Tuesday, December 28, 2010

This I Believe

That, with prayer, what is meant for you will not pass you by. Today at a mall in Kuala Lumpur, I saw a woman with a long, beautiful, elegant, dress and thought, I must get that for when I return to the U.S. But the woman was a few feet away and I was too busy with the boys to stop and ask where she got the dress from.

As she walked away with her friend, I said, "If it's meant for me, O Allah, please let me see her again to ask." I wasn't really counting on it, and it wasn't really a big deal, it was only a dress...but it was perfect for me. Two hours later, I went to the food court and decided to sit way in the back near the window so Yahya could have a nice view of the trains go by. It wasn't our usual seat. Normally we sit in the front.

About 10 minutes into our meal, I hear women friends chatting and laughing behind me. I turn around, and there is the woman! And this was no small mall, swarming with thousands of people.

She told me where to buy the dress online, zleqha.blogspot.com. Now I have to find the exact dress (though she has some other cool stuff on there), and figure out how to buy it. No job in KL!

Monday, December 27, 2010

Christmas in Malaysia

And I thought the decorations for Eid in Malaysia were something to write about! Is it me and I just don't get out during the Christmas season in the States, or are the mall decorations way more elaborate here in KL? I mentioned this to a German woman whose son Yahya played with on the playground.

"No, you're right. All of the holidays they make a big production of here."

I'm intrigued at how they create such pretty winter wonderlands in the tropics. "Ooh, look at the Gingerbread Man," I pointed out to Yahya, the protagonist of one of his favorite stories.

Now a parent, I can't help but think about how our first-generation Muslim parents did much to make us feel that we weren't missing out during the Christmas season in the States. I now wondered if Malaysian parents feel that their children's religious identity might be threatened by Santa Claus, the Gingerbread  Man, and plastic candy canes.

I doubt it because Hari Raya Aidilfitri still reigns supreme here. Nonetheless, I should ask my handful of Malaysian friends. I would hope that they share my sentiments that it's cool to be in a place where multiple religious holidays receive wide public display.

But while I celebrate this religious pluralism, I can't ignore that capitalism drives much of it.  First the Eid al-Fitri sales, then the Deepavali sales, and now the Christmas sales. But who's complaining about endless sales?

In all seriousness, though, I'm treading close to Malaysia's greatest political debate, that is, how to maintain the primacy of Islam as the official state religion while also safeguarding the rights and interests of the country's substantial religious minorities (40% of the population).

My Chinese real estate agent was the first to share with me concern that some of the religious bills introduced in parliament increasingly alienate non-Muslims. My hope is that the zealots will not prevail in the Malaysian government.

Rather the country will take lessons from the best achievements in Islamic civilization. From the literary renaissance in Islamic Spain to the Taj Mahal in Mughal India, various cultural and religious traditions collaborated and coalesced under Muslim rule.

Friday, December 17, 2010

The Qurayza Jews: Not a Topic I Would Choose for a Short History of Islam

When teaching the biography of the Prophet Muhammad, I am keen to point out that at the same time that the Qur'an demands that we redress wrongs, commanding the early Muslims to fight (9:13-16), it also urges us towards the higher road of forgiveness and patience (42:36-43).

"There is no cause to act against anyone who defends himself after being wronged, but there is cause to act against those who oppress people and transgress in the land against all justice...though if a person is patient and forgives, this is one of the greatest things" (42:41-43).

I was moved by Shaykh Hamza's 2010 Eid sermon when he reminded us that the Qur'an instructed the Prophet Muhammad to argue with his enemies in the most beautiful way. As we face attacks against Islam in the current climate, we should respond to them in the footsteps of our beloved Prophet, with forgiveness, forbearance, and patience.

I thought to share the sermon with my friend Rebecca (see previous post) who I had been meaning to write since moving to Malaysia.

This was her response: 

"Thank you for your thoughtfulness and the link to the utube message. I have been reading the Qur’an rather slowly but also have a book called Islam in Context: Past, Present, and Future by Peter Riddell and Peter Cotterell. In one of the sections as it gives some of the history of Muhammad’s life it tells of the massacre of the Qurayza Jews. I am confused by what Shaykh Hamza Yusuf said in the first part of his message (7.40) “…you saw how the Messenger of Allah behaved. You read his Sirah. You saw how he dealt with his enemies. You saw how he dealt with them with magnamity.” 

"I am not trying to find fault with his talk, I just wondered how what he said can be reconciled with this event. I do not know if this subject is brought up often by critics because I really only have a limited knowledge of Islam, so it is an honest question of mine."

Here's my response:

I was very happy to receive this thoughtful response from you. I won't be able to respond to everything in this short note. I wanted to write to at least let you know that you and your questions are important to me.

The question about the handling of the treason of the Qurayza Jews is not an issue in the forefront for everyday Muslims. In other words, this event is certainly not foremost in how we understand and love the Prophet. The traditions and stories of his generosity and mercy are most emphasized. 

The Qur'an states that he was sent as a mercy to humanity. Also, the Qur'an repeatedly tells Muhammad not to grieve over the fact that his tribe does not initially accept the message. (And remember, we believe the Qur'an is God's word, speaking to Muhammad, his tribe, and all humanity.) God tells him this over and over because he is saddened by the consequences they will face if they continue in their unjust, evil ways. Muhammad's concern was not to dominate people with his religion, it was to bring them a message that would save them from hardship in this life and the next.

