Musings on Muslim identity (IV)

Recently, I was talking to a secular Muslim, who doesn’t practice and who regards the antics of North American Muslims of all stripes (convert and otherwise) with some amusement.

He mentioned something about admiring the Muslim ideal of humility.

And I thought, “WHAT?? What humility?”

I wondered, do you mean the “humility” of the rock-star imams who charge large speakers’ fees and stay in five-star hotels? Or maybe the faux “humility” of that shaykh or study circle leader who says that oh no, they don’t know anything at all compared to the great scholars of the past… but they do know more than enough to tell everyone around them how they should live their lives, down to the last detail? Or maybe the “humility” that I was taught that I should have—which amounts to being grateful for what you have even if it’s awful, because you don’t merit anything better.

But I knew that he didn’t mean any of those things.

And I was confronted by the realization that the Islam I know is not the Islam that he knows. As I often am whenever I talk to him, or to others like him. Sure, he knows the rules and the literalism and the pious cruelty and the obsession with identity-markers very well. Better than I do, in fact. But for him, Islam isn’t just all that stuff—there are core values and ethics that matter more.

As a convert, I heard lots about “Islamic values.” But these “Islamic values” were mostly about… rules. And identity, of course, because such “Islamic values” were constructed in opposition to “the West” and its supposed immorality. I was in effect taught to beware of letting any values or ethical concerns lead me into compromising any rules. Because nothing was more important than the rituals and rules, ever. It was in following the rules—especially, those rules that socially mark you as a Muslim—that our supposed “Islamic identities” were sustained.

I was left wondering about what values I had really learned as a Muslim.

*     *     *     *     *     *

Long story, that I won’t go into here…

Betrayal is something that I despise. But even more, it leaves me hollow. With sadness and a sort of detached, horrified disbelief.

I go looking on youtube for laments. Songs lamenting Husain and the martyrs at Karbala. A strange thing for a Sunni, I know. But years ago, I fell into that story. Those laments got me through a nightmarish time. Maybe they can do that again.

Years ago, when we were traveling in a Muslim country, one of my kids, who was then an infant, was very sick. Our efforts to get medical treatment for her failed repeatedly. Whatever food or drink I would give her, she vomited straight back up. I didn’t have much milk for her, because I was sick myself… and the more milk she took from me, the weaker I became.

We traveled a long way by car to try to get a flight out of there. The driver of the car was a devout Shia, and he didn’t play music as he drove—he played tapes of laments for Husain. It was dusty and very hot. The winding, dusty road went on and on through the baked, dusty land.

We were all thirsty. Especially the kids.  Now and again, he would stop at a village so that we could get cold water. I would give it to the kids, drink some myself, and pour what remained over our heads.

The laments played on. On that day, the story came alive for me for the first time. Somehow, I fell into the story, which in turn seemed to be the story we were living at the moment. Except that at least we had water, and cold water at that.

Husain, Husain. My baby was scarcely stirring in my arms. I could barely eat or drink anything.

My ex tried for several days to find a way for us to leave, but couldn’t. There was no way for it but to drive back the way we had come, and then through another country.

My child was dying. We managed to get her to a hospital, and the doctor just shook his head. I was too weak to stand or even sit by her bedside, so I flopped down on a piece of cardboard that happened to be on the floor. Nobody really seemed to notice as I lay there, absently watching a cockroach climbing the wall.

I could still hear the laments inside my head. My child was dying, and I couldn’t do anything about it.

I lay on that cardboard all night. I guess I must have slept at some point, though I don’t remember.

In the morning, she was still alive.

*     *     *     *     *

Looking on youtube, I can’t find the laments that I remember from that trip years ago. I suppose it would help if I could remember more of the words.

But I found others. For some reason, they help somewhat.

Yes, the umma has its share of Umayyads, bullies who invoke the Qur’an when it suits them in order to justify every sort of oppression. And the umma has even more Kufans. People who betray the trust placed in them. People who know what they ought to do, but wait to see which way the wind blows before they’ll stand up for anyone’s rights.

And the umma has its share of weepers, who say that if only they’d been there, they’d have done something. Who sing sad songs about Fatima deprived of her inheritance, and the captive women stripped of their veils and paraded through Iraqi towns, but who won’t lift one damn finger to do anything about the women they know today who are deprived of their rights and humiliated.

And then, there are the Husains and Zaynabs. More often then not, people watch mutely as they are killed, or turns their faces away as they proclaim unwelcome truths. They’ll pay homage to generosity and integrity and courage in the abstract, but stand back as those who have those characteristics are cut down.

And then justify having done that, “Islamically.”

