Life Stages: An Essay Based on an Interview with Khalil Abdul-Karim

Life Stages: An Essay Based on an Interview with Khalil Abdul-Karim

Stage 1: Under Umi and Abi’s Thumb (The Foundation)

Your parents teach you what to do and how to do it. They wake you for fajr in the morning and make sure you complete your other four prayers of the day. They take you to the masjid for jummah every Friday. They practice Arabic with you until you can read it and have memorized whole surahs from the Qur’an. They dress you in long thobes and knitted kufis—no matter that your friends are rocking T-shirts and high-top fades. They feed you suhur before dawn and iftar after dusk during Ramadan. They have a big Eid celebration full of food and gifts to congratulate you on your fast when the month is over. They have nothing at Christmas. They tell you that Shaitan is all around during Halloween and that participating in that pagan holiday will bring you hellfire. They guide you toward doing what is halal and discipline you when you transgress into what is haram. They ingrain in you that you are a Muslim, don’t forget it.


Stage 2: Hate Everything

You refuse to wake up for fajr in the morning and may or may not complete your other four prayers of the day. You go to jummah when you feel like it. You forget whole surahs from the Qur’an. You say to hell with traditional garb and rock T-shirts and high-top fades. You go to parties, you kiss girls, you try liquor, you smoke weed. You still fast during Ramadan and only then do you stick to making salat five times a day. You still look forward to family Eid celebrations. But you’re a rebel. And you hate the rules of the sunnah and hadith dictating what you can and can’t do. So you get into fights. You punch a nigga in the face. But, so what. Don’t you know I’m a Muslim, son?


Stage 3: Fade Away

Take Stage 2 to an extreme. Try, on most days, to forget that you’re Muslim.


Stage 4: Fade Back In

Tell God you’re sorry. Let Him know that you’re back. To prove it, make a sincere effort to complete all of your daily prayers. Remember that your father berated you over and over: “Don’t be an illiterate Muslim.” Relearn, in Arabic, the surahs that you forgot. Stop drinking 40s, stop smoking weed, stop dogging girls out, stop clubbing. Go to jummah. Heed your father’s warning that although you won’t be perfect, you don’t have to be worse than a non-believer. Do as your mother taught you a righteous Muslim does and be good to your neighbor. Have faith. Resist the temptation to sleep with that bad-ass chick God just sent your way. But if God put her in front of me, then—No, resist. Be an example for your younger brothers and sisters.


Stage 5: The Struggle

Islam, this religion that you were born into but your parents adopted, is an everyday struggle, you realize, because not only does the country to which you belong, that you can’t imagine not being part of, misunderstand it, but the values of the country—that are always just outside your apartment window or flashing across your television screen—sometimes stand in direct opposition to it, and to go against those values would make you different, an outcast, a minority, which you already are, of course, because you’re black. You most certainly are a believer, you know that. You believe in the oneness of God and accept Muhammad, peace be upon him, as His prophet. But to be a functioning Muslim, and adhere to the pillars, and live your life according to the Qur’an, and respect the hadith, is a different story. You try, you try really hard. But what about the block? What about your boys on the corner? What about the part of you that just wants to be a thug? As a black man from the ‘hood, don’t you have a responsibility to all that, too?

No one ever asked you if you wanted to be part of the ummah, the Islamic community. You didn’t get to take shahada, like your parents did, and declare yourself Muslim. Muslim: one who submits; one who submits to the will of Allah. You are Muslim so it is your charge to live Islamically, to stay true to your deen. So even while posting up with your boys on the corner, you realize it’s time to make salat—you turn to them and say, “Let’s go pray maghrib.” And when you wake up before the sunrise with a woman, butt naked, sleeping beside you in the bed (she is not your wife, not even your girlfriend), you wonder, “Hey, do I get up and pray fajr?” Do you keep your duty to God when God knows what you did last night? How can you be a good Muslim when life keeps getting in the way?


Stage 6: Most Muslims Are Full of Shit

Those brothers pacing the sidewalk with a stack of glossy pamphlets in their hands purportedly know the truth. Islam is the answer, they say. Islam will cure you of your ills. And then they shove the folded paper into your palm titled, “Islam and Polygamy,” or “Islam and the Black Woman,” or “Islam and Having Rims on Your Car.” Pamphlet, brother? But if Islam is the answer, why did you see a story on the news about a Muslim robbing a bank in full jalabiya, looking like he’d just come from the mosque? Why do you see brothers in knee-length thobes, their heads wrapped in khaffiyahs and long, thick beards hanging from their chins on the block selling rock? Why do you keep hearing about sisters, young sisters, who come to school with their khimars pulled tight around their faces and draped all the way down to their waists who then give it up in school hallways and stairwells? Because most Muslims are full of shit, you realize. And it’s not just the African American ones. Those overseas Muslims who you think have been steeped in Islamic culture their whole lives and have learned the Qur’an inside and out, drink beer and smoke cigarettes, you find out. They’re more lax than some American-born Muslims.

But what hurts the most, what absolutely kills you, is when you look around your community and you see that it’s just as poor and black as it’s ever been; Islam hasn’t changed the fact that where you live, some people do right and some people do wrong every day. Folks love to talk that God crap, you say, but when it comes down to it, the fallacy of man always prevails. Men are not fulfilling their basic duties as Muslims; men do not have faith; men are not walking the talk of their spirituality; men have not fortified their neighborhoods nor their own families from crumble. No, you are not protected from the bullshit of humanity just by being Muslim.


Stage 7: I Am Who I Am

You’ve been through a lot on this journey through Muslim-hood. You were indoctrinated to the culture at an early age, you ‘70s baby, raised on revolution and opposition to the status quo. You accepted your identity then resisted association with it. You leaned on it for strength then found out that without you holding it up, your foundation could easily topple over. You’ve stumbled several times as you’ve sought to find balance between submitting to Allah’s will and staying true to yourself. And now you’ve come out the other side at peace with who you are.

Islam is your way of life and you’ve learned that it can bend to your lifestyle. You can go to the club and still face Mecca for your prayers. You can wear a fly suit instead of an embroidered thobe and yet represent Islam. You can pronounce your name with full guttural stops and, nevertheless, make the biggest deals in your office. You can speak openly and comfortably about Islam without sounding preachy or fanatical. You can be a God-fearing Muslim and a down-ass nigga from Brooklyn all in one.


About the Author

Sufiya Abdur-Rahman holds an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Goucher College. Her publications include Human Parts, Queen Mob's Tea House, and the Washington Post. She teaches English at Bowie State University and lives with her husband and son in suburban Washington, D.C., where she is writing a memoir about her experience as a second-generation African-American Muslim. Follow her on Twitter at