Traditional Islam for the hip-hop generation
By Zaid Shakur, Staff Writer
Southern California InFocus
SAN DIEGO -- In the heart of San Diego’s inner-city, just blocks away from "the Four Corners of Death," (an intersection so nick-named by locals in the 1980s because of its notoriety for gang violence), nestled unceremoniously between a martial arts dojo and a neighborhood grocery store is the Logan Islamic Community Center (LICC). Situated in a working-class neighborhood that is overwhelmingly Latino, LICC serves a Muslim congregation that is small yet incredibly diverse. Within its 27 founding members there are Filipinos, Africans, African-Americans, Caucasians, and of course, Latinos.
The most striking characteristics of this up-and-coming community is the fact that it is made up entirely of reverts to Islam—and though some regular attendees are anywhere from 40 years of age well into their 70s, the average age of LICC’s members is a tender 26 years old. It is precisely this youthful energy that one feels pulsating through the masjid and fueling its impressive list of programs, activities, and services.
Mohammed Zaki Abdul-Latif, 26, is a local music DJ and active member of LICC. When the youth of the jama’at or congregation is mentioned, he is resolute. "All praise is due to Allah, we’ve been received pretty warmly by children of immigrants who connect with us because we share common values. The elders and leaders of other Masajid have welcomed us. One of our members is the public relations director for Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR)-San Diego and another is on the board of the Southern California Shura Council.
We are first and foremost an indigenous, homegrown community of mostly young Muslims, but we’ve sat with and learned from traditional Ulama (scholars), many of them having a connection going back to the Prophet (saw) himself through either transmission of knowledge or lineage or both."
One of the most dynamic and successful ways that LICC is serving this emerging young adult demographic is through its monthly poetry and spoken word contest, known as "Manual 4 Existence" held on the second Saturday of each month at Voz Alta, a downtown venue for the arts. It is a hip and high-energy function that allows members of the masjid to give strong daw’ah, or Islamic education to youth that would otherwise be enthralled by the usually immoral lyrics and rhythms of popular rap music. Abdul-Latif explains that "many of the traditional Ulama used to teach using poetry and qasidas. This is what gave us the idea to reach out in this manner."
During the contest intermission, one of the members gives a dars (short talk) on topical issues such as gangs or drugs and relates it to Islamic solutions. The effect is palpable and non-Muslim attendees have converted to Islam as a result of this effort. Abdul-Latif often DJ’s during the event. "In my previous life before Islam I used to be a professional DJ, focusing more on the art itself. Now I don’t play in clubs, of course, and have branched out into world music and traditional Islamic music," he says.
Tariq Ali, a Puerto Rican revert and Amir of LICC, came to San Diego in 1999 from New York. He and several others were part of the Jama’at of Shehu Uthman Ibn Fodio, an international group that studies and follows the methodology of that West African Islamic Scholar. That same year Ali and members of the Filipino Islamic community joined forces to create the "UMA of San Diego" (UMA stands for United Muslim Association). They began seeking knowledge from Amir Mohammad Shareef and Shaikh Hamza Yusuf Hanson.
They opened a small school in 1999 in San Diego’s largely Mexican, low-income Logan Heights area. "We felt that there was a need in San Diego for traditional Islamic knowledge to be taught--knowledge that was based on the Qur’an, the Sunnah and the work of the great Ulama," says Ali. "There was no other masjid in the area that we felt was doing this." The school, or "the Building" as it was known, was opened to all Muslims and offered a wide array of classes including Hadith studies, Arabic courses, Fiqh classes and the study of classical Islamic texts by the likes of Shaikh Uthman Ibn Fodio, as well as some contemporary Islamic thinkers like Dr. Sherman Jackson.
There is wonderful irony in the fact that these young reverts, themselves a product of ‘hip-hop’ culture and modernity, have become qualified to teach Islam. Several of the brothers have in the past eight years traveled extensively to places such as Yemen and Mauritania to study for years at a time with scholars like Shaikh Mohammed Al-Yacoubi and Shaikh Habib Umar in order to pass on what they’ve learned, becoming fluent in the Arabic language and receiving Ijazah (license) in several Islamic sciences.
