understanding of the black psyche, life in the urban ghetto, the black family, black male-female relations, the legacy of slavery, the cowardly bourgeois Negroes, the nature of white racism, etc. all seemed unerringly accurate. Also, my next door neighbor in Drew House provided me with a short book on the accomplishments of the “Nation.” I could not understand why the Nation did not figure more prominently in the history of black America. The more I read, the more I wanted to know about this organization.

At this time, “Jazz Man” (the really cool white guy) as I’ll call him, was doing some volunteer work down in Springfield with young black males who were trying to prepare for their GED’s. Amongst his students were a couple of “Five Percenters”—one of whom was relatively well-versed in the “Lessons.” Before I go any further, let me make it ABUNDANTLY CLEAR that I do not subscribe to the Five Percent ideology and was never an actual member of the “organization.” As a Sunni Muslim, I believe in One, Perfect, Eternal Creator, Who is the Creator of everything and absolutely does not need or resemble anything. The Creator exists without time, place, or direction. Whatever one imagines, God is totally different from that.1

The Five Percenters took the doctrine of the Nation to an even further extreme. Among the beliefs of the Five Percenters is that every black man is “Allah.” When they greet each other, they will say: “Peace, God.” And they claim that the word “Allah” is an acronym for Arm-Leg-Leg-Arm-Head. Of course, after I learned the traditional Sunni `Aqidah (Doctrine) such claims were seen as hideous blasphemies and slanders against God, but at that time, I had no (sound) standard to weigh their beliefs against. (In my mind at the time) if some people could ascribe Godhood to a single man, like Jesus, then why couldn’t the same be ascribe to a group of men, in general? I didn’t know how—or if—logic and reason could be applied to knowing what is proper to believe about God.2

What I didn’t believe was that the black man was literally God, the Creator of the Universe, but that if one were to live a “righteous life,” and attain a high level of self-mastery through self-study and self-control—control of physical and egotistical impulses, through things like meditation, fasting, and general self-denial, then such a person could possibly gain uncustomary powers that would make him appear, “like a god,” compared to the masses. And in attaining this “degree,” one could “show and prove” the truthfulness of the Five Percent Lessons and the potential of the black mind once it was liberated from the shackles of white supremacy. That’s what I kinda thought, but the Five Percenters, typically didn’t see it that way.

I was attracted to the Five Percenters’ poetical-mystical talk about (what they considered to be): “civilization,” “refinement,” “knowledge of self,” “ciphers,” “building,” “wisdom,” “justice,” “science,” “mathematics,” etc. These were the street corner chivalric knights I sought—men, like Malcolm, who had knowledge of the streets, but held themselves up to a high standard of morality. I had never heard folks coming off the cornas using such language before. Also, the rap of that era was permeated with Five Percent lyrics. This included people and groups like, Daddy Kane, Brand Nubian, King Sun, Gang Starr. There was Rakim, who when my Homeboy first turned me on to his flow, I knew that he was different, but now, because of my growing knowledge of the Five Percenter ideology, I realized that Rakim was actually “rapping in Five Percent code talk.” Perhaps, the most influential rapper—after Rakim—was Boy Wise (as he was called at the time). He was, as I considered then, the Five Percenter ghetto visionary. I, too, wanted to be a “Poor Righteous Teacher,” who would bring the “knowledge of self” to my mentally dead people.

The Five Percenter rap act that was known as,

The Five Percenter rap act that was known as, “Poor Righteous Teachers.”

Again, I felt that this propagation of (what I considered to be) “positive rap” was another sign that the “Brothas were gonna work it out.” We were undergoing a radical metamorphosis—even our language was being transformed. Instead of rappin’ about parties and break dancin’, we (meaning, my people) were rappin’ about consciousness and elevation. The reality, however was much different. Since each Five Percenter literally believes that he is God, the Creator, and that he creates his own universe in which he makes his own laws, then talking to them about moral discipline becomes pointless. Yes, they do profess to follow the “Lessons,” but since each Five Percenter is allegedly God, then, each one of them is free to interpret their lessons anyway they see fit.

One could see how a person who had some kind of an ethical scope to begin with would fall into moral relativism and circumstantial morality—so what about those who were probably criminals, dope fiends, and other kinds of miscreants before coming into contact with the Five Percenters? The Five Percent poetical-mystical jargon was used largely to justify following their base desires, like saying: “I smoke reefer to refer to my intellect,” or to take advantage of weak-minded females by telling them things, like, “The Blackman needs to plant his seed into his Earth,” which in Earthling talk means: “I wanna fornicate with you and leave you with an illegitimate child.” (That’s the clean “Earthling” version.)

One of the things that was appealing to me about the so-called Nation of Islam was the discipline of its followers. The Five Percenters had little of that. Also, the Nation built institutions, but since the Five Percenters had no authority higher than themselves, it wouldn’t be likely that they could actually work together for any extended time. On the one hand, I liked what the Nation was able to accomplish in terms of building businesses and other institutions, but at the same time, I didn’t trust it as a hierarchical religious organization. The Five Percenters didn’t have the hierarchy—but then they also had no discipline or practical way to organize and build (by building, I don’t meaning running off at the mouth, but establishing “real-actual” institutions). I knew I wanted guidance, which the Five Percenters didn’t have, and the Nation’s I didn’t trust.

A lot of this seems like a big waste of time (or worse) to someone who has studied traditional Sunni doctrine. Much of what these characters did was just babble blasphemies upon blasphemies.3 But again, at that stage, I had no consistent standard to evaluate things (as one of the Brothers recently said: before learning traditional Sunni knowledge, we did not truly know how to think rationally). I was skeptical about “logic” and “reason” as taught by the Eurocentricists, so I was willing to lend my ear to these people for much longer than I should have. And even early on, I could see that quite a bit of what the Five Percenters was saying was just gibberish. They claimed they weren’t Muslims (which, of course, they aren’t) but at the same time took their teachings from the “Nation,” which did, of course, claim to be an Islamic organization. The Five Percenters would copiously quote (what they considered to be) the Qur’an—i.e., Yusuf Ali’s or Muhammad Ali’s misinterpretation of the Qur’an. It was clear from ANY reading of either book that one of the dominant themes of Islam is that Muslims believe in only ONE God. Yet, the Five Percenters claimed that there were hundreds of millions of Gods (a`udhubillah!).

Also, it was beyond odd that although the Five Percenters (and the Nation) claimed that white people were devils, yet, they claimed that “Allah” was Fard Muhammad, who was said to have been born to a white woman! The Qur’an is EXPLICIT in the 112th chapter that Allah doesn’t bear or father children and Allah was not born. Even in my untoward mind, this didn’t seem right… the Five Percenter “math” wasn’t addin’ up. Later, I would realize that the Five Percent Doctrine seems to induce some sort of psychosis upon many of its followers as they get older. After all, you are talking about a largely dysfunctional subclass of people who are on the bottom of the social pecking order infested with all sorts of pathologies claiming that they are the Perfect, Incomparable Creator of the Universe. This is delusional egomania in the grandest sense. Here is an example of one who, aside from being white, doesn’t seem particularly atypical (warning: this contains A LOT of blasphemy):

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZZoNHtZX2a4

What I took from the Five Percent rhetoric was the importance of acquiring self-knowledge—knowledge that would be beyond the walls of the college classrooms or even beyond books, in general.  Also, I realized, contrary to the sort of revolutionary-Marxist perspective I was getting from the standard black nationalists, we needed something more than mere political power, economic power, or cultural power. I concluded that we needed “God power,” for there is nothing greater than God. That is, if we could get ourselves right with God, then God would give us the strength and what we needed to overcome racism, white supremacy, and reach our full potential… but that realization only led to the next and more profound question: Who truly is God?

2Please see the following on the place of reason in Islam: http://www.shaykhabdullah.com/2012/04/23/sources-of-knowledge-3/

3To prove that the Blackman (or any other human being) is not God, it is enough to look at the fact he/we are bodies. Bodies, by their very nature, require space in order to exist. Allah does not need space (or any other creation) to exist. Allah is not a material or spiritual being; Allah is not a spatial entity. Allah existed before the creation of space, distance direction, light, and darkness.  Allah is the Creator and everything else is a creation.

Another elementary proof that the human can’t be God is because the human being is originated and not beginningless. Since a person has not always existed, he (or she) could not bring himself into being. He could not “will himself into existence,” because to have a will would require that the person (or being) would already exist. Hence, it is absurd to say something acted before it existed. Instead, all the creations were created by the Creator, the One One Who has no beginning and no origin. Furthermore, if the Blackman were literally God and the white man was the devil, then the Five Percenters are claiming that Almighty Originator of the Universe was conquered by an abominable creation.

What Time Is It? Nation Time! (Post #10)

Nation Time

What Time is it?

 

(Go to 40:40: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cCLPzkeK9S81)

That summer my mind was stretched to the extent that it could never return to its former dimensions.   As I pour through those summer Journals, I see that “revolution” is a dominant theme: Power to the People—with a strong black fist held defiantly in the air.  I am down for the cause—I am down for my people.  I had awakened from what felt like a lifelong slumber, and now I awaited the black students to return to Amherst, so I could share with them this new found “knowledge of self” that I had gained over the summer.  And I wanted to take this knowledge back to my people on the streets, as well.  For I thought, if only my people were to know about their history, their achievements, their heritage, if they could get reconnected with Mother Africa, then we would have the power of self-love and the unity to overcome white supremacy, and we could mend our collective fractured psyche.… and we’d have the power to start building, to start building our own Nation. 

