Completion of a Cipher and a Camp (Entry #25)

Completion of a Cipher and a Camp (Entry #25)

“My cipher’s complete….”

 The Sudanese Brother used to frequently say to the Teacher and me: “Don’t forget.” By that he meant for us not to forget him when making “du`a’,” that is, when supplicating God for good things, we should ask God to also grant him the good. But also, given his Sufi tendency to play on words, he meant for us to “remember.” “Remembrance,” i.e., dhikr, is central to the Sufi path. Dhikr is the practice of reciting the Names of Allah or other specific invocations in praise of the Creator or benedictions upon the Prophet Muhammad (and others). From the habit of making dhikr—with presence of heart—it is hoped that one will earn reward from the Creator. And instead of the concerns of this transient world occupying the central point of one’s mind, a person will have in his (or her) heart a constant remembrance of God. As the Qur’an mentions:

Those who believe, and whose hearts find satisfaction in the remembrance of Allah: for without doubt in the remembrance of Allah do hearts find satisfaction.”

Dhikr beads used for the remembrance of the Creator.

Dhikr beads used for the remembrance of the Creator.

The Journal itself formed a sort of extended “dhikr”–a form of remembrance. On the 17th of May, I would write that it had been a year since I had embarked on this journal journey.1 And I said on that day about the Journal that it’s “a passageway to the past.” When I would write or read about my experiences and give them reflection, it led me to the remembrance of God. From the Journals, I gained a hawk’s eye view of my life… or my living…. From such a vantage point on my life, I gained a sense of wholeness, circularity, connection, and completion. It was evident that I had not guided myself. I could not be responsible for orchestrating this masterpiece of an experience called “life.” There was an Omnipotent and Omniscient Creator that I needed to submit to and surrender to wholeheartedly in order for my life to truly be fulfilled.

I would write:

This Cipher in Amherst has been very good, but I realize that it is time to move on. I’ve been granted time to see the streams flow, hear the birds sing, smell the flowers and the farms, to soar in the wide blue sky above wise old hills—I’m always willing to explore more of that, but it’s time to make that move.”

I had now lived under a full circuit of the Amherst sky and sun on my own terms. It was a year earlier that I began to strip myself down and asked: What do I want to do? I wrote and wrote during the previous summer and remained (fairly) consistent through the year. As I reflected on my life through those Journals, through a journey of compressed memories, I became more and more convinced that there was a Paradise—a place more glorious than this. If God had created such experiences and wonders on earth and in this mortal flesh, it seemed to naturally follow that God could have prepared something far more sublime for the human once he surrenders his physical frame. The person, however, would need to have the sincere desire to want to know and to obey the One who created him. He would have to be ever vigilant from allowing the heart to become encrusted with the filth this world, or attached to its vanities, or forgetful of its Creator. He would need to be grateful if he wished to be successful; and wretched was the ungrateful who refused to recognize the bounties God had bestowed upon him at no obligation.

Early on during the summer break, the Sudanese Brother moves in. I find it difficult living with another person at this point. He was a social, as many Africans are. I, on the other hand, was the opposite. I wasn’t very social before I started my “quest.” Actually, my quest was driven, in large part, because, of the sense of alienation I felt for much of my life. And when I did start questing, it was a process of eliminating more and more people from my life. We either just parted paths, or I ceased sharing common interests with many peers. I only wanted to be around those people who could assist me in getting where I felt I needed to go—i.e., I only wanted to be around those who could somehow influence me to be a better human being. After I started calling myself a “Muslim,” I became even more selective about that people I associated with, and that circle of friends further contracted when I not only considered myself a Muslim but became interested in following traditional Islamic knowledge.

Furthermore, the writing habit is something that is largely pursued while alone. Where as the Sudanese Brother sought camaraderie, and would like to sit up telling stories about his shaykh and other righteous Muslims, my focus at the time was on writing and trying to reconcile discordant thoughts in my head, or exercising, and maintaining a schedule, and establishing a greater level of discipline, order, and structure in my life. I was beyond content to sit at the Writer’s Window inking up pages in the Journal or being engrossed in reverie while strollin’ solo with the blue vault of the Valley over my kufi. It would take years of being around immigrant Muslims before I realized how different their cultures were from “my culture.” And it would take me even longer to make some personal adjustments. I say this, for there are many challenges that a convert Muslim faces. The cultural divide is one of them. But if one is patient and keeps an open mind, God-willing, one can take what is good from the various Muslim cultures and grow as a human being.

During this time, I give Fitzgerald’s, This Side of Paradise, another read, and finish it in remarkably few sittings. This was the book that started it all. It still would make an impression upon me, and the last line of the book: “I know myself, but that is all,” had been the theme of my life for the last few years—even though, I couldn’t claim to have reached a state of satisfactory self-knowledge, it was what I was seeking.

In mid-June a formal position is offered to me at the school in Philadelphia. Wow, I think: I can go to Philadelphia, seek the Islamic knowledge, and have a real job! In-shaa’ Allah soon after, I’d get “wifed-up” and be content about as content as I could possibly be. After the offer is made, we (Teacher and I) are invited to go down to Philadelphia; we are going to be introduced to the community as the “new teachers in town” for this new school. I would be involved with the Social Studies program. History, after all, was my thing.

Although writing was my ideal, being involved with a school, being involved with the education of the next generation, was one of the interests I had had for a while. In the June 25th entry, I describe my ideal home. I mention that I’d have my wife and babies in a farmhouse located on a dirt road with a nearby trout stream and a lake (in which I describe, of course, what kinds of game fish would be therein). Near the lake would be the school that I saw myself running.

There is a lot of energy stirring around the Islamic center in Philadelphia. I am meeting lots of new people and getting prepared for a new life. I am also scoping around for a prospective wife (hey, hey, hey!). I didn’t write much about the visit, but there I one incident that stands out. During the first trip to the Center, one of the leaders of the organization was chewing out some guy over a letter that he had written, which involved slandering someone or “someones” of the organization. This time the same guy was in an argument with one of the regular Brothers who worked at the Center. They are in the adjacent alleyway, and the former gets thrown into a pile of trash and the latter pulls out a large caliber automatic pistol. In my mind, I am thinking: “Well, I’ve never seen anyone get shot before. That would be different.” As it turned out, the incident was over some ex-husband, baby-daddy, stepfather drama. For the good of all involved, no trigger was pulled, but it was sort of my initiation into Philly Muslim street culture, even if I was only a mere bystander. Although I chalked it up (at the time) as an anomalous incident with an apparent trouble maker, it was more like a foreshadowing of what would later be taken as the norm.

After the trip, I suffered several days from what can be describe as “spiritual exhaustion.” Something is going on inside. I am losing nearly all interest in worldly matters. My job decreases in significance to me; I end up sleeping and dreaming a lot; I am now anticipating the Camp and just hoping that I can make it to Philadelphia and start my life in a Muslim community. I would write of my my anticipated move: “Whatever happens in Philly, Allah knows best, it’s going to be a big change.” What little did I know… what little did I know.

The Camp came a few weeks after the school visit. Subhanallah, during this time of my life, I was having many “turning points,” and the Camp was certainly one of them. The Valley Guys were all excited and telling me stories about their previous experiences and how it would be a chance to meet other Brothers from all over the USA and Canada. Some of those Brothers were said to have lots of knowledge, and some were strong in the matters of Islamic spirituality. Not only that, this year one of the main students of the “Master Shaykh” would be coming to America for the first time.

As for our journey to the Camp, the Sudanese Brother, and the Traveler (as I’ll call him), and I would be riding in the Behemoth (the Teacher sold the Behemoth to the Sudanese Brother several months earlier). The Behemoth was old and not up for the trip. In addition to getting lost, we had car trouble, and a trip that should have taken six hours took us twelve. While at the Camp, things don’t go very well for me. I have to deal with a lot of new people. I have to deal with the different cultures—for unlike the trips to Philadelphia where the majority of Muslims were African-American, now I was immersed in a largely Lebanese cultural environment.

Furthermore, I feel overwhelmed by the knowledge. The teacher (who I will call the “Shaykh” from now on end), was going over the same book I had taken on the fundamentals of the personal obligatory knowledge, but with more detail. In the process, he went into depth about matters pertaining to apostasy and how one could inadvertently fall out of Islam. The waswas (satanic chatter) was nerve racking. All the doubt and skepticism that is part and parcel of the academic education system started to arise in my mind. I am struggling to resist it, but it’s one issue after another. And when it’s not doubt and confusion being insinuated into my mind, other ugly ideas would come to the surface, and instead of digesting the lessons, I am at war with the dialogue going on in “Herman’s head.”

Being plagued by waswas is not an uncommon experience for the new Muslim—especially, for the one who is trying to get serious about practicing his religion. As one Brother would tell me, “The thief doesn’t go to an empty house.” Likewise, when a person attempts to do the right thing, it shouldn’t be surprising that the forces of evil–from both the seen and the unseen—would try to confuse or disturb the person.

 Thankfully, the Camp wasn’t only about fighting deviant thoughts dancing around in my skull. Just in meeting the Shaykh, I sensed that I wasn’t in the presence of someone who merely read a lot of books or sat in a lot if Islamic lessons. I was convinced that he was a man with spiritual gifts and treasures. I’m not the type of person to wrapped up into the “cult of personality,” and I am not prone to get overly emotional, but I could feel subtle physical changes in my heart just by sitting next to him. On the third night of the Camp, I had a dream that I was walking down the street where my aunt lives in Springfield. I was talking to some teenagers about the non-linear sense of time in dreams, and the next thing I knew I was in the Symphony Hall (in Springfield) attending a reception for the Shaykh. One of the Philadelphian Brothers I had befriended was leading the Shaykh around, and I started pleading to the Shaykh not leave, and I was telling him how much I loved him. Then I began to realize that the power of the Shaykh was a glimmer of the power of the Master Shaykh. I then began to feel the Master Shaykh’s grandfatherly presence in my heart, and I woke up crying.

I had received, by the Mercy of God, another initiation that summer. Although, I felt comfortable about how my Teacher and other Brothers of the Association explained the matters of the Islamic Creed—especially, the proper belief in the Creator—and how they clarified what was wrong with and refuted various heretical and blasphemous doctrines, I was now getting a taste of Islam’s vast spiritual ocean. This is what I had read about in the books purporting to be about Sufism, and now I was being afforded direct exposure to it, by the Grace of Allah. Everything else paled in comparison.

The Behemoth was not up for the trip back to the Happy Valley. I don’t remember exactly where the last place she broke down on us, but I do remember riding through New York City with the car on the flatbed of a tow truck. The drive, which was suppose to take six hours, took us this time twenty-four. On the back road to Brittany Manor, the tow truck driver observed: “This is a very beautiful area.” And as Jazz Man would say: “True indeed.”

By the time we get back, I am not exhausted, I am WIPED OUT. In spite of us being in the midst of a heat wave and not having air-conditioning in the apartment, I sleep about twenty hours straight. It wasn’t the drive that was so tiring, it was all the stuff that was going on internally (and since I am no expert in that area, I can’t tell you what it was). How could I turn back to this world after that Camp? Although Amherst is a beautiful area, life in general looks narrow and dark at this point. I would (kinda) joke in the Journal that if I could find a nice, warm, dry cave (I might add, with in-cavern heating and plumbing) on a hillside somewhere I’d “be straight.” Spiritual circumstances are becoming such that I am going to be forced to exit “The Womb.” My days in Amherst are numbered, and Philadelphia is the only place for me to go.

