Making Mistakes & Respecting My Parents

Just some thoughts swirling around in my head this week:

Not blogging much these days

Someone recently asked me why I haven’t been blogging as much as I used to in the past. Several reasons come to mind, which include the increase in other social media outlets. But I think at a deeper level, I haven’t been writing as much because I’m at a better and healthier place, emotionally and spiritually. I’ve realized some of my best blogging (cue the Penalty Box post) has come from a place of (hopefully righteous) anger at injustice.

And while I still get angry at injustice, I think I’ve found a number of constructive ways to channel that anger into positive outcomes. I’m also living in the beauty of the grays, no longer willing to parrot the mostly black and white moral certainties of conservative orthodoxy, which I don’t and maybe never really believed in, though God knows, I sincerely tried to believe and practice it.

An Embarrassing Mistake

Yesterday, I made an embarrassing mistake. I barely glanced at two people and I asked, “Who are you two ladies?” Thee was an awkward pause and recoil from both of them. One said her name and the other said, “I’m so-and-so’s husband.” Yikes! I immediately felt shy and embarrassed and wanted to make amends but wasn’t sure how. The husband had long hair down his back and I didn’t really look at him, kind of just assumed with my cursory glance that he was a woman. I couldn’t unsay what I said even though I dearly wished I could take those words back so instead I pretended to be engrossed in some activity all the while trying not to look in the man’s direction.

I couldn’t help but replay some of the recent discussion around the incendiary comments by AlMaghrib Institute and Prophetic Guidance instructor Abu Eesa. I certainly didn’t intend to be stubbornly belligerent, defensive or mocking but here I was in a real situation standing just a few feet away from someone I may have offended. I chose to stop avoiding the situation, put down my things, turned and looked the gentleman in his eyes and said, “I’m sorry, I just saw your hair, and not your face.” He didn’t respond and I didn’t and still don’t really feel much better. But we were able to interact normally without any overt awkwardness after that and as he left he wished me a good weekend and I wished him a safe drive home.

Making mistakes, saying things we don’t necessarily mean, and hurting people in the process is a part of the human condition. It’s not the mistake, which defines us, but how we respond when we realize or if we even realize we have made a mistake is the mark of a person’s character.

I’m working on a post tentatively called Inside AlMaghrib Institute: An Insider’s Perspective, which will revolve around my own decade long experience with the organization so stay tuned for that.

Respecting My Parents

I am so thankful for my parents. I haven’t always and probably still don’t fully appreciate them and all they’ve done for me. My parents are my biggest unwavering supporters. They have taught me so much and given me so much. And I’m sorry to say that my encounter with various strains of Islam has not always led me to accord my parents the deep love, honor, and respect they deserve from me.

My family tells a story about my grandmother, my father’s mother, Mama 71, as she was known by many. She had seven surviving children including four sons, of which my dad is the youngest son. My dad and my three uncles all left Nigeria to pursue their undergraduate and graduate studies abroad. Mama 71 and maybe grandfather, too, ensured it was well understood that none of the boys, much less the daughters, would marry from outside i.e. a non-Igbo. And none did.

While completing his graduate studies here in America, my dad dated an African American woman. She, according to family sources, was very much in love with my dad and they even traveled back to Nigeria together for a visit. However, she was aware that my dad would never marry her because she was not from our tribe. And he didn’t, auspiciously enough for me, as he would later marry my mother.

I’m struck by this story because after I converted to Islam, I did so many things that I know must have riled, rankled, hurt or upset my parents. I hid my conversion to Islam fearing the reaction from family and friends. In my mind, I didn’t need anyone’s permission, I was an adult, though,  just barely 18 at the time. I bowed to Muslim community pressure and started going by the Arabic name Zainab, though I didn’t legally change my name and my family always called me Ify.