How times change... how times change.

How times change… how times change.

I was going off into uncharted waters…  and there were still lingering doubts: if black people had reached this level of political/social consciousness less than 20 years earlier, then how was it that I—and my peers—grew up so ignorant and mentally dead.  Could African medallions and Public Enemy and “conscious rap” be just another fad?  It couldn’t possibly be, for once one wakes up, one can’t go back to sleep… at least I thought. 

I needed to know all I could about my people and our history.  I dropped my Poli-Sci major and went into “Black Studies” (African/African-American Studies).  This wasn’t a “career move”—I wanted to find the truth, and I felt that an inter-disciplinary major would give me more flexibility in my quest.  I had enough sense to know that I wasn’t going to find the truth in the writings of Hobbes, Payne, Rousseau, or the Magna Carta.  I had greater questions that needed answering.   I moved into the Charles Drew2 black cultural house.  I was going to be involved in the Black Student Union (which I was only nominally involved the first year).  I was down for the cause.  I was down because I now really understood what was at stake.  My people, the integrity of our culture and identity were in jeopardy.

But again what happened?  How did we grow up not knowing about the struggles—the recent struggles of the black nationalists and radicals who were active not that long ago?  Well, for one there was the systematic assassination and incarceration of black leadership through the 60’s and early 70’s.  There was the infiltration and instigation from security agencies, in particular Edgar Hoover’s FBI.  But still, even if a few leaders were imprisoned and a few were killed, that shouldn’t have stopped my people—who had become conscious, who had transcended their simple-minded faddishness—from having the revolution that black folk anticipated back in the late 60’s and early 70’s.  Again, what happened?

I posed that question to a professor I had at UMASS who was teaching a course on blacks in the media.  From what I was able to piece together, COINTELPRO3 was a major reason for the demise of the black nationalist movements.  But there was also the heroin epidemic that struck the hood in the late 60’s early 70’s.  Incidentally, this was the same time that the Vietnam War was taking place, and reports of heroin trafficking abounded from the “Golden Triangle.” 4But this time, things were going to be different—now the “revolution” was going to come via black musicin particular by way of rap: a medium that virtually every urban male could relate to.  This professor said that one of the main ways that black political/social activism was subverted in the early 70’s was the promotion of Blaxploitation flicks.  Instead of young black boys wanting to grow up and be politically conscious revolutionaries, they would, because of the influence of these movies, want to be hustlers, dope dealers, and pimps.   

This subversion couldn’t possibly happen a second time… could it?  Although when I was in college there weren’t many prominent grassroots leaders to kill or incarcerate, black America did come under siege by the crack epidemic (incidentally, this was a time when elements in the US military were involved in cocaine trafficking), and then the gangsta rap became the standard mode of expression in the industry.  Black folks went from the revolutionary rhetoric of Sista Soulja and Professor Griff to the utterly degenerate lyrics of the likes of Easy E. and the Getto Boys.  “Thuggin’” became the new chic, and this is something that black culture has not recovered from until today.

I’m getting a little ahead of myself here.  The fall semester is on, the students return, and the freshmen arrive.  I’m “droppin’ the knowledge” with as many people who want to listen.  Early in the semester, I take a trip to New York City for our African Art class.  I’ll call her “Delta;” we sat together on the bus.  She was my Mississippi homegirl—and she reminded me of my most beloved cousin with the down home Southern flair (she favored her not only in manners but also appearance… to the point that it was eerie).   I remember buying a bootleg copy of the X-Clan’s, To the East Blackwards, off the Ave.  This album, too, would be another catalyst to what I considered “deeper consciousness”—and a step toward the “revolution.”   In Harlem, I feel that I’m home—I’m in the hub of my beautiful people.  This is where I want to go when (or if) I graduate from college. 

A few days after the trip to Harlem, I write: “I’m thinking of becoming a Muslim.”  Prior to reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X (ABX), I had a pretty standard liberal/”Marxist” view of religion.  As Marx said, I considered it to be the opiate of the masses.  And as I said elsewhere, Christianity was never an issue for me.  I knew enough of its history.  As for Islam, what I knew about Islam while growing up was people in the Middle East having a proclivity for fanaticism, kidnapping embassy workers, and blowing themselves up (but back then, it was Shi`ites who were doing the suicide bombings—the (pseudo) Sunni suicide bombings were a later innovation).  This was how Islam was portrayed in the media while I was growing up.  I had some family members who were involved in the W.D. Mohammed community, but I think that the only thing I paid attention to was the fact they didn’t eat pork.        

Now, things were different.  When I read AMX, I did not immediately take from it, its religious angle.  I was more concerned about just learning about black history and what could be done to improve the black condition.  Although I admired Malcolm more, I was intrigued with where Elijah Muhammad had gotten his knowledge, and I wanted to know exactly how much of what he was saying was true.  If we had been lied to by white racists about our past, then it made sense that we were lied to about God.  At the same time, I remained somewhat skeptical of many of the teachings of the Nation, such story of Yaqub, the mad scientist, “grafting” white people on the Island of Patmos 6,600 years ago or Fard Muhammad allegedly being “Allah in person.”       

I did not know which “version” (as I might have called it then) of Islam I wanted to follow—although on a couple of trips to Springfield, I considered going the Nation temple to hear what they had to say.  My next door neighbor at Drew, who would later live a couple of blocks away from me in Philadelphia while he attended UPENN, had a case full of Farrakhan lectures on tape.  Farrakhan’s analysis of black history and the black psyche, American foreign policy, and white racism were spot on.  But I was still having a hard time accepting everything Farrakhan was saying, especially, when it came to the more “religious” teachings of the Nation.

It was also at this time that I, while walking through the Carriage Shops in Amherst, I stumbled upon a store selling “Afrocentric” books, and oils, and incense.  The store owner became my mentor for the next couple of years, introducing me to many books—much of the standard fare that at the time passed as “Islamic literature” in the States.  I would realize later that in that era there was a dearth of information that could remotely pass as traditional Islamic knowledge, and this was (and remains to be) the cause of much of the confusion, disunity, and division amongst the Muslims in the United States.      

My mentor had been in the Nation or had joined the W.D. Mohammed community shortly after the passing of Elijah Muhammad in 1975.  He did not think favorably of the Nation, but I still felt that the Nation had access to some profound deep secret knowledge that the rest of humanity wasn’t privy to.  I wanted to know more.  It was perhaps then, that this “quest for clarity” began to take a greater and greater priority in my life.  It was also during that fall that I had my first encounter with a member of a splinter faction from the “Nation.”  This would take my pursuit of knowledge of self to a whole new dimension….

1For the record, Muslims do not believe that actual men become literally pregnant.

A Black Man’s Manifesto

A Black Man’s Manifesto (the short version)

I felt it was necessary to address this issue since I am writing about my experiences as recorded in my Journals, and I wanted to make it clear what my views are on race, identity, and Islam TODAY, so that people don’t think I have the same views now as I did back at the time of my “Great Racial Awakening.”  I feel that it is important to make it abundantly clear that this was a phase that, thank Allah, I passed through.

Nonetheless, it is also important that Muslims have a candid discussion about race and identity.  And I believe that African-American Muslims—those who are serious about their religion—are uniquely poised to initiate that discussion.  They want to have that discussion, but more often than not, such discussions are suppressed by the immigrant population.  I would say that a major reason for this is that many immigrants simply don’t feel comfortable about talking about race… because racism and color hang-ups are so deeply entrenched into their cultures.  This is reflected in the matrimonial sections of some Islamic magazines wherein South Asians would have “personals,” like: “FAIR SKINNED daughter with degree in computer science….”  Or: “Looking for a suitable husband for my FAIR SKINNED sister with Master’s in Biology,” and so on.  Or if one goes to Saudi Arabia, and finds that it is common for the natives to refer to a black person as “`Abid” (slave).  Or if one goes to some places in the Middle East he can find that the banks offer loans for plastic surgery so that the women can go get their noses hacked-up, so they can look like the Europeans they are so deeply infatuated with.

This type of stuff goes on not rarely—and it is not unnoticed by black folk (African-Americans).  Everyone who knows me, or gives an honest read of my blogs, knows that I DEFINITELY don’t let African-Americans off the hook.  But something can be said about African-Americans: as a rule (the Michael Jacksons of the community, aside), we are comfortable with our complexion—not perfectly so—but at least we are not ashamed about who we are, and we don’t openly try to be something we are not.  It just ain’t cool to say: “I wanna be white.” As a matter of fact, among the worst insults that can be leveled at a black person is to call him an “Uncle Tom,” “sell-out,” or “wannabe.”

