Journey Into Islam – A Converts Tale Part I

The Ka'abah - Photographed by Marc Manley 2008

 One of the questions that is most often asked of me, both by Muslims and non-Muslims alike, is how did I come to Islam. Often this query is framed around a supposed single instance, a distinct and defining event that overwhelmed my being and thus causing me to embrace Islam, as I have often heard it described by others. I have heard this very same rhetoric espoused by so-called Muslim converts (such as myself) who often characterize their own accounts of coming to Islam in the very same singular fashion. I am always stuck by the simplicity by which these voices engage such a diverse and often elusive subject, to speak nothing of how converts (or reverts, as some prefer) short change themselves in their abridged assessments of their own journey to Islam.

During a speaking event, in which I was asked to give an autobiographic account of my own experience as an American Muslim, one questioner in the audience asked, “what was it about Islam that made you want to become a Muslim?” Apparently I had delivered such an intriguing talk, that upon being asked this bold question, the crowd fell into a hush, awaiting a thunderclap. I believe I duly disappointed them when I replied, “perhaps the more important question is not why I became Muslim, but why I choose to remain Muslim.” The disappointment and confusion that befell their faces was apparent. I attempted to recover by telling them that it was everything; everything in the nineteen years proceeding my choice to become a Muslim had an effect, be it profound or not. It was a mixture of my parenting, my childhood experiences, encounters with people—good and bad—and of course, those innate aspects of my personality that the Muslim tradition calls “fitra”. While I had answered his question, I left that day with the feeling that most of the attendees were not satisfied with the answer I had given them. It is mainly my belief because the experience is much more epic than it is dynamic, evolutionary versus epiphany. It is still my hunch that for those converts/reverts who assert that they did have any epiphany, there’s still quite a bit of back story that’s not being told. And in cutting out all of that back story, they do a disservice to the story that is unfolding before them at this very moment.

Detroit race riots of 1967 I was born in was Detroit, Michigan, in 1973, seven years after the 1967 Race Riots. Though in reality the decline of Detroit proceeded the race riots by as much as ten years, my family, a working-class family of five, was thoroughly effectd by the repercussions of a city poisoned by the disease of racism (we were forced to abandon our home). In fact, I have often contemplated the Qur’ānic verse, by which God compensated me through the trial of living in desolate Detroit:

ونريد أن نمن على الذين استضعفوا في الأرض ونجعلهم أئمة ونجعلهم الورثين

“We desired to show kindness to those who were oppressed in the land and to make them leaders and make them inheritors.” [Qur’ān 28: 5]

In time, the ravages of drugs and crime had certainly come to oppress my family. The neighborhood had become so unsafe that our father would sit on the porch with a loaded gun so we could play in the yard. Ultimately, after having our house shot at and fire bombed, we were forced to abandon ship and move to the suburbs.  The economic impact on our family was devastating.  Our time in Detroit would play such a defining role that its specter still haunts some of my family members to this day.

Despite the urban hostilities, there remained one single hindrance that would go on to define my family and my youth: race. Race more than anything else dogged my family’s footsteps—maternal and paternal sides alike. This dilemma was due to the remnants of Jim Crow America and the psychological deficiency that many of my family members struggled with. My family had most certainly imbibed the value system of white supremacy and its byproduct of self-loathing. In one conversation with another Blackamerican friend of mine, he asked if my family had tried to “pass”. I pondered this question at length. “No”, I replied. “Our experience was more akin that that of Anne Frank: we hid in the attic of white suburban America and prayed no one would discover we were black.” So powerful was the ghost of Jim Crowism that my family didn’t even attempt to pass; white values and aesthetics were admired, but from afar. So deep had the inferiority complex of white supremacy penetrated the psyche of my family that to go all the way and “pass” was still viewed as off limits. Instead, my family shrank into a more insidious despair by attempting to deny any trace of blackness entirely. The consequences of this were devastating, both internally and externally for family dynamics, for we had now ostracized ourselves from the rest of the extended family. The rest of my childhood and early adult years would bear witness to the humiliating and heartbreaking effects that self-loathing had on my family members and myself, as it corrupted us from the inside.

You are reading Part I of this post. Stay tuned for the second installment. The banner image above was photographed by yours truly at the Haram in Makkah, Saudi Arabia, in 2008, while on ‘Umrah with the Medinah Institute.

Bebop, Islam and the Promise of a Dignified Existence in Jim Crow America

The following is a short paper that I wrote on the relation between Islam and Blackness and the draw between the two back in the early part of the 20th Century. I hope to have the time to post a few more ruminations, but at the moment, enjoy this small piece.

