A Muslim Becoming Born-Again
October 22, 2020
Ibrahim Abdul-Matin is an urban strategist whose work focuses on deepening democracy and improving public engagement. He is also an Interfaith America Racial Equity Media Fellow.
Part One: Charley Asks a Tough Question
Wisdom is elusive. It requires being awake when others are asleep, moving when others are not, hungry when others are satiated. Wisdom implies that you are free when others are shackled and that you are free when you are shackled. Wisdom requires intelligence and experiences. Like the time I met Charley. It was a few years back and I was headed to a retreat in Northern California. The gathering was for folks committed to renegotiating our relationship with the Earth but the retreat, even though it was an important one, wasn’t the real part of this story. My encounter on the way to the retreat was.
My arrival point from New York was good old Oakland, a place I used to live ‘once upon a time’. Since then the airport had become far different from the bus-station-like place that I remember. The folks at the retreat said they were sending me a car and the center was about an hour and a half away. I braced myself for the long ride by doing old football stretches on the curb outside the baggage claim. Then I got the call from the driver. His name was Charley and he was just outside the pick-up area and would be there soon in an all-black Tesla.
Charley was the friendly sort and we greeted like old friends. It was a blessing to be in California. In all my time I have felt a loving embrace from the state and its land and people. New York was the home chosen for me, Rhode Island, Boston and New Haven are homes I ended up in, but Cali’ was the one place I chose. Charley was chatty. He asked me how I was doing, and we engaged in small talk. Quickly though the talk turned to faith, God, and religion. Charley was a born again Christian and made the assumption that I was a God-fearing man. He told me about his church and his remarkable path towards becoming born again. I will not go into all the details, but I will share some highlights. For example, at one point in his life he was on trial for a murder he did not commit, and it looked like he was going to be put away for life. At another time in his life, he tried to commit suicide and the bullet went through his head and cleanly went out the other side – miraculously not hitting crucial parts of his brain. In another time of his life he had been “right with God” but then fell off and started drinking. He landed with some Hells Angels and for almost a decade was embroiled in that lifestyle. In all those points, he asserted, God dragged him away from a life of sin only to bring him back to the church. Now, he was on the other side and proudly pointed, as we passed downtown Oakland, to a steeple of a church that he and his fellow congregants had recently purchased so that they could bring the gospel to the rough and tumble of Oakland.
For my part, I let him know that I was Muslim and he had surprising respect for my statement. Then he asked me a question that no person had ever really asked. “let me ask you something,” he started while looking into the rear window back at me, “do you have a personal relationship with the Lord?” I stuttered. “Well,” I stammered, “I don’t know”
I began to tell him about my spiritual journey. How my parents were converts to Islam but really did not know “how” to be Muslim, “we were experiments” I told him, and we enjoyed a laugh. When I was little my mother and father were still unbecoming Christian and they had to do that to a certain extent before they could become someone else. Their first journey was through the Nation of Islam, known then as the Black Muslims and then they converted to mainstream Sunni Islam. This is roughly the same spiritual journey that Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali took in their lives. It was the same journey that hundreds of thousands of Black Americans took in the ’60s, 70’s and ’80s. Being a Muslim back then wasn’t the same as it is now. Then, for us, it was an expression of your black identity. Black Muslims, in the nation and after, were embedded in their communities and rooted in “the hood”. We garnered respect and admiration. People knew who Muslims were. Islam always resonated with me.
When I was young, I asked my father what God looked like. My father told me that anything I could imagine that is NOT what God looked like. God was unfathomable. He was distant and far away. That is why Charley’s question sat with me, “Do you have a personal relationship with the lord?”
That question echoed in my head as I prepared to tell him more of my story.
Part Two: Tough Question
Charley, the driver sent to carry me away to a retreat asked me a question, after we’d discussed that he was a born again Christian and I was a Muslim born to converts to Islam. He stumped me: “Do you have a personal relationship with the lord?”
