bismillah

Why I Embraced Islam?

"Son, You didn't get cheated"

From Imprisonment on Death Row to a Respected Leader in his Community.
By Imam Abu Kadr as told to the Editor

Q: What is your current occupation?

A: I am the Imam for the San Francisco Muslim Community Center (850 Divisidero, SF.) and also director of a Drug & Alcohol Rehabilitation Program which focuses on people from the criminal justice system with a history of drug and alcohol abuse. Previously I had worked as a counselor for quite some time in this same area.

Q: What was your very first contact with Islam and how did you come to accept Islam?

A: At about 15 years old, an elementary school friend whose family had become Muslim through the Nation of Islam teachings introduced me to some of the basic concepts. That was my very first contact with the teachings of Islam very basic, such as the name "Allah" and the name "Muslim". We maintained contact and over a period of time they would introduce ideas about Islam. About a year later my older brother started attending meetings, bringing books and literature home. I began reading. It was Nation of Islam literature, but they were introducing the Qur'an as the "perfect book", Allah as God, not a Trinitarian belief, and Mohammad as the Prophet (PBUH). There was some confusion in the message, but that was my 1st exposure.

Q: What brought you to the transition away from Nation of Islam?

A: As a member of NOI we were taught that there was someone coming after Elijah Muhammad who was going to teach us the religion. He saw his job not as teaching us the religion, but cleaning us up morally - bringing us away from indecent behavior, bad morals, laziness, drinking, smoking, generally becoming decent people. So we were ready for a change or transition. We had the Qur'an, but he taught that there was going to be a "new book a little book" coming. Our understanding of the Qur'an at that time was also corrupted by other information from his teachings. We weren't able to understand the Qur'an clearly.

Q: Did you find the transition difficult?

A: It became more comfortable for me when Imam Warith deen Mohammad became the leader of NOI and introduced prayers and emphasized the Qur'an and the examples of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). It was more what I was seeking. I found it more fulfilling, as there were less contradictions and a broader perspective on Islam. Then I found great benefit in being involved. It was more of what my soul was looking for.

Q: Do you feel that the difficulties in your life have made practicing Islam easier or more difficult?

A: Islam has made my life easier because now I have guidance in my life. Many Americans have difficulty in trying to find the purpose of their lives. I have a purpose; I have a responsibility to Allah, I've come to understand that my behavior needs to conform to what Allah requires of us in the Qur'an. That is the best way for me to realize the fullness of my human potential. Being obedient to Allah, gets easier as I grow. I am comfortable following the guidelines as they are set down for us in the Qur'an. I'm uncomfortable doing many things that are available in this society. Society is filled with temptations, and that is challenging. At this point in my life, it's less of a struggle because I have had the benefit of the teachings of the Qur'an and have grown in that environment. I know through my life's experiences the dangers of this society. I made a conscious choice to leave that lifestyle behind.

Q: Do you feel racism affects a persons understanding or practice of Islam?

A: Certainly it can. I believe there is racial influence worldwide. Color consciousness permeates the world community, both in and out of the US, but it is more subtle overseas. In the U.S. there is separation along racial lines, such as neighborhoods, etc. We also tend to socialize along ethnic lines in this society. From my personal observation in the Middle East I saw the value system that goes along with color classification also.

Q: How do you deal with the issue of race both in your job and in the community?

A: In my work I try my utmost to maintain professional ethics and performance of my tasks with excellence, integrity, and respect for what Allah requires of me. This gives me an advantage over someone who doesn't have those guidelines. I try to follow what Allah has proscribed and strive for excellence regardless of stereotypical assumptions from others. A Muslim is one who endeavors to improve and perfect his behavior. I employ that in my work ethic. I'm willing to strive and improve. This has enabled me to be competitive in this society.

Q: Which Islamic principles do you feel are most important to African Americans overcoming the problems facing their communities?

A: All of the principles are valuable. The Five Pillars of Islam are essential to the African American community. I think it's important for us to see the Qur'an with our own eyes and not allow someone else to see for us... we are not blind. If we are going to develop healthy community life in this country, it requires vision from the people who have grown in this environment. I have reached the conclusion that Islam is the "natural religion". All of us have a natural capacity for this religion and it is innate. When we allow our own thinking and experiences to be seen in the light of the Qur'an, we benefit to a more significant degree than if we allow someone else to do that for us.

