Leaving Empty, Coming Back Enlightened

Our first stop as soon as we entered Charlotte, North Carolina was Masjid Ash-Shaheed. Although a primarily African-American Masjid, the followers there were welcoming to anybody and greeted our group with arms wide open. After leading the prayer, Imam Khalil Akbar spoke words of wisdom to the Islamic Community and also discussed upcoming events for the Ash-Shaheed Mosque. During this time Imam Khalil made us stand up and introduce ourselves to the Charlotte community; I could feel this group of people was very affable and embracing. Imam Khalil encouraged the members of the community to approach us after his talk and discuss their stories with us, and they sure did.

After Imam Khalil’s talk, separate conversations ensued. A man named Ali Akbar introduced himself to me and we talked at great length. Ali was a 62 year old African American who was originally from Harlem, New York. He was raised only by his foster mother in a Baptist family, with five of his extended family members being ministers themselves. He finished high school by the age of 17 and he said he wanted to know he was a “free spirit.” He was tired of the chains that had bounded him to New York and he wanted to get away – which is why he enrolled in the military. His training took him south of the Mason-Dixon Line into parts of Georgia and South Carolina, where his eyes began to open. Before leaving New York, Ali says he “didn’t know what was happening in the world. I thought the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. was big just because he was a human being. I never knew it was because he was a leader for the blacks.” According to Ali, he knew no such as thing as ‘racism’ where he grew up in New York. It was only when he went to the South for his military training did he become fully aware of the Civil Rights Movement.

This whole time that Ali is speaking with me, I can’t help but wonder how he never knew about the Civil Rights Movement until almost his 20s. “The closest thing I knew to this was just the Civil War. They taught us that blacks would usually not hold guns during the war. And when they did hold the guns – they were put up in the front line. The Civil War may have been over, but our fight wasn’t over then. And I don’t believe it is over now,” Ali says pointing to himself.

I then ask when Islam came into Ali’s life and he immediately becomes energetic, saying “Oh Man, there’s so many things I can tell you, we could spend hours talking.” After deciding to finally sit down, Ali explains how he was sent to Germany during the Vietnam War, and his brother was sent to Vietnam. He started reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X once in Germany and he instantly knew he wanted to convert to Islam. I asked if he was easily willing to let his previous faith go, and he said Islam gave him “truth,” and he did not find this previously before. Besides discovering Islam in Germany, Ali also began reading about the African slave trade and began realizing this was how he had come to be in America. Ali was passionate about his learnings of Islam but his ideas were not accepted by his fellow troops. He became nicknamed “The Troublemaker” for speaking openly about Islam and was moved around Germany because of it.

Having the urge to go away from home and join the military was one of the best decisions Ali had made. He was ready to come back home though since he had missed his family. Upon arriving back in New York, Ali said that he began to perceive the world differently. Islam had given meaning to his life and had “broadened his horizons.” He then began visiting the local Masjid in his area and has become devoted to Islam ever since.

Ali asks about my current plans and believes that Allah has big plans for me and my engineering degree. I thank him and ask if he has lived a good life, after reflecting back on 62 years. He pauses and says that he has been grateful for everything, but wishes he had finished his education. “I dropped out of college after 3 years,” he says. It was becoming too much for him – he was working from 11 PM to 7 AM, and then had classes starting at 7:30 AM. He would never be in class on time, and many times while driving he would just start sleeping at the stoplights. He does place a high value on education, and never leaves home without a book. This instantaneously reminded me of my uncle, who although is in his late 60s, chooses to always spend time with a book and broadens his knowledge anyway he can.

I am amazed at the intelligence and the intellectual curiosity this man still contains inside him. He moved throughout his life because he was a free spirit. “A tree outside this Masjid cannot be free because it is tied down to its roots. Allah made us free spirits and that is why I move when I feel the need, and I feel the free spirit in you too” Ali explains to me. His next destination to take his free spirit – Mecca. “Starting next January I will take a small kernel piece out of each corn cob I get every month from the government and put it inside a box. One day Inshallah I will have enough kernels to visit [Mecca].”

A friend beckons to Ali and he realizes he must go soon. Ali wishes me the best and I also in turn thank him for his time and letting me glimpse into a part of his life. Although I learned so much about Ali in the lengthy conversation we held, I know there is so much more to learn and I can believe it when people say it takes years to really get to know someone. Ali was the first person I spoke to who had converted into Islam as opposed to being born into it. I wish I had more time to speak with Ali about what he meant by Islam providing him “truth,” but at some level I do understand what he means. The last piece of advice he had to give me was to read the Qur’an, since “most of the questions you will have in life can be answered from within.”