|Muslim Journeys, Human Journeys
Edward E. Curtis IV
While I was asleep Gabriel came to me . . . He said, “Recite, iqra” I said, “What shall I recite?” He squeezed me so tightly that I thought it was death, then he released me and said “Recite!” I said, “What shall I recite?” he squeezed me again until I thought I would die, then he let me go and said, “Recite!” I said, “What shall I recite?” Then he said,
Recite in the name of your Lord who created—
Created humankind from a clot.
Recite! And your Lord is most generous.
The One who taught by the pen.
That which humankind did not know.
So I recited it and he left me. And when I woke up, I felt as though those words were written on my heart.
I begin my presentation today with one of the very first Muslim journeys, the journey of Muhammad ibn Abdullah toward leadership as a prophet, the man whom over one and half billion Muslims around the world to believe to be the Messenger of God, rasul allah. The story that I just read is included in Ibn Ishaq’s biography of the Prophet, which is quoted in at least two of our books. It is the story of how, according to Islamic tradition, Muhammad began to receive the Qur’an, which in English literally means Recitation. Muhammad began his Muslim journey as prophet not so much by traveling anywhere, but by sitting still. According to Islamic tradition, he was visited by the angel Gabriel while meditating in a cave on Mt. Hira outside of Mecca, Arabia. The angel appeared when he was already forty years old, so he had spent much time in solitude and contemplation before he ever started receiving qur’anic revelations.
On the one hand, his journey toward prophetic leadership is the particular story of one man—it is singular. No one could hope to make the same journey; from an Islamic perspective, no one has and no one ever will. But on the other hand, there are elements of this journey that all people, Muslim or not, might be able to recognize as part of the journey of humanity. Because Muhammad, before he was a prophet, he was an orphan, and a businessman, a lover, a husband, and a father. And even after he received that first revelation that I just recited, he played roles that are familiar to all of us—he was a counter-cultural rebel, a politician, a warrior, a judge, and a person of deep faith. And when he died, one of his dearest and most loyal companions, Abu Bakr, reminded everyone believers in the end, that Muhammad was human, not superhuman, saying: “For those of who you worship, you should understand that that he is dead. But God lives, and God can ever die.”
Like the Prophet Muhammad, all the other Muslims that we meet in the Muslim Journey Bookshelf are human beings, both similar to and different from each of us. When we read these books, we inevitably discover thoughts, feelings, and experiences that seem to resonate for us because they reflect a part of ourselves. We recognize ourselves in some of the novel’s characters or find ourselves agreeing with someone’s argument. As we read, as we travel, as we see new things, however, we also notice foreign things, disturbing things, experiences and thoughts that we might find contrary to our deepest values. Many times, this is because our fundamental values, assumption, and beliefs—who we were before we ever set foot on our own journey—shape what we see along our path. And yet in reading and talking about new, sometime frightening, something disturbing things—we are transformed. We know what we did not know, just as that qur’anic verse that I quoted at the beginning tells us. We may not like it all the time, but we are often changed by that knowledge.
As we read through the Muslim Journey Bookshelf, we discover both the familiar and the strange. And it becomes clear pretty quickly that there is no one Muslim journey.
One of the reasons that I admire this project is because its twenty-five books, films, and other resources are a diverse and engaging set of resources for understanding Muslim journeys, past and present, in all their complexity. And I am grateful that I get to speak with you about these resources because you are key to the project’s success. The librarians, scholars, and others readers in the room are the people who will help other Americans come to know this bookshelf. You are multiplying the impact of this carefully curated work, you are translating it, and ultimately, you are passing along a gift. And it is a timely gift. In my view, there is nothing more important to our life together as human beings than mutual understanding among Muslims and non-Muslims.