Q: If you had to describe the Five Pillars of Islam to someone who was raised in this society, how would you explain it in a simple way to help them understand the message?

A: The Prophet (pbuh) explained that Islam is structured on certain principles. The way you build your Islamic life is similar to the way you build a house. It requires effort and striving. First you start with the foundation, then the walls, roof, electricity. There are many elements that go into building a house. The same is true of your spiritual life. It must start with the foundation, which is the belief in the Oneness of Allah. What is built onto the foundation are the walls which metaphorically can be seen as the five daily prayers…keeping the whole together in conjunction with the foundation. Practicing the faith by fasting Ramadan, believing in the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), and practicing Zakat or charity provides a fortress, not just a house, for our souls in this life and the next.

Q: What is the relationship between yourself, the Masjid and the Arab Muslim community?

A: Formalized relationships are cordial, but it's not a significant meaningful relationship at this point. Usually the only interaction is for Eid, special occasions or crisis's. If there is a problem we all come together. There are a few individuals that I have a special relationship with, but as an organized entity we all work individually within our own Masjids. I would like to see us working together with more concerted efforts.

Q: What do you see as the most significant challenge facing Muslim prisoners in the criminal justice system?

A: For Muslim prisoners the most difficult challenge is not while they are in the prison system, but after they get out. The question should be "What are they going to do with their Islamic life after they get out of the prison?" Generally speaking, they are not in prison because they are Muslim, but because their behavior was not Islamic. They are there because they were living wrong. While in prison Islam made sense to them and they became Muslim. They began to practice Islam. This gave them something to believe in. When they are returned to society the real challenge is, "So now you believe in Islam, how do you start to practice your beliefs?" Islam is not just saying you are Muslim, but in doing. Islam is both the words and the actions. Belief and practice. This is the challenge. Now you are out…fulfill your responsibility as a Muslim. It is not an easy thing to do. It is every Muslims individual responsibility to establish their Islamic life, to establish their commitment to Islamic values, Islamic practice and to being a part of Islamic community life. This is essential for the maintenance of Muslim character. Because we don't have Muslim community life per se, we don't eat together or study together as in many other places. This is difficult for many Muslims. Due to the absence of community life we often lack the support many new Muslims need in order to enhance and strengthen their Islamic. It requires commitment and belief. They have to strive to avoid the pitfalls that may be waiting for them in society. They may have to avoid previous relationships and people they associated with. All these things must be re-evaluated in the light of new Islamic views. For many this poses a great challenge. They feel there should be a great reception for them as a Muslim. That there should be assistance for them from the Islamic community. There should be homes and jobs. They feel that is what Islam should offer them. It is not the reality. In most instances, efforts must be self-motivated with the help of the belief in Islam. Perhaps, in the future, there will be that kind of community support, but at this time it is not the reality. As Muslims, we are instructed to help the needy among us, but there is not an organized Islamic community from which to gain that kind of support.

Q: How can the Muslim community reach out to Muslim prisoners to help them adjust to life outside?

A: Books, Qur'an's, literature. There is a huge demand for that. The demand currently is in greater proportion to what we are able to supply. Hundreds, even thousands of Qur'an's are requested.

Q: How is dawa (invitation to Islam) currently being practiced in the jails? What are the pitfalls we currently see?

A: Many people incarcerated have accepted Islam and realized the spiritual benefits. They feel a sense of responsibility to pass on what they have learned. They want to give something back. That's one of the motivations for many individuals, including myself. I came into Islam under those circumstances. It was a great blessing to have Islam as a source of relief and guidance. I was able to come out of that maze with my sanity, body, mind and health intact. I learned a lot from individuals that were there, some are still there. I feel a sense of indebtedness to them and also want to offer hope. It is possible for people to change and re-establish a life based on integrity. It comes from the blessing and favor of Allah. You have the freedom to study. You don't have to worry about paying for rent, electricity, water, heat, and groceries. You don't have the normal burdens of life that one encounters out here. In a way it's almost like a "boarding school" if you can see it from that perspective as a Muslim. You can use the time to study. That's one of the benefits I found from the nine years that I was incarcerated. I used the time to read. I was exposed to a great deal of good information about Islam. I began studying Arabic and reading the Qur'an in Arabic. It was difficult, but I had the desire. It became a time for preparation. In some ways it was easy because there was nowhere to go and nothing to do. There was no reason not to do five prayers a day. No one is telling you that you have appointments or meetings that are crucial can't be interrupted. The demands are different than on the outside.

