Nearing the end of his world tour in support of his album All the Beauty in This Whole Life, I sat down with Brother Ali as he was preparing for his performance in Amsterdam. What was supposed to be a short conversation about his album and tour quickly spiraled into an in-depth interview about philosophy, history, religion, and how all those subjects are reflected in his latest album.
It was a conversation with a man unafraid to ask big questions.
“It goes up and down,” Brother Ali answers when asked whether he had much trouble getting across the Atlantic. The question is more than just politeness since on “Uncle Usi Taught Me,” one of the standout tracks from All the Beauty, he details how U.S. Customs once put him through the wringer because national security flagged him as a ‘4S’. A 5S classification supposedly means “you’ll never be able to fly again." [Editor's Note: Brother Ali is referring to Secondary Security Screening Selection (SSSS), which forces airline passengers to undergo additional inspection.]
“There’s times I’m a 4S and times I’m a 3S,” he states matter-of-factly. “A 3 means they track me and always search my bag, but that’s okay—I mean, I shouldn’t have any S at all; I’ve never committed a crime, they’ve never suspected me of a crime. If you’ve never been suspected of a crime or have perpetrated one, you should be able to move freely. But just because of the fact…” He breaks for a sigh. “…I travel a lot and speak to a lot of people, being a Muslim and knowing a lot of Muslim leaders and teachers. But the people I’m in touch with, are not the people that are associated with the extremist groups. Like you see in Egypt, the extremist groups just targeted Muslims.”
He’s referring to a recent attack on a mosque where at least 305 people were murdered, the deadliest terrorist attack in Egypt’s history. The victims were described as Sufi Muslims, which hits closer to home for Ali. “The extremists would call my teachers and my community Sufi as well,” he explains, though he says the term itself can be confusing. “It means a lot of different things, and real Sufis would never calm themselves Sufi. It’s the ultimate pinnacle of being humble, so somebody that was that would never say that’s what they are.”
It’s a disturbing irony for Brother Ali that, as an American Muslim, his own government is lumping him in with the same violent extremists that would call him a heretic. “The modern Islam is the one that has caused all these problems,” he says. “In the Islamic tradition, for 1200 of the 1400 years that this religion has existed, different scholars had different interpretations of things. They understood there were going to be different methodologies for rulings, and as long as your methodology was valid, your ruling was valid. There were many different ways of understanding and interpreting Islam.
“Extremism, this particular type that says there is only one Islam, is a modern creation. The idea that the scholars would be in cooperation with politicians, that was never the case until very recently. The leading scholars, for the first generation after the prophet Muhammad—peace be upon him—were the khalifas. Those were the religious and political leaders. But there were only four of those, and some would say five. The prophet even said that after he’d pass away, the political leaders will just be political leaders, they won’t be religious people anymore. And that’s been the case.
“But when Saudi Arabia was just Arabia, the Saud family were governors of this little region called Najd that’s not that important, and they made an alliance with this group called the Wahabis. Ibn Abdul Wahhab was their religious leader and said, ‘There’s only one Islam and it’s ours, all the others are heretics.’ The US and the British backed that coalition so that they could overthrow the Ottoman empire.”
According to Brother Ali, Sufism wasn’t seen as a sect within Islam up until then, but a central part of the religion itself: “Within the religion of Islam, you have the outward code for how to live life, what they call the Shariah. And then there was the theology, the inner dimension of it, the spirituality of it, the heart. Basically, ‘How do I get my heart right? How do I make it easy to love? Make it easy to forgive? How do I get jealousy and judgment of other people, how do I get all the bad things out of my heart?’ Now when they report about it, they say it’s the ‘mystical teachings’ and it sounds like someone is going to fly. It’s not that.”
“I would say that if we don’t demand such a specific definition of God, then maybe we don’t have to have that part of the conversation.”
