Two weeks after his senior prom at age 19, Adeyinka Muhammad Mendes, who had been raised as a Christian, decided he would convert to Islam, influenced by time he spent in synagogues and mosques during a trip to Israel.
Mendes says his trip to the Middle East kindled a love for monotheism and a sense of the “absolute oneness of the Divine.”
“When I say ‘the Divine’ I mean the God who is known by many names in many cultures and many religions,” he adds.
“I am not thinking of Superman or an old man with a white beard on a throne sitting in a cloud,” he says. “I’m talking about the divine reality that reveals itself through Scripture, through nature, through history and through each and every one of us.”
In August, Mendes became the imam at the Institute of Islamic Studies, which is building a new mosque on Old Trenton Road. Mendes says IIS is targeting completion of the building by the end of this year.
The imam, a resident of West Windsor, brings with him life experiences and religious studies from throughout the world.
His intercultural experiences started at birth, with a Nigerian father who immigrated to the United States in the 1960s, eventually graduating from Howard University College of Medicine, and a mother born in Louisiana and raised in Houston, who graduated from Howard’s School of Law.
Mendes’s father, who died in 2004, was a general practitioner who did family medicine and a little surgery. His mother has worked for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for decades as a discrimination attorney and is getting ready to retire.
Mendes himself was born in Dayton, Ohio, and then moved with his parents and two brothers, one older, one younger, to Cincinnati when he was 2. By the time Mendes was 6, his father, who had at that point been in the United States for 20 years and was a citizen, decided he wanted his children to know and appreciate his people and his culture, and they moved to Nigeria.
“We always had African and Nigerian art, clothing and history and language books around the house—but he wanted us to be immersed,” Mendes says. And, equally important, “he wanted to help his people with what he gained here.”
Nigeria is split 50 percent Muslim, 40 percent Christian and 10 percent ancestral nature-based religions.
“Growing up in Africa helped me to appreciate the diversity of human beings; it has 300 ethnic groups, and each has its own language, food and cosmology,” says Mendes, who was raised as a Christian.
He was also exposed to extreme social and economic distinctions. “I got to see a lot of wealth and at the same time there was this contrast of destitution and poverty, almost side by side, a real economic disparity,” he says.
Nature was also central to his Nigerian experience. “The beautiful thing about Africa is that there are no natural disasters—no tornados, no hurricanes, no earthquakes,” he says. And they lived right near the Atlantic Ocean. “The nature, the ocean, would greet us every morning.”
For kindergarten in the United States, Mendes had attended public school. In Nigeria he went first to a Catholic school and then to a private nonaffiliated school under the University of Lagos.
His Nigerian education differed drastically from what he found when his family moved back to Houston after seventh grade. Mendes said Nigerian students don’t take education for granted.
“Everyone was serious about doing well in school because getting into college or university is not guaranteed; you really had to prove yourself,” he said. Coming back to the United States was a real shock. “I didn’t see a real appreciation for education, even among children who were in honors classes. School was seen as something you do to get a good job.”
Both in school and in film, music and popular culture, he was surprised by the lack of respect for parents and elders, and it took him several years to adjust. But there were also things he loved about American education—“the creativity, the spontaneity and the technological advances that I saw in the classroom.”
Mendes attended Mirabeaux B. Lamar High School, in a well-to-do neighborhood “like the West Windsor of Houston,” he says. It was very diverse, with people from every ethnic group—but it was still very stratified. At lunchtime, students of European and Asian descent would eat on the front lawn, and black and Hispanic students in the cafeteria.
Although in Nigeria he had viewed himself as an African American, which was how his Nigerian friends identified him, he says, “When I came back from Nigeria, I was not an American, I was the Nigerian.” And that evoked “really racist comments” about Nigerians, like “Do they wear clothes? Do they have cars? Do they swing from trees?”
By contrast, in Nigeria, he says, “there’s no race consciousness. Race is not an issue; everyone there is brown. What matters is your ethnic group or your nationality.”
In America, he says, “this false social construct of color and race” that one encounters when filling out any application “is part of what makes our society our society. That shaped me, but I never fully accepted it. I ultimately rejected looking at people in terms of race.”
Even embracing Islam, he says, “had a lot to do with me coming to reject looking at people in terms of racial categories. I still like to look at people in terms of ethnic diversity; they have an ancestry, culture and traditions.”
