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.

A Virtuous Life

Why is it that every khutbah, every lecture, and every conference plays out more like a pep rally where we are mere spectators and fans, instead of  the players who should be training and practicing for the big game? And we keep wondering why our team is losing. That’s because none of us are in shape, we can’t decode the playbook, worse, we don’t know how to land that shot. Okay, I’ll stop the sports metaphor because I was never good at team sports. The whole point is that our community life is not necessarily helping us truly transform, improving our conduct and living good, wholesome, and happy lives.  What constitutes happiness and a good life is an ancient question and people have come up with different answers. But the most consistent in their views have been philosophers and religious thinkers. Even during the ancient period, both have agreed that living a good life entails living a life of virtue. A virtuous life is not just about the ability to follow a rule book or  perform rhetorical dexterity to find legal loopholes to justify our means to that end. The dominant approach that Muslims have taken towards virtue is the rule book or laundry list approach. However, this approach is often self-defeating, making us focus on the virtue without exploring what’s wrong with us. This is the same approach that Muslims take to the sunnah, where we focus on traditions and practices that appeal to us, hoping to be cured of certain ills. Often, we are treating mere symptoms, rather than curing the disease.  It is time we begin a holistic approach to bettering ourselves, treating both the symptoms and eradicating the diseases that are destroying the quality of our own lives and our community life overall. Moral and personal development  should be the focus of living a virtuous life or good life. Living a good life is based on universal principles that we find in Islam, as well as many other faiths.  There are many tools  to achieve that end, many found in Islam, but also wisdom that we can draw from ancient sages, philosophers, and even insights from our own society. We should not ignore any tool that can help us with personal mastery.

While many Muslims are concerned with righteousness, we seem to be confused about what does that truly mean. And this is why we should begin to think about virtue and ethics to understand the big picture or (كلٌيات). Before we begin throwing around the term virtue and ethics, let’s first look at what do these terms mean:

vir·tue   [vur-choo] –noun
1. moral excellence; goodness; righteousness.
2. conformity of one’s life and conduct to moral and ethical principles; uprightness; rectitude.
3. chastity; virginity: to lose one’s virtue.

eth·ics   [eth-iks] –plural noun
1.( used with a singular or plural verb ) a system of moral principles: the ethics of a culture.
2.the rules of conduct recognized in respect to a particular class of human actions or a particular group, culture, etc.: medical ethics; Christian ethics.
3.moral principles, as of an individual: His ethics forbade betrayal of a confide

As I stated earlier, religious thinkers and philosophers have mulled over virtue and ethics for thousands of years. Socrates dedicated the latter part of his life to the investigation the development of moral character. Plato recounts a dialogue that Socrates had with Meno about the nature of virtue. Meno asks Socrates whether virtue can be taught, whether it is something that someone can practice, or whether it is something that someone is born with. Socrates believed that there was a link between virtue and knowledge. Only, he believed that people aren’t taught things, they simply remember what their soul had forgotten. If this gets confusing, just remember that Socrates believed that the soul was immortal and that people were born over and over again. Therefore, they just had to remember what they knew before. But, let’s ignore this part of his philosophy and focus on his idea that in order for someone to be virtuous, that person has to have sufficient knowledge. Two arguments that back this up are as follows:

  1. All rational desires are focused on what is good; therefore if one knows what is good, he or she not act contrary.
  2. If one has non-rational desires, but knowledge is sufficient to overcome them, so if one is knowledgeable of goodness, he will not act irrationally. [7]

Socrates believes that no rational person would act in a way that was harmful to his/herself. Maybe people are mistaken in their knowledge? I guess Socrates didn’t account for atrocities like the Holocaust or Rwandan genocide. Harming someone else destroys our own humanity. So moving on to the next group of Hellenistic thinkers. The Stoics were sort of the inheritors of Socratic views on rational thought and virtue. They believed that human beings by nature were rational animals, and therefore it was natural to live “the life acording to reason.” Virtue was excellence and according to the divine law of the cosmos.  John Stobaeus the following as stoic goals in life:

  • Zeno: living in agreement
  • Cleanthes: living in agreement with nature
  • Chrysippus: to live according to the experience of the things that happen by nature
  • Diogenes: to be reasonable in the selection and rejection of natural things
  • Archedemus: to live completing all the appropriate acts
  • Antipater: to live invariably selecting natural things and rejecting unnatural things

Stobeaus goes on to define the four main virtues of the stoics:

Prudence: (concerns appropriate acts) knowledge of what one is to do and not to do and what is neither
Temperance: (concerning human impulses) knowledge of what is to be chosen and avoided and what is neither
Justice: (concerning distributions) knowledge of the distribution of proper value to each person
Courage: (concerning standing firm) knowledge of what is terrible and what is not terrible and what is neither. [8]

These are all reasonable enough and can be found in many traditions, but who would like to live like a stoic, unaffected by passions or hardships? I suppose a lot of people, which is the appeal of Zen Buddhism for many people. Without going in uncharted waters (at least for me),  let’s move on to the lineage of philosophy and ethics within Muslim traditions.