Because of the history of this country, African-Americans had to make race the foremost aspect of their identity, and many of us have learned not only to live with it but to dig the skin we’re in.  Also African-Americans are able to grasp matters that seem just too abstruse for many immigrant Muslims who have their own racial/color hang-ups.  For one, “being white” in the American context isn’t just about a skin complexion.  Being “white” is tied into a Western European identity (that historically was tied into Christianity).  As every observant white Muslim convert knows, your “white card” gets revoked with the quickness if you start walking around wearing a hijaab or a kufi and thawb or offering your prayers in public places.

It matters not that you are a fair-skinned Syrian with blue eyes.  After Billy Bob and Bubba call you a “Sand N-Word” for sticking your foot into the rest-stop sink basin, your effort to explain that you are as white as they are, and that in the Shari`ah you are “white,” is going to be in vain… And if you want to keep talking to them about the Shari`ah, it may very well be a cause for them, and their Masonburg buddies to resuscitate their old custom of lynching.  Black folk know that what is called “Islamophobia” is not only driven by a general hatred of Islam, but it is also driven by racism and the disdain of all things that are not white (of Western European descent).

*************************************

Okay, enough of that.  Let’s get to the Black Man’s Manifesto.  When you die and are put in that hole in the ground, the Angels of Interrogation will come.  They are going to ask you about: your Lord, your religion, and your Prophet.  You are not going to be questioned about what color you are.  Similarly, the Prophet informed us: “Allah does not judge you according to your shapes and outward appearances but according to our hearts and actions.”  Our creed and our deeds are ultimately what matters, and are the difference between Paradise and Hellfire.

On the Judgment Day, you are not going to be punished—nor rewarded—simply because you are black.  However, if you are treated unjustly because you are black, and you are patient with that, and you attempt to rectify the situation by enjoining the good and forbidding the evil (for racism is an evil), then your encounters with racists and racism is an opportunity for you to earn reward.  And conversely, if you allow your response to racism and racists to cause you to transgress the limits of the Sacred Law and fall into sin (or use as an excuse to sin), then you will be accountable for those transgressions.  That’s the bottom line.

With the above said, African-American Muslims have a unique set of circumstances that, quite frankly, we need to work through.  And it really isn’t the place for other folks to say: “Just get over it.”  In one sense, they are absolutely right.  But on the other hand, if you ain’t been there, then you really don’t know what it’s like.  (It’s like me telling someone to “get over” your father giving you whoopins’ when you were nine for not memorizing Ya Seen, or your family pressuring you to become a medical doctor and marry that girl from the village back home.  Ain’t been there.  Ain’t done that.  And ain’t gonna pretend I did.)  We all have our issues we need to work through.

You (meaning other Muslim ethnic groups) have your own scholars, your own leaders, your own heroes.  You have, or at least historically have had, access to the Arabic language.  You have lineages that have been preserved intact for a thousand years or more.  We don’t have that. It’s not only what we don’t have, it’s what we do have… meaning we inherited a culture that was by designed never intended to be functional.  We were told that we were inferior, stupid, and bestial. A lot of that crap got internalized… and for most of us, we never came to grips with it.  Part of the reason we became Muslim is that perhaps on a gut level, if nothing else, we felt Islam, since it is the Truth, would enable us to deal with this baggage.

Also, ask yourself (other Muslim ethnic groups) what heroes from our own people do we have?  We (African-American Muslims) have the Muslim heroes in general, but where are our Salahud-Deens, Al-Bayhaqis, Ibn Hajars, Ahmad Bambas, Abdul-Qadir Jilanis, Dhun Nun Al-Misriyys, Muhammad Al-Fatihs?  Other than Malcolm X, who was no learned Muslim by his own admission, who do we have?  Who do we have that we can relate to as an example of someone who triumphantly navigated through the racial labyrinth of America as a learned and pious Muslim?

The solution?  We have to be our own heroes.  And I say that humbly, not in a haughty or arrogant manner—nor underestimating what that entails.  But only we can tell our own story, and we need to see to it, in-shaa’ Allah, that we make that story worthy of telling.  We need to produce men and women of knowledge, sincerity, wisdom, and integrity.  This means that we have to deal with our issues: our laziness, our impulsiveness, our irresponsibility, our intellectual cowardice—a cowardice that is even afraid to investigate and clarify what is the correct belief in Allah.  We have to deal with this, and although I usually try to keep my blogs pretty clean, I will use this word here: we have to deal with this “get-over, ghetto-nigger slave” mentality, in which we are constantly trying to get something for nothing. You’re not going to get-over on God.  Such a mindset reflects a heart that is utterly infected with insincerity… and self-deception.

Lastly, this manifesto shouldn’t be anything that makes other Muslims feel intimidated or uncomfortable, but it should make them excited to see a people grow and be transformed by the power and beauty of Islam.  And this is not a call to some sort of jahiliyyah black nationalism, either.  Instead, it is an invitation to African-American Muslims to begin to resolve their issues, so they can be a genuine asset to the Ummah, and in doing so, they can make everyone stronger, in-shaa’ Allah.

That’s my manifesto… at least the short version.

With Allah is the success, and Allah knows best.

 

Summer of No Sell-Out (Entry #8)

Summer of No Sell-Out1 (Entry #8)

How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book.

—H.D. Thoreau

Because I’m armed, my brain contains a bomb/As if I escaped from Vietnam.

Rakim

As for many, the reading of the Autobiography of Malcolm X (AMX) was a turning point in my life. Its influence has never left me. I had completed my first year at Amherst. A female friend, feeling I had some unresolved racial issues—which I did but not necessarily the ones she thought—gave me a copy of AMX. There is so much that can be said about this book, that God-willing, I will try to devote a series to AMX on my other blog sometime in the future.

Also, I when I speak of the book or Malcolm himself, I am not doing from a rigorous Sunni traditionalist perspective, but simply from the perspective of how the book and the personality influenced me to become something I had not previously know to have existed. Those African-American converts who came directly to the Sunni tradition and did not have a “great black awakening” or those people who were born into Muslim families, may not be able to relate so well, but for myself, Malcolm, and what came in the next couple of years while in Amherst were essential in molding my view of the world.

What Malcolm represented to me was not merely a “conscious black man,” but a human becoming.Although we all know how AMX is going to end, yet, by about half way through the book, each page becomes fraught with change, and by the last couple of frenetic chapters of the book, one has to ask how much capacity does the human being have for transformation—for expansion? This is what I mean that he was a human “becoming.” He was undergoing accelerate transformation without the luxury of a template—of a previous model. From the gut wrenching rural poverty of Nebraska, to the assassination of his Garveyite father by white racists, to his “Mr. Ostrowski Moment,” to running the streets of Roxbury and Harlem—the dope dealing and pimping, to what would become later an almost universal experience among the black male, i.e., incarceration, to the racial and social awakening that took place through the teachings of Elijah Muhammad and the so-called Nation of Islam,2 to his break with his mentor who had raised his consciousness to such a degree that he would become the spokesman for that organization, to performing Hajj as a self-professed Sunni Muslim, to giving lectures at Harvard and Cambridge, no black man—no man in history—could claim such for himself.

And it was more than that. It was not merely that his life was, as he said: “…a chronology of changes,” but it was the psychological distance he traversed. He went from a self-hating mentally dead predator and parasite to a man in the full sense of the word—a man with a passion for knowledge; a disciplined man who overcame drug abuse and serial fornication; a man willing to admit he made grave errors; a man willing to change—and keep expanding so he could be capacious enough to embrace the truth and nothing less. He was a man knew that the course he was on would almost certainly lead to his demise at the hands of people who were traitors to their souls—people who simply did not have the breadth and capacity to live with truth.

Malcolm was unlike the black males I knew in Springfield, who typically, at best were just “workers.” Their minds were not animated by knowledge or self-discovery. A few who might have read on occasion sounded like the Dave Chapelle character from Undercover Brother—blathering about what seemed like some far-fetched conspiracy theories very often with dates widely inaccurate and statistics grossly exaggerated. They, like the Chapelle character, were more a source of comic relief than provokers of thought.

As for Amherst, the black people, as I said, were different. But with, perhaps a couple of exceptions, they weren’t protégées of Malcolm. In spite of their professed love for Malcolm, most weren’t willing to take the steps that he did. For me, upon reading AMX, there was no turning back. It was evident that many of the black people didn’t truly understand Malcolm for they, even upon reading AMX and his scathing, albeit indisputably accurate criticism of Christianity, remained devoted to the Black Church. It was clear from what Malcolm said, and what were commonly-known facts of history, that Christianity couldn’t possibly be true, and that Christianity was merely a tool to keep black people in a subservient and intellectually arrested mind state. It was enough to consider that Christianity—long before it reached the black folks in America—had been corrupted and altered beyond recognition.

The Bible had been lost—and nobody could claim to possess the actual book revealed to Jesus—and all the more ludicrous it seemed for people walking around with a “King James” talking about how they possessed the “Word of God” between their hands. Furthermore, there was the simple fact that Christianity was imposed upon black people by the white slave masters to keep the slaves in a state of ignorance, stupidity, and fear. The Black Church was something socially engineered on the plantations of American chattel slavery and segregation. The Black Church could not link black people to a history beyond the shores of America. By its very nature it was confining and could only exist within the dictates of the white power structure. Furthermore, there was the idea of a so-called Trinity and God and/or God’s alleged son being murdered to forgive people for their sins. Even before having any background in Islamic theology, common-sense alone was enough to make me disregard such a doctrine.3

If the black people there at Amherst too afraid to question and shuffle off such a conspicuously false tradition as the Black Church, could it be expected that they would be able to take a sustained and intrepid stand for truth? Although, I was living in the Big House, I wanted to be down with the field slaves—field slaves tempered with the discipline and moral rectitude I saw Malcolm possessing. Anything less than that would be selling out.

