Winter weather has come to Philadelphia, and I ain’t feeling it. In spite of the seasonal weather change, I am still steppin’ on the semi-regular to Van Pelt (the main UPENN library) to stick my nose between book covers and to ink up pages in my Journal. I am now in the “Pink Journal.” How I ended up with a pink one hundred page college ruled notebook, I remember not, but I assume it was the only college ruled notebook available when I bought it.
Color selection aside, this Journal and the Tan Journal preceding it, are among my favorites, for they would be a record of the accelerated transformation I was experiencing at the time. I was spending a lot of time in my earlier Journals excavating memories. I was more than a little discontented with life in the inner city of an American megaopolis. This Journal would give me a sense of solace and a sense of direction in my life. Reading previous Journals would now be the inspiration for new Journal entries wherein more insights and connections could be made. The earlier Journals reminded me of the Home I missed so much. I yearned for the stillness, and the deep-breath solitude, and the Valley-strolling reveries that had become an integral part of my being, but that wasn’t to be. Growth, now, would have to take another form.
More reflections than a Moorish garden
A good number of the Journal entries I was reading were of about the conversations Khalil and I had years earlier: conversations about our belief that there had to be something beyond this mundane plane of existence. Human existence had to be more substantial than living to work for the sake of purchasing consumer items. Furthermore, there was the creepy, corrupt, and sadistic nature of the Orwellian, “Big Brother,” society in which we were dwelling. We were dissatisfied with being dissatisfied. I did not want to submit to a way of life that demanded that I sacrifice my ideals. I was not interested in committing spiritual suicide.
Before it was called the “Matrix,” I had already decided that I would have to “opt out.” One indicator that I would have to opt out occurred when I went to visit my former dorm mate neighbor (the same person I had sat in on a class with at UPENN). It had been at this point multiple months since i had been in the presence of a TV. He and the visitors were watching some late afternoon African-American sitcoms that were the standard fare of the time. It all seemed completely contrived–fake, phony, artificial. I was all the more realizing that I had gone past the point of no return. I couldn’t go back, I couldn’t pretend to live a “conventional” life–even if I wanted to.
Something was amiss in myself; something was amiss with my former dorm mate–amiss in the sense that he was profoundly dissatisfied with the academic life; and something was amiss in my classmates in general at Amherst. The Journal entries I was reading at the time constantly reminded me that wealth and intelligence were not insulators from the spiritually numbing life in the American cult of mindless consumerism. My journey to Islam and to Philadelphia was a quest to find out what was missing from my life.
Among the subjects I became immersed in during my UPENN library visits was the history of Islam in West Africa. I had taken an African anthropology class in college, and Islam did come up in the readings, but at that time, my understanding of genuine Islam was marginal, and I was still trying to make African history conform to the race-based paradigm I was trying to formulate at the time. This time around–after having sat with knowledgeable Muslims–I could now better understand the Sunni tradition in West Africa. Since I now had a better sense of what constituted traditional Islamic knowledge, I could have a much greater appreciation of what the observant Muslims of the region followed in terms of Islamic doctrine and law, and I could have a greater appreciation of the institutions of higher learning in West Africa.
Knowing this also gave me a sense of continuity. In Sunni Islamic law, there are four surviving schools of jurisprudence. The Sunnis of West Africa are followers of Imam Malik. I was studying in the school of Imam Ash-Shafi`iyy. Imam Ash-Shafi`iyy was a student of Imam Malik. In the matters of the details of theology, I was studying the Ash`ariyy school–the same school the Muslims of West Africa follow. It was becoming all the more clear to me that I was plugged into an extensive scholarly tradition, and it was not inconceivable that perhaps some of my African ancestry, too, were part of that same tradition.
Have you forgotten that once we were brought here, we were robbed of our name, robbed of our language? We lost our religion, our culture, our God… and many of us, by the way we act, we even lost our minds.
The more I read about Islam in West Africa, the more I felt I felt connected to something far greater than myself–but also the more that I felt that something had been taken from me. No doubt some of the Africans who had come off those wretched slave ships were Muslims, and some of them were learned and pious people–but I knew them not. I knew nothing of them. Their legacy had been stolen from me, and I had been given something else in its stead: I was given a legacy of nothing more than slavery, second or third class “citizenship,” and the worship of a human being who looked like the people who enslaved my ancestors–I had been given permanent social inferiority. I had been a victim. I had been robbed of a sense of self. I had been a victim of identity theft.