I'm not escaping your question. I hope to get to the issue. Just wanted to emphasize that Sh. Hamza's appeal to Muslims to remember Muhammad's mercy and love is one that resonates with us and softens the hearts of many. Muhammad's gentleness is how Muslims most know him.

Also, everyday Muslims don't engage in the process of reconciling the Qurayza story with other more beautiful traditions about the Prophet because many don't even know about the Qurayza massacre. Again, it's not what is emphasized which means that it doesn't immediately instruct or inform our behavior as Muslims.

I did not learn about the story of the Qurayza Jews until I read a biography of the Prophet for college (and remember, I was born Muslim). And I thought about this topic more when I taught the biography of the Prophet and how I would explain it to students.

To really understand this topic from my perspective and other academics, Muslim and non-Muslim, would require a paradigm shift in how you think about a sacred figure. The author Karen Armstrong, a non-Muslim,  is most useful in helping you do this. I assign her book Muhammad: Biography of a Prophet to my students, and I recommend that you read this book carefully, especially the chapters "Holy War" and "Holy Peace." 

But in a nutshell, what Armstrong encourages Christian readers to do is take a moment to realize that unlike Jesus, Muhammad is both a sacred figure and a political leader. He is forced to become a political figure because his tribe persecutes his community simply because they want freedom to practice their religion. They seek asylum in Medina, but even there, they are not safe from their tribe determined to wage war. What makes matters worse, the Jews of Medina who signed a contract to never go to war with Muhammad and his followers, secretly help the enemy tribe attack the Muslims. In other words, they commit treason. 

If you look up treason on Wikipedia, you find the following:

"In English law, high treason was punishable by being hanged, drawn and quartered (men) or burnt at the stake (women), or beheading (royalty and nobility)."

Death as one of the crimes for treason is almost universal, and especially in the premodern societies of which Muhammad's community is one example.

I understand that Muhammad was actually enforcing the Jewish punishment since he was dealing with Jews, and it was actually a close ally of the Jews, now in Muhammad's community, who came up with the punishment, but of course Muhammad approved.

But the point is that Muhammad had to make some tough political decisions that most Christians are not used to seeing associated with a sacred figure.

Even still, as a political figure, he made overwhelming concessions and demonstrated mercy countless times. This is why you should read "Holy Peace" in Armstrong's book.

Also I can't help but note that the pre-modern English Law savagely killed women traitors. In the case of Qurayza, the women and children were spared.

If you study Muhammad's life, you will find that he made several reforms in several areas including war, women's rights, orphan's rights, and slave rights. And while these reforms do not always measure up to our post-enlightenment American ideals, they actually surpass what Europeans and Americans were doing as it relates to women and slaves in the 19th century. (For example, Muhammad did not abolish slavery, but he ruled that once a slave woman had a child by her master, the child was no longer a slave.* This prevented slavery from becoming generational. Imagine how that ruling would have totally reduced the scope and impact of slavery in the US.)

I hope this helps. I have to run. Here is a short clip of Armstrong on understanding Muhammad:

This concludes my letter. 

* When commenting on the Islamic legal ruling on the children of slave owners, I made a mental note to check and see if there is a Prophetic tradition on this matter. My sources indicate that the ruling came about later but is often linked back to the Prophet's precedent with the slave woman Mariya.

Monday, November 22, 2010

A Race-Conscious Hijabi: Prelude to a Letter on the Prophet

In KL, Malaysia, I improvise story time with my sons at a Borders.
Wouldn't it be cool to see Islamic artwork for sale at a
Borders in Atlanta?
When I made plans to attend story time at a nearby library in Atlanta last April, I didn't give much thought to the social implications, that is, that I would be socializing with other moms.  

The library was in a recently gentrified neighborhood. My first time attending, I was the only black mother there. But Yahya wasn't the only African American child. All of the other black children there were with a daycare provider.

The rest of the children were all white and with their moms, and a couple of dads. (I should note that I've been to other story times in predominantly black areas in Atlanta, and there were many children with their mothers. Also, at another story time in a mixed neighborhood, the dominant participants were black and Latina nannies with white children.)

After the story, read by an African American librarian, it was coloring time. Trying to draw Yahya's attention from the buttons on a nearby radio to the paper and crayons, I noticed the other women socializing.

This wasn't my usual crowd, and I wasn't initially outgoing, but I looked forward to the opportunity to cross lines of difference.

For me, the dominant line of difference between me and the other women was race.

Why do I have this tendency to view and assess a given context from the lens of race? That is, to note the racial makeup of a space and to imagine others seeing and relating to me a certain way from that lens?

Living with this lens as a black American woman is not the surprising thing, or at least it shouldn't be. Historian Evelyn Higginbotham describes this way of interpreting and relating to others as the  the "metalanguage of race."

Because African Americans have been profoundly shaped by a society "where racial demarcation is endemic to their sociocultural fabric and heritage--to their laws and economy, to their institutionalized structures and discourses, and to their epistemologies and everyday customs," many African Americans see race as the dominant power dynamic in social relations ("African-American Women's History and the Metalanguage of Race" 254).

Seeing through this lens as a black American hijabi is what I'm more interested in thinking about. I should be more clear.

Why wasn't I conscious of my hijab when I joined the other mothers at story time? Why didn't I imagine or care about the assumptions they might make about me as a Muslim woman? Why was I more interested in an opportunity to break racial barriers than to teach or defend Islam?

Even in a context in which Islam is regularly misrepresented and misportrayed, I am not immediately conscious of my hijab.