Back to life at Amherst…. The semester was over and I was going to have to secure shelter for the summer. I stayed at Newport dorm. There were some international students there, including, one from South Africa (he was what was considered in the Apartheid era, a “Cape Colored”). This would also be the summer in which Nelson Mandela would be freed from prison, and the “Third World” students were abuzz with talk about what the implications would be for the African National Congress, southern Africa, the Continent as a whole, and other parts of the world that were struggling against colonialism and neo-colonialism. In the evenings, we would be joined by other international students from UMASS and Smith College, and we would break bread. The folks would burn up some seriously hot curry, rice, chicken, and whatever else that could be scraped up on student incomes. A lot of Bob Marley was played at those meals, and many good conversations were had.

It is said that the right people come into your life at the right times. That was certainly the case that summer. While one of those dinners was being fired up in the kitchen, I struck up a conversation with probably the lone white guy in this international, politically conscious, semi-Bohemian set. He had just graduated from UMASS in STPEC (Social Thought and Political Economy) and he was sticking around for a while in the “Happy Valley.” Our conversation quickly turned towards rap. He was from the New York area and had grown up on rap, like I had. He was familiar with all the underground cuts; his basketball team’s anthem was “Fresh,” by the Fresh 3 M.C.’s. He knew about all the old school twelve inches from the early days of rap. And he understood the social implications—and potential—in the “conscious” rap of that era.

For the next nine months, I would have the most intense friendship of my life. He was the coolest person—and “cool” is the only appropriate word—i had ever known. And he was cool without having to force it (after all, if you gotta force it, then it ain’t cool). Unlike a lot of other white guys who would feel compelled to concoct something clever to say to impress black people—to prove that they really weren’t closet racists (or suffering from some sort of neurotic white guy guilt trip)—he said and did what seemed to come naturally from him. When he said one time: “I’m down with John Brown,” you felt that this was something genuine—that these were the words of a person who wanted to live free of hypocrisy.

Years later when I came across this quote of Emerson, I was immediately reminded of him—and of Malcolm X:

A man’s power to connect his thought with its proper symbol, and so to utter it, depends on the simplicity of his character, that is, upon his love of truth, and his desire to communicate it without loss.

We would take long walks “working out ideas” about society and culture in the lush green Valley that looked like there were hillsides of broccoli heads as far as the eye could see. Walkin’ and talkin’ and what he would call “hoopin” in the vein of Black Elks Speak, he would in simple, plain, and lucid speech keep connecting and interweaving thoughts. It was then that I experienced for the first time what fellow Amherstian, Emily Dickinson, is reported to have said: “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” I had entered that poetic state of consciousness but wouldn’t realize it until years later.

But there was more. This same friend turned me on to Eyes on the Prize (EOP)—the second series. Many people are familiar with the first series and its standard fare of the Negro Church-based Civil Rights Movement. The second series takes the struggle to the North. I believe that the second series was at least partially censored because of the controversy it generated. Growing up, we were all fed the images of little girls getting blown up in a church, and the dogs being sicced on protesters, the Montgomery bus boycotts, the lunch counter sit-ins, and black people begging for white people not abuse them. It was a history and a culture that I could not relate to, and as one Brother would later say, “there was no dignity in it.” EOP, the second series was different. That summer

I sat in the audio-visual room at the Robert Frost Library watching riveting episode after riveting episode. I had read AMX—now, I was seeing Malcolm X. Upon viewing the footage of Malcolm, Huey Newton, Angela Davis with her GIANT ‘FRO, the Attica Prison riots, the assassination of Fred Hampton by the Chicago police department, and Stokley Carmichael. I. WAS. BLOWN. AWAY. Even yesterday morning after watching the first five minutes of the opening episode of the series, I felt chills run up my spine and my mind was sent racing. This was real, this was relevant black history. And although I was at the time, less than 20 years removed from some of those events, I knew not that such history ever existed.

These black nationalists were not merely talking about a struggle for voting enfranchisement or a modification of the laws, they were talking about, to use Tracey Chapman’s words, “a revolution.” They saw the struggle of black people in America as part of a greater world-wide struggle against racism and economic exploitation. This fitted well with my already internationalists sensibilities. It seemed obvious to me that black folk would have to open up their minds and look beyond America if they wanted to gain true liberation. Also, contrary to what I had previously heard about these black nationalists, they were not merely rabble-rousers, but these were men (and women) who read widely and were not only students of political theory, they were writing their own critiques of racism, capitalism, and the military/prison-industrial complex.4

At the same time, the rap of that era was accelerating my consciousness. I considered rap to be indispensable to the revolution I expected to be on the horizon. Public Enemy’s albums, It Takes a Nation of Millions… and Fear of a Black Planet were catalysts to higher historical, political, and social consciousness. Upon seeing EOP II, I could understand those albums—the names drops and the speeches sampled—in a completely different light. There was also KRS-1’s, Edutainment, which also contained its share of socially conscious lyrics and name dropping. The Revolution might not be televised, but it would be broadcast via black radio. Finally, black folk were going to get it right—the “Brothers were going to work it out.”

I would spend my days that summer when I wasn’t doing security at the Mead Art Museum tripping out on the Meso-American art, at the library reading, and reading, and reading. I remember reading Anta Diop’s book on the Ancient Egyptians and the importance for a people to write their own history and not let others do it for you. I remember sitting in the library not being able to imagine a single African city in my mind (other than, perhaps, those in South Africa). I saw that I needed, as the so-called Nation of Islam said, “knowledge of self.”

I needed to know my real history—and it could not start with the Middle Passage and slavery. After the ABX, the most influential book I read that summer was H. Rap Brown’s, Die Nigger! Die! It is an autobiography written in the vernacular. I was astounded by the level of political and social consciousness that these young men—some younger than I was at the time—had attained. I wanted to follow in their footsteps. I envisioned myself “movin’ the crowd” and giving speeches to my people, just like H. Rap Brown—not out of the desire for fame, but to wake us up out of our catatonic state. I was a small child when these activists were at the peak of their influence, but I grew up knowing nothing about them. How was it that the black youth of my generation had grown up so ignorant and so brain dead. What had happened to us?  I had to find out.

No Sell Out

1http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GK6KhR7meqQ (I’m assuming all the instruments are electronically generated.)

2For a clarification between the so-called Nation of Islam and Sunni Islam, please see here: http://facetofloor.wordpress.com/2012/08/10/refutation-of-farrakhanism-the-so-called-nation-of-islam/

3See here for a Sunni Muslim perspective on Jesus: http://facetofloor.wordpress.com/2011/12/17/why-we-dont-celebrate-christmas/

4Let me note that I am not saying that these black nationalists were morally upright or guided. Nonetheless, their speeches and writings were thought provoking, and some of those black nationalists later went on to profess Sunni Islam.

Aside

The Second Seme…

The Second Semester (Entry #7)

Why do babies starve when there’s enough food to feed the world?

—Tracy Chapman

Again more lyrics echo in my mind’s ear. Not only was something profoundly missing from the world within, something was deeply disturbing in the world without. “All ain’t cool in Kansas.” I am beginning to sense that it isn’t merely the need for a better distribution of resources, or that some people simply want too much for themselves. There is evil and lots of it in the world—and something needs to be done-.

Because of the influence of my senior year high school English teacher, I had a social consciousness. That is why I wanted to go into international law. I wanted to try to make the world a better place. Part of that was youthful naiveté, but that aside, if a person is not looking to improve the world, then what is he or she living for? This struggle, however, was not only an external one. At Amherst, there were plenty of “limousine liberal” types who felt that they could better the world—but more often than not, they neglected the betterment of themselves. It seemed natural to me that this struggle would have to go on outwardly, as well as, inwardly. If we sincerely wanted to reform the world, we would also sincerely have to want to reform ourselves.

During winter break, I pondered what life was going to be like given that I had flunked out of college. On the last day of the decade, I write down some of the most significant events of the past year. Let me digress for a bit (something my students know that I am wont to do). Had it not been for these Journals, innumerable people and events would’ve just slipped through the net of my memory. But by reading of those events and people, their memories are resuscitated and the past is relived in the present. These Journals serve as a touchstone of remembrance. They are a steady reminder of the influences that have made me the person I am. And they are a reminder of the mercy and grace that Allah has had upon me, for things could’ve turned out far different from the way they did.

The day after filling up five pages of memories, I write: “I’m in this intellectual purgatory—I can’t go back to my former life in Springfield, and I can’t live in an ivory tower.” The days were gone of riding around the north end of Main St. or up and down State St. and Wilbraham Road blasting the latest jams on the car stereo, while “checkin’ out the ‘freaks’” (which was the not so endearing term that was frequently used to refer to females). “Once a mind is stretched to a new idea, it can never go back to its former dimensions.” Amherst had, in that one semester, stretched my mind to realms that I did not know existed. And although plenty of expansion took place, the over-intellectualizing at Amherst, I felt, stultified action, and the skepticism of Amherst was inadequate for the inner longings of my soul. Again, I was set adrift, but unlike my situation after high school graduation, I wasn’t a comatose-to-self Negro. I was beginning to wake up on the inside.

