My Journey in Islam by Kevin James, Supervising Fire Marshal, FDNY
I was not raised in a religious family but was raised with strong ethics and values that molded the foundation for my later acceptance of Islam and the example set by Prophet Muhammad. I was blessed with parents who loved each other and put the needs of their children first. As an interracial couple married in the late 1940's they faced all sorts of adversity with unwavering courage and devotion to themselves, their children, and their ideals.
Dialectical materialism was their doctrine, social activism their religious practice. They taught me to question and look past the superficial. Pop would encourage us to thoroughly research both sides of an issue and to be able to argue either side. Raucous debate ruled the dinner table "jump in the pit and match the wit," he would often say.
Both of my parents, through dialogue and example, provided me with invaluable lessons on race relations and social activism. By practicing what they preached they helped me to connect to Prophet Muhammad's constant emphasis on being sincere in one's actions, struggling against one's own hypocrisy, and purifying one's intent from baser motives "Oh Lord, I take refuge in you from hypocrisy, hostility, and immorality."
My father, Walter James Jr., was raised a Catholic; his adoptive mother was a fiercely proud Cherokee and his father was AfricanAmerican. When dad was an infant his biological mother was killed in the crossfire of a shootout in either the Bronx or Harlem. He knew very little about her other than she may have been a member of the Leni Lenapee tribe.
Some of pop's "prophets" were W.E. Dubois, Marcus Garvey, and Paul Robeson. His devotion to fighting oppression and dealing with adversity from positions of principle left a lasting impression on me. As a child he and his father were active in the Garvey movement. My father would play the piano at fundraisers, while my grandfather was involved with security, largely, according to my father, because of his light complexion and no one was really sure of "what he was."
My father would often tell me about his experiences growing up in Washington, D.C. He described the 'skin game' a form of caste system among blacks and people of color that evolved from the degree of lightness or darkness in one's skin color. He spoke of friends he was not supposed to associate with because they were too dark and girls he was not supposed to date because they were too light but he did anyway.
My mother, Jeanne James, told me of a deep rift that developed between my father and grandfather. Notwithstanding grandpa's involvement in a Black Nationalist movement, he was still brain washed ('white' washed?) to believe that white was better. When my grandmother suffered a stroke granddad said that he wasn't going to take her to a 'spook' hospital, instead wasting critical time on getting her admitted into a white hospital where she received inadequate care. Consequently, she died a short time later. Pop refused to talk to his father for quite some time afterwards and I don't think he ever forgave him. I wish I could have met her, she looks so proud and defiant in the photo I have of her posing as teenager in native dress.
Dad was always something of a rabblerouser. He was a union organizer and had his jaw broken by a company supervisor while walking a picket line during a strike. Both he and my mother were community activists involved in a host of issues. He also placed a high emphasis on knowledge and taught math as a volunteer at the St. Johns Recreation Center in Brooklyn. He described how hard it was for blacks to obtain a quality education when he was growing up and instilled the importance of knowledge in all his children.
It is this emphasis on knowledge and digging for the truth that gave me a tremendous appreciation for Prophet Muhammad's emphasis on learning "Seek knowledge from the cradle to the grave," "To listen to the words of the learned and to instill unto others the lessons of science is better than religious exercises," and, particularly, "Acquire knowledge. It enableth its possessor to distinguish right from wrong: it lighteth the way of Heaven; it is our friend in the desert, our society in solitude, our companion when friendless; it guideth us to happiness; it sustaineth us in misery; it is an ornament amongst friends, and an armour against enemies."
Dad put religion in the social context of oppression and liberation. He would repeat time and again Marx's maxim "Religion is the opiate of the people." He explained that throughout history rulers used religion to make wretched conditions and unquestioning obedience palatable to the masses. Consequently, the fact that Muslims have a spiritual obligation to fight oppression and injustice drew me to Islam and Prophet Muhammad.
