By Leila Fadel
On a recent night in Chicago, a Muslim preacher sits on the floor in the center of an ethnically mixed and mostly young group of men and women. Around him, a drum circle sings praises of the Islamic prophet, Muhammad.
Mint tea is served on gold trays. A man with a hipster beard circulates an incense burner. A musky, wood scent fills the air.
And Usama Canon begins to teach.
“If you find yourself religious but your religiosity has led you to be unkind or to be less then loving or less then patient, then you’re doing something wrong,” he says.
Canon, 40, gives off a laid-back, West Coast vibe. He wears a beanie and prayer beads wrapped around his right wrist like a thick bracelet. He is the founding director of this place, the Ta’leef Collective, with campuses in Fremont, Ca. and Chicago. In Arabic the name means “the coming together of many things.”
The Ta’leef Collective was envisioned as a “third place” between the mosque and home to provide Muslims, especially young or new Muslims, a space to explore their faith outside the confines of the traditional mosque. The nonprofit is part lecture hall, part gathering space, and part sanctuary.
Participants ranging from former inmates to searching youths say Usama Canon’s teachings have helped them understand Islam in their everyday lives. Those lessons feel essential to his students at a time of growing hostility toward the religion, which has more than 3.45 million U.S. adherents.
So when Canon was diagnosed with the degenerative neurological disease ALS in the fall of 2017, the news devastated Muslim communities all over the world, which hold Canon up as a pioneer. They call him Ustadh, “Teacher” in Arabic.
He was diagnosed after noticing a change in his singing voice, when reciting Quran or singing hymns. It was deeper, slurred.
His first thoughts went to his five children, who range in age from toddler to teenager, and his wife. He may never see his kids marry. Most people with ALS, often called Lou Gehrig’s Disease, survive between three and five years after their diagnosis.
And then he watched his friends and students digest the news. “It was almost like being a ghost in the room,” he says. “I felt like saying, ‘Hey I’m not dead yet, dude. I’m right here. Why are we pre-mourning?’ ”
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