Saturday, December 10, 2016

I No Longer Need a Man ... to Kill the Cockroaches -- I Am Hagar!

By Ayisha Karim

“In some traditions, the cockroach represents adaptability, the ability to sense subtle changes, and the ultimate ability to survive any conditions – they have crawled over the Earth for hundreds of millions of years – true survivors… they teach us to go with the flow and adapt to your surroundings, to survive…” – Friend and Colleague, Ellen

Last Friday night, I sat alone in my cold house, suddenly thrilled to receive a text from my older brother, telling me that he was on his way over. This particular brother is an amazing storyteller and asks very little from his hostess. 

I know that brewing up a fresh cup of any coffee that I have in the house and offering it to him in a clean mug, on top of a saucer, is the ultimate delight for him…along with giving him my undivided attention, a listening ear, an open heart. (But then again, I’m somewhat of a coffee snob, buying fancy coffees from around the world. He’s begun to depend on a higher quality roast with me.) My brother likes his coffee black with a hint of sugar, as he’s oftentimes on his way to his second job, a nightshift involving physical labor. This time I even have a fancy red velvet cupcake to offer him along with it. I only had one cupcake, however, expecting that I’d be totally alone that night. Plus, due to our humble upbringing, one in which I don’t recall ever owning a coffee maker (not even the $10 one), my brother is accustomed to partaking in the skimpiest of accommodations and finding the gift/comfort/good in it. And well, I, the hostess, took pride and joy in being able to serve and cater to him in this way. Being the baby of four, it wasn’t my natural role to care for and look after my older siblings. Not until I became an adult, a wife, and caretaker did I see the normalcy, beauty even, in being a relief, an aide, guide to them, as they’d been for me for as long as I can remember.
Brazilian coffee from "Estrada Real", the Royal Road

So, we sat on the couch together, sipping our coffee, my full body turned towards his, listening intently to every word, as he shared his thoughts on the recent elections, why so many Americans voted for Trump, his day job as a barber in the local barbershop—where his customers range from Muslim friends he’s grown up with and Black women who wear short hairdos to the local kids (ages 6-17) who sweep up hair for an extra dollar and manage to take in lessons on how to be a Black man in this society.

In the same breath, he offers his take on the stagnant state of a large portion of our local Muslim community, stemming from not truly knowing the example and character of our beloved Prophet Muhammad (may the peace and prayers be upon him). Commentary like this, on the moral decline of our American Muslim communities, or the lack of activism within them, was becoming more prevalent. Oh, how I love to see the pride in my brother’s eyes and hear the expertise in his voice as he speaks about such things. 

And then the conversation turns, as it always does eventually, to his wife, the love of his new life – his friend, his ride-or-die chick, his partner in this, what would otherwise be, cruel, cruel, "man’s world." A long-lasting smile appears on his face as he talks about his wife’s latest theories, shenanigans, projects, and successes. My brother is a gifted comedian on the side, so one of the ways he shows his love for his wife is teasing her. Her latest thing had been putting powder on big bugs, thinking this would get rid of them for good.  He laughed hysterically as he told me that her trick was not only ineffective but that he’d shown her a better way: “I told her, ‘Look, watch this.’ And I’d open the door and watch them walk right on out the door. See, they don’t want to be inside in the first place.” And just like that our conversation turned to waterbugs and cockroaches.
Which brings us to the ever-contentious topic of COCKROACHES. And depending on your socioeconomic status, the part of the world you live in, or your stance on the source of cockroaches, there’s a chance that you may not even consider these hideous creatures as ever appearing anywhere near or inside of your home. Or, you’ve totally dismissed them from your vocabulary and replaced their species name totally with that of waterbugs, much less offensive, I guess. You see, there is a shame to experiencing the terror of cockroaches in one’s home, especially if you only associate them with poverty or filth. I call those bad boys for what they are (and yes, they’re ALL male in my mind; I’ll spare you my reasoning)… cockroaches!!
My brother went on to talk about how his wife would call him on the phone while he’s at work and complain about a cockroach, or waterbug. He went on, laughing at the seemingly helpless nature of women in the presence of these creatures: “I remember even Jamillah [our other sister] would call me when I was at Momma’s [who lives across the street] and say, ‘Do you mind coming over and killing this bug for me?’” And then I recalled and shared my stories with him about depending on someone else to kill them for me.

