KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: I’m Krista Tippett. Today, “Living Islam,” the nature and meaning of Muslim identity in nine very different American lives.
BASEM HASSAN: We skate, we snowboard, we make art, we make music, we fall in love, we slam poetry, we go baggy, we go skinny, but we also pray, we memorize Qur’an, we fast, we give in charity, we educate, and we represent.
SAMAR JARRAH: Personally, I have lectured to thousands of Americans. No one has ever asked me a question about science, as if all that Islam has given to humanity is a bunch of nutcase terrorists. But also being Muslim in America makes me a better Muslim, one who has more hope for the future.
WAJAHAT ALI: My journey as an artist has been fortuitous, touched by an air of serendipity and also has been very random, and that just goes to show you sometimes Allah works in mysterious ways, as we say.
MS. TIPPETT: This isSpeaking of Faith. Stay with us.
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett. In Western public discourse, we use terms like Islam and the Muslim world as though there is a monolithic reality behind them. This hour, we draw out a range of voices and stories that embody the breadth of this faith of 1.5 billion people, which is often obscured by both violent headlines and unconvincing platitudes. These voices also reveal a creative convergence of Islamic spirituality and American identity that is unfolding largely unnoticed in the U.S.
From American Public Media, this isSpeaking of Faith, public radio’s conversation about religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas. Today, “Living Islam.”
FERUZE FAISON: I mean, there are so many things I think that are beautiful about Islam. One of the most beautiful aspects of Islam, multiplicity and singularity of experience that’s celebrated. Both are celebrated.
SAMAR JARRAH: Meeting Muslims from Pakistan, from India, from China, from Japan, these Muslims I have met only in America. And it made me realize, my God, this is really an international religion.
BASEM HASSAN: The way the tribal people used to entertain themselves was through poetry, and it’s very close to slam poetry. You know, I was thinking back to like, you know, the Qur’an that I actually have memorized, and I’m like, wow, I really see where this is a natural progression of that tradition.
NY’KISHA PETTIFORD: Some people are Muslim by birth and some by choice, and I am the latter. This religion in particular tells you you choose your own path, you use your own brain.
MARIA ROMERO: I really believe that abayas are beautiful and an abaya just makes my life so much easier. I wear whatever I want and need, pop an abaya over it and wrap up a hijab and I’m good to go. No worries.
IBRAHIM AL-MARASHI: You have the static Muslims who tend to take all the media coverage. There are also the fluid Muslims who just want to live their everyday lives. And then you also have to realize that there are those Muslims who don’t practice the faith at all, and this is one of the points that never gets communicated.
MS. TIPPETT: These are a few of the hundreds of voices we heard in response to a query we issued a few months ago on how Muslim faith and practice is woven in to the fabric of modern lives. We released some of their stories about Ramadan two weeks ago in the first part of this series. For this program, we’ve pulled together rich and varied insights into the nature and meaning of Muslim identity in nine very different American lives. There are some recurring themes that run throughout the essays we received and the follow-up conversations we’ve had.
Many describe how the events of September 11, 2001, imprinted them personally. They’ve talked about how tricky it can be in places to unravel Islamic religious tradition from multitudinous, cultural traditions. In the United States, of course, this is both complicated and loosened by the experience of immigration. We begin with Wajahat Ali who’s recently gained acclaim for his playThe Domestic Crusaders, about a multigenerational Pakistani-American-Muslim family. That’s also the starting point of his own life story.
WAJAHAT ALI: I was born and raised here actually in the Bay Area of California. My father has your almost typical American dream-type story. He came here from Pakistan as a young man, did his college year, worked to support himself and went to school, sent money back to the motherland. Eventually, the grandparents came and, believe it or not, in America they actually had a traditional household setup where my grandparents had actually lived with me growing up, and even my grandmother still lives with us. A large part of this is motivated by a faith-based motivation, taking care of elders, respecting your family. You know, as they say, there’s the saying of the Prophet Mohammed that says, you know, “Heaven lies beneath the feet of your mother.”
MS. TIPPETT: Wajahat originally trained as a lawyer, and asThe Domestic Crusaderspremiered off-Broadway to good buzz, he’s been giving thought to how Islamic spirituality shapes his reaction to success.
