Bilal Philips, once a Christian, is now an Islamic scholar. He received his B.A. degree from the Islamic University of Madina and his M.A. in Aqeedah (Islamic Philosophy) from the King Saud University in Riyadh. His deep study and understanding of Islam has won him the respect of ordinary Muslims as well as many learned scholars of Islam.
“There is no time for holidays”, says Bilal Philips, “when you realise how little time there is, and how much work has to be done for Islam.”
Born in Jamaica in 1947, he comes from a family of educationists. Both his parents are teachers, and one of his grandfathers was a church minister and Bible scholar.
Bilal came from a broad-minded family, and though he went to church regularly every Sunday with his mother, he was never forced to go. He says: “Going to church was a social event, more than a religious one. What was being taught went right over my head.”
When Bilal was eleven, his family migrated to Canada and for the first time the sensitive boy began to feel that all was not right with the world.
“Most of the Canadians at that time were Euro-Canadians”, he says, “and the Europeans, of course, had an idea of their own superiority. They had gone around and smashed up everybody else’s society, so they had to justify the destruction of human civilisation by promoting their own superiority over others. Those feelings are expressed in much of their literature, in films, on television and so forth.”
Growing up in an environment where one is different from everyone else and trying to rationalise it was hard for a little boy. Little discrimination hurt more as he became a teenager. “Later on”, he says, “my parents told me about the struggle they had to go through; they had to face much more in society than I had to as a child at school.”
Bilal’s first contact with a Muslim society came when his parents moved to Malaysia in the capacity of teachers and advisors to the ministry of education under the Canadian Colombo Plan.
Though much happier there, Bilal hardly noticed that he was in a Muslim country. The British had been in Malaysia and had left their traces behind. His friends were either Euro-Asians or anglicised Muslim Malaysians. Bilal formed a rock group and began to play the guitar professionally. He had a motorbike and was quite popular and consequently his A-level studies suffered.
While in Malaysia Bilal’s parents adopted an Indonesian boy who happened to be a Muslim. Mrs. Philips was quite aware of Islam and made it easy for him to fast and pray. Bilal understood that this boy was different once when opening the door to his new brother’s room and he bumped his brother on the head as he prostrated himself in prayer. Not being interested in religion at that time, he did not pursue the issue.
Bilal’s parents felt there were too many distractions in Malaysia for him, so they decided to send him back to Canada to the Simon-Frazer University in Vancouver.
Back in Canada, Bilal stepped right into the volatile student movements of the late sixties and early seventies. The drug culture and hippy movement was being propagated by such prestigious persons as Allen Ginsberg and Timothy Leary.
In certain classes the lecturers would pass marijuana cigarettes to the students. They would smoke together and then start the classes.
At this time Bilal’s goal was to become a medical artist and thus combine his love for science and art. To this end, he had taken up biochemistry and had also received a scholarship from an art university.
Before he could fully pursue his goals, he found himself getting deeply entrenched in student politics. The seed sown during his childhood, the idea that something was amiss with Western society and things needed to be changed, bore fruit now. He began to get involved with student movements. There were sit-ins and strikes, sometimes there were more violent protests and the police would be called in.
Professors were introducing socialism into their classes. Impressed by this, Bilal began a detailed study of the work of Marx, and soon considered himself to be a Marxist-Leninist. “Socialism was presented as a programme for change of society”, he says “rectifying injustices and making sure there are equal rights for all. This change was to be brought about by revolution.”
His search for a political solution led him to California. Here he worked with black activist movements like the Black Panthers. “These movements were all black movements, the figures in the forefront were mostly blacks. Since the blacks were the most oppressed group at that time, naturally their voice was the loudest. However, they were widely supported by white college kids. Eventually everybody got on the bandwagon. There was a women’s liberation movement followed by the gay liberation when the homosexuals started coming out of the closets.”
Soon disillusion set in. “Many of these people were deep into drugs. They collected money for what they called defence committees and used much of the money to pay for their parties, their rents and their drugs. They were like leeches living off the people’s donations.”
During this period there also existed a “black movement known as the Nation of Islam” or, more popularly, the Black Muslims, founded by Elijah Muhammad, who concocted a religion called Islam but which was totally different from the real thing.
He taught that all black men were gods and all white men were devils. There was one major god who had come and taught Elijah, and Elijah was his prophet. At that time the autobiography of a former follower of Elijah, Malcolm X, was very popular. Malcolm X had left the Black Muslims after being its leading spokesman and had found real Islam. He was assassinated within six months of his conversion and had little time to use his rhetorical skills to promote the real Islam. Thus only a few who read his autobiography grasped the significance of his journey.
Bilal, who had read Malcolm X’s autobiography, visited one of the temples of the Black Muslims. Though impressed by their organization and the fact that their women dressed modestly, he found their ideology useless.
After the death of Elijah Muhammad in 1975, many fundamental changes were brought about by his son Imam Warith Deen Muhammad. These gradual changes transferred the organization from a nationalistic cult into an Islamic movement close to the mainstream Islam.
Finding the movements in the States not relevant to the goals which he had in mind, Bilal returned to Canada.