The trip to Israel that helped Mendes make the decision to convert to Islam happened after his junior year in high school. It was an internship jointly sponsored by the American Jewish Committee and the Mickey Leland Kibbutzim Internship Foundation where students delved into the cultural, religious, and political landscape; studied history; and spent time on an Israeli kibbutz.
The first week students were placed with a Jewish or an Arab family, and Mendes stayed with a Jewish family in Haifa. The next three weeks he lived at Kibbutz Retamim, where he worked on the farm and in the chicken house.
The last few weeks they toured Israel, visiting sacred sites, snorkeling in the Red Sea, going to the Knesset (parliament), hiking, climbing Massada and learning about its history and “what it meant to the Jewish people.”
The trip was an important learning experience for Mendes. For one thing, it sparked a love for history, “walking on cobblestones over 2,000 years old.”
He also met people from all over the world. Particularly significant for Mendes was the exposure to people from different religions, even some he had never heard of, like Bahai and Druse. “It changed me completely and caused an existential crisis,” he says.
As a Christian, he had been comfortable in his faith, but, he says, “I was meeting people in other religions who were more comfortable, full of more conviction and more certainty.”
All of this raised questions for the thoughtful teenager: What is truth and how do we recognize it? Is there an ultimate truth? Is truth relative or absolute?
“Jerusalem particularly changed my life,” he continues, remembering walks in the Old City’s Jewish, Christian, Armenian,and Muslim quarters. When he visited the Dome of the Rock, he says he felt “a tranquility, a resonance.”
The trip’s participants went on a mini-tour after their return to talk in synagogues and churches about their trip to Israel. “We were meeting different people, hearing their concerns and I became a lot more concerned and involved in the Israel-Palestine conflict, being more aware of the history, the nuances, the different versions of history,” he says. “I can’t take sides because truth never takes a side; and I hope to be in service to truth.”
“I was a different person when I went back to the States,” he says, citing his increasing commitment to justice, to African American and white American racial reconciliation and to environmental issues—sparked by the beauty of night hikes in the Negev under the full moon.
“Spirituality became more a part of my life,” he says. He started meditating and “studying the Bible voraciously looking for answers to my existential questions; studying Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, Taoism—I read everything I could get my hands on; I was searching.”
He also reread The Autobiography of Malcolm X, a book he says every American should read. “It tells the story of the triumph and tragedy of being an American through this man’s life,” he says.
Mendes said he decided to convert to Islam at the end of his senior year of high school, because he “felt called to a path to God that united human beings without favoring any ethnic group over another, black over white, Jew over gentile, gentile over Jew, believer over infidel, or atheist over believer.”
That summer, he did a YWCA internship in Jordan working in a summer camp for Palestinian orphans—children whose fathers and uncles had been killed in the war with the Israeli Defense Forces.
He then went to Morehouse College, where he studied history and planned to become a lawyer. After two years he realized that “all I wanted to do was go to Sudan and live in the desert and study and be with mystics and scholars.” So he transferred to Ohio State University to major in Arabic language and culture and Near Eastern studies. There he fell in love with classical Islamic scholarship and after two years was able to read, write and speak Arabic fluently.
In 1999, he met his wife, Rukayat Yakub, at a conference in Leicester, England, and they married in 2001. She was raised Muslim by two Nigerian parents in London and Nigeria, similarly to Mendes.
Also in 1999, Mendes went to study at a seminary in Damascus, Syria. “My takeaway from Syria was that I didn’t know anything,” he says. “It was very humbling. I met men and women who had devoted their entire lives to spirituality, scholarship and service to humanity.”
Although Americans know a bit about the world, he says, “I went to this other space where people knew a lot about the soul, the spirit. Damascus is oldest continuously lived in city in the world and, like Jerusalem, the history there was humbling.”
Next he went to study in Mauritania, living in the Sahara Desert with Bedouin Arabs who were scholars and had memorized the entire Koran. The students lived in tents made out of old clothes, though the professors had slightly higher accommodations—their tents were made out of camel hair, which kept them warm in the winter.
He spent a little under five months there, studying classical Arabic and sacred law and ethics. “It was profound, the nature, the night sky was glorious,” he says. “The people were so generous, complete strangers who take you in and give you everything; they don’t hold back at all, and that really affected me.”
For many seminarians, a month in Mauritania is like a year anywhere else because there are no distractions, the environment is so pristine and natural, and you are in the elements, among scorpions and wildcats. “You are facing your fears and pushing yourself to the limit every day,” Mendes says.
