Mobilizing Black-American Muslims

How a rally in Philadelphia could be an effective model for the future

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Image source: Joshua Scott Albert @ jpegjoshua

The “Make It Plain-Philly” rally that took place on December 27th, 2014 was as much about the present day circumstances of race in America as it was about the long-term mobilization of black Muslims in America.

Philadelphia is one of the oldest and most established indigenous American Muslim communities. According to the the Association of Religion Data Archives, in 2010 Muslims made up about 2.6% Philadelphia County’s population, totaling about 40,000. It is the fourth largest Muslim population center, with at least 63 registered mosques. Islam is so normalized in Philadelphia that it is not an uncommon sight to see a hijab-clad black American Muslim driving the city bus or niqab-wearing women in scrubs at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Islam has become deeply embedded in the local vernacular, so much so that many non-Muslims use the term “ock” (derived from the Arabic term akhi which means brother) to refer to Muslims. Even Muslim modes of dress and grooming are adopted by the broader community. It is not uncommon for a non-Muslim to request a “sunni beard” trim from his local barber. Muslims have played an important role in the city’s institutions, a noteworthy example is Kenny Luqman Gamble’s redevelopment project in South Philadelphia.

Given this cultural and institutional presence in the city, black Muslims in Philadelphia have an opportunity to establish two important precedents:

First, Muslims should have a lot to say about racism in America, drawing from the history of black Muslims who have repeatedly articulated powerful critiques of racist social, cultural, political and economic structures. Taking a leadership role in addressing issues of race and racism in America is an important step Muslims in America must undertake that aligns with the moral and ethical impulses of Islam. In other words, Islam has something meaningfully important to add to the conversation, and so participation is both morally obligated and politically necessary.

Second, the black Muslim community must take this opportunity to assume a leadership role within the broader Muslim community on an issue important to America. Muslims in general must take an active role in addressing issues of racism and bigotry and black Muslims have unique insights into these issues given its history and experience of Islam in America.

In 1985, Philadelphia became the only US city in which a police department bombed civilians, killing 11 people. The Justice Department recently intervened  to curb abuses in Philadelphia Police Department.  The cases of misconduct included corruption, excessive use of force, sexual misconduct, false arrest, and homicide.  Philadelphia Muslims are no strangers to structural racism, over policing and surveillance.   The NYPD’s spy program includes surveillance of UPenn MSA students. A few years back, an APB was issued by police for my husband, Marc Manley, for taking a picture of train tracks while wearing a fez.

Likewise, black Muslims are not immune to the vulnerability of black Life, as the Philadelphia community was reminded of at the janazah of Aisha Abdul Rahman.  Black Muslims are all too often victims of gun violence.

With the intersection of race, Muslim identity and policing in Philadelphia, the spontaneous efforts Philadelphia Muslims to organize “Make It Plain” was a necessary response by a community that needs to make it presence known.

One of the most powerful statements of the rally was the presence of black American Muslim leadership. The organizers have decades of experience fundraising, community building, writing, and supporting the community.  We are witnessing increased solidarity within the Muslim community.  We are hopeful that discussions about race happening in Muslim circles across the country. But we have many hurdles to overcome in order to make long term and sustainable changes. Some black American Muslim leaders from the  Black Power movement have expressed skepticism about the efficacy of our actions. Some traditional Muslims don’t believe that protest even has a place in Islam. We have to be vigilant about exercises of privilege from our non-black allies within the Muslim community, which can derail important conversations or deflate the momentum. It is absolutely necessary that we train our non-black Muslim allies in privilege and anti-racism in order to prevent patterns of paternalism or speaking over inner-city black Muslims. We also need to develop trainings for marginalized groups and youth so that they can have the tools and vocabulary to challenge attempts to silence them.

Kameelah Mu’min Rashad, a prominent Muslim activist in Philadelphia, spoke of this rally as a call to action for Muslim community leaders and members to unite and take a stand for police accountability and racial justice. “We must put faith into action and take a stand against oppression, whether by seeking to remove it with our hands, speaking against it, or by hating it in our hearts. We are calling on our brothers and sisters to stand, speak and act!

Donna Auston stated, “it was wonderful to see our community, predominantly black Muslims, standing up for #blacklivesmatter. Both identities should speak to this moment.”

When I asked Kameelah what stood out most, she replied by pointing to a picture of a young boy holding a megaphone during the march, referring to the participation of our children. “Bring our children with us so that they will be part of this legacy. It is an ongoing struggle, a generational struggle.” She continued,  ” this is not just talk. This is their inheritance as Muslims as black people as Americans”.

The rally was held at LOVE park at 15th and JFK Boulevard at 12pm. The line up included, Tanya Dickerson, Brandon Tate-Brown’s mother, author and poet Seff Al-Afriqi, author and poet, writer Shahidah Mohammad, and keynote speaker Imam Abdul Malik. All faiths are welcome.

Make it Plain is a group of concerned Muslims who are working to raise awareness to encourage, inspire, and support the mobilization of the Muslim community to respond to police brutality and the conditions that bring about the over policing of the Black/African American community. We are kicking off this movement in Philadelphia. For more information, visit the site muslimsmakeitplain.com.  You can also visit the Facebook Event page.

