Today, I cried. Over many things (life is heavy, I am fragile, tears are easy to self produce), but one of them was seeing the faces and names of the elders in our Muslim community who have passed away over the past few weeks, days, and even hours.
I am in shock I think, at how cavalier people can be about the deaths of those who are considered old folks. They must clearly be people who either haven’t had the privilege of forming deep and meaningful intergenerational relationships, or people who simply do not care about (or understand) the preservation of communal history, knowledge, and stories, not to mention the obvious and horrifyingly blatant disrespect towards human life.
As a young and hopeful scholar of Muslim American Studies, I am deeply concerned with the lack of documentation, the quick and relentless passing of time, and the heartbreaking passing of lives as the world churns through its orbited course set by Allah. There are millions of stories buried in the chests of elders all around our nation, each a piece in the reconstruction of a vibrant and meaningful narrative about the journey and texture of Islam and Muslims in this big and vast country of ours.
Every masjid in the United States has a story. Every community center, Islamic school, and Muslim Girl Scout and Boy Scout Troop has a history. Every national and local organization, every charity group, every innovative and transformative Muslim startup and small business has a tale of its founding, of its evolution. But what are those stories of the blossoming days of communities across the nation? What were the challenges and discussions and tensions that arose? How did people and communities learn from one another, share knowledge and best practices, and construct (unintentionally or deliberately) a cultural framework for Islam in America that is diverse in many ways and also strikingly (and beautifully) resonant across the wide geography of this peculiar country?
These are just some of the questions I think about every day, questions that have oriented the next steps in my career, questions I want to answer through ethical and meaningful research, questions whose answers I want to share with our community through state of the art museums and exhibitions and accessible resources. Questions that are important. Urgent. Critical. There is just so much work to be done in our community, in our nation, and our world. And as my grandmother often tells my sisters and me, “Don’t forget WHO you are and WHOSE you are.” Knowing where you come from is SO critical in crafting where you are headed.
And so, for a community that has so often been making history without even knowing it, building communities because it had to, creating schools because it had to, innovating as a means of survival– all the while doing so with people of different language families and fluency levels, professionals, extremely skilled volunteers, and people who were just “winging” it– we don’t always have the documentation, the records, the newspaper clippings, the board meeting minutes, or the recorded early khutbahs.
Instead, we are a community that is significantly reliant on the oral histories of our elders. They, alone, in many cases, hold the key to unlock even a glimpse of what is now history. And some of them are dying. Right now. And we can’t jump on a plane (or in a car) to interview them, to record their words, to soak up what we can. Because we are on lockdown in the middle of a Pandemic, because it is dangerous, because there just doesn’t seem to be the money and time to do it all at the rate and speed that I so desperately desire, and that I believe we owe to both future generations and to the sacrifices and triumphs labored by those who came before us. (can you tell I am overwhelmed?)
In an arriving tomorrow, I want to join the work of others (heroes of mine!) in dedicating my life to preserving the stories of our community, to mapping and piecing together the puzzle, to illuminating the people and places that are often overlooked, inshaaAllah. But right now, I grieve and I mourn, and I cry over the deaths of people I never met, and have lost the chance to do so. With every departed soul, there is the painful loss of a person beloved to those who loved them, and a little archive of wonderful stories that have slipped away with them, a harrowing loss to us all.
May Allah protect our elders, preserve our history, grant ease to those who have lost loved ones, and bestow the highest station in Jannah to all those who have passed. Ameen, ameen, ameen!
(it hurts, it hurts, everything hurts!!!)