TRANSFORMATIONS

Compiled By: Hajj Mustafa Ali

Story by Ahmed Abdul Rahman

On the south side of Chicago, during my teens in the turbulent sixties, powerful philosophies competed for the loyalties of young black men and women. I was familiar with the un-Islamic doctrines of Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam: white people are a race of devils. They had been invented 77 trillion years ago by a diabolical black scientist named Yaqub. Yaqub began the process of inventing the white devil race by grafting two albinos from the original race of black people. The black man is the Original Man, a veritable god, who once ruled the world and is destined to rule again. Allah came in the person of an Arabian silk merchant, Master Fard Muhammad, to Detroit in 1930. Allah came to deliver the so-called Negro from 400 years of physical and mental bondage in the wilderness of North America.

Upon this basic mythology Elijah Muhammad built a super structure of discipline. He taught his followers to abstain from all intoxicants, tobacco, fornication and adultery, pork and all non-nutritious foods. Mr. Muhammad encouraged hard work, higher education, thrift and strong family values.

I found Elijah Muhammad’s mythology easier to accept than the teachings of Christianity that I had heard all of my life. As the era of black pride and black awareness brought me more knowledge of my people’s history, I found the philosophy of the Nation of Islam even more acceptable. Knowing that the blond haired, blue eyed and Caucasian, made this God, Jesus, even more unacceptable to me.

I left home when I was seventeen and got a job at Bagcraft International. My job was running a machine that put wax on giant roles of paper that would be sliced and folded by another machine into potato chip bags. At Bagcraft I met two students from Lagos, Nigeria – Onyxx Olajinka and Shakiru Kensington. They were the first indigenous Africans and the first (Sunni) Muslims I ever met. We quickly became friends. I communicated best with Shakiru. He told me a lot about African culture and politics. I asked him about African Islam and told him that I was inclined toward the teachings of Elijah Muhammad.

I could see Shakiru’s reluctance to go any deeper. Hindsight tells me that he probably knew that violent conflicts had broken out between Sunni Muslims and members of the Nation of Islam when the Sunnis had tried to inform the latter that Elijah Muhammad’s version of Islam was un-Islamic. Not knowing how dedicated I was to Elijah Muhammad, or how I might respond, Shakiru probably thought silence was the wisest course.

But, unbeknownst to himself, Shakiru would play a key part in my not ever joining the Nation of Islam. I graduated from high school and sought and found a better job. I told Shakiru that I would be leaving Bagcraft. On my last working day Shakiru gave me a green, brown and orange knee-length shirt with matching pants that he had brought with him from Lagos. The colorful, soft cotton shirt and pants from Africa were to me a treasure.

I left Bagcraft. As the months progressed I became more inclined to join the Nation of Islam. I had brought a copy of the Qur’an. My study sessions in the divine revelation however were spent trying to find Elijah Muhammad’s white devils, and confirmation of Elijah Muhammad’s being a Messenger, and of the black man’s status of God. Consequently, since, as the Qur’an says, ‘no person can touch the knowledge in the Qur’an who does not come to it with pure intentions', each time I picked it up I put it down more befuddled. I did understand the books that I read that either Elijah Muhammad or his followers wrote. I concluded that the Nation of Islam was the best place for me. On a Sunday afternoon I put on my treasured African shirt and walked the six blocks to the Muslim’s Temple #2. This day I would officially join and declare my faith in Allah, as having come in the person of Master Fard Muhammad, and my loyalty to Elijah Muhammad as his last Messenger.

As I approached the front door of the Muslim temple, one of the guards stopped me. He looked down at my shirt disapprovingly and shook his head. “No, sir”, he said. “Last week the captain made a rule: without proper attire nobody can be admitted.” By proper attire he meant a white shirt and tie.