Originally published at Islamic Monthly.

#IAmMuslimARC

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This short video below outlines one of the major motivation for doing this work, my work in an Islamic school. I am committed to supporting healthy environments for Muslim children to thrive and prosper. I found that many of our children were ill equipped with the skills necessary to challenge the racism they faced, whether it came from their peers or from the broader society.

I don’t want people to think that the experience was all negative. I saw many wonderful examples of students and families who embodied Islam. I have a young daughter and I constantly pray that my daughter grows up to be like many of the girls and young women I came to know. Empowering our youth with healthy self-identities and with a sense that they can help create a better world are two of my greatest motivations.  Those two years teaching secondary school left a lasting impact on me. Those students taught me much more than I could have ever taught them. I still see those beautiful young children, although most of my students  are adults, in college, starting their own families, and taking on leadership roles themselves.

Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative in many ways represents the beauty of Islam. Although I felt those deep bonds of sisterhood with individuals over the years, I had struggled calling my co-religionists brothers and sisters. Sometimes it was because of some of the  socio-economic, gendered, and racial power dynamic  that dehumanized us. Other times, it was because I felt in the end our futures were not intertwined. But this past year, the tireless  work  Namira Islam, Bangladeshi American woman who lived thousands of miles away, Laura Poyneer, a white American Muslim who at the time lived on the other side of the country, and over forty volunteers who gave their precious time showed me the depth of our bond. Our shared visions,  frustrations, hopes,  and struggles bind us together.

I am asking you to join us in this movement. We are need your input to know a bit more about MuslimARC’s reach. Please take a moment to complete this short survey.


If you checked any of these than, YOU are part of the Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative.

 

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Come out and show your support for anti-racism education and activism in the Muslim community. Join us for a hashtag event that is part of MuslimARC’s new LaunchGood campaign to both raise awareness and funds for anti-racism initiatives and projects throughout the US.  Give $5 or 5 minutes to spread the word. Follow the event at https://twitter.com/muslimarc and use the hahtag #IAmMuslimARC to be part of the conversation on Tuesday November 11 2:00PM PDT/ 5:00 PM EST.

Sister Intisar Shah: QAAMS

QAAMS

Intisar Shah is one of the most recognisable and respected members of the Philadelphia Muslim community. Born and raised in North Philadelphia, she accepted Islam in 1973. Some people have described Intisar Shah as a rock of the community, but she is more than that; she’s a gemstone who has been polished through perseverance, faith, and dedication to her community.

While small in stature, sister Intisar has a calm and commanding presence that is respected by everyone. Qasim Rashad highlights Intisar’s positive attitude, explaining, “She has an ability to make you feel the world cares about you while at the same time she is as candid and truthful as they come.” Perhaps it’s her mid-Atlantic dialect, with traces of Southern warmth, or that Philly swagger, which transcends age, that makes it so easy for people of all ages to relate to her. She acknowledges, “I work with both ends, the youth and elders, and the adults in between.”

 

For over 40 years, sister Intisar has worked with inner city youth. Keziah Ridgeway, educator, writer, and Philly fashionista, relates, “I still remember her work with the youth back when I was in high school and it doesn’t seem that she’s slowed down one bit as she grows older.” Intisar lives just one block from United Muslim Masjid in South Philadelphia, one of the city’s most active Muslim communities. Qasim Rashad, Amir of United Muslim Masjid, notes, “Everyone that knows sister Intisar knows she loves her community, her people and the youth.” She considers the Muslim community her family and the masajid across Philadelphia home. Intisar recounted her youth, “I came from a family of very motivated leaders. My mother fought for community rights and a clean neighbourhood. She always had an extra plate at the table for a stranger, for anyone that may drop by.” Intisar’s most meaningful work is linked to turning personal tragedy into blessings for the youth and Philadelphia Muslim community as a whole.

 

One of the great testaments to her faith and dedication to Islamic education is the life of her son, Qa’id Ameer Abdul-Majeed Staten. Like his mother and father, Sam Staten Sr., Qa’id devoted much of his time to volunteering in the community. Despite his youth, Qa’id inspired others around him and even began his own organisation. When I asked her what the key was to raising such a devout, thoughtful, and inspirational young man, Intisar stated that every child needs discipline and order. She said, “I am a believer in being firm, but first and foremost, I always tried to put Allah I in the front of our life.” Intisar, like her mother, opened her home to others and almost every night three to a half dozen of her son’s friends spent the night. She said, “Everything I did with our son and his friends was to always let them know the role that they played as men in our community. They should be God-fearing, make prayer, and call their families to prayer.” She also stressed the importance of her son’s Islamic education in shaping his character. Intisar highlighted how Clara Muhammad School was a safe haven compared to many public schools in Philadelphia, which are plagued by drugs and violence.

