NPR | Zaytuna College | Forging a Sustainable Faith in America

Courtesy of Zaytuna College

A clip from a report by NPR’s Barbara Bradley Haggerty about Zaytuna College and its uniquely American flavor in terms of ideas, outlook, and seating arrangements. I agree with Hamza Yusuf that I’ve also seen a return to moderation from many converts & newly practicing Muslims into a more sustainable faith outlook over the years.

I didn’t know Amy Winehouse but I knew Tobi Ekeze

The Death of Amy Winehouse

Yet, her death this past weekend made me reflect. Winehouse and I are the same age, although, she was born a few months before me. I saw a news story that mentioned other famous people that died at the age 27 including Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain, and others. None of us know how long we’ll live, I doubt many of us think that we’ll die at 27.

If you knew the precise time of your death wouldn’t you try to make the most of your life? Have you lived the life you wanted to the fullest or are you treading the life others (who don’t really know or care about you and can’t help you) want you to live?

Read this on a friend’s facebook status:

‎”Rupert Murdoch says he is deeply touched by all the messages left on Amy Winehouse’s voicemail.”

Reflexively, I laughed and almost immediately felt bad for doing so. I’m not the best at holding in my laughter and tend to laugh at some of the most inappropriate times.

The Death of Tobi Ekeze

Democrat & Chronicle: Educator’s heart was as big as his smile

I didn’t know Amy Winehouse but I did know Tobi Ekeze who died two weeks ago. He was a husband to Karen, married probably now for twenty years, and father of two teenage kids. Tobi like my parents came from Nigeria and somehow ended up in Brockport, my small hometown in upstate New York.

I’m told he lived with us for a time while completing his degree, I don’t really remember that because I was too young. When Tobi and his wife Karen got married they asked me to the little bridesmaid and I remember being overjoyed at the prospect. As the youngest and baby of the family, it was a small way to upstage my two older sisters.

I always admired Karen and Tobi’s relationship, growing up they were one a handful of interracial couples I knew and I always admired their courage to go forward loving someone of a different race and ethnic background. Most of my relationships have also been interracial, not consciously, it just happened that way. Part of that I credit to my parents who although I’m sure they would be happy if we married someone from our tribe, never discouraged the idea of interracial relationships.

That’s one of the things I love the most about my parents, the home environment they created for us was in many ways so open and accepting. I can’t ever recall my parents discriminating against anyone nor ever using common stereotypes or slurs. Those are things that I learned out in the neighborhood, at school and from books and television.

I was deeply pleased to hear that Tobi completed his PhD and had become a vice-principal at my former high school, which was far from the most diverse place in the world. Once again, proving to me the value of hard work and determination to persevere and to achieve whatever goals you set out for yourself.

My dad wrote me a letter informing me of Tobi’s death, after a battle with cancer, and he called him a “gentle soul.” That’s how I remember him. My condolences to all of his loved ones.

From the Storehouse

Obituary: Mildred Loving

Waleed Basyouni | Skydiving Gem | Before You Jump Ask Yourself…

Shaykh Waleed Basyouni shared a gem he learned from his skydiving experience. Before he jumped out of the plane, his instructor said to him, (paraphrasing) “Imagine you’re standing in front of your friends boasting about your skydiving experience. Ask yourself, how you would feel if you jumped and landed successfully? And then ask yourself, how would you feel if you didn’t jump and this plane landed?”

There is little doubt that when you land you’d feel regret for not taking advantage of the opportunity. Even though, I don’t like to go on the majority of roller coasters and rides at amusement parks, I try to force myself to ride them with my friends because every time I decline to take the  ride, and I wait at the bottom for those in my group to return, I do feel a sense of regret.

One ride I'd never want to go on

Sh. Waleed advised that when we fear or are hesitating to take an action that we should ask ourselves these two questions. This gem was worth the entire weekend seminar for me and there were so many other gems derived from the lives of the scholars of Islam.

There are a few issues I’ve been turning over in my mind so after the istikhara prayer, asking myself these questions helped push me through the mental barriers of fear and hesitation so that I could take meaningful action.

IlmSummit Day 6 | Textual Reinterpretation & Feminism

Ilm Summit Arrival, Delayed

The fourth annual Ilm Summit hosted by AlMaghrib Institute began last Friday but due to my NicheHero workshop in Toronto, I did not arrive until mid-morning on Sunday. It was nice to see the familiar faces of the hotel staff and my fellow students and teachers. Because I arrived late, I was stuck until the break for lunch in the very back row at the last table but my friends from California (SoCal) went out of their way to take care of me and help me settle in, which was greatly appreciated.

