Better Than a Thousand Months
Rushing to Manhattan’s 96th Street mosque in the white gallabiya he promised Allah he would wear, toting leftover dates in tupperware, Abdu Alim did a good deed. In Spanish-inflected Arabic, “Salamm’alaikum,” he said, to a kid he didn’t know running out of the mosque. They exchanged peace like a high five, and Alim explained that that was an act of charity. And that every move you make toward the mosque and every letter you pronounce from the Qur’an is an act of worship, which is especially important during Ramadan, when every good deed yields one hundred times more blessings than usual, especially on that night, the Night of Power, in which Muslims all over the world remember when Allah first spoke to the holy Prophet Muhammad.
Though Alim calls himself a Nuyorican, he told me he is more a brother to the Pakistani he “salaamed” than the Hispanic teenagers who tried to distract him on the way to mosque one evening: “Look at this fool,” they said. “He looks like bin Laden, or Jesus Christ.” Alim told me he feels more fellowship with the Egyptian imam who invites him to the Islamic Society of Bay Ridge than the Pentecostal preacher who condemned him for bringing a Qur’an to church. His Arab, African, and Asian brothers and sisters in Islam are more family to him now than his nine nominally Catholic but not religious siblings.
No one knows for certain which night is Laylat al-Qadr, the Night of Power, when Muhammad received the first utterances of the Qur’an, “the recitation” in Arabic that began the twenty-three year miracle of revelation delivered by the angel Gabriel. According to hadith, the sayings of the Prophet, it probably falls on one of the odd nights during the last ten days of Ramadan, and “he who spends the night in prayer…and seeking rewards from Allah, his previous sins will be forgiven.” In anticipation of Laylat al-Qadr, Muslims are to strive especially in worship, through charity, prayer, and Qur’anic recitation, during the last part of Ramadan, which is “release from hellfire.” (The beginning is mercy; the middle forgiveness.) Islamic scholars determine which of the possible nights Laylat al-Qadr will be observed at each mosque, with an all-night prayer vigil that is said to be equivalent to more than 80 years of worship: This night is better than a thousand months. Alim said a brother explained to him that the Night of Power is decided when a majority of Muslims agree, judged by a moon sighting in Saudi. On this side of the world, a clear quiet night is a sign of Laylat al Qadr, according to Nagla Elbadawy, who teaches religion at Al Noor, “The Light,” the largest Islamic school in New York.
On a clear quiet night near the end of his second Ramadan, Alim left early from Islam Fashion, the women’s clothing shop where he was working, and broke fast at a Brooklyn water fountain on his way to the four train. (He knows it is recommended to hasten in breaking the fast when the sun has set, with anything, even water, which is precious in Islam. He consults other Muslims to make sure it’s okay to break the fast, and if none are around, he consults by cell phone.) Alim made it the 96th Street mosque in time for tarawih, the congregational prayer in which the entire Qur’an is recited at least once through, verse by verse, night by night.
While hanging up his coat and removing his shoes, Alim heard a young lady embracing Islam over the loudspeaker: laa ilāha illa Allāh, wa Muhammad(un) rasūl Allāh, she repeated after the imam in two-word increments. Then, she professed Islam in English: “There is no god but God, and Muhammad is the Messenger of God.” Alim looked up, as if he were hearing angels, which he knew would be flocking down to earth that night to encourage acts of worship and supplicate to God on behalf of those who prayed. Shahada, the declaration of the faith in front of at least two witnesses, is a blessing, he told me. “When a people take shahada, all prior sins are erased, and they are considered like a child being born into the world.”
Abdu Alim took shahada twice—first out of curiosity, and, more than a decade later, out of conviction. He was a Christian called Edwin all his life, until he embraced Islam in September 2002. He said he was “mis-raised” because his family didn’t bring him up religiously: Catholicism wasn’t a way of life in his family. But he was known to be the religious one among his six brothers and three sisters. In his twenties he began to seek the spirituality he lacked growing up in Spanish Harlem. He started going to different kinds of churches—mostly Baptist and Pentecostal, “a little bit of everything,” he said. As he went along, he encountered different schools of thought in Christianity: “You have some people that will say Jesus is divine and man and those that believe He’s totally God. These different views started shaping me, my beliefs…I accepted the full conviction that Jesus is divine; He’s God, but that he was also man,” he said. Edwin got baptized during this time in a Church of God, but “I was really confused,” he said. “I would literally cry at times.”