WAJAHAT ALI: Being a minority in America and especially a Muslim-American, there is a general assumption that the pie is small, that there can be only one Muslim-American playwright and only one Muslim-American poet, and you’re the mainstream corporation that mainstream America will latch on and promote, you know — the one Pakistani-Muslim writer. And if another Pakistani-Muslim writer gets there, it’s over for the rest of us. But this is where my faith-based background has really helped me, because there can be many and there will be many.
The second thing that has espoused is this a Muslim-American play in Muslim-American art. It’s by us, but for everyone, the whole play. And my journey as an artist has been fortuitous, if you will, you know, touched by an air of serendipity and also has been very random, to be honest. I have fallen into it without any great aspirations or grand designs, and that just goes to show you sometimes, you know, Allah works in mysterious ways, as we say.
As a Muslim, to use an artist’s metaphor, you know, being Muslim is a spiritual work in progress where, you know, if you strive for perfection knowing full well you’ll never achieve it. And perhaps that is a sadistic quest by a madman or masochism by a well-intentioned upstart or perhaps it’s just the way things are meant to be, you know, and so that all these events which are just fortuitous can allow me to greater know myself and know my creator. And so the spiritual path of mine is the underlying path, which then gets manifested in everything that I do, whether it be law or art.
You know, with art where — I just got this e-mail. I was just telling a friend recently where a gentleman, who is a young Pakistani-American and a Muslim-American, e-mails me and says, “You know, I just want you to know I’ve been following your writing. I had given up on play writing, but seeing your example has made me restart. So thank you.” Another person told me, “You have to realize there’s an entire community that’s riding on your success with this play, because it will give them hope that they don’t have to be just doctors and engineers.”
Like I keep saying, you realize you’re tapping into something greater than yourself, and I think that’s what kills any notions of pettiness or selfishness or competition in me. It’s not because, you know, I’m like some spiritual Zen Master or like a Splinter or a Yoda. It’s something that I have worked on for about 10 years, ever since I was at college, trying to purify one’s intentions. You know, our actions are predicated upon our intentions in Islam. I’ve tried really hard to repeatedly and conscientiously remind myself of why I’m doing what I’m doing.
MS. TIPPETT: Samar Jarrah lives, writes, and teaches in Florida.
SAMAR JARRAH: I really had no idea I was a Muslim when I was young and growing up in Kuwait in the 1960s until one day when Mom told me that we cannot have a Christmas tree because we’re not Christians; we’re just Muslims. I screamed and said, “But May and Dina,” who happened to be our Iraqi Christian neighbors, “they do have one and they have toys under the tree. It’s not fair.”
Well, a few months later, May came knocking to our house asking me to convert her to Islam simply because we were celebrating our Eid — our Muslim holiday — and we were being given cash and money. She begged me to recite the shahada, which is to witness that there is no God but God and Mohammed is the prophet of God. I was six years old, and I don’t know to this day why on earth I didn’t do it, why I didn’t allow May to recite the Shahada after me. I knew then that I could be in trouble. But really when I grew up, I realized that Islam was not just repeating a sentence. It was actually a way of life.
I really was forced to learn and read about my faith a few years after moving to the U.S.A., which was in 1989. I enjoyed approaching the text of the Qur’an from a student’s perspective rather than a worshipper. As a worshipper, I was reciting kind of a sacred text, but as a student, I was indulging myself in an exciting thirst for knowledge.
Living in the U.S.A. and being exposed to so many different Muslims from so many different countries and cultures made me realize that there are many faces to Islam. I think this was the most interesting development in my faith and in my life, to understand that most Muslims really are not Arabs and there are so many faces and pictures and cultures related to Islam that is not founded in the Arabic culture.
However, what I have never imagined while I was growing up in Kuwait, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and in Jordan that one day I, Samar, will be asked to speak publicly to Americans in defense of the faith. You know, I thought I might be talking about the tenets, the articles, religion, prayers, but never to defend my faith in America. So being Islam in America has meant for me to be waiting to answer the next e-mail circulating, which could be describing how an American Muslim can never be a good citizen because we have to kill Christians and Jews. The more I receive these e-mails, the more I learned about my faith and discovered that it also talks about embryology and geology, geography and astronomy. But I never get a question about such topics.
