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Woes of a nerdy black convert in Hawaii

INTERVIEW WITH ISHAQ MOHAMMED

Groups satisfy our brain’s natural inclination to make sense of hordes of people we encounter and observe. This quality is so inherent that children intuitively understand the need to form groups without adults having to teach them.”

– Alexandra Robbins

Q: Labeling ourselves, or allowing others to label us, is a result of the need to categorize everything into groups and subgroups, but humans aren’t papers to be filed. We are complex and changeable, and fit into multiple – and sometimes contradictory – categories at once. However, sometimes as a way of introduction, these labels help us identify each other.

Brother Ishaq Mohammed, you are a self-proclaimed nerdy African-American convert who is trying to practice Islam in what seems to me like the last place you’d expect to see Muslims: Hawaii. Obviously you are many other things as well, but for the sake of this interview, we will focus on these. May you begin by telling us when you moved to the Islands?

A: Asaalam Alaykum, aloha and thank you very much for the opportunity to share my thoughts as a new convert and a proud nerd.

I was born and raised in Dallas, Texas. Before I moved to Hawaii, I had briefly lived in Japan as an exchange student. After returning to Texas, I feared I’d lose my newfound (but limited) language skills because there was not much use for Japanese there, so Hawaii seemed to be the best place to relocate. It was still part of America, but Japanese language and culture was in high demand from what I had heard about it.

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Q: What is the Muslim community like in Hawaii?

A: Well, to be honest, it’s quite small. Overall, Islam is the smallest religion in the Hawaiian islands, making up less than 0.5% of the total population. That being said, it is more peacefully practiced here in general, with less of the sectarian divisions you might see in other, bigger cities. We tend to stick together and not be separated by racial, cultural or linguistic lines. We do our best to be one united Ummah, as I believe it should be.

It’s very funny to see how Muslims who come to my workplace react when they meet me. Many of them say that they never expected to find Muslims in Hawaii, so they are quite surprised. The main and largest Masjid is in Honolulu and for Jumuah there was about 300 or so people there, of various nationalities, races, and styles of dress. I had never experienced anything so beautiful; I actually cried.

Q: Masha’Allah, this reminds me of what the earlier Muslim communities were like in America before they expanded.

How accepting are these mosques to African Americans? How accepting is Hawaii in general?

When people look at me, they have no idea that Japanese is my second language, or that I’m a Brown Belt in Tae Kwon Do, or that I have read the Bible and Quran cover to cover five times.

A: Alhamdulillah, very very accepting. I have never felt like an outcast once, in any of the Masjids I have visited. There aren’t many African Americans in Hawaii (we make up maybe 2% of the population) so I can’t speak for everyone of course, but personally I can say that I haven’t experienced any prejudice or racism here. In fact, I felt more welcomed at the Masjids than I did in a few churches I used to visit before I converted! In each place, I was welcomed with open arms and brotherly salaams. At my local Masjid, I’m blessed to be one of the English Khatib (sermon readers), which is something that makes me both humbled and overjoyed. They’ve even let me call the Adhan twice, despite my Arabic being less than perfect (or even good at all!). It’s ironic that a few short years ago, I was a Christian Worship Ministry leader, and now I wear thobes and call out “Allahu Akbar” in a Masjid. Indeed Allah is the best of planners!

Regarding Hawaii in general, it’s more tolerant of Islam than other places in my opinion, but because of the media’s focus on the false portrayal of Islam from terrorist groups, there is a general ignorance of the religion and perhaps a mistrust due to there being a few of us in number.

I did sadly lose some friends after my conversion, who made comments that I had “joined the Taliban” and that I would “beat my wife because the Quran demands it” or that “all Muslims are terrorist.” These things really hurt me personally because I had known these people for years, and simply because I found my faith in God again, I was suddenly a different person in their eyes. But thankfully Islamophobia isn’t as prevalent in Hawaii as it is in some areas of the American mainland. We even have an official “Islam Day” here which is September 24th. The Masjid in Oahu usually does a big celebration and informational event.

Q: Was it so in Texas?

A: I converted to Islam almost two years ago, and with the way Islam is practiced here in the Islands, I can’t see myself converting anywhere else, so I don’t know what it’s like to practice Islam in Texas as of yet. I do pray that the Masjids there would be just as welcoming. I have very good Muslim friends who live in my home state and are like family to me, so InshaAllah I will be able to visit them and experience it for myself.

The act of Salat was one of the things that brought me to Islam. I began to wonder why we Christians, did not make it a priority and part of our faith to stop through the course of the day and just take time out to worship our Creator.

A small Muslim community can be both a good and bad thing. It’s good because within a small community, you tend to stick together and find unity despite your differences. But a major drawback is the lack of diversity, Islamically speaking, in regards to learning about other schools of thought. There’s also the lack of things like halal restaurants, Islamic stores, and Muslim spaces like mosques and schools. We don’t have separate Masjids for Sunni, Shia, etc, and very few (if any) people are practicing the ways of the Sufi order. Therefore I sort of became Sunni by default, because that was what the members of the Masjid I first went to were practicing, and I learned Salat and such from them. Because I had never met any Shia Muslims or Muslims from other schools of fiqh, I didn’t have many options, but I’m okay with that, alhamdulilah. I am just thankful to Allah SWT to be able to call myself a Muslim.