And, out of nowhere I had the question: What kind of man will protect me from THE cockroach? Wait, do I even need a man to protect me from the cockroach? Should that still be my focus, as I now can protect my own self from the cockroach? I mean, I no longer run away from it, hide, and just pray that it miraculously disappears for good. I have learned to defeat those suckers. And like a friend recommended, I don’t even give them much of my mental space anymore because as soon as I do, they just magically appear to my dismay. But how bold I’ve become in the face of them!!
With all that I’ve gone through in these past three years as it relates to maintaining myself and protecting myself, my assets and my heart (the biggest asset of all), I’ve realized that the cockroach is really the least of my fears. However, if you had observed me in the presence of them three years ago, you’d think otherwise. But I swear, I’ve grown. I now make bold moves towards them, certain that once I’m done, they will be NO MORE! I’ll admit, it typically involves Raid bug spray (lots of it), and when it dies, I have a method for ensuring their complete disappearance. Once it’s surrendered to death and has turned on its back, I sweep it up on the dustpan and quickly flush it down the toilet. And I have peace of mind again until the next occurrence, by which I grow stronger and stronger in more ways than I’d imagined.
So, what lessons have I ultimately gained from my desperate encounters with the cockroach? It’s quite simple, actually. For years, I thought either a man, or a grown-up—someone other than me—had to protect me from one of the scariest, ugliest, frightening creatures God allowed to mingle among us human beings, esp. many female humans. And now, I realize that there are certain things that I can protect myself from quite well, and maybe even better than a man ever has. This fact became ever so clear during the holy month of Ramadan when I'd wake up each morning for the pre-fast breakfast, suhur. In the peaceful, serene darkness, I'd occasionally wake to one lying on its back on the kitchen floor, or even worse, notice its eery shadow approaching while reading my sacred, luminous text (Al-Qur'an). Now, if that doesn't teach one reliance solely on Allah (God) in the face of adversity, i.e., the cockroach, I'm not sure what does! 

Essentially, my rendezvous with the cockroach as a single woman living without a man made me realize I’ve been wrong about the traits that I need most in my next mate to thrive and live a secure, successful, and joyful existence. More importantly, the despicable creature made me come to terms with what it is about being spouseless that really worried and bothered me. Mr. Cockroach moved me to consider the traits that I really do need to find in my future mate. Essentially, it made me realize that it’s not so much the physical traits that matter, as do the emotional and spiritual ones. (Hmm. I wonder if all the lucky women out there who are blessed to have never feared cockroaches already understood this important lesson.)
Don’t get me wrong, I’d never reject my spouse’s attempt to kill the sucker -- he can have his way with the roach and me :-).  But, I, like most Hagar's, would appreciate a mate who could also recognize and maybe even speak to the wisdom in all of God’s creation…and not so much protect us from the cockroach but from the schemes of the real enemy (shaytan), hehe. Or maybe even embody the qualities of Prophet Solomon, who was said to speak every language in the world, including that of animals, perhaps, even bugs...cockroaches. Imagine that.
In his own piece about the lessons gained from coming to terms with our disdain of the cockroach, Omid Safi simply states, “We cannot live in a roach-free world. Suffering and pain are woven into the fabric of this world, as are hope, joy, and love. We can live lives where we don’t have to be perpetually traumatized by them. We have more power than we realize.” (“Getting Over Our Disgust When Life Gets Gross”; On Being)
So, yes, like the cockroach, I can adapt much more than I give myself credit for. I am a survivor, who goes with the ebbs and flow of life. I am destined to thrive. I am Hagar.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Dear God, Teach Me How To Love (Again)

By Ayisha Karim

There’s this saying that as long as you act from a place of lack and scarcity, that you block yourself from reaping the abundance that life has to offer. And that if you act from a place of fear versus from a place of love, you’ll manifest those fears into your life. But the tears still fall; the sense of hopelessness still surfaces.

So… I get that. It makes sense; I’ve even seen these two realities carried out in my life. But even my own recognition of the brilliance in these don’t erase this rather dated, painful reality of my own experience – a reality rooted in a certain truth in my makeup. A reality that cries out: SHOW ME HOW TO LOVE…Please. Kindly. Patiently. Honestly. I long to be whole again.

I go to my Lord about this often: 

Ya Allah! [Oh, Dear God], Please, show me how to love and bless me to be in love, practice that love with someone who loves you and you love them. Ya Allah, I accept my lot in this life, my legacy, my human positioning in this world—one of an African-American, Muslim woman raised in the South, whose forefathers were slaves, stolen from their homes in Africa, their mother-land. I accept that the mother country, which I love and know, the United States of America, was built on the backs of my ancestors. 

