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Crescent Chronicles | A Brief History of Moonsighting in North America

The city of Toronto has many distinctions; the CN Tower, Skydome – the crack smoking escapades of its mayor – just to name few. One distinction, unbeknownst to many, is the city’s unique position in Islamic history. Toronto is one of the few cities, if not the only, which hosts mosques that simultaneously follow all permutations of moonsighting opinions that have ever existed in Islam’s legal history; local sighting, global, Saudi-sighting, astronomical calculations – perhaps there are more. This represents a trend which has become common occurrence across much of the North America; Muslim communities split along lines of lunar dogmatism.

So, how did we get here? In 2006 the Fiqh Council of North America (FCNA) and Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) decided to switch to astronomical calculations, as opposed to moon sighting, as a means of tabulating the Islamic calendar. The unprecedented decision led to a considerable degree of controversy due to its unorthodoxy. However, what is not as well known is the history and the context which lead to this decision. I had the unique opportunity to sit with Shaykh Abdullah Idris Ali, former President of ISNA, who shared with me a brief history of the moonsighting methods employed and what eventually lead to the current climate.

The Early Days

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In the 1960’s and 70’s when the Muslim community of the US and Canada was still in its infancy, most mosques would rely on moon sighting reports from Muslim countries. Depending on the community, congregants would either rely on their country of origin (e.g. Pakistan, Egypt, Sudan) or follow the decision announced by Saudi authorities. ISNA itself relied on following Saudi Arabia in those days.

Given the diversity of immigrant communities, relying on Eid announcements from other countries would naturally lead to conflicts. As the Muslim community grew, the issue of establishing local moon sighting organizations was raised. Moon sighting committees such as that of Chicago and Toronto started to appear in the late 70’s and early 80’s. In Toronto, these early Muslims would go up to the CN Tower to search for the moon; one year they even chartered out an airplane to scan the skies for the crescent!

However, it soon became evident that sighting the crescent was going to be no simple task in North America. Mosques within the same city would follow different opinions; some relied on local sighting while others still placed their confidence on reports from Saudi Arabia or other countries. Two groups of people emerged and the trend of having two (or more) Eids thus began.

To get guidance on the subject, Shaykh Abdullah Idris wrote a letter to the late Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, Shaykh Abdal Aziz Bin Baaz, seeking advice. Shaykh Bin Baaz responded stating that Muslims in North America should follow their local moon sighting instead of following Saudi Arabia. Based on his advice ISNA switched to local sighting in the 80’s.

Local sighting came with its own set of problems however. The lack of a centralized authority meant there were numerous local moon sighting groups; each having their own criteria and procedures. There were concerns about the criteria of accepting testimony and how to verify reports coming from distant places by inexperienced sighters. Sometimes an organization would announce Eid but the congregants would question the decision due to their lack of trust in the process.

The extent of the zone from which to accept moon sighting reports was another issue; what if reports came from outside mainland USA and Canada? Should reports from South America be accepted too? Furthermore, the timing difference from coast to coast, which can be up to four hours, was another problem. This would mean Muslim communities on the East coast would have to wait until midnight at times in order to receive sighting reports from California. The cumbersome process made any kind of planning for Eid and Ramadan extremely difficult for the average Muslim.

The Lunar Calendar Conference

Frustrated with the situation, a major lunar conference was organized in 1987 at the International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT) in Herndon, VA. Over $100,000 were raised to invite renowned astronomers from around the globe. Experts from NASA, US and Canadian Navies, Adler Planetarium, British Almanac and others were present at this conference alongside Muslim scholars; Dr. Muhammad Ilyas was the keynote speaker.

A number of key issues were discussed and addressed at this conference. For example, it was decided that sighting reports contradicting the calculated birth of the moon were to be rejected. Further, since the earliest recorded sighting of the new moon had been 12 hours after its birth, any reports before this time were highly questionable.

The idea of relying entirely on calculations to mark the beginning of Islamic months was raised as well during this conference. To make a decision on this matter a crucial question needed answering: is sighting the new moon simply a means of determining the start of the lunar month or is it in itself an act of worship which needs to be established? If it is only a means to calculate time, then the moon’s sightability can be determined to very high degrees of accuracy using modern astronomy and it removes the need for physical sighting. If, however, the sighting itself is considered a form of worship then it can’t be replaced by mere calculations.

The conference concluded with the aim of further investigating the use of astronomical calculations. The FCNA and ISNA returned to moon sighting as a methodology and this was continued throughout the 90’s and early 2000’s. During this time, they worked with astronomers and mathematicians to derive a method based entirely on astronomical calculations.

Another issue that rose at this time was whether it made sense for North America to follow Saudi Arabia to determine the dates of Eid-ul-Adha. FCNA’s Dr. Muzzamil Siddiqui wrote to the late Shaykh Uthaimeen of Saudi Arabia to seek advice on the matter. To the surprise of many, he opined that for Eid-al-Adha, Muslims should rely on local sighting – even if this means having a different day of Arafat from Mecca.

FCNA continued its work on the lunar calendar. Abandoning moon sighting in favour of astronomical calculations is an unorthodox opinion that historically was never relied upon. To consult with other Muslim scholars on this issue, a delegation traveled across the Muslim world with this proposal. Shaykh Bin Baaz and other Saudi scholars didn’t demonstrate interest in the idea and told the FCNA to make their own decision based on their research. Similar responses were given by scholars in Pakistan, Egypt and Turkey; while some were receptive such as Shaykh Mohammad Al-Ashqar of Kuwait, most were either opposed to the concept or felt that it was something that needed more investigation.

