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.