Personally, I have lectured to thousands of Americans. No one has ever asked me a question about science, as if all that Islam has given to humanity is a bunch of nutcase terrorists. But also being Muslim in America makes me a better Muslim, one with more hope for the future. I’ve had hundreds of amazing messages of love and support. Just this past Saturday morning, I was in the company of a very intellectual group of retired men and women. The oldest was like 95. They invited me to talk to them on a Saturday morning because they wanted to know more about Islam from a Muslim, and for this, I’m forever grateful to be a Muslim in America.
MS. TIPPETT: Samar and Wajahat were also part of our Revealing Ramadan series, a special podcast and radio program in which they told vivid stories from inside Islam’s holiest month. You can listen to these stories and others and unedited interviews on our Web site, speakingoffaith.org.
I’m Krista Tippett, and this isSpeaking of Faith from American Public Media. Today, “Living Islam,” looking inside the nature and meaning of Muslim identity in nine very different American lives.
Samar Jarrah, whom you just heard, mentioned the converts she began to meet in the U.S. And an intriguing spectrum of converts responded to our query on Muslim identity. Several of them who grew up in Eastern Orthodox and Baptist churches live in Texas. Maria Romero wrote to us from Seattle where she is a lawyer. She married an Arab-Muslim man in a great big Mexican Catholic wedding with a mariachi band, but she didn’t come to Islam herself until after that marriage had ended. She read part of her essay and spoke with my producer, Trent Gilliss.
MARIA ROMERO: I’m pretty well-known for my directness and my sharp tongue, and I don’t think that’s expected in most women. I think we’re expected to be quiet and submissive. But I think, if I had not become a Muslim, I would never have polished my soul and made my anger mean something more than just being angry. I think submitting to Allah eased the pain that I had hid in my heart for so long and made burdens bearable and made me very grateful every day for what I have.
I think living in Seattle makes it easier to be Muslim. There are so many cultures here that you’re allowed to be what you are. I’ve had great experiences in Seattle with random people on the street who comment something like, “Oh, it’s great that you can still wear your cultural clothing” and whatnot. Evidently, me and my cultural clothing are the T-shirt and jeans that I’m generally wearing underneath my abaya. I don’t think you can get more American than, you know, a pair of jeans and a T-shirt. Mostly I wear it for my daughter. I suspect that teachers treat her differently after I walk into school for Open House wearing an abaya and hijab. She chooses not to wear a hijab.
There’s a lot to tell. There’s never enough room to tell. Muslims are not just Arabs, they’re Pakistanis — and I really wish you, the world, could see us as we see us. We’re really strong, independent, and hardworking, loving culture clash of mix and, yes, sometimes dysfunctional family that spans the globe and aren’t all blended families struggling to get it right. Does America have it right yet some 233 years after it was founded? I don’t think so.
I had shared with NPR a group picture of Muslims who took part in the Edmonds, Washington, 2009 Fourth of July parade. My daughter and I took part in that parade and she said, “You know, the Fourth is my favorite holiday.” And I hope, for her sake, that that’s what others will see, just another American teenager. She talks back, she loves bright colors, defiant, she loves her friends, both Muslim and non-Muslim, and she loves the Fourth of July because she’s an American-Muslim through and through.
TRENT GILLISS: Not only do you wear the hijab, but you also wear the abaya.
MARIA ROMERO: Yeah.
TRENT GILLISS: I’m just curious how you came to that point and what does that mean to you?
MARIA ROMERO: You’re not going to get the most religiously correct answer actually [laugh]. They’re beautiful. I really think that abayas are beautiful. And on the religious side, you don’t have to struggle, or I don’t have to struggle, with is the shirt long enough to cover my bum? Generally, if you find a long skirt in an American store, it has slits up the side or a slit up the back, and it’s not always easy to tailor it; if you sew it shut, then you can’t walk in it. An abaya just makes my life so much easier. I wear whatever I want underneath, pop an abaya over it and wrap up a hijab and I’m good to go. No worries. So I’m covered in the way I believe I should be covered, seriously.
TRENT GILLISS: That doesn’t get much more American than that. That’s a great story [laugh].
MARIA ROMERO: It’s practical.
TRENT GILLISS: Yes.
