Lately I’ve been thinking about the people outside my family who have influenced my growth both as a human being and more specifically as a Muslim. I find that I quote these people often in my writings and in my everyday life, and so I decided to enumerate the ones that came to my mind here on blog. They are in no particular order.
The number one spot has to go toward the Arabian Prophet, the Gentile Prophet, the unlettered Prophet, Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم. Okay. So I fibbed a little bit. Maybe there is some degree of hierarchy in my list. Really though, there’s no way any other individual could have made the number one spot on my list, and I’m not just saying this because I’m a Muslim. History has shown Muhammad to be successful a religious and spiritual leader, military general, warrior, teacher, sage, law giver, husband, friend, statesmen, and the list goes on. His entry into human history occasioned the greatest religious and political explosion the world has ever known or will ever know. And he did all while wearing a turban. I love this man, with all my being. For me, it’s a great honor to be deemed one of his followers, an honor which I sometimes feel I’m seldom worthy of. May peace and tranquility eternally rest upon the soul of the Messenger.
Okay. Now they are in no particular order…
For some reason, the words of Herman Hesse will always ring in my mind. I became acquainted with his writings in my turbulent teenage years whilst exploring various branches of existentialism and I have since then been unable to perturb his influence upon my psyche. This German Nobel Laureate wrote mainly about the spiritual journeys people embark on during their lives. As a teen, his writings gave me the necessary courage to search for a different path, and I suppose that I, in the words of Kahlil Gibran, “found a truth” and “met the soul walking upon my path” when I chanced upon Islam. I know that only Allah provides guidance, but I like to think that Allah could employ the writings of German novelist and philosopher to meet His will.
Emily Dickinson is my favorite poetess, maybe even my favorite poet period. Her poetry, lyrical in style, is both pithy and poignant. I find that as I read her poetry my mind has to wrestle with the gravity – the heft – of her words. I’ve always wondered if the depth of her poetic cogitations were the result of her reclusive life style as I would imagine such a lonely life would have entailed constant meditative sojourns into the deep recess of her mind. Anyway, here are two of my favorite poems from her:
“Opinion is a flitting thing,
But Truth, outlasts the Sun –
If then we cannot own them both –
Possess the oldest one -“
“I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,
And Mourners to and fro
Kept treading -treading – till it seemed
That Sense was breaking through –
And when they all were seated,
A Service, like a Drum –
Kept beating – beating – till I thought
My Mind was going numb –
And then I heard them lift a Box
And creak across my Soul
With those same Boots of Lead, again,
Then Space – began to toll,
As all the Heavens were a Bell,
And Being, but an Ear,
And I, and Silence, some strange Race
Wrecked, solitary, here –
And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down –
And hit a World, at every plunge,
And Finished knowing – then -“
I’m pretty sure every martial arts enthusiast from my generation on back – the ones that are still alive anyway – have at some point in the their training come to marvel and appreciate the art of Bruce Lee. In case you couldn’t tell by the picture, this Chinese actor was shredded, insanely strong (not just for his size, but just strong period), insanely fast, insanely agile, and insanely limber. It wasn’t until I encountered his movie Enter the Dragon as a teenager that I began to take physical fitness seriously, elevating my workout regimes to newer and broader heights, a trend which continues to this very day, al-hamdu’ilah. His personal philosophies: no limit as limit and being fluid like water in all things. Impossible? Pssht! Impossible is nothing…
El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, also known as Malcolm X
My mother used to have this big picture of Malcolm X, and as a kid, I once asked her who Malcolm X was. Her response was, “He was a nigga that wasn’t afraid of shovin’ his foot up somebody’s ass if he felt he had to.” Years later, after I became Muslim, I stumbled upon his autobiography and, to my surprise, my mother’s description, although a bit on the profane and vulgar side, was quite accurate, in the both the literal and metaphorical sense. Also, I was amazed at his ability to articulate the social and political problems of Black Americans despite not having been formally educated. You see, where I come from, not much is expected from poor Blacks (this is probably the case for anywhere in America really), so when I read about this eloquent man from the lowest echelons of a racially charged society challenging the powers that be, I was ecstatic. His whole life is a lesson worth remembering, both before and after his Hajj experience. (Many Immigrant Muslims only like mentioning him post-Hajj since he found “true Islam”).