Much like the 1940’s, modern day America is taking a closer look at the religion of Islam, how America relates to it, and how Islam fits into the tapestry of the dominant culture. As it is today, so was it some seventy years ago that Islam was seen as a foreign and possibly even hostile entity. And yet, for Blackamericans, Islam not only held a mystique that called to them but also eventually offered an alternative modality of being both black and American. For many, this switch of religious identity was cemented in the social issues of the day, namely the racism that was prevalent in American society at the time towards Blackamericans. As we shall see, jazz, and more specifically, bebop, would play a major role in tying together disparate narratives into a holy protest against white supremacy.

The article I have chosen to discuss is a passage from Dizzy Gillespie’s memoir, To Be or Not to Bop. From the selected passed, Gillespie, as one of bebop’s founding fathers, illustrates a unique crossroads of black consciousness: religion, music and social justice that for many Blackamerican jazz musicians came in the form of Islam, bebop and intellectual/anti-establishment mindset that saw to either confront or subvert the laws and practices of a Jim Crow legacy.

In recent years there has been a tremendous amount of research conducted on Islam, including the phenomenon of Islam amongst Blackamericans. And while there has been enlightening findings that have shed more light on the nature of Africans and their decedents in antebellum American, it still stands that the chain that linked modern Blacks and those of their African ancestors that were Muslim, is a broken one. Instead, as Gillespie relates for us, the rise of Islam in the interest and imagination amongst many Blackamerican jazz musicians had primarily to do with the social/racial climate that these musicians found themselves in. As “colored” or “Negro”, such musicians were barred from playing and performing in jazz clubs, which were white-owned. Even the task of acquiring lodging for these traveling musicians was made near to impossible due to the color of their skin. But in what would be a puzzling discovery, Blackamerican musicians that changed their public identity to Muslim, would find they could pass under the radar of Jim Crow.

The turn of the 20th Century saw few improvements for Blackamericans. Indeed, one could say that things were worsening, with the state-condoned violence that was unleashed on many Blacks in America. And by the mid- and especially late-Forties, when Black service men were returning to America after having served in a war that was supposed to be about racism, they saw their social context in complete opposition to the values supposedly expressed by the dominant culture. It is here the seeds of discord would be sown and out of this collective discontent would rise a new sense of intellectual ownership over themselves, as yet unseen before in the history of the United States. For many Blackamericans who chose to adopt Islam as their faith, Islam represented something completely outside the jurisdiction of white authority. This sentiment would be proved even by the racist elements of white-American society that would permit access to services to Blackamerican Muslim converts, who were presumed to be of a non-American black origin. Gillespie relates one such occasion:

“He [Oliver Mesheux] went into this restaurant, and they said they didn’t serve colored in there. So he said, ‘I don’t blame you. But I don’t have to go under the rules of colored because my name is Mustafa Dalil.’”

This process, something as simple as changing one’s name to something that sounded Middle-Eastern, offered some Blackamerican musicians a expeditious means of overcoming Jim Crow racism. Though beyond the scope of this article, it would be this sentiment that would inform many other Blackamericans and their choice to embrace Islam.

To gain a more encompassing perspective of this phenomenon, we must also analyze the broader social context into which it came into, namely the liberalization of the American society. One must remember that though Blackamericans were indeed suffering at the hands of their white counterparts, they still saw themselves as American in one sense or another. And along with that traditional sense of American was a strong attachment of Blackamericans to Christianity. As we will see in the Civil Rights Movement, Black Christianity would play a key role in organizing and shaming the dominant culture in American into submission. To be certain, there were some amongst the black intelligentsia that were aware of the legacy of non-Christian religious traditions in their heritage, but by and large, Christianity remained the predominant if not exclusive religion of Blackamericans pre-1900’s. This would all change with the coming of alternative black intellectual endeavors (such figures as Garvey and DuBois were sympathetic to Islam, though certainly not practitioners of it) that saw to root themselves outside of the white-dominated constituency of American society.

With the relaxing of society’s grip on religious intolerance, an increasing (though still a minority to be sure) number of Blackamericans sought solace in the haven that Islam promised. Less rooted in religious or philosophical reasons than purely existential ones, Islam opened up to Blackamericans, of which the ripples of this are still seen to this very day. In short, a black man, for example, in the 1940’s could convert to Islam in what would amount a sort of racial swapping, if not apostasy. And like modern times, this did not escape the attention of the dominant culture, who were curious or even concerned that Islam amongst Blackamericans might be some sort of “anti-Christianity” movement. Gillespie himself, though not a Muslim, was at one point put to the question if he “planned to quit and forsake Christianity”. In a sense, what is being articulated here, is an invisible link that binds “blackness” and “Christianity”. Islam was a foreign enterprise and for many, represented a hostile (though not in the same meaning as hostile would mean today) threat, for this conversion was seen as linked to movements and ideologies that sought to circumvent the status quo of Jim Crow law and sentiment.