Q: What kind of Islamic education is available to Muslims in prison?

A: In some of the prisons there are Muslim chaplains who come in as employees of the State of California. They are able to provide education, Islamic teachings, counseling, and guidance. They also coordinate volunteers coming to the institution to provide other services to the Islamic community there. In most circumstances they are fortunate in that there are very knowledgeable people coming to instruct and support them. Many of them are helpful in overcoming and treating the mental and spiritual deficiencies in the individual that brought them to the point of incarceration.

Q: Do you think that the current cutbacks on affirmative action will have a negative effect on Muslims in prison or on ex-cons or the community at large?

A: Yes, it already has. Veterans in prison are prevented from using their veterans' benefits for higher education while in prison. Pell grants are now being denied to individuals in prison.

Q: Let's go back to the question of how your interest in Islam evolved. Were you raised Christian? Were you afraid of not being accepted by Muslims? Were you surprised to find the deep message in Islam?

A: My mom & dad had nine children of which I was the second. My early childhood was in Danville, IL. My mother was a professed Christian and she raised me with a great respect for God and with a strong sense of accountability to God. She taught us that one day God would judge us for how we had lived our lives. This greatly impressed me as she had a strong commitment to those ideals. My father was of a different opinion. He didn't believe in any organized religion that he had seen, which was predominantly Christian. He saw contradictions between "talk" and "action". He considered himself an atheist for many years, but he changed before he died. He began to see things differently in later years but he was opposed to what he saw as 'corrupt' religion. I'm not sure what my grandmothers' religion was, but I know she wanted to name me after one of the prophets, but my parents thought it was uncommon and rejected the idea. That had an influence on me later when I heard about Islamic names. My father had a sister with an Islamic name from birth. I don't know how she got that name and there was no way for me to find out where that influence came from because by then most of those family members had passed. There seems to have been some kind of Islamic influence in my life. As I said earlier, my older brother began going to the temples of Islam under the teaching of Elijah Muhammad and bringing home literature. Those things gave me hope that there was something out there for my spiritual development. I was not finding that in Christianity or other forms of ideologies such as communism or socialism. In the sixties, the militant experience was not satisfying or appealing to me. I was looking for an answer from God. After I got in trouble, I began going to Islamic meetings and started calling myself "Muslim" while still in high school at 16-17 years old. I started identifying myself as Muslim. The only information I really had was that Allah was God and that Jesus was not "God" and that the Bible was a book full of contradictions. I didn't know the Qur'an or how to pray, but I still identified myself as Muslim and I've never let go of that. As I became more knowledgeable I began to understand how Muslims were expected to behave. As I became more conscious of the actions involved with being a Muslim, I was no longer comfortable with just the label. I started to try to educate myself on how to be a Muslim in action, thought and deed.

Q: When you got in trouble was it while you were learning about Islam or before?

A: I got in trouble prior to learning about Islam. My first involvement with the criminal justice system was when I was in a group of friends on the way to school. One of the boys, unbeknownst to the rest of us, had a pellet gun. They put all 18 of us on probation. My family was naive about these things and in those days they thought it was something that would be good for us (probation) and keep us out of trouble. That was my first exposure to the criminal justice system. After that, at 15, I began to rebel against my father and his authority. I didn't respect his telling me what to do, where to go, or what time to come home. Pretty normal 15-year-old rebellion. This led being put out of the house while I was on probation and no longer under "parental control". I was sent to prison as a runaway and incorrigible. I still hadn't done anything to break the law. But that is how I first went to jail. I went to a county camp for nine months. This was in California where we had moved in 1959. While I was in there I met some Muslims, Nation of Islam Muslims, of course. We started talking and they shared their understanding of what Islam was. The thing that really impressed me were the people who came from my neighborhood and had become Muslim. They were better people. They reformed. They became industrious, clean, concerned about other people in their lives, and their own health. This made a very strong impression on me.

Q: Did your family object to your studying Islam?

