Thoreau, Train Rides, and ‘Iftaars’

Thoreau, Train Rides and “Iftaars”

“To set down such choice experiences that my own writings may inspire and at last I may make whole of parts. Certainly it is a distinct profession to rescue from oblivion and fix the sentiments and thoughts which visit all men more or less general, and that the contemplation of the unfinished picture may suggest its harmonious completion. Associate reverently as much as you can with your loftiest thoughts…. My thoughts are my company. They have a certainly individuality and separate existence, aye, personality. Having by chance recorded a few disconnected thoughts and then brought them into juxtaposition, they suggest a whole new field in which it was possible to labor and think,. Thought begat thought.”

(From the Journal of Henry David Thoreau)

The dawrah (the intensive program of Islamic lessons) is over. The “invasion” is over. Nevertheless, many Brothers still remain, so they can be close to the Shaykh, acquire more knowledge, and contribute to this community, which promises so much potential. Things are kinda-sorta back to my “new normal.” It’s winter, and it would be another brutal winter—although I was 200 miles south of the Valley. “The Traveler”–another one of the Brothers of the Amherst “Valley Guy” crew had now moved to Philadelphia. He made frequent complaints about the city. Albeit, I was less than content, I had never lived in a big city before. Springfield, Massachusetts doesn’t count as a big city, and I had done a stint in Dallas, but Dallas was more of a giant suburban sprawl than a “city,” as one would think of cities on the East Coast. What I did know is that it was cold, and it was gray, and I still was homesick for rolling hills, and walks in the woods, silence, and solitude.

Amongst us, we had a running joke about “Na’im’s Window.” On the landing to our “penthouse” there was a large window looking west. Every morning Na’im, a Bedouin Brother from Jordan, would stand there and forlornly stare out the window… and when he left his perch, I was one among several who would take his spot. I could relate to how Na’im felt—i was dealing with culture shock and homesickness. And one of the challenges of big city life for me was that there were few places where I could “stretch my scope.” I was suffering from ocular claustrophobia, but at least from “Na’im’s Window” I could look out for several blocks and see West Philadelphia High School in the not too far distance.

There were probably a couple of dozen guys staying at the mosque on a regular basis. Some of them were local Brothers, who simply wanted to stay close to the knowledge, and others, like the Valley Guys, who had come from other parts of the country or Canada to seek a new direction in life. After the lessons in the evening, we would often have ping pong tournaments in the basement. This was done in part for exercise and fun, and in part to stave off the cold. Later in the evening, we would have various cleaning chores. Some of the Brothers would sit together, we were all young men at the time, and share our aspirations regarding love and marriage and having families and being involved in the da`wah (i.e., Islamic proselytizing).

I am also finding much solace in my Journals. Indeed, the Journals provided many new fields in which to labor and to think. I could see how my past influenced my present, and how the decisions (both bad and good) had led me to where I was (by the Will of God). The Journals provided me with a steady reminder of what I wanted to do and who I wanted to be. Much of my Journal writing and reading was taking place at the UPENN library; that era was coming to a close, but it did not end before I dove into the writings of Henry David Thoreau. Of all the writers I had read, none resonated so completely as did Thoreau. In the beginning of his magnum opus, Walden, he says: “Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb nail.”

I immediately connected with Thoreau’s love of the outdoors and drawing inspiration from Nature. Although, he wasn’t a Muslim, Thoreau had many Sufi sentiments regarding minimalism–living with few material things, but having a rich intellectual and inner life. This is reflected in a quote from Walden: “Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind” (it should be kept in mind that this was his criticism of mid-nineteenth century American society).

Also, Thoreau was fiercely independent and not a fan of conformity. Among his most famous quotes is: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Maa-shaa’ Allah, I saw it in college: young folk eager and willing to enter into the vortex of the corporate world—selling their lives for base, worldly rubble. Thoreau also had a strong sense of social justice. He opposed slavery in America and said favorable things about black people—which was an anomaly for a white guy of that period. Thoreau even came to the defense of John Brown and his followers after the latter’s failed attempt to instigate a mass slave rebellion at Harper’s Ferry. The legacy of Thoreau would influence the thinking of both Gandhi and Martin Luther King and the practice of civil disobedience and non-violent resistance. Also, during the 1960’s, many of the environmentalists took drew their inspiration from the writings of Thoreau. He was a man far ahead of his time… and he was from Massachusetts—the place I missed dearly.

The reason that the UPENN library days were coming to an end is that I now had a “Justice-Cipher-Born”–in other words, I had a jay-o-bee. One of the leaders in the community had a small warehouse from which he sold electronic and computer parts. This wasn’t the kind of work I had come to Philadelphia for—I was planning to be a school teacher—but it was a job. And a job meant that I didn’t have to make a choice between laundry or lentils (in-shaa’ Allah). Not only that, I could get back on a more health-conscious diet.

It was about a ten block walk from the mosque to the suburban rail line that we (another Brother and Sister and I) took to Media, PA. Although it was cold and inconvenient getting to the train station, the train ride was relaxing. And on the way out to Media, we would pass the Swarthmore College. Swarthmore College is a small, selective Liberal Arts college with a beautiful campus not unlike Amherst—a suburban version of Amherst College. Although, the campus could be viewed for not more than a minute or so from the train, memories of Amherst would come to mind—happy memories of Amherst.

The impressive stone architecture of Swarthmore College.

The impressive stone architecture of Swarthmore College.

The job was easy. We merely picked up call-in orders from the shelves. Among the perks of the job was that around back there was a stream that I believed I saw a fish or two dart through the water. I am anticipating that once the winter breaks, I will do a little fishing during my lunch breaks in the upcoming months. Also, the daily trips outside of the city were therapeutic. For one, it was much quieter in Media, and two, I could breathe clean fresh air. And it was a pleasure to work with and for learned and observant Muslim. Problems that Muslims often encounter on the job—such as, having a place and time to pray were not an issue at the warehouse. We worked together and we prayed together. The pay was modest, but I was grateful to have a job and earn some money, and I was glad to work around Brothers from whom I could learn more about Islam.

About a month into the new job, Ramadan began. Ramadan is the month of fasting—that doesn’t mean that we go without eating for an entire month, but that Muslims are required to abstain from eating, drinking, and intimate intercourse from the dawn until sunset. Muslims eagerly await the sunset and then break their fast. For us at the job, we would typically arrive at the mosque right around the time people were having iftaar, that is, the meal Muslims have after fasting. At this point I was pretty keen on my health food diet, but I would indulge occasionally indulge in the standard American cuisine. I would later learn that at many Islamic centers, down home American food wasn’t often to be had—not saying that is a good thing or a bad thing, for there is lot’s of good food from around the Muslim world, but I can also sympathize with folks who might want to have a few fried drumsticks (with the skin still on them) and some corn on the cob every now and then for iftaar.

After the iftaar, we would go upstairs to the lecture hall and take a lesson. After the lesson, there was the Night Prayer and the Taraweeh Prayer (the Taraweeh is unique to Ramadan and might take nearly an hour (or longer) to complete—and this in keeping with doing lots of extra acts of worship during that holy month). After most of the people left, the “Artist” (and Imam) would put us to task, and we would go about cleaning: vacuuming the basement, doing dishes, mopping the floors, in preparation for the next day.

Life was busy. But also, the time was rich. Religiously, I learned a lot, maa-shaa’ Allah. A brotherhood was established in those early years in Philly that has lasted for more than two decades. And I gained memories that can’t be replaced or replicated. And for all of that, to Allah I am grateful.

Praise be to Allah, the Lord of the Worlds.

