Over this past weekend, I set out to thank people who have been so kind to me over the past several weeks. Since people have often gifted me with food or invited me to attend meals, I thought an appropriate thank you would be a home-baked-from-an-old-family-recipe apple cake. I made enough for four thank you gifts, one for myself, and another to take to school to share with my colleagues. It was only on Monday evening, after I had already handed out one of them to a friend (and watched her twin 3 year old sons each eat a piece) that she asked if it was halal. I asked what she meant, since there is no meat in the cake (and as a vegetarian, my kitchen is close to kosher), and she mentioned vanilla. I thought about it, said that I use real vanilla, and believed that it was all right. Honestly, I had never even considered that the vanilla I used in the cakes might contain alcohol. When I got home that night I checked my cabinet, and lo and behold – my pure vanilla extract contains quite a high concentration of alcohol! I felt terrible; I felt like I had poisoned her sons. The next morning, I immediately emailed the two recipients of the cake thus far and informed them that they should not eat any more of it, and why. I know that my intentions were good, which counts for a lot in Islam, but I also knew about the prohibition on alcohol, and feel like I should have considered the vanilla angle, since I know baking extracts often contain alcohol (the peppermint extract in my kitchen is even more potent than the vanilla I discovered). I will spend this weekend finding acceptable vanilla and making new cakes to appropriately show my appreciation to those whom have been so generous to me. And my colleagues at school yesterday got the gift of several apple cakes to enjoy.
One of the reasons I have so much to be thankful for was the invitation to attend a fundraising iftar for the Al-Qalam Academy this past Monday evening. The evening began with a prayer after breaking the fast with dates, bread, and water. The women were on one side of a divided ballroom from the men, and there was no microphone set up to allow the women to fully hear the prayer being given on the men’s side, but we were near the door connecting the two rooms, so were able to make due.
The dinner featured several speakers, all knowledgeable, but some who I agreed with and enjoyed listening to more than others. The first speaker on the program was Imam Safi Kahn who began his remarks by relaying “horror stories” (his words, not mine) about parents who come to him and say “we should have listened to you”. Instead, they sent their children to public schools, where they “lost them” when they “became Christian”. As a Christian-raised public school teacher, I was somewhat offended by these comments. I understand that for some parents there are elements or influences at public schools that they would prefer their children avoid or not be exposed to. However, when I was in high school (a public one), I had friends who attended private schools (both secular and religious) and the stories they told of outrageous behavior (including drinking, partying, etc.) put to shame anything I ever heard about at my own school. Additionally, much of what I have read and heard talks about the respect that Islam has for Christianity and Judaism, given the common roots of the religion, and in the early days of Islam (and prior) they referred to the other faiths as the “people of the book”. Imam Kahn also talked about parents being afraid to name or call their children Islamic names, he mentioned that Mohammad becomes Mike, and Abdullah becomes Abner. Given that I have two students with the first name Mohammad, and one with that last name (and many other students with names of various ethnicities), but no students named Mike, and certainly none named Abner, I do not believe this fear to be manifesting itself in the D.C. metropolitan area.
The second speaker was Imam Zaid Shakir (for bio see http://www.zaytuna.org/teacherMore.asp?id=10) who spoke of the importance of teaching young sisters the Qur’an and encouraging them to memorize it [for an interesting article on young people who have memorized the Qur’an see http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/09/30/AR2006093000976.html), and highlighting the fact that the first compilation of the Qur’an was entrusted to a woman. He also mentioned the idea that in Islam the “best of you learn the Qur’an and teach it to others”, and that the Al-Qalam Academy (which the fundraiser was for) is providing the needed generation of pious, upright, strong Muslim women which is so important as they will be the mothers of the next generation of Muslims.
