Archive for August, 2014

I didn’t know I was “white” until I became Muslim. I always used to think of myself as a human being. Other people were “black” or “indian” or whatever. I was just a person. And when I looked out at the world of books, television, movies, fantasy, sci fi, music, politics, business, and so on, I saw the world reflecting back to me the same self understanding. I liked rap a lot, but considered it “black music,” and felt self-conscious about not having full access to its inner sanctums. It was the aesthetic equivalent of feeling scared when we drove through Cabrini Green on the way to watch the Chicago Bulls – I knew I was out of place. But these were isolated events – I could always retreat rather quickly to the safety and security of my white world.

When I went to boarding school as a sophomore (well, we called it “lower year”…Go Blue!), for the first time I interacted on a daily basis with black peers. I had some black friends from summer camp, but that was only two months out of the year. But looking back on it now, I see how boarding school was still a microcosm of the larger society. We would wonder why so many of the black kids sat together at meals, never once realizing that most of the white kids were sitting together ALL THE TIME! It would have sounded weird to us if you had described it as a “white-majority school,” although we had no problem talking ad nauseam about “minorities.” I had some black teachers and coaches, but no one I would call a serious mentor.

The first time I wrote down the words, “I think I want to become a Muslim” was after finishing the Autobiography of Malcolm X in the summer between boarding school and college. The way he weaved the American narrative of race and injustice with the Muslim story of brotherhood and redemption struck a deep nerve. Most powerfully, when he spoke of his pilgrimage to Makkah, I felt that it might be something for me.

By the grace of God, I have since been to Makkah three times. By God’s arrangement, my first teacher of Islam was a black imam/prison chaplain from Brooklyn who studied for many years in Pakistan. You cannot imagine the psychological re-wiring that happens when your living exemplar of a man of God is a person you previously wouldn’t have even paid attention to, let alone spent many hours with. He taught me the basics of classical Arabic, how to read the Qur’anic text, how to improve my prayer, but most importantly, how to be a more God-conscious and self-sacrificing human being. I loved being in his presence so much that many years later, when I was struggling to find my place in graduate school, I drove in the middle of the night from New Jersey to Rhode Island to pray fajr with him and stay at the masjid for 3 days so that I could spend time with him.

But I will always be a white kid from an all-white suburb. I learned in my early years as a Muslim that I could not be black nor pakistani no matter how much at times I wanted to fully integrate into those Muslim circles. But I learned that whiteness is like The Matrix – you don’t know you’re in it until you start to get out of it. I hope I have fulfilled Malcolm’s words that “their belief in one God had removed the white from their minds, the white from their behavior, and the white from their attitude.” If not, then I have more work to do for the sake of the God who created us all, and only distinguishes us on the basis of the way we transform our inner and outer selves due to our conscious awareness of the Divine, or what in Arabic we call “taqwa.”

Many will probably think this is overly quaint, and that they are soooo over the false promise of “Islam is a universal brotherhood and sisterhood.” But I respectfully disagree. I am well aware of the overt racism of elements in the American Muslim community, and the hard collective work that needs to be done for our institutions to live up to our ideals. But as for me, I have experienced nothing as deeply transformative of American race relations like being Muslim, and I believe Islam provides more hope for transforming white American society at large than anything else. It was Islam that caused me to start hanging out on the South Side of Chicago, to visit my brothers at the Inner City Islamic Center or Masjid al-Faatir or that super hardcore masjid on like 76th or something (can’t remember the name), even though I grew up only an hour away. It was Islam that led me to sitting for hours with black men so that I could learn from their character, spirituality, and wisdom. And it was Islam that ultimately taught me about my own people – that ragtag collection of post-Europeans I call “white people” or “Whiteamericans” when I am trying to sound as smart as Dr. Jackson. We are just another people with a history, with our strengths and our weaknesses, and whom I love, just as the Prophet (upon him peace) loved his people, the Quraysh, even when they were the oppressors.

Even now, it is my brothers and sisters in Islam from all different ethnicities who share with me their passionate perspectives on race in America. This is my typical heart-on-the-sleeve white guy contribution to the conversation. I reiterate Malcolm’s hope when he wrote, “But as racism leads America up the suicide path, I do believe, from the experiences that I have had with them, that the whites of the younger generation, in the colleges and universities, will see the handwriting on the walls and many of them will turn to the spiritual path of truth – the only way left to America to ward off the disaster that racism inevitably must lead to.”