Socratic thought profoundly influenced medieval Muslim philosophers, the Muatazilites. But I won’t go into the controversies surrounding their philosophical school, especially in their argument that one can derive God’s laws without revelation. Instead, I bring them up to point out that in using their Greek influenced dialectical methods, scholars like Imam Ghazali were able to safeguard and in many ways revive Islam. The strength of Islamic institutions and thought was in applying universal Islamic principles to local institutions or cultural forms to produce something that was relevant in societies across the globe and over 1400 years. But since Imam Ghazali was so successful in shutting down the philosophers that very few Muslims have ventured back in the territory of exploring virtue through reason, and not just solely from revelation and hadith traditions. The unfortunate consequence is that we are back to the laundry list approach to dealing with virtue in Islam. We are a community concerned with ethics, but without an ethical system.

A few western scholars have approached Azhari scholars over the need to consider ethical systems. Some of the traditional scholars were amenable to this idea, but perhaps we all lack the training in performing the task. That doesn’t mean that we can develop the requisite skills, especially with some effort.  I think this would be a fruitful direction to go in because over the past few years, I have often wondered how is that many religious people can do things that are harmful to themselves and others, but still consider themselves moral and receive no censure by the religious community. In many conversations with friends, peers, and loved ones, the answer came to the lack of  a consistent ethical system. The basic assumption is that if something is allowed in Islam that it is the right thing to do at any given point in time. People often overlook the question of whether something was right in one given circumstance could be wrong in another, and what guiding principles should we draw upon to determine a proper course of action. The salad bar approach to the religion undermines holistic development and moral consistency. Further, many adherents have used Islam to justify their own shortcomings, in effect deluding themselves with self righteousness. This is how we have people hiding behind, beneath, and under the guise of religion.

Recalling Socrates, I do think that even though many Muslims rejected the Greek influence in Muatazilite thought, they still seem to be influenced by his intellectualism.  Tariq Ramadan writes:

Islamic literature is full of injunctions about the centrality of an education based on ethics and proper ends. Individual responsibility, when it comes to communicating, learning and teaching is central to the Islamic message. Muslims are expected to be “witnesses to their message before people”, which means speaking in a decent way, preventing cheating and corruption, and respecting the environment. [9]

Muslims are obsessed with knowledge and knowing. We love books, classes, lectures, debates, pamphlets, websites, forums, podcasts and blogs that make us feel knowledgeable. The assumption is that correct knowledge leads to better practice.  The problem is that true knowledge is not just limited to thought or reason. But knowing how to act sometimes takes practice and constant strength training.

If you want to really know how to play basketball, you can’t just read a bunch of books. You have to get on the court, practice making shots, until your hand-eye coordination has figured out how to make that perfect arch to land the shot. At first, you must be very conscious of each action,  how to dribble, how to pass, rebound,  and with time things come natural. So, while Socrates believed that knowledge was the key to virtue, virtue actually comes from something you practice over and over again until you get it right. Of course, knowledge is essential, but one has to inculcate that knowledge so that we embody it. Action is essential in applying that knowledge. This is why Muslims perform salat, fast, go on hajj and are reminded to constantly perform remembrance. These actions reinforce the declaration of faith. And we do all of those things to achieve one important goal, pleasing our Lord.

You must be aware of the goal you are aiming, so that when you miss the shot you understand what you did wrong. If you have no knowledge of your goal and are unreflective, then you will keep making that same bad shot over and over. I admit, I slipped back into the sports metaphor and, honestly, I was never good at basketball. I’m a sore sport, but I have trained and gotten in shape for different reasons. Over the years, I have some modicum of self-discipline because of my deep commitment to self-development. I believe in setting goals. As Muslims, we should be aware of what our true goal is, and that is to be successful in this life and the hereafter. Outside of Imam Ghazali’s account of his spiritual crisis, I haven’t found too many detailed stories of how individual Muslims conquered their own shortcomings. So, I turn to my own cultural context to see who has developed systems of personal development, especially focusing on moral development.


