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Imam Yusuf Islam

When Sahib Mujahid was released from prison in 1985 after serving time for murder, the newly converted Muslim had nowhere to go and no family in the area.

It was Imam Yusuf Islam who picked him up outside the Tehachapi prison gates and brought him into his Bakersfield home. Mujahid was 35 at the time but said Islam and his wife, Daaiyah, adopted him immediately.

"It's hard for me to fathom what I would have done without him. I was done with trying to be a criminal," Mujahid, 64, said Friday. "It's hard for me to say exactly what I would have done. ... It was a blessing from God to meet him."

Yusuf Islam, who locals say was the first imam in Bakersfield, died March 28 of cancer. He was 77.

The father of six was a religious leader in the city since 1975 and headed the Bakersfield Muslim Center, his sons said.

"Until I met him, I didn't have any idea of what a righteous man was. I'd been around crooks and murderers for years," Mujahid said. "He was the first gentleman I met who had a sincere faith in God."

The imam had the same effect on many members of the community.

In 2012, Islam received a certificate of recognition from the Kern County Board of Supervisors for 40 years of service in the Bakersfield Muslim Center, public service and civic contributions.

The Bakersfield mayor's office declared March 31, 2012, "Imam Yusuf Islam Day" for 40 years with the Bakersfield Muslim Center, 30 years as a chaplain for inmates of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, and for creating harmony and understanding between religious communities as well as his membership in the mayor's ad hoc committee on gang violence.

He also received a commendation from the California State Legislature for his work and had a key to the city of Bakersfield.

"The (awards) give me an immense sense of pride. There were people who always said good things about him," said Tarik Islam, the imam's son. "I always looked at my father as my role model. He was my best friend."

Tarik said his father worked to bring people of different faiths together by speaking to groups of students and educating the public.

"He was trying to make the world we live in a better place," Tarik said.

Yusuf was born and raised in Bakersfield. His dedication came at a young age. He dropped out of school in 10th grade to help support his parents and nine siblings.

Ghani Islam, another son of Yusuf, said his father was 15 years old when he took a job working for Union Pacific Railroad after his parents became sick.

"He showed a sense of responsibility," Ghani said. "As a kid I always thought that was a great thing."

He became an imam in 1975, which was a volunteer position, and worked as a prison chaplain as a career for more than 30 years, Ghani said. Both jobs were considered full-time.

Ghani said people of many faiths attended his father's Janaza -- which is a Muslim funeral, Ghani said.

"He loved God tremendously and respected all faiths," Mujahid said. "He believed none were too small and no bridge is too wide for us to find common ground."