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John Coltrane and Bilal Philips: Two Converts’ Paths

After this acknowledgment, Coltrane continued, “as time and events moved on, a period of irresolution did prevail. I entered into a phase which was contradictory to the pledge and away from the esteemed path; but thankfully, now and again through the unerring and merciful hand of God, I do perceive and have been duly re-informed of His OMNIPOTENCE, and of our need for, and dependence on Him. At this time I would like to tell you that NO MATTER WHAT…IT IS WITH GOD. HE IS GRACIOUS AND MERCIFUL. HIS WAY IS IN LOVE, THROUGH WHICH WE ALL ARE. IT IS TRULY—A LOVE SUPREME--.” His conversion was not to a particular religion or creed, but it was a conversion nonetheless, heartfelt and unmistakable.

Several years after Coltrane wrote that, a young Canadian named Dennis Phillips moved with his parents to the Malaysian state of Sabah, where his parents were teaching and acting as advisers to the ministry of education. Dennis, a guitarist, began playing publicly and won some note as “the Jimi Hendrix of Sabah.” But soon Dennis’s parents decided that the aspiring young guitarist was too distracted in Malaysia, and sent him back to Canada. He entered Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, where he continued playing guitar professionally.

But dissatisfaction gnawed at him. He embarked on a search for meaning in life that led him to explore Hinduism, Buddhism, Communism, the Black Panthers, the Black Muslims, and finally orthodox Sunni Islam. He became a Muslim in 1972 and took the name Bilal. His resolution to follow the Straight Path led him to give up music. He later explained about his guitar playing that “when I became a Muslim, I felt uncomfortable doing this and gave it up both professionally and privately.”