MARIA ROMERO: I’ve been asked some interesting things, such as, “Which wife are you?” And I’ve turned around and stated, “Well, what do you mean, which wife am I?” “Yeah, one, two, three or four?” Things like that, you have to treat them with humor. You really have to. Or, “Where’s your dot?” and I said, “The dot?” So they assumed I was Hindu and I said, “No, that’s a different religion.” Some things you have to treat with humor and some things you have to treat with directness, and I’m kind of sarcastic in my humor. Some things have to be treated much more forcefully, and one has to be able to judge the situation.
Sometimes you can’t, to be honest. If you’re rushing out of the grocery story and you’re thinking ten steps ahead, “Oh, my God, I have to get home, I have to make dinner, I still have to pick up my kid at soccer,” and somebody not intending to ask the question, sometimes you won’t answer it the way you wished. One should always ask, even if you think you’re not asking the right question or kind of intrusive. Yes, there are some questions I won’t answer from men, but I wouldn’t answer them anyway even if I wasn’t Muslim, because it’s none of their business.
MS. TIPPETT: Ny’Kisha Pettiford is of Jamaican descent and converted to Islam 13 years ago. In Islam, she found, she says, a religion that was not afraid of her questions.
NY’KISHA PETTIFORD: I grew up in a Christian household. My mother is Catholic, my father is nondenominational Christian, so we grew up that way a lot of our lives. Around the age of 15 or 16, I found myself with many, many questions that the church simply could not answer. And in college, I’m running around and taking different courses on religion, and it was the religion of Islam that actually appealed to me. After a great deal of classes and research and asking questions, I discovered this is the truth, this is what’s my truth. So I went forward with it and I embraced Islam and became a Muslim.
Once you become Muslim, it’s not just a matter of a religion. It becomes a way of life, so there’s an ongoing learning process and then there’s the process of introducing it to your family and letting them know, you know, there’s certain changes that’s going on in my life and that doesn’t exclude you from my life. It’s just something that, you know, we’ll grow to do together.
MS. TIPPETT: Ny’Kisha lives in Philadelphia, is a mother of three and leads a Girl Scout Troop. She works in a health insurance field. And as she told Trent Gilliss, she’s learned how to integrate the practicalities of Islamic devotion — from fasting during Ramadan to five daily prayers — into the corporate environment.
NY’KISHA PETTIFORD: Occasionally, there are moments that can become uncomfortable, for example, in the interviewing process or with meeting new people. For religious reasons, women we don’t have skin-to-skin contact with men, so that can cause an awkward moment where you need to simply explain, for religious reasons, this is something that I just don’t do and usually just divert past that to whatever issue you were actually discussing. So sometimes it’s simply in the approach, how you say it to them, that makes a huge difference. Sometimes it leads to an additional question and sometimes it just leads to acceptance and understanding.
TRENT GILLISS: So things as simple as a handshake?
NY’KISHA PETTIFORD: Something as simple as a handshake.
TRENT GILLISS: So how have you found ways of adapting to that without belaboring the point?
NY’KISHA PETTIFORD: I don’t know. I really think that most issues, once the person becomes accustomed to you doing it, it becomes non-consequential for them as well. It’s just a matter of being a way of life. For example, when you do the five daily prayers, before you pray, you have to do a certain washing calledwudu. So this basically means you’re standing in the bathroom and you’re washing certain parts of your body, your hands, your face, your arms, so on and so forth.
So initially, people will stare at you like, you know, “What are you doing?” And then sometimes they’ll even go so far as to pose a question. Again, it’s the approach. You just say matter-of-factly, you know, “I have to pray. This is what I do before I pray.” It’s not something that interferes with their life. It’s not something that interferes with their day, and over time, they simply become accustomed to it.
For us, we’re thankful for all the things that God gave us, so we have to spend at least these five times a day praying. And it gives us a minute to take our minds off of the matters of this life. We focus on the things that we’ve been given, and we show thanks for the things that we’ve been given. And, when you return to your work after that, you tend to have a greater focus because you remember, OK, the purpose of my being here is this, the purpose of my working is specifically for this reason and I like to do all things for the sake of God and showing myself as the best person that I can be.