Perhaps the reason for my relative hijab unconsciousness--and this goes for almost any space in the U.S. regardless of race--relates to the following:

1) I've been wearing the hijab for twenty years now.

2) Since I was a girl, wearing the hijab, or scarf as I normally call it, was modeled to me by pious, strong, beautiful, intelligent women like my mother. Associating the scarf with these qualities, I learned to wear it with confidence and pride. (Though, as a teenager, I must admit there was some resistance to wearing it at first.)

3) I haven't been made to feel that the hijab negatively affects how people respond to or treat me. Rather, it's brought positive attention, at least based on that which has been communicated to me.

But this ease with wearing the hijab could all change, as many fear with the growing anti-Muslim sentiment in the U.S. After all, in the days immediately following 9-11, while I did not remove my hijab, I modified it to draw less attention. Instead of wearing it draped around my neck, I wore the bun-style hijab, actually the way I wore it as a teenager--a style also worn by non-Muslim African Americans.

I didn't think about the fact that the other women at story time might especially take note of my hijab until noticing my reflection in the library window as I hurried Yahya toward the entrance.

And it wasn't until I had a conversation with one of the other mothers that I realized that my identity and presence might represent an opportunity to change perceptions of Islam.

The irony of this is that educating about Islam is a clear and obvious goal I bring to the classroom at Spelman. But in a different context, among white women whom I share the joy of motherhood, I initially imagined achieving something altogether different.

Rebecca initiated our conversation during coloring time, and if I recall correctly, my mentioning that my childhood Muslim private school was in the same area as the library opened a window to talk about Islam.

I was quite surprised and impressed with Rebecca's knowledge of Islam. She was familiar with some of the writings of a Muslim woman with anti-Islam sentiments. In that first conversation, Rebecca demonstrated a genuine desire for clarity on women's experiences in Islam. I was particularly impressed that she had started reading a copy of the Qur'an.

A few weeks later when I told Rebecca that I'd be traveling to Malaysia, she kindly offered to come to my house and watch Yahya while I packed. I liked the idea and, once again, thought in racial terms how nice it would be to break barriers and have a play date with a white family for the first time.

I failed to take Rebecca up on her offer, but fortunately the possibility of getting together outside the library gave us the opportunity to exchange emails. She also wanted me to pass along a few titles on Islam.

My new friendship with Rebecca, her questions about Islam, and the growing anti-Muslim sentiment in the U.S. make me realize that I should be more conscious about how my hijab brings opportunities to dialogue about Islam, perhaps a realization more obvious to other hijabi women who may not think about race as much as I do and who might also socialize with white women more than I do.

(I am just now reminded of a section in my book in which young American Muslim women respond to a lecture by Dr. Umar Faruq Abd-Allah in which he encourages increased outreach and education on Islam to white Americans. While one African American Muslim woman rejects the notion that we should direct da'wah efforts to "suburban whites" when they are not the people most receptive to Islam (African Americans are), a Bangladeshi American Muslim woman commented that Dr. Abd-Allah's suggestions were eye-opening. She realized that she hadn't thought before to give da'wah to white people, a realization she was now ashamed of because she concluded that her not thinking about white people in these terms meant that she really didn't care about them, a sentiment most likely influenced by her "resentment of what a white government has done.")

I can relate to Shaykh Hamza Yusuf's point made in a recent blog post that American Muslims need to educate ourselves on the extent of negative information on Islam and how this misinformation is more accessible to non-Muslims than is actual dialogue and friendship with Muslims. In his words, "try and experience what a person curious about Islam and Muslims is likely to find if he or she browsed the Internet or bookstore shelves."

Rebecca has given me a greater understanding of how many of the controversies surrounding Islam that I bring up in the classroom are disproportionately emphasized in popular books and media on Islam. The difference for my students is that they can count on me to provide multiple perspectives and to explain hard issues in the appropriate historical, cultural, or political context.

In my next post, I will share my answer to one of the questions that Rebecca recently posed to me over email about a controversial event in the life of the Prophet, prayers and peace upon him. Even there, though, I couldn't help but return to the "metalanguage of race."  

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Responding to Media Depictions of Islam

I've discovered a forerunner blogger, Margari Aziza, who also reflects and writes on the intersection of Islam, gender, and race. Her latest post is an excellent letter in response to ABC's 20/20 regarding "Islam: Questions and Answers." View her letter here.

This kind of writing is critical, especially in the current climate of widespread misunderstanding and prejudice against Muslims.

If I were at Spelman this semester, I would use this letter as a model for students. A central part of my Introduction to Islam course is responding critically to media depictions of Islam and Muslims.

In my next post, I will share a recent letter I wrote to a new friend answering a difficult question about Islam, also an example of how I imagine my students taking knowledge from the classroom to better represent Islam to others.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Ramadan and Eid Malaysian Style, Part 2

As Eid neared, I wondered what to expect of our first in Kuala Lumpur. Lonely, I imagined. But deep down inside, I dreamed that our friends Erwan and Feezah would rescue us.

The locals expected Eid, or Hari Raya, to be an occasion marked by family and good food, as are our big holidays in the U.S.  

Most would be leaving KL to visit family in their hometowns. But before leaving for these more remote and traditional areas, they would take advantage of life in the big city for any last minute preparations and purchases. 

Impressed by the crowds, my husband snapped the photo above in a department store two days before Hari Raya.

My family and I got lucky (blessed) again when friends let us use their car for the last few days of Ramadan. My husband convinced me that this was my opportunity to experience Ramadan in a KL mosque, I better take it.