Benjamin Franklin comes to mind not because I live in Philadelphia and there are statues of him everywhere, but rather because he created a self improvement program long before the self-help craze of the late 20th century.  Franklin’s list of virtues and his efforts to gain mastery over them are an interesting case study. Franklin listed thirteen virtues that he considered to be the most important and they are as follows:

1 . Temperance. Eat not to .  not to Elevation.
2. Silence. Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself.Avoid trifling Conversation.
3. Order. Let all your Things have their Places. Let each Part of your Business have its Time.
4. Resolution. Resolve to perform what you ought.Perform without fail what you resolve.
5. Frugality. Make no Expense but to do good to others or yourself: i.e. Waste nothing.
6. Industry. Lose no Time. Be always employ’d in something useful. Cut off all unnecessary Actions.
7. Sincerity. Use no hurtful Deceit. Think innocently and justly; and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
8. Justice. Wrong none, by doing Injuries or omitting the Benefits that are your Duty.
9. Moderation. Avoid Extremes. Forbear resenting Injuries so much as you think they deserve.
10. Cleanliness. Tolerate no Uncleanness in Body, Clothes or Habitation.
11 . Tranquillity.Be not disturbed at Trifles, or at Accidents common or unavoidable.
12. Chastity. Rarely use Venery but for Health or Offspring; Never to Dullness, Weakness, or the Injury of your own or another’s Peace or Reputation.
13. Humility. Imitate Jesus and Socrates.

The thing that made Franklin so important in this area was his effort at tracking his progress on these virtues, with the aim of mastering each one.  I think it is important to note how self-reflexive he was in this process. This was all about personal accountability. At the end of the day, he’d do an inventory of his actions. If he violated one of the virtues, he checked it off. Initially, he had a lot of check marks. But over time, the check marks became fewer and fewer. Eventually he gave up the keeping a daily log, but he continued the path of self-improvement throughout his life. For some, this may seem a bit OCD. But for others, it may be a useful tool in taking inventory of ourselves. There are even people today who have a similar chart on their iPhones. You can download the chart and some people have incorporated similar charts in self-help programs.

Now this takes us to the self-help industry. According to wikipedia,  “the self-improvement industry, inclusive of books, seminars, audio and video products, and personal coaching, is said to constitute a 2.48-billion dollars-a-year industry [5]. Samuel Smiles coined the term “self-help” in 1882, in his book, Self-Help [4] While there are many controversies surrounding the self-help industry, and many valid critiques including the psycho-babble and placebo effect of some of the more dubious methods such as subliminal programming, there is great merit to self-improvement. People can transform themselves. One of the most powerful self-help programs, is Alcoholics Anonymous.  The thing that I find very telling of their success can be found in the  original Twelve Steps:

    1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.
    2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
    3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
    4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
    5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
    6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
    7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
    8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
    9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
    10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
    11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
    12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs. [6]

First, the admit that they don’t have control over the urges, they turn to a higher power for help, they take a serious inventory of their own shortcoming, repent and try to make amends to those whom they hurt. Importantly, through the constant process of prayer and correcting wrongs, AA members can have a spiritual awakening. In many ways this is a process of repentance that can be found in Islam: leaving the wrong action, making sincere repentance to our Lord for sinning against ourselves and Him, and asking forgiveness of another person if we harmed him or her. Repentance is a great blessing in Islam, it is an opportunity to experience Allah’s Grace and Mercy. Many people have achieved spiritual awakenings after a fall from grace.

Still a believer is not to be content with cyclical sinning. We are all taught the three stations of faith: submission ( Ihsan إسلام), belief (Iman إمان), and finally perfecting faith (Ihsan إحسان). Only through self-improvement and refining can an individual achieve Ihsan. Ihsan is the highest state of faith, where we live our lives knowing God can see us, even though we cannot see Him. This type of consciousness keeps us on our best behavior. But to have this consciousness at all times, we have to go through spiritual and moral development. In Islam, the method of spiritual development is called Purification of the heart, some calling it Tazkiyyah and others calling it Tasawwuf. Without going into the controversies surrounding Sufi/Salafi polemics, let us just note that the term tazkiyya has Quranic roots meaning to purify. Tasawwuf is a term that came later and is often associated with institutional developments in mystical brotherhoods. Still, the purpose was the same, to purify and improve the moral and spiritual standing of the adherent.

There are a great many virtues listed in the Quran.  As pointed out earlier, many Muslims have created a laundry list of Islamic virtues.  There is no shortage of literature on traits that Muslims should exemplify. And these are are beautiful and useful in improving ourselves.  Muslim scholars are also concerned with what keeps Muslims from improving their station. Scholars, such as ibn Jawziyya and Imam Ghazali, have listed out several impediments to that refining process through tazkiyya or tasawwuf:

  • Neglect or forgetfulness
  • Submitting to one’s own passions (Nafs or Hawa)
  • Shaytan
  • Bad company or evil environment
  • Arrogance or self-delusion
  • Love of the material world
  • Despair

Or they can be found in the four poisons of the heart.

