Masjid Malcolm Shabazz – What is Islam?
I’ve always felt religion is personal, and the way one interprets and practices their faith is between them and the deity or state of being they devote themselves to. My hope for this class was that I’d learn more about how the faith I hold so dear to my heart is seen and practiced in other parts of the country, differently or similarly. In learning how others see Islam, I could gain perspective and insight on how I perceive it as well, and perhaps grow in my appreciation and understanding of it. By the time the class approached however, it only felt more timely a topic – Islam in America had become more important to study now than perhaps ever in light of the many twisted statements made during the election cycle by the Republican party’s nominee for President.
Our road trip has been one of the most memorable and significant experiences of my life, and I felt a number of my personal discoveries over its course come together in the Malcolm Shabazz Mosque. The successor to the Nation of Islam’s Temple 7, the Mosque was now a Sunni space, though non-discriminatory towards Shi’a and others.
Until our visit to Harlem, I’d felt Islamophobia gradually draining my spirit, and what my friend described as the burden of standing for what is right weighing down my heart. I found it so fundamentally bizarre that anyone could look at Islam, a religion practiced by so many in such a peaceful way and one that has been a prominent factor in the making of human history and progress, as entirely and uniquely evil. Even attempts to help Muslims, such as the crusades to “liberate” the Muslim women, were entangled with misconceptions and rather overt Islamophobic notions, as Professor of Islamic Studies Julianne Hammer wrote.
Our meeting with Karamah introduced me to another strong and determined Muslim woman, who applied her legal expertise to fight for human rights. Meeting her as well as seeing the work CAIR does made my burden feel lighter –It gave me the sense that I wasn’t totally alone against Islamophobia, which whatever reason I had all year.
Yet the religious backbone these experiences cultivated would be challenged during our travels, for despite commencing this trip with the sense that Islam was so wildly misunderstood by non-Muslims in the world, I found that even those who held the Islamic faith dear to their hearts and practiced it in ways similar to myself held rather disparate ideological notions and perceptions of the religion from myself. Our dinner with a solitary Sufi mystic was my first true experience in grasping the potential variation of a Sufi’s perception of Islam– all I’d read couldn’t have prepared me for discussing this man’s beliefs with him face to face. What he called the true form Islam was meant to take, I called a complete and total abandon of multiple central tenets of the faith.
The followers of Bawa, in their veneration of the now deceased spiritual leader, showed me yet another spin on Islam that I found inappropriate, despite how meaningful and heartfelt it was for them.
By the time we reached Harlem, I felt lost. I never doubted what I personally believed in, but I began to wonder at the future and potential of an Islamic community, surrounded by so much hatred and split by such varied perspectives. Our meeting in the Masjid Malcolm Shabazz seemed to answer my numerous prayers (and one penny wish) for guidance.
Though we were unable to meet with the Imam, the man who met with us to represent the Mosque impressed me. He had a knowledge of Islam and the Arabic language that allowed him to explain the faith to non-Muslims in a clear and concise way, with stances that I found exactly as my own. As he spoke, the same thought echoed in my mind – “This is MY Islam!”.
One of the fundamental principles I adhere to in my faith is the realization that the path God wants us to follow is an inherently good one, and thus if anything seems to contradict that, there’s more to it. The man we met with said as much – that if something one hears about the Islamic lifestyle isn’t common sense, it’s not actually Islam. There are a number of misconceptions that I’m aware of in the minds of many non-Muslims whom I’ve met, and I’m sure there are more I’ve yet to be exposed to, but at the end of the day I truly believe one can contemplate whether or not what they’re doing is the right thing, and if it’s not, Islam wouldn’t demand it of them.
Another common hurdle for people to understand Islam is a sense of intimidation at what appears to be a large number of rules and firm guidelines. Never mind the fact that other religions are largely just as strict if not more so, a fundamental aspect of my Islamic faith that walks hand in hand with my belief that religious faith is personal and individual is that it’s one’s intent that matters, a notion that our speaker echoed. God knows what we intend, he knows what personal struggles we have and who we truly are, thus it’s not the results that matter so much as the reasoning and belief behind them.
However, make no mistake, I don’t believe that religion is individual in that it should be practiced alone, and neither does the Masjid Malcolm Shabazz. It is here that I stray from agreement with the Sufi we met with for dinner – while he pursued transcendence above all else, I believe that transcendence is something we achieve if we’re meant to, but what’s more immediately important is the life we have before us, and the cause of humanity as a whole which one must be a part of. The Muslim speaker summarized this neatly by saying Islam is a “Social organization with spiritual disciplines.” While our practices are spiritual, we must do what we’re meant to as a species and foster communities that will further our growth and goodness as a people, rather than abandoning this world and each other to pursue divine secrets forcefully.
Despite my clash with the Sufi, I respect his opinion and found him to be knowledgeable, and it was on this that the speaker for Masjid Malcolm Shabazz again spoke to my heart – he said that the differences between true Muslims were scholarly, not religious. So long as a Sufi practices and obeys the fundamentals of our religion, I consider them a brother or sister, despite the variations in our interpretation of faith. It is my belief as a behavioral neuroscience student that we will each make our own inferences from the Qur’an and religion, but as God knows our hearts and minds, we will be judged equally so long we don’t stray from the fundamental commands we were given.
The Qur’an is not clear on every matter, but I don’t see that as a flaw because these details matter less than the intent and fundamentals. In this way, I think a unity between true Muslims will always be possible – only foolishness and violence create rifts within the faith. Meeting with a member of a community so far from Centre that saw Islam as I did… It was like a breath of fresh air, clearing the fog that had set over me, and opening my eyes once more to the horizon, invigorating me to tackle what comes next.
– Adam Falluji