Over the course of the next few of days, several people came up to me and asked where I had been because they hadn’t seen me for the first two days. It’s heart-warming to know that one’s absence was noted. Those of us who come here, year after year, have become like a strange extended family. Many of us only see each other once a year, but when we do, we pick up right where we left off as though no time had passed between our annual meetings.

Thankful

Things are generally very good and run smoothly for me as a student at Ilm Summit. The volunteers are always there working hard behind-the-scenes, which allows us to chill and benefit as much as possible. Our instructors are on-point teaching us new and exciting topics and making themselves available for quite a bit of personal interaction. The diverse menu offerings are appreciated. Even the pairing of roommates is appreciated, I’ve never been disappointed, and always meet some extraordinary sister.

Feminism and Textual Reinterpretation

When Yasir Qadhi announced to the students that this Thursday’s wild card session would be on the topic of feminism, I was intrigued. Two years ago, Julie, the 2008 Ilm Summit top student presented an overview of different movements within Western feminism. Despite the grumblings from some student and the heightened awkwardness of the situation, her presentation was a step forward for AlMaghrib and the mostly conservative audience.

Quite a few sisters suggested or nominated me to join with the group of sisters that would be participating in the wild card discussion. However, when I heard the topic was not feminism per se but rather a discussion of the issues and difficulties Western Muslims face relating to marriage I was less intrigued. I’m sure those who are involved will do a good job and hope there will be some fruitful discussion.

Kicked Out of the Front Row

I’ve always liked the side by side classroom seating setup here at Ilm Summit and I often find myself in the front row ready to listen, interact, and take notes. So it came as a rude shock Wednesday evening when those of us who sit in the front row were told quite unceremoniously that we would not be permitted to sit in our front row seats for that the Quran Night wild card session.

No real reason was given and when I returned from dinner to gather my belongings from my front row seat, I found a gaggle of young kids comfortably sitting there. Please remind me again how Islam honored women, and how being forced to give up your seat to a kid probably not even 10 years old is respectful to the women who gave up their time and sleep and made an effort to come early before the end of the lunch break to obtain that seat? I was annoyed and thoughts of staging a sit-in protest crossed my mind. Instead, I took a fourth row aisle seat.

Around conservative Muslims, I sometimes get the feminist label. In this context, the feminist label means that I don’t like to be treated poorly or unfairly by my co-religionist and that I sometimes voice my disdain when I encounter such degrading treatment.

Modernist Textual Reinterpretation

I find it fascinating the way some clerics (that word is growing on me) do a modernist dance around “problematic” verses in the Quran or hadith. Even as they claim to affirm the original text and meaning such as in Nisa 4:34 or in hadith of the women with deficient aql these interpretations seem apologetic and quite like some other modernist interpretations, which conservatives criticize. If we can open this door, responding to the issues conservatives have a hard time saving face on, then the door is also left open for similar interpretation on other issues.

It may seem contradictory but I think those grounded in orthodoxy and modernity are the way forward for the American Muslim community. Yet, I am aware of the limitations I see in many of our teachers. No doubt, there is still much I can learn from them and I try to take the good from them but increasingly recognize how in order to grow and learn I must move beyond them.

Kingston, Ontario Mosque Signs

At first I was excited by this sign, thinking it was a sign of progress until I spoke to two sisters familiar with the area. Apparently, there did not used to be a barrier in the mosque and women were fully active and involved in the community. But in recent years, there has been a vocal minority pushing to have women put behind a barrier and this new partition may signal the beginning of that process. I was in Toronto last week but did not get a chance to go mosque-hopping, next time, insha’Allah.

Photos courtesy of two very dear friends.

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Pray-In Updates & Merging Oursides Blog

At the most recent pray-in at the Islamic Center of Washington DC, we made progress with some of the mosque officials. One male staffer held the front door open for us as we entered the main prayer hall. And when the women began to offer their sunnah prayers, the acting imam for that day defended our presence and our right to pray in the main hall outside of the “penalty box.

The acting imam also overruled one male staffer who said he wanted to call the police to remove us. The imam mentioned the hadith referring to the best rows for the men and women to pray and told the small circle of men who had gathered around that it was none of their concern where we prayed.

It’s so inspiring how the simple act of praying can be both an act of complete submission and revolutionary. Pray-ins present a direct challenge to those who wish to keep women marginalized in the Muslim community.