In This Journal: The Project

IN THIS JOURNAL: THE PROJECT

In this video I share what I hope to be the realization of a long time aspiration.  I am working on a project to convert my more than fifty journals (extending back to the last days of high school) to an autobiography.  I do need your support in this project, however. For one, I would greatly appreciate any feedback you may have to offer.  I am also humbly accepting contributions to this project.  Please feel free to contribute by way of PayPal at:

memphismuslims@yahoo.com

or to contact me for further information at:

https://inthisjournal.wordpress.com/

or at the Youtube link.

Also, please share this video with your various social media connections.

Finally… a BIG shout-out to my Hibster Sister for her help!

Identity Theft (Entry #33)

Identity Theft

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

alhambra 5

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.

The Grand Mosque in the ancient city of learning, Djenne, Mali in West Africa.  It is regarded as the largest adobe structure in the world.

The Grand Mosque in the ancient city of learning, Djenne, Mali in West Africa. It is regarded as the largest adobe structure in the world.

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.

Young, Gifted, Black, and an Eye Transparent

Young, Gifted, Black, and an Eye Transparent

I am still in the “Tan Journal.”  And I am still going to the Van Pelt library at UPENN almost daily.  I am trying to put it all together: I am trying to link the traditional Islamic knowledge I was learning with my studies in college, my independent research into ancient civilizations and various religions and metaphysical practices, with the social and political history of Islam, with my experience as a Sunni Muslim convert in America.

In the process, I was pulling a lot of books down from the shelves of Van Pelt.  I had a lot of questions, and I needed clarity.  Unlike during my days at Amherst, however, I did have a framework in which to operate.  Traditional Islamic knowledge was the means by which I was to evaluate what I was reading.

One day while at the library, I came across Lorraine Hansberry’s “autobiography,” To Be Young Gifted and Black.

Hansberry

Even as I write the title and look at the book on Amazon, my heart strings are pulled.  The title resonated with me profoundly, for it expressed what I saw in the black community at Amherst and what I was hoping for for black folk with the final arrival of traditional Islamic knowledge (coming from a black African man!).  At Amherst, during my nationalist days, I saw the tremendous potential in young black folks who, to varying degrees, were becoming politically, socially, and racially conscious.  As we unfolded into the knowledge of self, and we embraced self and embraced kind, we could finally fulfill our potential here in America.  We could: “Be all we can be and more….”

The image of Lorraine Hansberry and the book title not only reminded me of the latent potential in “the souls of black folk,” it reminded me of a different time: a time before the killing of Malcolm, of King or of Robert Kennedy–before the systematic assassination and destruction of black activists and their organizations by J. Edgar Hoover’s COINTELPRO. Reading passages and looking at the photos in To Be Young Gifted and Black reminded me of a more hopeful time in black America—a more “innocent” time.

With that sense of innocence came the sense of duty to raise a generation of children—to have self-loving, gifted, and black children guided by the light of Islam—and help them realize their, what would have been previously unfathomable, potential.  That is, we would raise children who would grow up being encouraged to let their talents bloom; they would be so filled with wholesome self-love and accomplishment that they could not be traumatized by any sense of inferiority or racism.  We would through them—through these young, gifted, and black children—heal ourselves from the centuries of trauma that permeated our own psyches.  They would be the living expression of a triumph against multiple generations of struggle against racism, self-hate, self-ignorance, and worst of all, ignorance of God.  That had been my hope, and when I saw Lorraine Hansberry’s book, those sentiments enveloped to my heart.

Although at this stage I was no longer what I would call a “black nationalist” (although some folks might think otherwise), one could not ignore that the overwhelming majority of converts in Philly were African-Americans, and that these converts brought with them into the Deen the challenges that black folk, in general, were confronted with.  Also, there could be no denying the tremendous talent that is in African-Americans, but this talent needed to be harnessed, and it needed to be given a positive and life-affirming expression.  Genuine Islam—I was certain—would provide African-Americans with that.

We could stay in touch with our past.  Our past  should not be dismissed or discarded with what has almost become a platitude from the immigrant brethren in Faith about how “we are all Muslims,” and we don’t need to be obsessed with color and race.  As I would write in the Journal: “By knowing the past, in-shaa’ Allah [God-willing], African-Americans can gain understanding of who they are, where they’ve been, and by the Grace of God what they can be.”  We could learn our history to empower ourselves; however, unlike before, we could evaluate our past from an Islamic perspective to attain proper understanding, proper direction, and proper guidance.

I was also doing a lot of Journal reading during this period.  I was spending a lot time in my memories of Amherst.  And as I skimmed, To be Young, Gifted, and Black, and I reflected upon that era, I reflected upon an occasion when, perhaps arguably, the hippest Brooklynite in the Valley (I’ll call her “Spice”) picked me up at the bus stop and we drove down Route 116 in the Saab (maybe the top was even dropped), while Sly, and the Family Stone’s “Everyday People” blared on the radio.  It was a beautiful day; I could feel the sun on my skin, and in my face, thinking about the warm, deep, centered vibe I picked up from “Spice” (the vibe which she usually gave off), and the warmth and optimism of the music of that time.  This is what it meant to be young, gifted, and black, and I was diggin’ it… diggin’ it to the maximum.  And it was this sense of warmth and wholeness that I wanted to see a generation of black children grow up upon—with Islam, of course, and without the haraam.

It was also during this period that I discovered the “Transcendentalist writers” of Massachusetts.  Khalil had been telling me while I was in college that I have to read these guys.  I refused—largely because I wasn’t interested in what some DWMs (DWM = Dead White Men) had to say.  I wanted to learn about my people and my history.  As I said, by the time I made it to Philly, I was largely over my hardcore black nationalist sentiments, and I was more read to give these DWMs a read.

The same day that I discovered To Be Young Gifted and Black, I also read some of the Essays of Emerson.  This was a turning point in my early days in Philadelphia.  For one, Emerson (and even more so his student, Thoreau) helped me endure the long cold winter to come in the city.  More significantly, they spoke of the value of language, its relation to the natural world, and the importance of purity of expression.  Among the quotes that struck me and I copied down into my Journal was:

“A man’s power to connect his thought with its proper symbol, and so utter it depends on the simplicity of his character, that is, upon his love of truth and his desire to communicate it without loss….”

Immediately, when I read this, I thought of “Jazz Man,” and his ability to speak to the heart of the matter free of all pretense.  Also, I copied:

“Words are signs of natural facts.  The use of natural history is to give us aid in supernatural natural history; the use of the outer creation to give us language for the beings and changes of the inward creation.  Every word which is used to express a moral or intellectual fact, if traced to its root, is found to be borrowed from some material presence.”

Also from Emerson I copied:

“Have mountains, and waves, and skies, no significance but what we consciously give them, when we employ them as emblems of our thoughts? The world is emblematic. Parts of speech are metaphors, because the whole of nature is a metaphor of the human mind.”

It was those walks late into the Valley night with the “Jazz Man,” the discussions we had and his ability to speak in images—in verbal hieroglyphics—that had encouraged me to go on my “Quest”–to seek the Truth.  And it was during the time after Jazz Man left the Valley that I would go on long walks in the woods with my Yusuf Ali,* pondering various verses commanding people to reflect on the natural world.  All of Nature was not merely a “metaphor for the mind,” but it was all a sign of the Existence of One, Perfect, Incomparable God, and I was trying to make sense of who God was and how to submit God.