By now he had dropped out after completing only two years of university and had linked up with a socialist-oriented group in Toronto. In the early seventies there was an influx of blacks from the States and from the West Indies into Canada. Bilal and his group were trying to educate the blacks as to their position in society and motivate them to make efforts to change the laws on discrimination. Bilal taught African history and social movements in the community centre organised by the group. He used his musical abilities to collect donations for the center. His art too followed the direction in which he was heading; he drew political cartoons for movement newspapers and posters for rallies.
In accordance with his desire to help society, he took up a job as a councellor for delinquent children.
At the same time, the young idealist was getting deeper into communism. The prevailing political theory at that time was that in an industrialised country like North America the revolution would have to take a different form from that of China and Russia. In these countries the impetus has come from the countryside and was composed mainly of peasants. But in North America the struggle would have to come from within the city and take the form of urban guerrilla warfare.
To be successful as an urban guerrilla warfare, one had to develop cells within the city and be mobile. In this kind of warfare the car was an essential instrument, and thorough knowledge of its working was a must. To this end, Bilal went back to a technical college to learn car mechanics.
Bilal’s parents were opposed to the political direction in which their son was going and he and his father had many heated discussions about politics while his mother tried to keep the peace. Bilal, who had been staying temporarily with his parents, moved out and started living in a commune with like-minded youths.
After sometime he began to see a difference between himself and the people he was working with, and these differences were mostly in moral concepts. They wanted to build a new society but were not willing to change themselves.
Certain questions about socialism were beginning to trouble him, especially its ability to build a new society. “There seemed to be no moral foundation for communism and socialism”, says Bilal. “If the masses of the people consider alcoholism, homosexuality, child abuse or whatever to be moral, then it is okay. In New York, it is now legal to possess marijuana, although its sale is still prohibited. In England homosexuals can now marry, this bothered me.”
At this point Bilal contemplated going to China to learn guerilla warfare. But he learned that one of the ladies in the central committee of the group to which he belonged, who had been a very hardcore Communist, had accepted Islam. As Bilal had been an admirer of her previous Marxist-Leninist convictions, he decided to study some books on Islam to see what had swayed her.
The first was ‘Islam, The Misunderstood Religion’ by Muhammad Qutub. Muhammad Qutub was the brother of Syed Qutub, one of the leaders of the Ikhwan movement of Egypt. This movement had come in conflict with Gamal Abdul Nasser and his Socialism. Nasser hanged Syed Qutub and other Ikhwan leaders for their Islamic beliefs. Many other Ikhwan leaders fled to Saudi Arabia and settled in Makkah and Madina. “In fact”, says Bilal, “many of the Islamic scholars in the universities of Saudi Arabia today come from that era.”
Muhammad Qutub is at present teaching in the University of Umm-Al-Qura in Makkah. Muhammad Qutub’s book was a comparison of Islam, Socialism, Communism and Capitalism from a social, economic and moral point of view. For a more spiritually-minded person it might seem a bit dry, but since Bilal was politically oriented it was right for him.
He became convinced that Islam was the best way to bring about an economic and social revolution in Western society. As he avidly read all that was available on Islam in English, another point began to impress him the revolution began not with the toppling of the existing socio-economic order but with the change of the individual himself.
Bilal had decided that if he became a Muslim he would do so totally; there would be no half measures for him. “My life at this time was already quite restrained, and the discipline of Islam did not present a major problem. However, it is standard that before one converts, Satan makes a great effort to dissuade one. By this time I smoked and drank only on rare occasions; however a voice inside me would say, ‘are you ready to give up all these pleasures, you mean to say you’ll never touch them again?’ This put doubts in my mind and made me hesitate to declare my conversion.”
From a political point of view Bilal was convinced, but from a spiritual point of view he found the idea of God, jinns and angels difficult to accept. “
In my heart a vague idea of God was still there”, he says, “though it had been crushed by Communist philosophy, which demands total denial of God’s existence. My scientific background also tended to hold me back from really accepting the concept of God.”
Then Bilal had what may be termed as a spiritual experience. “I was lying down in my room and some friends were sitting at my desk reading. I was half awake, half asleep and then I began to dream. I dreamt I was riding my bicycle into a warehouse. The further I went inside, the darker it got. I began to get worried. I felt I had gone as far as I could. When I turned around I couldn’t see the exit. I was in total darkness. At that time real fear came over me, a feeling of fear I had never experienced before. When I look back at it, I realise that it was the fear of dying. The feeling was that if I didn’t get out of here, I would never get out. It was the end.” “
I began to scream, help! Help me! I tried to shout at the top of my lungs, but the words would not come out, they just gurgled in my throat. My mind was screaming, there were people sitting in the room, yet nobody heard me.” “I continued to try for a while, until I realised that there was no hope. There was no one to help me. At that moment I gave up and resigned myself to death. When I gave up I immediately woke up.”
This dream left a heavy impression on Bilal’s mind. “Nobody could have taken me out of that situation, it was only God who took me out of that state of absolute despair, and brought me back.”