Even more, I know that my country’s beginnings were made possible by the destruction of the family structure of those same Black slave ancestors. That the Black slave women, my ancestors, were conditioned to accept the least of provisions, protection, consolation, attachment, and intimacy from their Black slave men and husbands. That they were, instead, groomed to be sufficient with this lifestyle of scarcity in provisions, protection and tenderness. And, YET, still, were fortified and graced, by You, Dear Lord, with the Divine Presence, Strength, and Love to not only tend to the needs of those same oppressed Black men that abandoned them (within the system), but also love and care for the Black children who they continued to birth into further developed systems of slavery, hate, and oppression. And the most dehumanizing, unfathomable thing about it all, Dear God, these Black slave women were forced and trained, using whatever else of the Divine that remained in them, after all of this, to unselfishly care for their oppressors and the oppressors’ families– relinquishing their own individual power to love naturally, discerningly, and wholly as they pleased.

from TV series, "La Esclava Blanca"

Prayer Intermission: There’s a scene in an early episode of the TV series “La Esclava Blanca” that demonstrated this so well. As a small slavery town in Colombia was burning to the ground, two Black slaves—husband and wife—argued over whether they should stay or run away to a “free city” run by slaves. Yet, the wife had the baby of her slave owners—who’d died in the fire—strapped onto her back. Their desperate conversation went like this: “Let’s go. Not with the baby. You need to leave the master’s child. Victoria [White slave owner’s child] can’t come with us.”/ “This baby’s ours now, just like Milagro [biological Black child]. She’s coming with us.”/ “If they punish us, whip us to death, it’ll be that girl’s fault.”
my parents on their wedding day in D.C.
Dear God, I thank you for allowing me to be born out of that legacy, generations later, sweet ole Harvey B. Smith and Marjorie Elizabeth Winters – children of Jim Crow laws, a nation still divided, the Civil Rights & Freedom Movement, the Black Power Consciousness movement: Dr. King, Malcolm X, and the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. I recognize that through this my parents’ spirits and hearts were rejuvenated and revived. I know this and give thanks for this, oh Lord.
But, Dear God, my country, their country never truly acknowledged and reconciled the wrongdoings of slavery or fixed the system that resulted from it. And genetic memory is alive and real. So, when Harvey B. experienced the harshness of racism as a Black man trying to mobilize in this country, and engaged with a system built to keep him marginalized and second-class, he sunk into hopelessness and despair and acted as such. And when his wife Marjorie recognized her husband’s condition, she resorted back to what she knew—the way of Black women, passed down through the generations since the days of slavery: she tightened her boot straps, covered her heart with the Divine armor, and did whatever it took for her family to physically survive. And a hardening resulted. And both husband and wife, so overwhelmed by their conditions/struggles/tests/plights, couldn’t find enough of that divine love to hold it together. And they parted ways.
Dear God, then, there is me, Harvey and Marjorie’s offspring…and many like me, feeling a bit lost, disconnected from a certain type of wholeness, still feeling the remnants of generation after generation of the severance of Black family ties…It’s 2016, Lord…Are there still lessons you want me to learn from my forefathers (as it relates to family life)?…Will their legacy also be mine? If so, Dear God, make me be at peace with this…And if it’s not too much to ask, in the Next life (the home of the Hereafter), can I be blessed with the most amazing love, since I was deprived of it here? Like, can I have there a spouse with the qualities of Muhammad or Joseph or Solomon…I mean, I know I can’t be married to the actual Prophets (may God bless them and grant them peace), but someone who is really, really close, embodying their qualities?
Thank you, Dear God, I know that You are listening and are the Most Merciful of those who show mercy. Ameen
So, I know that my prayer is a bit dramatic, similar to a monologue in a Broadway play. But, you see, God has truly become my biggest confidant in all of this, and I know that He will be the only One to answer my prayers in a satisfactory manner.

