Thursday, August 8, 2019

Radical Love for Young Black Men, Seeing Isma’il (Beautiful Black Youth) in Medina Baye, Senegal

By Jamillah Karim

"Love is or it ain’t. Thin love ain’t love at all."
Toni Morrison

Ignited by you
We write
Without fear
To speak our truth

Students of Shaykh Mahy Cisse following him to his home after Fajr Prayer, July 2019

Isma’il, a symbol of Black boys’ beauty in the face of struggle

I have been blessed to write annually a piece inspired by our Mother Hagar (R) during her season, Hajj season. Just before the month of Dhul Hijjah, I visited Medina Baye, Senegal. Something that stood out to me was the abundance of young Black male spiritual aspirants. They were to my eyes what I imagine our Prophet Isma'il (S) was to Mother Hagar's (R), a beautiful coolness. After my return, I learned that more than 60 percent of Senegal’s population is under the age of 25. No wonder, then, that the youth captured my attention. 

Young Senegalese men struggle to find permanent work as do their brothers throughout Africa and the Diaspora, part of the aftermath of the plunder of Africa’s resources and labor during the transatlantic trade in enslaved people and colonization. Please know, beautiful Black brothers, “We see you, and we love you” (Oprah's words to the Exonerated Five, When They See Us Now). 

This piece is a chance to express the love. Dear Brothers, keep turning to Allah, hitting the prayer mat, reading  Qur’an, popping your dhikr beads, and, in the footsteps of Isma’il (S), gracefully surrendering your desires for what God desires. This is the success. May Allah ease your difficulty and grant you success in this life and the next. Ameen!

My love for Black boys, where it all started

At a young age, maybe as early as 9, I developed a soft spot for African American males. It went deeper than the expected crushes on my brother Sultan's school friends, deeper than the joy that overcame us when my sister or girlfriends and I spied a beautiful brother and mutually exclaimed, “Girl, he is FINE,” deeper even than the delight of Denzel dazzling us at a Spike Lee Joint. This wasn’t a surface love.

Somehow, someway, I felt deeply for my African American brothers. I heard--from the news I now assume--that young Black males constituted an endangered species. Gang violence, juvenile delinquency, low quality education, poverty, and absent fathers plagued our Black boys.

And although I lived in a family and a community in Atlanta in which this one-sided image was not the dominant experience of my beloved Black brothers, it was undeniably part of the experience. It was felt looming around the corner, or on the rare, isolated night when the sound of close gunfire jolted you out of your sleep and bed and onto the floor, or when one brother, or cousin, or friend became the stat that haunts Black mothers and fathers: one out of three Black boys will one day be incarcerated.

And here I am, a mother of three African American boys, terrified by that stat even though I know intimately a Black mother, father, and son who lived it, survived it, and came out abundantly blessed on the other side, though I will never know their scars fully. 

Thanks to Ava DuVernay’s work 13th and When They See Us, built on the work of scholars and researchers who analyze race and the criminal justice system, we know that ours is a culture that thrives off the systematic demonization of Black men and boys. We know that the incarceration of our Black men and boys is by design. 

We know the relationship between racism, disparities in education, unemployment, and negative life outcomes for the Black poor. And we know the tragic relationship between demonizing images, police brutality, and the mass incarceration of Black men and boys. Stereotypes of them as inhumane criminals denies them due process of law, and too often, life, for they are assumed and determined guilty the instant we see them. 

As a young girl in Atlanta, who grew up riding city buses to Sister Clara Muhammad School, my private Muslim school, and who spent summers at urban camps with public school kids who noted that I talked “proper” English, I didn’t know all the complexities of the system, but I knew that the trajectories of Black boys would be different if their circumstances and environments were different. Sort of between two Black worlds in Atlanta—between the poor and the more privileged—I sensed that all our boys would excel given different conditions.

Manifesting this became both a spiritual and political exercise for me. In other words, both my spirit and my physical reality needed to see Black males differently. And both spirit and body needed me—called me— to be a part of the broader work to change how others see my brothers, like Ava’s and Oprah’s work in producing When They See Us

The first thing I did was make a dua. In adolescence I prayed that Allah would bless me with sons. I wanted to meet the challenge of raising African American boys who defy stereotypes. Growing up familiar with Malcolm X’s narrative of transformation, I believed that faith, and Islam in particular, would be the greatest key to success.