I believe that the movement and attraction of Islam within this minority of Blackamerican musicians is both intriguing and erudite to some of the similar issues we’re looking at today. It also sheds light on why Islam would be appealing to a minority group that simply looking for a method of living out a dignified existence in a social landscape that offered few choices and little room for improvement. Throughout its history and even up until today, Islam amongst Blackamericans cannot be separated from its history as a social commentary and vehicle of upliftment and expiation for Blackamericans. Indeed, as we would soon see from the likes of Malcolm X, Islam was a vehicle to combat the hostilities from their environment in a manner and method that differed quite distinctly from black Christians. It also allowed Blackamericans to re-created themselves with a new sense of autonomy not formerly allowed to them in the stifling social climate that they lived in. And yet, unlike Malcolm X, the black bebop jazz musicians that would embrace Islam sought to do so in a non-violent fashion. Contented to be social commentators and critics through their music, most simply just wanted to be able to play their music to a broader audience without discrimination. I find this again, strikingly similar to the times we live in today, where there is a very small number of Muslims who advocate violent resistance to perceived oppressions (valid or otherwise is besides the point here), and yet the vast majority of Muslims simply wish for the right to live with dignity and practice their religion with their humanity intact, and not called into question, as was the case for black folks living at the beginning of the 20th Century America. Perhaps here in history there’s a lesson for us all to learn (again).

Social Origins of Bebop

It was no coincidence that jazz’s rise to prominence was at the juncture of World War II and the increasing demands for social equality from Blackamericans, many of whom including those that were jazz musicians, participated in the war and wanted their public and political due. These were the tumultuous times that would give birth to jazz, or more correctly, bebop. And from this unique American musical form would come a art form that would challenge and resist the status quo of dominant white thought regarding the inferiority of blacks as well as incubate new a consciousness of black intellectualism.

To appreciate bebop’s stance in history, one must observe the history that precedes jazz; specifically, the history of Blackamericans and their ascendance out of slavery and a culture that, as of the 1940’s, was still pro-Jim Crow, either de jure in the North or de facto in the South. For many black musicians, bebop was a means of both insulating and protesting against a cultural system that produced signs and signifiers of black inferiority. These sentiments were gelled in the minds of Blackamerican musicians after returning from World War II, a war that was supposed to have been fought against the notion of racism. And yet, many blacks felt that hypocritically, that same government that sent them off to war still perpetrated state-sanctioned discrimination against Blackamericans, and turned a blind eye to public hostility; both physical and psychological. Thus, it was no coincidence that bebop took musical form with high tempos and hard driving polyrhythms, characteristics that would define its sound, struck back against the ideology of the dominant white culture just as percussively and psychologically as they perceived themselves to be attacked.

Jazz’s musical roots come primarily from the blues, a form of folk music that has its roots in Africa, and secondarily, swing, big band and ragtime music, coming out of the early decades of the 1920’s and 1930’s. Much like its musical forefather, jazz lamented over its existential crisis of being subjugated by a dominant white power. Unlike the blues, however, bebop was not to remain a catharsis, sung in waiting for the hope of salvation through the benevolence of God. Rather, rather jazz sought to beseech the wrath of God, its music being fueled with the anger and rage of a people’s mistreatment for some three hundred-plus years. This anger was so prevalent in the music, that by the latter part of the 20th century, bebop and its alternate forms, such as post-bop and avant-garde, were perceived as “the angry black man’s music”. This collective anger is evident in the recounting of how jazz was perceived even as late as the 1970’s, by Ed Michel, a music produced for one of jazz’s most prestigious labels, Impulse!:

By the seventies “it seemed as though Impulse became the label characterized by the angry black tenor man,”.

Not content to site on the sidelines, jazz throughout its history would comment time and time again on social justice topics ranging from the plight of Blackamericans in the prison-complex system (such as Archie Shepp’s Attica Blues, an album in direct reference to the 1971 Attica Prison riots) to such lamentations of the past as John Coltrane’s Song For The Underground Railroad.

At the transition point between jazz and swing/big band music, was a desire on the part of these musicians to be taken seriously. Many felt that as members of swing bands, they were forced to take a back seat to the audience — a predominantly white audience at that. Their music was reduced to a sort of ambiance, where particularity of the musician was inconsequential. Billy Ekstine, who led one of the most famous jazz ensembles during the 40’s and 50’s, commented that many popular songs were re-arranged with fast tempos where the audience could not dance to them, forcing them to pay attention to the band as the primary focus.

