When I was about 15 or 16 years old, there was a guy in our neighborhood who was also a member of the local street gang (the Haines Street Gang) his street name was Ball bearing, and he and I were neighborhood adversaries. At that time, he was also a neighborhood bully, and we ended up fighting several times as I was not a gang member and didn’t have automatic protection when I walked around in our neighborhood. Besides I was sternly prohibited by my father from even thinking about joining a gang (being Muslim and all). Although to tell the truth, I kinda wanted to join one so I could be part of the cool.
Nevertheless, I was more afraid of my father than I was of the gang members in the neighborhood. With the gang members, I felt that at least I had a chance at getting in some blows and maybe knocking one of those lames out, or letting off a few rounds if it came to that. With my father, I knew that there was no chance at opposing him, parents didn’t do time outs back then, and furthermore, I revered my father (as I still do) and it was unheard of in our family to go against my Abu. We were after all, raised as Muslims. So I would have scrapes with local gang members, and wannabes from time to time. Al-humdu lillah mostly it was only fist fighting, what we used call a ‘fair one’ back in Philly, but every now and then it would escalate to more serious types of confrontation, which is another story. After time, I became cool with most of them, plus my cousins Jessie and Vincent when they weren’t in jail, would keep an eye out for us (the Muslim side of the family) and say; hands off.
Anyway, this dude was testy, we fought several times and each time it ended in somewhat of a draw, with people breaking the fight up before it was clear that one of us got a butt whuppin by the other. Thus, he I were sworn enemies in the hood, with unsettled business, (although we didn’t call it the hood back then, we called it around the way), where we grew up in Germantown, in the area of Locust ave.and Musgrave st., bordered by Chew ave to the north, and Chelten Ave. to the west, (Northwest Philadelphia) and whenever we met each other on the street, on the basketball court, or in the playground, there was tension.There was no love lost between us.
As the years went by, the gangs died out in Philly and former gang members became drug dealers, and this brother became a big time dope dealer in the neighborhood, and surrounding area. He was busy making his money and doing his thing, and I was busy growing up as a sometimes errant Muslim, trying to stay on the path, with all my faults and insecurities as a teenager who was different. We were the only Muslim family in the neighborhood where I grew up, and everybody knew us and knew how we got down because back in those days, we believed that it was better to be packing and not need it than to need it and not be packing. The burglars and petty criminals in the neighborhood used to always avoid our house and our property because there was this spectrum of retribution, and back then, people had a lot of respect for Muslims. We were known as; that Muslim family on Locust Ave.
Years later, I had just finished making salatul Jum’ah at the Islamic Center on Broad St. (near vine) and was sitting down doing my little thikr after the salat, when I heard someone say: “Assalaamu alaikum”, as I turned and glanced over my shoulder, I saw that is was my nemesis from the old neighborhood. My first impulse was to grab the 9mm automatic from my waistband, which I did, but I didn’t pull it out because just as I wrapped my hands around the grip of my gun, he said again in a louder voice and with a big smile on his face; asslaamu alaikum wa rahmatullahi wa barakaatuhu. This time, we were looking eye to eye. There is something about the salaams from one believer to another which cannot be explained. His salaams went through me like a hot knife through butter, and I replied: wa alaikum salaam wa rahmatullahi wa barakaatuh! We looked at each other for what seemed like an eternity, and then we embraced. We started talking and he explained to me how he became a Muslim, and we became the best of friends. He was married and had four sons. We used to eat together, pray together, read together and go to the Masjid together.
As the years went by, we started to lose touch, and I heard that he had gotten back into the street game here and there. I was busy with my own family and children by that time. So when I did see him on the street now and then, he was moving fast; we exchanged salaams and some niceties, but not much more than that. Then one day, all of a sudden, I heard that he was dead. Shot multiple times in the street. I never knew the exact details of his death, who did it, what lead up to it, or whether or not his killers were ever caught. In Philadelphia back then as it is today; black men are killed on the street all the time; many of them Muslims. Most of the times when it happens, nobody knows nothing and people tend not to talk about the details even if they knew something. Nevertheless, I was hurt when I heard the news, and I wondered whatever became of his four young sons whom I knew now, would grow up, wherever they were, without their father.
Twenty years or so later, while I was the imam of a Masjid in Philadelphia, I got a phone call that a young African American Muslim was killed in the streets of Philadelphia. Such calls were not uncommon. I think that we had at least one homicide per month during my time as Imam of the United Muslim Masjid on 15th Street; sometimes more. So I arranged for one of the brothers of the deceased to meet me at the Masjid to discuss janaaza arrangements and so on. When I met him, he reminded me of my friend who was killed years ago. As we talked and he explained to me who he was and who his father was, I realized that he, and young man in his twenties who was killed, were the sons of my close friend, who twenty something years ago, met the same fate. When I went to see the body at the funeral home, I was taken aback that the young brother who was killed, looked exactly like his father. To this day, other than the janaaza of my mother (rahimuhaa Allah), that was the most difficult salaatul janaaza that I ever performed.
Throughout the years, I have had many children of my friends who were gunned down on the street, or who gunned someone else down, while they were involved in the street game, and are now doing life in prison; some whom I have known since they were born. I remember one case (people reading this from Philly may remember) where a young Muslim man in his twenties got caught up in street life and was gunned down in his car with multiple gunshots, then stuffed in the trunk of his luxury car, and the car set on fire. That hurt me deeply also because I remember when that boy was barely out of diapers, running around our house as a toddler while his parents were visiting our house.
I don’t have any so-called street cred, and by the grace of Allah, and by His mercy, I have never been a thug, and have never been a gang member (although I’ve done other things and may Allah forgive). However, I am certain that I am not the only one who has been touched in one way or another by someone’s senseless death. There are countless of families across the country whom this issue of wanton crime and violence has touched them in much more personal and profound ways than it has I. Still, I, like many other people, am not immune to its effects. Death is inevitable. But senseless death and killing in the streets is not only inexcusable; it is one of the most insane phenomena of our time, and something that we as Muslim Americans, should be very concerned about. The number of young black men who are shot, stabbed, assaulted, and killed every day by other young black men is staggering. For every one that is killed, there are countless numbers of orphans left behind, parents and siblings grieving, families hurting, and ends up with either another young black man in jail, or a killer, or criminal loose on the street. Every time of these horrendous events occur, a part of our community dies for no good reason. I can tell you dozens of more stories like this. So if people wonder why I take such a tough stance with regards to thug life, street life, gang life, hood life, criminal life, and drug life. This story tells you a little bit why; and that’s just part of the story.
Imam Luqman Ahmad
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