Qa’id had plans to attend Howard University on scholarship but on April 27, 2003, just a few weeks short of his graduation, he was fatally shot by a robber. During Qa’id’s funeral, a group of young adults who knew him decided to create an organisation that honoured his generosity and service to the community by also giving back to the community through a hajj fund. Intisar said, “My son and two of his friends made intention to make hajj the same year that he graduated. I went to perform the rites for my son and those two young men were the first recipients to hajj scholarship.” The youth formed The Qa’id Ameer Abdul- Majeed Staten (QAAMS) Hajj Foundation.

 

Sister Intisar Shah has been an integral part of QAAMS since its inception. This year, QAAMS celebrated its 10th anniversary and now has a youth council and senior council. The organisation seeks to preserve our youth through spirituality, education and recreation. Qasim Rashad says that there are over a dozen youth actively involved in the QAAMS youth council, which provides a healthy alternative to children who have outgrown the Jawaala (for boys 7 to 17) and Muslimah Scouts (for girls 6 to 16). QAAMS organises ski trips, hosts iftars during Ramadan and feeds the hungry with organisations, such as Feeding Philly. QAAMS also organises and sponsors Family Night at United Muslim Masjid and collaborates with the Muslim Students Associations in Philadelphia through events aimed at the youth, such as open mic poetry. QAAMS continues to sponsor hajj tours. About 11 members have performed hajj to this date. Many of the youth council members are currently starting college and are looking forward to performing hajj.

 

Most of the original members of QAAMS are now in their late 20s and have been involved with the organisation for about a decade. Intisar said that many are active in the community and restructuring the organisation. The youth who started QAAMS, she says, “ Are now married, husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, Bachelors, Masters, entrepreneurs, working in a variety of fields from health to social services.”

 

Organisations like QAAMS are so important for our community because they nurture and empower our youth, creating safe environments for them to flourish spiritually. Both Keziah Ridgeway and Qasim Rashad highlight how many of QAAMS’ members continue to give back to the community. At the QAAMS 10th anniversary gala, they didn’t need big name speakers. Instead, members inspired attendees by speaking about how their lives have been impacted by QAAMS and hajj. Intisar related that QAAMS is working on obtaining a building. She said, with a physical location “we can create safe quarters for the Muslim youth. So people can come and be educated about Islam, have social programs and be safe.” By working through QAAMS, Intisar is committed to building the Islamic community and creating opportunities for the youth, Muslim and non-Muslim alike.

 

This past May, Intisar received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 15th Annual Sister’s Recognition Luncheon and Fashion Show, which is sponsored by United Muslim Masjid. Intisar was acknowledged for her work; she has given over 40 years of service to the private and public sectors. She is the Executive Director of QAAMS Hajj Foundation, active in Jewels of Islam (a comprehensive program and support network for women 50 years and older), a Board Member of Islamic Heritage Foundation, and Committee Member for the City-Wide Eid. In addition to her work with QAAMS, she has also coordinated countless youth and adult activities for the Philadelphia Muslim community. Keziah Ridgeway highlights Intisar’s involvement and abilities as a facilitator, explaining, “When I participated in the Islamic Heritage Foundation Youth Committee and attended related events I always remember how involved Sis. Intisar was with participating and being the glue to hold it all together.”

 

Sister Intisar’s community building is not limited to the Muslim community; she also works in the broader public sector as an active member of Mothers In Charge (for women who lost family and loved ones due to violence), Support Community Outreach Program, and the Equal Partners in Charge, Department of Human Services Community Prevention Services. She also researches and writes with a joint effort for the Office of Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention Program in the Department of Health and Human Services promoting abstinence programs.

 

Women like Intisar are the backbone of our community. It is clear that she does her work out of love and to please her Lord. Qasim Rashad notes, “I think the most important lesson that any person can learn from Intisar is consistency. Her undying love and commitment to our community has not permitted her to waiver one bit. “Through her dedication, she has become an effective and influential leader. Keziah Ridgeway explains, “As a result of seeing her hard work and dedication, it inspired me to continue to give back to my community in whatever way that I can whether that be through the students that I teach, the girls I mentor through Alimah Scouts or online through my website and social media!”

 

Intisar’s community work following her son’s tragic death is a perfect example of how we can find strength through hardship. We often go to lectures and hear about how we should be steadfast and not despair. In the past, I have often asked myself ‘how?’ We have so many inspiring reminders in the Qur’an, such as the following verse where Allah I tells us: “Oh you who have believed, persevere and endure and remain stationed and fear Allah that you may be successful” (Al Imraan: 200)

 

Looking to Intisar’s life and hearing accounts of how she remained steadfast, I am reminded of the follow verse: “But give glad tidings to the patient. Who, when afflicted with calamity, say: “Truly, to Allah we belong and truly, to Him we shall return.” (Al-Baqarah: 155-156)

Some recounted the strength Intisar demonstrated during her son’s funeral, and she continues to have so much patience and grace when faced with hardship or struggle. Intisar says, “I am thankful to Allah I to be His servant. I am thankful that my son accepted Islam as a way of life. And I pray that Allah I is pleased with him. I really want to please Allah I. So I pray that I can meet him in Jannat al Firdous.” Sister Intisar has shown me how I can better embody the Qur’an and Sunnah in my life; how I can turn whatever hardship I face into a lifetime of meaningful work.