In today’s USA Today, journalist and author, Asra Nomani argues that mosques and other houses of worship should lose their tax-exempt status if the discriminate based on gender. The local and federal government has already legislated non-discrimination clauses for a variety of protected classes.

Going forward, I’m going to discontinue posting to my Oursides: Muslim Women’s Prayer Spaces photoblog and post here instead.

Unidentified mosque staffers

Sorry for the blurry pictures, one of the mosque officials (pictured left in an orange fleece from an earlier pray-in) was harassing me to not take photos while he himself proceeded to take photos of me. He encouraged us to pray in the penalty box, which was closed off more than usual with yellow caution tape.

NicheHero Day 4 & 5: What I Learned at NicheHero

What Did I Learn from NicheHero?

Planning & Experience

I learned a lot about leadership, management, human nature and personality-types, motivating factors, and what to do and to avoid when launching a project. Muhammad Alshareef shared with us numerous priceless gems tested through his own real life experience and by far the biggest lesson I learned was that in order for me to do or achieve anything, in order to build a successful project or to leave a legacy, I will need to take the first step and be consistent in taking action. Good planning and getting the right people in place from the beginning can forestall the many pitfalls which can harm your project and organization.

Criticism

I learned to be open to legitimate criticism but to not allow my critics, especially those whom I don’t value their opinion on an issue to become my boss driving and dictating my actions. And even though, I might not value your opinion on one issue and vice-versa that need not prevent us from being on amicable terms.

Personality Types

There’s a great difference between A-player type eagles, we fly high and solo, we can be difficult to get along with and stubborn. We don’t suffer mediocrity lightly in the areas where we excel and think everyone should be able to rise up to our level of work and commitment and excellence. When we are running our own projects we may not care to listen to other voices, especially those who do not have what we’re looking to achieve.

Human beings are programmed for social conformity, and we use many different techniques to influence others to maintain the status quo. When you step up or out in front, those who are doing less than you may feel bad and may use criticism as a way to make themselves feel better and to bring you back into line with them.

Step Away from the Cliche

Among the most cliche issues in the Muslim community are ragging on mosque leadership, the overused women are “fitna” line and way of thinking, and wanting to become a consultant or teacher. Many of those who say they want to consult are afraid of taking meaningful action on a project that will build their reputation and authority to claim the credibility necessary with their target audience.

Need for Balance

Working for Islam should not burn you out and if it does it’s probably because your intention is messed up or some other key area of your life is out of balance. When you have the correct intention and your life is in balance, working for the deen (religion) will invigorate and strengthen you.

Summarized Benefit

To sum up, get over your neuroses, stop making lame excuses, analyze the situation and consistently take action to implement the framework that has worked for other successful projects.

Was it worth it, should you attend NicheHero?

Yes, it was completely worth it, you should attend if given the opportunity. Let’s move beyond mindless criticism, frustration, and inaction and begin to work building something that we love to do that benefits others and is profitable.

What’s Next?

Follow me on my Facebook page to stay up to date with my progress on my NicheHero project and upcoming graduation.

Niche Hero Day 3 | Starting Again | Taking Action

Criticism

I wrote another post about criticism for Day 3 called Let’s Be Real about Our Difference but it may be too critical even for me so I will probably need to sleep on it before I return to edit and post it, insha’Allah.

Take Action on Your Idea, Today!

The day began with a challenge from Muhammad Alshareef to me to not let the day pass without taking action on my idea. I put out some feelers on Facebook and received positive and encouraging responses. Whether I will continue to take meaningful action or procrastinate on the other steps remains to be seen.

I’ve taken more than 30 AlMaghrib seminars, some more than once, and have learned from various other sources over the years. This year will mark my third consecutive year attending Ilm Summit, quite bummed to be missing the first day of Ilm Summit due to the Saturday overlap with Niche Hero. I’m scheduled to leave Toronto for Houston on the first flight out Sunday morning so hopefully will only miss a few hours on Sunday.

For the last two years, Niche Hero has overlapped by a day with Ilm Summit and I’ve wondered why that was the case. So I bounced that question off of Amirah, a Niche Hero graduate from last year and she broke it down for me in a nice and succinct manner. She just said, “Ify, how many people here are really going to attend Ilm Summit other than you?” And that was a perfect reminder that we as human beings find it difficult to look beyond our own circumstances because we filter everything through our own limited lens and frame of reference.

