This reflection is part of Sapelo’s Ramadan 2020 series. To read other reflections in the series click here.
By Aminah Al-Deen
Juz’ 27 (51:31–57:29) is another juz’ where it is helpful to remember the environment of a community’s first encounter with the messages of the Qur’an. I am reminded of a conversation with Dr. amina wadud about reading the Qur’an and the importance of seeing the specific conversations and extract the particulars along with attention to the universal guidance. The Qur’an was revealed over time, yet in a specific place with both specific and universal messages. This juz’ continues the Meccan surah al-Dhāriāt (51) that according to commentary in The Study Qur’an “discusses the intellectual fallacies that lie at the heart of disbelief” (p. 1273). How can I read and then find guidance as an African American whose experiences inform my understanding? What lessons of the past should I keep in mind?
I, too, have heard the stories of the Prophets though mostly through movies like The Ten Commandments, Solomon and Noah that then left visuals for my readings. The One God was to be obeyed and various ancient communities had rejected all demonstrations of this fact. Many of us older African American Muslims heard the Message [of Islam] and accepted, some after hearing it a few times but we all arrived at the same place, al-hamdulillah. We raised our children sometimes inside the ideologies of other cultures and sometimes inside one of the African American Muslim communities. Some of us have, at times, been challenged by holding onto the rope that the Message provides. For those returning to the Message before death overtakes them, we must be welcoming. For those who have held onto parts of the Message, specifically tawhīd, al-hamdulillah.
When I read to find guidance, my thoughts turn to the harm caused by other cultural understandings of Islam on African American Muslim understandings.
When I read to find guidance, my thoughts turn to the harm caused by other cultural understandings of Islam on African American Muslim understandings. We have survived, with Allah’s mercy, terrible injustices. We survived chattel slavery, forced rape, Jim Crow, lynchings and continue to survive with Allah’s mercy. This is our collective human experience that is unique and uniquely attuned to the guidance of the Qur’an and those who study it among us. As we are pushed to study the Qur’an, what stops us? The Qur’an has been made easy, are there any who remember? We must remember that Allah is our final goal in good and bad times. It is Allah who makes us laugh or cry, it is Allah who determines who lives and who dies. We are asked to tie our camels. We have been given the gift of choice.
Four times in this juz’, Allah says, “Surely, we have made this Qur’an easy to remember, but are there any who will remember?” (54:17) This keeps ringing in my head. Our experiences of reading the Book and getting guidance from it are important to share. My educational experience of reading the Qur’an to study it — explore, discover, challenge, fight through the Arabic — and then remember to share with each other what we understood was in itself a challenge. This was because almost all of our teachers were from the school of thought that said their knowledge was not to be questioned. This was an eye-opener as I realized that they were not trained to think critically but to memorize what others had said the Qur’an meant. Rote memorization from teachings of past scholars was the order of the day. It even took me a while to realize that those scholars interpreted for their environments and not for mine — and were involved in the various political schema of their time to gain the favor of the state.
As the only African American Muslim student in the graduate department in Islamic Studies, I thought that my hesitancy at just being a memorizer of other histories and scholarly sayings was a testimony to my inabilities rather than how I had been taught as a scientist in a former career to interrogate.
As the only African American Muslim student in the graduate department in Islamic Studies, I thought that my hesitancy at just being a memorizer of other histories and scholarly sayings was a testimony to my inabilities rather than how I had been taught as a scientist in a former career to interrogate. I had to study for a profession but then had to unlearn for my environment as subjects needed to be reframed for African American Muslims. It has taken years to realize the situation and then I encountered another more hurtful one — many African Americans thought that the real Islamic scholars were from other countries and only male. African American Muslims and especially females were and still are unwanted in both the American academy and in Islamic Studies. For some of the few of us, the study has been parlayed into a money and status quest while others of us have put our efforts into communities whether they wanted us there or not.
As I write this reflection, African Americans and Latinos who are infected with COVID-19 are dying in significant numbers. Ayat 38-40 of al-Dhāriāt about Moses and the trials of the mental capacities of people living under stress reminded me of our current situation. Many underlying conditions these communities face are caused by poverty, racism and discriminatory treatment in every aspect of their lives. Folks are anxious and depressed, short-tempered and glued to the news. Domestic violence and child-abuse have increased, in direct contradiction to the Message. On the other hand, in alignment with the Message, many of us have become hyper-conscious of the elderly in our families and in our midst. Old arguments and slights have taken a backseat and the goal is to leave them there for the future.
This Ramadan has challenged us to realize that it is not only the month of fasting, but also the month of remembrance of what charity means as we “marvel” at our bounty.
This Ramadan has challenged us to realize that it is not only the month of fasting, but also the month of remembrance of what charity means as we “marvel” at our bounty. African American Muslims are the quintessential evidence of Islam in America. We have in many ways mimicked the lives of the first Muslims who left family religious seatings to embark on a transition to Islam. Our children have had to live with our choice and the highs and lows of it. As I write this reflection, Ramadan has begun and when you read this, I don’t know if we will still be sheltering or quarantining. What I do know is that neither fatalism or panic is called for as we realize that Allah is in control.
I was speaking with Dr. Constance Shabazz the other day who is working in her local area to respond to the coronavirus pandemic. She recalled how good it felt to be involved with the distribution of masks to people she did not already know in her community. These things more than make up for anything else that may have happened to us as we struggle to remember the Qur’ān and rise to the challenge of using the guidance. Many African American Muslims are modelling their identity in some of the nation’s poorest communities, working with programs for early release of non-violent prisoners, working with artists’ groups, working in phone banks for mental health, unemployment compensation and serving the elderly, especially those who live alone. This is the spirit of Ramadan that began before its official start — when we read the Qur’an and then find guidance as African Americans whose experiences inform our understanding.
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Dr. Aminah B. Al-Deen is the retired Professor of Religious Studies and Director of the Islamic World Studies program at DePaul University. Her areas of expertise include Islam in America, Muslim women, Islamic studies, and the history, geography, politics, religion, and philosophy of Islam. She is the author and co-author of several books, including African-American Islam (1994); A Question of Faith (1999); Transnational Muslims in American Society (2006); and An Introduction to Islam in the 21st Century (2013). She is also the Editor in Chief of the Journal of Islamic Law and Culture, and a member of the board of advisors of the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding.