Advertisement

Their Spiritual Thirst Found a Desert Spring

Times Staff Writer

One grew up on a farm in Pakistan, the other was a child of Detroit. One was born into Islam, the other was brought up a Baptist. From these disparate starting points, Iqbal Khan and Mustafa Yunis Richards set out as young men to explore the most fundamental questions of faith.

They took different paths. One wandered the world as a seaman, the other bounced from one belief system to the next. In the end, oddly enough, both wound up here, working in the casinos of Las Vegas, praying in the city’s mosques -- strangers to each other, but in spirit the closest of travel companions.

“I wanted to find all the truths,” said Khan, a 53-year-old security guard at the Main Street Casino. “I wanted to see all the holy places. Growing up in Muslim society, I was kept like in a cave, in life’s cave, even though I was from a very educated family. It’s a cave that had no information from the outside: What’s right? What’s wrong? How can you verify?”

For years Khan toiled in the engine rooms of commercial ships that supplied U.S. military bases overseas. On shore leave he would hunt for used books on history and religion and make visits to the landmark shrines of all faiths. While at sea he studied the texts and also taught himself languages -- German, Greek, Arabic -- preparing to converse with people he encountered at ports of call.

Advertisement

“I checked everything,” he said. “I talked to people. I learned about humans. I learned about their livings, their religions, how they act. I started going to churches. I went to synagogues. I learned about Catholics, about Orthodox, Protestants. All of that.”

He frowned.

“I still don’t know a lot about Mormons.”

Richards, a soft-spoken, 52-year-old black man, worked as a bellhop at the Imperial Palace hotel and casino on the Strip until circulatory disease forced him into early retirement a few years ago. He has been a practicing Muslim for a decade, the last leg of a journey that began in his late teens with a visit to a Detroit synagogue.

Advertisement

Richards was a physical presence back then, weighing a well-muscled 215 pounds. As he stepped into the doorway, the rabbi thrust his hands into the air, as if expecting to be robbed.

“What do you want?” he asked.

“I want,” the 18-year-old replied, “to learn about the Jewish religion.”

For the next three years Richards studied Judaism. Though there was much he admired about the religion, he said, “I recognized fairly early on that it was not really an embracing moment.” He moved on.

Over the next several years, he would spend time with Episcopalians in Boston, with Mormons in upstate New York, with followers of the Nation of Islam on the streets of New York City. He read the Greek philosophers, studied Hinduism, Taoism.

“I went to a weekend retreat, a Catholic retreat,” he said, describing a typical leap of faith in his low-key, laconic way, “and that lasted for about six weeks.”

Richards had wed young, and his wife could not understand his spiritual wanderlust. In time, it cost him his marriage. He knew what was driving him, but it was difficult conveying it to others: “Back and forth, back and forth. I studied a lot of different religions looking for the same thing -- understanding. I wanted to understand God. For some reason, understanding God became very important to me.

“But it wasn’t something I could talk about, because when you started talking to people about God, they’d think you were nuts. That would kill any conversation.”

Advertisement

He remarried and moved to Las Vegas. It was here that he entered his numerology phase, tutored by a gambler who persuaded him that numbers clustered in predictable patterns -- a valuable theory, if workable, at the slots and blackjack tables.

One day Richards dropped into a bookstore and spotted an English translation of the Koran, the sacred book of Islam.

“I’d read everything else,” he said. “And so I said, well, I’ll go ahead and read the Koran.”

He took the book home and put it on a shelf. A few days later he picked it up and began to read.

“By the time I had finished reading that day,” he recalled, “I said, ‘This is what I’ve been looking for my whole life.’ ”

*

The most productive question to ask the Muslims of Las Vegas turned out to be simply this: How did they come to be here?

From that opaque starting point, they often would spin long, personal narratives, stories that unfolded on many levels -- tales of escape from war and strife, chronicles of journeys across the borders of belief, travelogues of the heart and spirit.

