Astaghfirullah is an Arabic expression known to Muslims the world over, no matter what language they speak. Roughly translated, it means “I ask forgiveness from God.” Muslim parents employ it regularly to express exasperation with kids who sneak out on dates or go dancing, while some Muslims use it to condemn drinking alcohol or excessive shows of vanity.
Ahmed Nassef, Jawad Ali and Sarah Eltantawi have had more than a few Astaghfirullah’s heaped upon them. MuslimWakeUp.com is an upstart online magazine that Nassef and Ali, both business and technology consultants, started two years ago and to which Eltantawi, a long-time Muslim activist, contributes. It had questioned some of Islam’s most established practices and ridiculed some of its most venerated scholars.
On the eve of what the trio said would be a watershed event in more than 1,400 years of Islamic history, the three sat in Amir’s, a small Lebanese diner on Manhattan’s upper west side, and planned a party. The theme—the end of patriarchy, to commemorate a female-led, mixed-gender prayer that would take place the next day at the Synod House of St. John of the Divine, a giant cathedral a couple of blocks away.
Ali, 40, suggested passing out a “Muslim Girls Gone Wild” calendar at the imaginary party, spoofing the Girls Gone Wild videos, in which co-eds bare their breasts. Instead of girls lifting their shirts, Ali envisioned shots of women dropping their veils and showing their faces.
Such was the irreverence that brought Muslim WakeUp all manner of condemnation. “Kaffir, unbelievers, and kufr,” those who reject what God has put in their hearts, were typical and worse. Hackers took the site down three times between December and March, while editor Nassef has received multiple death threats. In early March, the organizers of the female-led prayer had to change its venue after the Sundarem Tagore Gallery, in Tribeca, the original host, received a bomb threat.
In fact, the night before the prayer, Nassef came face-to-face with the kind of anger he usually deals with online. Two men had come to a lecture at Auburn Seminary by Dr. Amina Wadud, an African-American Qur’anic scholar from Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond and who would lead the next day’s Jum’ah, the congregational prayer that Muslims perform on Fridays. The two men tried to challenge Wadud, admired by many Muslim women for her feminist interpretations of the Qur’an, but were quieted by an audience of Muslims and non-Muslims mostly sympathetic to her.
The incident did not discourage Nassef, a 39-year-old Egyptian native who spent most of his life in the United States, and who cut his teeth in political activism as president of UCLA’s Muslim Student Association in the 1980s. On the contrary, had you asked him a few months ago about holding a female-led, mixed-gender Jum’ah, he would have laughed. Now, sipping tea at Amir’s, he was a few hours away from the unimaginable.
Efforts are underway to build institutions for progressive Muslims. Several Muslim academics and activists, led by Omid Safi, an Islamic Studies professor at Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y., and editor of “Progressive Muslims,” a collection of essays by 15 Muslim scholars, incorporated the Progressive Muslim Union last October. Nassef is on the board as well, but he and group officials stress that Muslim WakeUp and the PMU are unaffiliated.
While it was easy to define what it would stand for – yes to same-sex marriage, no to mixing religion and state and a vision of Islam as one path but not the only path to God – the PMU is still trying to figure out how to turn ideas into action and build membership.
“Until you start doing things, the constituency doesn’t know you’re there. But until you have a constituency, you can’t really do things,” said Pamela Taylor, a PMU board member.
It is challenging because the target audience is secular, avoids centralized organizations, or has already had an unpleasant experience with Muslim institutions.
But Nassef believes that Muslim WakeUp and meet-up groups can overcome such obstacles, offering interested Muslims safe spaces where they can talk about religious, political and cultural issues without fear of hearing Astaghfirullah.
“This is not an easy time to proclaim that you’re a Muslim, especially if you’re not particularly religious…. People have good memories about childhood, times with their parents, the music they listened to, how you celebrated Eid,” said Nassef, referring to one of Islam’s holy holidays. Muslim WakeUp “gives them the opportunity to be themselves and express their love for who they are and the community without being judged…It just begins a process.”
