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Archive for November, 2019

This post was written during the month of Ramadan 1440 AH.

As a white American, I have gone through a decades-long process of unlearning the white supremacy that was engrained in me in the formative years of my life. The pillars of that unlearning have been:

1) developing substantive encounters with non-white people
2) listening to non-white narratives with as much empathy as I can
3) being in non-white spaces even when I wasn’t fully comfortable
4) having real-life role models who were not white

There is no doubt in my mind that the ways of engaging with others that I have struggled to embrace by this ongoing experience have had a central role to play in my unlearning the dominant Sunni narratives of Islamic history, thought, and practice. Even though I read about Shi’ism fairly soon after converting, it wasn’t a real thing to me. It took going through the same 4 pillars of unlearning for me to experience Shi’ism as real. I even remember asking Najam Haider and Tariq al-Jamil for book recommendations when I first got to Princeton in 2002. In the course of the exchange, they said, “Give it 10 years, and you’ll become Shi’i.” I thought they were totally wrong, but more than 10 years later I was sitting in Najam’s office admitting that they had been right. It was one of the hardest things, to admit that for years I just couldn’t see it.

I was frustrated with God when this process began, because it began with simply wanting to rectify my state with God. And I thought that meant I was going to be led deeper into the study and practice of the Maliki madhhab and the suhba of Shadhili and Qadiri shaykhs with whom I already had a close relationship. But instead it led me to the majalis of Imam Husayn, which completely upended my life. I made new Shi’i friends, listened to alternative Shi’i narratives, was uncomfortable at times in Shi’i spaces, and started to embrace Shi’i role models. At times, I worried that Shaytan had me in his grasp, and began praying for protection from Shaytan more fervently than I ever had done. And almost every single du’a I uttered became about guidance. “O Allah, just guide me to what You want. I don’t care what it is anymore, because You know best.”

And over and over again, this process led me away from what had once seemed perfectly natural and normal. But because it had happened once before with whiteness, it wasn’t a complete shock. The only difference was that I had explicitly chosen Sunnism whereas I was born into whiteness. But over time I realized that wasn’t quite true. I had chosen Islam, and the only real option at the time to learn and practice it was through a Sunni modality.

For me, a real turning point was fajr prayer in Kadhimayn in Baghdad. The night before I had visited the 7th and 9th Imams buried there, along with many notable Shi’i scholars. The shaykh leading the prayer was an old and knowledgeable scholar, the congregation was probably 1000 people, and the masjid was large and beautiful. And I remember thinking, “Oh my God, if this was what I was introduced to as Islam when I first converted, I never would have questioned it!” I think it was the first real moment in my life where I saw Shi’ism as just plain Islam, the same way I had thought about Sunnism for many years.

When you grow up white, you never talk about people or things as “white,” although you qualify many other things with ethnic adjectives like “Black people” or “Indian food.” Similarly, my experience of Sunnism was where we rarely talked about things as Sunni, and instead used the word “Islam,” “Islamic,” or “Muslim.” So “Islamic literacy” really just meant “Sunni literacy,” and “Islamic law” really just meant Sunni law. But we rarely saw it that way.

The privileging of a dominant category is perhaps an unavoidable part of life. By privileging the Twelver-Shi’i narrative of Shi’ism, for example, one underplays the narratives of Isma’ili communities. However, what is not unavoidable is being completely blind to them. Just as I expect my own white sisters and brothers in humanity to open their eyes to whiteness, I expect my own Sunni sisters and brothers in faith to open their eyes to the dominant Sunni narrative of speaking about Islam.

At the end of the day, we are all going to die. Today we have to act on what we believe pleases Allah, manifesting the balance between hope and fear. But tomorrow we might revise what we believe pleases Allah most, and thus we will act differently. As Shaykh Rizwan Arastu taught me, we are not held accountable today for what we will find out tomorrow. Each day we try to do our best with what we currently have. Life is a continual process of change, and we hope that change leads to positive growth.

But the past is always with us. I am still white, and I am still culturally Sunni in many respects. I don’t know what day during Muharram Pakistanis talk about which figures from the Karbala narrative (is it ‘Ali al-Akbar day or Qasim day?), nor do I understand the reasons why some Shi’is seem to dislike other Shi’is so much. When I lead people in prayer, I have had to learn how to pray according to Ja’fari fiqh in a way that doesn’t alienate Sunnis who aren’t used to praying behind Shi’is. After 40 years of being white in America, and 17 or so years of being Sunni in the Ummah, I can never have the social experience of a Shi’i kid growing up in LA or NYC. And that is okay.

When I look back, the only real reason I became Muslim was to prepare for death. It was only the Qur’an that convinced me that I would live after my death, and have to face Perfect Judgement. That is the main motivating factor for trying to neutralize my contributions to white supremacy. And maybe that is the secret of the Shi’i tradition for me – that it is the most hopeful of all narratives. That even if one is of the greatest people who ever walked this Earth

that even when one’s mother and father were from the greatest people to walk this earth

that even when one’s grandfather was the greatest person to walk this earth

that the people who claim to practice the same religion as you

that the people who claim to honor the same prophet as you

that the people who memorize the same book as you

that they can still chop your head off, alone in the desert, surrounded by the bodies of your family and friends who died defending you

and it can still all be okay

in some miraculous and completely radical way

it can still work out beautifully in the end

if we are of those who stand with Husayn

even when the Ummah is united against him

actively and through tacit consent

that we can look death and evil and oppression squarely in the face

even when it is done by the Salaf

and see nothing but Beauty

because we know what Islam really is

by the Mercy of the Most Merciful

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