Support Masjidul Waritheen

Flyer

I got word of this event from an ING newsletter. This look promising, since it is drawing people from various communities (Black American Muslim, White American Muslims, and Immigrants and others) to support the continued development of masjid Waritheen (a predominantly BAM community in Oakland). Over the years many Muslim student groups in and around the Bay Area have asked Imam Faheem Shuaibe to speak on numerous topics and represent Islam in interfaith dialogues. He is still eloquent and able to touch upon a number of issues that we face in American society. I encourage those in the area to attend or at least support the community by making a donation.

Please support Masjid Waritheen, a historic community in Oakland. You can go the website here to order your tickets or if you can’t attend, make an online donation .

Here’s more info from the website:

Masjid Waritheen Annual Supporters Dinner
SUNDAY, JUNE 15, 6 PM – 9 PM
CHANDNI RESTAURANT – NEWARK, CA

$25/PERSON DONATION – RESERVE YOUR SEAT NOW (click here)

We invite you to join us for a special fundraising event for Masjid Waritheen, one
of the oldest and most active masajid in the Bay Area. As immigrant communities
have grown and prospered in the U.S., it is vital that we ensure that our African
American brothers and sisters are also growing and prospering in their
communities. Following in the footsteps of our beloved Prophet (saws), who
forged an unprecedented bond between the Muhajireen and Ansar, local
immigrants and the children of immigrants are joining hands with their indigenous
brothers and sisters to help support a group that has worked tirelessly to serve
and provide programs for the greater community. Muslim immigrants and their
children have directly benefited from the struggles, sacrifices, and achievements
of the civil rights movement; it is time that all of us acknowledge this debt and
play our part in giving back and putting into practice the principal that charity
begins at home. Join us in this worthy effort by contributing any amount online at
masjidulwaritheen.org and attending our event in June to learn more about the
growing African American Muslim community in Oakland which houses both a
mosque and a full-time Islamic School, the Clara Mohammed School.

This event is sponsored by every major Islamic organization in the Bay Area and
the following individuals:

Sponsors: Hesham & Diana Alalusi Foundation & Javed & Shaheena Khan
Foundation

Organizers: Imam Anwar Tahir, Javed Ellahie, Adeel Iqbal, Uzma Husaini,
Waseem Sufi, Ayesha Mattu, Atif Qureishi, Omar Ahmed, Ifetkhar Hai, Shafi Refai,
Shafath Syed, Ameena Jandali, Imran Maskatia, Farhan Syed, Maha Elgenaidi,
Shahed Amanullah, & Irfan Rydhan

We are associated with the Leadership and Ministry of Imam Warith Deen
Mohammed.

Here is some more information from the website.

Sunday June 15, 6 pm – 9 pm
Chandni Restaurant
$25 donation – reserve your seat now at masjidulwaritheen.org

Speakers include:
Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, Zaytuna Institute (invited)
Shareef Abdur Raheem, NBA Star Forward, Sacramento Kings
Imam Faheem Shuaibe, Imam, Masjidul Waritheen
Saafir Raab II, Strategic Planning Consultant, Managing Opportunity, Inc.

This is a special fundraising event for Waritheen mosque, one of the oldest and most active mosques in the Bay Area. As immigrant communities have grown and prospered in the US, it is vital that our African American brothers and sisters are also growing and prospering in their communities. Immigrants and their children have directly benefited from the struggles, sacrifices, and achievements of the civil rights movement; it is time that all of us acknowledge this debt and play our part in giving back and putting into practice the principal that charity begins at home. Join us in this worthy effort by contributing any amount online at http://www.masjidulwaritheen.org and attending the dinner in June to learn more about the activities of the African American Muslim community in Oakland.