For Michael Muhammad Knight, his novel “The Taqwacores” was supposed to be his farewell to Islam. Set against a landscape of Muslim punk rock bands and characters who slam-danced, prayed, smoked dope and recited the Qur’an, The Taqwacores let Knight vent his own spiritual and mental struggle with what it means to be a good Muslim.
Knight, 27, converted to Islam when he was 15, after reading “The Autobiography of Malcolm X.” He started learning Arabic, studying Islamic teachings and going to a mosque in Rochester, N.Y., and abstained from dating and dancing. During his senior year in high school, he took two months off to study at the International Islamic University in Islamabad, Pakistan. While there, he contemplated joining other Pakistanis going off to fight in Chechnya, but an instructor counseled him against it.
He returned to America and after a brief stint at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh in 1995, where he had taken to wearing white robes and a “Khomeini” turban, he went home to Geneva, N.Y., got a job as a janitor and continued to immerse himself in Islamic readings. He soon came upon books about the Sunni and Shiah schism in the early decades of Islam, and the internecine wars that followed.
“That was supposed to be the best generation of Muslims and they killed each other. That really bugged me,” he said.
With that discovery, coupled with the racism and other social ills that he had witnessed in Pakistan, his image of Muslim societies as just and harmonious began to fade. When Knight went to his mosque in Rochester, he’d often break down crying, grappling with doubts about his faith, but too afraid to tell people at the mosque.
Knight bounced in and out of a couple of upstate New York colleges, trying to become “a regular college guy,” although he still abstained from drinking and eating pork. While at Buffalo State College, in 2002, he started writing “The Taqwacores.”
Through characters that were hedonistic but who also practiced compassion, tolerance and disavowed judgment, Knight hoped to express his own optimism for Islam.
“These kids were messed up Muslims, but they were still Muslims of a different standard. They still had something in their heart that most devout Muslims didn’t have,” he said.
Knight made copies of his book at Kinko’s and in September 2003 drove to the Islamic Society of North America’s annual convention in Chicago, where he slept in his car and peddled copies of “The Taqwacores” to young Muslim kids who looked as if they might be able to relate.
As it turned out, there were far more kids that could relate than he expected, a revelation that rekindled his interest in Islam. Eventually, Alternative Tentacles Records and Autonomedia, two underground book publishers, added “The Taqwacores” to their catalogs. Before long, Knight, who is now a regular contributor to Muslim WakeUp, started receiving emails from young Muslims who identified with both their faith and the American culture they lived in, but felt welcomed by neither.
Basim Usmani first heard about “The Taqwacores” on an Internet “live journal” frequented by young South Asian Americans, and identified with the references to punk and Muslim culture.
A 22-year-old senior at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, Usmani lives at home with his Pakistani parents and is a self-described underachiever. He wears a mohawk-haircut and handles bass guitar and vocals for his band, Malice in Leatherland, which plays the Boston bar circuit. He gladly indulges in the perks of a musician: girls and partying. Usmani also speaks Urdu, knows passages of the Qur’an by heart, is well-versed in Islamic history and Pakistani culture, and fasts during Ramadan, although he sometimes breaks his fast with a beer.
Usmani sees more confluence than contradiction in his two cultural orientations. He’s drawn to musicians like Peter Murphy, who fronted the 1980s band Bauhaus and came to be known as the “Godfather of Goth” before he left for Turkey to study Sufi Islam. He also draws analogies between Abraham’s smashing of pagan idols in the Kaaba, and songs written by Joe Strummer of The Clash that he said invoke “smashing capitalism.”
But Usmani, who reads Muslim WakeUp regularly, doubts he would have suggested the analogy to peers or religious instructors at the mosque his family attends in Wayland, Mass., and which he gets to five to six times per year. They wouldn’t relate, he said.
The disconnect between Usmani and his mosque boils down to a religious lesson he heard there in 1998, when he was a freshman in high school. The topic: What to do if a scorpion comes close to you when you are in the middle of prayer.