I almost married a couple of guys without so much as discussing it with my parents, though, I did discuss it with several imams. None of the imams who were supposed to have my best interests in mind seemed particularly interested or bothered with the enormity of decision at hand and the exclusion of my family. Their main concern was fulfilling assumed jurisprudential requirements. I didn’t discuss this with my family, I simply informed them that I wanted to marry so-and-so. A remarkable change in just a single generation. My dad and my aunts and uncles bowed to parental pressure to marry within the Igbo tribe. I, born and raised in America, decided to inform my family of my intention to marry after I’d found who I wanted, not even asking nor really caring for their input.

For too long, I’ve relied on the knowledge, wisdom, and experience of Muslim preachers as a substitute for that of my family. As I get older, hopefully, I’m a bit more mature and wiser, I really want and need for my family to be involved in my life. I want to discuss issues with my parents to hear and respect their advice and wisdom. I sometimes feel that converts are given advice which minimizes or harms our family ties and leaves us vulnerable to be preyed upon by others so I always advise converts or the newly practicing that we must not discard our families.

Moving Forward Amid Disagreement about Gay Muslims

I finally got around to reading Scott Kugle’s Islam and Homosexuality as well as its recent companion book, Living Out Islam: Voices of Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender Muslims. I also thoroughly enjoyed reading Rabbi Steven Greenberg’s Wrestling with God and Men, which while specifically dealing with Jewish tradition resonates with issues common to many conservative religious communities. These books have been tremendously illuminating and spiritually healing for me. Reading and reflecting on these works and the very real voices and lives from the lesbian, transgender, and gay community, a community that has been as the Muslim gay activist Faisal Alam notes, “so spiritually wounded” was in many ways humbling, devastating and enriching.

I’ve heard conservative voices, which claim the mantle of orthodox legitimacy poorly paraphrase or summarize the arguments about understanding homosexuality elaborated with much care and detail by Kugle, Greenberg, and others. There is no substitute for reading their works, reviewing their evidence, arguments, and intellectual creativity in full. Irrespective of one’s own personal views being open to learning and truly hearing another person in attempt to foster greater understanding and empathy is a worthwhile challenge.

It seems that we should be able as a religious community to move the discussion forward beyond a simple rehashing of legal rulings regarding particular sexual acts. That discourse has dominated the conversation but is only a side point. I’m going to use broad brushstrokes here so bear with me for a moment. The LGBT community doesn’t need to seek permission from religious authorities for what they do in their bedrooms. It’s none of your business. What we, as a community, do need is a pragmatic religious and spiritual paradigm, which allows us to be fully present, seen, and included in our communities. And as Rabbi Greenberg says, “a way to envision a life of love, intimacy, and commitment…in the context of a religiously alive Orthodox (or otherwise) community.”

For many religious gays, our orientation is not on the table for reconsideration or debate. Many of us have spent the majority of our lives working through the issues surrounding our sexual orientation so what is at stake is our faith and our lives.

Scripture can be read in a multitude of ways, not every reading holds the same subjective weight of validity or truth. Our challenge as we continue to be out and remain in our religious communities is to read scripture in ways, which Greenberg argues “replace the depiction of perversity with mere difference and sinful desire with the simple human longing for loving.” If you want to see that as a slippery slope that’s your business.

Rabbi Greenberg offers that “the challenge of gay inclusion tests any tradition’s capacity to engage with diversity, to encounter the world responsibly as it is rather than as it is wished to be.” How many of us would willingly accept a religious tradition that offers no path or way forward other than lifelong celibacy or “deceptive heterosexual marriage.” If we’re not going to leave our faith, it’s time that we move beyond religiously sanctioned lying about who we are toward the moral imperative to “stay and tell the truth.” I am disturbed by how easily my tongue has become accustomed to reflexively lying in order to hide an integral part of my life.

I wept after reading the conclusion of Rabbi Greenberg’s book, which mentioned three points to help move the discussion forward:

1. For religious leaders: No humiliation. They will agree not to humiliate or intimidate gay and lesbian people from the pulpit and work to prevent such humiliation in their congregations.

