As America faces today the seeming inevitability of Iran becoming a nuclear power, I am reminded of a similar backdrop when I decided to become a Muslim. It was 1979, and I was in my second year of law school at the University of Virginia when an enigmatic and almost mystical figure named Ayatollah Khomeni burst upon the world scene like a whirlwind force. With the nation shocked by daily TV images of Americans held hostage by Khomeni’s Iranian followers, the Ayatollah became for the media and the American public the personification of Islam. Against this backdrop, my journey into the faith took place.
I had already begun to question the point of my going to law school. I loved the study of law, the beauty and serenity of Charlottesville, and the prestigious institution founded and designed by Thomas Jefferson (“UVA”). But at the same time, I felt like I was subtly being programmed for a life as a “silk stocking” lawyer, that is, to represent the rich and powerful. My black consciousness and years of social activism naturally rebelled. I felt my soul seeking something permanent, something beyond the material existence of a legal career, something greater even than race consciousness. My mother, instinctively, I suppose, began sending me letters laced with Biblical quotes and lessons.
Perhaps by destiny, while a law student I also taught part-time in the history department at UVA, and among my students was a teenage African American from Philadelphia named Farid Akkani, whose character, studiousness and political consciousness stood out from the other students like a bright light. I discovered that he was a Muslim, and as I sought to learn more from him about the faith, I became his student. He gave me several books about Islam, and also the Qur’an, the Muslim scripture.
While absorbing these, I began hearing and reading about an African-American Muslim lawyer in Virginia named Sa’ad El-Amin. After receiving an MBA from the University of Southern California and a law degree from Yale, Sa’ad joined the Nation of Islam founded by Elijah Muhammad and made famous by Malcolm X, who later broke from the Nation’s teachings of Islam. When Elijah died in 1975, the Nation essentially split, with the majority following Elijah’s son, Warith Deen Muhammad, and the others Louis Farrakhan. Sa’ad, who oversaw the Nation’s legal and business matters, departed for Richmond when Warith Deen, who directed the followers away from the teachings of his father and towards orthodox Islam, began selling off the Nation’s vast business holdings.
Sa’ad then shook up Virginia with his bold and brilliant socially conscious litigation. He had a reputation for fearlessly suing white cops and major institutions, and was considered one of the premier trial lawyers in the country. He was the “peoples’ lawyer” – their champ – in every sense of the word, and after he came to UVA and gave a rousing speech on the societal obligations of lawyers and why they should seek to be respected rather than respectable, we connected.
While Sa’ad was exemplifying the black nationalism and social activism I had always associated with Islam because of the Nation and Malcolm, Farid was teaching me about the five pillars of the faith, including the pilgrimage to Mecca that transformed Malcolm, and the unique prostrating manner in which Muslims pray. After instructing me on the religious tenets and rituals, Farid, sensing my spiritual quest for something deeper, had me seek out a professor in UVA’s religious department, Abdullah Aziz Sachedina.
When a week later I entered Sachedina’s office, located in one of the campus’ stately historic buildings, I entered Islam. His voice was calm, his mannerisms peaceful, and his demeanor humble. He was born in Tanzania, Africa to parents of Persian ancestry. He had studied at the foremost Islamic universities in the world, published several books, spent considerable time studying in Iran, and was among an elite group of worldwide Muslim leaders.
Almost every Thursday for over a year I would visit and assault him with questions like a fresh young lawyer: “Why is it necessary to pray five times a day if God is around all the time? What’s wrong with eating pork if properly cooked? What’s this issue with Jesus? And what makes the Qur’an so special?” He would simply smile and then ask, “What do you think?” – reminding me of the Qur’an’s saying that Islam “is a religion for people who think.”
One early morning, some 16 years after graduating and returning to St. Louis, I wrote to him about the faith:
Dear Professor Sachedina:
I was thinking about you late last night…I thought about my final night in Charlottesville, as I as preparing to leave the somewhat protective realm of student life and venture into the world as a lawyer, as a Muslim.
You will remember that I arrived at your house very late that night. I will never forget sitting around your kitchen table, with you dressed in that splendidly vibrant white robe, looking God-sent, and discussing, one-on-one, God. And discussing what he expected of me as a Muslim. I can remember telling you my fear of keeping and maintaining my faith in a world where we are so misunderstood and even hated.
It was what you said then that made me think of you last night. You told me to be a Muslim in everything I do. Whether it’s going to the store to get a loaf of bread, you said, or just cleaning the house, be a Muslim. Have God in your heart…
I want to thank you for teaching me that the love of God is greater than any religion, and that as great and wonderful as His scripture is, it will never be greater than the revelation Allah brings through a person’s heart…
I thank you, my teacher, for being my guidance to the center of His heart, for teaching me that Islam was not the end, but a means to love Him more dearly.
Eric Erfan Vickers (1953-2018) was a civil rights activist and attorney in St. Louis.
Reprinted with permission from 52nd City, “Faith” issue.