 

You can find more information about Intisar Shah’s work by visiting QAAMS’ Facebook page, http://www.facebook.com/QAAMS2003, or their website, http://www.qaamshajjfoundation.blogspot.com.

 

Margari Aziza Hill is an adjunct professor, blogger, and writer who lives just outside of Philadelphia.

 

You can read the full article at SISTERS magazine, along with many other fabulous and thoughtful contributions from Muslim women across the globe.

Why Black History?

I wrote the article below,  “Why Black History?” to commemorate Black History Month. You can read the full article and other great articles and references at  SuhaibWebb.com.

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O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. Indeed, Allah is Knowing and Acquainted.

49:13 Quran Sahih International

Black History Month is observed in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom to remember important events and people  of the African diaspora. In North America, we observe it in February and the United Kingdom during the month of  October. In 1926, the noted African American historian, Carter G. Woodson (d. 1950), began  “Negro History Week.” He selected  the second week in February in order to coincide with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. Woodson felt that scholars ignored his people’s history and other cultures. Much of his work was intended to foster understanding between the races. Joan Novelli writes, “Woodson believed that if whites learned of blacks’ contributions to American history and humanity, this awareness would engender respect.”[1] This reminds me of Surah 13 in Hujarat, where Allah (s.w.t.) tells us that He created us as different peoples and tribes so that we may know another. Racial equality and intercultural dialogue are moral imperatives based on Holy Scripture and Prophetic traditions.  Black history month is an opportunity for us to get to know the rich legacy of Africans and their contributions to their societies, our ummah, and humanity. Importantly, Muslim Americans should commemorate Black history because it is our history.

 

 

Black history month is not about nationalism. The Quran acknowledges heritage and lineage, but it emphasizes that nobility is not inherited. The most noble are those who cultivate piety. This is the essence of Islam’s egalitarian message. Black history month is an education initiative intended to combat racism. Even during the time of our Noble Prophet (s.a.w.), anti-Black and anti-African racism was a problem. It still plagues Muslim societies and our own communities in North America. One way that we can combat racism is by educating ourselves, and others, about the contributions of various peoples to our ummah, society, and humanity in general. February  is an opportunity to eradicate ignorance and combat prejudice against African and their descendants.

 

 

Black History Month is an importunity to instill self-worth in our youth. When I was in elementary school, two factors played a role in my low self worth: first, the lack of education about my people’s history and contributions to society; and second, school bullies who made fun of me and called me a slave and the “n” word. Today, in many Islamic schools, young people are still called “abeed” by their classmates. Abeed is the Arabic word for slave and it is the equivalent to calling someone the n-word.[2] When I was in elementary school, I thought that all my people were was slaves. I did do not know of the many contributions Black Americans have made to this society, whether in the sciences, business, or institutions. Although I was in the Gifted and Talented Education program, I felt like I was incapable of achieving anything. It wasn’t until middle school that I began to learn about the Civil Rights Movement and the contributions that my people made.  It allowed me to imagine possibilities for myself. I could become a medical pioneer who saves lives like Charles Drew, a millionaire like Madam C.J. Walker, or a poet like Phillis Wheatley. I saw myself in those stories and I began to dream big. These stories about black scientists, inventors, explorers, doctors, and leaders can provide examples of how people triumph over adversity.

 

During Black History Month, I learned about Martin Luther King and, of course, Malcolm X. For many converts, regardless of race,  Autobiography of Malcolm X played a role in their interest in Islam. Without Black History Month, I wouldn’t have learned  about Malcolm X and it is unlikely that I would have learned much about Islam. Watching Eyes on the Prize in middle school helped me understand the Civil Rights Movement.  The Civil Rights Movement help end institutional racism encoded in segregation laws. It also create opportunities for Americans of all colors. For example, an outcome of the Civil Rights Movement was the 1965 Immigration Act, which  ended immigration quotas of  non-Europeans.[3] This is what allowed South Asian, Middle Eastern, Arab, North African, and African Muslims to immigrate in greater numbers and establish Muslim communities. We now have one of the most diverse religious communities in the country.

 

Black History Month is an opportunity to learn about the history of Muslims in America. Often, Muslim Americans see themselves as recent transplants with roots only a few decades long. Many Muslim Americans are first or second generation immigrants, but Muslims have had a long presence in America. It is estimated that 10 to 15  percent of the slaves brought to the New World were Muslim.[4]   While Muslim slaves were not able to pass on their religion to their descendants, the historic memory is significant. Many Black Americans look to this past as they reclaim some part of their identity ,which was erased under the brutal system of chattel slavery. Likewise, Muslims from all backgrounds can relate to the stories of Muslim who were enslaved, such as Ibrahim Abdur Rahman and Omar Ibn Said.[5] There was also Bilali, who led a community of Muslims on the Sapelo Islands during  the 19th century. [6] If we look at our history in North America, we can feel more at home knowing our presence dates back hundreds of years.

