An imam and chaplain, who came from the streets to Islam and carved a place into the hearts of his colleagues, friends, teachers and his congregation, passed away in Richmond, Virginia.
Imam Muhammad Salaam’s Janazah prayer was held at Masjid Bilal, 400 Chimborazo Blvd, Richmond, VA, immediately after Dhuhr Salat at 1:30 PM on Tuesday May 20, 2014. Masjid Bilal is the first masjid built in the city of Richmond and Imam Salaam had been at the helm since 2004. He was 59.
Born Calvin Leon Tyler, he changed his name in 1976 to Muhammad Shaaf Salaam, in order to build his character around it’s meaning (one who praises Allah-God much, one who intends to heal, and peace) according to his bio on the Masjid Bilal website.
The burial was held at Al-Barzakh Cemetery in Caroline County, VA.
Umair Khan, a university student in Richmond who attended the janazah conveyed, “Mashallah, [t]here were so many people at the Imam's Salatul Janazah It was really cool because Masjid Bilal [was] full; [people] were even praying on the neighborhood streets.”
Mauri’ Saalakhan, an D.C. based activist, met Imam Salaam almost 20 years ago when he was living in Frederick and working at the prisons in Hagerstown. Introduced through Imam Safi Khan, he would talk to the Muslim inmates under Salaam’s jurisdiction at his request. That's where their friendship began. Years later when Salaam became imam of Masjid Bilal, he maintained the open door policy of his predecessor in that office (Imam Gregg Abdus-Salaam) for his brother, Saalakhan.
“Biggest funeral I have ever seen in my life,” said close friend Carroll Abdul Malik. “Imam Siraj Wahhaj was expected from New York. It was diverse from immigrants to indigenous Muslims— [Black] and Caucasian—as well as people of other faiths,” narrated Abdul Malik, a close friend and prison chaplain who runs the Muslim Chaplains Services of Virginia.
He met Imam Salaam when Abdul Malik came home to Richmond from prison in the mid seventies.
The two friends shared a passion for prison work and used to visit prisons together in Virginia, until Imam Salaam’s health started faltering. A lot of his time was also occupied with his work at the masjid.
Imam Salaam had an extensive background as a corrections officer in the State of Virginia. From 1978-1988, Salaam was the Deputy Sheriff in Richmond City Jail, where he never hid that he was Muslim.
The impact he had on young men was immediate, because he came from the street life to Islam. Malik says Salaam lived his religion: never arrogant, his mannerism spoke volumes to his character.
He was a peaceful, pious, beautiful human being, because of his character and mannerisms it was hard to believe that he had any other life other than as a Muslim, shared Abdul Malik.
Masjid Bilal is located in the Church Hill area, a predominantly African American neighborhood; not a ghetto, says Abdul Malik, but not privileged either. Drugs are a major cause of concern for the residents.
The masjid has a Food Bank Project, partnering with the Central Virginia Foodbank, and has been the recipient of numerous community awards. This effort feeds more 1000 people annually and has done so for the past 12 years. This initiative has relied upon the volunteer efforts of many Churchill residents working side by side with members of the Muslim community.
Imam Salaam was very open to working other religious communities, police and political figures.
Imam Salaam also ran a program called “Fatherhood and Family Consideration”, under a grant known as the Fatherhood Initiative. They worked with fathers to help get involved with their children, to bridge the gap between children and their fathers.
The Fatherhood Initiative included expanded features such as Computer Literacy, Job Readiness Skills, Restoration of Voter Rights and Integrated Family Visitation Services.
Efforts focus on consolidation of the family, helping fathers to get trained in areas of carpentry for better opportunities. In addition, the program will work with mothers and the rest of the family to gift incarcerated fathers visitation, on a weekly or monthly basis.
“I have never met anyone who didn’t like him,” says Malik, “he was the best example of Islam that I ever saw.”
Humble, modest, and very committed to whatever he promised, Malik says that he would help anyone who he could and never remind them of his favors.
Imam Safi Khan and his wife Sameera Hingora met the Salaams in Hagerstown, MD where they were both stationed as prison chaplains for the MD Dept. of Corrections. Here Salaam became a Certified Trainer for Trainers for the state of MD and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s designated personnel to hear and recommend solutions for disputes between wardens, staff, and inmates. He also conducted services and counseled inmates on a daily basis.
“We used to talk a lot. We would have classes about sunnah, importance of hadith, history of Quran, aqeedah and how it ties into everything various Arabic terms,” recalled Imam Khan. Salaam was an avid learner and the two would often set up programs together at their respective prisons.
Imam Khan recalls how Salaam and him would work harder than the Christian chaplains. “We drove to the roughest parts of Philadelphia to buy bean pies in the middle of the night, so the prisoners could celebrate Eid with the pies that they loved.” Even the non Muslims came and listened to their lectures.
“I respected and admired his character. Being a prison chaplain is not a normal job,” said Imam Safi Khan,”you can be killed at anytime.”
“Imam Salaam impressed me as an even tempered public servant who was deeply committed to his community. The number and diversity of people who attended his janazah and burial exemplified the widely held regard for him. May Allah forgive his sins and grant him Jannah. Ameen,” reflected Saalakhan.
According to his obituary in the Times-Dispatch, Imam Salaam’s survivors include his wife of 28 years, Myra Salaam; two daughters, Aishah Salaam and Anisah Salaam; four sons, Kareem Horton, Muhammad Malik Salaam, Muhammad Ibn Salaam and Tyshan Darden; his mother, Jeanette Smith; four sisters, Joann Whitley, Vera Tyler, Cynthia Gold and Andrea Ingram; four brothers, Clarence Frye, Elsura Abdus Salaam, Mamum Salaam and Randy Tyler; and four grandchildren.