I turned around and walked home. My main stalling point, keeping me from joining the Nation of Islam, was Elijah Muhammad’s downgrading of the importance of African culture. His followers did not wear Afros, nor did they participate in the African cultural awakening then sweeping black America. The Muslim guard had struck me precisely on this sore point. In so doing, he enlarged my cultural objections to joining the Nation of Islam to the extent that I assessed his refusal to admit me because of my shirt as a sign that I did not belong in the Nation of Islam.

The Black Panther party was then arising as a strong influence among young people in Chicago. I was impressed by their stalwart stance for black community control of the educational, economic, and criminal justice institutions, which affected our lives. During the latter 1960’s, statistics revealed that the mainly white Chicago Police Department killed more citizens per capita than did any police department in the United States. Most of the dead were black. The Black Panther Party alone stood up and publicly stated that black people had a right to armed self-defense from racist attacks.

Some of my friends and former schoolmates were Black Panther Party members. They encouraged me to study the ideologies, which they had discovered, and I did. Since my early childhood I always felt a persistent yearning for some form of supreme knowledge and wisdom, which would answer for me the important questions of human existence. Marx, Lenin and Mao opened up another world of ideas to me. This trinity of revolutionaries explained to me social and economic phenomena, about which I had been long curious, but about which I could nowhere else find answers.

Since my Christian upbringing had taught me that a white man is God, and Elijah Muhammad had taught that the black man is God, I had no difficulty accepting the Marxist contention that the masses is God. The laboring masses could destroy and create whole social economic systems according to their collective will. The slogan of the Black Panther Party “serve the people” touched a part of my psyche that was self-abnegating and which sought a feeling of fulfillment by helping others. I concluded that life would never offer me a higher calling than serving my people, and I joined the Black Panther Party.

In 1969 and 1970, the Black Panther Party denounced the spreading drug plague as a holocaust that was just beginning and we felt justified in using extreme measures to prevent this holocaust. We felt especially compelled to move physically against dope houses because police forces in America’s major cities were either turning a blind eye to this burgeoning problem, or, as subsequent investigations exposed, were themselves directly involved in drug trafficking.

The Black Panther Party’s uncompromising stands caused the party’s ranks to swell with idealistic young people. As Kenneth O’Reilly noted in his book, ‘Racial Matters: The FBI’s File on Black America' 1960-1972:

“The Black Panthers attracted the nation’s attention, so J Edgar Hoover decided that they had to be destroyed…

Hoover’s pursuit of the Black Panther Party was unique only in its total disregard for human rights and life itself.” *

(*Kenneth O’Reilly, “Racial Matters: The FBI’s Secret File on Black America” – {New York: The Free Press, 1989} p. 294.)

As a result of this FBI terror campaign, I was targeted, along with most other leading party members. Over twenty-five Panthers were killed in police search and destroy operations. In one of our operations against a supposed dope house in which I participated, one of my fellow Panthers accidentally shot and killed a man. Even though I was not present in the room when the shooting took place and even though my fellow Panther pleaded guilty to committing the shooting, on September 23, 1971 a jury convicted me of first degree murder in Detroit’s Recorders Court. That same day a judge sentenced me to spend the rest of my natural life in prison. I had just had my twentieth birthday.

Subsequently, discovered information revealed that I and my three co-defendants had been set up by an FBI plant inside the Black Panther Party. The house we raided was not a real dope house. The ranking party member who sent us to this house gave our names to the police. Nevertheless, describing the techniques of government agents-provocateur is not my purpose here. Allah is the best arranger of affairs. He knows what is before us and behind us.

What was before me then was prison. In prison I and my new Marxist and Black Nationalist comrades continued our studies of the revolutionary classics. I taught classes on dialectical materialism in which I ‘proved’ the non-existence of God.

While outwardly I was strong, and exercised a leading role in the prisoner’s movement, inwardly I began to feel the full strain of my position as a man in his early twenties in prison with a natural life sentence. My son was born two weeks after my sentencing. During the time before I joined the Black Panther Party, when I was trying to understand the Qur’an, I had read in the commentaries a definition of the word ‘Rahman’. Like a beautiful note in a musical composition, this one word ‘Rahman’ had touched my heart. I could not remember a single word from the English translation of the Qur’an that I had read. But this word  ‘Rahman’ stuck in my mind and heart .I told my son’s mother to name him Rahman and she complied. But her hardship in raising this baby alone, while she also had to withstand harassment by the FBI, distressed me greatly.

