Jaffar and I sat in a lunchroom not far from International Amphitheatre; one of those tiled waiting stations favored by old men, junkies and part-time ponces, with coffee brewed from oak leaves and rice pudding the color of the floor. He sat across from me, a paper napkin slipped between his cup and saucer in practiced cafeteria etiquette, talking of the rise of Islam in the United States—a phenomenon which has begun to force itself into public attention. Within a week, we would read of the brutal murder of the Hanafi Muslims in D.C. and a shoot-out in Brooklyn involving four professed Muslims, but on that day it was Eid ul-Adha, the major holiday of Islam, and Jaffar and I were still high behind prayer and brotherhood. Half an hour earlier, we had stood facing Mecca:
The sun fries like an egg over a scrubby plain outside the holy city, drawing dust from the feet of mules of Muslim pilgrims assembled to offer the Eid ul-Adha prayers as one step of their hajj (pilgrimage). It is the largest religious gathering in the world.
Early in the 7th century, Prophet Muhammad received revelations which became the Qur’an (Koran), the scripture of Islam; a strong, urgent book which outlines the essentials of Muslim belief and practice, retells the stories of the Biblical prophets (whom Muslims revere, particularly Abraham, Moses and Jesus), and proclaims Islam the perfection of monotheism and Muhammad the “Seal” of the prophets. Islam spread rapidly throughout the Mid-East and Africa, into Europe, India, Russia, Malaysia and China, mounting the most serious challenge ever faced by the Christian West. The challenge has not ended. Today, Muslims number roughly 700 million. About 90%, designated Sunni (from Sunnah, the “Example” of the prophet) Muslims, constitute the mainstream or orthodox of the faith. The five “pillars” if Islam are the belief in Allah (“God” in Arabic) and Muhammad as His messenger; the offering of five daily prayers; payment of zakat, a tax for support of the needy; fasting during the daylight hours of the lunar month Ramadan; and—if possible—performance of the pilgrimage to Mecca.
They have come from every continent, especially Africa and Asia. They are Turk, Nigerian, Arab, Iranian, Pakistani and Indian and Bengali, Yogoslav, Sudani, Indonesian, Afghani, Uzbek, Kurd and Berber, just for openers. “ALLAHU AKBAR! they call: “God is Most Great!”
It echoed at the Amphitheatre, where a few thousand Chicago-area Muslims had come together, shoulder to shoulder, row upon row, to make the Eid prayer on bedsheets spread beneath its steel beams. Africans, Asians, Europeans, barefoot or stockingfoot, in business suits, jeans, djellabas, embroidered Pakistani vests, prayer caps from the old country, some brothers with kerchiefs tied around their heads. Many have taken U.S. citizenship, but most are in the country on a variety of visas. They have brought their religion with them. The man who gave the Khutba (sermon) had flown in from Libya.
Among them, however, were numerous homegrown Muslims. American converts to Islam, most of them black. After the prayer and khutba, the hugs and handclaps, most of the converts regrouped to slaughter the traditional goat (Eid ul-Adha commemorates the sacrifice of Abraham) and celebrate the day at the mosque and headquarters of an indigenous Sunni Muslim community named Jamaat Al-Muslimin.
Jaffar and I should have been with them. Instead, I had to work and he had a Greyhound to catch, so we snatched a short peace for ourselves over coffee. It was just as well. I needed to sound someone about an article I was putting together on American Muslims and Jaf’ was my man. When it comes to religion, we share a common stance: objective, without illusions, wary (I’ve been burned; Jaffar through innate cunning) of conscription into any organization or community. Free-lance Muslims, if you will. It is a precarious stance in a faith which enjoins a close-knit social order, and it makes us allies. Beyond that, Jaffar and I have each had our hardest hopes for Islam and strongest gut-tugs of brotherhood among Muslims who are both American and black “If you’re talking Islam in America, as a dynamic movement,” Jaffar said as we parted, “you are talking Islam in Afro-America.”
