Monday, April 30, 2012

Colonial Injury

As salaam alaikum,

I've been going through quite the spiritual journey, such that the words above, my standard greeting for every entry, don't mean the same to me anymore. They don't mean the same to me anymore because of one question and one thing I learned from reading Muhammad by Martin Lings. The question is, how much of our vocabulary and, indeed, our very existence as Muslims has to be in Arabic? And the thing I learned from reading Muhammad by Martin Lings is that as salaamu alaikum is in the second person plural form, even when greeting one person, because it also includes one's two guardian angels.

And that point is a good illustration of where I am in my spiritual journey right now, in my regard for my religion. I've got a love-hate dichotomy I'm working through. Yes, hate. It's a strong word that I seldom use, but when people or parties try to or succeed in bringing impurities into my religion or otherwise attempt to disrupt my faith, yes, that is a thing of hate. Not for the people themselves, but for these impurities that, try as you may, you cannot wash off. Like the sensation of blood on Lady Macbeth's hands.


There are so many things I can talk about relating to my spiritual journey, but I've been doing a lot of reading, of scholars and historians, on everything from Qur'an hermeneutics and exegesis to the origins of "shar'ia" as it is popularly known. I just started that book, actually. But it's apparent, over time and in growing in my faith, that by being in possession of what we know as the final revelation in book form that we have, yes, insha'Allah carefully preserved over time, we also assume that the spirit of our religion has been preserved over time, and it has not been. It cannot be, implicit in our nature as human beings. So all we can do is do the best we can to preserve it's spirit and understand God's intention for us more than 1400 years later, which is harder than preserving text and recitation fidelity.

And I may talk about different elements of my journey later.

What I mainly want to talk about is something apparent to me after watching Fela! last Wednesday. First of all, I still want to delve into his life. I only knew him peripherally from my father having his music on audio cassettes that he brought with him from Nigeria...that, and of his gyrating women on stage. There's so much more I want to learn. But it was interesting how he spoke of his grandfather, and his European hymns and how he hated that his grandfather kept him from learning about the traditional Yoruba religions, which resonated more with him.

That made me think of two things. Fela's grandfather was like my Nigerian grandfather, head of his church in Nigeria. My father grew up at his feet every Sunday, learned the Anglican hymns "in the tummy," as he always says, and still has a preference for that style of church music over the "hollering" African American style my mother grew up with as a Southern Baptist. It made me realize how much my father was not a revolutionary in Nigeria post Biafran War (and even then, he was "rescued" from combat) and how he may represent that colonialist spirit that Fela saw in his grandfather...and how much that contrasted with my mother, at the very same time, young black Mos in the Nation of Islam, doing drills, wearing her Nation hijab and uniform to school every day and believing, perhaps more than any of her other siblings, in the word of the Messenger, that there was no "spook god" and "no pie in the sky when you die." Believing in the black man and militantly so. They were so different, and had they met not at the time they did, as they were both relatively distant from organized religion, though my father moving farther away and my mother moving back to it...I wouldn't be here. Subhan'Allah! Heh.

The other thing it made me think of important it is for us to have our own religions, and how much injury was done in the spread of the Abrahamic faiths in the course of conquering and colonization that those of us who unapologetically reject colonialist attitudes may never overcome.

One of the bigger criticisms of the Nation of Islam is that they rejected one "white man's religion" for another. So more contemporarily, Europeans enslaved us and "stripped us of our language and our culture," took away our original religions, condemned them as heathens, and replaced them with Christianity instead, further adding insult to injury by using the Bible to justify our enslavement and to encourage our obedience while being so subjugated. But, what of the Arabs, who were Muslim, and their brutal enslavement of Africans, their conquering of Africans, their spreading of Islam over our original religions? So, why take on that religion over Christianity as if it's any better?

My answer to that question is...the Nation of Islam was a movement out of nowhere, so I don't know! Who was "Master" Fard Muhammad, anyway? Where did he come from, and where did he go? These are all good questions! I wouldn't bring this fact up to my grandfather at his age, because it would resonate with him, but as most of my family who is still Muslim has been Muslim longer than we were in the Nation, our reasons for being Muslim now have a lot to do with other things than avoiding the religion of conquerors and colonizers. And our reasons for being are probably all individual, unique.

Then, I think about other of my friends' attitudes towards the Abrahamic faiths. They view them as "imported religions." African solutions for African problems, they say, and part of the root of the problem is akin to the ubiquitous white Jesus...that Africans benefit more from a religion with their own face. The imported religions are not indigenous and are just part of the problem of Africans looking outside for the answers to their needs.

And I hear them, and I hear this argument. But I thought to myself...I thought, am I possessing a colonial attitude by choosing a religion that does not have an African face? Am I colonialist, buying into cultural imperialism by my acceptance of Islam?


That was an easy answer.