After much deliberation and in light of the continued disarray on the moonsighting issue, the FCNA and ISNA adopted its position to use astronomical calculations in June 2006. It deemed that moonsighting itself is not an act of worship and thus one could rely solely on calculations to start the lunar month. The European Council on Fatwa and Research (ECFR), lead by Yusuf-al Qaradawi, also adopted this position shortly afterwards. As was expected, this decision stirred a major controversy among Western Muslim scholars. A war of academic papers and articles soon ensued but it did little to unify the fragile cohesion that was there in first place.

On Unity

Since 2006, a number of initiatives have take place to try to unite and better organize the moonsighting organizations within the US and Canada. Examples of these are the 2007 National Moonsighting Conference in California and the 2009 National Hilal Sighting Conference in New York. Furthermore, since the late 2000’s, some organizations have changed their positions from that of a local sighting to a global one. This would allow for a greater chance for congruency with FNCA’s calculations and also greater unity with the rest of the Muslim world. While these are welcome steps, there is still need for considerable work to unite the community on this issue.

I felt that ISNA’s decision further divided the Muslim community and asked Shaykh Abdullah Idris whether such an approach is counterproductive. He explained that considering the divisions on this issue, their hope is that overtime people will adopt FCNA’s opinion as the best alternative to the current debacle. Further, he stated that ISNA’s position is that if there’s a city in which all the mosques agree on a single moonsighting position, ISNA will switch to that position for the sake of unity there. This was attempted in Toronto but all the mosques which rely on moosighting there were unable to arrive at a unified position.

It is evident that the ultimate reason for the divisions on the moonsighting issue arise due to the lack of an agreed upon authority among Western Muslims. There are hundreds of independently run mosques across the Americas; uniting them under a single banner is no simple task.

While it is easy to have a dismal outlook on this debate, there is a positive way to look at this situation as well. As Shaykh Hamza Yusuf recently pointed out, Muslims arguing over something like moonsighting, which may appear as a trivial matter, is a sign of a serious community of believers. People disagree because they hold their convictions to be true, they care about their religion, and they strive to practice it in the most correct way. In a society where religion is increasingly viewed with an eye of irrelevance, it is refreshing to see a people who care enough about it to disagree over it.

I would like to thank Shaykh Abdullah Idris for taking the time to share the much needed information for this article. I undertook this project to document history and I’ve pieced together this chronology based on the best resources available to me. I am interested in improving it further and invite feedback from readers on any more details (e.g. dates,places,names etc) they may have or any chronological errors they see.

 

References

The Fiqh and Scince of the New Islamic Moon

IslamicMoon.com

ISNA’s on the astronomical moonsighting

Islamic Center of Wayland, Boston

Cesarean Moon Births, Shaykh Hamza Yusuf

Hilal Controversy in Toronto – The three positions: local, global, Saudi

International Symposium on Moon sighting and Science

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Waleed Ahmed writes on current affairs and politics for MuslimMatters. He focuses on Muslim minorities, human rights and the Middle-Eastern conflict. Based out of Montreal, he's currently pursuing a Ph.D. at McGill University in fundamental physics. Waleed also has a keen interest in studying Arabic and French. He spends his spare time reading, playing basketball and praying for Jon Stewart to run in the next presidential election. contact: waleed dot ahmed at muslimmatters.org

13 Comments

13 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Abu

    July 26, 2014 at 2:21 AM

    Thank you for this write up. I was looking for references on early scholarly debates about moonlighting in North America and glad to find it in this article.

    • Avatar

      Anonymous

      May 5, 2015 at 4:22 PM

      If they went to sh bin baz and uthaymin to know if saudi sighting was ok why don’t u ask the current grand mufthi of the ruling of calculation?

      Also how did u come to conclusion that moon sighting is not a worship who gave these fatwa? Did the likes of those mentioned above by u gave that ruling? Why is there a separate dua for sighting the moo?

    • Avatar

      Shahzad

      June 16, 2015 at 10:49 PM

      It seems to me the earlier Muslim immigrants were of the educated class, at least those from Pakistan, so they were more ok with the calculations. Then came the newer immigrants from less educated class, and they even to this day fight vigorously over traditions, which in the big scheme should be of little concern.

  2. Avatar

    Alizeh Khan

    July 26, 2014 at 9:20 AM

    Jazak’Allah Khair Shaykh for your article. Having been raised in Canada, and Toronto, I’ve seen my share of different decisions made within various communities. I think following one’s community regardless of the method (as Shuyook do their best to make that decision) is essential. For years my family, unsure of what to do (as my parents grew up in countries where moon-sighting occurred) we went with that method. But alhumdolilah when our Masajids near the Niagara area and East from there united for some cities to have a united Eid we followed our Masjid.

    Alhumdolilah praying together as a community, celebrating and rejoicing over the last ten nights together and making Dua after Katme-Qur’an is amazing, alhumdolilah.

  3. Avatar

    Mohammed

    July 27, 2014 at 2:44 PM

    JazakAllah Khayr for authoring this. We would never have known the stories of summiting the CN tower or chartering a plane to sight the moon.
    However what I find missing is the tradition of our prophet SAW to complete the 30 days of ramadan if we are unable to sight the moon on the 29th. Seems that much of the “difficulty” and “challenges” facing the NA muslim community were artifically constructed. Hard to imagine that we were less equipped to determine Eid in 1950 in North America than the Sahaba (RadiAllahu Anhuma) were in 14th centura Arabia.