Islam is sown deep in black America, historically and soulfully, but also cruelly buried so that it has often emerged incomplete and distorted, strange shotgun weddings of Islam with black nationalism, reverse racism, and plain old mumbo-jumbo.
The “Moorish Americans” are fez-wearing followers of a self-styled prophet who called himself Noble Drew Ali. He founded the first Moorish Science Temple in Newark, New Jersey, in 1913. Within a few years, temples had been established in several northern cities and throughout the South. The faithful identify themselves as both Moor and Asian, usually appending “Bey” or “El” (which they pronounce “eel”) to their names. They consider themselves Muslim and follow a slight semblance of Muslim practice but their “Holy Koran” is a book devised by Noble Drew Ali—not the Qur’an of Islam. Ali was murdered in the 1920s during a power struggle within the organization but the Moorish Science Temple still survives.
The much-publicized “Black Muslims,” members of the Nation of Islam led by Elijah Muhammad, grew from the teachings of a silk-peddler called Fard who appeared in the Detroit ghetto in 1930. Fard, usually identified as an Arab, vanished amid hints of foul-play soon after appointing Elijah Muhammad, nee Poole, his First Minister of Islam. Elijah quickly put out the word that Fard had been Allah in the guise of a man, proclaimed himself “Messenger of Allah,” then moved the headquarters of the organization to Chicago. The Nation grew slowly, painfully, during the next two decades but came to prominence in the late ’50s, largely due to the powerful proselytizing of Malcolm X and its discovery by the national news media. Knowledge of Islam within the Nation is circumscribed by the interpretations of Mr. Muhammad, who teaches a shrewd hodge-podge of actual Islam, personal eccentricities, and bits of pseudo-history such as the doctrine that the white race was created 60 centuries ago by a mad black scientist named Mr. Yacub.
The real history of Islam in black America, however, pre-dates both Noble Drew Ali and Elijah Muhammad. It is older, deeper, and far more significant. There have been African Muslims in North America since colonial times, and much well-documented evidence indicates that many of the Africans brought to this country were stolen from tribes and areas which had been Muslim for centuries, possessing proud Islamic cultures and heritage. More than one older brother claims vague childhood memories of being awakened by his mother before daybreak to press his forehead tot he floor, a position found in the Muslim prayers, one of which is made at dawn. And there have been Afro-American converts (or “reverts” as the case may be) to Sunni Islam at least as far back as the beginning of this century. I have met dozens of third generation Muslims, the grandchildren of converts. There have been isolated black Sunni Muslims for decades, as well as pocket communities and at least one rural village founded and maintained by Sunni Muslims, but it has been during the last ten years that Sunni Islam has been a force with which to be reckoned.
On Fridays, just before mid-day, Dawud Ahmad Salahuddin leaves his gig at Sears and drives to a building at 1340 W. 99th Street. It’s just another storefront, in a handsome recently “changed” neighborhood, but the Muslim creed—There is no god but God and Muhammad is His Messenger—runs across the upper section of the windows in proud Arabic letters. Below, one window says: JAMATT ALI-MUSLIMIN (subtitled “Muslim Community Mosque” but best translated “The Muslim Gathering”). Another reads THE ISLAMIC PARTY IN NORTH AMERICA/Chicago Branch. The building is partitioned into reception-work room area, classroom, prayer room, kitchen, sleepingroom, bathroom. A number of Muslim are there, waiting, when Salahuddin enters with his ambling duck-swagger, among them his four beautiful curleyheaded children, sons Dawud and Rashid, daughters Malika and Shafia, and his lovely buttermilk wife, Aisha. More arrive, brothers in workclothes, streetclothes or semi-Eastern garb with heads under knit or embroidered skullcaps or the emma, a North African turban, and sisters in loose, flowing garments and covered heads. They sit on the carpet in the prayer room, chatting, joking, some subdued horseplay among the brother. When one rises to make the adhan, the sonorous call to prayer which wends through the soundtracks of all those spy movies set in Tangier, Cairo or Istanbul, the others drift away to make ritual ablution then edge back into the room, eyes soft, beads or water sprinkled in naturals and beards, faces glowing like camelskin lanterns. There’s a tinge of sandalwood incense, smell of sweet oils, rustle of garments, soft clink of the fine silver bracelets of which the women are fond. They stand in rows, facing Mecca, so close that their shoulders press and they can feel one another breathe. Salahuddin takes his place on a small prayer-rug at the front, lifts hand to ears, intones “allahu Akbar!,” then begins the prayer in rich, resonant Arabic, consonants that tug your mind and vowels that pull apart like ripe figs. He is Imam.
