Growing up my reading diet was diverse and lengthy. Out of the pack: Midlred D. Taylor groomed me, Terry McMillan inspired me, and Umm Zakiyyah pulled me up and opened the door for me. But my first love is definitely Urban/Street Lit. Sista Souljah, Omar Tyree, Wahida Clark, Nikki Turner and Sapphire were writing champs in the late 90's. I was reading like three or four of their books week with wonder. I resonated with their style, but I struggled with how to merge urban Muslim life and the world-wide Muslim ummah that I was committed to targeting my work to. Urban Islamic Fiction is what I came up with - it's toned down for my demographic, but still has a little room for some edge and so far it's worked well for me. That said, when I read Sunnah by Malik Salaam, I was teleported back to my high school days. I read it and I laughed, I panicked, I worried, I got angry and I had to clutch my pearls a few times, too! I was reading Muslim Street Lit by a Muslim! And I was inspired! Without further ado, here's Malik Salaam: (SPOILER ALERT!)
UMMJ: Sunnah is filled to the brim with many social ills, violence, illicit relationships - what made you want to title the book Sunnah? Was there any underlying issues that you intentionally wanted your readers to get from the title?
MS:The short answer… Sunnah means the way. And I feel like as humans we are all searching for our way. Being raised Muslim, I was always taught to follow the Sunnah of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). Christians ask themselves, “What would Jesus do?” Cola Rum- an amazing spoken word artist in Atlanta- always says, “Malik, we all down here treading water, and when we see somebody treading water with more ease than us… we naturally want to join them.”
I think the search is what joins us as humans. And I think that overall, that is what I wanted everybody to walk away with. We all are rifling through life in hopes of finding our way. And that is not a surface thing… following just a way of dress or a diet doesn’t cut it. The way starts at intentions but ends with action.
UmmJ: Mustafa (Stafa) was such an interesting, complexed, and wounded character. The opening scene with his parents really set the tone for his actions through out the story. I liked him at times and then at other times I was severely disappointed in him. Who is Mustafa to you?
MS: Mustafa is familiar to me. He deals with the struggle of first being a black man in America. And then he must deal with the battle of being a Muslim man in America. Both roles seem to be peppered with confusion. The fact that his father wasn’t present was the first nail in his coffin. And even though he had some role models, they also had their demons to battle.
If you came up in the late 80s/early 90s the celebration of the street culture was very much a part of our lives. And being born and raised Muslim didn’t save me from that. If anything, because Islam doesn’t associate any partners with God… and I don’t have to go through “a man” to get to My Creator. It gave me a certain edge. I don’t associate man with God… so it made me fearless of men.
UmmJ: Ayanna was another interesting character. I loved her sense of self and high purpose. My heart felt content at the end of the story when she began to frequent the masjid. That said, I was taken aback by her agreeing to mut'ah (temporary marriage) so easily and fully bothered by Stafa checking out on her the night after. Why do you think Ayanna agreed to be intimate with Mustafa so easily given her strong character?
MS: Ayanna’s contradiction, like Mustafa’s, started in her childhood. Introducing her mother’s mental illness and Ayanna feeling measured by her near-perfectly packaged sister, gave Ayanna the same longing for real love as Mustafa.
I think people no matter how strong or spiritually grounded have weaknesses. They look for things to escape into. Sometimes its sex or drugs… or food…but maybe its self-righteousness. We are complicated. I feel like the fact that Mustafa took something that could be carnal or illicit and turned it into something spiritual, though, also intrigued her… which is how, unfortunately, some men with a stronger spiritual understanding will bait a woman. The Christians call it Jesus Pimpin’ but it happens in all beliefs. But the acceptance of something as right or wrong really just depends on the lens that we look at it through. Perspective.
Umm J: I often discuss mental illness within urban communities, especially within urban Muslim communities so I was touched by how tactful you handled and displayed Ayanna's mother's health issues. Was there any particular motive for adding and discussing mental health in the book?
MS: I feel like mental illness goes undiagnosed in the black community. We don’t believe in/can’t afford/haven’t been exposed to mental healthcare. Although the government will dope you up if you can get in enough trouble. Mental illness is a big part of our communities and we do a poor job of identifying it. In more affluent neighborhoods, a troubled child gets help. Our children get beat, doped, and funneled through the public school to prison pipeline.
I don’t feel like we can have a healthy dialogue about the things that take place in our neighborhoods without discussing mental illness. Those suffering from depression, bi-polar disorder, narcissism, socio-pathic personality disorder walk amongst us on a daily basis and we dismiss them as trigger happy, materialistic, or junkies. The average person in good mental health would not choose some things that are widely accepted in our communities.
Umm J: Tariq (Reek) was a mess from the beginning to the end for me. I didn't like him at all. He was so harsh and careless, but so real it made me love his characterization. But I wanted more backstory about his life and what experiences modeled his behavior. The scenes between his son and him were heartbreaking. I could tell he wanted to connect, but really just didn't know how to. For Reek "providing", by any means necessary, was the only station for a man to be respected and he seemed locked in that small role. He never showed any tenderness, even when he was with Rashida. Was Reek crafted after anyone real? What do you think made Reek so heartless? How do you heal someone like Reek?
MS: Yeah… Tariq is very real. In my mind Reek was a northerner primarily, because up-north Islam (in all forms) are very connected to the street culture. When you think of cats from DC, Philly, and New York, names like Tariq and Karim are normal. And although you can find very strong Muslim communities in these cities - there are also brothers, in particular, that blur the lines.