While a tireless opponent against racism and injustice, my dad had an easy manner about him and liked to engage the everyday Joe in conversation about the most mundane affairs of life. He often practiced the Prophet's charity of "smiling in your brother's face." He had it hard growing up so he didn't put on airs and related to the struggles of everyday people to keep their heads above water and make ends meet. I recall him telling me that a true social activist must love people, and I later related that to the Prophet's "Do you love your Creator? Love your fellow being first."
My mother was an activist in her own right. If a dangerous intersection needed a traffic light, she was out there on the picket line, dragging me along with her of course. She successfully fought for neighborhood libraries in underserved areas when she was president of the Brooklyn Library Council. During the late 60's Mom also spearheaded a successful campaign to obtain eight trees in front of a public school in BedfordStuyvesant to commemorate various civil rights leaders.
She recently marched in Brooklyn with other civil rights organizations to protest the roundup and detention of Muslims in America without due process after 9/11. The draconian laws passed by the Bush administration remind her of life during the McCarthy period, when anyone involved in community activism or questioning government policies was branded a communist. Here she is, 77 years old with a bad heart, cane in one hand and two oak tag signs slung over her shoulders front and back billboard style, walking over a mile to still protest the hypocrisy of the government. I felt a surge of pride as I held the bullhorn for her when she gave the following speech:
My family suffered a great deal during the McCarthy era. My father would be working at one location, the FBI would come visit and speak to the employer, and he would be out of work the next day. This cycle was repeated over and over again. I remember him, an electrical engineer, opening a TV repair shop on St. Johns Place and Albany Avenue in Brooklyn to try to make ends meet; I remember the powdered milk and fighting over food with my brothers "he had two biscuits and I only had one," etc. Through it all, though, dad kept the family together with his dignity intact. He never 'ratted' on anyone to make life easier and, despite the fighting, we always had enough to eat, clean clothes, and a roof over our head.
The most lasting impression dad left with me was his courage in dealing with adversity from positions of principle, which gave me a deep appreciation of the noble character, strength, and courage of Prophet Muhammad during the tremendous obstacles he faced in establishing Islam.
My father's unwavering example taught me a valuable lesson. When it comes to issues of principle, there can be no compromise. When you see an injustice, speak out against it, no matter who is involved. Part of the problem today is that leadership is done through polls and expediency. Don't put your toes in the water, don't wait to see what other people will do, but provide leadership by acting according to principles. This, too, is one of the reasons that I have grown to appreciate Prophet Muhammad's example.
Before my father was afflicted with Alzheimer's he began exploring his Native American roots and formed the Council on Native American Progress. He saw Indians as the most downtrodden in America and felt that by attacking their ills all society would be uplifted. During the 1976 Bicentennial celebration in New York my father brought Native Americans from all over the country with assistance from the Port Authority and a sponsoring airline.
Dad absorbed a great deal of the Native American culture and believed in the "Great Creator." The Council never really achieved his initial goals but he later became fascinated with the 'oneness of mankind'.
Pop decided to form a different organization around this spiritual concept and invited the late Dr. Mohammad T. Mehdi to attend a dinner to launch his idea. Dr. Mehdi was a pioneer civil rights advocate for Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim causes. I remember the dinner fondly Dr. Mehdi was a true gentleman and a terrific ambassador for Islam. I was particularly impressed by his quote of the Prophet Muhammad: "A true Muslim is one from who others are safe from his hands and his tongue."
Sadly, Dr. Mehdi passed away a short time later in February 1998. Although I didn't realize it at the time, dad would soon become too ill to follow to develop and organization around the "oneness of mankind." He barely recognizes me now and I miss the long talks we had on religion and politics.
My mother can trace her roots back to the Poland in the 1600's. There are many learned men and rabbis on her side of the family; over time many of them migrated to Russia. They lived in towns with funny sounding names such as Buten, Mush and Snov.
