Wellness, Reconnecting with the Natural World, and Spiritual Rejuvenation

A street side garden near the Italian Market in Philadelphia

A physical and spiritual health crisis is brewing within the Black American community. Even Black American Muslims feel the effects of the urban condition and poverty, as well as materialism and a culture geared towards immediate gratification. What better way to feel gratified than eating? Even with our dietary restrictions and moral strictures, hypertension, diabetes, heart disease, and obesity are disproportionately taking younger and younger lives. Much of it comes from what we consume and how much we consume, in this culture of consumerism. In recent discussions at home, my husband and I have been discussing our relationship with the natural world, our relationship with food, and well-being food. He’s given a recent Khutbah on the Importance of Food and What Lies Beyond it. In it, he makes it clear that our relationship with food has spiritual dimensions. By eating healthy and incorporating daily activities, such as maintaining even a small garden or planting a tree, we can reconnect with ourselves and our natural world.

Muslim organizations are beginning to embrace this concept. At the school where I teach, the principal required all upper school students to write an essay on “Going Green” for a scholarship contest held by a Muslim organization. I read all of my students’ papers and so many of them were inspiring. I became even more conscious of the everyday decisions I make that affect the environment and my health. The winning paper, written by a young man in the 10th grade, was an excellent essay on eating locally grown organic non-processed food. He made a striking case for how eating locally grown food is more beneficial for the environment than processed food. Processed food is grown with chemicals that seep into our water system, in addition to being packaged and shipped, requiring petroleum for the plastics that wrap it and fuel to move it. Our industrial food complex is reeking havoc on the environment, just as it is ruining the health of so many Americans. I’ve known several people my age who have suffered from Diabetes and Hypertension. And the dietary changes they have to make include reducing red meat and eating low-fat foods and fresh vegetables.

You would think that obesity and diet related diseases would be the bastion of wealthy people who could afford to splurge on rich food. But it is not. The wealthy can afford healthy food much in the same way they can book vacations, go on retreats or hikes to rejuvenate both physically and spiritually. One of the first places we see inequality is in food access. Affluent neighborhoods have a plethora of food choices and with healthy restaurants. In gentrified neighborhoods you will always find a Wholefoods, Trader Joe’s, and your weekend Farmers Markets. In poorer neighborhoods, you will find sub-par produce, and often a lack of grocery stores. Farmers markets and the Mennonites don’t really make it deep into places like North Philly. Instead, you will find bodegas or corner stores full of highly processed junk food. But healthy eating, urban gardens, organic produce, and wholesome living are not just for tree hugging hippies or urban hipsters.

While privileged members of our society have greater access, there are religious leaders and social justice activists who are fighting for urban renewal and healthy food access. The tradition of diet and health has long roots in religious revival movements. My mother grew up Seventh Day Adventist,. She recalls going to camps where they adhered to vegetarianism and kosher dietary laws. The Nation of Islam also emphasized healthy eating and moderations. I remember picking up a copy of the NOI publication, How to Eat to Live. Black American Orthodox Muslims also have a long tradition in diet, health, and wellness. In the 20th century, such as the Izzidine village, emphasized self sustainable rural communities based on agriculture. Many of those who moved back to the urban environment continued to develop urban gardens that fed the local community. Muslim leaders continue to emphasize health and wellness as duties because “our bodies have rights over us.” They encourage eating halal food, as well as eating in moderation for our spiritual well being. Tied to taking care of our bodies because it has rights over us is our role as vicegerent of this Earth.

But sometimes in urban environments, it is hard to remember our vicegerency because we can’t see our link with nature and our food chain. However, some people are looking to rejuvenate the city with flower and vegetable gardens. I’ve passed by gardening clubs where members grow fruits and vegetables on their small high yield plots. Some gardens are so productive that they help stock pantries of soup kitchens. And many city dwellers are turning their backyards into produce centers. In fact, Urban gardening is about as hip walking spastic toy dogs. Not far from where we live is a communal garden full of hipsters who bring their own spades and shovels to reconnect with nature on weekends.

Even I’ve begun gardening in our small patio backyard. I didn’t start in order to jump on the bandwagon. But rather to reconnect with the natural world, which seems light years away from South Philly. I also wanted to connect with my heritage, my mother’s rural roots in New Jersey. It wasn’t until the great migration that thousands of Black Americans migrated from the rural south to Northern cities. And my grandmother’s roots in Georgia. My grandmother maintained a vegetable garden, as well as my mother.