  • Excessive Talking
  • Unrestrained glances
  • Too much food
  • Keeping Bad Company [3]

Sometimes that list of Muslim virtues is so long that an individual can feel very overwhelmed.  Or we may think that avoiding one of the poisons  or overcoming one of the impediments will cure us from a spiritual or emotional ailment. The list approach may blind us from looking at what is really wrong with ourselves. This is why I felt that it may be appropriate to try to consider some patterns that can give us a big picture approach. The Quran tells us:

Indeed, the Muslim men and Muslim women, the believing men and believing women, the obedient men and obedient women, the truthful men and truthful women, the patient men and patient women, the humble men and humble women, the charitable men and charitable women, the fasting men and fasting women, the men who guard their private parts and the women who do so, and the men who remember Allah often and the women who do so – for them Allah has prepared forgiveness and a great reward. [33:35]

This verse from Surah Ahzab is  a good place to start in trying to find key virtues: belief, obedience, truthfulness, patience, humility, charity, abstinence and moderation, chastity, and mindfulness of God. I also began searching in the Quran to find the names of people who God is pleased with and who are successful. The  most common names I found are:

مؤمنون Mu’minun- Those who believe

صابرون Sabirun- Those who are steadfast/patient

صالحون Salihun- Those who are righteous

مخلصون Mukhlisun- Those who are sincere

محصنون muhsinun- Those who are good-doers

متقون Mutaqun- Those who have taqwa (scrupulousness)

خشعون Khashi’un- Those who are humble

Who wouldn’t want to be among those whom the Creator is pleased with? Who wouldn’t want to be forgiven and receive a great reward from our Lord? I believe in the coherence of the Quran and the importance of coherence in our lives. This is why I think that it is important that we look beyond the laundry list approach and focus on the key virtues outlined in the Quran. These virtues can be guiding lights in determining our course of action, leading us to live richer, fuller and happier lives. This is why it is important to explore each of these terms, to consider how they can guide us not just to a moralistic life, but a virtuous life. Some of the explorations may lead to dead ends, but with patience, dialogue, and careful consideration, they may lead to something fruitful. I hope you join me in this journey, as my aim is to explore virtue in Islam in search of an ethical system.

References:
[1] http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/franklin-virtue.html
[2] http://www.islamic.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk/Tazkiyyah/station_of_muraqabah.htm
[3] http://www.islamic.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk/Tazkiyyah/four_poisons_of_the_heart.htm
[4] http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/1882smiles.html
[5] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Self-help
[6] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Twelve-step_program
[7]http://personal.ecu.edu/mccartyr/ancient/athens/Socrates.htm
[8]http://philosophy.ucdavis.edu/mattey/phi143/stoaeth.htm
[9] http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2010/feb/23/ethics-citizenship-islam

Sunshine


Sunset during my birthday on a Nile River Cruise
Aswan, Egypt 2008

I’ve enjoyed being back home in the California sunshine. While tomorrow is the official last day of Summer, there are still many warm sunny days to enjoy in the seasons to come. On average California experiences 30 days of rainfall. Each year, during February there is at least one week when the temperature reaches the upper 70s to mid 80s. While in other parts of the country hibernate or freeze over, things here continue to grow, blossom and bloom.

We experience seasons here in California, just more subtle. That doesn’t mean that things don’t get cold. I’ve felt the weather change already, cool mornings with that sharp chill only to turn into warm sunny afternoons.  I’ve seen traces of the season as I’ve driven through campus , passing by neatly piled mounds of orange and brown leaves. Bowidin Avenue reminded me of my one Autumn in New England. Mounds of autumn leaves like that are a rare site in California. Part of me wanted to run out and jump into them. But the fact that I wasn’t driving checked my child-like impulse. 

When I woke up this morning and heard my mom playing this song, I thought about all Springs and Summers of my childhood. I didn’t feel like it was the end of Summer. Instead, in my own seasons of life, I’m experiencing my own Spring. So many spiritual and emotional elements in my life have begun reawaken. They had been lying dormant for so long. You really enjoy Spring after a long hard winter.  I sat back listening enjoying this celebration of nature and life and appreciated all the light that shines on me and through the people people I love. Things weren’t so bad and I knew I wanted to take a moment and enjoy the sunshine.

