I was in junior high school in 1977. My family and I were watching the first episode of what would become the most watched television miniseries in American history, "Roots." I remember the words of the Levar Burton character Kunta Kinte in the belly of the slave ship on his way to captivity in America: "Allah the Beneficent, Allah the Merciful." As a thirteen-year-old I had no idea how much those words would eventually guide the rest of my life and become the focus of my greatest hopes and fears.
Raised in a church-going Christian household, I was always a believer in God and organized religion. Even after watching "Roots," I still believed that the religion of God was Christianity and I fully expected that one day I would be baptized and join the Church. However, television had opened my mind to the realization that other people believed as strongly in their religion as my family believed in its own. I also had to consider the circumstances that resulted in my Afro-American family residing in America in the first place: the transcontinental slave trade of Africans. On my mother's side of the family we can trace my great grandparents to their time as Virginia slaves. As we are well aware, Africans brought here to become chattel slaves were not allowed to speak their native tongue, maintain their family names, engage in their native customs, or practice their native religions. They were forcibly converted to Christianity, although the converted did not achieve an improved status of spiritual brotherhood with his converter. This historical situation raised an unanswerable question I would ponder often in years to come: If Kunta Kinte's tribe was Muslim, was mine also? Had the slave trade never happened, would we be practicing Muslims in Africa? Still believing in Christianity, I asked Allah (by college I began using that term for God) to guide me to the truth whatever it may be.
After graduating from college, I became more serious about religion. My days as a full time student were over and I would now have to support myself. It was time to begin taking more responsibility for my moral behavior, too. I remember the evening after I graduated from college. I had just left my family at their hotel and my best friend for four years, Kevin Edwards, and I were alone in my apartment. My other graduating roommate Roger had already left the campus with his family, leaving me a goodbye note. Kevin, who was going to be finishing up in another semester, said to me, "Now you have to go get a job. Then you'll get married, have some kids. Hey man, you'll be dead soon." As morbid a joke as that may have been, I had to accept the reality of the swift passage of time. Whether I was given a long life or a short one, I would one day have to face judgment.
That summer, perhaps because I missed being in school, I went on a reading frenzy. Two works I read that summer were The New Testament and The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Malcolm's autobiography was completely captivating. I found myself reading it when I woke up in the morning, on the train going back and forth to the city, when I came home in the evening, and before going to bed at night. I, like many others, was intrigued by Malcolm's transformations from street criminal to Black Muslim minister to orthodox Muslim and international figure.
I also spent a lot of time reading the New Testament of the Bible. I had taken Old Testament classes in high school and college and had become very familiar with The Torah. I now wanted to get a better understanding of this "new covenant" that God had made with people.
During that same period my two closest neighborhood friends were also studying Religion, including Islam. At that time a "Muslim" (I use the term loosely) organization known as the Ansar Allah community was well known in New York. Their leader had a weekly radio program that focused on comparative religion, and particularly on Islam and Christianity. As someone raised in the Christian faith this was of great interest to me, since my primary understanding of religion was based on the Bible. By this time I had been working the past several months for Rev. Congressman Floyd H. Flake, pastor of the Allen A.M.E. Church in St. Albans, Queens. I had met Rev. Flake by working on his initial campaign for Congress in 1986. Shortly after winning the November election, the Chairman of the democratic club I belonged to, Gregory Meeks, set up an interview for me with Flake's chief of staff, and they offered me a position.What is significant about these circumstances is that working for a pastor during this time that I was seeking more spiritual guidance began pushing me closer and closer toward the Christian church and becoming baptized. However, my continued studies into comparative religion kept holding me back. I am sure that many in the Christian faith will say that the devil was standing in my way, especially when you consider that the leader of the Ansar Allah community was exposed, by orthodox Muslims, as a fraud. Nevertheless, my religious studies and conclusions were not based on some charismatic personality the way many others are swayed. Nor were they based on a need to understand my "divine nature as a black man" like the Nation of Islam or the Five Percent Nation might say. They were based on an intelligent inspection of the Judeo-Christian doctrine and Allah knows best, a sincere call to the one God to guide me to the straight path.
This was by no means a joyful epiphany for me. It would mean turning away from the religion I had grown up with, a religion that was the cornerstone of my family's faith, and that, I knew, would be painful.
More and more, my conversations turned toward religion, particularly among my friends and colleagues. I was not, however, ready to discuss my Islamic leanings with family members. All that changed on February 15, 1988 with what has so far been the saddest day of my life: the day my father died.