The Lid is Off: Battered Muslim Women

Last night, I received an email about the New York Times Article Abused Muslim Women in US Gain Advocates. I had started writing something late into the night, but by accident I erased it. Tariq Nelson captured much of what I wanted to say in his post, Helping Battered Muslim Women.
He wrote:

I feel that these types of articles are good because it shows that Muslims are being pro-active in not accepting abuse (we’re talking broken jaws and limbs here in some cases) and helping the abused find help. There is a fine line between “exposing the dirty laundry” and doing what it takes to solve problems (of all types)

This is why some people would rather remain in denial then admit that such problems exist. The fact is that *some* Muslim men are barbaric, oppressive, terrible people and we should distance ourselves (and our religion) from this type of crap rather than denying what everyone can see.

I suggest you head over to Tariq Nelson’s page and read the rest of the article. I was also very happy to see in the article the work of Imam Johari Abdal Malak. On his blog, Muslims Against Domestic Violence, Imam Johari wrote:

Our goal is to return people to the original and proper understanding of the Qur’an and Sunnah on this issue. We believe that the Words of the Qur’an are the Words of God revealed to the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) and that it has been preserved. The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) – who is the best example – never beat his wives. The Qur’an calls upon men to be maintainers and protectors of women and this is a religion of expressing God’s love (rahma) and being kind to one’s spouse. The goal of a marriage in Islam is to promote love and compassion between the spouses and the family in general.

Another thing that excited me about what Imam Johari wrote is that  they’re staring an initiative called Muslim Men Against Domestic Violence.  The imam has also edited a book titled “What Islam Says About Domestic Violence.” As the article demonstrates, Muslims are holding seminars, workshops, lectures, and in various community centers and mosques. But it is an uphill battle against silence, censure, and denial. I have heard reports that Muslim women’s shelters get death threats and a lot of people still have a problem that we have such institutions.

I am still wondering what are we going to do about teens at risk. Many people who abuse their spouses abuse their children. I am hoping that there are support networks for teens who may suffer the fate of Aqsa Parvez and Sarah and Aminah Said. Whatever the levels of practice of the wives or daughters, we as Muslims should be supportive and offer those in need refuge. We haven’t even gotten to the world of sexual abuse, which counter to what some people say does exist in the Muslim community.

It is time that as American Muslims, we begin to deal with social problems with real social solutions that are informed by universal Islamic principles of charity and mercy. We should be a benefit for our our community and others. Our da’wa should not be selling ideas, but living through example. And by doing so, we can help ensure a better future for our children. We can be proactive, there are Muslims who are beginning to develop nursing homes, food distribution, health clinics, and youth outreach programs. There are even an increased amount of Muslims who are counselors and therapists. At this stage, we need to begin to look at real problems our community members face, as opposed to being in denial. There are families broken up because there are Muslims who have drug addictions. Muslims are suffering with mental and emotional issues. There are Muslims who need jobs, but have no skills and training. We need to develop substance abuse programs, mental health care programs, job training programs. There are many more areas to be addressed. And only by talking about it, can we begin to think of solutions.

Obsessions: Religion, Race, and Sex

Yes I admit it, I’m more than preoccupied by Religion, Race, and Sex. We have been told to avoid these three topics in polite dinner conversation. In fact, I often do not take to heated discussion about religion, race, and sex in polite dinner conversation. This is why I have a blog.

While my major field is the history of Islam in Africa, my research and studies go beyond Africa. I examine the African Diaspora in the Middle East. I have a deep interest in Islam as a global religion. My career was inspired by my personal conviction as a Muslim. I am obsessed about Islam and can talk about it for hours, days on end. I also study race and talk about race. I have written numerous papers and articles on race relations, racial passing, community identity, and the African Diaspora in the Middle East. Importantly, my discussion about race is often personal. I talk about race in that it affects me and a number of people I care about.I talk about sex, women, and gender relations. Who doesn’t think about sex?    I talk about relationships, how Muslim men and women relate to each other, how Black men and women relate to each other, how Black women relate to men and women from various Muslim communities. I talk about women’s gendered roles, men’s gendered roles. I talk about marriage. I talk about free-mixing and gender segregation. I talk about hijab, niqab, and physical attraction.