Roy Ayers
Everybody Loves the Sunshine
Ubiquity, 1976

My life, my life, my life, my life
In the sunshine…

Everybody loves the sunshine, sunshine
Everybody loves the sunshine, sunshine
Folk’s get down in the sunshine, sunshine
Folk’s get brown in the sunshine

Just bee’s and thangs and flowers
Just bee’s and thangs and flowers
Just bee’s and thangs and flowers
Just bee’s and thangs and flowers

My life, my life, my life, my life
In the sunshine…

Everybody loves the sunshine, sunshine
Everybody loves the sunshine, sunshine
Folks get down in the sunshine, sunshine
Folks get brown in the sunshine

Feel what I feel, what I feel, what I feel what I’m feelin
In the sunshine
Feel what I feel, what I feel, what I feel, what I’m feelin
In the sunshine
Do what I do what I do what I do what I’m doing
In the sunshine
Do what I do what I do what I do what I’m doing
In the sunshine

Everybody loves the sunshine
Sunshine…

Am I Just a Muslim?

While my heart is at home, some things right now seem more real to me than some of the things that are preoccupying my friends and loved ones.   I am not saying that I’m not interested in this historic moment. There is something amazing about a Black man making it this far in a presidential election.  But, the lack of nuance in media representations of race and gender in the presidential election is not as real to me as making sense of being a Black woman in the Middle East. I know everyone is a buzz in the US. But being in a predominately Muslim society puts a lot of Muslim issues to the forefront. I am constantly wondering if there is a spot for me in this imagined community of ours, as a Black American Muslim woman.

There are times when I felt like there wasn’t room for me and that my experiences were dismissed. Two recent pieces have reminded me of the pressures I experienced as an early Muslim. But at the time of the articles, the country’s internet was either down or I was in transition. Since these pieces were published, I have had some time to reflect on how a Black American Muslim identity causes a lot of dissonance in an Arab Muslim society. Abdur Rahman wrote a very insightful and historically grounded piece called, I’m Just A Muslim Muslim Tariq Nelson also contributed to the discussion with his take on, Just A Muslim. He wrote:

It is this understanding of being “just a Muslim” that I reject. You must – like the brother in the meat store – become a pseudo-foreigner of some type and adopt a hodge-podge of immigrant cultures rather than adopting Islamic values. Being “just a Muslim” has essentially come to mean running away from one’s family, and history in some attempt to “pass” into “non-blackness”. In addition they adopt a parochial and reactionary attitude and a paralyzing suspicion of all things American or Western.

Years ago,  a young Arab American woman was pretty upset with me. She was mad because of the paper I wrote in a sociology class on inequality and social stratification. The paper was about multiple identities. Much to my suprise, the title upset her.  I had felt it was a pretty inocuous title. I don’t even think she really read too far into my paper. Besides at that time, I was still pretty new to the religion. I was naive and wet behind the ears. So, my paper definitely didn’t have the sharp critique you might find in my writing today. But still, the following bothered this young woman enough for her to tell me how much I sucked:

“My Multiple Identities as an African American Muslim Woman”

It got under her skin. To her, it showed where my loyalties were. “You didn’t put Muslim FIRST!” She said in a distressed and judgmental voice “The Most IMPORTANT thing is that we are MUSLIM!” This kind of bothered me. Because at the time, of almost all the Muslims in this little circle, I was the most identifiably Muslim Muslim. I wore hijab at the time. I participated in the Muslim Student Association, as well as the Black Student Association. Despite my efforts, my loyalty as a Muslim was constantly called into question by my Arab and Desi peers.

Someone called me a nationalist because I still participated in the Black Graduate Student Union. When I used to point out that they go to ethnic picnics, Lebanese iftar, Egyptian Day, Libyan picnic in the park, Bangladeshi dinner, Pakistani gathering, not to mention the ethnic after-eid-after parties. These were places I was never invited to. I pointed out that they all these ethnic functions. The argument someone made was that the people in their closed ethnic gatherings were all Muslim. For them, their ethnicity was intrinsicly tied to being Muslim. They were preserving their culture and language because one day, they hoped to go back home. Their functions or fundraisers could be completely secular and or for some nationalistic. But they were helping other Muslims.

Me, on the other hand, I was encouraged to divorce myself from the Black community. At the same time, I was told to give dawah. In fact, I was encouraged to give dawah. But dawah basically meant repesenting some Muslim issue overseas in some campus event. I’m not saying that no immigrant Muslims cared about African Americans. There was one who took an active interest in supporting the cause of a young Black man who happened to be Student Body president was arrested for showing up to a Senate meeting on campus.Many of the people who put those pressures have since changed their views. In many ways they too had utopian visions of what the Ummah looked like. Their own cultural practices were illegible to them, because for them they operated within an Islamic cultural matrix.

While some Muslims were mad because I didn’t claim I was just a Muslim-Muslim. I was never really allowed to be just a muslim-muslim. I was constantly referred to as “The Black” sister in a community that was diverse, but Black American were underrepresented. I was sort of relegated to Black things, like marrying ex-cons and being broke all the time. I was even told that I wasn’t just a Muslim indirectly in some not so nice ways.