Six days before, as I was leaving home to go to work, the telephone rang. It was a friend of my father's informing us that my father had been admitted to the hospital in Astoria, Queens with chest pains and that he was in intensive care. When I went to see him with my mother, it appeared that he was going to be in the hospital for at least a few weeks. Over that week, his condition improved dramatically, and the doctor said that he could come home the following Monday. Just as we were waking that Monday morning, the telephone rang again. I could hear my mother crying as she called out to me that my father had just died. The doctor said that my father had had a massive heart attack that morning. As I stood in the kitchen holding and comforting my mother while trying to mentally accept this new reality of ours, I kept thinking about Allah, the way that I knew him, and the way I was getting to know him. I kept thinking to myself, This is a test, a test that others go through, and now it's your turn. As I would learn later the Qur'an addresses this very circumstance: "Do you imagine that you shall be left alone saying that you believe, and you shall not be tested as I have tested those before you?"
With all the arrangements to be made and with a large number of extended family members around, I experienced some difficulty accepting my father's death. Then, a friend suggested that I go to the funeral home where my father's body was being prepared and spend some time alone with him. I chose to do so and went by in the evening. I said goodbye to my father William, from whom I derived my middle name and nickname, and I promised him, (or promised me, or promised Allah, I am not sure who, perhaps all), that I would stop wasting time, I would soon accept Islam as my way of life, and I would pray for my father's soul.
Over the next three month's I began to take what I thought of as additional steps toward accepting Al-Islam. Some of these 'steps' were more superficial than others, such as wearing a kufi (prayer cap) from time to time along with certain buttons that were symbolic of various Muslim and cultural groups. I began to identify more with Muslims that I saw in the street, in stores, or on the subway, including those from questionable, unorthodox organizations. Even before taking shahada, the public declaration of one's belief in Allah and Muhammad as his prophet, I fasted for the first time during the month of Ramadan. That first year of fasting had to be one of the most difficult disciplines I had ever undertaken. It wouldn't realize until later years that refraining from eating and drinking was actually the easy part. My two closest friends, then known as Curtis and David, were also making this transformation with me. David we saw only rarely that year as he was then busy repaying a debt that had come due from his pre-Islamic business activities- if you get my meaning.
Shortly after Ramadan ended, Curtis came by the house and told me that he had visited a masjid (mosque) called Masjid At-Taqwa in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn with a Muslim that he worked with. While he was there he chose to take shahada. I told him that at some point I would like to go visit with him to see what the mosque was like.
One Saturday, we went by Masjid At-Taqwa for Curtis (now Saifudiyn) to take care of some business with the assistant imam. Because the assistant imam was not there when we arrived, we spent some time at a restaurant next door eating and chatting with some brothers from the mosque. I always remember them making jokes whose punch lines had Islamic references. Saifudiyn and I both laughed, not because we understood the joke, but because of our mutual confusion. An African American brother named Abdul Kariem seemed to give particular attention to us. Just as we were about to leave someone started to call the adhan, the call to prayer, at the mosque. Abdul Kariem informed us that this late noon prayer was very important and that we should stay and perform it with them. After demonstrating how to wash before prayer, he turned to me and said that it seemed like I was ready to take shahada. I agreed that I was. After the prayer Imam Siraj Wahaj conducted my shahada. Just afterwards, a brother in the mosque asked me what my name was and when I said James, he began to call me Jameel. Leaving the house that day I'd had no intention of taking shahada yet; I only intended to visit a mosque for the first time in my life. By the time I left that mosque, however, I had entered the fold of Islam and all my previous sins had been washed away. As the Prophet Muhammad taught us from the Qur'an, "Men plan, but Allah is the best of planners."
As I look back on those early days just before and just after taking shahada, and when I consider my most significant shortcomings at that time, I am reminded again of my arrogant attitude toward non-Muslims. As I began to change and see the world through different eyes, focusing more on the spiritual and less on the material, I had difficulty understanding why others didn't see what I saw. I became more argumentative about religion, and too often my remarks to my non-Muslim peers grew unnecessarily harsh. This was an arrogance brought out of prideful ignorance, not Islamic enlightenment. For as the Prophet Muhammad said, "All of you were on the brink of the fire until I pulled you back." I always think of those days when I read in the Qur'an Allah's statement to His Messenger Muhammad: "Had you been harsh on the people, they would not have listened to you." Arrogance is a satanic trait. May Allah forgive me and save me from that.
