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What the Niqab Taught Me About Myself As A Muslim Convert and a Latina

Niqab Journey

The year 2019 is only few weeks in and already has its very own social media challenge, the “How Hard Did Aging Hit You Challenge,” with its accompanying hashtags, the #10YearChallenge, #2009vs2019, or for the more seasoned veterans, #1999vs2009. The goal? Compare how your appearance has changed over the past decade or two. Have you aged gracefully or are you a hot mess compared to when you were younger? Simply find an old picture of yourself and place side by side with a current picture, post on social media with the appropriate hashtag, and voila! Let your followers comment away and tell you how gorgeous you are, lie about how you haven’t changed a bit, or laugh at the photos of you with no facial hair or loads of acne.

I have only started sharing pictures of myself recently on Facebook as a means of rekindling relationships with distant relatives, but the temptations to cave in to the latest social media trends pop up every now and then. I was thinking of finding a picture from 2009, but then it dawned on me that a lot more than my appearance has changed since that year. In fact, there would be little benefit in trying to compare a picture of me from 2009 with a picture of me now on Facebook, because back then my face was covered. I was wearing the niqab (the Islamic face veil). It has been so long since I stopped wearing it that I had almost forgotten.

In 2009 I was just returning to the US from Egypt, still high off an increase in iman (faith) after being in a Muslim land surrounded by towering minarets, the melody of a dozen adhans, and the sight and smell of the street markets where smiling Muslims sold warm flatbread and falafels. I started reflecting on why I had chosen to wear a face veil, and then later remove it. To me, that has more weight than how many wrinkles I have gained in ten years.

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A little background… Prior to moving to Egypt to study Arabic for a year, I had been living in Northern New Jersey with my family. We were attending a predominately African-American mosque in Paterson which strictly adhered to what they described as the “Salafi” methodology, taking guidance mostly from a list of “approved” Saudi scholars. As such, most of the women who attended the mosque dressed in all black and wore niqab. Some of them wore niqab “full time,” while others only wore it to and from the mosque and at Islamic gatherings. The male congregants often complained or inquired (for marital purposes) about the sisters whose faces were uncovered, causing newcomers to often feel awkward and uncomfortable, myself included. Most sisters opted to bring along a niqab to wear to the masjid rather than deal with unwanted attention and unsolicited marriage proposals.

Before you, the reader, make any assumptions about this masjid based on the above, I want to express that I still consider it, at that time, to be one of the most welcoming centers I have attended. There was a warm, family atmosphere that I have only found in few mosques in the years that I have been Muslim. The sisters helped each other in taking care of the children, they never reprimanded anyone for bringing their young children to the mosque, they hosted regular classes for free (up to three or four times a week), the imam was approachable and relatable (a convert, himself), and they were very meticulous about following the Sunnah to the finest detail.

Nevertheless, as the Spanish saying goes and the Prophetic hadith confirms, Dime con quién andas, y te dire quién eres (Tell me who you hang out with, and I will tell you who you are), you are on the religion of your close friend (At-Tirmidhi), so I believe my decision to don a niqab was prompted by this environment. As a convert, I was even more inclined to follow the people around me. I would not say I was completely ignorant; I had converted about seven years prior to attending this masjid, I had read about the reasons why women wear niqab, general ahadith about hijab, and different scholarly opinions. I counted on the fact that my husband and I would be moving overseas, and I thought it would be easier to wear it in a Muslim land. Why not get a head start? What I failed to grasp was the lifetime commitment that it entailed, and how much it would change me.

One thing that I was not willing to do was disclose this choice to my parents. As a Latina, Puerto Rican, and ARMY brat, there was no way that my family would accept such a thing. It had been challenging enough to get them to tolerate the headscarf. Telling them that I would be wearing all black and covering my face would either enrage them or give them a heart attack, or both. Likewise, some of my husband’s family, like his 90-year-old grandmother, would probably not take it well.

