Cultural Matters–Bridging Worlds

One of the great things about travelling to Muslim countries is to be able to witness the various ways people express this faith and its traditions. Even if some of the things I’ve witnessed were strange and seem illogical (one day I’m going to write about my field trip to an oracle in Morocco), for the most part I have enjoyed the similarities and contrasts. There are all sorts of ways that culture plays a dynamic role in keeping the tradition alive. Culture is important, it is dynamic, culture is a dialogue. There are many cultures that are disappearing under globalization, but at the same time new ones forming out of hybrid identities and close encounters of the humankind.

This raises questions about Islamic culture? What does it mean? Last year I taught a class and one of the major themes was showing that there was no monolithic Islamic civilizaiton and no single Muslim culture. And none of us saw that as a bad thing, but a testament to the beauty of our faith tradition. I taught the period from early Islam to the early-modern period. While the Mughals, Safavids, and Ottomans were exciting Gun powder Empires, I didn’t get to explore the questions that preoccupy us in the 21st century.

Today, my friend’s husband asked me if I thought there was an “American Islam.” Some of the neo-cons are in fear of it. Their arguments sound pretty close to what some of the early 20th century progressives (and KKK) had said about Catholics and the Catholic schools. They didn’t think that Catholics were loyal Americans and that they hoped that the Pope would become ruler of the world. That resonates with the crazy arguments that establishing a Khalil Gibran school will make inroads into Jihadism and will someday works towards establishing Shari’ah and imposing it upon hapless Americans. Well, there were a whole bunch of polemics then and there are a whole bunch of polemics now. Despite the intolerance, America has always been made up of a mosaic of faiths. And I know for a fact that there is an American Islam. I think there are several. But if we are going to talk about American Islam, we should take into account the largest indigenous American population who are Muslim, African Americans. Many of us are converts, and a number of us are children of converts. Our lives are intimately tied with our non-Muslim family members. In a major event I spoke up and said, “Hey I don’t join an organization or hold an event to participate in interfaith dialogue. I do that everyday with my family and loved ones.” Nothing dispels myths and misconceptions than close personal relationships.

In August, Just before I left the states, Christine Morente of the Oakland Tribune interviewed me about the depiction of African American Muslims. I talked briefly about the role of African American Muslims and their marginalization in the media African-American muslims fight misperceptions. Other commentors have mentioned that African American Muslims have been rendered voiceless in the media. Much of the media focuses on the immigrant struggle integrate in America while maintaining their cultural and religious values. I have also known that in the past decade, immigrant Muslims propel white Muslims to leadership positions. The conversion of a White American affirms their faith, rather than the conversion of those who they deem as lowly and marginalized (but contrary to what many foreign Muslims might think, 3/4 of Black people are living above the poverty line. And many of us are doing well with institutions established like universities, libraries, political lobbies, and large companies).

I became kind of nostalgic for the days when the Warith Deen community was really strong and that there were clear African American Muslim institutions (And Halal Soulfood and catering). Back in the 90s, a lot of Muslims really had it out for culture. Muslim Student groups looked down upon leaders who catered to ethnic communities. The most important identity was Islam. Culture was the source of all bad things. It was the source of nationalism, bida’, superstition, and division. We were one Ummah, there were no differences. Yes, that’s what we learned in halaqas and lectures.

I took Shahada at Masjid Waritheen because the brother (a family friend) figured I’d be freaked out by the gender segregation at MCA. This was even though I lived 45 minutes south of Oakland. Masjid Waritheen’s sunday Ta’alim (pronounced Taaaleem) had the feel of Church. There was call and response. Imam Faheem Shu’aib told us stories and parables that many of us were familiar with in the West. He used Greek myths and parables, historical figures, Prophetic sayings, stories of the Sahabi, Great Muslim leaders, and Western classics to teach. And there was call and response. “Umm hmmm!” “Teach!” “Ameen!” “That’s Right!”
Their modes of dress differed from the dour black, grey, and navy blue abayas and jilbabs Black and white big square scarves pinned neatly beneath chins at the MCA. MCA by the late 90s turned into a modesty contest. The contest for who could be the plainest contrasted directly with my experience at Emmanuel Baptist Church, which was about who could be the fliest at church. There is was a shame if you wore the same outfit twice. But me being the impressionable Muslimah that I was, became a true product of the MCA. I wore the jilbab and big square scarves came to look down upon the sisters who wore bright colorful patterns and African prints.

Even as I became fully entrenched in the whole MCA thing, I felt torn between those two communities. One of the things I struggled with early on in those youth groups and student groups, was that I felt like so many people pulled me in several directions. There were so many causes overseas: Bosnia, Chechnya, Palestine, Philipines, Afghanistan, etc…. Plus corrupt leaders in the Muslim world who didn’t let Muslims practice Islam and Allah forbid didn’t let young Muslim men wear beards. Their was a critique of the secular leaders, religious repression of the Muslim brotherhood, petty tyrants, Kingdoms (which we were told were haram). There were dreams of revolution and the creation of an Islamic Utopia. As youth, we were the vanguard, we had the energy, we had the sincerity to change everybody’s perceptions of Islam, as well as change the world.

But that stuff started to break down. I was struggling as a young Muslim woman on my own. I felt like no one really cared about social justice issues or economic disparities that affected African Americans. All the zakah money went abroad. There, the need was far greater, in their minds, than the needs in the states. But there were real economic issues that I faced as I tried to put myself through school. Those same economic disparities increased the steady decline of African Americans from the South Bay. Not many African Americans felt like they belonged there or were really wanted there by the organized leadership of the MCA. For me, it was a mixed bag. It was in that community that I forged really strong ties with my immigrant friends (mostly Arab and North African and a few Pakistani and Indian women). But there was always a peripheral feelings. At the same time, when I visited Warith Deen community, I normally got the cold shoulder. I wasn’t Black enough, as evidenced by my “wanna-be-Arab-style-triangle-scarf-and-jilbab.” It seemed like in the women’s parties, we created little utopias where we were all equal. But all of our realities were different.