Generally, I tend to think more about race than gender dynamics, except when I step into a mosque. Arriving at the courtyard of Masjid Wilayah, my Islamic feminist side was quite pleased. Families sat together to break their fast, in contrast to my experience in some U.S. mosques where gender segregation trumps family cohesion, (logistics and attitudes playing a part).  

At the mosque, we prayed before having our main meal (for the relevance of this, see Part 1 of this post).  A woman and her daughter befriended me as we left the prayer ranks, escorting me back to the courtyard for our meal. 

They confirmed the good stereotype that Malaysians are the nicest Muslims in the ummah. In the self-serve food line, the daughter grabbed my plate and filled it with rice from oversize pots. 

As for the night prayers, it was impossible for both my husband and I to perform them with the two boys. My husband suggested that we take turns. He prayed the last portion of the prayers while I watched the boys in the courtyard.

Ready to go home at this point, I watched Indonesian women workers bring out trays of food. I noticed one woman leaving her circle of family on a courtyard mat to help herself to the late night treats, beating the crowd of worshippers who would later line up for snacks after the prayer.

I eyed the green dessert she piled on her plate, but dismissed it. Up to that point I wasn't too excited about Malaysian desserts, many of which have the consistency of jello which I've never liked.

But gratefully my husband joined the food line and brought a plate of the green dessert, also known as seri muka, to me and Yahya, and I couldn't help but try. I was delighted to find a gluten-free dessert that I really liked. I ate at least three pieces.

I've since found a place to buy seri muka, which explains this photo of the dessert on my table. However, I'm still looking for a place to buy it in Mont Kiara.  Anyone out there who knows a place, let me know.

The sweetness of this sacred time and space didn't stop that night at Masjid Wilayah. We made plans to spend Eid with other expat Muslims at a brunch in a nice KL hotel.

We looked forward to our time with the other expats. We did not expect it to feel like Eid at home given that we are new to this community, but this would be the local ummah with which we would most connect and depend upon during our time here.

At the same time, we were granted the wish of an inside view into a Malaysian Eid when Erwan and Feezah came to the rescue as I secretly hoped. They invited us to Feezah's aunt's home the eve of Hari Raya. On Eid day, we spent the night at Erwan's parents.

As you can see, Feezah's aunt insisted that we feel at home. Lut and Yahya received Hari Raya envelopes with money as though they were children in the family. When I asked more about this tradition, I discovered that Malays generally don't buy Eid gifts for spouses and parents but focus on giving these money-filled envelopes to children.

This made me wonder about the extent to which Eid gift-giving patterns among American Muslims are influenced by our larger culture. With the Christmas shopping frenzy in mind, I asked, "If gift giving isn't the focus, then what about all the Hari Raya shopping and sales?" Feezah explained that this was a time for wearing new clothes to the endless Eid parties, called Open Houses, that go on for weeks.

After iftar, the family chanted the Eid takbir. It was during the dhikr that I felt most vividly how Eid traditions in Malaysia are linked more to family than community as I am accustomed. As the daughter of converts, the community was my Muslim family. My strongest Eid memories as a child are ones in the midst of community members, not in another family member's home. This is changing, I explained to Feezah and her mother, as my extended family members are increasingly Muslim. Yahya and Lut have Muslim grandparents and cousins on both sides of the family while I have none.

The next morning, we spent Eid prayer at Masjid Wilayah. Here a woman kindly takes a photo with me. Feezah let me borrow the scarf which is the latest hijab style here. Influenced by Indonesian hijabs (though some disagree about origins), it is commonly called the express hijab because there is no tying or tucking.

Lut sits in the arms of an expat Muslim from South Africa. Most of the expat Muslims here are from the UK, and most are of South Asian descent. As I find myself on the other side of the world among women with Indian features conversing in British accents, I think about the myth that Arabs dominate the global ummah. No, desis do.

Here we are at brunch at Erwan's parents' on the second day of Eid after spending the night there. Erwan's mother and her helpers were constantly preparing fresh dishes. With several hands to help with and engage Yahya, I rested in the guest room whenever I pleased, and woke up to delicious food. This I would miss.

The following weekend we attended an open house at an Indian Malaysian's home. The majority of Indian Malaysians are non-Muslim, but there are some who are Muslim. I'm curious to discover how their culture and outlook compare to others in the Indian Muslim diaspora.

"Have all the seri muka you like," the hostess of the party warmly told me.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

What the Chinese and Bilalians Have in Common

It took traveling to the other side of the world to figure this out, and I still didn't make the connection at first.

Anyone who's lived with me knows that I love beans. I bought a pack of red ones my first time in a grocery store in Malaysia. The packaging said used in salads and desserts.

Red beans in sweets? I thought that odd, but gave it no further thought.

During Eid weekend, I discovered a new dessert, sweet and sticky rice rolls wrapped in banana leaves. I was intrigued by the black-eyed peas mixed in this delicious treat.

I would have never thought of sweetened back-eyed peas and rice. Amazing how we eat many of the same foods around the world but season or prepare them differently.

The other night I took the boys to a celebration commemorating the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival in the shopping complex next to our condo. At one of the activity booths, children made mooncakes out of green and red beans. Different, I thought. (Can you guess where I am going with this.)

Traditionally eaten at the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival, mooncakes were served to all the guests. Yahya and I gobbled up one slice after another as though we hadn't eaten cake in ages. Actually, it had been some time because we both try to avoid wheat flour because of allergies.

The mooncake was delicious, and I went home still thinking about it. I checked the internet for the ingredients, and of course they are made with wheat flour.