Being Latino and Muslim around non-Muslim family is, for a lack of words, crazy hard. Aside from some aspects of our cultural traditions that need to be tweaked to make them halal, we tend to be very affectionate, family-oriented people, and that includes with extended family. Forget navigating the corporate world without shaking hands with a woman as a Muslim man, try not kissing all your 50 male cousins on the cheek at a family gathering! Women from Latin America also tend to be obsessed with taking care of their appearance. Some of the conversations that I have had with my mother, even as an adult, go something like this:

Mom: Why don’t you just wear the scarf with a pair of pants?

Me: Ma, I have to cover my figure.

Mom: But you look like a vieja (old woman). You’re so palida (pale), put some make-up on.

Me: I did… er… put a little bit.

Mom: Don’t listen to your husband, :::closed fist in the air:::  you don’t have to be submissive to him! Here’s some lipstick (pulls out red lipstick from purse and begins to smear it on me).

Me: Gack!

I couldn’t even imagine the telenovela type of drama that would unfold if I tried to cover my face. The compromise was that I would wear the niqab as much as I could, but never around my parents or other family. I stocked up on black abayas and long khimars, along with the Saudi niqabs that tied in the back and had an extra thin veil that flapped over the eyes for extra coverage, should I feel the need. I later realized that wearing this style of all black or even very dark colors was more of a regional thing, than a strict ruling. I could have just as easily, and comfortably, covered my face with one of my colored scarves. But, alas, as the saying goes, we live and learn. When anyone asked me, “Why do you wear all black?” I used to respond, “It makes me look thinner!”

Contrary to popular opinion, the niqab was not restrictive, it was empowering. As an introvert, I welcomed the sense of privacy and complete ownership of my personal space. If I cried, I could do so without displaying my vulnerability to the world. If I smiled, I could do it from ear to ear without being self-conscious about something being stuck in my teeth! It also tamed my Latino non-verbal communication methods of exaggerated body language and hand gestures that I had been told by some “born Muslims” were not compatible with the modesty and manners of a Muslim woman (I stopped believing that after living in Egypt).

But, of course, with this empowerment came great responsibility. If before, with hijab, I was a billboard for Islam, now, with a niqab, I was a billboard for oppression. On the one hand, non-Muslims looked at me with disdain or pity, and on the other, fellow Muslims either saw me as an extremist or looked up to me like I had vast amounts of knowledge, like the niqab and abaya were my cap and gown and I had just graduated with a PhD from Islam University.

There is something about the niqab that brings out other people’s insecurities. Either they feel guilty because they put you, the niqabi, on a high pedestal of understanding and spirituality (even though you do not deserve it), or they are envious for not having the courage to also wear it (giving more importance to a piece of fabric rather than their relationship with Allah), or they hate niqab with a passion, think you are absolutely crazy for wearing it, and they constantly lecture you about how it’s not obligatory. This added stress, ridiculous accusations, and false expectations make wearing niqab a real test of faith, in which one can easily fall prey to arrogance, self-aggrandizement, religious doubt, exhaustion, or even depression. I felt like the best way to avoid these issues was to isolate myself from people.

I wore the niqab for two years mostly on, but sometimes off. I found it easy to wear in New Jersey, especially surrounded by other sisters who wore it, and in Egypt, where it provided the extra benefit of filtering the sand, dust, houka and exhaust fumes. I felt comfortable and well-protected. However, it was when we returned from Egypt that I started noticing the increasingly negative attention I was getting from strangers for the way I dressed.

In one incident, a couple of Latina women began speaking about me in Spanish, not knowing that I could understand their conversation. I was standing behind them in line at a store in the mall with my 2-year-old in a stroller. They were saying, “Poor kid, having to be raised by ‘that’ in that horrible culture.” They shook their heads and looked at me condescendingly. Rather than be confrontational, I simply turned to my son and started speaking to him in Spanish, making sure they overheard. Both women turned away embarrassed. I thanked Allah for the niqab, because my cheeks were burning red out of anger.