Perhaps I felt pressures more intensely because of the relative isolation. But the pressure I experienced raised some important questions. Does participation in a community entail that you give up who you are? Should we end our participation in other communities, our ties with family, friends, neighbors, co-workers, associates, sorority or fraternity brothers and sisters. Do we give up affiliations, inclinations, cultural tastes and affinities and adopt others? How do we talk about who we are? What are we? Can I be just a Muslim, while holding on to those descriptors that make me unique? I think my stance on some of these questions is quite clear. I also believe that these broad communities and categories do not make a human. But they are a part of who we are and our being in this world. At times I feel like a composite of many different things and experiences. Some of them intersect and and reinforce what I feel is the true person inside. At times my experiences and things conflict. But never once have I felt like a Muslim divorced from my cultural context as a Western woman of African descent who became Muslim as an adult. Once I become Just a Muslim, I lose my voice and am lost to some authoritarian dogma.

Half Empty

No, my cup does not “runneth over.” I’m looking at it half empty. I read a recent study that suggests that some people may be hard wired to be optimists. I don’t think I came equipped with that hard wiring. I’ve tried to reset my hard wiring. But I’m an over-achieving, constant worrier, sensitive, hyper-critical, driven person.

I know a lot about myself because I began my self exploration at a young age. Much of it was influenced by mom mom. She was always an avid reader. She had library of self-help books. I remember seeing expensive book and tape sets from Dianetics, the Silva Method, and Tony Robbins. She had books like How to Win Friends and Influence People, and dozens of titles from how to became a self made millionaire, to how to actualize your dreams. My mother read popular psychology books, relationship books, horoscope books, speed reading, and Mega-memory. She had a range of new agey books about positivity, meditation, relaxation, personal development, and spirituality. But growing up I just thought most of the stuff was rubbish. I mean, I respected her meditation. She’d come home from work and handle her business until around 10 when she’d listen to her relaxation CDs till she fell asleep. She’d then wake up at 4:30 and begin the next day. My mom did not have a lot of encouraging people around her. For her, these books offered keys into providing a better future for herself and children.But I grew up skeptical about the books. Mom was wasn’t positive all the time, nor did all her aspirations fall into place as her positive visualizations envisioned (at least that’s how I saw it at that time).

I developed a fatalistic attitude because contrary to what the books claimed a positive outlook didn’t always get you what you wanted in life. Then my intellectual proclivities added a hyper-critical aspect to my outlook. Sometimes I just lived in my head, trying to find overall patterns, the underlying logic to seeming absurdities. Everything I saw around me had to be picked apart. I developed insomnia thinking about ever interaction through the day, global issues, my own person conflicts. My life, itself was a battleground, a constant struggle to prove to myself and the world that I was a worthwhile. But how does one prove something that is inherent? How do you prove to people who wouldn’t be convinced no matter what evidence you brought forward? And why did I need to convince myself? Why do I still need to? My mom used to tell me that half the world will love you and the other half will hate you. Growing up I was obsessed with the half that hated me.

As I’ve matured, I have had some deep conversations with my mom. You know when most kids would claim that their moms were the most beautiful mom in the world. My mom was always stunning, turning heads wherever she went. She was well read and articulate, dedicated, tough as nails, and vulnerable. She spent her life searching for answers. Much of her quest centered on overcoming the box that people tried to put her in. Considering my mother’s hardships, she is a very optimistic person. In one of the conversations I told her of all that she accomplished. So many people looking on the outside would be jealous. She was owned her own home in one of the most expensive regions in the country, she had a luxury car, she dressed nice, two of her daughters attend prestigious universities, her son has never been to jail and is an entreprenuer, she has traveled abroad. She grew up in New Jersey’s rural area in poverty, at times living in a house that had an out house. She picked vegetables in the field to earn money. Her family then moved to the city and experienced the struggle of urban life, where my grandmother raised 6 children by herself. My mother had her first baby at a young age. From her teen years, she was independent, working jobs from shoe shine girl to seamstress. She lost one of her babies, let her abusive husband, and flew all the way to California to start a new life. She pushed her other three giving whatever our fathers didn’t. She said that for years she didn’t feel accomplished. But when she looked at an old list of goals she had set, she had accomplished many of them. It was suprising to her.