Later while doing the dishes, a mental snapshot of the online ingredients resurfaced: beans, oil, flour...

Like BEAN PIE!!!!

This Nation of Islam original (or not so original) wasn't that odd after all. Sweet bean paste has been used in Asian cuisine for centuries.

Nonetheless, from what I understand and imagine, the originators of the bean pie came up with their sweet creation independent of the mooncake. The commonality simply shows that great human minds think alike.

I will continue to proudly describe the bean pie to my students as Bilalians' contribution to Islamic culture and history.

Oh, I should rephrase that: African Americans' contribution.

But I use the term Bilalian to draw attention to an important period in the leadership of Imam W.D. Mohammed when he turned his followers from the teachings of his father Elijah Muhammad in the Nation of Islam to the Islam taught by the Prophet Muhammad, prayers and peace upon him.

Bilal was an African companion of the Prophet Muhammad. Formerly a slave, he was chosen to call the people to prayer with his beautiful voice. I imagine that Imam Mohammed chose the name Bilalian for his community so as to connect us to the Prophet Muhammad (now his followers instead of Elijah Muhammad's) and to charge us to aspire toward the high status and noble contribution of Bilal, with whom we shared African heritage.

Our community used the label for only a short period. One day I will have to tell my Bilalian stories and how as a little girl I thought that all black people called themselves Bilalian.

Edward Curtis highlights the term Bilalian in his chapter on Imam W.D. Mohammed in his book Islam in Black America, but otherwise, the term has very little online coverage. I invite any historians of Imam Mohammed's legacy to comment on the term, why it was chosen and abandoned.

But back to bean pie, my initial attitude toward the idea of beans used in sweets here in Asia shows how American I am. In the same way that Americans turn their nose up at the idea of bean pie, I almost did the same here even though I grew up eating the black Muslim version of sweet bean pastry with Breyers vanilla ice cream every Friday night (a post-jum'ah ritual).

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Ramadan and Eid Malaysian Style, Part 1

Although this was a once in a lifetime opportunity, to spend Ramadan in Malaysia, I hardly expected the context to make it more exceptional.

For one, we didn’t have a car to explore the streets and mosques for an intense cultural immersion. Second, my small children kept me close to home. In my pre-parenthood days, I would have jumped at the chance to pray the special Ramadan night prayers in Malaysia's mosques. But now with a baby and toddler, it was more practical for me to pray in the comfort of my home.

Gratefully, I wasn’t the bit dismayed by my circumstances, partly due to the understanding that the true fruits and blessings of Ramadan come through increased worship and good acts, which one can work for anywhere.

And as for missing the opportunity to pray in the beautiful, grand mosques that distinguish Islam in traditional Muslim lands from Islam in America, I had already been blessed with this favor countless times before, including my first visit to Malaysia thirteen years ago but also in Mecca, Medina, Cairo, Istanbul, and Fez.

But of course, the mercy and favor of God exceeded my expectations. I was blessed with several opportunities to experience the culture of  Ramadan and Eid in Malaysia, enough to both become enamored with this sweet Muslim culture and to draw comparisons as any good Muslim anthropologist would do.

Here I am on my first Ramadan excursion. My Chinese real estate agent, concerned that I experience a uniquely Malaysian Ramadan, called to tell me about the street vendors who set up food booths especially for this month. A friend drove us there on a Friday about an hour before iftar. This was a different scene for me as I was accustomed to buying meals from restaurants at malls or shopping complexes. As I debated whether I would buy any of the street food (cautious because of my sensitive stomach), it started to rain, cutting our first cultural excursion short.

The weather gave us no choice but to eat out at our usual spot, a restaurant in the mall. We arrived shortly before sunset. 

Instead of candies in a basket, individually wrapped dates for breaking the fast lay in a tray next to the menu at the host station. 

On our way to our seats, I could easily identify the non-Muslim tables. Not only did their non-Malay features (e.g., Japanese, European, etc.) distinguish them, but they also stood out because they were in the middle of their meals. 

The majority of the tables were filled with fasters, waiting with dates and water. This was new and different, to see a restaurant full and almost everyone waiting to have their dishes served at the same time. The orders had already been put in. 

Sure enough, as soon as maghrib came in, waiters delivered food to all the tables at once, and the service was good. We were served immediately, and this was important for making prayer on time since we wouldn't pray maghrib until after we finished our meals.

This was one of the small differences about Ramadan in Malaysia: instead of breaking the fast with something small, then praying, and then having your meal as was my experience in the U.S., here you completely finished your meal and then prayed.

This is how they do it in Indonesia as well, according to my Indonesian friend who was with us. This contrast in practice led the scholar of religion/Islam part of me to reflect on the production and transmission of Islamic knowledge. 

How does an entire culture (or region) develop a unique set of Islamic practices different from another culture? Did a particular sufi teacher integral to the Islamization process in Southeast Asia teach the new Muslims to break their fast this way? And was this the teacher's way of practicing Ramadan before he came to the region or was he sensitive to the customs or predispositions of the new Muslims and encouraged this practice to make Islam more practical for them?

My pondering aside, we took the nasiha, When in Rome, Do as the Romans Do. The prayer rooms at the malls helped tremendously in this case. As soon as we finished our meals, we headed in their direction. 

When breaking our fast at home, we continued our normal practice of praying before our meal. But whenever we visited our Malay friends for iftar, we followed their  practice.

Speaking of which, my family's Ramadan and Eid experience in Malaysia was deeply enriched by the generosity and kindness of our Malay friends Erwan and Feezah whom I wrote about in my last post.