By 2006 the needs of the jama’at had grown and the small one room school was no longer sufficient. A search for a larger location proved fruitful when a local storefront Masjid closed, allowing for the jama’at to take over the site. With only minor adjustments in structure, such as the erection of curtains for the privacy of the women and the addition of traditional wudoo or ablution stations, the congregation was able to transform it into the thriving center of learning and worship that it is today.
The current class schedule consists of 6 courses held 4 days a week that include in-depth study of Islamic Jurisprudence from the Risala of ibn Abi-Zaid, Shafi’ Fiqh, Maliki Fiqh from the Umdat l’ Bayyan of Shehu Uthman Ibn Fodio, Biblical Sources & Dawa’ah Strategies with Special Emphasis on Refutations/Rebuttals, and Women’s Arabic.
LICC is also home to a very strong and vibrant women’s program known as "Yan Taru." Yan Taru was a Fulani word used in the Sokoto Caliphate to refer to women under the age of 14 and over the age of 45 who were the backbone of an educational movement established by Nana Asma’u during the reign of her brother Caliph Muhammad Bello (1817 - 1837). The Yan Taru was a group of female student-teachers. These women and girls left their homes and made the long arduous journey to Sokoto, primarily on foot. They were led by knowledgeable women called Jaji’s. The Jaji would prepare the Yan Taru for study, asking them to purify their intentions. The Jaji would accept sadaqa or charity for the journey from the women who could not make the trip and then teach them upon their return. Women, the sustainers of the home and society would thus have access to knowledge without having to leave their homes. Yan Taru is an international program but Najiyya Ali is the Jaji of LICC’s division. "Women are the foundation of the Muslim community. They are the first educators," explans Najiyya. "If you have ignorant women you’ll have an ignorant community. If you have knowledgeable women you’ll have a knowledgeable community."
Presently the sisters sponsor each other to attend "Deen Intensives" around the country and hold classes for the other sisters when they come home. The women of LICC also perform charitable work for the community, recently holding a community sponsored rummage sale with the proceeds going to buy food vouchers that were given to the needy.
The community of LICC is also making an impression throughout the broader Muslim community with its lectures at masjids, college campuses and public libraries. Among the highest priorities is working with youth for gang prevention and intervention, especially poignant since many in the community were once affiliated with gangs themselves until Islam entered their lives.
Abdul-Latif remembers a particularly successful event. "We called it ‘non-Muslim family gratitude night’ where we held a banquet and seminar for our non-Muslim parents, brothers, sisters, etc, where we honored them, and Imam Zaid gave a talk on understanding Islam."
Abdul-Latif and others at LICC have recently put their musical and rhetorical talents to use online by hosting "Discourse," an internet radio show on Earthbound radio (www.twelvez.com), which airs every Sunday afternoon from 12-2pm. It is a mixture of clean hip hop and conscious discussion.
Abdul-Latif is excited about the show. "The inspiration for the title "Discourse" came from a lecture by Shaikh Hamza Yusuf who once said that ‘Islam was not allowed in this discourse…,’ referring to national and societal discourse. Our mission statement is ‘raising the standard of intellectual discussion in all arenas of life amongst hip hop aficionados and people who just want to think.’ We insert Islamic themes into our discussions while keeping it objective and trying to share information with people of different backgrounds, while always maintaining our Islamic identity. There’s a hint of comedy and seriousness without nonsense or Jahilliyya (ignorance)."
With an active congregation, LICC has its own unique "flavor" and a rich atmosphere of family and connectedness. Sitting firmly on the edge of Islamic teachings and creative programs, the masjid has succeeded in reaching out to a hip-hop generation.
Logan Islamic Community Center is located on 5077 Logan Avenue, San Diego, CA 92113 (619) 264-4183