Of Harlem and Religious Conviction

“116th Street, Lexington Avenue. 116th Street, Lexington Avenue,” as the rickety New York City Subway train came to a halt.

Walking out from the suffocating air of the underground station, the neighborhood doesn’t seem to be any different from New York City’s plenty. But this is no ordinary place for it is the epitome of the melting pot of cultures, the home of salivating soul food, and the then epicenter of black empowerment movementsHarlem.

Harlem is not usually in the top list of camera-wielding visitors who wish to have their fair share of Manhattan’s illuminous concrete jungle, including my itinerant self. The 17-hour of fasting period here has not hampered my lust to walk down the heart of fast-paced Manhattan; and it’s amazing how one can lay his head in the green lush of Central Park while adoring the seemingly endless lego-like blocks of skyscrapers.

I have read of Harlem from The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Alex Haley and heard of its occasional references in America’s pop-culture as ‘the hood’, but that morning, the incessant honkings of the traffic along Lexington Avenue (where I stay) moved me to see something beyond ‘the city that never sleeps’.

IMG_1291 Malcolm X Boulevard, West 116th Street, Harlem

It started to rain cats and dogs just as I was about to cross Malcolm X Boulevard, adjacent to West 116th Street where the yellow-green building of Masjid Malcolm Shabazz can be instantly recognised from its prominent dome. I have not yet seen or been to a mosque since I arrived in New York City, and I had my doubts if Masjid Malcolm Shabazz is still opened for worshipping purposes as its entire first floor is rented out for several local shops and a pharmacy.

“This was where Malcolm X preached Islam almost half a century ago, and here I am, dumbstrucked by his continuing legacy,” I whispered to myself as I blanked my stares at its locked steel door.

IMG_1295I initially thought that this was the main entrance of the Masjid

Realising that perhaps Islam isn’t as well-embraced as it used to be here, I walked down the West 116th Street, exasperating over the reality of Muslim extremists who had tarnished the beauty of this peaceful religion. In what was a sheer strike of coincidence, I bumped into two hijab-clad African-American ladies near the small-doored entrance of Clara Muhammad School – Masjid Malcolm Shabazz. What a name, I thought.

“Assalamualaikum, is the Masjid Malcolm Shabazz open to public? How can I get in? The door is locked.”

“Waalaikumussalam, brother.”

I noticed that the two bosomy ladies gave a quick top-down glance over my black Hard Rock Cafe – Singapore shirtpossibly trying to guess if I was Mongolian, Latino, Indonesian, or just another tanned local Chinese.

“The mosque is always open to public. Here, just walk in through that door!” as she pointed out to the entrance of Clara Muhammad’s schoolwhatever that is. I walked in hesitantly and was excitedly greeted by the caretaker of the mosque.

“Masha Allah brother, you came all the way from Malaysia! What a wonderful country of majority Muslims…although your country has recently made a lot of bad decisions!”

It took me a while to digest that statement. What could he possibly meant by that?

Several possible responses popped up in my mind. Perhaps that was uttered in the context of the ongoing 1MDB saga, or our Government offices forcing non-Muslims to cover up their skirts and shorts, or the seemingly-selfish statement of Perak Mufti calling for non-Muslims to not eat in front or near the Muslims in Ramadhan. What could it be?

At this point of time, I grew increasingly embarrassed at how terrible things are at home as the list continued on and on before he bluntly pointed out:

“Malaysia made a bad decision by not allowing the Christians to use the word ‘Allah’. How can you attract non-Muslims to embrace Islam when they can’t even refer to God as Allah? Allah means God and there is only one God for us allbe it if you are Muslim, Christian, Jewthe Middle Easterners have been using Allah for centuries and the point of reference remains the same: the superiority of One!”

I nodded affirmatively.