Muslim Journeys is a bridge to such understanding, because it presents Muslims journeys as human journeys. It assumes that Muslims are no better or no worse than any other large swath of humanity. They are, in the end, just human. In this bookshelf there are Muslim heroes and Muslim villains, but mostly, there are human beings who, often in the same lifetime, do both good and bad things, help and hurt others, love and hate, fight and make up, welcome children into their lives and bury their dead. All of these common experiences of humanity are grounded in the lives of unique individuals who live in particular historical circumstances. Understanding those details is necessary to understanding them—we lose too much when we only embrace what we can easily see in our own lives, when we fall in love with our image in the life of another person. Instead, what this bookshelf also invites us to do is to let people whose experiences are unfamiliar to us shape who we are. This is the same idea as the South African principle of ubuntu described by one of the authors of our bookshelf, Chicagoan Eboo Patel, who discovers along the way that “people are people through other people.”
We meet many new people in this bookshelf, which reflects the diversity of Muslims themselves. Islam is the second most popular world religion in the world after Christianity. Muslims live all over the world and speak so many different languages that most of them cannot speak to one another. The majority of Muslims live in Asia, not in the Middle East, as this map from the Pew Research Center shows. Despite some stereotypes that Muslims are a particularly religious group of human beings, a recent Pew poll found widely divergent rates of religious observance among Muslims. For example, about half of all Muslims in Pakistan told pollsters that they prayed several times a day; in Ghana, 94% of Muslims said that they did so. In addition to these observant Muslims, there are self-described secular or cultural Muslims. Some of the people that we meet in the Muslim journeys bookshelves are deeply affected by Muslim history and Muslim cultures, but are not themselves Muslim—the Pulitzer-Prize winning author of House of Stone, for example, is the late Anthony Shadid, a Lebanese-American Christian. And even among the believing Muslims, there is great variety in ethical behavior, doctrinal orientation, and ritual practice.
How can one make sense of all this diversity among Muslims and those connected to their histories and cultures? The Muslim Journeys Bookshelf does so by way of five well-conceived themes. The bookshelf offers five different pathways in its map of Muslim journeys. Though these pathways do not represent any kind of comprehensive understanding of Muslim peoples and cultures, they do offer rich ways to engage Muslim experience.
The first of these themes is American Stories. And the point of this path is that we needn’t journey abroad to understand Muslim journeys, because Muslims have always been part of the United States. One Muslim journey, for example, parallels the single most important journey of our country in the 1800s—the journey from slavery to freedom. Most of the first Muslims in the United States were enslaved West Africans, and while most of them would die on U.S. soil, a few extraordinary individuals were able to use their literacy, education, social connections, and sometimes their legerdemain, to find their way home to Africa. Prince among Slaves , the story of Abdul Rahman Ibrahima, a former African prince and Mississippi slave who was received at the White House by President John Quincy Adams, is a tale that you wouldn’t believe if it weren’t for the careful historical research of author Terry Alford. For anyone wanting to attract readers interested in the history of slavery and America before the Civil War, this is a journey not to be missed. And for those more visually-minded patrons, there is also the film based on the book. Having led a post-viewing conversation of the film, I can say that it is a very successful way to engage people from a variety of backgrounds on this fascinating story.
Just as the larger American experience of slavery and freedom is reflected in particular Muslim American stories, so is the epic tale of voluntary migration. Like others who came through Ellis Island, the port of New Orleans, and other points of entry, Muslim Americans such as Mary Juma sought their fortunes or escaped hardship in their native lands by coming to America. Most of these Muslims were from what today is Syria and Lebanon, and while some of them became peddlers, dry goods salesman, and dockworkers, others tried to bust the sod of the Dakota plain and become farmers. Mary Juma’s family settled in Ross, North Dakota, home of one of the first buildings built to serve as a mosque in the United States. This is what a mosque looks like in 1930s North Dakota.
The story of these immigrants and their way of life is detailed in the Columbia Sourcebook of Muslims in the United States along side other Muslim American stories. And if you will permit me a personal comment, I just want to mention that I dedicated that book to my parents—and one of my parents, my dad, is able to be with us today. And I just want to acknowledge him and thank him for being here. Thank you.