  4. Avatar

    Nahyan Chowdhury (@Nahyan)

    July 27, 2014 at 10:24 PM

    Excellent article, thanks for taking the initiative. Jazakallahukhair.

  5. Avatar

    Frank

    July 28, 2014 at 4:22 AM

    I believe Local sighting is the closest to the sunnah. Or completing 30 days if necessary.

  6. Pingback: Crescent Chronicles: The Travails of North American Ramadan | Shanfaraa.com

  7. Pingback: CRESCENT CHRONICLES | A BRIEF HISTORY OF MOONSIGHTING IN NORTH AMERICA | PASS THE KNOWLEDGE (LIGHT & LIFE)

  8. Pingback: CRESCENT CHRONICLES | A BRIEF HISTORY OF MOONSIGHTING IN NORTH AMERICA

  9. Avatar

    GregAbdul

    January 8, 2015 at 2:14 AM

    al hamdulillah that you bring this up now. Please don’t do this kind of article in June when it is time for us to fast. Every single Western Muslim not only uses a calendar, we use the solar calendar. If we are sharp MAYBE we use the Hijra calendar as well, but calendars are a means of calculation. The moonsighters argument is essentially that calendars are haram two or three days of the year. I am an American Muslim. I use calendars and watches to calculate when I should do my ebadah. I love ISNA and I pray Allah continues to guide them. They are our national body. If Muslims want unity, then the simplest way is to get behind the head.

  10. Avatar

    Nasra

    May 5, 2015 at 11:02 AM

    Salaamu Alaykum,

    Jazaka Allahu Karen for posting this article!
    So…do I understand that we are still not united on this issue and we are going to continue to have two start dates of Ramadan, two Eid al-Fitr and two Eid al-Adha. SubhannAllah!! Wallahi it breaks my heart when I get all dressed up for Eid, happy and exiceted to go pray and see my brothers sisters in Islam and I encounter Muslims that are not celebrating Eid with me because of this issue!!
    Why is it hard for Muslims to support and rally behind their scholars and leading bodies? This is our state and we can never be the Ummah of our Beloved Prophet Muhammad Salal Lahu Alayhi Wa Salam. May Allah guide us all to that Ummah, Amiin.

  11. Avatar

    Sulayman

    August 21, 2018 at 12:12 PM

    Thank you for this article.

    I believe the biggest thing missing in this narrative is the issue with the demonstrably false reports from Saudi Arabia that have been going on for decades.

    This is what has been causing so much turmoil. All the failed efforts to unify, whether by calculation or global sighting, are reactions to the absurd early sighting claims that come out of Saudi Arabia. American Muslims have just been trying to find a way to match their dates with Saudi Arabia’s Ummul Qura Calendar and the bizarre early announcements they often generate to try to align with it.

    This is not a side issue. It is at the core of the problem that American Muslims have been grappling with all along.

    If you do just a little research you will find that the Saudis have miraculous world-record breaking sighting claims every year. Just look at this year for Dhul-Hijjah 1439. The claimed to have a sighting when the moon was less than 6 hrs old. That is impossible. If they had not done that, everyone would be on the same day.

    The Saudis are the root of our problem. The solution is local moonsighting. It is simple and it works.

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Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas | Book Review

In the second decade of the 21st century in America, Muslims consider themselves “as American as apple pie,” don American-flag hijabs, and consider their presence and participation in American politics as a crowning achievement. There is little to no resemblance between the majority of the American Muslim population today, and the very first Muslims who landed in America – not as privileged individuals, but as enslaved people at the hands of vicious white colonizers who had already decimated the Indigenous population and who had no qualms about destroying the lives of their slaves. Dr Sylviane A. Diouf’s book “Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas” tracks the journeys and experiences of African Muslims who found themselves shipped aboard slave-trafficking vessels and taken to the other side of their known world. From their induction into the Transatlantic slave trade, to their determination to uphold the five pillars of Islam – regardless of their circumstances – to the structure of the enslaved Muslim community, their prized (and dangerous) literacy, and their never-ending resistance against slavery, Diouf illustrates in incredible detail the powerful and painful experiences of enslaved African Muslims, and the legacy that they left behind in the Americas.

This review of “Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas” will focus on the unique qualities and formidable faith of the very first Muslims in the Americas, and the legacy that they left for Muslims in the Americas today.

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In Chapter One, Diouf begins by answering the very first question that arises when considering the path of enslaved African Muslims: how did they end up enslaved in the first place? Slavery already existed as an institution in Africa, though vastly different from the horrifying standards of the European slavers. Between the existing slave trade, military conflicts that created prisoners-of-wars who were then sold as slaves, and the European propensity for kidnapping innocent people, many Muslims found themselves swept into the Transatlantic slave trade. These same Muslims were the ones who provided us with much of the knowledge that we have today regarding the American slave experience. Most African Muslims were literate, due to the religious and cultural importance of education; of those enslaved, many were religious scholars or students of knowledge. They described how they were captured, the torturous journey of the slave caravans across the continent, and the even more horrific experience of the slave ships themselves. These men also documented their lives as slaves, and indirectly, provided deep insight into their own inner nature. 