Later that year I began a new position with a not-for-profit local development corporation. I worked there as the administrator of a New York State program that the corporation had contracted to manage. It was at this point that I first found myself needing to establish my way of life as a Muslim in relation to my work. Although I had taken shahada while I was working in the office of Congressman Flake, (which incidentally was the place I would meet Cheryl Hart, the woman who would one day become my wife) I was just learning to make my prayers, and had not yet begun attending Jummah services, the Friday congregational prayer. I hadn't begun attending Jummah while working for Congressman Flake because I was not aware of any mosques nearby. Now that I had taken this new position and had recently met some Muslim brothers in Harlem who directed me to a mosque near my work, I was compelled to expand the breadth of my religious practice. I felt that the best way to do that was to set the tone from the very first day.
While my new supervisor was orienting me to the way the office ran, I informed him, in a friendly way, that I was Muslim and would need to take time on Friday, mostly during my lunch break, to attend service. I would also need to find a private place to pray once or twice a day since I didn't have a closed office. He told me that neither request posed a problem. On Friday, I would just need to sign out saying where I was going and when I expected to be back, just like a lunch break or any other appointment. He was also sure that I could borrow someone's office from time to time when the need arose. During the five years that I worked for that organization, I never had a problem attending Jummah, finding accommodations for prayer, wearing a kufi, or taking the day off for Muslim holidays. Even my colleagues from city and state government understood that they shouldn't schedule meetings that required my attendance on Friday afternoons. As a matter of fact, I found that many people will take the opportunity to engage someone they are comfortable with in discussions on Islam and ask questions on issues they are curious about. This is all very different from the much more uncomfortable circumstances faced by the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and his companions who were persecuted and even killed for espousing their belief in the One God.
Around the time that I first started this new job, I had acquired the Malcolm X, "By Any Means Necessary" poster. This is a well-known image of Malcolm holding a rifle and peering cautiously out of the window. Without much thought, I put this poster up in my office my first week on the job. In my view, this was a popular poster of a famous African American champion of human rights. I found out a few years later from one of my colleagues that some of the staff, particularly those with the least exposure to African American culture, had no idea how to approach this young Black Muslim with the radical poster. She joked with me that once they got to know me they realized that I was just a softie. I facetiously replied that I was sorry to have let the mystique wear off.
In my next position at a similar type of local development corporation, this time in my own neighborhood of Far Rockaway, I held the positions of deputy executive director and then executive director, which allowed me to provide opportunities to other Muslims seeking employment. One Friday afternoon as I was headed to Jummah, at a mosque that I had helped establish in Far Rockaway, I asked a Muslim brother who was working in our employment division if he was ready to go with me. He said, "You mean, it's okay for us to go to Jummah?" I replied, "Well, first of all, I am the boss. So, of course it's okay. Secondly, you get a lunch hour, so it wouldn't be a problem anyway. Lastly, if you ever go to work at a job, and I have already worked there, rest assured that the whole matter will already have been taken care of."
As the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) has taught us, those who go before are not like those who come after, meaning that those who strike out ahead to establish the good are superior to those who come after them and benefit from what has already been established. This is but one of the reasons the early companions of the Prophet are superior to all the following generations of Muslims. As Allah's words translated from the Qur'an say, "Not equal among you are those who spent and fought before the Victory (with those who did so later). Those are higher in rank than those who spent and fought afterward." (Qur'an 57:10) My struggles in this day and place pale by comparison when set beside the struggles of the Prophet and his companions during the early years of Islam. This is true even in the job that followed my work in Far Rockaway- the most interesting and challenging professional position I have ever held, as Chief of Staff to a U.S. Congressman.
Taking up this work would mean a moving from New York to Washington D.C. As I would be starting a new life in a new state, I decided it would be a good time to legally change my name to coincide with what the Muslim community had been calling me all these years: Jameel William Aalim-Johnson. By this time, Cheryl and I had already given our three children, Kaif, Khalieq, and Naadira, the surname Aalim-Johnson when they were born. Since I would be dealing with a whole new population of people, this would be a good opportunity for them to know me by one name only, rather than continuing the confusion of going by two different names, depending upon whether I was being addressed by a Muslim or a non-Muslim. I had been christened with the name James William Johnson. I decided to keep William because that was my father's first name. I made certain that I maintained Johnson as my last name because, contrary to what had become popular in the African American community, which is to lose your so-called "slave name," it was the tradition of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) that you retain your family name for the purposes of heritage and ancestry. In Islam, even when women get married, they maintain their father's family name as opposed to taking on their husband's surname. Many American women consider this a modern trend of independence, not realizing that Muslims began practicing it fourteen centuries ago.
