Ramadan Mubarak!!

Up until late Friday night when the new moon was finally visible, we kept asking in anticipation. Many people were happy in Philadelphia because everyone started Ramadan on Saturday. It is nice to have some unity. On another note, this Ramadan is a time for me to think of new traditions and make some major commitments to personal development. I’m not going to take up your time during Ramadan outlining my spiritual goals or daily struggles to incorporate more religious rigor during this Holy month. While making goals public may motivate me to follow through, I believe it puts me in danger of Riya (showing off and doing acts for the sake of others). Instead, I hope to post a few articles about practical spirituality, based on a lecture I’m giving at Quba on September 6. I’m also working on a review of Sherman Jackson’s Islam and the Problem of Black Suffering.

Link Between Honor and Islam

A few days ago, my aunt called and informed me of the passing of my step-grandfather (may Allah have mercy on him and make it easy on my grandmother). Since she is not always known for her tact, she switched the subject and asked me about my thoughts on the case of the teen who feared for her life because her Muslim father wanted to kill her for converting to Christianity. You can read more about the story here. At that time, I hadn’t heard of the story and I was a bit shocked that my aunt would bring this case up. After an awkward pause, I became a bit flustered and said, “I’m not sure what does this have to do with me. You know Black Americans make up one of the largest groups of Muslims and you have never had a single honor killing occur amongst Black Americans.” I went on, “You have all these Black people with Muslims names running around who are no longer Muslim and their families aren’t trying to kill them. What does this have to do with me?” I wasn’t saying this because I didn’t want to engage in a discussion about freedom of choice. Rather, I felt annoyed that somehow, as a Muslim, I had to answer for every Muslim. Plus, the timing of the conversation was a bit off. I was still in shock over the death and slowly sinking into mourning. Now my head was spinning with the typical misunderstanding and interfaith conversation you have with classmates or co-workers. But it was family, so that made it different.

I think my point at the time is still valid. Islam doesn’t condone honor killings. I don’t want to sound like an apologist nor do I want to sound like a cultural bigot. But, really, let’s think about it. If there was a major link between Islam and honor killings, why aren’t there any cases to date involving convert families or Black American Muslims (and yes there are second and third generation Black American Muslim families). You’d think that the hard core who have adopted all sorts of cultural practices from the Middle East would have even more to lose in terms of their so called “Islamic authenticity.” I’ve seen some underage niqabis make out with underage boys on the trolley, high schooler muhajabats holding hands with their teenage boyfriends, imam’s daughters getting knocked up by non-Muslim to have their children raised by their grandparents, young Muslim girls going and getting tattoed up and piercings, coming home with hickies, and so on.You wold think that a case might arise in Philly, a city of Muslim contradictions.

Black Americans have a totally different notion of honor than that which arises from South Asian and Middle Eastern cultures. I’ve even noticed a certain level of tolerance for sexual improprieties, and personal choices that contradict Islamic norms, as a reality of our condition in this society. Perhaps this has more to do with our understanding of redemption and repentance. After all we live in a confessional society where secrets do not prevail. We accept the notion of freedom of choice knowing that we can’t impose conformity, let alone religious identity, upon our children. I think anthropologists and sociologists can write volumes of comparative studies on the reproduction of Islam in American families. The reality is that when you take into account indigenous American Muslims, and Black American Muslims in particular, a number of presumptions about what comes from Islam and what comes from culture will be laid to rest.

