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.

Black Jesus

This entry was inspired by some questions a Muslim brother asked me about conversion, Christianity, race, and my views of a white God:

As a Christian, I had a hard time absorbing that whole race division issue. I didn’t understand how could KKK be good Christians and hate us so much. How could someone be a good Christian and fight the Civil Rights movement? Interesting thing in history is that the Catholic Church condones interracial marriage. And had it not been for the virulent opposition of the Irish American community, the Catholic Church would have played a greater part in the Civil Rights movement.

Muslims do have divisions, but we have important rituals and texts that combat racial, ethnic, and cultural divisions. This is why the Hajj scene in the Malcolm X movie was so powerful. Through this universal ritual all Muslims are brought together and class divisions are eradicated. Even in prayer, you can go to any mosque and perform prayer without understanding the language of the local community members.

Another thing that drew me to Islam was the Prophet’s (SAW) last sermon. He addressed racial equality, relationships between men and women, all sort of important issues that affect us today. This is during the 7th century, predating any racial equality movement by 1400 years. The closest we get to that in the Bible is the story about the Good Samaritan, but that is a sectarian difference not really ethnic or racial.

When I was a little little girl. My sister and I used to try out different churches. At one church, the people told us that when after we die and go to heaven God would burn off all skin and we’d be white like everyone else. Of course this was horrifying, up till then I didn’t know that anything was wrong with our brown skin. I didn’t really even know the difference between black and white. I thought my mom was white because she was lighter than everyone else around us.

Years later, I remember going to a Mormon church with my mom. They showed us pictures of Jesus and God visiting, I think, Joseph Brown. Jesus was totally Aryan (with a beard though)and God was just an older version with white hair and a white beard. That picture just creeped me out. They told us that there was a war between God and Satan and that there were angels who stayed with god and some angels sided with Satan. Then there were the fence-sitting angels who could not choose. According to the story, God cursed these angels and they became black people. So this explained slavery and the condition of Africans. Of course, I was totally horrified to hear such a thing.

Then, we get to more mainstream depictions. The pictures always bothered me, worshipping a white God. I read lots of illustrated bibles. And I never saw any black people, unless we were talking about Noah cursing Ham.

As an African American, the story of the Jews and four hundred years of slavery in Egypt had a special resonance. I wrestled with this notion of a chosen people and the pictures of a European Jesus (who was God). Maybe this is all reflected in the appearance of Black Jesus paintings. Funny thing is, my dad had long straight hair when I was a kid. He kind of looked like the picture of Black Jesus. Sometimes women would see him on the street, sometimes as jokes, sometimes real (according to my mother’s account) calling out “Jesus!” I am trying to find that picture, because that would be pretty cool.

In early church iconography Jesus did look Middle Eastern, especially in Greek and Russian orthodox churches. During the Renaissance, the Italians decided to paint scenes using local models, so thus the pictures of Mary, Jesus and the Saints looked like Northern Italians. This allowed for people to relate to them. If you look at nativity scenes, they look like Italian villages because many of the artists did not know what Bethlehem looked like.

There is a controversial movie set in modern where Jesus is an African. Many people are in an uproar. Not to offend Christians, but the image of a white God has been used to dominate non-Europeans and justify white supremacy. This has been an unfortunate consequence that has developed out of Europeans doing the same thing that the African producers are doing–making an image of the Messiah in a way that is culturally accessible to the local population. I think it is is worthwhile, but if we make it universal then it becomes oppressive. So, if we want to make a Native American nativity scene, East Asian, South Asian, Aboriginal, African, even Mixed Race nativity would be totally awesome. Why not? Palestine is at the cross roads of three different continents.