Another immigrant story—one of an immigrant’s child—is told in the memoir of inter-faith organizer and activist Eboo Patel, who is a follower of the Ismaili Shia or Shiite branch of Islam. Patel’s story is one a youth who felt alienation both from his religious traditions and from his country, especially when after he was the victim of racial and religious prejudice. His search for identity, belonging, and meaning eventually led him to establish the successful Chicago-based organization called Interfaith Youth Core. His model of interfaith cooperation is one focused on serving one another; he thinks that young people of different faiths will come to know one another when they are performing public service together. They can develop relationships of trust and solidarity even if they have different theologcal beliefs. And they are doing it here in Chicago and across the country.
In addition to these stories about American immigrants coming to America, the journey of Muslim America is also a journey of Americans coming to Islam. The conversion of non-Muslims to Islam part of a larger American story—a story about Americans questioning their religious identities and sometimes leaving one religious community to join another. We are constantly reinventing ourselves in this country, and that includes in the religious sphere of life. The American search for new religious identities and meanings is one told in the selected readings from the Columbia Sourcebook, but also in the memoir of G. Willow Wilson who finds her new faith challenged when she moves to a Muslim-majority country, Egypt, and ends up falling in love with and marrying an Egyptian man.
The Butterfly Mosque is only one of the many books on in the Muslim Journeys project devoted to what we might call the gendered Muslim Journeys, that is, journeys in which questions about gender are front and center. Questions of women’s liberation and gender equality cut across many sections of the bookshelf. This focus on women’s issues makes sense given its obvious centrality to the lives of both Muslims and non-Muslims, and as with all complicated issues, the bookshelf takes a number of points of view on questions regarding Muslim women. My guess is that as you introduce the bookshelf to your various public audiences that you will have to come back again and again to the issue of women and Islam. Besides discussions of violence, it is often the most discussed topic when it anyone brings up Islam and Muslims—and this is true across the ideological spectrum, whether we’re talking about liberals or conservatives.
The theme of gender and Islam is strongly present in Points of View and Literary Reflections. Some Muslim authors’ of their own cultures and societies will be quite familiar to your audience: the veil, the harem, and other symbols of Islam have been depicted for a long time in the United States as impediments to women’s rights and as typical signs of women’s oppression in Islam. At least two of our stories are those of women who look back on their childhoods sometimes with humor, sometimes with sharp criticism. For example, Moroccan sociologist Fatima Mernissi, who argues that men and women are meant to be social equals in Islam, let’s us see inside the harem, the all female space, in which she was raised. Depicting the women of such places as both proud and smart, she nevertheless presents a strong indictment of gender inequalities and social controls that were justified on Islamic grounds. Marjane Satripi, another of our authors, remembers how her life a member of Iranian’s elite changed for the worse after religious leaders took charge of the Iranian Revolution. In an entertaining black and white graphic novel, she renders these the men and women who followed Iran’s Ayatullah Khomeini as humorless and harsh fundamentalist caricatures who forced her as a ten-year-old girl to wear the headscarf when in public.
Satrapi’s oppressive veil, a veil that is the product of coercion, contrasts powerfully with other understandings of the veil in the Muslim Journeys Bookshelf. In addition to the veil of coercion, one can find examples of the veil of choice and empowerment. The American stories section includes Harvard professor Leila Ahmed’s book, A Quiet Revolution, which examines the resurgence of the headscarf among Muslim women around the world and in the United States in the late twentieth century. For Leila Ahmed, the headscarf is a part of a larger Islamic revival. The activists fueling this revival, often called Islamists, believe that it is their religious duty to work for social justice and political reform. Surprisingly for Ahmed, it is these religious activists or Islamists “even more than secular Muslims, who are at the forefront of contemporary activist struggles such as civil rights and women’s rights.”
These scholarly findings are artfully illustrated in Leila Aboulela’s novel, Minaret, about a Sudanese immigrant to the United Kingdom. This is a story of a woman who becomes more religious as a way not only to cultivate a closer relationship to God, but also to navigate some of the universal challenges of modern life. Rather than holding onto tradition as a defense against modernity, the novel’s protagonist sees Islam, the Qur’an, and Islamic practices such as modest dress as ways to live with dignity and beauty in a sometimes very ugly world of anti-Muslim prejudice and violence. The protagonist is no victim; she lives alone and chooses to wear a headscarf and to go to the mosque.
