Muslim Development Course – Round One: Class Notes

Course Objective: to encourage the development of Muslim thought, action, and behavior, both individual and social, in such a way that our practice of Islam reflects a deeper and more personal understanding, ownership, and embodiment of the divine principles on our part, found in the Qur’an and the Sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings upon him.

Here’s a short list of the things we’ll look at in this course: Who are we? Before we can understand Islam we must know ourselves. Prologue – Life in the Hijaz: to what extent does jahili life play in our understanding of Islam? Revelation – big “R” versus little “r”: Allah as the God of nature and human history. Topography: Getting a lay of the land: the Prophet’s heritage and the build up to the Revelation. Introduction to Qur’anic Language: re-textualization: how did Allah make use of preexisting terms and ascribe new meanings to them? How is this important for us to understand? Introduction of Muslim Morals and Ethics: themes from the early Revelation.

  • Day One
  • Day Two & Three
  • Day Four

Day One

Here are some quick notes of the topics we talked about today

Taqwa: What’s In A Word?

We took a quick look at the word taqwa, from a few lines of Jāhiliyyah poetry, and examined what it meant. In the Mu’allaqah, Zuhayr said:

و قال سأقضي حاجتي ثم أتقي * عدوي بألف من روائى ملجم

“I will satisfy my vengeance [on my brother’s killer by taking his life!], then I will defend myself from their reprisal with a thousand horses, all bridled in support of my cause!”

Wa qāla sa-aqdī hājatī thumma a’ttaqī ‘aduwwī bi alfin min rawā’ī muljami.

The important thing to note here is the use of taqwa– it’s the word that Zuhayr uses to “defend himself”.  To help define this, let’s look at what al-Tabrizi says, concerning taqwa:

الإتقاء أن تجعل بينك و بين ما تخافه حاجزا يحفظك

“Taqwā is the idea that you [A] place something — a barrier — [C] between yourself and that which you fear could destroy you [B].”

What al-Tabrizi is us is that taqwa is a type of self-defense or self-preservation system or technique to ward off destruction by placing something between yourself and that impending doom. For the Muslim, this is nothing other than protecting oneself against the Punishment of Allah on the Day of Judgment through the practice and accumulation of good deeds. Our example of this from the Qur’an was from suwrah al-Baqarah:

و اتقوا يوما لا تجزي نفس عن نفس شيئا و لا يقبل منها شفاعة و لا يوخذ منها عدل و لا هم ينصرون

“Defend yourself against a day that will come where no soul shall be of assistance to another whatsoever – nor shall it put forth an intercessor in its place – no compensation will be taken from it – nor shall there be anyone to come to its aid.” [Q: 2:47]

Here, Allah is commanding man to defend himself against His punishment on a day in which there will be no help, intercession, or aid from another person. In other words, protect yourself before it’s too late. For other similar uses of taqwa, see these verses: 2: 24, 2: 103, 2: 189, 2: 281, and 3: 131 for further examples.

Day Two & Three

The History of Modern American Thought — Deism and the Legacy of Enlightenment Thought in Europe and America

The European Enlightenment was an intellectual movement that sought to put the faculty of human reason at the forefront of interpreting and understanding reality.  Through this process, reason and reliance on rationalism came to put Christianity and its religious thinking at something of a “disadvantage”.  The disadvantage stemmed from Christendom’s inability to respond to the claims of Enlightenment thinkers.

For our purposes, Deism, from the Latin “deus“, meaning “god”, can be thought of thus: a belief system in which one recognizes the existence of a supreme being or creator without the need for any formal or “organized” religion.  Deists [those who practice Deism] claim that belief in God can be achieve through the sensoria or the human senses [again, with an almost total reliance upon the faculty of observation] alone without out any external influence.  Deism also rejects the notion of the supernatural: Revelation, revealed books, prophets, miracles, and the like.  They draw no discerning line between the supernatural and the superstitious.  For the Deists, to believe the Qur’an is the word of God would be just as superstitious as believing in “lucky stars or numbers”.

