MY JOURNEY TO ISLAM
by Shaykh Ibrahim Abdus-Samad
Although my involvement with the Dar-ul-Islam movement started in late 1968, my interest in Islam started a year earlier when I was given a hardcover copy of the Autobiography of Malcolm X by Alex Haley. I was leaving for the Job Corp program, (a federally funded boarding school would best describe it) when my late mother suggested I take the book along to read. I first went to the Rodman Job Corp center in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Not to long after settling in, I would discover one of my teachers was an icon of the Civil Rights movement. He was then known to his students as Dr. Ezell Blair, one of the four North Carolina A &T students who staged a sit-in at the lunch counter in Greensboro’s Woolworth on February 1, 1960. I was only nine at the time of the historical event and 16 when I met him. Because the program was slated to close, it was during our last class with him when he ‘revealed’ himself. I was still in the dark about the sit-in and its’ significance.
Just prior to the close of the program, the counselors gave us the option of transferring to another Job Corps center or going home. At that time I didn’t complete any area of study while getting my GED was among the main reasons for enrolling in the program. I decided to transfer and choose Parks Job Corps center which was then a renovated Army base in Pleasanton, California. My choice gave me the opportunity to see another part of the country and complete my education for free. Between study, basketball, a letter from Mom occasionally and going to Oakland or San Francisco on the weekends, I continued striving to reach my goal. I saw another soon to be famous African-American at this Job Corp center, none other than a future heavyweight champion George Foreman who was training for the 1968 Olympics. Notice I said ‘saw’ and not ‘met’, because George didn’t seem approachable with that wild Afro and his no-nonsense demeanor.
Despite being told I was a Christian, my family like other African-Americans were nominal Christians at best. I was taken to Church or later ‘services’ were held at my grandmother’s apartment, with a family known ‘Bishop’ on Sunday. Yet, I was confused by the doctrines of trinity, the savior concept and, even more so, by the belief of God incarnate or taking human form. “What did he do…” I wondered, ‘got to an office in the clouds like a business man to decide a tsunami in one part of the world and a drought by withholding rain in another?’ As kids, we had a joke when hearing thunder, “God was moving his furniture.” My confusion led me to abandon religion altogether as a means of answering my questions about life and its’ ‘mysteries’ as well as contemporary society’s version. The acceptance of a materialistic, selfish, immoral, value system characterized by callous indifference towards others would best describe the order of the day.
Having little to no connection with the Judeo-Christian tradition and being a serious-minded person, even in my youth I understood fun could only last so long. Thus, with the onset of adulthood, the inevitable questions arose, ‘what’s next in my life,’ and more importantly ‘what am I here for?’ I realized the answer was in my hand: Malcolm X’s book. I didn’t understand everything I was reading as these were the words of a mature, worldly-wise man, while I had only recently entered puberty with limited understanding of the world around me. What struck me after the third reading was his desire to learn, becoming educated by reading with little formal education, and seeking to better himself. He ultimately embarked on his life’s work: to hold a mirror to white America reflecting the oppression of its former slaves and their descendants at present. He pointed out institutional racism and its’ devastating residuals, denial of quality education, economic inequality and exploitation of labor were among the obstacles he and numerous African Americans had faced for generations that had practically forced him into a life of crime. In the Islamic tradition his speaking out is part of the religious mandate of ‘enjoining good and forbidding evil’ or ‘maroof and munkar’.
Although he once considered Elijah Muhammad his savior, it was the power of faith reflected in the Islamic concept of Fitrah or the inclination to acknowledge and worship Almighty God Allah that was at work. This is why after Malcolm’s ‘fallout’ with Elijah Muhammad seeking the truth of his Lord continued. Muslim scholars explain that despite the adoption of a deviated or corrupted belief system this natural inclination will shine through when the most elemental beliefs of the monotheistic faiths of the Abrahamic tradition are heard. This is because of its’ appeal to both the mind and heart the message of Allah has always had from time immemorial.
I had visited the San Francisco temple/mosque of Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam for one Sunday service, but the sermon/presentation did not touch me the same way Malcolm’s book had. By this time I had seriously contemplated becoming a Muslim, and when I mentioned it to my classmates it was met with jokes and ridicule. The response from my mom when I wrote her about it was more intellectual, but with the question of whether this choice was based on the fickle thinking of an immature teen. Yet, the more I read the more I became convinced that Islam was the way. It was as if I was hearing from a kindred spirit or mentor who after a difficult search had found a path to define himself. This provided a powerful motivation to seek out this life changing religion. When I got to the parts of the book that mentioned Sunni or Orthodox Muslims, I was practically sold, especially his experiences on the pilgrimage/Hajj, and witnessing Muslim brotherhood up close.
After completing my courses and getting my GED, on my return flight from San Francisco to New York I believed I experienced a ‘sign’. I was booked on the ‘red eye’ that took approximately six hours. Going from west to east I witnessed something that was so common it seemed insignificant, while literally awesome from the unique advantage I had: watching the sun rise at 30,000 feet. The yellow disk of the August sun rose slowly illuminating the sky on both sides of the plane, not blinding, but its presence was truly majestic when realizing its size, movement and function as a natural phenomenon. I would later come to appreciate the Qur’anic narrative on the Prophet Ibrahim (pbuh) teaching his people about the falsity of worshiping the heavenly bodies (the stars, moon and the sun) and calling them to worship the one true Lord, Allah. (6:76-79)
Being home and getting back together with family and friends I came to realize certain social realities had changed. One was passive, while the other was truly devastating. Instead of ‘house parties’, what can be called dance halls or discos’ was now the social/party places for teens. I didn’t mention the roller skating rinks as I couldn’t skate to save my life. The other was hardcore drugs slowly becoming the norm: heroin and to a lesser degree cocaine. When I left the ‘block’ a year ago the only drugs available for Black and Latino youth was a cheap bottle of hooch/wine diluted with a pack of kool-aid, beer and smoking marijuana/refeer or maybe pills. Cocaine was a little expensive making its’ use a rarity, but heroin was cheap and for whatever reason easily accessible at that time. Sadly, many childhood friends and acquaintances never saw adulthood due to overdoses or the slow death from the AIDS virus (although little known at the time), while for those who did survive, the hellish world of addiction became a reality. I had been warned about the dangers of drug abuse several years prior from my mom and others but now it was normal to hear talk from my friends of how many sacks (glassine bags of heroin) they either had or planned to acquire. The proliferation of hardcore drugs was so pervasive a slang vocabulary had emerged regarding it.