Imam Dawud is a squat, tawny brother with loose, curly ‘fro, neat beard, and the face of a lion; benign, but still a lion. That same bemused intelligence and offhand presence. He has been Muslim nearly half his 33 years. “The Imam is the spiritual leader of the community,” he explains, “but there is no priesthood in Islam. He is chosen by the community. All Muslims can be Imam.” Then he puffs himself up in mock pomposity, and laughs, “We are all Popes.”
Nevertheless, without Salahuddin it is doubtful that there would be a Jamaat Al-Muslimin. He has traits of natural leadership. Never aloof or authoritarian, others seem to defer to him without sense of rank. He has a warmth which draws people to him, and a casual confidence which invites their trust. He hangs loose. If things get heavy, it is usually Imam Dawud who does something to make it lighten up. And he is a rapper. The man can talk. He can deal formal English and classical Arabic, but smokes most eloquent when he goes homes, laying on the black vernacular, running its inflections and stresses, bop-retards and glissandi. He has been out there; on the corner, the block, the sets; an ex-jazz drummer who still sheds when he has the time. He can rap those inner-city riffs, of vonce and smack, stuffers and oilers, duwops and fatback. And laughs when I call him “the bebop Imam.”
He was born in Chicago, moved to Philadelphia at age ten, then returned to Chicago in July 1970. “When I came I found that Muslims here were not as active as on the East Coast. They were undercover agents, way under the covers. But I found them.” Many he found at an existing Muslim organization which had ambitious programs but lacked the humanity to see them through. “It was too much organization, not enough community.” When the group soured, due to inept leadership and ego-trips, many of its refugees started to meet at the Salahuddin home. Soon, other Muslims were dropping by. In November 1971, Jamaat Al-Muslimin was founded.
Our first interview was a disaster.
Iman Dawud and I have eaten and slept at each other’s homes, and together we have sweated through long tedious meetings, dug jazz, walked, swapped tales, girlwatched (Muslims are human), helped bathe the body of a dead brother in preparation for burial. A couple of summers ago, he and poet Omar Ahmed Shuayb took me to the park and taught me to ride a bicycle. So Dawud could hardly take it seriously. He clowned, cracked up, did half the interview in an exquisite Pakistani accent.
Later, however, I got him.
It was a get-together at a Hyde Park apartment shared by three brothers of the Jamaat. I came early, as one was finishing salat ul maghreb, the sunset prayer. When others arrived, a dozen brothers and sisters including a Nigerian visitor and not counting assorted children, a sheet was spread upon the floor and Bilal brought out the food. We sat crosslegged on the floor, eating with fingers from a common dish, Bedouin style.
After the meal, I turned on the cassette recorder.
Because Salahuddin has been a Muslim better than fifteen years, it is possible, through him to trace much of the recent history of Islam in North America. He recalls what it was like in the ’50’s, when “initiations” into the faith were often held in someone’s cellar and Islam was mixed with concepts of Freemasonry, the “All-Seeing Eye,” and black nationalism.