A few days later I would write in the Journal that I could not sell out—how could I ignore the suffering in the world so I could live a comfortable life? I would write: “Limit desire and it would limit conflict.” So much of the inner conflict and outer conflict we face results from our wanting things—not just wanting material things or even non-material things, but simply wanting things to be other than what they are. I was beginning to struggle with the notion that my life might not turn out the way I planned. At this time I write that I could find a girlfriend and “get rooted to society.” I could embark on that life of convention and what seemed too often to be a life of “quiet desperation,” or I could strive to be true to myself—and embark on a journey self discovery. More by circumstance than choice, I would end up taking the latter path… and that made all the difference.

As it turned out, I did better than I thought that first semester. I would be able to return to Amherst for the spring. I’d have food, shelter, and intellectual stimulation for another five months. Two courses I took that spring left an indelible dent on my mind. One was a course on Central American politics. This was right after the US invasion of Panama and at the tail end of the Contra-Sandanista era in Nicaragua. Central American politics was a pretty hot topic in the media. Among the readings for the course was I, Rigoberta Menchu, which is an autobiography of a Guatemalan Indian woman and the oppression and terrorism that the poor faced from the ruling elite in that country.

Whether it was the situation in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Panama, Honduras, or Guatemala, the US foreign policy was to keep these lands open for American corporate exploitation—regardless of how much the human misery this exploitation would cost. It was in this course that I came to really realize the hypocrisy of American foreign policy. Although American politicians would speak of the need for “democracy,” when elections did not turn out in favor of hand picked puppets, then the American elite would launch propaganda campaigns against those democratically elected officials or governments. If the propaganda did not work, then assassinations or the military industrial complex was brought to bear upon such a state.

The epitome of hypocrisy was seen in the Iran-Contra scandal, in which the US was selling weapons to Iran (while supporting the regime of Saddam Hussein in his war against the Iranians—just for the record, Saddam Hussein was once an ally of the US and was given millions of dollars in weapons to fight against Iran). Since the Contras were guilty of many savage atrocities that could not be covered up, the US Congress had blocked funding. Nonetheless, high-level elements within the US government circumvented this proscription by using the money from weapon sales (to Saddam Hussein!) to support the Contras—who could not be seen as something other than terrorists. Also, the Contras were supported by drug money (cocaine, in particular), at a time when the US was “declaring a war on drugs” here in America. This would also be a time when the streets of inner city black America would become awash with crack cocaine, murder, and the mass incarceration of African-American males.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iran%E2%80%93Contra_affair

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/CIA_and_Contras_cocaine_trafficking_in_the_US

Oliver North: one of the conspirators in the Iran-Contra Scandal.

Oliver North: one of the conspirators in the Iran-Contra Scandal.

This was a little difficult to wrap my head around. I knew that things weren’t all peachy-keen, but the lies, deception, and hypocrisy were difficult for me to stomach. How could I want any part of such a system?

It was in that Central American politics course I had another college awakening. The tension had been building for a while in the class. There were the “minority students” and the white liberals who were growing increasingly disgusted with the litany of atrocities taking place in the region, but there were also the old school conservatives who were feeling more and more on the defensive—and feeling compelled to defend the indefensible. In particular, there was one student—one of the, one might say, jar-headed kind of white guys on campus—who commented that the these countries were important to the US because of their resources (largely, fruit plantations and cattle ranches) and should be made accessible to the US. When that student tried to offer such a flimsy excuse for inconceivably inhumane policies, the lone Puerto Rican in the room—and he was probably from one of the upper class families—went the “ef” off with his thick Castillan Spanish accent!

Although I cannot speak for the Latino student, I knew for myself, that on that afternoon, in that classroom, I had a political epiphany. Not only was there evil in the world, but there were people willing to justify and profit from it, and I was sitting amongst such people at Amherst—people with an utterly warped sense of morality—people who would go on to influence and formulate policies that would cause untold suffering and misery the world over in the name of greed, power, and what can’t be described as anything less than straight-up evil.

The other course was conducted by an Ethiopian professor on the works of Frantz Fannon. Fannon was a revolutionary and a philosopher from Martinique (an island in the Caribbean). He fought in France during World War II and later attained a Ph. D. in psychiatry. During the Algerian War (a war between the native Algerians and the French colonial occupiers) he fought on the side of the Algerians. Fannon’s magnum opus, The Wretched of the Earth, which stems from his experience in Algerian, became a handbook for the revolutionary’s of the 60’s. But it was an earlier book, Black Skin, White Masks, which is about how colonized blacks internalize inferiority and self-hatred, that opened my mind to a new dimension of thinking. A blogger named “Abagond” has a short summary of the book here:

http://abagond.wordpress.com/2011/08/16/frantz-fanon-black-skin-white-masks/

Black Skin, White Mask got the gears of my mind thinking in an entirely different sense racially. It was the first time that I had ever read something analyzing why black people behaved the way they did. This was the beginning of my “intellectual understanding of blackness.” So many of the peculiarities I had observed about black people while growing up, I just took for granted as just part of “being black.” I never thought about trying to understand why—I just knew what was. The desire, for instance, that many guys I knew growing up for a light-skinned black girlfriend or a white girlfriend (even if she was on the portly side and other aspects of her appearance left a lot to be desired) began to make sense to me. Unlike the typical complaining I would hear when I was growing up from black folk about racism and the legacy of slavery, Fannon was providing an analysis which could lead to a much deeper level of self-understanding—of self-clarity—and potentially to action. I was beginning to wake up to an an aspect of my being that had laid dormant all my life… and in the approaching summer that dormant being was going to erupt.

The College: The First Semester (Post #6)

The College: The First Semester (Post #6)

Perhaps the most salient feature of my Amherst (College) era Journals is their paucity. I would be there for a total of three years—although I would take a semester off before graduating—and during this time, I would only fill five notebooks (usually 70-100 page spiral notebooks). I would, on the other hand, fill nearly twice that many notebooks in the year after graduation.

 I think what I wrote in “An Interlude and a Dream:”

 https://inthisjournal.wordpress.com/2012/07/27/an-interlude-and-a-dream/

 summed up my experiences and what I extracted from my time at Amherst.1 But here I will try to fill that time in with some details.

Amherst in so many ways opened up my mind far beyond anything I could’ve conceived prior to my attendance. Although I did not remotely turn out to be the black yuppie that I had envisioned for myself, I did, as Thoreau mentioned, come to realize how lost I was and how I desperately needed to embark on the journey of self-discovery. That would mean a sacrificing of previous ideals and ambitions, but they needed to be surrendered so that I might, God-willing, find the Truth.

My first impressions of Amherst? I was intimidated and that was largely the reason I did so little Journal writing. I was intimidated because I was around not only very intelligent kids, but also very well-read kids. As I would remark in passing, the students here were bred for these kinds of places. These were the kids from the 1600 Club (SAT scores). These were the kids who might’ve broke down and cried if they received a “B” on their report card in high school. Many were from ultra-privileged homes, and those who were not, were ultra-high achievers. I was from neither. As I said before, I had a passion for learning, but also, in time, I would develop a passion not only to learn but to know the Truth.

In my Journal, I call Amherst “My Side of Paradise” (of course taking that from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s book), and I write: “I don’t ever want to leave this place.” I refer to Amherst as a place of “intellectual nutrition,” and I would write: “There is some kind of romantic poetry going on in my life—in all of life.” The natural beauty of the campus and the general area no doubt was central in eliciting these feelings. Emerson wrote: “We are never tired, so long as we can see far enough.” I would later write in my Journal upon returning to Amherst 22 years later: “I sought to devour the horizons and vistas with my eyes.” The contours of Amherst had become the daily bread of my vision.

View from Memorial Hill

View from Memorial Hill

It wasn’t only the natural beauty (or the autumn air) that endeared me to Amherst that first semester. As I said, there was the intellectual stimulation, as well as, the setting. The students were immersed in the world of ideas. It wasn’t like my time at community college where people were there to get a piece of certification to further their job prospects—and that’s it. In community college, the students were not talking about social activism, or Chinese water colors, or the political implications of rap music. I sought out different types of people to hang out with. I was tucked away in Pond Annex, and on our floor, there were a couple of all-American guys from Ohio, another guy who I don’t remember much about him—I’m thinking he must’ve been pretty reclusive. And there was my next door neighbor. He was from Northern California. He was a brilliant guy, a math major, but he was also a later day incarnation of the counter-culture of the 60’s. We talked about a wide range of topics, from politics, to history, to art. After classes were over we would go down to the athletic fields and throw the Aerobie around (an Aerobie is a long distance throwing ring, like a Frisbee, that can be thrown 100 yards with a little bit technique). Then there was the the air. The air. The air of autumn in Amherst is something to be relished.

