John Coltrane and Bilal Philips: Two Converts’ Paths

Jazz and Islam, Part V

John Coltrane and Bilal Philips: two musicians, one famous, the other obscure, but both men who in the course of their lives found themselves at an absolute impasse and underwent a dramatic conversion. And in those conversions, they chose two radically different paths for life and society.

Coltrane changed the sound of the tenor saxophone. When he arrived on the scene, tenor players tried to sound like Stan Getz or Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young or Ben Webster. Coltrane did not, and was at first even derided for the clear, sharp intensity of his tone. After his career and untimely death, however, virtually everyone who has taken up the instrument has tried to sound like John Coltrane.

But an arguably even greater change that John Coltrane made was within himself. In the first rush of success, he was caught up in the jazz musicians’ culture of the 1940s and 1950s, began drinking heavily, and became addicted to heroin. But then, as he recounted later: “During the year 1957, I experienced, by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening which was to lead me to a richer, fuller, more productive life.”

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.”

He did so because he believed music to be incompatible with his commitment to Islam. Philips wrote this in his book Contemporary Issues: “A heart filled with music will not have room for God’s words.”

Philips said that Islam allowed for “folk songs with acceptable content sung by males or females under the age of puberty accompanied by a hand drum.” However, “wind and stringed instruments have been banned because of their captivating power. Their notes and chords evoke strong emotional attachments. For many, music becomes a source of solace and hope instead of God. When they are down, music brings them up temporarily, like a drug. The Koran, the words of God filled with guidance, should play that role.”

John Coltrane, who knew a great deal about the captivating power of wind instruments, had a very different vision of the relationship between God and music. Of his 1957 resolution to turn his life around, he wrote: “At that time, in gratitude, I humbly asked to be given the means and privilege to make others happy through music. I feel this has been granted through His grace. ALL PRAISE TO GOD.”

Coltrane’s 1964 album-length suite A Love Supreme was part of his pursuance of this vision. He explained: “This album is a humble offering to Him. An attempt to say ‘THANK YOU GOD’ through our work, even as we do in our hearts and with our tongues. May He help and strengthen all men in every good endeavor…May we never forget that in the sunshine of our lives, through the storm and after the rain—it is all with God—in all ways forever.”

A Love Supreme, a work of passion, intensity, fervor, grace, and nobility, is a map of the spiritual journey in four parts: “Acknowledgment,” the recognition of the need for a change in one’s life; “Resolution,” the decision to make that change; “Pursuance,” the effort to follow the new path; and “Psalm,” the attainment of peace and gratitude to God for it. It is a seminal work of modal jazz, a masterpiece of improvisation, and a searching, stirring, soaring, spiritual document. John Coltrane died at age forty, less than three years after completing it. To this day, although both before and after A Love Supreme he made a great deal more music that approached its quality, it has endured as his monumental achievement.

Bilal Philips still lives. He has gained controversy for advocating death for homosexuals. According to the National Post, he also “defends child marriages, wife beating, polygamy and killing apostates."

But as far as Bilal Philips is concerned, his heart is clean and pure, for death for homosexuals and apostates, the beating of disobedient women, child marriage, and polygamy are all in accord with Islamic law, and thus pleasing to Allah. He no longer sullies his soul with the seductive sounds of wind and string instruments.

Which conversion – that of John Coltrane or that of Bilal Philips – bore more fruit, for the convert himself, and for those around him, and for society as a whole?