I personally thought that the Government institutions have too much power in interfering with religious freedom in Malaysia. From a non-Muslim perspective, surely the court ruling can be deemed as an imposition of religious value of one to another. Even as a Muslim myself, it takes more than the universal use of the word ‘Allah’ to sway one’s belief.

Bilal, as he later properly introduced himself, seemed to harbor many pent-up expressions over the superficialities shrouding the minds of his fellow Muslims in Malaysia. He spoke in a thick African-American twang laced with occasional recitals of Quranic verses and quotes of the Hadiths, which I presumed was memorised from the words of others as his Arabic pronunciation was rather imprecise, although the essence can still be understood.

He continued on why the unique identity of Islam is slowly being deserted:

“I embraced Islam at the age of 16. I am now 66, getting 67 soon. When my friend first read me the Quran, I saw some Arabic (sic) and its English translation on the side, so I read that. The Prophet said there ain’t any differences between Whites, Blacks, Asians…but the one that differentiates is your faith to Allah, your Taqwa.

It’s like going to the doctor. Will the doctor tell you that your broken bones, transfer of blood, be only from one particular ethnicity to another? If I got 260 bones, you as a Malay gotta have 260 bones too! Allah wanted us to learn and recognise each other as a Human race, and that’s all that matters!”

I loved every bit of his analogy.

He didn’t appear to be in the religious garments of jubah or turban, but in his flat-rimmed New York Knicks cap, shabby tee and worn out Levi’s just like mine.

The mosque itself isn’t anything like Putrajaya’s marbled floors nor the fanciful (and wasteful) Crystal Mosque in Kuala Terengganu; it’s only a basic three-floored mosque with two floors dedicated as tuition classrooms to teach the poor of Harlem. I can’t deny that his religious conviction is probably stronger than that of the aloof position of Perak Mufti.

In light of yesterday’s (when this article was written) Supreme Court decision over the legalisation of gay marriage, I asked him if the legal ruling would in any ways affect the Muslims in America.

This time, he paused momentarily and heaved a long sigh before continuing:

“This is a land of liberty and equality. There are pros and cons to our freedom in America, and that is the price that you have to pay. As much as I can practice my religion freely in this country just as are the Christians, the Jews, some others want to have it differently on the same basis of equality.

My take is simple. The position is clear in Islam and if you are a Believer, you will abandon the lifestyles of the homosexuals, but again, the choice is eventually yours as this country is clear on its founding principles and that’s what it means to be an American.”

Amidst his further explanations that Allah will then decide in the afterlife (with repeated emphasis on racial indifference); a lanky, singlet-clad teenage boy with ‘bling-bling’ draping over his chest, gave Salam, and walked in to use the male restroom. Bilal went on further with with the boy’s background as an example:

“That boy…his dad was the caretaker of this mosque since 1976, and he had only recently quit after two consecutive heart attacks. He spent almost the whole of his adult life in this mosque…but his son didn’t want to recite the Syahaadah to become a Muslim.

But what can we do about it? We can’t force him to accept the religion, though hopefully one day he will. It’s the same as homosexuality. You have choices to either be on the good eyes of Allah, or the Satan’s.”


I had to leave my Nikon D60 at the counter, but oh well I guess Bilal forgot that phones can take pictures too!

The rain had finally stopped. I perfomed my Zuhr prayer before coming back to the caretaker’s counter to pick up my camera that I had left earlier (this mosque enforces a strict no-photo policy). I shook his callused hand before giving him a brotherly hug.

Bilal lamented his old age of 66 again before we parted ways:

“You are still young and blessed with the opportunity to travel far. Make use of the opportunities to affect change. There is no one way to do it. Although the Prophet was an Arab, we don’t have to necessarily follow what the Arabs say or tell us to do. Islam encourages us to use our sensesto think, so long as we are guided by the Quran and Sunnah.”

As I headed back to the subway station, I was still reeled over the unexpected turn of event for a 23-year old Malaysian whose wish was only to take advantage of the free Harlem tours by the local volunteers on 135th street.


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