While the Enlightenment’s heyday was during the 1700’s, some scholars put its time line as from the middle 1600’s to the early 1800’s.  It died out by the early 19th century but its descendants continued on to what came to be known as Deism.  In fact, Deism, with its similar reliance on rational thought, had a tremendous influence on the Founding Fathers of the United States.  Some, such as Benjamin Franklin, were essentially card carrying members, while others, such as Thomas Jefferson—more an admirer of Deism—actually belonged to one of its descendants: Unitarianism.  It is Jefferson’s and his compatriots’ adherence to Unitarian thought—whose values are rooted in Deism—that played a role in how they defined the separation of Church and State.  For in Unitarian/Deistic thinking, there is no revelation; no Divine Law.  Thus, there could be no good reason to include religion in the decision making process of government.  This, along with a desire for religious freedom [amongst other reasons], explains how they chose to exclude religion from government.

Summary

  • rejects revelation, miracles, prophets, etc.
  • puts complete reliance on human reason to be able to know the cosmos and God
  • the Enlightenment lasted from the middle 1600’s to the early 1800’s
  • while the Enlightenment declined in popularity, it was succeeded by Deism
  • Deism went on to have tremendous influence: the Founding Fathers; 19th-century-thinker Charles Darwin [1809—1882], who was an English Naturalist [another descendant of Enlightenment/Deistic thought] who is responsible for the theory of evolution, eventually became an atheist. Darwin’s theory on evolution removed any potentiality for God remaining active in the cosmos [a remote or absent god]
  • was a driving force behind the separation of Church and State

So why do we need to know all of this?  The answer is that if we are to both understand ourselves better—to know the history of our own thought processes—as well as to give more effective da’wah, then we must know the method and history of how people think. In this case, American people.

Along with this greater understanding of America’s intellectual history is a need for understanding Islam [the Qur’an and the life/Sunnah of the Prophet] that also encompasses its themes and history. In today’s class we looked at the two major themes of Qur’anic revelation: the Makkan period, and the Madīnan period.

Makkah: the Revelation begins in Makkah, a small city located in a forgotten part of the world. At this time [7th century c.e.], Arabia and the Arabs were of little to no importance outside of the Hijaz.  But as one of my teachers told me, there was a great wisdom in Allah choosing the Arabs as the people who would first receive His Message. It took a group of nobodies and made them somebodies.  The Arabs of this early period were instilled with a sense of dignity [different than pride!]—a dignity that comes from making God central to one’s life—which is what carried them out of the Arabian peninsula and out to the known world.  This God-centered dignity is quite different from nationalistic types of identity, where one’s sense of worth and pride are not necessarily rooted in a practice that seeks to please Allah.

The early Makkan suwrahs are mainly concerned with trying to awaken the human being to the Ultimate Reality—there is no god but God and Muhammad is His Messenger—and bring his or her understanding of reality into conformity with that reality.  The world has been created by a Creator, a God, and it was not done so without purpose:

والذين يذكرون الله قياما وقعودا وعلى جنوبهم ويتفكرون في خلق السماوات والأرض – ربنا ما خلقت هذا باطلا سبحانك فقنا عذاب النار

“And those who remember God, either standing, sitting, as well as sitting on their sides and is given to frequent contemplation about the creation of the heavens and the earth respond: ‘O our Lord! You have not created this without purpose. You are without peer or similitude so protect us from the punishment of the Fire.” [Q: 3: 191]

This process of “reorientation” by Allah seeks to take the mundane [normal] world of humans and transform it into one where everything is a sign that speaks to us of God’s existence:

تسبح له السماوات السبع والأرض ومن فيهن

“The seven heavens and the earth proclaim none other than lā ilāha illa Allah as well as whoever is in them.” [Q: 17: 44]

In fact, as we noted when looking at Muslim history, when Muslims veered too far off course and began to concentrate more on “conquering” than on empowering, things “fell apart”.  The great empires of al-Andalus [Muslim Spain] and the Ottomans dissolved over internal strife.

Another theme to the early Revelation is to set free and empower the human being from slavehood to this life.  One of Islam’s primary objectives is to open up and set free human beings:

إذا جاء نصر الله والفتح

“When comes the help of God and the Opening.” [Q: 110: 1]

In this verse, many English translators have translated the word “fat’h” as “conquering” or “victory”.  But in fact, its root of f-t-h is more akin to “opening”.  And in particular, the opening here is referring to the Opening of Makkah, upon the Prophet’s [s] final return to Makkah.  This retaking of Makkah was a bloodless transference of power.  The result was literally, the opening of the minds and hearts of the Makkan people to the message of Islam.  When they saw that the Prophet [s] was not interested in subjugating them but rather delivering them into Islam, the numbers of Muslims grew tremendously.

