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.
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.