I currently still feel a great deficit in my ability to express love, to show love – the kind of love that compromises, that forgives, heals, transforms, endures…specifically the kind of love that unites a man and a woman, a husband and a wife, soul mates, and successfully holds two together in a healthy and satisfying relationship. What do I attribute this to, you might ask? I was deprived of the most common, natural example: married parents. Like so many, I found myself the child of divorced (African-American) parents before I even reached the age of maturity/puberty.
I’ve actually confided in some of my closest soul sisters about this:
I didn’t have that example of two parents in the household, working together, compromising, caring for each other, performing the usual acts of love and service for one another. And I feel that I’m at such a disadvantage because of that.

from Into the Heart of the Feminine Study Guide: The Outcast, painting by Sandro Boticelli 
I mean, it really is a handicap, a disability – sure, not as obvious and well diagnosed or treated as a physical handicap; but a handicap nonetheless. My dear girlfriends insist that I’m just being dramatic and paranoid, and that some of them have either failed in their marriages, too, or have never been married at all, and come from homes where their parents were the epitome of mutual love, care, commitment, respect, and service. Yet, the void is still there, and sometimes, I sense this particular handicap so deeply and painfully in my heart, in my soul. And I’m so afraid that I’m going to be found out, that others are going to detect it, and either show pity for me, or prey on me – knowingly or subconsciously—seeing just how far I’ll go to fill this void and get the love that I’m craving. Oh, how easy and tempting it can be to prey on a fragile woman who shows signs of a lack of heart provisions, a lack of love in her life. Will I ever be freed of this curse? And in the same moment, I feel so blessed to have God in my life because I know that He loves the vulnerable and will ultimately protect and defend me.
Author bell hooks sums this condition up pretty well in her book, All About Love:
“If we have not been guided on love’s path for most of our lives, we usually do not know how to begin loving, or what we should do and how we should act.“
Recently I thought about the example of our beloved Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him). Muhammad was orphaned early in life--in childhood--but he was still known to be a man full of love, human and Divine, and THE ideal spouse. I know some would deem it inappropriate of me to draw such a comparison, but his truly is one of few REAL, true stories of hope that I can latch on to. Speaking of the Prophet, I find it heartwarming (and I’ll admit, amusing) when loved ones, who know my insecurities, flatter me or share stories with me in hopes of affirming my self-worth and how much of a blessing and treasure I would be as a wife. My favorite example was my father’s, where he told me that he recently read that out of all of the Prophet Muhammad’s (peace be upon him) wives, Aisha was the only one who’d be present with the Prophet when revelation would come to him. (*Assuming this is after the death of lady Khadijah, God be pleased with her). Get it: I’m Ayisha; she’s A’isha; namesake; similar destinies. I, indeed, pray so.
Lately, I’ve noticed that I take delight in seeing this divine love in others, those that I know well and those who are complete strangers. Yes, I find my eyes glazed over with a smile on my face, staring at happy looking couples; seeing if I can learn their secrets, what seems to come so naturally to some. I laugh at myself.

Dear God, I am open to learning from you and your creation. I am not puffed up with pride, nor do I think I ever have been, and I will not reject your signs and your blessings. God, know that this lesson, this gift, is one that I crave most ardently. Bless me with the humility, the patience, the resilience, discernment, and compassion to open my heart and mind to your signs of infinite wisdom.  Show me how to love…make me whole again.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Why We Remember Hagar

By Jamillah Karim

ISNA photos courtesy of Bilal Mahmud
O Allah, honor us by making us the beloved community, and there is no honor except by You. And finally, in these special days, when the selected among our community prepare to walk in the footsteps of our mother Hajar, or Hagar, make us faithful and content with You, as was she when she faced the adversity of being left alone in a new land that You, O Allah, made her home and the home of Your beloved Muhammad, prayers and peace be upon him. And like her, O Allah, may we struggle for Your pleasure so that our children can be at home in this new land, thriving in this new land where the people of Muhammad will shine with your light and love. Ameen.

With this prayer I closed my Friday night speech at the 2016 Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) Convention. To close evoking Lady Hagar and her legacy was unusual. It is customary to close with prayers on our beloved Prophet and his family, but not customary to name individuals in his family. And when we remember the women in his blessed family by name, it is usually not Hagar that we name but the women immediately around him; women like Khadija, Fatima, and Aisha, may God be pleased with them all. And when we highlight these remarkable women of the Prophet’s family, it is most likely when the theme of the conference or speech relates to women.*

My speech was not about women. It was about American Muslims' becoming the beloved community, a community beloved in the hearts of the American people and beloved in the sense that Dr. Martin Luther King and his generation of freedom fighters imagined it: a community known for brotherhood and sisterhood across differences.

But even when the focus of my speech is not women or gender, I make it a point to highlight exemplary women, their struggles and their triumphs. Remembering Hagar at that moment in my speech flowed naturally for two reasons. One, that night marked the first day of Dhul-Hijjah, the Islamic month of the Hajj, a holy season for Muslims that would not even exist if not for the sacrifice and faith of Hagar. And two, Hagar gave birth to the prophetic line that would later produce the light of Muhammad in a land to which she was brought not by choice, as American Muslims have the honor to introduce the light and beauty of Muhammad in this land to which our ancestors were brought by force.

