The Urgency of Now
There are many entry points into building inclusion.
Illustration by Yusef Abdul Jaleel, from Covered: Celebrating Muslim Women.
By Celene Ibrahim
I am presently a scholar and chaplain in the extremely diverse and multicultural urban center that is greater Boston. Each time I hear Mayor Marty Walsh’s voice blaring over the loudspeakers at Logan Airport proclaiming Boston to be the “Hub of the Universe,” I am reminded of my context. Hyperbole aside, the rising generation is the most ethnically diverse America has ever seen. American Muslims are themselves the most ethnically diverse of America’s faith communities, and the majority of us are under forty. Even in the face of severe anti-Muslim bias, our generation, our children’s generation—and whoever comes after generation X, Y, and Z—will help shape an America that is more multicultural, multiethnic, multiracial, and multireligious than ever before.
If you are thinking this is a rather scary prospect instead of a delightful and exciting one, I am glad that you are reading this book and hope that you will continue to read. And to be clear, I still do live in a primarily rural area, which I adore, and I own a Dodge Ram pickup truck,1 which I proudly drive wearing a headscarf. You can take the girl out of the country, but you cannot take the country out of the girl!
I actually am not an anomaly. Every so often, I return to my old neck of the Pennsylvania woods and note that—like many parts of rural America—the residents have diversified a bit with respect to religion and ethnicity. There is even a mosque a short drive from my hometown that gets packed to capacity on Fridays, and the city of Allentown, where I was born, now hosts an impressive enclave of Muslim teachers providing instruction in traditional Islamic sciences. My father, once the “foreigner” in rural Pennsylvania as an Italian fresh from the Bronx, now has a retirement job as the town constable. Italians are no longer the foreigners in this country; there are newer kids on the block who have to stand tall and face down the ridicule.
In our current hometown in rural New Hampshire, my daughter is most likely the first “hijabi” (headscarf wearing person) that the vast majority of her classmates had ever befriended. She initially got many blunt questions to the effect of: “Why are you wearing that?” The real answer: The alternative option I gave her was to brush her hair in the morning, which seemed to her to be less convenient at best, and a complete waste of time at worst—basically useless (apparently in the same category as making the bed). Getting from bed to school in record time is the pragmatic angle of the hijab; the subtle angle is that she is genuinely proud to be Muslim. She is proud to be American and proud to be Egyptian too, which, she insists, makes her African American: isn’t Egypt in Africa? These are integral parts of who she is and how she understands herself in the world.
For her teachers and classmates, their sustained interactions with her put a face and a personality to what might otherwise be a stereotype. Who are Muslim girls? They are softball pitchers and cat lovers; they can be precocious and—against the stereotypes—quite assertive. Rahma2 in Arabic means “compassion” or loving mercy”; her name harkens to both the Arabic word for the womb and one of the most prominent epithets for God in the Qur’an. However, she is better known to her friends and teachers as “Rocky,” a nickname my father gave her because he could not pronounce the breathy “hhh” of the Arabic, and, apparently, because he liked the idea of his grandchild being named after a fictional boxing icon. Somehow, it fits.
Naming aside, there are immense challenges in parenting in a sociopolitical environment where hate, against Muslims and others, is rampant and increasingly normalized. As a parent, I am mindful of the toll the political zeitgeist has on youth. The increase in hateful rhetoric, the incidents of race-based violence, the insecurity immigrants feel, and bullying are issues we talk about regularly at home: we have to. One such conversation, in particular, is etched into my mommy-memories. The weekend after the initial signing of the legislation known widely as the “Muslim Ban,” my daughter piped up at bedtime: “Mom, we are citizens, right? What’s the worst they can do to us?” Oscillating for a moment between my impulse to shelter her and my urge to equip her with the knowledge she will need to navigate the world, I replied, “Anne Frank saw the worst that can happen.” She understood the high stakes. I continued, “but there are a lot of people who are working tirelessly to ensure something like that never happens here.” We had read the diary together when the proposal of a “Muslim list” was initially embraced with gusto by a cohort of powerful American politicians, including the current president of the United States. After a moment, she inquired pensively: “Why do they want to put us on a list anyway?” We had discussed Islamophobia before, but I again went through my spiel about how some politicians win votes by depicting Muslims as a danger to society. When I had finished my piece, she launched into a monologue, the parts I remember most vividly being: “We’re dangerous? Seriously? Are they going to put baby Noura on the list too, because they definitely should, because she is wicked dangerous!” Noura is a daughter of our family friends, and her name harkens to a divine epithet meaning “light.” However, Rahma, equipped with her ever-sardonic sense of humor and a marked dislike for babies, continued unabashedly: “Mom, have you smelled her stink bombs? They’re deadly.”
