I spoke with Imam Maajid Ali only twice. The first time was shortly after the attacks of September 11th, 2001. And the last time was a month before he died recently. Savannah lost a man of deep compassion, reason, learning and understanding on February 27th.
As the spiritual leader of Savannah’s oldest mosque, Masjid Jihad on 34th Street, Imam Ali often fielded questions from reporters like me after some kind of bad news involving Muslims. And the past year has been terrible for Islam in the press.
A lesser man would have resented only being called when the idiots came out. But Imam Ali always relished the opportunity to talk about his faith.
“Matters have gotten much worse,” he told me recently. “But I’m very hopeful because of what I see as the possibilities on the other hand.”
Imam Ali was soft-spoken and kind. When I met him in January, he showed me around his Midtown mosque. At every turn, he offered to make my visit more comfortable.
He dotted our conversation with Koranic verses and grammatical flourishes. Who and whom, be still my heart! A spirited intellectual, he enjoyed classical music and jazz.
When I brought up the recent insanity – Paris, San Bernadino, Donald Trump – his belief in the transformative effect of gaining new knowledge was unbounded.
“As a person of faith, I look at matters realistically while at the same time, I never lose hope,” he said. “The antidote for ignorance is education.”
Ali began spreading knowledge about Islam nearly 40 years ago, when he became imam. This was a time of great change for Islam in the US. Millions of African-Americans had joined the Nation of Islam as a political movement.
“It was more of a satire,” he said of the group’s hateful spew. “If the Nation of Islam members really read the Koran, they would’ve rejected the Nation of Islam’s ideology.”
After mosque members aligned with mainstream Islam, they changed their name in 1986 to emphasize their jihad (“struggle”), one of the most misunderstood Islamic terms.
“We have the responsibility to struggle with our own self to make our souls conform to the excellent potential that God has placed in us,” he said.
And God’s “excellent potential” doesn’t include suicide bombers or much else associated with Islam in the media, a business where war and fear sell more than peace and hope.
“Holy war? That’s an oxymoron. No war is holy,” he said. “Faith and force are not compatible with each other.”
But there’s no room for a media critique in an obituary. Indeed, Imam Ali said it’s not up to me or anyone else who doesn’t pray facing Mecca to clear up what Islam means.
“I believe that the onus actually is on Muslims to clarify the caricatures, the distortions and the misconceptions that individuals have about Islam,” he said.
So whenever people asked him to speak, there he was, in groups large and small. Many non-Muslims also will remember him from his annual appearances at interfaith services.
Imam Ali was one of this city’s greatest proponents for dialogue among people of faith, Jews, Christians and Muslims. He also worked as a mental health and career counselor.
Did it bother him that his words would reach a few hundred, a few thousand, at most, when television’s glow reaches millions with gross misrepresentations of Islam?
“We reach persons incrementally,” he said. “My hope far outweighs my concerns.”
Yes, 14 years passed between our conversations. But if just a word of his spirit makes its way from him to you through me, it was not too late at all. Rest in peace, Maajid Ali.
This article has been updated to reflect Imam Ali’s death on February 27th. However, the audio production will remain as it was released on February 16th.