A few years ago Jameel Syed might just have been your typical Muslim American, born in the US to migrant South Asian parents, he graduated from University and then went on to start a family.
But the events surrounding his 40th birthday sent him on a voyage of self-discovery and reflection. A Muaddhin by training, for years he had given the call to prayer throughout his community, but the passing of his father in the month of Ramadan granted him deep moments of reflection. Soon thereafter he decided on the idea to make a historic journey by calling the Adhan and reciting the last sermon of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ in every single US state.
Jameel's journey lasted 35 days and spanned the whole of the USA, giving him a unique insight into North American and Muslim American Culture. His experience is one that is extremely rare, so we were grateful to have had the chance to chat to 'The Muaddhin'. He told us about his adventurous travels which included an airport shahada and finding Mosques in the deep south...
50 states in 35 days how did the vocals do was it strenuous on your voice?
The funny thing was, knowing what I know because I am a Qari and Muaddhin and I have performed quite a bit on the Naat and Munshid circuit, I was 100 percent sure I would lose my voice, and somehow that didn’t happen.
If you are talking about sleep deprivation or use of vocals, moving through time zones time changes and all that SubhnaAllah it did not happen in 35 days. However, the funny thing was when I came back, I then had an opportunity to rest and relax you know that’s when I hit a wall – the exhaustion kicked in and I lost my voice! Within the next two days.
Did you find it easy to find locations to do the adhan and was each Muslim community welcoming?
It was not easy to get all the locations if this trip was done conventionally and traditionally it would have taken at least six months to prep properly. So you had the navigation part of it, and you have to activate masaajid and a lot of people don’t know it wasn’t a simple matter of going and making the adhan. There were other milestones that needed to be achieved in every location so the adhan was one of them, the khutba tul widaa (The last sermon of the Prophet Muhammad SAW) had to be read in the form of a short speech after the obligatory prayer, we had to have a historical document signed and an interview with one of the mosque leaders in the masjid.
There were several instances where we landed in the state or were driving through cross country lines where we didn’t have a masjid. But, as you can imagine if you are on the board of a masjid and you get some random person who wants to come into your masjid and do these three or four things and get this...not ask for any funds in return? It’s a very strange thing!
The majority of all masaajid were very welcoming the people understood and they were like ‘enter and be blessed’ they showed the proper hospitality and generosity that our community is known for, and the ones who had apprehension they flat out rejected us.
So it was eye-opening and it was a blessing for those opportunity’s we were able to go in and engage, but at the same time, it was obviously an obstacle and a challenge when we weren’t able to get into some masaajid. To explain how dire the situation was, we had states like New York, Michigan and Texas where there is an abundance of masaajid throughout the state, then we have Vermont, Montana, South Dakota where there are one two or three masaajid or maybe not any at all and that was a threat to compromising the mission.
During your journey when hitting states that had almost no Muslim population what did you do then?
This is one of the things that we wanted to face. You need to face your prejudices and you need to face your bias when you think of places like Idaho, Wyoming and Montana these places are considered to be not Muslim friendly or just generally not diverse at all. I think it's very important for you to go out there and experience and see for yourself what that place is like, what those people are like and you will find that there is a tremendous amount of misinformation about their community and about their locality and it may give you an opportunity to engage accordingly.
We definitely proceeded with caution [laughs] I won't lie! When we walked into these states we walked in with a bias and understood that the local climate is not favourable to Muslims and people are spewing hate rhetoric and in some cases, people are losing their lives.
You see at the end of the day that it is a lot about how you present yourself, if you present yourself in a certain way it is not to say it will diminish racism or prejudice, but I will say that you have a much better chance of connecting with that person so that they are seeing one thing on the television but their interaction with you proves otherwise. Now they are perplexed, there is a paradox and so it is our job to create that chaos in the mindset of such racist people by going out and engaging. I also learnt a lot about myself too, and I was able to challenge those biases that I had about those types of people.