Something that I say to my three children often is a Hadith, or a saying from our prophet [speaking Arabic]. Someone came to him once and they asked him who was most worthy or deserving of my companionship, which means who has the most rights over me. The prophet said to the person, “Your mother.” So the person said to him, “And then who?” And again, he said, “Your mother.” Then again, he said, “And who?” Then the prophet again said, “Your mother.” Then he said, “And then who?” Then he said, “And then your father,” which, contrary to some false beliefs, shows the high status of women in this religion.
TRENT GILLISS: Ny’Kisha, I have to say that I’ve heard that story three or four times during these interviews. I’ve never heard it before. Why is that, I wonder? I mean, how do your children respond, by the way?
NY’KISHA PETTIFORD: Oh, my children usually respond as, “Yes, Mom, we know we have to listen to you.” [laugh]
MS. TIPPETT: Over one-third of American-Muslims are African-American, another feature that distinguishes the Muslim landscape of the United States. Contemporary scholarship suggests that as many as 20 percent of African slaves were Muslim, though many converted, some forcibly, to Christianity. In the early 20th century, a number of Muslim movements took root among African-American, and a few black Muslim icons entered American culture.
Muhammad Ali, Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X, and more notoriously in recent years, Louis Farrakhan. His militant Nation of Islam is in fact a splinter group of the original Nation of Islam, which underwent a thorough reform after the 1970s. Farrakhan’s movement today has tens of thousands of members in comparison to the 2.5 million members of mainstream African-American Sunni Islam. Allee Ramadan belongs to this lineage.
ALLEE RAMADAN: I was born as a Muslim here in America more than 65 years ago, and I did not stress that fact in my life as a child. My goal at that time was to fit into a world that did not understand me or accept me as a person of color who was not a Christian and whose parents were seeking to teach him a strange language. Those things only made me more of an outcast. In short, I had, I thought, as having three strikes against me before I came to bat.
I did not reject my faith. I kept it hidden and sought to be like the white students in my class. At that early time in my life, my white classmates in public school were released on Tuesday afternoons to attend religious services, and I remained behind with my teacher. I was given the job of washing the blackboard. She babysat me while her colleagues were relaxing in the teachers lounge. So, you see, there was not a large incentive for a black child to be proud of the fact he was a Muslim.
As an adult, I acknowledged my faith, but I did not think it was an important aspect of my life as I pursued the American dream and acceptance. I was wrong.
The events of September 11, 2001, forced me to confront my faith in a way that I had not anticipated. First I heard and read the awful things people said about Muslims and my faith. I became angry at them in their ignorance. My response was to become more observant as a member of my faith. I focused on my holy book and made an effort to study the faith of others.
Over the years, I had approached my faith from two perspectives. My spirituality was the acknowledgement that there is something in this universe that is so much more than me. My religion was my effort to know that something better. Islam served that end for me. Recently when I was attending the mosque, I noticed young men learning to recite the 114 suras of the Qur’an. Those who have accomplished that effort have truly taken on and succeeded at a wonderful task, but I could not help but think that understanding is as important as reciting. For my understanding allows me to recite the whole of the Qur’an in under five minutes. It’s simply, “I am the Lord thy God and I am a jealous God. Worship me and me alone.”
I see the rest as footnotes. I say that because I see a man as pursued by what I call the four horsemen of destruction, which are arrogance, ignorance, greed, and jealousy. As I look at man’s history, I can assign all the wars, human abuses and man’s indifference to suffering to one or more of these horsemen. It is only when we worship the one God, as my holy book instructs, that we remain humble. The sad tragedy is that so many of my brothers and sisters in the Muslim world who have had this wonderful book fail to understand its meaning.
MS. TIPPETT: : Along with hundreds of essays, we’ve also received striking photographs from the people in this hour and many others, including Allee Ramadan as the only African-American student in his kindergarten class and a beautiful picture of him with his daughter, one of his 11 children. And while Ny’Kisha Pettiford shared an image of her with her local Girl Scout troop, Maria Romero uploaded a photo of marching with her daughter in the Fourth of July Parade.
The best way to see all these images is to visit speakingoffaith.org. We’ve created an interactive map that presents each person’s story in context through the essays they’ve written and audio of the more than 30 people we called up at home or at work. You also gain a better geographical sense of where these stories originate: Indonesia and Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, England and Canada, and robust Muslim communities in states like Texas and Michigan. Explore this richness on our “Living Islam” Web site and subscribe to our podcast at speakingoffaith.org.
