What’s in your cup?

“And among His signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the differences in your languages and colors. Verily, in that are indeed signs for men of sound knowledge
-Holy Qur’an (30:22)

It isn’t hard to discover the importance of community in Islam through the Qur’an and Sunnah. As Imam Khalil Akbar of Masjid As-Shaheed in Charlotte put it: “The whole idea of worship is to form a community.”

How much do we incorporate these ideas into practice? Masjid Ash-Shaheed certainly did its part in showing me. It lived up to its reputation as having a welcoming atmosphere, to say the least. I walked into the masjid and joined Zhur prayer alongside about 15 other women. I barely had a chance to finish my prayer before women who I had never seen before started embracing and kissing me, welcoming me to the masjid.

We listened to Imam Khalil as he gave a short lecture, as he does every Sunday as part of a tradition called Ta’lim. Today, he elaborated on how Islam comes in many different flavors in terms of how people choose to practice. History suggests that we not overemphasize these differences, but rather appreciate them. The prophet Muhammad (saw), along with Aisha (rad) once watched an Eid celebration involving African dancing. While some Arabs at the time appeared uncomfortable, the prophet and Aisha stayed and watched the celebration together until Aisha got tired. What can we learn form this? Tolerance, besides building cohesiveness, is an important component of faith. The diversity in our communities reflects the beauty of Islam in that it truly attracts people from all walks of life. Learning about this diversity and from each other is compulsory. Allah says:

“O mankind! We have created you from a male and female, and made you into nations and tribes, so that you may learn from each other.” (Holy Qur’an, 49:13).

After Imam Khalil’s lecture, I spent about an hour talking to about five women about their friendships with each other and time in Charlotte: Lorraine, Nayyirah, Nadira, Wakeelah, and Ora. I listened as Nayyirah described the death of her husband and how Wakeelah was the first one she called and the first one to show up at the hospital. Nadira, a young mother of two, told of her bouts with cancer and how she could always count on the women of the masjid to provide her with support. Collectively, these anecdotes exuded sisterhood and the power of a community bond.

I guess I should mention that Masjid Ash-Shaheed is a predominantly African American Masjid. Or is it an important detail? Here’s why I’m choosing to include it. Earlier today, Nusaibah asked me whether I felt uncomfortable being in a setting where I was one of only a handful of people in the mosque who was not African American. Not only was I perfectly comfortable, I was essentially oblivious until Nusaibah brought it up. The atmosphere was so cordial that any racial boundaries that existed disappeared, as we got lost in sharing our stories.

Then, later in the day, I met Anthony. Currently a 24-year-old African American nuclear engineer, Anthony converted at the age of just 18 years old while studying at the University of Florida. He grew up in a poor, black neighborhood in north Florida with his two brothers and single mother. Although he didn’t grow up with much money or opportunity, he managed to graduate valedictorian of his high school class and attend UF on a full scholarship. He came to know Islam through exposure to Muslims in the workplace and reading many books. He recalled one woman in his previous job, “She gave me a Qur’an and said, ‘you’re going to be a Muslim. I know it.’”

Although Anthony is much more fulfilled spiritually, life as a Muslim has nevertheless posed its own unique problems. He said, “…becoming Muslim was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. Not because of the fasting or prayer. It’s because of dealing with other Muslims.”

Anthony has faced both explicit and implicit discrimination as an African American Muslim. Whether it is being told by female Muslim friends that their families would never accept them marrying an African American or being ignored by members of the Muslim community at Jummah, his experiences have caused him to feel somewhat alienated. The fact that many mosques appear to be characterized by a particular ethnic group doesn’t help. By drawing these invisible ethnic boundaries, congregants who don’t fit a particular profile can feel uncomfortable and even unwelcomed. Subtle messages, even down to the level of the type of food the mosque typically serves and predominant clothing style of its congregants, can reveal a “target” audience. By introducing cultural dimensions to the practice of Islam, it leaves those who aren’t familiar with them wondering where they fit in. Many times, when Anthony introduces himself to someone in a mosque, he is asked, “but what is your Muslim name?”

And herein lies the problem with many Muslim communities around the country. Who is to say that Anthony, meaning “praise-worthy” in Latin, is not a Muslim name? Who is to say that the blue South Pole shirt and jeans Anthony wore that day wasn’t Muslim attire? Did it not properly cover as Prophet Muhammad (saw) prescribed? It’s easy to say that there are 1.6 billion Muslims in the world and that we come in all shapes and sizes. If we as a community are not tolerant of the diversity that comes with 1.6 billion people, how can a single, unified Ummah possibly come to be?

Acknowledging the tensions that exist is the first step. The Muslim community in America provides some of the most educated individuals in this country. On some level, it is mind-boggling that our communities encompassing such accomplished individuals are unable or unwilling to address these issues. At some point, we have to mature and swallow our pride. We can’t get so caught up with rituals such as prayer and fasting (although extremely important) that we forget about basic humanity. Anthony described feeling out of place when he enters a “Desi” or “Arab” masjid not even being greeted by fellow congregants. If we want to even begin to create an atmosphere conducive to forming real tolerance and genuine appreciation for each and every member of the Muslim Ummah, we have to begin to truly treat each other as brothers and sisters. As the verse at the beginning of this post suggests, we should embrace the differences among us as a sign of God. They are a challenge to make our community stronger. Each person has his or her own story – never make the assumption that you don’t have something to learn from someone else.

Perhaps some of these issues will fade as our generation of children of immigrants matures and becomes more indigenized into the United States. Regardless, when we start engaging with each other, we can start to understand that learning is a two-way street; we begin to understand each other by listening to the stories of others, and in the process, finding more about ourselves. Similar to my experience in Masjid Ash-Shaheed, boundaries based on race, class, or whatever can disappear when you immerse yourself in the lives of others. As Anthony insightfully put it: “I used to wonder why God put me in this position — black in the hood, poor, all these strikes against me socially. Then I read a verse in the Qur’an and realized that I have a story to tell. If your cup is already full, how are you supposed to fill it?”

So, I invite everyone reading this blog to meet and engage with your fellow community members, be open-minded, and allow others to fill your cup.