Hagar, the great foremother of the Prophet Muhammad, may God grant him blessings and peace, is the same Hagar of the Bible; however, the Islamic version of this story has its unique elements, which I believe enhance the ways in which Hagar’s legacy empower women. While the biblical version focuses on Sarah’s initiating Hagar’s involuntary parting from Prophet Ibraham’s household and subsequent transfer to the inhospitable desert, the Islamic version focuses on the dialogue that ensued between Hagar and Prophet Ibrahim as he proceeded to leave her and their baby, Isma’il, utterly alone:

“O Ibrahim! Where are you going, leaving us in this valley where there is no  person for company, nor anything for us to eat or drink?” She asked him many times, but Ibrahim wouldn’t look back at her. She then shouted, “Has God ordered you to do this?” He turned, replying, “Yes, I am leaving you in Allah’s care.” Content with this answer, she said, “I am satisfied to be with Allah. He will not neglect us.”  (Ayat Jamilah: Beautiful Signs, A Treasury of Islamic Wisdom for Children and Parents)

When Hagar ran out of the water she had brought, she had no milk to nurse her crying baby. She ran up the closest hill to look out for help, but there was no one. Back down the valley she went, only to scurry up the opposite hill. Again, no one in sight. Moved by her child’s sobs, she persistently ran between the two hills seven times in search of help before stopping to check on Isma’il, whom she left in the scant shade. Miraculously, she heard a voice to which she pleaded for help. It was the angel Gabriel. The angel of revelation struck the earth with his heel and water gushed forth. Hagar arranged the sand to contain the water that today we call the well of Zam Zam.   

Hagar’s act of faith marks the site out of which the city of Mecca grew. Through reliance on God, prayer, and struggle, Hagar’s hand’s shaped the ground upon which a faith community, later a coveted city, and ultimately a world civilization would shine its light on the world.  

Tariq Ramadan (L) and Yasir Fahmy (M)
Being the only female scholar on stage with three popular male religious scholars that Friday night reaffirmed for me why we must remember Hagar. Hagar has not been remembered to the measure that her great legacy calls us, and this imbalance is partly due to the fact that women scholars had not shared public platforms with men on any systematic basis until recently thanks to women’s activism and scholarly pursuits in the last decade or so.

So when given the platform on a stage with men whom the large audience adored, particularly the distinguished and beloved Tariq Ramadan, I couldn’t miss the opportunity to remember Lady Hagar. It was a moment of activism, to bring consciousness to the way women have contributed to this great religion.

Listening to Tariq Ramadan speak. In addition to women speakers, one of the ways in which ISNA seeks to increase women's presence on stage is to assign women moderators (the woman in green). The woman in black is the sign language interpreter.

And then there was another way that I hoped to raise consciousness by evoking Hagar that night. I was among the few African American Muslim main speakers at ISNA, which is organized and attended predominantly by nonblack Muslims, mostly immigrants and their American-born children. As much as I commit to telling women’s stories, I commit to highlighting the contributions of black Muslims, of African Muslims, to Islam, especially in front of this audience. By remembering Hagar, I remember not only a woman exemplar of our faith but also an African exemplar of our faith.

Zarinah Abdur Rahman (L)
The person who made me vividly see Hagar as a black woman larger than life was Sister Zarinah of the Atlanta Masjid of Al-Islam, a Warith Deen Mohammed mosque community. Sister Zarinah was partner with two men in a company that organized and led pilgrims’ travel on the Hajj. At least once a year, she spoke to the community during our Sunday service. In glowing terms, Sister Zarinah emphasized that it was an African woman who is the mother of our faith. When Sister Zarinah described Hagar’s incredible dash between the two hills in search of sustenance, we saw a woman who looked like us. Every pilgrim arriving in Mecca, man or woman, hajj season or off season, the first thing they must do, Sister Zarinah reminded us, is pay respect to God and His house by circling the Ka’ba, offer prayer at the station of Ibraham, and then honor a black woman by literally walking and running in her footsteps.

But in reality, the color of Hagar’s skin is a side point. Only because we live in a world where blackness and African descent are treated as second class that it becomes necessary to highlight her origins: Egypt says the Bible, and Upper Egypt (Nubia) specify other historical sources. African American women’s most compelling claim to Hagar is not her skin but her trial. As God tested her to survive in a foreign wilderness in dire circumstances without the protection, provision, and support of her husband, God tested our African foremothers with surviving in the devastating wilderness of America virtually without husbands. Here, their men’s manhood was beaten out of them. What could they could do when black women were raped by slaveholders? What could they do when their wives and children were sold to another plantation 200 miles away? When they attempted to do something, they met severe consequences. Black women watched as their men were whipped, and later as their men were lynched, and now we watch today as our men are executed in the streets.