2. For gay and lesbian congregants: No public advocacy. Gay and lesbian members will acknowledge the limits of the scriptural process and not presume the Orthodox community will adopt the social agenda of the lesbian and gay community.

3. For communities: No lying. Lesbian and gay members will be able to tell the truth about their relationships and their families.

I think these considerations point toward a meaningful start to move the conversation forward, wouldn’t you agree?

Gay Muslim Survival Guide

A number of people have asked me to explain or clarify issues raised in my coming out post, Yes, I Am. So here’s an attempt to respond to that feedback as well as offer some constructive points of advice for my fellow LGBT Muslims.

I am Muslim, by choice. Faith is central to my identity and without it I’d be lost as I still clearly remember my life before Islam.

So how do we reconcile faith with sexual orientation or sexuality? This is perhaps the most commonly asked question for gay Muslims but for me the question misses the larger point that orientation is not the same as sexuality. Beyond semantics, some of the language used to describe orientation is unhelpful. Orientation is not limited to who you sleep with and who you sleep with does not necessarily define your orientation. While our community has many hang-ups when it comes to sexuality, I think part of the challenge of having a discussion with gay Muslims is an inability to see beyond the jurisprudential bedroom. Islamic law is concerned with classifiable acts and is silent on matters, which are not so easily classified.

The idea of reconciliation or counseling for LGBT Muslims begins with an assumption that there is a conflict between faith and orientation. Not everyone agrees with this view. Nearly everywhere you look there is a growing movement of scholars and activists challenging old assumptions and interpretations to fuel a more progressive understanding.

Even if you’re like me, schooled in more conservative cultural interpretations (and every interpretation has its own cultural baggage), the progressive understanding holds an undeniable appeal though for me the arguments are not fully convincing. You will have to decide for yourself, which interpretation or understanding of Islam works best for you as no one else can live your life for you. So keep the lines of communication open between you and God and try to surround yourself with good and supportive family and friends.

Should you come out? Each decision to come out is incredibly personal and it’s a continual process with each group of people you encounter. I am out to some people and not out to others, it just makes life easier that way for me. You have to evaluate your own life situation. In reflecting on the life story of the Prophet Muhammad and in listening to Brene Brown’s research into vulnerability, shame, and whole-hearted living, there are so many lessons to be drawn from embracing vulnerability as a means to seek out authentic and meaningful connection with others.

You do not have to accept the idea that your orientation is sinful or unnatural nor do you have to accept the opinion that coming out is publicizing something that should be hidden. I’m always amazed by people who sincerely think that remaining closeted is the optimal solution when they themselves are completely open and in your face about the reality of their own orientation and relationships.

Know that a huge part of reconciling between your faith and sexuality or the courage to come out stems from your own self-esteem and feelings of self-worth. You are worthy, beautiful, and deserving of love and goodness. You have to believe this. Cultivate your relationship with God, your relationship with those who sincerely care for you, and take care of yourself. It’s very possible you will encounter haters along the way but you don’t have to value or accept their criticism.

In my experience, fearing how others might react, is a mostly useless and paralyzing activity. Despite my best efforts, I was not able to predict, with any sense of accuracy, how my family and friends and people in the wider community have reacted to my coming out. Not every experience has been positive but the overwhelming majority have been positive. As a rule of thumb, people who spend a lot of time online (so rarely in person because that would require courage most don’t have) trying to tear you down are usually in pain in their own lives trying to compensate for their own insecurities. If they were happy, they’d be out enjoying their own lives more than they enjoy commenting on your life. Spare a thought for those deeply closeted LGBT folks so scared that someone might think they are gay that they take up the anti-gay banner with more energy than the real homophobes. I know some of you are secretly reading this now and I wish you much love and healing.