“Islam was only being propagated through black people, and many were embracing Islam for purely nationalist reasons. They were saying that Christianity, as now practiced, is an invention of the European and an extension of his culture and philosophy. That Islam was the natural religion for the black man. Until I was maybe eight years in Islam, I had never laid eyes on a ‘European’ (European-American, as distinguished from African-American) Muslim. Maybe once I heard a rumor, you know, but I never knew if I ever came across one how I would feel about him, because nationalism was what was leading me into the religion. We were told that this was our natural religion. You had organizations which were geared toward the ‘Hamitic Arab’ or Afro-American which left out European brothers altogether. It wasn’t a thing of prejudice, really. They just said, “We’re going to lead Islam in America.’ But we were still doing Islam. We were fasting, giving zakat, doing everything we were supposed to be doing.”
Dawud entered Islam at the hands of Hajji Talib Dawood, a trumpeter who had been with Dizzy Gillespie’s big band and who was particularly effective at converting fellow musicians. “I myself was a musician,” Dawud recalls. “During that time, I would say approximately 50% of the Muslims were musicians. Many were Muslim and still are today.”
From there, he went to the Ahmadiyya Movement.
“The Ahmadis were very much into propagating to Afro-Americans.” The Ahmadiyya is an authentic Islamic sect, based in Pakistan, which has had an erratic relationship with the orthodox, but differs only slightly from Sunni Islam. The Ahmadi have long been heavily involved in missionary work throughout the world, with emphasis upon Africa and North America, and must be credited for giving many Africans their first thorough instruction in traditional Islam.
Eventually, Dawud became Sunni. “The thing that motivated me to become Sunni was something that I never even understood. I just went from a masjid (mosque) that was Ahmadiyya to one that was Sunni. The transition wasn’t any great thing.” He became active in two Philadelphia-based groups, The International Muslim Brotherhood and Addeynu Allahe Universal Arabic Association, and was also in contact with The Islamic Center in New York, and with Dr. Mahmoud Shawarby, an Egyptian instrumental in guiding Malcolm X through the metamorphosis from “Black Muslim” to Sunni Islam.
The recent decade of Islamic activity could conveniently be dated from 1964, the year Malcolm became El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, the year of his pilgrimage and his famous letter from Mecca, all documented in his autobiography. He had a large following of black men and women who were ready for Islam but were put off by contradictions in the teachings of Elijah Muhammad. Malcolm’s dramatic conversion brought to their attention another Islam, the real Islam, a multi-racial international brotherhood of millions. His assassination in February 1965, less than a year after he declared himself an orthodox Muslim, seemed to confirm that Hajj Malik had gotten hold of something of tremendous significance.
Sufyan Abdullah Abdul-Maten, a brother of Jamaat, came to Islam during that period. He is 30 years old and holds a black belt in karate, a veteran of bone-bruising, bloodletting competition. Like many karateka, he has a quiet confidence, a fine blue flame within. “I became a Muslim on the East Coast, in Newark.” He told his shahada, formal acceptance of Islam, from Hisham Jabaar. “Hisham was the one that made the funeral arrangements for Malik. At that time, there were a lot of converts to Islam. Islam had like a new awakening right after a couple of articles were printed about the death of Hajj Malik. A lot of people didn’t believe what Elijah Muhammad had to say about Islam, and they went a little further … .”
Dawud adds, “Malik Shabazz died an orthodox Muslim, a Sunni Muslim. He died as Al-Hajj Malik Shabazz. Which is very important. The public was kept largely unaware that he as an orthodox Muslim. He sold more copy as a ‘Black Revolutionary Leader.’ America has no use for somebody who’s going around talking about God; you mention God and they think you’re crazy. As long as a man is playing into the hands of the power structure, dealing on terms of race, so-called nationality, America knows how to deal with this because America was based on this. But when a man starts to talking about morality, spirituality, internationality, hey Jack, look out! At this time he became far more dangerous than one playing the same old game.”
