My meeting with Imam Ahmad Shakur came about very quickly, and quite honestly, unexpectedly. I arrived to the coffee-shop at 6:05 pm for a 6:00 pm meeting. I realized then that I didn’t know what to expect nor how he was going to recognize me. Though his name is Arabic, there is a trend in Brazil for new Muslims to change their names. Usually, I stand out as the tourist very easily. However, Imam Ahmad and I had such little conversation prior to the meeting that I was not sure he knew that. Awkwardly, I walked to a few people I suspected asking them if they were Imam Ahmad, but he was not there. So I waited.
When Imam Ahmad walked up to the coffee-shop, I sort of had a ‘duh’ moment. I should’ve known it. He’s the Naqshabandi Sufi Tariqa imam in Sao Paulo. Sufisim follows different tariqa. ‘Tariqa’ is Arabic for someone’s way, method or school of thought. Sufisim follows the ways of imams. A tariqa is not particularly a law, it is rather practices, wisdom, and ways to practice Sufism.
Immediately after we met, we started talking about religion, Sufism, and culture in Brazil. The only “small talk” we had was me explaining where I am from. He immediately told me that he loves Jordan and Morocco, because their kings come from a family that is a mureed, or follower, of a Sufi tariqa.
When the coffee and Pao de Queijo (delicious Brazilian cheese bread) came, Imam Ahmad asked for salt. He explained that Sheikh Muhammad Nazim, of whose tariqa imam Ahmad is a mureed, recommended eating salt before any food; the reason being that it would help prevent ailment coming from the food.
When it comes to culture and religion, Imam Ahmad agreed with me that they are different. Though, he said one can’t really unlink or separate them. “Can one separate the right brain side from the left one? Some people have characteristics of a left brain or a right brain, but one can’t separate the two sides. One would die!” he explained.
Imam Ahmad uses an Islamic framework to understand culture. In Islam there are five categories that can be used to identify culture (or anything for that matter): Obligatory, highly recommended, permissible, not-recommended, and forbidden. These categories govern his approach to the culture. He then looks to the tariqa for guidance. If the culture fits within the first three categories and the tariqa, then he takes them. If they don’t, then he avoids it.
For Imam Ahmad, culture is an influence on society. “This influence can be from East to West or the other way,” he said pointing both directions. Then he indicated upwards and downward and said, “The cultural influence can also be from God or from Satan.” God’s teachings came to us through the prophets. The prophets, in some sense, instituted a culture of virtue amongst their followers. This culture lived on for generations while being simultaneously impacted by other forces.
This mix of influences, he agrees, makes it difficult to understand religion and faith whether in our time or at the time of the prophets. Culture of any given time or place can have a positive or negative influence upon any faith.
Brazilian culture is rich, he affirms. In-fact, he appreciates the long history of Islam in Brazil. Brazilian culture has origins in the influences of the Portuguese, natives populations, and Africans. And, the Africans were mostly Muslim. There are many points in history where Brazil could have become a majority Muslim country!
I found myself immensely enjoying my conversation with Imam Ahmad. It was a genuine and sincere exchange. I then asked him about his favorite aspect of Islam, and what Islam means to him? I immediately felt a noticeable shift of further increased warmth and sincerity as a flood of emotions emerged in his reply.
“‘God is not in heaven. God is not on earth. God is in the heart of the believer.’ I am not sure if that is a hadith or a teaching of my imam. But that is Islam to me. And, Sufisim teaches me how to drown myself in the depth of my heart because God is there. Only in our heart can we find God, and only in our hearts can we find our way. God created the universe for us to enjoy. But, He created us to worship him. So, it is only fitting that he hides in our heart to force us look deep into it for him.”
I have heard of the spirituality of Sufisim, but this, so far, has been the closest I have been to it. I wanted to learn more. So, I asked the imam how I could learn more. He invited me to a dhikr, meditation and prayer, session. I agreed to join.
Ammar is on a journey to explore Islam in different countries around the world. He wants to show that Islam is a faith not exclusive to a single ethnicity. He hopes that these stories become part of the conversation about tolerance and acceptance in America.
For more information, visit our page about this journey.