1That is, I made the intentionally to write on a daily basis, or at least regularly. I just noticed upon reflection that I started the two phases of my Journal writing upon major transition points in my life: graduation form high school and then graduation from college.

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In the Pocket (Entry #24)

In the Pocket (Entry #24)

 After the trip to the University of Kansas, I am back in Amherst and back to the prosaic state of hibernal being. The trip to Philadelphia remained in my mind, and the thought of going the standard post-Amherst route seemed more and more unlikely. I can’t go back to the Big House—i mean, Drew House—and I cannot get myself motivated for a career. I would write:

Life becomes very difficult not knowing. The fact of the matter is that ll these folks who are off to law, medical, and graduate school or working on Wall St. are going to die. And most of them don’t have the foggiest idea as to what’s going to happen [after death]. I’ve pretty much exhausted this dunya [the material world: a world of vanity and deception] and have found no peace in it.”

The Prophet Muhammad told us: “Keep reminding yourself of the reality of death, for it is the interrupter of pleasures and the terminator of desires.” I am struggling with what many new Muslim converts struggle with: the desire to throw oneself headlong into the Islam, to abandon worldly concerns and just focus on learning and trying to be a better Muslim, while at the same time having to deal with the reality of life in modern Western society. This is something, I’ve struggled with for many years, and it is only very recently, by the Mercy of Allah, that I’ve been able to conceive some semblance of a balance between the two. Nonetheless, at the time, it was a no-brainer. The Deen (Islam) was definitely to prevail over the dunya.

The dreams were a succor. I had one of what I would later classify as a “sky dreams,” in late February. In the dream, I was looking at the sky, when I began to reflect on Allah knowing everything—that is, Allah knows every-thing of everything. I felt my consciousness expanding and expanding: there was nothing beyond the knowledge of Allah. And whatever I became aware of, even in this expanded state of consciousness, Allah is the One Who Knows and Creates all that I know and all that is known to creation. I said: “Allahu Akbar” (Allah is Greater than everything else) and woke up.

This wasn’t merely a cognitive act of acknowledging a point in standard Sunni dogma. Earlier that night, I had contemplated that Allah’s Knowledge is absolute and is greater than all the thoughts and feelings that run through my body. I thought about the Qur’anic verses speaking about on the Day of Judgment: “And whoever does a particle of good shall see it. And whoever does a particle of evil shall see it.” Nothing I’ve done is concealed from Allah, and all the things I’ve done, including my attempted acts of worship were all according to the Will and Creating of God. Even my personality itself and my self-awareness were both creations of Allah. I could not know, or do, or be anything unless Allah has willed it. In the dream, I not only recognized these facts cerebrally, they formed my very being.

Although my certitude regarding the superiority of spiritual knowledge over standard academic knowledge is growing, I am still interested in the world of books and research. The Truth is the Truth, and I wanted to demonstrate that what I was striving to follow could be realized not only by relatively subjective experiences, but also could be demonstrated by history. Among the subjects I became increasingly interested in was the influence of the the Muslims upon (Christian) Europe in the Middle Ages. Not only had the Crusades or the eight hundred year Muslim rule of Spain had a profound impact on the development of Europe, the Muslims had ruled Sicily and parts of mainland Italy. In particular, the Sufi tariqahs (Islamic spiritual fraternities) would inspire segments Europe to adopt chivalric codes of honor and their own fraternal orders.

Furthermore, some of those Muslims in Europe were black Africans, and their presence can be found in European lore. Africans were not always relegated to a slave status. But some Africans went to Europe as masters and not as the mastered. Again, my idea is that not only a broad history of the world needs to be rewritten, but also the history of Europe—and Islam and the presence of black folk would have to be included.

Also, along academic lines, my fellow “black radical” at Amherst had turned me on to the Amherst College archives. He told me about a senior thesis that had been written about twenty years earlier by a black student struggling to survive the culture shock of “The College.” I would copy from the thesis:

“’This place is like heaven [of course, not literally]; don’t nothin’ go wrong here….’ People who have graduated in the last two years have spoken of the ‘Womb.’ These are my last days of my Time in this Space called the Valley. This place of education has brought me only to a point. With this study I hope to travel to other points of Space and Time on Universal Coordinates.”

I had decided to hang around outside of the “Womb” for an additional year, but I could appreciate the student’s sentiment about moving beyond “The College.” There was a sense of security at Amherst, but it was more than just being sheltered from the concerns of the “real world.” Amherst provided me with ample time to engage in stimulating conversations with fellow students, to read extensively, to be engaged in the world of ideas. Amherst provided me with the long walks, and the solitude, so I could become intimate with myself. But I knew sooner or later I would have to leave my beloved Valley.

In the midst of the internal turmoil of the year before, I did find pockets of respite. One of places I discovered in my final months of matriculation at Amherst was the Vincent Morgan Music Library. Although it was now a year later, and I had for the most part kicked my music addiction, one day in late March, I did go to to the second floor of the music building to put the needle to the groove. I would write:

Where am I on the most beautiful day of the year so far? I’m in the place where I spent a good portion of my life a year ago… the Amherst College music library with my friend, Mr. Coltrane (as his horn begins to rise above the opening clutter of ‘Ascension’). What an experience it was this time a year ago. There was my return to Amherst [after the “Texas Sojourn”], the hours in the music library just trying to ‘Return,’ or better yet, ‘Become.’ There was Professor Rushing’s class and the taste of blackness at the lily and ivory white school. This was just a year ago.”

As I sat there, I was reminded of a quote I had copied into my Journal the year before by Leroi Jones (Amiri Baraka) on his seeing for the first time John Coltrane perform. He said it was fascinating and scary, for watching Coltrane play was like watching a grown man trying to speak for the first time. I would say: “I often felt that way last year.” I felt that way, for I was trying to make sense of what was happening to me, and I wanted to give it expression. I wanted to share it and to shed clarity… although, I didn’t yet have that which I wanted to give.

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

Thoughts bounce around till my skull is fractured.” (Rakim)

It would be two weeks later before the next entry. Things are shifting. The roommate has has temporarily moved to Houston. I have finally gotten the upper hand on the one-eyed monster, and put an end to my TV habit. Winter is beginning to succumb to the spring. We are getting a few nice days strung together on occasion. The Writer’s Window could now be kept open, and I could have stereo headphones to Nature. Among the sounds to savor were the recently returned robins and even the blue jays, and the toads are making noise in the spring run-off ditches and streams—that is, it is mating season, and toads doing their groove thang is a sort of harbinger of spring in Western Massachusetts.

The days are lengthening and warming, and I am able to put the blue vault over my dome and do more and more strolling through the Valley. On the 19th of April, I walk the back roads home past the cow pastures from the Hampshire Mall.

Farm house on the road to Brittany Manor

Farm house on the road to Brittany Manor

I had gone to the mall to fulfill a mission.  And the mission was, maa-shaa’ Allah, accomplished.  …Ya, I got them—I purchased an ultra-light rod and reel and some lures. I’m going to start fishing again. This would resolve my protein issue, if my wet-a-line skills are up to par, and it would afford me the opportunity to engage in my favorite pastime.

The Fort River, which is more like a brook that isn’t much more than 15 feet wide for most of the year, was a few hundred yards from the “Writer’s Window.” I could go fish in the morning before work, catch a few trout, stick them in the frig, come home later in the day, clean’em, and get piscivorous. Small stream ultra-light fishing would take me back to me pre-Amherst, wannabe yuppie days, that when I wasn’t in class, or studying, or working at Burger King, I was in the tan Fiesta driving around looking for spots to fish on the Westfield, the Quabog, or any one of dozens of small streams and ponds in the area. I was finding a forgotten, and cherished, mode of mind, again.

The first day out, the water was high, murky, and cold, and I wasn’t successful. But in the weeks that followed, the weather and water quality improved, and I got into the trout on the regular. Also, the Teacher was also an avid fisherman. We, that is, he, his wife, a Brother from Indonesia, and I went down one day to the Connecticut River to see what we could do during the shad run. (For the record, the shad I am speaking of are ATLANTIC shad, which are good to eat, and not those stinky bait fish that are used to catch catfish).

While most folks are standing almost elbow to elbow throwing shad darts blindly into the main river, I slip off down stream and find an inlet. As I approach the water, a fly fisherman is in a battle royale with a very large fish. I watch with anticipation, and finally, he bends over and cradles an Atlantic salmon, that if I remember correctly weighed in the 15-20 lbs range, which was a tremendous catch given at the time the salmon restoration project on the Connecticut was new. In addition to the salmon, this inlet was filled with hundreds if not thousands of shad. Given that I don’t know if there is a statute of limitations on the fish taken beyond the creel limit, I won’t say how many shad we caught that day, but I will say that for the rest of the summer, whenever I went to the Teacher’s house for a lesson, his wife had prepared for us “dal” and shad for dinner—and I wasn’t complaining!

Most of my fishing, however, was on the stream right next door to home. On one occasion, the Mentor dropped me off where South East St. crosses the Fort River, and I walked downstream the mile and a half back to Brittany Manor. I had the “river” to myself, as I worked the stream looking for the pools and the pockets that might harbor a lunker stream trout—or even an acrobatic smallmouth bass. I was conscious that I might not experience days like this for a a long time to come given that I would be moving to Philadelphia at the end of the summer. Consequently, I tried to suck the marrow out of each moment I spent on that stream.

One Sunday, on a sublimely beautiful morning, I went the Fort River in pursuit of finned quarry. On one miscast, which landed about six feet behind me, a brook trout snatched my lure as soon as it touched the water. It was my first “native brookie,” and it was a beautiful fish.

A native brook trout

A native brook trout

As the water purled around my legs, in the distance I could ever so faintly hear a school band and then later what sounded like names being announced for a commencement event. A year has passed since my own graduation. That evening, after having three trout and spaghetti for dinner, I walk down the road to one of the nearby farms, sit down, and watch the sun sink into the horizon. Of the worldly things, it doesn’t get much better than this—i am, maa-shaa’ Allah, in an earthly bliss. I had found my pocket, however fleeting it might be.

 

…And an Exodus (Entry #23)

… And an Exodus (Entry #23)

After having my world rocked by the Philadelphia trip, I return to the cold barren Valley. It’s winter break, and there not much happening. The buses are running infrequently, and there isn’t much to do other than hunker down and hibernate. This would be a particularly brutal winter. Nonetheless, I did love the blizzards. Even as a kid, I liked blizzards not only because it meant a day or two off from school, but they served as a reminder that someone other than “man” was in control.

By the time the students return from the winter break, and the Happy Valley has regained some vitality, it is almost February. And February is Black History month. It was then that my black nationalist sympathies underwent an accelerated transmutation. My “unconventional” views about race and black identity were significantly influenced by what would occur that month.

I am a person who demands intellectual clarity. This is why I found non-Islamic and quasi-Islamic doctrines inadequate for me. I could not believe that the Creator of the universe is a human being, or a or a statue, or the sun, or the moon, or a “force of energy” inside our bodies. The Creator is Greater than everything else, and the Creator absolutely does not need or resemble the creations. The Creator, and the Creator alone, deserves to be worshiped. This is what Muslims believe about God, and this is the reason why I became a Muslim.

