Tribute To A Pioneer of American Sunni Islam: Shaykh Ali Subhan

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إِنَّا لِلَّٰهِ وَإِنَّا إِلَيْهِ رَاجِعُونَ

Dr. Abdullah bin  Hamid Ali provides us with a moving tribute to Shaykh Ali Subhan an American Muslim pioneer. May Allah shower him with mercy and illuminate his grave. 



A number of hours ago, we lost an important historical fixture of Black American Muslim history. We called him Sheikh Ali Subhan. Ali Subhan was very close to many of us and helped many people over the nearly nine decades of life in their transition into Islam. He was known for his no-nonsense direct approach to getting things done around the masjid, had a beautiful smile, and a memorable laugh. Believe me when I say that Ali Subhan was funny, loved jokes , and knew how to make you chuckle. 
I first met Ali Subhan at what was then known as “The International Muslim Brotherhood” when I was fifteen when I started my transition into becoming a good Muslim (wink). I walked into the masjid and saw this light-eyed light-skinned old man walking down the stairs. It didn’t take too long for him to start giving orders. I thought to myself, “Who the hell does this old man think he is? And who does he think he’s talking to?” Over time after getting to know him better one could easily forget about the roughness around his edges. This was especially true once you discovered that he served in the Korean War as military police. His time there seemed to have made a permanent impression on his personality.
If you converted to Islam in Camden, New Jersey in the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s, you probably met Ali Subhan at some point. He was known for conducting free beginners’ classes at his home on a regular basis. He taught the basics of Islam and Arabic. In his earlier years, Ali Subhan had the fortune of traveling to Saudi Arabia to study at the University of Medina where he developed competency in Arabic and the curriculum designed for his cohort. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been with him in the basement of one of his homes in both Camden and Somerdale, New Jersey either reading through his books or enjoying a meal in conversation.
In 1993 when I was blessed to make Hajj and fly on an airplane for the very first time, I found myself the youngest of our Hajj group. Ali Subhan and his departed wife Zohra (may Allah show her mercy) were also members of our group. A remarkable incident happened on the day of Arafah. In those days, there were no air-conditioned tents. So, everyone had to endure the simmer of the summer sun. Each Hajj group had to encamp near one another without a curtain barring one group from the other’s view. Apparently, one of the members of our neighboring group started berating us in Arabic. My Arabic was not yet strong enough to notice any of it. But, as the man spewed his distaste for us encamping next to them, Ali Subhan walked over, looked over at the man, and then said, “Hajj Mabrur!” (Blessed and Accepted Hajj). The man, feeling that the gesture was sarcastic said, “And, what is that supposed to mean?” Ali responded, “Hajj Mabrur means Hajj Mabrur, my brother. We all came here seeking Allah’s forgiveness” or something to this effect. The more the man wanted to argue, the more that Ali Subhan deescalated until eventually the man acknowledged his error, apologized, and then gave Ali Subhan a hug. He then told Ali in English, “You know our language very well!”
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As I transitioned from a teenager into an adult, I spent countless hours with Ali Subhan on the road, in his home, and at our favorite New Jersey diner where we would always order scrambled eggs, grits, and silver dollar pancakes. We used to laugh loads upon loads. We enjoyed one another’s humor even though it was almost always him telling the jokes. He was really a lot of fun for me to be around even though he was old enough to be my father. He was like a father but also a friend. He learned from me, and I learned from him. We traveled together, ate together, studied together, and prayed together. With him, I always knew that I had a place to go for rest, eat, or sleep when I went to New Jersey.
There are many things I could say about Sheikh Ali Subhan, but social media isn’t the proper venue to do that. I will, however, leave you with this one important memory. As I stated, one of the things we did a lot of was pray together. Sometimes, he would let me lead and at others he would. He was particularly fond of Surah al-Zumar verses 64-70. Practically, every time he led the prayer, these were the verses he would recite with his idiosyncratic tongue-tied Qur’anic recitation. Despite that, it remained coherent enough to give the sense of his passion for and connection to the meaning of the verses. Those verses were:
(64) (O Prophet), say: “Ignorant people! Do you bid me to serve any other beside Allah?”(65) (Tell them clearly that) it was revealed to you and to all Prophets before you: “If you associate any others with Allah in His Divinity, your works will surely come to naught and you will certainly be among the losers.”(66) Therefore, serve Allah alone and be among those who give thanks.(67) They did not recognize the true worth of Allah. (Such is Allah’s power that) on the Day of Resurrection the whole earth will be in His grasp, and the heavens shall be folded up in His Right Hand. Glory be to Him! Exalted be He from all that they associate with Him. (68) And the Trumpet shall be blown and all who are in the heavens and the earth shall fall down dead save those whom Allah wills. Then the Trumpet shall be blown again, and lo! all of them will be standing and looking on. (69) The earth shall shine with the light of its Lord, and the Scroll (of deeds) shall be set in place, and the Prophets and all witnesses shall be brought, and judgement shall be justly passed among them, and they shall not be wronged; (70) and everyone shall be paid in full for all that he did. Allah is best aware of all that they do.
قُلۡ اَفَغَيۡرَ اللّٰهِ تَاۡمُرُوۡٓنِّىۡۤ اَعۡبُدُ اَيُّهَا الۡجٰـهِلُوۡنَ‏
وَلَـقَدۡ اُوۡحِىَ اِلَيۡكَ وَاِلَى الَّذِيۡنَ مِنۡ قَبۡلِكَۚ لَـئِنۡ اَشۡرَكۡتَ لَيَحۡبَطَنَّ عَمَلُكَ وَلَتَكُوۡنَنَّ مِنَ الۡخٰسِرِيۡنَ‏
بَلِ اللّٰهَ فَاعۡبُدۡ وَكُنۡ مِّنَ الشّٰكِرِيۡنَ‏
وَمَا قَدَرُوْا اللّٰهَ حَقَّ قَدۡرِهٖ ۖ وَالۡاَرۡضُ جَمِيۡعًا قَبۡضَتُهٗ يَوۡمَ الۡقِيٰمَةِ وَالسَّمٰوٰتُ مَطۡوِيّٰتٌۢ بِيَمِيۡنِهٖ ؕ سُبۡحٰنَهٗ وَتَعٰلٰى عَمَّا يُشۡرِكُوۡنَ‏
وَنُفِخَ فِى الصُّوۡرِ فَصَعِقَ مَنۡ فِى السَّمٰوٰتِ وَمَنۡ فِى الۡاَرۡضِ اِلَّا مَنۡ شَآءَ اللّٰهُ ؕ ثُمَّ نُفِخَ فِيۡهِ اُخۡرٰى فَاِذَا هُمۡ قِيَامٌ يَّنۡظُرُوۡنَ‏
وَاَشۡرَقَتِ الۡاَرۡضُ بِنُوۡرِ رَبِّهَا وَوُضِعَ الۡكِتٰبُ وَجِآىْ ئَ بِالنَّبِيّٖنَ وَالشُّهَدَآءِ وَقُضِىَ بَيۡنَهُمۡ بِالۡحَقِّ وَهُمۡ لَا يُظۡلَمُوۡنَ‏
وَوُفِّيَتۡ كُلُّ نَفۡسٍ مَّا عَمِلَتۡ وَهُوَ اَعۡلَمُ بِمَا يَفۡعَلُوۡنَ
He would always recite that final verse as if almost out of breath: “…and everyone shall be paid in full for all that he did. Allah is best aware of all that they do.”
Like us all, Ali Subhan was not perfect. What I know is that he was a man committed to Islam and committed to learning “from the cradle to the grave” as he would always remind us. He was a man of great physical vitality and strong will, even in his later years. He was not a scholar and kept things as basic as they could be. He was very charitable with his time and the knowledge he was given and gave all that he had to everyone who was willing to come spend time with him.
In July, Sister Saida Abdul-Aziz an old friend of Sheikh Ali Subhan, a registered nurse, and the wife of my teacher Shaykh Anwar Muhaimin, contacted me to inform me that Ali’s health had begun to deteriorate quickly. As soon as I could, I called to talk to him. Unfortunately, his hearing was so bad that it was extremely difficult to know for certain if he really understood me. His memory was deteriorating quickly too. So, in order to remind him of who I was I sent him a picture. Once he saw it, he became very excited. I knew then that he was aware of who he was talking to. Today, he returned to his Lord. Ali Subhan lived a happy, comfortable, productive, and fulfilled life. He loved to say, “Subhanallah!” According to Sister Saida, today he woke up from his nap, said “Alhamdulillah”, and then breathed his final breath. This sounds like one who was relieved to be leaving this world. May it be the same for us all when our time comes. May Allah accept him into His graces. And may we all take lessons from our elders and benefit from those who remain with us while we can. 

Dr. Abdullah bin Hamid Ali

He holds a Ph.D. in Cultural and Historical Studies in Religion (2016) and an M.A. in Ethics and Social Theory (2012) from the Graduate Theological Union. He  obtained his B.A. (ijaza ‘ulya) in Islamic Law (Shariah) from the prestigious Al-Qarawiyin University of Fes, Morocco in 2001. He served as full time Islamic chaplain at the State Correctional Institute of Chester, PA from 2002-2007, and is the founding director of the Lamppost Education Initiative. He currently serves as an Associate Professor of Islamic law and Prophetic Tradition at Zaytuna College in Berkeley, California. His research interests include the interconnection between law and identity formation, comparative Islamic law, and Islam’s role in the modern world.
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