I learned some important lessons before I left the States. There was a family reunion and I spent almost a week with my grandmother. My grandmother is one of thse old school tough as nails little black women. After listening to a week’s worth of my grandmother’s complaints and grievances against everyone, I was tired. I began to realize how much a struggle can wear you down. I rsaw how much of that was instilled in me. It is the reason why I left the question mark in the title of my blog. It is the reason why I explore issues that touch sore spots, especially for Black Muslim Women. We struggle. My people have struggled. There are triumphs, but many of the stories are heartbreaking. That collective memory, as well as my own struggles were becoming part of me. I began to feel like everything was a fight. Every injustice and every affront (real or imagined) was a battle ground. For some of my ancestors it was life or death, it was the flight or fight from the lynch mob. We had real grievances, real injustices that reverberated in our daily lives in sometimes small and other times profound ways.

I have shared much of my struggles. But it recently dawned on me what have I said that is wonderful or amazing about my journey. There are many things. Today, was a mostly positive day. I had someone tell me that something I find spiritually rewarding and beneficial was fundamentally wrong. I didn’t want to engage in an argument. My linguistic capabilities in Arabic are not up to par to spar with a native speaker. I recognize people differ on many things. The way people feel about their particular stances will make best friends go to blows. As I try to navigate the world of new friends, I recognize that large parts of me will not be accepted by others. But that doesn’t mean that I want to be only around people like me. But I want to find a common ground with people who have different experiences and world views. I could focus on the half that we disagree on. But, I am hoping to find a way to find that base where we can agree to meet half-way.

I drove and got lost following simple directions to a park. I was about 40 minutes late and stressed out. It was a relief to make it there. I sat outside enjoying company of three really nice women. Two American and one British, we couldn’t be more different, we couldn’t be more alike in many ways. I can say after the past few weeks of solitude, I can appreciate the warmth. It was a breath of fresh air. The rest of my day rolled out smoothly. I see today may have provided me some major openings.

Plus, I got inspired to keep moving forward in changing the direction of my writing. One of the things that struck me in the conversation this evening was the conversation about the blog world. One woman said it was just draining. Another pointed to endless debates, generalizations, and unsubstantiated claims that try to pass off as dialogue. As I ween myself from pointless debates (I know I still have work to do on breaking away), I am more reflective of the way my writing may reflect of skewed worldview. By skewed, I mean one that focuses on the ugly, the controversy, the negativity, the injustice, that jumps out in our minds. This skewed vision overlooks the beautiful, the harmony, positive things, the examples of heroism and selflessness that should inspire us. While I take a break from serious intellectual clashes, I am still going to explore complicated issues. But as one sister pointed out, I’m not going to make my point with generalizations. I will qualify my statements. I will humbly recant when proven wrong or if my underlying logic is flawed. The exhausation from struggling, fighting, and climbing over obstacles is not a negative thing. I may have gotten the wind knocked out of me. But a lot of people are in my corner cheering me on. My cup is still half full. I might be able to savor that cup, enjoying every drop. Plus I got enough juice in me to get some steam going. Insha’Allah once that steam builds to a critical mass, I am sure I will be able to do some meaningful work.

How Am I Doing?

You want an honest answer? Really?

One of the things I hate about my own American culture is the typical greeting, “How are you?” In truth, most Americans don’t really want the answer. In fact, it is rude to answer honestly if things aren’t going so well. The point is that “how are you?” is really a rhetorical statement. The inflection at the end of the statement is really just a formality. Sometimes it isn’t even there. People say as they pass by, “How are youuuuuuuuu.” voice fading as they speed by. Over the years I’ve had a lot of people ask me how am I doing and then get really annoyed when I tell them the truth. I’ve had friends who call me up and get really annoyed or impatient as I talk about things I’m struggling with. I’ve had close friends who have shared their stories, who I have helped work through issues, who I have sat for hour listening and trying to understand, go off on me or shut down when I share my story. But at least I can write uninterrupted. I don’t have to spin my wheels worrying if my complaints will offend someone’s sensibilities before I can fully articulate what I’m going to say.

To answer your question:

Alhumdulillah…Things have been challenging and frustrating. I’m just coming out from some major upsets. Thins are looking better, but I’m still wondering if it will work out just as planned. Things operate differently here. And there are different levels of shadiness and ineptitude. Overall, it is a mixed bag. I’ve already written about boredom and being judged. I have felt homesick, isolated, disoriented, and lonely. It would be far worse if I lived on my own. I’m grateful for my friend and her family. They basically keep me going. But sometimes I feel intrusive and like a burden. There are times when I felt like packing up everything and going back home. And then I realize, I can’t because I don’t have anywhere to go back to–somebody’s subleasing my room for the year. Plus through the past few years many of my relationships and friendships back home had become strained or distant at best. The nice ones were ephemeral, kind of like “hi-bye good luck on your trip!”

