By Hand or By Heart
His journey toward Islam started with a call to 911. He has since tried to
correct evil actions with at least his heart, if not his hands. One major
struggle, however, is right at home. His wife is a churchgoer, and he worries
about his children’s Islam. He also worries about Muslims idolizing Malcolm
X. “They’re into this hero-worshipping thing,” he says. Islam forbids it.
I was standing in front of my house talking with my friends and the
drunk that lives next door came out. He was a nice drunk. He didn’t
bother nobody, but we always made jokes about him. He went across the
street to the bodega to get his beer or his wine. When he came out of the
store, one of the neighborhood hard-rock guys seen him. He must have
stepped on his foot or something. The guy took exception. He took a
long cardboard box and started hitting the drunk guy with it. So I ran
upstairs and I called 911. When I came back downstairs the guy had left
and the drunk was dead. Somebody had pulled out a gun and shot him.
My friends who had remained downstairs witnessed it. The shot rang
out and everybody ran. But I stayed downstairs and when the cops came
I told them what I had saw and what I had done. So I stood there and I
gave my statement to the police ’cause I knew who it was that had did
So they called me down to the precinct. I told my parents and they
were both upset that I had got involved. Eventually I had to testify in
front of the grand jury.
Because of that incident, my parents felt that it wasn’t safe for me to
live there anymore. We eventually moved to Coney Island. But that’s
something that I will never forget. Until this day I know I was right, and
I believe they should have supported me in that matter. They kept
preaching to me how you can’t save the world. There’s certain things
that you can’t do because you put yourself and other people in jeopardy.
My response was “Dad, if somebody had killed you and my friends had
saw it I would want them to testify to the police so that guy could get
Good argument, logic. But when you’re seventeen, eighteen, it didn’t
work with them.
When you look in Jewish neighborhoods, like Williamsburg, you don’t
see cops, but you don’t see crime. You look in our neighborhood, you see
all these cops but you see numbers, prostitution, drugs, crime. So it’s not
the cops that’s going to stop the crime; it’s going to be the people in the
community. If I try to sell drugs on the corner in Williamsburg, it won’t
be the cops that will arrest me; it will be the community that will come
after me with bats and sticks and guns, chasing me out of there. And
after they beat me up, then they will call the cops to take my body out of
In our neighborhood, it doesn’t work that way because we African
Americans purchase the drugs, play the numbers, go to the prostitutes.
We’re not the ones that want it out of the community.
There’s a hadith that says when you see a negative action you must
correct it with your hand. If you can’t, speak out about it. If you can’t
speak out about it, feel bad about it in your heart. That hadith stays in
my mind as well as another:
There were two sets of people in a boat, the good and the bad. The
bad were on the lower portion and the good people were on the upper
portion. The bad people had to come up to the top to get water from the
good people. They got tired of doing it, so they said, If we drill a hole in
the bottom of the boat, we won’t have to bother you to get water. So the
Prophet said, If the good people on top do not stop the bad people on
the bottom from drilling a hole, then they will all drown.
I vowed to myself that regardless of who got upset or felt bad about it,
if there was something negative that I saw, I will go out and try to
correct it with my hand or speak out against it, or at least feel bad about
it in my heart.
• • •
The people that I admired the most—Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, and
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar—were all Muslims. All the men, even my
grandfather, were followers of Noble Drew Ali. Sammie Travis Bey, my
mother’s father. He didn’t make salat6 five times. He was more like the
Nation of Islam. He believed the black man was the Original Man and
some other foolishness.
He never stole. He didn’t drink. He didn’t smoke. He didn’t lie. He
treated everybody fairly. Everybody loved him because of these qualities
that he had. His wife died and he finished raising two boys and six girls
while working for the railroad during the Depression. He never missed a
day of work in over thirty years. If he said to be ready by seven o’clock,
that he was coming to get you, you better believe that by six-thirty he
was going to be there.
He died in ’87 at the age of eighty-six. And he had a taste of Islam.
I guess I had read as much as I could read on my own. I wasn’t going
to church. I didn’t feel Christian. I was torn between two worlds. I knew
eventually I was going to get into Islam. I didn’t know how or what role
I had to play in it, but one day I got up enough nerve to do it.
There were Nubian Hebrews right there where I lived, within walking
distance. There were many days when I walked up to the door and
couldn’t open it. The State Street Mosque had literature that struck a
nerve. I gave them a call and they said, “Come on down.”
I took shahada August 27, 1974, at 143 State Street. Shaikh Dauod was
the brother.7 I stayed in there for about an hour. When I walked out of
there I was on cloud nine. I was really excited; I had taken a big step,
accepted Islam. I filled out some paperwork. He gave me an ID card,
very formal. I called him back that Friday because the last thing he said
was I have to come back and get some instruction. He picked up the
phone and he was ranting at me: “How come you haven’t come back?
