by Abdul-Malik Ryan
As a teenager, I became fascinated with books. I loved the idea of going to the library in my hometown of Oak Park, Illinois (Is there anything better than a public library?) and finding the biggest books I could on whatever subject I was interested in and reading as many of them as I could. At first, I was only into books about sports, but eventually I became interested in history books. There, I first encountered H. Rap Brown.
Brown was born Hubert Gerold Brown in Louisiana in 1943. He later became known as “Rap” due to his verbal dexterity. He became involved in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) when he was barely 20 years old and participated in its direct actions and community organizing in the south. The then leader of SNCC, Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Toure) was at the forefront of criticisms of the Civil Rights movement by younger activist who questioned many of the tactical principles the movement had relied upon. In contrast, Carmichael led the call for “Black Power” as the more appropriate organizing principle for the movement. Carmichael sent Brown to work as a SNCC organizer in Alabama and in 1967, Brown, as the age of 23, succeeded Carmichael as leader of SNCC. Brown had a penchant for unflinching honesty in speech and courage in action, which made him stand out and his reputation as a public speaker grew quickly. He toured the nation giving fiery speeches and when some property was damaged in Cambridge, Maryland following one of his speeches, Brown was charged with inciting to riot and unlawful flight. While on bond, he continued to give bold speeches and was named the Minister of Justice as much of SNCC’s leadership merged into the Black Panther Party. His lawyer, William Kunstler delayed his trial for two years and when it was scheduled in 1970, Brown decided to run.
He was captured in 1971 after being wounded in a shootout with New York City police. When the Muslims at Rikers Island invited him to Jumu’ah services, he began to attend. Although he didn’t become Muslim right away, he began to question himself as to whether he could find anything wrong with what was being taught there and after deciding he could not, he felt the awareness “required…becoming a Muslim”. In late 1971, he became Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin. He was eventually sentenced in 1973 and released on parole in 1976. He settled in Atlanta and dedicated more than 20 years to establishing a national network of Muslim communities.
I learned about Imam Jamil’s conversion and community work by reading an autobiography of William Kunstler, his radical lawyer during the 60s and 70s. Mr. Kunstler remained close to him after his release from prison. Kunstler recounted the ways in which the authorities had pursued a strategy of “methodical destruction of dissent through borderline lawful, though unjust, means — repeated arrests, prolonged court battles, never-ending legal entanglements.” In his view, while someone like Stokely Carmichael had responded to this by leaving the country, Imam Jamil had responded, after prison, through taking up a “different way of life.” Kunstler described visiting a grocery store run by Imam Jamil in Atlanta and seeing the Muslim community he was establishing there. The description of the way in which Imam Jamil was at the same time still committed to pursuing justice but had a different vision of how to engage in that struggle really stuck with me.
As I began my own Islamic community work in Chicago in the 1990s, I was blessed to be able to come into contact with a community that was part of the national organization under the leadership of Imam Jamil. It was through working with this community and through what became for me a profound relationship with Imam Jamil’s work, “Revolution by the Book: The Rap is Live,” that I became familiar with what I believed to be Imam Jamil’s profound insights into the application of the Qur’an and the Prophetic model of Muhammad (saw) in the context of the reality of the struggle for justice and freedom here in the United States. Imam Jamil’s program centered around individual and communal discipline. This was always exemplified first and foremost for Imam Jamil by the establishment of ritual prayer (salah) in congregation as well as the organized communities that should develop with salah as their foundation. I have heard numerous people recount how Imam Jamil, invited to speak by some group of Muslims eager to hear from the fiery H Rap Brown, now a Muslim, only to find that Imam Jamil would stress over and over again the necessity of establishing the prayer above all, and the priority and importance of the remembrance of God and good character.
Throughout my life as a Muslim I have felt tension between the “social justice activists” and the “religious” leaders in our community. Yet, Imam Jamil, having been deeply enmeshed in the struggle for social justice—experienced hunger and persecution as well as public praise and castigation and incarceration—was able to combine the wisdom of his experience with a deep and profound study of the Islamic sources to put forth a program for his environment and his time. Imam Jamil emphasized that the nature of the human experience in this dunya, especially for oppressed people such as Black Americans, was one of struggle (kabad). As Imam Jamil continues to repeat, even in communications from prison issued this past Ramadan,
Blessed are those who struggle, Oppression is worse than the grave, It is better to die for a noble cause, Than to live and die a slave.
Imam Jamil has been imprisoned for the last sixteen years for crimes he did not commit. He has suffered from segregation and medical neglect but has not lost his faith. Although he was once one of the most prominent national leaders of our community but is now largely unknown to a younger generation. Even though today’s organized leadership has failed to remember him, he has not lost his faith in our ummah because he has confidence in Allah. Many people can recount that when they are able to visit him in prison, his first and most important request was not what they should be doing for him but rather to ask what can he do for them? Indeed, the underlying goal of persecution, as Kunstler once pointed out, is to make us forget our teachers. If they imprison them, if they tarnish their names with false allegations, if they kill them in either fast or slow motion, that we will forget about them. Let us embrace the living legacy of Imam Jamil and rebuke to those who thought that they could make us forget.
Abdul-Malik was born Michael Patrick Ryan in Chicago, Illinois. His study of African-American history in high school and at DePaul University and his encounter with the life and legacy of Malcolm X (Malik Shabazz) led to his accepting Islam in 1994. He was one of the founding members and is a past President of the Board of Directors of the Inner City Muslim Action Network, IMAN. He is a graduate of the Georgetown University Law Center and worked as an attorney for children in the foster care system in Chicago for 14 years. He previously served as an Imam of the Inner City Islamic Center and has been the Muslim Chaplain at DePaul University since 2009. He currently lives in the south suburbs of Chicago with his wife and their five children.