I’m obsessed with Religion, Race, and Sex.  I am building a career on it. I want to write articles about these topics, explore dusty libraries digging for books about it,  spend sleepless nights researching and editing articles about it, travel around  the world to talk with other scholars and experts about it. I  even want to teach a class about it. We’ll see how receptive university students are to this topic. I’m pretty sure I’ll have a full roster because people can’t say enough about religion, race, and sex. And it is sure to fire up some heated dialog.

This blog is an intellectual and personal exploration of these same themes that have informed my career choice. If you read the title of my blog closely analyzing why I chose certain words, it should become evident that I wanted to talk about Islam, the African Diaspora, and Gender. I haven’t really seen someone from my perspective, as a Black American Muslim, explore these themes. This is why I made my intervention. Some people have written me directly telling me I should get over talking about religion. Others say I should get over race. Even  once someone who expressed ambivalence towards my discussion of FGM. If I were to stop talking about religion, race, and sex then this blog would not have a purpose. Or maybe I could just post cute pictures of flowers, kittens, and bunnies and peppered with my own personal reflections as Just Another Muslim. No, my blog is not polite dinner conversation nor is it designed to make us all feel uplifted. I just want my readers to think. I also want to validate an experience that is forged in struggle.  I try to not present a doom and gloom scenario. Nor am I trying to be a polemic or write entries for shock value. At the same time I think that we as Muslims still need to look at a number of issues. The American Muslim community still needs to examine how race, class, and gender intersect in order to understand how to move forward.

Aftershocks: Benazir Bhutto

abhutto1.jpg

BBC’s Benazir Bhutto obituary

Many of us Muslims who are not deeply involved in politics have been following what’s going on in Pakistan. I shocked and deeply saddened to hear the news of Bhutto’s assassination. To me, this is a sign of the madness that we ae facing in the Muslim world. Bhutto had barely escaped an terrorist bomb, but she wasn’t able to dodge the bullets this time. One friend noted that Muslims have not learned how to peacefully transfer power. This is an ominous sign (as if we didn’t have enough already), that there are Muslims who deal with political opposition using murder, terrorism, and violence. We really need to go back to the drawing board, to get back to basics. This is why we need Muslim scholars and thinkers to begin to address political and social issues. Otherwise, we are headed into chaos.

Azizah Weighs in on African American Muslim Marriages and “Morocco is Not the Solution” From Kuwait

Sometimes I wonder why I am so preoccupied with concerns that are in the states. Right now I’m living in an alternate universe. I’m abroad in an oil rich country where “Fair” equals “Lovely.” All the way across the world, I’m not feeling the reach of many of the containment policies and strategies during this Cold War between Black Men and Black women in America. At this point, I’m joining the non-alignment movement, to focus on development. But I will have my defenses up just in case some missiles shoot my way.

Non-alignment is a good strategy right now. Relationships are just no big on my mind right now. I got some immediate things to take care of. But, the marriage issue does come up often. I get the usual question of whether I’m married or not. Women usually say something like, “Maybe you’ll find someone here.” “Maybe when you get married you can visit us in Yemen.” etc…etc.. A couple of occasions an expat mentioned somebody’s name.But because I’m not doing a back flip just hearing about the random brother. I’m not ready to drop out of my Ph.D. program and become an instant homemaker. So the issue usually passes. A sigh of relief, I get back to focusing on my Arabic and surviving.

I’ve been trying to play matchmaker for a while. And so far, I have a zero success rate in match making. And not so much luck in my own bureau of internal affairs and love. I know all about what not to do. But still who am I to be a matchmaker? Despite any blow back that I have received from a possible link up gone wrong, I still discuss gender relationships with a number of my married and single friends. I like having conversations about Muslim marriages and Black women in healthy relationships. I like seeing positive examples. For many women of different ethnic groups getting married is a given. But not for Black women. Who said life was fair? I guess it will all balance out in the Last Days.

