“Souls are like conscripted soldiers. Those familiar with each other get on easily while those who don’t know each other feel mutual estrangement.” From the very moment Imam Sohaib Sultan and I met we got on with easy familiarity. Something about his posture and demeanor immediately disarmed me. Usually, a kind of ritual “feeling out” takes place when Muslims with public profiles meet. In addition to the semiotics regularly associated with dress and presentation; the manner in which a person deploys classical Arabic, the scholars they cite, their take on certain contemporary issues, etc. places them in some category or another: Traditional, progressive, Sufi, reformist, liberal, conservative, woke, apolitical…whatever. My encounters with my brother Sohaib were never degraded by the issuance of such litmus tests. We always spoke as friends.
The qualities of strength and gentleness rest at different points along the same axis but this eludes many men. The Prophet Muhammad (upon him be peace) was simultaneously the most gentle of people and the strongest of them. Concerning gentleness, he (upon him be peace) is reported to have said, “Everything characterized by gentleness is beautified by it and everything devoid of gentleness is marred.” For me, the term “gentleman” has always been a “tongue-in-cheek” designation. A man that hails from a certain class background whose commitment to purposeful, often arcane, manners in dress, speech, and behavior mark him as distinct from the “rabble.” The greatest irony, perhaps, is that there is never anything gentle about an attitude of condescension. Imam Sohaib, on the other hand, was a gentle man. Even in his position as chaplain at Princeton, an institution known for its patrician bearing, I never knew him to look down upon anyone. In my visits with him there, everyone seemed to have the same affinity for him. He was known for many things: his avuncular charm, his intelligent, inquisitive demeanor, his distinct, infectious laugh. However, the thing for which I pray my brother will be best remembered is the great gentleness and compassion with which he engaged his family and students.
Princeton was actually one of the first places I lectured after I began my work with the American Learning Institute for Muslims (ALIM). When I landed at Philadelphia International Airport, Sohaib and his beloved wife, Arshe Ahmed, then just a duo, picked me up together. As we rode along the freeway, Sohaib and Arshe went back and forth seamlessly sharing perspectives about pastoral care and advising me of the best ways to connect with students. Arshe’s perspectives were as unique and personal as those offered by Sohaib. When I earnestly questioned, “So you both work at the university?” Imam Sohaib responded, “This is very much a team effort. I currently serve as chaplain but we do this together.” I started lovingly referring to them as “Imam Sohaib and Imama Arshe.” And that openness to collaboration, itself a Prophetic trait, was very much at the heart of the way he led our community.
Once, Imam Sohaib phoned me on a Friday morning. His characteristic mellow and warm tenor had given way to a slight urgency. “Some of the students on campus have made suggestions concerning the Friday Prayer,” he said. “Some brothers and sisters,” he continued, “feel that the current seating arrangement, with the sisters seated behind the brothers, inhibits their ability to fully connect with the service. Additionally, many of the sisters have expressed a desire to hear from a greater diversity of khaṭībs (preachers) including women. What do you think?” Reflecting upon our conversation, the thing most telling to me now was that my protective instincts were focused on the tradition whereas his were fixed upon the students. The fact that he also held great respect for the tradition and I also identified with the aim of making Islam accessible to people on campus made for a memorable exchange. I fulminated, “No time is devoid of shifting cultural currents and ours’ is no different. In our time, these shifts tend to be about race, gender, and sexuality and in others they were about epistemology, the nature of divinity and political power. Through it all, the core elements of Islamic practice have, for the most part, resisted being reactionary. Cultural shifts will inevitably take place but they should take place elsewhere.” He simply countered, “But Ustadh Ubaydullah, our goal on campus is simply to meet people where they are. We’re not tasked with making decisions for the entire Ummah! I just want the students on campus to feel comfortable at Jumu’ah. And I don’t want to do anything which contradicts the guidance of our tradition. In sha’ Allah, we will be guided to something that fits within the boundaries of the tradition and meets the needs of our students.”
The next time we spoke I asked, “what happened with the Jumu’ah?” He said, “We divided the room in half with lanterns so that the men and women are separate but equidistant from the khaṭīb. And for the khaṭīb, we all agreed that the responsibility of leading the prayer would remain that of the brothers. However, at the conclusion of the prayer, every week one of our sisters will offer a reflection and lead the attendees in du’a.” Caring, brilliant, creative, deeply rooted in knowledge, devout, and unafraid to challenge a prevailing norm if he thought it would help people connect with our vast, beautiful religion, this was Imam Sohaib Sultan.
The last time my brother and I spent time together was at the Ivy Muslims conference in East Windsor. Sohaib had recently become a father; welcoming his precious Radiyya, and he was incandescent. He probably didn’t notice me watching him as he endearingly gazed upon the child darting about his peaceful home. That morning, we had breakfast with his parents and the omelet that Arshe prepared was so delicious it nearly distracted me from the fine company I was blessed to enjoy. As a parent myself, I thought, how gratifying must it be for Sohaib’s parents to witness their son getting an opportunity to share with Radiyya in parenthood some of the gifts they had shared with Sohaib. And his cancer diagnosis and subsequent passing will not frustrate that legacy. God-willing, Radiyya will one day read the memoirs and listen to the addresses that her father delivered in his final days. Sohaib offered us lifetimes of beauty, reflection, compassion and grace. What a beautiful man he was. May Allah grant him access to Firdaus, the Highest, the company of the Prophets, the martyrs, the righteous and the spiritual ecstasy of gazing upon His (Glorified and Exalted) blessed countenance.