This reflection was originally published in Ramadan 2018
By Nsenga Knight
Do you find it astonishing that a reminder should come to you from your Lord through one of your own, warning you, so you may beware and perhaps shown mercy? — 7:63
Juz’ 8 (6:111–7:87) contains some of the most vivid descriptions of Paradise along with the retelling of Adam and Eve. Even though our ancestors Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, were shamed once they recognized their nudity and exiled from Paradise, they were also forgiven by Allah, The Most Forgiving – who they directly disobeyed. We, as a human family, are referred to as “Children of Adam.” This distinction signals that Allah is speaking to all descendants of Adam regardless of their religious beliefs. Although Allah commands us all to clothe ourselves modestly, throughout the juz’ Allah reminds us that what is in our hearts is far more important than our external garments:
Oh Children of Adam! We have provided for you clothing to cover your nakedness and as an adornment. However, the best clothing is righteousness. This is one of God’s bounties, so perhaps you will be mindful. — 7:26
Then why are human beings so unforgiving, especially of Black women who have at some point in their life been immodest or engaged in other seedy behavior? It is an unspoken rule that our Black men can speak openly about their past trifling (sometimes criminal) pre-Islamic behavior and be praised for their redemption. Yet, for a Black woman’s righteousness to eclipse her past, she must remain silent. It is no wonder that Cardi B’s rise is a welcome catharsis for so many Black Muslim women.
One of the biggest critiques I hear when a Black Muslim sister confesses her love or support for Cardi B is, “wasn’t she a stripper?” Yes, she was. Emphasis on the was. As we know her now, and the reason why we know her now, is because she turned her story of gangsta bitchin and stripping into one of success in the arts — one that is lead greatly by her outspoken and unique brand of “hood wisdom,” her honesty about who she is, was and wants to become. Along with (or in spite of) her ratchetness on Instagram she constantly puts God as a message. Cardi B, a Black female Child of Adam broke an unwritten rule by demanding that she be taken seriously in spite of her past — stripping, poverty, and a list of indecencies that she “ought to be ashamed of.” She speaks her mind and tells her own story.
Many of Prophet Muhammad’s (SAWS) companions were from the lowest ranks in Arabian society before embracing Islam — comparable to today’s alcoholics, murderers, thieves, pimps, hoes, strippers, gangsta rappers and the likes.
Whoever God wills to guide, He opens their hearts to Islam — 6:125
Unlike the Black Muslim man, the Black Muslim woman is shamed into silence about her past. Where are our stories of redemption, of running the streets, doing crimes, selling drugs or pimping like Malcom did in order to survive? May I submit for your consideration, that stripping – selling the viewing of one’s body in dance for cash is the Black woman’s equivalent of all those things? Cardi B talks about turning to the strip club for employment because she was poor and needed to get out of an abusive relationship in this interview (note explicit language is used). Once the man fails to fulfill his role as the maintainer and provider described in the Qur’an, is no longer present, and perhaps far from gone, this is the way some women opt to maintain and provide for themselves and their families if driven so far. Allah tells us of people who are compelled to provide for themselves through haram means:
Say, O Prophet, “I do not find in what has been revealed to me anything forbidden to eat except carrion, running blood, swine — which is impure — or a sinful offering in the name other than God. But if someone is compelled by necessity, neither driven by desire nor exceeding immediate need, then surely your Lord is All-Forgiving, Most Merciful.” — 6:145
May I submit for your consideration that dancing naked or partially naked in a strip club is perhaps more honorable than selling drugs on the streets, robbing a bank (or individuals) or pimping? Might we consider, for consideration sake, that we ought to ask ourselves why so many Black women are turning to the strip clubs for jobs and why so many Black men are hiring? Why has the strip club become such a viable place for making the careers or so many of the vocal artists of our culture – the major da’ees of our community?
How do we deal with sisters in our community who have seedy pasts? Why is it so acceptable for our men to openly discuss their lives in the dunya and share their stories of redemption and transformation? For each of those male stories, isn’t there a female equivalent? Perhaps hers isn’t even as severe.
He is the One who sends the winds ushering in His mercy. When they bear heavy clouds, We drive them to a lifeless land and then cause rain to fall, producing every type of fruit. Similarly, We will bring the dead to life so perhaps you will be mindful. — 7:57
Do many of us who receive Cardi B with disdain because of her past also look down on our Muslim sisters who followed a similar path?