One of the things that drew many Black women to Islam was the idea that women were honored. In fact, as women we applied the Prophet’s (s.a.w.) last speech to ourself, “a white is not better than a black, a black is not better than a white.” When I went to a mosque for the first time it was a predominantly Black mosque. That was the first time I saw so many Black families, in tact families. Sadly, over the years, the reality of unstable marriages in the African American Muslim community settled in. I had saw figures like Malcolm X, loyal to his Betty Shabazz, with a strong sense of self. I just kind of expected Black Muslim men to not buy into gendered racism or colorism. But over time I have seen that there is a small but increasing number of Black men who exclude Black women as viable partners.

Clearly, the growing trend has roots in some shifts in the consciousness of Black American Muslims. In the early 90s there was still that tinge of Black nationalism from the sixties movement. Black Power, Black consciousness, what ever you want to call it, whithered away. More of younger brothers moved away from the W.D. community, critical of what they saw as syncretic practices of “Baptist Muslims.” These Muslims aspired to engage with other mainstream Muslim communities. They began to seek training from immigrant teachers and some even went abroad to study. This generation hoped to integrate into a singular Muslim identity. Bloggers like Tariq Nelson seems to be of this ilk, he sees intermarriage as a way of forging a new American Muslim cultural identity.

As Black Muslims shifted from thinking of ways that Islam could solve issues that plagued the Black community, they begin focus on global issues that seemed to rock the “Muslim world.” During this time Many Black Muslims began looking for a culture. They adopted markers and signifiers. They began wearing thobes, Moroccan jellabas, shawal kameeses, turbans, wearing sandals or those leather socks in winter, speaking with an Arabic or Desi accent. Some men say they want a native speaker of Arabic, so that their children can speak Arabic. Others say they want their children to ahve a culture, especially one they see as closer to the culture of Rasullah (s.a.w.). Basically, they seem to be aspiring to create a new ethnic identity for their children by marrying Arab women or South Asian women.

But over the years, a disturbing trend began to emerge, where professional and educated Black men were buying into some negative stereotypes about educated Black women. I found that we were traded in for Moroccan and Malaysian women, many of whom were not well educated. For these men felt they were trading up. Often these men let us know why these women were the types of women that we never could be.It didn’t take me long to notice that in my immigrant community, white convert women were hot commodities. Initially immigrant Pakistani, Indian, and Arab men pursued them. Over time, I began to see more African American sunni men married to white convert women, as well as immigrant women. As this trend rose, I began to see more and more single African American women. Mind you, these observations are anecdotal. There are no studies, besides one conducted by Zareena Grewal on marriage preferences in four Muslim communities. It affirmed that Black Muslim women were the lowest on the totem pole of marriage choices. Not surprisingly, even the African American informants stated they desired an Asian or Arab bride.Overall, it is a negative message that they are sending. But then again, isn’t this world full of negativity?

African American men frequently feel the brunt of racism when their immigrant brothers at the masjid won’t let their daughters marry African American men. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard a Black Muslim man tell me that was his primary grievance. South Asian families are even more resistant to interracial marriage than most other groups. And they are very unlikely to approve of their daughters marrying an African American male. So some men , with the aspirations of transcending the ethnic, tribal, and so-called racial boundaries have found other ways around it. They have found a place in the world that seems not only to accept interracial marriage, but families seem to welcome these African American men as knights in shining armor who will wisk their princess away to the Land of opportunity.

While this fairy tale should have a happy ending. One where, that the newly married couple cursed, harrassed, or bothred by all those evil Black spinsters and their jealous glares. But apparently some Muslim men are finding certain trends problematic. Maybe I’m not such a evil wench after all.
Umar Lee wrote about the Muslim marriage session at the MANA conference in his blog entry,
“Morocco is Not the Solution” and Thoughts of Muslim Marriage Discussion
. He wrote:

Brothers have personally told me that they would go over to Morocco and spend a lot of money on getting married (flying back and forth a couple of times, flying the sister back, the visa application process, paying the necessary bribes in Morocco to get the marriage license, paying the actual dowry, paying for the wedding, paying for the wedding celebration, giving the family money, etc.) ; but would not give a black woman in America a significant dowry because in their minds black women weren’t worth that much. They would say you can always marry a black woman who will only want you to teach her a sura because she may be hard-up and needing to get married ASAP.