And here is where Hagar’s story and our story as black women intersect so perfectly. Abraham loved Hagar dearly. Imagine how much it hurt him to leave Hagar in the wilderness. But remember, this is the same noble man who prepared to kill his son when God commanded that he do so. As much as it hurt, he understood that God’s decree was perfect and that he must fulfill it. Similarly, our men have always loved us dearly, but forces beyond their control have left black women in the predicament we still endure today.

At the same time, our situation is different from Hagar’s. Soon after Prophet Ibrahim left Hagar and his son, he stopped, turned to God and begged that God “fill some hearts among people with love towards them, and provide them with food, so that they may give thanks.” Abraham always remembered them in prayer and later returned to his family. He built a house for them and one dedicated to the worship of God, to which Muslims turn five times a day for prayer. The Zam Zam water attracted a wandering tribe that permanently established itself there. A faith community thrived and supported Hagar when Abraham was away.

African American women, on the other hand, continue to face systemic racism, which restricts many black men’s ability to take care of their families. Also, we live in a culture that promotes extramarital sex. Additionally, it is a culture that empowers women to be financially independent of men, a good thing given the predicament of our men. These three factors combined, however, put many black women in a perpetual state of singlehood that Hagar experienced only temporarily.

Many studies have noted this crisis: “Black women are only half as likely as white women to be married, and more than two times as likely as white women never to marry….[As for those fortunate enough to marry], eventually, more than two out of every three black marriages will dissolve.” (Is Marriage for White People: How the African American Marriage Decline Affects Everyone)

Given this hardship, “Hagar Lives” hopes to inspire black women to claim Hagar, especially in the moment that she understood that her trial was beyond Abraham--when Abraham answered that God told him to leave her there alone. We aspire to be like Hagar in the moment when she realized her struggle was between her and her Lord. It is what God decreed for her, not what Prophet Ibrahim wanted for her, and so it was the moment to fully give her heart and limbs to God.

Although we aim to recognize that our trial is what God has decreed for us in His perfect wisdom and strive to see it as an opportunity to grow closer to Him, we also understand that our struggle demands that we fight injustices and hold ourselves, our husbands, our communities, and those in power accountable, particularly those perpetuating anti-black racism. And it is here too where the Islamic version of Hagar’s story provides some powerful instruction.

Unique to the Islamic version of Hagar’s story is that it required more than prayer for Gabriel to appear and miraculously produce water. It required effort, work and struggle on the part of Hagar. She did more than pray for help in the depths of the desert. She persistently searched, even though, attempt after attempt, she saw no one in sight on the hilltops of Safa and Marwa. God loves for us to ask from Him through prayer, but He also loves for us to strive for His sake. It was Hagar’s exertion for which she is remembered and saluted every time a pilgrim enters the sacred precincts.

“Hagar Lives” seeks to tell a variety of stories of African American women’s struggles and triumphs in their Hagar-like moments. Certainly there are stories of men who have abandoned us in ways that are not acceptable, but too there are stories of men who left us to God in their pursuit of that which pleases God. There are stories in which we as women showed the wisdom and grace of Hagar from the start of our relationships, and others where we made bad decisions and acted not with a complete faith in God, and still God came running with assistance when we called. And finally, there are stories that show Muslim women’s personal choices as resistance to racial injustices and disparities in this country, and others that show us moved simply by the sheer force of survival, or the basic need for a man’s touch, or for God’s love and the love of His Beloveds.     

If you would like to contribute to "Hagar Lives," contact us:

*Tayyibah Taylor, may Allah have mercy on her, was the first person I remember bringing my attention to the ways in which women speakers were always asked or expected to speak on women’s issues or the “women’s panel.”  She saw Azizah magazine as a long needed correction to confining women’s interests, ideas, and concerns to a woman’s column or to the occasional conference talk.  She organized and spoke regularly at ISNA, pushing for more women speakers. She would have been delighted to see my following in her footsteps speaking as a woman at a session not focused on "women's issues."