I like to see and understand things for what they are. And ideally—in spite of my character flaws—I want my behavior to conform with the truth. I would like to think that I have this same attitude towards race and identity. I want to think about racial matters in a clear and honest way. Growing up I could not help but notice the differences between black and white cultures (and, yes, I am going to dare make generalities… so, reader, get over it). I could see that white racism was motivated to a large degree by the BEHAVIOR of black folks as much as “pure” white racism. After all, East Asians were not regarded the same way as were blacks (or Puerto Ricans, for that matter) by white people. To the contrary, white folks often admired Asians. Also, I realized that it was black BEHAVIOR that kept us at the bottom of the social order, more so than white racism.

When I had my “Great Racial Awakening” upon reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X after my first year at Amherst, I finally understood WHY black people were the way they were. Something had happened to us on those slave ships and on the plantations that distinguished us from the rest of America. And this distinction has defined us. During slavery, black men were humiliated, and black women were degraded; psyches were broken, and we were left to be consumed by a culture of self-hatred that was passed down from generation to generation. Black (social) inferiority was not the result of some sort of genetic deficiency. It was the legacy of a socially engineered slave culture that was not designed to ever be functional—to ever challenge the white hegemony. This line of reasoning explained a lot to me, and it complied with what I saw as the truth. This was not to excuse black pathology and dysfunction, but it was to explain it—and explaining is not the same as excusing.

As I said before, one of the appeals of the so-called Nation of Islam1, was that it was EXTREMELY critical of black culture. Malcolm X, a product of the Nation said:

“The black man in the ghettoes, for instance, has to start self-correcting his own material, moral, and spiritual defects and evils. The black man needs to start his own program to get rid of drunkenness, drug addiction, and prostitution. THE BLACK MAN IN AMERICA HAS TO LIFT UP HIS OWN SENSE OF VALUES.”

And what could be seen amongst the followers of Elijah Muhammad were a people who were committed to living disciplined lives. They had (moral) standards that the members were expected to live by—and as a result, the so-called “Black Muslims” (who were not, of course, Muslims in reality) had the respect of black and white folks alike. The Nation did not overlook or excuse the prevalent self-destructive behavior in the “hood.” To the contrary, it challenged black men to step up and be men and take responsibility for the black condition.

I say that to say with the growth of hyper-liberalism among the black leadership—with the occasional Uncle Tom thrown in for black folk to hiss at—the concept of morality and discipline has been removed from the discourse regarding the improvement of the black condition. The discourse has been subsumed with litanies about the evils of white racism… and the need for more and more government handouts. Even at the zenith of my red-black-and-greenism, I could not turn a blind eye to the counterproductive behavior of black folk. For instance, on the one hand, you would have folks talking of grand conspiracies about black genocide, and on the other hand, these same folks would feel compelled to have “parties” and “after parties” for every imaginable event. A people who are serious about resisting extermination aren’t thinking about shaking their rumps at two o’clock in the morning. They are thinking about getting organized and building institutions that can safeguard their existence—and their children’s existence.

Upon studying a book covering “The Personal Obligatory Knowledge” (of Islam), with the “Teacher,” I finally felt I had a sound standard by which to judge myself and others. Many of the Islamic rulings contained therein seemed common sense and were in line with how I was raised: don’t lie, don’t steal, don’t show-off, don’t brag, don’t cheat, don’t do drugs, stand up for worthy principles—even if they are not popular. The black “get-over” mentality just doesn’t work in Islam. And although black folk have not been treated equally in America, it does not justify that one cheat or steal from whites folks (or anyone else). In Islam, a wrong should not be reciprocated by another wrong. With the Personal Obligatory Knowledge, it became clear that if black folk (genuinely) wanted to improve their condition, they would have to get serious about obeying their Creator.

With that said, during February Bobby Seale came to Mount Holyoke. Mount Holyoke and Smith are two elite all-female colleges in the Happy Valley. Having become a big fan of the Black Panthers during the summer of my “Racial Awakening,” I wanted to see what the former chairman of the BPP had to say. This would be my first “black social event” since the summer. I was at an all-women’s college, I was single, and I was having a difficult time controlling my organs of sight. I had been striving very conscientiously to avoid the “lustful looks,” but under those circumstances—and my weaknesses—it was difficult to resist. I say that not to broadcast some sins committed years ago, but that it was becoming clear to me that black folk could not have a build stable communities if their nafs (lower self) were constantly agitated by carnality—and I say that as someone one who was consciously trying to resist his lower impulses. This experience was very different from the sort of modest and subdued environment I had become accustomed to while with the Muslims.

As for Bobby Seale, his professing “humanism” as his (then) current philosophy, brought me to the realization that black nationalism was not necessarily a phase one passes through to reach the Truth. Seale knew about Malcolm, and there had been plenty of Sunni (and self-professed Sunnis) in the black community, yet somehow, Bobby Seale was satisfied with humanism? The speech drove home the fact that the black nationalists (or black humanists, for that matter) could not adequately answer the big questions I had–the questions about God, about the purpose of life, about death and the Hereafter—or about the role of Prophet Muhammad in the history of the world. To content oneself with “humanism” after knowing about the message of the Prophet Muhammad seemed like the ultimate sell-out and betrayal of the soul.

On another occasion that month, I attended a play at UMASS. It was about what was happening to the urban black male. This was during the time when the crack plague was ravaging the inner cities of the Northeast. An untold number of young black males had become crack addicts or crack dealers or had been incarcerated for either selling crack or committing other crimes to sustain their crack habits. And, of course, there was the black on black carnage that was taking place because of the street level drug wars for crack. Young black males were killing each other by the thousands annually in drug turf wars.

I don’t remember much about the play, but I remember the feeling. I remember a general sense of despair—despair not only from the actors but from the audience. I wasn’t feeling it, per se, but the people around me were. There was this nearly overwhelming sense of victimization. And this was something that I could never relate to in black culture. As a child, I did very well in school—better than most if not all the white kids. I didn’t feel they were smarter than me, and I felt that I could do whatever they could do. Later, when I became racially conscious, I realized that I had been done wrong—in a PROFOUND manner—but I didn’t feel like there was nothing I could do about it. I knew I had to empower myself through knowledge and discipline, be wiser, and do better. I knew I was up against powerful interests and institutions. I did not, however, feel defeated.

I had never been the kind of person to just allow my reason to be overwhelmed by emotions. I didn’t see any benefit in it. And I think this was in part due to have never been to church. The black church, in particular, is a place of unadulterated emotionalism. The black church encourages folk to harbor pain and then release those pent up feelings during the Sunday morning services. The black church, however as a rule, does not encourage black folks to discipline themselves so as to avoid the CAUSES of those pains. A person who is disciplined and orderly is a whole lot less likely to have a bunch of drama in his life or feel the need for weekly emotional purges. Instead, the person will live by the dictates of reason and strive to rationally solve his problems—and not just emotionally wish his problems would somehow magically vanish… or that the white man would have a change of heart and come along and fix them. It made no sense to me to think that one could cry or beg his way to manhood and freedom.

At the end of February, the Mentor and I take a trip to the University of Kansas for what was called (if I remember correctly) “The Big Eight Black Student Conference.” African-American college students from all over the Midwest would be there in attendance. The Mentor was going to do a presentation and had a table for selling his goods. I was to watch watch the table and try to sell some books (which I shouldn’t have been selling), incense, and oils, which was the standard fare of what one used to find amongst Muslim vendors back in the day.

On a side note, we rode with Sonya Sanchez from the airport to the university. On the way, she was like a griot filling us in on that black history that isn’t found in books. Also, I have to say that she was the most powerful speaker I have ever seen (with the exception of one Shaykh I saw give a khutbah (sermon) when I first arrived in Beirut). There were 700 people in the room, and you could literally (almost) hear a pin drop. We were all, I think, spellbound. Her subject matter was the same as the play I had attended earlier in the month: something was going on on the streets of black America. Something was going on with the black male and the crack plague. Something, perhaps, irrevocable was going on. A seismic social shift was taking place.

(This has some very graphic lyrics, but this is the reality of what crack addiction did to a multitude of people at the time of which I am speaking):

The famous poet, Sonia Sanchez, decades ago.

The famous poet, Sonia Sanchez, decades ago.

As for me at the vending table, it was torture. It was Ramadan; I considered myself to be fasting; and I was, again, having ocular problems. Once more, there I was, a young single guy, totally committed to the idea of marriage (but with no practical means to get married), in a sea of (many) attractive black females. It wasn’t only my weakness, however; it was the nature of the entire scene. To call it a “meat market” would be an understatement. It was more like as if someone had chummed the sea red and sent the sharks into a feeding frenzy. There was no shyness or modesty in how the males approached the females—or how the females allowed themselves to be approached. Something just isn’t right here. I am striving to be “righteous”—but this environment is only conducive to its opposite. It is getting clearer to me that a culture that doesn’t value self-restraint, especially a culture that is already “behind in the societal race,” isn’t going to be able to compete with cultures that are more well-established or more disciplined.

Furthermore, it was clear, given what Sonya Sanchez and other speakers were saying, that a somewhat “soft genocide” was taking place in (or against) black America. But the black males (the overwhelming majority, at least) were concerned only about being “gash men.” I was sitting at a table full of books on black social movements, black politics, black empowerment, and black history—but the black folk (the males, in particular) were not interested in that. They were more concerned about where they could put their reproductive organs than they were about the issue of black survival in America.

At the end of the day, I am released from the “torture table,” and the Mentor and I go down to the campus Islamic center.2 As I said, it was Ramadan. We enter the building and there are men sitting on the floor chatting and eating. There are people of all different colors, from different nations, speaking different languages, and enjoying each others company. I felt that I was experiencing a micro-version of the Malcolm X’s Hajj experience. But instead seeing an alternative to the racism of white America, I was seeing an alternative to the lack of moral structure in black America. After being amongst “my racial kinfolk” and witnessing their petty scheming for boudoir conquests–and my own struggle with my nafs (lower self)I enter an environment of tranquility. I can now find the stillness within. “With hardship comes relief. Certainly with hardship comes relief.” I am making an exodus from “blackness.”  I have found my people. This is where I want to be.

1This does not free this organization from numerous doctrinal deviance: http://facetofloor.wordpress.com/2012/08/10/refutation-of-farrakhanism-the-so-called-nation-of-islam/

2For the record, I do not know what school of thought or school of doctrine prevailed there at the Islamic center. What was of note was just the difference between the two cultures (i.e., general African-American culture and Muslim culture).

A Quest… (Entry #22)

A Quest (Entry # 22)

The New England winter is in full e-f-f-e-c-t. The days are short and often gloomy; the nights are long; and it’s cold all the time. I am slacking off with my writing. And as I would realize later, that my writing sort of revolves around the seasons. I like to write outdoors, and in December and January in Western Massachusetts, writing out-of-doors is pretty much out of the question.

The struggle continues between trying to get acclimated to life after college and trying to orient my life around Islam. I have too many questions. I am trying to understand what I had learned at Amherst regarding world history, social theories, and the pretty much standard (liberal) liberal arts classroom indoctrination (as well as, my own Afrocentric-“black radical” independent study) in relation to the worldview of traditional Islamic scholarship. I also need to sift out those things I had read purporting to be about Islam but were representative of varying heretical viewpoints.