You have previously talked about Muslims creating their own narrative. But with the media creating a narrative for us. How do we overcome this challenge and express our individuality?
I am really glad that you asked me that question… I take a lot of pride in telling people that when I decided to take on this journey I didn’t ask anybody’s permission nor did I ask for anybody’s support. So when I undertook this journey it was something that we individually initiated from ourselves and as a result, Allah (SWT) reciprocated and was able to provide resources, the intentions were pure from the beginning, we didn’t do this for business, we didn’t do this for fame or any of these types of things for me it was a very spiritual journey, but it turned into what I like to call a ‘case study’.
"It’s the responsibility of every individual to understand that they are their own institution that it's up to them to engage"
Most of the time Muslims or generally people like to jump on the pulpit and want to call out theological things, things we should be doing and then they hope that people will go ahead from that speech and move into a space where they are actually creating experiences [for example] here and now me and you are talking, but in retrospect it was based upon an experience that was created, so my message to people is this: in today's day and age it’s the responsibility of every individual to understand that they are their own institution that its up to them to engage, get out of there homes and make a truly organic experience with someone from the other faith.
Individuals carry a tremendous amount of power. Realise that. We have to take responsibility and the best way to do that is to get out there and create your own experiences.
Was there a specifically poignant moment in your travels, something you maybe found interesting or surprising throughout your journey?
Yes, there was, there is a very prominent figure within the Muslim community and the Muslim world a mentor of mine and his name is Imam Siraj Wahaj who is located in Brooklyn New York. He and his team of people had put together an opportunity for me to meet some very, very important people from the media and academia. But the key was, I really needed to get off the aeroplane immediately grab my bag and jump into a car because people were going to meet with me after an event was concluding [at NYU]. So there really was no time, everything needed to happen like clockwork.
What happened was when I got off the aeroplane my bags had not arrived. I had to take that information to the airline counter and explain to them what had happened. They notified me that my bag would be coming on the next aeroplane, which would be about 15 minutes (which translates to about 45 minutes) so I had to realise I am going to miss this appointment. I was really sad about it you know dejected if you want to call it that.
So in any case, I go and stand in front of the carousel where the bags usually come and there’s this other man there. Tall, African American and we’re sitting there so we decided to strike up a conversation. So, I ask him where he was from he said he was from the area but was of Nigerian descent, one side of his family is Muslim the other side is Christian and that he was a musician and he just had a performance and was coming back home.
So, I pulled out my phone and pulled up the NBC article and told him that I was on this historic journey, so we had a good exchange. My bag came so I decided to exit the airport looking for my driver. And then at one step there was an epiphany that took place, something inside of me said maybe this was happening for a particular reason so I stepped back into the airport and by that time the gentleman had already grabbed his bag, and so I said to him, “listen before you take off, before I leave I don’t want you to think I’m weird or anything but I just wanted to.. I wanted to say something to you” and he was like “what is it?” so I said “Aslam Taslem” he said what does that mean?” I said “it means to enter and be blessed, so I’m giving you an invitation, to bear witness that there is no God but Allah and that Muhammad (SAW) is his last and final messenger” and so the man his face looked a little perturbed and he put his bag down and he began to cry! And he said...
“When we were having this conversation I was hoping that the conversation would never end, and when you started to leave I felt this sorrow in my heart, and when you came back and asked me this question I knew that we were supposed to have met, I knew that these bags were meant to be delayed” and then he said.. ashadu-an-la-illaha-illaAllah - Muhammad-du-rasoolululah. “I know the words and I think I’ve always believed in them so I bear witness that there is no God but Allah and that Muhammad (SAW) is his last and final messenger.
Looking back on this trip, maybe this entire trip was an excuse for this person coming to Islam. To me this was the high point of this trip.
You probably have a very unique insight into Islam in America not a lot of people have done what you have. Would you encourage Muslims to do the same?