I’m Krista Tippett. More after a short break. Stay with us.Speaking of Faith comes to you from American Public Media.
MS. TIPPETT: Welcome back toSpeaking of Faith, public radio’s conversation about religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas. I’m Krista Tippett. Today, “Living Islam.” We’re experiencing voices and stories that embody the breadth of humanity of this faith in nine very different American lives, hearing about ordinary as well as sophisticated aspects of Islam that are often obscured by headlines or platitudes.
Hundreds have written to us from all over the world in recent months in response to a query we issued on how Muslim faith and practice is woven into the fabric of modern lives. They offer glimpses inside the varied human reality of what is often referred to politically and, in the singular, as the Muslim world. And they illustrate a creative convergence of Islamic spirituality and American identity that is unfolding largely unnoticed in the U.S.
REUBEN JACKSON: Well, my name is Reuben Jackson. I’m a 52-year-old African-American Muslim living in Washington, D.C. I sometimes call myself Allah’s problem child, because I’m kind of a quirky believer, and I think that you have to come to whatever it happens to be as you are and you go from there.
REUBEN JACKSON: Well, my name is Reuben Jackson. I’m a 52-year-old African-American Muslim living in Washington, D.C. I sometimes call myself Allah’s problem child, because I’m kind of a quirky believer, and I think that you have to come to whatever it happens to be as you are and you go from there.
REUBEN JACKSON: I leave work early on Fridays to go to Jumu’ah at the Islamic Center. Every time I walk in the mosque, I think about childhood because it’s not like the Christian church. There are no pews. It’s this beautiful, ornate room with this carpet. I see brothers who bring their sons or daughters in, young sons or daughters, and for them it’s a room with — and I know they’re thinking, well, they just want to run in there. There are times I want to run.
Anyway, a couple of weeks ago, this young man was up and his father was talking to somebody. I usually get there 30 or 40 minutes before call to prayer. So the young man just kind of got up and he started doing the moon walk on the carpet, which I just thought was wonderful. He looked at me and he kind of whispered, “I love Michael Jackson.” I said, “You know, so do I.” But, of course, his father turned around and was appalled. But I had already kind of given him a fist bump and I thought, well, maybe I crossed the line there.
But like most African-Americans, I was brought up Baptist. I was brought up in the Christian church, which I don’t ever see as a contradiction or anything bad. I think that being a Christian has made me a better Muslim, because the foundations are not so far removed. Anyway, I thought about that young man, because I got thrown out of church as a kid because I was trying to figure out the chorus to this song by The Temptations. And I snuck in the sanctuary one day and started playing. Our church got this new piano, and the minister caught me. Of course, this was terrible. You know, they called my parents.
Sometimes it’s a matter of trying to find like any denomination, that maybe the community that’s right for you. Though I’m in my 50s and I don’t want to be 20 or 25 again, I’ve run into a number of younger Muslims in D.C. and I probably have more, in some cases, in common with them and they don’t see these great contradictions between, say, loving Michael Jackson and being “a good Muslim.”
FERUZE FAISON: Being a Muslim and a lesbian has not been a challenge for me as most people would have assumed. My faith in Allah is all-encompassing, keeps me strong, knowing that I’m not a separate entity, but a wave in his creation. That gives me peace and joy. My family has disowned me for the sole reason that I was a lesbian and, therefore, a sinner. I forgive them for sinning by judging me and deciding where I belong in the afterlife. I pray that they can see the beauty in the Creation and the perfection of it all.
MS. TIPPETT: Feruze Faison was born in Turkey. She wrote to us from New York City where she’s lived for 20 years.
FERUZE FAISON: Growing up in Turkey, you are bombarded with Sufi poets, beautiful, loving, accepting words. So Rumi and Yunus and their words just made me believe that love is what rules and nothing else. But there was always something missing. I was deeply into Sufism in my 20s and I did my pilgrimage. That was one moment that I felt one. I really felt the oneness. But when I came back, I was still reading and exploring and meditating. There was always something missing and I never was able to pinpoint it.
In the meantime, while all this was happening, I also wanted a family. I wanted a child, actually, and I didn’t know any better and I wanted to make my family happy and proud, so I married a man, had a child and had a very miserable life for quite a long time. I was making myself busy with life so that I don’t get to face the true person that I was because it was just way too scary. It was against everything I was supposed to be, you know [laugh]. That was living like a mussel, living inside a shell, and not ever, ever looking at a mirror.