One relative emigrated from Mush to Palestine in 1888. Labe Mendelevitch was a wealthy judge in his 80's and wanted to die in the Holy Land after his wife passed away. Before leaving he reportedly stated, "If you are a Zodik (righteous believer), you are carried from your native land to the Holy Land. If you are a Rhosher (skeptic) and die in the Holy Land, you are returned to your native land. But as for me, being neither a Zodik nor a Rhosher, if I go to the Holy Land now while living, I have a good chance of remaining there."
Schmule Meyer Mendelevitch, who taught Hebrew and the Talmud, was much loved by his children. He died in the town of Snov in 1902 at age 58. His eldest son Moishe came to America in 1891and used the name Mendelson, the American translation of Mendelevitch. Other relatives from Russia soon followed Moishe to America.
Some of the family never made it out of Poland and were lost during the Holocaust. The horror of this period sneaks up on me every so often, particularly after the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11. The abuse of religion to justify murder, brutality, and discrimination deeply offends me, no matter what the source.
Mom told me stories of discrimination against her relatives in New York City during the 1930's. One of them who graduated from a prestigious school as an engineer could not find a job with the gas and electric companies because he had a Jewish name. Ultimately he left the city, changed his name, and began attending church.
Dad taught me that the kernel of racial and religious hatred was rooted in economic and political factors. He explained how America adopted policies of genocide and assimilation with Native Americans because the government wanted their land. Blacks were exploited for their labor so it was advantageous to keep them separate, ignorant, and identifiable. Hence, to be considered Native American you need to be able to document being at least ¼ Indian. The "one drop" rule was adopted for blacks if you had any black relatives at all you were considered black. Thus, numerous states developed strict antimiscegenation laws for blackwhite intermarriage, particularly between white women and black men. When my parents married my father would have been lynched if he applied to marry my mother in the wrong state.
My parents gave me invaluable lessons on social injustice from examples within their own families. By having relatives who died in the Holocaust, relatives who were discriminated against because of the color of their skin or their religion, relatives who had their land stolen against a Supreme Court decree and were marched on the Trail of Tears, I was taught early to recognize the dynamics of intolerance, hatred, and oppression.
I was rather naïve about issues of color. According to mom, my race was the human race. As a young boy I didn't understand why some black girls I played with would run their fingers through my straight hair and wished they had "white" hair like mine. Ironically, I would later wish that I had nappy hair in junior high school when I tried to grow an Afro. In high school I would wear Native American beadwork and a headband I even gave my self an "Indian" name, which I will conveniently forget for the record.
Dad's answer to questions on his/our racial background was that it was "none of their business." Later in life, my karate instructor gave me more poignant advice. The late Leon Major Wallace was a rock of a man who grew up in the streets of Harlem. He was a survivor, and made sure that his students he considered us his 'sons' would be survivors as well. During the 70's members of the Nation of Islam would often pass through his dojo, "Major's Appletown Dojo," off the corner of 136th Street and Lenox Avenue. His instructed me that if anyone questioned my color that I should tell them that I was "just as black as they were."
Slurs came in all colors. One playmate in grandma's waspish Jersey suburb called me a curlyhaired Jew (so much for the Afro). At his birthday party his parents asked me how the niggers were in New York. I managed a weak smile and said "okay, they're alright," while inside I wanted to die and felt ashamed and cowardly for not asserting myself.
One black coworker asks me if I'm "highyellow," a jogger who I accidentally bump into thinks he is offending me by calling me "dark around the edges." What depressed me the most, though, is listening to prejudice among people who think that you are one of them, that you'll go along with whatever they say.
One such incident occurred in my late teens. I was always fascinated with mysticism, particularly the Kaballah and Sufism. I came close to becoming involved with a Jewish sect in Crown Heights when I told them my mother was Jewish. They told me that according to the Talmud this meant that I was Jewish and it was crucial that I come back into the fold. I don't remember how the issue of race came up, but it did, and they made some pretty nasty generalizations about blacks living in the neighborhood. This time I spoke up. Their enthusiasm for introducing me to the Grand Rebbe rapidly diminished after I told them my father was black and questioned their stereotypes. Ironically, several Jewish relatives in that neighborhood have always welcomed both my parents to religious and social functions with open arms.
