Faith is My Fuel: Reflections on Faith, Race, and the Grace that Keeps Us Going
Last week was Eid. We marked the end of Ramadan with a new kind of celebration, distanced but together. Apart but still with one another in one way or another. It was a testament to how beautiful and long lasting and creative our faith can be when we put in the effort to make it so.
But in the week since, so much has happened. Lives have been senselessly lost, at the altar of white privilege and a status quo that serves none but the rich. And in case it hasn’t been clear up until this point, let me say it explicitly now - Black lives matter. Black deaths at the hands of authorities and racists are absolutely unacceptable, both by my own personal moral conscience and accordingly to my understanding of Islam as a whole. That is not a debatable point if you ask me. It is a simple fact.
Take, for example, Bilal. Bilal, whose beautiful and sonorous voice made him the perfect choice to be the first muezzin. It was a strong black man whose voice first called Muslims to prayer in Medina. It was his voice that reminded them to pause in their daily lives and remember Allah, his voice that reminded them of Allah’s majesty and grace, his voice that woke them from their dreams with the promise of prayers fulfilled. That voice has carried through generations and across continents. We hear it in soulful spirituals and in mournful blues and in velvety R&B ballads. But we also hear it in men pinned to pavement telling us they can’t breathe.
The choice of Bilal was not an accident. Early Muslim sources tell us that many were not pleased with the choice. They felt it should have been an Arab, not some black freedman. But knowing what we know about Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), and what we believe to be true about Islam, especially around here, I can’t help but think the choice was intentional. It was a reminder of the vision of equity and justice that Islam requires that we try to actualize.
Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, even Christian Cooper... these are human beings with lives and families and hopes and dreams. But they are quickly becoming just another set of names on a list that seems tragically, terrifyingly endless. Don’t let that happen. When you read those names, remember Bilal. Hear his melody echo across time, whispering each of those names with love. Feel the weight of the Prophet’s choice of Bilal in every utterance.
It is our job to stop that list from growing. Because Islam makes it clear it is our job. The Prophet made it clear it is our job. Liberating those in bondage is amongst the highest forms of piety in Islam and if this isn’t bondage, what is?
We do that through our own lives - how we engage, where we choose to invest our time and money and labour, and what we teach our children. And teaching our children about race is something we all need to do, now more than ever, but those of us who are racialized often don’t have a choice. This is especially true for Black parents, but it is also true in my own home.
The first time I had to explicitly speak to my brown-skinned son about race, he was 3. We were driving home from preschool and listening to Beyoncé’s ‘Brown Skin Girl’, when he told me he wanted to have white skin, ‘white like the clouds,’ he said. And maybe he didn’t mean it in the way I think he did, but it was enough. Enough for me to have a long conversation with him about how his skin, the colour of milk chocolate and his favourite chocolate chip cookies, was beautiful. How people sometimes thought that others weren’t as important or valuable because they had black skin, and how that was wrong. How his best friend, who was black, was beautiful and wonderful precisely because he was black, and different than my own precious boy. How Allah made us different on purpose, ‘so that we may know one another’ - with empathy and love and celebration of our differences.
And I am a therapist and an educator and an activist. My children grow up in a home where diversity is celebrated, where we acknowledge colour, where we learn Cree words before bedtime, and read about the underground railroad, and we watch the protests on the news, and we don’t shy away from the truth. And still, they wish they were white. I wish it were different. But it isn’t. We have so so so far to go. And that can sometimes be daunting.
Last week, I was interviewed by Amnesty Edmonton about my work with the Muslim Feminist Collective of Edmonton. Both there, and in an earlier conversation with a friend, I was asked what keeps me going in this work, work that seems unending. My own answer is faith. Faith is my fuel. The example of my foremothers. The lessons from my ancestors. The fundamental belief I have that Allah means for a better world than this one. The certainty that it is my job to make that world come to pass.
Burnout in activists of colour is so real and I know that is especially true for Black folks, particularly right now. When I was also asked how I manage the burnout, my answer was Grace. My strength, comes from today’s snowflake - al-Hayy, Allah the ever living, and it’s corollary, al-Qayyum, the eternally present. Grace is a miraculous gift, a thing that just appears to give me strength when I have none, to give me hope when all seems lost. Grace is the only thing that can explain how we manage to keep going, because there honestly doesn’t seem to be any other explanation. And I know my Black Muslimah friends feel this to an exponential degree. How can one possibly keep going in this strange dystopian world if not by the Grace of Allah who never dies when so many die needlessly, Allah who is still present when so many are gone.
To the Black people, especially women and queer and marginalized folk reading this, know that I see you. I know this is all so much harder and more complicated in your life. I know you are exhausted and overwhelmed and angry and mourning and working through million other messy and complex feelings right now. Those feelings are valid. However you are responding to this is valid.
My promise to you is that I will do my best to raise my children to know better and be better, I will strive to use whatever privileges I have been afforded to push the system towards equity. I know I will fail, and for that I am sorry. But that will not stop me from working at it anyway. I tell you this not for brownie points or accolades, but because we should all do it, until all our children our safe, until every one of us is free. Because none of us is free until we are all free and the best way to show you I love you is by striving for justice. Because as Cornell West remind us, justice is what love looks like in public.
And I do love you. You matter to me. And I will fight until my last breathe for you, for all of us, knowing Allah is in my corner as I do. But more importantly, I truly believe Allah is in yours.
No peace without justice.