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Q: Alhamdulillah indeed. In regards to woes, which is more difficult to be in these times, a Muslim, a convert, black, or nerdy?

A: [laughs]  An excellent question! I suppose each of these things come with their own specific challenges:

Every time the Adhan called out “Allahu Akbar” during the various prayer times throughout the day, I would actually be moved to tears. Alhamdulillah, how beautiful it is knowing that in the midst of whatever you’re going through -work, family, bills, stress – you get an invitation through the Adhan to take a break from what you’re doing and remember that “God is Greater.” 

Being a Muslim is actually rather simple. At its core, for me at least, is the dhikr of Allah. This is why we connect with The Lord at least five times a day. The act of Salat was one of the things that brought me to Islam. I began to wonder why we Christians, who claimed to be in the right religion (and that all others were damned to hellfire) did not make it a priority and part of our faith to stop through the course of the day and just take time out to worship our Creator. While still studying Islam before formally converting, I decided to install a Salat app on my phone. Every time the Adhan called out “Allahu Akbar” during the various prayer times throughout the day, I would actually be moved to tears. Alhamdulillah, how beautiful it is knowing that in the midst of whatever you’re going through – work, family, bills, stress – you get an invitation through the Adhan to take a break from what you’re doing and remember that “God is Greater.”

Being a convert does indeed have its distinct challenges. At times, I feel like our brothers and sisters born into Islam, or those who have been in the deen for a long time, forget about that. Besides the major challenges from society and family that new converts have to face, they are pressured to follow this or that sunnah, place their hands this or that way, recite such and such before going to the toilet, recite such and such before going on a plane – the list goes on. These things don’t come as naturally to one who was not born into Islam and they take time to learn, if we ever do come across them at all. Sometimes it’s like we aren’t allowed to start out simply.

One personal example is, despite me being in ministry, I was an alcoholic, so it was a real challenge to give that up after I converted. In fact, I believe that it was an act of Divine intervention that changed my life, and now it’s been over a year and a half since I have been intoxicated alhamdulillah. Pork is a main part of the Hawaiian diet, so that was hard to give up as well, but all things for the sake of Allah SWT are worth it. Now, alcohol and pork don’t phase me at all. I don’t miss them and there are plenty of good substitutes (I’m a huge fan of turkey bacon personally).

Being black is just what I am and you can’t convert to or from that. Hawaii, not having the history of slavery that the American mainland has (or not the same type of slavery, at least – there was a different form of “plantation work”) and also being a “minority-majority” state, does not have the same level of racism. That is a real blessing, as growing up in Texas, I did have my fair share of negative experiences with racism from police and society. My heart goes out to the people in situations like those which have occurred in places like Ferguson, Baltimore, Oakland and such. It’s a real problem that can’t be ignored or covered up.

Being a convert does indeed have its distinct challenges. At times, I feel like our brothers and sisters born into Islam, or those who have been in the deen for a long time, forget about that.

Lastly, this is where the “nerdy” part comes in: I’ve always had different interests from my peers, even though I grew up in a predominately black neighborhood. While the other kids were into the latest hip hop videos, cars, sports, and street fashion, I was into RPG Games, Kendo, Japanese language, and smooth jazz music. While they played “The Dozens” or talked about girls, I was reading the Bible, historical biographies, or other books that only “nerds” read. They were into pep rallies and football, I was into the drama club. That’s why I was sort of treated as an outcast by my peers and often accused of “wanting to be white.” At times it was very depressing, but eventually I began to embrace my oddities. I realized that what they were saying wasn’t true: I wasn’t trying to change my race, I just had interests and hobbies that were different from theirs. So I embraced the video game-playing, 20-sided dice-rolling, anime-watching (subs not dubs!), Star Wars marathon-binging side of me and I proclaim it proudly!

All four of these traits fit together to form who I am today, despite them not always being the most cohesive of combinations.

Q: Do you have any advice for those who are struggling with their own labels and stereotypes, who are trying to find their individuality among the generalizations?

A: When it comes to stereotypes, the thing is to always be true to your real self. Even if people pigeonhole you into a particular stereotype, it’s only their impression of you and not who you actually are.

When people look at me, they have no idea that Japanese is my second language, or that I’m a Brown Belt in Tae Kwon Do, or that I have read the Bible and Quran cover to cover five times. They just see a “black” or “Muslim” or “big” guy. And like you said earlier, I’m many other things as well.

Thank you for your openness and honesty, Ishaq, it was a real pleasure speaking to you. I pray that you and your loved ones stay safe, happy, and healthy. May Allah (swt) put barakah in all that you do and grant you success. Assalaamu alaikum.

Walaykum saalam waramatullahi wabarakatuh, and the same to you as well. Thank you.

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