On Shaykh Abdul Kerim [1]

July 26, 2012  |  Thoughts

When I first walked up to this building, the first thing I thought about was how I had likely gotten myself lost.

I was a young teenage suburbanite, with little experience driving into the city. As I approached the big metal gates of this obviously commercial building, with a panel of metal buzzing buttons, I thought about turning around and heading to the comforts of home about every second.

It was a Friday night and commuting into the city at this late hour was an epic adventure in attempting to beat hordes of people wanting to party through the Lincoln Tunnel. The outside smelled damp, a New York City odor which one could hardly consider pleasant.

None of these buttons on the wall were even labeled ‘mosque’. Why was this so difficult?

Still, something compelled me.

I was armed with a piece of paper, a printout of an internet board message which announced the zikr at this location. Unfortunately, it left out some key information. So I started buzzing. This was a buzz that sounded quite annoying on my end, I could only hope it was more pleasant on the other side. Doubtful.

Most of my attempts resulted in silence or irritated voices telling me I had the wrong room with no chance to respond. Finally, buzzing one room resulted in a beep coming back without saying a word on the intercom.

I tried speaking to the panel.

“Hello? Is there zikr over here?”

The beep continued. Oh, that beep meant the doors were unlocked!

As I entered past the gates, another big set of doors stood in my way. By the time I had figured out what I needed to do, combined with my wasted time talking to a metal panel in a wall, this set was now locked again.

Oh well, back to the panel I went.

Buzz! Buzz! Beeeeeep!

Finally getting through I stepped on a metal floor board towards elevators. I hit the third floor button and I heard chanting as the doors opened. If it wasn’t for the chanting, the unidentified smell told me that this was the right place. I don’t think I had ever smelled incense before, at least I had never identified it as such, but there is something in the scent which screams spirituality, even to those who do not know its source.

This suited me fine as I had come looking for a spiritual experience. Looking for people of faith as a means to better understand my faith, a faith which I held dear to my heart. Previous attempts in my life to be with religious folk had resulted in my realization that I had obvious differences in approach and commitment. These past attempts led me to understand there were differences that would always leave me, ultimately, spiritually unfulfilled.

So, I was looking, like most seekers I think, for answers. Adding to the complexity was the fact that I was looking for answers to questions I was not totally aware of.

And when I entered, I saw *him*.

Oh, I was a little stunned because I had met him before. At the conference in DC, and at some houses in NJ, and even notably at a college event I had help organize, I had always noted *him*.

At all locations I had encountered him, he was at the forefront of all the activities, in the well-respected seats and positions, next to the elderly famous Shaykh visiting from overseas whose visit had precipitated my attendance.

Dressed in flowing clothes, a long dark beard, an exquisitely tied turban, he was physically a man who existed outside of time. He clearly belonged to a different age, an age which I didn’t really understand.

Sure, a few others were dressed in similar garb, but none of them carried it in the way he did. On some it was clearly a get-up which they put on for certain nights, on others it was something they were well versed in, but on him all the differences from Western garb seemed as natural as a second skin.

He was those differences and to him we were the odd ones.

During my encounters in those times, he was very serious. His gaze would see right through me, and this, combined with his build and dress made him an impossibly imposing figure. I think the best way to describe it is that, when I first saw him on those various occasions, I felt as if I was in the presence of an ancient warrior.  

Shaykh Abdul Kerim in the late 90′s standing behind Aslan Mashkadov,
Chechan President and Shaykh Maulana Nazim

Common sense dictated that when in the presence of an ancient warrior, one does not just approach them and say “Hi, what is your name?”. I wasn’t armed with the protocol and manners to know what to do, but I knew enough to know that I didn’t know. I would go home and think about how I would approach him the next time I would encounter him.

No solution ever came to me.

So the distance remained, but the admiration continued from afar, until the day I walked into that commercial building.

I was slightly overwhelmed. Here was this man whom I had been tremendously afraid to approach, leading a group of men and women in zikr, combined with a dizzying combination of a new smell, the aural sensation of the chanting, and the visuality that was present in the darkened room with a small colored red light.

I shook off the overwhelming feelings and I looked to find a place to join in.

During the zikr he began to recite something in the most beautiful but deep tones. The words he was using sounded unfamiliar. This was the first zikr in which I heard such an accompaniment. It was eerily beautiful, a hint of tragic loss while at the same time being celebratory and somewhat victorious, and ultimately, quite easy to get lost in.

As certain parts ended, his voice shot through the room in a way that made it very clear that we were moving on to the next part of the zikr.

When the zikr was over, and he was back into conversational tones, I came to hear his natural voice more. It was so different than any voice I had heard before. I had trouble understanding how it was possible to be so deep, but at the same time have such a complete control over melody. This was a control that he demonstrated with absolute ease during the zikr.

The command over English was complete yet an accent remained, but it was an accent unlike any that I had heard before, and I had met Arabs, Turks, Indians, Asians and many others in my short lifetime.

Again, here was a man out of time.

That day I learned he smiled. He laughed. He joked. He was charming.

I was having even more trouble reconciling the image I had embedded in my mind, which was one of a warrior personae, to a man who sang and eventually smiled and joked quite a lot.

A charming warrior?

This was only the beginning of the odd contradictions that I would encounter. These were not contradictions in the man, but in my presumptions about people in general, about the Prophet (AS) and the faith he brought.

Little did I know, this was just the beginning of my introduction to a man whose life experience and every day lifestyle easily tore through the inadequate term, “Renaissance man”. I would eventually realize the only term that would fit him is “Ottoman man”.

Finally, I asked someone present, who was this remarkable Shaykh? They replied:

“Oh! This is Shaykh Abdul Kerim, of course.”


5 Comments


  1. Excellent! Well done, Mash’Allah!

  2. Salaam alaykum wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuhu!

    Brother, please continue this if you can.

  3. Saddened to hear about Shaykh’s passing away.

    He seemed to be not that old. How did the respected Shaykh pass away?

  4. BismillahirRahmanirRaheem,

    MashaAllah SubhanAllah

  5. i cried reading this

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