For example, one day a fellow student had been stung by a scorpion and was shaking uncontrollably in excruciating pain, and he had to just wait out the 10 or so hours until his body stopped reacting. Another night he spotted a scorpion in the tent he was sharing with two others and it scurried away. After searching frantically but unsuccessfully for it, he says, “I said a prayer and turned off the lights and went to bed, hoping I wouldn’t get stung in the head.”
That, he says, exemplified having to “face your fears” and “putting your faith into practice with regard to the natural world.”
His next stop was Nigeria, where he studied advanced Muslim civil and criminal law and ethics, Arabic and theology/spirituality. He visited at a time of political upheaval, when certain political movements wanted to make Sharia, or Muslim law, a part of the legal code.
In fact, Sharia had always been part of Nigerian society until British colonialism stripped the criminal code of Islamic influence, except for civil cases like marriage and divorce, and replaced it with British common law. During this struggle, he says, many people died in a huge riot, and politicians on all sides were using the issue for political gain.
Violence involving Yoruba nationalists (a Nigerian ethnic group), resentful of how they had been treated by other ethnic groups and ignored by the federal government, also touched Mendes. Dressed in traditional Muslim gear, he was heading to his father’s on a 10-hour bus ride for a surprise birthday visit. Yorubas were stopping buses, pulling off non-Yorubas and killing them.
Luckily his bus wasn’t stopped, because although his father was Yoruba, Mendes says he did not look Yoruba to many Yorubas and he could have been murdered.
“It was another lesson in how violence, bigotry and intolerance is an unacceptable route for us to take as human beings. When I came back, it really affected the way I articulated Islam, as nonviolent, nonmisogynistic, and for the environment,” he says.
He and his wife married about six months after his return from Nigeria, in late 2001. Since meeting in Great Britain, they had kept in touch when they could, but both were sometimes unreachable.
‘Whether you walk in wearing jeans or a face veil, you are welcome and you are appreciated—that’s the kind of environment I want to foster.’
Separately from him, she had pursued a traditional classical education in Syria and Mauritania, where she studied with a famous Bedouin sheikh in a village close to the capital. The sheikh had versified one of the most advanced Islamic law books to make it easier for students to memorize. In a traditional Muslim seminary, Mendes explains, “you’re not just studying texts; you’re memorizing your textbooks.”
He started out teaching history and Arabic in Houston public schools, but then moved to a Muslim private school looking for someone to design their Arabic and Islamic studies curricula.
A year later an old friend invited him to move to Pittsburgh to work in a research institute that specialized in the collection, preservation, collation, translation and publication of ancient Arabic manuscripts, where he worked part time.
Scholars suggest that about 20 million manuscripts are extant throughout Africa, some dating back 900 to 1000 years, with subjects ranging from law and ethics to astronomy, logic, philosophy, history, photography, medicine, ethnobotany, optics and architecture.
These manuscripts “had their own lineage of learning, he says, explaining that “the history of Islam in black Africa goes back to the very beginning.”
When the Arabs in Mecca were trying to kill Muhammad’s followers, Africa, and particularly eastern Africa, embraced the fleeing Muslims. The manuscripts, therefore, attested not only to this history but, he says, they “debunk the myth that Africa doesn’t have a history, that Africans are illiterate and never contributed anything of magnitude or significance to human knowledge.”
In Pittsburgh he also taught core academic subjects at a private school. During this period, he says, “I began to be regarded as a Muslim teacher, and I was becoming more nationally known as an instructor in difference Islamic sciences (so called, because the root of “science” is “to know”): philosophy, jurisprudence and spirituality.”
At the same time, he adds, “I had no intention ever of becoming an imam; in fact, I ran away from being an imam most of my adult life.” Although he had immediately received offers to be an imam or an assistant imam on his return from Nigeria, he says, “I wanted to work a regular job, or start a business, and teach a few friends on the weekend.”
After three years in Pittsburgh, an experience and an offer pulled him south to Atlanta.
The experience was a post-9/11 FBI raid—on false premises—at the mosque he was involved in building. This was documented in the film The New Muslim Cool, about the life of his friend, Puerto Rican-American rapper Hamza Pérez, who embraced Islam as a young man. Mendes, who was interviewed by the press after the raid, had two cameos in the film.