Yes, as Muslims, we believe in the notion of covering one’s sins, but isn’t selling drugs a sin? Isn’t robbing people a sin? Isn’t murder a sin? Why is it ok for Black Muslim men to discuss their former sins, but we don’t hear even a single voice to the sins of Black women; how that Black woman was transformed through the teachings of Islam; how she could be embraced in spite of her past? I have never even heard an anonymous story. We are ashamed and shamed into silence. How many women are afraid to live out the fullness of their potential for fear that someone may find out about their pasts and use it against them? Though I speak particularly about Black women, and Black Muslim women in particular, the type of shaming and silencing that I’m speaking of is not unique to Black people, perhaps it is more acute for us.
Our Lord! We have wronged ourselves. If you do not forgive us and have mercy on us, we will surely be losers. — 7:23
Does Islam only have the ability to redeem the Black man? No, of course not! We accept that the wali Rabia Al-Adawiya may have been a prostitute before embracing Islam. But, I know that in our community today, if a sister had been a prostitute before accepting Islam, she knows she better not speak about it. Even the thought of her coming out and expressing this past to anyone, no matter how notable or great she is now, is almost completely unfathomable. It’s hard for me to even imagine her past not diminishing and devaluing her completely in the eyes of most people in our community. Is this what the Qur’an teaches us? Or have we as a community created some sort or sexist double standards not rooted in Islamic teachings? Sexism and chauvinism are major corruptors of the deen of Islam and deterrents from the teachings of this beautiful way.
And do not lie in ambush on every road — threatening and hindering those who believe in God from His Path and striving to make His Path appear crooked. Remember when you were few, then He increased you in number. And consider the faith of the corruptors! — 7:86
Perhaps those in our community who love Cardi B in spite of her past, embracing the fullness of who she is and the potential of who she might become would hear her out. Perhaps they’d whisper that they too have things they did in the past that no one knows of, but they too are worthy of God’s grace. Perhaps they too are worthy of our audience.
We are not saying that Cardi B’s content is positive as a whole or will bring us closer to our Lord. But, perhaps it could for some people. Perhaps, for some, the songs “Get Up 10” is a story of redemption and “Best Life” is about keeping the faith and believing, trusting and depending on Allah in spite of what we’ve been through. And, believing that Allah made each of us special and worthy in spite of what we’ve done or what we are still doing. Call upon your Lord humbly and secretly. Surely He does not like the transgressors. —7:55
Can we imagine that strippers still pray and believe in Allah? That God still speaks to them?
Some fall to their knees on bathroom floors crying real tears, begging their Lord for His assistance. Perhaps the tears of a stripper could be worth more in the sight of Allah than the condemnation of those who look down on her; that Allah might love her more because her heart is so filled with love of Him; and that Allah hates arrogance.
God asked, “What prevented you from prostrating when I commanded you?” He (satan) replied, “I am better than he is: You created me from fire and him from clay.” God said, “Then get down from Paradise! It is not for you to be arrogant here. So get out! You are truly one of the disgraced.” — 7:12
Don’t follow satan by looking down on the Cardi Bs of the world. Don’t think that the sister in the club is not your sister. The sister in the mosque might have been Cardi Blast week. There is probably another sister in the mosque now who is enduring domestic violence, has been abandoned by her spouse or has lost all hope; if you don’t take care of this sister, she might be Cardi B next week. Faith shifts up and down and is an internal struggle. Allah sees everyone. And He forgives everyone as He wills. He forgives even if we don’t want to. He forgives even when we don’t want Him to.
Are these humble believers the ones you swore would never be shown God’s mercy? Finally, on the heights will be told: Enter Paradise! You will have nothing to fear, nor will you grieve. — 7:49
Many Black women feel imprisoned by their pasts. I know Allah’s example through Cardi B will help set someone free, reminding us of God’s grace. Yes, it’s worldly. But, Allah teaches us to look for his signs in this world. We cannot keep pretending that Allah only forgives the Black man pimp turned preacher, drug pusher turned da’ee, murderer turned mullah, or robber turned Brother So and So. In the realms of people who did culturally unacceptable sins (because they are all sins), we should make room in our hearts for the women who have sinned too. They need redemption too. Allah will accept their repentance even if we don’t and embrace them along with their stories too. You will soon know who will fair best in the end. — 6:135
Nsenga Knight is an interdisciplinary artist whose art seeks to make critical contributions to conversations on the status of Black America, American society, politics, culture and Islam in the 21st century. Informed by her upbringing as a first-generation Black American Muslim woman, her work synthesizes influences from Islamic art, Western abstraction and Black aesthetics. She currently lives and works in Cairo, Egypt, and New York. Nsenga is a 2019–2020 Pollock-Krasner Foundation Grantee and a co-founder of Sapelo Square. She earned a Master of Fine Arts degree at the University of Pennsylvania and a Bachelor of Arts in Film Production at Howard University. You can learn more about her artistic work and keep up with her exhibitions at nsengaknight.com.