Moreover, the agony that my imprisonment had brought to my parents caused me many moments of private anguish. Guards, who saw me as a threat to their cherished American white power system, never tired of putting me under extra pressure. Hatred and bitterness built up in my heart and mind. Living in a continuous state of anger, I began to alienate even persons who were trying to help me get out of prison.

The gifted black psychiatrist, Frantz Fanon, taught that by pouring our energy into the struggle against the forces, which oppress us, we can neutralize the negative psychological and emotional affects of oppression. Around mid 1974, my personal stresses became so severe that this technique stopped working for me. But I had nowhere to turn for help. I did not believe in God. I could not go to any prison sociologist or psychiatrist seeking relief from my agonies. These employees of the state would have rejoiced if I had shown any sign of weakening.

Then a new prisoner moved into a cell near to me. We challenged each other to a chess shoot out and in the heat of the competition became friends. In a chess game a player reveals many of his characteristics as a person. After several games my new friend suggested that I read a book, which belonged to him. He said the book, “Christian Yoga” would show me how to relieve my tension and deal better with stress.

A French Catholic priest was the author of  “Christian Yoga”. His book contained chapters on yogic stretching and bending exercises, breathing techniques, meditation, and sublimation of sexual energy. I read the book and immediately regarded yoga as a serendipitous discovery. I drastically reduced the meat I consumed. I started to gradually break my body into the bending, breathing and stretching exercises. I began trying to practice the mind clearing meditation exercises. I ignored the author’s words about communing with God. Still a confirmed atheist, my interest resided solely in yoga’s physical and mental benefits. Within weeks I could relax my entire body. I could sleep more peacefully, and I could concentrate my mind more one-pointedly on my two principal goals at that time: mastering enough legal knowledge to get myself out of prison, and getting the bachelor’s degree in the college program that Detroit’s Wayne State University established in Jackson Prison.

The benefits of yoga caused me to seek other books on Eastern systems of self-development. A professor in the Wayne State program, Dr Gloria House shared with me some of her books on Zen Buddhism. She also encouraged me to modify my hard line atheistic Marxism. She shared with me other ideas and books, which gradually began to broaden my world outlook and to humanize my understandings of the clash of social classes and the struggle of nations for liberation.

Through Zen meditation I experienced my most intense awareness of a spiritual dimension of life. I perceived this dimension as a oneness of all creation that is not separate from myself as the perceiver. At deeper levels of meditation, when I peered into the subtle essence of reality, I perceived a living, powerful, mellow energy, which vibrated from within all of creation. But this force to me was impersonal and metaphysical, not divine.

At this time I acquired from the prison library the book “How to Know God, The Yoga Aphorisms of Patanjali.” A deeper knowledge of yoga was my main interest in this book, but the title presented me with a challenge. I saw Patanjali’s 2000-year-old teachings a dare: You don’t believe God exists, hunh? Patanjali challenged. I say that if you follow these instructions you will come to know God. Now step forward if you have the courage. Certain that God did not exist and that in the end I would prove Patanjali wrong, I answered the challenge.

Patenjali’s system basically involved, 1) strict asceticism to withdraw the senses from any desires for physical pleasures. 2) Meditation to withdraw the mind from attachment to any sense objects. 3) Continuously controlling the thought waves and permitting only waves of love to arise in the heart and mind. By this means the yogi strips back the layers of the physical to unveil deeper levels of the mind-soul. The yogi replaces the enjoyment of physical pleasure with the experience of an indescribably blissful spiritual pleasure and he supplants his individual love for finite creatures by communing with God’s infinite cosmic Love.