Monday, July 18, 2016

A Prayer for Love and a New Destiny: A Tribute to My Mama

By Ayisha Karim

For my mother, Marjorie Shukriyyah Karim, and my loves, present and future; and for all the beautiful ones searching for true, deep intimacy

Lately, I’ve been replaying this memory in my head, a memory that involves my mother but immediately reveals me in a similar space and predicament.
We’re in the hotel room getting dressed for the culminating event of the retreat—the banquet where the community’s leading imam on (the topic of) “marriage” will speak, as well as an experienced star couple. The women will be dressed to the nines, an unspoken scarf-wrapping competition would ensue. The most fortunate and diva-ish among them would don their Sanriq dresses that made both men and women turn heads. In fact, I’m pretty sure that my mom was wearing a Sanriq Indian outfit, and it was just when she had reached the final part of the dressing process, pinning her Indian-inspired headpiece in an Afro-centric style, that it seemed all of the beautiful anticipation for this event came to a screeching halt and a wave of reality, grief, pain, heartbreak, uncertainty, and fear took over the mood in that room. My mother broke down; she began crying: a soft, sweet cry, but a cry nonetheless, mixing tears with the dark kohl she delicately drew around her dark brown eyes. Upon noticing, I insensitively asked, “Mom, what’s going on? Why are you crying?” (as in, “Ain’t nobody got time for that!” says the reckless, naive teenager). Before my mother could explain, a more compassionate voice spoke, her friend: “She’ll be okay; let me talk to her… ‘Marjorie,’” following my mom to the bathroom. Surely I had a good idea of the emotions behind her sudden cry; yet I refused to validate them, risking my idealistic view of my own future marriage, despite how drastically different and unstable my own example had been.

The memory dates back 15 to 20 years at the Nikkah Retreat (“nikaah” translated as marriage or wedding; the retreat: a marriage conference expounding upon the virtues and necessities of successful marriages in African American Muslim communities). My sister and I, college and high school aged, accompanied my mom and her dear friend, who was already married but wanted tips on improving her own and adding some peace, joy, and dignity to it.
I never questioned my mom about that moment. I can only speculate as to the cause of her sudden tears. And as I’ve been crying a lot lately, randomly, rather insensibly, my guesses may be spot on. You see, it turns out that as far as relationships with men go, my mom and I have a few big things in common.  Trust me, I was surprised too when I realized this. In particular, she and I both found ourselves divorced with children around the age of 36. It has been over 25 years since my mother divorced and she has yet to marry again. Will this be my fate? I pray to God that it is not.

There are also major differences between our journeys, giving me hope that my destiny will play out differently. The main differences relate to the age of our children at the time of divorce and the level of education we’d attained. Three of my mother’s children were teenagers, and I was pre-teen. My two children were both preschool age. My mother had recently finished her undergraduate degree while working and raising the four of us. In contrast, I had just completed my master’s degree, after working nearly ten years in my field, when God blessed me to carry my first child.
But as I chart my way through life after divorce, I keep coming back to that moment in the hotel room that makes it feel as though I have become the same woman with tears in her eyes. Why was Mama crying? Why have I been crying so much lately? Sure, I’m sleep deprived and hungry during the Ramadan fast, which can bring any young mother doing it alone to tears. But there is something much more familiar about those tears.

Wait, perhaps…let me spell it out: heartbreak, longing, fear, misunderstanding, and years of disappointment, all jumbled up together. All, believe it or not, inevitably leading towards this fierce, unshakable love “rooted in God.” Yes, a healing, tranquil, certain, steady, beautiful, transcendent, divine Love. The heartbreak and the satisfying closeness to God, my mother and I both share at once.  But, Dear God, in a plea for our destinies to differ, can’t I be blessed with that type of love in human form in this realm as well.

"And among His signs is this, that He created for you mates from among yourselves, that you may dwell in tranquility with them, and He has put Love and Mercy between your (hearts), verily in that are signs for those who reflect” (Qur’an 30:21).
Yes, I think I know good and well why my mom was crying that day. As she prepared for the gala of the Nikkah Marriage Retreat, she must have had flashbacks of the prominent experiences of her heart felt on this sometimes painful journey of life. Sure, the other retreat participants would admire how well put together she was. They would admire her immaculately wrapped headpiece, her common pleasantries, her winning smile, her undeniable sweetness. The same sweetness that my father alludes to, after glancing at me endearingly—with a dose of nostalgia and regret--and says, “Isha, you remind me so much of your mama.”