I often get asked to share what I’ve learned from these classes but haven’t yet found a vehicle to transmit the knowledge in an effective manner. I remember during the fiqh of salah seminar with Yaser Birjas, I found the section on the timings of prayer to be among the most difficult and abstract for me. It wasn’t until after I left the classroom and looked up into the darkening sky before isha that I began to understand the various opinions marking the end of maghrib or the beginning of isha. It wasn’t until one day at the beach, looking at the Atlantic Ocean that I figured out how to use the signs in nature to find the qibla and not rely helplessly on my iPhone or compass.

I find the fiqh of tahara to be an extremely dry topic, no pun intended, but remembering hiking the Billy Goat Trail at Great Falls in Maryland reminds of the proof for those who say it’s permissible to eat the red bag of Doritos in contrast to those who say it’s impermissible. We learned a gem today from Yusuf al-Qaradawi who in response to those critical of his opinions makes dua to Allah by saying, “O Allah, do not deprive me of the reward of a mujtahid who makes a mistake.”

Everyone finds the traditional ways of open-ended learning to be painful especially if the instructor is ill-prepared or lacks a dynamic teaching style.

Two Blogs?

Taking a lesson from what we learned today, I’m going to merge my photoblog with this blog, which should prove easier to maintain, insha’Allah. An added benefit is that those posts and the larger effort behind them will bear my name. Why is that important? So that I don’t hide behind a username like I used to do here when I was known as Muslim Apple and also so that I hold myself accountable for the effort. Much harder to abandon a project bearing your own name than an anonymous effort.

The Globe and the Mail newspaper has shrunk

I grew up just across the southern border of Lake Ontario and back in my news-junkie days would often buy the Sunday Globe and Mail newspaper from the grocery store, which offered better international news coverage than my local paper. Outside of my hotel room, there was a courtesy paper and I immediately noticed how much smaller the paper was in terms of width and how much more vibrant to photographs are today. I asked a couple of people and they also confirmed that the paper had reduced its with.

Niche Hero Day 2 | Conquer Your Fears | Why Religious Muslims Should Get off the Sidelines

“Religious” Muslims often sabotage their own projects and leadership efforts by using the excuse that they fear riya (showing off) and want their deeds to be purely for the sake of Allah. But the truth is that this thought is itself a form of riya and no one benefits from our inaction. How many of us shut off our deepest hopes and dreams before they even start by using the fear of riya excuse?

If you saw someone driving at full-speed toward a cliff, you wouldn’t just watch contentedly from the shoulder waiting for them to crash and burn. You’d try to help them. I was sitting next to a sister and her cup of almonds fell off the table and instinctively I reached out my hand to try to catch the cup before it spilled. I didn’t fight the impulse or pull my hand away wondering if I or anyone else would think I was showing off. But in other actions, which are of much greater benefit so many of us are comfortable sitting on the sidelines not taking any action using our riya excuse as permission for inaction.

And while we are not taking action, we cede the sphere to other voices who may not share the same moral compass. I remember Sh. Waleed Basyouni mentioning how it’s important for pious Muslims to get involved in society. If the good people all stay at home, hiding behind this or that tradition, we shouldn’t complain when the worst of people are put in positions of power and authority over us.

My fear is not of the critic trying to drag me back down to their level of inaction by questioning my intentions or by name-calling. My fear is that I will be asked on the Day of Judgment why I didn’t do more, why I didn’t live up to my full potential with the blessings I was given. Those who can do and those who cannot make excuses and criticize you.

So will you be one to take action?

Marianne Williamson: Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

Niche Hero Day 1 – Let Go of Emotional Baggage, Pack Lightly

Before leaving for Niche Hero 3.0 in Toronto, I stayed home instead of attending a kayaking trip with friends in order to clean and organize room. That was critical for me to release the negative energy that had built-up in my room and in my mind. The process was therapeutic and not only did I feel increased energy but I felt like a weight had been lifted from my shoulders.

Sunday, at the airport and again on Monday while making my way to NicheHero location, I felt weighed down my roller travel duffel bag as I shifted from bus to subway to light rail streetcar. I began to think of how the emotional and mental baggage we carry with us each day weighs us down and prevents us from living our dreams. If we find that balance between the spiritual, emotional and physical self, we build a foundation from which to launch our “Wow!” ideas. And even if you don’t develop a “Wow!” idea, not carrying around so much unnecessary baggage will make your life easier.

At least two people told me that I travel lightly, I packed 1 medium-sized roller duffel and one backpack for 16 days, yet I think I could lighten the load even more.