As jazz musicians sought to stake out their territory as concert-style performers, with a captive audience, they encountered many forms of social resistance along the way. In the 1940’s, many jazz musicians (primarily Blackamerican) were not allowed to perform in white-owned clubs in the South. One way of circumventing the problem was by embracing Islam as a sidecar expression of their jazz identities. Through becoming Muslim, and taking Muslim names, many Blackamerican jazz musicians found they could enter white-owned establishments, play there, eat there, etc. Such incidents were not confined solely to the South. In Delaware, Oliver Mesheux, a trumpeter, was initially detained from entering a white club but when presenting his race identification card, which was marked “W” for white and with his newly assumed name, Mustafa Dalil, he was allowed to enter .

Striving for a more genuine reception did not come without its backlashes from the dominant white constituency. Many whites saw bebop as an illegitimate musical expression. It was castigated as a jumble of sounds, too unintelligible for the human ear. In her 1921 article, Does Jazz Put the Sin in Syncopation, Anne Shaw Faulkner describes jazz as evil and that it was the natural expression of bizarre Negro dances; a voodoo accompaniment to “half-crazed” barbarisms . The allegations about bebop were consistent to popular conceptions about blacks during this period: that Blackamericans were linked to barbaric practices, were intellectually degraded and morally abject. Some even took it so far to allege that jazz and bebop could have a morally toxic affect on the more scrupulous Anglo-Saxons, converting them to the “savage” tendencies of blacks and other minorities. To hear that bebop was anti-Christian or even anti-civilizational was not unheard of.

But it was not simply the dominant cultures perceptions that bebop sought to combat. It was also the system of exploitation that many if not most black musicians had to deal with in the early 20th century. Socially, Blackamericans had few rights and musicians even fewer. Many were forced to play without contracts and had little legal power if their rights were infringed upon. Economics proved to be one of the crucial points that younger musicians in the bebop movement sought to countermand. They also criticized their older Blackamerican counterparts as being complacent to accepting these terms from the white-dominated music industry. Younger musicians saw musicians who came out of the established system as acquiescing to white dominance, giving up their rights to control their own musical destinies. The importance of economics cannot be over emphasized and was one of the many reasons younger black jazz musicians jumped ship from the swing bands to the small combo bebop ensembles. Feeling less restriction, both socially and artistically, many felt they had a greater influence on how they were to be compensated economically as well as their artistic endeavors taken more seriously.

As much as post World War II sentiments played a role in the development of bebop, it cannot be reduced as nothing more than a reaction to it. Rather, it was itself symbolic of the changes that abounded at this time. With increasing numbers of Blackamericans moving north in search of better socio-economic prospects, this newer generation was exposed to bourgeoisie culture and the various intellectual and artistic movements, especially in Harlem, the birthplace of bebop. This flux created new potentialities for alternate modes of expression of blackness in America, modes that would not be housed in the dominant white and black middle-class cultural values.

The list of bebop’s influential musicians would be beyond the scope of this paper, but it would be prudent to name a few important names. On any list, Dizzy Gillespie would rank quite high. Gillespie was the primary musician who, while not inventing the style (that would Charlie Parker), made it famous and known to the greater world. Gillespie, who grew up in the South, was confronted with the realities of a white supremacist construct. He saw bebop as a form that could transcend the racist system he was subject to: “We refused to accept racism, poverty, or economic exploitation, nor would we live out uncreative humdrum lives merely for the sake of survival”. Other musicians, Anthony Braxton, Archie Shepp, and Joe Henderson to name a few, would continue to champion the ideal of bebop as a means of resisting dominant values and asserting their own political voice according to their own proclivities.

Bebop also championed a new era in black intellectualism. A musical form that required the technical mastery of a musicians chosen instrument, it also placed demands on the musician to have advanced knowledge of music theory. Bebop was a musical form that borrowed not only from its past, namely the blues and ragtime music, but also from European classical music. Bebop musicians were free to study and interpret the musical works of Debussy, Ravel and Stravinsky, to name a few, and many were classically trained musicians.