Charles le Gai Eaton
I honestly can think of only of a few Muslim writers who have been able to make Islam presentable to Western audiences to the extent that Charles le Gai Eaton has. In my humble estimation, not even Sheikh Hamza Yusuf, may Allah preserve him, is of Gai Eaton’s caliber in this regard. His expositions on Islam and its relation to Western realities should be read by every Muslims living in the West and anyone who isn’t a Salafi, for I fear the Salafis would simply dismiss him as another cockamamie Sufi. (Gai Eaton was a Sufi). He definitely knows how to highlight the spiritual nature of Islam without diminishing the necessity for laws and governance, and his prose would make any student of literature and the English language green with envy. He, and others of his ilk, I think, represent the potential of Islam in the West.
Dr. Sherman Jackson
One of my personal heroes and a treasure for the American Muslim community. His books surveying the potential for Muslim theology to address the issues plaguing the American Muslim conscious, specifically among the Black American Muslims, are worth reading. One of his key ideas is for American Muslims to develop an indigenous (not assimilated!), self-authenticating Muslim identity within the American social-historical prism, one that doesn’t have to appeal to the Near Orient for substantiation. I’m certainly down with this! Fo sho!
Tupac Amaru Shakur
Alright. I know the mention of Tupac in a Muslim blog might invoke some outrage, and understandably so, since some aspects of his life were – um – haram. There’s no doubt about that in the least bit, and I’m definitely not going to defend him there. However, on the flip side, in the late 80s and 90s, Tupac was the voice for the many poor, disaffected Black youths in the inner city ghettos – or in the ghettos period – including for me. His lyrics, some of which utilized rhythmic structure like iambic pentameter, painted realistic pictures of life for many poor Blacks, or just poor people period, such as the struggle for social justice, police brutality, unequal distribution of wealth and education opportunities, teenage pregnancy, and so forth. Also, he was an accomplished thespian. Regardless of what you think of him, there’s no doubt that he was a talented individual. There’s a reason why Standford has a class solely devoted to his poetry. Tupac Shakur – arguably one of the illest MCs to grace the mikes.
The grand-father of the discipline of sociology and the famous Muslim historiographer (philosopher of history). (Emile Durkheim is considered the father of sociology). I came across him while taking a sociology of religion class during my undergrad. Like many of the famous medieval Muslim scholars, Ibn Khaldun was his own renaissance man. But what impressed me most about him was his philosophical and scientific approach to the study of history: he didn’t just study historical data; he sought to map out the manner in which history progresses, hence historiography. I’ve even heard that he pretty much invented the dialectical historical model, which states that historical progression through time is not linear (per the Western materialist model) nor cyclical (per the Eastern Dharmic or Indic models of Hinduism and Buddhism) but rather that it is helical with every paradigm containing within its essence its own antithesis. Arnold Toynbee, the famous British historian, cites Ibn Khaldun as major influence of his. Ibn Khaldun’s Al-Muqadimah (The Introduction or The Prolegomena) is a gem to behold.
I read the Dune Saga back as a teenager and my already overactive imagination literally exploded outward towards the ends of the universe. I’m SO not kidding. These books deal with such heavy topics like ecology, religion, sociology, theology, philosophy, and historiography in such creative and fascination ways, such as a human being becoming a giant sand-worm god-emperor. The only other book that I’ve read that expanded my imagination more than Frank Herbert’s Dune Saga was the Holy Qur’an. By Allah, this is not an exaggeration.
I think that’s enough, maybe even too much.