And like I said previously, there was the need for community. I wanted to acquire traditional knowledge, and I wanted to reach “my people,” for they were in such sad shape and in need of self and collective reformation that traditional Islamic knowledge (and practice) could provide them. My learning opportunities were relatively limited in Amherst, and “my people” were few and far between.

For the New Year’s weekend, we, that is, my Teacher, his wife, the Sudanese Brother, another African-American convert and I, would hop in the “Behemoth” (the name for my Teacher’s very large 1960’s model American car) and head to Philadelphia. I didn’t know what to expect, and I didn’t write very much about the time spent in the city of “Brotherly Love,” but I was blown away by the experience.

(Famous Philadelphia "Love Statue")

(Famous Philadelphia “Love Statue”)

The North American headquarters for the the organization my Teacher (and now myself) was studying with was in Philadelphia. The organization had recently bought a very large building in West Philadelphia that had formerly been a church and and at another time a synagogue. Some of the Valley Guys had already made hijrah (emigration) from Massachusetts to Philly. I was down for that, but I wasn’t going to act on impulse, however. I needed to see Philadelphia for myself. I wasn’t disappointed. Although the building was still being renovated, it was an impressive edifice. There was the buzz of activity with people doing the extensive repair work, and there was the opportunity to sit in lessons and talk with people with far more knowledge than I had. Also, there was the sense of deep spirituality. On one of the nights during our stay, I slept under the minbar (the minbar is a platform, “pulpit,” that the prayer leader will stand upon and give the speech before the communal Friday prayer) and had one of the most a powerful dreams I’ve ever had—and this was at a time when I was, maa-shaa’ Allah, having many profound dreams.

Also related to spirituality were the discussions about zuhd (Islamic asceticism and detachment from the world). The Valley Guys who had already migrated to Philadelphia didn’t seem to be doing too well regarding their financial situations. I didn’t have a problem with that. And given my experiences with meditation and reading about Buddhism and the yogis of India, i was of the mindset that I wanted to withdraw from (much of) this world. I wanted (or needed) to be in it but not of it.

Nonetheless, along with the discussions about Sufism and detachment from the world were the discussions about Destiny. And these discussions struck me in a way, especially seeing the circumstances of the Brothers there, that made my nafs (lower self) feel uneasy. Although, this is a matter of great philosophical and theological debate in the West, the issue of Destiny was easy for me to grasp, and I had some sense of it even before I started calling myself a Muslim.

If one accepts that there is a Perfect Eternal Creator, then presumably, one wouldn’t believe that the Creator is ignorant. And since the Creator could not (rightfully) be attributed with ignorance, then the Creator knows everything. And since the Creator knows everything, then the Creator knows what we shall do before we do it. Our endings and everything else is sealed. Furthermore, the One who created the universe isn’t obligated with anything. We cannot command the Creator to do what we want. Instead, we are command by the Creator (through Divine Revelation bestowed upon the Prophets) to be obedient to God’s Sacred Laws. Allah is the Creator and Owner of everything and does not owe us anything.

Nonetheless, turning over more and more in my mind that if Allah has not willed for you to get something, then you will never get it, forced me to radically re-evaluate my whole post-Amherst College life. If you go to a place like Amherst, then after graduation you either go work in corporate America or go to an elite professional or graduate schools. That’s the norm of things, and that is what is expected of you and what you expect of yourself. However, if Allah has willed for you not to get the pretty wife, and the upper five or six digit income, and the Ivy League grad school degree, but instead Allah has willed for you to live in bachelorhood and poverty—or not even live long at all—then there is absolutely no escaping Destiny. Whatever Allah has eternally willed to be shall be.

The thought of this was a shock to my system. It’s not that I found it difficult to grasp intellectually or felt any emotional objection to it. I had already known and accepted this in principle. Unlike a lot of educated Westerners who often reject the existence of God because they feel that since things have not turned out the way they would like, then there must not be a Creator (which exposes their hubris in thinking that God owes them something), I never felt that God had to do what is best for me. What shocked my system was the realization that my dreams might not materialize, and that true detachment was not only getting accustomed to having fewer comforts, but also relinquishing one’s hopes in this world. When all was said and done, however, I could not dispute with myself that this emptying the heart of worldly hopes was not but the high path to spiritual mastery.

On one of the nights in Philadelphia, we played a video of the “Shaykh” (or “Sheikh”—used in this sense to mean spiritual guide and leader) of the organization. He turned out to be an African black man! I don’t know how I missed the memo on this. In the almost two years since I had first encountered the Brothers, I was struggling with race and Islam. When I read Malachi York’s books about the oppression of the “white Arabs” (in particular, the Saudi-Wahhabis) and their denying the “black Arabs” their rightful place in history, it forced me to look at the racial dynamics in the communities I was exposed to and the Muslim world, in general, in a different light. And it wasn’t a favorable light.

In this case, however, here was a black African man with “white Arabs” thronging at his feet. They were there not for displays of athletic prowess or adeptness with a microphone and turntables. They sat at his feet to drink from the vast reservoirs of his knowledge and wisdom and witness a living example of Islamic piety. This would be (so I thought) a rewriting of the history of Islam in black America, for time and time again, African-Americans ended up in deviant sects, like the Moorish Science Temple, the so-called Nation of Islam, the Ahmadiyyah, the Wahhabis (so-called “Salafis”), the Malachi York cults, and other sects that were wholly inadequate to guide African-Americans to know the Truth about their Lord and how to obey the One Who created them. This time, however, we would have one of our own—or at least someone who looks like us—who was teaching the rationally indisputable truth about Allah. We now—after all these decades—had the means to get it right. My black brothers (and sisters) were going to finally work it out.

One of the many highlights of the trip was that I sat with one of the leaders of the organization to seek personal advice. His insight was trenchant to the point that it was unsettling. He advised me to “acquire the obligatory knowledge” and to come to Philadelphia to be involved in the community that was in the process of being built. I was sold. I now, for the first time in my post-Amherst life, had a definite goal in mind. My plan would be to finish up the contract I had working at the School of Education at UMASS and move down to Philadelphia in the summer and be part of this spiritual revolution I envisioned for black America—and possibly the entire society.

The Right Orientation (Post #21)

The Right Orientation (Entry #21)

Journal #18 begins on the last day of October. I am feeling an increasing need to be part of a Muslim community. It’s not that I am the kind of person who needs to be in a group to feel a sense of well-being, for by nature I am a loner. It’s the fact that I am trying to adopt a new set of habits, and given my circumstances at the time, those habits were not reinforced by those around me. I wanted to live amongst like-minded Muslims who were striving to obey Allah.

As the cold season approached, I was having a harder and harder time with my semi-vegetarian diet. I say semi-vegetarian, because I would eat a can or two of tuna fish (often eating the recommended serving size on the can—which wasn’t much at all) per week. I needed some kind of protein in my system given that I am thin and have a very high metabolism. Unlike the winter the year before at Amherst, where there were plenty of vegetarian options, I was now trying to work out a practical diet given my metabolic needs. I wanted to eat healthily, with little animal protein as possible, and do so on a low budget. This would be a challenge I would have to struggle with for the next five months.

Although I would start to write less (one reason was cold mornings in the apartment sucked away a lot of my motivation), writing was no less significant to me. As I said, I was looking for a means to consolidate and express my concerns, my interests, and my aspirations. I needed a medium by which I could get my goals into focus.

Writing reminded me of the need to develop a material base—i needed a means by which I could earn a living doing something meaningful. I wanted to monetize my passion. As was typical of life in Amherst, you tend to frequently meet interesting people. One day while working at the “Shop” (i.e., the shop owned by the Mentor), a professor from UMASS stopped by, and we got into a conversation about life and self-development. She paraphrased a quote (which I just found out is from Francis of Assisi) about using the head, the heart, and the hands. Writing fulfilled that for me. Writing certainly had an intellectual aspect to it. When my writing feels the best, I touch upon chords in my psyche that give me greater self-understanding. And writing not only is a product of my hands but could be a tangible legacy of my internal life that I could share with others.

Among the happenings of this time was Leonard Jeffries came to UMASS to give a lecture, and like Stokley Carmichael, he was met by resistance from some of the student body for some of the less than prudent statements he had made. Jeffries was one of the more radical Afrocentrists, and he wasn’t known to be a very good guard of his tongue. I went to the lecture because I wanted to hear his side of the story, and I figured he’d drop somme knowledge about ancient African civilizations. It was this event, and several more that would occur over the next few months that would gradually lead to my abandoning my black nationalist sentiments. It was inspiring to hear someone talk about the achievements of ancient black civilizations in the Nile Valley (and if one wants to cavil over the “race” of the Ancient Egyptians, it’s safe to say that most of them would not have been allowed to sit at the front of the bus here in Memphis circa 1950), but something was missing.

Jeffries used the occasion to take the usual Afrocentric snipes at Islam. And that made me call into question what was it that the Afrocentrists were ultimately calling people to? Being proud of long ago achievements by people who look like you or some of your family members is understandable—especially for a people for whom it was implied or said in standard high school text books had no history worthy of mentioning. Such knowledge alone, however, would not transform the person, and it would not inform the person about the the Creator of the universe and the ultimate purpose of life.

I was sympathetic to many of the things said by the Afrocentrists—indeed, (Western) history had been largely written by openly white racists who had an agenda to deny or at least diminish the role people of color had in the making of civilization—but after the dust settles from the cultural cheerleading, what else would the Afrocentricists have to offer? My interests in Islam (or what I considered to be Islam), on the other hand, was multifold. As I said, it started with the reading of The Autobiography of Malclom X. I saw Islam as a means of establishing social cohesion for African-Americans. It would provide African-Americans with a set of values upon which they could be united (so I figured at the time). Also, Islam was a way, perhaps contrary to Leonard Jeffries worldview, of connecting black people to their more recent civilizational accomplishments in Africa, in particular those of the major Sahelian states, such as Ghana, Mali, Songhai, Kanem-Bornu, and the Swahili Coast, as well as, the lore regarding the “Moors.” Furthermore, I saw Islam as a global counterforce to the greedy imperialistic cult of corporate consumerism.

But what was driving me with Islam above and beyond my racial, social, and political interests was my wanting to have clarity about who is God. Many of the Afrocentrists did not strike me as very “religious” people—meaning people concerned about obeying God (or who or what they thought to be God) or their condition in the Hereafter. I also had no interest in praying to jinn or making animal sacrifices to blood encrusted statues of Shango, Elegba, and Yemoja. I wanted a rational, logically consistent understanding of who my Creator was, and I couldn’t find that in traditional African religions nor in the religious cults of Ancient Egypt. Additionally, I had an interest in metaphysical states, and I wanted to know the difference between pure spirituality and simply the experiences of an over-active imagination or satanic influences. I wanted to conquer myself through asceticism. I wanted to know how could one subdue the desires of the body and of the ego, so that one could be fully devoted to the obedience of the Creator. Afrocentricity and black nationalism could not provide me with that.

It was at this time, that the brother from the banks of the Nile (the “Sudanese Brother”), met my Teacher. A couple of days after their first encounter, the Sudanese brother went to my teacher’s apartment, and they talked, and talked, and talked until three in the morning about various doctrinal and spiritual issues that were well beyond my “pay grade.” For those who do not know, many of the Muslims who come to America are NOT trained in traditional Islamic knowledge. They may have some experience with memorizing the Qur’an in school or at the mosque, and they may learn the very basics of Islamic creed, and elementary matters of Islamic law and Prophetic biography; however many Muslims are unfamiliar with the method by which traditional Sunni scholarship refuted various heretical and blasphemous ideologies and sects. That being the case, many Muslims themselves are susceptible to adopting unorthodox ideas or being influenced by deviant groups.