I pursued Patanjali’s system and, to my amazement, I ‘saw’ God with the eye of my heart. I perceived Allah through His divine attribute ‘Al Wadood’, The Loving. In prison’s grim ugliness, a man must struggle to maintain the humanity to love anybody or anything. But after fasting and meditating and closely following Patanjali’s instructions my heart swelled with a blissful, transcendent, divine love that was the most intense and awe-inspiring experience of my life.

In 1848, Karl Marx wrote, “Religion is the only illusory sun which evolves around man as long as he does not revolve around himself.“ My heart’s opening to divine knowledge instantly informed me that atheism is a failure of perceptive awareness. Atheists are like blind persons trying to convince persons who see the stars that those stars do not exist because in their blindness they do not see them. Indeed, as Allah says in the Qur’an “verily the blind and the seeing are not alike.”

Climbing the ladder of yogic advancement I gained a tremendous sense of self -mastery. Indeed this self-mastery was the purpose of yoga and hence becoming my all-consuming purpose. I gained magical powers. I could hear a person’s words in my mind moments before he spoke them. I could decrease and increase my pulse rate at will. I even convinced the prison doctor to place me on a special low sodium diet by raising my blood pressure at the moment he gave me the blood pressure test.

But I did not realize that as I opened my being and gained a super sensitivity to the positive cosmic vibrations, I simultaneously opened myself to all of the extraordinarily negative vibrations, which abound in prison. The yogic powers placed me at such an advantage over the men around me that I began to regard myself as not only a master of myself, mastered the profane, and mastered the divine.

But I turned into Sisyphus. I would roll my spiritual boulder back up to the peak, and then some negative event would cause me to lose my grip and the boulder roll over me all the way back down the mountain. Increasingly, I came to understand that my yogic relationship to the ‘It’ would remain on my spiritual peak only if I moved away from any possible negative eruptions in my everyday life. I could sustain and stabilize myself as a master only if I moved into a cave in the Himalayas. Or I would have to live as a monk in an ashram or a monastery. Even if these choices had been possible, they still would not have been desirable. For I could not participate in any spiritual path which forced me to separate myself from the struggle of my people for their collective betterment.

I began to look more closely at the men in prison whom I knew pursued spiritual paths, participated in worldly affairs, and yet appeared to have stabilized their relationship with God. Those men were either Bahais, Christians or members of the Nation of Islam.

I quickly discovered that in Jackson Prison during the middle seventies, Bahai meetings were a surreptitious front for homosexual liaisons. This prevented me from attending any of their meetings. I did, however, read one of their founder’s books.

I moved on to the study of Christianity. In a Zen story a novice swordsman visits a master seeking knowledge. The master asks him if he is thirsty. The novice answers affirmatively. The master then begins to pour water from a pitcher into a cup. He pours until the cup is full and keeps on pouring so that water is spilling onto the table. The startled novice asks the master why he is doing this. The master informs him that his mind is like the cup when it is full of water. No more water can enter because of the fullness. He tells the novice that the only way he can absorb the wisdom he has to teach is if he first empties his mind of all of his preconceived notions.

Before opening the Bible I emptied my mind of all prejudices against Christianity, and of all preconceived notions about Jesus. To my amazement I found in Jesus a teacher of the most profound and spiritually sublime wisdom. But I was concerned by the wide variance between the saintliness that Jesus’ life represented, and the inability of his followers to translate the perfection of his lofty and other – worldly teachings to the everyday realities of their lives. Jesus reminded me of the Hindu saint Shankara who taught an almost parallel system of self-denial. Jesus told his followers to give away their worldly goods to the poor and to follow him. This is precisely the way of life of the mendicant Hindu monks.

Then there were the imprisoned members of the Nation of Islam. I did not give their “Islam” any serious consideration. After years of studying pseudo-scientific atheist doctrines, I did not think that Elijah Muhammad’s pseudo-scientific doctrines – about white devils being grafted 7 trillion years ago by a black scientist – deserved any reconsideration. Then in February 1975, Elijah Muhammad died.