While I haven’t started a vegetable garden yet, for over a year I talked about getting a house plant so that we’d have something green in our apartment. Every time my husband brought home flowers, I’d brighten up. Now he smiles when he finds me in the backyard toiling away. I’ve nursed some marigolds without potting them for over two weeks. With the three-day weekend, I had an opportunity to take my garden to the next level. So I dragged my husband, who’s always supportive of whatever endeavor I take on, through the Italian market, to Walmart, and the Urban Jungle store in search of the supplies I needed to create our own little back yard paradise.

I woke up this morning to see if I killed any of those little plants. And with a sigh of relief I saw them bright and cherry. But later in the afternoon, I had to rescue my wilting Salvias from the prostrating heat. I really understood our relationship with nature as I saw the leaves begin to stretch out with life again and the stems stand up straight with pride just a half hour after my efforts at watering and adding more soil to my pots. I felt a bit of wonder as I saw a butterfly float into my backyard and dance around from flower to flower. Perhaps it may not have found its way to my patio had it not seen the flowers. Perhaps I could draw more butterflies. Better yet, I’m thinking I could hang a bird feeder as a next step.

Recently I looked up the vegetables that are ideal to begin planting in June. I’m going to get my seeds and start. Perhaps this Fall, we can enjoy our first harvest. It’s a small step. But it goes a long way in helping me appreciate the difficult journey our food makes to our mouth. Our lifestyle has led to us being alienated from ourselves and disconnected with our natural world. Thus, we abuse our bodies with unhealthy food, our bodies atrophy from inactivity, and we are blocked from seeing the many beautiful signs of Allah through his creation. Having something alive and growing around us reminds us of Allah’s wonders, even if we can’t hike at Yosemite every weekend. Perhaps with my little garden I can be more mindful of Allah’s mercy and my “bismillah” before each meal will be said with more meaning and sincerity.

UMM Qur’an Summer Camp 2010

One thing Philly does well is summer camp for Muslim kids. I know several people who are involved with organizing camps and children’s classes. I’m really excited to be involved with this one. I have so much to learn from the other teachers and I look forward to working with the youth camp counselors. I will keep you posted.

Folk Religion and the Sunni Gaze

Traveling to Muslim majority countries, you may find some things that do not seem to jive well with our (Western) understanding of Islam. I remember living in Fez in Summer of 2005, where I encountered other Western Muslims who had to come to terms with the contradictions of tradition and Islam. There were two British Muslims, one a convert and another from a South Asian background, who were so appalled by folk religion that they wanted to high tail it out of there. As Salafis, they condemned the innovation they saw everywhere. I wasn’t as interested in condemning Morocco as a whole country. My rudimentary training in ethnography gave me a certain tolerance for folk religion. I was interested in the roots of some practices, whether or not they were indigenous and reflected Berber folklore or influenced by sub-Saharan African traditional religions brought over by descendants of slaves.

The previous year, I had travelled to Morocco for a six week summer program. We went to various sites to see cultural and religious practices. On one of these trips, we passed by the shrine of Moulay Idris II in Fez, noted as a women’s masjid. You can enter Fez’s Old City in one of several gates and walk through winding narrow streets that are like arteries in an organic body. Buildings merge into the ancient city scape, and your senses are assaulted with all sorts of sights, smells, and sounds, some good and some bad. At Moulay Idriss, women light candles and burn incense for fertility. I remember seeing padlocks tied to the grate. For hundreds of years women placed locks on the grate after praying to Moulay Idriss to help them solve a dilemma, a difficult husband, unruly child, or help them conceive and deliver a child. Today, students place the padlock for their examinations.

I was never a superstitious Muslim, but I heard my fair share of scary Jinn stories. In a society where there is a 25% unemployment rate and most people are underemployed and poor compensated, hard times are often blamed on curses and jinns. Just as psychological illness is blamed on Jinn. Once, we visited the shrine of Sidi Hamdush and saw the oracle that was just below the shrine. The View from Fez has some beautiful pictures of the Moroccan Sufi Festival Sidi Ali. Out of respect and fear of reprisal, I did not take pictures of the oracle, the man who did not cut his hair, beard, and seemed to not have bathed in months. Outside of the oracle, was a line of shops selling items that a pilgrim could sacrifice at the oracle. The oracle would read look at people and tell them what jinn was possessing them and possible ways to excorcise that jinn. Moroccan authorities are very uncomfortable with Westerners visiting these places, mainly because they don’t want to draw too much attention to controversial ecstatic sufi practices. Near the shrine, was a spring where women bathed with hopes that it would help with fertility.