Advertisement

For a refugee from northern Afghanistan, who stopped to talk outside Jama Masjid on Desert Inn Road one day in October, the question triggered a long and complicated story of war and treachery -- the upshot being that, had matters played out differently two decades ago in the uprising against Soviet occupiers, he might not be driving a taxicab in Las Vegas. He might be a leader in his native land.

To a Moroccan at a mosque dinner, the same question sparked a faraway smile as he revisited a boyhood spent practicing back flips and other gymnastic moves on the beach in Tangier -- a talent that would lead first to the circuses of Europe and, finally, to shows on the Las Vegas Strip and backstage moments with the Rat Pack.

Some who had become Muslims later in life would interpret the “here” in the question to mean Islam, not Las Vegas. They would tell stories of chance encounters with Muslims at work, or the Muslim family that one day happened to move into their neighborhood -- moments that put them on the path to Islam and in which they came, in retrospect, to detect the hand of Allah.

Few passage stories, though, could match those of Iqbal Khan and Mustafa Yunis Richards -- two men who had traveled so far, and on such different paths, to reach the same destination.

Khan appeared one night in midsummer at Masjid As-Sabur, the so-called black mosque near downtown. He and his wife, Connie, a former Catholic originally from Iowa, had come to renew their wedding vows. She wore a white blouse, slacks and a tangerine-colored headscarf. He was dressed in black pants, a shiny, long-sleeved black shirt covered with polka dots, and no shoes.

After a simple ceremony, presided over by Imam Fateen Seifullah, Khan strode over and introduced himself to the stranger who had been drafted to act as an official witness.

“I am a Mongol, a descendant of the Khans,” he announced with a certain flourish. “There is a saying about Mongols. They say Mongols were born on the back of a horse. They lived on the back of a horse. And they died on the back of a horse.”

Khan spoke in a gruff, urgent roar. This, many subsequent conversations would reveal, turned out to be his customary speech pattern. Here was a self-taught historian with a lifetime of learning bottled up inside and never enough time to tell it all. There was no need to ask him an opening question. He launched himself, careening from one topic to the next in a filibuster that would go on for 15 minutes.

He opened with a short course on Mongols and Islam, describing how the invaders, having sacked Baghdad, later adopted the religion and helped transport it around the world -- on horseback, of course. He turned to current affairs, mocking the Taliban. “Kook-ies,” he called them. He had learned about Islam, he said, in the same dirt-floor religious schools, or madrasas, on the Pakistani frontier where Islamic fundamentalists now hold sway, and he rejected their stern, high-handed interpretation of Islamic law.

Here he quoted an Islamic poet: “Your wisdom is what tells your value, not how long your beard is.”

Chest thrown out, feet wide apart and firmly planted, he declared: “I stand for wisdom. I stand for equality. This was the message of all the prophets, beginning with Abraham.... From the second you are born you are connected to everyone else. We are all connected by our belly buttons, you to your mother, she back to her mother, back and back and back and back, all to the same original mother. We are all equal.”

The events of Sept. 11, he said, had left him baffled: “When another Muslim comes from another country and he tries to kill us -- how come he has the right to kill us? We did not go to his country or his place to hurt him. And if he says he’s Muslim, then I am a Muslim too. I’m his brother. They come into my house, because America is my home, and they destroy my home. That I don’t understand. I just don’t understand.”

Lest his political leanings were unclear, he quoted from an inscribed T-shirt mounted in a gun case on his bedroom wall: “God, Guns & Guts Made America ... Let’s Keep All Three.”

“That’s what I believe,” Khan said.

He finished with a few tales from the casino trade. The names of casino magnate Steve Wynn and singer Willie Nelson were dropped. The hauling of two truckloads of alcohol to a certain Saudi prince’s private jet was mentioned: “As a Muslim, where does it fit that you drink booze? Somebody can make a mistake. I can understand that. You are human, you make mistakes. But this, you are not making a mistake, you are taking the whole shop!”