And I close with the words of the Islamic tradition: “All praise is due to Allah for the blessing of Islam, and sufficient is it as a blessing.”


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And who is better in speech than the one who calls to God, and does righteous deeds, and says, “I am most assuredly one of the Muslims.” (41.33)

There is a group of Muslims who claim to represent all of us. They call themselves “The Islamic State (al-dawla al-islāmīya)” and they ask us to pledge our allegiance to the person they consider their leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

On this blessed day of jumu‘ah, in the blessed month of Shawwāl, in the Hijrī year of 1435, I firmly reject the pledge of allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. I do so out of fear of the Lord of the worlds, Who will ask me about what I did on this day. I do so out of love for the Messenger of Allah, upon him and his family be blessings and peace, who I long to sit with in the next life. I do so out of hope for Jannah, in which the utmost limits of my dreams reside. I do so out of my joy at being a member of the vast and diverse Ummah of Muhammad, upon him and his family be blessings and peace, which includes Sunnis and Shi’is, Sufis and Salafis.

And I call all humanity to study the teachings of the Messenger of Allah, upon him and his family be blessings and peace. He was sent by Allah to all of us, white and black, male and female, American and people who are citizens of other nations – without exception. All of humanity is welcome to freely accept Islam if it moves their heart, and simultaneously reject the tyranny, ignorance, and brutality that is done by those who have pledged their allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

I am prepared to meet my Lord with this statement in my book of deeds, and I ask the Eternal and Everlasting Refuge (al-Ṣamad) to accept it as one of the best of my deeds. I invoke the Protector (al-Ḥafīdh) alone to protect me and those I love. I do not need armies, nor intelligence services, nor police forces for our protection – all I need is our Lord, in whose holy Name I have written these words onto my heart. hasbunā Allāh wa ni‘ma al-wakīl.

R. David Coolidge

New York City

26th Shawwāl, 1435 AH

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For Tayssir Safi – may Allah make me worthy of your love

and for Imam Zaid Shakir – may Allah grant you al-husna wa ziyada, ameen.


i hear claims of justice and ethics in every voice

and so i have taken it upon myself to listen

for those voices could be the voice of Khidr

and to say

to God

and to my selfish self

and to my friends and family

and to others who will hear

that we should not disbelieve in our Creator

or abandon the prayer

or abandon the fast

or drink alcohol

or talk about other people behind their backs in a manner that they would find displeasing

or leave the remembrance of God

or leave the Qur’an

or disrespect the Messenger of God, upon him and his family be blessings and peace

or disobey the Messenger of God, upon him and his family be blessings and peace

or eat unlawful meat

or eat food that will harm our spiritual state

or not be sensitive to the needs of others

or mistreat our parents

or mistreat our siblings

or mistreat our spouses

or mistreat our children

or mistreat the homeless asking for change

or forget about those who are suffering and oppressed

down the block

across town

in the woods

in Guatemala

in Egypt

in Gaza

in Pakistan

in Somalia

in Kashmir

in Chechnya

in China

in Syria

in Myanmar

in Chicago

in Oakland

in Washington D.C.

in Rio De Janeiro

in sweatshops, brothels, refugee camps, occupations, reservations, prisons, torture chambers, or even their own homes

and not forget that we have a responsibility as voters, consumers, taxpayers, givers of charity, and volunteers

to look into every moment and every word and every silence and every stillness and every action

and say “inni kuntu min al-dhalimeen [truly I am from amongst the oppressors]”

and to know that even if we become a mufti and shaykh al-tarbiya

this process will remain

and to hold fast to those who don’t just say this truth

but live it

and speak boldly from a similar realization

in order to free themselves from the Fire

because life is short and there is so much to do that we haven’t done

out of concern for all humanity, animals, earth, and sky

for the sake of clarity in a confused world

for the sake of grasping at shukr

for the sake of knowing that we are all

at every moment

in need of Allah’s Mercy

and that even if we were to become the qutb

there is still the chance that a hidden injustice

committed before we die

could cause Allah to turn away from us forever and ever

for none of us are guaranteed the Garden

and so we say

like Imam Ahmad before us

“Not yet, not yet”

and take ourselves to account

with every ounce of effort we have

striving for the maqam of mujahada and muhasaba

knowing that it will never be enough

and we will always miss something or forget something or make some mistake

and so we plunge ever deeper into the haqa’iq of raja’

which is the only thing that keeps us from dying on the spot

in the the hal of khawf

at the tajalli of al-‘Adl

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