During Ramadan we often find ourselves coming full circle. We return to our source, Allah, by connecting with the Qur’an with a renewed energy gained through fasting. For me, Ramadan offers nostalgia of the first year I tried to fast before I even declared my faith as a Muslim. Juz’ 5 takes me there; some of the verses inspired my journey, as well as this mixed media art I created. “It is Allah’s Will to make things clear to you, guide you to the ‘noble’ ways of those before you, and turn to you in mercy. For Allah is All-Knowing, All-Wise” (4:26).
As a student at Howard University in the early ’90s, I started researching several world religions when I realized there was a spiritual void in my life. I made a list, and Islam was at the bottom because of stereotypes of Muslim women not having agency. I’d been exposed to groups like the Nation of Islam, the Ansaru Allah Community and Five Percenters, and I couldn’t fully relate to those ideologies. I didn’t see myself belonging to any of those groups. But I did find kindred souls who were into hip hop, dance, fashion, art and entrepreneurship.
Backstage at Howard’s Homecoming Fashion Show, I met Detroit-based designer Maurice Malone. I joined his East Coast marketing team and became fast friends with the Detroit team, who were all Muslim. Pretty soon I was learning the fundamentals of Islam, covering my hair and fasting during Ramadan though I hadn’t yet reverted.
“And it is Allah’s Will to lighten your burdens, for humankind was created weak” (4:28).
…that experience felt like I’d made Hijra to a welcoming city of Madinah.
When the holy month started in 1993, I found it easy to go without food and drink during the shorter daylight hours. I headed to my stateside home in Richmond, Va., for the first leg of spring Break, and to Detroit to meet up with the Maurice Malone team for the second. When I arrived at my parents’ home, Daddy called me to his office for one of our usual catchup chats. On his bookshelf, I noticed an English transliteration of the Qur’an. Uncle Basil, my father’s best friend, was given copies while traveling to Jordan for work and left one with Daddy for me. Instinctively, I washed my hands and face and opened the table of contents. Surah an-Nisa (The Women) was the first to catch my eye.
“And do not crave what Allah has given some of you over others. Men will be rewarded according to their deeds and women ‘equally’ according to theirs. Rather, ask Allah for His bounties. Surely Allah has ‘perfect’ knowledge of all things.” — 4:32
“Men are the caretakers of women, as men have been provisioned by Allah over women and tasked with supporting them financially. And righteous women are devoutly obedient and, when alone, protective of what Allah has entrusted them with. And if you sense ill-conduct from your women, advise them ‘first’, ‘if they persist,’ do not share their beds,’˹but if they still persist,’ then discipline them ‘gently’. But if they change their ways, do not be unjust to them. Surely Allah is Most High, All-Great.” — 4:34
The verses that laid out the treatment of women in terms of inheritance, marriage and divorce completely changed my mind about Islam being an oppressive way of life for women. Less than a week later, on the 29th of Ramadan, I declared my shahada at Cass Masjid in Detroit. I spent the 30th day of Ramadan and my very first Eid surrounded by honorable company – warm and welcoming sisters and brothers who congratulated and showered me with prayer beads, a rug, books and small gifts, and taught me how to pray. In retrospect, that experience felt like I’d made Hijra to a welcoming city of Madinah, and going back to Howard was a return to Mecca.
“As for those who believe and do good, We will admit them into Gardens under which rivers flow, to stay there for ever and ever. There they will have pure spouses, and We will place them under a vast shade.” — 4:57
I think of my work as color therapy – each color on the visible spectrum has a frequency.
It’s been 29 years since that first Ramadan, and now, more than ever, I long for the sense of community and belonging I felt in my earlier years. Although technology allows us to communicate across the globe at virtually any time, we are increasingly experiencing fewer meaningful connections as the pandemic exacerbates racial injustice and economic inequality.
Those of us who exist at the intersection of multiple marginalized identities tend to bear the heaviest load. Black American Muslim identity is often so intertwined in the struggle against oppression, and the work of social justice, that it can become devoid of opportunities for imagination and joy. Healing, spaces to rest, dream and create are needed. I think of my work as color therapy – each color on the visible spectrum has a frequency. When you tap into that, you can access the healing vibration of that frequency. In reflecting on some of the themes in Surah an-Nisa, I wondered what a society based upon principles of gender equity and justice, rooted in worship of Allah, would look like. I imagine it would be one that centers the lives of women and children, encourages people to express themselves fully, and is a place where ingenuity and creativity thrive. It was my aim to evoke this collective beauty by using vibrant colorful clothing, African and Islamic architectural details, women, children and men standing shoulder to shoulder. To me, it feels like community, a mix of ancient Kemetic wisdom and Afro-futurism, a kind of Muslim Wakanda, with a generous sprinkling of the promise of Jannah. Welcome to Muslikanda!
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Ayah Davis is a Jamaican-American Muslim artist whose visual narratives center the trials and triumphs of woman and explore the nuanced depths of the human condition and range of emotion.
Her featureless abstracted figures, and the stories they tell, draw from both Caribbean and Islamic influences. Ayah’s lived experiences at the intersectionality of being an immigrant, a Black woman, a convert to Islam, and a single mother of five shape the stories she tells through her art. Her work is often deeply personal and shows reverence for the universal forces that connect us all.
She is a graduate of Howard University’s School of Architecture. Ayah currently resides in Northern Virginia where she continues to develop her art practice and provide interior design services.