For anyone not familiar with Umar Lee, he is a white American convert who writes a popular blog. And no, I don’t think he’s mad at all the brothers who are stealing those white convert women, let alone the seemingly endless supply of third world women. He continued:

The moment that brought the loudest applause though came towards the end when a brother from the Washington, DC area came to the microphone and simply stated ” brothers, going to Morocco is not the solution” and at those words the sisters erupted in cheers and laugher and many of the brothers chimed in ( although more in laughter).

So then the brother who stood up and said the infamous state, Abdur Rahman, wrote a blog entry explaining his reason for the statement.

It sends a loud and pernicious message to the world that our Black women are too unruly, uncouth, unmanageable, unlovable, unredeemable to take as a wife and to build a life with. I’m sorry, I believe she is not only lovable, but worthy of love. She’s crazy at times, but who isn’t. You can’t be a Black man or women in America and not be a little crazy? And if she happens to be in a lowly condition, isn’t it our responsibility as men, followers of the final Prophet and Messenger to humanity (pbuh), to raise her up by Allah’s permission and place her in her proper station. Does it ever occur to us, or do we even care really, that her lowly and unrefined condition stands as an indictment on our own manhood. I should like to know what other people turn their backs on their own women, heaping scorn and invective on her, calling her vile and despicable names (”chicken head”, “Safire”, “B*#th”).

Over the past year, I have written about this issue. Several times I have weighed in on this subject in comments and other discussions. People may consider me a racist for exploring the damaging effects of racism in the communities that I consider myself to be a member of. Sometimes I speak some uncomfortable truths (well, they’re true for me) from a very unique perspective. But just to be clear, I am not angry that someone made their personal choice. But I am angered when I hear about men who abandon their Black wives and children in favor of their new “mixed-raced” family. I am angered when I hear unfair statements about Black women thrown around to justify their personal choices. But ultimately, I have to let those statements roll off my back. I move on. I can’t internalize it. Yes, there are people who will judge me by color of my skin and say I’m not good enough even though they have felt that how much that hurts when they were discriminated against. Perhaps in their pain, they can’t see the hurt they dish out when they tell women who are not blond enough, not light enough, hair not straight enough, too educated, and have some genetic predisposition to have an attitude. I guess it is hurtful when you live in a society that discriminates against you, then in your own little ethnic enclave, you get devalued. To tell someone they are unworthy of love is truly an injustice.

I don’t think that every Black man who has traveled abroad has consciously though about denigrating his sisters in the states. Nor do I buy into the negative stereotypes about Moroccan women or women from developing nations. Once again, I would like to assure my readers that I am not condemning interracial relationships, but I am condemning racist, essentialist notions that may drive the popularity of a growing trend. I just hope we think about the underlying reasons of why we do things. Ultimately, it is not up to me to judge, but Allah will know your intentions. And that’s what you’re going to be judged by. That’s what we’re all going to be judged by.

Gender Segregation and Free Mixing: Where is the Equity in Reality?

My public presence is minimally disruptive, well that’s because I hardly ever go out. But when I do, I dress conservatively and go to most places that women are free to go. In Kuwait, I’m witnessing how gender segregation work in everyday life. There are prayer rooms for women in schools, in malls and stores, in parks, and restaurants. Even though I haven’t yet enjoyed the women centered amenities, I’ve heard that there are separate beaches, and tons of facilities for women like gyms and swimming pools and social clubs. There are many places where men are not allowed to go. I’ve seen gender segregation at Kuwait University and gender segregation in banks (yes a whole separate office space for women). Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to equate gender segregation with Jim Crow. Our fountains are just as nice, as well as our bathrooms. We don’t sit in the back of the bus. We just don’t take the bus. I haven’t seen a sign where it says women are not allowed. I suppose that is just implied based upon context. And yes free-mixing goes on in Kuwait. But like one Kuwaiti woman told me, if you want to go to jennah don’t mix with men.

