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.
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.