This theme of opening has been repeated before.  In fact, one of the early scholars of Islam, a companion of the Prophet [s], said that the “manifest victory [opening] was not the retaking of Makkah, but was in fact, the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah:

إن فتحنا لك فتحا مبينا

لّيغفرَ لك الله ما تقدم من ذنبك و ما تأخر و يتمَ نعمته عليك و يهديَك صراطا مستقيما

و ينصُرَك الله نصرا عزيزا

“Without a doubt, we have granted you [Muhammad] the clear, manifest victory. In order that Allah might forgive you for what you have done regarding your sin, as well as pardoning any later ones, and complete His favor upon you and guide you to a straight path. And so that Allah may help you with a great assistance.” [Q: 48: 1‐3]

The man who initially arbitrated for the Quraysh [against the Muslims] was Suhail Bin ‘Amr. In his initial meeting with the Prophet [s], he refused to acknowledge him as the Messenger of Allah, instead the Prophet had to settle for putting “in the name of your Lord” and “Muhammad Ibn ‘Abdullah” on the contract.  While this enraged some of his companions, he saw it as achieving a “manifest victory”: giving the Muslim a legitimate seat at the Ka’abah.  For without it, the Muslims would have always been seen as an “other” in Arabia. Now there were no psychological or cultural barriers between being an Arab, a Makkan, and being a Muslim.

In the years that followed the Prophet’s death [s], the Arabian peninsula threatened to revert back to its pre-Islamic ways.  It was through the courageous efforts of some of the companions that kept Islam alive.  One such companion was the aforementioned Suhail Bin ‘Amr.  After seeing how the Prophet dealt with the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah and finally, with the Opening of Makkah and its people, Suhail became Muslim [his son, Abu Jandal, had converted some years before].  So when Suhail fought to keep Islam alive after the Prophet’s demise [s], he was struggling for his own deen, his own religion.  If we want our youth and new shahadahs to strive for Islam, we must impart to them a sense of ownership of Islam.

ربنا زدنا في علمنا وانفعنا به

“O’ Our Lord!, increase us in knowledge and make us benefit from it!

Day Four

In our last class, we discussed the importance of making room for our brothers and sisters, even though they may not appear to be people of significance. We discussed the story of al-Arqam Ibn al-Arqam, the cousin of the Prophet’s [s] cousin, who, out of generosity, donated his house in Makkah, at the foot of Mount Safa, to the service of Islam. This house, named Dar al-Arqam, of “The House of Arqam”, was the first safe heaven for the Muslims to gather, pray, and spread their da’wah.

We also discussed the Treaty of Ḥudaybiyyah. This was a pact what was signed by the Muslims and by the Quraysh to allow the Muslims access to the Ka’abah. Quraysh had elected Suhail Ibn ‘Amr as their representative to barter and negotiate with the Muslims. Famously, this is where the Prophet [s] agreed to sign his name as Muhammad Ibn ‘Abdullah [s] instead of Muhammad, the Messenger of God. There was a number of concessions that the Prophet made that day but in the end, it achieved his goal of successfully delivering the message of Islam to the people of Makkah. In the end, Suhail himself became Muslim after he saw how the Prophet negotiated and how he dealt with the people of Makkah at the Fatḥ al-Makkah.

Some interesting facts about the Treaty of Ḥudaybiyyah:

  • There was to be a truce of 10 years between the Muslims and Quraysh.
  • Those who wished to leave Makkah and go to the Prophet [s] in Madinah but did not obtain permission from someone of authority in Makkah, the Muslims must send them back. If, however, someone from Madinah wishes to leave Muhammad [s] and the Muslims and return to Makkah, s/he may do so freely.
  • Suhail Ibn ‘Amr, while making this treaty, held some animosity towards the Muslims because his own son, Abū Jandal, had become Muslim.

Moving on from above, we next discussed the more subtle nature of tawhid. Most of us are familiar with the notion that tawhid means “oneness”, or as it relates to Islam, the “Oneness of God”. Tawhīd, however, means more than simply stating one recognizes that God is one, but that one’s actions, one’s internal thoughts reflect this truth. For Muslims, tawhid points to Allah, the One God, and therefore, for Muslims, life takes on a special type of focus, where one is always aware of his or her Return to God.

