I have lived and worked in Dearborn, Michigan for 14 years. We have one of the largest Muslim populations outside of the Middle East. Come to my city and meet my friends. You will find yourself surrounded by peaceful, loving, and tolerant people, many of whom also happen to be Muslim. I wouldn’t want to raise my kids anywhere else.
—Janet Hughes left this poignant comment on our Facebook page in response to our recent post on the varied voices of Muslims.
~Trent Gilliss, senior editor
The Triumph of Ramadan: The Many Stories and Many Faces of Muslim Identity
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Two years ago I had the privilege of interviewing three dozen people for an online project we were calling “Expressions of Muslim Identity.” It was a single phrase that sparked this initiative: "the Muslim world." This three-word bit of shorthand was — and still is — being used by television reporters and newspaper columnists, bloggers and foreign correspondents, and it was even creeping into drafts of our production scripts.
But how could this phrase possibly be applied to more than a billion Muslims living in all cultures and segments of society — from Indonesia to Saudi Arabia, from Turkey to the United States and Canada? When we journalists repeatedly employ this phrase into our scripts and our copy, how do we homogenize this diverse group of people and create a monolithic bloc with erased faces?
So we aimed to change the conversation — for ourselves and for our audiences — by directly appealing to Muslims. We asked them to respond to these questions:
- What does “being Muslim” mean to you?
- What do you find beautiful about Islam?
- How does it find expression in your daily life?
- What hopes, questions, and concerns are on your mind as you ponder the future of your tradition?
We received hundreds of eloquent responses and selected more than 30 people to interview. What was meant to be an online-only project quickly morphed into a radio an podcast production. Our intent was to craft one hour of radio to be called "Living Islam," but, once we started listening to all these voices, we realized that almost every Muslim offered an unsolicited story about Ramadan.
With all these wonderful memories of fasting and prayer and family, we decided to create a second hour of radio featuring the voices of 14 Muslims. Even then, we were still discarding more than double that number of poignant stories about Ramadan, so we created a special podcast that was promoted by iTunes: 30 voices in 30 days, one voice for each day of Ramadan. “Revealing Ramadan” was the result, and I couldn’t be prouder.
Give it a listen and share with your friends. Whether you know a little or a lot about this holiest month, you’ll be moved and reminded of the distinct character of the many Muslims who observe Ramadan. They will delight and surprise you, and paint a self-portrait of what it means to be Muslim in their own words.
About the image: Mushda Ali, a young Bangladeshi Muslim artist, posted this self portrait on Flickr with this line from Flavia Weedn: “If one dream should fall and break into a thousand pieces, never be afraid to pick one of those pieces up and begin again.”
Peter King Gets His Comeuppance in the Senate
The ShortFormBlog points out the push and pull of Congressional whimsy:
- action A couple weeks ago, Rep. Peter King attracted controversy by launching a Congressional hearing titled “The Radicalization of American Muslims.”
- reaction At the behest of Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin, the Senate will be holding a hearing titled “Protecting the Civil Rights of American Muslims.” source
On the other hand, I have to wonder if the Senate’s gesture can possibly heal some of the pain caused by Rep. King’s efforts and media outreach.
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Sounds from Jerusalem: Hymns and Muezzins’ Calls from the Mount of Olives
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor, and Chris Heagle, producer
We happened upon the most magnificent soundscape today while viewing the Old City of Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives. It’s a serendipitous few minutes of audio that gives you a feel of the magic of this sacred land and the way religions, people, and cultures continually bump up against one another.
What you first start hearing is a group of Evangelical Christians from South Korea singing a classic hymn. But, within a minute, just as these pilgrims finish, a new wave laps up the side of the ridge. A muezzin calls Muslims to prayer. Then, in stagger-start style, the muezzin’s call from Al-Aqsa Mosque summons another group of Muslims. The recitations float freely and nimbly, almost as if you could waft the layers of sound at your choosing.
We hope you enjoy! I’d appreciate hearing your reactions.
The Islamification of Weed
by Sharis Delgadillo, USC “Reporting on Israel” Journalism Student
Nejma Shea is a 29-year-old hip-hop artist who categorizes herself as an underground MC. Her socially conscious lyrics are militant, high-pitched, and punchy. Walkin Lyke WAR, her latest CD, describes the hardships of her life’s journey, including a five-year incarceration she served in New Jersey. On stage, she adds to her delivery by wearing bold outfits such as long Syrian camouflage dresses, decorative hijabs, and war paint on her face.
Shea’s songs describe her interpersonal revelations, interspersed with criticism of women’s correctional facilities and a quest for political justice. There are also, however, occasional mentions of smoking marijuana that have dismayed members of the Muslim community.
