SHAFAQNA- “We really need to live near each other and have local businesses. However, an Islamic neighborhood has to come about naturally. It can’t just be a few motived pioneers that are dragging the rest of the people. The Muslims have to really connect to the land they live in. It will all come together if people are at peace with their area and naturally involved in making things better. That’s how good authentic neighborhoods come about. People settle in not just physically but emotionally.” Brother Anwar Abdulmalik is a member of Shia community of the US. In an exclusive interview with Shafaqna, he speaks about Islam in the West and challenges which Muslim Americans face.
Shafaqna: Would you please introduce yourself to our readers?
Anwar Abdulmalik: My name is Anwar Abdulmalik, I am 36 years old, and I was born in New Jersey, USA. I moved to Pennsylvania at age 11.
Shafaqna: Would you please explain for us how your grandparents converted to Islam in 1930s?
Anwar Abdulmalik: My grandmother had a brother who was a great musician. He would travel to different cities and meet all different kinds of people from different cultures. Many African Americans at that time (1920’s) were trying to look for their identity in a society which recently released their forefathers from subjugation; slavery. They were looking for an identity in a country in which they were considered basically a sub citizen. So her brother met an Arab man in New York who knew about Islam and was teaching people. They decided to open up a house in Philadelphia for him to come and give lessons.
My grandmother attended those sessions and became Muslim. My grandfather on the other hand, he was not from Philadelphia but I think that he had some connection with the early Nation of Islam, perhaps this helped him research traditional Islam. By the time he met my grandmother, I believe he was already Muslim in a traditional sense. When they got married there were very few American converts in the city. My grandparents were definitely amongst the first African American converts in Philadelphia. My grandmother at this moment is most likely the oldest African American Muslim convert in the country, in the sense of her being Muslim for the longest time. She is age 95.
“Islam comes from the creator of all things; Allah (SWT) … [so] it will make you alive.”
Shafaqna: How could your family preserve its Islamic culture, across the generations?
Anwar Abdulmalik: Well myself I was not raised in a very religious setting. I became more religious at age 17. I had cousins who had preserved their Islam much better who taught me a lot. Especially one of my cousins who was around the same age as myself at that time. I did my own research as well. I wasn’t raised knowing the religion in depth. I just knew that I couldn’t eat pork and that I had to fast in Ramadan. The religion in my family definitely hasn’t been lost but it also hasn’t been preserved in the best of manners. Some family members practice more than others.
Shafaqna: Could you please explain to us about your family lifestyle? An African American family with about 90 years of practicing Islam in US. Do you perform your religious ceremonies and activities freely? What are your problems and challenges?
Anwar Abdulmalik: Normal American lifestyle, attending public schools. When it comes to religious ceremonies, yes of course Americans have religious freedom for the most part. One of the problems that I face is that the place that I am from has no mosques. I live in the suburbs. Most Muslims from the US who live in the suburbs have no access to nearby Masjids. You usually have to go to the city. So basically where I live there are very few Muslims, no mosques, and no Islamic culture. That was my very issue while growing up.
As a Shia convert it even gets a bit more complicated. For example, I have good family members who need to get married but they can’t due to the fact that most Shias, having originated from different ethnic groups, don’t want to marry outsiders. So that reality of not being able to get married can end up leading to sin and general isolation. That is one of the challenges of being a minority, and this is the kind of problem that is faced all around the US. Another problem that we face is in our public schools. We don’t have enough Islamic schools.
“Islam is complete, it soaks into everything and has an impact on all aspects of life. The external laws connect us to internal realities. I don’t see Islam as a separate remedy from us like a medication, but rather a reality that we are striving to wake up.”
Shafaqna: How about your neighborhood? Are you living in a Muslim neighborhood? What influences the Muslim tradition of your family have had on your relationship with neighbors and the society where you live?
Anwar Abdulmalik: As I mentioned, my neighborhood is not Islamic. My neighbors are nice. They know that we are Muslims but are never rude or aggressive towards us. We don’t really talk about religion with our neighbors. People in the US generally see politics and religion as the two subjects not to get into with your neighbors. Obviously this mentality may differ from place to place. Things may not be that way if you go to a classic Italian neighborhood in Philadelphia for example.