I am grateful for my daughter’s resilience, but I also want her to appreciate the enormous privilege of her education, her American citizenship, and the relative stability of her day-to-day life. I want her to recognize that these privileges come not only with the promise of civil protections but with the duty of civic engagement. At least, that is the point I was trying to make when I shared with her the news of one of my mentors, Dr. Ahmed Ragab, who had just been arrested for protesting against policies that attempted to suspend DACA.3 This all transpired on the very day that Dr. Ragab had become an American citizen in Boston’s Faneuil Hall, just like Rahma’s own father had.4 As I shared the story, I felt Rahma’s preteen eyes glaring at me quite bemused. Arms crossed at the chest, she was peering over large-rimmed glasses poised on her nose: “So you’re telling me this because you want me to get myself arrested?” (Cue raised preteen squint.) “Not necessarily,” I said. (Cue best serious parent look.) “But I do want you to have the courage to take risks and stand up for what you believe is right.” She spent the next year as a “senator” at MicroSociety Academy fighting hard to get recess back for sixth grade. She even learned some valuable lessons from the fight: some days you win, some days you lose, but by June, you will definitely win because the teachers want to get out of the building just as much as you do. Moral: everybody can win when you seek common ground.
We have distinct priorities and diverse causes; some causes we carry on from the generations before us, others are unique to our times. Fifty years after the watershed year of 1968 that was such a defining historical moment for movements for peace; for racial justice; for immigrant, youth, and women’s rights, and many of us find ourselves engaged in similar struggles on the streets and within our civic institutions. In some moments the news seems hopeful, and in other moments we would be best advised to get the news from a late-night comedian; at least then we can cry and not be entirely sure if it is out of glee or despair. Throughout many such moments of mixed glee and despair, this volume took shape as an effort to speak out against the dangers of prejudiced ignorance and as a call for a greater recognition of our common humanity, in all its complexities and paradoxes, and in spite of all of our real and perceived differences.
In this collection, we turn to the voices of activists, ministers, rabbis, and chaplains. They approach their work in the world from a place of moral conviction—but readers need not have a particular faith background or heritage to appreciate the contribution that this book aims to make to public discourse. It is a book for those with Muslim neighbors, colleagues, and friends, for those who are Muslim or have Muslim family members, and for those who may never have had the occasion to strike up a relationship with a Muslim in the flesh, but who might seize the next opportunity. It may even be a book for those who think they probably dislike all Muslims but are willing to be persuaded that we have some redeemable qualities. I invite readers to enjoy the spirit of intellectual curiosity and occasional humor that animates these pages and to appreciate the willingness of the contributors to reach for meaning and connection in new ways and in unexpected places.
In order to build together, govern together, live together, we must make the effort to know one another. There are many entry points into this work of building inclusive polities, and many organizations and individuals doing brave and inspiring work. I have been fortunate enough to meet some of these individuals and to convince them to write a reflection for this anthology or contribute their artistic talents. Because of my identity and life experiences, my push for greater literacy and inclusion is focused on making space for Muslims, in particular, as valued participants in American civic discourse and institutions. Hence, this anthology seeks to humanize Muslims and teach about lived Islam. It is my hope that such an effort can help, in whatever small way, to foster cohesion across our often divided social and political enclaves.
Each of us can contribute toward creating a polity that is, at least, a bit stronger—or greater—than the one that we have inherited. This great, strong polity cannot tolerate bigotry in its midst. Realizing a vision for a truly pluralistic society requires all of us. I am convinced of the dire need—the obligation even—that we have, as residents of the United States, and as human beings, whoever we are, to reach beyond our social and political niches, niches that can all too easily become homogenous and confining without our conscientious efforts. Developing literacy in issues related to the religious and philosophical diversity in our midst can even be thought of as a civic duty.
Much in this spirit, the volume’s contributors address themes such as anti-bigotry activism, radical hospitality, spiritually grounded efforts for socioeconomic justice, and more. Drawing upon reflections, poetry, essays, sermons, photography, and protest art, the book highlights different kinds of efforts—from the pulpit to the streets—to move American public discourse and civic institutions toward a more robust vision of pluralism.