My wife Adrienne, who comes from a multiracial background of black, Native American, and French, experienced similar problems growing up and with our son Chris. When Chris was in high school she related to me how the Board of Education required that she pick an ethnicity for our son. She explained that he came from a multiracial heritage but the school administrator insisted that she had to pick one check off. Thankfully, the census bureau recently remedied this issue with a multiracial check off.
My parents were ostracized by some relatives and accepted by others on both sides after they were married. The relationship between my father and mother in law was polite but strained. Shortly before she died my grandmother confided in me how she initially disapproved of my mother marrying my father because he was a Negro but that she eventually grew to accept him. I remember my father telling me how he had to put his adopted mother in her place when she chastised my dad for bringing mom, an "Ofay" into the house.
What was beautiful about growing up with my parents was that they did not force their belief system on us as children and their letting us explore or ignore the different facets of the religious experience in our own time and pace. When one of my older brothers wanted to wear a yarmulke the skullcap that Jewish men wear they brought one for him and he proudly strutted around the house wearing it. I remember at Chanukah getting a dradle to play with and fighting to light the candles in the Menorah; at Christmas I decorated the Christmas tree and eagerly woke up Christmas morning to open my presents. It was this ethic of exploration and judging ideas on their merits that also helped lead me to Islam.
As a young man I searching for my identity, I became more and more aware of a need for experiencing spiritual truth and living a life in conformity with the attendant principles. I sought all the passages in the bible highlighted in red I wanted to read the Gospel, to know what Christ really said. I remember watching movies where the Adan, the Muslim call to prayer, was recited and I got goose bumps, chills, and a funny feeling at the crown of my head and in the pit of my stomach. I had no idea at the time what the Adan was or what its function was in Islam.
I first began reading the Qu'ran when I was in the Coast Guard. It was difficult at first, but I was fascinated by the idea that, for better or for worse, here was an unabridged revelation that has essentially stayed the same for the past 1400 years. Some of the passages disturbed my Western 20th century sensibilities but others struck my innermost being to the core.
What I really appreciated about the Qu'ran was that paradise was put in reach of anyone who was sincere in their belief in God and behaved accordingly, whether Jew or Christian, Sabian or Muslim. It spoke of believers in universal terms, as those who believe in the unseen, who shiver when they hear scriptural recitations. The Qu'ran also spoke of fighting oppression, working towards social justice, and helping those worse off than you. In short, it embodied the social activism I grew up in with the added spiritual dimension that I was looking for.
Salvation was each individual's responsibility, there is no vicarious atonement or original sin, we start with a blank slate and how we proceed is up to us. The Qu'ran teaches "Nay, but (the chosen of Allah is) he who fulfilleth his pledge and wardeth off (evil); for lo! Allah loveth those who ward off (evil)." (3:76) There are no chosen people, other than those who keep their word and are decent human beings.
I also particularly appreciated "(We take our) color from Allah, and who is better than Allah at coloring? We are his worshippers." (2:138) Race, nationality, are superfluous in Islam; it is not what you call yourself but how you conduct yourself that is the determining factor of success or failure in the eyes of the Qu'ran.
I took Shahadda (bearing witness that there is no God but God and that Muhammad is His servant and apostle) in 1977. I had been interested in Sufism for several years when my future wife Adrienne pointed out a building that housed the Nimatullahi Sufi Order in Greenwich Village. It was explained to me that in order to become a Sufi one must become a Muslim, Islam being the tree from which the fruit of Sufism was born.
The Prophet's "There is no monkhood or seclusion in Islam," and "Living among others is a cause of blessing, while seclusion only leads to torment," underscored his emphasis on man functioning in society. As a Muslim, joining the fire department held a natural attraction for me. I liked the idea of being able to save lives, of selfsacrifice and helping others as a fitting complement to Islamic ideals. The Qu'ran teaches, "…If anyone saves a life, it shall be as though he had saved the lives of all mankind." (5:32) As many have said before me, to become a firefighter was more a calling than a job. I also enjoyed the camaraderie, and the physical and mental challenges of having to operate under extreme conditions.
