In the Name of Allah, the All-Merciful, The Mercy Giving
All praise is due to Allah, the Lord of all realms
And may blessings and peace be upon the Messenger of Allah and his family
How likely is it that an Ivy League student who is the son of a former CEO of an investment bank converts to Islam and studies regularly in an inner-city masjid with an African-American Imam who studied Islam for many years in Karachi, Pakistan? Not likely, but that is what happened.
Imam Abdul Hameed was my first teacher of Islam, and my first role model of a good Muslim. He was the Imam of Masjid al-Kareem in Providence, Rhode Island, as well as the state’s only full-time Muslim prison chaplain. He taught me how to read the Qur’anic text, the foundations of Arabic, basic fiqh of purity and prayer, and much more. He passed away on July 25th, 2015.
This short work is meant to benefit him in the barzakh – the intermediate stage of existence between the life we are living in now and the Day of Judgement. From hadith we learn that those in the barzakh can still benefit spiritually from the actions of those who are still on Earth. The spread of beneficial knowledge is specifically mentioned in that regard. Because Imam Abdul Hameed was my first teacher and role model, it is not far-fetched to think that this post can be beneficial knowledge that he has spread, since everything I learned subsequently rested on the foundation that he laid, by Allah’s permission.
But even more than that, I have chosen what I have chosen because before I left to attend his janaza, I thought, “I want to read a book that will be true to what he taught me in word and deed, so that his teaching can extend beyond his death.” And the book that came to my mind was a short collection of hadith entitled “The Reality of Worldly Life.” All of the hadith mentioned here are from that book, which was published in Pakistan, where Imam Abdul Hameed had studied for many years.
Up until his death, Imam Abdul Hameed was always there for me when I needed him to be, starting from my very first few days as a Muslim. I want to be there for him now. May the Most Generous Lord, who rewards us for the little that we do, accept this as a sadaqa jariya that benefits Imam Abdul Hameed from now until the Day he is raised again, ameen. Ya Jami’ (The One who brings together), You brought us together, and You caused us to part, and so bring us together again in the company of the one whose teachings we studied and implemented together, may Your blessings and peace be upon him and his family, ameen.
R. David Coolidge and Imam Abdul Hameed at Masjid al-Kareem (2013)
“The successful person is the one who enters Islam, is given that which is sufficient, and is content with that which s/he has been given.”
Imam Abdul Hameed was a simple man. He prayed, read Qur’an, taught the inmates at the prison, led the Friday congregation at Masjid al-Kareem, and served the Muslims of Rhode Island. He lived in various small apartments with his wife and two sons. He always seemed to me to be perfectly content with his role in the world.
I, on the other hand, had an upbringing that was characterized by wealth, and an overabundance of opportunities. What do I want to do with my life? Who am I? What is my identity? How do I make sense out of the complexity of the Islamic tradition? So many questions, many born of a privileged lifestyle, and not a lot of action.
When I reflect on why Allah decreed Imam Abdul Hameed to be my first teacher, and I think this hadith gets right to it. With what he was given, he was content, because he was simply interested in striving to be a good Muslim. Every memory I have of him is filled with dhikr and obedience to the shari’ah. When I was graduating from Brown University, one of the most elite higher education institutions in the world, I would daydream about staying in Providence and worshipping my Lord under the leadership of Imam Abdul Hameed. That did not work out, and I subsequently learned that I have to follow my own path. I cannot be Imam Abdul Hameed, for I am not a black man from Brooklyn who studied for many years in a Deobandi madrasa in Pakistan and led an inner-city masjid. I am a white man who grew up in the suburbs of Chicago who got an MA in Islamic Studies and was a chaplain at Ivy League universities. But Imam Abdul Hameed’s example was universal – worship your Lord the best you can with what you have been given, and leave the rest up to Allah.
What Really Matters
“Three things follow a dead body to the grave: two go away, and one stays. One’s family, wealth, and actions follow; family and wealth go away, but the actions stay.”
I attended Imam Abdul Hameed’s janaza prayer and burial. It was a beautiful experience. Hundreds of people who had been positively impacted by him were there, making du’a. His actions and words guided so many people, including myself. Indeed, the gathering was a witness to all the good he did.
He did not have a large family, nor abundant wealth, but that did not hinder his success. How much fasting he did! How much recitation of Qur’an he did! How many people he taught to pray! It is hard for me to imagine him receiving anything but enormous blessings from Allah. Compared to him, many of the elites of our country are truly impoverished and without opportunity.
“Son of Adam! Free yourself for My worship, and I will fill your heart with freedom from want, and protect you from poverty. If you do not, I will keep you busy working and not protect you from poverty.”
When I think of Imam Abdul Hameed, I think of him sitting in the masjid, reading Qur’an before the prayer. I think of him showing me Nayl al-Awtar by Imam al-Shawkani from off his bookshelf. I think of him making du’a regularly to be saved from the punishment of the grave. I think of him as a man at ease in the constant worship of his Lord. He had no need for anything else, other than what he needed to take care of his family and improve the community.
“All spending on the sustenance of one’s life is like spending in the way of Allah, except building things in which there is no good”
I think Imam Abdul Hameed put more effort into maintaining, improving and expanding Masjid al-Kareem than he did his own personal comforts. He had a palpable happiness when we talked about all the improvements that they were able to make, and never expressed to me discomfort due to the endless need to fundraise. All he wanted was for people to give so that everyone could benefit. And we did benefit, enormously.
The Fullness of Love
“Be unattached to the world, and Allah will love you. Be unattached to what people have, and people will love you.”
Imam Abdul Hameed was beloved by many, and I think it was because he was free from needing others to be something for him. He wanted them to give to the masjid, to contribute to the community, and encouraged them to follow Islam. But if they didn’t, he was still there in the masjid, doing what he did. People came and went, and sometimes we would reminisce about a brother who was around for a while, and then disappeared. But it didn’t bother him. He led by example, and it was up to everyone’s conscience to decide if they were going to follow or not.
He didn’t like it when people fought with each other, and we had many conversations about this. He wanted to bring people to together, but didn’t want to force it either. He once remarked to me that he believed that being involved in the affairs of the community, despite the drama that it entails, was more beloved to Allah than isolating himself for spiritual reasons. This conversation happened at a time of particularly intense intra-community drama. So it was no wonder to me how so many people were there to pray over him and lower him into his grave.
We often think about our love for Allah, but this hadith talks about Allah’s love for us. Imam Abdul Hameed’s only concern was living and teaching Islam. He once spoke fondly of being in Makkah when he was younger and sleeping on rooftops under the stars. This world was not his home – it was just a place he was passing through on the way to what he really wanted. May Allah grant it to him by His Mercy, ameen!
The grave of Imam Abdul Hameed, 2015