“I opened the book and I saw Moses, I saw Abraham, I saw Lot, I saw Noah. I said ‘Hey, I know these guys,’ and Jesus,” thought the teenager, an eager student of the Bible from his early days at Bold Springs Baptist Church in rural Rockingham County. “I said ‘Hey, wait a minute, I didn’t know the Muslims believe in Jesus.’ “
Just a few years later the gangly kid who once played the tax collector in the annual church Christmas play had changed his name to Amon Muhammad and embraced the Muslim faith. Nowadays, he is Brother Amon, the spiritual leader of his hometown mosque, the person those who are in trouble go to for guidance.
His road from Christianity to Islam, however, is more of a bridge than a path in a single direction.
“I never let Jesus go. Muslims believe in Jesus as the messiah,” said Muhammad, an affable young minister with both a good sense of comedic timing and the ability to hold an audience in rapt attention at the seriousness of what he has to say. He looks 18, and not the 31-year-old husband, father and businessman that he is.
There are distinctions. Muslims believe Jesus is a messenger of God, but that the Prophet Muhammad was the last messenger of God. They do not believe that Jesus is the son of God or that God is comprised of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. Christians generally do not believe that Muhammad was a prophet sent by God.
Amon Muhammad was able to reconcile the two.
“I never let the church go.” he said. “I went to get something that I could bring back to the church.”
Muhammad is a member of an emerging class of Muslim converts contributing to the steady growth of mosques in this country — second only to the growth of megachurches.
Nobody tracks the numbers, but the rule of thumb, according to mosque leaders, is that the influx is half newly arrived immigrant Muslims and the other half, usually, converts from the Christian faith.
“I didn’t like how people would pick this part of scripture and say, we can work with this; no, leave that part out because I like the sinful lifestyle of this part. I like this, but I don’t care for that. That’s not right,” Muhammad said.
“Islam is a lifestyle. It’s not something I have to observe one day. It’s every day.”
Muhammad, whose mother gave him the name Amon at birth, plucking it from the pages of her Bible, was first exposed to the Muslim faith during the summers that he spent with his father in Boston. His father was not a Muslim but he lived near a mosque.
Later, a friend would give the athlete and academically gifted student at Rockingham County High School a Quran of his own. He thought he had found what had been missing in his life.
“I was just participating,” said Muhammad, always a precocious child. “I really didn’t like that.”
There were tensions in his staunchly Christian extended family.
“I was supposed to end up being a great preacher — a Christian preacher,” said Muhammad, who had been studying chemistry and chemical engineering at N.C. A&T.
“So when I ended up accepting Islam, that wasn’t a part of how it was supposed to pan out. At first it was, ‘Maybe he’s going through a phase.’ Over time, my family accepted that this was not just a phase.”
His mother, Charlene Mims, says she was never disappointed.
“He’s not in jail. He’s not on the corner — my son is doing good work,” said Mims, a Christian. “My pastor and him speak on a lot of the same subjects (in their sermons). They do things a little different than we do — a lot of the things they are doing we should be doing, such as the discipline of fasting and constant prayer.”
Muhammad’s first Ramadan, 30 days of daylight fasting, fell during the hot summer months and tested his resolve.
“Not drinking water was the hardest part,” said Muhammad, who by then was working at UPS loading boxes. “I was sweating profusely. As soon as it got time to drink I was guzzling. After six or seven days I knew I could make it. It was like, anything else that comes after this can’t be that hard.”
Minister Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam, who attended Winston-Salem State University and had ties to the area, would soon ask Muhammad to start the Reidsville Study Group, a gathering of Muslims, in his hometown.
The group meets at the rear of the Universal Mind store that Muhammad and his mother own in downtown Reidsville, which draws a diversity of customers representing a number of faiths to its counters full of incense, books and art.
He is keenly aware that there are people who may hate him because he calls himself a Muslim, especially when violence is ongoing in the Middle East.
He knows that being outspoken is considered a double whammy. Just this past week he was invited to speak to several classes at a local school on Islamic culture, something students had been studying, only to be asked by the principal to leave before it was over.
“People will take other people’s version of history or they will watch some crap on television that says Allah is a god of hate, that Islam is a religion of hate, yet they’ve never studied the holy Quran,” Muhammad said. “If you study the holy Quran you will find a most merciful beneficent god. But if you don’t study the book you don’t know that.”
It was Muhammad who filed a lawsuit against the city of Reidsville that allows him to hold the annual Black Family Day for unity.
In 2000, the city council there was forced to repeal an ordinance that prohibited religious or political groups from applying for city street closures. The pro-family rally highlights problems in the African American community and ways to fix them.
“As a Muslim and as a Christian, this is my work every single day.”