The Sudanese Brother, however, had a Sheikh back home who was learned in the traditional Islamic sciences, including tasawwuf (Sufism). Sufism, contrary to the claims of the Orientalists (and the Wahhabis) is not a “new religion” or something alien to traditional Islam. Sufism is the branch of Islamic science that concentrates on the rectification of the character through following the example of the Prophet. This entails having the proper belief in the Creator and the Prophets, as well as, abiding by the Islamic law, while having a pure-hearted intention only to obey God and not to impress or seek recognition amongst the creations. As one person said, Sufism is the “science of sincerity.”

My Teacher was delighted and intrigued by this new Brother. For myself, if was the confirmation that I was seeking. I was trying to verify through other channels that what I was learning with the Teacher was authentic. The creed, as it was taught, made sense. There is only One Creator. Everything other than the Creator is a creation. The Creator does not need any of the creations. The Creator does not undergo change or development. The Creator, Who existed before time, place, and direction, exists without being in time, place, or direction. The Creator does not resemble the creations; whatever one imagines, the Creator is different from that. That all made perfect sense to me.

Furthermore, the Teacher warned me that there are people who misconstrued Qur’anic Verses and Hadiths (sayings of the Prophet), and as a result, they think that Allah is a giant object of some sort with fingers, hands, eyes, a face, and is located above the ceiling of Paradise (Al-`Arsh). Also, there were other blasphemous beliefs that were prevalent in books purporting to be about Islam. In accordance with my “conspiracy theory” interests, some of these deviant ideas and factions were initiated or supported by the Western colonial powers to weaken and fragment the Muslim world, as was the case with the Ahmadiyyah in India, the Freemasons in Egypt, and the Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia. Again, this all made perfect sense to me. Nonetheless, not to have this knowledge and methodology confirmed by an outside source still kept me at a little bit of a distance. The Sudanese Brother, however, provided the confirmation that I was plugged into the historical mainstream of traditional Islamic scholarship.

Not long after the Sudanese Brother met my Teacher, he wanted to go to West Springfield, which was the location of the nearest Islamic center in the area at the time, to get to the bottom of a controversial matter. When I had first met the Brothers, they advised me not to attend the mosque in West Springfield nor the Friday services at the university campus center. They told me that the people there were praying northeast. This was one of the things that spooked me when I met these “mysterious” people.

First there was their practice of speaking out against very well-known writers and books that purported to be about Islam. Joined with that was their discussing apostasy and that one could inadvertently leave Islam. When I was told that many Islamic centers prayed northeast, I didn’t even bother to investigate. I dismissed such an assertion as absurd. I thought that this was simply a ploy by these guys to keep me away from other Muslims. In my dorm and in my apartment I faced southeast when I was (calling myself) praying. It was evident to me that Mecca is indisputably closer to the equator than Massachusetts. As it turned out, however, one Friday soon after having met the Sudanese Brother, we were leaving the Jumu`ah service at the UMASS campus center, and I looked at the surrounding area outside, and it did turn out that we were facing northeast!

The Sudanese Brother and I went down the West Springfield, and requested to speak with the imam (prayer leader) there. (I was just an observer; I did not have enough knowledge to discuss matters of Islamic law with people—but I did know some basic geography.) The Sudanese Brother, who was one of the most well-mannered people I have ever met, politely implored the imam to read a passage from a book of Islamic jurisprudence about how to determine the direction for the prayer. The imam firmly—but politely—refused to read the passage (I am, in retrospect, of the mind that it may have been the saying of Abu Hanifah, in which he says to the effect: “If one is north of the Ka`bah, one faces south; if south, one faces north; if east one faces west; and if west, one faces east.”) The imam refused to read the statement, saying that the book was merely a compilation of Islamic judgments (which, even in my untrained mind did not mean that the statements in the book were invalid).

The whole time the discussion went on, and it might have done so for a half hour, there was a middle-aged African-American man sitting and listening intently. After the imam left, he came over to us and said emphatically: “I remember when they changed the qiblah [prayer orientation] in America!” He went on to describe how much “fitnah” (strife) this caused amongst Muslims at the time. Communities and families were torn apart over this issue, and he said that he and his wife were praying in two different directions at home. He said he went out and got aeronautical maps, and still came to the conclusion that prayer direction was southeast. This pretty much sealed the deal for me. There was something fishy going on in the “mainstream” (if I may so generalize) North American Muslim community.

It wasn’t only this episode that made me abandon what I call now the “standard immigrant center” scene. For one, there was the huge cultural gap, and more significant than the cultural gap was the value gap. On Fridays, (some) immigrant Muslims would pull up in their Mercedes and BMWs to attend the service and then go back to their medical practices. These people didn’t seem like the kind of folks who would be interested in the kind of social activism I had envisioned for the American Muslim. I didn’t consider it likely that these kinds of people would be going to the inner city of Springfield and cleaning up the crack houses or calling black folk to Islam.

 These immigrants had come to America to live the dream that I considered to be a nightmare and was desperately trying to escape. Likewise, during the period of the Gulf War and the killing of hundreds of thousands, I don’t recall a peep being mentioned about American foreign policy. This was totally unacceptable from a black nationalist wannabe “Islamic revolutionary” who was accustomed to the fiery mordant social and political criticism of Louis Farrakhan and Malcolm X.

I could excuse the absence of politics being discussed (to a certain extent), for it being the better part of wisdom not to discuss such matters and get labeled by the alphabet cops as a subversive or “unamerican.” But I couldn’t excuse the lack of doctrinal clarity. I sat through khutbahs (Friday sermons) week after week waiting for the imam to “drop it” about the various factions, and how one knows what is the correct Islamic belief, and how to demonstrate that belief with rational proofs to educated non-Muslims. I wanted to know what was the role of Sufism in Islam, and how does one subdue his nafs (the ego and carnal driven self) and overcome one’s attachments to this ephemeral world. I wanted CLARITY. That talk, however, never came—not at least while I was there.

I get the sense that any “deeper” discussions (not actually deeper, just clarifying the mere basics) on creed would be suppressed with the claim that doctrinal discussions would be “divisive” for the community. This was another one of those points that I never accepted. How could discussions about the proper belief in the Creator be divisive? If a person has the correct belief, he (or she) isn’t going to object to it. And if a person has the incorrect belief, then that is either due to a misunderstanding, which they can easily correct by rejecting the bad belief and adopting the correct belief (and saying the Declaration of Faith to embrace Islam if that misconception reached the point of blasphemy), or the person would be someone who prefers to stubbornly cling to falsehood. If the person insists on adhering to creedal falsehood, then it would not be possible to unite with such a person under the banner of “obeying Allah,” which is the basis of sincere Islamic solidarity.

By teaching people the correct belief, the doctrinally deviant would be exposed and alienated from the Muslim community. As things were (and I think they largely remain this way in many of the American Islamic centers), the most elementary matters of doctrine are discussed (without details) under the guise of maintaining a facade of “unity.” And that is assuming that egregiously wrong things are not taught—although they are, and more often than not it is is some form of Saudi-backed Wahhabi (so-called “Salafi”) ideology. As a result, one encounters many Muslims, or at least self-professed Muslims, confused about fundamental matters of the Islamic creed. And this is the basis for the mess that the American Muslims are suffering from today.

It was not hard for me to cut ties to the “standard immigrant scene.” The knowledge I was seeking wasn’t made available and my questions weren’t being answered. I was content learning with my Teacher and the Sudanese Brother. And it would be with them that I would make a pilgrimage that winter to Philadelphia to further my pursuit of knowledge and community.

Image

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

Autumn in Amherst Entry #20

Autumn in Amherst: Entry #20

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells….
Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,-
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

–Ode to Autumn, Johnathan Keats

Foliage Close

 The ultimate praise, thanks, and gratitude is due unto the Creator: “It’s autumn in Amherst. Nothing more, perhaps, needs to be said.” It is the time for that annual ocular feast, when the eyes can tirelessly dine upon the yellow, the scarlet, the orange, and the green rolling hills surrounding the Valley. It is the visual crescendo before the long, cold, and somber winter sets in. Amidst the maturity of the season, the Valley also welcomes the college students and the youth they bring to the area. Granted many will dedicate themselves to bacchanalia and campus debauchery, but there will also be many young people who are entering college with exuberance and hope that they can make a difference in the world.

Perhaps it’s the medley of academia, of used bookstores, of youthful idealism, of droughts of intoxicating autumn air, and that foliage that contribute to that unique state of being that I’ve not remotely experienced anywhere outside of the Happy Valley. At this point, I am liberated from the ivory tower of the College and can enjoy Amherst life on my own terms. I could get to know the area much better than in my previous two and a half years there.

I would write at the time (in part probably inspired by some deep stretching exercises): “There is so much vision inside this body.” There were the memories of childhood, and the daily sights for one to enjoy and ponder throughout the area. Since I didn’t have a car, and usually was not in a rush to get anywhere (and winter had not yet come), I did a lot of walking. And that meant that the time and the sights could be savored. Among my favorite places to visit that fall was Atkin’s Farms on Route 116. It was, at least to me, the quintessential New England market. It sits almost at the base of the Holyoke Mountain Range. Inside local produce could be found. There was the smell of fresh cider and all sorts of other locally produced goodies that remind one of the old traditions of life in New England….

Atkins Apples

 As I reminisce about that period, and I am reminded of times past, it is as if a hole in my heart is opened. Those evanescent days have passed, and all that’s left are the memories of another time. And memory was one of the dominant themes of the Journals. I would write: “There is so much vision inside this body.” That was probably inspired by one of those morning deep-stretch exercise sessions, in which embedded emotions and old faded memories would rise to the surface of my consciousness. Time is passing.

 And my fear of perdition in the Afterlife is growing. I need to get right with God. I know that although I am trying to rectify myself, I certainly am not doing my best at doing so. I am going to have to overcome many weaknesses of character and be more self-disciplined. I know that I need to endeavor for my salvation, but at the same time, there is the problem of this… there is this obstacle that I must surmount, and that is this mundane world and my lower desires.

Do I really want to be a devotee of Citicorp and Chase Manhattan? Do I want to consider going to the ATM, like a visit to an ancient Greek oracle, thereby I would (allegedly) be informed of my terrestrial well-being? As one of the Valley Guys used to say at the time: “That’s not the way to go.” Furthermore, reading books, like, Dell Jones’, Black Holocaust: Global Genocide (http://www.amazon.com/dp/0963999583) and other conspiracy books didn’t inspire me with a whole lot of motivation and ambition to go live in a cubicle for corporate America.

At the same time, I understood that I needed to find my way through this world and take care of mundane responsibilities. I understood that I needed to do something to make my earthly life meaningful (and provide me with a means of sustenance) if I wanted to have those: “Power’s on, shower’s on” kinda mornings every morning. This meant that I could not compromise my values or sacrifice my ideals. I saw writing as the means to do that. Writing was helping keep me grounded—it focused my thoughts and provided me with a medium to express my ideals and my aspirations. As a matter of fact, the writing was a form of “remembrance;” it kept reminding me of what I wanted to do with my life (God-willing). Furthermore, my eclectic interests (and angst) could be explored… and there was the possibility of someday monetizing my passion without compromising who I am—or who I wanted to be. As I would write: “I must establish myself here, but also keep my heart on the world to come.” I need to live a balanced life.