A: Not really. I started going to meetings when I was about 17. In my youthful enthusiasm I went home and started throwing away all the pork in the house. I didn't want them to be feeding pork to my younger brothers and sisters. My father thought I was crazy. His response was, "Are you crazy, boy? You don't buy the food in this house." It was a valid point. That was the original position of my family in the early stages of my conversion. My mother was opposed to some of the NOI ideas. As she began to understand Islam she would (and still does) give Zakat (charity). She tells me that whenever she doesn't give Zakat, it seems like "something always goes wrong with her money"! One day we were talking about my beliefs in Islam and she told me, "Son, you didn't get cheated". That said it all for me!

Q: How did your mother react to your acceptance of Islam?

A: Initially, because of the NOI, she had some reservations. My father did too. My father told me in 1970 when I really started to study and practice Islam while I was on Death Row, that I would be better off taking the direction that Malcom took. He said I would be better off following Malcom than Elijah. I told him that he didn't know what he was talking about. That was my understanding at the time. He evidently had insight because of his life experiences, which in my youth I couldn't appreciate then.

Q: What is your relationship with your family as a Muslim?

A: It's very good. I have good relations with my mother. We talk and write. She is back in Illinois now. When she is around me she prays with me, she follows and joins in Salah with me. That's a blessing. Recently I talked to her about accepting Allah and she didn't say no. I'm very hopeful for her. My older brother who introduced me to NOI just made his Shahadu several weeks ago. I also have one brother and his wife who accepted Islam several years ago and my youngest sister who also accepted Islam. This is very pleasing to me and I pray that Allah give them blessings.

Q: Were you concerned how your friends would react to your acceptance of Islam?

A: Not really. When I really began practicing Islam I was 20 years old and on Death Row. When I was about 17 I got involved with drugs and alcohol and ended up shooting a man and going to Death Row. That's where I really started to practice Islam. In 1972 the death penalty was declared unconstitutional in California and my death sentence was commuted to a life sentence. As I became stronger in my Islamic beliefs, I gained the reputation for being a good person based on my practice of Islam. As a matter of fact, the Associate Warden went to the parole board with me and told them I had done a 180-degree turn from who I was when I came into the institution. This was due to my practice of Islam. He encouraged them to give me an early release date. He told them I was helping others to improve their lives and become better individuals. They gave me a two-year parole date. I paroled December 4, 1978. I paroled the same date I went in, December 4, 1970.

Q: Do you wish that some things could have been different in your life? If you had to look back and make any changes in your life, what would you have wanted to do differently?

A: I would have liked to have benefited more from education. I found racism in education so because of that I wasn't interested in pursuing it. I wish I would have been more willing to go through academic institutions and complete them. As a Muslim, I am very interested in pursuing higher education and knowledge.

Q: Did you feel intimidated or frightened by any of the beliefs and practices of Islam?

A: Yes, some of it. When I first got into the NOI, we used to do a lot of physical and military types of training. This was while we were in prison. One day while doing exercises the person in charge was driving us to do push-ups on our knuckles and one of the others burst a knuckle on the rocky yard. I thought to myself, "What in the world have I gotten myself into?" It was like paramilitary training. Some of the people in charge were a little "drunk" on the militancy.

Q: How difficult was it to suddenly stop and give up many of the non-Islamic things you had been doing?

A: It was a challenge. Even down to speech. I went through withdrawals on cussing. I had to become conscious of my tongue, not using certain words or saying certain phrases. A lot of effort went into that. At that time since I was confined I didn't have the temptations of drugs or alcohol which I had used for a brief period as a teenager. That part wasn't a challenge for me while I was on Death Row. Once I returned to the main line population in the jail the opportunities or temptation to use those things were there. They were available in large quantities and was a prevailing problem. People were hooked on heroin in prison. Having the self-worth that Islam gave me made me appreciate that my person was sacred. I no longer wanted to be a participant in my own desecration through the influences of drugs and alcohol. It was available, but it wasn't a problem for me because by then I had been practicing Islam for two years and four months while on Death Row. I was praying and making Tahajed prayers (prayers done in the middle of the night). I believe to this day that it was due to the Tahajed prayers done with consistency while I was there that I was released.

Q: Did anyone notice a difference or change in you after you accepted Islam?