What about the “love the person, not the action” distinction? This is problematic, is that even really love? This dichotomy works for some people but not for others. Certainly, we can give credit to those holding this supposedly more compassionate view over the more fire and brimstone exclusionary types but what does this really offer to the LGBT Muslim?  It appears that lifelong forced celibacy is unnatural and maybe even harmful. Marriage to someone of the opposite sex can work for some but not for others, leaving aside the question of fairness to the unsuspecting spouse.

The interesting observation from the “marriage solution” is that despite assuming an outward facade of heterosexuality that inward orientation rarely changes. I could marry a man and almost did yet my orientation was as settled then as it is now despite my efforts to pretend otherwise. In 1971, the American Psychiatric Association (APA), didn’t just stop referring to homosexuality as a disease based on a whim and switch to offering guidance that sexual orientation cannot be changed. Most people involved in ex-gay or reparative therapy programs also encounter this reality of stable orientation. I hear the “abuse argument” a lot from some Muslims i.e. that being gay results from sexual abuse, but this myth is also addressed in the link above about the APA decision. Give it a listen, it’s a good program, and won’t make you or your children gay, I promise.

Can I be LGBT and a good Muslim? Of course! Don’t ever allow people or their opinions or your own actions to come between you and your faith in God. Every person is more than simply an orientation or an action. When I stand before God to pray, I am Muslim, a human being, a daughter, a woman,  a sister, black, gay, American, a nurse, a neighbor, a student and so much more than these labels can convey.

I’m okay saying to Allah as I bow down that I am here at your service, turning to you. I don’t always understand everything perfectly, but I ask you for help in everything, and I know that you will and always have helped me, and that you are the best of those who offer assistance.

Hold on to your faith, you are not alone.

Yes, I Am

Rachel Maddow: “I think the responsibility that we have as gay Americans to the extent that we can — and we ought to be really ambitious about the extent to which we can — we have to be out. That’s the thing that we owe the people who came before us who are the pioneers, and that’s the thing we owe the next generation of gay people in terms of clearing the way and making life easier for them. I think that there is a moral imperative to be out, and I think that if you’re not out, you have to come to an ethical understanding with yourself why you are not. And it shouldn’t be something that is excused lightly. I don’t think that people should be forced out of the closet, but I think that every gay person, sort of, ought to push themselves in that regard. Because it’s not just you. It’s for the community and it’s for the country.”

My name is Ify and this is a part of my story. There is much more to me than this but it’s here none the less. I’ve been asked, “How do you know?” Really, just as you know yourself, it’s the same. You don’t need to try everything else to know what feels most real and authentic to you. No, I was not abused as a child and I feel very blessed and fortunate to have had such a loving and nourishing upbringing.

I lived in fear for many years, afraid of what my family, friends, fiancés, and social circle would say as I tried mightily to discern what God intended for me. I don’t claim to have any answers but what I do have is my faith in God, a loving family, and some sincere friends. I’ve come to understand that these connections are more dear to me than anything else.

Perpetually living in a state of anxiety and fear is an awfully heavy burden to carry alone and a diminished way of experiencing the world. I’ve learned that hiding the truth about an integral part of  myself leads to dishonesty. And dishonesty is a poor foundation for building one’s faith or meaningful relationships. It is a quicksand-like foundation for beginning a marriage.

Anger and sadness became my close companions even as I turned to God seeking and hoping for a way out, struggling to maintain my faith. But it wasn’t all doom and gloom, as I joyfully immersed myself in strengthening my relationship with God and with my community through learning and volunteering. I found a fullness and contentment of faith while cultivating my defense mechanisms. It takes a lot of effort to consistently maintain a neutral facade as those around you confidently express the most ridiculous or hurtful opinions. Over the years, deep fissures appeared in this facade and I unconsciously used anger and sarcasm in an attempt to keep my anxiety at bay.

