Published in the Star-Ledger, Friday, July 6, 2007
[Imam Heshaam Jaaber]
Elizabeth loses imam of historic courage
BY JEFF DIAMANT
By Heshaam Jaaber's account, Muslim clergy were not exactly lining up to officiate at Malcolm X's funeral in February 1965. Mosque leaders in the metropolitan area reportedly were warned, anonymously, not to perform rites for the onetime Nation of Islam spokesman.
Into the void stepped Jaaber, then a 34-year-old Elizabeth man of Sudanese descent who was national imam for an Arab Muslim group, the Addeynu Allahu Universal Arabic Association Inc.
A year earlier, Jaaber had helped persuade Malcolm X to leave the Nation of Islam for traditional Sunni Islam, and now he believed it a sacred Islamic duty to help bury another Muslim, regardless of the threats, he wrote in his 1992 book, "I Buried Malcolm."
Jaaber would become a heroic figure in local Muslim communities, also officiating at the 1997 funeral for Malcolm X's widow, Betty Shabazz.
Now area Muslims are mourning Jaaber. He died Saturday night in Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital at Rahway, at age 76, after battling heart and kidney problems for months. His funeral was Tuesday.
He was known as a steady presence in turbulent times. The 1968 report of the Kerner Commission, appointed by President Lyndon B. Johnson to study civil disturbances around the country, including Newark, from the previ ous year, praised Jaaber as an effective peacemaker during near- riot conditions in Elizabeth in 1967.
He also helped found several Sunni mosques and Islamic schools in New Jersey, including the Dar-ul-Islam mosque in Elizabeth in 1993.
His career also extended to the secular realm. He owned a McDonald's franchise in Queens and worked as an insurance agent and as a journalist for Islamic Press International.
Still, it was the funeral of Malcolm X that was viewed by Mus lims in Elizabeth, Newark and nearby cities as the defining moment in Jaaber's life -- even though he rarely talked about it.
"He was more humbled by it," said Hassen Abdellah, a lawyer and president of Dar-ul-Islam. "If you were around him and didn't know, he wouldn't mention it."
About 600 people packed Faith Temple, Church of God in Christ, in Harlem on Feb. 27, 1965, for the funeral of Malcolm X. Thousands listened outside on speakers. The ceremony is known for the eulogy by actor and social activist Ossie Davis, who called the deceased "our own black, shining prince." Jaaber led everyone in prayer.
In his book, he described his feelings when he changed into clerical regalia before the ceremony:
"When I came out of the bal cony, everyone was in awe. A very scary quietness came over the entire place. I very slowly walked to the front of the closed coffin and turned to announce that I was going to perform the Janaza Salat (funeral prayer) and asked all Muslims who had wudu (washed for prayer) to join me. Everyone in the building stood and bowed their heads, Muslims and non-Muslims."
"By Allah's leave, here we were at the threshold of the completion of our task. ... Where the Muslim world had been silent, we had been outspoken. Where the world had been shocked and confused, we had been steadfast and organized. Where all had succumbed to fear and threats, we affirmed our faith in Allah for the world to witness."
Jaaber had come to know Malcolm X around 1961, when the two often sat near each other on the same dais for lectures, said his son Muhammad Jaaber, one of five children of the imam and his wife, Latifah, who also survives.
Jaaber counseled Malcolm X in 1964 to leave the Nation of Islam, a religious organization for black people, which has had a controversial history for its views that white people were the creation of an evil scientist.
Malcolm X then made a pilgrimage to Mecca. As he re counted in his autobiography, he saw Muslims of all races mix there, renounced his race-based views and changed his name to El Hajj Malik El-Shabbazz.
Jaaber "was feeding him a steady diet of Orthodox Islam be fore Malcolm X made pilgrimage," Jaaber's son said. "He was one of those who reminded El Hajj Malik El-Shabbazz there was a contradiction between being a Muslim and saying the white man was the devil."
UP FROM NORTH CAROLINA
Jaaber was born in Union County, N.C., just east of Charlotte, in 1931, to Sudanese-American parents who practiced both Christianity and Islam at home. He married Latifah in 1954 and moved to New Jersey the same year.
Active in the Addeynu Allahu Universal Arabic Association as a young adult, he helped ensure that Sunni Islam had a presence in Elizabeth, doing so with easygoing mannerisms that let him straddle the worlds of competing camps, said Abdellah, the mosque president.
The Kerner Commission report paints a tense scene in Elizabeth on July 17, 1967: broken store windows, fires in trash cans, a Molotov cocktail thrown at a tavern, an unabashed display of police power. Then a community delegation proposed starting a "peacekeeping task force." The mayor agreed.
Jaaber, according to the report, became a peacemaker, traveling in a car with a bullhorn as two dozen of his followers, "in red fezzes, took to the streets to urge order." The report says Jaaber "had witnessed the carnage in Newark and believed it could serve no purpose to have a riot."
Police soon left the area and Elizabeth had no further troubles, the report said.
"Even though he wasn't a member of the Black Panther movement, they respected him," Abdellah said this week. "And he successfully persuaded them that civil disobedience was different than violence."
Jeff Diamant may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (973) 392-1547.
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- Plainfield resident since 1983. Retired as the city's Public Information Officer in 2006; prior to that Community Programs Coordinator for the Plainfield Public Library. Founding member and past president of: Faith, Bricks & Mortar; Residents Supporting Victorian Plainfield; and PCO (the outreach nonprofit of Grace Episcopal Church). Supporter of the Library, Symphony and Historic Society as well as other community groups, and active in Democratic politics.