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My Apologies D&G, It’s Not You. It’s Me.

There have been two knee-jerk reactions in response to the release of Dolce and Gabbana’s hijab and abaya collection: The Allure of the Middle East; First came the yay-sayers (for want of a better term) who with true Arab-style ululation lauded the fashion house for taking such a bold stance regarding highly politicised garb, that too during a particularly sensitive time. This category suddenly felt validated and instantaneously proud of their Muslim dress and identity. Then arrived the cynics, who took serious offense at this shallow attempt to represent Muslim women and their fashion needs with D&G’s insignia and uncharacteristically-Muslim embellishments on what is traditional Muslim apparel. ‘Ain’t nobody got time fo dat,’ so to speak.

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The fact of the matter remains that D&G have themselves made no outright claim at either. While there is of course contention over the extravagance of the new line and how the overkill of ornamentation contradicts the simple modesty of what is Islamically expected of a Muslim woman’s dress, anyone visiting a high-end shopping district in any of the monied petro-states of the Middle East will be instantaneously brought to the realisation that D&G (and numerous other high-profile, luxury names) know exactly what they’re doing here. The hijab-abaya combination -previously a quiet representation of feminine modesty- is now the quintessential sartorial piece of the wealthy Gulf states – charmeuse, stonework, and all the (lace) trimmings. All D&G is trying to do is to capitalise on a market with a spending power that is estimated at more than $8.7 billion a year – and they are quite likely to succeed.

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While the philosophy of orientalism is oft-associated with socio-politics and perception of world order, there is an increasingly discernible divide brought about by orientalists of the fashion industry.

The dichotomy is clear, if not obvious; The Asian and Middle Eastern dress (particularly those of womenfolk) has always been ingrained in Western psyche as quaint, traditionalist, and bound by the many social shackles that come with any country that is non-democratic in governance. The West on the other hand, are the prophets and prophetesses of vogue – visionary, current, and a representation of all that is free.

This would explain the great sense of social attestation we feel when deemed ‘worthy’ of the runway from the powers that be, following a move such as that of D&G’s and many others before them, all the while ignoring the fact that we as Muslims too have fallen in line to strut the catwalk, becoming increasingly vulnerable to capitalist bait. There is nothing quite as oxymoronic as the label ‘Muslim consumer.’

While my opinion is that D&G are faultless for having been honest about their intentions with this new gilded modest-wear collection, and that any claims of political stance and representation are inadvertent, this does bring to light however the increasingly worrying trend of Muslim marketability.

For Western brands have pounced many a time at capitalising on the exoticism of the ethnic. Let’s not forget the instances we’ve misconstrued cultural appropriation for flattery, basking in the heady glow of social and sartorial attestation. Remember the ‘dress-over-pants’ rendition of the South Asian shalwar kameez that filled our fashion pages early last year? Also recollect Paul Smith’s ‘Robert sandals’ – a not-so-subtle attempt at plagiarising the ubiquitous Peshwari chappal. Where were the fashion police when you needed them?

I digress. While cultural appropriation is a power dynamic worthy of a rave on its own, what truly needs to be lamented about is the devaluation of our dress, proportionate to its increase in bankability. Now I’m not one to over-extol the virtues of the hijab, but the headscarf and abaya are undeniably, a testament to all that is anti-capitalist and anti-establishment. By choosing to don the headscarf, the Muslim woman of the west –either consciously or unwittingly- signs up for a wilful disregard for modern convention in deference to her faith. Her attire revolves around what she feels is acceptable as an ambassador of Islam, and not what is dictated by a consumerist agenda.

D&G (image)It is true that in the Middle East (the Gulf particularly) the abaya does not necessarily represent something as consequential in that it is more an expression of cultural symbolism than one of spiritual or ideological choice -which is perhaps what makes them all the more sought after by the likes of D&G in the first place- but the preservation of ideals and everything else the attire of Muslim women represents is a collective Islamic responsibility all the same.