In the late 1960’s, Sunni Islam took firm hold. Long established communities gained fresh blood. New communities were formed. In Brooklyn, Dar-ul-Islam, which began with a handful of brothers and sisters meeting at each other’s homes, set up Ya-Sin Mosque. It now has a membership in the thousands, with affiliated mosques in several cities. Salahuddin frequented Mujahideen Mosque, the Dar-ul-Islam affiliate in Philadelphia. Masijd ul-Ummah (The Community Mosque) of Washington, D.C., which draw much of its membership from Howard University, is allied with mosques in other cities through the federation of Muslim Communities and the Islamic Party.
One phenomenon accompanying this growth has been an increase in the number of non-black converts. There have always been a few white converts to Islam in America, but their involvement was generally intellectual, cultural. If they came out of the closet at all, it was to associate with foreign-born Muslims, seldom with Afro-American Muslims. Until 1970, I had met but two “European”-American Muslims. Now, however, numerous young whites are embracing Islam, many via black brothers, and are joining what had previously been Afro-American communities. Dar-ul-Islam, which calls itself “the largest American group of Muslims,” and which began as a black community, now includes whites, Puerto Ricans, West Indians, Chinese, American Indians, and Arabs. And if, during the interview, I wished to see ‘European’ brothers, I had only to look at our three hosts.
Bilal Farug Abdur-Razzag became Muslim in 1970 when he went to visit his parents at Kano, Nigeria, where his father is on the staff of a university. Bilal spent 15 months in Africa and it had tremendous impact upon him, although he is self-effacing and prefers to leave the talking to his older brother, by blood, Umar Farag Abdullah. Bilal returned to the U.S. in May 1972 under pressure from the draft, securing a conscientious objector status as a Muslim. Muslims are not pacifists, but Islam authorizes warfare only in self-defense or against oppression.
Umar is 24 years old, tall, fair with a full beard. He is a student at the University of Chicago in Islamic Studies and Arabic. “I became a Muslim, indirectly, through reading the autobiography of Malcolm X. I was in New York state for almost two years before becoming a Muslim and I worked in a prison there, Greenhaven Prison, with the Muslim community in the prison, and I got involved with Dar-ul-Islam and also met Muzaffaruddin Hamid of The Islamic Party. I was also in Africa for a month, visiting our parents. It sort of opened me. It was the first experience I had with a community that was 100% Muslim, traditional Muslim. Islam was the ideology which constituted the whole society and directed it.” Umar teaches Arabic at the Jamaat. He is devout, bearing the prayer-mark on his forehead which many Muslims carry from unfailing performance of the daily prayers, and recently married a sister from the community.
Esa Abdullah, 19, cracks the brothers up with his halting, self-conscious account of how—soon after becoming Muslim—he rode from Seattle, Washington to St. Louis aboard a Burlington RR boxcar to attend a Muslim convention. There he met Umar, who invited him to Chicago to join Jamaat Al-Mulsimin.
The racial harmony in which the Jamaat might seem incredible to non-Muslims. When they call each other brother or sister, it is real, palpable. They relate to one another on a basis of personality, character, skills, and in terms of sincerity and knowledge in Islam, rather than race or even time in the Faith. “Hey man, sometimes when I look at that brother, it makes me think my whole program is jive,” Imam Dawud says, shaking his head in wonder, indicating a recent convert, a “European” brother who has demonstrated unusual dedication.
“Most Muslims come from the Third World.”: Aisha Salahuddin.
In The Battle of Algiers, the first public action of the FLN (National Liberation Front) was to invoke a return to Islamic morality and law, to eradicate drinking, doping and vice in the Medina.
It is no accident that Hajj Malik, Imamu Amiri Baraka, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, several members of the Black Panther Party, and recently. H. Rap Brown, embraced Islam, nor is it coincidence that Islam is strongest in the ghettos, prisons and black universities. There is more to Islam than prayer. It holds a heady attraction, especially for black men. A strong masculine image, tempered by righteousness and social and political awareness. Islam does not render unto Caesar, no does it turn the other cheek.