Despite the intense pressure and demands on African enslaved people to renounce their ‘heathen faith’ and be inducted as Christians, African Muslims demonstrated a commitment to Islam that should cause modern Muslims today to feel deeply ashamed in comparison. The very first words that Job ben Solomon (Ayuba Suleyman Diallo) uttered, after running away and then being discovered in Pennsylvania, were the shahaadah; Omar ibn Sa’id wrote numerous Arabic manuscripts, in which the shahaadah was always found (Diouf, 2013, p. 72-73). When Catholic priests tried hard to educate slaves about Christianity as part of the conversion process, the African Muslims were both resistant and unimpressed; they were already familiar with many Biblical stories, thanks to their Qur’anic education. Of those who seemed to have accepted Christianity, many did so only outwardly, while confirming their belief in Allah and His Messenger in every aspect of their lives. Indeed, in Brazil and other areas where there were large concentrations of Muslim slaves, the Muslims established underground madaaris to maintain and pass on their Islamic knowledge and education. Muhammad Kaba Saghanughu was a man whom the missionaries had thought was successfully converted when he provided all the right answers to their pre-baptismal questions – eleven years later, in a Baptist Missionary Society notebook, he wrote a 50-page fiqh manual in Arabic that encompassed the rulings of salaah, marriage, and other topics. 

Slavery did not stop the African Muslims from maintaining their salaah in whatever manner they could manage, considering their circumstances. Some did so in secret, while others insisted on upholding their salaah in public, to the extent that these incidents were recorded by the descendants of slaves and slaveholders alike. In Brazil, the African Muslim community – both enslaved and freed – held together so strongly that they were able to secretly establish Salatul Jumu’ah and attend gatherings of dhikr, even in the face of intense scrutiny (Diouf, 2013, p. 88-89). 

Perhaps one of the most greatly moving examples of enslaved African Muslims’ dedication to their Islam was that even in the midst of the utter poverty of slavery, they found a way to uphold zakaah, sawm, and Hajj. In Brazil, it was recorded that the Muslims would end Ramadan with the exchanging of gifts, no matter how simple they were; in truth, these gifts were zakaatul fitr and zakaatul maal.

In other areas, the descendants of Muslim slaves recalled that their parents and grandparents would make rice cakes called saraka at least once a year – saraka was a corruption of the Arabic word sadaqah, and the rice cakes were a Jumu’ah tradition in West Africa. (Diouf, 2013, p. 92-94) In Ramadan, many Muslims sought to fast; indeed, despite the incredible hardship and lack of nutritious food that the slaves already endured, there were those who fasted voluntarily outside of Ramadan as well, often by pretending to be ill. They knew that their situation meant that fasting – in Ramadan and outside of it – was not obligatory on them, and yet, to them, no circumstance was bad enough to warrant not even attempting to observe Ramadan. Hajj was another pillar of Islam that was both impossible and no longer obligatory on the enslaved Muslims; yet in Brazil, in a house that was used as a masjid, there were illustrated depictions of the Ka’bah – demonstrating the emotional bond that the African Muslims had with the Sacred House. 

Throughout Diouf’s book, the overwhelming theme that arises is the fierce commitment that enslaved African Muslims had to Islam. It was not superficial, shallow, or easily shrugged away in the face of difficulty. Instead, the African Muslims held onto their belief in Allah and their daily, lived practise of Islam, even when they had every excuse to relax their obligations. They upheld their Islamic and cultural dress code, not just at its minimum standard of modesty, but in a way that clearly demonstrated their religious identity (Diouf, 2013, p. 101-110). They found ways to make prayer mats and dhikr beads; they gave their children Muslim names in secret, when they were expected to present themselves as Christians; they even strove to observe whatever they could of the Islamic dietary code, by refusing to drink alcohol or eat pork – Ayuba Diallo went so far as to only eat dhabiha meat that he himself slaughtered (Diouf, 2013, p. 119-122). The enslaved African Muslims valued their Islamic identity above all. Even in slavery, they knew that their ‘izzah came from their Deen – and so did those around them, who noted their unique bearing in the face of the horrors of slavery. 

The story of the African Muslims who were enslaved and brought to the Americas is not merely a history lesson, or a token homage in honour of Black History Month. It is a story that echoes the persecution of the earliest Muslims in Makkah, and applicable to Muslims today. Muslim minorities in the West are often all too eager to complain of our difficulties and to seek religious exemptions for our minor inconveniences. Yet who are we in comparison to the earliest African-American Muslims, who endurable the unspeakable? Who are we, with our privileges, with our very freedom, in comparison to those Muslims who were stripped of everything and everyone they knew and loved, and who still held ever tighter to the Rope of Allah? One may say that it is unfair to compare us and them; that to recognize their struggles should not mean invalidating the challenges we face today. Certainly, we face numerous different fitan that are very different from what they experienced, but the truth is that we should compare our attitudes with those of our predecessors. We should be ashamed of our own weaknesses in times of privilege compared to their strength in times of oppression. More importantly, we must learn from them what it means to have such a relationship with our Creator and our Deen that we are capable of surviving and thriving in even the worst of circumstances. 

May Allah have mercy on the enslaved African Muslims who endured one of this Ummah’s historic tragedies, and may He make us of those who demonstrate their strength of love for Him through every tragedy of our own.

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Searching for Signs of Spring: A Short Story

At the party she stood near the front door, as if she might attempt escape. No one talked to her, though she saw plenty of glances cast her way. At least the food was good.

Golden Gate Bridge at night

See the Story Index for Wael Abdelgawad’s other stories.

