Islam, Mosques, Imams, and Malcom X

Theology Series on the Power of Faith, Communication, Connection and Positive Leadership

How have the big screens depicted Muslims from around the world? How have those big screen depictions of Muslims influenced the world’s perception of Islam? The one-word answer to the first question is “inaccurately”, while the two-word answer to the second question is “with prejudice”.  Leaving one of those big screen movies, few viewers are likely to leave the theatre and immediately associate Islam with words like gratitude, patience, discipline, fairness, charity, compassion, non-judgement, good deeds, continuous improvement, community services, overcoming differences, and making peace.  Not many viewers, especially if we focus on individuals who have no familiarity with Islam, are likely to leave the theatre and immediately think about the Quran as scripture that gives life meaning and purpose—that encourages people to help one another and to work together and for people to strive to be their best self.  But what can be done about big screen depictions and their power to ‘influence’? The single-sentence answer to this question is by recapturing the narrative and by replacing big screen storylines with real-life history, that of Malcom X.

In the gathering of information for this article, two Mosques in Ottawa, the South Nepean Muslim Community Mosque (SMNC Mosque) and the Jami Omar Mosque, welcomed me to observe their afternoon and evening prayers.  Additionally, I had the opportunity to discuss how faith interconnects with communication and connection with their Imams, Imam Isa Ma of the SMNC Mosque, and Imam Anver Malam and Iman Owais Tilly of the Jami Omar Mosque, with the takeaways being plentiful.

Real-life history: The power of the example that Islam sets and the impact it had on one man.

The story of Malcom X is one of the few stories that Hollywood has managed to tell in an authentic way, thanks to Spike Lee and Denzel Washington.  That story looked at how Malcom’s early life had been a time of pain and hurt, and how he would go on to reinvent himself in the unlikeliest of places: in prison, while serving a six-and-a-half-year sentence.  But it was not until Malcolm’s pilgrimage to Mecca, “Hajj” in Arabic, where he witnessed the power of the example that Islam set, which helped him become the best version of himself: one that all people would be proud of.

Born Malcom Little in May of 1925, his early life experiences likely contributed toward his writings and calling all fair-skinned people devils.  The KKK burned down his childhood home and killed his father, and caused the psychological destruction of his mother, which resulted in the children being separated from each other and placed into the foster care system.  It also stemmed from authoritative figures who attempted to suppress his aspirations and dreams for the future, only because of his skin color.  Those experiences were enough to confuse a youth and set him on a path that eventually landed him in prison.

During his time in prison, Malcom learned about the Nation of Islam (NOI), a faith-oriented movement that had been founded in 1930, sixteen years prior to him getting sent there.  Although the NOI did feature “Islam” in its name, the NOI’s religious beliefs were diametrically opposed to the teachings of Islam.

This NOI movement managed to light a flame in the dampest of places.  A youth who had once been faithless and who had no knowledge of his roots beyond the slavery era was engulfed with a burning desire to feed his mind.  Eventually Malcom began to view his Blackness as a gift and superpower, and it gave his life new meaning.  From that point on, Malcom dedicated himself to striving toward attaining a higher standard of living, but it would not be without controversy.  Upon his release from prison in August of 1952, he dropped his last name for a single letter, Malcolm X, now a member of the NOI and a black rights advocate.

Over the next few years, Malcom would begin to connect his lived experiences with more of the NOI’s teachings, that fair-skinned people lacked inner divinity and were intrinsically violent.  Much of this influenced Malcom’s early thinking and early words after he was released from prison.  However, it was the discovery that top leadership within the NOI were not living what they were preaching, and then being blackballed by the organization’s leaders for confronting them about it, that made Malcom feel disenfranchised.

As fate would have it, Malcom would end up travelling to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia for Hajj, a pilgrimage to Mecca obligatory for every Muslim who was able to do so.  It was an experience that would forever change the way he thought about his fellow man.

Seeing the same type of fair-skinned people at Mecca, blue-eyed with blonde hair, those that had caused him so much pain in his early-life, walking side-by-side and being observant Muslims caused Malcolm X to revisit the core of his beliefs.  Here were other Muslims from around the world, that came in an assortment of skin colors, who were able to see him for the person he was beneath his skin color.  It was an experience that was unimaginable back in the US.

The Hajj demonstrated the NOI’s religious beliefs should not be confused with the teachings of Islam, and that Islam was something entirely different.  The power of the example that Islam set was pure enough that it seemed to make Malcom lift the lid on the container that stored all his hatred toward fair-skinned people and helped him free himself from all its corrosion.  After completing Hajj and witnessing the power of the example Islam set, Malcom’s writing and speeches changed—never going back to his old thinking.  The man who had thought of himself as Malcom X, changed his name to El-Hajj (the pilgrim) Malik El-Shabazz, his final stop on the journey from the darkness of erroneous beliefs to the truth and light of Islam.

Imam Isa Ma of the South Nepean Muslim Community Mosque

In Islam, the path to becoming an Imam and Islamic scholar often demands a faith-based education, but it is not a path that every Imam has taken.  For Imam Isa Ma, the path to becoming an Imam was less traditional than most, nonetheless it was a path that was still paved in knowledge.

Born and raised in China, without siblings because of China’s “one child” policy, Imam Isa is a member of the Hui people, one of the ten ethnic Muslim groups in China.  Imam Isa grew up speaking Mandarin, then went to university in Hong Kong and learned how to speak Cantonese before teaching himself to speak Arabic.  At university, Imam Isa first obtained a Bachelor of Civil Engineering before obtaining a Master of Education in Youth Studies.  He started his career working in university admissions before becoming a teacher, and taught for seven years at the only Islamic school in the area.