The contributors are all individuals who are mobilizing social change and opening up new and positive horizons for fostering public discourse related to religion and civic life. As their biographies and reflections in this book reveal, some contributors are at the forefront of efforts to push for greater diversity and inclusion at the grassroots level. Others have decades of experience leading on social issues from homelessness, to international conflict resolution, to promoting the arts as spaces of spiritual sanctuary. They have each inspired me with their wit, sincerity, and presence as they model how to engage creatively with human differences and as they make space for the human beings who are all too readily pushed to the social margins, villainized, and dehumanized. Their collective wisdom attests to the richness of encounters across difference as well as to some of the real struggles and limitations.
As the volume’s editor and curator, I have annotated throughout to provide further orientation on concepts that might otherwise be foreign to some readers. Apart from source citations, all footnotes are editorial contributions.5 Throughout the book, readers will come across simplified transliteration of Arabic terms. I have attempted to keep terminology to a minimum, except in places where I hope that particular terms will enter more fully into the lexicon of English speakers. I’ll know that we have achieved some success in this regard when my spell checker stops converting “minbar” to “minibar” and “dhikr” to “liquor.”6
. . .
I hope that this anthology will both inspire and challenge, entertain and provoke. These pages offer the potential to enrich—or even to transform—the state of our spirits as we attempt to chart a course forward amid waves of rising bigotry and the tides of rising discrimination. I remain hopeful that we can live up to our highest ideals to be “indivisible,” to be one nation that honors our many different origins. Rather than hide, fear, exacerbate, or suppress our differences in creed and conviction, we can acknowledge and even embrace that we have a multiplicity of conceptions of what it means to be “under God.” And maybe, in the end, our ability to wholeheartedly welcome persons of different creeds and origins to this country is the epitome of being American (right up there with baseball and apple pie, folks).
We have different pulpits in different places, we have bimahs and minbars (and yes, some have minibars), but I encourage all of us, wherever we find our spiritual and intellectual homes, to tap into that imagination and mystery, that wisdom and that prophetic voice, to advocate for an American polity that is “indivisible” in its quest for liberty and justice, for all.
from A Seed Of Humility
By Taymullah Abdur-Rahman
After the tragedy of September 11, 2001, many American Muslims, myself included, became defensive and hurt after having been wrongfully accused, surveilled, investigated, and suspected of plotting against the country to which we were loyal. So, when I entered Concord prison as Muslim chaplain, I was prepared to be a “defender of the faith,” embodying a kind of mythical archetype of the Muslim knight shunning evil, refuting falsehood, and defending the integrity of my religion and values. I had no expectations about how prison chaplaincy would in fact change me. Many small life-giving moments occurred during my formative years within prison chaplaincy, but two individuals in particular made an utterly unexpected impact on the way I understood my religion and values.
I shared a large chapel with the Protestant pastor, the Catholic priest, and an occasional visiting rabbi. We each had worship spaces dedicated to our specific tradition. One day, Father George, who was at the time working on his second master’s degree, asked if I would give feedback on his thesis comparing tawhīd (Islamic monotheism) and the Trinity. . . .
Father George’s essay asked questions about God’s transcendence, the use of force to protect the faith and faithful, and how to bring to fruition the preferential option for the poor described in the Gospels and echoed in the Qur’an. He concluded by exploring the ways in which synergy could be created around both faiths and their objectives to make a more morally just and compassionate world. Through this and other such encounters, I began to rethink what it meant for me to be Muslim and to have been placed by Allah in some semblance of a leadership position. What was I charged with? How was I to behave among other faith leaders? In a multifaith context, how should I model decency and civility for my Muslim students?. . .
from Let Truth Come
By Matthew Blair Hoyt
The idea of submission, particularly to something that we cannot see or touch, may seem strange, even dangerous. For me, and I suspect for many others, this is largely the result of history. Submission, as a political idea, has had poor representatives arguing in its favor throughout time—every example from the neighborhood bully to the global tyrant argue against it. The list of men who have used the cudgel of obedience in tandem with the demand for submission could be endless. Thus, in our contemporary environment, submission is viewed negatively, as an indication of weakness, and sometimes as a cowardly succumbing to evil. But the idea of submission as a theological principle is different. As I have come to learn from my Muslim sisters and brothers, submission is the idea of acquiescing to the One God, the idea that men and women who seek the wisdom and blessings of an all-powerful God must first submit themselves to God and God’s commands.