Later he found confirmation of his belief when he read the following verse in the Noble Quran: “He is the one who takes your life in sleep. To some of you he gives it back when you awake, to some of you he does not.” The dream left a strong impression on Bilal that God was real, and he consequently accepted Islam in February 1972.
He stopped playing music and gave up art, and went full-time into the study of Islam. He began the study of Arabic and soon learned to recite the Quran.
Bilal now began a study of Arabic and Fiqh (Islamic Law) with an Egyptian whose father had been a scholar and a follower of the Ikhwan Muslimoon movement.
Bilal had picked up so much information about Islam from different directions that he was confused and in order to resolve this conflict of information he decided he must go to the East, to the actual source of Islam, and immerse himself in Arabic and Islamic studies.
So he applied for a scholarship from the Islamic University of Madina. He was accepted and left for Saudi Arabia.
Living conditions in the University of Madina were quite primitive at the time. The students lived in abandoned army barracks. There was no hot water in the freezing winter and no air conditioning in the blistering summer. Twice Bilal was bitten by scorpions. He put his trust in God and went on with his studies.
From the point of view of learning all aspects of Islam, Bilal had come to the right place. “In terms of Islamic knowledge, the education in Madina University is more extensive than at any university in the West”, he says. “In the west the method of education emphasises understanding, research and interpretation, whereas in the East emphasis is placed on memorisation and verbatim quotation.”
For six years Bilal studied in Madina. The first two years were spent learning Arabic. He also gave lessons in English and in karate to Arab students.
In his final year he saw an advertisement for teachers at the Minarat-ul-Riyadh International School and sent a cutting to his parents, who had recently returned to Canada after teaching in South Yemen. They applied and were immediately accepted.
After completing his B.A. Bilal applied to the King Saud University in Riyadh for his Master’s program and was accepted. As most of his classes were in the evening, he began to teach Islamic education at the Minarat-ul-Riyadh school’s English section.
It was suggested that he translate the curriculum used in the Arabic section, but mere translation was not suitable as it was based on learning by rote. Most of Bilal’s students were from a Western background and they questioned everything. He wanted to provide material based on reasoning and investigation in order to attract the students to Islam. With this in mind over the following years he wrote five textbooks.
This was the first attempt to make a curriculum for Islamic education in English. The need for it was urgent because of the large number of Muslim expatriate children in the Kingdom who could only be reached through the medium.
Though the basic syllabus consists of Quran, Fiqh, Hadith, Tafseer and Tawheed. Sometimes Bilal spends three-quarters of his class discussing questions, which are of great importance to a young Muslim generation caught up in the mores of the West. The young students want to know why dating, drinking and dancing are okay for their counterparts in the West but not for them. Bilal then uses a relevant Quranic verse, Hadith, statistics and logic to explain the Islamic stand. “
About 15 to 20 percent of my students graduate seriously committed to Islam. They go back to Pakistan, England or the States and do serious work for Islam.” Some of the boys he has taught were confirmed atheists, although from Muslim homes. It is gratifying to Bilal when these boys later, through teaching, become very active Muslims. “This makes all the headaches and trials of teaching worth it”, he says.
Bilal has translated three books on Shiism from Arabic to English because he feels that there are not enough books on the subject in English from a Sunni point of view.
He has co-authored a book ‘Polygamy In Islam’ because he says, “This is an area in which non-Muslims often like to criticise Islam. Also many Muslim modernists, due to the influence of colonialism, deny this aspect of Islam. In fact, in some Muslim countries there is legislation against it.”
He has also written a ‘Tafseer on Soorah-ul-Hujuraat (No. 49)’. Among his works under publication is ‘The Evolution of Fiqh’ about the historical development of the different schools of law in Islam, the reason for their differences and how may they be resolved. Another is ‘Usool At-Tafseer’. He is also pondering another refuting the theory of Rashad Khalifa that 19 is the miraculous numerical code of the Quran. Under revision is a book on Tawheed (Islamic Unitarianism).
His interest in art has again surfaced and he has begun to explore the world of Arabic calligraphy.
Bilal feels there is still a lot of work to be done for Islam, especially in the West. His summers are spent teaching Islam and Arabic in the U.S.A. and Canada. He has also travelled extensively in Central and South America and the West Indies to teach Islam in the many Muslim communities scattered throughout the region.
Bilal feels that Muslims can safeguard themselves and their religion in the West by setting up their own Islamic schools within Islamic communities. These days most Muslims in the States are busy chasing the American dream, their children are going to public schools where indirectly the principles of Islam are constantly under attack. Very few children, probably less than 10 percent, who go through the American school system remain practicing Muslims.
Hijra (immigration to a Muslim environment), he believes is compulsory for Muslims if they cannot live like Muslims, and to stress this point he quotes from the Quran: “Those who died in a state of self-oppression, the angels asked them, ‘well, couldn’t you migrate? Allah’s earth is expansive’, and these people will go to the hell.” “
The priority of every Muslim”, he says, “should be not where can I best find work, but where can I best practise Islam and find work.”
Bilal’s goal is still to change society for the better but the revolution must come through the spread and practise of Islam by each individual, and to this end he has devoted his life.