A: My father acknowledged changes. He commended Elijah Muhammad once for getting me to do things that he had been trying to get me to do for years which I had rebelled against and resisted. The administration in prison acknowledged the changes. People I had associated with in the so-called "free" society saw the changes. My friends, the people that really knew me, told me to never leave Islam. They said they didn't want to see me go back and be the person I was before Islam. They were happy for me. They really encouraged me to stick with Islam and to be sincere.

Q: Raised as a Christian, did you find it difficult to give up the belief of the Trinity when you accepted Islam?

A: No. I feel that it was a blessing that my mother was the one who introduced me to the Christian religion and the Bible. I didn't receive my early Christian teaching from preachers or people who had gone to theological seminaries. I got some very basic concepts about God and how He was All-knowing and took account of everything and was kind. She believed in Jesus, but she didn't give me a heavy dose of Trinity. At about 12, I became aware of some inconsistencies and unanswered questions in the Christian teachings. I was being told things that just didn't make any sense. I began to recognize some of the misinformation we were being given and I began to question. This is when I first began to have doubts about this doctrine. As a teenager, I began to hear some of the NOI arguments against Trinity, such as how could you get 3 in 1?. It is a contradiction and they would teach against it. I was influenced by some of those teachings, but the strongest influence was the bad treatment of the Christian establishment towards African Americans. Something inside me wouldn't allow me to accept a doctrine that had treated people so badly. Those things made me cautious and I never was able to accept or open up wholeheartedly to their beliefs. Although I believed in God wholeheartedly, there were certain aspects of Christianity that I couldn't open myself to.

Q: How do you address the subject of Trinity when you have dialog with a Christian concerning the Islamic belief of the Oneness of Allah which is the backbone of Islamic belief?

A: I approach it by keeping it within the realm of what they know. What they accept. One thing I mention is that Jesus prayed. It shows that Jesus could not be God, because God has no need to pray. If Jesus said "My God, My God, why has thou forsaken me?" it seems to me proof that he wasn't God. In the Bible it says that Jesus asked, "Who do thou say I am?" And the response is "Good Master". He said, "No, there is none that is a good master, but One, and it's He that is in heaven." So he denied being a "good master". If he didn't accept being called "good master" how would he have accepted being called God? 'Good master' is a whole lot less than being called God. There are people who master certain things. We call teachers "master". They master subjects or they master a trade, or they master a craft. Additionally, in the Bible, David is also referred to as the only begotten son. How can there be two "only begotten sons"?

Q: Is there a difference in Christian doctrine between the Creator and the son? Sometimes they say he is the same and sometimes they say it's not him, there is three in one and one in three.

A: In Christian doctrine it says there are three concepts that you can not question, you just have to accept on faith. These three things don't make rational sense. One is the Trinitarian doctrine, the second is the idea of original sin, and the third is the divinity of Jesus. As far as the idea of original sin, one has to accept that Jesus was born of human parents, therefore, because of ancestry he would have to have been touched with original sin. It just doesn't make sense. There are too many contradictions. Many Christians can't have a rational discussion about these things. They get very emotional unless Allah has blessed their hearts. In most cases of Christians having converted to Islam, the individuals' own questioning Christian doctrine has led them to the logic of the Qur'an and Islam.

Q: How do address the question of the divinity of Jesus and how Christians say you will not be saved unless you are a Christian? How do you respond to that within the context of your Islamic beliefs?

A: I refer to what Imam Mohammed from La Grange, Georgia said to a Christian woman who approached him and told him that he would not be saved unless he accepted Jesus as his lord and savior. He said, "Mam, I respect your desire to see me with salvation, but if we can talk for a minute I would like to get your opinion. What do you think about Abraham?" To which she responded, "He was the best man, etc." He then asked her, "Do you believe he had salvation?" She answered, "Of course he had salvation." "What about Noah?" She responded, "Of course he had salvation." He then pointed out that they were living before Jesus. They didn't know about Jesus. He could have gone on to mention Moses, etc., but he merely let his point be taken. I don't argue with anyone. I merely point out the inconsistencies in their beliefs. Sometimes just our presence is a form of dawa (invitation to Islam). Make them think and consider their positions.

Q: What impressed you most when you first read the Holy Qur'an?