I began to buy the “Muhammad Speaks”, which became the “Bilalian News”, from the Muslims who sold the paper on the prison yard. I watched the ascension to leadership of Elijah Muhammad’s son, Wallace D Muhammad. I noticed Wallace’s gradual yet distinct movement away from his father’s doctrines. I noticed, too, that in Jackson Prison the Nation of Islam members began to walk around the yard in small groups practicing Arabic prayers. They ceased talking about Yaqub, white devils, and Allah coming in the person of Master Fard. They began talking about the Arabian Prophet Muhammad ibn Abdullah, and his Ethiopian companion, Bilal, who was the first man to call Muslims for prayer. And they began to speak of Allah as not a man, but as Unseen, Gracious, Ever-Living. Elijah Muhammad had said that whenever the Qur’an mentioned the hereafter, it meant a Muslim’s life after he left the death of unbelief for the life of Islam. No life exists after physical death, according to Elijah Muhammad. But now I heard Muslims talking about life in the Hereafter and living their present lives in such a way that they would secure for themselves blessed places in the Afterlife.

Right at this time the Muslims in Jackson prison decided that they would put out a small newspaper called “Al Haqq”. Their former minister, Derrick Abdur Rahim Ali, who now carried the title Imam, asked me to work on the paper. I agreed to help out. Working with the Muslims up close, I gained a deeper appreciation of their metamorphosis. I had worked with members of the Nation of Islam for years so that I could detect the difference.

Before, under the teachings of Elijah Muhammad the Muslims were known for their discipline, loyalty, courage, and for always holding true to their words. Now that they were becoming Sunni Muslims, they retained their all of their old positive qualities, but now I sensed an inner peace and harmony about them that I had not detected before.

At precisely this time the host of a black arts and perspectives programmed on the Wayne State University FM station came to Jackson Prison to interview me. Her name was Nubia Kai Salaam. She had been an orthodox Muslim for over five years. I read some of my poems on her program and discussed general problems facing the black community. A couple of weeks later I unexpectedly received in the mail a Holy Qur’an, a prayer rug, and two books on Sufism. Sister Nubia had sent them.

This time when I opened the Qur’an I was not searching for any justifications for any prejudices against any race or class. I just opened my heart to whatever knowledge the book had to convey. I remember this verse striking a resonant chord in my heart: ‘Allah created the Jinn and the men but to serve Him’. I understood at once that one of the reasons for my spiritual ups and downs was my acting upon an incorrect understanding of my proper relationship to the Creator. I am not the Master but Allah is Ar Rabb (the Lord) and Al Malik (the King). I had violated my proper relationship with Allah when I had sought to make Him serve me, when He, in reality, is Master and He created me solely to serve Him.

I understood further from the Qur’an that Allah is not an impersonal ‘It’. Allah is always an intensely personal ‘Thou’. Allah is the Inner and the Outer. He exists beyond my manipulation. No matter how much I meditated, fasted, deep breathed, stretched, Allah does not change. Moreover my proper relationship with Allah, according to the Qur’an, involves a covenant. In exchange for my submission to Allah’s will and my striving with my life and property in His cause, He promised me the blessings of this world and of the Hereafter. And Allah is the best Knower about these blessings. My purpose was to submit to His will, and to accept His sustenance, not to seek supernatural powers and to predicate my spiritual practices upon seeking any particular kind of blessing.

I recall how momentous I felt on these initial occasions when I reached into the holy pages and came out with these gems. I would have to break with some of my former associates who could accept my yogic relationship with an impersonal source of energy, but who regarded as a serious weakening any declaration of faith in ‘Al Ahad’ (The One). I knew that then. But if I had to displease men to please Allah, then men would just have to suffer displeasure.

