Reflections: A Black Muslim woman’s 40-year journey with Islam

“I’m way past the rigid, dogmatic ways of my youth. I try not to be judgmental anymore; I’ve seen too much, done too much.”

“I’m way past the rigid, dogmatic ways of my youth. I try not to be judgmental anymore; I’ve seen too much, done too much.”

The following narrative is an excerpt from the book Why We Chose This Way, a compilation of creative nonfiction essays written by Turiya S. A. Raheem. These essays are based on interviews she conducted with Black Muslim women, as well as her own experiences. In the excerpt below, taken from the chapter entitled “From Chocolate City to the Motherland,” the author reflects on the political, cultural and religious landscape for Black American Muslims in Washington D.C. during the 1970s. It is written in the form of a letter penned by a Black Muslim woman named Sadiqah addressed to her fellow Black Muslim sister. With a tone that is humorous and intimate throughout, she provides insights into the types of struggles that working class Black American Muslims faced during the period — striving to establish and implement Islamically informed practices and social norms amid a backdrop of complex socio-economic challenges affecting the broader Black community.

The two communities she highlights are the Darul Islam Movement and the community of Imam W. D. Muhammad — identified in the reflection interchangeably as the World Community of Islam in the West and the American Muslim Mission. The narration highlights both communities’ approaches to issues of race, class and gender, but is not a definitive statement on the merits or shortcomings of either group. Rather, it provides an account of one woman’s experience enduring many of the salient growing pains of Black American Muslim communities established during the 1960s and 1970s, as well as her own personal evolution as a Black American Muslim woman. Toward the end of the excerpt, Sister Turiya depicts Sadiqah’s gradual rejection of what she refers to as rigidity and dogmatism, her embrace of heightened spiritual practice and increased worship and the emergence of a healthy, supportive personal community of Muslim friends and family in her life. We hope to share more insights from Black Muslim elders in various formats via the history section of Sapelo Square in months to come. You can find the rest of Sister Turiya S. A. Raheem’s book Why We Chose This Way here.

After a couple of years at UDC (University of the District of Columbia), I went to Senegal and had all the usual welcoming-a-sister home experiences, performances created just for African Americans, historic tours and talks. I’m telling you, they showered a sister with a lot of love over there. Did I tell you I went to Alex Haley’s village home? So, when I returned to UDC, I started hanging out with only the most African-centered, vegetarian types, and I had a couple relationships with well-to-do Nigerians who wanted to marry me and settle down with for a nice family life. I wasn’t ready to make that move. I continued my job in the federal government and one of my co-workers came in one day all excited about the World Community of Al-Islam in the West (WCIW). If I was going to get married anytime in the future, she suggested, I needed to think seriously about what it would take to establish a strong Black family, and she said being part of a social, religious or Black nationalist organization was probably a good way to go. She thought the WCIW was the best thing happening.

In the 1970s, all the Black nationalist groups in D.C. were saying Christianity was no longer an option for our people, but many were saying their groups needed a religious base in order to work and appeal to people of African descent. Our members were mostly former Christians who were tired of or did not believe in the white-Jesus-savior-on-the-cross concept which hung in all of our childhood homes. One of the brothers in United Sisters and Brothers (USB) knew some Sunni Muslim brothers in the area who were giving presentations (tablighin’) one night, when I thought I was visiting USB for another program, those brothers were there and by the end of the night, all the men, with only one exception had taken their shahadahs. The women were more hesitant because we were told we would have to change our style of dress. We liked wearing African bubas (short tops) over our lapas (long wrap skirts) and gelees (fabric wrapped around our heads), but eventually, all the women followed the men and took our shahadahs too with the Darul Islam Movement.

The Dar, as it was affectionately called, was an African American Sunni Islamic organization established in Brooklyn, New York, around 1962. By the time I joined in D.C., The Dar had established numerous masajid [along the eastern seaboard of the U.S.]. Each one had an Imam [an Amir, and a Treasurer and a Secretary]. I liked the pivotal role the women played in the masjid community. Our women’s committee was spearheaded by the Imam’s wife and we had all kinds of classes in Islamic jurisprudence, Arabic, Quranic studies, Seerah (life of Prophet Muhammad) and Hadith, some with the brothers and some separate from the brothers. Sisters also taught other sisters and the children once we mastered our own lessons. For the most part, women were treated fairly and with the utmost respect in our community, but later, the practice of polygamy caused a lot of pain, anxiety and jealousy amongst the sisterhood. Life became unbearable for some and caused others to practically lose their sanity. Girl, I could tell you some stories that would make your head spin! I’m talking about some serious ghetto, what do they call it these days? Hood-rat behaviour?