As for the black student population at Amherst, they were not like any black people I had encountered before. What I knew of black people were folks like myself—either simple working class (even if they tried to pretend they were something above that) and “ghetto.” At Amherst I was with living breathing Cosby Kids. There were black students both of whose parents had graduated from Ivy League schools. There were black students who had grown up attending prep schools. Probably half the black kids on campus were either biracial or had grown up almost exclusively around whites—they didn’t know how to “act black.”

Amherst, although historically a bastion of WASP culture, made efforts to promote the “classic liberal tradition.” Amherst College was considered to be the first college to grant a black student, Edward Jones, a Bachelor’s Degree in 1826. (It was later discovered that Middlebury College, another elite New England institution, had granted the first B.A. to an African-American two years earlier.) During my “Triumphant Return Trip” to Amherst last year, I was given the book, The Black Men of Amherst, by Harold Wade, Jr. Among the most interesting facts that stuck out was that in 1892, William Henry Lewis, who would later go on to become assistant Attorney General of the United States, gave the commencement speech. Although Amherst is a small school (when I was there, we had about 1,600 students) with a very small black student body, but still it produced more than its share of notable African-Americans. As Wade says, “Different times brew different men,” it could also be said that “different places brew different people.” Amherst was a different place.

All was not perfect in my Valley Shangri La. I would throughout my time at Amherst struggle with a love-hate relationship with the place. I loved Amherst because it afforded me the time to think, to dream, to expand my mind, and be around some similar-minded people, but at the same time, I sensed that something was profoundly missing in my life, and that there was something amiss in the world around me. For one, although I was at school with the “bright and beautiful” (and very often phenomenally wealthy) many of the students were living essentially empty lives (and this could be seen while they were under the influence of the truth serum that is alcohol—and Amherst had the alcohol flowing copiously on campus).

On October 3rd I write: “Amherst can do me good.” Six days later I write: “I’m starting to spiritually unravel.” “K,” whom I had grown up with in Springfield, would come to Amherst to visit on the weekends. He and I would engage in psychonautic tours of the inner-verse, that I won’t mention how we got there because this is meant to be a G-rated blog, and I by no means wish to “brag” about former sins. I had also come across a book at the Robert Frost Library about meditation, and although I was not meditating at that time, it was an introduction to various states of consciousness without the ingestion of certain substances.

Additionally at this time, my counter-culture neighbor turned me on to the writings of Carlos Castaneda. The first book I read was called A Separate Reality. It was part of a series of books about the author at least allegedly going down to Mexico, and meeting a Yaqui (Native American) shaman. Carlos, who was a stereotypical anal-retentive academic type of his era (the series starts in the early 1960’s) wants to “study the mind altering properties of the herbs ingested by the shamans of the region. Don Juan tells him that the was to understand these plants is not to “analyze their chemical composition” but to experience their influence. Castaneda does, and this is the beginning of his apprenticeship with Don Juan. (Now for the record, I am not advocating that anyone go and do psychotropic drugs—there are far better and cleaner ways to attain higher states of consciousness than dumping dope into the body. I am just reporting some of the the things that influenced me on this journey.)

 What I took from Don Juan was the idea of being a “man of power”—that is, a man who had attained self-mastery by way of self-understanding. This I considered a worthy ideal even if I personally might fail to attain it. Also, the other related theme was the importance of following a “path that has heart.” Upon reading how Carlos Castaneda had (apparently) forsaken career, women, a wife, and family to sit in the desert and learn from Don Juan, I realized then that I wanted to find a “guide”—someone who could answer some of the deeper questions of existence—of the deeper questions about myself and help me clear the way for greater self-understanding and self-clarity. I was seeking self-transformative knowledge. I didn’t merely want to acquire the knowledge of books—I wanted to acquire the knowledge of self. I wanted to learn how to become a complete person. I wanted to attain, as Erikson called it, “Self-Realization.”

Yes, things were about to unravel, and at the end of the semester I had what they call an “existential crisis.” I had turned in my final paper. I was sure I had flunked out of The College, squandered my scholarship, and would have to return to Springfield as a failure. How could I explain this to my friends, to my family—that I wasn’t able to hack it? How could they possibly understand how my mind had been stretched, and that the things I previously had valued and desired seemed increasingly trite and insignificant? How would I be able to withstand the narrow confines of the world of Springfield? Would I go back to Burger King and as for my old job back? As I sat in my dorm room alone—waiting for “K” to come and take me to his house, so I could go to the airport the following day—the song from the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, “Within You Without You played:”

Try to realize it’s all within yourself.
No-one else can make you change,
And to see you’re really only very small,
And life flows on within you and without you.

There is a universe of consciousness within, as there is one without. But what does that mean and what is it for? Perhaps, this pensive train of thought was related to the passing of my grandmother a couple of years earlier, which I had largely pushed to the recesses of my mind. But upon those lyrics sinking deep into my psyche, I had to call my whole life into question. Although I loved the natural beauty of Amherst and being immersed in an intellectual environment, it was inadequate when it came to answering the most important questions of life. This song made me mull over, and over, and over again that even if you are to realize your dreams of going to law school, getting that job at the United Nations (or on Wall St.), having the candy apple red BMW 325i convertible, and marrying that exotic wife from Latin America that this wouldn’t really be a “path with heart?” I would not be true to myself. What would be the point of living a life that, perhaps, I might be known to others, but I would still remain largely unknown to myself—unfamiliar with that world within?

The fact of the matter is that death would come regardless of worldly accomplishments and accolades. People might cry a day or two after they put me in that hole in the ground, but then, their lives would go on as usual—life would go on without me. But how could they just go on? I didn’t mean that in some sort of egocentric selfish manner, but how could people go back to their soul numbing mundane lives after putting someone they knew in the grave? How could they return to the mundane while not knowing what would be in store for them after they themselves die—wouldn’t it be worth expending all one’s effort to know about what occurs to us after we expire? What is the significance of life when it is always marred by death? Why lead a conventional life—a life of quiet desperation, as Thoreau said—when the reality of death was always looming over our heads? One may as well, as Don Juan put it, be a “man of power”—be a man who seeks the Truth. What else is there in this world other than Truth and its opposite? It would not be possible for me to go back to what I thought I wanted to be. I would have to begin to change myself.

1 When I say “at Amherst” I mean my time prior to graduating from Amherst College. When I say in Amherst, that means my the subsequent year I spent after graduation.

An Interlude and a Dream (Post #5)

An Interlude and a Dream

As I mentioned in the “Introduction” here, I made it a point to start reading my Journals cover to cover beginning last Ramadan (2011/1432). I was going at a good clip until I went back “Home” (Springfield and the “Happy Valley” (Amherst-Northampton area)) last October. I felt like I had been in exile for the past 17 years or so. Each autumn I would intend to go back Home to see the fall foliage and breathe my native air in my native land,1but circumstances just wouldn’t line up. Maa-shaa’ Allahu kaan, wa maa lam yasha’ lam yakun (Whatever God has willed to be shall be and whatever God has not willed to be shall not be.)

After the trip Home (and I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself here) I gained all the more resolve to do something about these Journals. Nonetheless, within a few weeks, I went ahead and got involved in my semi-daily blog and put my old Journals to the side. That wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it did mean that I would probably not be dedicating much time to plowing through the old Journals.

In the spring, I got the idea to keep a blog about my Journal reading—which is what you are reading right now. I like to do my “creative” writing outside, and this spring provided me many days to sit on the Porch absorb the green of the trees and unscrew the lid off the wig and just expand my mind. Contrary to seasonal custom, I didn’t do a lot of fishing in the spring. The warm weather came early here—it was the mildest winter and spring I had experienced since being in Dubai—the local Memphis crappie spawn snuck up on me, and I only caught the tail end of it. I had a few decent days at a nearby pond, but that was it. This year, I wouldn’t be doing a whole lot of fishing… and I didn’t feel any regrets about that.

Furthermore, I didn’t have an Internet connection and/or a computer for much of the spring. A couple of days a week I would go to the Southhaven Library and check Facebook and my e-mail and download some sites on self-development and alternative health, but my access to a computer (with Internet) was limited. I found myself getting a lot of useful reading done. The weather was beautiful, so sat outside and wrote in my current (spiral notebook) Journal.

By the time late spring came around, I hit a slump and I wasn’t being very productive. I was hoping that the Camp would rescue me from the morass I had been in, but in that regard, it was somewhat of a let down. I did enjoy the classes, and I had the opportunity to talk to my teacher and get some personal advice, but I didn’t get much time to be alone at the Camp and write in my Journal, as I had done the year previous. Cie la vie—we don’t always get what we want. After the Camp, we were welcomed back to Dixie with weather that was daily pushing 100 degrees. Not exactly the best circumstances for me to sit out on the Porch and get into the writing zone. Praise Allah, the following week, the weather was much better; I had a nice dream about being back Home—and I was getting excited about the approach of Ramadan.

My other blog has kept me busy as of late, but recently I kept telling myself, I need to arrange things so I can get back to In This Journal. I need to get back to connecting the loose ends and fragments of my life for greater self-clarity and greater self-understanding, in-shaa’ Allah. This morning, while grabbing a post-sahur and subh2 nap, I had another dream that made this desire all the more clear.