In his late twenties Edwin started getting involved with the Seventh-day Adventists. He was studying with a man named David and started taking a correspondence course from an Adventist church in California. With the lessons he was getting in the mail were tests asking existential questions: “Why is man here? What is the soul? What is hell?” When he recounts the questions, his stress lands hard on the last words. He was acing them and getting diplomas. From the Seventh-day Adventists, he learned that the soul is the body. “They taught me that there’s a grave, and when you die, your soul, which is your body, is terminated, and your spirit, which is the light-force that sustains your body, goes back to the Creator. This was logical, and I accepted it.”
Comparing different verses of scripture, Edwin noticed that, throughout the Bible, “Jesus is considered an apostle of God, a servant of God, a slave of God.” He said this got him curious about Islam, and he began to read the Qur’an. At the time it was “like a plaything, a sport,” he said. “I was not really developed spiritually.”
Edwin lived in an Adventist fellowship community for a while in upstate New York. But he couldn’t stand it. He had a problem with the fact that they stressed the issue of the Sabbath, and with their strict vegan diet; there were times in the middle of the night he wanted to get up and go to the store and buy himself a cheeseburger. And “even at that time, there was something about Islam, about the book, the Qur’an, that really attracted me, especially when they speak of God as the most gracious, the most merciful. These words, they really took my heart.”
It was in upstate New York where Edwin took shahada for the first time, with no intention of becoming a Muslim: “I had a bad motive because I was just curious about what they had to say about Christianity, Jesus Christ, this and that…I was being like a spy, if you will.” But when Muslims were telling him that Jesus is not God, he started debating it more seriously. “I was curious. I was searching. I wanted to understand,” Alim said, and he got a lot of backlash for it: “I had Christians that would pray for me ‘cause they thought I had demons inside of me…They thought I was crazy. I thought I was too,” he told me in a low tone, as if let down after confessing his excited curiosity, a timbre of pathos that seemed to trail off alone.
Edwin was still engaging in bible study with David, who lead him to doubt the divinity of Jesus in 1982: “He gave me these notes speaking about God and His name. He said Jehovah. So the minute that he said Jehovah, in my mind I was like ‘what’s this Jehovah?’ Now he’s not a Jehovah’s Witness. He’s a Seventh-day Adventist, a very loyal individual. And I said, ‘What is this?’ He said, ‘This is another name for Jesus. He has many names. He has many titles.’”
Struck by skepticism, Edwin started studying different translations of the Bible. At the 42nd Street library he found the New World Translation, used only by Jehovah’s Witnesses, denying what he had believed all his life: that Jesus is the son of God and also God himself. “I saw it with my own eyes,” he said, almost gasping. “So I learned from the Jehovah’s Witnesses that Jesus is not divine.” Edwin said the Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that Jesus is an angel—“Michael or Miguel? I get mixed up,”—and just like God. The Qur’an says that there is no one who resembles Allah—“not the angels, no one, nothing in the whole creation,” and we cannot conceive of the form of Allah. This knowledge came to Alim like meat to a baby, he told me. He had a hard time accepting it at first. But “Jesus said to His disciples: I have many things to tell you, but yet you cannot bear them right now,” he said with the cadence of an evangelical preacher. “I was getting deep into the meat of the Word, if you will.” But he wasn’t ready to take the powerful information he was reading.
In the fall of 2002, curiosity led Edwin from the Kennedy Chicken around the corner from the Jehovah’s Witness church near his home in the Bronx to “the shock of [his] life.” There was a Muslim named Muhammad working at the chicken joint, where Edwin would go eat and talk about religion after church. He would tell Muhammad, “Your Qur’an is wrong; you’ve got it all wrong.” Then, one day he asked, “Muhammad where’s your mosque?” Just out of curiosity, he told me. “But Allah turned that curiosity into something big.” Muhammad directed him to the African mosque in Western Treemont, and Edwin went in and started arguing with the imam about hellfire. He said the Jehovah’s Witnesses had brainwashed him into thinking there’s no hell—“They really got me with that one.” He had a problem with scary Muslim descriptions of hellfire. A man at the mosque looked at him and told him he needed to become Muslim. Edwin said “No, I can’t be a Muslim,” and left the mosque discouraged.