You know, Yunus Emre, that’s the Turkish poet, he says that knowing yourself is knowing the Creator. If you want to know God, know yourself. So even though I was spending hours and years trying to know God, because I was covering the core part of it, I could never really know God. Well, one day it happened and I met this person, my partner. She actually gave me the greatest gift of all. That was the acceptance of who I was and that was the first step for me to go inward without fear.
As a Muslim, I have to and I do accept every word of the Qur’an and the Hadith. The first sentence that you need to say as a Muslim and belief is “There is no God but Allah,” and understanding what this truly means helps you accept life as it is. Allah is like a separate God somewhere else up in the sky. I guess I could say this is how I feel when I go in the ocean, when I just let myself go and I feel a part of the ocean. There’s no distinction between me and the ocean. That’s how I like to describe God.
MS. TIPPETT: Feruze Faison is one of two Turkish Muslims who spoke to us about Islam in terms of rich language and poetry and the infusion of the Islamic mystical tradition of Sufism in their daily lives. Adnan Onart who appeared in the first part of this series, our Revealing Ramadan program, recited several of his poems. You can listen to a few of them, including “Morning Prayer” and “Ramadan in Dunkin’ Donuts” on our Web site, speakingoffaith.org.
I’m Krista Tippett, and this isSpeaking of Faith from American Public Media. Today, “Living Islam,” looking inside the nature and meaning of Muslim identity in nine American lives.
Ibrahim Al-Marashi is a scholar of modern history with a focus on the Middle East and political communications. His life and thought joined the fallout of 9/11 in an unexpected way when an article he wrote as a young scholar was plagiarized by the British government to justify the invasion of his family’s native country of Iraq. He grew up in California and has taught in the U.S., Turkey, and currently in Madrid. Ibrahim was drawn to Spain in part by the history of laconvivencia, the relatively harmonious and fruitful coexistence between Muslims, Christians, and Jews that flourished in Muslim ruled Spain from the eighth through the 15th centuries.
IBRAHIM AL-MARASHI: Moving to Spain was part of a kind of 10-year journey of finding a place where I was comfortable with my faith and living out my daily life. And what Spain represented was, in a sense, my upbringing, the sense that I lived in the West, yet had these kind of influences of Islam in my daily life, kind of materialized in the daily fabric of life in Spain. It’s where Islam is no longer practiced as in the U.S.
It’s not the, you know, the religion of the culture, let us say, but it was kind of finding these hints of Islam in daily life in Spain, whether it’s an Islamic motif in a building in Madrid that was not a mosque or not a church. It’s something that worked its way into — it’s kind of the architecture of Madrid. Whether it’s kind of noticing Spaniards with Arabic last names — Al-Kazas, for example, is coming from the Arabic word, the palace — or various Arabic words or Islamic terms that have worked its way into the Spanish language.
Seeing kind of how the beauty of things has a lot of its origins in the Islamic culture, it kind of helps me forget the darker side of how the world sees Islam. The fact that I can see beauty originating from the Islamic faith in Spain every day helps me forget the reality of the darker side that most people associate with Islam in the Middle East. The symbol I often use forconvivencia to kind of explain it to, let’s say, young students is really the Abrahamic faith. I mean, my name is Ibrahim. Perhaps my mom destined me to be named after the patriarch of these monotheistic faiths.
I often look at theStar Wars movies, where I say you could considerStar WarsJudaism,Empire Strikes Back Christianity, andReturn of the Jedi as Islam, in the sense that you can’t have any of the three episodes without each other. The characters are all the same. The story lines are a bit different, but that’s kind of a Hollywood-style way I relate it to my students in the classroom, is that you can’t have one without the other, and they aren’t antagonistic stories.
What I would ultimately like people to understand about Islam is the complexity within the religion, how various cultures adapt Islam to their local context and also to understand that it is not one monolithic movement, that even though you have what I describe the static Muslims who tend to take all the media coverage, they are also the fluid Muslims who just want to live their everyday lives. Then you also have to realize that between static and fluid, then there are those Muslims who are basically secular as well, or you have some Muslims who don’t practice the faith at all. And this is one of the points that never gets communicated.