“It seemed a bit irrelevant. I mean, how many scorpions are you going to see in northern Massachusetts? There are so many other things that we need to talk about,” he said, ticking off a list that included domestic violence, homophobia and materialism.
There were also aspects of the religion and its history that troubled him, such as references to taking four wives. “It was really hard to bring up in class because people would see me as a non-Muslim. But I wasn’t a non-Muslim. I just had questions.”
As far as the scorpions, Usmani already knows what he’d do: “Run.”
One of Suehyla El-Attar’s earliest memories from growing up in Starkville, Miss. is being chased down the street by her piano teacher’s daughter, who was carrying a Bible and screaming that if she didn’t accept Jesus as her Lord and Savior, she would go to hell. Her father, who immigrated to America from Egypt in the 1960s, put her fears to rest, explaining that Jesus was prophet in Islam just like Muhammad, and that if she believed that, she would be alright.
Now, as a 29-year-old theater director in Atlanta, El-Attar is more afraid of some of her co-religionists. Although she identifies as a Muslim, and takes pride in the fact that her paternal grandfather served his Cairo mosque as a muezzin, the person who issues the call to prayer, she worries they won’t approve of her work or lifestyle. She most recently directed a production of the Vagina Monologues for the Women’s Resource Center at Georgia Tech University, and is currently writing a play about “accepting one’s self as Muslim and American, at the same time.”
“Progressive Muslims face new kinds of explaining. They have to explain their faith and beliefs to non-Muslims. But they also have to explain their faith and religion and lifestyle to other Muslims. The fact that you have to explain yourself shows how much intolerance there is. I get scared talking to other Muslims sometimes.”
Corine Huq, a 25-year-old filmmaker in New York, last went to a mosque in Queens, in 2003, to see a close friend marry. But it wasn’t the ebullient atmosphere that Huq, who was born and raised in Houston to an American mother and Bangladeshi father, normally associated with weddings.
“The imam was very serious, would not look at me or shake my hand and my hijab kept slipping and people would then give me bad looks. The whole environment struck me as being very puritanical and I was always worried that I would cross some line that I had no idea existed and would then either grossly offend everyone or be chastised in front of a lot of people,” she wrote in an email. “My parents don’t really practice, so a lot of the gender segregation rules I didn’t know and I found that uncomfortable.”
Recognizing the Problem
When they considered launching Muslim WakeUp, Nassef and Ali believed disaffection was widespread. Their hunch was confirmed by a 2001 study by the Washington D.C.-based Council on American-Islamic Relations. “The American Mosque: A National Portrait,” showed that only about seven percent of America’s estimated 6 to 7 million Muslims attend mosques once per week, while about a third of the population “associated” with a mosque.
“It just kind of proved what were thinking,” said Nassef. “But the image that we got from the media, is like a community that’s very conservative, that’s very religious. You would think that these guys live in the mosque, that Muslims in America are so traditional.”
Leaders in established Muslim organizations, like Dr. Ingrid Mattson, vice president of the Islamic Society of North America, agree that mosques can do a better job. The society represents about 300 mosques in United States and is arguably America’s largest Muslim organization.
“The whole point is to give people some hope in their lives to give them a spiritual charge. It’s not supposed to be a place primarily for political discussion. People are tired. They have a lot of stresses in their lives. They need to know that God is living and is there,” said Mattson, who is director of the first-of-its-kind Islamic Chaplaincy Program at Hartford Seminary.
But ISNA is working on these issues, Mattson said, and has set up programs that teach community outreach – Muslim and non-Muslim – and encourage civic engagement. As for Muslim WakeUp, Mattson said she sees them as “reacting to sexism, narrow-mindedness, and xenophobia in the Muslim community,” and that they have “a legitimate agenda of community transformation.” But she also disapproves of what she said is a disrespectful tone, as well as the proposal of a female-led, mixed gender prayer.