Surely alarm bells should sound when fashion houses renowned for leaving less to the imagination with their seasonal revisions of what’s in and what’s not, take a sudden interest in modest-wear? We’d be naive to assume that genuine feel-good altruism is behind these highly-publicised shows of ‘catering to the stylish Muslim woman.’ Muslims around the world spent $266 billion on clothing and footwear in 2013 alone, amounting to more than the total fashion spending of Japan and Italy combined.  That figure is expected to reach $484 billion by 2019. Big brands like to make big money, and they will tap into wherever it is that profits them best. And they can’t be faulted for that.

Rather, as hard as this is to swallow, the accusatory finger from the arm concealed in a bejewelled abaya sleeve points back at us. We have only ourselves to blame when we need a billboard to finally convince ourselves to endorse our own attire. We have only ourselves to blame when a global fashion house learns that Ramadhan, rather than being our holiest, most devotional month of the year, is instead ’a month of extravagant spending rivalled only by Christmas.’ We have only ourselves to blame for allowing a designer label to be sewn onto the hem of a garment worth far more than all of this season’s best fabrics combined.

We’ve surrendered our shields to the other side, only for us to have to buy them back, albeit much prettier, but stripped of purpose.

So let’s spare D&G the tirade, and give ourselves the talking to we truly deserve.

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21 Comments

21 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Sabrina

    January 18, 2016 at 1:43 AM

    I understand that cultural appropriation as a way to attract consumers may bother you but im not sure what is wrong with the picture of the hijabi on the article. She is dressed modestly by Islamic standards so I do not understand the problem. But in the end Allah knows best.

    • Avatar

      Raashid

      January 18, 2016 at 2:30 AM

      The article runs significantly deeper than an image. If one were to analyse the effectiveness of a glamorous abaya in satisfying requirements of covering the awrah, then it possibly succeeds one hundred percent. But there are much deeper issues that need to be analysed, which the article dwells upon.

      It may be said that a man prays extremely dutifully, but if those prayers are an instrument to be ostentatious then it is for the wrong reasons and nullifies the virtues of his prayer.

      Prayer, independent of other associated facets is insufficient, in the same way that an attire that only covers the awrah is insufficient.

  2. Avatar

    cliveey

    January 18, 2016 at 5:34 AM

    What a lot of fuss over nothing really. Im my experience the wearing of ‘modest’ headware does not correlate with a lack of sexual awareness or assertiveness. There are some very nice but sadly repressed women who do fit the image and itbis important to be kind to them. There are also a great many youngbwomen who can swear like troopers. BUT the big question is why young men are not so constrained and greatly enjoy their freedom not just over dress but other mattets too.

    • Avatar

      Sarah

      January 18, 2016 at 10:46 PM

      “In my experience the wearing of ‘modest’ head wear does not correlate with a lack of sexual awareness or assertiveness“.
      Lol, Duh… I could`ve told you that as a young Muslim women student :)

      • Avatar

        cliveey

        January 20, 2016 at 4:05 AM

        Good for you Sarah. Be happy.

  3. Avatar

    Fahd Khan

    January 18, 2016 at 6:13 AM

    Agree with cleveey…men can rock Js and wear name brands, Y not women?

    Main point of hijab is too cover up your hair/chest… Whether it’s done with a a brand name or not…no issue with rocking nice clothes and brand names…

    You want a nice house a nice car a nice purse, so why not a nice hijab/abaya…least of our worries should be on judging someone wearing a D&G Abaya or Jordan sneakers… Lets not question their intentions for wearing them… That is what would be considered HARAAM.

    Next time buy the more humble car or purse, but don’t look down upon a sister rocking a name brand Abaya… Be hard on yourself and soft on others… before you criticize other people’s halal choices.

    Fashion is not anti Islam

    • Avatar

      Aiyah

      January 18, 2016 at 4:52 PM

      it is not about the name brand. it is overly done and would attract attention. the abaya is not to be all decked out and bedazzled and made to stand out. what’s the point in covering your body if the details on the garment draw all kinds of attention to those areas? a Muslim women can be stylish while not flashing a neon sign that says oh please look at me. i personally think they are overdone and tacky. now if it was a great quality material with a simple design fine but these are more like something a sister may wear on eid. these are not everyday practical abayas.