Every weekend they picked us up to take us to a family iftar. We anticipated and treasured our time with this family, a break from our duties at home, including Yahya's potty training, and an escape from our expat residential area to experience the real Malaysia.  

At the end of the second week of Ramadan, Erwan took us to his parents home in a town just outside of KL.  His father wears traditional Malay garments that men don for prayer.

The third weekend we spent at Feezah's parents' home in Kuala Lumpur. Hud shows Feezah's father Native Deen videos as we wait for maghrib.
These trips were a treat for me because the two families truly made us feel at home. This particular time, Feezah and I stayed at her parents' with the kids while the husbands and parents went for prayer at the mosque. They returned with late-night snacks including the infamous durian fruit, known for its strong odor, that I had heard about since arriving. They insisted that we eat, constantly showering their hospitality on us until Erwan dropped us off back home well after midnight.

During my bonding time with Feezah, she graciously answered my host of questions about everything from having a live-in-maid to birth practices in Malaysia to the ingredients in the savory traditional dishes.

It was during my first iftar at Feezah's house that I began to realize one of the most striking differences about Ramadan in Malaysia, and perhaps in any majority-Muslim country: the anticipation and preparations for Eid.

Our husbands were out at the mosque. Sitting with Feezah, I heard fireworks.

"What's that for?"

"Oh, it's because of Hari Raya," Feezah answered.

"This early?"

She smiled and explained that celebrations for Hari Raya (short for Hari Raya Aidil Fitri), how Malaysians refer to the holiday after Ramadan, begin early here.

As I reflected on the cultural performances (anthropologist jargon, by the way), naturally my frame of reference was how Americans prepare for Christmas. It was exciting to see for the first time Eid treated as the biggest celebration of the year on a mass public scale.

On our way to an iftar at friends living in a nearby building, I saw Ramdan/Eid lights for the first time. And this was in an expat area where mostly non-Muslims live. I later realized that this was the norm everywhere. They eventually put up lights and decorations at my building.

Decorations at the complex near our condo.
I immediately thought of Christmas when I saw this ad in the paper in the second week of Ramadan.
Look forward to my next post when I describe the "sweetness" I discovered at a KL mosque in Ramadan and how my family spent Hari Raya. You can guess that Erwan and Feezah made it special. May Allah reward them and their family always. 

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Iftar at a Malaysian Home

If you haven't noticed, my interaction with Malaysian Muslims has been limited. My third and final post on race/class and residence in KL will shed greater light on this unanticipated aspect of our Malaysian experience.

You can imagine, then, how excited I was to attend an iftar at a Malaysian's home for the first time. The brother who invited us, my husband met at a Suhaib Webb lecture in KL. He noticed my husband searching for a taxi and kindly offered him a ride home. Again he demonstrated his kindness and generosity by driving us to his home for dinner. The food and fellowship were wonderful, and I loved the backyard.

I immediately connect with the brother's wife Feezah. We share experiences about our different lives as a Muslim minority (in the US) and a Muslim majority (in Malaysia). She planted the awesome tree behind us herself. And I love her jilbab. I was initially surprised when she referred to her dress as such because it is much more fashionable than the stereotypical image of the jilbab. See Feezah's selection here.

Donning the white kufi, my husband's kind friend reminded me of the Islamic singing group Raihan. Our youth delegation representing Imam W.D. Mohammed discovered this group on my first visit to Malaysia in 1997. Their songs became a hit in the WDM community in Atlanta overnight. 

Yahya makes a new friend in the backyard garden. May they both be among the people of the Everlasting Garden.

Before iftar.

Iftar time! And they sent us home with food to savor the experience.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Pious. Intelligent. Beautiful

These are the words that come to mind when Muslim women seize the opportunity to capture and portray our diverse images and voices through our own media.

I seek to do this in my own scholarship, but not without the example and leadership of mentors like Tayyibah Taylor, editor-in-chief of the award-winning magazine Azizah.

Watch Tayyibah’s CNN interview and [re]discover the intelligence and light of a thoughtful Muslim woman, especially one radiating the blessings and benefits of Ramadan.

I had been waiting for the right moment to share this photo of a Malaysian Muslim woman bank employee. Don’t you love her uniform, both modest and chic? 

As Tayyibah notes in her interview, this is not the image we ordinarily see of Muslim women, that is, powerful, strong, happy, blessed, radiant. That’s why we have no choice but to show the world who we really are.

Mary-Frances Winters Comments on Park51 in Light of Ramadan

Memorable to me about the days after 9/11 was the way in which people of other faiths spoke out on behalf of Muslims to separate the terrorist attacks from the teachings and practices of Islam.

Today, we find a similar trend as non-Muslims speak out to support Park51. I would especially like to highlight the words of my aunt, Mary-Frances Winters, president and founder of The Winters Group, as she blogs about the debate.

I think her commentary is particularly valuable as she nicely uses her understanding of Ramadan as a non-Muslim as a way to encourage others to reconsider their opposition to the mosque. See her comments here.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

"Like Michelle Obama" - Race and Residence in KL, Part 2

“I was going to say that you favor Michelle Obama,” the Indian stranger said with warm cheer.  She and her friend, who nodded in agreement, ate from curry dishes at a table we shared at the IKEA cafeteria. I smiled and laughed with them, accepting the compliment.     
I had come to expect this kind of encounter. After telling the friendly women that I was from the United States, they were confused about how a person looking like me could be American without recent roots elsewhere. “Like Michelle Obama,” I explained to them. And as usual, my disarming analogy brought great cheer and laughter.