Here, Khan paused. His wife, beaming, suggested that a book might be written about him. The imam was flabbergasted.

“This man has prayed here for years,” Seifullah said, “and before tonight I’d never heard him say a single word.”

*

The initial encounter with Mustafa Yunis Richards was much quieter. It occurred at Masjid Haseebullah -- the tiny, far-flung mosque on the edge of town -- on the Friday in the spring of 2003 that marked the beginning of this journalistic voyage.

He was seated at a chair outside the mosque door, wearing an Islamic skullcap, or kufi. He said hello and offered a single piece of instruction: “Please remember to take off your shoes before you go inside.”

And that was it.

“I just wanted to stay out of the way,” he would explain later. Though he had been installed a few months before as resident imam of the mosque, Richards was content to let others speak for Las Vegas Muslims. Eight months would pass before he sat down at the mosque on an autumn Sunday, and speaking in a quiet, measured way, told his own story.

Asked how he had come to be here, Richards opened with a movie he saw as a 10-year-old in Detroit, “The Diary of Anne Frank.” The story perplexed him. He could understand fear. Bullies chased him home from school. What he couldn’t understand was religious hatred, how one set of people could work so ruthlessly, so methodically, to destroy another. He began to make regular treks to the public library to pore over books about the Holocaust and Judaism.

Richards was raised in a Baptist home, but he had an aunt who was a Roman Catholic. In her late 70s she came to live with the family, “and one of my chores was to walk her to the Catholic Mass several days a week, Friday Mass, midnight Mass. And I noticed that when she went in, she covered her hair, took her hands out and crossed herself. And I liked the quiet in that church....

“So I realized then that Jews had one religion that was not like any of ours. And my Aunt Sweet practiced a religion which was not like the one that most of my family practiced. So at an early age, I saw the differences in these different religions and it made me interested in finding God, or what God really was. When I got to my teens, I became more focused, and I started actually talking to people.”

He approached Nation of Islam followers on the street:

“They would tell you, ‘God wasn’t white, he looked like you, brother.’ And I said: ‘Well, you know, this is not what I’m really asking. So I’m going to keep looking.’ ”

Had he known comparative religion was taught in college, Richards said, he might have continued his education instead of taking work in a Wonder Bread bakery, the job that underwrote his spiritual trekking. He ran through the catalog of religions he explored, one by one:

“I went to upper state New York because I became interested in the government of Mormon religion, and I wanted to go to where the groups actually were.”

He went to New York City to explore the Nation of Islam in greater depth.

“I got a lesson from one of the brothers in the Nation, kind of firsthand. He was kind of broke. He said, ‘You got a dollar bill?’ And I said, ‘Yes, I got a dollar on me.’ So I gave it to him. He said, ‘Let me show you something.’ ”

Richards’ instructor pointed to the portrait of George Washington on the bill.

“ ‘Do you know anything about him?’

“ ‘He’s the first president. He wouldn’t tell a lie.’

“ ‘Yes, he wouldn’t tell a lie -- but he would snap the chain around your great-great-grandmother’s neck and sell her and her child away from each other.’ And he told me that’s what the dollar is. And as he was telling me this, he was putting the dollar bill in his pocket.”

Richards’ search went on for decades, until the day in 1993 when he first cracked open the Koran. The more he delved into Islam, the better it seemed to fit: “Islam represented all the things I had found positive in all the other religions and philosophies. And Islam excluded all the things I had found to be in the gray area or negative. So for me Islam was a completion of what I was looking for.”

Looking back, he said, “I was always a Muslim, but not in name. By the time I became a Muslim, I had already formed certain opinions on things I believed and accepted and things I didn’t believe -- although I had no organized thing to call it. There were certain things that I learned through the [Louis] Farrakhan system I liked very much and accepted, and certain things I’d learned from Taoism and Buddhism that I found accurate. There were certain things I liked from the Jewish experience that I accepted. They seemed to fit one another.”

