Ramadan in the Ghetto
Mon Oct 18 14:47:15 EDT 2004
Ramadan in the Ghetto
By Larry Taylor (Bilal Muhammad al Shabazz) Oct. 18 2004
Today is the third day of the Muslim feast of Ramadan. Here on the West
Side of Chicago it's like any other day. Shopkeepers on Division Street
and North Avenue roll back the iron gates and open their stores. Older
people shuffle up and down the streets, kids shout greetings and
obscenities to each other, the drug dealers loiter coolly and nervously,
waiting for someone to sell to, cars honk loudly in the alley to warn
other cars and show off to their neighbors.
Yet something seems more peaceful; Muslims in the community are fasting
and praying. For 30 days, depending on when they see the new moon. We
are paying special attention to the One who created us all.
I'm observing Ramadan, aiming to rid myself himself of foul habits and
attitudes, forgive myself and others for any wrongdoings, and receive
God's blessings. Each day I arise around 4 a.m. to start the Fajr al
salaat (prayer) around 5. That's the first of the five Muslim daily
prayers. The others are called Zuhr, around 1:30 p.m.; Asr, around 5
p.m., Maghrib, 6:15 p.m., and Isha, 8 p.m. The exact times vary with
the sunrise and sunset.
Prayers are quite exact in wording and must be done in a certain order.
Islam originated in Arabia, and remember, our number system came from
Arabic. The Koran is full of numbers: God (Allah) is said to have
created 18,000 universes and possess 3,000 beautiful qualities. This
is just a way of saying God has created worlds beyond worlds and is
creating things all the time, beyond our comprehension.
Originally, the prophet Muhammed (may peace be upon him) (this is the
respectful term used, and I intend for it to apply each time his name
may be mentioned) asked his followers to pray 50 times a day, so as
never to forget our Creator. That proved too much for humans to handle
and still conduct their daily business. So it was reduced to five
times a day, which is still quite a challenge. Those who choose to
observe Ramadan do not eat any food or drink any water between sunrise
and sunset for the whole month. We also abstain this month from alcohol,
drugs and sex, and concentrate on praying, religious reading, and living
peacefully with others.
I plan to observe the final 10 nights of Ramadan praying in the mosque;
that's when Muslims expect the angel Gabriel and other special angels to
observe us in worship there, and to come and spiritually "shake our
hands" for being good-doers. This happens on the Night of Power, a
night when temperatures are not too hot or cold, and the moon is as
bright and radiant as the sun. When the last 10 days of Ramadan are
over, Muslims prepare after the Fajr salaat, to say the Eid prayer
around 8:15 a.m . According to our tradition, Allah boasts to the angels
about the good deeds that each Muslim has done, because the angels are
always telling God that humans were a mistake from the beginning. The
angels are forced to declare that faithful people will receive Allah's
blessings. Then the Muslims break the Ramadan fast, and begin to feast.
How do you know if an angel has shaken your hand? You might feel a
chill or that your hair is standing on end. You might feel like a new
person, since all your wrongdoings and sins for the whole year have been
forgiven. Your vices have been turned to virtues. None of us are free
from sins and wrongdoings, and none of us created ourselves, so Muslims
believe (as do the Jews during Yom Kippur) that it's necessary to have a
special time of atonement and forgiveness. When things are going good
for us, we tend to say "God has honored me" but when misfortune
befalls us we tend to blame God for humiliating us. But God may just be
trying to alert and correct us; so we should look for things in our
lives that need a change of attitude and behavior.
I am a blues musician. Some Muslims, like some Christians, disapprove of
music because they believe it is the work of Satan. Lyrics can be
corrupt, and pleasures can distract a person from acknowledging God .
Pop singer-songwriter Yusuf Islam (Cat Stevens) gave up music when he
became a Muslim, much to the disappointment of his fans. Checking his
website, www.yusufislam.org.uk <http://www.yusufislam.org.uk/> Yusuf
says that he was not required to give up music; he wanted a break and he
wanted to live life as a human instead of a pop star. After a long
break, he now plans to record music. Like Yusuf, I can find nothing in
the Koran prohibiting music. I did find words that say people are free
to practice the professions and talents God gave them to practice.
African Muslims were very musical and the Muslim call to prayer has a
lot of melisma similar to the blues. The first music of Africa was the
drum, which is my instrument; there were also flutes and stringed
I have been a Muslim since age 17. I started out in the Nation of Islam
and converted to become a Sunna Muslim 10 years ago. After much
meditation, prayer and study, I have concluded God wants me to be both a
musician and a Muslim. I expect people to respect democracy and freedom
in America, which includes the First Amendment right to practice freedom
of religion and speech.
From now on, before I hit the stage, I plan to give words of praise to
God and greet the audience in the ancient words of peace, Asalam alaikum
(peace be with you). My goal is simply to make a living, not to make
extraordinary amounts of money or win fame; these things are unlikely in
blues anyway. If success comes, it comes from God and I hope to share
it by helping the needy, honoring my own community and reaching out to
others abroad, of all ethnics. I call on fans to respect people of all
faiths. If they must judge, please judge a performer's musical
abilities and not his or her religious convictions. In the future, God
willing, I plan to use the name Bilal on the stage as well. Most of the
English-sounding names of African-Americans were forced on us by slave
masters and are not our real names... remember Kunta Kinte in "Roots"
fought to keep his name.
I hope this small essay will relieve some of your fears about Muslims.
People fear that which they don't know; education helps this. What
should concern us is our government exploiting our fears of other
racial, religious and ethnic groups. What we should be afraid of is
having civil and human rights taken away--like Homeland Security's
detention of Yusuf (Cat Stevens) at the airport with no explanation.
When I go to stores run by fellow Muslims, I greet them with arkee
(referring to them as brothers in faith). The neighborhood is quieter
here this month on the West Side. For the month of Ramadan, Allah is
said to have bound up the Satan so that less evil abounds. The month of
Ramadan this year includes the U.S. election. We are praying that this
will be a blessing! Peace be to all of you.
--Larry Taylor (Bilal Muhammad al Shabazz)
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