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.
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.