There was, however, one final stretch of road to travel -- he wanted to connect with a Muslim tutor.

“I’d ask people at work who looked like they were from the [Indian] subcontinent, ‘Are you a Muslim?’ And they would tell me, ‘No, I’m a Hindu.’ I’d say, ‘OK, do you know any Muslims?’ They’d say, ‘No, I don’t know any Muslims.’ And I’d ask an African, ‘Are you a Muslim?’ He’d say, ‘No, I’m a Christian.’ I’d say, ‘OK, do you know any Muslims in town?’ ‘No, I don’t know any Muslims.’

“So for the next two years I just studied Islam in books and different things and learned the prayers on my own.”

One day before work, not feeling well, he took a nap and drifted into a dream. He dreamed that he boarded the bus for work and caught the eye of a brilliant figure. He couldn’t tell if it was a man or a woman or even mortal. All he could remember was that it “gave me a very beautiful smile.”

He woke up and went to his bus stop: “When I got on the bus I went to sit down and, as I sat down, I looked forward, toward the front of the bus, this brother was on the bus. He was from Eritrea. And he noticed the book I was reading was an Islamic book. And he gave me a very warm, wonderful smile. And so that was my first concrete Islamic contact ever. We exchanged books, numbers. He took me right over to a mosque that weekend.

“And I’ve been involved with the Islamic community ever since.”

He paused and studied the face of his interviewer for a moment, as if scanning for any trace of skepticism.

“You know,” he said, “I don’t tell that story to very many people.”

*

Iqbal Khan drives about Las Vegas in a 1982 Chevrolet pickup, aquamarine in color, that he affectionately calls his “truck-ee.” He keeps a folded American flag and a Bible displayed on the dashboard, evidence of his loyalty to his adopted country and his belief that a true follower of Islam also must follow the teachings of the Old and New Testaments.

“God said don’t put a difference in books, in prophets, because they are all sent from God,” he said one Saturday afternoon at a coffee shop near his home. “And the books -- the Abraham book, the Moses book, Torah and the Bible -- they are as respectable and holy as the Koran is.”

He was wearing short pants and a T-shirt. Khan does not believe an American Muslim needs to dress like a Bedouin. Nor does he wear a beard: “Some Muslims feel that if they just have a beard and a cap on their head, or a turban, it makes them more important than other Muslims, that they are superior in following Islam. But Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, said a Muslim is a person who is wise, who forgives his enemies and is close to God.”

He used to debate Muslim immigrants from Arab countries about this and about Middle East politics. His view, shaped by his travels as a seaman, is that Islam in many countries has been “ ‘jacked,” as he put it, by fundamentalists who have distorted or ignored its basic teachings for political gain. Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, the Taliban and the more strident mullahs -- he lumps them all together: “Kook-ies.”

Islam, as he learned it, Khan said, “was, first thing, you cannot kill anything on Earth, animal or human. If you kill for food, the hunt, you must eat it. And if the enemies do not enter your door, your house, you cannot pull swords. You cannot go and do any harm to any person who is in the worship place. It doesn’t matter whose worship place that is.

“But whenever I open my mouth against something, about the Taliban or about this and that, I get problems. I’ve been insulted. I’ve been told I’m not a Muslim.”

Which is why he keeps his views to himself.

“Like you heard from the imam. I’ve been going there 12 years and nobody knows who I am. I never said a word in my life there.”

Not that staying quiet comes easily to Khan. He told a story from his seafaring days. In port he observed some Palestinians training children to fight Israelis: “I couldn’t close my mouth all my life. Why? Because, as I said, I wanted to learn. I asked questions of people. It doesn’t matter good or bad. And I asked, why are these little Palestinians, like 10-year-old kids, 8-year-old kids, running around with guns and shooting? And I said, ‘So you think’ -- that’s me, stupid -- ‘you think that these kids can stop Israeli forces?’

”... And they said: ‘Yes, we are going to do this, destroy them. We are going to kill them.’