“The moment one embraces Islam in his mind, he throws off the yoke. If this happens with one person, if you have ten, twenty, thirty, forty; you have your own revolutionary action group,” Salahuddin asserts, but he isn’t talking red-eyed insurrection, a mindless turning of tables. “The moment that one says he is going to do away with usury, racism, and the rest, one tends to become a revolutionary, but his goal is to humanize and moralize the world. You see, a revolutionary movement is not enough. If you throw out the existing structure, upon what do you base your new order? There has to be a complete way of life. Incompleteness, imbalance, always create new evils. Islam is that way of life, containing everything needed for a total social structure; spiritual, moral, economic, cultural, political. It is revolutionary in a complete sense.”
Sunni Muslims have been known to come into a neighborhood, face down streetgang activity, lesson vice and narcotics traffic, establish free breakfast and tutoring programs for children.
Jamaat Al-Muslimin sponsors a boy-scout troop. It has initiated a neighborhood clean-up drive, hold classes in crafts, sewing, and hygiene for neighborhood girls. It makes dynamite incense, which it wholesales and dances on the street, also selling essential oils, jewelry, handmade clothing. It corresponds with Muslims in the prisons, has strong ties with Masjid ul-Ummah in D.C. via The Islamic Party, and sells the Party’s newspaper, Al-Islam, at public gatherings. But, wisely, the brothers also take time to hold two karate classes a week.
A ghetto wall. The legend Mad Gangsters Run It is crossed out. A larger message, Imperial Pumps Run It, also obliterated. Over both, in bold black letters, brothers have written: ALLAH RUNS IT.
Zealots prophesy that eventually all America will be Muslim. Even conservatives grant that the proportion of white converts will continue to increase, especially among the young, but most Muslims agree that the black community will be Islam’s stronghold and major recruiting ground for some time. White America, despite publicity freely given to an array of “exotic” religions, remains largely ignorant of Islam. Many Muslims sense a conspiracy at work. There is, admittedly, a certain amount of paranoia which afflicts nearly all religious “minorities,” yet the handling of Islam by the West does display a strong pattern of suppression and misrepresentation from the time of the Crusades up to the present. Salahuddin notes, “Every time you see a Muslim in an old Peter Lorre movie, he’s a diabolical schemer, a murderer; he’s dealing in drugs, in slaves. They always portray the Muslim as a very negative element.”
It’s a situation which led Sulayman Shahid Mufassir, a Christian minister turned Muslim, and a spokesman for Masjid ul-Ymmah, to remark, “Most Americans think that The Arabian Nights is the holy book of Islam.
It could turn around.
Back at the cafeteria, Jaffar had said, “When flower-power wilted in the mid-Sixties, its adherents split into different camps. Some entered the world of the spirit, toying with Buddhism, Hare Krishna, psychedelic mysticism and eventually, satanism. Others jumped gung-ho into political activism, becoming precocious revolutionaries, war-surplus streetfighters. Each lacked something of the other. Neither were fulfilling. Now, in Nixon’s Seventies, everyone is settling into disillusioned postures of compromise. I wonder what would happen if they discovered a religion which is spiritual and political in equal measure and provides both motivation and means for revamping the whole set?”
The Hanafi massacre, the drowned children and cold-blooded, even casual, murder-squad tactics, sent a shudder through the Sunni community. “We had been expecting it,” says Imam Dawud. Only a couple of weeks earlier, a Sunni brother had been cut down in a parking lot in Atlanta, where both Dar-ul-Islam and Masjid ul-Ummah have affiliated mosques. “But not like that, not that vicious.”
Hanafi are Sunni Muslims, members of the oldest and most populous of four major schools found in Sunni Islam, schools which differ from one another far less than do the denominations of Protestant Christianity. So when the blow fell on Hanafi, it fell on family.