I had been raised in a very good vs evil home. But my parents also exposed me to a bit of the mysticism of faith as well or at least about the different manifestations of faith in a mystical way. I learned some of my first Arabic sittings in the tent of a young man who had come to a small farm upstate NY to learn from a master in the Chisti Sufi order. My mother insisted that we see other faiths so I participated in Ifá and Candomblé ceremonies and she took us to Black churches so that we could have a frame of reference for those parts of the Black religious experience. As a child, I can recall waking up in the middle of the night and seeing my father up and in prayer. I can truly say that I have always had a deep personal connection with my mother, my father, but never with God in that same sort of way.
What I did not share with Charley about my own journey was the time spent not so much “looking for God” but more so “Finding myself” – which still feels relatively elusive. Part of this was connected to my understanding of God. Instead of trying to connect with the Creator of the Universe, I reasoned, I needed to connect with my own soul. There is an understanding in Islam that before our souls arrived in our bodies that God spoke to us and told us the ultimate truths of which we will be asked about when we are back before Him – on the Day of Judgement. To arrive at a better understanding of my soul I have written incessantly, attended yoga and meditation retreats, participated in traditional first nation sweat lodge ceremonies, cried while praying, made lists of all the sins I’d committed and burned them, stopped practicing Islam altogether and then started back again. In that time, I broke my fair share of hearts – including my own, mentally confused myself and those whom I loved and who loved me, and tried the patience of the woman who eventually became my wife because of the sometimes inconsistencies in the practice of my faith. I even wrote a book about Islam and my passion – protecting the planet from abuse and overconsumption. It was at once a meditation on the nature of humanity and God as it was a treatise calling for greater care for what the Pope calls “Our Common Home”; earth.
Charley must have heard the strain in my voice. The scenery was lush early spring Northern California and by then we had crossed the bridge and were weaving a path through eucalyptus groves and I’d gone silent after having spoken in a halting and unsure tone. He asked me to say a prayer with him and I agreed. Christians have tried to get me to say this prayer many times. I remember once, at a wedding overlooking the Hudson River, I met a lovely couple and we instantly hit it off. By the end of the night, the wife leaned in and said, “you know we like you a lot. And we think it is just sad that you aren’t Christian.” “why is that.?” I asked “Because we are going to heaven and we want you to be there with us. You should accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and savior” I leaned in and told her, “you know at the end of days both Muslims and Christians are both waiting for Jesus to return.” She was shocked, “we may very well be standing side by side as he gives his sermon” That ended the conversation. But I was offended. I accepted her faith, but she could not accept mine as being valid. This day with Charley I was impressed by the sheen of his convictions. His personal story was compelling. He seemed to have tapped into some energy source that had infused his life with meaning, purpose, and focus; I wanted a taste of that, and I agreed to say the prayer with him. It was the basic “Open you, heart, to Jesus” prayer. I sat in the back of Tesla and wondered what would happen next. Charley, speaking like a doctor who had just performed a life-saving procedure, said “if you don’t see God’s presence in your life in seven days if you do not have a personal relationship with him, then go back to your ways, but as of now you are a born again Christian” Later, he texted me the name and number of a pastor in Brooklyn and he insisted that I bring my wife along with me. Ramadan was right around the bend. In a few days, I would begin the fast but was a little conflicted about “God”.
For the first time in my life, I allowed myself to openly question whether I was on the right path. Seven days later I was back in New York City waiting for Ramadan to begin and nothing happened – well, sorta, something did happen. I ran into my good friend Adeleke who was about to blow my mind.
Part Three: Enter Adeleke
Charley, the rough and tumble criminal turned pastor, and I said a prayer as he drove me to a retreat center in Northern California. He claimed the prayer made me a Born-Again Christian and promised me that in less than seven days something incredible would happen to me. I thought nothing of this until exactly seven days later when I ran into my good friend Adeleke.