Above all, Emerson reminded me of Home.  The night before, I had had a conversation with the “Artist” (and Imam) that among the things I missed most about the Valley was having a sense of vision—of having the sky overhead and the feet planted on earth.  Then, I discovered Emerson the following day.  Emerson gave words to the feelings I experienced in the Valley.

I would copy: “The health of the eye seems to demand a horizon.  We never tire as long as we can see far enough.” And:

“The sky is the daily bread for the eyes.  What sculpture in these hard clouds; what expression of immense amplitude in this dotted rippled rack, here firm and continental, there vanishing into plumes and auroral gleams.  No crowding, boundless, cheerful and strong.”

In my mind’s eye, I was transported back Home, to breathing fresh air deeply into my lungs, cloud gazing, silence, and trying to drive my insight to pierce through the veils of this world so I could realize the Truth.  One passage from Emerson’s “Nature” struck me harder than any other:

Standing on the bare ground–my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite spaces–all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball….”**

And although I believe this image was drawn with the intention to mock Emerson, I could totally relate:

eyeball2

In those final weeks of Amherst when I spoke of wishing to devour horizons with my eyes, this is what I meant.  I felt like  nearly disembodied vessel of perception that nourished itself in the beauty of Nature.  I was glad to see that I was not alone in what I had experienced.  Emerson was helping me make sense of the experiences I had had in my beloved Valley.  As I would copy into the Journal from a book that I did not record its title: “By the height of Emerson’s perceptions, he was able to bring a part of New England closer to the mind….”  I could see, I could feel, I could smell  Western Massachusetts.  And I could soar again to those exhilarating elevations of thought and feeling that I had come to love while being in the Valley—although, I was currently dwelling in the inner city of West Philadelphia.

_____________________________________________________

*  I’m not claiming that Yusuf Ali’s so-called “translation” of the Qur’an is reliable—quite the contrary–but it is what I had at the time, and I didn’t know any better… not that ignorance is an excuse Islamically.
** One should not understand that “space” is absolutely infinite, but rather that space is vast.  Also, it’s important to note that Emerson’s claim in that passage that he becomes “one with God” or a “particleof God” are not Islamically valid. As profound as these experiences may feel, the person does not person “unite with God”–not his physical body, nor his mind, nor his soul.  The body, mind, and soul and all their states are  not God nor a “part” of God.  These different states of are creations of God.  God is not a temporal or spatial being.

The Tan Journal (Entry #31)

The Tan Journal (Entry #31)

I don’t usually think of my Journals in terms of their colors.  There is the first Journal that got it all started.  That Journal was a quadrille (graph paper) notebook I had found around the house.  Then there is the yellow paper Journal of the summer before going away to Amherst (and records the initially weeks there).  And then there are the Tan and the Pink Journals.  These two Journals, of all my Journals, stand out because it was during this period that I underwent an accelerated transformation–and I had the fortune to record a lot of it.

Going to the Van Pelt Library at the University of Pennsylvania was becoming almost a daily ritual.  I am going there to read, research, and keep up with my Journal writing.  I am also going there to get some silence and solitude.  I was reading widely in order to improve my writing skills.  From my writing, I hoped to be challenged to my core–to attain self-understanding and clarity and to express those feelings and thoughts on paper.

I was also delving a lot into my previous Journals.  In particular, i was spending a lot of time reflecting upon my Amherst experience.  Also, I while at the library, I had read Barron’s Top 50 Colleges and Universities.  It had an article about Amherst, which instantly transported me back to the campus.  I was suffering from Home-sicknesses and a longing for the beauty of the Happy Valley.  I would write: “I haven’t seen a patch of woods since returning from Massachusetts.”  Urban life is wearing on me, and reading about life back Home was a source of solace.   Another part of my Journal reading was I was trying to distill from my past what I wanted to do with my future.  The Journals helped keep me inspired and keep my dreams in focus.

As for research, like I said before, I was trying to cross-reference the material I was learning in the lessons at the mosque.  I wanted to be sure that what I was learning was in sync with mainstream classical Sunni Islamic scholarship.  The more I researched, the more I became convinced that it was.  For one, there were the debates that I witnessed some of the Brothers engaged in with people from other groups.  I saw that they soundly–by both Scriptural and rational proofs–defeated opponents.  Also, on more than one occasion, I would read in an Orientalist’s work about one heretical or blasphemous sect or another and the Sunni response, and then I would hear the very same argument (and counter argument) in the lesson at the mosque in the evening.

Another aspect of my research was to try to reconcile what i had learned in Academia, my own independent studies into ancient black and African history, comparative religion and philosophy with traditional Islamic knowledge.   My goal was to synthesize this information into a grand thesis of world history that I would use for my Master’s Degree (…such were my hopes of the time).  My plan was to attend graduate school the following fall–but time was running out, and I hadn’t taken my GRE and done applications, as of yet.

I would write: “I want to devote my life to activating the intellect.”  Although, as per my recent experience in a UPENN classroom, I knew that Academia had its limitations, but I figured it was still the best fit for me, as far as a career.  In fact, I knew little else, and I preferred the thought of teaching at a university, writing books, and spending my time discussing ideas to working in a corporate veal pen for some transnational megaconglomerate entity.

I came across one book that was particularly influential upon my thinking at the time. The book compared the lives and influences of Aristotle and Al-Ghazali on their respective civilizations (i.e., the “West” and Islam).  The book mentioned that one of the differences between Islamic civilization and the “West” is that the West was not able to reconcile its Christian tradition with logic as expounded by the Greeks.  Thomas Aquinas and other Church thinkers tried to meet the challenge of Greek philosophy and the science of logic, but try as they may, they could not reconcile the Trinitarian doctrine with reason.  As a result, the West, in essence, suffered a schism between religion and reason.  The people of science and logic went in one direction, and the people of “faith” went in another.

Muslim theologians, like Al-Ghazali (who was not the first, but probably the most famous in the West), stood up to the challenge of the ancient Greek philosophers, and discredited their doctrines with concise rational proofs.  Al-Ghazali’s, Tahafatul-Falasafah (The Incoherence of the Philosophers) demonstrated the use of reason in understanding the proper belief in the Creator, while at the same time showed the inconsistencies and absurdities of the claims of those who were enamored with the Ancient Greeks (such as, Avicenna and Al-Farabi).

This book also gave me a framework for the intellectual history of Islam.  Not only did it reinforce the idea that what I was learning at the mosque was part of the mainstream of Islamic scholarship, this book also showed the influence of the Muslim world upon the West.  This is something that is typically overlooked by Muslims from the “Old Country.”  They see the “West” as the other, and by and large, have little concern for its intellectual tradition.  As for the convert Muslim (especially, one who has gone the academic route), he is a product of the Western tradition and is trying to understand Islam, at least in part, from a Western perspective.  To show the depth of influence that the Islamic world has had on the West by way of culture, trade, literature, science and math, and theology helps the convert get a better sense of his place in Western society.  And with this knowledge, he can refute many of the assertions that anti-Muslim bigots make about Islam (such as, claiming that Islamic civilization has contributed little or nothing to the world).

As was mentioned in previous entries, Al-Ghazali was not merely a Muslim intellectual or scholar; he became an ascetic, who left his teaching position at the prestigious Nizamiyyah University in Baghdad to become an itinerant Sufi.  It was only after attaining a high station of piety that he returned to his teaching post and elaborated on his experiences and how pure spirituality does not contradict the true Islamic creed.  Pure spirituality was not based upon logical absurdities or flights of fancy.  Such experiences are real and do not contradict the tenets of Islam (nor are they attained by abandoning Islamic Sacred Law).  The West could not produce such a personality as Al-Ghazali, because, in reality, it did not have the benefit of genuine prophetic guidance (as a matter of fact, much of the “Western identity” is based upon its opposition to genuine prophetic guidance).  The West had Christianity, which was a pagan perversion of the true monotheisitic message that Jesus taught.  Given that polytheism is inherently absurd, it should not be a surprise to anyone that much of the current Western intelligentsia has turned to agnosticism or atheism in one form or another.