And Muslims knew, even before the details were in, before the confirmation of survivor Almina Khaalis, where to point the accusing finger.
The feeling of Sunni Americans toward Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam are complex, even schizoid. They may share many of the Nation’s political beliefs, and respect the Black Muslims for their dedication and unity, but ridicule their lock-step conformity, calling them muck mucks and Poole-ites (in references to Elijah’s “slave” name). They grudgingly admire, with a taste of jealousy, the Nation’s sizable assets and far-flung economic programs. The resent the considerable publicity received by the Nation, and live with the daily frustration for being mistaken for “Black Muslims” because they are black and Muslim. They save their strongest feelings for Elijah himself, whom they regard as a charlatan with a semi-secret history of bloodshed, referring to him with heavy irony as “the Lamb.”
When it comes to ideology, the Sunni can understand—without accepting—the racist content of Elijah’s message, and can laugh away the eccentricities of some of his other teachings, but they cannot excuse the Black Muslim doctrine that Fard was “Allah.” Many old-time members of the Nation still display in their homes photographs of Fard, whom they point to as “God.” In Islam, the only unpardonable sin is shirk, idolatry, the association of any being or object with God, the sole act which disqualifies one from Islam.
Sunni Muslims have challenged Elijah on such points, confronting the Nation with its inconsistencies. The response has been increasingly violent, rooted in Elijah’s insistence that he maintain a monopoly with regard to “Islam” among black Americans. From the East Coast, where the Sunni communities are older, larger and more active, come frequent reports of black Muslim soldiers headhunting for Sunni, with especially severe treatment toward those who have defected from the Nation in favor of orthodox Islam. In his autobiography, Malcolm X predicted his own assassination and made no bones in his claiming that a death warrant had been put out on him by the Lamb.
There is the possibility, always a possibility, that the murder of the Hanafi was actually a CIA-type operation made to appear the work of the Nation in order to trigger a blood-feud between “Black” and Sunni Muslims (the Sunni, like Malcolm, have foes on either side the F.B.I. has already visited several communities, among them Jamaat Al-Muslimin, ostensibly to “help” solve the Hanafi murders but obviously more interested in gathering information for their files), but such a plot is itself predicated upon the assumption that the Nation is fully capable of such an act.
Salahuddin, glancing grimly at children playing on the floor of the mosque, says only, “We have taken security measures.”
Jamatt Al-Muslimin isn’t the only Sunni American group in Chicago, but it is the only one of consequence. In addition, there are hundreds of sincere Muslims who stand apart from any community, hundreds more who linger at the edges. My friend Khalil is pious, sweet-natured, an artistic free-soul; a wood-carver, a maker and player of flutes, a casual student of Sufism—Islamic mysticism. He keeps the faith, contributes his talents (a beautiful piece for the mosque), but he’s unable to obligate himself to a community, although he frequently shows up at the Jamaat when the spirit moves him.
There are also plenty of jive Muslims, pretend Muslims, street-corner Abdullahs, and dudes who have assumed Muslim names as a badge of black-nuss. Even among sincere Muslims, elements of the grotesque sometimes accompany the beautiful; strains of puritanism, paranoia, schizophrenia, chauvinism, willingness to abrogate common-sense in the name of “faith,” and rote adherence to externals while missing the essence of Islam. Muslims must overcome a lot of hangups if they hope to effect a positive transformation of themselves or society. It makes it difficult to advocate formal religion. The Qur’an may be the most perfect, powerful and significant tool provided to humankind but it carries no guarantee of its proper use. No religion is human-proof. The flawed condition of man which postulates the existence of formal religion also leads to its perversion. Talking of these things to Imam Dawud, he points to a message lettered on the wall of the mosque. It is the “motto” of Jamaat Al-Muslimin, and comes from the Qur’an; Verily never will Allah change the condition of a people until they change it themselves.