Usually Islam is referred to in the singular, and what I would hope is that people realize that there is kind of what I would argue a banality of Islam, particularly in American life, where they just want to have a good career, raise a family and, if I was asked kind of what’s my future aspiration for Islam, particularly in the U.S., is that it becomes banal. It no longer becomes the exotic, the oriental, the what is deemed as a threat or a fear.
I think every culture of immigrants who’ve come to the U.S. have had this problem. They were kind of seen as something as an outsider, maybe threatening or unable to assimilate into American values. And eventually, let’s say Japanese-Americans I could take as an example, became kind of a banal part of American culture. My hope is that Muslims as a religious categorization, just as Jewish-Americans, are going to become a banal seen in American life, something that’s seen as normal that weaves itself into the everyday fabric of American life.
MS. TIPPETT: We end with Basem Hassan, a photographer and new-media artist. He lives in Franklin Park, New Jersey. He makes art creatively and comfortably. They’re not without tension, he told us, within the parameters of 1,400 years of Muslim teaching, navigating, for example, religious restrictions on three-dimensional sculpture and gray areas in photography. Here Basem reads part of the essay he sent us.
BASEM HASSAN: What never ceases to amaze me are the expressions that people have when they first meet me. Because I’m an exhibiting contemporary artist, a lot of time I’ll interact with people like curators, museum directors, patrons, and such online or by phone long before I physically meet them. Sometimes I think they expect a wild-eyed, scraggly-bearded man wearing traditional Saudi attire. I’m Egyptian, by the way. Or they think that, because I’m a visual artist, then I’m some sort of anything goes, hedonistic secularist, fat blunt in one hand and a glass of Merlot in the other, but I’m not.
I’m just an American-Muslim, and I’m part of the birth of a new Muslim cultural identity that’s truly a historical event to witness. We are the fruit of the American melting pot, where the divisive cultures of our parents’ homelands are foreign to us. I do not see color or ethnicity as a hierarchy, but as an opportunity, the same opportunity that exists in teaching and learning about each other’s religions. This is the true essence of Islam. Yes, we have limitations on what we can and can’t do — how much or how little we are permitted to engage with certain aspects of any society. But those parameters are hardly limiting, actually liberating in knowing you are safe to indulge in the permissible.
From time to time, though, I find the challenges of being an American-raised Muslim coming more from other Muslims who have not understood the full potential afforded Americans. Yes, I am an artist. My discourse on the world around me is done visually. Mundane details like hair style, choice of attire are at times unorthodox. I listen to music when I’m inspired to create the objects that I hope will become vehicles of conversation in galleries and museums. I knew this was my future when I went to Hajj, camera in hand, documenting experiences for future audiences. So, please, call me Hajji Hippie Artiste.
Again, I’m still a Muslim. These activities are the gifts given to me by my creator. We skate, we snowboard, we make art, we make music, we fall in love, we slam poetry, we go baggy, we go skinny, we get emo, we get big. But we also pray, we memorize Qur’an, we fast, we give in charity, we educate, and we represent. My niche is art. You’ll find me in the mosque after the gallery reception, and I hope one day we’ll break fast together.
MS. TIPPETT: For more in-depth interviews of Basem Hassan, Ibrahim Al-Marashi, and all the other voices in this program, be sure to visit our “Living Islam” Web site and find their personal story pages. This program came about as a result of several months of work, reading and organizing the many essays submitted from around the world and doing follow-up interviews early on with over 30 people. What we intended to be an online exploration, then a single hour of radio, became a larger project. We created Revealing Ramadan, a series of 30 podcasts celebrating peoples’ memories of Ramadan and a companion radio production.
And behind Revealing Ramadan and this hour of radio are a pair of fascinating interactive maps of all of the hundreds who have written to us. They blend personal photos, audio, and essays in one place. Discover these many expressions of Muslim identity in our time across geography, cultures, and the particularities and intimacies of human life on our Web site, speakingoffaith.org.
The senior producer ofSpeaking of Faith is Mitch Hanley, with producers Colleen Scheck, Nancy Rosenbaum, and Marc Sanchez. Our online editor is Trent Gilliss, with Web producer Andrew Dayton. Kate Moos is the managing producer ofSpeaking of Faith, and I’m Krista Tippett.