Honestly, I initially thought to use the “Like Michelle Obama” line as an educational tool for people who just didn’t seem to get the idea that Americans are not all white. It was also a way to have this conversation about my origins without giving a history lesson on U.S. slavery. Instead of referring to Kunta Kinte, I could speak of Michelle Obama.

But it wasn’t until I learned a few things from my real estate agent Patricia, a Chinese Malaysian, did I realize that “ Like Michelle Obama” not only educated others but also empowered me, in this case, by increasing my chances of renting a condo of choice.

Yes, the property owners in Malaysia do discriminate based on nationality. And of course, Americans are among the most preferred renters. (We have a reputation of keeping homes well maintained.)  But of course, when Malaysians think of Americans, most think of white people. And, yes, Nigerians are undesirable renters (see earlier post). Due to all of the above, and to avoid any surprises, my agent told condo owners up front that we were black Americans. She often followed with an attempt to persuade them to consider us as renters.

One condo owner told Patricia, “I don’t want any Africans, even if they were migrants to the States first.” Patricia struggled to explain to her that our case was different, that not even our parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents migrated from Africa. “So, Jamillah, I told her what you told me. ‘She’s like Michelle Obama.’”

According to Patricia, the owner was overcome with laughter. Apparently she thought it quite “clever” of me to liken myself to the First Lady. I hope that her laughter was also an acknowledgement of her initial ignorance.

After sharing this story with my husband, he remarked, “This begs the question, ‘When do we become just American?’”

My thoughts raced to a memory of a second-generation Egyptian American student at Duke who posed this question to me in class after I kept referring to the children of Muslim immigrants as Arab American, Pakistani American, etc.

I now realize that I didn’t take his question to heart or validate the set of experiences that motivated it. Instead I defended my choice of terms based on my experiences and studies as a black Muslim woman graduate student.

Using the modifier African or black before American has been important to me for many reasons including the way in which it brings attention to the fact that race continues to matter in the United States. In particular, this practice resists notions of America as a colorblind society where racial and ethnic identifiers have no place. To promote the idea that we are “just American” is to conceal the race and class disparities persisting in our society.

In my book I highlight the ways in which immigrants of color downplay structural racism against African Americans and ascribe to ideologies such as color blindness as part of the process of trying to be white. For this reason, I have looked critically at their appeals to be seen as “just American.”  

However, the recurring question about origins—“Where are you really from?”—that I encounter abroad has made me better understand why the children of immigrants in the U.S. find it crucial to call themselves American without referring to their sub-ethnic identities. Because of the discrimination that they have encountered because they do not “look” American, they must assert their American identity, even if at times it means to momentarily drop other ethnic identifiers.

Intellectually I understood this and raised related points in my book. But now I really get their perspective. Certainly I’ve encountered the question about origins before during visits to other places abroad, and even in the U.S. due to my hijab, but I took the question as a sign of ignorance that I could easily brush off suffering no harm or injury.

Now living in a foreign country, it is different because it is the first time I have been denied specific privileges based on others' perceptions of my national origins. In other words, I live in a context in which Americans are granted certain privileges but I am sometimes denied them simply because I don’t look like others’ image of an American and because my ancestors are from Africa.

And is not this what distinguishes racism from prejudice? Racism is the removal of rights and privileges based on people’s prejudices. Not until I experienced racism on account of national origins could I truly identify with my student’s question, “When do we become just American?”

Regarding the condo owner who discriminated against my family, the irony of her remark is that God has placed a family in the White House whose members are both the descendants of enslaved Africans and of a relatively recent African migrant to the United States.

The unimaginable hardship of our ancestors who survived the Middle Passage was not in vain. Their great-great-great grandchildren deserve the full rights and privileges of American citizenship. "Like Michelle Obama" is one way that I claim mine.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Good Hair in Malaysia (A failed attempt to microblog)

I’ve returned to my blog after having been in the trenches writing a grant proposal, setting up and attending play dates, fighting the subsequent colds, and even saving my son’s life after he fell facedown into a fountain.  (That was a bit scary.)

I am in the process of gathering my thoughts for my next post Race and Residence in KL, Part 2. I’m excited about it because I’ve had an aha moment about race and ethnicity in the United States.

When I talk to my husband about the coming post, he teases, “Don’t make it too long."  I am incapable of microblogging, he concludes. “You have to write a report.” 

I take his light taunt with an ounce of pride.  “That’s because I’m an academic.” To prove him wrong, I’m sending this shorter post in the meantime.  

The photo is that of a woman I met at the bank today. When she sat next to me, you know I had to say something. “I like your hair!” But my wide eyes and smile must have said, “How in the world did you get braids?”  “I’m married to a Nigerian,” she answered. “Is this your first time having them?” “No, my tenth time.”

I will refrain from any analysis and allow you to draw your own conclusions about the amazing era in which we live, as people, ideas and practices crisscross the globe.

By the way, she is half Malay and half Chinese. Noticing her natural Asian hair under the weave, I couldn’t help but think of the part in Chris Rock’s Good Hair when he tries to sell black hair (as opposed to Indian or Asian hair). A Korean shop owner responds saying that no one wants to look like Africa. 

My Malaysian acquaintance is likely to differ. And that’s why hers is my pic of the week.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Race, Class, and Residence in KL (Part 1)

“I hope they do not discriminate against us!” I almost cried out to my husband after speaking on the phone with a real estate agent in Kuala Lumpur for the first time.  She was a Chinese woman.