My friend says that my life reads like I’m in the middle of a participatory observatory study. But this is a real lived experience where I try to balance traditional social norms between men and women and my modern needs as a female student and traveler. In many ways I feel like I can’t win for losing. My friends says that is the only way to make sense of what I’m experiencing is to take an anthropological approach. The only thing is that the I’m not a detached observer, this is my life. I have a Muslim identity, so my so called experiment is directly tied to how I see myself. Also, the social censure has that extra bite. This is part of my social world and the social consequences can be far reaching.

My friend suggests that I write about my experiences because of its relevance to Muslims in the West. It is hard to imagine that what I have to say will really matter. In fact, it may put off a lot of people. For one, I find the rules of gender segregation are stifling. I wrote about the social isolation that I experienced during my first month in Kuwait. It is especially stifling to women who are socially punished by other women for non-conformity. I get the sense that I am a persona non grata. “Who are you?….Are you married?….Where do you live?..With who?…Ohhhhhhhhhhh…” and then awkward pause. I’ve already mentioned judgmental attitudes.

Maybe women who grow up in societies where women sit in the house all day are used to it. But for me, it makes me really unhappy (and I’m a homebody!) and I’m trying to find some way to have social outlets without seeming too desperate. Can I scream at the top of my lungs (PLEASE HANG OUT WITH ME CAUSE I’M GOING TO DIE OF BOREDOM!) I’m not saying that I do nothing all day. I spend much of my time studying. I have editing work, research, and I help out here and there. I even have a tutoring gig in the house, but we got off schedule. I have lot of busy work, I putter about in my room, and then for a few hours I may putter about the winding corridors of this flat. My social word, as well as that of my friend with children, contrasts with the buzzing social world of the male head of household.

So far, my social world is pretty spotty and the few opportunities are rather contrived. It really consists of me being a tag along or default invite to a family social function. Most of my socialization will have to be structured around classes and lectures. I go to a 2 hour Arabic class on Friday and I just started dars (lesson) on one of Ghazali’s books. So, that’s like four hours when I leave the house. But most of my lessons are in the house. For the past week a really nice Iraqi brother has offered to help me with my reading and grammar several days a week. I normally prepare for hours looking up words and translating the assigned text. We sit for an hour reading and talking about various Islamic subjects. I asked to sit in on his sessions of Arabic text incremental reading. So, for the past week, I’ve sat with two men in order to benefit from being immersed in the Arabic texts that are really for very advanced Arabic students. Since both speak English fluently, they define words I don’t know and explain difficult concepts. I hate to slow them down, but I benefit from getting a taste of texts that I might otherwise not read on my own. They are also patient as I try to articulate difficult concepts with my Arabic limitations. My friend’s husband has recruited another man to be a more formal instructor. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that I can have formal lessons with this teacher three days a week.

So far, it seems like I have had to transgress the boundaries of gender segregation to learn anything–especially when it comes to Arabic. I’m sitting in the highest level of Arabic offered at the Islamic Presentation Committee. There are 12 levels, this is level 6. The director said that maybe in three years she’ll see our class as graduates from the Arabic class. What that means is that the road to learning Arabic in places like IPC is real slow. I lacks the rigor that a serious student needs. And I found that outside Kuwait University (which brushed me off last minute), there are no full time Arabic programs. With all the students at the Islamic centers, no one is really invested to help fisabillah, maybe fisabalfaloos except for the gentlemen who have offered to help me get to the level of Arabic that I need to move on in my program. So, one has to ad lib. Outside of the group halaqa or dars, no women have volunteered to teach me or help me learn. Last month, I had a chance to meet a well known Syrian scholar. I asked if there were no women to study under, was it permissible to study under a man. He said yes, then hailed Syria’s female scholars. That’s nice, masha’Allah. Since I’m not in Syria, I have to make due.