LAUNDRY OR LENTILS

One day as I was walking in the “penthouse” (the penthouse how the Brothers referred to the upper level of the mosque where most of us had migrated when the weather outside, and consequently the temperature inside the mosque, had dropped) digging through my pockets, I let out a very audible laugh that got me some looks.  No, life in the big city had not driven me insane–but I had just about run out of money–and had to make a choice between doing a load of laundry or buying a bag of lentils for dinner.  As a recent college grad, this was not the trajectory I had hoped my life to take.  Anyway, I opted for the lentils.  Clean clothes were going to have to wait.  Times were, indeed, getting hard on the boulevard.

I was now going to have to struggle to maintain some degree of equanimity in the face of poverty.  To my advantage, I wasn’t alone.  Most of the Valley guys who had made “hijrah” to Philadelphia were suffering financially, as were many of the local Brothers.  This is not to say that we (or I) made the most prudent decisions at the time, but we also had before us numerous examples of pious Muslims who had lived in a state of penury.  They lived their lived devoted to obedience to the Creator and empty of the desire for worldly vanities.  We did want to follow their example.

The statements of the righteous regarding piety, virtue, and detachment  resonated with us.  One quote struck me so much that it made its way from one of my Islamic notebooks to my Journal was:

“That which Allah has willed to happen, it is going to happen at precisely the time and manner Allah willed to happen.  Nothing can prevent it.”  

And then in commenting on that statement Imam Ali Ibn Abu Talib (the fourth Caliph) said:

“One’s Faith is not complete until one understands and lives by this statement.”

Similarly, at this time,  I had learned the saying of Imam Ahmad Ar-Rifai`yy, one of the leading Sufis:

“My heart is at ease, because I know whatever was meant for me will never miss me, and whatever misses me was never meant for me.”

This was a spiritual challenge: to subdue the base self and train it in contentment with what has been predestined.  If one sincerely wished to attain Islamic piety, there would be no room for hubris.  God owns us and does not owe us anything; hence, it is far more prudent to subdue the putrid ego and submit than it is to rebel against the Creator of the universe because you didn’t get what you wanted.

Among the things I wanted was to go to graduate school.  But I had no money to take the GRE, and I didn’t have money for applications.  My academic education was going to have to wait.  Nonetheless, I was still determined to go to the library and continue with my research.  I wasn’t going to allow my lack of money to deter me from the pursuit of knowledge.  And although in one sense I was increasingly feeling like circumstances were cutting me off from the outside world, the quests down Locust Walk to the Van Pelt Library reminded of my responsibility–my responsibility as a Sunni Muslim with traditional knowledge–to share the message of Islam with the larger society.

Locust Walk on the University of Pennsylvania Campus

Locust Walk on the University of Pennsylvania Campus

A New Normal (Entry #30)

A NEW NORMAL (Entry #30)

It took not long for me to start feeling homesick for the Valley.  This was more than a homesickness for that which was familiar.  This was a homesickness for that which was “Home” with a capital “H.”  Amherst wasn’t a place where I had simply lived for nearly four years; Amherst had been the embodiment of many of my ideals; it and cultivated and instilled new ones.  I was transformed in Amherst.

From childhood, I had yearned to live in the country.  Amherst gave me that.  It provided me with an escape from life in Springfield, which I had been deeply dissatisfied with.  Amherst wasn’t merely some little hick village, but rather, it was a college town where I could find plenty of interesting people and intellectual stimulation.  Furthermore, Amherst had become a sort of refuge for former hippies.  In addition to the health consciousness of the hippie culture, there was the political activism and sense that young people should be socially and politically active, and it was our duty to strive to make the world a better place.  I embraced that.

The natural beauty of Amherst and the Valley was a major impetus to my incipient spiritual yearnings.  My eyes could rove over the contours of the Valley and feast upon the beauty of the area.  In nature, I had found ample pasturage for my mind.  That, along with frequent journeys into solitude, had led to me ponder about the purpose of life, what happened after we died, and who or what is God.  I think if i had gone to school in a big city and had the temptations of consumerism stuffed in my face day and night, that those thoughts probably would have never visited me.  God knows best.

About a week into my stay in Philly, I had one of what would be for awhile periodic “Valley Dreams.”  Those were dreams in which I would realize that I am back Home, and I would tell myself to either look up to the blue sky or to the wide vistas and try to absorb as much of the scenery as I could.  When I did, my heart would swell and it would feel like it was going to jump out of my chest.  I would then awake often upon saying, “Allaaaah!”  In this dream, I was with someone, probably another one of the Valley Guys, and we were on the train trestle-recently converted to a bike path that spanned the Connecticut River.  I told him: “Look at the beautiful scenery.”  I look up and out; I am in awe; I feel reverence; and I am overwhelmed.  Upon awaking, I reflect that I was saying “Good-bye with the eyes” just a few days prior to coming down to Philly.  Life now was dramatically different.  The scenery was dramatically different.  I would write of the dream: “The Vision: the big sky, the hills, and the green-green-green.”  Indeed, I was missing Home. I was suffering from a spiritual homesickness.

Bike Bridge

The bike bridge spanning the Connecticut River

On the flip side, because I was so busy making adjustments to my new life in Philly, the homesickness did not get as acute as it could have.  The local Brothers–the responsible and serious Brothers–began to school me about life in Philly and the da`wah (da`wah is what some might call Islamic missionary work) in the street.  These Brothers were active, and it wasn’t long before they were taking me with them when they would go into the projects to knock on doors and talk to people about Islam.  Maa-shaa’ Allah, a lot of people took their Shahadah (that is, said the Testification of Faith: There is nothing worthy of worship except Allah, Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah) to embrace Islam.   We had a room in the community center where lessons were given;  a few people were consistent in attending, but most of the new converts were sporadic at best.  Allah knows what happened to most of those people.

“Grafitti on walls, bricks, and concrete:
Nothing is soft, when the city’s under your feet.”

One Brother was my primary mentor.  He was a lot more learnt than I was Islamically, and he was also very widely read about various black activists and black nationalists movements.  On our way to and from doing da`wah in the streets or in between lessons, we would kick it about Malcolm X, the Black Panther Party, and Pan-Africanism and what was needed to wake our people out of their mentally-dead state.  Often his gambit with black folk who were still under the influence of Christianity would be: “If they didn’t treat you right, then they probably didn’t teach you right.”  That is, given that since Christianity was imposed on black people during slavery by whites to keep black folks subjugated, it didn’t make a whole lot of sense to think that Christianity would empower black people today.  He said another thing that contributed to a shift in my thinking.  I was talking to him one day about white racism, and then he said: “If they [i.e., many white people] are unjust to themselves [by rejecting the proper belief in the Creator], then it is not practical to expect them to be just to others.”  This meant that if black folks wished to improve their condition, then they would largely have to rely upon themselves.  This was one of the most sensible things I had heard about race and the black condition in America.