“I think that reflects a lack of either training in traditional Islam or a rejection of traditional Islamic disciplines,” she said.
Officials from other Muslim groups have also questioned whether Muslim WakeUp and the PMU will have staying power, and have cast doubt upon their legitimacy.
“What do they do?” asked Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for CAIR, which describes itself as the leading civil rights organization for Muslims in America.
A Second Look at Faith
Nassef and other progressive Muslim leaders acknowledge that sustaining a movement will be challenging, but that no group can claim to represent “mainstream American Muslims” because so many American Muslims have yet to identify with a Muslim institution. That said, he also believes that many American Muslims who are upset about how Islam is portrayed in the United States, but are skittish about joining mosques or established Muslim organizations, will be attracted to the progressive Muslim movement.
Part of what compelled Huq to get involved was the growing chorus of media pundits asking where Islam’s moderate voices were.
“It must have struck a cord and I think a lot of Muslims living in America who really had become closet Muslims, only practicing their faith at home, who never really went to mosque, who celebrated Eid only with their spouses and kids, who maybe never prayed, drank alcohol occasionally, but never ate pork because it was haram,” she wrote, using the Arabic word for “forbidden.” “Those Muslims really started to realize how important it was for them to get back into the dialogue and to defend Islam from people who wanted to destroy it from within and from without.”
The post-9/11 climate has also changed things for Rami El-Amine, a 35-year-old Lebanese-American who works in a Washington D.C. call center by day and by night edits Left Turn Magazine and organizes demonstrations against the Bush administration. He used to describe himself as an activist who happened to be a Muslim.
“I always felt like I didn’t want to make an identity issue out of it,” he said. “Whatever, I have to say, it should be able to stand on itself, not because I’m a Muslim.”
El-Amine still believes that, but now introduces himself as a “Muslim activist,” even though he also refers to himself as “secular” and even “agnostic.” El-Amine fasted during Ramadan when he was a child, but has started again, while he has yet felt comfortable enough to go to a mosque.
“Even though I’m secular, after 9/11, I’ve wrestled more with what that means (to be a Muslim), and some basic beliefs,” said El-Amine. “People are looking to their identity to make sense of what’s happening in the world.”
Yacoob, who was raised by a single mother and often felt scrutinized by other Muslims, said she saw the same dynamic in the Progressive Muslim meet-up group that she organized in Washington.
“People laughed at the idea of Progressive Muslims. But now, they’ve spoken up, are organized, and are making statements, they’ve developed a following,” she said. “People are starting to have to recognize these communities…they’re not a group of whackos, but a group that has to be reckoned with, and with a good deal of credibility.”
The first real test of the movement’s credibility would come the Friday of the female-led, mixed gender prayer.
A pivotal character in “The Taqwacores” is Rabeya, a foul-mouthed punk whose burqa is covered with punk band patches. In one of her more unremarkable acts, or so Knight assumed, she led a group of her fellow-punks, men and women, in a mixed-gender prayer.
“I thought it was no big deal,” Knight said.
But the passage caught the attention of Asra Nomani, an Indian-born Muslim raised in Morgantown, W.V., who refers to it in her own book, “Standing Alone in Mecca,” as the first time she was “presented with a scene where a woman leads men in prayer.”
Released in March, the book is about her Hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, with her infant son Shibli, who she had borne and raised as a single mother, as well as her battle in her own Morgantown mosque – where women could not enter through the front door and prayed in a small cramped room separate from the main hall where the men prayed – for gender equality.
Together, Nomani and Nassef and other progressive Muslims set-out to organize their own female-led prayer. They consulted Islamic scholars and sought legitimacy for their actions in the Qur’an and Sunnah, or the “ways of the prophet” which are only second to the Qur’an in terms of providing Muslims guidance.