I know for many Muslims sitting with a man alone is transgressive. If a man and a woman are lone than Shaitan is the third person. I even know a former graduate student who wouldn’t meet with her adviser alone because of that. This caused some problems for her non-Muslim adviser and her work wasn’t taken seriously. The lax Muslim in me just thought Muslims needed to get over it. period.But the Western me believed that we had the internal will to fight back what ever personal demons that might cause either party to objectify the other. There proggie Muslim in me believed that if the intention was pure and that if both people treated each other decently, then both parties could stay out of trouble.

When I had a private writing tutoring, I didn’ feel the same pressures as I do when I have a Muslim Arabic instructor. I’ve had Muslim instructors in the states and there was a bit of the pressure, the worry about adab. Maybe deep in my mind there was the psychological terror that I was leading someone on the path to perdition. The traditional me was convinced that a man and woman cannot be friends and something was fundamentally wrong with sitting in a busy coffee shop was somehow an illicit meeting.

As a young Muslim, I was criticized for free mixing too much. I even attended a study group full of enthusiastic Muslims. The more conservative MCA wouldn’t host a group like that, but we were able to go to SBIA and learn from each other. Unlike some of my non-free-mixing friends, I would have starved to death if I had no interaction with non-mahram men. I’ve always taken a pragmatic approach to free-mixing. I’m not saying that the results have all been good. I’ve had some fitnah past. But I am saying that I couldn’t follow the no free-mixing between the genders without dramatically altering my life–basically get married right away, having tons of babies, and rarely leaving the house. If I followed all the rules of gender segregation I wouldn’t have been able to get my education, let alone learn the language of the Qur’an. I’m aware there are many people who take issue with the path that I’ve chosen. I guess this is what I’d have to say to them: Before you condemn me for being some free-mixing loose Muslim woman, please consider what type of intellectual wasteland you’d banish me to.

Performance Anxiety

I admit it…I have performance anxiety. Everytime I have to bring it, I fear that I will fall short. I’m not saying I’m an old pro, but I’ve doing it for over 14 years. I learned on my own, self-conscious, stumbling, bumbling, not knowing if I had the right rhythm or flow. I still make mistakes and get real awkward. I’ve read books, watched videos, listened to tapes,and I’ve been guided step by step. Even with all those efforts whenever I have to recite some Qur’an in front of people I get really nervous. Even when I read a regular Arabic text, even if it is voweled, it is clear I’m not a good Qur’an reader. If I was, then somehow I’d read it smoothly, finding natural breaks and random words. Since my first Arabic class, in fact, I hated reading out loud. I’d stumble over words trying to guess the harakat (short vowels).

It took me a while to begin to even wrap my mouth around some Arabic words. When I first converted in Fall 1993, I prayed in English. After I memorized the steps and saying in each part of salat, I graduated to transliterations. I had notecards that I used to hold with color coded text. What helped me through the transliteration was this CD with Abdul Basit. The great thing about the CD was that after each ayah there was this guy with a deep voice reading the meaning. So, as I learned the short Surahs in Arabic, I also memorized the meanings. In Spring 1994 an Iraqi student taught me the alphabet and basic reading. I am forever grateful because she opened so many doors. But sometimes when I’d read along with a text, I’d question my ears. I though I heard an “m,” but the final letter was a “noon.” What used to get me was Ikhlas, I kept hearing “wa lam yakul lahu” but I read “wa lam yakun lahu.” I knew there was some special magic skill of recitation. But I didn’t know that they called it tajweed. I recited my fatihah and my short surahs like Abdul Basit. Well, not quite. My voice is terrible and besides that I kept self correcting from what I heard and what I read.