Just as it will be hard to avoid discussing issues related to women and gender no matter what theme you choose to cover in Let’s Talk About It gathering, I suspect that it will be difficult to avoid related questions about the nature of Islamic faith more generally. This is not always the case, and there are powerful stories in the bookshelf that put the emphasis elsewhere, for example, on the oppressive nature of Muammar Qaddafi regime in Libya as depicted in Hisham Matar’s In the Country of Men. But even when one tries to put the focus on the politics of repressive regimes, I suspect that the issue of religion may keep coming up. And frankly, this shouldn’t surprise us. By definition, there would be no Muslim journeys without the religion of Islam.
So, I want to take some time to address the theme of Pathways of Faith in a way that will be useful to you no matter what theme you are focusing your own discussions on. Islam, as I have already illustrated during this presentation, is a dynamic and diverse religion. Islam is not monolithic. But there are also shared practices. Over hundreds of years, Muslims have developed certain authoritative Islamic traditions, powerful symbols, and important ethical teachings that while not relevant to all Muslims, are at least topics of conversation and debate among most Muslims.
For most Muslims, there is no living an Islamic life without the Qur’an and without referring to the human being through whom, according to Islamic tradition, it was revealed, the Prophet Muhammad. I began my talk with the prophetic journey that he began in a cave on the side of a mountain outside Mecca. But this was not the only journey he undertook, and his journeys are central to the pathways of faiths of over a billion and a half Muslims worldwide. In this Very Short Introduction, Jonathan Brown helpfully details the most popular biography of the Prophet ever written, the Sira of Ibn Ishaq. In this early biography, one learns about Muhammad’s many journeys, including the miraculous ones. And one of the most important of those miraculous journeys besides receiving the Qur’an itself is Muhammad’s Night Journey and Ascension, as he miraculously traveled, according to the Qur’an, from the Ka‘ba in Mecca, the place in whose directions all Muslims around the world pray, to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, and from there to the heavens, where as the Qur’an puts it, he was shown the signs of God.
Another of Muhammad’s key journeys was his exile from his hometown of Mecca in 622 CE. Rejected by the leaders of Mecca, his followers persecuted for believing in the one God and following him, he barely escapes assassination as he makes his way north to the town of Yathrib. This is the year that marks the beginning of the Islamic calendar—the calendar that ends with AH instead of AD. AH means Anno Hijri, the year of the hijrah, the Great Emigration from Mecca to Medina. It was also the year in which Muhammad went from being a religious leader to being a political leader, as well. For the next decade, he would serve a chief executive, judge, and legislator of a town that would come to be known as Medina, the City of the Prophet. He had his ups and downs, but by the end of his life, he left a new political power in the Middle East.
The legacy of the Prophet is one that Muslims and non-Muslims would debate from that day forward, and Jonathan Brown’s book helpfully recounts the controversies over interpreting Muhammad’s life in the modern age. Without taking sides in the debates, Brown shows the deep chasm between the Muhammad that observant Muslims deeply love, respect, and admire, and the Muhammad whom some non-Muslims have criticized or mocked. He also shows the scholarly debates over what we can know about the historical Muhammad, making an important distinction between the Muhammad of Islamic faith tradition and the Muhammad of historical research.
The other essential pathway of faith is the Qur’an. Ingrid Mattson’s Story of the Qur’an is a really important book because it (1) outlines the history of the text itself, (2) the historical circumstances of its revelation, (3) the ways that it has been interpreted by Muslim scholars through the ages, and finally (4) she insists on trying to understand how the Qur’an has worked in the life journeys of ordinary Muslims. So, in this book we get to see how the Qur’an—or calligraphic renderings of it—become Muslim art, how people use the Qur’an as an object and a source of inspiration in their daily lives, how it is displayed, how it is studied by people all over the world. Mattson also explains how memorizing and reciting it is one of the highest callings of young observant Muslims, which is also the subject of the HBO documentary, Koran by Heart.