Then his old mentor—Muhammad Mahdi, an American Muslim pharmacist originally from Chicago who taught Mendes to read and recite the Koran in Arabic while he was at Morehouse—encourage him to come to Atlanta, where he was involved in a number of promising business projects; Mendes had already worked for him at a distance in Pittsburgh.
After about six months in Atlanta, he started getting teaching requests and ended up teaching part time for eight years at Risala Institute. At the same time he was working full time in business-to-business sales and became a successful sales executive.
Things changed, though, when he was 35 and had been in Atlanta for four years. He had an encounter with an Islamic scholar, he says, “who was able to show me that there was more to life and more to Islam than I thought.” This prompted a change in Mendes’s thinking that opened him to the idea of becoming an imam.
Then new kinds of doors started opening to Mendes. He started speaking nationally and internationally and also “engaging different religious communities, Buddhist, Christian, Jewish, and working to serve as a bridge.”
In 2010 he left his job in corporate sales and became an imam at Masjid Al-Momineen, the Mosque of the Faithful, in Clarkston, Georgia, near Stone Mountain. It was predominantly Somali, with many survivors from the civil war, but on Fridays, he says, the congregation was “like the UN.”
“Clarkston is the most diverse square mile in the U.S.; 60 different languages are spoken,” he says, explaining that “being Muslim is not an Arab thing; unfortunately the media has done a poor job of helping people see that Muslims are among the most diverse of religions, with all shapes, sizes and ethnic groups.”
While an imam, he was working two other jobs, teaching in a private school and teaching Arabic for a national organization in Atlanta and other cities.
He left the Clarkston mosque because, he says, “it really wasn’t a good fit. I really wanted to be at place where I could cultivate the kind of atmosphere that Americans would be comfortable in.”
If he had stayed, he says, it could have taken 20 years to cultivate “what he would have liked to see.” Also, he adds, “I have four daughters, and I need to be in a mosque where my daughters are respected, empowered, and appreciated.”
He moved next to the Medina Institute Mosque, which started in Norcross, Georgia, then moved to Duluth. He was imam and shared with the resident scholar, he says, “a message of Islam that is peaceful, that is loving, caring, for the oppressor and the oppressed.” The mosque grew quickly and in a year “went from opening its doors to busting at the seams.” The congregation was primarily South Asian and Ethiopian.
While he was there, he received the invite from the Institute of Islamic Learning and decided to accept.
“A big part of why I left Atlanta and came to the Institute of Islamic Studies is I saw that there were lot of people in the mosque here who share my vision of the way to practice Islam, that brings the best from our tradition and the best from what it means to be a modern person living in U.S.,” he says.
Mendes lives in West Windsor with his wife and their six children: Maryam, 14, at West Windsor High School South; Halimah, 13, at Grover Middle School; Aminah, 10, at Village School; Muhammad Husayn, 7, at Dutch Neck Elementary School; Fatimah, 4, at a Montessori school; and Isa, 1.
Mendes says his new mosque falls midway between very conservative mosques where women are segregated completely and ultraprogressive ones where men and women are standing side by side in prayer, and may have a female or a gay or lesbian imam. “I’m kind of in the middle; I like to take the best from wherever it comes,” he says. “There are parts of my approach that people consider more conservative and parts that people consider more progressive. I believe in moderation.”
In his new position, Mendes is fulltime residential scholar as well as imam, and he jokes, “As residential scholar, I’m supposed to have a lot of free time to write and research, but as an imam I have no time, because I’m ministering, counseling and consoling, 24/7.”
The congregation of 400 to 500 is 95 percent South Asian with a few people from other parts of the world and a few Americans.
“It is not one of the most diverse congregations in New Jersey, but my hope and my expectation is that with my appointment as well as moving us to a larger building (before the end of the year, we’re praying), that will change,” he said.
“I am committed to making it an environment where everyone is welcome: South Asians, red-blooded Americans, children, youth, seniors, people of other religions, atheists and agnostics. Whether you walk in wearing jeans or a face veil, you are welcome and you are appreciated—that’s the kind of environment I want to foster,” Mendes says.
He also wants to engage with Central Jersey’s dynamic interfaith community, which he sees as diverse and involved not just with the intellectual and academic side of being clergy, “but with the service of souls: taking care of the needy, feeding the hungry, visiting the sick. I’m impressed with what I see from the Christian, Jewish, Hindu and Sikh communities, and I want to be an asset.”