It has been said that Islam is like a clear stream, and the smooth rocks beneath that stream, in the riverbed, represent our culture; The clarity of the water only enhances the beauty of the stones beneath.
In accepting Islam, it is easy, and almost inevitable, that one will confuse Arab cultural practices with the religion itself. For new Muslims, style of dress, grooming, and even speech, often take on a “Middle Eastern” flare. However, nothing in Islam commands a Muslim to abandon his (or her) cultural norm. In fact, the opposite is true. TheQur’an states, in the 7th Chapter and 199th Verse, as a command:
“Accept from people what comes naturally for them; command what is good by custom…”
Or as one scholar explained in an article entitled What role does culture play in Islam:
“Cultural conventions make up a fundamental part of identity and have a strong hold over people accustomed to them. Islamic law acknowledges this reality and expresses it in the form of the legal maxim: ‘Custom is second nature’ (al-ʿāda ṭabīʿa thāniya).”
So, the idea is that Islam will have a distinct look that is predicated on the environment. It is the environment that brings life to Islamic teachings and practices. Like stones of a riverbed; If the stones are red, the water will appear to have a reddish tint to it. If there is algae on the stones, the water will appear to have a greenish tint. Likewise with our culture. Islam in China has a distinct look that is unique to Chinese culture. Islamic expression in Bosnia or Serbia doesn’t share the same expression as Chinese culture, etc.
When I embraced Islam, I was attracted to the teachings of the school of thought known as “Shi’ah ithna Ashari” (Shi’ah). I didn’t realize it at the time, but my cultural expression slowly began to become that of an Iranian (which dominates the Shi’ah Islamic ethos). My social, political, and spiritual talking points were those of Iranian culture. When we talked about spirituality, I referred to the Arafeen (Sufi Mystics) of Iran. If we were talking politics, I referred to Ayatullah Khomeini or how Ahmadinijad spoke so eloquently on 60 minutes. If we spoke about societal reform, I referred to the Islamic Revolution of 1979.
What I didn’t realize was that I had become a geopolitical pawn; an insignificant piece in the hands of those who couldn’t care less about my authentic cultural expression.
As someone of African descent, I knew from my early studies that Africa had a rich history of Islamic expression that transformed the entire continent. This transformation, then spilled into Europe via Spain (Al Andalus). Much of the technological advances we benefit from today can be traced to what is known as “The Golden Age.” From Mathematics in the introduction of Algebra, which is named after the Muslim (Al Jabar) who discovered this form, to Medical techniques that were introduced by Ibn Sina in his al Qanun fi al Tibb (encyclopedia of Medicine) which is still studied today.
It was learning this information, and realizing that it was because of African Islamic scholarship that the world (quite literally) was transformed, that led me to look further into this African Islamic expression. What I found has transformed my life.
I was introduced, early on in my conversion, to the works of a scholar named Muhammad Shareef. He has translated many of the works responsible for shaping the personalities instrumental in transforming how the world was known. These works were written by what are known as the Fudiawwa scholars, who were students of the most prolific scholar of west Africa, Shehu Uthman dan Fodio. Not only has he translated the works of these students, but he’s translated the works of Shehu Uthman dan Fodio himself. These works ranged from historical, sociopolitical, linguistic, and spiritual in nature. But because I was a Shi’ah and this scholar and these works were of the Sunni brand of Islam, I read them but didn’t internalize them (or so I thought). Throughout the years of my incarceration I would gravitate to his works. He wrote a piece on the Bahia slave revolts of Brazil in the 1800’s that was beyond inspiring. For someone incarcerated, the idea of a slave revolt was novel. But more so, what attracted me was the spiritual endurance that these slaves possessed. This piece became my companion.
Throughout the years, I would come across new works by Muhammad Shareef, (who is affectionally referred to as “the Shaykh”). These works reflected the times we were living in. He wrote a commentary on a book called “Risalatul Amarad ash shafiyya” (a letter concerning disease and healing) which dealt with the deteriorating conditions of the Jama’at of the Shehu. And alongside an explanation of the conditions of the time and place this text was referring to, the Shaykh gave an exhaustive commentary on the issues affecting the Islamic community today. From the Asymmetrical Barbarism of ISIS, to the lack of authentic scholarship. Not only did he deal with issues affecting Muslims, but issues affecting society in general, and America in particular. Particular emphasis was placed on the wave of unarmed people of color being shot by police. It was this awareness that attracted me, and in 2016 I began my new journey.
One of the first texts that we studied was “Kitab Usul ud Deen” (Book on the Fundamentals of Faith). This book is, by far, the most concise text on the fundamentals of faith that I have ever read. It has given me an in depth understanding of Islamic theology, which, in my initial journey through this subject, was taught in a way that was so complicated it was daunting. Currently, we are in the process of memorizing the entire text, of which I have 1/3 in memory (in Arabic). For the first time in my journey through various Islamic traditions, I can finally say I’m home.