West Park Towers in Philadelphia

West Park Towers in Philadelphia

The crack epidemic had done a lot of damage to black people in Philadelphia.  On one occasion i was sitting on the curb in the projects talking with some of the Brothers.  I kept hearing a “pinging” sound behind me.  I’d look around and see nothing.  After this happened several more times, i looked down (instead of around) and the ground was covered with empty crack vials (or “viles,” if you prefer)–I then looked up and saw someone was pushing crack vials out of a broken window of one of the apartments.  I was up and close to my first confirmed crack house.

It is now starting to sink in that the problems here are massive.  Some people had the notion that if African-Americans simply learn traditional Islamic knowledge, then their problems would, by and large, go away.  In the back of my mind, i knew this wasn’t going to be the case.  The immigrant Brothers might fall into sins because of ignorance of specific religious judgments; some were just crooked and did crooked things; nonetheless, more often than not, they came from relatively stable families and from societies where general Islamic values prevailed.

This was not the case with African-American Muslim converts coming from the inner city.  Not only were they coming into Islam with A LOT of unresolved psychological race baggage–middle class, high functioning African-Americans often have this problem–many African-American converts were coming from circumstances where depravity (by any standard) was the norm.  Imagine, for instance, growing up in a home where the mother prostitutes herself for crack.  A child four, five, six, twelve years old watches her mother turn tricks to get high.  Or imagine the father, when does happen to be home from jail and chooses to show up, sticking heroin syringes into his arm, and prostituting his daughter so he doesn’t have to “jones.”  This isn’t just one or two outcasts in a neighborhood of dozens of families and hundreds of people.  Drugs, and the felony crimes related to drugs, and violence were commonplace and inescapable.

You’ll admire all the number-book takers
Thugs, pimps and pushers and the big money-makers
Drivin’ big cars, spendin’ twenties and tens
And you’ll wanna grow up to be just like them, huh
Smugglers, scramblers, burglars, gamblers
Pickpocket peddlers, even panhandlers….
(Melle Mel, “The Message”)

It would be one thing if it were the case that you just happened to have a deeply dysfunctional and pathological family.  You could possibly dismiss it as being just you (and your family).  It’s another when that is all you see around you.  And even if your family was stable but just happened to be poor and living in government housing, you are living under the constant threat of theft and robbery (after all, hardcore drug addicts usually can’t hold down jobs and need money for to support their habit), and random or drug related violence.  Then there are the neighborhood gangs, the substandard schools, the general ignorance of the people you encounter, the goons and hoodrats, a lot of open immorality, a police and legal system that doesn’t have your best interests in mind, and you can sense that this isn’t all “by accident,” but rather more like by design.  You have little to counter this–you may have never been exposed an alternative way of living—or thinking.  And then this is all exacerbated by you not liking yourself very much, and you feel a strong sense of inferiority to other people because of the color of your skin.  It became clear to me that simply teachings people about Islam without tending to the pain and misery that many of the converts suffered from would necessarily be an inadequate da`wah for African-Americans.

Although the mosque was fortress of knowledge and a refuge for the most part from the life in the street, life at the mosque was busy and chaotic.  A lot of renovation was being done–many of the local Brothers were contractors with different trades, so they’d spend the day doing the plumbing, roofing, dry wall etc.  Everyone was contributing, and this gave the mosque a sense of community and a sense that everyone had a vested interest in a common and lofty cause.

For myself, I didn’t have such skills, and I didn’t intend on being in Philadelphia long enough to consider it the best use of my time to spend learning them.  Furthermore, I was longing to quiet and solitude.  It wasn’t long before I discovered the Van Pelt Library at the University of Pennsylvania (UPENN).  Originally the plan when going to Philly was that I would work at the Islamic school at the mosque.  Because the enrollment was less than expected, however, I wasn’t needed as a teacher; hence, my plan was revamped.  I would be (so I thought) in Philly for 6-9 months.  I would load up as best I could on Islamic knowledge and then go to graduate school, either in the Philadelphia area or elsewhere.  I wanted to keep my academic skills sharp, so during the day, i would go to the UPENN library, research, write in my Journal, and read; and to the best of my ability, I would try to cross reference what I was learning in the Islamic studies lessons I was taking in the evening at the mosque.

Among of the differences between the Western academic approach and the traditional Islamic approach is that much of the traditional learning is centered around memorization; whereas, the in the academic model, one tries to consume (and somewhat) retain as much information as possible.  Another difference was that the academic approach to Islam is more “date and historically oriented.”  Timelines and maps were laid out on the Islamic dynasties, various factions, migrations, major battles, and the likes.  In the traditional Islamic way, one often learns about history by way of stories that are interspersed in lessons on other topics and not necessarily in a chronological manner.  Also, in the academic approach, the events in Islamic history are understood vis a vis events in other parts of the world.    And this is one of the things I wanted to gain a greater understanding of: I wanted to be able to see myself, as an American convert Muslim, in the greater scope of the expansive history and geography of Islam.  (This not to say that Muslim chroniclers and historians didn’t record events; they did so meticulously; it’s just that this isn’t the focus for a beginning student of traditional knowledge.)

What was woefully missing from the academic perspective was a sense of “truth.”  The credo of the Academy was and is moral relativism.  Many academics don’t learn so that they can apply their knowledge and become a better human beings.  They learn so that he can show off what they know and attain high positions in their field of choice.  I was reminded of this when I attended a class at UPENN during that fall semester.

It was one of those synchronicities (by the Will of Allah, of course) that my dorm neighbor in Drew House was living two blocks down the street from the mosque in Philly.  He came into Amherst as the angry radical black nationalist type–as much as you could be at Amherst.  It took a year at Amherst for me to adopt that persona.  He turned me on to Louis Farrakhan with the box full of tapes that he loaned me.  He also had a book about the impressive achievements of the (so-called) Nation of Islam, which i have never seen since.  He was one of the main factors in my black consciousness awakening at The College.

The dorm mate was a diligent student and had graduated at the upper end of his class as a triple major.  UPENN had given him a free ride, and that was where he was for graduate school.  I got in contact with him (or perhaps, bumped into him), and he invited me to class.  It was a graduate level course on African-American historiography.  Some of the same books we had used at Amherst were used by the students in this class–Blasingame and Genovese come to mind.  It was standard what I call “Academic Negro history stuff.”  In the course of class discussion, the teacher threw out the phrase, “A benevolent patriarchy,” and an apparently “gender-challenged” angry black female intellectual muttered: “That sounds like a contradiction in terms.”  I was then jarred into remembering how in the universe of academia there is (allegedly) no truth; no one has the right to say something is right or wrong; everything, as they present it, is “relative.”

I could see in my former dorm mate that he was disillusioned with this attitude in graduate school.  He wanted, like i did, knowledge that would help empower black people–not mere intellectual self-gratification.   I saw him a couple of times thereafter.  He even came to the mosque once with me for a lesson.  But at some point, it seems he just kind of fell of the radar screen.  As for me, I still wanted to go to graduate school, become a professor, and bring the truth of Islam to academia and present the creed of Ahuls-Sunnah wal-Jama`ah to the general public.  That was my plan… but Allah does not always enable us to execute our plans.

After about a month into my Philly experience, the former Brittany Manor roommate and I return to the Valley.  He had some business to take care of, and I could go and visit my family in Springfield and see friends up in the Valley.  As we get closer the the Connecticut-Massachusetts border, the contour of the land changes; hills start to roll, the foliage begins to dazzle the eye, and the sights become increasingly familiar–I am back Home.  We spent nine days in the area, and I would write in my Journal: “Amherst was a blast.  I could ‘ceiling-out’ with the sky over head.”