*    *    *    *    *

One of the pitfalls of being a Sunni, especially when I was a neo-traditionalist, was the tendency to assume that the majority must be right. Because “my community will not agree on an error.” And because we were taught that how your fellow (conservative) Muslims see you is how God sees you.

A more damaging idea would be hard to find… especially when applied to white female converts in North America in the communities I lived in in the ’80’s and ’90’s. We internalized the belief that God didn’t approve of us, because of what we were, and couldn’t help being. We despised ourselves, because we weren’t that “ideal Muslimah,” and couldn’t manage to become her, no matter how hard we tried.

Unfortunately for us sunna-wal-jamaa’a-minded people, those we looked to for guidance (whether immigrants or converts) were not only caught up in their own identity crises, but were also in an experimental mood. They wanted to build some sort of ideal Muslim community. A community the like of which did not exist—and had actually never existed—anywhere. A community that had ever only existed in some conservative mens’ imaginations. And we (and our kids) were their guinea-pigs.

It was these utopian visions, coupled with identity crises and insecurities, that defined what our Islam was all about. There was no place in our Islam for people or ideas that didn’t fit into them. Such people and ideas had to have the edges knocked off of them, and if that didn’t make them fit, then they would have to be crushed, and their remains tossed into the mortar we were mixing to build our illusions of an ideal, pure Islamic community.

*    *    *    *    *

I remember when the word went out that Amina Wadud was going to lead the Friday Prayer in New York City. How the shaykhs and imams fell over one another before and after the event to condemn her. Apparently, there was nothing going on in either North America or the entire world that was as outrageous and as opposed to “Islamic values” for them to take a stand against as that prayer.

In the aftermath, I heard that she received a deluge of threats and hate-mail. The imams of the mosques in the city she was living in at the time got together and wrote a letter to the university where she was a professor, asking that she be fired.

Since then, I have not heard of a single shaykh, imam, community leader, or Muslim would-be opinion-maker in North America who has come out and publicly apologized for their role in fostering an atmosphere that made such threats and intimidation likely to occur. Or even apologized to her on the community’s behalf. No, not even those who speak so lovingly of “adab” and “respecting our differences.” Nor of course those who talk about how “we respect our women.”

Regardless of what those shaykhs, imams, community leaders and would-be opinion-makers think of woman-led prayer, one might hope that they could recognize courage and integrity and a dedication to justice and a monotheism that brooks no patriarchal partners to God as fundamental Islamic values. Even when the way that these are expressed doesn’t fit their rules.

This is a woman who is willing to stand up for what she believes in, doesn’t back down when faced with hateful threats, honestly believes that Islam is all about justice, and maintains that patriarchy is a violation of tawhid. And even more remarkably, Amina Wadud is not the only female convert in North America that I know of who is like that. Looking back at the communities I was involved with, I just wonder where such women come from… how they survived being ground down, or shoved out.

Somewhere along the way, they imbibed values that I didn’t, apparently.

But perhaps it’s not too late.

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  1. #1 by nmr on March 17, 2013 - 12:25 am

    Dear Potential Don Quixote,
    Just be sure to bring along a patient Sancho Panza so you don’t get yourself into too much mischief.

    • #2 by xcwn on March 17, 2013 - 1:06 am

      Errr… I’m not about to go off and do heroic deeds. That’s not my style.

      I am just trying to think beyond the rule-bound Islam that we were taught, which ended up being its own caricature.

  2. #3 by Amina Wadud on March 17, 2013 - 4:25 pm

    Thanks for your observations. I survive on a deep and profound belief in the ultimate divine harmony of the universe, which includes justice honor and dignity. And then, too, I survive on comments like this essay. Hang in there. The truth is bigger than just one perspective. amina wadud

    • #4 by xcwn on March 17, 2013 - 6:52 pm

      Thank you so much for your comment.
      I really appreciate your writing and activism.

      And please allow me to apologize for the disgraceful way that the “mainstream” community has often treated you, especially in the wake of the prayer. I hope that in time, those “brothers” (who certainly know who they are… and so do their followers) will man up and apologize publicly.

  3. #5 by californiahijab on March 17, 2013 - 9:51 pm

    Salam. I am a recent revert and just discovered your blog. It is amazing.

    I have to say I have been struggling a lot lately. I moved country and job to find a place to learn and practice Islam, and it has not been easy. Not the least of which is just finding friends, and figuring out how someone like me – a middle-aged single (no kids) western career woman – can be part of the ummah. And how to balance what feels like two worlds.

    Reading this reminds me that by being so different, perhaps that is my contribution. One of the very first books on Islam was a book by Amina Wadud. It certainly shaped my thinking a great deal.

    I guess my point is that I should quit being so paralysed by some image of a Muslimah and just be me, and think about what I can do for the ummah rather than the other way around.

    Its definitely not too late.

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