At one of the last Friday prayers I attended, the imam made an impassioned plea exhorting the congregation to sign their names to a  petition to have a referendum ballot this year on the issue of gay marriage in the state. As a joke at the end of the sermon, the imam said, “We all know that God made Adam and Eve and not Adam and Steve,” which received some chuckles from the audience. But I’d like to offer as a correction that God not only made Adam and Eve but he also made Steve and me. That some in our communities readily display an attitude of willful ignorance and harshness rather than gentleness and compassion on a wide array of issues can and does alienate the most vulnerable from their faith.

I try to listen attentively with all of my being to hear the whispers of the divine message in my life. I’ve been deeply inspired by people across faith traditions who in their negotiation of faith have found it within themselves to recognize and respect each person’s inherent dignity and to love for others what they love for themselves. Slowly, I’ve gained the courage to allow my family and some friends in to get to know me and have been surprised to find their hearts soft and open enough to continue to love and embrace me even if it’s not always easy.

I am not giving up on my faith.

In Praise of a Simple Ramadan

All praise and thanks are due to Allah alone, the Creator and Sustainer of the heavens and earth, the Turner of our hearts, and the One who has knowledge of our every heartbeat, breath, thought and action.

Ramadan is a blessed month of fasting and devotion, good deeds and charity, and increased communal bonding.

In this month, the rewards of good deeds are multiplied even more than usual so we are often exhorted to exert ourselves to reap as much benefit as possible. Ostensibly, this is a good thing.

Yet, I am reminded of the hadith of the Bedouin that came to the Prophet (s) to ask about Islam:

Bedouin: Muhammad, your messenger came to tell us you claim that Allah sent you as a Prophet.

Prophet: He has spoken the truth.

Bedouin: Who created the heavens?

Prophet: Allah.

Bedouin: Who created the earth?

Prophet: Allah.

Bedouin: Who created and raised the mountains?

Prophet: Allah.

Bedouin: By the one who created the heavens, earth, and raised the mountains, has Allah sent you (as a Prophet)?

Prophet: Yes

Bedouin: Your messenger also told us five prayers in the day and night have been made obligatory on us.

Prophet: He has spoken the truth.

Bedouin: Your messenger told us charity is due from our wealth.

Prophet: He has spoken the truth.

Bedouin: Your messenger told us that fasting in the month of Ramadan has been made obligatory on us.

Prophet: He has spoken the truth.

Bedouin: Your messenger told us that a pilgrimage to the Kabah has been made obligatory on the one able to undertake the journey.

Prophet: Yes.

The Bedouin then set off and said, “By Him who sent you with the truth, I will neither make any addition to them nor diminish anything from them.”

The Prophet (s) replied, “If he is truthful, he will enter paradise.”

Before the month of Ramadan, many Muslims make fervent prayers that we be allowed to live to see this blessed month. We make resolutions about how much Quran we will read or how many extra prayers we will pray, or how much will give up of tv, movies, social media, and other distractions.

But as the month wears on, our resolve may weaken and we may begin to feel guilty that we weren’t able to achieve our goals. The hadith above gives us hope, Islam is simple, even in doing the bare minimum there is a guarantee from the Prophet of God of a good outcome in the hereafter.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating for being a slacker in Ramadan, on the contrary, I believe in taking Ramadan seriously to reap as much benefit as possible. But along with that level of seriousness must be an element of pragmatism. Not all of us will be able to finish the Quran in this month, or pray every night prayer, or even spend a lot of extra time in devotional acts so give yourself a break and appreciate the blessings in what you are able to do.

There’s also hope in the hadith, that “the most beloved of all acts with God are those done most consistently even if they appear small.” Let’s implement this hadith by utilizing this Ramadan to find one deed, which we can do consistently for a lifetime to seek the pleasure of Allah. Can you do it?

This Ramadan, I have chosen to emphasize a single small deed, which I am working to build into my daily life so that, God willing, I can continue it throughout the year and I hope throughout my life.