After serving four years as a firefighter in Manhattan Ladder Company 12 in Chelsea, I became a fire marshal after doing well on a promotional exam. I had to do an about face as a fire marshal with handcuffs, a gun, and full police powers to conduct arson investigations. Certain people weren't so glad to see me, physical threats were personal as opposed to the impersonal 'red devil', and I saw the worst of people on a regular basis. While I found firefighting more dangerous physically, I found criminal investigations more stressful and often took the job home with me. I remember how my knees shook the first few times I had to handcuff someone I had arrested.
Being a fire marshal was quite challenging and rewarding. I was promoted during the FDNY's innovative Red Cap program, when every fire was investigated and a Red Cap team in designated neighborhoods accompanied every run by fire trucks. The crack epidemic soon became full blown and fires related to territorial disputes and people flipping out on crack and setting fires soon became the mainstay of our work.
It was as a fire marshal that I began lobbying for firesafe cigarettes after Congressional studies showed that it was feasible for cigarette companies to manufacture "selfextinguishing" cigarettes. 'Firesafe' cigarettes possess a lesser propensity to ignite fires either because they go out before they have a chance to start a smoldering fire or because they burn less 'hot' because of certain physical characteristics of the cigarette.
Insider documents revealed that Philip Morris had successfully marketed a 'firesafe' Marlboro in 1987 (?) but shelved the research until 'public pressure builds unduly.' In the mean time, cigarettes remained the largest cause of accidental fire fatalities in New York City, New York State, and the rest of the nation as well. Approximately 1,000 people die from cigaretteignited fires annually in America; with thousands more critically injured and disfigured from burn injuries and smoke inhalation. When property damage, medical expenses, and other related costs are calculated, cigaretteignited fires cost the nation several billion dollars each year.
State Assemblyman Pete Grannis, Andrew McGuire from the Trauma Foundation in San Francisco, Russ Haven from the New York Public Interest Group (NYPIRG) and Chris Becker were among the many individuals and public safety organizations I worked with. Pete had been pushing New York State firesafe cigarette legislation since the early 80's. He and Andrew McGuire were instrumental in getting Congress to study the issue in 1984. Russ Haven, who lost his grandmother in a cigaretteignited fire, and Chris Becker, a chaplain with the Firefighter's Association, State of New York (FASNY) were also driving forces.
Whenever possible I wrote how cigarette fires could be avoided and pointed my finger at the various elected officials who were complicit in allowing these preventable tragedies to occur year after year. The turning point came when three firefighters, Ff 's Chris Bopp and James Bohan and Lt. Joseph Cavalieri were killed in a Brooklyn fire a week before Christmas in 1998. Debbie Cavalieri, the wife of Lt. Cavalieri, played a heroic role by setting aside her grief and joining the coalition of firefighters and public safety organizations in pushing through the nation's first fire safe cigarette act in the nation, which is due to go into effect in the year 2003. When implemented on a national scale this bill will save Americans billions of dollars and hundreds of lives.
I also became active in fighting discriminatory practices in the fire department. In 1997 the FDNY agreed to a stipulation that agreed to implement objective criteria in the Bureau of Fire Investigation for appointments, training, transfers, and special job assignments.
It was also around the end of 1997 when I joined other Muslims in the Fire Department to form the Islamic Society of Fire Department Personnel (ISFDP). Our goals were to break the harmful stereotypes of Muslims in America and to act as an interface between the Fire Department, their Muslim employees, and the rapidly growing Muslim community in New York City. Through the assistance of elected officials and legal pressure we won the right for a Muslim chaplain and a change in the fire inspection manual that prohibits the inspection of mosques and Muslim schools on Friday. My activism with the ISFDP consequently led me to the Council on AmericanIslamic Relations, a national civil rights advocacy group for Muslims based in Washington, D.C. with chapters in several major cities around the US.
