By Alexandra Lombardo
“Getting past a racist legacy is not as simple as changing the names of things or removing flags…” said Ustadh Ubaydullah Evans, right before calling for a “very real, raw conversation in which pain is allowed to speak.”
As the Chief Guest of the Eid Banquet, Ubaydullah Evans was dressed in style, complete with oxblood loafers, tie clip, and peak lapels. As he describes his high school self, he was “a fly guy”. His grandmother owned a high-end clothing boutique featuring Prada, Gucci, and other brands the rage of fashion in the 80’s, and this culture surrounded him growing up. But, while his outer style may have come full circle to return to its fly origins, a lot changed in the time between childhood in the south side of Chicago and being an honored Muslim American scholar invited to speak at the 14th annual Eid Banquet, one of Yale’s largest cultural showcases of the year.
The Eid Banquet, hosted by the Muslim Students Association and the Chaplain’s Office, took place in Commons Tuesday evening, despite the fact that the holiday of interest, Eid al-Adha, actually slipped by rather innocuously at the end of September, the exact same week the campus was focused on Yom Kippur. During the banquet, Commons was full of Yale community members dressed in formal and cultural attire, from saris to thobes and kufis, all gathered to eat halal food and celebrate.
At some point in the evening, both Dean Holloway and Ubaydullah Evans reflected on how amazing it is that such a crowd should be gathered in this way. In his speech, Dean Holloway mentioned how 15 years ago it would have been harder to see the Yale community unite in support of the celebration of a Muslim holiday. Mr. Evans spoke to diversity of the Muslim community at Yale, united by genuine amity. He called on Islam in the United States to be the embodiment of “real cosmopolitan,” diverse in more than just how people dress or act, but also diverse in that we can even accept different ways of thinking.
Ubaydullah Evans, or Will Evans at the time, was 15 years old when he converted to Islam. Even in his youth, he says he was always “a seeker”. As a freshman in high school he started attending a Pentecostal church, where services are characterized by impassioned believers breaking out in dance or speaking in foreign tongues. He was baptized at age 14, an event that made him want to go further with investigating his spirituality. At 15 years old, sitting in detention, reading about the Ottomans in his history textbook, the phrase “There is no God but God” first piqued his interest in Islam. He wanted to know more about the religion which had such a paradoxical phrase as one of its central tenets. A teen who would later study for 5 years in Tarim, Yemen and under private tutelage at Al-Azhar University in Egypt, his first source for knowledge of the religion was the Encyclopedia Britannica. Then he watched the Malcolm X movie again. A friend’s father gave him shahada, which marked his official conversion.
Mr. Evans now sees the African-American community as the natural ally to the Muslim community. It is the only Western community that has achieved communal conversion to Islam. Malik, a Muslim name, is the most common name for black babies in America today. He has friends named Jamal, Kareem, et cetera even though they are not Muslim. The ah—ee—yah linguistic pattern in female names, think Laquisha or Aliyah, is a bastardized remnant of Arabic. This community, first guided by Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam, represents an alternative modality of Americanism. “The African-American is unique because he can never be disabused of American-ness,” says Mr. Evans. In his opinion, this distinct modality empowers the community to represent Islam, and it must make an intervention. During his keynote speech at the Eid Banquet, he addressed the Black Lives Matter movement. “There is nothing wrong with sustained focus in one area, but we have to alleviate suffering wherever we see it.”
Mr. Evans considers his family a typical first generation middle class family, in that it was characterized by conspicuous consumption and a focus on education. He left both those behind when he left school to study Islam for two years at a madrasa outside of Chicago. He remembers this as the most humbling experience of his life. He was studying with 12- and 13-year-olds who knew more about his religion than he did. Eventually he withdrew to get married. Upon realizing he had no employable skills, he became a street vendor, selling oil, incense, and Middle Eastern textiles. Although many of his former school friends felt his life had gone downwards, Mr. Evans has no reservations about that time in his life. He was dressing very traditionally, and he felt he had “opted out of status, opted out of the game.”
His life changed when he met Dr. Abdul Hakim Jackson, a highly influential and respected American Muslim scholar. To Mr. Evans, he represented a Black Muslim living in a functional way. After that, Mr. Evans decided to purse the opportunity to spend time in Yemen and Cairo, studying Islam formally and receiving the equivalent of an undergraduate degree. While his education was very challenging, the most difficult moment was when his wife died due to an ectopic pregnancy during his third year. What followed was the “most intense period of growth” of his life: learning to be a father to their 4-year-old daughter. He remarried 3 years ago and is now the executive director of the American Learning Institute for Muslims. “And now I’m at Yale!” Evans proclaimed a bit incredulously, ending his narrative.
His advice to Yale students: “Embrace nuance. Don’t look for cookie-cutter black-and-white answers. Fundamentalism, of which there are all kinds, appeals to the youthful desire to know what’s right and what’s wrong. Prepare for life full of gray. Stay away from generalisations and absolutism.”