It will take time for mainstream reporters to find the thread that connects the young Michael Jackson, going door to door as a Jehovah’s Witness missionary, to the otherwordly middle-aged man who, after two decades of personal crisis, allegedly converted to Islam, like his brother Jermaine.
To one degree or another, the faith issue will have to surface during his funeral and in other memorial services. Over at the Examiner‘s entertainment site, columnist Michael Essany has a throw-away blurb entitled “Was Michael Jackson religious?” that asks a question or two, but offers zippo in terms of facts or links to information.
Although widely regarded to be “deeply spiritual,” Michael was not overtly religious in the sense that he was an active public worshiper, as one pop culture analyst weighed in.
In 2006, Jackson generated some controversy when he reportedly flirted with “converting to Islam” after pledging to erect a mosque in his adopted home of Bahrain. The Thriller hitmaker earned planning permission to construct a ten-story building just outside Manama on land adjoining the palace of the Bahraini royal family.
Meanwhile, in the mainstream press, the Washington Post has one of the only quotes that comes anywhere near engaging this issue, with a quote from Jermaine (video here) that is left completely unexplained:
Mr. Jackson’s brother, Jermaine, told reporters that “it is believed [Mr. Jackson] suffered cardiac arrest” and that the star’s personal physician had tried to revive him. Jermaine Jackson then asked for something his family is unlikely to get in the next several days: privacy. “And may Allah be with you, Michael, always,” he said.
If you head into the global cyberworld of non-brand-name “journalism” that cites names and dates, while providing nothing in the way of on-the-record material for sourcing, you can find reactions in the wider Muslim world that assumes that Michael did, in fact, take on a new name and a new eternal identity. Here is one report from a “citizen journalism” site in India:
New Delhi – With the most untimely demise of arguably the all time greatest pop singer Micheal Jackson turned Mikaeel, a question is being asked in the Islamic world whether he would be buried according to Islamic rites. Given the fact that he embraced Islam, he has to be buried according Islamic way. …
The singer converted to Islam in a ceremony at a friend’s house in Los Angeles on last November 21. He is said to have sat on the floor and worn a small hat while an Imam of a local mosque officiated. An Imam was summoned from the mosque and Michael went through the “Shahada”, which is the Muslim declaration of belief.
It is, of course, hard to know what to make of a “news” report that includes phrases such as “is being asked” and “He is said to have sat,” etc. Passive voice is the enemy of precision.
However, the online essay by Vivek Shukla goes on to interview real people and ask some real questions, the kinds of questions that are sure to surface in the next few days as mainstream journalists prepare for, and cover, the funeral of the mysterious superstar.
On the issue of his burial according to Islamic ways, Islamic scholar and thinker Umer Ilyasi said that other than washing the body and the burial, the actual ritual that is performed with regard to the death of a Muslim, and the obligation of the community with regard to that death is Salat al-Janazah. If Michael Jackson was a Muslim, Salat al-Janazah has to be performed for him.
However, it is not at all unusual especially among Black American converts to be some kind of mixed service, as different family members may wish to have a Christian service or have their pastor preside over a service for their deceased family member.
That sounds logical, even if the funeral simply involves statements and prayers by Jermaine, as well as other members of the family.
The New York Times does deal, openly, with the last and strangest period of Jackson’s life — when his financial struggles did lead him to the Muslim world seeking funding for his struggling career, if nothing else.
This was, of course, a very strange place to flee after being on trial for the sexual molestation of young boys.
After his trial, Mr. Jackson largely left the United States for Bahrain, the island nation in the Persian Gulf, where he was the guest of Sheik Abdullah, a son of the ruler of the country, King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa. Mr. Jackson would never return to live at his ranch. Instead he remained in Bahrain, Dubai and Ireland for the next several years, managing his increasingly unstable finances. He remained an avid shopper, however, and was spotted at shopping malls in the black robes and veils traditionally worn by Bahraini women.
Despite the public relations blow of his trial, Mr. Jackson and his ever-changing retinue of managers, lawyers and advisers never stopped plotting his return.
So what does this add up to, in a tragic life that begins with — Jackson said — years of physical abuse as a child, followed by years under the knife of doctors, lawyers, psychologists and paparazzi? There is a religion ghost here, or two. But does that mean that there is a religion thread throughout this troubled life, other than yearning and confusion?
The lead story in the Washington Post says it all:
For all his impact on popular music, Mr. Jackson’s life seemed to play out as a metaphor on the delusions and cruelty of fame. He was unlucky in the art of public relations, and sometimes he was just unlucky, as when pyrotechnics set his hair on fire during the filming of a Pepsi commercial.
Other misfortunes he seemed to bring on himself — and theories about his behavior were never in short supply. People loved to think they had cracked the mystery of Michael: He wanted his face to resemble Liz Taylor’s. He hated his appearance because his father and brothers used to tease him. He was repressed, he was asexual, he was an addict, he was a pervert, he was from outer space, he was a genius, he was stupid, he was insane. The truth was never known and Jackson recoiled from media scrutiny, and largely thwarted the assistance of image experts, who displeased him.
Stay tuned. It is the understatement of the year to say that, well, the media frenzy is starting something.