Where you been? You gotta learn more. You know, you just can’t leave
That turned me off. I left feeling great that one day and the next day
when I called back to find out when I could get an appointment to learn
how to make wudu, he was attacking me. I didn’t know why. So I didn’t
I didn’t have a group of Muslims that I could learn from, so I did what
I’ve always done, that is, go to bookstores and buy hadith books. I
bought the Qur’an and I tried to learn on my own. I had my own
perception of Islam. I thought I could live Islam privately.
I was gaining more knowledge but I wasn’t interacting with Muslims. I
was doing my own thing. I didn’t know how to pray. I was fairly
satisfied. I was different. I didn’t drink, smoke, and do other things. But
then again I wasn’t making salat. I didn’t know it was as important as it
In 1985, I started going to juma, and this is what motivated me to get
more into the religion. What really struck me was a brother from the
post office who had his bag on his shoulder, dropping his bag and taking
off his shoes and coming onto the carpet and making salat. What a
contrast. You think about the Middle East and camels and what have
you. And you talk about 1985 in America, in Manhattan, somebody in
the post office doing that? And then seeing court officers, people from
banks, Wall Street, you name it. The full mosaic had an influence. The
brothers were so dedicated. People had answers to questions. I didn’t
feel that any of the answers were tainted with racism or black
supremacy or anything like that. That hooked me hook, line, and sinker.
Later on, ’86, ’87, a brother brought the son of a preacher to the
masjid on a Friday. When that brother left, he came out and he said he
hadn’t seen so many black men in any one place like that in all his life.
That’s when I first really reflected on the fact that they were all men. But
I looked at the positive aspect. When you think about the Christian
church, it’s predominantly women. There are no men there. This is a
positive step, to see all these black men in the same place—no weapons,
not trying to kill each other, all trying to worship the same God. I mean,
this is beautiful. We need to get more black men in here.
We have Islam and we have Christianity. My children come to me and
they ask me, “When is Mommy gonna be a Muslim?” There’s no answer.
In some ways it would be better if she just came out and said, “I’ve got
no intention of being a Muslim, you hear? I hate you guys. Take a flying
leap.” It would be a little bit easier to deal with. But I’ve been told by
her that she will accept Islam. I’ve offered: “What can I do to speed it
up?” Nothing. I can’t do anything to speed it up. She will at whatever
time when the spirit hits her.
Although she says she will accept Islam, she’s going to church now.
And I know from what I’ve learned, you can’t learn anything good there.
They’re only deceiving you, because who are you praying to? You’re
praying to Jesus, which is shirk.8 So the more I learn about the religion,
the more frustrating it is when I go home. As I go to Masjid Medina and
listen to the brothers speak on Fridays, I feel great. I’m learning. I’m
getting closer to Allah. But then when I come home, I’m depressed.
I see that as a problem in our community, my life being a microcosm
of the African American community. Our churches are filled with
women, and our mosques are filled with men.
Look at all the brothers that aren’t married because the women aren’t
coming here. They’re in church, okay? So if we can find a way for the
women to get the deen,9 we’d take care of a lot of problems.
I’ve gotten out of the hero-worship thing. Eventually when you follow
someone’s career or admire them, you’ll find some character flaws in
them that will bring you back down to earth. And I think that what
makes Malcolm so popular with so many people is the fact that he’s dead
and we can’t find his flaws, whatever they may have been. If he was
alive today and he made certain statements and he did certain things,
then people would be criticizing him like they were doing in the ’60s.
I believe that Malcolm actually believed that what he was teaching
was correct. And Malcolm did not profit other than to gain exposure.
Financially he had no money, no large car, the house that he lived in
was not his. So you could see he was driven by something different than
I have his albums. I have maybe ten books on his life. I have cassette
tapes. I have videotapes. For my wedding present I had someone paint a
picture of Malcolm. I had an obsession about him for a period of time.
I struggle with Malcolm now. I still love him. Malcolm was the tool
that Allah used to bring me into Islam. But I listen to other African
American brothers talk about Malcolm and how great he was and it
worries me. Muslims are not supposed to love anybody more than the
Prophet. But I hear some brothers talking about Malcolm in the same
ways they should be talking about the Prophet. And we must remember,
as great as he was, he was only Muslim for about a year and a half. All
that other stuff was right out of the Nation of Islam, where he believed
that the white man was the devil. He believed that Farad Muhammad
was Allah incarnate, which is shirk. So it’s hard for me to come to grips
with this reality.
The big contradiction is people say Malcolm was great, and while
they’re saying that, they’re drinking a wine cooler and eating a ham
sandwich, so they really don’t understand what he was about. They don’t
know what Islam is. But that’s what made Malcolm Malcolm. Even
though he didn’t have the whole truth of Islam, what little bit of the
truth of Islam he had helped catapult him to that position, and people
don’t understand that. They just see somebody who talked bad about
whitey. But they don’t see what made him great, the moral strength that
I cannot deny his contributions and the fact that I’m still living in
America. His observations were accurate. So I have to incorporate Islam
from the Prophet’s time with Malcolm’s vision and try to mesh the two. I
can’t totally disregard Malcolm but he has a [more] subservient part in
my vision than before.
[T]umult and oppression are worse than slaughter …
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