I had no idea when I was a young boy that I was reading from the Qur’an, but I recognized truth when I saw it. This is largely because in my childhood home, my parents lived the ideas taught by the prophet Joseph Smith: “One of the grand fundamental principles of ‘Mormonism’ is to receive truth, let it come from whence it may.” Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints can learn much from our Muslim friends and neighbors. The principle of submission to God, as taught in the Qur’an, confirms the truths in our own scripture. Together, these holy books witness that there is a Divine Power in the universe, and that our willingness to submit to God will yield more than we can see, more than we can imagine. . . .
from Mary, a Different Perspective
By Lauren Seganos Cohen
What can stories about Mary in the Qur’an teach us about the theological similarities between Islam and Christianity? What can the stories teach us about our perceptions, as Christians, of Islam and Muslims? Many women are mentioned in the Qur’an, but Mary is the only woman identified by her first name; her name appears thirty-four times in the Qur’an, which is actually more times than in the entire New Testament. Mary even has an entire sura of the Qur’an named in her honor. Muslims throughout history have admired and celebrated her as an example of faith for all believers. . . .
There are clear similarities between the announcement of the birth of Jesus in the Qur’an and the announcement of the birth of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke. . . .
But there is…something that differs quite drastically between the New Testament account of Jesus’s birth and the Qur’anic account. In the Gospel of Luke, when it comes time for Mary to give birth, she is with her husband Joseph in Bethlehem, and she lays her newborn in a manger. But in the Qur’an, Mary is quite alone; in fact, she withdraws during the birth. In her pain and desperation, she even cries out, wishing she had died before this trial. The more I read this passage, the more I find it remarkable that this woman, one of the most highly regarded women in Islam, has so much in common with young, unmarried, pregnant women who are often stigmatized and looked down on by our society. . . .
from Intimate Strangers
By Nora Zaki
As the intimate stranger that hospital chaplains are called upon to be, I saw the humanity in all these patients and the love and pain in the eyes of their family members. It is not always easy to be merciful and compassionate to strangers, and the vast majority of the people I visited with were from a different faith tradition than mine. I was even rejected by some patients because I was a Muslim chaplain, and I can say that the rejection and stereotyping hurt, even as I strove to rise above it. I reminded myself not to take such encounters personally, and that, well, I was not exactly the typecast image of a hospital chaplain, the white Christian man that some people might have expected when they called for a chaplain. . . .
Even when I came face-to-face with anti-Muslim bigotry that was expressed by the patients that I was called upon to serve, I took it as an opportunity to shrink my own ego and grow my own capacity for patience and compassion. This process of struggle against the lower impulses of the ego is called “mujāhada al-nafs” (struggle against the soul), and is very much at the center of Islamic character formation. The ultimate goal of such a spiritual struggle is to bring about a clean, pure spiritual heart (qalb salīm), a heart that is free from the “diseases” of greed, pride, hatred, and so forth, much like our physical hearts also need to be free of diseases to function properly. The Qur’an instructs human beings to come to God on the Day of Judgment with a sound heart (qalb salīm) because on that day, every soul possessing sound faculties will be responsible for the moral weight of his or her actions in the world. I believe it is incumbent upon me as a Muslim to be introspective and to take myself into account, rather than seeking to find faults in others. . . .
- Don’t stop reading either, my dear environmentalist friends. We mostly drive a fully electric vehicle and buy organic foods with reusable bags from local farmers. If it is possible to subsist on harvesting wild blueberries and sorrel, we are nearly in the category of homesteaders.
- This is a breathy “HAAAA” like you’re generating fog to clean glass. This is not—Hebrew speakers take special note—a scratchy “kh” sound, which, rest assured, Arabic is not devoid of, but which should not be heard at all in “Rahma”—at least not in her presence.
- DACA stands for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. The program enables young people who were brought to the United States without immigration paperwork as children to secure government permission to reside and to go to school in the United States legally.
- Ahmed Ragab, “The First Thing I Did as a U.S. Citizen Was Get Arrested,” The Washington Post, September 13, 2017.
- I would like to acknowledge volume contributor Nora Zaki for her work in reviewing annotations for accuracy and clarity, standardizing Qur’anic citations, and providing other editorial feedback. All potential errors are, of course, my own.
- Minbar is roughly the equivalent of “pulpit,” and dhikr is a form of repetitive chanting, commonly of divine epithets and short prayers, as described in this volume by contributors Lynn Cooper and Cheryl Stromski.
Celene Ibrahim, the Muslim chaplain for Tufts University, graduated with an MDiv from Harvard Divinity School in 2011, and has a PhD in Arabic and Islamic civilizations from Brandeis University. She has authored numerous publications in the fields of Qur’anic studies, women’s and gender studies, and interreligious relations. Her monograph on women in the Qur’an is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.