Philly Vignettes

Today was hot, but not as hot as yesterday. Still, the air was stale and it doesn’t help that it is garbage day. Unlike my old neighborhoods in California where they use automated trucks that lift and empty the standard cans with hinged lids, Philadelphians put their plastic garbage bags out on the curb. On occasion, you will see the blue recycling receptacles, but hardly anyone in Philly recycles. The point is, garbage day smells in this city. Walking down 45th, there are three thrift shops: one for household items, one for clothes, and one for furniture. They are all owned by the same company. Sometimes I’m amazed that they are still open, considering their rather dismal inventory. I stopped in the household items store. A wiry thin Black man who was younger than he appeared due to the ravages of substance abuse walked in. As he strolled to the back of the store he began to say, “Let my people Go!” to the white woman at the counter who also looked as if she lived a hard life of partying and despair. He said “Let my people go!” again and she replied with her back turned, “I hear ya!” The man said it several times. Then with a slightly ironic voice, “Power to the people, fight the power!” After he left, I continued to stroll through the store with two hipster/anarchists who typically roam this West Philly neighborhood. Like a proper nonconformist, they too had tattoos on their forearms and calves. Both apparently found useful items. Before walking out disappointed, I overheard the woman at the counter talking to another woman. She said that the doctor told her that if the bumps weren’t from mosquito bites, they they may be from bed bugs or scabies. She said her friend had them and said you could only get them from lying in bed. I made my way out of that store, vowing not to buy anything from there. I strolled down 45th street, a little bit more unnerved by the grunge of this city. All the houses had set out their garbage and household junk. I noticed a woman picking through a pile of discarded blankets and comforters. I thought about the lady with bed bugs and shuddered. I stopped in CVS and wandered around for a bit looking for cleaning supplies and storage units. The woman who helped me at the counter was holding a conversation with her coworkers about paying back her girlfriend money. Although her weave wasn’t over the top, I did wonder why she felt the need to put on fake eyelashes. She, like nearly everybody else in this town, had arms covered in what looked like prison house tattoos. Black folks tattoos are never as fancy as the anarchists. On my way back, I kept smelling something terrible. I began to wonder if I stepped in something because no matter where I went that smell followed me. People love dogs in this city and very few people have backyards. So they have to walk their dogs and follow them with a bag to pick up their dog’s feces and drop it in one of the rare receptacles designated for that purpose. The immigrants in this neighborhood don’t have dogs, but the hipsters are more on point about picking up after their dogs than the Black folks who walk their dogs in Muhammad Park. Even as I walked the length of the parking lot, I kept smelling the terrible smell. After checking my shoes I realized it was just the smell of West Philadelphia on a hot summer day. I just got in, time to shower the Philadelphia grime off me.

Book Covers and the Publishing Industry

Recently, my husband brought home Sherman Jackson’s book, Islam and the Problem of Black Suffering. This book is a follow up to Islam and the Black American : The Third Resurrection. Both books are about Black American Muslims. So why did the publishers choose this picture?

It is a beautiful picture of a West African outside a mosque with a traditional architectural style found in parts of Niger, Mali, and Northern Nigeria. But what the heck does this have to do with Black American Muslims? Is this picture saying that all phenotypically sub-Saharan African Muslims have a problem with suffering? Somehow, we are all some homogenous group struggling with slavery and racial inequality? Honestly, I don’t think the publishers thought that deep. I think they just liked the picture and thought that all Black people are pretty much the same. I guess they didn’t think that this would raise an eyebrow. Maybe this was because they assumed that the book was not necessarily geared towards an academic audience. Perhaps they thought that the general audience would not be offended by a publisher would that refused to distinguish between West Africans and Black Americans as a distinct ethnic and cultural groups. This reminds me of a recent controversy about a book with a black protagonist, but a noticeably whitewashed cover which was discussed over at Racilicious, Lying on the cover. In some ways this brings me back to a conversation I had nearly two years ago with a friend of West African descent. As she bemoaned the terrible plight of “our people,” of how we suffered through slavery, colonialism, racial indignities, and oppression, I began to interrogate her concept of collective suffering. I asked her whether ALL Africans suffered from slavery, for surely there were African slaveholders. I also said that there were African collaborators to colonialism and some African elites who became insanely wealthy. I also noted that not all Africans experienced racism and argued that in some places the power of the colonial state was rather thin. I wasn’t necessarily saying this to demolish her pan-African worldview, but to say that maybe things weren’t so bad for everyone who descended from or live below the Sahara. I guess that’s what bothers me about the cover. In some ways it touches upon something that kind of bothers me about Tommie Shelby’s arguments against a positive Black cultural identity in his book, We Who Are Dark: The Philosophical Foundations of Black Solidarity. He argues for Black solidarity based on the premise of fighting against racial inequality, basically what he calls pragmatic nationalism. I have problems with a negative Black identity (and collective action) based on anti-Black racism and social inequality. While race is a social construction, nations are social constructions too. But nobody would deny that Americans have a real culture and a unique history that sets it apart from let’s say Canada or Guatemala. The international banking system is a social construction, and while the value of the dollar may change and the market may bottom up, we still participate in it. These things may be even more imaginary than the physical differences that we use to distinguish lineage and social background. I do agree with Shelby that there are problems with an essentialized Black identity where we are a monolithic group without class, regional, and even cultural differences. This is why I think it is important to celebrate the distinct cultural heritages of people in the Diaspora and the continent. Unfortunately, the publishers chose a book cover that fails in that regard.