Upon returning to the Center, I come to find that there has been an “invasion.”  The Shaykh was in town, and he was giving a multi-week intensive of Islamic lessons.  Brothers, mostly Lebanese Brothers, had come from all over the US and Canada and some from overseas to acquire the knowledge.  And although I was happy for the opportunity to learn, what little semblance of structure and order that I did have in my life was beginning to dissolve.  The life I had envisioned for myself while living in the Happy Valley was starting to seem (in my best imitation Axl Rose voice): “So far away… so faaaaar away.”  I was now entering a “new normal” in which many of my previous plans and dreams would start to disintegrate, and I would have to try to make adjustments to my new circumstances.

Not in Kansas Anymore (Entry #29)

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.

 1-oz-twister

It’s Been a Long Time (Entry #28)

It’s Been a Long Time

True indeed. I did intend to step away from In This Journal for awhile. Typically, when I do my journaling, whether with pen and pad or for the blog, I like to do it out of doors. I find it easier to get into my groove with the sky over head and the sun in my face, while breathing fresh air and listening to the birds do their thing. As most folks in the US know, we have had a long and harsh winter nationwide. Being down South, the weather wasn’t as nearly brutal as it was for my Yankee compatriots, but it was still difficult to string together more than a couple of days of decent weather in which I could get outside and get on the “Launch Pad” and unscrew the lid off the wig.

A view from the Launch Pad.

A view from the Launch Pad.

I was recently surprised, however, when I saw that my last Journal-Blog entry was on Septermber 30th. Even with my intention to shut it down for the cold season, I wondered why I had stopped so early (we had about another 5 weeks of decent weather down here after the last entry)? The other factor that led to my cessation of Journal-Blogging was that I am (in the Journal) entering another phase in my life. I am moving to Philadelphia, and I felt a need to give more thought to how I would approach my Philadelphia experience.

I strive to write sincerely and honestly. I know that I have my own set of biases, but I like to think that I can be fair and objective enough to recognize and acknowledge those biases when I express them. Philadelphia was a challenge for me personally on many levels, and it took a long while for me to gain some objectivity about that experience. Reading Journal entries from my early days in Philly also brought a lot of things to the surface that I hadn’t given much consideration to in a long time. Some of the naivete and shortsightedness of the time would be comical—if it weren’t so painful. In spite of the challenges and pitfalls of my Philadelphia experience, Philly, no doubt, was a place from where I benefited from tremendously regarding traditional Islamic knowledge and the people I met. By the knowledge, maa-shaa’ Allah, I was transformed, and the friendships I made have endured more than two decades later.

One of the reasons for this blog, and God-willing forthcoming book, is to contribute to the nearly non-existent Muslim-American literary tradition. This is especially true for the African-American Muslim. In spite of the hundreds of thousands of African-Americans who have professed Islam as their religion since the assassination of Malcolm X nearly 50 years ago, African-American Muslims have left practically no literary tradition behind. We have oral traditions that might be exchanged in post-Jumu`ah ciphers or “urban legends” about the exploits of some of the older Brothers back in their younger days, but there is practically nothing written and preserved about the Muslim American experience written by Sunni Muslims. One academic book comes to mind, and what Umar Lee wrote (although, he’s not an African-American, he’s very familiar with the black (inner city) experience and is sympathetic to it) about the East Coast Wahhabis are about all I know of.

One of the problems of not having a literary tradition is that the history and experiences of those who preceded us disappears when they go to the grave. Their insight and advices are lost, and the living are left to the same trials and errors of those who preceded them—and the same mistakes are repeated. As a result, typically little traction is gained and even less progress is made. Instead of having an increasingly expansive vision of oneself and place in the world, the African-American Muslim finds, at best, that he’s just trying to maintain the unsustainable status quo of his ethnic forefathers in Deen.

The legacy of the African-American Muslim is all the more in jeopardy given that many of the second generation Muslim youth are only tangentially connected to the religion that their parents converted to. For many of the African-American youth, their ethos and identity is largely derived from the pop culture and the streets and not from the Qur’an and Sunnah or the learned and the righteous Muslims who came before us. It is unlikely that a young African-American in the midst of a deep identity crisis engrossed in street life and little knowledge or attachment to Islam will be able to produce a third generation of functional Muslims. Hence, if that third generation Muslim does wish to be observant, he (or she) typically has to go back to square one to figure things out… if they are lucky.

With that said, within the ethnic tribe and beyond, there are Muslims (and non-Muslims) who wish to know and understand the American Muslim experience. By leaving a literary legacy, the succeeding generations of Muslims can gain a sense of continuity with the past. They can learn from our mistakes, and surpass us in learning, piety, and their efforts to share the message of Islam here in America. I hope, “In This Journal,” can be part of this much needed legacy.

Another Interlude

Another Interlude (Entry #27)

 

I think it is apropos before speaking about my stay in Philadelphia to talk a little about what was going on amongst Muslims (and those who self-identified as such) during this era. Umar Lee, in his blog series he entitled, “The Rise and Fall of the Salafi Movement,” I think, does a pretty good job of capturing the time, although we were on different sides of the `Aqidah (Doctrinal) battle.

As “The Rise and Fall” mentions, during this time there was for a few years a brief cultural and social-political awakening in black America—or more particular, in the urban Northeast. This was in no small part spawned by the more “conscious” (and I use the word loosely and only relative to the typical party music that pervaded rap prior to that time) rap acts, such as, Public Enemy, KRS-1, X-Clan, and a variety of the rappers of the Five Percent ilk. Likewise, there was the hype surround the production of Spike Lee’s, Malcolm X and the impression the movie itself made upon the minds of many young black people.

Conversely, this was also during the era of the Crack Plague (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crack_epidemic_%28United_States%29). This transformed the nature of street life—making it far more violent, and it also led to an explosion in the number of young African-American males being incarcerated for either drug related or violent crimes. The “conscious” hip hop and the Malcolm X movie, helped counter this—to a certain extent. Young African-Americans, via (some) rap were offered an alternative vision to the drug trade and street life.

After the death of Elijah Muhammad (the leader of the so-called Nation of Islam) in 1975, there was a power vacuum among African-Americans who self-identified as Muslims. Wallace D. Mohammed tried to step in and fill that gap by steering his followers away from the vitriolic racism of his father, but some African-Americans were seeking what they would consider a more “traditional understanding” of Islam. What better place to look for that that “traditional understanding” than from Saudi Arabia—the land of the Prophet Muhammad?

It was at this time also that the Saudis, became increasingly active in promoting its Wahhabi ideology in the US. It should be made clear, that contrary to what is said in the mainstream media and amongst many Muslims who may not actually be familiar with what Wahhabism (so-called “Salafism”) teaches, Wahabism is not a form of conservative or strict “Islam.” The foundation of Islam is the belief in One, Perfect, Eternal, Omnipotent, Incomparable, Transcendent Creator (Allah). The Creator has no beginning or end. Allah is not subject to time or age. The Creator is does not have a size or shape or dimensions, because the Creator is not a spatial entity. The Creator is not in a location (or a direction). Allah existed before any of the creations, and Allah absolutely does not need or resemble any of the creations. Whatever a person’s imagines, the Creator is different from that. The person who does not believe in Allah properly cannot rightfully be called a Muslim. The person, who for instance, prays to an idol, or a planet, or a human, or a spirit, or a body of light, or to everything is not in reality a Muslim. To be a Muslim, the person must worship the Creator only and not any of the creations.