His next time at Kennedy Chicken he told Muhammad the story, and Muhammad said, “If you become a Muslim, I’ll buy you nice clothes.” Alim was laughing as he told it. Muhammad gave him a film about the life of the Prophet, (A Message, starring Anthony Quinn) and a lecture tape by Ahmad Dida, an Indian scholar whose parents were Hindu.
“When I heard him, that was it,” Alim said. The brother talks in detail about the Qur’an and the Bible—“Which is God’s word?” Muhammad was written about in the Bible, Alim said in a prophetic tone, so the Qur’an is the complete revelation. Two weeks later Edwin went to Muhammad and said, “I’ll take you up on that offer.” Muhammad sent him to the store, where Edwin chose a white gallabiya, because white symbolizes purity. He took shahada again “as a test, but with conviction” and started his life over as Abdu Alim.
He likened his time with the Baptists, the Pentecostals, the Seventh-day Adventists, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses to surfing the Internet; he was never satisfied with the answers he got to the questions he posed. “Now I got most of the answers,” he said. “I got the main ingredients to this religion; my mind is so clear like a blue sky with no clouds.”
Alim climbed the stairs to the large atrium of the 96th Street mosque on the thin black prayer slippers he got on discount from Islam Fashion. He entered, turned-off cell phone in hand because he didn’t have anywhere to clip it, and joined the last line of men, about four feet in front of the rows of women. He stood, pale and solemn with upright posture, shoulder to shoulder, soles solid on the ground, the sides of his feet pressed against those of his brothers in Islam. He was first told that Muslims pray side by side, toe to toe, heel to heel, “so the shaytan cannot go in between.” But the Egyptian imam in Bay Ridge explained to him the real reason: All nationalities of the world are praying together. It’s about the brotherhood of humanity, Alim elaborated. “The main idea of Islam is to bond the whole human race together, to share in the peace that God gives us by means of our obedience to Him.” 5’ 9” and of slight build, Alim is smaller than most of the brothers he joined in prayer that night. Many of the blacks, whites, Arabs, and Asians in the front part of the mosque were not wearing gallabiyas, but sweaters and jeans, pinstriped suits, black leather jackets, hooded sweatshirts, and most were clean shaven. Alim doesn’t clip his beard, because that’s the way Allah made him. And he wears his robe of purity and a small white cap (so people won’t mistake him for a Jew) for Friday prayers and special occasions. He ran into his mother’s sister and her son once “dressed up like a Muslim.” As far as Alim knows, that’s the only inkling any of his blood relatives has of his conversion to Islam. He thinks it’s possible that his aunt conveyed that to the rest of the family. But she may not have recognized him as a Muslim: “Believe it or not, people don’t know what you into.”
Alim is an example of a demographic trend among new Muslims. The American Muslim Council estimates that there are up to 60,000 Hispanic-American Muslims, up from 40,000 in 1997. Ali has noticed more and more Latinos flocking to the Al Faruq mosque in Brooklyn, and he thinks it’s a miracle from God. But he’s less concerned with the demographics than the fact that so many people have embraced Islam since September 11, 2001. He believes that God is maneuvering to turn things around: “Those who are embracing Islam are replacing Muslims who are not practicing properly. They will be great models for humanity. The Muslim is the model for the whole human race: We’re like a light.”
Under the 99 candles, for the 99 names of Allah, Alim did a few rakas on his own while most of the congregation were sitting on their knees listening to the recitation. He learned the motions by imitating other Muslims: hands to the knees at the first Allahu Akbar; then upright; down to the knees; “God is great” again; forehead and nose to the floor; then back up to the knees; “salaam allekum” side to side. Alim knows that prostration is a form of humbleness to Allah, and he knows it’s good for him: “All my life up and down, up and down, five times a day, physically and mentally it has a psychological effect.” He was depressed earlier in the week about his wife, who is suffering from meningitis. But children at the mosque raised his spirits by showing him how to pray and teaching him a few verses from the Qur’an. He has memorized most of the first chapter, which Muslims recite before every prayer, in Arabic. He is careful to say only what he knows, which he learned mostly by ear, so as not contaminate the book by adding or leaving out any word.
At the pizza place around the corner, on a break from praying, Alim found the hadith on charity to which he had referred on his way to the mosque: “A good word is charity; every step you take to the mosque is charity; removing harmful things from the way is also charity,” he read with a magnifying glass, over a regular slice and a coffee, light and sweet. “Now watch what it says” on the husband’s right with regard to his wife: The righteous woman is obedient to Allah and her husband; neglecting the husband is a sin; having relations is a blessing. “This amazing, this little book,” he said. “I was reading it on the train yesterday, and I couldn’t stop.”