Beyond all of the prerequisites that a bebop musician had to master was the relation of bebop to the newly-conceived mode of blackness. Bebop musicians saw themselves embarking on a new modality of blackness that would incorporate an intellectual astuteness with a sophisticated urban sensibility. Kenny Clarke, a prominent bebop drummer, was of the opinion as to how he saw the relationship between bebop and blackness: “Whatever you go into, go into it intelligently.” Bebop helped in swear in a new era of black intellectual consciousness and many of the prominent poets and writers of its time, such as Langston Hughes and Ralph Ellison, were both affected by and contributed to it. Ellison saw bebop as a cultural revolution, where the world was opening and up and society could now present a whole new set of circumstances and opportunities.

This intellectual rebellion manifested in both the music and the mode in which the musicians carried themselves. Along with the idea of shattering preconceived white ideas on the supposed mental inferiority of blacks to white, bebop musicians fostered an environment where there music and their fans tackled intellectual matters. From the choice of songs titles to the style of dress (horned-rimmed glasses, goatees, suits and the like), all this constituted a new way of the bebop musician carrying his or herself, a direct affront to white-held beliefs on the nature of blackness.

Bebop’s rebellion against social norms did not come without a darker side. Along with the sophisticated musical styles also came a lifestyle that was never able to successfully detach itself from alcohol and drug use. In fact, some practitioners of the art even embraced drug abuse as part and parcel of being a bebop musician. Sadly, many prominent young musicians spent the better part of the careers behind bars due to drug charges (Dexter Gordon missed most of the 50’s and Frank Morgan most of the 60’s). In fact, Charlie Parker, the founded of the bebop sound, died due to complications of drug use. But for better or worse, all of these social attitudes cemented bebop as being wholly against the status quo of early and mid- 20th century America.

As is the case with many art forms, bebop ran the risk of appropriation from the dominant culture. Initially an underground movement, eventually bebop won itself a wider audience. Whites would travel uptown to Harlem to hear the performances of the masters of the form by the 1950’s came about. By the 1960’s, bebop was fully appropriated by whites as a “hip” and “cool” aesthetic, interwoven into a the lifestyle of urban whites. In reaction to this, bebop would shift its gears again and seek to recreate itself in the form of post-bop and the avant-garde jazz movements of the 1960’s and 70’s. Just as bebop had done away with ragtime sensibilities, so had free jazz, avant-grade and post-bop done away some the canon that bebop had forged in the 1940’s. New structures of music were introduced such as modal forms, heavily tinged with eastern sounds and rhythms, as well as the free jazz and avant-garde movements which contained little of the harmonic and melodic structures of bebop. It was also to these movements that many of the pro-black and culturally-resistant bebop musicians would migrate to. Initially trained in the bebop form, they felt that bebop had been compromised with its ascendancy to white acceptance.

Much of bebop’s sensibilities can be understood as the resistance of blacks to the labeling of the dominant culture. As has been mentioned, whites had many preconceived notions of blackness that did not sit well with this new crop of young musicians. Bebop sought to break those stereotypes. And even after bebop itself had begun its assimilation and appropriation by whites, many of these musicians moved to new musical expressions such as the alt-bop movements of free jazz and avant-garde in an attempt to avoid being labeled. Gone was the tradition of reinterpreting old show tunes. Instead, much of the music became quite conceptual and cerebral; so abstract, that in fact, a clash ensued between the old and new guard. The likes of Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor, their musical efforts were criticized as sacrilegious to the tradition of bebop. This sentiment only fueled the alt-bop movements to continue in their vain. Only with breaking ties completely with the past, with a tradition that had sold itself off to the dominant culture, could they remain to jazz’s roots.

In its current form, jazz today resembles little of the insurrection of its formidable years. This is due in part that society itself has changed in some ways. With the passing of various civil rights acts, changes in social mores and overall improvement of life for many Blackamericans, jazz and more specifically, bebop, drifted from the limelight. Even at the height of bebop’s popularity, bebop commanded the attention of only a percentage of Blackamerican imagination. In fact, while bebop was enjoying its largest number of patrons, most Blackamericans were turning their attention to rhythm and blues. And yet, as we see today, black youth culture will always seem to find a voice. As many Blackamerican families continued to suffer from economic deprivation and social neglect, it would be black youth that would grab the world’s attention; only this time it would be hip-hop as the musical form. Of which the relation between the two “bops” can only hoped to be explored in another paper.

Citations and further readings:

  • Kahn, Ashley. The House That Trane Built: The Story of Impulse Records. London: Granta Publications, 2006.
  • Gillespie, Dizzy, and Al Fraser. To Be Or Not To Bop. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1979.
  • Faulkner, Anne Shaw. “Does Jazz Put the Sin in Syncopation.” Ladies Home Journal. August 1921: 16-34.
  • Porter, Eric. “Dizzy Atmosphere: The Challenge of Bebop.” American Music Vol 17, No. 4 (1999): 423-27.