Amidst the inner struggles, relief came in various forms. Among them was, a trip down to the Amherst College bird sanctuary with Delta. I was showing her where I would used to go to do my yoga and meditation routine during the previous two summers. Of the visit I would write: “Returning to the sanctuary was not an attempt to recapture the past but to be reassured about the cycle.” Delta, being the expressive person she was, kept me entertained by acting out her version of the “Isis” character from the Saturday morning program Shazam (she had a mystical bent about her, like that). Typically, in a lifetime, there are only a few people you can bug-out with over Saturday morning children’s TV programming, and Delta was one of them.

On a more serious note, one Friday while at the UMASS campus center, I encountered a student dressed up in full traditional Sudanese garb. It was Jumu`ah day, and he had on his turban and jalabiyyah. I approached him, introduced myself, and told him about the Brother I was learning with. He was eager to meet him, and within a few weeks, that “chance” encounter would result in a relationship that would forever change my life (maa-shaa’ Allah).

“Education,” meaning the furtherance of my academic studies, comes up a lot at this time. The plan, presumably, was to take this year (or possibly two) off and then go to graduate school. I attend a graduate school fair at UMASS that fall, and the “international education” program at Harvard strikes my fancy. I could work as a teacher and travel. Furthermore, I was already working at the School of Education at the University (with occasional gigs substituting at Amherst Regional High School). Although I am not passionate about classroom teaching, I do know that I want to be involved with learning and in an intellectually stimulating environment.

My real interest for graduate school was history. I was trying to develop a sort of “meta-history” of the world that I anticipated would be my Master’s thesis. The plan was to link ancient history, especially the civilizations of the Nile Valley and ancient (pre-Aryan) India, with Islam. Back then, I was intrigued by models of cultural diffusion in ancient times—in particular those “Afrocentric” models that challenged the very often racist status quo version of history.

My interest wasn’t simply in the retelling of past events, but it would be related to metaphysics and religion. The Western model of “civilizational evolution” needed to be reconsidered, for there is ample evidence that ancient people had developed advanced technology (e.g., the pyramids of Giza) and had a far more profound understanding of the universe than was generally acknowledged by conventional historians. Also, given the centrality of metaphysics and religion in the cultures of these ancient peoples, one could not understand their worldview unless one shared some of their sympathies. The conventional Western-minded historian couldn’t possibly understand people whose social structure was centered around preparation for an Afterlife, when the materialists make no allowance for anything existing beyond their senses.

From an Islamic perspective, Muslims believe that various communities of people had received Prophets, who came with the knowledge of Tawheed (the knowledge pertaining to the Oneness and Perfection of the Creator) and the call to worship the Creator alone and not any of the creations. For many of those Prophets, however, their teachings were altered and distorted through the centuries. This seemed to be in line with many ancient mythologies, in which they speak of enlightened men informing the people about the arts of civilization and the rites of worship. However, at some point those societies lapsed into idolatry, the worship of those “enlightened” men, or some other form of creation worship. I was of the mindset that the history of humanity needed to be radically rewritten, so that we could be reminded of our profound potential and not forget the momentous purpose of our life on this earth.

By the end of October, the New England winter is already making hints of its ominous approach. It’s something I am not at all looking forward to. Those mellow days of fruitfulness and bounty are winding down, and we would soon be besieged by New England’s frigid and barren hibernal season.

Getting Ahead of Myself Entry #19

Getting Ahead of Myself Entry #19

I’m going to start by getting a little ahead of myself. Typically, I read through my old Journals, while taking notes. I then sift through those notes, and turn them into bog entries. I start the reading of Journal #16 while sitting at the town center in South Deerfield, MA. This was during my momentous return to Springfield and the Valley in the autumn of 2011. It was my first trip back Home in seventeen years or so.

I had been planning an autumnal return to Western Massachusetts for many years, but for a variety of reasons, things wouldn’t line up, and I could not make the trip. For years, I felt like a character from epic mythology who was exiled from his home. I yearned to breathe my native air in my native land (especially my native air in the autumn), but circumstances seemed to conspire against me.

When the opportunity did arise, I anticipated disappointment. I anticipated disappointed not because of some sort of predilection for pessimism, but because I anticipated that things were not going to be the way I remembered them—that my memories had idealized the experiences I had many years earlier. During my time Home, I stayed in South Deerfield, and had an experience that, maa-shaa’ Allah, did not disappoint in the least. On my first full day in the Valley, I put some books, Journals, and a clipboard into a backpack and got to walking, and walking, and walking… and walking up to the summit of Mount Sugarloaf, where I could found myself above the low hanging clouds on that day (and found myself in the midst of a rainstorm when I had descended about half way down the mountain… and it rained all the way back to where I was staying; I had never been so drenched by rain in all my life).

On the second full day of the trip, I took the Peter Pan bus down to Springfield, then took PVTA bus out to Sixteen Acres, and retraced the haunts of my childhood, including a walk by Sixteen Acres School, and then down Barnet St. and to the playing fields of St. Catherine’s Church. From there, I walked past my old apartment in Hamden East. I hadn’t been there in over a twenty-five years. I then jaunted to what I used to call “The Big Woods,” (what is now called, “Woodland Park Conservation Area”) behind Hillcrest Cemetery. I had Google-satellited the area, and I was glad to see the trees were still standing. I took to the woods, and found them deeper and darker than I had remembered them, and I don’t think that was just my imagination. There was now plenty of undergrowth in places that had at once been almost barren forest floor. On my way out of the woods, I saw something that in particular delighted me:

DSC06497

In all the post winter storm trips to those woods to track rabbits, and raccoons, opossums, porcupine, and perhaps fox, I had never encountered hoof prints. Whitetail deer had returned to Springfield!

I stayed at my aunt’s house, and we went through old photo albums that stirred up memories of childhood, and also helped me gain some greater sense of familial continuity. I spent the night at her home—the same house she’s lived in and raised many children in over the past forty years. I returned to the Valley the following day, stopping in NoHo (Northampton) on the way. Over the next few days while in the Amherst area, I would revisit the places that broke me down and transformed in so many ways. The trip, praise Allah, was exceeded all expectations.

As for Journal #16, I am entering the Amherst mode of mind. I have elected to remain in the area. I would be staying in Brittany Manor, which was kinda like the Amherst “ghetto.” And eventually I would be working at UMASS School of Education as a research assistant. It would be in this time that I would start striking “stride with the Valley Vibe.” I would be living in Amherst not merely as a college student but as a resident. Being freed from the excessively academic and hyper-rational constraints of The College, I was now free to pursue the intellectual and metaphysical pursuits of my liking. Nonetheless I was overwhelmed by the ideological choices made available to me—how would I choose properly in this cornucopia marketplace of ideas?

Although I was starting to learn traditional Islamic knowledge with “The Teacher,” I still had a multitude of questions in my mind about a wide range of issues. And I was still trying to confirm what I was learning by independent sources. Readers have to keep in mind that this is in the era prior to the internet, the information about Islam beyond encyclopedia entries and books written by Orientalists, and those books written by heretical and blasphemous factions calling themselves “Muslims” was extremely limited. Books of traditional Sunni scholarship—especially, those in the matter of Doctrine—were few and far between (actually, I am not familiar with any Sunni books doctrine available at the time that weren’t filled with egregious errors).

I am profoundly perplexed at this time, and I feel that I can’t discuss any of this with my non-Muslim friends. They weren’t, after all, Muslims, and for many people in the Valley, knowing who is God did not play a central role in their lives. I did however, want some sort of “objective” input from people who could also be sympathetic to my plight. That was, however, wishful thinking. I would have to engage in this struggle largely on my own, and Amherst was about as ideal of a place as one could find for this spiritual battlefield.

The Teacher Appears

THE TEACHER APPEARS (Entry #18)

 “When the student is ready the teacher appears.”*

—ascribed to Buddha

Summertime in Amherst is not merely a season or a place, it is a state of being.

 

south_pleasant_street_amherst_ma

South Pleasant St. in Amherst–where “The Teacher” was pushing his wares.

 

This is my third time around estivating in the Happy Valley, and it is at some point in Journal #15, I decide that I am going to remain in the area for the upcoming year. I knew of no better place where I could potentially “get my head on straight,” get a lot of writing done, read, and continue my personal quest for self-understanding, and the quest to know the truth about God.

 Amherst (and the Valley, in general) has its share of interesting people—and they aren’t limited to the male gender. I was attempting to navigate four simultaneous crushes. Beauty is granted to whomever Allah wills. Coming from Springfield, which is a working class kind of town at best, I found the women of the Valley to be captivating, so when I met a Birkenstocks wearing “black Puerto Rican,” I was blown away. She was Bread and Circus (which is now Whole Foods) shopping, down to earth and into swimming and maybe also horseback riding, if I remember correctly, kinda female. She was nothing like the Puerto Rican girls I had been infatuated with in Springfield’s North End. There was another young woman with the Afrocentric thing going on, who was from Brooklyn and had that The City vibe about her, but at the same time could be comfortable at a small women’s college in a small New England town. My Texas Crush-Friend would be going to Egypt for the upcoming school year, so I wouldn’t see her until the next August.

Then there was the “flower girl,” who was named presumably after a certain Swedish actress. I remark in my Journal about the clarity of her eyes and her deep sense of self when she pondered whether or not she wanted to stay in college after the recent passing of her grandmother. As for her, just to share where my head was at the time, contrary to the stereotype, I didn’t have a fetish for “white girls.” Admittedly, I had a thing for them when I was in Springfield, simply because many of the women (of color) I encountered there, had such a narrow range of interests. My thing was an issue of class as oppose to color. Amherst was different, however. I could find many educated brown women, who had ambition and broad interests from the performing arts, to politics, to academia and just about everything in between. Also, and I’ll throw this in there, I felt a little uncomfortable about even thinking about pursuing a white female at the time, given that I was still identifying myself as a black nationalist. The last thing I needed to do was succumb to that “white kryptonite,” as the joke went about the many so-called conscious black Brothers who were involved with white women .

On a more serious note, marriage was increasingly becoming a central theme in my writing. I had made a commitment not to get intimately involved with members of the fairer sex outside of marriage. I wanted to find a like-minded person with whom we could go together on this quest seek to know the truth about the Creator and to live by the Creator’s Laws. Given that I was still in a state of confusion on so many matters, I was in no position to get married and guide a family. With that said, I flirted with the idea, but I didn’t attempt to pursue my romantic interest(s).

 Journal #15 would take me right to the end of the summer vacation and the end of the Upward Bound program. There were multiple experiences that were forcing me to rethink my black nationalism, and “The Bound” was one of them. On the one hand, I had this hope that “my people” would come out of their intellectual slumber–wake up–get organized, and get united. Putting my own personal and racial biases aside, it seemed only natural that African-Americans would be at the vanguard of this social transformation I was anticipating. The African-American Civil Rights Movement, after all, was a catalyst for many of the other 20th century social movements. Furthermore, African-American were in highly visible urban locations, and had the “culture of the cool.” If social consciousness were to take root amongst African-Americans, then it would expand to other groups and potentially transform the society.