      • Avatar

        S Malik

        January 23, 2016 at 3:31 PM

        I just wanna point out that we can not complain that the D&G abayas are overdone, too fancy, etc. You can find the fanciest and embellished abayas in Saudi Arabia. If D&G wants to make abayas because they know a lot of Muslim women (especially from the Gulf) will purchase them, in my opinion, D&G is just a smart company! They are not the first and/or only place to buy these abayas.

  4. Avatar

    Fahd Khan

    January 18, 2016 at 6:16 AM

    And Islam is not anti fashion

    • Avatar

      Amatullah

      January 25, 2016 at 9:05 AM

      Islam is not anti Style. Fashion, on the other hand, is designed to get people to overspend and waste. In other words, to be extravagant. Extravagance is against Islam.

  5. Avatar

    Hifat

    January 18, 2016 at 7:16 AM

    Yes, Islam is not anti-fashion but is pro-modesty and anti-extravagance. And the designs are not per the islamic sharia, they are without a doubt attractive. Islam protects women with hijab just as the shell and sea protect the pearls for WE muslim ladies are nothing less than that, even more to be honest. :)

    • Avatar

      Fahd Khan

      January 18, 2016 at 8:00 AM

      Extravagance is relative…. A woman who can afford. If she pays her zakat.. She has the right to spend her money as she likes.

      “And the designs are not Shariah complaint!? You can’t be serious.

  6. Avatar

    Kanjikoppa

    January 18, 2016 at 8:30 AM

    Some of the comments above are quite laughable really. It is quite clear that the writer is neither moralising nor commenting on the level of islamicness of the women who patronise them. It was hardly a critique of morality or good character, it comes across more as an internal assessment of Muslim women when one of the most prominent symbols of predatory capitalism with a board probably full of white men decided that they have a clientele in Muslim women. This says a lot of where the status quo of Muslims (men & women) stands.
    There are allusions above as to how Muslim men can wear designer clothing and yet an article such as this crops up when women are given the luxury (pun intended) of designer abayas.
    Two basic facts have been overlooked, D&G or any other outlet of similar ilk have not targeted ‘Muslim men’, they have targeted men in general and Muslim men happen to be within the confines of Islamic sartorial ethics if they favour designer clothing, even if it goes against the grain of Islamic tenets of simplicity and modesty. It must be noted that ‘Muslim women’ in specific have been targeted in this instance. Let us be careful not to get into Guardian type equivocations of secular delineations of male/female equality. Islamic modesty, though applies equally to men and women, their manifestations may change – let’s not get stuck in 2016 – right throughout history it is to be noted that the popular western trend for males were sometimes in line with Islamic ethics and at times popular western trends for females were in line with Islamic ethics. It so happens that today, men happen to have an easier choice for clothes, because the Western definition for female fashion is something of increased scarcity which obviously is antithetical to Islamic definitions.
    It is important that this is understood.
    Islam isn’t anti fashion, and as was pointed above, it certainly is pro modesty. Extravagant abayas go against Islamic trends as do extravagant suits for men.

    • Avatar

      Quran Classes

      January 18, 2016 at 4:28 PM

      yup i am completly agreed with your point…But in the end Allah knows best.

    • Avatar

      cliveey

      January 20, 2016 at 4:13 AM

      People who call themselves Socialist, Muslim, Christian or Communist can also be predatory. There are many succesful Muslim run capitalist businesses in my area and sadly some Muslim landlords who exploit their own people. One Pakistani friend was expolited by his culture in having to raise dowry for seven sisters, yet his employment in his uncles shop was harsh, and he was obliged to rent from his uncle at a high rate. He longed to be employed by British people. It is not only multi-national conglomerates who are expolitative or predatory. Local shopkeepers who are relatives can work together to have a monopoly and control prices too.

  7. Avatar

    Ramusha

    January 18, 2016 at 10:38 AM

    Complements to the writer for outlining how ‘subliminal forces inherent is a person is excited by the market forces to profiteer’ by proselytizing with consumerism. Rarely we understand that consumerism is an anathema in Islam. Islam wish to strike a balance between human need and human greed by conditioning the mind through thaqwa. So that we live for purpose and buy for purpose of living than satisfying our unrestrained egos. Consumerism is the foundation of the class based society though goes unnoticed. Islam set the balance between people through Thaqwa as a criterion that differentiates as opposed to consumerism which creates false image through branding and set one competing with another in materialism. Some of the comments given shows sheer lack of Islamic world view. If the worldview is put right there will be a paradigm shift inshallah.