Before I had the chance to ask more about the condo, she asked a series of questions: “What is your husband’s occupation? And your race? Where are you from?” Black was the first word that came to mind, but I dare not say it. Plus, she really didn’t mean race as we use it in the U.S., I assured myself. She wants to know my nationality. “American,” I responded with confidence.

We had been warned that the color of our skin could make a difference in KL. Our generous host whose condo we currently reside, a Pakistani American, told us to expect racism in Malaysia in more direct forms than what we are accustomed to in the States. He has experienced it as a brown man in KL, my husband should definitely anticipate it as a black man, he promised us.  

I wondered where this racism might come from. From the Malay Muslims who, among black American Muslims, hold the good stereotype as the nicest, most color-blind people in the ummah? Or from Chinese or Indian Malaysians whom I knew very little about?

We also had been warned that black people in Malaysia might be looked upon suspiciously.  It was said that this is because a group of Nigerian immigrants to Malaysia in the mid-90s were known for selling drugs.

Our American friends in KL, a couple of Iraqi and Arab-Indonesian background, reinforced my concern. When they did their apartment search a year ago, several agents directly asked if they were Nigerian.  

Did I have to travel to the other side of the world to face racial profiling on account of my African features, except this time it was not because of the criminal actions of a group of black Americans but black Nigerians?

My connection to Africa always came to the forefront when I traveled abroad. I was accustomed to the question, “But where are you really from?” In Medina a young shop clerk asked where I was from but stole from me the voice to answer.  Immediately he moved his body in to bully me, calling out a series of African countries. In the moment of his harassment, I thought, America, America, America, if only he know. But it would be both futile and hypocritical to correct him. What would I imply: No, I’m not that kind of black; I am a black American.  Without a voice, my American citizenship could not protect me. Instead it was another man who saved me—a stranger who gently moved the ignorant youth away. 

But now, over the phone speaking with KL real estate agents, I could assert my national origin and use it to my advantage, I imagined.  Every agent with whom I spoke, always a Chinese, asked me where I was from.  At some point, I must directly ask them the point of this question. What assumptions do they make when they find out I am American?

A few have been quite direct. One agent told me, “Honestly, this place wouldn’t suit you because it’s where the locals live.“ It is true that Westerners are used to certain amenities that are not available in most Malaysian homes. Even in the expat areas, where I currently reside, people don’t necessarily use a clothes dryer.

When I happened to mention to one agent that I was living in an expat area, she answered, “If you are now living in Mont’ Kiara, the view here will not suit you.  Mont’ Kiara is where middle and upper people live. Here is where medium and low people live.” Trusting her, I crossed out the condo listing.

My thoughts turned to immigrants in the U.S. and how they go about choosing a residence, a topic I explore in my analysis of black and immigrant relations. I anticipated that my status as a “foreigner” in Kuala Lumpur would make me revisit some of the perspectives and points made in my book.

(There I spend a lot of time discussing the way in which choice of residence influences African American and immigrant relations in the American ummah, or Muslim community.  For an idea of this, see an excerpt from my book.)

Monday, July 5, 2010

The Liberated Muslim Wife

And imagine if I didn't have any help. Such was my thought as I escaped from mothering for a quick shower. My two year old is sick with a fever, and the baby also has a cold. But at least I have help with cooking, cleaning, and the laundry.

I love it here in Kuala Lumpur because the idea of a middle-class woman having help managing her household is not a radical one.

And yes, this topic brings out the Islamic feminist in me. Western women think that we are more liberated than women in Muslim societies. But when it comes to women's work, I do not consider it liberating that women have similar work responsibilities as men but also assume the larger part of parenting, cooking, and cleaning. This sentiment relates to a common complaint I've heard from African and Asian immigrant women in the U.S., that is, that "back home we had lots of help."

In KL, the full-time maid functions as a nanny, cook, and cleaner. I won't pretend that this arrangement is perfect. I've heard that sometimes maids are too busy with their nanny duties to complete other tasks. Or they are too busy with cooking that they don't mind the children as they should. Hmm....makes me wonder if expectations for the maid are unrealistic.

My musings have led me to the surprising conclusion that I prefer the term "helper," another way to refer to the maids in KL, because it is this aspect that I find empowering and worth blogging about. I celebrate the awareness that women cannot do it alone. It is the widespread cultural understanding that women need help that I find liberating.

On my first day in KL, I was offered part-time help. Mama Sarina, originally from the Philippines, helps twice a week. My husband's agreeing to pay for this service has partly to do with the fact that it is more affordable here than in the U.S.  But affordability isn't the only issue. It's also an issue of mindset. Many American men imagine that the wife should be able to handle all of the household duties, especially if she stays at home.  

Luckily I have a husband who, even before life in KL, was coming to understand that I needed help even when I was not going outside to work. He would occasionally pay for housekeeping services, or for a part-time nanny 2-4 days out of the month. 

Mama Sarina is more than a helper. She has become family away from home. She calls me Mama so I call her Mama. She spoils Yahya like any grandma would. Yesterday we drove around in our host's SUV with Mama Sarina and her two Filipino friends helping us find a condo to rent. When we stopped by a mosque to pray, my husband and I went in while Mama and the others watched the children.

Before leaving for KL, my mother's dear friend Sister Khayriyyah made a prayerful comment that Allah would bless me with the support I was accustomed to from my mother and aunt in Atlanta. I never imagined that it would come from these kind Filipino women.