The Smoker

Cigarette butt

“I’m going to kill her,” the man in the back seat growled. A moment earlier his phone had beeped, indicating a text message.

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Randa ignored him. She could already smell him – he reeked of cigarette smoke and Drakkar, a syrupy yet rancid combination, like a rotting fruit – and didn’t care to expend the energy to turn her head.

Exhausted from a nine hour shift slinging overloaded plates of food to hordes of Japanese and German tourists, she sat in the front seat of the UberPOOL car, staring out the window at the passing nightlife of San Francisco. Taxis and buses jostling for space, restaurants with lines down the block. Cable cars, street cars, tourists with their expensive cameras like baby candy for Tenderloin junkie thieves. Chinese women heading home from SOMA sweatshops, elbowing their way onto packed buses. Local hipsters, bike messengers and pimply faced tech millionaires. They were all jammed into this city on seven hills, mesmerized by the lights and endless cash, or imprisoned by them. Free to go where they would; free to ruin themselves.

She reached into the shopping bag between her knees and fingered the silk scarf she’d purchased. She’d spent half her weekly paycheck on it. A gift for Nawal. SubhanAllah, its exquisite softness was unreal. What she would have given during the last three years to feel something so yielding. She released the scarf and settled back into the seat. Quick stop at the halfway house to shower and change, then on to Nawal’s party. She could do this. After all she’d been through, why should a party make her nervous?

“Bitches lie,” the smoker went on. “That’s all women do, they lie. I’m going to kill the sl*t.”

“Sir,” the driver said, glancing in the rear view mirror. He was a tiny man with a thick moustache and a flat cap. His name was Ali, according to the Uber app. European looking, maybe Kurdish, maybe Arab. “Calm down or I will put you out.”

“Screw you,” Smoker said. “I paid for this ride, I’m not going any-”

Ali swerved to the curb and hit the brakes, screeching to a stop beside Union Square. “Out.”

It was almost Christmastime, and the square was packed. Randa saw people ice skating on the little rink they set up every December. The compressor that cooled the ice was very loud. Tourists were crowded into the Starbucks beside the rink. On every side of the square, monuments to consumerism rose. Macy’s, the Westin St. Francis, Nike, Apple, Louis Vuitton, Bul93gari, Tiffany & Co… Idols of wealth and third world labor. After spending three years owning nothing but a few sets of clothing and a few books, this was all foreign. As if some great beast had eaten every valuable thing in the world and regurgitated it in one place. She wasn’t quite sure if she wanted it all, or was revolted by it all.

“Drive the damn car,” Smoker said.

Randa had had enough. She turned and scanned the back seat. Directly behind her, a teenaged blonde girl in denim looked very uncomfortable – almost frightened but not quite there. Randa focused on the smoker. He was brown skinned and barrel chested, with thinning black hair. Middle Eastern. He looked familiar, actually. His eyes were bloodshot. It was like a set up for a joke: three Arabs and a white girl get into an Uber… Except there was nothing funny about this guy. He was big and looked quite capable of violence.

Randa, on the other hand, was physically unimposing. Short, skinny, long black hair tied in a ponytail, she was a typical Yemeni girl, as light as one of the reeds that grew in the Aden wetlands, where her parents had grown up. That didn’t matter. Anyone could hurt anyone, she knew this. Her eyes were lasers drilling into the smoker. Her jaw was a steel trap. Liquid nitrogen flowed through her veins. If this guy wanted to mix it up, she would tear him to pieces.

The man’s eyes met hers, he opened his mouth to speak, then thought better of it. He exited the car, slamming the door.

The driver smiled at Randa. He looked very relieved. “MashaAllah alayki,” he praised her in Arabic. “I don’t know what you did, but thanks. Maybe you should be a rideshare driver.”

Randa did not reply.

The Threat

Prison visitors window

She checked into the halfway house on Turk Street with ten minutes to spare before her work period expired. The staff member on duty was her own case manager, a thin, bald man with a pasty complexion and a scar on his lip.

“I’ll need a recreation block later,” Randa told him. “Starting at seven.”

The man smirked. “Hot date?”

Randa gazed at him impassively, her face as ungiving as a concrete wall.

“I need to know where you’re going,” the case manager said, annoyed.

“Bachelorette party.”

“Better not be any drugs there.”

“Muslim party. No drugs, no alcohol, no men. Just women dancing and eating.”

“You only have one rec block left this month.” He nodded toward the door that led to his private office. “Come back here, we’ll have a little fun, I’ll give you five more blocks. You’ll have a good time.” He punctuated this assurance with a wink.

“Eat poison and die.”

The man flinched as if he’d been slapped, then snarled. “Take your block. But if you’re one minute late I will write a violation on you faster than you can say, ‘Allah help me.’”

Up in her tiny second floor room with the two-woman bunk bed, changing out of her waitressing uniform, she considered not going. She hadn’t been to a social event since her release. She knew they’d all be talking about her.

While locked up she’d earned a correspondence bachelor’s degree in business administration. She was still trying to figure out what to do with it. Education wise she’d already surpassed 90% of the Yemeni community. But that didn’t matter. To them she was a shame and a wreck, a disgrace to her family.

And she wasn’t sure it was safe. What if her brother Motaz showed up? Did he still have it in for her? She had not seen him since her arrest, when he came to see her in the county jail. They sat across from each other in small cubbies, separated by thick plexiglass into which someone had scratched the words, “LOVE YOU FOREVER.”

