By Stephen Jamal Leeper
This past weekend my wife and I attended the Muslim American Research Institute Advocating for Marriage conference – M.A.R.I.A.M. for short – at Masjid Waritheen. For those who don’t know, Masjid Waritheen has provided a space for worship and Islamic education in Oakland, CA since the 1970’s when there were few if any places for Muslims. While it is a misnomer to call it an “African American Mosque,” it does have its origins in the Nation of Islam – a homegrown cultural and syncretic religious movement that espoused Black liberation theology. Under the leadership of Imam W.D. Mohammed, the community emerged from its nationalist cocoon and embraced the universality of al-Islam. What Masjid Waritheen didn’t lose through that transition was a strong connectedness to its roots, honoring one of the values sharia is meant to preserve – lineage.
That was evident at the conference, which was open to anyone, although this event was specifically tailored to address the needs of marriages among African American Muslims. The presenters and organizers customized every aspect of the workshops to a Black audience – from the content, to the anecdotes and cultural references, to the food. For Instance, Dr. Debra Majeed, Professor in the Religious Studies Program at Beloit College, presented research from her new book, Polygyny: What It Means When African American Muslim Women Share Their Husbands, in which she discussed how Black women have been socialized to want a partner that is Black and of equal or higher social and educational status.
Imam Jihad Saafir and his wife Garland Bush, founders of Islah Academy, a private Islamic School in Los Angeles, did a joint presentation entitled, in part: Re-education of Islamic Marriage – Developing a Marriage System for the African American Context. The premise of their workshop was that Black couples bring additional “baggage” into a marriage due to the historical context of slavery and racial oppression. Therefore, a specialized curriculum must be developed and propagated by Masajid serving African American Muslims. Imam Saafir and Ms. Garland Bush wove together critical race theory with traditional Islamic text in a historical analysis of the Black experience and how it has impacted the Black family.
Focusing on a specific experience while appealing to a broader audience is a balance that is not easy to strike. One either risks alienating participants not from the dominant group or being so vague and general that the overall experience being created feels inauthentic. Teachers face a similar challenge in a diverse classroom of students, and the question in both cases is one of pedagogy – how do you make your presentation of content culturally relevant and engaging to a broad cross section of learners? This turned out to be inconsequential considering that all the presenters and the overwhelming majority of attendees were Black.
This does raise an important question – how do we focus on serving the needs of the African American community and not just be a “Black Mosque?” Masjid Waritheen’s racialized history casts a shadow that it has long been under. In reality, though, this is not apart from the legacy of the segregated American congregation– specifically in the African American religious experience. The difference is that while Black churches have generally needed white permission to serve Black folks, Masjid Waritheen has unapologetically sought no such permission to make its mission a political, economic, and spiritual liberation for Black folks. As has always been the belief among African American Muslims – it all starts with rebuilding families by mending relationships between Black men and Black women.
After the conference was over I couldn’t help but reflect on my relationship with my father. During my junior year in high school he came back in my life after a five-year absence. At the time I was in my first serious relationship with a young woman. It was her birthday and I didn’t know what gift to buy her. When I told my dad I was thinking about getting her lingerie he laughed and said, “No brother! That’s not good etiquette.” It was my first lesson in adab regarding relationships. One of the major themes of the conference was preparation – something I got very little of by the time I was about to marry my wife, nearly ten years after my first girlfriend. That’s not to say I didn’t have some help from my family and a bit of pre-marital counseling from an Imam. However, the Masajid I attended had not yet set up a marriage curriculum that Imam Jihad Saafir talked about. I didn’t receive practical advice and strategies from other young couples for building a “sacred house of marriage” like Dr. Marcus Lambert and Ms. Zahara Lambert shared in their presentation.
In the end, the preparation we were being called to make was not simply building healthy marriages in this life. The greater preparation is for the final union with our Beloved in the next world. Marriage is only half of that preparation. Taqwa, piety towards God, is the other half.
For more images from the M.A.R.I.A.M. Conference visit Sapelo Square’s Facebook Page.
Stephen Jamal Leeper is a writer, educator, and nonprofit consultant. Above all, he is a believer. He embraced Islam while in college, and he believes in the power of words, of story, of dreaming, of activism, of community, of people, of the Creator. He is currently a Humanities and Ethnic Studies educator at Aptos Middle School in San Francisco, CA. Stephen lives in Oakland, CA with his wife Aïdah and their cat, Muezza.