The Condition of a Thinking Muslim…

…is a lonely condition. That seems to be the overriding theme of all the thinking Muslims I’ve encountered over the years. It is not so much that we have withdrawn from society to stacks of books and hours of reflection. Instead, it is that we are in intricately linked in a global society that seems to lack human connection. Some scholars have pointed to the break down of communities as a result of western modernity. The growing isolation due to modernization, urbanization, break down of traditional family and community structure has actually given rise to fundamentalist (Christian, Muslim, Jewish, and everything else beneath the sun) and New Age movements. Despite their allure, many of us have not abdicated our minds and free choice to join some organization or community that imposes group-think. Even though others like myself have chosen to be autonomous thinkers, we still feel the absence of real communities and suffer from various degrees of loneliness and isolation.

A lot of people I have spoken with have a general sense of disconnection from this thing that we call Ummah. I have had lengthy conversations with some Muslims where we all questioned the meaning of community and even Ummah. Some went so far to say that the concept of Ummah was now a pie in the sky. As for the American Muslim community, we didn’t see community, instead we saw a mass of lectures, meetings, boards, committees, and numerous individuals imposing their views on the ways in which we should live our lives. The complaints about the lack of community remind me of another friend’s insight. He used to talk about a tension between the individual’s desire to feel connected to others in a community and a desire to be free from the social censoring of the community that robs you of your individuality. It is some food for thought. Being that I love words, I decided to look up community to reflect on its most solid and agreed upon meanings:

1: a unified body of individuals: as a: state, commonwealth b: the people with common interests living in a particular area; broadly : the area itself c: an interacting population of various kinds of individuals (as species) in a common location d: a group of people with a common characteristic or interest living together within a larger society e: a group linked by a common policy f: a body of persons or nations having a common history or common social, economic, and political interests g: a body of persons of common and especially professional interests scattered through a larger society
2: society at large
3 a: joint ownership or participation b: common character : likeness c: social activity : fellowship d: a social state or condition

Reflecting on these definitions of community, it is not entirely clear that being part of one will actually rid us of loneliness. For some people, the only way of assuaging the loneliness is by getting involved in real change. I’m happy about some initiatives that are aimed at solving problems that affect Muslim communities. They are social problems and I believe that they will help a number of individuals. But at the same time, all this work obscures the fact that the people who are disconnected and socially isolated will likely be the ones most tapped to do this work.

I used to attend one of the largest multi-ethnic communities, but at times experienced intense loneliness. In fact, these feelings have erupted in the middle of crowded rooms in gatherings or talks. In fact, I used to be extremely active in the Muslim community and at the end of the day, retreat to my isolated corner. I felt like I was doing meaningful work, but at the same time I suffered from the lack of real human connection. Even when I met and spoke to amazing people, I got a sense of the ephemeral quality of my relationships.

I have witnessed a general mood shift occuring within a growing number of Muslims over the past few years. Perhaps it is due to age, changing life phases, increased responsibilities, or even disillusionment, but many of my friends have phased out of going to Islamic events, like lectures, halaqas, conferences, and for women, even jumuah. Most of my friends graduated from college nearly a decade ago. The days of dawa committees and MSA conferences are long past. Our circles have tightened, often drawn closer to family networks and long time friends. Even those with families and who have maintained childhood friends experience loneliness. Perhaps this is the fate we face in the post modern age-increased isolation and disconnection. The only way we seem connected is through facebook where I read their favorite quotes, see links to youtube videos that amused them, and look at pictures of their kids. While my married friends seem to have busy lives, producing the next generation of American Muslims, my single friends are juggling a lot too. Many are overworked in their careers or in some demanding academic program.

The general sense I get is a growing isolation, especially if you don’t fit into one neat category or box. I personally don’t think that the solution this condition is in building more community centers or some initiative. Rather, I think it is in individuals. What people desire is fellowship and companionship. And that is developed over time as we create ethical friendships of mutual exchanges and trust. I think it is important for our spiritual and religious leaders to teach us to be better companions and friends. We can foster a sense of fellowship and through that, have actual communities that address the spritiual need to be connected, as opposed to being purely based on political and social interests.

Islamic Salon: Are DC Muslims building the BlackAmerica’s Muslim intelligentsia?

One of my friends pointed out that living in Cali I was pretty much living in an intellectual wasteland for African American Muslim intellectuals. Even with two other Black Muslim women from other parts of the Diaspora in graduate school, our schedules too hectic to come together. I didn’t have many peers to share my ideas, build on my research, or to find support. Even though my personal background and experiences had influenced my research direction, I had no one to share the insights I found in my research or make my research relevant to broader issues in the Muslim world. My friends and adviser said that I would likely find a support network outside of academia, through continual exchange online and academic conferences. Slowly I’ve been working on building a peer group, where the respect is mutual. I’ve been looking for people who are intellectuals and activists, people committed to asking deep questions in order to think about creating a better future.

That’s when I began to reach out through blogging. While there have been some amazing sites that have shown promise, I have been disappointed by the distracting posters who follow up discussion with uninformed and counterproductive commentary. Ultimately, I know the limitations to open discourse on blogosphere. I have found promising and civil discourse in academically based discussion groups. What is clear is that we need high standards for our discourse. Moreover, we need real human exchanges with discussion groups, work groups, and writing workshops.
So, today, when someone forwarded me a link to AbdurRahman’s latest post. I was happily surprised. Here’s a brief account of what’s going on in DC:

Imagine for a moment that you’re a highly educated African-American living in the segregated Washington, DC of 1895. Modern distractions like radio and television haven’t been invented yet, and most other avenues for culturally rich and intellectually stimulating entertaiment have been racially proscribed. What do you do? This was the predicament facing the elite members of the race at the close of the 19th, and beginning of 20th centuries. In those days, education meant a heavy dosage of Latin, Greek, or French, great familiarity with the classics of western civilization – like Shakespeare and Plato – and usually the ability to perform a difficult piece of music on either piano or violin.