Allah blessed me with sons, but first an exceptional husband, the handsome Love of My Life, who was raised Muslim by an exceptional father. I was confident and grateful that my husband would, through our sons, continue the legacy of faith and excellence passed down to him from not only his convert father but also the larger family of African American educators, lawyers, and doctors from which he comes. 

Radical Love for Black boys

Radical Love, my latest book project, is an attempt to put into words the mind-dazzling love I have experienced after giving up my desires out of preference for others (or so I pray that God sees it this way). It was an act of giving that was both selfless and selfish. Selfless in that it was inspired by the Prophetic statement,“Your faith is not a complete faith until you love for your brother what you love for yourself.”

My act of giving was selfish in that I was certain that after enduring the initial pain and heartbreak, my sharing would secure me the highest love. This journey to the highest love—radical and eternal—has taken me to the place I call home—Medina Baye, Senegal— first in 2017 and recently this past July (2019). My time in 2017 was brief. I spent most of my trip in Dakar, and wrote a little about my experience here. Dakar inspired my Radical Love Quote at the beginning of this piece, an expression of gratitude for Senegal’s gifting me with an alternative way of seeing Black men.

This time, Senegal’s gift touched deeper, and naturally so, because for eleven days, I resided at the heart of the spiritual capital of the Fayda Tijaniyyah movement and global community, Medina Baye. Medina Baye was founded by Shaykh Ibrahim Niasse (R), twentieth century West Africa’s most influential scholar and spiritual guide. Before his death in 1975, Shaykh Ibrahim’s followers had reached the millions in more than fifteen sub-Saharan African countries, gaining him the distinction of the one who brought the Fayda, or the divine flood, of the Tijaniyyah spiritual brother and sisterhood. 

At the tomb of Senegalese Shaykh Hassan Cisse (R). Shaykh Hassan brought the Tijani Tariqah to African American Muslims and founded a Qur’an school for them in Medina Baye, Senegal. July 2019

I was a guest in the home of Shaykh Mouhamadou Mahy Cisse, inheritor and grandson of Shaykh Ibrahim (R) and younger brother of Shaykh Hassan Cisse (R). The best analogy for my spiritual pilgrimage to Medina Baye is Umrah, or the pilgrimage to Mecca (and Medina) outside the Hajj season, what my mother described best after her first Umrah: a spiritual vacation. The pilgrim travels to Medina Baye or Mecca and Medina solely for spiritual devotion. It is likened to a vacation because you are freed from the work of earning a living or preparing family meals, and most often away from the children.

At the tomb of Shaykh Ibrahim Niasse (R). I decided to patronize a brother taking photos at the tomb. He pleasantly surprised me with the image of Shaykh Ibrahim (R). July 2019

A highlight of my spiritual vacation in Medina Baye was visiting the tombs of Shaykh Ibrahim Niasse (R), Shaykh Hassan Cisse (R), Seydi Aliyyu Cisse (R), and other great awliya, or Friends of Allah, of the city. I call Medina Baye a City of Lovers because it is out of "thick" love, to refer back to our beloved Toni Morrison's quote, that devotees visit these awliya, who represent Prophet Muhammad (S) in their proximity to Allah and their beautiful character. 

Shaykh Ibrahim Niasse (R)

At the tombs, lovers show their love through greetings and gifts. The gift that was immediately enjoyed by the other lovers in the space was the recitation of poetry or divine remembrance. The lovers don’t hold back, breaking the silence with riveting songs to the Beloved. Below are two short samples of this type of radical love song, the second by a woman. In my eleven days, I only witnessed a woman sing out once. Imagining it to be a rarer occurrence, I feel especially honored to have been sitting right next to her.

Two other things struck me about this space, one of which returns me to my love for Black boys. First, I was struck by the close proximity and free flow of men and women in the tight space. There were subtle indications of gender lines--the way women only shook women’s hands and men shook only men’s hands--but there were no imposed, tangible gender lines like in mosques where the touching of bodies in salat requires boundaries. The downplay of gender inspired reflection on Radical Love. Radical Love aspires to a purity in love between brother and sister in faith, where spirits gather, not bodies.

At the tombs after Friday Jumu'ah Prayer

The second thing that struck me was that young men—between the ages of 16 and 25 perhaps—often dominated the space. My observation made me think back to my Intro to Islam students at Spelman. They were required to visit a masjid and write a reflection on what they observed. For so many of them, it was an unexpected pleasure to see large numbers of Black men in sacred space. From church, they were familiar with women, not men, holding it down with the Lord. 

