When I was a kid, this used to be one of my favorite movies: "The Preacher's Wife," the remake of "The Bishop's Wife," which I have never seen. I'll see if it's on Netflix.
It was a musical movie set around Christmas time. I haven't seen it since I was maybe 13 years old or so, but I think it's about an angel who comes down to help mend the relationship between the preacher and his wife, but he ends up falling in love with the preacher's wife in the process. Yeah, oops.
But I used to really like the soundtrack to this movie. Here's one of the songs I thought of just the other day...this was towards the end of the movie.
This is back in more of Whitney Houston's heyday, after "I Will Always Love You," from the Bodyguard soundtrack, which was voted the best soundtrack of the 90s, I think, in one of the countdown shows that I have on VHS somewhere (another one of my favorite soundtracks from that time is the one from "Boomerang" with Toni Braxton). Anyway, this song is "I Love the Lord," with a lively reprisal of "Joy to the World," at the end which is pretty cool.
Insha'Allah Whitney Houston recovers from her addictions. She tried to come back, her voice isn't the same...and I think she checked herself back into rehab.
But my mother owns this soundtrack on CD. She used to play it in the car as she shuttled us kids around. I actually grew up on a fair amount of gospel music...not a lot like those who would go to church every Sunday, but a lot for someone who was hearing it from her Muslim mother.
My mother loves devotional music. Some Ramadans, since my mother fasts music (something that I may try to do again this Ramadan), she would just listen to gospel. There were a few artists in the 90s that she really liked...like, Fred Hammond, Dottie Peoples, reaching back and getting it with Mahalia Jackson (one of the best female vocalists of all time).
Background for those who don't know, my mother was born into a Southern Baptist family. My grandparents are from the South (from Arkansas) and traveled up here for a better life in what is known as the great migration. They had 10 children. My mother is the youngest one that remembers church...the rest of them were too young. My grandparents began investigating the Nation of Islam in the 60s and joined shortly before Malcolm X was assassinated. My mother was 10 years old when they joined the Nation with their entire family, and she still remembers the first Christmas when she couldn't tell the other children what she had gotten because they no longer celebrated. She was called "Black Moz" by one of her classmates.
And things were not the same again.
Fast forward to 1975, when Elijah Muhammed died. Shortly thereafter, when his son, W. Deen Muhammed took over things, many NOI members began to convert to Islam, or what they called "Orthodox Islam." My mother's family was one...everyone converted to Islam. My grandparents changed their last name to an Arabic last name, so everyone who was not already married, my mother downward, changed their last name. Like, they legally changed their last name. My grandfather (who was a grandfather at the time), Charley James, changed his name to Abdul Rahim. My mother, who was Patsy Ruth, changed her name to Khalilah Sabreen. My uncle, who was David Allen (a name that my mother really still likes and regrets that he changed it) changed his name to Dawud Alim. I'm not sure why my mother and uncle decided to change their first names, but at this point, my mother has lived longer as Khalilah than she did as Patsy.
I love that my mother lived in such interesting times. One of the family pictures is signed by Muhammad Ali, who of course was in the NOI before he converted to Islam. All of their names are signed with the last name X...so my mother as Patsy Ruth X. I guess at one point, he came over to my grandparents house and listened to my uncles play the piano.
I look up to my mother and her siblings...they've lived so much more life at my age than I think I'll ever live. I should ask my uncle sometimes about his trying to form a band. My uncles are musicians, and throughout the years have tried to form ensembles, but have not yet made it big. But that's another story.
And after that, my family grew in Islam, then receded. My grandparents, particularly my grandmother, were the Muslim base. You came into their home, removed your shoes and said, "As salaam alaikum." You still do, everyone did, even those who weren't Muslim. I remember my grandmother up early for salat, and then she would begin her day, making breakfast, and that short time that I lived with them, helping me make my lunch for school. That's the dominant memory of my grandmother...up, cooking, talking fast, cracking jokes, cursing yet tying her hijab around her head when it came time to go out...
