The year was 1947 and the place Kingston, Jamaica – where the famed 12th century Welsh buccaneer Captain Henry Morgan had his hideout – when Dennis Bradley Philips was born into a Christian family comprising his Dad Bradley (stauch Presbyterian) and Mom Joyce McDermott (a solid Anglican) to grow up as a confused Christian amidst a Presbyterian background, volatile communist and finally end up as a devout Muslim.
Little did Dennis know that, half a century later, he would wind up as an Islamic scholar, thinker and writer in the Heartland of Islam where his wanderings would end and he would settle down to a placid life running a publishing department churning out literature on various aspects of Islam to prevail on the ignorant about this religion. Or that he would change his nome de plume, “The name Dennis comes from the Greek word ‘Dionysius’ which is the name of the Greek god of wine and song and is definitely not appropriate for me. So I changed my name, while retaining my dad’s name Bradley, to Bilal.”
Today he is the author of more than 30 books on Islam, besides having translated six others and edited four others while also representing organizations like the Dar al Fatah Press in Sharjah (Director of the Foreign Literature Department), Discover Islam in Dubai (Director), Sharjah TV Channel Two and Satellite (Producer and Presenter of Islamic Programs), Ajman TV Channel Four, and Saudi TV Channel Two.
Yet the journey through those 50 years has been one that he would not exchange for anything because it has left him with a clear train of thought as to where his life was leading him. Because the confused growing years and adulthood saw him witnessing racism, joining the student movement and rebelling against authority that denied people their rights.
“In the late 1960s, while I was studying at Simon Frasier University in Vancouver, schools were in turmoil and I joined the student movement to fight for our rights, protest against the Vietnam war and Canada’s complicity in it. Many of the Liberal Arts professors had a loaning towards communism and were advocating it through their teachings about Karl Marx and Lenin.”
“I had become aware of oppression in America and read a lot on the country’s history, specially about the native Indians who had decreased from eight million, at the time of arrival of the Europeans in America, to barely two million today. This fact, as well as slavery of blacks, destruction of American Black Panthers had me convinced of the crying need for changes including justice in Western society for which communism offered the answer through their promises of equitable distribution of wealth, equality of members of society. So I became a communism.”
“I worked with the communist party in San Francisco in the USA for a year but became disillusioned with its activities and went back to Toronto in Canada where I got involved with the students organizations and communism all over again. Communism spoke about changes in the society but did not really have the tools for change because its economic system was a failure and it justified massive oppression in the name of the proletariat. Besides, I found many leading communists very corrupt on a personal level and these persons would stress that these things would change after the revolution though it became very obvious to me that these people would spread corruption if they gained power.”
“I felt a need to search elsewhere and, for a while, experimented with some aspects of Hinduism including Yoga, macrobiotics (which dwells on choosing simple foods that were cooked well and chewed well to improve physical health), Buddhism and anything else that seemed to address the spiritual aspects of human existence.”
“Then, at Christmas 1971, a friend of mine in a political youth organization with communist leanings, accepted Islam and that compelled me to begin to read about Islam and its topic which focused on comparatively to Communism, Christianity, capitalism and so on. ‘Islam: The Misunderstood Religion’ by Mohammed Qutub made the biggest impact on me and ‘Towards Understanding Islam’ by Abul Alaa Maududi clarified the Islamic concepts in a very modern practical way.”
“The first book dealt with the practical aspects and reading it convinced me that Islam offered the best solution for human needs as it combined the best of what Communism claimed to offer as well as better aspects of Capitalism, besides also higher spiritual principles found in Christianity, Buddhism and other religions. Islam demanded a change in any individual and a famous verse in the Quran says ‘God will not change the condition of the people until they change what is within themselves’. This is what struck me about Islam.”
“After about 6 months of reading and discussion, I had made my decision and embraced Islam in 1972.”
“While studying in Simon Frasier University at Vancouver in Canada, I played the guitar in shows, nightclubs. When I went to Malaysia, I also performed onstage and became known as the Jimmy Hendrex of Sabah in East Malaysia. However, when I became a Muslim, I felt uncomfortable doing this and gave it up both professionally and privately,” he said.
A year after embracing Islam in 1972, he applied and studied Islam at the Islamic University of Madeenah in Saudi Arabia as he wanted to learn about Islam from its classical sources instead of picking it up from cultural practices. While completing his MA at Riyadh University, he prepared and presented some programs on Saudi Television Channel Two called ‘Why Islam’ which focused on interviews with those who had converted to Islam from different backgrounds and their reasons for doing so.
With lack of literature to satisfy the queries of those seeking answers about Islam, including his own family members, he did some research and came out with his first book entitled ‘Polygamy in Islam’ which dealt with the subject of plural marriage in Islam on a historical and biological basis, while focusing on the rational behind the system. The writer’s itch then took over and his second book ‘Fundamentals of Islamic Monotheism’ came into being, clarifying the unique aspect of Islamic belief in one god.
After completing his MA, he then worked in the religious department of the Saudi Arabian Air Force headquarters in Riyadh during the Gulf war (Desert Storm) where he lectured American troops on their bases in Bahrain and the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia. “Because the image of Islam is so distorted in America, I and five other Americans, for five and half months after the Gulf war, were involved in a project to clarify the doubts of this religion to half a million US troops based there, following which over 3,000 soldiers embraced Islam”, he said.
He then visited the USA to help the converted soldiers and with the help of an organization called ‘Muslim Members of the Military (MMM)’ held conferences and activities to ultimately cause the establishment of prayer facilities for Muslims in all US bases internationally. The US administration became obliged to request the Muslim community to suggest candidates for chaplainey which resulted in appointing Muslim chaplains in the US military in subsequent years.
He said that some of the Gulf War Muslim converts went to Bosnia to train the Bosnians and fight alongside them in their struggle for survival in face of atrocities by the Serbs. He then traveled to the Philippines to lecture at different venues on Mindanao Island where he spoke about ‘Islamization of Education among Muslims’. This led to development of a University in Cotobato City with Islamic orientation, where he set up a department of Islamic Studies on MA level to prepare teachers with Muslim orientation.
In 1994, he migrated to the Emirates at the invitation of Sheikh Salim al-Qasimi, where he joined a Dubai-based charitable organization known as Dar Al Ber and set an Islamic Information Center, now known as Discover Islam, in Karama to clarify misconceptions about Islam. Helping him in this effort were people from different nationalities including Uthman Barry (an Irish convert), Ahmed Abalos (Filipino convert) and Abdul Latif (from Kerala).
He said that in the past five years, about 1,500 people from America, Australia, UK, Russia, China, Germany, Philippines, Sri Lanka, India and Pakistan had converted to Islam at the center. “The reasons behind their converting were frustration and dissatisfaction, besides the need for a solid rational, spiritual foundation. Some also did it to marry Muslim while others chose to out of curiosity fuelled by exciting discoveries about Islam and its people,” he said.
The last three years have seen him set up a department called Foreign Literature Department of Dar Al Fatah printing press for bringing out literature in foreign languages which aimed at clarifying the teachings of Islam to non-Arabic people.
One of his happiest moments came when his parents, who were both in their seventies and having spent their lives around Muslims in Northern Nigeria, Yemen, Malaysia, accepted Islam. This happened four years ago after they saw how society had deteriorated in America and the changes wrought in his life.
Today, he teaches about the historical aspects of Islam and a scientific study of the compilations of the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad since the Hadith refers to prophetic traditions about his way of life (which were compiled and recorded in texts and formed the basis of the Islamic religion).