Imam Zaid mentioned that he would not be focusing on the failure of the public school system, but proceeded to talk about the recent spate of school shootings that targeted females, and stated “that if we need a reminder that we need to put our students in a place that we can secure” such were these events. Having just recently attended a training on school crisis plans, including how to deal with school issues before they get to the point of a student instigated shooting, as well as how to deal with the reality of such a horrible situation, I believe that the recent Amish school shooting on the same day as a potentially dangerous situation in Clark County, Nevada (the 5th largest school district in the nation) proves that there is no school immune from this trend, even when people choose to separate themselves from other parts of society. Or maybe, particularly when they choose to separate themselves from society; the Amish shooting was not carried out by a current student, or an alumnus, or a member of the community, it was an outsider who invaded that space to a tragic end. One thing that Imam Zaid talked about needing to be addressed by Islamic schools is the reality that Muslims in the U.S. have to struggle to secure their rights and protect their existence, and a public school might erode the understanding of this struggle or of its primacy, particularly troubling when parents will be sending their children out into a world that is anti-Islamic. I understand (in theory if not from personal experience) that Muslims in the United States and elsewhere in the world feel and are persecuted and are portrayed as and believed to be terrorists, fanatics, or extremists. However, I do not believe that the best way to have people change their feelings and opinions and behaviors about a group is to completely cut yourself off from the people who misunderstand you. Imam Zaid said that Islam “is only perpetuated through knowledge”. The same is true of understanding a religion – exposure to and interaction with it and its followers is the best way to gain real knowledge of Islam and to change minds. I guess this goes back to my comments on learning to live in the world and my opinion on segregation by gender: living and learning together with people of different faiths only serves to highlight the similarities between people and faiths, and can only serve to break down barriers rather than make them stronger and taller.
The last speaker of the evening was Hamza Yusuf (for a brief bio see http://www.zaytuna.org/teacherMore.asp?id=9), and frankly, although he talked longer than the other speakers (I believe), I took many fewer notes, so enthralled was I by his message and his method of delivering it. Here was a man who was obviously very knowledgeable on a broad range of subjects, who could ultimately connect what seemed very tangential back to his original point, in such a way as to be captivating and inspiring and energizing. I can only aspire to be that engaging and knowledgeable as a teacher myself one day. Hamza Yusuf also spoke about the Amish school shooting, and about the idea that the Amish felt it necessary to separate themselves from society in order to live life as they feel it should be lived; presented like that I understand more the idea of a Muslim school or community. However, I still doubt that such a deliberate separation will yield the understanding that Islam seems to crave (and deserves) from the rest of the world.
Hamza Yusuf equated being a good Muslim to being a good human; he talked about needing to tread lightly on the world, to have less impact than Americans generally do (including the crazy notion and common practice of individual automobile ownership in the United States and later the depletion of fish populations due to over fishing). He talked about working for the world as if you will live forever, but working for your afterlife or day of judgment as if you will die tomorrow, and I cannot disagree. The earth (ideally) will be around and habitable for many generations to come, and all humans need to be respectful of that. Additionally, being kind and considerate to your fellow humans and doing what is needed to have a clean, clear conscience is also an important aspect of being a responsible member of society. Personally, rather than considering how my actions will be judged by others or at the pearly gates or by Allah on Judgment Day, I tend to make decisions that I simply feel are right or it is the action that needs to be taken.
After the fundraising iftar, we (my gracious host and I) headed to the Mustafa Center, where Imam Zaid and Hamza Yusuf were to be speaking again. I had never been inside the sanctuary of a masjid, and this one was lovely (as Hamza Yusuf also remarked). My gracious host also made sure that I was introduced to both gentlemen, Imam Zaid at the iftar and Hamza Yusuf outside the masjid. It was as I was waiting to be introduced to Hamza Yusuf that I had my first experience with religious groupies (and I mean this in a really good way). There was quite a crowd inside the masjid when we arrived, people who had heard that Imam Zaid and Hamza Yusuf would be speaking there, and afterwards outside, there were groups of people waiting, it seemed as if they were hoping to see, meet, speak to Hamza Yusuf up close (more women than men I think, since the women sat in the back of the masjid, and were not as able to see him as he spoke). I now consider myself an ardent member of the religious groupies of Hamza Yusuf, and will be checking out his pod casts that I was told exist. On the “religious groupies” designation: it was refreshing to see people so interested in being close to someone who is not a professional athlete, movie or music star, but rather someone urging them to live better lives.
P.S. Hamza Yusuf and Karen Armstrong (author of the biography of Muhammad that I am reading) were featured in a really good video I just watched titled Muammad: legacy of a prophet.