I encourage entrepreneurship, and entrepreneurship doesn’t mean going and starting your own business. But it does mean that you need to leave your imprint on this world and you can do that in many different ways. I do encourage people to go out there and that’s kind of my slogan or tagline..
‘Don’t be good, don’t even be great you need to be exceptional’
People often times dismiss the degree and clarity of what that word means, exceptional means that there is nobody else like you, you are your own category, you are your own institution.
So yes I definitely encourage Muslims and non-Muslims to be exceptional. To go out there and have an adventure, to go out there and test yourself against your own biases and your own prejudices. You need to go out there and discover yourself and learn about other people. You need to show what your values are, you need to grow that’s what travelling allows you to do.
When travelling the voices, sounds, cultures and values change. But when you are travelling to different Muslim communities, it would be interesting to know how these differing values effect each Muslim community. Are the Texan Muslims a lot different than the New Yorkers?
Yes, there are stark values and you don’t even have to move from state to state even within the same city you will find that there are stark values, to highlight just a few for example there are those masaajid that are operating via a module that is the antithesis of the general model that you would find, in other words they have invested in their youth.
So you have those types of cultures and then you have another type of culture where the people in the masjid are not only serving people in the Muslim community they make it a point within the fabric of their institution to make sure they are engaging non-Muslims and that they are apart of bettering society. Whether it’s opening a soup kitchen to feed the homeless, whether it’s offering tutoring classes for those who don’t have a proper education or whether its making sure people have proper shelter whatever it may be.
You can really see there is a stark cultural difference in the landscape of America just as there is in the landscape of the world.
"If we are not involved in improving society, if we see ourselves as the ‘other’ then others will also see us as the other"
I think its important to identify those differences between people so that maybe if somebody is doing something better than us we can adopt this, but equally important is to understand the common denominators that bind us together.
There is a common denominator and that common denominator needs to be centred around enjoining good and speaking out against all that is not good and embracing the fact that we are Muslims living in America and that we have an inherent responsibility to improve society. If we are not involved in improving society if we see ourselves as the ‘other’ then others will also see us as the other.
Did you feel as though the Muslim community was disconnected from the wider American public?
They are connected as much as they want to be and they are also connected conditionally, for instance, this is what we find in most groups religious or secular: when your back is against the wall it throws you into a position of necessity or survival. I think that for the Muslim community right now with all misinformation that’s floating around you are finding a tremendous growth in negative sentiments against Muslims in America.
This puts Muslims in a position where they have to align. They have to speak out against any of the oppressors or any of the wrong doing, they have to speak up for themselves and they have to showcase all the good that they are doing.
Looking beyond the Muaddhin project what things are you hoping to accomplish in the future?
I made this journey for a very specific reason. My father (Rahimahullah) passed away, he was a professor at the University of Michigan. He passed away in Ramadan in the Masjid in Sujood. That is not a coincidence, that is not something you take lightly, that is something somebody reflects upon for the rest of their life.
For me this was a Sadaqah Jaariyah, this was a way for me to still be in the assistance of my father, it was also for me (I had turned 40 when I did this trip) to erase all of those sins which I had accumulated throughout my lifetime and lastly it was to be able to do something for my son and my son's children. I don’t want him to look up to me as an athlete or a CEO of a marketing firm. It would be a tragedy for me to know that this is what he thinks the word ‘success’ means.
This project was done for a particular purpose, but there have been so many things that have come from this. For example, MUHSEN (Special Needs Charity) reached out to me to be an ambassador, I have never written as much as I am writing right now, even organisations have asked me to be their ‘Umrah Guy’. There are a bunch of side projects that are popping up left and right and they are all happening from the mother project, which was calling the Adhan and giving the last sermon of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ .
Jameel will be going on tour throughout the US with the '50 Mosque Man Tour' hitting locations up and down the country. He will be sharing his unique insight into Muslim American culture and InshaAllah bridging gaps within the Muslim community and non Muslims communities as well.
Author: Muhammad Yousuf Shuwekh