As important as Muhammad and the Qur’an are to understanding pathways of Islamic faith, coming to know the religious journeys of Muslims also means paying attention to the ways that Muslims themselves continued to debate some of the most fundamental questions of their faith. Over hundreds of years, Muslim scholars, the ulama, would develop learned opinions on ethical human behavior, seeking to know which behaviors are mandatory, recommended, ethically neutral, discouraged, and prohibited. This process of judging all human behavior was necessary in order to follow in the path of God, which is called the Shariah by Muslims. I will be surprised if this term, shariah, does not also come up in your discussions. Some people translate Shariah as “Islamic Law” but in my view, that’s simply incorrect—it’s too narrow a definition in the English language. Sharia literally means path, and this is the way that Qur’an itself refers to it, when it uses the word in reference to the idea that God put the Prophet Muhammad on an ordained religious path. And this path to the ideal Muslim life includes far more than what we generally think of as criminal and civil law. It outlines how to pray, fast, and perform other ritual obligations, as well.
It also includes guidelines on how to nurture your own spirituality, and throughout history, most Muslims have seen sharia as something that encompasses rather than opposes the inner life. Most observant Muslims have desired a spiritual life in which they come to know God more intimately, to love God and to feel God’s love in return. Islamic spirituality is often referred to by the term Sufism, which has also been defined as Islamic mysticism. For hundreds of years Muslims have created and sustained Sufi religious orders devoted to helping their members cultivate the inner life. A Sufi order is called a tariqa, another word that means path. And the point of this pathway of faith, as outlined in the beautiful poem of Farid Ad-Din Attar called the Conference of the Birds, is to discover that God’s love exists within us---it is inside of us all, no matter what we look like, no matter what our weaknesses, we can find God’s presence there. This poem, written in Persian, tells the story of birds who set off to the find the king of all birds, the great Simorgh. Each bird represents a different human weakness, and they must overcome these weaknesses if they are to have a successful journey. Their guide is the bird called the hoopoe [hoopoo], the shaykh of the journey, who helps them overcome their selfish desires, and when some them finally make it to the throne of their king, they discover that the Divine is far closer to them than they thought—it is actually inside themselves. As the Qur’an puts it, “God is closer to you than your jugular vein.”
The Conference of the Birds is an allegory, but not all Muslim spiritual journeys are exclusively allegorical. Sometimes, in Muslim pathways of faith, spiritual journeys and physical journeys are one. There is no better example of this than the hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca during the last month of Islamic lunar calendar. The Art of Hajj beautifully illustrates the meaning of the pilgrimage by exploring its arts: the paintings of the caravans that went on hajj, the maps that they used to get there, the textiles that they brought to decorate the Kaba, the illustrated manuals that give instructions on how to perform this ritual, and the ways pilgrims decorate their homes when they return. The Hajj is a Muslim journey of incredible human solidarity. The feeling of being one with all humankind often transports the pilgrim to a space that feels to some like heaven on earth. It is the kind of experience that inspires people to write poetry, as sixteenth-century pilgrim, Muhyi Al-Din Lari, wrote in Persian when he finally arrived at the sacred house, the Kaba, originally built by Abraham and rededicated by Muhammad to the one God. He wrote,
What I have experienced from seeing that sight
Is a mystery that I am unable to divulge.
My heart became drowned in the Ocean of Meeting;
I was lost to myself in the glory of Beauty.
It made me bewildered, amazed, stupefied;
The house of my being parted from its foundations!
Crying out, I made for the place of tawaf [circumambulation];
Dancing, I came forward for my circumambulation.
God’s infinite generosity became manifest
As I planted a kiss upon the Black Stone
Revolving, circling, and full of presence
I became a moth, and God the luminous candle.
It is hard to imagine a more powerful physical and spiritual journey than that.
So far, I have spoken today about several different Muslim journeys—pathways of faith, gendered journeys, and American Stories. And I know you are hungry and want to go to dinner, but let me ask you, like those birds traveling to see the Simorgh, to stick with me a moment longer so that I can talk to you about one more theme of the Muslim Journeys bookshelf.