The Qu'ran and Hadith play an everincreasing role in my life as I become more active. I would have never imagined five years ago that I would be involved in the activities I am involved in now. Yet, I feel that within the past five years, because of my desire to play a greater role in service to the community, the deeper meanings of the Qu'ran and Hadith have begun to open up. In the wilderness of the soul, as well as in my interactions with society and my loved ones, the Qu'ran has become my roadmap, Prophet Muhammad my headlights.
The Qu'ran emphasizes action, placing believers who strive with all their being above those who "sit at home." "Such of the believers as remain passive other than the disabled cannot be deemed equal to those who strive hard in God's cause with their possessions and their lives: God has exalted those who strive hard with their possessions and their olives far above those who remain passive. Although God has promised the ultimate good unto all [believers], yet has God exalted those who strive hard above those who remain passive [by promising them] a mighty reward." (4:95) It is within this context that Prophet Muhammad challenges me to be constantly vigilant in reevaluating and improving myself to be on guard against the ego and its inherent passions and weaknesses: Upon coming home after battle the prophet declared: "We have returned from the lesser holy war to the greater holy war." They asked, "O Prophet of God, which is the greater holy war?" He replied: "Struggle against the lower self." There is a verse in the Qu'ran that stops me in my tracks whenever I come across it: "The Bedouin say, " We have attained to faith." Say [unto them, O Muhammad]: "You have not [yet] attained to faith; you should [rather] say, 'We have [outwardly] surrendered' for [true] faith has not yet entered your hearts." (49:14) I often feel like the Bedouin, as though I have only just 'surrendered', that true faith has yet to enter my heart. I often reflect on the words of Rabi'a, "O Lord, if I worship You out of fear of Hell, burn me in Hell, and if I worship You in hope of Paradise, exclude me from Paradise; but if I worship You for Your own sake, do not deny me Your beauty."
Prophet Muhammad advises Muslims to "Die before you are made to die." As a way of life, Islam is also, in this sense, a way of learning how to die, of consciously letting going of your baggage before it is snatched from you at the grave. Will my life review in that last conscious breath be filled with the dread and terror of a covenant unfulfilled, or the peace and serenity of a life lived in service and selfsacrifice?
It seems that half my life was spent accumulating baggage and the other half letting go, that my search for identity was an illusion, like peeling back layers of an onion until there is nothing left. It is reported that Prophet Muhammad said, "He who knows himself, knows his Lord," to which Abu Sa'id Abe' IKhair's commented: "He who knows himself as nothingness, knows his Lord as Being." A sacred tradition of Prophet Muhammad also relates, "David (peace be upon him) said, "O Lord, why did You cause creation to come into being?" God replied, "I was a hidden treasure. I wanted to be known, so I created all of creation." Perhaps it is the hidden treasure of 'not being' that all humans actively or symbolically thirst for.
The eternal search for self is universal, and deeply personal. Some express this quest in artistic terms, others in science, politics, or theology. My Shahadda in 1977 was only a marker; my journey in Islam really began when I was born and can only end in God.
Ultimately, everything exists in a state of Islam, in surrender to God's will; my choice is either to ignore or acknowledge it. The sense I get from the Qu'ran and the actions and words of Prophet Muhammad is that Islam, above all else, is connecting in a personal, meaningful way to God, the "eternally besought of all." An Islamic 'State' is not some contrived political system imposed on people without their consent, but at its most fundamental level, a 'state' of mind that can only be imparted personally to one heart at a time. It is only through the ripple effect of such individual transformations that society changes.
I sincerely believe that it is this deeply personal and universal sense of Islam that Prophet Muhammad was referring to in his tradition "Islam began with estrangement and will return, as it began, with estrangement. Happy be those who are estranged!"
Alas, like Labe Mendelevitch, I, too, long to return to my roots, the Creator of all being. Oh, how I long to obtain a glimpse of the Real and be estranged!