One evening after studying the Qur’an, I spread on the cell floor the green and black prayer rug that sister Nubia had also sent to me. I prostrated into sajdah, as I had seen Muslims do. I did not then know the words to any Islamic prayers, so I kept on repeating a phrase I heard the Muslims say, whose meaning I knew – “Allah Akbar” (God is Great). While down on the rug, with my forehead touching low, in this position of submission and humility, a force of infinite beauty and bliss traveled along my spine and filled my heart and brain with a starburst of incomparable joy, love and peace. I lost track of time, though I must have stayed down in sajdah for many minutes. When I stood up I knew that the yearning for supreme wisdom, which I had felt since my childhood, had led me to this Islamic destination. Indeed as Allah says in the Qur`an, “He guides to His path whom He pleases, and others He leaves wandering astray.”

I next studied the life of the Prophet Muhammad. In him I found the example I needed of a man who could balance his spiritual life, while engaging in activities in the mundane world. The Prophet Muhammad had been a husband, father, political-social leader, all while fulfilling his covenant with Allah. He had lived a spiritual life without having to permanently retire to a cave or monastery.

I began to attend the Muslim’s Friday congregational service and prayer. During Ramadan in 1977 I fasted with the Muslims. In early 1978 I took the Kalima Shahada, declaring that there is no God but the One God and that Muhammed is His Messenger.

I had studied the books on Sufism that sister Nubia gave to me. In 1981, the word ‘Wali’ persistently came into my mind for a week. Then a brother came into the prison from Ann Arbor, Michigan, to teach at the Muslim Brotherhood’s weekly ta`alim class. I was not surprised when he told me that his name was Abdul Wali, and I listened to him intently seeking to discover the purpose for our meeting. After ta`alim,  Abdul-Wali chose me, from the group of assembled Muslims, as the brother with whom to leave a book containing the letters of the Sufi Shaykh Mawlay Al Arabi ad Darqawi. Shaykh ad Darqawi lived in Morocco over 200 years ago. From his letters I deepened my understanding of the special science of reliance on Allah. This understanding deepened further after Abdul Wali gave to me the word of his personal Shaykh, Muhammed Belkaid, who presently is living in Tclemsen, Algeria.

All of the sustenance that will come to us during our entire lifetimes is already with Allah. Persistently relying on Allah, and not turning to any human source, no matter how strained we are, not releasing our mind’s hold on the names of Allah, produces wonders.

Everything that I have learned from the Shayks about God-reliance has only repeated a lesson that Allah taught me as a child. One day I was feeling sorrowful about being poor. Other neighborhood children were buying candy and cookies for themselves, but I did not have a cent. I remember that a dollar is all I needed. Under a compulsion that I never understood until I studied the Qur’an and the Shaykhs, I went out of the front door of our home. I began walking without consciously thinking of where I was going. About four blocks from our home I looked down on the sidewalk in front of me and saw a dollar bill. Since a woman who was walking in front of me had just passed by this spot, I did not then understand why she had not picked up the dollar. I scooped up the money and pranced to the candy store. I had to become a man, to study volumes, to fast, to meditate, to pray, to dhikr to Allah, and to delve into the teachings of the noble shaykhs, just to relearn a lesson that Allah taught to me when I was a little boy.

As of this date (January 1990) I am 38 years old. I have been in prison since I was 19 years old. Naturally during these two decades of deprivation I have experienced countless frustrations, disappointments and immense anguish. My heart still fills with rage at the injustice of my continued confinement. Sometimes I have longed for the company of a woman – just to touch her hand or to hear her voice – which my eyes have filled with tears. But, despite all of these hardships, never once since I embraced the faith of Islam have I ceased to feel intensely grateful to Allah for guiding me to His path.

To me the perception in one’s heart of the true magnificence of Allah is the most precious jewel in the world. Even though my finding this jewel occurred during the hardships of two decades in prison, and even though I spend many of my working hours trying to get out of prison, I have always felt, after I embraced Islam, that Allah t`ala bestowed upon me a gift of incalculably greater value than any price that I have paid.

                            SUBHANALLAH, AL HAMDULILLAH, ALLAHU AKHBAR.