As for the origins of Wahhabism (quasi-Salafism), it starts with a man named Muhammad Ibn `Abdul-Wahhab. He lived during the 18th century. And he was dispraised and refuted by his contemporaries (including, his father and own blood brother, who were both scholars). Although Muhammad Ibn `Abdul-Wahhab claimed to be an adherent of the Hanbali school of Sunni Islamic jurisprudence, in reality, he resuscitated misconceptions from a faction of early pseudo-Muslim literalists. As a result of their distorting and misconstruing Qur’anic verses and Hadiths (Prophetic statements), these people (i.e., Muhammad Ibn `Abdul-Wahhab and his predecessors) promoted the idea that the Creator was a giant shadow-casting extraterrestrial being with a smiling face and various organs and limbs. Muslims believe there is only One Creator. There cannot be two correct beliefs in Allah. It should be clear that the one who prays to an object located in a distant place with large body parts is not praying to the Creator of all places—the One Who is not an object and is not composed of parts. Muslims worship the latter and not the former. The Wahhabis worship the former and not the latter. From this we know that the Wahhabis don’t worship the One the Muslims worship; hence, the Wahhabis (quasi-Salafis) are not Muslims.

The Wahhabis went beyond just masquerading as Muslims, while inviting people to object worship. Part of the doctrine of the Wahhabis was (and is) to claim that the Muslims who do not follow them are deviants, or pagans and disbelievers… and, according to standard Wahhabi ideology (as taught by the earliest Wahhabis), slaughtering such people is considered an act of worship. This is the root of the terrorist ideology we see plaguing Somalia, Libya, Syria, Mali, Pakistan, Nigeria, and elsewhere. This is the ideology of Al-Qaeda and its affiliates.

To be fair, I don’t know of any African-American Wahhabis (as a group) engaging in acts of terrorism, and I would suspect the reason being that international terrorist cells with a modicum of intelligence would know that the typical opportunistic goonish African-American Wahhabi could not be trusted with sensitive information, like a bomb plot or an assassination. (Although, there was the case of some characters from the the main Wahhabi center in Philadelphia robbing a bank and killing a police officer (or security guard) while dressed in niqaab.… Oh wow… I just went to googled some of the details about the incident I was familiar with, and it turns out in the past year or so there have been multiple robberies by men wearing niqaab in the Philadelphia area). Nonetheless, even if the African-American Wahhabis have not been guilty of terrorism, they praise and follow the ideology that enables terrorism. And, they praise and follow an ideology that makes a travesty of the Sunni Muslim belief in the Creator.

As for myself, although I was very jacked-up and confused in my first couple of years in trying to learn about Islam, praise Allah, I never embraced Wahhabism. When I try to talk to the younger second generation Brothers or to the more recent converts, it’s hard for them to relate to the dearth of what could remotely be considered “traditional Sunni Islamic knowledge” available to the converts of twenty years ago. There was no widespread access to the internet. You had the public library and books written by non-Muslims. You might find some pamphlets or booklets and the IMMENSELY problematic Yusuf Ali mis-“translation” of the Qur’an, and a few collections of Hadiths (which were hideously misinterpreted) at your local Islamic center. Works on the Sunni Doctrine (much less detailed explanations) were virtually non-existent in the English language. Most of the English material that was available came from the publishing houses in Saudi Arabia (i.e., they were works of Wahhabi propaganda).

One Wahhabi book, in particular, did mess my head up. While I was in colllege and taking a course purported to be about Prophet Muhammad and the Qur’an, I read (on my own—not part of course work) Bilal Philips’s book that he called The Fundamentals of Tawheed. This was for probably a decade or more, the main book in English that elaborated upon the doctrine of Wahhabism. The book disturbed me not because I detected its gross corporeal Wahhabi doctrine (one of the amazing aspects of “before and after” learning authentic Sunni teachings is that the contradictions and errors that one may have previously overlooked now jump off the page), but because of Bilal Philips’s hatred toward Sufism. Even prior to reading Montgomery Watt’s translation of Al-Ghazali’s work, it seemed to me that Sufism was the ultimate path of Islam. I wanted (and I say this ideally and not because I make any claim to having achieved such a level) to conquer my lower self by the route of full-fledged asceticism; I wanted to flee from this world of deception and transient pleasure to devote my heart (and body) to obeying God.

From my readings (typically of Orientalist writers ), I saw that the Sufis had a vast science of “spiritual psychology” which charted the different stages one passes through while traversing the path of internal transformation. I wanted this deeper level of self-understanding. Given my readings about Buddhism and yoga philosophy and my experiences with meditation, I knew that self-mastery was no easy task, and that it required pulling the senses away from this fleeting world and concentrating my mind on the remembrance of Allah. As for Wahhabi “spirituality”–if someone wanted to call it that—it entails imitating (some of) the outward acts of the Prophet Muhammad, but it seemed (and is) devoid of the understanding of the spiritual states behind those acts. The Wahhabis failed to recognize the importance of rectifying their hearts and adorning themselves with good character. And it should be of no surprise that the Wahhabis are notorious for their brutish and thuggish behavior in mosques all across the world.

The Brothers warned me early on about Wahhabism—and they warned me frequently about it. My initial attitude was that these people (i.e., the Wahhabis) simply had a misunderstanding. I figured that once someone explains to a Wahhabi that Allah exists without a place (for Allah is the Creator of place, and Allah existed before place existed, and Allah is not dependent upon any of the creations), and it is explained to the Wahhabi that not every Qur’anic Verse can be taken in its most literal sense, for the Arabic language is vast and is filled with figurative usage and metaphors—and the Qur’an is the greatest form of Arabic expression—then such a person would recognize his error, repent, and become a genuine Muslim.

I could readily understand (and sympathize with them—at least initially) that they, like myself, had read mistranslations of books (purporting to be) about Islam, that misled them. They had read books that deluded them into believing that Allah is a giant smiling faced object with organs and limbs located above Paradise. Once the absurdity and contradictions of such a belief were presented to such a person, they would feel disgusted with themselves for ever believing such ugly things about their Creator… so I thought. Reality, however, did not correspond with my thinking.

My early face-to-face encounters with Wahhabis showed me that they had little regard for reasonable discourse. They were, as the media portrays them today, irrational fanatics. Where as part of my search into religion and into Islam was for a doctrine that was rationally consistent, the Wahhabis have disdain for explaining the Sunni creed in a logical manner. The Wahhabis see logic and reason as a threat to their ludicrous doctrine, and this was another big turn-off for me and their ideology.

Another big turn-off for me with Wahhabism was that it had no historical connection with mainstream Sunni Islamic scholarship. Wahhabism has no historical continuity. And it seemed strange when I first arrived in Philadelphia that the average Wahhabi had no concern about history. In my mind, I could not help but wonder how could someone be so devoted to an ideology and have no grasp of the history behind that ideology. (Later, this became clear when I came to realize just how abysmally ignorant the average Wahhabi was—reading and reasoning simply are not the fortes of the typical Wahhabi.) And as I’ve said elsewhere, the African-American Wahhabis seemed to have no understanding of international affairs and the politics of the Saudi regime. These are the main reasons, praise Allah, Wahhabism never appealed to me.

Umar Lee speaks about the decline of African-American Wahhabism. He ascribes it to the in-fighting amongst the Wahhabis (and deeming each other deviants), standard ghetto antics (like, men having multiple marriages (like, in the dozens) and not taking care of their children, and then after 9/11 the government arrested, harassed, deported, banned from entry some of its main proponents. “The Rise and Fall” speaks of the disillusionment that many so-called Salafis faced as the movement began to disintegrate. Later, people would blog about what they called “Salafi Burnout,” that is, the recuperation process many people were struggling with after having been involved with the movement. The tragic thing—and Umar Lee fails to mention this—is that whoever was in that movement who believed as the quasi-Salafis believe (meaning, believing that the Creator is in a location or has real-actual limbs and organs) was never a Muslim to begin with.1 Many of these quasi-Salafis have never come to grips with the fact that their acts of prayer, or going to Hajj, or their charity, marriages, fasting, etc. were never valid, because they were doing their forms of worship to an object and not to the Creator. They were in a state of kufr (disbelief). This is the greatest tragedy for the African-American Wahhabi.