Leaving the Theology of Bullies Behind

I used to wonder how people, especially converts, could after finding Islam later leave the faith altogether. I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently and of my friends who no longer identify as Muslim. Everyone’s life experience is unique but I can’t help wondering if some of my friends left simply because they couldn’t find a safe place within the religion for themselves. I wrote about this earlier in forgiving ourselves for not being perfect. The more I reflect on it, I’m almost certain that many people leave because we’ve encountered a theology of bullies that does not empower us to deal effectively with the pressing issues in our lives.

I was young, insecure, and confused about a lot of things when I converted to Islam. I was certain that I believed in God. I liked the easy and comprehensive answers and a well-defined life path that Islam provided. I was attracted to the repeated calls in the Quran to think, reflect, and ponder over its verses and the signs in universe. In my new convert zeal, I was overwhelmed with a desire to not only ground but also to prove myself in my new faith through learning and practice. It was then that I encountered the theology of bullies and I fell in love…with it and my own ego.

Looking back, I see how naive I was despite my quest for sincerity, which was I think and hope quite sincere. And afraid. Fear is used in theology of bullies to force each person into submission. But this fear thing is a tricky business. If God is worshipped out of love, fear, and hope then surely some fear is a good thing? But in the theology of bullies there’s another type of fear, a fear of displeasing people and of public censure. This secondary fear causes a lot of emotional distress. Some people believe that’s a good thing and to others perhaps a sign of hypocrisy. It’s a tricky thing because we want so very much to be sincere.

This is how the theology of bullies works:

Take any issue, promote your own understanding as correct and closest to the divine decree, and then mock, ridicule or revile those who differ. Setup the equation so that the good Muslim or more precisely, a Muslim, is the one who agrees with you. Thereby putting the faith of those who disagree with you into doubt.

This is how the theology of bullies gets you. If you don’t agree with them on everything hook, line, and sinker then you’re sunk or they’ll set out to sink you and your faith by playing on your insecurities.

xcwn blogs powerfully over at A Sober Second Look about the damaging effects of the psychological, emotional, and theological manipulation many of us have experienced. I see myself in much of her writing. I consider myself in the process of recovering from the theology of bullies, still holding onto my faith in God and in Islam but discovering anew what that means for me as a practical reality.

I’ve learned enough to pass pretty effectively. I know the arguments, the evidences, and proofs inside and out. I can wear the clothes and say the right words and this affords me a certain level of privilege but I know the truth. I don’t believe in much of the way Islam has been presented and taught to me. And I now know that disagreeing with the opinions of others doesn’t mean I’m disagreeing with God. It just means I disagree with you.

What I Learned in Nursing School

Shall I be sentimental or should I keep it real? Or is this one of those dreaded multiple-multiple select all that apply questions?

I began nursing school in awe of the nursing knowledge of my professors and the students ahead of us. As I leave, I’m still in awe of the nursing knowledge and alpha, beta, and charlie personality characteristics of my nursing instructors, and am humbled by how much we still have to learn even as we begin the celebratory circuit of pinning and graduation ceremonies and parties to celebrate our accomplishments. I’m mindful of my current and former classmates who will not be with us as we walk across the stage next week knowing that I could easily have been in that same boat.

Dr. Barkley taught us to remember that each person is a “pyschosocial, cultural, and spiritual being” and that we have to keep this in mind when working with and advocating for our patients. She kept us in check with frequent reminders to observe “professional courtesy on the floor” even while walking through the hallways at school and by asking us, “what’s your reference?” to make sure we really had read before class and weren’t just making stuff up.

From Dr. Miller, I learned humor is good and keeps class moving along but unless you know the material you won’t get very far. From some instructors I learned how I’d like to be and from others I learned habits I’d like to avoid.

From Dr. Persaud, I learned the most valuable lessons. That some things are unacceptable, that the way we choose to conduct ourselves can make or break us, and that we have to look inward at our own flaws and actions when situations go awry.