Also, African-Americans, as a whole, had the least to lose and perhaps the most to gain from social transformation—or from revolution. The reality of the matter, especially after the coming of the Crack Plague, was the inner city black community was largely on lockdown by the Prison Industrial Complex, and although the black radicals of the late 60’s and early 70’s saw this siege coming, black folks 20 years later were actually living under it. When confronted with this low-intensity genocide, it seemed obvious to me that it was time to get our act together. However, although I had grown in ways previously unfathomable in my three years at college, Upper Bound reminded me that black folks, in general, had not changed very much. And as I noted even with the black community Amherst, the lack of moral cohesion was the root of black disunity.

The scenario plays itself out again and again in black America: predatory black males exploit black females—who themselves have grown up in fatherless homes—the girl ends up pregnant out of wedlock, and the cycle of single mother homes, very often in poverty and dysfunction repeats itself. With my newly found commitment to marriage, it was also becoming increasingly clear how the serial fornication didn’t only harm black females but also black males. The males, instead of taking responsibility, and planning for their roles as potential husbands-providers and fathers (in that order), they would jut see it as “open season” on females (black ones, in particular) to do their business with one (or multiple) females until they get bored and then move on to others. There was also the whole atmosphere of treachery, deceit, and betrayal that surrounds serial fornication that makes trust and honesty (not to mention self-restraint) almost impossible. We would not be able to build our “beautiful black nation,” unless their was a transformation of morals in the community—and I was getting the increasing sense that that wasn’t going to happen.

I was also slowly making a psychological exodus away from Academia. I loved learning, reading, and exploring ideas, but as I would write: “Western education is based upon information and not personal transformation.” I wanted learning to be a transformative experience and not merely a process of data collection and display. It was at this point that I had a re-encounter with one of the Brothers who would become my “Teacher.” I didn’t write the details of the encounter in my Journal, but he had been one of the Brothers I was introduced to after meeting the guys on the bus https://inthisjournal.wordpress.com/2012/10/22/behind-the-lids-the-back-of-the-bus-and-other-stuffs/.

Unlike many converts, with whom it would be pretty evident from the start—even in my state of confusion—that they were ignorant and didn’t know what they were talking about, “Teacher” was well-read and well-educated. At the time I started spending time with him, he was finishing up his second Master’s Degree. He at one point had been a musician, and was familiar with the jazz scene and didn’t seem ill at ease around African-Americans. Initially, I assumed that he was just a cool white guy who converted to Islam, but I later found out his father was South Asian (and his mother was European American), but he grew up like many second generation youth of his time with little or no religious instruction.

We shared interests outside of Islam, as well. He, too, had dabbled with meditation, was into alternative health, and as I would later find out, he was also an avid fisherman. Teacher had a table set up in the center of town where he and his Southeast Asian wife sold homemade jewelry. I approached him one day, and basically went through a checklist of questions that had accumulated in my head over the past two years. One question I asked did get mention in the Journal, and that was about the different stages one passes through on the path of Sufism.1 I asked him questions about different authors, different doctrines, the different sects, which purported to follow Islam, that I had read about. He was familiar with most if not all of them, and gave me brief and lucid explanations where those those people or groups went astray. I also asked him about conspiracy theory and jut general matters pertaining to social criticism.

Unlike the year before, in which my mind was overwhelmed with confusion, this time around, I could formulate precise questions about what was disturbing me and what I wanted to know. Instead of responding with (in my imitation gruff ghetto quasi-Salafi2 voice): “Akhi, the Qur’an says… and the Hadith say…” and then proceed either to recite something in Arabic or give some verbatim memorized (often mis-) interpreted Verse from Yusuf Ali or Saudi “translators” of Hadith, the Teacher gave me sound, rational answers.

Very often American converts of a certain ethnic persuasion would like to quote the Qur’an (in Arabic) in an effort to impress the listener into thinking that they are knowledgeable. However, it was clear to me that if the person—a native speaker of English–really knew what he was talking about, then he could explain in straightforward English. Furthermore, simply saying something in Arabic meant little to me at the time, because I didn’t know Arabic, and it was always obvious to me that this could merely be this person’s interpretation of a Verse, and not necessarily the right interpretation. And even when a person repeated the formal translation, from the little I did know at the time, the various translations could be influenced by the translator’s doctrinal bias.

I was looking for rational answers. From what I could make out from my readings (on what I deemed to be) “Islam,” there were many early doctrinal controversies between sects claiming to be Muslim. And as I had read from Watt’s, The Life and Teachings of Al-Ghazali, the Sunni orthodoxy had a system for explaining the true Islamic belief and could demonstrate and defend that belief with rationally consistent proofs. This is what I had been looking for, and Allah sent the me a teacher at the right time to share with me that knowledge.

Among the things that were clarified for me, because I had numerous confusing notions about the Creator, is that Allah exists without being in a place. I had heard one of the Brothers say that to me a year earlier, but I didn’t grasp its implications. I knew it was a profound statement, and I subsequently sought over the following year to find another religion that said the same (but I didn’t). But I did not (when I first heard the statement) have the ability to explain why that must necessarily be the case.

In brief, the Teacher explained that the Creator existed before the creations. Allah was and place was not, and after Allah created place, Allah did not transform and begin to occupy a place (or a direction). That meant that Allah is not an object or any other sort of spatial or dimensional entity. Allah is not in Heaven (or above Heaven), for Allah created Heaven and existed before Heaven. Furthermore, the Teacher explained the situation with Saudi Arabia and that its state doctrine of Wahhabism was not in conformity with Sunni Islam. I was already very confused about the Saudi regime and its relation to the West (especially, during the first Gulf War). The Saudis—with their Wahhabi doctrine of imaginary object worship—were put into power by the British to weaken the Muslim world. This made total sense, and fit in perfectly with what I knew of divide and conquer policies of the colonial powers.

Also, in understanding that Allah exists without a place, it clarified the confusion I had in my head regarding things I had read that were purported to be about “Sufism.” Among the things I had encountered in the those books (and much of the “New Age” literature) was the blasphemous misconception that Allah is everything and that everything is Allah; or that Allah is a spirit and that one could reach a spiritual state in which one’s soul would “unite with the spirit of Allah;” or that Allah was a giant beautiful illumination in a lofty location. Once it was fixed in my mind that Allah exists without being in a place (or direction) and that whatever one imagines, Allah is different from that, I could begin to clear the mess out of my head. I would now begin to read books that were suppose to be about Islam with a more critical eye.

The Teacher would go on to explain that Sufism was not some sort of hippie cult—or some “sect” of Islam wherein one could believe whatever he wanted and ignore the established acts of worship. He explained that Sufism was a genuine Islamic science that entailed having the proper belief in the Creator and abiding by the Sacred Laws revealed to Prophet Muhammad (sallallahu `alayhi wasallam). This was exactly what I had read in the book, The Life and Teaching of Al-Ghazali. Maa-shaa’ Allah, I felt that I was on to something now.

Although I was not completely sold, for it was conceivable that a person might be able to explain the proper belief in God but still be guilty of other forms of misguidance, I felt that this was a good place to start. Praise Allah, I had found someone who could begin to answer my questions. Praise Allah, my request for guidance and clarity had started to come.

* (For the record, I am not claiming that Buddhism is a religion of guidance, but the quote was relevant to the circumstances and state of mind I was in.)

1Sufism (Tasawwuf) is the branch of Islamic science that pertains to the purification of the heart and rectification of the character through the sincere implementation of the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad (sallallahu `alayhi wasallam)

2Salafism is a branch of the Wahhabi sect, which is discussed below in the text.

Human Becoming Post #17

Of Becoming (Entry #17)

 “You are a crystal reflecting fire. In your own becoming there is light—enough to lead you home.”

 (from the book entitled, Awakening Osiris)

The above quote was one of several epigrams for Journal 14. I was striving to rise above circumstance—not that my circumstances, in the worldly sense were all that bad, but I knew not what I could be, or what I wanted to be. In the first entry of Journal 14, I mention that I am reading Fitzgerald’s, This Side of Paradise, again. I had read it four consecutive summers after high school graduation. Granted, I didn’t find the sweetheart I sought (nor did I have novel published by the age of 23), but I had lived my Ivy League fantasy. This was a dream, or something even more ephemeral than a dream, when I first read TSOP. I couldn’t relate to the characters, or life on a college campus (much less an elite campus), or the literary allusions. I read knowing that I wanted something more than what Springfield had to offer. I knew I wanted to go some place where I could grow, someplace where I could be myself, someplace where I could re-invent myself. I had no idea about how this would happen. I just had hope.

The thanks and ultimate gratitude is due to God. Circumstances changed, my mind expanded, and I found myself having lived a life that had been a few years earlier inconceivable. As Reggie Jackson said at his Baseball Hall of Fame speech: “I’ve had a dream and I was able to live it and thank God it’s not done yet.” That pretty much sums up my Amherst experience. In many ways I didn’t exploit the time I had at The College. On the other hand, how could I have done so? I came in as a transfer student—i was a few years older than most of my classmates, and I was not from the upper five percentile of my high school graduating class. I had to struggle with the culture shock of the campus and of the classroom. I was not up to challenging myself academically the way, in retrospect, I wish I had done. But then, very early on at Amherst, I took up an interest in “separate realities” and psychonautic voyages. I was trying to transcend the hyper-intellectualism Amherst, while at the same being convinced there was a value in book learning and academia.

Furthermore, there was the deep disgust I had with the political realities of the world, and with my Political Science major. After taking course of Central American politics and becoming aware of the, what can’t be called other than diabolical military-industrial complex and multinational corporate dictated policies of the United States in the region, my stomach was turned. Did I really want to graduate and go work for “the System,” or work within “the System” to try to “change” it? No, I didn’t. I wanted to find an altogether alternative system, and if I couldn’t find such, then I would have to build it myself.

Because Amherst was heavily saturated with “Multiculturalism,” plenty of “identity politics” courses were offered. For that reason, and having my first encounter with intellectual black people, who were well-informed about their history and black social issues, I started to gain an interests in my own ethnic/racial place in the world. Personal experiences, classroom discussions, and my own reading material made me feel a growing sense of isolation from the larger (i.e., white) student body.

And then, and then… and then there was the reading of The Autobiography of Malcolm X right after completing my first year at Amherst. As some of my family folk would say: “And that’s all she wrote.” There was no selling out; there was no turning back. I started to devour anything and everything I could on Malcolm, black nationalism, and black radical groups. I wanted to learn more and more about the teachings of Elijah Muhammad and his organization. I wanted to learn about ancient black history and whatever else I thought would help empower “my people.”

In the course of this coming into racial consciousness, I also came to the realization that more important than knowing about history and previous racial achievement, was the knowing of what occurs to us after we expire… and the knowing of the One Who created all of “this.” I had to know the truth about God.

I had to contend with the aforementioned in addition to the typical growing pains of that stage of life, academic responsibilities, and a deep dissatisfaction with myself. It is no wonder that in 20/20 hindsight, I made some less than prudent decisions at that juncture in my life. I had no blueprint to work from and no network of support. But in spite of all that, things did work out… in their own kind of way, praise and thanks to Allah.