“Sometimes Muslim brothers and sisters don’t agree with my unorthodox ways when it comes to Islam.” Shea also says she does smoke for medical purposes; it helps quiet her chronic nightmares and spiritually enhances her relationship to Allah. “It has many medical uses and is a blessing from the Earth that the most high, Allah, created,” she explains.
Mustafa Umar, associate director of the Islamic society of Corona-Norco, calls Shea’s justification “the Islamification of weed.” The term describes the incorporation of marijuana usage into Islamic practice. Born in Orange County to Pakistani and Indian parents, Umar says he understands the social pressure young Muslims face in American society: “I’ve had many sisters come to me about it, but in the media, it’s more portrayed that guys are smoking,” says the 29-year-old imam.
Umar says he’s also heard young Muslims attempt to defend marijuana use by quoting a passage of the Qur’an that states the Lord “brought forth fruits for your sustenance.” But he doesn’t agree, and he recently held a meeting to combat this notion. His invited guest speaker is Imam Yassir Fazaga, the medical director of Mental Health for Access California Services, a family and resource center for Arabs and Muslims. Addressing a large crowd of immigrants and first-generation Muslims, Fazaga explains that the Qur’an prohibits marijuana.
A 38-year-old U.S citizen who immigrated from Eritrea, Fazaga cites a Qur’anic verse that states if “wine or gambling” causes greater harm than good, it should not be consumed. Incorporating marijuana consumption into this verse, he says, should also be prohibited as well: “For us Muslims, it’s a mood altering agent that shrouds a person’s intelligence to make decisions. Then for the Muslim it is Islamically illegal and the same goes for alcohol.”
Even though marijuana has been legalized for medical purposes, Fazaga says all other alternatives should be explored before its consumption. At the Access Resource Center where he counsels, Fazaga says he has come across an increasing number of young Muslims who admit to smoking marijuana.
In cases like Shea’s, Fazaga says that marijuana is a “mask for people who may suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome,” and “is not the way to deal with the problem.” Since marijuana is inexpensive, many young people try it. But Fazaga attributes its frequent use mainly to its prevalence in popular culture.
“You have people like Snoop Dogg and Kanye West. They glorify marijuana,” says Fazaga. “The definition of manhood that is presented promotes and encourages to smoke.”
Umar has also made previous attempts to discourage the use of marijuana among young Muslims by inviting former celebrity rappers such as Loon, who was signed by P. Diddy’s Bad Boy Records, and Napoleon, who was part of Tupac Shakur’s group Outlawz. Both men attribute their new and sober lifestyle to their conversion to Islam. “In order to address the younger crowd, we have to speak lower to their level,” Umar says.
But Shea does not see eye-to eye with these Qur’anic rationales against marijuana nor with Fazaga’s evaluation. She holds firm that Islam is a non-compulsive religion. Since its fundamental principle is the practice of one’s free will, she has the choice to smoke marijuana.
“I’m not going to say the Qur’an forbids us to smoke weed or not,” says Shea. “The Qur’an is the only unchanged religious book and people interpret it in different ways because of different views in the Islamic community.” Only Allah can judge a person’s actions and their intention behind it, Shea adds.
Explaining her perspective, Shea raises the sensitive topic of gender roles and how they are reinforced by Qur’anic interpretations that she finds religiously oppressive: “As a Muslim woman, you are not suppose to make a lot of noise, you are not suppose to look a man in his eyes. The Qur’an and the true Islam, a peaceful and non-compulsive way of life, protects women. It doesn’t intend to give men the right to hold women captive.”
Orthodox members of the Muslim community argue that frequent mentions of marijuana heard in popular music threaten young Muslim-Americans. But, for Shea, hip-hop is an avenue of free expression: “I love hip hop. I love marijuana. But most of all I love Allah, most high, and his messenger Muhammad. Peace and blessings of Allah be upon him.”
About the image: Nejma Shea performs in Omaha, Nebraska. (photo: Ness Ordonez)
Editor’s Note (Jan 17, 2013): Language has changed to more accurately reflect Ms. Shea’s description of herself. And, we misstated that Ms. Shea did not use marijuana for medical purposes. She does. We regret the error.
Sharis Delgadillo is a broadcast graduate student at the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism. She is the senior producer for the award-winning college television news-magazine show, impact. Last summer, she interned as a television producer at Cape Town TV in South Africa during the 2010 World Cup.
We welcome your original reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the Being Blog. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.