ثم إلينا مرجعك فننبئكم بما كانوا تعملون

“Then you will be returned to Us and We shall inform you all of what you used to do.” [Q 10: 23]

On the other hand, we talked about the term, takthir [تكثير]. While shirk may be the theological opposite of tawhid, takthir is its linguistic opposite and can allow us to think a bit more clearly on the subtle dangers of shirk by talking about it through the lens of takthir.

In many ways, takthir denies any purpose to life by refusing to point back, from the many, to the One.  Instead, it sees that there are many “gods” and from them, many more things abound.  The Qur’an refutes this, by stating life most certainly does have a purpose as well as a Creator:

و يتفكرون في خلق السموت والأرض ربنا ما خلقت هذا باطلا

“And they reflect upon the creation of the heavens and the earth, saying: ‘O our Lord! You have not created this without purpose!'” [Q3: 191]

Islam should bring the many into focus, into a view that points to The One versus, as Muhammad Iqbal said:

“The various natural sciences are like so many vultures falling on the body of Nature, and each running away with a piece of its flesh.”

Finally, some words from our esteemed imam, Imam al-Ghazzali wrote, concerning this life:

“The should take care of the body, just as the pilgrim on his way to Makkah takes care of his camel; but if the pilgrim spends his whole time in feeding and adorning his camel, the caravan wil leave him behind, and he will perish in the desert.”

In a collected hadith, the Prophet [s] relates to us:

أثقل ما يوضع في الميزان يوم القيامة تقوى الله و حسن الخلق

“The heaviest thing to be weighed on the Scale on the Day of Judgment will be taqwā of God and goodness of character.”

من ظن أنه بدون الجهد يصل فهو متمن – و من ظن أنه ببذل الجهد يصل فهو مستغن

“For the one that thinks that he will achieve his goal without effort is a wishful thinker – and for the one that thinks that he shall, by the expending of effort, be successful, is presumptuous.”

Reading List

Finally, let me say it was my pleasure to teach this course on behalf of the Quba Institute. It was the first time I taught this course, and thus it was something of an “experiment”. Please feel free to leave me your feedback and comments and of course, if you have any questions about what was covered, please contact me.

A Wakeup Call – This Time For Maureen Dowd

Maureen Dowd – White Person Extraordinaire

I have written two articles (1 and 2) on the phenomenon of Muslim pundits. To be more precise, the articles were about Muslim Muslim pundits, those few self-elected personalities that have made careers out of irresponsible critiques against Muslims and Islam, especially when Muslim do not meet their expectations. And it is the latest article from Pulitzer Prize winning columnist, Maureen Dowd, that provides an example of a non-Muslim Muslim pundit. In her New York Times article, Ms. Dowd uses 911 words (coincidence? You decide…) to inform us just how short her recent trip to Saudi Arabia, the “cradle of Islam”, fell in how it failed to educate her about the religion that, “smashed into the American consciousness on 9/11”. Dowd’s article, despite its obvious lack of respect for the subject, does manage to bring to light a glaring tendency in popular discourse, namely the general acceptance of attacking Muslims and by proxy of them, Islam, through one, convenient scapegoat: Saudi Arabia. According to Dowd and those who follow this mode of logic, to reproach Saudi Arabia is to reproach Islam in its entirety.

In one of my recent articles, I talked about the phenomenon of American Muslims and their need to travel abroad to the Muslim world in order to feel validated. Dowd has in many ways followed the exact same line, albeit for a different end goal: to denounce Islam. However, the two parties both have a misguided perception that Arab world, and Saudi Arabia in particular, are symbiotes of the same host: the religion of Islam. As we have seen in recent events, this could not be father from the case. Saudi Arabia is a country, a Muslim country no doubt, but hardly representative of Islam itself in such a way that all other expressions of Islam outside of the Arab Kingdom are merely simulacrums of Islam.

Dowd’s article, Pilgrim Non Grata In Mecca, is problematic even in its titling. From the very get go, Dowd ascribes to herself a status she does not possess: that of a (Muslim) pilgrim. A play on the Latin persona non grata, a close translation being “unwelcome person”, Dowd assumes that she is indeed on a pilgrimage (perhaps she was making ‘Umrah?), Dowd places herself within her own narrative in a role she never possessed from the start. Dowd repeatedly misses the very Muslimness of Mecca and Madīnah, especially as it relates to the necessity of those would visit the Ka’abah. Dowd fails to realize or recognize the need to be a Muslim to not only visit these places, but to perform the ritual acts for which they solely exist for. This deliberate intention, on the part of Dowd, to ignore such an overarching fact concerning the Two Holy Mosques only further demonstrates the utter lack of respect that Dowd had for her subject matter from the beginning. It is not that Dowd is an unwelcome pilgrim but that she is not a pilgrim at all.