During my first few weeks in the Capitol I thought I was the only Muslim on the Hill. Neither hijab nor kufi was something you typically see in the halls of Congress. After working there for about a month, the Congressman I worked for accepted an invitation to a dinner being sponsored on the Hill by an organization known as the American Muslim Council (AMC). As the resident Muslim, I of course accompanied him to the function. Meeting the staff of AMC would subsequently open many doors for me to the larger, more international Muslim community both on and off the Hill. In a subsequent visit with AMC, the officers there provided me with a list of other Muslim staffers on the Hill and in the White House. I had the opportunity to meet many of these people when the Islamic Supreme Council based in California came to town for their convention and asked me to participate. Through them I learned that Muslim staffers had begun holding Jummah services in one of the legislative office buildings. Up until then, I had been attending Jummah at the Islamic Center on Massachusetts Avenue, which proved somewhat inconvenient in the Friday lunch-hour traffic of Washington, DC.
I was pleased to know that there were other Muslims working on Capitol Hill, brothers and sisters, who were practicing their faith and striving to improve conditions for Muslims. During that summer, we began to realize that it was not just a convenience for the staff but a statement as well of the inroads Muslims were making into the halls of political power. Through the Jummah prayers, where from time to time I would give the kutba (sermon), I began to meet other Muslims who worked in the area, either for the Executive branch or for Muslim advocacy or political organizations that up until now I hadn't known existed. I immediately acquired a novelty status as the first and only Muslim chief of staff in Congress.
My experiences on the Hill have been a great test of my faith. It has been tested by the new domestic relationships I have developed with Muslims of other cultures, the international trips I have taken to Muslim countries, and of course, the in-depth reality of beltway politics.
The Qur'an says: "O mankind! We created you from a single pair of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes that you might get to know one another. Surely the noblest of you in the sight of Allah is he who is the most righteous. Allah is All-Knowing, All-Aware." (Qur'an 49:13) Although many mosques in New York have inter-racial and inter-cultural communities, I had not experienced much interaction with Muslims who were not indigenous Americans or from the Caribbean. Now, working in DC, I began to meet and work more regularly with Muslim professionals from the Asian subcontinent and the Middle East - fellow staffers, executive branch employees, civil rights advocates, and local businesspersons. And I came to know them not only as colleagues but my beloved brothers and sisters in faith. However, I often found their approach to the sunnah (example, traditions) of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) a bit unsettling.
I also found what seemed to be a difference in objectives when it came to our efforts to improve the condition of the Muslim community. Many of the immigrant Muslims or those who came from immigrant families seemed to be more concerned with assimilation into the American society. In terms of my own life experience, goals seemed similar to the goals of the Civil Rights movement that African American were seeking during the 1960s. My goals and those of many African American Muslims that I have associated seemed to place more emphasis on establishing Muslim communities, complete with the many institutions and facilities necessary to live our chosen way of life. Perhaps our varied objectives are due to our status as indigenous or immigrant Muslims. As new or first generation Americans, immigrant Muslims are trying to be accepted as Americans, much as immigrants in the past have done. As an indigenous American whose family has been in America for perhaps centuries, with the perspective of an African American who has watched his people's constant struggle for equality with the majority, I am less concerned about garnering "their acceptance." I want to live my life the way I see fit, in a manner that is pleasing to my Lord. I want an environment where I can practice Islam and spread it to all others who will accept it.
One example of my attempt to spread the knowledge of Islam on Capitol Hill was during the beginning of Ramadan, the Holy month of fasting, in December of 1998. This was one of those rare years when Ramadan happened to coincide with Hanukah and Christmas. With a House-wide email system at my disposal, I decided that this would be a good way to gently introduce my fellow staffers to the five pillars of Islam. I wrote a brief email memo informing other staffers of the fact that all three Abrahamic religions would be observing their major holidays at the same time and that some of their colleagues would be fasting as the fourth of the five pillars of Islam. I went on to explain the other four pillars. My premise was that this would be a good time to strengthen our understanding of each other. I proceeded to send this email message out to several hundred staffers. Some of the responses I received were positive and encouraging, expressing how they appreciated the attempt to increase knowledge of cultural and religious differences. Others gave simple thanks for the information. Yet a few others responded negatively, a couple spewing hateful references to the religion of Islam. As disturbing as this seemed at the time, I realized that when the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) began preaching in Mecca, the retaliation he and his companions received was far harsher than a few negative emails.
One of the great benefits of this job is the opportunity to travel domestically and internationally. When you are a Chief of Staff, especially one who works for a Member of the Committee on International Relations, the invitations to travel are abundant. Prior to working on Capitol Hill, I had only left the continental U.S. a handful of times, usually to vacation in the Caribbean with my wife. In the past four years my position has taken me to 13 new countries on five continents. Seven of them have been Muslim countries.