 

Black history if also part of Islamic history.  The 31st Chapter of the Quran is named after Luqman the Wise, who is said to be from Africa.[7] The first hijrah was to Abyssinia.  Five times a day, we hear the call to prayer and remember the first muezzin Bilal.  Islam has been in East Africa from the time of its founding and has had a presence in sub-Saharan Africa for over 1000 years. Just recently, King Mansa Musa of the Mali Empire was named richest person of all time.[8] There are also important Africans who stand out in the history of Islamic civilizations in the Middle East and Indian sub-Continent. Al-Jahiz, was a champion of Arabic and demonstrated that it is a possible to write beautiful prose in Arabic. There was also Malik Ambar who ruled the  Deccan Sultanate, a rival to the Mughal Empire.[9] Many people do not know of the complex connections between East Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, and India nor are they familiar with the trade routes that connected sub-Saharan Africa to the Mediterranean. Black history can be our opportunity to explore the culture and history  of Afro-Arabs , Afro-Turks, or Siddis of India. By embracing our interconnectedness, we Muslims have a rare opportunity as Muslims to participate in Black history.

 

Interconnectedness is the strength of our community. In the borrowing and blending, and acknowledging what we have to offer, we can understand how our lives intersect.  We can take this opportunity to look for lessons in this past. We can also use this window of opportunity to begin a real process of getting to know each other’s histories and engendering a greater respect and appreciation for all peoples in our ummah.

 

 


[1] Joan Novelli  “The History Behind Black History Month”   Teaching Tolerance, 2007  Retrieved February 12,  from 2013http://www.tolerance.org/article/history-behind-black-history-month

 

[2] Anyone arguing that it no longer has negative meaning, must remember that the n-word was used common place in America also. See Huckleberry Finn.

[3] Devin Love-Andrews Immigration Act of 1965 Webchron: The Web Chronology Project retrieved from internet February 12, 2013

http://www.thenagain.info/webchron/usa/immigrationact.html

[4] Islam in America retrieved February 12, 2013 from http://www.pbs.org/opb/historydetectives/feature/islam-in-america/

[5] John Franklin “Omar Ibn Said” Documenting the American South  retrieved February 12, 2013 http://docsouth.unc.edu/nc/omarsaid/menu.html; Yusra Owais, “African Muslims: A Rich Legacy”  Suhaib Webb February 26, 2011 retrieved February 12 2013 from  http://www.suhaibwebb.com/personaldvlpt/character/african-muslims-in-america-a-rich-legacy/

[6] Ray Crook “Bilali-The Old Man of Sapelo Island: Between Africa and Georgia” 40-55 Wadabagei: A Journal of the Caribbean and its Diasporas Vol. 10 No. 2 Spring/Summer, 2007 retrieved from http://www.utc.edu/Faculty/Nick-Honerkamp/Bilali%20the%20Old%20Man%20of%20Sapelo%20Island,%202007.pdf

[7] Margari Aziza Hill “Luqman the Wise” August 18, 2010 retrieved February 12, 2013 from  https://azizaizmargari.wordpress.com/2010/08/18/rediscovering-luqman-the-wis/

[8] Erik Oritz “King Mansa Musa Named Richest Person of All Time” The Daily News February 18, 2013 http://www.nydailynews.com/news/world/king-mansa-musa-named-richest-history-article-1.1186261

[9]A. Rangarajana “Malik Ambar: Military guru of the Marathas” The Hindu October 18, 2008  retrieved February 12, 2013 from http://www.hindu.com/mag/2008/10/12/stories/2008101250220700.htm

Nana Asma’u: A Spark Who Continues to Illuminate

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Living as a Muslim minority in the West, I have often felt frustrated by religious intolerance, but also from a community  that does not fully honor the rights that are accorded to women in Islam or provide many outlets for women to become scholars. This was the case in late 18th century West Africa, in what is now modern day Northern Nigeria, when  Uthman Dan Fodio criticized oppressive customs and encouraged female education. Nana Asma’u bint Uthman Dan Fodio was a product of her father’s commitment to quality Islamic education for women. She became a legend in her own right and through her writings and education movement, ‘Yan Taru, she has inspired countless women for generations.

 

As a Nigerian with dual American and British citizenship, researcher Rukayat Modupe Yakub is aware of the legacy of Nana Asma’u. Rukayat points outs, “For so many Muslims Nana Asma’u is still unknown, but for those who are familiar with her she was an educator, writer and poet who was passionate about education, For this reason you find schools in places like Nigeria named after her.” In addition to her poetry and education movement, Nana Asm’au is also considered an Islamic leader who was known for her ability to mediate political disagreements. She was fluent in Arabic, Hausa, and the Tamasheq language of the Tuareg. Like her father  and brothers Muhammad Bello and Abdullahi, Nana Asma’u was a prolific writer who left a tremendous literary legacy. She wrote to keep her father’s memory alive in the minds of the people and in support of her brother Muhammad Bello’s  Caliphate. At 27, she was given the task of organizing her father’s corpus of works, all while overseeing a household of several hundred people and ensuring that they were provided for.