Similar incidents occurred to me whenever I would go out, but it was when I moved further south that I felt afraid for my safety and that of my children. At that point, my eldest was 2 and a half years old and my second was a baby. The verbal abuse came more frequently. I was called a terrorist by Walmart employees in front of my children. I was also violently confronted at a gas station, while my children were in the car, by a man who thought I had been staring at his wife, even though I was not even looking her way (I guess he couldn’t tell because my face was covered). A gentleman who worked at a grocery store where my husband and I would frequently do our shopping stopped us and demanded to know why my husband forced me to “dress like that.” Again, in front of our children. These hate-driven incidents grew until I could no longer go outside alone out of fear.

I started to realize the niqab no longer offered me a sense of closeness to Allah or protection, and it became a burden on my own children. Not only was it a physical veil, but it had also begun to obscure who I was as a person. Dawah became more difficult, because people were no longer willing to see beyond the piece of fabric covering my face. My own people, Latin-Americans, did not see in me, as they had in the past, a similarity to the Virgin Mary, which made Islam more familiar and appealing to them. This was the same reason why I knew I would never wear niqab in front of my family, and why it could never be part of me 100%.

I went through a period where I questioned why I was wearing niqab, and I questioned why I was questioning it. I read and reread fatwas, articles, and books about hijab, and made du’a for guidance and strength. I no longer had a community of niqabi sisters around me, and as I read more about niqab, I saw that things were not as black and white as some people make it seem. I realized eventually that I was guilt-shaming myself for something that I had never considered obligatory in the first place. Unfortunately, for convert sisters and some who are raised Muslim and finding their way, learning that there are varying opinions on certain religious matters is a long process. I have known of some newly converted Muslims who rush into the Deen, and overburden themselves with unnecessary practices, only to then abandon Islam altogether. Likewise, there are others who take baby steps and their faith grows gradually over time, like a firmly rooted tree.

Once I resolved to remove the niqab for good, I started worrying about what people would think. At that point, I told myself, if I were to keep it on, it would no longer be for Allah, but for people, and that was scary. Alhamdulillah, I sought advice from a friend about my struggle and surprisingly, she shared with me her own failed niqab story. She (a South Asian “born Muslim”) had also worn it and stopped after years for the same reasons, and although some people in the masjid shunned her for some time, she felt it was the best course of action for her and her family. She reassured me that it was my decision and advised me to seek comfort in the mercy of Allah.

When I removed the niqab, I started to find myself again. Now, ten years later and almost two decades into the Deen, I feel reconnected with my culture and have long accepted that I can be Puerto Rican while being a Muslim, and that I can be modest while maintaining my identity. The process of converting and then really “owning” your faith take time, and we will hit many bumps along our journey. Wearing the niqab was part of my learning curve, and I appreciate both the good and the bad from it. So, for those who want to compare how they looked ten years ago to now, I challenge you to instead reflect on how much you have learned about yourself.

Note: This reflection is by no means a criticism of the niqab. Many sisters, some Latinas, wear niqab with pride, and the beauty of Islam is that we are free to decide what works best for us. May Allah make your personal journeys easy. Ameen.

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Columnist Wendy Díaz is a Puerto Rican Muslim writer, poet, translator, and children's book author. She is the Spanish content coordinator for ICNA-WhyIslam. She is also the co-founder of Hablamos Islam, a non-profit organization that produces educational resources about Islam in the Spanish language.

13 Comments

13 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Jiya

    February 4, 2019 at 4:19 PM

    Hi there,
    The first-time I wore hijab, it was really tight around my head that it wasn’t ‘me’ and now I wear it loosely wrapped so it is in line with my culture. As a latino, maybe you can go creative with your hijab. To wear the niqab is really tough, and not everyone is suited to that.
    I wish you all the best,
    Your sister,
    JR.

  2. Avatar

    Umm Al-Ameen

    February 8, 2019 at 9:24 AM

    Really enjoyed your piece. Very clearly written from the heart. I do not wear the niqab, only the hijab. Everybody’s situation is different and truly our environment influences our decision and we may need to adapt so long as we are still within the limits of the deen. You made your decision after prayers and soul searching. The religion should be one of ease. We often forget that. Allah knows best what is in our hearts. He knows best our motives. May He accept all we do for His sake as Ibadah. Aameen.

