Harvard Kennedy School Professor Khalil Gibran Muhammad bears a famous name and is the progeny of an equally famous religious leader. He was born into the counterculture of the 1960s, to parents inspired by the mysticism of Lebanese-American poet Khalil Gibran, and spent his early childhood on the South Side of Chicago within the community of the Nation of Islam, the religious and political group led by his great-grandfather, Elijah Muhammad.
On Wednesday night, beneath the bright lights of the main hall of the Smith Campus Center, Professor Muhammad reflected on these, and other, defining forces of his life, in the first installment of a new series of conversations hosted by Muslim Chaplain Khalil Abdur-Rashid. Titled “Life Matters,” the series presents an opportunity for Harvard students to learn from the experiences of esteemed members of the University community, through dialogue addressing the role that religion, spirituality, and ethics have played during their lives.
Throughout the evening, Muhammad shared insights from a life that in many ways he has “grown into,” beginning with his reflections on how it has always been a work in progress to understand the significance of sharing Gibran’s name. In seventh grade, an English teacher gave him a signed copy of the poet’s most renowned work, “The Prophet,” a gift that Muhammad says marked “the first time in my life I realized how important my namesake was, and I began to read and study and I realized that I could make something of this, in terms of his legacy, and my own.”
Bearing the name wasn’t always easy. As a child, he said, he often had to explain it to his public school classmates (the majority of Nation of Islam students attended religious schools, but he did not); his seventh-grade yearbook described him as Kahlua Muhammad. Later in life, he said he was denied financial aid for a Ph.D. program when a member of the search committee admitted concern that he was affiliated with the Nation.
The Nation forged a large part of Muhammad’s cultural identity, but it was not the only influence. His mother, “a product of the ’60s” who never joined the Nation herself, raised him with the humanist values by which she lived her life — concepts that became more prominent in his upbringing when his parents divorced. By the time Muhammad was “7, 8, 9, the world I had known as a small child completely transformed and changed … I was an orphan within a context of a religion that was most prominent in my life.”
For much of the rest of his youth, Muhammad was neither Muslim nor Christian, in any traditional sense, even as he was powerfully influenced by the culture of the Nation. In 1984, when he was 12, he met a lasting mentor, “a Jewish dude from Edison, N.J.,” who hired him to fix computers for University of Chicago professors. He was the first Jewish person Muhammad had known well. Time spent with this mentor, whose own perspective was largely secular, helped expand Muhammad’s worldview beyond the South Side. As he grew, religion provided a rich source of knowledge and understanding, but in general involved more culture than belief.
“My parents never positioned their own faith journey, no matter how active or engaged it was personally, as some litmus test for how to judge the character of other people,” said Muhammad. “It was less about what they said and more about how they treated people.”