 

Jean Boyd gained access to her works in 1975 and later wrote The Caliph’s Sister, which provides a detailed biography of Nana Asma’u’s life and legacy. Jean Boyd collaborated with Beverly Mack to compile her poetry and religious treatises in Collected Works of Nana Asma’u, Daughter of Usman dan Fodio (1793-1864). The book compiles her impressive body of poems and treatises in Arabic, the Fula language, and Hausa. Beverly Mack and Jean Boyd also co-wrote a book which analyzes the social and political function of many of her poems titled One Woman’s Jihad: Nana Asma’u, Scholar and Scribe. 

 

Rukayat says that Nana Asma’u continues to serve as an important inspiration because “She was involved in social work and had political clout, she was a mother and wife, sister of the head of state, daughter of a legendary a political and spiritual leader, she could have had any life she wanted but she choose to be of service.” Around 1830, Nana Asma’u trained a group of women to travel around the Sokoto Caliphate to educate women. Each woman in this cadre held the title jaji  (leader of the caravan) to designate their role as female leaders.

 

One hundred and eighty years later, Dylia bin Hamadi Camara is one such Jaji who explains, “We have the name of all the jajis before me so mine comes after a long line of the unbroken chain of scholarship and service to women, children and the Ummah at large.” Jaji Dylia explains that the methodology of learning that Nana Asma’u develop still educates men, women, and children. In the United States, the ‘Yan Taru Education Foundation and Charitable trust has chapters in Pennsylvania, Texas, Alabama, Georgia, and California with 33 women in intensive training and intensive seminars and classes which are open to the public.* Teachers like Jaji Dylia travel internationally and use email, teleconferencing, and text messaging to educate their students on classical Islam. Preparing for a trip to Guinea, Dylia stated her next goal is to translate Nana Asma’u’s teachings into French because the Francophone world has largely been unaware of this rich legacy. My hope is that we begin to learn more and more about the named and unnamed women who have been responsible for educating our ummah. They have passed on a rich legacy, one that reminds me that even when faced with the greatest challenges, we  as women can be brilliant and provide guiding lights for others.  

You can read find other stories of inspirational Muslim women, along with this one,  in   the February edition SISTERS magazine 
*Jaji Dylia updated us and told us that Yan Taru trust has chapters in Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, Sacramento, Oakland , Florida and Massachusetts. She also has some students in Toronto who are not Yan Taru. She is currently in Benin, where she also has students.
To date, Dylia translated Tanbeeh l Ghafileen  and prays that Allah grants her the himma to translate even more in the future, insha’Allah.

 

Muslim Habitus

Over the past years, I realized that much of the spiritual problems I faced were largely due to my inability to bridge the disconnect between my intellectual knowledge and application of important principals.  The knowledge I gained was not transformative, so where was the misunderstanding?  Ali ibn Abi Talib said:

O you who carry knowledge around with you; are you only carrying it around with you ? For surely knowledge belongs to who ever knows and then acts accordingly, so that his action corresponds to his knowledge. There will be a people who will carry knowledge around with them, but it will not pass beyond their shoulders. Their inner most thoughts will contradict what they display in public, and their actions will contradict what they know.

Knowledge has not entered your heart until your legs, arms, and entire body act accordingly. There is a difference between knowledge and Muslim habits. The Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.) said: “I was only sent to perfect good character” [Muwatta’ and Musnad of Ahmad]. The primary purpose of knowledge in Islam is so that it can influence the individual to the correct course of action. And the correct course of actions should be guided by an intention to do that which is pleasing to God. This contrasts with doing that which is pleasing to oneself or others and guided by one’s own inclinations.

How does knowledge of the traditions of Muhammad become part of the character of the average Muslim? It is through understanding, or as we educators tend to emphasize, application and practice of that knowledge. One of the most powerful ways of understanding this came to me while I was in graduate school and looking at Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of “habitus.” The simplest and most digestible definition of Habitus can be found on wikipedia:

Habitus is the set of socially learnt dispositions, skills and ways of acting, that are often taken for granted, and which are acquired through the activities and experiences of everyday life.

Habitus is a complex concept, but in its simplest usage could be understood as a structure of the mind characterized by a set of acquired schemata, sensibilities, dispositions and taste.

We are all creatures of habit (good and bad), but how do we develop them? How do we develop our tastes, dispositions, and inclinations?  These are important questions that we need to ask ourselves, especially if we are concerned with personal and moral development. Many of our habits are learned, while other arise out of our own inner inclinations. We can learn through mimicking others or through experience. At the same time, we can supress our inclinations and habits in order to yield different results.

But breaking bad habits or developing healthy habits can be a difficult thing, especially when we come to accept certain behaviors as part of our personality. For those of us who are self-reflective and want to change for the better, we have to make some conscious efforts to change many things that are often not really thought about.

The way we think shapes our actions, but our knowledge does not really penetrate our hearts until we set about a course of actions to embody those principles. I believe this is the problem with the over intellectualization of Islam. It is also the problem with the tendency of many Muslims to focus on political or social identity issues. There is a lack of embodiment of some important concepts. So, the way we should think about things is not changing our actions. At the same time, the ways we are doing things are not changing the ways our mind works. Somehow, our thoughts and actions become hollow. That embodiment only happens through rigor and training, which can take spiritual, mental, and physical components.  While we accept anyone who declares shahadah as Muslim, we recognize that there are different gradations of faith. In Surah 49 The Private Apartments, verse 14 God says:

The bedouins say, “We have believed.” Say, “You have not [yet] believed; but say [instead], ‘We have submitted,’ for faith has not yet entered your hearts. And if you obey Allah and His Messenger, He will not deprive you from your deeds of anything. Indeed, Allah is Forgiving and Merciful.”

