By Donna Auston
We sent not a messenger except (to teach) in the language of his own people, in order to make (things) clear to them. —Surah Ibrahim: 4
Every race of people since time began who have attempted to describe God by words or painting, or by carvings, have conveyed their idea that the God who made them and shaped their destinies was symbolized in themselves.—Bishop Henry McNeal Turner
I took shahada right after jumu’ah, on the first Friday in Ramadan some 25 years ago. I was a high school senior, standing on the verge of adulthood and just coming into my very own political awareness, trying desperately to fuse the two of these things into something that would help me to navigate the world as a black woman.
I come from a family of activists, organizers and agitators for an array of social justice concerns, racial equality, labor rights, and education; my great-grandmother, who was doing activist work into her 80s, was widely known and decorated by governors and celebrities for her advocacy on behalf of elderly people in the state where we lived. I did not fully appreciate the significance at the time, but my activist relatives were also, without exception, deeply religious.
I found Islam through a mixture of mediums: in Public Enemy lyrics, in Baba Malcolm’s memoir, on the tongues of the white-thowbed urban Ansars who hawked perfumed oil and black salvation, brothers who assured me that Ibrahim and Yaqub were proud black patriarchs, who showed me how to make salat right out there on the concrete, who convinced me that giving up swine would elevate my spirit and my intellect. It did.
Once I knew that I could decolonize my spirituality, there remained nothing, in the name of liberation, that was not now possible.
In time, I moved on from their interpretation of Islam, and blackness; in fact they did too. But I never forgot the critical lesson that these believers taught me—a lesson contained in the epigraph that leads this essay. That the ethereal and abstract have to be grounded somewhere—that to know Allah I had to know myself, to know my people, and to have faith in the fact that Allah had given me the means of transforming myself and my surroundings by way of the gift brought by messengers who spoke my life and my language.
Believers who knew exactly what we had all been robbed of, and that we were all on the same journey to get it back. We would draw, step by step, ever closer to the Promised Land through devotion to Him, through arduous self-education in matters of our own history, literature, and political struggles, by working to control our impulses to stinginess and envy and impatience with fellow human beings, all at the same time that organized against anti-blackness and economic exploitation. Once I knew that I could decolonize my spirituality, there remained nothing, in the name of liberation, that was not now possible.
My reflections on the themes of this juz bring me back to this nexus, the deep, abiding connection between spirituality and freedom struggles, where the quest to make the broader world a better place is always most effective when paired with the search for the Divine.
Allah will not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves.
The pages of this portion of the Qur’an contain messages of oppression and bondage, separation and exile, depression and despair. Yet beyond all of that, there is hope, there is liberation, there is justice, there is healing and there is reconciliation, all of which are ultimate, if not immediate, rewards for sustained faith and—both in this life and in the next.
This juz also contains portions of the stories of some our major prophets: Yusuf, Yaqub, and their fractured family’s tale of betrayal and imprisonment, our father Ibrahim and Allah’s request for him to leave wife and child alone in a faraway desert for reasons, that at the time, were unexplained. And there is Musa, a man whose family and community had been terrorized by Pharaoh’s murderous regime, and yet having made it through the harrowing passage over water through the mercy of Allah, to subsequently find shelter, care, and eventually the strength to resist—right in Pharaoh’s own home.
Modeling Musa, we face our own past mistakes and internal demons, mustering our courage in preparation for our role as witnesses, as those who must stand in Pharaoh’s presence and speak.
We, Africa’s displaced children, see ourselves in Musa. The very land that engineered our captivity, received the stolen bodies of our ancestors, and continues to enact violence upon us, leaving scars we can see and many more that we cannot, is also our source of strength. It is our home. We are the parable of the goodly tree, the seed of Word and prayer planted by our foremothers and forefathers, a tree whose roots have been firmly fixed, in bitterness and toil, whose branches reach to the heavens (14:26). Through the hard work of cultivation in our individual selves, in the various collectives to which we belong, and faith in a hopeful future that we cannot always see, we are transformed.
Modeling Musa, we face our own past mistakes and internal demons, mustering our courage in preparation for our role as witnesses, as those who must stand in Pharaoh’s presence and speak. Our oppression must be named. James Cone tells us that testimony is an integral part of the black religious tradition; where we stand in front of the community to give account of the hope that we carry within each of us. We live to bear witness for ourselves, and more importantly, for those whose voices were taken from them.
And so, we strive for patience of the most beautiful kind, knowing that whether or not Allah allows us to witness the justice we seek for ourselves and for our fellow human beings, our job is to be relentless in seeking it. To quote from the book of Mama Sojourner’s eternal Truth: “It is hard for the old slave holding spirit to die. But die it must.”
Donna Auston is a doctoral candidate in the department of anthropology at Rutgers University. Her dissertation is an ethnography of Black Muslims and spiritual protest in the Black Lives Matter era. She writes and speaks regularly on race, gender, Islam, and other topics; she has published at Anthropology News, Religion News Service, Al Jazeera.com, and the Washington Post. You can follow her on Twitter @TinyMuslimah.