They posted a 12-page treatise, “The Islamic Basis For Female Led Prayer,” on Muslim WakeUp, which was originally published late last year on the website of the Canadian Council of Muslim Women. The paper cited Qur’anic passages condemning gender discrimination and referencing women in leadership positions, Mary of Nazareth and the Queen of Sheba among them. Another key source was a story about Prophet Muhammad giving approval to Umm Waraqa, a contemporary of his who helped collect the prayers of the Qur’an, to lead a mixed-gender prayer.
In the days preceding it, the prayer had garnered international media attention. It was debated on American Muslim websites and in the editorial pages of newspapers in Muslim countries around the world. It was daily fare on Arabic news networks, including Al-Jazeera, which a day before the prayer hosted an hour-long program with Nassef and Nomani.
By late Friday morning, two hours before the prayer was supposed to begin, dozens of journalists had descended on the Synod House – synod being the Greek-Latin word for gathering – on 110th Street and Amsterdam in New York City.
“This story is playing big in the Arab world,” said Nasser Hssaini, Al-Jazeera’s Washington D.C. correspondent, and who had come to New York to cover the event. “This is certainly the first time that Arabs and Muslims are going to see and watch a woman leading prayers. For traditional Muslims, it’s a big no.”
While conservative Arab-Muslims were critical of the prayer, Hssaini believed that younger Arab-Muslims in their teens and twenties and thirties, as well as many non-Arab Muslims, were more open to the idea of a woman-led prayer.
“What we see here is a new generation of Muslims, not Arabs necessarily, but other ethnic groups. This has a link with ethnicity. Arabs would not even dare ask the question of whether a woman could lead a prayer. They think they know the religion, and that such questions shouldn’t even be put on the table,” he said. “Right or wrong, I don’t know, they’re forcing the debate.”
Because of the earlier bomb threats, security was tight. Two or three police officers kept congregants and journalists outside an iron fence around Synod House, while several other security guards, and Mike Knight, checked visitors and searched their bags at the door of the building.
Organizers herded the journalists into the building’s basement for a press conference.
Nomani addressed the reporters. “We are saying loud and clear that our voices are part of the solution for a better world,” she said. “The voices of women have been silenced through centuries of man-made tradition. And we’re saying no more. We are reclaiming the place that the Prophet Muhammad and Islam gave us in the seventh century, and we are going to be part of the solution.”
“We are not trying to change Islam. This is about going back to the roots of justice and compassion of our faith that in principle are at the heart of our religion,” said Nassef. “This is an event that has inspired Muslims, that is bringing them back to our communities because the divisions that are taking place are, if anything, the result of the failures of many of our institutions, because we shut out women from our communities.”
Afterwards, the media went into the main hall where the prayer would be held. They had barely finished setting-up their equipment before a young Arab man who had gotten past the first officers tried to rush the door, but was blocked by the second cordon of security. The commotion sent the media scurrying back outside to see what was happening.
One of the reporters who didn’t give chase was Hsseini.
“This is the story. This is the shocking picture for the Arab world,” he said, gesturing to a couple dozen women who had already gathered at the front of the prayer space, “not what happened out there.”
The reporters returned and a few minutes later, El-Attar, the Vagina Monologue director, emerged to give the ezzan, the call to prayer. Next, Saleemah Abdul-Ghafur, an African-American women long active in the American-Muslim community, lead the congregation in Zikr, “a remembrance of the divine” reached by chanting selected excerpts from the Qur’an.
For this Zikr, they would recite Al-Fatiha, the first chapter of the Qur’an, seven times; the verse Salamun Qowlun min Rabbi Rahim, or “Peace, a word from the Lord,” 33 times, and Ya-Nur, or “Light” and one of the attributes of God, 100 times.
“Don’t worry about getting it right,” Ghafur told the congregants. “Just open yourself.”
What’s The Big Deal?
“…Ya Nur, Ya Nur, Ya Nur,” the congregants chanted a final three times, and emerged from their Zikr.
A few minutes later, Amina Wadud, dressed in violet and carrying a notepad, walked to the microphone and began her khutba by invoking the most fundamental tenet of Islam, that there is no God but God and that Muhammad is his final messenger. She talked about tolerance, compassion and leaving judgment to Allah, but also about Allah’s oneness, and that men and women were equals in faith.
