In “Zanzibar to Chicago, a Bohra Muslim’s Search for God” Dr. Fakruddin Muhammedali Adamji weaves his journey from his native African island to the suburbs of Chicago into the story of his sojourn from Islam.
From the age of 6, he knew he wanted to become a doctor, but political troubles in Africa tangled his way to the United States. The 1964 coup that occurred shortly after Zanzibar became independent essentially drove out its Indian and Arab population. “Africa belongs to Africans, we were told, and we were not Africans. Indians should go back to India, they claimed, but many of us had never set foot in India. … We departed quietly, anxiously and fearfully …” The new government barred its citizens from accepting “help” – in this case a scholarship to study in the United States – from foreign countries. Dr. Adamji went to work in Tanzania, working in hospitals in Kigoma and Ujiji.
He arrived in the United States on July 4, 1971, and soon began work at Gottlieb
Memorial Hospital in Maywood. He was assigned “scut” work because he had arrived a year too early for the promised internship. He shortly found a position at Illinois Masonic Hospital, where he practiced medicine and where he met a social worker, Mary Daley. They married, moved to Evanston and raised their family of three children.
In simple and direct prose, Dr. Adamji tells of his early life in Zanzibar, growing up in the Guajarati section Stone Town, among other immigrants from northwest India. Religious practices – calls to prayer, morning ablutions and traditional garb – permeated the day for the devout families of Bohra Muslims, a sect of Shia.
He grew away from Islam and began to see his early upbringing as having more form than content. Boys and girls were taught how to recite prayers from Al Qur’an (the Koran) but were not taught the Arabic language so as to understand the meaning of those prayers. As an adult, he found “praying, repeating rituals almost thoughtlessly, without understanding, had become unrewarding.”
The Catholic organization Call to Action, with its aspects of social justice and liberation theology, next drew Dr. Adamji. His brother-in-law, Dan Daley, was deeply involved in this. Dr. Adamji said he read the Bible from his heart rather than with his head. He writes, “Suddenly and surprisingly, my old god of Zanzibar resurfaced in my life, dressed in Christian clothes.”
Eventually he was drawn to Buddhism and through that, to a syncretism that took him back to Islam as embodying the great tenets of spirituality.
Dr. Adamji ends his book with comparisons of passages from the Bhagavad Gita to passages from Al Qur’an: “On the concept of “God as light … Chapter 11, Text 13 of the Gita, Krishna says: ‘If hundreds of thousands of suns rose up at once into the sky, they might resemble the effulgence of the Supreme Person in that universal form.’
“In Al Qur’an, in Chapter 24, verse 35, it is written: ‘God is the Light of the heavens and the earth. The parable of His Light is a niche in which there is a lamp. The lamp is glass. The glass is as if it had been a glittering star Kindled from a blessed olive tree, Neither eastern nor western, whose oil of the olive is about to illuminate although no fire touches it.’”
In today’s politically charged atmosphere, where xenophobia and anti-Muslim sentiment are rising frightfully, “Zanzibar to Chicago” is a quiet book about a spiritual journey. Dr. Adamji’s temporary rejection of Islam brought him to a deeper understanding not just of its pillars but of the universal truths and mandates of other religions.
The book is available on amazon.com.