Leaning forward to talk through a perforated panel, she explained that she hadn’t known there were drugs in the backpack. Her boyfriend had told her it was a game console he’d sold, and asked her to deliver it on her way to school. She’d been in love with Lucas, and never imagined he would manipulate her that way.

Her brother’s cheeks were purple with rage. “I don’t care about the drugs,” he seethed. “That only proves how stupid you are. You had a boyfriend. An American.” He struck the plexiglass and Randa reeled, nearly falling over in her seat. “If we were back in Yemen,” her brother went on, “I would kill you myself. It would be best for the family if you hang yourself from your bunk.”

She didn’t try to tell him that she’d never been intimate with Lucas and that she was, in fact, still a virgin. It wouldn’t make any difference, she knew that. It was public perception that mattered, and the shame it would bring. And she wasn’t saying her brother was totally wrong on that score. She hadn’t represented herself or her faith well. But that didn’t give him the right to threaten her.

She had not spoken to her brother since that day. She had no idea what his intentions for her might be. But she didn’t intend to give him the chance to make good on his threats.

The Phone Call

The phone rang. It was her mom, reading her mind. Randa told her she was going to skip the party.

Her mom clucked her tongue. “Nawal is your friend. She’s getting married, she wants you to celebrate with her.”

“She didn’t invite me.”

“She invited me. That means you as well.”

“What if Motaz shows up?”

“Why would he? It is a ladies party. And if he did, so what?”

“You know what. He threatened to kill me.”

“Ah, Randa! Astaghfirullah. That was in the past. All is forgiven. Anyway he never meant it. It was only his anger talking.”

Randa was not sure. Islam taught compassion and mercy, but in her native Yemen, feuds could carry on for generations. People did not forget. She voiced another of her fears: “They’ll all be judging me. The ladies.”

“Eh?” Her mother sounded genuinely perplexed. “Why should they?”

“Because I just spent the last three years-”

“No,” her mother interrupted. “We don’t speak about that. It never happened.”

“I don’t know how to talk to those people.”

“Those people?” Her mother sounded outraged. “They are your people, Randa!”

Randa sighed and shook her head. She could fight off people trying to kill her, and had done so, but she was powerless against her mother. Why was that, still?

Her mom switched to Arabic. “Give your tribe your money and blood, but give outsiders the point of a sword.”

Her mom and her proverbs. And she never used them right. “That doesn’t even fit.”

“It means do not justify yourself. The past is the past.”

“I don’t think it means that.”

“And wear something colorful. No more black like you’re going to a funeral.”

Prayer

All she had was black. What else? After three years of state-issued denim, she’d sworn she’d never wear any shade of blue again. What, then? Orange was jail jumpsuits. Red, pink, yellow, purple? What was she, a clown? Or white, like a nun, a nurse, or a virgin bride? She would laugh at that if she remembered how.

San Francisco Islamic Society Mosque

She donned a long black skirt over black stockings, walking shoes, a long-sleeved blouse and a black sweater, and set out on foot. Her first stop was the Islamic Society masjid on Jones at Market. In the elevator she took a light black abayah from her purse and draped it over herself, covering everything but her face and hands. The masjid was on the third floor, a wide open space in which Randa could forget her problems for a time. She had rediscovered her faith in prison, and sometimes it was the only thing that kept her going.

She knew that was a cliche, but it was true. When every door was made of solid steel, double locked and remote controlled – Allah’s door was open. When every road was not only blocked but taken away altogether, because you were sealed in a tiny room – the road to Allah was still there. When there were no windows, and the light bulbs were turned off so that you sat in utter darkness, Allah’s light was still there.

She smiled imperceptibly, remembering the first of Ruby’s rules. Ruby, her cellmate and mentor, had developed a set of rules to survive and thrive in prison. Rule number one: only God can get you out.

Well here, she was, out, and just in time for ‘ishaa. A handful of other women were in attendance and she prayed beside them. As the Imam recited Surat Ar-Rahman, Randa searched her own heart for some sign of spring. A bit of softness, a warm breeze stirring, a melting of the ice. She found little to give her hope. Too soon, she thought. Her great fear was that her past self, the Randa who cried at the recital of the Quran, hung out with friends and gossiped or laughed about boys, or just walked down the street with a bounce in her step, happy to be alive, was gone.

The Party

Yemeni food mutabaq sandwich

Mutabaq

She took another Uber to Nawal’s house, out in the Richmond district, near the ocean. At the party she stood against the wall near the front door, as if she might attempt escape. No one talked to her, though she saw plenty of glances cast her way. She drank guava juice from a small glass and ate a mutabaq. At least the food was good. She hadn’t eaten anything so delicious in years.

Her mom had hugged her when she arrived, chastised her for her grim sartorial choices, then wandered off to sit and gossip with her friends.

There were at least forty women present. The younger ones danced to the sounds of A-Wa, with the occasional Ahmed Fathi song thrown in to appease the aunties. Others sat at a table around a henna artist, taking turns getting their hands and arms tattooed. A woman in an orange scarf sat on a sofa crying, while two other women flanked her, comforting her.

Nawal sauntered over to Randa and embraced her. She looked radiant in a sequined blue gown, her long black hair flowing freely, her arms hennaed up to the elbows with intricate designs. “Thanks again for the scarf. It’s lovely. You didn’t have to do that.”

“My pleasure.” Randa nodded to the crying woman. “What’s going on there?”