Brother Ali is soft-spoken, calmly weighing his words to be as clear as possible about these subjects. Sufism may not the mystical force the modern press describes it to be, but there certainly is a mesmerizing quality to the friendly tone in Brother Ali’s voice. He refers to the teachers of the tradition he follows as “the people of the inner reality.” People that have an interpretation of Islam which leaves room for exactly that: interpretation. These individuals invite searching for answers, personal growth, and discussion. That being said, Ali stresses their culture is not a purely pacifist one. “They’d never initiate a conflict,” he says, “But they’ll defend the vulnerable. So they are warriors, they just don’t fight for themselves. They’re deadly, though, when you’re oppressing vulnerable people.”
But defending the oppressed is a value shared across cultures, he notes. “There’s nobody who doesn’t believe in that. None of the people that I know. Like some of my dearest, closest friends that are atheists; the longer we talk about things, the less married we are to our words and cognitive frames. You realize we’re in a similar place.” When asked whether that doesn’t mean that it’s possible to be a moral person without believing in God, he takes a moment to collect his thoughts. “I know what you mean and I don’t have any problem with that,” he responds. “I would say that if we don’t demand such a specific definition of God, then maybe we don’t have to have that part of the conversation.”
“This is a very old conversation that we won't settle,” he notes with a good-natured smile, as he proceeds to give his own outlook on the age-old debate. “To say that if the majority of ethics overlap, throughout people and throughout time, then where is that pull coming from? It’s not something from the seen world. It’s something from the unseen world of meaning, that pulls people towards certain ethics. That if someone is more vulnerable, you should protect them. Or that our parents are better than us, and should be respected.”
His solution to many modern issues would be a revaluation of older traditions. “If you think about what our great-grandparents knew; they knew how to raise animals, they knew how to build their own homes, they knew how to make fire in rain, they knew how to raise crops, they knew how to make their own clothes, they knew everything.” That’s indeed a far cry from the modern field of knowledge for the most of us, Brother Ali himself included. “If the truck didn’t bring food to the supermarket, I would die," he admits. "In a week."
“So, I rap. I don’t know if you knew that,” he jokes after we’ve been debating spirituality and world history for large parts of the afternoon. Many of those topics are reflected in All the Beauty in This Whole Life as well though. An album that, despite dealing with many of the problems plaguing an increasingly polarized society, contains a lot of warmth and introspection, rather than anger and frustration.
"We’ve built all this great science, and we use it to destroy ourselves, and the world."
“I don’t think there’s a shortage of anger; other people can do anger very well. We have a lot of pain and when we don’t know what to do with that pain, then it leads to anger. I feel like anger is displaced sadness. Anger is when we want to find someone to blame for our sadness,” he says. “The Sufis say anger is like a hunting dog; you have to really train it. A hunting dog can go and get birds for you, but they’re strong and could devour the bird. If you don’t train them, they’ll destroy the very thing they could get for you.
“That’s how anger is too. Anger in the right context can become courage. But I think we have a lot of unchecked and misdirected anger, and the people in power often use their propaganda to turn us against each other. On the right and the left. Even though the left, growing up, speaks to me the most. ‘Cause I’ve never had money, you know. The left speaks to me. But it’s still a creation of the people in power. It’s an extension of the modern world. It’s not the answer. At one point I thought it was, but I don’t think that anymore.”
It’s a surprising statement coming from a rapper who has been politically outspoken throughout his career. “I think that trying to find a more natural and organic way of living would be better than either the modern left or right,” Ali ponders aloud. “I was spending so much time in community organization and political activism, to build power and wanting to exert power. What I realized was, we need to relearn how life should be lived, and recalibrate our hearts. We’re so tuned and shaped and molded by the modern world, by the system that we have, that if we were to take power, we would probably emulate them. It would just be us doing it instead of somebody else. Is it a win for me to become an oppressor? That’s not winning, to me.
“Power and science give us the ability to do what we want. But that doesn’t fix what we want. We’ve built all this great science, and we use it to destroy ourselves, and the world. I love science, I think it can be good, but right now, what we desire as a species is to kill each other, and make money in ways that destroy the planet.”
So what do we as a society need to do to get back on track? Brother Ali doesn’t claim to have all the answers, but he’s happy to invite you along in his search for them: “All I know is what I’m doing. I hope it’s helping.”