I can remember being taught as a young Muslim man that my primary job is to be a provider. That thought is not exclusive to Muslims, but to Blacks in general. In Black American communities, they have us completely fooled into believing that a man’s worth is directly related to his net worth. And if we accept that, then there is no wonder Black Men are out here taking penitentiary chances for crumbs… because they are taught that those crumbs are bigger than purpose. As a matter a fact, purpose is not even a part of the conversation.
If we were smart, we would recognize the game they play. It is not an accident that more Black women are graduating college than any other ethnic group, while Black men are doing the same thing in the prison system. Or that there is no government assistance with a man still in the home. We are pitted against each other with education, paychecks, and social exposure. So, a cat like Reek feels like he has already fulfilled his duty by bringing home the bacon (pardon the pun)… But that's his worth. Meanwhile he has no time to develop the emotional depth necessary to be a father and husband.
UmmJ: I loved how you intertwined the locking up of Imam Yusuf with the overall plot of the story. Of course, because the setting of the book took place in Atlanta, it brings to mind Imam Jamil Al- Amin (formerly H. Rap Brown) (may Allah free him, grant him health, and ease his trials) and his case. Did Imam Al-Amin's case influence your writing? How so? And how did his arrest affect the Muslims in Atlanta?
MS: I went to Mohammed Schools almost my entire life. So, I knew Imam Jamil Al-Amin. My Masjid was on the east side of Atlanta. And Imam Jamil’s was on the west side of Atlanta. But we came together for Eid, went to school together, rivaled each other at basketball games, and some of us used the two sides of town to simply expand our network.
The Muslims from the Westend always had a reputation for policing their communities and it was very clear that Imam Jamil had a stronghold on his community. The arrest of Imam Jamil reaps of government conspiracy (to me). Imam Jamil introduced himself to the United States government as H. Rap Brown- a fiery revolutionary. And although, Islam helped him adopt a more global perspective, he never lost that fire or the love for his people.
Of course, I don’t have all the facts of the case. But as I watch hipsters buying property in the Westend and you understand that billion dollar projects like Atlanta’s Beltline make plans to run right through Imam Jamil’s community, you must know that other forces could possibly be at work.
UmmJ: Staying on the character Imam Yusuf, Mustafa had mentioned how the locking up of his Imam made the community weak and he felt obligated to "protect" the ummah. His style of protection was clearly against Islam, but there are certainly Muslims with that type of mindset - where they don't know how to draw safe lines. What do you think causes that type of perversion of Islam and the Sunnah in real life?
MS: I think we are given religion because the pull of the world is so strong. Even for people I know who work hard at staying on their deen. There is no escaping the world’s influence. A lot of Islam in the Black community, historically, has spread through the prisons. So, then there's a [criminal] perversion from the streets [that seeps in]. Also, stories of the Mujahedeen and warriors like Umar and Abu Bakr (may Allah be pleased with them) becomes the basis for young Black [Muslim) men, who know that war has been waged on them. It's easy to turn your daily life into a “jihad”. Especially, without the proper guidance.
UmmJ: You mentioned quite a bit of the religion of other characters in the book. The relationship between Levison and the crew was really ironic and corrupted being that Levison was Jewish and the crew were Muslims. Do you think it is difficult for Muslims and Jews to build authentic, moraled relationships? Do you think interfaith activities have been helpful in aiding that effort?
MS: I don’t think it is as difficult as we make it. I think it benefits those in power to feed us a narrative of anti-Jew or anti-Christian. Allah says, “I made you into different tribes so you will know each other, not despise each other”. Young Muslims are allowed and taught to throw around words like “kafir” and “believer” without true context. If we are following Islam as a lifestyle and not just as a religion, then there is no room for discord. Most of us are around, friends with, and working with or for Jewish people every day and have no idea.
UmmJ: Mustafa didn't really have any real guidance or real love in this story. Brother Abdullah wasn't a real friend. Reek wasn't a real friend. Ayanna was trying to be a real friend, but Stafa wasn't really ready to part with his criminal lifestyle. There really wasn't anything left for him, but death. It still surprised me how his life was taken and then the setting was shocking - again considering Reek and Stafa were Muslims - even if only in their hearts. Do you think there was anything that could have saved Mustafa and the rest of the brothers from their demise?
MS: I don’t think that he lacked any real love. The love that the streets provide, is perverse. But it doesn’t make it any less real. The conditions change. Saif loved him. Shim loved him. But their love for one another was steeped in the streets. So, it’s different… not less real. Unhealthy is probably the right term to me.
I think that had his father been in his life, Stafa’s chances would have been greater. A father figure is not the same as a father. Because a father knows his son's heart. It is the direct reflection that helps father and son both grow. Stafa needed that. And Stafa needed a more righteous war to fight. If money is our only battle, then we are bound to lose.
UmmJ: Malik, you have a fan in me! What's next for you? What do you want your readers and soon to be readers to know about you, your passions, and your projects?
MS: Thank you! Well, to be honest… my initial plan was not to write a novel. I am a screenwriter. I decided to take my screenplays and adapt them into novels to build my audience. Sunnah is a screenplay that I turned into a novel which accounts for its brevity with certain interactions. But I am currently working on the sequel for Sunnah, as a screenplay and as a novel. I am producing a few shorts to attract investors to turn Sunnah into a feature or maybe a series. Depending on what makes more sense.