Philly was one of the main battlegrounds where the Sunnis would clash (sometimes physically, but mostly theologically) with the Wahhabis. Although the fitnah of the Wahhabis remains there, the Wahhabis, as a movement have lost much of their momentum. And where at one time they had the potential to become a dominant force in representing (what might be seen as) “Islam,” they have, praise Allah, become more of a bearded joke—or punchline—in more recent years… as we see with these characters here:

For folks who do not know, this is too real to be a parody.

For folks who do not know, this is too real to be a parody.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yVdUBQv8mHo

Praise be to Allah, the One Who gives success to whomever He wills.

 

 

1 This is not much different from the followers of Elijah Muhammad and the so-called Nation of Islam.  Many of those people believed they were devoting their lives to Islam, while in reality, they were worshiping a (human) object.  As a result all of their acts that they deemed “worship” were invalid.

Farewell (Entry #26)

FAREWELL (Entry #26)

I am in the final weeks of my stay in Amherst. I know ahead of time that I am going to miss this place, so I am trying to make the most of it while I can. A few days after the return from Camp, a now sophomore student and I head down to the Oxbow of the Connecticut River to get in an evening of catfish fishing. For those who don’t know much about catfish fishing, it is much more relaxed than the sort of trout stream fishing I described earlier. When fishing for catfish, you just throw out some bait (I am thinking that we used shrimp) and just wait some something to come along and take it.

The Oxbow of the Connecticut River

The Oxbow of the Connecticut River

The Sophomore and I get our lines in the water, and then proceed to chat about life at Amherst. We talk of the almost enchanted nature of Amherst in the autumn—the crisp air that the lungs joyfully quaff, the bright starry nights, the peacocking foliage, the youth, the optimism and the hope. We speak of rockin’ the Eastland moccasins, the over-sized Amherst sweatshirts, and khakis. The Sophomore and I exchange fantasies of snuggling under blankets with our J. Crew model girlfriends (or in my case, wife) at the Amherst College homecoming game. We are, at least for that evening of catfishing, living out the life.

Life would have to move on, however. As much as I loved Amherst, I knew that I would have to leave the “Womb.” I would write that I have to pursue knowledge that is beyond books. And I have to seek love that is beyond women—I would have to seek the knowledge and love of God. This knowledge and love would be the ultimate, and I would not being doing right by myself, if I did not seek that which I needed most.

Nonetheless, I was seeking balance. During this time, I would be a guest lecturer for a class that the Mentor was teaching at UMASS. I spoke about the black presence in Ancient Europe and the Middle Ages (the latter being largely the Moorish influence on Western Europe). Although, the lesson was largely “book knowledge,” I liked teaching. I liked learning, and I liked transmitting what I learned. I wanted for myself to rise out the darkness and chaos of ignorance and confusion and attain the light of clarity and understanding, and I wanted that for others, as well. So although I wanted something more than the knowledge found between book covers, I knew that if I wanted to earn a living, teaching (in the more conventional manner) would probably be the more sensible thing for me to do. The other interest I had was writing, and upon being liberated from the ultra-intellectual and hyper-critical environment of the College, I had over the past year felt free to explore myself and my interests in the best way I saw fit. I was beginning to find myself.

I was hoping to bring this newly “coming into self” person to Philadelphia. My intention is that I could work at the Islamic school for a year, and then go to graduate school. My aspiration would be UPENN, but if I didn’t get accepted there, I could go to Temple. Temple was the home base of “Afrocentricity,” and I was hoping to be able to put my own Muslim spin on the history of Islam in African and the history of black folks. After graduate school, I assumed that I would look for work teaching at the university… such were my plans… such were my plans.

In those final weeks in Amherst, I do for the first time, a serious read of my previous Journals (I typically didn’t read my Journals upon completion). The Journal entries of that summer are filled with memories of the early days of Amherst and even the days prior to matriculation. Sometimes Homeboy and I would drive up to Amherst via the scenic Route 116, and sometimes we’d take the highway to Northampton and then Route 9. As we would drive up Russel Road, the high rise dorms of Southwest would appear—I knew then that I was where I wanted to be. During one of my post-acceptance letter visits to Amherst, I record in my Journal the impression that it made upon me when an Asian student, a senior, was asked by the clerk at the Amherst College bookstore what were his plans after graduation, and he said, going to law school, and when she asked where, he said, “Harvard.” It made me realize that these were the kind of kids I would be sitting next to in the classroom, having lunch with in the afternoon, and perhaps having deep conversations with in the evening. I was entering a “new normal.” I was going to have to have different expectations for myself.

Since that time—that is, prior to entering the College, then graduating, and then spending a year in town—I had undergone so many changes. I had grown and been transformed in ways I could not have previously before imagined. Things had not turned out in any way remotely like what I had anticipated or wanted for myself. But I did feel that I was closer to the Truth now than I had before I had started at the College. Unlike when I first arrived at the College, I had realized that there is a Truth, and that life only becomes truly significant when one seeks to abide by it. A person must cut through the layers of skepticism, the opinions of others, and self-doubt, so that one can realize the Truth. I would need perseverance and sincerity (and the Creator’s Mercy) if I hoped to live by that which I deemed to be true—or the Truth.

********************************

“This is a delicious evening, when the whole body is one sense, and imbibes delight through every pore. I go and come with a strange liberty in Nature, one with herself.”

–Henry David Thoreau

On the 21st of August, I would experience one of those delight imbibing days. I would write:

“I’m at Amherst College… and very few people are here. It’s been a more than memorable day. Today, regarding the weather, it can easily be classified as one—if not the—nicest day of the cipher. It’s in the mid-70′s with a steady breeze from the north and much-much sun. Finding a cloud in the sky would be difficult.”

I believe I had taken the bus to the UMASS campus, and then I found myself walking back to town, and then to the Amherst campus, and then to Brittany Manor. The walk is over three and a half miles, but the day was delectable. And as I walked through town and campus, I would cast my vision as far and as deep as I could. I wanted to take it all in. Wherever I looked, I saw memories; I saw that which had impressed my mind and had molded me, whether it be the cafes where I would write, the libraries where I had read books that had changed my view of myself and the world, the quaint boutiques, or the rolling hills off in the distance. It is time to give thanks. And it is time to say goodbyes with my eyes.

I reflect that soon there will be a new class on campus, and that someone among them might set forth on the path of Islam and yearn to attain a state of piety. And as I entertained such thoughts, the optimistic lyrics of Donald Fagen’s, “I.G.Y.” (“What a glorious time it will be….”) are dancing around in my mind. I won’t be around to see them, but I wish those students all the best.

On that day I would sit on the fire escape of the Octagon, a place where I would meditate during my shifts at the Black Cultural Center, and look off into my beloved Valley.

The view from the Octagon fire escape: a former meditation perch.

The view from the Octagon fire escape: a former meditation perch.

My departure is imminent. I would write that Amherst will cease being food for my mental eye, and that I need to give thanks to the Creator for this layover in the Valley, but the real home isn’t here but the perpetual abode of Paradise.  I would now need to go to Philadelphia to seek the route to that Garden of everlasting bliss.