Nawal looked. “Oh. That’s my Tant Ruqayyah. Her husband’s been cheating on her. But she’s finally done with him. She sent him a message today, asking for a divorce. Hey.” Nawal grinned at Randa. “What’s up with the black outfit? You planning a burglary later?”

Randa bristled, pulling back. “What do you mean?”

Nawal faltered. “No. Nothing. Just a joke, Randa. What happened to you? You lost your sense of humor.” Nawal squeezed Randa’s shoulder and turned away to rejoin her friends.

Randa wanted to shrink into a corner of the room and draw the darkness around her like a cloak. Nawal’s comment stung like chili in a cut, all the more for its truth. She knew she wasn’t the fun person she’d once been. She wasn’t someone people wanted to be around. She wasn’t someone people loved.

A commotion from the direction of the entrance made her turn. The door was just around the corner and she couldn’t see what was happening. She heard a man shouting, and a woman protesting. For a second she had the irrational thought that it was her brother, come to murder her as he’d threatened to do three years ago. Then she smelled it. The stench of cigarette smoke and Drakkar. It was the man from the Uber. Suddenly she knew why the man had seemed familiar. She’d seen him with his wife at parties in the past. His name was Momo, she remembered now, and he was Ruqayyah’s husband. She remembered the text message Momo had received in the car, and his saying, “I’ll kill her.”

A woman shrieked from the doorway and the man pushed his way in. He passed by Randa, not noticing her. Her eyes shot to the man’s hands, just as Ruby had taught her. Rule thirty: watch people’s hands, not their faces.

Momo held a long butcher knife tucked low against the back of his leg. No one else in the room seemed to have noticed it. The other women were too busy scrambling to put their scarves on, now that there was a man in the room. Some were retreating quickly, heading for the bedrooms. Some of the younger ones were still dancing, oblivious. Meanwhile, Momo was making a beeline for Ruqayyah.

Ruqayyah had spotted the knife. Her eyes were locked on it as she backed up, her hands held to her mouth in horror, her face pale as the moon.

Randa moved. Dropping her plate and glass, she walked rapidly toward the food table, slipping off her sweater as she did so. Rule thirty two: anything can be a weapon. Without breaking stride she snatched up the pepper shaker and pocketed it, then grabbed two unopened soda cans. She wrapped the cans with her sweater and twisted it, gripping it by the sleeves.

Momo had almost reached Ruqayyah. He brought the knife up, aiming it at her heart. Ruqayyah stepped back, stumbled into a chair leg, and fell to the ground. It probably saved her life.

Randa was only a few feet behind Momo now. He still had not seen her. Rule thirty five: hit first and hit hard. She gripped the sweater sleeves with both hands and swung, turning her hips, putting everything she had into it. All her frustration, fury and shame, her loneliness and self doubt. The soda cans in the sweater connected with the side of Momo’s head. There was a loud thudding sound, and Momo dropped as if a djinn had snatched his heart out of his chest. His hand opened and the knife clattered to the ground beside him. Some of the women screamed, and someone finally turned off the music.

Still clutching the sweater in one hand, Randa reached down and took Ruqayyah’s hand, helping the older woman to her feet, and helping her adjust her scarf, which had slid forward over her eyes. The auntie was stunned speechless.

Momo groaned. Randa turned to see him reach for the knife, find it, and begin to climb back to his feet. Damn. Hard-headed bastard. Reaching into her pocket, she calmly unscrewed the pepper shaker and flung the contents into Momo’s eyes. He hollered in pain and dropped the knife once more, and this time Randa kicked it away so that it skittered under the table. Once again she gripped the sweater sleeves with both hands and swung. The cans smashed Momo square in the face. He fell backwards with a cry, blood spurting from his nose. He rolled about on the floor, clutching his face, all the fight gone out of him.

Someone seized Randa’s arm and she turned to see her mother. The woman was literally quaking with rage. “Get out of here,” she hissed. “You crazy person. Why did I think you changed? You are a majnoonah.”

Nawal was there too, her face set in stone. “You should leave,” she said. “I won’t tell the police what you did, but you should go.”

Randa didn’t argue. What did it matter? These women had their minds made up about her, as did her mother. Fine. She turned to leave. Again someone gripped her arm, but this time it was Tant Ruqayyah. The auntie pulled Randa into an embrace, then kissed her on the cheek. “Thank you,” she said, her lower lip trembling. “You saved my life, habibti. May Allah give you life. I don’t know how I can ever repay you.”

Nawal frowned. “What are you saying, Tant? Randa, what does she mean?”

Randa looked at her former friend. “He came here to kill her. He had a knife.” She gestured with her chin to the table. “It’s under there.”

“To kill her?” her mother said. “What nonsense is this?”

Randa smoothed Ruqayyah’s orange scarf. “Don’t worry, Tant. You’ll be fine.” She turned away, replacing the pepper shaker and dented soda cans on the table on her way out. One of the cans had punctured and was spraying soda in a fine stream. She put her sweater on and found it wet.

At the doorway, a woman was rising from where Momo had pushed her over on his way in. Thank God he hadn’t stabbed her.

Bridges

Her mother called out to her, but she let herself out. The night breeze instantly penetrated her wet sweater and raised goosebumps on her skin. Her hands were shaking badly, so she thrust them into her pockets, violating one of Ruby’s rules. In fact her entire body shook. She told herself it was just the cold.

