Brown Boy Problems: Islamic Publications International (S1 EP3)

Brown Boy Problems: Islamic Publications International (S1 EP3)

Mustafa Shaikh
7 min read

My father's rather unsuccessful business selling Islamic-related texts gets the spotlight in this episode.

Before we get started, a reader (shout out Vishaal) let me know last week that he was bored at home in the middle of the workday. Rather than simply streaming content, he decided he wanted to do something productive. So he went onto From Mustafa's Desk and caught up on old episodes. Vishaal, I'm glad reading my writing feels more productive than binging "Bridgerton."

He went on to say that he found my writing to be captivating. Yes, these are his words, not mine.

Without further adieu ...

If you asked my dad what he did for work, he would tell you that he’s a house dad. I’m not exactly sure why he went with that answer as he certainly had a small business that he spent a considerable amount of time on.

In 1992, maybe 1993, he launched Islamic Publications International—IPI for short. IPI was a mail-order business that specialized in selling Islamic-related texts. I wouldn’t be surprised if IPI was the first mail-order retailer for Islamic books in the United States when he launched it.

As I'm thinking through this now, it is strange that he launched a company rooted in Islamic texts. He was by no means a devout Muslim. Exhibit A: he only prayed when he had to pray. If we were at the mosque for a function, he'd get it in. He'd also do his Fajr and Maghrib prayers during the month of Ramadan, which ain't saying much. (For the non-Muslims reading this, that's the bare minimum that a practicing Muslim prays.)

IPI was usually located somewhere on the premise of whatever property we were living on. When we lived in New Milford, NJ, it consumed the entire first floor of our house. In Wyckoff, NJ, IPI’s final stop, the detached barn at the end of our driveway served as the business’s warehouse. Both of these homes were specifically picked out because we could both live there, and IPI could reside there rent-free.

This means that he had plenty of free labor readily accessible to him. My brother and I spent many hours throughout our childhood helping him fulfill orders, unpack boxes, and prepare IPI's mail-order catalogs for shipping.

Speaking for myself, I hated working for IPI. I'd much rather be watching Dragonball Z or playing basketball than spending any time working for a business that had no impact on our family's finances.

No matter where IPI was located, it was always an absolute mess. Packing material from the boxes of books printed in India would be strewn all over the floor. Some books on the shelves were stacked vertically, others horizontally.

Papa had a rough idea of where everything was, but even he sometimes spent 20 minutes tracking down one book for an order. There were times he would come back from these searches empty-handed because there was no proper inventory transaction system and he didn’t realize he was sold out of a title.

This issue, in part, was created by him being way too ambitious when he got the business started. Instead of focusing on a few key categories, he went all-in on becoming a one-stop-shop for all things Islam.

Along with your standard run-of-the-mill Qurans and Hadith books (collections of sayings from the Prophet Muhammad), he retailed VHS tapes of talks from Muslim scholars, Halal cookbooks, children’s textbooks, sweatshirts, and most bizarrely, perfumes. This is all to say that a lot of inventory collected dust and eventually found its way to the landfill when we emptied out the barn several years after Papa’s death.

(My brother, Tayyab, and I came across the 90’s crewneck sweatshirts while we were emptying the barn. With the screen-printed Islamic geometric patterns, they’re actually in fashion now. If you see us outside, you might catch us in them.)

IPI’s primary clients were universities and prisons. The universities were most interested in the books that Papa published under his imprint, Mizan Press. Every semester those books made their way onto reading lists for courses across the country, which was always nice for him to be able to move 25-100 books in one swath.

One of the books, Islam and Revolution, received some prominence in academic circles and even has its own Wikipedia page. The book was a collection of writings from Ayatollah Khomeini, the former Supreme Leader of Iran. The writings were compiled and translated by U.C. Berkeley professor, and Papa’s former friend, Hamid Algar. I say former friend because, like most of his work relationships, it eventually devolved into a series of arguments with countless hours of yelling on the phone.

The argument between Hamid and Papa centered on Hamid’s view that he should be due royalties on the books he released through Mizan Press despite signing a work-for-hire agreement. I’m just glad for my family’s safety that Khomeini didn’t come after royalties he thought he may be owed because there for sure wasn’t any payment or contract with him. (Although, according to Salman Rushdie in Season 9 of "Curb Your Enthusiasm," having a fatwa on you does help your sex life.)

The prisons, on the other hand, were a completely different story. The customers at the prisons were either chaplains or individual prisoners.

The most popular purchases were Qurans, especially the smaller paperback ones that didn’t have a hard binding to them. Prisons didn’t allow hardcover books because they could potentially be used as weapons.

Along with checks and money orders, prisoners often bought books with stamps. As my father explained to me, stamps in prison were a form of currency: prisoners bartered with them, received them from loved ones, and used them as their lifeline to the outside world at a time when sending letters was still commonplace. He was happy to accept stamps as a form of payment as he was constantly purchasing stamps to send out his catalogs.

From time to time, Papa would get letters from prisoners who couldn’t offer any type of payment. Depending on his mood, sometimes he would hook Muslim brothers up with books. While he didn’t have much empathy for his own kids, he at least possessed some for prisoners.

The most noteworthy people he came into contact with through IPI were a couple of individuals that fell into this category. Come to think of it, they are household names.

Richard Reid. Remember that name? Sounds vaguely familiar. How about the shoe bomber? There it is.

Reid boarded a plane from Paris to Miami on December 22, 2001, with the intention of blowing it up with plastic explosives hidden in his shoes. After failing to light the fuse, he was subdued by passengers and arrested once the plane landed.

What saved everyone on the plane that day was Reid’s foot perspiration; his moist feet, along with the wetness from the rain in Paris, made the fuse in his shoe too damp to ignite.

All praise is due to Allah that Reid grew up in England instead of America; if he grew up in America, he would have undoubtedly been inundated with all of the “Boom, tough actin’ Tinactin!” commercials from John Madden in the mid-90s. Reid would have known much earlier in life how to resolve the perpetual smell his sweaty feet produced. To think, John Madden was this close to becoming an accessory to an act of terrorism for a series of commercials with a catchy saying.

Because of Reid, for 20 years now we’ve had to remove our shoes and place them through scanners before boarding a flight. I imagine if someone calculated the total loss of productivity caused by Reid’s failed attempt and sent him the number, he might take some satisfaction in extracting a certain level of global economic terrorism.

Shortly after his prison sentence started, Reid reached out to Papa to see if IPI could comp him books. It’s interesting that Reid was lacking enough funds to purchase a few books. I’m sure it’s one of those things that they don’t discuss at the terrorist camp Reid went to: if you are not successful in your endeavor, they’re not going to be filling up your commissary.

I imagine there are some logistical issues around getting funds into Reid’s commissary without having the CIA on your case. Once these for-profit jails start accepting cryptocurrency for commissary deposits, that’s going right into the benefits section for these terrorist cells.

  • 3 warm halal meals provided daily during training
  • Monthly $20 health and wellness benefit (i.e. OnlyFans patronage)
  • Guaranteed passage to Jannah (aka heaven)
  • Quarterly Bitcoin commissary deposits if caught—passage to Jannah no longer guaranteed

While Reid’s story is pretty noteworthy, I actually find myself drawn to the story of another would-be customer that reached out to IPI. He, unfortunately, was a tad more successful than Reid in his quest.

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On Episode 4 of "Brown Boy Problems" ... we pick up on Episode 3. A teenage terrorist requests books from IPI through rather unusual means.

This essay was edited by Matt Goodgal and Meena Rajulu. Blame all grammatical errors on him and all style issues on her.

You can catch up on past writings here.