I was at some sort of luncheon at Amherst College—but it was near a lake, that I sensed was in Western Massachusetts (perhaps, Red Bridge—my favorite lake to fish in the Springfield area). I was among some students who were being recognized for their academic achievement (which seemed strange—i got by at Amherst, but I certainly wasn’t Phi Beta Kappa). I saw one of the guys I knew from back in the day. I didn’t know him very well, but we were always amiable. The next thing I knew we were inside a campus career counseling office. My friend asked me: “Are you looking to find a job?” I told him, “No, I’m looking to find myself.” I didn’t intend—in any way—to be snappish or rude with my response. I was just stating the reality of what was in my heart. I wasn’t ready for a career when I had too many questions about life (and the Afterlife) that needed answering. I asked him what was he going to do now that he had graduated. He said he was going to work at the United Nations. I told him I had wanted to do the same [when I entered Amherst, I had the desire to go into international law] but that I had become disillusioned with political science (because of all the corruption in politics) and had become the angry resentful black guy on campus.

In the dream, I had a few more courses to take before I could get my degree. I was confounded. Soon I would be graduating, but the greatest questions about human existence still had not been answered. Who is God? What happens to us after we die? What is the true religion—or at least who are the Muslims genuinely following Islam? Those questions, as well as, questions related to metaphysics, ancient history, conspiracy theory or “what had happened to the black man” wouldn’t be answered in corporate America and probably wouldn’t be found in academia, either. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, and I didn’t know where to turn to for answers…. Then as my friend was walking away, he asked me something—but it wasn’t clear. It was either: “Did you find what you’re looking for?” or “Are you grateful?” I could not make out what he said, so I asked him several times to repeat (which he did). Then I answered adamantly in the affirmative—still not being clear about he asked. I said: “Yes,” pausing for a moment and then saying, “I’m grateful…” and I had found what I was looking for.

I was grateful in that Amherst had expanded my world up far beyond anything I could’ve imagined while living in Springfield. Amherst provided me with the time for solitude and the time to be close to Nature—and to discover some things about my nature. And, although I had not completely found what I was looking for while at Amherst, I was not lying or equivocating when I said I had. Amherst had greatly accelerated the process of elimination in helping me realize what I wasn’t looking for, and that was, in a sense, the beginning of finding myself. With that said, while I was scrolling through my Facebook feed a little while ago, someone had posted a quote—a quote that I was unfamiliar with although it was from my favorite American writer, Henry David Thoreau: “Not until we are lost do we begin to find ourselves.” At Amherst I had begun to find myself, and for that, I will always be grateful.

Lost Thoreau

 Praise and thanks to Allah Lord of the Worlds.

1Technically I was born in New Jersey, but I consider Western Massachusetts to be where I am from.

2Sahur is the late night meal (or snack) that Muslims traditionally take during the month of Ramadan. (During Ramadan Muslim fast from food and drink from dawn until sunset.) Subh (or Fajr) is the dawn time prayer.

Prelude to the College (Post #4)

Prelude to “The College”

On April 21st I received my acceptance letter to Amherst College in the mail. I am blown away with elation… and knotted up with with anxiety. The anxiety was almost paralyzing. As I said previously, in looking at my old Journals, I see how horrendous my internal dialogue was. So many of the problems African-Americans, in particular, have are rooted in a negative mind set. No money or social programs can fix this. We have to develop the courage to confront the bug-a-boos of our own psyche and root them out–but more on that later, God-be-willing.

By going to Amherst, I can totally change my life,” so I write on May 15th. Amherst means (and I am writing this from the perspective of what was going on in mind at the time), that I would be attending classes, engaging in intellectual discussions in the dining commons, and sleeping in the same dorms with some of the brightest kids in America—and also some of the wealthiest. I am a young black guy from Springfield, who at one point looked like he might not finish high school, but would now be going to one of the best colleges in America. How would I manage academically? How would I manage socially? How would I manage with the shame of self-sabotage, flunking out, and wasting my scholarship money–wasting an opportunity of a lifetime? One of things I was confident about at the time was that whatever happened, I will not be the same person after going to Amherst, and that for all practical intents and purposes, could never go back to Springfield. But if I can’t return to Springfield, then who would I be? Where would I go? How would I live with myself after squandering this tremendous opportunity?

In the midst of the anxiety and trepidation, I had a friend from high school who offered a lot of encouragement. She had done very well in high school, attended a prominent liberal arts college in Vermont, and then transferred to Mount Holyoke College, which is an elite women’s college in the “Valley.” She, along with the fishing trips and Valley visits, was instrumental in opening my little mind up beyond the borders of Springfield and the Holyoke Mall. It was one thing to go fish in small Western Massachusetts towns or take day trips up to Northampton or the town of Amherst; it would be an altogether different experience to actually live outside of Springfield and the narrow world I longed to leave. She was my bridge to a vast world beyond what I was accustomed to.

I still had four months left on my pre-College sojourn, however. I was trying to prepare myself the best I could academically for Amherst. I would enter as a Political Science major—although, in my heart, I wanted to be an Economics major, but I was intimidated by the math involved. I was doing a lot of reading at the time. George Orwell, due in particular to the influence of my senior year high school teacher, was still one of my favorite authors. As I was looking through the Journal #6, I see that I had read Down and Out in Paris and London, which is a book about Orwell’s life as a hobo in England and even until today, I can conjure up images of Orwell’s description of his working as a dishwater in a subterranean kitchen of a Parisian hotel. I could relate well after doing double shifts at two different restaurants during the previous winter break. I knew then—clearly—that I didn’t want to be doing such work for the rest of my life.

I decided that I would take a summer class at UMASS. It would be more academically challenging than most of the courses I was taking in community college, and it would help me get me out of Springfield and acclimated to life on campus—and life in the town of Amherst. My Irish crush-friend would also be in Amherst for the summer, and we’d be taking the same course. She had dropped on me four months earlier a large yield nuclear device, or so that’s how I put it in my Journal at the time… she was pregnant (no, I wasn’t and couldn’t have been the father!). She was going to have the child and put the child up for adoption, and then continue going to school. That was heavy… real heavy… heavier than what I could deal with at the time.

I would also be joined at UMASS by “K.” “K” and I had been friends since the time we had lived in the same apartment complex in the Sixteen Acres area of Springfield. Later, we both had moved to Forest Park section of the city, and we went to high school together for a while, until he moved to the Boston area. K. wasn’t the coolest white guy, but he had been my fishing partner. He was my partner with whom I could discuss books, and he had been my partner in our petty pursuits as Springfield youths. He was a kid from a divorced family, and he, like me, was struggling with a lot of issues in trying to find his way in this wide world.

Although I had some “issues” with my crush-friend, overall I had a good time (by those standards) at UMASS that summer. Given I was only taking one class I had plenty of time to do my own reading—-and get anxious about my upcoming arrival to “The College.” That summer, K. and I played lot of tennis—we had monumental matches in the hot sun—and we talked and talked a lot. The “Athens Club” was open almost every night in Brett dorm. We talked about what young guys talk about—aside from the members of the fairer gender—we spoke of social injustice and how we could possibly change the world. We spoke of our plans, our hopes, our aspirations… our fears. Like the scene in This Side of Paradise, where Amory and his friend (I don’t have the book at hand now) rode their bikes for miles one evening chatting about life, we strolled the UMASS campus late into the night trying to make sense of ourselves and our place in the world.

When the session was over, I returned to Swingfield—I mean, Springfield. I was still going to do the “production leader” thing at Burger King, until it was time to go back to Amherst… but this time to “The College.” A Burger King co-worker told me of a job she had in Westfield working with special needs children and teens. It was a camp where we would work for (if I remember correctly) ten day sessions. This was something different—not that I had ever thought I would work with children, and it would beat taking orders at BK. I applied and got the job.

The counselors were an eclectic mix. There was a guy from Wales, a woman and a guy from Scotland, a couple of students from the University Maine. We had the rich, attractive, spoiled, and troubled rich girl from Longmeadow (Longmeadow was the Springfield area’s version of Beverly Hills—I mean that kinda tongue in cheek). The artsy girl from UMASS, whose mother’s home was a refurbished barn with a beautiful view of Mt. Tom—it was all that! (During an internet surf down memory lane recently, I found out that the Mt. Tom ski area is now defunct.) There was the big black kid from the Springfield inner city, whose brother was bound to a wheel chair, the Filipino lifeguard… and the aspiring social worker attending the Elms College who told me about job.

The job was challenging, but the setting was wonderful. On my three “tours of duty,” I had one child with Down’s Syndrome and two autistic kids to take care of. I had to be especially careful when I was within swinging distance one particular camper: he was bigger than I was, and had knocked out a fellow camper in the session before I arrived. I loved the setting of the job the most. I had always loved nature and being out of doors. Although I was born in Newark, NJ and spent my early years in neighboring East Orange, NJ,1 I dreamed of someday living on a farm. We moved to Springfield, MA upon the passing of my grandfather when I was nine. We lived initially in Sixteen Acres, which is at the edge of Springfield.

