Sister Penomee



July 4, 1997. A salaam aleikum, beloved family. "There is no god but Allah, and Muhammed is his messenger." These are the words of  the  Shahadah  oath,  I  believe.  The  Creator  is  known  by  many names.  His  wisdom  is  always  recognizable,  and  his  presence  made manifest  in  the  love,  tolerance  and  compassion  present  in  our community.    His  profound  ability  to  guide  us  from  a  war-like individualism so rampant in American society to a belief in the glory and dignity of the Creator's human family, and our obligations to and membership  within  that  family.  This  describes  the  maturation  of  a spiritual  personality,  and  perhaps  the  most  desirable  maturation  of the psychological self, also.  

My road  to Shahadah  began  when  an  admired  director,  Tony Richardson, died of AIDS. Mr. Richardson was already a brilliant and internationally  recognized  professional  when  I  almost  met  him backstage at the play Luther at age 14. Play writing for me has always been  a  way  of  finding  degrees  of  spiritual  and  emotional reconciliation both within myself and between myself and a world I found  rather  brutal  due  to  childhood  circumstances.  Instead  of fighting  with  the  world, I let my conflicts fight it out in my plays. Amazingly, some of us have even grown up together! So as I began accumulating  stage  credits  (productions  and  staged  readings), beginning at age 17, I always retained the hope that I would someday fulfil  my  childhood  dream  of  studying  and  working  with  Mr. Richardson. When he followed his homosexuality to America (from England) and a promiscuous community, AIDS killed him, and with him went another portion of my sense of belonging to and within American  society.  I  began  to  look  outside  American  and  Western society  to  Islamic  culture  for  moral  guidance.  Why  Islam  and  not somewhere else? My birthmother's ancestors were Spanish Jews who lived  among  Muslims  until  the  Inquisition  expelled  the Jewish community in 1492. In my historical memory, which I feel at a deep level, the call of the muezzin is as deep as the lull of the ocean and the  swaying  of  ships,  the  pounding  of  horses'  hooves  across  the desert, the assertion of love in the face of oppression.  

I felt the birth of a story within me, and the drama took form as I  began  to  learn  of  an  Ottoman  caliph's  humanity  toward  Jewish refugees  at  the  time  of  my  ancestors'  expulsions.  Allah  guided  my learning, and I was taught about Islam by figures as diverse as Imam Siddiqi  of  the  South  Bay  Islamic  Association;  Sister Hussein  of Rahima; and my beloved adopted Sister, Maria Abdin, who is Native American and Muslim and a writer for the SBIA magazine, IQRA. My  first  research  interview  was  in  a halal butcher  shop  in  San Francisco's Mission District, where my understanding of living Islam was profoundly affected by the first Muslim lady I had ever met: a customer who was in Hijab, behaved with a sweet kindness and grace and  also  read,  wrote  and  spoke  four  languages.  Her  brilliance, coupled  with  her  amazing  (to  me)  freedom  from  arrogance,  had  a profound effect on the beginnings of my knowledge of how Islam can affect human behavior.  

Little did I know then that not only would a play be born, but a new  Muslim.  The  course  of  my  research  introduced  me  to  much more about Islam than a set of facts, for Islam is a living religion. I learned how Muslims conduct themselves with a dignity and kindness which  lifts  them  above  the  American  slave  market  of  sexual competition and violence. I learned that Muslim men and women can actually  be  in  each  others'  presence  without  tearing each  other  to pieces,  verbally  and  physically.  And  I  learned  that  modest  dress, perceived as a spiritual state, can uplift human behavior and grant to both men and women a sense of their own spiritual worth.  

Why  did  this  seem  so  astonishing,  and  so  astonishingly  new? Like most American females, I grew up in a slave market, comprised not  only  of  the  sexual  sicknesses  of  my  family,  but  the  constant negative  judging  of  my  appearance  by  peers  beginning  at  ages younger than seven. I was taught from a very early age by American society  that  my  human  worth  consisted  solely  of  my attractiveness (or,  in  my  case,  lack  of  it)  to  others.  Needless  to  say,  in  this atmosphere, boys and girls, men and women, often grew to resent each  other  very  deeply,  given  the  desperate  desire for  peer acceptance,  which  seemed  almost  if  not  totally  dependent  not  on one's kindness or compassion or even intelligence, but on looks and the perception of those looks by others.  

While  I  do  not  expect  or  look  for  human  perfection  among Muslims,   the   social   differences   are   profound,   and   almost unbelievable to someone like myself. I do not pretend to have any answers  to  the  conflicts  of  the  Middle  East,  except what  the prophets,  beloved  in  Islam,  have  already  expressed.  My  disabilities prevent  me  from  fasting,  and  from  praying  in  the  same  prayer postures  as  most  of  you.  But  I  love  and  respect  the  Islam  I  have come  to  know  through  the  behavior  and  words  of  the  men  and women I have come to know in AMILA (American Muslims Intent on  Learning  and  Activism)  and  elsewhere,  where I find a freedom from cruel emotional conflicts and a sense of imminent spirituality.  

What  else  do  I  feel  and  believe  about  Islam?  I  support  and deeply admire Islam's respect for same sex education; for the rights of women as well as men in society; for modest dress; and above all for sobriety and marriage, the two most profound foundations of my life, for I am 21 1/2 years sober and happily married. How wonderful to  feel  that  one  and  half  billion  Muslims  share  my  faith  in  the character development marriage allows us, and also in my decision to remain drug- and alcohol-free. What, then, is Islam's greatest gift in a larger sense? In a society which presents us with constant pressure to immolate ourselves on the altars of unbridled instinct without respect for  consequences,  Islam  asks  us  to  regard  ourselves  as human persons created by Allah with the capacity for responsibility in our relations with others. Through prayer and charity and a commitment to sobriety and education, if we follow the path of Islam, we stand a good chance of raising children who will be free from the violence and  exploitation  which  is  robbing  parents  and  children  of  safe schools and neighborhoods, and often of their lives.  

The  support  of  the  AMILA  community  and  other  friends,particularly at a time of some strife on the AMILA Net, causes me to affirm  my  original  responses  to  Islam  and  declare  that  this  is  a marvellous  community,  for  in  its  affirmation  of  Allah's  gifts  of marriage, sobriety and other forms of responsibility, Islam shows us the way out of hell. My husband, Silas, and I are grateful for your presence  and  your  friendship.  And  as  we  prepare  to  lay  the groundwork  for  adoption,  we  hope  that  we  will  continue  to  be blessed with your warm acceptance, for we want our child to feel the spiritual presence of Allah in the behavior of surrounding adults and children. We hope that as other AMILA'ers consider becoming new parents, and become new parents, a progressive Islamic school might emerge...  progressive  meaning  supportive  and  loving as  well  as superior in academics, arts and sports.  

Maybe our computer whizzes will teach science and math while I teach  creative  writing  and  horseback  riding!  Please  consider  us companions on the journey toward heaven, and please continue to look for us at your gatherings, on the AMILA net and in the colors and dreams of the sunset. For there is no god but Allah, the Creator, and Muhammad, whose caring for the victims of war and violence still brings tears from me, is his Prophet.  

A salaam aleikum.

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