Adeleke is a clothier with an eye for fabric, cuts, and how to make timeless pieces of art that people wear in a casual way. We first met years ago, before I was married, just on the corner of Fulton and South Portland in the heart of Fort Greene Brooklyn. Back then the Green Grape grocery was there on the corner of Fulton and South Oxford. There were some wooden benches there where good people congregated. People like local celeb coconut Rob, whose name is etched in concrete further down on Fulton and who specializes in dispensing wisdom in equal measure as he sells made-to-order juices in astonishing combinations. One summer Rob and Adeleke and I would sit there on those benches at the close of each day and discuss any topic related to philosophy, religion, the soul, and the state of Black people around the globe. Our conversations forged an impenetrable bond. Adeleke and Rob are Christians in a very essential way. They do not believe in the trinity, they observe the Sabbath, they see the Old Testament as the Word of God, and they adhere to the laws of Moses.
Adeleke was the perfect person to discuss these points about God. We chatted on the block like old times for about an hour and verbally agreed to meet up for dinner later in the week. When the day came to meet for dinner we met at a Senegalese restaurant uptown, ordered the dibbi (grilled lamb chops) with joloff rice and salad. I broke my fast sitting there just as game one of the NBA finals came on. We spoke in-between bites of food and long glances at the game. I told him about my conversation with Charley and he gave a long serious smirk, like the way a lion might look into a field of the game.
“God’s not your friend.” He started by saying. His anchor for this discussion was the Old Testament and specifically, the prophet Moses and the laws revealed to him we call the Ten Commandments. In the story, Moses climbs to the top of the mountain but the weight and the sheer gravity of God’s Voice is enough to drive almost him, described as a “Friend of God” almost mad. In the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition, God describes Himself as the Most Merciful as well as inspiring fear. He brings fire and brimstone to disbelieving nations. We are supposed to fear God and also to Love God. It can all very confusing, to be honest. Adeleke told me that I was missing the point, “it doesn’t matter how God is, you have to understand how serious this is, it is about the salvation of your soul.” He continued, “and it is about how consistent you are in your worship, do you call on him the same when things are bad as when things are good? Are you thankful? Do you follow His law…?”
This was the reminder that I needed to hear. It is about my soul. As a child, I was obsessed with thinking about my soul – where it came from, what it is doing, and where it is going to end up. As Muslims, we believe that the soul is timeless. We have been in existence for a long time. God once spoke to each one of us and shared the Ultimate Truth with us. On the day of Judgment, we will be asked about that truth and about how we acquitted ourselves when our souls inhabited this reality. There is a pastor who has children in the same school as mine. I like him because he has a cool demeanor. I pulled him aside and wanted to get some perspective on all of this and it is his words that will get the last word. I told him this whole chain of conversation from Charley to Adeleke. My main thought was that I had not been able to be consistent enough in my worship and how I desired to be as specific in times of stress with my prayer as I am in times of ease. He reinforced this. One of the hardest things to do as a person of faith is to maintain a consistent level of worship.
Sure, I have gone through various modes of spiritual exploration but how long have I sustained it? How much have I actually meditated? Have I been like my uncle Bill who has meditated daily for 40+ years and counting? Have I been like my father who gets up each day for the morning prayer before the thin red line of dawn appears in the sky? Have I been like my mother who never stops studying or finding new places to convene in fellowship? Have I been like my aunts and uncles in rural Virginia who sing Psalms when making fried fish at our family reunions? Am I dependable and unbreakable like my wife whose faith was hard-wired into her being a child? Have I been consistent like my neighbors, the Jehovah’s Witness’, who never hesitated to share a good word with me or a timely smile? One thing that is certain is that I have a long way to go. I send blessings to my fellow travelers and seekers and believers. May the Creator of the Universe unite our souls and helps us all to be more consistent – and able to be able to sit and consider each other’s perspectives as part of the journey that makes us whole. It would really be something if we all made it to heaven and got to sit on a wooden bench there, me, Charley, Adeleke, Rob, all of us, and just laugh about how life on earth seemed like a day or part of a day.
American Civic Life
American Civic Life