Why So Many Jazz Musicians Converted to a Heretical Form of Islam

When jazz and drug use were in danger of becoming as closely associated a team as salt and pepper, a movement began of jazz musicians converting to Islam – for Islam, according to John Coltrane biographer C. O. Simpkins, “was a force which directly opposed the deterioration of the mind and body through either spiritual or physical deterrents.”

Islam may have saved many prominent musicians from the “deterioration of mind and body” stemming from drug and alcohol abuse, but paradoxically, many of them joined the Ahmadi sect, which is persecuted by Muslims who consider it heretical.

Jazz artists who became Ahmadi Muslims include pianists Ahmad Jamal and McCoy Tyner (a.k.a. Sulieman Saud); saxophonists Yusef Lateef and Sahib Shihab; and perhaps most notably of all, drummer Art Blakey, who after his conversion styled himself Abdullah Ibn Buhaina. He didn’t use his Muslim name professionally, but it was well known among his musician colleagues, who often called him “Bu.”

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Blakey’s celebrated Jazz Messengers originally evolved out of a mostly-Muslim big band named the Seventeen Messengers, with the word “messenger” itself having a Muslim resonance: Muhammad the messenger of Allah, the musicians as messengers of Islam.

Some of the greatest musicians of the mid-twentieth century passed through the Jazz Messengers, including Johnny Griffin, Freddie Hubbard, Wayne Shorter, Lee Morgan, and many others. But had they booked a tour to play before Abdullah Ibn Buhaina’s Ahmadi brethren, they might have been surprised at how they were received.

This would not be because Blakey and the Jazz Messengers didn’t deliver the goods. They did. No doubt many, many Pakistanis and Indonesians dig bop, and when it comes to the Messengers, there is plenty to dig. Songs like “Moanin’,” “Lester Left Town” and the Jazz Messengers’ take on “A Night in Tunisia” practically define hard bop of the late Fifties and early Sixties; Blakey himself practically invented hard bop drumming.

Nonetheless, the Jazz Messengers might have found themselves less than welcome in some areas of the Muslim world where the most Ahmadis live, precisely because of Blakey’s identification as an Ahmadi, even though Blakey himself appears to have stopped practicing Islam in the late 1950s.

Ahmadi Muslims revere Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (1835-1908) as the promised Muslim messiah and mahdi, a belief that orthodox Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims consider to be a heretical transgression against the Qur’anic principle that Muhammad is the “seal of the prophets” (Qur’an 33:40). They also mostly reject violent jihad.

For these heresies, they’re harassed and violently persecuted. Pakistan’s Express Tribune reported late in March that “local clerics attacked a house belonging to an Ahmadi family in the Kasur district of Punjab on Tuesday and subjected the family members to violence allegedly over their religious belief. … A mob led by a local cleric chanted slogans against Ahmadi families, their religious beliefs and their community before breaking into Mansoor’s house in the Shamsabad area.”

And in Indonesia in early April, authorities shut down a mosque. As most Indonesian authorities are orthodox Sunni Muslims, they generally take a dim view of Ahmadis and are slow (at best) to act to protect them. AFP reported: “In a notorious 2011 case, a lynch mob clubbed, hacked and stoned three Ahmadiyah to death in western Java. The men convicted over the incident received only light prison sentences, provoking international outrage.”

These are just some of the most recent incidents in a long string of maltreatment, bullying, and violence. Ahmadis face this violence because they’re generally seen as Muslim heretics — and so the converts among jazz musicians to the Ahmadi movement would likely have faced discrimination and persecution had they opted to practice their art in a Muslim country.

Islam may have saved at least some of them from “the deterioration of the mind and body” that drugs and alcohol occasion; however, had they dared to travel to, say, Pakistan or Indonesia, they may have needed to be saved from something else altogether: Islam.