Sometimes it’s tough as a journalist to get the meaty stories of what’s really happening inside a particular faith.
Islam is especially difficult because of the fear of participants in talking with media, plus it’s not a faith that many journalists know much about.
Which is why NPR’s story of Usama Canon, a Chicago imam who is dying of Lou Gehring’s disease, is so needed. It gets into the fine details of the life of a teacher who most non-Muslims would not have heard of and shows him to be a sympathetic figure that most of us can identify with.
I’m not sure what connections the reporter had to use to get this story, but there needs to more like it. It opens at a Muslim center in Chicago.
Canon, 40, gives off a laid-back, West Coast vibe. He wears a beanie and prayer beads wrapped around his right wrist like a thick bracelet. He is the founding director of this place, the Ta'leef Collective, with campuses in Fremont, Ca. and Chicago. In Arabic the name means "the coming together of many things."
The Ta'leef Collective was envisioned as a "third place" between the mosque and home to provide Muslims, especially young or new Muslims, a space to explore their faith outside the confines of the traditional mosque. The nonprofit is part lecture hall, part gathering space, and part sanctuary.
Participants ranging from former inmates to searching youths say Usama Canon's teachings have helped them understand Islam in their everyday lives. Those lessons feel essential to his students at a time of growing hostility toward the religion, which has more than 3.45 million U.S. adherents.
That population figure, by the way, comes from the Pew Forum.
So when Canon was diagnosed with the degenerative neurological disease ALS in the fall of 2017, the news devastated Muslim communities all over the world, which hold Canon up as a pioneer. They call him Ustadh, "Teacher" in Arabic.
That announcement was in September.
He was diagnosed after noticing a change in his singing voice, when reciting Quran or singing hymns. It was deeper, slurred.
His first thoughts went to his five children, who range in age from toddler to teenager, and his wife. He may never see his kids marry. Most people with ALS, often called Lou Gehrig's Disease, survive between three and five years after their diagnosis.
The story told Canon’s early history, then:
But Ta'leef is what made Canon into a global figure. Thanks to his online talks, he has accumulated thousands of admirers in Muslim communities from northern California to Jakarta, Indonesia.
"It's rooted in the idea that Islam is not a foreign thing and Islam is not suspect and Islam is not malignant," Canon says. "Granted, there is all this insanity in the world and there are Muslims doing insane things, but the core of the religion is a beautiful, beautiful thing."
The reporter interviews a hip hop artist inspired by Canon; a recent convert and a Yale religious studies professor to give us a view of why Canon is a player in the varied landscape of American Islam.
This is such a well-done story of a man of God who is faced with his impending death. ALS which can be a living death because your mind stays alert a lot longer than your body is able to function.
There are some humorous asides that lighten the story.
"Let's be honest, when we do this thing called community we put our own twist on it. And the twist I put on it is a northern Californian, mixed kid who comes from a hip-hop, reggae, hacky-sacking, boogie-boarding background," Canon says. People joke that his is a "California Islam."
"Hey, bro, call it what you want to, and if that's what Cali Islam is then we accept," he says
Whether it’s Cali Islam or Detroit Islam or whatever, we could use a lot more pieces like this that help us understand the American expression of Islam more.