The most trying aspect of my job is dealing with the politics. I have always said that politics is the bane of good government. It would be unfair of me to say that Members of Congress are not guided by personal moral beliefs. Yet so often it seems that those morals are set aside in the face of vocal constituencies and influential lobbying organizations. I have had many conversations with congressional members and staff about voting for what is morally right or fundamentally fair versus voting to appease a particular lobby that may affect the outcome of a Member's next election. Members often use the logic that one may have to vote against their better judgment to keep their seat, so they can work for the public good on other issues. My logic is that if you continue to vote against your better judgment you are already not doing any good. The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) taught us that the person who seeks a position of leadership should not have it. Mutual consultation, democracy, and cooperation require individuals to compromise on various issues. However, when an individual's desire to be an elected leader causes them to compromise their morals they have already sacrificed too much.
The political infancy of the Muslim community in America only heightens my frustration as a Muslim congressional staffer when issues of particular concern to Muslims, such as the use of secret evidence against immigrants, or the Palestinian/Israeli conflict, come before the House of Representatives. A recent example of this occurred when I sent an email to other staffers who work for Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) Members detailing my boss's efforts to support a peace plan for the Middle East. By the next afternoon my boss was calling me from New York frantic about my email because it had been turned over by a CBC staffer to a pro-Israeli lobby group whose New York Members, including elected officials, they were deriding for supporting a plan for peace. Of course all issues of concern to Muslims have been magnified since September 11, 2001.
September 10, 2001--After sitting on the runway at Washington National for over an hour due to unfavorable whether conditions I decide to get off the plane when the pilot provides the option and returns to the terminal. I contact our office in New York and they say since I would arrive so late I might as well wait until tomorrow. I decide I'll get up early and catch the 7:00 AM shuttle to LaGuardia.
September 11, 2001--I decide not to catch the 7:00 AM shuttle so I can drive my kids to school first. After I drop them off at school I return home to change my clothes intending to get on the first DC-NYC shuttle I can find. I turn on the news as I begin to change clothes and learn that an airplane has struck Tower One of the World Trade Center in Manhattan. After watching for a while and hearing the commentators speculate on whether this is an accident or a terrorist attack, I step into the bathroom. A moment later, I heard the television announce that, "A second plane has just struck Tower Two. This is definitely a terrorist attack."
I can't reach Washington National Airport by telephone. I foolishly head for the airport anyway. I begin noticing emergency vehicles and police cars speeding by me as I enter Washington DC. I have been trying to reach my office by cell phone, but I can't get through, and there is no response even when it does ring. I see smoke in the distance but can't tell where it's coming from. Have they hit the Capitol Building? No, the smoke is a distance from the Capitol. My cell phone rings as I approach the Pentagon on my way to National Airport. My wife is on the phone. She says, "Don't bother going to the airport, it's shut down. They just hit the Pentagon." I say, "I know, I'm looking right at it."
I turn around and head to my office building. Police are everywhere and all the staffers are outside looking up. I park my car a few blocks away and walk toward the building. Outside, things are chaotic: no directions, no clear orders for congressional Members or staff other than evacuate. I run into my Muslim brother Khalil Ali who works for another congressman. I tell him, "Everything we have been trying to do just got ten times harder."
The past eight months have been a great test for the Muslim community, both a challenge and an opportunity to build character for everyone. Like the rest my brothers and sisters in Islam, I have had to choose between faith and fear. In the days and weeks following 9/11 we have seen the best and worst of America. There have been indiscriminate attacks on Muslims, Arabs and Indians, and great acts of kindness and charity towards these same groups. The U.S. Congress has passed a resolution respecting the Muslim faith and condemning random acts of violence, while also passing legislation making it easier to take away the rights of Muslims. The President has met with Muslim organizations and spoken well of the faith while his Attorney General shuts down our charities and locks up extraordinary numbers of Muslims and Arabs without charges or evidence. I remember receiving a call from a Republican staffer with whom I once had traveled to Morocco. He informed me that the Congressman he served, who was from Louisiana and running for the Senate, had made some very ignorant remarks about Muslims, referring to their dress and how it was permissible to profile them. He wanted me to know that he had nothing to do with those remarks and that he was ashamed of the man who would make them. I also received CDs from Members of Congress that belittle Islam and the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). Even in our own Jummah prayer in the Capitol Building, a controversial, local, African American Imam gave a kutba on recent events here and in the Middle East that had people in attendance either commending or criticizing.
I have written above that in these difficult times Muslims have to choose between faith and fear. I choose faith. The Prophet Muhammad asked, "When will come the help of Allah?" Allah replied to him, "The help of Allah is always near."