It's all rooted in my beliefs. I believe that every community, every every community, got prophets. Everyone did. They weren't just in the middle east, though the texts and traditions of the Abrahamic faiths focus on that region. And it wasn't only those of the middle east that accepted their prophets (and many of them didn't, as the books tell). But we don't have record of who else did, and who those people were and where they lived. I don't at all believe in the superiority of any ethnic or language group, even of my own beloved people, West Africans and Diasporans. In accepting Islam, I did not accept it because of it's "Arab face." I accepted it because it answered questions that no other religion I'd encountered answered for me. The religion (not those who practice it), stressed the importance of multiculturalism, that we were made different peoples (and different genders) so that we may learn to know one another. So that we can learn from each other. Islam was not meant to be a religion to replace people's cultures but to enhance the good of them and to mute what was not good for our spiritual journey through this life.

When I came into Islam, it did not have an Arab face. Despite the fact that I prayed in Arabic, I didn't really think of Arabs as Muslims until high school. All the Muslims I knew until then were all black Americans, so the religion had an African American face for me until really college, when I really started getting to know non-black Muslims. Islam was removing my shoes in my Grandparents house, greeting them with as salaam alaikum in an unabashed American accent, tying my scarf behind my head with my neck and chin exposed in my aunt's Islamic school down the street while one of the boys in the school led salat. Islam was my mother praying deliberately in English and reading to us select stories in the Qur'an in English and teaching us who God was, what it meant for Him to "beget not, nor is He begotten," and the subtle beauties of creation.

The Islam I grew up with had an African American face, and when I learned of the last sermon of the Prophet (saw) and ayah 49:13, it had a multicultural face. We're all related, I used to say in late high school and college. I knew we humans functioned far from the ideal...but I didn't realize how far from the ideal we actually functioned. I started learning in college, and I continue learning...

So, for me, spiritually, I've never needed a religion with an African face. But just because I don't doesn't mean I decry the want and maybe need of those who do. And as much as I believe in my religion, I know we all find our own path to God, or searching for some type of divine if not God, or denying all divine and contenting ourselves with the material. I don't think it's our place as humans to deny that right of anyone, as long as their practices don't harm you in any way, though we may otherwise offend each other. And honestly, I have not studied the history of Islam in the Continent to understand how it was spread, so I can't really speak to that.

All I can say that...conquering and colonization caused injury to the people involved that is not easily healed. As Muslims, we believed that no prophets came after Muhammad (saw). So what right do non-prophets, that is, those who do not get revelation directly from God, have to spread their faith as superior to anyone practicing any other religion? What right do they have to come into your home and call you heathens? I personally believe in one God that created us all, and though we may approach Him in different ways, that does not make our God distinct from one another. We just understand Him and approach Him in different ways. I do not believe in spreading religion by force. But does that mean I relinquish my religion because it was spread by force? No. Nor do I think Christians who hold fast to their faiths should relinquish it because it was spread by force and used to subjugate their enslaved ancestors. Nor do I assume that all Christians see the white Jesus, or value Christianity because of any aspects of a European face.

A lot of ugly has been committed in the name of religion. Ugly and evil. In the name of Christianity and Islam, I know. Conquering a people and forcing them to stop practicing their religions and giving them a sense of inferiority in their culture and what is native to them is un-Islamic, even if one's religion is essentially un-Islamic. Even among the converted, that does them no good. Even among the converted in the United States that are told that aspects of their culture and very beings is haram, they go through a process of Arabicizing, if I may make up a word, rejecting their friends and family in search of an essential Islamic culture which does not exist. Stripping one of their language and culture in favor substitute is very injurious and counterproductive to their reception of the message.

And I'm not making this point to facilitate conversion. I'm just saying...I understand my friends who seek a religion with an African face. Muslims may balk at this because it reminds them of the many nations who rejected their prophets in the name of their ancestors...or, the story of Abraham himself, seeking God in objects and recognizing that, in their transient natures, they could not be his Almighty. In destroying his father's idols...and so much of African religions have to do with exactly those things as Muslims that we try to avoid...polytheism and following the way of ancestors.

These Muslims don't realize that most of them are following the way of their ancestors, and not all their ancestors have done in the name of Islam has anything to do with Islam, and some of it is actually harmful...

You know.

But I think an essential part of knowing who you are is knowing where you come from. And it doesn't mean, as a African Diasporan, that I have to know what "tribes" the people on my mother's side came from, as I know I'm Igbo on my father's side. I know more generations back on my mother's side than my father's side, actually, ironically. I'm saying this because essential in even understanding Islam is understanding the context, pre-Islamic Arabia. And I think that the essential colonial injury that makes accepting of the Abrahamic faiths from being easily palatable to many of us is the way it was presented, spread, forced in many ways without validating the strengths of the cultures that it entered.

I didn't suffer this injury, this stripping of a sense of self. A sense of self was injected into me by my formerly black nationalist family and by having a Nigerian father from a young age. So I looked for a religion with a multicultural face, and I found an Islam that is not widely practiced. And I hold fast to that. For those whose sense of self was stripped or whose culture was devalued...the quest continues for a religion with their face.

And no one's sense of faith should be threatened by the spiritual quests of another.

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