Palestinian-Lebanese Daughter Sings Despite Father’s Wishes
by Jon Dillingham, guest contributor
Camellia Abou-Odah was three months old the first time she ever sang: her mother says she belted out an impromptu tune to accompany her father, who casually filled the kitchen with Islamic melodies. Though it was her father’s extraordinary voice that first inspired her to sing, that few minutes in the kitchen was the last time they would ever share a song.
Born and raised in Kansas City to a strict Muslim father from Gaza and a self-described liberal Muslim mother from Lebanon, Camellia has struggled to stay true to traditional values while at the same time nurturing her passion for singing, which her father prohibits.
She’s now in the middle of recording her first songs with Grammy-winning producer/songwriter Danny Sembello, and she smiles confidently as we talk over Thai iced coffee near the University of Southern California in South Central Los Angeles. It’s casual sweatpants and sandals this afternoon, but it’s hard not to notice her boisterous brown curls and big smile when she walks in. She looks like a slender, young, Arab Chaka Khan. The ease and grace with which she speaks betray the fact that the long, arduous road to this point has broken family bonds and challenged her sense of self and identity.
Camellia’s father is often chosen to lead prayers at his local Islamic center in Kansas City thanks to both his piety and mellifluous voice. Her mother, Dr. Basimah Khulusi, says her ex-husband had even entertained notions of becoming a singer himself, before dismissing the idea as “a childish notion.” He came to America from a prominent family in Palestine but was far from a religious fundamentalist, until his daughter was born.
“When I met him, he was different, and then he flipped,” says Camellia’s mother. “He went back to the old traditions that he grew up with. Having a daughter was a driving force because in the Muslim tradition his honor lies in what ends up happening with his daughter.”
A Singing Career in the Making
What Does This Photo of Men and Women Praying Together in Tahrir Square Signify?
by Nancy Rosenbaum, producer
On February 1st, this photograph was posted on Twitter with the caption:
"In Tahrir Square in Cairo, men and women pray together just like at the Haram in Makkah, gender boundaries have been transcended and the only thing that matters is that they are Egyptians who want freedom!”
To see Muslim women and men praying next to each other in an Egyptian public square is worthy of noting. We wonder what it suggests about bigger changes afoot in Egypt? We reached out to commentators Melody Moezzi and Mona Eltahawy via Twitter for some context and perspective.
Moezzi replied: “In the time of the Prophet, men and women prayed side by side. Today in Mecca, men and women pray side by side. This should be good enough for the rest of the world then — to end segregation in mosques and in prayer. That’s what the comment is getting at.”
Eltahaway reached out to her broad sphere of followers on Twitter. One of Eltahaway’s Twitter followers added (with a smiley emoticon appended to the end: “The segregation angle comes into play only when you are inside a mosque. Believe it or not, Islam is a flexible religion.”
What do you see in the photograph that might add to our understanding? Do you have other insights that might train our eyes to see differently? Are there details to which we should pay greater attention, which, in turn, would add to its meaning and significance?
(photo: S. Habib/Twitpic)
Photo Triptych of Possibilities in Cairo
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Amidst the massive amount of voices tweeting and retweeting happenings on the ground in Egypt, Nevine Zaki’s photo above serendipitously found its way into my Twitter stream with the caption:
"A pic I took yesterday of Christians protecting Muslims during their prayers #jan25."
During the wee hours of this morning, I find myself deeply moved by her new-found love for Egypt as a woman living and working in Cairo:
"The most beautiful thing about #Jan25 is that we all suddenly discovered an incredible love for #Egypt that we never knew was still in us
Living here presented always presented a struggle for us in 1 way or another, but since #jan25, we all suddenly felt alive again.”
With the image below, she writes, “Can it get more peaceful than this?”
But, surprisingly to me, it’s the idea behind the following photo that strikes me as most decent, most civil, most caring, most mundane: residents of Cairo showing their goodness by cleaning up what must be an incredible amount of refuse during the chaos: “These trash bags are all over the city, its [sic] from the citizens who cleaned the streets.”
All photos by Nevine Zaki.
How do you show what’s happened to these women? You can’t. So you show their lives without their husbands and sons. You look for these moments where you see how hard it is for them, how they break down. From simple things, like putting a shelf up, to having somebody else help them with their kids.
— Diana Markosian, on photographing surviving women in the North Caucasus
From “Muslims in Russia” (photo: ©Diana Markosian)
by Shubha Bala, associate producer
"News photographers know exactly what shot they’re looking for. After they have it, they’ll leave. But you stick around for just a bit, and you’ll get something a little different.
It seems to me to be the visual version of what we do here at Krista Tippett on Being.