Pilgrim Non Grata continues its bull-in-a-china-shop critique of Islam by attacking not how Islam views sacredness, but in how Islam is not Christianity, Judaism, or Buddhism. Dowd’s smug rant about how Mecca is not as open as the Vatican or how one can have their picture taken with the Dalai Lama only further illustrates how absolutely biased and ignorant Dowd is on the subject of Islam. By holding up Islam to a fit it was never meant to wear, Islam can only but fall short of appearing to be “civilized”. In essence, Dowd’s main axe to grind with Islam (which during the course of Dowd’s article is difficult to discern where she’s more concerned with getting access to the country of Saudi Arabia or learning anything in particular about Islam the religion) is how it’s not Christian, or Buddhist, than it is about understanding how Islam views the sacred. Here, Dowd reveals her true colors (literally) as a white, western woman, whose only particular historicized notions of freedom, access, equality, etc., are theorized into ontological truths that can be used to demonize Muslims (by proxy of Saudi Arabians) and Islam as a religion as a whole. I must admit I am sorely disappointed that a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist could either be so woefully ignorant or so unabashedly crude. Perhaps that prize, along with western white privilege, is not all it’s cracked up to be.

It would seem that much of Dowd’s ignorance stems from a complete lack of understanding of Islam on its own terms as well as the few, highly questionable sources she draws upon. Aside from her own trumped up cosmology, Dowd refers to Sir Richard Burton, the British “adventurer”, who translated “The Arabian Nights”, referring to himself as a “amateur barbarian”. Perhaps if Dowd had done some research she may have found that the Arabian Nights in no way shape or form has any relation to the religion of Islam. No all things Arab constitute a running commentary on Islam. Perhaps if Dowd had simply talked to a few recognized, educated and reputable Muslim figures on the religion, she may have accomplished her goal of trying to “learn about the religion that smashed into the American consciousness on 9/11”.

Part of understanding Islam on its own terms would entail learning how Islam views the sacred. In fact, it is perhaps in Islam’s view of the sacred that continues to distinguish itself from other religious expressions in modernity as the quintessential pre-modern religion. In other words, the sacred, for the main body of Muslims, was never rendered into the profane; the secular. Aside from the anomaly of modern thought as expressed by a few pro-modernity Muslim thinkers, there has never existed the concept of Les Belles Lettres. Beauty, in the body of Muslim thought, has always been connected to the Divine. It is even one of the Attributes of God in Islam, where all other emanations of beauty only point back to the source of Ultimate Beauty. This notion of sacredness extends to the mosque – any mosque, not solely the Two Holy Mosques of Mecca and Madīnah – as well to the Qur’ān. Art in the Muslim world (and in pre-modern Europe as well) was viewed as religious: the decorating of mosques, the illumination of the Qur’ān and other classical texts and so forth. These artistic endeavors were done not out of a desacralized sense of beauty, but rather as a mode of religious devotion. In fact, if Dowd had spoken with a body of Muslims before hand, she may have heard voices from the Muslims who dismay over the very secularness of the Blue Mosque, in that what once used to be a place of worship has now been reduced to a museum of historic architecture; the belle lettre of buildings. So when Muslims wish to keep and preserve the sacredness of the Two Holy Mosques in Mecca and Madīnah, perhaps Dowd could see that this decision is informed by a very specific thought process that has very specific goals, namely the preservation of the sacred for all Muslims.

As for the three faith traditions that Dowd lists, she misses a key point: you may not have to be Catholic to go to the Vatican, but you may have to be Catholic to really understand what it means to be Catholic. You may be able to learn some very interesting facts about Catholicism as a non-Catholic, but without having the experience of being a Catholic, especially in a modern mindset, you will only have accumulated a collection of details that may or may not have the same meaning for the viewer as it does the object of their viewing. Similarly, as above, simply because Catholics have chosen to open up the Vatican does not mean that Muslims should open up Mecca. The Vatican is not Mecca, nor vise versa. Perhaps Dowd should consider doing some research on her topic before flailing about wildly with her pen.