A: The Holy Qur'an impacted me on many levels. Primarily it satisfied a need in my soul and my intellect. Intellectually it provided essential guidance and logic. I find it gives the seeker information of the highest caliber. Allah will grant us knowledge as we seek it. It is a great equalizer and allows a person to lift himself or herself to the highest degree. It offers the possibility for personal growth as long as we live. It is like a seed that once nourished can become the most beautiful of Allah's gifts. It allows us as humans to realize our highest destiny. It offers dignity, self-respect, and self-realization. It is all there for the taking. As an African American man, I felt with other doctrines I was forced to compromise too much of my personal dignity. With the Qur'an I found that I could learn things from Allah's word that gave me an advantage to master myself, self-regulate myself. It gave me information and insights into life that enabled me to make progress and become a better person. The relevance of the information to my own personal circumstances was invaluable. I didn't feel obligated to anyone for this information. It was just all there in the Qur'an…free for the taking. All it required was the courage to turn the pages. That was really impressive to me. When I started using the teachings of the Qur'an in conducting my life I could see the respect from others. That was something that had been denied me. It restored something in me and no one could challenge that. They couldn't find any fault in what I said to them from the Book. It couldn't be disproved. That meant a great deal to me.

Q: Do you think Islam can influence modern civilization in any way?

A: Certainly, I feel Muslims can influence this society on many levels. Currently there is much work going on to address issues in the academic community, business, trade, banking, political environments, and peace processes. We would like to bring about changes in the oppressed communities of the world and aid the needy among us on a global level. By following the commands of Allah in the Holy Qur'an there would be justice, charity and a sense of brotherhood among all the peoples of the world. We would like to provide more of an outreach program and offer help to those in need in our own community as we are commanded to do as Muslims.

Q: What advice would you give to Muslim youth in this society that you see as most threatening to them and their Islamic beliefs?

A: Not to diminish their Islamic life, but to continue to practice it and to be confident in what it can deliver to them. Do not be ashamed of it and do not follow, but take the lead. Muslims are not to follow non-Muslims. Take the lead in establishing and following examples of the successful behavior of some of the young Muslims in history. I'm referencing some of the great historical figures that made significant contributions to Islamic development. I encourage them to be more than Muslim in name, and not to assimilate into the popular culture.

Q: What message would you like to relay to Muslims and non-Muslims?

A: For Muslims and non-Muslims alike, I would like to say that in our book, the Holy Qur'an, are mentioned "the peoples of the book" with respect. We live in a country with people of the book, in that we share the same religious history, and we identify with the same prophets as the prophets of the Jews and Christians. We are taught to respect the people of the book and there is enough room for them to respect us. We would like to see them respect and accept the prophet that was sent as a universal prophet for all mankind. This was the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). We are not at variance with anyone; we are just trying to be obedient to Allah.

Q: Do you ever feel that the path you have taken to finally reach Islam was all part of a plan?

A: Certainly. A couple of Hadith come to mind on that subject. The hadith that talks about people that behave a certain way until that which is written overcomes them. Then they enter paradise or hell depending upon which they choose. Some people will behave as though they are righteous until that which is written for them overcomes them. Then they behave as people of hell and thus they enter it. Some people behave as though they are destined for hell until that which is written for them overcomes them and then they behave as the people of paradise and thus they enter it. That is one Hadith that helps me understand my circumstances. I believe in Allah's plan for my life. I believe that Allah's justice will prevail. I believe that the large number of African Americans entering Islam today is a part of Allah's mercy and justice. The injustice of our ancestors having their Islamic way of life forcibly taken away from them and forced to become Christians. The great majority of our ancestors who were enslaved came from Muslim lands. So perhaps it is Allah's mercy to the descendents of those Muslim slaves that is returning them to their rightful heritage.


Editors Note:

It was a pleasure interviewing Imam Abu Kadr Al-Amin. Iman AbuKadr has a beautiful way of giving the Friday talk. When I attend Jumma prayers, I, like hundreds of others, are touched by his powerful message. One can tell it comes from the heart and that Allah has given him Hikma (wisdom). May Allah continue to shower His blessings on Imam Abu and his family.

"He granteth wisdom to whom He pleaseth; And he to whom wisdom is granted receiveth indeed a benefit overflowing." (Quran 2:269)

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The Islamic Bulletin
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May / June 1998
Muharram 1419
Note from the Editor
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