Nawal emerged from the house and called to her, then hurried to catch up. Her friend was flustered, her cheeks red. “I’m sorry,” she said, taking Randa’s hand. “I misunderstood. You… You are a hero.”

Golden Gate Bridge at night

Randa looked away. In the distance she could see the Golden Gate Bridge glowing red in the night, and the dark hills of Marin County silhouetted against the sky. Bridges took you from one reality to another then back again, but what if you never wanted to go back? What if you wanted to put the past behind you forever? Was there such a thing as a one way bridge?

They said she was a villain, then a hero. Which label applied? Ex-con? Disgrace? Waitress? Yemeni, American, daughter, friend?

She returned her gaze to Nawal’s face. “No,” she said. “I’m not.”

She turned away. A light drizzle began to fall, chilling her, but somehow she’d stopped shivering. She was miles from the halfway house, but there was plenty of time left on her rec block. She would walk. The city stretched out before her like a jeweled wedding veil, the wet sidewalks shining beneath the street lamps. Appreciate the moment. Another of Ruby’s rules.

Randa walked.

THE END

Reader comments and constructive criticism are important to me, so please comment!

See the Story Index for Wael Abdelgawad’s other stories on this website.

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Wael Abdelgawad’s novels – including Pieces of a Dream, The Repeaters, Zaid Karim Private Investigator, and Uber Tales – are available in ebook and print form on his author page at Amazon.com.

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The Beginnings Of The Darul Islam Movement In America

I was raised in the Darul Islam movement; my father Shaykh Abdu-Karim Ahmad, was one of their Imams for a time in Philly. So was my cousin Shaykh Ali Ahmad. Both who are still alive today. There are many narrations yet to be told, that shed a little light and context, about Muslim America today.

Much of the history about Islam in United States of America and of the pioneering Muslims upon who’s shoulders we stand, has never been told. Some of them unfortunately may never be told and may die with the death of those who were there. When it comes to American Muslim history, the narratives of those who lived it is more poignant than that of those who only heard about it. As in the hadith of the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him), “He who is told is not like he who has seen”.

Much of what is written about Black American Muslim Sunni pioneers is written about us but not by us. 

One story that has remained largely unchronicled is that of the Darul Islam movement. Darul Islam was an early indigenous Sunni Muslim community made up of Black American Muslims and converts to Islam. At its height, it comprised 25-30 Muslim communities and masaajid across the country. It was started by Rajab Mahmood and Yahya Abdul-Karim, who were formally attendees of the famous State Street Mosque in Brooklyn, New York in the Atlantic Ave area west of Flatbush. The State St, Mosque which was started by was Dawud Faisal, a Black man who came to the United States from the Caribbean to pursue a career in jazz music, became a beacon for early Muslim immigrants as there was already a spate of Arab businesses along Atlantic Ave near third street, not far from the Mosque. My father used to take us to Malko Brothers bakery on Atlantic Ave in the early sixties where we would buy pita bread and halal meat from one of the other stores. It was one of the few places you could buy pita bread on the East Coast and there was no such thing as a halal store in America then.  

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Partially because Shaykh Dawud was black, and perhaps because of his jazz background and affiliation, the Masjid also attracted Black American converts to Sunni Islam. Many early Sunni Muslims were associated with and came from jazz musicians.  The Legendary John Coltrane was reported to have been a Muslim, he was married to a sister named Amina and his daughter was named Na’eema. My father performed her marriage in New York in the 1980’s. It’s rumored that he never publicized his Islam because it would have damaged his career as it had done to so many others. Hajj Talib Dawud, who started a masjid in Philadelphia (not related to the Darul Islam movement), used to be a trumpet player for Dizzy Gillespie. 

Meanwhile, , there was a chasm between immigrant Muslims who were new to the country. Converts to Islam, who were overwhelmingly Black, were new to Islam.  In 1960, Shaykh Dawud hired a teacher who was Hafiz al-Quran named Hafiz Mah’boob — he was associated with the Tabligh Jamaa’ah movement— but he was Black or looked black. The young African American converts, Rajab Mah’mood, Yahya Abdulkarim, Suleiman Abdul-Hadi (my uncle and one of the founding members of The Last Poets), Muhammad Salahuddin, and others. were drawn to him, He was “down” with educating the brothers from America and he used to teach them Arabic and Islam. It was a different time then and the immigrant, mainly Arab Muslims, and the Black American converts to Islam were from two different worlds. There was an unspoken uneasiness. Eventually Hafiz Mah’boob suggested that the African American brothers go and start their own masjid.

Rajab Mah’mood and Yahya AbdulKarim eventually left the State Street Mosque and started their own Masjid in Brownsville, one of Brooklyn’s toughest neighborhoods, they named it Yasin Mosque, and that was the beginning of the Darul Islam Movement in the United States. That’s also just the beginning of the story.

I was born and raised a Sunni Muslim in Philadelphia, PA; my parents converted to Islam in the 1950’s.

I was raised in the Darul Islam movement; my father Shaykh Abdu-Karim Ahmad, was one of their Imams for a time in Philly. So was my cousin Shaykh Ali Ahmad. Both who are still alive today. There are many narrations yet to be told, that shed a little light and context, about Muslim America today.

History matters. 

Taken from the Upcoming Book. “The History of the Darul Islam Movement in America” 

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MuslimMatters has been a free service to the community since 2007. All it takes is a small gift from a reader like you to keep us going, for just $2 / month.

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