This article comes on Day 13 of our special Altmuslim/Patheos Muslim Ramadan #30Days30Writers blog project, in which we are showcasing the voices of 30 Muslim leaders, activists, scholars, writers, youth and more (one on each day of Ramadan) as part of our commitment to own our own narratives and show how we are one Ummah, many voices. To demonstrate how our Ramadan experiences are shared yet unique to each of us.
By Umar Lee
Ramadan holds so many great memories for me. Where do I begin? Some years have definitely been better than others. All special in their own ways.
There was the year I spent Ramadan in the home of the Sudanese scholar Jafar Sheikh Idris. I remember seeing in his sons a genuine goodness and piety I knew I’d never be able to match. The year I spent in Wichita with Sheikh Abdul-Rahman Rahman al-Baseer (both one of my early teachers and Imam Suhaib Webb’s). Or there was the year when I was living with my daughter in a really crappy apartment in a bad neighborhood in St. Louis. Broke as a joke, stressed and waking up to gunfire; but I ate Little Debbie’s for sahoor with my daughter every morning and went with her every night to the masjid, and that was special to me.
The other night it occurred to me this is a special Ramadan. The thought didn’t come to me after some deep contemplation, prayer or long period of dhikr. It came to me while picking up dates for iftaar.
This year I’ve been breaking fast and praying at the Dar al-Jalal masjid in North St. Louis County. Just as there are now masjids in North County (four to be exact), there are also now halal stores and restaurants. While leaving the store to buy my dates I remembered that store used to be a Walgreens with a long-gone K-Mart next door.
The area has seen better days. The racial-tension of the North County of my childhood has given way to all-out white flight. Major employers such as TWA and Ford are long gone, and Boeing’s purchase of McDonnell-Douglass has not been kind to the area. Across from the halal store I gazed upon the old Village Square shopping mall where I watched Return of the Jedi as a kid. It’s now full of social-service agencies and businesses that cater to the poor.
“This place could use some new life. A renewal is what North County needs,” I thought to myself. Then it occurred to men — we are the new life.
Islam was virtually unknown in the North County I grew up in, outside of running into Nation of Islam members selling the Final Call or adherents to Grand Sheikh Jerry Lewis-Bey of the Moorish Science Temple. And that wasn’t that often.
Today, the Muslim community has blossomed and in North County it’s mostly a mixture of Arabs, African-Americans and West Africans.
Arab (mostly Palestinian) store owners, who tend to their shops in North City and North County all day. Often in dangerous locations. Often robbed. Prayed over the bodies of a few who’ve been killed. They own fried fish and chicken joints, hair-weave shops, cell phone stores, gas stations and yes, even the hated corner stores selling pork and liquor. You can find them all breaking their fasts and praying taraweeh.
African-American second-generation Muslims, new shahadahs, the educated and the struggling. Brothers earning their doctorate degrees and brothers whose bodies shiver in salat next to you because they’re trying to get off heroin for Ramadan.
Senegalese families opening up stores and setting down roots in an area that was a generation ago hardcore white, Catholic and conservative Democrat, and let’s just say not that friendly to outsiders.
Muslims are not only players in the resurgence of North St. Louis County. Muslims are at the forefront.
Which brings me to my Ramadan crew. The crew for whom every year at Eid I organize a lunch at a halal restaurant. Because, without this lunch, most of these brothers would be working on Eid or have no one to celebrate with. Unfortunately this is not an uncommon Eid situation for many converts no matter where they live. These are brothers who are only vaguely familiar with “Umar Lee the writer,” many of whom have no social media presence.
The crew speaks to our sense of place both in time and space. Abu Lateef, one of my early mentors, a reformed gang-member from East St. Louis who has spent the 22 years since his release from prison working as a drug counselor. Anthony, the HBCU grad and accountant and only [Philadelphia] 76er’s fan in Da Lou. Mukhtar, who while his title may be plumber, is really the pillar of the community and has touched hundreds of lives. Rashid the Detroit refugee, cabbie and foster parent to many. Muhammad, who grew up in the deen and called Imam Zaid Shakir “Uncle.” Pi, who has been to all seven continents and has the kalimah and the map of Antarctica on his truck.
All of us have our stories, and we all have our struggles. Some of us stay in contact all year round. All of us come together for Ramadan. Just as North County is seeking renewal and needs a little help, so are we. Ramadan comes right on time every year. Some years we crawl in or have to be pushed in with a little tough love. I know these brothers gave me that last year. And I needed it. Straight after a meltdown and a certain video went viral on YouTube, of which the circumstances only one person really knows, these are the brothers who wouldn’t let me go.
Weeks after said video, I was fasting for the beginning of Ramadan with my crew. Others weren’t so forgiving. On one night last Ramadan, I was ambushed on the way to my car. Another time a gun was involved; but who am I to stay angry or judge? It’s easy to have online beefs with people living across the country or the other side of the world. It’s much harder to stay mad at people in your own city whom you actually know.
We’ve all committed sins, none more so than me, and we are all struggling. Perhaps, like me, they were just in need of a renewal. I pray we all get that renewal.
While we need to keep Iraq, Syria, Gaza, the Central African Republic, Nigeria, Rohingya, Chinese Muslims, Kashmir, Pakistan, political-prisoners, Imam Jamil and so many others in our prayers and deeds, we must also not forget those living in our own communities.
Homelessness is right here in our communities. Drug addiction is a reality in the Muslim community (in a major way in St. Louis). Domestic violence is real. Loneliness and isolation is real. A brother recently told me he didn’t want be Sunni or Shia — all he wanted was to go somewhere and feel loved. Criminality is in our communities. It’s a lot easier to sit in judgment of the Muslim criminal and bash for Muslim public relations purposes, and a lot harder to see the criminal as a human with a story.
Some pains are less dramatic. Divorced fathers missing their children, who’ll never talk about it. Children of immigrants who can’t be what their parents want them to be. Sisters struggling under the pressure to conform to multiple worlds, balancing them all.
Just as all of the above are in need of renewal and as their foreheads touch the carpet, they’ll be asking Allah for a positive renewal this Ramadan. Their prayers are also an opportunity — an opportunity for all of us to be better brothers and sisters. To be friends. To sit in a seat of love and not judgment. To let people grow, giving them a chance to renew. To know just as we seek Allah’s mercy for ourselves, we seek it for others.
Renewal in Ramadan is something that can unite us all — Sufi, Shia or Salafi. Democrat or Republican. A construction or factory worker fasting in a state of fatigue dripping in sweat, or the office-worker chillin’ in the AC.
We can all get better and seek Allah’s guidance. We can all help others with their renewal.
Umar Lee is a St. Louis-based activist and writer. His writings can be found at umarlee.wordpress.com, on his Amazon author page and in the St. Louis Evening-Whirl.