My grandmother and aunt wore hijab in a way so natural, I didn't even think twice about it. And I love them for it.
Anyway, I digress. All of that to say, my mother grew up in the church. She grew up hearing records of Mahalia Jackson in their home, until they converted to the Nation and threw all of their gospel records away. But Mahalia Jackson, Sam Cooke, among others, were standard gospel that they listened to in the home. A pivotal point in my understanding of how strong of a Christian upbringing my mother had was when she played for her brothers and sisters, when we were planning our 1997 family reunion (fun times!), "Jesus Be A Fence" by Sam Cooke, and all of my older aunts and uncles and my mother (six of them remembered it) just started singing,
"Jesus! Be a fence all around me every day..."
Myself and one of my cousins were standing there, mouths agape. Then he said, "Wait, I thought we were Muslim!" Which is the grand irony for us kids, faced by our Christian classmates on a daily basis and having to defend our identity as Muslims, and here were our parents, throwing it up in their faces that they once belonged, once were like everyone else...
Because that was a challenge when I was a kid. Everyone else was Christian. I was the only Muslim in my entire school until the 7th grade, when I moved. I never really desired to be Christian or to be like everyone else. I had a little brother with autism...I was already not like everyone else, so that helped me be resolute at 11 when I decided that Islam was the religion for me, though I had already been raised in it. But that didn't meant that it still wasn't hard being set apart, being pitied because I didn't know Christ, being excluded sometimes. I was mainly afraid to go to church because I didn't know anything about the Bible, so I gleaned any information I could from those around me and learned a bit about Christianity through osmosis.
But the one thing I always liked about church (which I went to a few times...I have a great uncle [who has since passed] who was a preacher, and we always went to church for family reunions, except for the one hosted in Flint, since we were Muslim) was choir.
I wanted to be in a choir for the longest. I love to sing, and if my school had a choir, I would have joined it.
And my mother listened to her old favorites and new favorite gospel music in the car. She'd do this thing were she'd skip songs that were too "Jesus-y," and then in songs that made one or two mentions of Jesus, she'd usually change it to "God" or "Allah," since Allah has two syllables, since often the songs would use God and Jesus interchangibly.
But there were some gospel songs that just talked about God, which my mother felt were appropriate. She told me that if there was one thing that she missed in Islam, it was the existence of devotional music, with the spiritual catharsis that you can get from lively gospel music.
So I grew up with these songs. I still sing Mahalia Jackson songs sometimes as I go about my day. It's a perspective, I realize, my children won't have. They won't be the children of a convert. The Nation of Islam will be something their great grandparents, who will exist for them more as pictures or faint memories of really old people, did. Pictures of my family in the Nation will be black and white and yellowed artifacts that have little to do with them. So will be their story in Christianity to Islam, something to be told in the history books, likened to the moth-eaten pages of their grandmother's copy of The Autobiography of Malcolm X that may or may not be on their school's reading list. And their mother's occasional affinity for old-timey gospel music will not be unlike that 90s music that she occasionally has them listen to as she drives them off to their engagements.
Maybe I'll have in a daughter or a son a kindred spirit as I was for my mother. It would be nice. She would understand and listen with rapt attention, when I was talking to her or not, the history of my family in Islam, the juxtaposition of my father's family in Christianity, and it will inspire her to be whoever she aspires to be in life, but even stronger, as my mother's, as my grandparent's story has for me.
But in the meantime, I'm childless for a while. I just listen to the music whose emotion is complex. I don't yet know God as much as I will as I struggle more through life and come to him more through life, so the catharsis is not as complete as it will be 20 years from now, as I will be a practicing physician for 15 years with my own family, worrying about my parents' health, my brother's place in the world, making sure he has as full of a life as possible while supporting my husband and raising my children. It's a complex emotion because all of this music reminds me of my mother, it reminds me of my family's story. It's emotion is complex because as self-regulating as many of us Muslims are about music in general, I will still listen to these songs and remember God as we are all called to do.
And I'll have no shame in it.