Before I left for this trip, I had no doubt that I had to take this step. But I had trepidations. I felt like I was putting life on hold. But then again, I wonder what life? I have spent the past 6 years focused on getting into graduate school and then trying to survive graduate school. It consumed everything. Even my few diversions and leisure activities (including laundry, foot soaks, blogging, visiting friends) were just coping mechanisms for graduate school. Even my leave of absence was full of reading, researching, planning, worrying, re-planning, writing proposals, and preparing for graduate school. This whole leave of absence for French and Arabic study took a huge wind out of me.

Cramming a year’s worth of French in six weeks was a piece of cake compared to embarking on this trip. I’m not saying that I don’t enjoy many things about being in the Middle East. But is absolutely frightening to know you don’t have a safety net. By safety net, I mean family members who will send you funds if you get ripped off or stuck in a jam. I know a Muslim woman who was actually stuck, really stuck, in some Gulf country. All our affluent friends did nothing to help her out in her jam. I suppose those car notes and bargain shopping had ran up the bills. There was even one brother all into tasawwuf with a site about sacred knowledge who treated this sister poorly. He ran into her at the house of some people who might have helped her and her children find a safe place to live until she could get a ticket back to the states. But this well known brother sent her packing and told her never visit those people again. I guess he wanted to protect wealthy Muslims from helpless and homeless American Muslim women who are stranded abroad. After a harrowing story full of drama, she finally made it out and eventually made it back home. You can have your passport lost, credit card stolen and personal items stolen, put in jail, or become really sick. I’ve known people who have gone through some tribulations and trials abroad. Some of their accounts speak to my worst fears.

I’m still working on my fears and insecurities. I still get embarrassed speaking Fushah in public. I still don’t understand Kuwaiti Arabic and there are some days when your confidence in your language abilities gets knocked right out of you. I try to motivate and work harder despite the most recent setbacks. I try to think about the overall purpose. Learning Arabic has been a dream for 15 years. Going abroad wasn’t just important for my academic career, but my spiritual well-being. Maybe it was about letting go of some control–even though I finally had taken the reigns of my own life following my divorce. 5 years ago as I prepared for graduate school my adviser David Pinault said that graduate life was monastic. It entails poverty, lonely long hours, etc. He assured me that it was a good kind of poverty. You don’t starve, it is just a modest living. After a few years in graduate school I wasn’t in debt (except for those deferred student loans), I could pay my bills, I was even saving some money. I found history to be isolating. That was just part of the field, the long hours in archives, the long late nights writing, the time in the field. I knew that going abroad for graduate work was looming in my future. And it felt like a destabilizing force.

Two years ago I asked for guidance and support about graduate school and my requisite year in the field. One imam’s wife told me to look at graduate school like it was a prison–I was just doing my time. There are some mind trips about this training and the constant insecurity of graduate school. Academia is medieval in its structure, from the apprenticeship approach to developing your own masterpiece after demonstrating your worthiness to be in the guild of scholars. I haven’t even begun to think about the publish or perish world of tenure. My African American peers in graduate school tell me to keep up the fight. We’re so few, 3% of the graduate population at my university. With more African American men in prison than in dorms, I have to keep trying to make a difference. There are people who don’t want us there. There are people who don’t think I can do it. Jan Barker said that if we felt like we’ve been through a hazing in graduate school, it is because we have. Through the hazing process, my Muslim friends often tell me about having patience and faith. Keep going–it is a test. So, that’s how I’m doing. I’m in the middle of another test. I’m not sure if I’m passing. But I’m doing the best I can.

Full

I woke up this morning happy. I felt full…warm and safe. Then there was a bitter sweet moment as I thought about how my life will change dramatically. I thought about what I’d have to let go. In a few weeks, I will take an intensive course for 6 weeks. Then, two weeks after that I will leave the country for the hustle and bustle of Cairo. My naive dreams of longing will be held in suspension. I can’t pack up those that I care about and bring them with me. No more 40 minute drives to the place where I grew up. I will be thousands of miles from my mom’s the plum, orange, and lemon tress. No long rides along scenic windy highway 280 to San Francisco or 580 to Oakland or Berkeley. I’ll be far from the high tech Martin Luther King Library and shrimp tacos and chicken qesadillas at Iguanas on 3rd street in San Jose. I’ll miss the smells of the ocean. I’ll miss the expanse of the Pacific and driving on bridges that span the Bay. More than anything, I’ll miss the sun streaming in my window filtering through the white comforter that envelops me in a waking dream. The bittersweet moment passed and the joy of being took over. This morning, I laid in bed suspended between the world of dreams and world of conscious action. As I drifted in and out, the lines between those worlds blurred. Wishful…dreaming…feeling…full…feeling…me…like myself again.