by Masood Abdul-Haqq
At the heart of the West End neighborhood of Atlanta is the Community Mosque, a quaint house, turned spiritual refuge, for Black Muslims from all over the country. In the early 1990s, at the heart of the Community Mosque, was Imam Jamil Al-Amin, a gangly, soft spoken man from Louisiana with a scruffy reddish brown beard and a knack for catchphrases that blended the latest hip hop slang into reminders about making 5 prayers a day. So when you heard him say he’s checking you “because I’m Muslim by nature, not ’cause I hate ya,” it made you realize that to be Black and Muslim was not only acceptable, it was downright cool.
My introduction to Imam Jamil was not a direct one. When my family and I first moved to Atlanta in the fall of 1992, the West End Muslim scene unfolded like some sort of Black Muslim Utopia. A soulful adhan was the soundtrack to Black children of all ages in kufis and khimars playing with each other on either side of the street. The intersecting streets near the masjid gave way to a large covered basketball court, on which the game in progress had come to a halt due to the number of players who chose to answer the melodic call to prayer. Overlooking this scene from the bench in front of his convenience store, like a shepherd admiring his flock, was a denim overall and crocheted kufi-clad Imam Jamil. Before I heard him utter a single word, it was obvious to me that I was in the presence of a transcendent leader.
The early 1990’s was an exciting time to be in Atlanta. However, one of the unfortunate undercurrents of our booming urban economy was the inevitable rise of the drug trade. Reagan had been out of office for a full term, but his crack epidemic and trickle down economics were still very prevalent in inner city neighborhoods across the country. The West End was no exception. At the intersection of Holderness Street and Lucille Avenue, just 100 yards from my childhood home and four city blocks from the West End Masjid, stood a notorious motorcycle club and corner store. Both businesses were knee deep in the interests of prominent local drug dealers and it wasn’t long before that corner earned the reputation as a “million dollar block.”
One might think living so close to such a dangerous corner would make for a tale of hard knocks, peer pressure and intimidation. For the Muslim kids, that was the furthest thing from our reality. Instead, we ran around that neighborhood with impunity. When the dope boys saw us coming, they would step out of our way, offer to buy us snacks from the store, or just whisper to each other about us being “Big Slim’s folks.” Sometimes they called him Rap. Or the Imam. The bottom line was, they may have pulled the usual dope boy tricks of recruiting and terrorizing kids within the neighborhood, but us Muslim kids were off limits.
There was an honor associated with being a member of Imam Jamil’s community, a VIP hood pass that made us immune to the usual ills of this sort of environment. This street credibility from outside the Muslim community stemmed from Imam Jamil’s days as H. Rap Brown, a revolutionary fighting for Black rights. It evolved when he demonstrated the ability to bridge gaps between young and old, Muslim and non-Muslim. People respected that his entire life revolved around salat at the Masjid. This made him accessible and dependable. Five times a day, the adhan was called and Imam Jamil would either lead or appoint someone to lead the prayer. Afterwards, no one would leave unless he raised his hand for permission and got the nod from the Imam. After finishing his dhikr and du‘a, the Imam would ask, “Is there anything anyone would like to bring out?” Brothers would bring forth questions, concerns and news from around the neighborhood, and the Imam would address it or tell the person to meet him after salat. The drug issue was at the forefront. Slowly but surely, prayer by prayer, the million dollar block was abandoned. Miraculously, after efforts to clean up the neighborhood around the million dollar block, now stands the West End Islamic Center, a beacon of hope for sustaining the community.
One day after Asr salat, Imam Jamil asked, “is there anything anyone would like to bring out?” and my hand went up. All eyes turned to this 12 year old kid and I blurted, “Why do you always recite two surahs in every rakat? When you were out of town, the other brothers did the same thing. Is that some kind of Sunnah that I don’t know?” I saw eyebrows going up and heads shaking all around the room. I felt like I made a huge mistake, but my curiosity had gotten the best of me. Imam Jamil smiled and replied, “I recite the surahs that have the most meaning, the most barakaat.” Later, he called me to the bench outside of his store to further explain his logic, dazzling me with his smooth way with words and sense of humor. For all of the intrigue, awe and fear that he inspires, the fact that Jamil Al-Amin was willing to take time to address me when he certainly had more pressing issues on his plate is what I remember most fondly about him. For all of his international acclaim and notoriety, he will always be the man that paved the way for me to grow up proud to be Black and Muslim.