Sixteen Acres was largely white working class suburbia, but there were also plenty of ponds and streams to fish and many acres of woods to explore. It wasn’t a farm, but it certainly beat the congestion of East Orange. Some of my fondest memories of growing up are going off alone into the woods of Sixteen Acres after snowstorms with my Peterson’s Guide to Animal Tracks, and trying to see what animal footprints I could find and how far I could follow them. With that said, I still had never slept in a tent or spent the night out in the woods.

I loved being out of doors. There, I. Could. Be. Myself. And I didn’t mean this in a selfish or self indulgent manner, but I knew I could not be satisfied with being circumscribed by “blackness.” This had nothing to do with being discontent with my skin color or the texture of my hair, but that I wanted to live my life in a manner that was broader than what was typically deemed “black”—especially, what was deemed “black” by the narrow norms of Springfield. Furthermore, much of black culture is based upon putting on pretenses: you have to dress a certain way; you have to pretend that you can afford things you can’t; you have to pretend you have things you don’t; you have to pretend you are someone you are not. There were just certain things you didn’t do—because “black people didn’t do them.” Out in the woods, however, there was no one around, and I could find a solace there that I couldn’t find anywhere else.

I had struggled with identity issues in my teen years—I wasn’t convinced that being an “N-word” was all I could be, and I certainly wasn’t white. I didn’t feel comfortable in either world, but in the woods, out fishing, I could be myself. I could do what I loved to do, and there was rarely anyone around who could say anything about it. There was no one around to think ill or well of me. I didn’t have to try to keep up with the latest fashion fads or status symbol consumer gadgets that were (and remain to be) seemingly so critical for many a black person’s sense of well-being. My sentiments are aptly expressed on August 12th in Journal #7 on an about to drizzle afternoon somewhere along Route 20: “I’m writing at the bus stop in Westfield—something I thought I’d never do [that is, write outside] because of my peers. I no longer have peers.” I am learning to be myself. I am not going to allow “black conventions” to delimit me.

It was also during that summer that I first ever gave any real consideration to the stars. On one of the last nights of the camp, the aspiring social worker and I laid down in the farm road that formed the border of a flourishing corn field and stared out into the universe. Contemplating the stars and our comparatively minute selves made me start to consider that this human existence must have some deeper reason—and that I had some more significant purpose than merely going to school, getting a degree, and starting a career. I, unknowingly, was entering the incipient stage of a spiritual consciousness. I was beginning to wake up.

A road leads deep into a  Kansas cornfield in late July.

“Growing like corn in the night.”

In the same August 12th entry, less than three weeks before my arrival at “The College,” I write: “I’ve finally summed up this summer: Jayne Anne Philips, Edie Brickel, bright sun light, and the moths dancing in Tracey’s2 hair. It took me a long time to do it, but it is done.” It had been an incredible summer…. I was growing—maa-shaa’ Allah3—I was growing like the corn in the night.

Preface (Post #1)

In this Journal

Praise and thanks to the One, the Perfect, and Eternal Creator, Who is beyond all need or comparison.  May the peace, and the blessings, and the honor be upon our noble Prophet and Messenger, Muhammad. May the Creator broaden and deepen our knowledge and comprehension, guide us to the paths of goodness, and enable us to live and die in a state of Islam.

PREFACE

In this Journal: An Account of a Traveler to the Hereafter contains the reflections of the author’s readings from his journals that he has kept for more than 25 years.  Upon doing some serious soul searching at the beginning of the past summer (2011), I realized I had to make some decisions about how I wish, God-willing, to spend my time, so that I could pursue those things I am passionate about, while God-willing, earning the reward from my Lord.  I decided that I had to: “look inside my heart and write.” I concluded that writing could potentially be the best way I could use my time, clarify my thoughts and share them, be engaged in da`wah,[1] earn reward from my Lord, and help me address some of the mundane duties I have… God-willing.   

While at the height of that soul searching, I was in western Pennsylvania at the annual camp of the organization I work with.  The class schedule was such last year that I could spend a couple of afternoons at our cabin site in relative solitude and get down in my (at the time current) journal working out in my mind what I wanted and needed to do.  While sitting there on top of a small hill, I looked down the slope to an old baseball/softball field that had long fallen into disuse. I was reminded of my youth and playing little league baseball during the summer. Perhaps, it was the air of the North (I’ve been living in the South for the last decade, and the air just isn’t the same down here), the contours of the hills, the trees familiar to my beloved Western Massachusetts, the quiet, the solitude, the barakah (spiritual blessings) of the lessons, or all of that and more, but I was able to vividly entertain in my mind’s eye children who may have played on that field in the 70’s and maybe 80’s.

What had happened to them?  How many of them, some older than I am now, have simply gone forth into adulthood only to live lives of quiet desperation, feeling that the hopes and promises of their youth had either abandoned or betrayed them?  How many of them had passed away having never felt their existence had any purpose?  Did any of those children who once played there go on the proverbial quest to find the purpose of life—did any of them find and convert to Islam?  Were there any Muslim children (i.e., from Muslim families) who once played on that field?  Were they able to maintain their identity as Muslims—and pass that identity on to their children?  I could have been one of those children—what would be my story to tell as an African-American convert to Islam?

A portion of the Memphis youth crew and I departed from that camp early to attend the Islamic Society of North America’s (ISNA) convention in Chicago. Although I don’t feel the barakah and intellectual intensity at ISNA that I feel at our camp, what ISNA certainly has is an incredible amount of energy.   Tens of thousands of people—most of them young—filled with excitement about Islam.  Many of these young people want to be involved in spreading the word of Islam, but there is a lot of confusion in the American Muslim community about some of the most basic matters of Islam—even confusion in elementary doctrinal matters. In seeing those youth, and then considering the youth with whom I’ve mentored here in Memphis, it is clear that if the masses of young Muslims were to learn traditional knowledge and gain doctrinal clarity, they could be a tremendous asset to the society, and Muslims could contribute to America in ways that are now inconceivable.

One major problem for Muslims in America is that we have little to draw from that would illuminate the path for us. I don’t mean that we don’t have the example of the life of the Prophet (sallallahu `alayhi wasallam) or from the Companions, or from the righteous scholars and heroes of the past.  What we lack is literature about the challenges of being Muslim in the West today.  And I don’t mean literature produced by people merely with Muslim names, or nominally Muslim, or those who adhere to heterodox ideologies.  After the tragedy of 9/11, I have seen the titles in bookstores about “American Muslims,” but in browsing the books or the reviews of such books, it becomes evident that many of those authors are not well educated in traditional Islamic knowledge and seem to be suffering from identity issues and inferiority complexes.

We, as Muslim Americans, need something that will root us to tradition, especially to our intellectual and scholarly Islamic tradition, yet keep us flexible and relevant, so that we can meet the challenges we face in this fast changing world.  As for literary legacy, Muslim Americans have the Autobiography of Malcolm X, but that was first published nearly half a century ago. In spite the profound influence it had on me and many other people I know who have converted to Islam, it does not provide the clarity in the detailed matters of doctrine that I was longing for.  Malcolm, to his credit, made no pretense to extensive Islamic knowledge, and he was taken from us before he could have expanded his learning. If nothing else, Malcolm had a capacious mind and showed us the courage to grow, and he pointed the way to the Haqq (i.e., to Islam), but in reading Malcolm X there is a sense that something is missing—something is incomplete.

Furthermore, there is a lack of continuity with the experiences of the Muslims who emigrated from the “old countries” in recent decades or those convert Americans who  have been Muslim for 40 or more years, and the experiences of the Muslim youth of today—in post 9/11 America.  As a result, those youth are frequently struggling to find a sense of purpose and identity that they shouldn’t have to, simply because those who have preceded them have not transmitted the knowledge of Islam to them in a relevant manner.  We lack a sense of continuity, in part, because Muslims in America have not produced an adequate literary legacy.

I knew while I was at the ISNA convention that I needed to write.  I needed to tell the story of an American Muslim, one who has, by the Grace of Allah, acquired a modest degree of traditional Islamic knowledge.  And I had the advantage of having kept a journal for most of my life.  Although I was eager to get started with this “life project,” as soon as I got back to Memphis, I decided that I would resist myself for another month and start reading my journals from cover to cover in Ramadan (I don’t know how many there are, but I would guess that there are more than fifty spiral bound notebooks).  In this Journey is in essence a journal about my journals and my impressions as I read them.  I hope, in-shaa’ Allah[2], that this work will be transformed into a more comprehensive autobiography that can contribute to the Muslim literary legacy in America.  In the meantime, I humbly offer this to the reader.  May this work help to guide you and grant you clarity and understanding.  And may Allah Almighty grant me the sincerity and unity of purpose in this work so that it may be a means for my salvation and safety in the life to come.

diary-and-pen-on-a-white-background-Stock-Photo-book-address Praise and thanks be to Allah, the Lord of the Worlds.


[1] Da`wah in Arabic literally means, “invitation”, but here and throughout I am using the term to refer to the “invitation to Islam”—that is, educating people about Islam.

[2] The Arabic phrase “in-shaa’ Allah” means “If God wills.”  This is typically said by Muslims whenever they intend to do (or hope for) something.  The future is hidden from us, and very often the best laid plans and strongest efforts are foiled.  This phrase reminds us that everything that occurs is created by Allah, and the prudent thing to do is to rely upon the One (Allah) who makes everything happen.