It was not long after my “African Renaissance” that the UPENN library was closed for winter break. My retreat into to realm of books would have to interrupted for a couple of weeks. All was not lost however. A few days after the library closed, the mosque would have, what would become its annual end of the year “invasion.” This would be the first of many “dawrahs”–literally, circles of knowledge–in which Brothers and Sisters from all over North America would come to Philadelphia for a week long intensive of Islamic studies. This time there would be even more people than the previous intensive session, and I was starting to feel the culture shock of the largely Lebanese visiting community.
It is here, that is the culture-gap, that many African-American Muslims struggle with upon their embracing Islam. As I mentioned earlier, very often Immigrant Muslims will tell African-American Muslims that they don’t need to be “so focused of race.” After all, they will say: “We are all Muslims.” This, of course, is near complete failure to consider the warped and twisted classism, nationalism, tribalism, and racism that can be found in many parts of the Muslim world, and it is a grave disregard for African-American sensibilities. Our identity and raison d’etre is one based upon race as it was/is constructed in America. We are not a people of a single tribe, or even a collection of tribes. As for our nationality, historically, we were outcasts from the society in which we were born and helped build. We did not belong here, as many a white racist made abundantly clear. We were, we existed, we survived, and maintained our identity and some semblance of unity through a racial identity that was imposed upon else and we had little else.
Also, it is a failure on the part of (many) Immigrant Muslims to realize that for centuries other people have told us who we are and what we could be. We were not a self-determined people, but rather, we were determined by others, and those others did not–and could not–have our best interests in mind. As for the Immigrant Muslims (at least in the Old Countries) it might be said that they have told their stories–they are in the books of the Muslim chroniclers and historians. But we have yet to tell ours–and we should not be discouraged from telling our story–for our story can be a story worthy of telling.
Many African-Americans who gravitate toward Islam do so not only because they reject the unsoundness of the Christian doctrine that they grew up with, or because they see Islam as an alternative consumerism and materialism, or as a means to resist Western imperialism, but they also see Islam as a means to reclaim a lost heritage–a stolen legacy. It seems odd in the mind of such converts that many Immigrant Muslims (or those living in Muslim countries, for that matter) have voluntarily chosen to abandon the Sunnah (Prophetic Way) for an American lifestyle that is devoid of substance and is saturated with hypocrisy. We long for a home in the lands of Islam–whereas, many Immigrant Muslims have left theirs to come here. This is one of several causes for the cultural rift between the Immigrant and the African-American Muslim. For this rift and others to be mended, there must be an open dialogue and not a one-sided discourse–where one party is determined to dictate to the other how the other should feel, think, and view the world.
“All the creation is subjugated by Allah’s Power. No particle moves except by Allah’s Will. Allah existed before the creation. Allah does not have a before or an after, an above or a below, a right, or a left, a whole or a part. Allah created the universe and willed for the existence of time. Allah is not bound by time, and is not designated with place. “
The ultimate call of Islam is the invitation of humanity to the sincere worship of the One True God. In spite of differences in our languages, ethnicities, nationalities, or races, Islam reminds us that our time on this plane of existence is fleeting; there is something momentous beyond this life, and what we do and believe has consequences beyond what we may perceive in this world. Our cultures may be many–but the true belief in the Creator is one–and genuine unity is predicated upon having the proper belief in the One who created us. It was during that dawrah that the Shaykh taught and commented on a brief but profound treatise on Tawheed (Islamic Monotheism) as taught by a well-know Sunni scholar, Fakhr-ud-Deen Ibn `Asakir. Lesson after lesson, the Shaykh talked about the Oneness of God–that Allah is the One and Only Creator, that Allah knows everything without exception and nothing is to be unless Allah wills. Every object and image, every motion and stillness, every thought and intention is created by Allah. And Allah does not need or resemble anything among the created.
No size, color, image, or limits–Allah is not in a dimension. Allah exists without a place–it’s an indication of His* Perfection.
During that dawrah, while lined up in the ranks of the prayer with perhaps a hundred other Brothers, the tears began to stream down my face. I had an epiphany. I realized that although I may be the product of a discarded or stolen legacy, and that I may not have some of the advantages of those who were born Muslim, I now had the opportunity to reclaim that legacy and to excel as a human being by sincerely striving to obey the Incomparable Creator of the Universe. The choice was mine. I now had no more excuses.
*The use of the masculine pronoun in reference to the Creator is a means of speech and does not connote that Allah has a physical gender.