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