It was a confusing time in my life. I had struck out on my own – going to college – for the very first time in my life. All of the support structures that sustained me throughout my adolescence were now gone, and I had to fend for myself. And the fortress that I thought was my faith turned out to be a castle of salt and sand. When confronted with a different faith view, namely that of my fellow classmates and dormmates at Marquette University, I began to seriously doubt my the veracity of my own faith. I had not yet chosen to become a Muslim at that time; the choice had been made for me before, and at that time, I was having doubts.
Enter Sister Aminah Assilmi. I did not meet her personally, but I attended a debate she was having with journalist Deborah Scroggins at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee. The debate was about the hijab, and Sister Assilmi did a fantastic job, truly defending Islam in a way that was dignified, magnanimous, and scholarly. Yet, what struck me was the firmness of her conviction in our faith; the strength of her fortitude; the stubbornness of her love of Islam, despite losing almost everything as a result of her conversion. It left an indelible mark.
Thus, it was with tremendous sadness that I learned that Aminah Assilmi, stalwart of the American Muslim community, passed away in a single car accident on March 5. Reports indicate that she died instantly, and her son, who was with her, was injured and transferred to a hospital in Knoxville, Tennessee. Assilmi was a tremendous force in the American Muslim community: President of the International Union of Muslim Women based in Reno, Nevada. She was also a renown scholar, tireless advocate, prolific writer, and well-known speaker. In fact, she died on her way home from a speaking engagement in New York.
The story of her conversion to Islam is absolutely amazing, and it is tale of blessing, strength of conviction, and tenacity on the path of truth. It is an inspiration for all Muslims, converts and those born into the faith alike. Perhaps her most famous accomplishment was her role in the development of the U.S. Postal Service’s 2001 issuing of the “Eid” stamp. In fact, she was planning on starting a campaign to have the stamp re-issued with a new design in time for its ten year anniversary. The International Union of Muslim Women has a number of notable accomplishments as well, including getting millions of signatures on petitions that were presented to the United Nations in support of the thousands of women were brutally raped in Bosnia as part of the campaign of terror and ethnic cleansing against Bosnian Muslims.
In addition, she was also trying to build a Center for Muslim Women’s Studies, which would serve as a place where converts could learn about Islam and its basics, a place of retreat, and as a summer camp for Muslim children. Her loss is a tremendous one indeed. Equally important was the fact that Aminah Assilmi advocated fiercely for Muslim women’s rights and equality within the framework of Islam itself. She drew on her knowledge of and love for Islam to demand equity for Muslim women wherever it was denied them. She rejected the way of some “Muslim feminists,” who actually do more harm than good in their advocacy on behalf of Islam’s women.
She also rejected the route of renouncing her faith and becoming an “ex-Muslim,” taking every opportunity to denigrate Islam all the while claiming to want to reform the faith. She rejected this path even though it may have brought her even more fame, more wealth, and more recognition. Rather, Aminah Assilmi said:
“I am so very glad that I am a Muslim. Islam is my life. Islam is the beat of my heart. Islam is the blood that courses through my veins. Islam is my strength. Islam is my life so wonderful and beautiful. Without Islam I am nothing, and should Allah ever turn His magnificent face from me, I could not survive.”
Although she is now back with the Lord she loved so much, and in this we should rejoice, it is still painful to know that we will no longer have the benefit of her tireless struggle on behalf of all American Muslims, and for their sisters in particular. I pray that others take up her worthy causes, and that our community supports their work.
To God we belong, and to Him we shall return. As a parent who has lost his child, I know full well the pain that her family must be feeling as they face the reality that they will no longer be with their beloved mother and grandmother. I share some of that pain, knowing that I can no longer have the privilege of calling myself her brother in faith, now that she has passed. But, her work lives on, and the memory of her undying faith and love for God will be with me always.