“Moral excellence is a result of belief,” Wadud said, alternating between “he” and “she” to refer to Allah. “Allah is not created, and therefore cannot be limited to he or she.”
The khutba went on for nearly an hour, and then Wadud told the congregants – about 60 women and almost as many men – they would begin their prayer, and, like imams in all mosques, asked them to form their lines.
They did, and she began the prayer as all imams begin prayers, with the words Allahu-Akber, God is the greatest. And like most Friday prayers, it was over in about 10 minutes.
Some people dispersed immediately, others, like Umar Sayyed, a 27-year-old software consultant, lingered, shook hands and chatted with people he had just met. A gay Muslim, Sayyed had been to several Progressive Muslim meet-ups in New York, but it had been the first time in years that he had been to a Jum’ah prayer. He was ecstatic about being there, but in some ways, found the whole event unremarkable.
“What is the big deal?” he said. “It feels so right. I was just thinking what God would want…How can any rational God have a problem with this? I don’t see it. I felt Allah today. I felt him telling me that he wanted me to be here.”
Outside, Mohammed Nussrah, a 21-year-old Brooklyn resident had been protesting with five or six other peers, claiming that Wadud and the congregants had gone against the teachings of Islam.
“She is violating Islamic law…This woman here, is just changing that whole concept. She says its time to reform Islam; that’s the name of the group, they’re called progressive Muslims,” he ranted. “As Muslims, we are followers of God, we hear and we obey. Whatever the Qur’an says, we take it with no questions, we have no opinions here; we have no comments; we have no suggestions. We just hear and we obey. And we know for sure in Islam, women cannot lead men in prayer. And what’s she doing here today, she’s violated a law which has been going on for more than 1400 years. Now, she can repent or she’ll definitely burn in hell.”
A woman that had taken part in the prayer, and who was still wearing her hijab, listened to Nussrah, and issued her own opinion as his friends started to lead him away.
“Astaghfirullah,” she exclaimed.
Amid the elation of that Friday, it seemed as if tables had turned. The prayer had garnered worldwide attention, and most participants were in high spirits.
But it became clear that many obstacles to building a progressive Muslim community remained. Less than a week after the prayer, hackers again took down Muslim WakeUp. When the site returned, one of the hackers wrote in, promising vengeance.
“You didn’t take our warning seriously and decided to continue slandering the respected scholars of the ummah, you continued your vile war on Islam,” wrote the hacker, signing as Abu Nezar Al Turky. “(T)he time of warnings and requests is over, MWU crew. We will use all our technical skills to stop your evil, insha’allah (God willing) we are supported by Allah, and the whole Ummah (Muslim community) which witnessed its beloved religion hijacked on the hands of some people enslaved by their desires.”
Some readers reproached the attack, but others, more typically, responded with humor.
“Is it possible to rent you out for parties?” wrote one reader, signing as Abu Fatoush. “My friends would love to have a real live moozlim radical to chat up.”
Nomani, for her part, continued traveling across the United States, promoting her book and leading mixed-gender prayers. When she came to Brandeis University, near Boston, on March 23, Usmani and a Pakistani guitarist he had recruited for an all-Muslim band he was assembling stood behind her with three women for that evening’s prayer.
As for Nassef, he was readying to go to Dubai, to work as a consultant for a few months, earning money to keep Muslim WakeUp going. He wasn’t sure how big the progressive Muslim movement would be, but he was sure that there was a following.
“Unlike a lot of organizations out there, we don’t claim to represent all Muslims in America. We just represent ourselves and a segment of the community. And we believe there’s a large segment in the community that is liberal and progressive and that does seek change.”
©2005 Omar Sacirbey
Omar Sacirbey, a reporter for the Quincy Patriot Ledger, is examining progressive Islam on his Alicia Patterson fellowship.