But would others be able to ascertain the status of her heart? Would they pick up on how fragile her heart was? Would they ever know how sincere was its longing and pure its core, despite its scar?
And NO, she wasn’t looking for a man to provide financially for her. Mama had just landed a job in corporate when she divorced and was well on her way to the middle class. And NO, she wasn’t trying to beat her “biological clock,” hoping to find the best man to father her children. She was ready to start a wiser, golden chapter of her life. And NO, she wasn’t looking to love anyone else’s man either, even though Muslims criterion for carrying out productive lives—the Qur’an—highlights polygyny as an honored, acceptable lifestyle. (Don’t nobody want your man, anyway!) 
And she surely wasn’t looking to just satisfy her physical needs. YES, she was simply trying to fulfill a station that’s considered half of her religion, a whopping 50%! 

But would others even consider her sincere desire to seek marriage for the pleasure of Allah when they observed her at the gala? Surely, God is the only One who truly knows the secret wishes of our hearts, but what my mom needed that evening was reassurance that others would look deeper and truly see the pure longing of her heart. My mother went there that night with hopes of possibly finding a mate who, as Yasmin Mogahed describes, “takes care of, guards, protects, and cherishes your heart.” I imagine it was almost impossible for her, in that moment, to imagine that she was even close to receiving that type of love and protection.
But why had my mother drawn such a depressing conclusion? Why would the prospect of a compassionate, understanding love seem so unattainable in that moment?
This question points to another way our stories, although strikingly similar, differ. When my parents divorced when I was 10 years old, life seemed to get better, not worse. I saw the whole transition as a move up as we moved into a larger home. And though I no longer shared a residence with my father, I still had many examples of upstanding, God-fearing (African-American) men in my school and masjid community who looked after me as if I was their own. And, of course, I maintained regular access to the men in my family, including my paternal grandfather, a beloved dentist in the Black Atlanta community, and uncles who were leaders and role models in their communities.

At my paternal grandparents' home. I was a baby.
My mother, on the other hand, recalls a childhood where her father, an army veteran, suffered from mental illness and encountered severe discrimination as a Black man in the '50s and '60s, struggling to provide for his family, which explains my mother’s childhood memories of living on welfare. Later, my mother married a man from an educated, middle-class background and sincerely striving to live a life dedicated to God and his people, but who--God forgive my beloved father—abandoned her on several levels over the course of the fifteen years of marriage. 

In contrast, my marriage of fifteen years was mostly filled with happiness, luxuries, and productivity—perhaps making the form of abandonment (and coldness) that I experienced at the very end so shocking and off-setting.
The good part about the dissolution of my “model” marriage--or so it appeared--was the extremity of it all, which had me crawling right back to the One who blessed me with those sweet times at the beginning. I crawled back ever so humbly and thankfully, as raw as I was willing to become, with the level of strength necessary to adequately submit and surrender, in hopes of receiving the blessings and miracles waiting on the other side. This, for sure, is where my and my mother’s stories meet again, for my father’s abandonment is where my mother’s fierce turning to God, and to God alone, began.

This turning to God for intimacy when all else seems to go wrong reminds me of one of my and my Mama’s favorite songs by Anita Baker, “Body and Soul.”  Anita was singing about a man, but I think of God now when I hear her song.
Now, once I could turn away
From everything I feel today
But now, I wanna walk through Your door
I've wasted too much time
Living for what wasn't mine
And then came the day I found You
And now I want nothing less
I've found a Love that is truly blessed
It feels good to love You INSIDE <3.
Like my mother, I’ve turned to God completely, yet still, I want our stories to progress differently.  My mother seems to have grown content with a life of devotion, sacrifice, and service to her children and a Merciful, Loving God who saw her through life’s tests that some couldn’t even imagine living through. My life journey, experiences, hopes, and insights point me toward a strikingly different future of love and intimacy, insha’allah.

Keep in mind that my mother is a first-generation American Muslim. New to the religion, her generation struggled to implement the high standards the Qur’an and the example of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, called them to in terms of marriage and family life. The collective consciousness of my generation of African-American Muslim women lends itself more generously and fearlessly to a myriad of possibilities of what love and intimacy can look like on this earthly, human sphere. I personally strive for a love that transcends my understood need for financial and material provisions to one that satisfies my spiritual, emotional, sociocultural, and intellectual needs. Full blown, passionate, lawful intimacy is what I speak of, is what I strive for.  

As proclaimed in The Gayan by Inayat Khan, “When the heart breaks, it gives birth to the soul.” Indeed, our hearts have been broken and have suffered their share of betrayal. Our souls wish to shine, flourish, and be seen and embraced fully.
Don't leave me out in the cold
Just love me, body and soul
#HagarLoves #HagarLives