I struggled to straddle my multiple identities and deal with all the communities that I belonged to. Back in the 90s, I remember an overzealous Arab Muslim woman (who now longer practices or associates with many people in the Muslim community) chewed me out because I wrote a paper about my multiple identities with a title something like this “African American Muslim Woman.” She was upset because I put African American first. She said that Islam should come first. Mind you at that time, I had been Muslim less than two years. Second, even in the MCA, the quickest way to identify me was to say the African American sister. There were only two, so it wasn’t that hard.

Most of my life and cultural values were shaped by my Western and Christian upbringing and experience as a Black child growing up in an integrated community. My conversion experience did reshape how I engaged with those values, cultures, and experiences. Islam became the filter by which I viewed my world, my moral lens, the basic framework that guided my actions and ethics. My engagement with Islam gave me meaning and still to this day, my life’s work is really about understand Islam and how various people understand and live this faith. But at the same time, I’m influenced by Englightenment thinking. Freedom, rational thought, inquiry, questioning, basic underlying assumptions about truth and justice shape my orientation to Islam. When I began my academic career, I realized how much I was a product of multiple worlds. Even when I rebel, it is within that framework. I know there are people who consider me less than Muslim because I don’t conform. There are people who consider me less than American and some who think I’m not Black enough. Who is it that decides how does one engage with the communities that you belong to and who decides for you what those traditions should mean? I am beginning to ramble…knowing this blog entry really started out to talk about how fun Girgian was.

9 thoughts on “Cultural Matters–Bridging Worlds

  1. I so feel you on this Margari…I celebrate the plurality of Muslims but it can be hard as so many of us promote a cookie cutter mold on our brothers and sisters. I regularly attend a masjid associated with Imam W.D. Muhammed b/c I find the gender issues less problematic. In other words I know I will have a clean open space to pray and there is a general feeling of warmth between the brothers and sisters. I also find that the non-African-American immigrant Muslims who attend (especially sisters) feel comfortable in that people pretty much are not about being naysayers (or should I say La sayers)-they leave you alone.

    I actually feel quite special to belong to such a diverse religion which I feel brings you into contact with so many different languages, clothing, cuisines and experiences.

    Insha’Allah, I hope that the silencing of Af-Am Muslims changes-the fact is I know quite a few sisters who are pushing against the grain. The bean pie and bow-tie jokes that belittle are growing stale Alhamdulilah!


  2. I think you please Allah best by being your authentic self which means developing to the fullest the mix of qualities Allah created in you that make you uniquely wonderful you. Sounds like you’re there, sister, more power-from-within to you!


  3. I agree with sister Jannah. God made you a mix of all these different things/put you at a bunch of different cross roads for a reason. It’s a tight rope to walk, though. A lot of people don’t realize/feel strong enough to defy falling into one group or another. Or we become obsessed with being outside the box.

    Maybe the focus should just be what you the individual vibes with /needs, not in a hedonistic way, but with the conscious aim of maintaining sanity and remaining true to oneself. After all, intention is everything.


  4. Pingback: Death and Dishonor « Just Another Angry Black Muslim Woman?

  5. Salaam,

    This was a fascinating read as I try to negotiate Bay Area Muslim institutions myself as a Pakistani- American Muslim who started practicing again 6 years ago.

    Thanks for sharing your insights.



  6. Salaam Alaikum Sis Aziza. MashAllah firstly I juss wanna say I really enjoy coming to ure page and reading you insightful posts. This is the first comment I’m posting…but this post really spoke to me. I totally relate the “Multiple Identity” of which you speak. I’m the daughter of a Afro-Trinidadian convert and myself was born and raised Muslim here in Toronto, Canada. I am extremly tied to my identity as a Muslimah but at the same time I’m very tied to by Caribbean culture. At times I’m made to feel guilty about taking pride in my Caribbean culture because a lot of Muslim see it as “unislamic” and it has always been something that’s hard for me to come to terms with. Mostly it has to do because in my own understanding of Islam-which is something that changed everyday as I seek to increase my knowlege- there is nothing wrong with that. Yes I am Hijabi…sometimes I wear the full scarf in the “traditional” sense and honestly I sometimes wrap it up Afro-styles and I really don’t feel any shame in it yet people are always so quick to chastise me…I dunno it’s weird. For me Islam is truth, yet at the same time I also acknowledge that we as individuals make our own truth by the ways in which we understand our lived realities and ultimately is this not how we will be judged by? I realise that a lot of what I do in my life many people will not think it “Halal” but my concern is not with their judgements but Allah…he knows what is in my heart even when I know not…even if I am justifying what should not by justified I’m only going by what I understand to be true. Am I making sense? It crazy how consumed we get by how other people choose to practice their faith…May Allah Guide and Protect us all.


  7. I have enjoyed this article as well as the replies. I have drifted away from practice because of frustrations dealing with immigrant-based communities (and Oakland is too far to make Friday prayer). My oldest daughter has recently decided to become a hijabi and is very active with the muslim community at her college. She has inspired me to re-examine my faith and excuses (smile). I would like to check out the community in San Ramon. Does anyone know what they are like? I am a little hesitant since I’ve had numerous negative experiences with ultra-orthodox coummnities and the more-Muslim-than-thou attitudes and am hoping this will be better and more tolerant.


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