by Duston Barto
During Ramadan, Imam Qasim Ahmed came to lead a weekend full of teaching and workshops at Masjid Ash-Shaheed. I took as much time as I could to learn from this student of Imam Warith Deen Mohammed and leader within the Muslim-American community. Imam Qasim sat down with me for a one-on-one conversation after leading an enlightening taleem service on Sunday afternoon.
During our talk, Imam Qasim Ahmed explained how he came into the Nation of Islam in 1969 during the leadership of Elijah Muhammad. In 1975 when Elijah’s son, the great leader Imam Warith Deen Mohammed took over leadership of Nation of Islam following his father’s death and moved it toward Sunni Islam; Imam Qasim followed Warith’s leadership. “I’ve always been committed to the movement and the evolution of the movement which is the Nation of Islam and how it came into the community of Islam in the West and the Muslim Mission and then into broader Islam. Imam Muhammad, he led that community and those that followed him came into what is called traditional Sunni Islam.”
He explained why the movement is different from the kind of Islam taught via the Immigrant Muslim community, “I think the functional difference is that one is indigenous and one is immigrant. The indigenous Muslims that came up and then grew up in Islam have the texture of the society. What I mean by that is that they know the society as they came up in it and they know how to respond more accurately to various religious beliefs for dawah purposes and enlightening peoples to what Islam has really done. A lot of time when people come from overseas, they have a framework that they work in because Islam has been in their family for 800 or 1000 years whereas we were brought into Islam and it has changed our lives and I think we are a little more passionate because of that change and it’s a witness that it does something for you. Others come to it all laid back because they’re used to it all and they’re okay. We are committed to dawah because our relatives and friends are in a condition of another way of thinking and we know that this condition is better so we go after them. So I think that’s the major difference; the energy to propagate comes from this need to lead.”
Imam Qasim shared that he spent a lot of time at Masjid Ar-Razzaq in Durham, NC, “Imam Said was the imam there. He wanted me to be Imam but I was there to help him develop, you see one of the things I do is to travel and assist Imams in Arabic and Qur’an, etc., so that they can become more proficient and responsible in their role as an Imam.” But don’t think that he stops at training Imams; while Imam Warith Deen Mohammed gave him the mission to cultivate and train, that doesn’t stop with the Imam. “I build communities and schools both physically and mentally because I’m a carpenter by trade; so that’s what I do and I’ve been doing it for 30 years. It’s not just building individuals though it’s building communities; we have Qur’anic workshops. At my institute, the Islamic Learning Institute, the motto is ‘Traveling the World to Educate and Propagate’ that’s what I do.” Along with training Imams, Imam Qasim also trains teachers and creates youth development classes along with helping communities create an overall education framework.
Since dawah is such a big part of what Imam Qasim talked about, I asked him where Muslims should start if they haven’t really been trained specifically on how to break down information for non-Muslims. His response was brilliant in its simplicity, “Start with Friendship. Islam is a religion that builds friendship, not enemies. See if I meet you and I want to be your friend then I’m not going to start telling you what you is and what you ain’t and whatnot! Instead, I’m going to see what we have in common.”
He continued, “I was the Imam in Dallas for three years and I spoke with over 500 churches in the Dallas/Ft. Worth area, some of the churches even used to call me “the city evangelist”. Me and the minister of a church would go out to eat, have dinner and talk and we became friends. I mean real friends! Not the ‘I’m trying to get you later on’ kind of friends. We began talking and building bridges as I’d share information from the Qur’an and we would build this relationship on what we shared together.”
What should people who newly embrace Islam focus on? Again, Imam Qasim’s response was straight to the point. “Read the Qur’an. That’s first and foremost to learn Islam from the Qur’an because that’s where it is. Just like you trusted God to accept Islam and come into this new life; trust in God at his word in the Qur’an and allow him to reveal Islam to you. Be aware of people who want to tell you what this and that means. Just let the meaning come to you naturally just by reading.”
As a builder of communities, Imam Qasim identified what he believes to be the greatest challenge facing the Muslim community, “The single greatest challenge, I feel, is to become students of the Qur’an for its application. How do you apply the Qur’an to an environment that may be adverse to it? When I say environment; it could be your personal environment, that which YOU work with, family, friends, etc. How do you apply the Qur’an like the life of the Prophet? That’s a challenge. Because you can learn any book but how do you take that and apply it? Just like with anything that you go to learn the question is how you spin it, how do you earn from it? So applying the Qur’an is the challenge.”
Just as I always do with interviews; I asked Imam Qasim his favorite part of the Qur’an. He thought for a long time, saying “Now you’re asking a very difficult question, because I have so many favorites…” After a few minutes of introspection he finally replied, “I would say the most favorite part for me is Al-Fatihah, because it is the epitome and essence of the whole Qur’an. When you study in that context, you begin to understand how the Qur’an unfolds itself as you begin to read it. Because it (Al-Fatihah) is an opening, it opens up knowledge that will unfold itself. Al-Fatihah is also a key because it unlocks that which has previously been locked away from you. It’s the one that Allah told us to recite in every rakat of every prayer. Every occasion, everything that we do, even special occasions begin with al-fatihah whether it is marriage, burial, whatever. So it is a very significant surah.”
Before we shook hands and parted ways, I had to ask him, “What is your favorite part about visiting NC?” to which he answered with a slight grin “Sitting here talking with you.” After a light chuckle, he continued. “Meeting with the Muslims in general really, I always enjoy the company of Muslims no matter where I go. I actually haven’t been able to visit a lot of places because whenever I arrive I’m here to work. So I’m either teaching or building or visiting a place directly related to the work. One of these days I’m going to learn how to relax.”
Insh’allah, let’s all pray for Imam Qasim to take time to relax so that he can return soon to fill our minds and hearts with knowledge from, and a love for, the Qur’an.