Last Thursday my friend ibrahim abdul-matin died. Just like that. He was 46 years old. He leaves behind a wife and three boys.
We had corresponded on Tuesday afternoon, just 36 hours earlier.
My friend Chris serves on the board of an environmental organization, and he was looking for a diversity consultant who could engage in both identity issues and stewardship issues. I thought of ibrahim immediately.
ibrahim authored a book about Islam and the environment called Green Deen. He recently served as a Senior Fellow in Interfaith and Climate for my organization, Interfaith America. He was a Black American, a lifelong Muslim, an expert facilitator, someone who spreads light, not heat.
“He’s your guy,” I told Chris. And then emphasized, “He’s the guy on this — galaxies beyond anyone else.”
I introduced them by email on Monday. I received ibrahim’s response at 1:37 pm Central Standard Time on Tuesday. He wrote:
“I am always honored to get intros from Eboo – they come with so many blessings! I’m happy to find time to discuss. Below is my Calendly link. Perhaps you can find a time that works for you?”
Pure ibrahim. The references to honor and blessings, the Adab of the phrase “Perhaps you can find a time that works for you?”
I had to tell my friend Chris on Friday morning that the Calendly tool might still work, and ibrahim’s image might still be there on the screen, but there was no longer a physical ibrahim on the other side to accept the request and fulfill the engagement.
To connect two songs by the Grateful Dead, ibrahim is now “a headlight on a northbound train … He’s gone.”
What remains is a memory, many memories actually. And when I think of those memories, there is a spirit that animates all of them, and that spirit is love.
Because friendship is love. Because ibrahim emanated love. Because ibrahim was — is — beloved. Because knowing ibrahim expanded your capacity to love.
We all have friends that we love. We have all lost some along the way. We are all always deep down wondering if we loved the friends we lost and the friends we still have the way we should. The way we are meant to. The way that God meant us to.
How to describe ibrahim?
You felt his presence in the room before you saw his face. You just knew he was there. The punch was sweeter, the food more flavorful, the conversation deeper.
And then that face. It just shone. I mean, really.
In Islam, we speak of God as being light upon light. All of us are carriers of a piece of that light. Some of us have more of it than others. ibrahim glowed with God’s light.
Ani DiFranco has a song about this friend of hers with “a face like a neon sign, flashing open, open, open all the time.”
For me, that friend was ibrahim.
In the days that have passed since I learned of ibrahim’s death, I have gone back over our time together in my mind.
The time he called me and wanted to have a big ideas conversation. It went on and on and on and on, a mesmerizing two hours.
There were several meetings that afternoon where someone must have said, “Huh, I thought Eboo was supposed to be here. Oh, well.”
Oh, well indeed. I was communing with a human being in pure flow. There was no way I was going to break that sacred spell.
I’m so glad I stayed on that call until ibrahim was through. And I’m so glad that I told ibrahim that I loved him at the end.
Because love held within isn’t really love, how cake batter isn’t really a cake. It’s only baked in the sharing.
Here’s another memory. ibrahim was our keynote speaker alongside Vice President Al Gore for an event on Black Interfaith in the Time of Climate Change at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture last summer. It was one of the most remarkable talks I have ever seen. ibrahim began by vanquishing the jinn. (Jinn are demon-like figures in Islamic metaphysics.) ibrahim literally began by saying, “To all the jinn here I tell you that you are not invited.” ibrahim said, “We are trying to cultivate a space of beauty and community. We tell any creature who is about backbiting and mockery to begone.”
It could have been totally weird, but it wasn’t at all. And the sense of community in the event was just so beautiful. Al Gore was on the verge of breaking into a gospel song. It was that kind of night. And ibrahim created that space with his presence.
ibrahim wrote one of my favorite essays in interfaith studies, called The Water Carriers. As a young man, ibrahim went off on a 21-day Outward Bound trip to Joshua Tree National Park — pretty intrepid for someone who had spent almost his entire life in urban areas in the northeast.
One of his fellow travelers was a guy named Christian, who immediately informed the Outward Bound group that the end of the world was nigh and whoever did not accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior better get ready to burn in hell. Muslims, he explained, would burn in the hottest part.
ibrahim was a pretty big guy. So was Christian. As there were no naturally occurring water sources on the trail, they automatically tasked the two biggest people in the group to be the water carriers. ibrahim and Christian were destined to spend a lot of time together.
When ibrahim woke early the first morning to make Fajr prayer, it surprised him to see Christian already awake, praying. ibrahim took it as a chance to open an interfaith dialogue.
He explained the significance of arduous physical journeys in Islam and asked Christian what they meant in his religion. When Christian slept through his alarm one morning, ibrahim woke him up for prayer. It is the ultimate interfaith lesson: you can disagree with someone’s doctrine and still respect their faith.
For the last leg of an Outward Bound trip, the instructor separates, and the group members must choose two navigators. The group chose Christian and ibrahim, two people who disagreed on fundamental things, and yet, working together, could be trusted to lead the group home.
Like the Prophet Muhammad, ibrahim was Al-Amin. Convicted in his own faith, respectful of others, always creating opportunities for cooperation, the one you could trust to lead you home.
Rumi writes about the reed being separated from the reed bed, longing for return. That is how we humans are with our Maker. Inna lilahi wa inna ilahi rajiun — we are from God, and we return to Him without doubt.
Convicted in his own faith, respectful of others, always creating opportunities for cooperation, the one you could trust to lead you home.
Well, ibrahim, the most beautiful reed, you have gone home. Every metaphor is relevant here. Use them all. Mix them up. ibrahim was like that. He loved all the ayahs — all the signs of God. The verses of the Qur’an, the oceans and the trees, the people in all their sizes and shapes.
He was our Hoopoe, guiding us across mountains and valleys, leading us to the great Simurgh — that gleaming mirror where we see just how magnificent we diverse and disputatious humans might be if we just got it together and remembered that we are a community.
His heart could take on all forms. It was a pasture for gazelles. A cloister for monks. Ka’aba for the pilgrim. He was a refuge for love’s caravan, whichever way it turned.
And now he is singing with the angels, swimming in the fountains, running with the ancestors.
He is amongst the music. Encouraging John Coltrane to create Part V of “A Love Supreme.” Helping Bill Withers write a new verse for “Lean on Me.” Asking Prince why in the world he gave “Manic Monday” to The Bangles.
We who inhabit this Brokedown Palace, who celebrate ibrahim’s life, mourn his death, send our hearts to his wife and kids, express our gratitude for his example and his friendship — we are bereft, forlorn, still in shock. ibrahim would want us to find comfort where we can. I find it in memories, in nature, in poetry, in spirituality, in the vision of Jerry Garcia greeting my beautiful, departed friend in the resplendent gardens of heaven with the same lyrics that I sing to myself softly on Earth:
Fare you well
Fare you well
I love you more than words can tell
Listen to the river sing sweet songs
To rock my soul.
Editor’s Note: ibrahim abdul-matin preferred to have his full name spelled in lowercase.
Throughout the years, he had written over a dozen incredible articles for Interfaith America Magazine exploring faith, environmental activism, and fatherhood. Here are some of our favorite pieces that we’d love for you to read and share in his memory.