Questions of Faith is a series of discussions with Knoxville religious leaders, exploring their viewpoints on faith and spirituality.
Name: Rafiq Mahdi
Title: Unofficial Imam of the Muslim Community of Knoxville
Thoughts on Faith: “[Faith] is a complete way of life.”
Rafiq Mahdi is a striking figure. He’s tall and wears a traditional Muslim tunic that is bright white—without a speck of dirt in sight—and a white hat. But really, he’s just an everyday dad who happens to be Muslim.
Mahdi plays several roles in the Muslim community in Knoxville. He acts as an unofficial Imam for the organization he help found in 1984, the Muslim Community of Knoxville. He’s also the director of community development for ICNA Relief USA, a Muslim faith-based organization that works to relieve victims of disasters, operates food pantries, offers family services, and shelter for women, among other roles. When he’s not traveling for his job with ICNA, he teaches a weekly class on the interpretation and understanding of the Quran, the Muslim holy text. He also presides over weddings and funerals and counsels anyone in the community who asks for his help. And every morning, he makes sure his kids get to school on time.
“I’m on call pretty much 24/7,” he says with a laugh.
But Mahdi hasn’t always been Muslim. He was born William Henderson and was raised in the AME Zion church. After his mother was killed in a car accident, his father did not pick up the mantle of making sure Mahdi and his four sisters went to church and Sunday school every week. Like many teenagers, Mahdi drifted away from Christianity, though there were some aspects of the religion he just never understood.
After his father died around the same time of his high school graduation, Mahdi left Knoxville and traveled around the country until he landed in Florida. As a young man in the 1970s, he says, “I began to develop some political understanding about different things in the world, and as I began to try to increase my knowledge along those lines, I was reading different publications. To me, [Islam] was more to the point and had a more direct relationship to what I was experiencing rather than the teachings of the church and Christianity, so I began moving in that direction.”
Though his first exposure to Islam was via the Nation of Islam, Mahdi learned many of the group’s beliefs were not in line with how most Muslims practiced when he met a random stranger who happened to practice Islam. It was then that he began reading the Quran in English and studying the religion as best as he could from the United States.
“One of the things I had always endeavored to do was to increase my knowledge and understanding of Islam because I became a Muslim from my own study of the Quran based on things according to my own understanding, and experience, and interpretation of the English [version]. But when I became more involved with Muslims from different backgrounds, different countries, different cultures, then I saw that there were some things that were a little bit contradictory in some cases, so I needed to, for my own spiritual development, understand these things more in depth. And also just to understand how Islam had evolved over the past 1,400 years, and different aspects of different peoples and different cultures that had been incorporated into the religion,” he says.
To accomplish this goal, Mahdi had to learn to read and speak Arabic.
He attended the Islamic University in Medina, Saudi Arabia in 1988, after he’d helped establish the Muslim Community of Knoxville with three other men. In Medina, Mahdi studied Arabic, Islamic studies, and Sharia law, and it was while he was studying that he made his first pilgrimage to Mecca. (All Muslims are required to make the pilgrimage, called the Hajj, at least once in their lives; Mahdi has done it six times).
“Physically, it’s very difficult. It’s not something easy. That particular year, the Hajj season was in August, and it was extremely hot in Saudi Arabia. It was like, every day, 140, 150 degrees. You’re trying to present yourself to the creator in a way that he will accept. So you’re trying to keep your intentions pure, your thoughts pure, your actions pure and focused on the real purpose, without the external things that are around you. That’s a challenge in itself. It’s a strengthening process. It helps to strengthen the individual, and hopefully it strengthens the Muslim community as a whole,” he says.
After his return to the U.S. in 1994, Mehdi left Knoxville four years later to act as the Imam for mosques in Miami and Ft. Lauderdale, before returning in 2005 to be with one of his sisters, who had fallen ill. Of his sisters, Mehdi says, one understands and accepts his faith, though she resists the rigid structure of Muslim life. His other sister is still a Christian. Mehdi says it’s difficult for Christians in Western countries to understand Islam because they are considered very religious if they attend church once or twice a week. Islam holds its followers to a completely different standard.
“Islam is a complete way of life,” Mehdi says. “And I think that from our experience ... that even religion is seen as more of a set of beliefs, and the practice of it is made fairly easy and palatable. In Islam, there is a very straightforward set of rules and regulations that you should establish in your life. And the first one being, of course, the establishment of the salah (prayer) five times a day, every day. That for some people—they find it difficult. And I would say even for myself in the beginning, having not had that experience or anything to relate to that, it was difficult. But I found that once I committed myself to it, it’s one of the things I find the most relaxation and solace in doing because I’m making that connection with my creator every day on that consistent basis.”
Here at home, there’s some resistance to accepting Islam, he says, because American culture encourages individuals to follow their own paths, whereas Islam requires followers to “follow a certain pattern of life that is even down to what you do on a daily basis, and what you eat, and what you wear, and so forth,” Mahdi says.
Islam requires men and women dress a certain way (modestly, in general, or in traditional garb like Mahdi wears), behave a certain way, avoid certain foods (like pork), pray at five specific times of day, no matter what’s going on, and to make a pilgrimage to the holy city. Naturally, Mahdi encounters misconceptions and misunderstandings about his faith. He occasionally speaks to churches and schools about his religion, because, he says, “I think that they should have the opportunity to learn about it properly because my first introduction to Islam was incorrect.”
A common misunderstanding, he says, is the idea that the God Muslims worship is different than the God Christians and Jews worship.
“They do not realize that Allah is the same God that they worship. When we say Allah, we are talking about the God of Abraham, and Moses and Jacob and Isaac and Jesus and Mohammed, and that the one who created us and gave us life, and will take our souls at death, and who will ultimately decide our eternal salvation or lack thereof,” he says.
Mahdi practices his religion for many of the same reasons people practice any religion: to cope with whatever life throws their way, to build a connection with a higher power, to hone their strengths, and perhaps most importantly, to live in the world the way God asks them to live.
“It shapes [my life] in every aspect. When the focus of the individual is to please God, then you look to try to do that in everything that you do, in every relationship that you have. I try to establish myself as a husband, as a father, as a business partner, or as a colleague. Whatever I’m doing, I try to, from within, focus on how can I do this in such a way that it will enhance my relationship with God. And it will be a source of benefit for me when the ultimately reality [death] comes to pass,” he says. “We are unique as individuals and we all have our own issues that we have to deal with. But at the same time, my understanding has always been that Islam and the structure that is embedded in the faith is a tool to help us maximize the qualities and the talents that we have.”