Connected Histories. The theme of Connected Histories is another angle of vision on the idea that Muslim journeys are human journeys. It is a story not only about our shared ancestors, but also about our shared past. This is really important to keep in mind because the world of our ancestors was a very different one. Any journey back in time, to any place—even our hometown--is a journey to foreign country. We are assaulted with a way of life radically different from our own. So, one of the challenges of the section on connected histories is to emphasize that the cultural difference we encounter may not be so much because the lands about which we read were inhabited by Muslims but because these stories happened so long ago.
Rather than seeing Muslims, Christians, and Jews, or Buddhists, as isolated communities, this theme captures the ways in which they lived in shared, cosmopolitan, and inter-connected worlds. The theme of Connected Histories shows us that the old world, sometimes called Afro-Eurasia, was defined by constant trade, travel, pilgrimage, warfare, and other forms of contact, conflict, and exchange. In this era, there was not so much what we could today call a West or an East, but instead regional zones of civilizations.
And much of the Old World’s economic activity and scientific innovation was centered in Asia.
Though we think of Islam as a Middle Eastern religion, one of the books in this theme, When Asia Was the World, helps to explain how Islam became a global religion. This book also sets the stage for others to come. In the words of Giancarlo Casale, we meet “a Baghdadi envoy sent to the untamed steppes of Central Asia as a representative of the Muslim caliph; a Jewish merchant from Islamic Cairo, with business interests stretching from India to Tunisia; a Muslim bureaucrat from southern China, who traveled to the heartland of the Islamic world on the famed ‘Treasure Ships’ of the early Ming dynasty.”
Connected Histories also shines a spotlight on medieval advances in the sciences, as Baghdad’s famed House of Wisdom, a ninth century institute for advanced study, made new discoveries in algebra, trigonometry, clinical pharmacology, optics, and anatomy, among other fields of research.
This was not a democratic age, but it was a pluralistic one. The Abrahamic faith communities of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, though part of this Asian world, were centered in the medieval Mediterranean world. There they created multicultural societies that were remarkably tolerant of different ethnic, religious, and linguistic groups. This is particularly true in the Iberian peninsula, where Muslim caliphs in the city of Cordoba created a European Muslim society that was marked by its architectural splendor. In Maria Rose Menocal’s Ornament of the World, we learn how Christian and Muslim princes began to compete with each other in Iberia as each tried to patronize the most beautiful art and architecture.
But, eventually, we also see how that world came apart. The end of the tri-faith community of Iberia occurs as a result of Ferdinand and Isabella’s Reconquista in 1492 and soon all Jews and Muslims forced to convert, to go into exile, or are killed. That is where the story of Leo Africanus begins. We don’t really know what he looked like. Here are two possibilities.
The book, Leo Africanus, is a real swashbuckling tale at times, as this fictionalized account of a real person sends its protagonist on journeys from Granada to Fez, Morocco, and from there to Timbuktu, Cairo, Istanbul, and Rome. Along the way, this Muslim born in Spain owns a slave and becomes a slave himself; he earns a fortune, loses it; writes an Arabic-Latin-Hebrew dictionary; is baptized a Christian by the Pope but seems to have died a Muslim. In the novel, the great traveler’s tale ends as he approaches the coast of North Africa, site of his final exile. Some of his last words are written for his son, and even though they are the particular words of one parent to one child, they embody a deep humanistic sensibility. These words restate the idea that Muslim journeys are human journeys.
“Wherever you are, some will want to ask questions about your skin or your prayers. Beware of gratifying their instincts, my son, beware of bending before the multitude. Muslim, Jew, or Christian, they must take you as you are, or lose you. When men’s minds seem narrow to you, tell yourself that the land of God is broad; broad His hands and broad His heart. Never hesitate to go far away, beyond all seas, all frontiers, all countries, all beliefs.”
This is compelling advice to those about to begin life’s journey.
But all journeys have an end. We grow old and get tired, or we just need a rest. “For my part,” Leo Africanus declares, “I have reached the end of my wanderings. Forty years of adventures have made my gait heavy and my breathing burdensome. I have no longer any desire other than to live peaceful days in the bosom of my family. And to be, of all those that I love, the first to depart. Towards the final Place where no man is a stranger before the face of the Creator.”