Some of us lived communally and I remember one night, two women got to fighting and ended up out in the street. I’m talking blood, ripped nightgowns and all. I could not believe a brother and two co-wives had hung up a sheet between their living/sleeping spaces. What were they thinking! Islamically, that was not the correct arrangement. Each wife was supposed to have her own place. Anyway, Girl, the scene outside was really bad, so ugly, especially for Muslim women who prided themselves on Taqwa (God-consciousness) and righteous character. The cops had to be called and everything. It was very embarrassing.

Too many of us were getting married without knowing the men well enough and most of those marriages didn’t last. My first marriage lasted three years and we had a son; my second one lasted seven years and we had a son and a daughter; my third one lasted two years and I was so happy we didn’t have any children together. I feel very blessed in that way. A lot of the brothers and sisters were marrying each other’s ex’s and the children were starting to be related in one way or another. I called it “too much commingling of the juices,” and I refused to marry any of the exes of my sister-friends. Those are the only bad memories I have and I wonder even today how all that madness has affected our children. Another doctoral dissertation, maybe? I still loved the community camaraderie and the social activities for myself and my children when they were young. I wouldn’t replace those years with anything in the world.

When I got tired of The Dar, I ventured over to the WCIW, which by then had become the American Muslim Mission (AMM) for some reason. I think they were very, very gradually moving people into mainstream Islam. It was hard for a lot of people who had been in the Nation to accept the new tenets, which included acceptance of white people. AMM seemed more in line with my upbringing and I immediately got involved in the community by joining the Prison Services Committee and the Sickness and Health Committee. Between the children, work and AMM activities, I was always tired. Life had started catching up with me and I had some health issues too. I dropped out of UDC but kept my job in the federal government in case I needed the tuition reimbursement benefits later. Higher education was emphasized a lot in the AMM, Islamic knowledge and otherwise. I took classes on and off for years until I finally became a Licensed Clinical Social Worker.

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I’m way past the rigid, dogmatic ways of my youth. I try not to be judgmental anymore; I’ve seen too much, done too much. I like to think I’ve gained much wisdom from my experiences in this Deen. At one point, I was so extreme that I lost contact with all of my siblings. Now, our family gets together regularly for Sunday dinners even if we only order pizza. We laugh and joke about Mother’s discipline, which benefitted all of us in the long run, and our daddy’s creative pranks and silly ways. My siblings have been there for me and my kids through everything. I continue to study and attend classes when I have time. Most of the time, I study on my own, however, because of the demands of my position. I get out to as many sisters’ socials as I can. I enjoy those, reminiscing about the old days, eating, talking, catching up with everybody.

My trip back to the Motherland is already paid for and this time, it will be to South Africa. I recall a South African Shaykh (a wise, learned man) visiting the U.S. years ago. I think it was in the 1990s when more African Americans were learning about Shaykhs from the African continent. He told me, “You need to come and see us in South Africa. They have scared you away because of apartheid, but you’ll see — with all we’ve been through, much of our family life has remained intact. They messed you [African Americans] up when they destroyed your family ties during slavery times.” I thought his statement was profound. It’s stuck with me all these years, another reason for a doctoral study if I ever decide to do it.

It’s been a long journey for me, but I’m telling you, I am happy and free of all the impediments I imposed on myself through the years of Islamic conversion and practice. I love being a Muslim and I love the Muslims. My practice is as intense as it ever was but on a higher level. I have so many good people in my life now, family, old friends, new friends, Muslim and non-Muslim women alike. I am able to appreciate that people practice Islam and believe as they feel is right for them and it is truly between them and Allah (Highly glorified is He). I can’t whine and cry about the Ummah that Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) already said would one day be like the other People of the Book, straying far away from the character he exemplified.

by Turiya S. A. Raheem

TSAR-Pic.jpgAfter the success of her first book, Growing Up in the Other Atlantic CityWash’s and the Northside, which garnered the author overwhelming sales, appearances on two HBO documentaries and a play based on the book, Turiya S. A. Raheem returned to her first love — the varied lives of African American Muslim women. Why We Chose This Way is also creative nonfiction, Turiya’s favourite genre. For this book, she interviewed about 30 African American women aged 50 years and older who had accepted Islam in the 1960s and 1970s and still practice Islam today. She condensed their life stories into 10 introspective, inspiring and informative essays to protect their privacy.

Turiya accepted Islam in Washington, D.C., in 1978, but has also lived in Cleveland, Boston, Tuskegee, Atlanta and Capitol Heights, Md. After 32 years away, she returned to her hometown of Atlantic City in 2008 to live a semi-retired life near the ocean. She continues to teach English at a local community college and is a creative activist for all things positive in her community.