Once I remove that scholarly lens, I try to think about what do these experiences mean to me as an American Muslim. It raises important questions regarding espousing beliefs that run counter to the belief system we espouse. My observations in Egypt, Kuwait, and Morocco help me see that no one society has Islam on lock. In order words, we all have bits and pieces that we try to string together. My experiences remind me how easy it is to continually incorporating thought patterns and belief systems which run counter to tawheed. Importantly, it makes me grateful, in many ways, that I have access to learning where I was able to learn about Islam relatively free from cultural baggage and superstition. Islam freed me from perpetual fear of jealousy, curses, randomness, capricious spirits, and emptiness. I’ve learned that Allah has my back and I don’t need to go to a special holy person to pray for me or carry around some amulet to protect me from harm. There is no transformation or power except through Allah.

Muslim Survival Kits

Being a practicing Muslim in America requires critical thinking and creativity, as well as perseverance. One can remain practice comfortably at home, but working and interacting with people outside of Muslim establishments can be a challenge, especially for women. This is especially the case when it comes time to make salat (the ritual prayer that Muslims make 5 times a day). Normally when I plan my errands, I take into consideration prayer times. I will often wait till after dhuhr (afternoon prayer) before leaving the house and limit my trips so that I will be home in time to make Asr(late noon). If I can’t do that, then I will map out local masajid (with actual women’s section) where I can stop. Sometimes, however, a masjid is not near by. Even the best planning doesn’t work out so well. That is why you have to plan ahead and be prepared.

Every Muslim should have a Muslim survival. The survival kit can consist of a number of items. But the basics that ensure Muslim ritual purity and a clean place for prayer are, a water bottle, a prayer mat, and proper attire.

Over the years I have had to come up with make-shift solutions for wudu (ritual ablution) when there is not a bathroom or faucet in sight, clean prayer areas when my prayer mat is in another state, or a private space to make my salat (ritual prayer). I’ve made wudhu with bottled water because the bathrooms were so scary. I’ve made sajdah on notebook paper. And I’ve prayed in dressing rooms or between cars in parking lots. I’ve even seen women pray in sheets when they couldn’t find their prayer outfit in the dark.

Although there are times when we have to resort to desperate measures, there are inventive Muslims who are trying to make our lives easier. I’ve seen beautifully designed prayer outfits that fold up in convenient pouches. I own a few light weight rugs that I take with me on long errand runs. I even have my own batter powered handheld bidet. Still, I’m anticipating even greater quality of items, such as compasses, travel rugs, micro-light prayer outfits, and bidets that can help make life easier.There are several examples on the internet including the following:

My husband’s friend has a more involved Muslim survival kit than the one mentioned above. I addition to the water bottle his kit includes a bottle of Lysol, bleach cleaner, paper towels, a squeeze bottle for istinjah, Tinactin to avoid athlete’s foot contracted from damp rugs, and flip flops to avoid contracting athlete’s feet from the hamam ship ships. He uses this kit to survive the hazards of the men’s restrooms in masajid. My husband recounts the horrors of men’s bathrooms which are notorious across all cultures. And even I’ve been to scary bathrooms frequented by women. The worst places were the women’s bathrooms in many Cairo masajid. The stench spilled over into the women’s sections of the prayer hall. Sadly, I admit there were times when I decided to make up my prayer at home for fear that I’d trail some urine or fecal matter on my clothes. I think this is why many uninformed Muslims think that if your feet touch the floor of a bathroom, it breaks your wudhu. While it may not break your wudhu, in many Muslim bathrooms, one slip up may soil your clothes with an impurity that needs to be ritually cleaned three times before you can pray in it. I’m not a scholar, so I’ll defer that issue to a faqih. But back to my point, whether you are camping in the wilderness of North America, in a Muslim country, or doing errands near your local American Muslim community, you may need to have your survival kit ready. Are you ready?