Mahmoud Andrade Ibrahim
I was at a dinner gathering recently and found that I was the only Blackamerican at the table. Surrounded by pleasant conversation and an extraordinary cuisine that lay before us, and in eager anticipation of the tea and dessert that was to come, I was asked by a gentleman, whose introduction to me was prefaced with the statement, ‘Sheikh So-and-so is a member of the Prophets ( pboh) family’, I was asked what was it about Islam that made me want to become Muslim ? I considered for a moment the ways in which to respond to this question.
My first thoughts had nothing to do with his question but everything to do with who he was ‘supposed’ to be. I haven’t been Muslim too long, only about 46 plus years and I have met at least 10 people who are supposed to be direct relatives of our Beloved Example (pboh). These people have been from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Egypt, Nigeria and Morocco and at least 2 from the United States, one of whom was born in Brooklyn and his siblings knew nothing about it. I’m told by my wife’s sister-in-law as well as by my brother-in-law that in Morocco and Egypt respectively, folks claiming lineage to our Prophet are a dime a dozen. Khaled, my wife's twin brother, said that in Cairo you can’t walk down the streets without running into someone that makes the same assertion.
So, with a neon sign flashing in my head warning me of a probable fraud, I direct my attention to the question at hand, What did make me want to be Muslim. Wait, not so fast! And why was he interested in my conversion, and was the mere question a subtle way of reminding me that somehow, some way, my coming into Islam wasn’t ‘original’, like those born into the Faith? Or was I just paranoid ? Sheihk So-and-so didn't ask anyone else at the table what made them want to be Muslim. Like we, the Blackamerican converts were ‘wannabes’. Makes you go hmmmmmm. And for some reason, a piece of poetry that was set to music enters my head, YOU’RE SO VAIN, I BET YOU THINK THIS SONG IS ABOUT YOU !
I began to think back for the reasons I had for accepting Islam and these were some of my thoughts.
I was raised in a family with two older sisters and parents that came from large loving families. My father’s family was from West Africa, the Islands of Cape Verde, a stone’s throw from the west coast of Senegal. Dad had ten brothers and sisters. The most affectionate group of people you could ever meet. My Grandparents, Miguel and Isabella were ‘old world’, salt of the earth kinds of folk. He had worked on a whaling ship and when he came to America, he gravitated towards the shipbuilding towns of New England. He and his bride settled in Rhode Island where there was a burgeoning Cape Verdean community. They bought a home in Woonsocket, RI and lived in that home for more than 50 years . One of my dad’s brothers became a Police Captain in Woonsocket, another a state boxing champion with the Golden Gloves organization. My father became a lab technician at the New York Medical College in the department of Surgical Pathology and even had his name published in a Medical Journal on Cancer Research.
My mothers’s family was almost as large as my dad’s, she had eight brothers and one sister. Her parents, Porter, originally from Arkansas and Henrietta from Tennessee decided to make the best of it in Arkansas. My grandmother died when my mother was about 12 years old and so my mother became the caretaker of the family taking care of her siblings, cooking and cleaning for her older brothers and the younger children. My grandfather, 'Big Daddy' as we called him, served in World War I and in the heyday of Jim Crow, retired from hanging awnings for the rich people of Little Rock, Arkansas. He was a 33rd Degree Mason and his membership in this fraternal organization allowed him to make all of the contacts necessary to facilitate going out on his own and starting a successful business as a building contractor. ‘Big Daddy’ began building houses and selling them as well as owning a liquor store and a pool hall, and was economically independent for his entire life which ended at the age of 102. Several of my uncles on my mother’s side of the family followed in my grandfather’s footsteps by serving in World War II and after the service became successful contractors in their own right.
Born in the early 1950’s and coming of age in the 1960’s amid the strong socially conscious currents of racial pride, I understood that my industry, my efforts, would be directed towards my people who have been cast aside by heartless, greedy and amoral people who used law and religion to subjugate and coerce black folk into a subhuman servitude. The New York City neighborhood into which I was born, San Juan Hill, was the center of Black Life from the early 1880’s right up until World War I. African Americans moved into the San Juan Hill area from Greenwich Village, where an earlier black community had existed from the late 1700’s. But after the the first World War, blacks began to migrate to Harlem in search of affordable housing and that is when Harlem became the epicenter the African American experience. But my neighborhood still maintained the ‘residual vibrancy’ of black cultural life.
My awakening came about the time of the assassination of Malcolm X. I remember watching the news coverage while sitting in my living room along with my father and there being some news segments about his life. I was fascinated. I was about 14 yrs. old and I almost immediately purchased the first book I could find about him and it happened to be entitled Malcolm X Speaks. In this collection of his speeches, Malcolm seemed to articulate a vision in which black people were not helpless victims but a people readied to take control of their lives on their own terms. He spoke about the absurdity of trying to plead the case of black people in courts restricted by state and federal regulations when our collective case of second class citizenship was really related to white colonial oppression of black people and could be presented in the world court, the United Nations.
At that time, when Martin Luther King Jr., was talking about desegregating lunch counters, Malcolm was talking about standing up and confronting these racists head on with manhood and reciprocal violence if necessary. I was very much impressed with his personality, his demeanor, his clarity. I knew his religion was Islam, he spoke about it all the time. He presented Islam as a viable alternative to the ‘turn the other cheek’ Christianity that I had known and grew up in. And I also knew that the people who killed him were the Black Muslims so I stayed away from Nation of Islam and its unusual theology of black gods and spaceships. I began a journey to discover Malcolm’s Islam. This search led me the Orthodox Sunni Islam, which Malcolm X ultimately embraced before his death.
What I have learned over the years is that my journey into Islam is in large part a journey to see Islam the way Malcolm presented it. An Islam that is current, whose sources are rooted in the struggles of the first community of Muhammad (pboh) but whose principles are applicable today. An Islam not cemented in the understanding of those predecessors who resolved their issues a thousand years ago but of an Islam compatible with today’s needs. An Islam free from the baggage of people like my dinner questioner who presumes to be a relative of my Beloved Prophet (pboh), and who would be very happy if I would consider all of the cultural paraphernalia he puts forward as ‘normative’, not the diseased pathology that it is.
And so I answer the question by saying that for me, the theology of Islam made sense, the morality of Islam made sense and did not our Beloved Prophet (pboh) say, “Reason is the root of my Faith”. I said that we American Muslims only needed to correct our theology, that all of the other ingredients of a healthy family lifestyle were already in place. "The best of you before Islam are the best after Islam", is another saying by our Prophet. I said that we BlackAmericans already knew right from wrong. We worshiped regularly. We were charitable. We respected our elders and respected our womenfolk, and that the Muslim world might do well by following our example. I then smiled and asked if he had any insight as to when the tea and kunaafa would be served.