  3. Avatar

    Ahmed Brown

    February 15, 2019 at 8:41 AM

    Loved the story. As a man, I’m always impressed with hijaabis in America and with niqaabis exponentially so. Any woman wearing either is immediately identifiable as a Muslim as soon as she steps out her front door. With that comes the stares, comments, insults, etc. I don a kufi on a daily basis—to work, to the grocery store, etc.—but it’s simply not the same. Most people don’t know to associate a kufi with Islam or Muslims, so I’m not a potential target like my wife, mother, etc.

    These lines had me reflecting throughout the day: “Once I resolved to remove the niqab for good, I started worrying about what people would think. At that point, I told myself, if I were to keep it on, it would no longer be for Allah, but for people, and that was scary.”

    Thanks for this piece. Keep writing!

  4. Avatar

    Bryan Winters

    March 14, 2019 at 7:13 PM

    My heart goes out to you too, even though I am not Muslim. You may well be right with various interpretations of your holy scriptures, but those tend to be the logical arguments we use after we’ve decided something. Ironically, almost on the same day as your article, we read about the Islamic Republic of Iran, a highly educated Islamic entity, imprisoning a woman for opposing the hijab. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/13/world/middleeast/nasrin-sotoudeh-iran-lawyer-lashes.html
    I do wonder whether Western Muslims wearing the hijab is an insult to the millions of women in Iran forced to wear one. The ‘My Stealthy Freedom’ movement, where Iranian women post photos of themselves in nature without the head covering, seems to be ignored by Western Muslims who have the choice.
    Perhaps this is why the Ayatollah Khamanei derides Western Muslims, virtually saying they are not true to the faith.
    As an outsider, who am I to believe? The various (so called?) Islamic nations around the world, or a minority of American immigrants with their ‘new Muslim’ interpretation? (That’s what the local leader of our mosque labels them as.)

  5. Avatar

    S.B

    March 15, 2019 at 3:43 PM

    Asalamu alaykum
    Very enjoyable piece! maashaAllah. I am in the same boat, except I stopped wearing the niqab because my faith wasn’t at a high enough level to keep wearing it. At least that’s what I said and felt as a very silly teenager living in Dubai. I felt the guilt of taking it off because everyone looked down on me after… But I was glad I didn’t continue at that time.
    Then some 5 years later I was living in Saudi and said I wouldn’t wear it just to fit in with all the other ladies wearing niqab, I needed my faith to be better and to really feel the need to wear it, to really feel it is true…. But then I realised I just liked the attention of being different and everyone noticing me showing my face and being a foreigner. So I started wearing it again and I felt like I had actually submitted to Allah, I felt wonderful, and yes it was easy. When I got married I moved to France and once again left the niqab and now I’m Austria where they’ve banned the niqab as well so…
    I do believe it is the best form of hijab and really really don’t like when other hijabis shout indignantly it isn’t mandatory or even “it isn’t from Islam” (omg)…
    Allah reward you for your good deeds and the harshness you had to endure. Allah protect you and your family.

    • Avatar

      Husna

      June 6, 2019 at 11:48 PM

      Niqab isn’t the best form of hijab. Comments like yours are why I as a Muslim woman have such issues with the niqab. I wear loose pants and fashionable hijab and they are just as modest and pleasing to Allah as the niqab. My faith is just as strong if not stronger than any niqabi. Stop acting like Niqabis have more faith.

  6. Avatar

    Leyla Kute

    March 15, 2019 at 7:42 PM

    Salam sister I agree with you since covering the face is and should be considered an option not a must. I can recall a hadith regarding this issue where women asked the Prophet saw whether they should veil their faces from stranger passbyers and the Prophet saw answered YES.
    And to take this and make it a fardh a must is not acceptable as you see Allah swt never burdens a servant with unbearable burdens. Therefore I understand you and wish you all the best.

    • Avatar

      Husna

      June 6, 2019 at 11:51 PM

      There is no Hadith saying that one must cover the face in front of strangers.