I still think about my three surahs. I used to work those three surahs. In fact, many imams at that time used to work them too. The thing that used to get me was that immigrant religious leaders know those long surahs. But at that time, many of the indigenous Muslims had a very different knowledge base. They were charismatic, addressed social justice issues, and mostly African American. Many of these imams were well read and their khutbahs covered a wide range of subjects, literary and historical references. Many of these imams blended cultural references that I was familiar with along with Islamic references that I was just beginning to learn. It was clear that they did their homework, dedicated a lot of time to developing khutbahs or dars that were relevant to their communities. And their talks appealed to many second generation immigrants who were born or grew up in America.

In my own newbie stage, I was just becoming aware of the tensions between indigenous American born Muslims and immigrants. There were arguments about who would lead prayer. I heard complaints about African American brothers never able to lead prayer. Enthusiastic Muslims wanted to receive some barakah for leading prayer. Oh but this brother from Syria has tajweed, this other brother from Pakistan memorized more Qur’an. The converts had Abdul Basit, just like me. Sure, I wanted to memorize more Qur’an and how to recite, but I also wanted to understand the Qur’an. That’s when my farfetched dream of learning Arabic began. During that time, programs like Institute for Arabic and Islamic sciences seemed to be just kicking off and there wasn’t a Zaytuna. It was rare to hear of male converts, let alone women, travelling to learn Qur’an, Arabic, Fiqh, etc. I’m not saying that there weren’t Arabic and tajweed classes, halaqas, and attempts at MCA. I remember stepping into my first Arabic class at MCA. It was actually Hamza Yusuf teaching Arabs the intricacies of grammar. It was so advanced and discouraging, I didn’t go back. I went back to my Abdul Basit CDs and for years that was the way that I learned Quran.

It wasn’t until 1996 when I joined a halaqa in Boston that I actually had to read Qur’an in front of someone. That’s when I learned that I was a terrible reader. But the women in the group were patient. And they pushed me, while correcting me. All of the women had grown up in the States. They all had some Islamic education, even if it was only Islamic Sunday school. But that was years of edification. When I was on the East coast, I had few friends. So, I had a lot of spare time to begin to expand beyond the 5 surahs I knew at the time. And my co-halaqists assigned me Surat al-Abasa. I remember thinking that it was impossible for my mind to reproduce something like that. But peer pressure does amazing things. So, I’d spend hours, me and Abdul Basit, and my Qur’an preparing for the D-Day when I’d have to demonstrate that I got another ayah under my belt. Over the years, I’ve discovered my amazing ability to memorize things and promptly forget other similar things. My hiatus didn’t help. But over the years, when I set my mind to memorize something, I’ve drawn on the same technique.

That sort of changed when I took a tajweed class at Middlebury in 2005. Once a week, I’d have to face my worst fears. That’s when I knew I had some serious performance anxiety. My heart would beat harder. My palms would sweat. I’d stutter. I wanted to get it right. There were times I questioned why did I want to do so well. Finally, I learned why I heard my old friend Abdul Basit say one thing and read another. I memorized new Surahs without my old friend Abdul Basit. The most trying part of the class was that I had to read in front of the school. I picked the most simple surah. I had this knee jerk reaction to reciting in front of people. I didn’t elaborate, I didn’t add any of the notes to embellish my recitation. It was dry, dead-pan. The deadpan style that I recited in contrasted with the chaos that was going on in my body. I read as my heart raced, I felt like I could barely breath, and of course my palms sweated. I was relieved to finish and from that time I avoided reading in public.

As I’m trying to piece together a program for Arabic study, I realize that a huge part of my learning process is reading Qur’an. Since I started studying Arabic so many native Arabic speakers have said that reading the Qur’an is so helpful. I have other motivations. It is sort of like your pride is wounded as a not so new Muslim. I mean, when a six year old knows more Qur’an than me (and I’ve been Muslim more than twice his age), I know I suck. I’ve had people ask me how much Qur’an I know. Shoot, not even a juz (30th part). I’m working on that. I’m just hoping I don’t get the surahs mixed up. Make du’a for me, I’m always afraid that I’ll butcher Allah’s book as I stumble through the learning process.