“And I looked and I said: ‘Do you know that you can’t do nothing? They just send one F-16 and they will level you or send one Sherman tank and just level you.’

“Well,” he said. “I had to run.”

A crowd chased him back to his ship.

Years later, while on vacation in the Rockies, a motorcycle accident shattered Khan’s legs and ended his career in the merchant marine. It took four years to rehabilitate himself, and he still walks with a stiff gait. His legs do worse in cold weather, which is why Khan moved to Las Vegas in 1989.

One of his first jobs was to act as bodyguard and interpreter for foreign high rollers. One of his first clients dropped $2 million in a single night at the baccarat tables.

“I came home and I started throwing up,” he said. “I couldn’t understand.”

Now he works as a uniformed security guard at the Main Street Casino downtown, a section of the city that’s a bit grittier than the main run of casino hotels. He also moonlights as a limo driver.

“To me,” Khan said, “Las Vegas is nothing. If you follow the ethics, morals and guidelines of humanity, you can live anywhere. I am the one who catches the pickpockets and the whores, the pimps, drug addicts. But I don’t smoke, I don’t drink, and I never disrespectfully treated a woman or a man....

“Like I tell people when I catch them: ‘Listen, if you’re a dog, I’m a big dog, and I peed on all this territory. And get out. Because I got more dogs behind me. But if you’re a respectful person, I uphold the law. I will treat you like a human being. Please leave us alone, leave the premises.’ ”

And if they want to debate the matter further?

Now he began to shout: “ ‘Shut up and get out! Don’t tell me about anything! You grew up around this corner! I grew up around the world! You understand? I didn’t grow up a drunken sailor. I was studying.’ ”

*

The more Mustafa Yunis Richards became immersed in Islam, the more awkward he felt in his job as a night bellhop. He remembers a well-dressed woman who approached him one night, frantic to find a pawn shop so she could hock her jewelry and return to the tables. He remembers a suicide in front of the hotel in the middle of the Strip. Male guests would come looking for a line on prostitutes; he had tried to slough off such requests even before he was a Muslim. Now it seemed imperative to do so.

“Muslims can’t drink and Muslims can’t gamble,” he said, “but you recognize as a Muslim that it’s not because these things do anything to Allah, do anything to God. It’s what they do to human beings themselves in their own social structure and family. So I began to recognize that I was helping contribute to people getting involved in very negative things for themselves. I wasn’t working as a bartender or as a dealer, where I was actually giving the alcohol or actually encouraging them to gamble. Nevertheless, I was part of it, and I became increasingly more uncomfortable.”

He needed to support his family, however, and so he stayed on until his poor health forced him to retire. He then took on duties as unofficial imam at Masjid Haseebullah, unlocking the mosque for prayers, arranging for Friday speakers, keeping the carpets clean, the windows washed. Eventually he was given the post on an official basis, but his duties didn’t change much.

Richards is still struggling to learn Arabic, and he does not consider himself a scholar. A movie buff, he describes his place in Islam with a line from a Clint Eastwood movie: “A man’s got to know his limitations. I know my limitations.”

He shares this same snippet of cinematic wisdom with worshipers from the Middle East when they come to him agitated by the troubles in the Islamic world -- the occupation of Palestinian territory, say, or the carnage in Iraq. If they feel compelled to protest, he tells them, fine. Write a letter to the editor. Join a march. Make a donation: “If there is something concrete you can do, do it.”

At the same time, he said, there are always practical tasks waiting at the mosque, windows to be wiped clean, weeds to be pulled: “If you really want to show Allah that you love him,” he tells them, “grab a handful of grass, put some water on the window. Clean Allah’s house up, you know? Take the key and make sure the mosque is open for prayers.... Stand up firmly for your religion, but do those practical things, and try and keep things moving along.”