Now the intrigued observer at the tombs, which lies adjacent to the grand masjid, I felt what matched the pleasant surprise of my students. Coming from the Atlanta Masjid of Al-Islam, with a Black male youth presence quite strong for Black urban masjids, I was accustomed to youth attending the weekly congregational prayer, but here young men dominated sacred space around the clock as they made their ziyara (visit) to the tombs before or after any one of the five daily prayers. Naturally, they were present at the masjid too.

My heart was moved by this dominant way of seeing young Black men, that is, as spiritual lovers. Enhancing this image were the dangling dhikr beads that nearly every soul held. Walking with dhikr beads was not a sign of spiritual ostentation, a charge that I imagine likely to be made on one carrying them in the U.S., but a sign of everyday living and worship in Medina Baye (as is the case in other Muslim cities).

That I was moved by this dominant way of seeing young Black men is an understatement. One incident in particular made me realize something profound: My soul yearns to see young Black men in their original state—spiritual aspirants, not bodily threats. It happened after Asr prayer one day in the small musallah (prayer space) in the same building as the tombs. Usually women would make salat in the rear and men towards the front, but outside of the prayer times, men--and women sometimes too--would study, dhikr, socialize, or relax--all over the space.

I tried a different spot than my usual to perform my post-Asr dhikr, against a wall in the rear, in what most would consider the women's area. Yet, even when I sat down, there was already a young man sitting a few feet away with his beads. Soon another joined the first brother. Then another sat in front of the second. And another next to him. And then one next to him, and then behind, and then next to him, and so on, until before I realized what was happening, one was sitting next to me, the distance between us the width of one worshipper, if that.

I tried to take this picture as inconspicuously as possible. My yellow dress at the margins gives a sense of the proximity between us, and I had even moved over a bit at this point.

As you can tell from the picture, the young men had formed a small jama'at next to me. With beads moving, their dhikr was silent except periodically one of the young men in the front would recite Allahu Akbar, likely to mark their place. Once I realized that I was part of their jama'at, though on the margins, tears flowed in awe of this space.

When the young men finished, they greeted each other with handshakes, many of them with broad smiles, as if they had accomplished something great. I imagined that this was something they did everyday after Asr, that Allah simply allowed me to stumble across this group worship, that Allah wanted me to see it with my own eyes. 

A torrent of thoughts on Radical Love overcame me. The concept of a time before we were bodies but spirits, consumed with the remembrance of Allah. There was no gender. And although now bodies on earth, nothing can stop our spirits from crossing paths or coalescing, to acknowledge that we once were a circle of lovers before, when Allah was our sole obsession, presently in a sacred spirit space to which the lovers travel, so that once again Allah is our sole obsession.

I wrote down these words to preserve the moment.

Sitting with Shaykh Ibrahim (R)
Facing the Qibla
Gradually men join me
Forming a jama’at
I’m on the periphery
But no matter
My jama’at now 

“You will be with whom you love”
No gender lines to divide us
Only seeing hearts, worshippers, lovers
Loving with one desire

Though not expressed explicitly in the lines, I know that my heart softened instantly because they were Black brothers. My love for them is radical because it is a spiritual love as indicated in the lines of poetry. At the same time, my spirit was especially moved because they were Black male bodies. Through young Black men's public expressions of divine remembrance in Medina Baye--which they carried out with a sense of enthusiasm and accomplishment--I constantly saw young Black men as my soul yearns to see them and has known them, pre-eternity and eternally. 

Beloved Shaykh Hassan Cisse (R) once made this dua for us in America: "I pray for all of you that Allah gives every one of you what he needs in this life and in the Hereafter." Though I never met Shaykh Hassan (R), this dua was answered for me in his very home. Allah, the Subtle and Gentle (Latif), crafts experiences and bestows gifts that are uniquely meaningful to each and every one of us. Allah gives us what our souls need.

In several speaking engagements, I have told audiences that my work on race and gender is spiritual for me, and I attribute this to the Imam WDM community in which I was raised, where standing up for justice for oppressed people was presented as part of our worship and the Prophetic legacy. So though I marvel at this space and how Allah placed me in it, it’s no wonder that Allah made me love Shaykh Ibrahim Niasse (R), for loving him is loving the Prophet (S). And it’s no wonder that sitting with the lovers and visiting with Shaykh Ibrahim (R) would touch the depths of my soul as much as sharing that space, beyond gender lines, with my Black brothers in faith. Exactly what I needed.