Finally, I will depart with commenting on the methodology of Dowd’s inquiry. In her own words, Dowd stated that, “It was nearly impossible for me to experience Islam in the cradle of Islam”. Another in a long line of presumptions, I would challenge Ms. Dowd on just how she arrived at this observation. Much akin to Africa being the cradle of civilization, going back to Kenya and walking around the dusty streets of Nairobi will not, cēterīs paribus, give me any epiphanic understanding of what life is like in New York City. Further, the analogy of a “cradle” is also not without critique, as a cradle, according to the dictionary, is a small bed, often for infants, during which they are nurtured in their early existence. Islam was born in Mecca, but it grew up and moved out the house, expanded in Madīnah and eventually flew well beyond its borders. While learning about Mecca will indeed teach one about certain aspects of Islam, but it cannot give the whole picture. In the end, my advice to Maureen Dowd would be: if you want to learn about Islam, become a Muslim. If you wish to know some “facts” about Islam, well, you could visit Wikipedia. Or for that matter, continue reading this blog.

Muslim Development Course: Update

The Muslim Development Course has been rescheduled! It is due to start up again on April 4th.

The Muslim Development Course is the class I will be teaching that is part of the Quba Adult Learning Program entitled, al-Qāfilah: ‘The Knowledge Caravan’. The objective of this course is to encourage the development of Muslim thought, action, and behavior, both individual and social, in such a way that it reflects a deeper and more personal understanding, ownership, and embodiment of the divine principles found in the Qur’ān and the sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings upon him.

This course will examine the current conditions of Muslims – most immediately of those living in the Philadelphia area (though the principles may be applied to any) – with the aim of looking critically at our current condition and how we might apply the Qur’ān and Sunnah in our lives by actively engaging in its historical realities and processes. Such topics will include, but are not limited to: the life of the Prophet [s] – a.k.a., the sīrah up to the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah; the early Qur’ānic Revelation (Makkan period): the cultural context as well as its audience; pre-Islamic life in the Hijāz (the jāhiliyyah): what was pre-Islam Arabia like? How did pre-Islamic Arabs think?; the language of the Qur’ān: its history, its audience, its changes – how do we as an English speaking audience conceive of its meaning?; the socio-political order of Makkah and Madinah: what lessons are there for us today, both personal and collectively? Through engaging in a dialog with the collective of Muslim Revelation, history, thought, and language, we can better understand ourselves and, God willing, have a deeper commitment to the legacy of the Prophet Muhammad.

The class starts April 4th. Running time is from 10:00am until 12:30pm. The class will run for four Sundays: April 4th, 11th, 18th, and 25th. This session, the second session, will be held at Masjid Mujahideen, in West Philadelphia:


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The first cycle of this class was started on March 7th, and will is currently running until March 28th [taught by Imam Anas of the [Qubā’ Institute]. If you would like to sign up for this course, please contact the Qubā’ Institute as follows:

Phone: 215-473-8589. E-mail: adultprogram@qubainc.org. The course fee is $50 [this is less than $15 a day!]

More Thoughts On the Relation Between Islam, Blackamericans, and Bebop

The following is s short excerpt from The African Diaspora: A Musical Perspective [335-7], by Ingrid Tolia Monson. Monson’s book provides some further insight on the nature of the relation and attraction that Islam held for Blackamerican jazz musicians as well as Blackamericans as a whole who embraced Islam.

Art Blakey’s African Travels

Ingrid Tolia Monson It is clear that its members of the New York jazz community of the 1940’s demonstrated awareness of both the anticolonialist internationalism of Robeson and Du Bois, as well as the more cultuml and spiritual pan-Africanism and pan-Asianism of Islam. Art Blakey emerged in the New York modern jazz scene through his work with the Billy Eckstine band from 1944 — 1947 (Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie were his bandmates in 1944) and his recordings with Thelonious Monk in 1947. He had come to New York from Pittsburgh with Mary Lou Williams in 1938 and worked with the Fletcher Henderson orchestra from 1939 — 1941. Blakey’s first recordings as a leader were four sides for Blue Note in December 1947 with the 17 Messengers, a band conceived as a training band for young musicians. Its members included Sahib Shihab and Musa Kaleem (Orlando Wright). Blakey, whose Muslim name was Abdullah ibn Buhaina, dated his conversion to Islam at about this time. Blakey never publicly explained his path to conversion to the Ahmadiyya movement, but Dizzy Gillespie reports that a Muslim missionary named Kahlil Ahmed Nasir convened many New York musicians to the faith (Gillespie 1979).
ship. Although Blakey later remembered going to Africa for two years beginning in 1947, he likely spent only one year in Africa.

