Thursday, May 11, 2023

"A Good Word Is Like a Good Tree," The Life of Ahmad Karim

“A good word is like a good tree whose root is firm and whose branches are high in the sky” (Quran 14:24).

Allah gifted our beloved father Ahmad Karim with words. Intelligent, kindhearted, and passionate, he used his speech to encourage excellence in his children and every soul who met him. Whether it was with a brother in the street or a scholar, our father could hold a conversation and would impart a good word.

Ahmad Karim (1947-2023) was a servant of God, a dutiful son of Dr. Harvey and Mrs. Lavada Smith, an affectionate father of four, and a dedicated husband to Jamillah Patricia Karim. To my beloved mother Marjorie Karim, he was grateful that Allah chose her as the sweet soul to raise faithful Muslim children in “the Wilderness of North America.”

The reference to the Nation of Islam is intentional as his sojourn there to Al-Islam epitomizes how my sister Ayisha described my father, "a lover of truth and justice." He was a revolutionary in every sense of the word and his favorite Hadith was, “The ink of the scholar is more precious than the blood of the martyr."

A man of courage whose favorite book was Hajjah Amina Adil’s biography of the Prophet Muhammad , my father had to have fantasized about fighting from the front lines of Badr, but his time was the era of Black Freedom Struggle, his passion was intellect, and his gift was eloquence. An avid reader, he stirred our young hearts and broadened our minds as he regularly introduced us to topics and figures of scholarly interest, from the Moors to Frederick Douglass.  

Morehouse Chapel, 1967, Yearbook Caption: "Protest the unjust! The structure demands that we leave it alone...Offer him resistance militant ones; for without you we shall wilt."

It was the scholarship of W.E.B. DuBois and Frantz Fanon that inspired my father to lead the Black consciousness movement at Morehouse College, where he organized freedom schools, preached from the MLK chapel, and rebelled against white professors. 

He carried this legacy of resistance into his parenting. Dropping us off at summer camp, he gave us change for drinks with the gentle reminder not to buy Coca Cola products because of the company’s support for South Africa's apartheid regime. While my sister and I prepared our Sister Clara Muhammad School uniforms and chants for our annual participation in the MLK parade, my father prepared picket signs for my brothers to carry with slogans like “Down with Zionism.”

Indeed my father’s passion for Islam and Muslims was encompassing. He lived up to his name Ahmad Karim in that he truly cared for the Ummah of Prophet Muhammad ﷺ and displayed immense generosity by embracing everyone into the fold. Reminiscing on his days as Fruit of Islam, he talked about the Honorable Elijah Muhammad with a tender voice, sometimes a tearful eye. His respect for Imam WD Mohammed shone brightly as my father provided me with rare historical accounts, including the day in Chicago when Imam Mohammed gave his imams their new names: from Harvey X to Ahmad Karim, Qur’anic names. 

Imam Ahmad Karim, New Orleans, 1975

On Daddy’s busy sofa would lie a copy of the Final Call, bought from Nation brothers on Ashby St., side by side a newspaper from the immigrant masjid, both informing him of Muslim struggles around the world of which he would inform us. His decision to worship at the immigrant masjid on Fridays in the late 80s further decorated his revolutionary spirit as he began wearing thobes and Palestinian koofiyas. His foreign dress allowed him to resist the status quo without saying a word. And though he would embarrass us to no end when he would wear a thobe to Church when a beloved relative died, he made everyone know that he was still Harvey Smith as he sang Amazing Grace with tears rolling down his eyes.

Finally, my father’s generosity most manifested in how he loved lavishly, especially through praise. My brother Khalil described our father as the "biggest confidence builder in people," always imparting a good word, whether it was about your appearance, your accomplishments, or your character. "When you met with him, you always left more confident." When my brother Sultan surmounted a formidable struggle in his youth, my father reminded him again and again, “You're the strongest man alive.” As for my sister Ayisha and me, there was never an encounter where he didn't tell us we were beautiful, and the compliments grew more sweeter in his later years when he told us that he believed we were among the foremost in the eyes of Allah, alluding to a verse in the Qur’an.

Perhaps this story from Calvin Smith, the son of my father’s first cousin, captures how Ahmad Karim was a man of  “a good word.” Calvin, then a rising junior at Morehouse, had just been dropped off by his mother at the greyhound to attend a summer program at Meharry Medical College in Nashville. He was quite anxious having never taken the greyhound before. Here's the rest of the story in Calvin’s words. 

"We pull up and there by total chance is cousin Ahmad! And when I tell you the nervousness washed away and I was filled with positivity and love. His voice was so calming and as he helped me with my luggage, he imparted some gentle wisdom and put me at ease. I felt as if my father was there in that moment. I went up there and knocked that program out and the rest is history, but I never forgot that send off. I knew that God placed him there for that exact moment."

Indeed, as Allah Ta’alaa states, “A good word is like a good tree whose root is firm and whose branches are high in the sky” (Quran 14:24).

May Ahmad Karim’s good words be like trees whose roots are as firm as Georgia’s enduring oaks, their branches reaching high into the seven skies. And may His reward in the next life be endless like the infinite trees’ branches, roots, leaves, flowers, fruits and seeds. And may Allah, the Most Merciful and Forgiving and Pardoning and Generous and Most Kind, give him more than that. And may the duas and beautiful conduct of his progeny illuminate and expand his grave until he is resurrected in the company of Allah’s Beloved ﷺ and his beloveds. Ameen ya rabbal al-ameen.