This was in mid-October. Across town it had been a big weekend at the much larger Jama Masjid on Desert Inn Road. A construction project had been completed -- just in time for a national conference on the Koran that was intended, as one planner phrased it, to put Las Vegas Muslims “on the map.”

Paint was still drying when a red ribbon was cut and a large crowd pushed in, on time, for Friday afternoon prayers. For the next three days, Muslim scholars from around the country presented lectures on Islam’s sacred text -- on the science found in the Koran, on the hazards raised by relying on translations of the book’s original Arabic, and so forth.

Richards did not make it to the conference. He meant to, but it was a long bus ride across town and distractions kept arising. Months before, at a conference planning session, he had volunteered to shuttle an arriving scholar or two from the airport to the conference, adding this caveat: “But I got to get another bus pass, one for them and one for me. And it may take two or three buses, but I’ll get them in here.” His teasing offer was declined.

He also pointed out that although his mosque did not have two new minarets and a prayer loft for women, the Little Mosque on the Prairie, as he had heard teenagers jokingly refer to Masjid Haseebullah, nonetheless had undergone some sprucing up of its own. He took a visitor outside to see the new stand of belt-high palm trees and a patch of freshly planted grass, and then he said his goodbyes. Before he shuffled back into the mosque, Richards paused on the gravel pathway, bent down and yanked a knee-high weed out of the ground.

“Grab a little grass!” he called out, holding the weed aloft like some sacred talisman. “Throw some water on a window.”

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

U.S. Muslims

A 2001 study of Muslims in the United States offers a broad snapshot of the community:

*

U.S. region of residence

East: 39%

Central/Great Lakes: 27%

South: 21%

West: 13%

*

Ethnicity

South or Central Asian+: 32%

Arab: 26%

African American: 20%

Other: 14%

African: 7%

Not sure: 1%

*

Gender

Male: 59%

Female: 41%

*

Age group

18-29: 23%

30-49: 51%

50-64: 20%

65+: 7%

*

Marital status

Married: 69%

Single, never married: 19%

Divorced, separated, widowed: 11%

*

Education

Less than high school diploma: 6%

High school diploma: 12%

Some college: 24%

College degree: 58%

*

Income

Less than $15,000: 10%

$15,000-$24,999: 10%

$25,000-$34,999: 13%

$35,000-$49,000: 17%

$50,000-$74,999: 22%

$75,000 or more: 28%

*

Occupation

Professional/technical: 22%

Management: 12%

Other: 11%

Homemaker: 10%

Medical: 10%

Student: 8%

Teacher/education: 6%

Retired: 5%

Sales: 5%

Service: 4%

Blue collar/production: 3%

Clerical: 3%

Not sure: 2%

*

Year emigrated (If not born in the U.S.)

Before 1970: 12%

1970-79: 25%

1980-89: 36%

1990 to present: 24%

Did not answer: 3%

*

Note: 1,781 people who were 18 or older and identified themselves as Muslims were surveyed in a nationwide telephone poll conducted Nov. 8-19, 2001. Margin of error is plus or minus 2.4 percentage points. Figures may not add up to 100% due to rounding.

+ Pakistani, Indian, Bangladeshi, Afghan

Source: Zogby International survey conducted for Georgetown University’s Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding

*

About This Series

In an effort to depict the lives of American Muslims in an extraordinary time, staff writer Peter H. King and staff photographer Genaro Molina spent a year among the Islamic community of one U.S. city -- Las Vegas. From April 2003 to April 2004, they periodically visited the city’s mosques and Muslim homes, workplaces and social events.

SUNDAY: Living in Las Vegas. The challenges -- and anticipated rewards -- in trying to stay on the straight path.

MONDAY: The faith. What Las Vegas Muslims believe and how they sometimes disagree among themselves.

TUESDAY: After Sept. 11. How the events of that day and subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq altered lives.

TODAY: Paths to Las Vegas. Two Muslims, born a world apart, and their remarkably similar journeys.

THURSDAY: From April to April. The twists life can bring in a single year.


Advertisement