I’m humbled by the care, compassion, and integrity I saw from nurses as they struggled to meet the needs of their patients and balance those with a myriad of other concerns. I learned about team work and noticed I gravitated toward and away from certain types of people in my personal relationships.

I learned from my patients about facing death or chronic and debilitating illness with grace and dignity. I learned not to presume that I can accurately judge another’s pain. I learned about the quiet spaces inside myself where I go to help deal with pain and suffering I’ve witnessed. And I learned the importance of prayer, making time to have fun, and having a good support system to help me to get through those darker moments.

I’m learning how powerful words and ideas are. I’m working and trying hard to improve the quality of my speech and to restrain myself when words will not better a situation. I’m learning not to laugh at others because I haven’t been tested with what they have been and I can’t put myself in their shoes. And that type of hard-hearted laughter is a sign of arrogance. I want to be humble, I want my heart to be soft even as it makes me vulnerable, and I want to live with sincerity and integrity.

I’m beginning to think more like a nurse and I’m beginning to live more like a decent human being. That’s what I learned in nursing school. My sincerest thanks to all of my teachers, those that I named and those that I didn’t name, I’ve learned a lot.

Hamza Yusuf, Jonathan Brown, Yahya Rhodus | Value of Liberal Arts Education | ADAMS Center

As the Friday evening rush hour set in around the DC beltway, I and hundreds of other Muslims battled through traffic, which more than doubled my travel time to get to the ADAMS Center mosque in Virginia. I arrived before the event and helped a parent carry in some boxes of Girl Scout cookies before making my way toward the gymnasium/multipurpose event room.

Before I even took off my shoes, I met an old acquaintance who said that the room was full and that we might as well make our way upstairs to the overflow space in the musalla. For a moment I considered trying to squeeze my way in but instead reluctantly decided to go upstairs knowing that the experience would be inferior. And it was, although, I give the organizers props for trying.

A television monitor, a bit on the small side, had been setup with close circuit feed to the program downstairs in the gym. The camera appeared as if it were placed on the furthest possible wall at the highest possible angle so we couldn’t really make out any of the main speakers. Some extra speakers had been brought in to amplify the sound so at least we were able to hear if not see.

Dr. Jonathan Brown, a hadith scholar at Georgetown University, opened by highlighting some of the pitfalls he sees in many western universities, which he described as having “sterile” and “amoral” environments. In such settings, moral thinking based in religion is often seen as an impediment to progress and enlightenment. According to Brown, most academics are afraid to weigh in on the political and moral issues of the day fearing a backlash or being accused of trying to “force” their personal convictions on others.

For a Muslim student raised in environment of black-and-white morality and where a spirit of inquisitiveness is not encouraged, a college environment, which does not nurture their faith can lead them to question everything they believe or had been taught to believe. According to Dr. Brown, this is one reason many colleges began as religious institutions that had a strong moral framework.

Dr. Brown hopes that the Muslim community can pool its resources to create more institutions like Zaytuna College that can build up and pass on wisdom for future generations of American Muslims. Through these institutions, the Muslim community can show the rest of society the values contained within the Islamic tradition.

Yahya Rhodus began his talk by translating some lines of poetry: “Make knowledge an excuse and don’t make other things an excuse for knowledge. And know for certain that knowledge and worship are the means of felicity and salvation. And that is what will remain for you in the next world so purify and cling to that.”

Today, many young Muslims feel at a loss spiritually and are not sure how to respond effectively to the changing circumstances we find ourselves in. Rhodus emphasized that having a holistic knowledge of the religion is key to navigating our situation as American Muslims. Knowledge can help the believer understand the context of generalized Prophetic principles, which remain constant, in light of the underlying changing circumstances of today.

Hamza Yusuf praised the ADAMS Center as a model American Muslim community but cautioned the audience not to become complacent by mentioning a narration from Abdullah Ibn Umar: When a believer is praised, he works harder, because he knows it [the praise] is always more than he deserves but when a hypocrite is praised he become lazy because he is pleased that people think good things about him.