Shafaqna: As a young American, what is your specific point of view about Islam? How Islam could help you in your personal life?
Anwar Abdulmalik: Islam is complete, it soaks into everything and has an impact on all aspects of life. The external laws connect us to internal realities. I don’t see Islam as a separate remedy from us like a medication, but rather a reality that we are striving to wake up. Allah (SWT) is Haqq, the complete truth; Islam is to be in alignment with that Haqq, to live and breathe Haqq.
Shafaqna: As a third generation American Muslim, what are your needs and your problems? How do you get answers for new questions which arise in your life? What Islamic texts, media and relations do you need?
Anwar Abdulmalik: We really need to live near each other and have local businesses. However, an Islamic neighborhood has to come about naturally. It can’t just be a few motivated pioneers that are dragging the rest of the people. The Muslims have to really connect to the land they live in. It will all come together if people are at peace with their area and naturally involved in making things better. That’s how good authentic neighborhoods come about. People settle in not just physically but emotionally.
Over the decades that neighborhood starts to hold a good energy, a solid vibe. Nothing is perfect in this Dunya but sacred intentions and good works done in abundance in one area bring about gems. May we find the way by Allah’s (SWT) grace! In terms of media, I think we need less media and more hands on work. In terms of texts, books are golden. We need thousands of books translated to English by native speakers and we also need access to the great Islamic books in Arabic and Farsi. Islamic libraries in the west, now that would be something!
“I think that the youth will come to Islam in great numbers when the light of Islam is able to fuse into creative culture; art, film, architecture, etc.”
Shafaqna: How much do you think Western youth are ready to embrace Islam?
Anwar Abdulmalik: I think that the youth will come to Islam in great numbers when the light of Islam is able to fuse into creative culture; art, film, architecture, etc. People, humans know when something is of high quality. Whether it’s comparing one brand of pots and pans to another, or the thread count and texture of sheets … or the acting and cinematography of one film compared to another. This list goes on into medicine, teaching etc. My point is not materialistic, it is based on the idea of inspiration and creativity being directly connected to the spirit of Islam. When this spirit is tapped into, it brings about good things.
Muslims shouldn’t migrate to the west just to have a career, a nice lawn and an Islamic center which has virtually no connection to the society at large. If this happens, your kids will get lost because you are lost. The youth of the west will be inspired by Islam when they experience the fruits of Muslims who are inspired by Islam. Can a heart resonate with Islam if there is no source of resonance? May we be in the continued state of Dhikr in order to find this light and generate it! It will naturally flow through all aspects of our lives. May we have that Tawfiq! It’s already happening.
Shafaqna: How can Islam promote their quality of life?
Anwar Abdulmalik: Islam comes from the creator of all things; Allah (SWT). Connecting to the Source of existence will do much more than promote a better quality of life, it will make you alive. Although it is a bitter sweet struggle. We are all struggling to get there. If we are following both the external and the internal aspects of Islam, we will find ourselves in a constant process of looking back into our faults, pinning them down and asking Allah (SWT) to help us get through them and forgive our mistakes. We will see our weaknesses and fight them. We will mutually help one another. Of course there are so many depths on the path. May Allah (SWT) help us to become pure.
“The youth of the west will be inspired by Islam when they experience the fruits of Muslims who are inspired by Islam.”
Shafaqna: What message do you have for the youth in the Western world?
Anwar Abdulmalik: The gift of time. Most people in the west are not living hand to mouth, only able to worry about where their daily bread will come from. I would say to the youth, you have been blessed with time. Time is a sacred gift, a space on your journey of life. Use that space to look for and study different religions, ideologies, spiritual paths. Go visit different sheikhs, get different perspectives. Look for Haqq (truth) and pray to God. Be in a state of searching because you have that time and a lot of people don’t have that. Due to that great blessing of time, you have to search for the realities of life. I would say to everybody in the world, not only the west, to pay attention to the Fitra (inner self); to be aware that there is only one God, one Creator. Connect your heart to that one Creator.
That is key, La Ilaha Illa Allah meaning there is no God but Allah (SWT).
Shafaqna appreciates you for giving us some time and attending this interview. Thank you very much.