A childhood friend was hangin’ with some young ladies who lived close to one of the dance halls mentioned and had went to a grocery/bodega where he met a Muslim brother resulting in a conversation that led to an all-night discussion on Islam ending with my friend accepting Islam. About a week or so later, I was on my way to a Masjid, a third-floor apartment at 240 Sumpter street in the Ocean Hill/Brownsville section of Brooklyn. Taking our shoes off before entering and sitting on carpeted floors with incense burning was all new to me. I was introduced to the brothers by my recently converted friend as someone wanting to know about Islam. The Daw’ah/proselytizing session that followed with one of the elders was awesome. Unlike the teachings of Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam, there was no racial element of either inferiority or superiority and the only discrimination in Islam is between what is universally acknowledged as good and evil. What affected me the most was the belief in Allah’s ultimate justice; judging with perfect justice: no hung juries or suppression of evidence only rewarding the virtuous and punishing the guilty and unrepentant. I guess this belief resonated with me because of its logic along with the times I was living in: the assassinations of Malcolm X, Dr. Martin L. King, Jr. and soon Robert Kennedy; the on-going struggle for civil rights that was really about human rights; the war in Vietnam, and the sometimes violent protests against it resulting in government sponsored police suppression with greater violence; the brutalization of African-American men especially the youth that was practically a ‘rite of passage’ in urban Amerikkka. I took Shahadah that night a week or so before my 17th birthday, opening a new chapter in my life and connecting me to the Dar-ul-Islam movement.
After accepting Islam, I started learning the salat/prayer and that’s when many things started to change. As head of the household, when my mom realized how serious I was about being a Muslim our relationship went from warm and friendly to practically adversarial. I was periodically goaded into arguments or verbal altercations so that I would lose my temper so it would be proof that the religion I had chosen had made me disrespectful, disobedient and crazy. However, I had my thinking cap on as well, realizing the arena I was in.
My mother shared her confusion and anguish over my choice of lifestyle with her siblings that was transferred to my cousins and the rest of the family. Now I was viewed as the rebellious teen or the ‘rebel without a cause’. The wife of an older cousin had invited me to their house so she could ‘pick my brain’ with her Jehovah witness faith. When it didn’t work, my cousin threatened to ‘jack me up’. Some years later an uncle who was supposedly a Christian called me out—challenged me to a fistfight. Finally, the other shoe dropped: I was asked to leave my mother’s house. Alhamdulillah, my brother Muslims came to my rescue by allowing me to live at the Masjid on Sumpter Street and later at 52 Herkimer Place. The move contained an added blessing. It saved me from myself by getting away from the ‘old neighborhood’ as I felt myself slowly regressing to potentially sinful behaviors. The routine of Salat, Qur’an reading and religious study prepared me for marriage that wasn’t far off.
In later years as my intellectual and emotional maturity developed along with Iman I looked back and realized what I had endured was nothing new. The same trials were faced by the previous Prophets and particularly the last Messenger, Prophet Muhammad (pbuta) although on a much grander scale with the stakes higher as the world coming to know of the life giving message of Islam hung in the balance. Some results were people forfeiting livelihoods, social standing, being hurt or losing their lives in the process. In my case, none of that happened, but the lessons learned by comparison were priceless. Doing what Allah (swt) commands comes with a price tag: being ostracized, aspersions cast on your intent and motivations, character defamation, threats and acts of violence, family breakdowns along with exchanging a hostile environment for a conducive one.
Thus, I was saved from becoming a pubescent, irresponsible father, or another statistic in the criminal justice system, a drug addict/‘junkie’ or an aimless non-productive leech, because of changing my religion/lifestyle. By acknowledging the Shariah (sacred law) restrictions after accepting Islam regarding pre-marital sex, intoxicants and criminality elevated what was common sense and prudent yesterday into acts of faith from then on as a religious principle of Islam. For my journey to Islam started with the personal narrative of a man who turned his life around. Malcolm X’s autobiography led me to the book that he, like billions of others whether foreign or domestic revere, and have sought to learn for over 14 centuries: the foundation of Islam, the most Holy of all scriptures—Al-Qur’an. Shukran Allah. May Allah forgive and bless brother El-Hajj Malik al-Shabazz for his life and work.
Shaykh Ibrahim Abdus-Samad, acquired his Islamic education from Muslim scholars and has received Ejazat. His personal research enabled him to write 100+ articles and essays on various aspects of the Islamic tradition. He is also a community access television producer in Queens, New York and was the host of the award-winning Community Access television series—Islam the Universal System, producer and host of its’ spinoff series, Al-Minhaj.
Shaykh Ibrahim Abdus-Samad is preparing a book of khutbah/sermons from the late Dr. Suliman Donia which he has compiled and annotated, and a guide for new Muslims both will be available soon.