This verse is very profound, because it highlights the key for that spiritual development. Faith is developed through obedience. And even if we are struggling, by taking those steps, we will be rewarded by the Most Forgiving and Merciful. Sometimes the steps can be small, the most prominent example is salat. In actuality the combined time for the salat is about 17 minutes. Even then, I see people struggle with the idea of submission and it becomes apparent in their forms of resistance to the requirements of ritual prayer.  How have you developed Muslim habitus, if you as a man would never come to a job interview in sagging shorts that expose your butt crack, but you will come to the King of all worlds dressed inappropriately? The perfection of the Muslim habitus is worshipping your Lord as if you see Him, but you cannot, knowing that He always sees you. This is Ihsan, or the perfection of faith. And many, myself included, have a lot of work in that area.

Moving away from outer garments in order to wrap up this discussion, I want to talk about a simple way to develop our Muslim habitus. The first friday sermon I heard my husband give shed light habit-practice-application. He brought up Michael Jordan and asked rhetorically what does he think when he was about to make a play. Marc answered that MJ doesn’t think. His body knew exactly what to do from all those hours of practice. This is the true meaning of understanding, a real embodiment of that knowledge in a way that it becomes a part of you. Without thinking, MJ knew exactly what to do at a given moment.  It reminds me of the final moments of a former principal of Philadelphia’s Clara Muhammad School.  She was in a car accident in Egypt and her family reported that while she awaited medical attention she remained in constant remembrance of God. Although she was in pain, her thoughts were on her Lord. In that moment during her final true test, she faced death with courage and grace. And I wondered how I would react. I thought about some words, which I won’t repeat here, that I’ve said when I had a close brush with death or something traumatic. I think back to the times I experienced severe pain. I wondered would my last act be recorded as having yelled vulgar language, crying about why me, or would I remember my Lord instead.  I realized that only through constant practice of remembrance and prayer that I out of habit, I would just do the right thing without thinking about it.

We practice and practice so that during a real moment when we are tested, our habitus goes into auto-pilot and we know just what to do without thinking. So as part of that development, I’m not going to ask God to damn the thing I stubbed my toe on. Instead I’ll say something glorying Him  (in English or Arabic). Whenever I get frustrated with something or someone, I’m going to avoid cursing at it.  I will ask God to help me deal with the situation with dignity and grace.  And importantly, I will learn the appropriate prayers for the appropriate times so that constant remembrance become a habit, therefore my Muslim habitus. By bringing God into center focus throughout the day, I can make steps towards embodying all that I have learned over the years.  This is the cognitive shift that happens with real transformation. My hope is that more of us move from just being members of the I verbally proclaim to submit (I’m just a Muslim)club , to become those who truly believe and  try to ultimately perfect our faith.

References:

Quran Sahih international http://quran.com/49/2-14

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Habitus_(sociology)

Self Inventory- al-Muhasabah

I sat on a conference panel a few months back where we talked about the current state and future of the American Muslim community. As one of the speakers offered commentary focusing on institutions, my mind sparked. There was so much focus on institutions, but yet people weren’t instituting Islam. People were focused on edifices, but there was little edifying Islam in our daily lives. When my time came to speak, I focused on character building. Our communities seem to lack not only ethos, but ethics. There is too much dissension within our leadership, and many of them are not trained in basic leadership skills. Everybody wants to be a leader, but few people want to be good followers.  And people within the community don’t know how to work well with others to support our mutual goals.  This includes within our families, because our interpersonal skills are so lacking that we are destructive. Combined, the instability of our families and constant political fighting, have created an environment where Muslims are not getting the guidance and resources they need to be successful. Many Muslim leaders have good intentions and I have seen some great strides in institutional building,  but at the same time I see recurrent problems that are not adequately addressed.

As Muslims, we are taught to focus on two aspects of our devotional lives: 1. the laundry list approach to developing practices and habits or 2. increasing our intellectual knowledge through both exoteric and esoteric books, lectures, and articles. We assume that using both approaches we can better ourselves. Often, we are puzzled by why things go wrong.  How can we, as outwardly devout people, end up falling so short of our lofty goals? The truth is that we are missing pieces of the puzzle.  There is a strong disconnect between our own spiritual aspirations and  how we move about in the world for many of us. And that is what jams  up so many of us. Imam Ghazali writes:

O disciple, how many nights have you spent rehearsing your learning, reading books, and depriving yourself of sleep? I do not know what the motive was in this–if it was winning the goods of the world, the allure of its vanities, getting its honours, and vainglory to the debit of your associates and peers, woe to you and woe again! But if your objective in it was the revival of the Prophet’s Law (God bless him and give him peace), the cultivation of our character and breaking  the ‘soul that inciteth to evil,’ blessing upon  you and blessing again!”  (14) [1]

Because many of us are not self-aware, but reactionary, we don’t truly cultivate our character or battle our inner demons. Instead, we look to others for our affirmation, hence the cycle of expectations, entitlement, and ego.  Many of us do not reflect at the end of the day, thinking about why something made us angry or sad. Nor do we question why we do things that are hurtful to either ourselves or someone around us. Rarely do we look at our motivations for certain actions, therefore we hardly ever check our intentions. And that is a dangerous thing because actions are but by intention. This is why we need to constantly assess ourselves.