In learning to cope with the injustices of segregation, these educated Blacks turned inward and developed their own avenues for cultural and intellectual expression. They formed debate clubs and literary societies, attended plays ( held usually in churches), and wrote books and papers. However, one of the more important outlets they turned to – one which we are attempting to rediscover in the Washington D.C. of 2007 – consisted in holding lively and engaging programs in each others homes.

So often we hear that our masjids maintain an atmosphere inhibiting free discussion and thoughtful debate, a lamentable state of affairs. Most masjids, whether African American or immigrant, usually follow some type of “line” ( some ideological Kool-Aid they want you to drink), and all topics not sanctioned by the administration are strictly prohibited. But the home “salon”can be the perfect remedy to combat the intellectual and cultural stagnation that so many Muslims are experiencing today.

Here in the nation’s capital, Muslims are beginning to meet not only in homes, but in little coffee shops as well. Some attend to hear the short lectures and the discussions that follow, while others go simply to find a mate, and that’s o.k. too.

I really hope this idea catches on. After reading Sherman Jackson’s work on BlackAmerica and talking with several up and coming leaders, I am convinced that we need to go back to the drawing board. While we may look at faulty ideologies and failed movements, I think this is an exciting time for Muslims in the West. I believe we may be on the brink of some cutting edge thought. Our thoughts in exchange with the thinkers coming from Muslim majority countries may really help provide some real world solutions to the problems that we face all over the world.

History and Memory: Black Muslims in America

Abdur Rahman Muhammad has written a five part series under the controversial title, “Why Blackamerican Muslims Don’t stand for justice?”  I find this series significant for its historical value,  especially since there are very few works outside of Aminah Beverly McCloud’s book African American Islam that have taken a critical look at the intellectual trends of African American Muslims and their relationship to the immigrant community.  

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

Part Four 

Part Five

 What I like about the series is that it is a solid attempt at explaining the causes for the lack of civic engagement of many African American Muslims since the 90s. Abdur Rahman has a good understanding of the complicated trends. I find his nuanced understanding expecially important in light of some disturbing simplistic generalizaitons, ahistorical explanations, and false assumptions recent bloggers have made. Recently, some Muslims have written me asking if their views are representative of the Black American Muslim community. I do not think so. But with that in mind, I think it is extremely important that scholars begin to study sociological, cultural, and historical processes in the American Muslim community. Many of us discuss trends based off of anecdotal evidence. We don’t know marriage statistics and with so many informal marriages we don’t know. I know as a student organizer, many of us failed to keep a record of our activities. We should have libraries preserving our impressions, thoughts, ideas, and plans. We should have qualified scholars that can analyze speeches and texts. Now more than ever we need a historical approaches to understanding Islamic movements, especially in America.I became Muslim in the early 90s, with little understanding of what had been established and the major shifts in leadership that were underway. If you don’t know where you’ve been, how do you know how you got where to where you’re at? I think there are many lessons that we can learn from history. It is just as important to understand the history of Islam in America as a whole, and that will require many studies and various approaches. I personally think   we can discover important insights to understand Muslim communities  in  multi-cultural societies and global Muslim networks by looking at the history of Islam in America. 

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.

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.

The African Novel

I remember Sheikh Yassir saying that when you love something, you want everyone to see what you love. Here is something I love, and its a relatively new love. It’s the African novel. I have read a few over the years, beginning with my first African history course at Santa Clara. But over the past few months, I have realized how much the writings speak to me.

Ali A. Mazrui and others mention seven conflicts as themes: the clash between Africa’s past and present, between tradition and modernity, between indigenous and foreign, between individualism and community, between socialism and capitalism, between development and self-reliance and between Africanity and humanity.

African novels speak to me, not because my experiences are the same. But they speak to me because of what the common struggles we share as human beings. We are able to speak because those commonalities manifest themselves in different ways. I find part of myself as fragmented reflections in the characters and their struggles. Also I find a part of something outside of myself that, in turn, defines me.

Years ago I had aspirations of becoming a writer. In my novel writing class my instructor asked each student why they wanted to write. My answer was, “To tell the stories that haven’t been told.” When I decided to become a professional historian, I forgot about that creative drive. But underlying everything that I’ve done since 1998 was to tell untold stories of real people. I realize that some people tell amazing stories, but sometimes they are not within our ear shot. Other times, dissonance of our instant message, text message, reality tv noise drowns out those stories. Often we are not willing to hear stories about people who do not live like us, who we do not believe think like us, and therefore we assume we cannot understand their experiences. Other times those stories challenge our basic assumptions. I’ve always seen books as windows to other worlds, as a way to broaden my own. But novels are not just a window, they allow me to reflect upon my own experiences and see myself in a different light. Find yourself in a book, walk in some one else’s shoes, imagine who you are and who you could be. I hope you pick up a book from the canon of African literature. Here is a sampling of some of my favorite novels:

Devil on the Cross by Ngugi wa Thiong’o Kenya
Ambiguous Adventure by Cheikh Hamidou Kane Senegal
Shehu Umar by Abubakar Tafawa Balewa Nigeria
Nervous Conditionsby Tsitsi Dangarembga Rodesia
The Fortunes of Wangrin by Amadou Hampate Ba Mali
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe Nigeria

African Literature and Writers on the Internet