Back at the mosque, close to midnight, Sheikh Bayran Mulich lectured the congregation: “If we can be good Muslims, if we can be the Qur’an that walks, the world can change…Right now the Qur’an can change the whole human history…Islam is coming…It’s tough. It’s painful. But it’s coming…Allah creates hardship to test you…This is the night of repentance. We have to put the finger to ourselves, to our hearts. This is Adam’s way…This is the Night of Power because this is the night Allah has spoken. Read in the name of thy Lord. Read! Educate…Study….When you study Allah gives you wings.”
Alim strives to be the Qur’an that walks. He wears his faith on his make-shift satchel bag, in white block letters on a green background: “No man is a true believer unless he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself,” his favorite quote from the Qur’an. He tailored the black briefcase he found with the stickers from Islam Fashion and a purple nylon strap, left over from the years he spent taking care of canines in veterinary clinics all over Manhattan, to suit his new purpose in life: to practice and teach Islam wherever he goes. Inside he carries a roll-up mini prayer carpet. When he has to pray on the go, he finds a place without too much traffic, removes his shoes, and does his duty to Allah. He also totes a chart that tells him the windows of time in which he should pray, a paperback of abridged hadith, and The Interpretation of the Meanings of the Noble Qur‘an, a pocket sized English-Arabic translation zipped in a gold-colored cover. Alim is well aware of his duties to his creator and his society: “No one is a Muslim unless he teaches what God has given to him—every piece of that knowledge, every piece of my humanity, every piece of me, I have to give to somebody.”
Abdu Alim found his own way in Islam, and he believes it was for his own good. The difficulty of learning Islam “becomes a part of you,” he said. “It begins like a burden, but in reality it’s not a burden.” It is part of fitna: “the struggle, the trial to find your own way…tests your patience, perseverance, tolerance.” Ali explained that this is especially true during Ramadan. At times he is tempted to break his fast. Then he reflects on the suffering of those in the world who are deprived of food, and he sympathizes in his own body.
This Ramadan, Abdu Alim would begin fasting when he went to sleep. He didn’t have a predawn meal like many of his brothers and sisters in Islam: He can’t tell “when the white thread becomes distinct… from the black thread of dawn.” And it’s too early for him, anyway. Usually, he would have a piece of carrot cake with milk before bed, making sure to brush his teeth at night so as not to break his fast with toothpaste in the daylight.
Often he would wake up around two or three in the morning and pour his heart out to God. He would beg Allah for forgiveness, to save us from the hellfire, and pray for the innocent in the midst of injustice: God have mercy and help your people; help me to be a good Muslim, a good human being. Making your petitions known to God, Alim said, “you could be crying, or just say it in your heart.”
His second holy month was 100 percent better than the first, when he had to miss 13 days of fasting because he got bronchitis. You are not to fast when it becomes a burden, he explained, “because God is not trying to do that to you.” (The traveler, the ill, the elderly, the insane, the pregnant, and breast-feeding women are permitted not to fast.) During his second Ramadan, Alim missed only the first day of fasting, because he hadn’t heard that the crescent moon had been sighted. But he knows Allah will forgive him, because he had the good intention to fast.
Abdu Alim said he’s not very knowledgeable about the Islamic calendar, and that the average Muslim shouldn’t concern himself too much with this. In Islam, he explained, “everything is by intention;” prayer begins with purification, “which takes place with the intentions of your heart…And every time you do purification, sins fall from your body like leaves from a tree.” And from the moment you intend to pray, “every step you take to the mosque, God is wiping out your sin.”
The entire honor, blessings, and peace of the Night of Power continue in every second of the night until Fijr. But Abdu Ali didn’t make it until dawn. He needed to go home and attend to his wife, to make sure she had her medicine and take her to the clinic early in the morning. “You have to be practical in Islam,” he said, “to take it at your own pace.” One woman told him taking Islam is like a baby taking milk. Abdu Alim says he feels like a child learning to walk.
Ashley Makar works with refugees in Connecticut. She does community outreach for IRIS--Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services, in New Haven. She has an e-book of essays, You Were Strangers: Dispatches from Exile. Ashley has published essays in Tablet, The Birmingham News, The Struggle Continues (the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute weblog), Religion Dispatches, and The New Haven Register.