Yusuf then reminded the audience that the religion of Islam is based on knowledge. The revelation of Quran began with the word Iqra, which means to read or recite and that this knowledge is a gift given from Allah. Knowledge can raise a people and communities in ranks but only if we remain humble.

In some narrations of the famous hadith “Seeking knowledge is obligatory on every Muslim,” Yusuf explained that some scholars added the words “wal muslima” so that everyone would know that learning is obligatory for both men and women.

Continue reading

Conver(t)sations | My Journey to Islam | AUDIO

Many thanks to Ayesha & Asma Ahmad and the George Mason University MSA for inviting several Muslim converts including me to speak about our experiences for their Conver(t)sations event in early March.

L-R: Asma Ahmad, Ify Okoye, Lauren Arnold, Tina Shahmohamadi, Danielle Gottes

Audio Highlights

My Journey to Islam: The Mormons helped me become Muslim

Converts need support because without a real understanding of their relationship with God they can easily fall out of Islam even if they have the external Muslim “name” and “look.”

Avoid using the word “kafir” or its plural “kuffar” in the pejorative sense to refer to all non-Muslims. It’s hurtful for us to hear our families, friends, and loved ones denigrated in that manner by other Muslims. I prefer to use people of other faiths or “poofis” as I once heard Imam Johari Abdul Malik say.

Side Note: I cringe like most people when I hear my recorded voice, part of that is a natural shyness and part of that is from being criticized for not sounding “black” enough when I was younger. I can definitely empathize with Jordan Shumate, a high school student rebuked by his teacher for not reading a poem by Langston Hughes in a “blacker” manner.

The topic of race and racism amongst Muslims deserves a talk by itself. Four years ago, during the previous presidential election, I tried to work out some issues relating to being seen as both authentically black and Muslim here and here.

Yesterday, I Wept at the Courthouse

Yesterday, I wept at the courthouse. Not because I had to miss class to contest a speeding ticket nor because my officer decided to show up nor because I feared my auto insurance rates would go up. Even though, I had secretly hoped the officer wouldn’t show up, I’m glad he did, otherwise I would not have wept nor learned a lesson.

I would not have wept because my case would have been dismissed early on and I’d have left the courtroom before any of the trials took place. So I stayed and during the first trial, I wept as did many in the courtroom that morning for the loss of man I didn’t know.

Seated around the prosecutor’s table was the dead man’s wife and son. He has other children too and young grandchildren, the youngest, the one he never met, born last December, carries his name. His wife wrote a letter to the judge detailing how the loss of her husband of forty years, her high school sweetheart, and business partner had affected her. She said she felt as if she were missing half of herself.

Her son began to read from the letter until overcome with emotion he handed the letter to the prosecutor to finish reading for him. Also seated around the prosecutor’s table were the court’s translator and the two Latino men who had worked with the woman’s husband and were with him that fatal day.

At the other end of the courtroom was the defendant, a man perhaps in his late forties or early fifties, a retired military veteran and firefighter. His hair was closely cropped and his face red with the emotion of a man trying to hold back tears. While it was easy to feel empathy for those sitting around the prosecutor’s table, I didn’t know what to feel for this other man. But even for him, I can only feel empathy for a man forced to carry his burden.

One rainy day, three men stopped their van on the side of the road to adjust their windshield wipers. Two were outside and one stayed inside the van. Without warning, their van was struck by another vehicle at speed. The power of the impact forced the now deceased man’s head through to the outside of the van. His companions also sustained serious injuries. They have had multiple surgeries since the accident and may suffer some permanently disability. Neither, both manual laborers has worked since the accident. One of them has a wife and two small daughters and worries how he will be able to support them.

The sorrowful man behind the defense table offered the excuse of being distracted as he looked into his driver’s side mirror. Continue reading