Ramadan is a perfect time for assessing our relationship with our Creator. In order to be truly honest with ourselves, we have to lift certain veils that block us from being able to look in the mirror. Unfortunately, many of us are busy blaming others, remaining trapped in resentment, or feeling entitled, which causes us not to take an unflinching look at ourselves. One of the first steps entails forgiving others, or at least not letting the pain rule us, and taking ownership for how we have wronged ourselves, others, and our Creator. We need to be able to honestly assess our strengths and weaknesses as individuals and develop real strategies  that draw on our strengths for overcoming our personal blockages. And since that is difficult, and many of us don’t have mentors, guides, and sheikhs who really know us, we have to sort of muddle through. Despite our lack of resources, I think that it is possible to draw on an Islamic tradition of al-Muhasabah or self-inventory, modern psychology, and a bit of self-help to begin that process. I will use self-inventory and self-assessment interchangeably.  First let us look at the definition of self-assessment

self-assessment n

1. an evaluation of one’s own abilities and failings

2. (Economics, Accounting & Finance / Banking & Finance) Finance a system to enable taxpayers to assess their own tax liabilities [3]

In an article, Al-Muhasabah on being honest with oneself, the author states:

Self-criticism seems like a fairly straightforward concept. The activity that makes it possible, however-namely, honesty with oneself-is exceedingly hard to come by, for it requires admission of our wrongdoings whenever such actions escape us.  It means acknowledgement within ourselves that we have committed a sin, whether against our own souls or others, be it our Creator or anyone or anything in creation. For most of us, such a confession is an incredibly tough thing to do. [2]

I think this is really helpful, but only focusing on our wrongs can be demoralizing. I have used self-assessments in the classroom and often they focus on finding strengths. In fact, there are many kinds of self assessments and personal inventories. The most common ones we will find are career and personal interest inventories and the second most common are those we find in motivation literature. There are two aspects of self-inventory, taking an assessment of our character flaws and acknowledging our wrongs and mistakes. A few readers might be familiar with the rigorous self inventory process of programs like Alcoholics Anonymous [4]. I do suggest looking at the moral inventory list because it is a useful tool. Only through acknowledgement of our wrongs, can we perform true tauba (repentance) and make changes. But, in many ways our sins are merely symptoms of an illness. And since most of us don’t have a guide, we have to do some serious self diagnosis. This is where we can use tools to do a real self inventory. The most powerful tool a believer has in the path to Ihsan (Perfecting Faith) is self inventory.  It is important to remember a few principles when it comes to self inventory:

1. Honesty- we must be fully honest and not delude ourselves when we are taking self inventory. We cannot make excuses for our actions or try to sugar coat things.

2. Faith- while acknowledging our flaws, we should have faith that our Lord will forgive our sins and shortcomings. .

3. Hope- We have to accept that we are human and these shortcomings are part of our nature, yet we can overcome them with help from God

One of the reasons why a personal inventory is important, even if you have a spiritual guide, is that only the individual has access to his or her own heart, memories, and thoughts. Confession is not part of Islam, as each person is accountable for his or her actions and no one else can expiate sins. In addition, exposing one’s sins can cause greater harm than good. Finally, the self reckoning is a personal journey and it is dangerous for our souls to take pride in the steps we are making towards improvement. Many people put on an act for others, especially if we admire them and want to impress them. Would I want to tell someone I admire that deep inside I am a fickle person, easily flattered and easily hurt by criticism? Imam Ghazali writes, “travel on this path should be by way of self-exertion, severing the ego’s appetite and killings its passions with the sword of discipline, and not by way of  and useless statements” (24) [1]While someone can observe from the outside and see certain character defects and strengths, they are unlikely to know the full contours. The guide can be just that, a guide on our journey. Each individual must exert themselves, with determination, to walk that path.

I believe that our development will become apparent to those around us, especially those we love. It will improve the quality of our lives, help us adjust to challenges, and allow us to come closer to our Creator. I do think it is worth it to look for means to honestly assess ourselves, come up with strategies to deal with our weaknesses, implement them, and assess our progress constantly. If we do that in a continual cycle, with honesty, faith, and hope, we can be more successful in both this life and the hereafter.

But don’t just take my word for it, I included a really nice video that deals with this subject below:


Resources:

[1] Al-Ghazali Letter to a Disciple. Islamic TExts Society, Cambridge UK, 2005

[2] http://www.aljumuah.com/straight-talk/40-al-muhasabah-on-being-honest-with-oneself

[3] Dictionary.com

[4] http://www.rc-rc.info/Content/MoralInventoryChecklist3p.pdf