An ex-con’s missing conversion

The holidays seem to give reporters an incentive to look for heart-warming stories, ones the show someone overcoming struggle for eventual triumph. The Atlantic‘s food section features an inspiring story of an ex-con who is reforming his life through his job at DC Central Kitchen.

His name? Muhammad Abdul-Karim. The article notes that while in prison after selling drugs, he converted to Islam, while looking the faith angle briefly but only through the most obvious clues.

While Muhammad loaded the containers onto his refrigerated truck, we noticed his arms were decorated with prison tattoos. On one arm he has a faded green map of Africa, while on the other he has the star and crescent of Islam.

Muhammad’s interest in Islam began simply by observing the practices and behaviors of his fellow inmates who had embraced the religion. Watching their lives change, he asked them questions until he decided he too wanted to become a devotee. He regards this as the decision that put him on the right path.

Tattoos are prohibited by Islam because they constitute an alteration to the creation of Allah. Muhammad, who had acquired his tattoos before converting, shrugged off the observation and admitted that he was not perfect.

If he had a tattoos before his conversion, why would he have the star and crescent of Islam? Does it have anything to do with his family’s background? The accompanying audio slideshow is nice, but offers little about his background or his conversion. When someone turns their entire life around due to a belief, you would think that’s worth exploring more than tattoos, but that’s just about all we get in the story.

Muhammad also has three stars tattooed on his body to commemorate three deceased nephews who lost their lives to the streets of D.C., as well as a banner on his back that lists the names of eight family members who died while he was in prison.

The deceased are not the only relatives Muhammad laments. Before his previous prison sentence, his 34-year-old daughter told him that she would never speak to him again if he went back to prison. She kept her word; the two have not spoken for over five years.

“I let her down too many times,” Muhammad said as we pulled into a McDonald’s parking lot at a trucker’s pit stop. “She’s just as stubborn as I am. God willing, she’ll come around.”

The story is fine, nice, sweet, whatever. But explaining a few basic questions could make it even better: Was Muhammad Abdul-Karim his given name (does he have a Muslim background)? Did he experience any internal struggle over embracing religion? How did he see his life change after he converted to Islam? Did he overcome his drug dependency with the help of his faith or through traditional means. Does he practice Muslim rituals? Was it easier to practice his faith in prison where things are more structured? Focusing less on some of the obvious and digging into his background could make beef up this basic story.

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  • Jerry

    I’m a sucker for positive stories and I agree with you. Reading a story like this is like eating cotton candy. I too wanted some more substance.

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    Yes, I do think positive stories can be done without falling prey to the stereotypical dramatic storylines, but more details could help this one out.