Blakey consistently denied that he ever played music while in West Africa. In one of the most detailed accounts of his African sojourn, Blakey told two French interviewers in 1963: “For two years, I immersed myself solely in philosophers, religion, and Hebrew and Arab languages. I do not remember havin
Blakey’s choice of the name Messengers for his short-lived group of 1947 and for the more enduring group from 1954 onward signifies in several directions. From an Islamic perspective, the word invokes the Islamic belief in Muhammad as the messenger of Allah; from a more broadly African American cultural context, the word implies the common cultural belief that African American music has a message, that it “says something” of deeper cultural significance. Since the Ahmadiyya movement believed in a continuous prophetic tradition (i.e., that there were prophets after Muhammad), the name of the later group, the Jazz Messengers, implies a prophetic view of the music itself. After the failure of the 17 Messengers in 1947, Blakey was unable to secure regular work and decided to travel to Africa, to pursue religious studies by working his way over on a g played an instrument even one time during that entire period” (Clouzet and Delorme 1963). Blakey’s denials later became even more emphatic: “I didn’t go to Africa to study drums — somebody wrote that — I went to Africa because there wasn’t anything else for me to do. I couldn’t get any gigs, and I had to work my way over on a boat. I went over there to study religion and philosophy. I didn’t bother with the drums, I wasn’t, after that. I went over there to see what I could do about religion” (Nolan 1979: 19).

Implying that his religious quest was somehow incompatible with music (a remarkable assertion when considering religion in West Africa), Blakey always stressed that his main inertest in Africa was religion.

Although Orthodox Islam disapproves of music, particularly instrumental music, Islam in West Africa has long blended the celebration of Islamic festivals and beliefs with traditional animist worship practices that are deeply musical. In West Africa Blakey is likely to have encountered Muslim groups who made considerable use of drumming. He is also likely to have encountered Akan, Ewe, and Yoruba religious ideas, practices, and music, as well as secular urban popular music in his travels. In 1963 Blakey explained African American interest in Islam to his French interviewers: “Islam brought the black man what he was looking for, an escape like some found in drugs or drinking: a way of living and thinking he could choose freely. This is the reason we adopted this new religion in such numbers. It was for us, above all, a way of rebelling” (Clouzet and Delorme 1963: 38).

Citations and Further Readings

  • Manley, Marc. “The Social Origins of Bebop.” The Manrilla Blog: Academics. 28 Nov. 2008. Web.
  • Monson, Ingrid. African Diaspora: A Musical Perspective (Critical and Cultural Musicology, 3). New York: Routledge, 2003.

To Be Or Not To Bop

An excerpt from To Be or Not to Bop, Beboppers… The Cult [pp. 291-3]

To Be or Not To Bop Number seven: that “beboppers” expressed a preference for religions other than Christianity may be considered only a half-truth, because most black musicians, including those from the bebop era, received their initial exposure and influence in music through the black church. And it remained with them throughout their lives. For social and religious reasons, a large number of modern jazz musicians did begin to turn toward Islam during the forties, a movement completely in line with the idea of freedom of religion.

Rudy Powell, from Edgar Hayes’s band, became one of the first jazz musicians I knew to accept Islam; he became an Ahmidyah Muslim. Other musicians followed, it seemed to me, for social rather than religious reasons, if you can separate the two.

“Man, if you join the Muslim faith, you ain’t colored no more, you’ll be white,” they’d say. “You get a new name and you don’t have to be a nigger no more.” So everybody started joining because they considered it a big advantage not to be black during the time of segregation. I thought of joining, but it occurred to me that a lot of them spooks were simply trying to be anything other than a spook at that time. They had no idea of black consciousness; all they were trying to do was escape the stigma of being “colored.” When these cats found out that Idrees Sulieman, who joined the Muslim faith about that time, could go into these white restaurants and bring out sandwiches to the other guys because he wasn’t colored — and he looked like the inside of the chimney — they started enrolling in droves. Continue reading “To Be Or Not To Bop”