      • Avatar

        Muslimah

        January 13, 2020 at 6:02 AM

        No,there is:
        Tirmidhi with a SAHIH chain reports…
        “Rasulullah (Sallallaahu Álayhi Wasallam) said “All of a woman is ‘awrah.”
        Shaikh-ul-Islam Ibn Taymiyyah (Rahimahullah) relates:
        “Women used to room about without Cloaks (Jilbaabs) and men used to see their faces and hands, but when the verse stating ‘O Prophet! Tell your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers to draw their cloaks over themselves.’ (Surah Al-Ahzaab,Verse #59)was reveled, then this was prohibited and women were ordered to wear the Jilbaab. Then Ibn Tayimiyyah goes on to say “The word Jilbaab means a sheet which Ibn Mas’ud (Radhiallaahu Ánhu) explained as a cloak covering the entire body including the head, face and hands. Therefore, it is not permissible for the women to reveal the face and hands in public. (Ibn Taymiyyah’s book on fatwaas Page# 110 Vol # 2 also in the book Hijaab Page # 15)There are many sahih sources.
        I respect the niqabis and if a woman is beautiful,she can be beatiful even in a niqab.
        And a Muslim woman is not terrorist,just because she is niqabi.

  7. Avatar

    Saleem

    March 16, 2019 at 12:40 PM

    “the beauty of Islam is that we are free to decide what works best for us.”
    This sentence is self contradictory because the literal definition of Islam is exactly the opposite of what you said. In fact by entering into Islam a person gives up that freedom, by definition.

    • Avatar

      Wendy

      March 16, 2019 at 1:14 PM

      JazakAllah khaiyr for your comment and for taking the time to read the article. I appreciate you bringing this up. What I meant by this sentence is that while we are submitting to Allah, we still have a choice about what we can do according to our own limits and capabilities. Allah does not place a burden on us greater than what we can bear, as it says in the Qur’an. Likewise, the Prophet, peace be upon him, said:
      “Religion is easy, and no one overburdens himself in his religion but he will be unable to continue in that way. So do not be extremists, but try to be near perfection and receive the good tidings that you will be rewarded. Gain strength by worshipping in the mornings and afternoons and during the last hours of the night.” (Bukhari)
      Alhamdulillah, our religion is balanced and just for all. There are things that are compulsory, and others that are flexible.
      Thanks again for commenting. May Allah bless you.

  8. Avatar

    Anonymous

    March 18, 2019 at 9:54 AM

    A sincere and honest piece of writing. Finally, someone who has opened the floor to discuss the struggles that come with niqab. As someone who has worn niqab for 16 years, it has been a wavering journey (and still is). This is the first time I have come across an article that has put into words the feelings and thoughts attached to the struggle of wearing niqab. I love the niqab and have worn it with much pride, nonetheless there have been times where I had struggled with the commitment of wearing the niqab (strongly). Until very recently, the relationship with my niqab (as well as my level of emaan) had fluctuated, it had driven me to the point where I questioned the purpose and sincerity of wearing it. When I read the part “I started worrying about what people would think. At that point, I told myself, if I were to keep it on, it would no longer be for Allah, but for people, and that was scary” this was exactly the thoughts that ran through my mind that the sister has so carefully worded. Through asking Allah endlessly for giving me the strength and guidance, as well as long talks with certain individuals, alhumdulilah I feel at peace (at this moment) with this piece of cloth that physically (and spiritually) defines who I am. May Allah give us strength to practise His deen to the best of our ability and allow us to grow as individuals spiritually.

  9. Avatar

    Muslimah

    January 12, 2020 at 4:20 PM

    I think you shouldn’t value those people.We must value just what Allah thinks.If i think that way,then i couldn’t even put on a hijab.

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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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#Culture

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.

The Prophet (SAW) has taught us the best of deeds are those that done consistently, even if they are small. Click here to support MuslimMatters with a monthly donation of $2 per month. Set it and collect blessings from Allah (swt) for the khayr you're supporting without thinking about it.

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