With that said, one of the (many) benefits of keeping journals is that it they mark those critical transitional points in life. My journals remind me about the immense transformative potential that exists when we embrace possibility and relinquish negativity and doubt. At present, as I struggle with the need to (in-shaa’ Allah) make some fundamental adjustments in my life, these Journals serve as a reminder that if want wish to grow, then I must have the courage to face uncertainty and change.

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

Journal 14 covers the middle part of the summer. I complete my research work on the WPA Slave Narratives and start working at the UMASS Upper Bound program. As I reflect upon this period, like at so many other points in my life, I see that I am spending a lot of time alone. I didn’t mind it, per se. I was the only self-identified Muslim in the program. There were certain behaviors and habits I was trying to pull myself away from, so I wasn’t into socializing too much with my peers. I had some serious questions in my head about God and the purpose of human existence that I could not shake, and petty conversations weren’t going to help me find the answers I was seeking.

One Sunday morning early during the program, I got up performed what I considered to be the Fajr prayer and went for a walk to watch the sunrise. The kids and the staff had all went home for the weekend; it was as if I had the entire UMASS campus to myself. I stood outside eagerly waiting the first glimpse of that yellow orb. The birdsong reached a crescendo as the sun rose over the trees, and I entered a state of subdued ecstasy. I am opening my heart to the unknown. I feel that I am becoming anew.

UMASS Campus Aerial View

(An aerial view of the UMASS, Amherst campus)

Later that day, I go to my first (and only) so-called “Self Realization Fellowship” meeting. I had read Autobiography of a Yogi, by Paramahansa Yoganda and was intrigued by his experiences searching for a guru (a “guide” in Hindu philosophy). I also liked the idea of building a school in a rural area where the youth could receive an academic education, as well as, extensive spiritual training. I didn’t write much in my Journal about the experience other than my attendance, but I do remember there were about a half dozen older (that is, middle aged) white folks. I remembered that there was an image of “Krishna,” who is usually portrayed as almost blue-black in color, but he had been lightened up considerably by the Fellowship.

Aside from the discomfort I had even then with the thought of praying to or invoking images, I could not help but think about the colorism and caste system in Indian society. I was, after all, at that time hyper-sensitive to all matters racial. The colorism of Hinduism, the iconography and outright idolatry of Hinduism prevented me from entertaining the thought of ever going to another one of those meetings. This wasn’t the Truth. I would have to look elsewhere.

Like a lot of Americans out there searching, as I was at the time, and probably for those people in attendance, they are looking for something that they can deem “spiritual” and that their access to spirituality would have to go beyond dogma and ritual. They want to have direct access to “other-worldly” dimensions. Such people recognize that tranquility can’t be found through the possession of trinkets in the materialistic paradigm. Tranquility has to come from within, and with meditation, some people can find a certain degree of peace, but finding some state of stability behind the lids does not necessarily constitute guidance.

I would have to continue to search and try to put together bits and pieces of “truth” as I encountered them until I could find someone who could show me the Way to Straight Path.

Blackman Move On, Ya Gotta Move On Blackman, Move on

Blackman Move On, Ya Gotta Move On Blackman, Move On

The two epigraphs to Journal #13—my first Journal after the completion of college course work—reflected where my head was at the time. The first epigraph was the lyrics (which are the title of this entry) from the Five Percenter rap group called “Brand Nubian.”1 The second epigraph was from fellow Amherst College graduate, Stephen Mitchell, in his translation of the Tao Te Ching, the foundational book of Chinese Taoist philosophy:

Number 67

Some say that my teaching is nonsense.
Others call it lofty but impractical.
But to those who have looked inside themselves,
this nonsense makes perfect sense.
And to those who put it into practice,
this loftiness has roots that go deep.

I have just three things to teach:
simplicity, patience, compassion.
These three are your greatest treasures.
Simple in actions and in thoughts,
you return to the source of being.
Patient with both friends and enemies,
you accord with the way things are.
Compassionate toward yourself,
you reconcile all beings in the world.

From the Five Percenters, like the group called Poor Righteous Teachers, and Rakim, and Brand Nubian, I gained a sense of a grand vision for my people. As Brand Nubian said, “We could live much better than this.” We would, however, have to get united and embrace a life of discipline and a higher code of conduct so we could attain our potential. We would have to heal ourselves from the pain, confusion, and frustration of our 400 year sentence in the “wilderness of North America.” We would have to transcend self-hate. We would have to be compassionate with ourselves… we would have to love ourselves.

Ralph Waldo Emerson said: “The reason why the world lacks unity, and lies broken and in heaps, is, because man is disunited with himself.” Through Stephen Mitchell’s book, I was trying to mend my fragmented self. I was trying to find peace. I knew I could only do but so much to change the world around me. Within, however, I could transform myself, if I were willing to do the necessary healing. Praise Allah, it wasn’t contending with some life altering traumatic experiences–but instead, I had to struggle with a lifetime accumulation of improper living, improper thinking, and improper being. I was going to have to get right with God. I saw no other option.

I felt that the Brothers of the Association I had encountered had a “fire and brimstone” approach to teaching Islam. This does not mean that the Creator of the Universe does not deserve to be feared. But I was, and think this holds true for many people out there who are searching for the Truth, looking to know God, so I could love God. When God is properly known, when a person knows the One Who deserves our ultimate state of subjugation and surrender—deserves our worship–one comes to love himself (or herself) for he understands what is the epitome of his purpose.

Although the Five Percenters, gave me a sense of vision and a sense of a mission, when all was said and done, I was not the Eternal Creator of the Universe. Whatever potentialities that might unfold in the black mind liberated from white supremacy, no human being could rightfully be called “Allah.” From Mitchell’s book, I garnered an abiding sense that there was a prevailing order to the world. This was an inescapable realization given the many summertime hours I had spent immersed in the beauty of Amherst and the surrounding area. Nature had become my mind’s pasture, and it was in that pasture of beauty, I realized this life has a momentous purpose. But again from Mitchell’s book, and other works of Eastern philosophy, I still knew not who was the Creator of this wondrous world. The natural order, as sublime as it is, still does not deserve to be worshiped. The ultimate degree of subjugation and surrender belongs to the Creator of Nature and not to anyone or anything else.

My Journals now take on a different purpose in my life. For one, I would begin to write almost daily for the next year. My goal was to fill up an eighty to one hundred page college ruled notebook each month, and for the most part with that, maa-shaa’ Allah, I was successful. Not only would I write daily, I would write almost anywhere and everywhere. Having graduated, I felt that the intellectual shackles of Academia could be shuffled off, and I could now pursue my own interests as I saw fit.

The Journal became, so to speak, a great “reconciler.” I wrote in the first entry of this Journal: “I want to write, I want to write. I shouldn’t forget that writing is what I wanted to do when I first came to Amherst.” I did intend to go to graduate school, but the first thing I needed to do was to explore and work out the ideas I had in my head. I needed to trust my intellectual-academic hunches. Also, typically in graduate school one tends to narrow his area of study. I wasn’t ready to narrow my studies; I was trying to broaden them in order to put things (in this case, with history, metaphysics, and religion) in their proper perspective. With my Journal, I could write without having to footnote, end note, and otherwise reference with primary sources for the critical eyes of my professors. I could write for me.

Journaling would enable me to slow down my thoughts and delve into the cranium and into the treasure chest of memories. I was pretty much alone at this point, and writing was a source of company and therapy. It was during this time that I would go to the Jones Library (the Amherst town library) and read. I don’t remember now off the top of my head the title, but I read a book of essays by Alice Walker, which further committed me to writing. I could see myself doing this for a living.

Before graduation day, I went to Springfield to visit family. At this point I was in a quandary about what I was going to do in my immediate post-College life. The plan at that point was to perhaps return to Springfield for a few weeks before I would start working at the “Upper Bound” program at the University of Massachusetts. Upper Bound was a program (which I believe is now defunct) for mostly inner city high school youth from Massachusetts to gain some academic skills and experience college life. I had the job lined up with help from the Mentor, but there was about a month before the program began.

My trip to Springfield told me that I could not return. During my three years up in the Valley, I had undergone numerous changes–I had grown in ways I could not have previously fathomed. Amherst opened up new worlds—new universes—to me. Of Springfield, I would write that it gives me a sense of claustrophobia. Although I did feel a responsibility to go back to my home city and help counter the black brain drain (many of the educated or at least moderately functional black folk I knew in high school tended to leave Springfield—as the number of my African-American high school classmates now living in the Atlanta area testifies), I knew that ultimately I could be of little good guiding others if I was still confused about the Truth. And chances were, that I would be less likely to find the Truth in Springfield than I would, perhaps in a major East Coast city.

Having come to that realization—that Springfield was a non-option for the summer or anytime soon thereafter–I decided to stick around on the Amherst campus until the Upper Bound gig started. I considered there were worse places to be than in Amherst, and there were worse things I could do than gaze off from Memorial Hill and meld my mind into the broccoli-crowned greenery of the Holyoke Mountain range. Amherst would be home for yet another summer.

The view from Memorial Hill

The view from Memorial Hill

I worked as a research assistant for the while I was living on campus. [After not seeing him for more than 20 years, I had a chance to reunite with this professor last year, when he came to Ole Miss (University of Mississippi) last year for a lecture.] I would be poring through volumes of the WPA Slave Narratives (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slave_Narrative_Collection) taking notes and helping the prof with a book he was writing about Booker T. Washington. My memory of the things I read is sketchy, but the narratives did drive home to me at the time how deep the legacy of the slave experience was embedded into black culture and the black psyche. Although that was the case, I was convinced that if black folks wanted to liberate themselves, they would have to look beyond slavery and the shores of America to gain a sense of historical orientation. That is one of the reasons why the ancient civilizations of the Nile Valley, Afrocentricity, and Islam appealed to me so much at the time.

I would stay at Tyler Dorm again for the summer. My schedule was flexible. I worked for the Mentor at his shop, and I would go to the library to do research. In the mornings I would steal off to the campus bird sanctuary. There was an underutilized garden at the end of the service road, where I would do yoga postures and meditate. I had returned to meditating in an effort to try to attain the level of internal tranquility and clarity that I had lost during the semester. Again, I had a lot going on in my head, and I had no one I felt I could turn to get the answers to my questions. I simply did what I considered was the best I could do: namely, look within and seek to know at least myself, if nothing else.

As I said, the Journal was also therapeutic. I had read a book by Natalie Goldberg entitled, Writing Down the Bones. One of the chapters was entitled, “Going Home,” in which she discussed the importance of being comfortable with where one is from. Unlike anytime before—or after, for that matter—i was striving to come to grips with the notion of “Home”—not merely in the geographical sense, but also in the sense of my past.

Many childhood memories that would have otherwise escaped me are recorded in those post-Amherst-Amherst Journals. As I sought greater self-understanding by taking trips through the head and excavating memories, I wrote them down, and have them preserved by a mind that is more than twenty years closer to the memories of childhood. It was in those Journals that the then current quest for Truth was merged with the past which had molded my personality, and with that came greater self-understanding and greater self-reconciliation.

 

1The Five Percent Nation, or the so-called “Nation of Gods and Earths” was a splinter faction from the so-called “Nation of Islam.” Both factions teach that the (black male) human being is “Allah.” Ascribing a bodily or spatial characteristic to the Creator is itself blasphemy; hence all the more it is blasphemy to claim that the Creator of the universe is composed of flesh, blood, and entrails.