Dr Abu Aminah Bilal Phillips, founder, International Open University

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By Omar Bah

You were born and brought up in Jamaica, a country with very few Muslims. How did you manage to become a Muslim? Was it inherited?

Well, it wasn’t inherited because both my parents were Christians and I was raised in Jamaica according to Christian tradition and in Canada also all the way up to university. I was Christian when I entered into studies in biochemistry that was my major in university. I ended up falling under the influence of the communist movement in Canada at the time, so I became a communist. You know, propagate communism, leading rallies and demonstrations et cetera. In those days, people were decrying the Vietnam War. You know a lot of American draft dodgers that came up that were in the Canadian universities and you know they would speak out against it. When I went back to the States, I also worked with communist-related movements which were African nationalist movements. Black nationalist movements like the Black Panthers and others. I had studied in Vancouver; that’s our West Coast, Canada after going back to Toronto and I continued to work with African nationalist-type organizations in Toronto. This was where I came under the influence of Islam. First it was a distorted version. I went to the US and visited Elijah Mohammed’s temples. They were known as the Black Muslims and I was impressed by their organization but their theology was totally nonsense. They were preaching a theology that black people were Gods and white people were devils, so I know there are black devils and there are white devils, you know, and as to being gods, that’s another story altogether. So while in the organisation in Canada known as the Black Youth Organisation, one of the members converted to Islam as a result of Da’wa given to her by some American draft dodgers who were in Toronto and that called my attention to look at Islam again. You know after trying on my own through the Black Muslims, thinking that was Islam. I had a reversal there and really looked at Islam at that point and started to read about it, listen to her arguments because she was a very hardcore communist. Ahead of me she memorized all the tongues, read books. She was really hardcore. So it was quite surprising because, of course we are taught in the communist movement that religion is the opium of the masses and so how in the world are you going to embrace this? So I read some books by Molana Mawdidi towards understanding Islam. The book that really hit the nail on the head for me was the book called Islam The Misunderstood Religion by Dr Mohammed Kutub, the brother of Said Kutub, a well-known martyr who was paying for his beliefs in Egypt. So that book was a comparative study of religions, political and economic systems and Islam and basically the author showed that there was good in all of these systems and there was bad in them too except for Islam. What he demonstrated was that all of the good found in these various systems could be found in Islam and that which was bad in these systems was not found in Islam. So, it appeared then that Islam had gathered all of the good and excluded all of the bad, so such a system is definitely worth investigating and addressing as a way of life. That was my journey to Islam.

You have a very rough and radical upbringing from Jamaica to Canada but how has it been like since you chose to join Islam?

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Well, you know life is for everyone a struggle. Allah said he has created human beings in striving and struggle. That is the nature of life, a life without strive and struggle is not normal, it’s abnormal. So of course, after becoming a Muslim I continue to strive, seeking full understanding of Islam; proper understanding of Islam because when I accepted Islam in Toronto and there are only two masjids in the whole of Toronto. The people who are there in the masjids were common Muslims from Bangladesh, Egypt and Pakistan. I would try to learn about Islam from them. I found contradictions in what they were saying and doing; contradictions amongst themselves. The general principles of Islam which made Islam the best way to go were there but somehow these interpretations that different people had had with it some kind of confusion and I noted it. I wanted to get clarity on it. Where did it come from because surely if the system is from God, then it shouldn’t have contradictions. It should be the straight path that we pray for every day, so that led me to want to study overseas, because I felt I couldn’t get serious knowledge in Toronto. What they were telling me in Toronto was that in Islam there are four Madhabs (four schools of thought, legal thought) each one of them is correct in and of itself and as a Muslim you are obliged to follow one, if you don’t follow one, then your Madhab is the Madhab of Satan, your imam is Satan. So of course, I didn’t have the knowledge to understand the extremity of this kind of thought, so I accepted it and you know so I said then, which Madhab should I join? They said most Muslims are Hanafis in the world. If you add up the total number of Muslims, the largest number are Hanafis and Imam Abu Hanifa was the first of the Imams. I said okay, that makes sense. I accepted I was a Hanafi, however as I talked with Muslims from other parts of the world – Muslims from Egypt who are Saafi’ and they were teaching me. I was studying with them and they taught me that if you accidentally touched a woman as a male your wudu (abolition) is broken but when I reverted back to the Hanafi scholars, they informed me that if you touch a woman your Wudu is not broken. Now I was taught that both were correct but that would mean that you could have wudu and not have wudu at the same time and that’s a problem. I mean I left Christianity because of the illogic of their essential belief that God is 3 in one – God the father, God the son and God the Holy Spirit. To God the father was to God the son and God the son was God the Holy Spirit and the Holy Spirit was God the father. They are all one but when I would ask Christians so who was Jesus praying to? You know the gospels mention Jesus falling down on the ground making sujud praying but to who? If he is God the father, then who is he praying to? And of course, people scramble trying to find explanations as to how that could be but no explanation could really provide sufficient clarity to make that acceptable and when I asked Christians where is Jesus right now? They said he is sitting on the right hand of God. How could that be if he is God, you want to say he is sitting on the right hand of himself. That doesn’t make sense, that’s confusion. I was not expecting anything similar in Islam based on what I learned so far but nobody had an answer on how you could have wudu and not have wudu at the same time. This is illogical; there’s something wrong here because if this is from God he’s not the author of confusion. I said listen, I need to leave Toronto. I need to go overseas and go to the centers of learning of Islam and study it in Arabic from the sources. The brother who gave me Shahada, Dr Abdullah Hakim Quick, at that time had the same thinking as myself and he was eager to go also. So we went together to Medina – he was a convert from the US, a Draft Dodger at the time and he was the one who influenced one of our central committee members to convert to Islam which is what caught my attention and caused me to want to look further into Islam. That sent me on a new journey in Islam from Medina University where I studied and completed a bachelors in Islamic sciences and went to Riyadh and completed a masters in Islamic theology and then registered in University of Wales and did a PhD in Islamic theology.

Quite a journey Dr Bilal. Now to your connection to The Gambia. You have founded a school called the International Open University. What is International Open University? Where and when did it start and what does it do?

The International Open University is the culmination of my studies and efforts to propagate what I had learned from the time I went to Riyadh after graduating from Medina. I became a high school teacher of Islamic studies. I did that for 10 years. Then I moved to the UAE and became a university lecturer in Islamic studies at the American University in Dubai and in Preston university – Ajman. I became the head of department of Islamic studies, a department which I set up myself and created a curriculum which was based on the curriculums from Medina university as well as those in Omdurman Islamic university. So that was the journey which I began with an effort to try to convey the message of Islam academically whether it was high school or university and I was obliged to take it globally because of the Internet where information was being exchanged and some of it was claimed to be Islamic but actually, it wasn’t. I saw a need for establishing an Islamic university online to provide correct Islamic information. I went to India and set up an Islamic university in India – the first Islamic accredited university in India in Chennai Tamil Nadu, South of India and that university continues till today. They have about 6000 students studying there. I went online because that became the best avenue to convey Islamic teachings to the Muslim world. There were other websites claiming to teach Islam which I checked and found that they had issues whether factual issues or whatever and I recognised that because people were asking me should we study here. I would have to tell them okay, you could study certain things here but certain other things you need to avoid and of course that’s an uncomfortable feeling. You cannot just tell people go and study there, so there needs to be a website where people can just go and study and be confident about the information. So this is what I sought to establish.