By Imam Enrique Ahmed Rasheed
The first juz’ of the Qur’an begins with al-Fatiha, the Opening. The verb “fataha” is used in the Qur’an in different forms (as a verb and noun) which may translate: to open, key, and victory. The 19th attribute of Allah is al-Fattah, the Opener or the One who causes the Opening. We begin our reading (and everything else we do), with Allah’s name, the Merciful Benefactor, the Merciful Redeemer. It is through the doors of Allah’s mercy that the book is opened to us and we receive the keys to the knowledge which will help us to attain victory. The first 10 days of Ramadan are called the days of mercy. With these things in mind: openings, beginnings and mercy, I begin my reflection.
Being old school, growing up in the 1960s, I am reminded of a song by James Brown, the Godfather of Soul, singing, “I don’t want nobody to give me nothing, open up the door, I’ll get it myself.” Some of you might wonder why I would mention James Brown in this context. Although we do not know if James Brown became a Muslim, we know that James Brown told Imam Warith Deen Mohammed (Allah have mercy on him) the song, “Say it loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud,” was inspired by his late father’s teachings while leading the Nation of Islam (NOI). These words and others were the catalysts for the opening of the minds and hearts of many African Americans to al-Islam. We considered ourselves fortunate to not be, in those moments of acceptance and openings, among those who Allah had made “deaf, dumb, and blind: they will never return” (2:17). James Brown was hearing those words and putting them into his music. We listened to it, danced to it and it scattered like seeds into our minds and our thinking.
We considered ourselves fortunate to not be, in those moments of acceptance and openings, among those who Allah had made “deaf, dumb, and blind: they will never return” (2:17). James Brown was hearing those words and putting them into his music. We listened to it, danced to it and it scattered like seeds into our minds and our thinking.
I am convinced that I would not have given Islam a second thought had it not been for the appeal of the NOI in our neighborhoods and the spread of the language of the religion through our communities. It was “a baptism from Allah. And who is better at baptism than Allah? We are the the devotees of Allah” (2:138, Shakir translation). It reached me through my sister Patricia, who joined the NOI back then and delivered a word to me. In fact, I confided in her that I was trying to figure out what to do with my life; I felt I was being called to serve. Her simple response to me was, “that’s Allah!” She repeated it several times, “that’s Allah, that’s Allah!” We then got a chair, took the Qur’an off the highest shelf in her house, dusted it off, and I began to read. I began to read al-Fatiha, and then, following al-Fatiha, just as Allah says, the guidance came. “This is the scripture in which there is no doubt, containing guidance for those who are mindful of God” (2:2, Abdel Haleem translation). Looking back on 40 years as a Muslim, 36 years as an Imam, I now realize that what occurred in my life was a beginning, an opening. It was a mercy, a spark of divine light that hit my young mind and heart and caused a revolution in my soul.
I began to read al-Fatiha, and then, following al-Fatiha, just as Allah says, the guidance came. “This is the scripture in which there is no doubt, containing guidance for those who are mindful of God.” Looking back…I now realize that what occurred in my life was a beginning, an opening. It was a mercy, a spark of divine light that hit my young mind and heart and caused a revolution in my soul.
The NOI has been an instrumental part of that opening for our community. We were introduced to the name Allah, the concept of being a Muslim and the Holy Qur’an. That was a great mercy that was bestowed on the African American community and brought many benefits and redeemed the lives of numerous persons. The many men and women who labored hard and established the temples of Islam, that later became mosques and now masjids, laid the foundation for al-Islam in America today: “Whatever good you store up for yourselves, you will find it with Allah: He sees everything that you do” (2:110).
I understand firsthand why it makes perfect sense that the progression of the verses of al-Fatiha begins “With Allah’s name the Merciful Benefactor, the Merciful Redeemer. All praise belongs to Allah, Lord of all the systems of knowledge” (1:1-2). After opening the Qur’an that day, and later learning how to read the book from Imam W. Deen Mohammed, I was given a new life and access to new systems of knowledge. I know I am not unique in this experience. There are thousands who got their opening in a similar manner as I. And the praise is for Allah, Glorified and the Most High is He.
I am filled with gratitude for my own beginning, my own opening and the mercy that provided a path for me to escape the street life in Oakland, California. As a Muslim Chaplain in the prison system over the past 35 years, my experience has allowed me the honor to tell my story to others who could relate. Our incarcerated brothers and sisters are looking for an opening to re-enter society after being shut out, an experience many of us can relate to in some way. Our community has a rich history in this country, and we hold something of significance to contribute when we come to meet at the local, state, national, and international table. Allah says, Each community has its own direction to which it turns: race to do good deeds and wherever you are, Allah will bring you together. Allah has power over everything— 2:148.
We have come a long way, but the road is long and we still have a long way to go. Ramadan is here and it brings us openings. We are looking for victory and victory, by Allah’s mercy, is near. May He give us all a blessed Ramadan.
Imam Enrique Ahmed Rasheed was born and raised in Oakland, California. He is the youngest son of Hazel and Felix Wright, who migrated from Pine Bluff, Arkansas, to Oakland during the Great Migration. Rasheed embraced Islam in 1979 and began to formally study the Qur’an and Arabic from Imam Warith Deen Mohammed. In the late 1980s, he received a scholarship to study Arabic in Sudan at the University of Khartoum. He has served as an Imam and Chaplain (in the California State Prison system) for over 30 years. In fact, Rasheed was the first Muslim Chaplain to be hired at Folsom State Prison, and he was the first Imam to serve as Chaplain for the California State Assembly. Currently, Rasheed is completing his Master of Divinity in Islamic Chaplaincy from Bayan Claremont.