Imam Isa described himself as always being fascinated by different kinds of research and science breakthroughs but took a personal interest in the teachings of divine decree and divine providence, and that same path of consuming knowledge and expanding his thinking inspired him to become an Imam.  That was followed by greater realizations after reading, listening, and watching other Muslim speakers from around the world, as well as non-Muslim speakers, who were also driven by passion, self-motivations, and positive impact.

Two examples of moving language that Imam Isa referenced was reading US President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg speech and listening to recorded speeches given by Malcolm X.  He spoke of how they stirred emotions from within.  These two historical figures demonstrated the power of sensible and evidence-based language, and how positive and compassionate words could influence the masses.

On the topic of connection, Imam Isa described how being an influential Imam required more than just language.  His goal was to be personable and approachable—another member of the congregation, just with slightly different responsibilities—so that others would feel comfortable in seeking out his advice, however big or small.  He also explained how Islamic scriptures had important messages that were embedded within them conveyed through conversations.  He spoke of Islamic scriptures including examples of how to communicate with different people and even of human psychology and behavior.

Perhaps the most powerful moment during my visit to the South Nepean Muslim Community Mosque came after Imam Isa delivered the Friday afternoon prayer there.  The prayer was followed by the “Khutbah”, an integral part of the Friday prayer where an Imam gives a speech that often blends advice, guidance, and teachings.

The focus of Imam Isa’s speech was on the topic of human nature, its innate tendencies.  and how they fuel the thinking behind “what’s in it for me”.  The only way to overcome human nature and its innate tendencies was by being conscious about our actions, behaviors, and decisions.  That speech touched on different themes including the importance of gratitude, patience, discipline, compassion, non-judgement, overcoming differences, and making peace.  It concluded with an important reminder that what mattered most in life was earning the pleasure of your creator and to have respect between people.  It was a message that was relevant, and one that transcended lines of difference.

Imam Anver Malam and Imam Owais Tilly of the Jami Omar Mosque

After visiting the Jami Omar Mosque and spending the evening discussing faith, communication, and connection with Imam Anver Malam and Imam Owais Tilly, there was a special quote that sticks out most.  “Brotherhood/sisterhood is in faith just as it is fundamental in humanity and we cannot attain complete faith until we love for our brothers/sisters in humanity that we love for ourselves,” one quote from an evening that was full of takeaways.

During my conversation with Imam Anver and Imam Owais there was agreement that the outwardly actions were always the result of inward feelings and thoughts: everything started with the heart and the mind.  The point of sermons was to find ways to connect religious teachings with real-world events and things that were transpiring in society, but their main purpose might be best described as an attempt to unlock the goodness within people and inspire others to do things for the common good and humanity.

Our discussion also touched on how Islam incorporates communication and connection, and how oral and written communication were key components of Islam.  From that discussion, the Quran could be best described as representing the power of communication, deep and wide, and demonstrating the eloquence of language.  The Quran scripture uses language that would resonate with common people, and reflects the power of examples, delivered in concise and clear ways which embodied in the life example of Prophet Muhammad and the messengers that came before him.

The teachings of Islam could be described as teachings with the objective to serve mankind and whose legacy was meant to be reflected in man’s pursuit of knowledge and in the sincerity of man’s actions.  Through knowledge, people could better position themselves toward living a fuller life, but educational diversity was also what made for good Islamic scholars.

Imams who were effective at communicating and connecting with people often had a shared similarity, they had an educational background in a field that complemented their religious studies.  Imam Anver, for example, worked as an engineer during the day, and described the power of being able to communicate by blending the different schools of thought to reach the widest audience possible.  Imam Anver also discussed how there was an overall emphasis for Islamic scholars to read and consume knowledge beyond just gathering information, and to apply that information for the purposes of positive transformation.

Another important aspect to becoming an Imam that Imam Owais discussed had to do with the importance of mentorship and the presence of role models who could help a person learn.  Parents and other family members had a role to play in the overall development.  Imam Owais also touched on the idea of leadership, describing leadership as necessary but not sought for the purposes of position and power.  When a qualified person was put into a leadership situation then they were responsible for living up to leadership expectations with the spirit of serving others by way of honour and humility.

The tour of the Jami Omar Mosque was also provided by Imam Owais, and he provided explanations on the various functions of mosques along with exploring its different spaces and purposes.  It is a place that bring all people closer together for the purpose of betterment, enhancing the common good and fostering meaningful relationships between all sectors of Canadian society.

What was interesting about the Jami Omar Mosque was that it was working on building affordable housing for low-income families, and the mosque had many different spaces, including rooms to learn and even workout in.  The mosque’s congregation also had various programs that they fundraised for and made available based on need, both for Muslims and non-Muslims.  The words that might best sum up the desired purpose of the Jami Omar Mosque could be “relationships” and “companionship”, and a place that brought all people closer together.

A Concluding Thought.

Perhaps we all need to be reminded that the world’s collection of knowledge is something that has been shared and rotated between places and back and forth.  During the Islamic Golden Age (8th to 14th century), many European universities used to translate Arabic text to Latin because Islamic countries had a lasting impact in fields of study including math, science, and medicine, as well as global culture.  A point that many people are unlikely to be aware of if they lack familiarity with Islam.  And perhaps also a reminder that life is short; we owe it to one another to learn about each other as well as the world around us.

A special thank you to the South Nepean Muslim Community Mosque and the Jami Omar Mosque, and to Imam Isa Ma, Imam Anver Malam, and Imam Owais Tilly for opening up their place of worship and making this article possible.