  8. Avatar

    Fritz

    January 18, 2016 at 3:48 PM

    Ultimately we believe in a free market. Fashion labels always have and always will continue to exist. And women (and men!) will like to spend money to dress well. I think if its within your means and the clothing is modest enough I am not sure what one can do about it!

    As you say, Its up to us control ourselves. Business will always act in that particular way and of course the question is where are the brand labels from within our own community? Tricky one…

  9. Avatar

    Kirana

    January 18, 2016 at 5:57 PM

    Let people wear nice things if they like. Your idea of ostentation is another’s idea of craft and beauty. Imam malik liked what was at his time considered ‘lush’ clothes and a friend called him out for it. He replied that he liked beautiful things and so will dress well. His path of worship is teaching and another’s path is their own. Don’t be threatened by other people’s natures. Just remind them if they start to like the clothes more than the Beauty that it reminds them of. Modesty is not defined by the Arabic abaya. The rest of us have clothes that qualify too. Some are embellished, some are gaudy, and much remains low key. There is nothing sacred about an abaya that it should never be touched by fashion and craft. You are helping perpetuate the impression that the headscarf and abaya for a Muslim woman is somehow special worship clothing. It can mean the most sincere expression of modesty for many, sure. But that does not mean it means that to everyone, or that it should. Do not elevate into symbols, mere things.

    • Avatar

      Abu Abdir-Rahman

      January 19, 2016 at 12:39 AM

      Beautifully put… Couldn’t agree more…. People need to realize alot of sisters have just recently put on Abaya or hijab and that everyone is on their own individual journey or path to improvement on getting closer to Allah…if she was wearing a D&G short skirt one day and then Abaya the next… That is improvement for her…

      A sister in D&G Abaya may be more humble or pious than a sister in all black khimar and niqab… Or vice versa.

      One can have “things” in ones hands as long as these “things” aren’t in one’s heart… And only God knows what’s in people’s hearts…

  10. Avatar

    Cliveey

    January 20, 2016 at 3:59 AM

    Why should Muslim women not enjoy wearing nice clothes and having a bit of happiness in life. Are you all just slaves and clones? If the Almighty loving |Creator had wanted that whye were people made who have flair for design, art and creativity? Why were we given the ability to think if we are only allowed to see things one way? What is wrong with simple fun, laughter and being attractive to partners? It is nice to have people in attractive wear within the community, it brightens up life. Jesus spoke of wanting people to have a “Life More Abundant”. That is one where they were not controlled by addictions. He did not want us to acheive that by living ugly dreary lives, locked away from the rest of the community. It is possible to be proud of our appearance without being arrogant. Muslim young men in my area love being admired and are very fashion concious and very aware of being attractive to others (men or women) and they just love it. Why must Muslim women be denied being admired?

    • Avatar

      Kristy

      January 20, 2016 at 9:00 PM

      Unless the Islamic Jesus taught the very unbiblical “Prosperity Gospel”, your explanation of what Jesus meant by “Life More Abundant” In John 10:10 is completely wrong. And having searched for the Prosperity Gospel in the Quran, it is not found there either.

      In John 10:10, Jesus said, “The thief does not come except to steal, and to kill, and to destroy. I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly”.

      In the Holy Bible, Jesus owned nothing except one seamless garment. And He famously said to His possible followers, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me.” A cross? An instrument of death and degradation? Who wants that? Where is the abundant life?

      Well, wealth, prestige, position or power are not exactly heading the top of God’s list of blessings. Unlike a thief, Jesus did not come for selfish reasons like to make money. He came to give, not to get. He came that people may have life in Him that is meaningful, purposeful, joyful, and eternal- in other words, to be like Him while on earth and then to live with Him in heaven where we won’t be taking any designer clothes with us.

      We receive this abundant life the moment we accept Him as our Savior. The Biblical definition of life — specifically eternal life — is provided by Jesus Himself: “Now this is eternal life: that they may know the only true God and Jesus Christ Whom you have sent” (John 17:3).

      Now THAT is Abundant Life!

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#Culture

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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