Amir Muhammad always told his children, “don’t wake up to your sins.”He figured it was the best way to get them to pray in the morning and start each day with a clean slate. It was better than preaching the impossible: don’t sin at all.
His way of practicing Islam was different than the way I was taught growing. Tucked away in Elmhurst, Queens, amongst the other immigrants, the ubiquitous Halal markets and the nosy Bangladeshi community, it was easy for my parents to maintain a staunch view of religion that involved keeping their kids in line.
Muhammad founded the Islamic Heritage Museum in 1996, which began as a traveling museum. In April 2011, the museum found a permanent home in Anacostia in the space that was formerly the Clara Muhammad School. He is the curator of the space and takes a quiet pride that building has been Muslim-owned since 1973 and that the kelly green Clara Muhammad sign still hangs above the entrance on Martin Luther King, Jr. Ave in Southeast.
As he gave me a tour of the six exhibits beginning with “ForgottenRoots,” a historical look at Islam’s beginnings to Muslims in the 21st century and their roles in military, politics and activism, Muhammad made it clear he doesn’t prescribe to that view of religion. He has a twinkle in his eye when talking about Allah. He has a charismatic and jovial air--unlike religious-minded men I knew growing up. But maybe that’s because of his unusual path to Islam.
Muhammad was born in Bridgeport, CT and started his path out by researching his family tree. He realized how closely linked Islam was with his ancestors and, in 1976, he said goodbye to his Baptist upbringing. He always considered himself to be religious in his ideas, concepts and values, but not in his activities.
I was just the opposite. I believed in God but I always felt like Islam--at least what I was taught by parents and my Arabic instructor--coveted memorizing, hijab wearing and alcohol abstaining.
To my surprise, Muhammad didn’t necessarily disagree with me. He spoke of his frustration with the misguided need for Muslims to memorize and blamed that on the chaos and confusion that lies within it followers today.
He also brought up a good point about culturalism. The way I was exposed to religion was mutually exclusive with culture. If something was frowned upon or even foreign in Bengali culture, that meant it had to correlate with the tenets of Islam and crossing those tenets meant, simply, you were a bad person worthy of hell.
We joked about everything being “Haraam,” which means illegal or forbidden. The list includes movies, pictures and music which meant a lot of heated arguments in my house growing up over hanging movie posters in my room and going to concerts.
“Don’t come at me with that culturalism,” he said laughing. Despite our wildly different approaches to God or religion, we had the same hope for Muslims in America. We just want Muslims to be an accepted, normal part of the conversation. It’s beyond frustrating that Muslims, lax and orthodox alike, must prove they are like everyone else.
That a woman in a burkha still loves her iPhone 4s. That a young boy wearing a kufi still hates doing homework and would rather chill at the park with his friends. That the 20-something-year-old guy who regularly prays is still obsessed with his fantasy football team.
It really burns me that I have to defend how I was raised and the kinds of people I knew growing up even though I’m not even connected to Islam the way Muhammad is. It’s troubling that stomaching Muslims requires so much hand-holding. Ask anyone who grew up with Islam and you’d be hard pressed to find someone who didn’t feel somehow compelled to put in a good word on behalf of those actively practicing.
Most people's first introduction to Islam is through the random terrorist plot they hear about on the news.“I had a lot to overcome. I’m black, a male and a Muslim,” Muhammad said.
Still, he considers the museum a vehicle to fight Islamophobia. “To create a total panorama view of Muslims,” he said. There are community iftars (the meal that breaks the daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan), cultural outreach through plays, open mic nights, book signings and interfaith services. He even hopes to build a juice or tea bar to help expand the museum into a cultural center.
I may never have the same peace Muhammad feels in his approach to God and faith. But meeting him reminded me that Islam is not a monolith. His way is not my mother’s way. My mother’s way is not my way. I’m allowed to pick and choose, little or a lot, and go from there. Realizing that allows us all to see that Muslims in America are young and old, devout and unsure, African American and Bengali. Just another American.