Something about Ummah

2 Nov

I came upon the term ummah after delving into the study of Islam fourteen years ago.  It’s often translated tightly as community, but it’s so much better than that. So much on the tip of my tongue, but I can’t ever find the precise words for the feeling…like… the most sublime tremor of well-being just to be alive and connected.

No. That won’t do. Scratch that. It’s something else. Something I can’t tell you, just as you can’t tell me how un-done you felt to be in love when you finally realized what it was -with the fear, thrill, and anticipation that sent you laughing yourself to sleep that night.

O.K., you have a point. That’s not fair– to let you in on something, and then not tell you what {it} is!! I agree. Well then, I’ll try.

Ummah is a refined acknowledgment of connection that transcends all boundaries of tribalism and national borders for the purpose of seeking the pleasure of God Most High. It is an idea that breeds transcendence, so it is only natural that ummah will be more palpably felt between two people of different languages and tribes, which is commonplace, for one, in my neck of the woods. Lucky for me! I have so many ummah stories that I could share with you based on my experiences over the years…they are treasures which I pull out and dust off from time to time to rekindle.

Last week marked Eid ul-Adha, the world over – a day of commemorating the Prophet Abraham’s attempted sacrifice of his own son, based on his literal interpretation of a vision from God. Prophet Abraham’s son willingly accepted to be sacrificed believing that it was God’s will;  however, God intervened through the Angel Gabriel, before the sacrifice could take place, and Prophet Abraham was commanded instead to sacrifice a sheep, a thing much less beloved and prized to him. Prophet Abraham had already demonstrated that seeking the pleasure of God reigned supreme in his heart, even when the logic was not apparent on the human, cognitive level. As Muslims, we reflect on his vision as a metaphor, to unhinge ourselves from the world- to give preference and space to love what is Everlasting over what is ephemeral. This story is one illustration by which we can get a sense of the incomprehensible rank that God bestowed on Prophet Abraham by deeming him His friend.

In the U.S. on Eid, Muslims raising young children often gather in public spaces such as parks during the afternoon period. The festivities eventually transport to cozy homes. It is typically a frenzy of idleness, with fired up grills, bags of candy, and throngs of children running as independent bands- coming to their parents only for more juice, or another cupcake. Eid is all about fun and not stopping until you lay, speechless, having said all there is to say, and exhausted on one’s bed – sighing and falling into a peaceful sleep born from doing nothing that isn’t pleasurable.

So, on this Eid, our family packed into the car, then took a detour to pick up the children of a friend who was ill. We piled out expecting to walk into a large crowd of Eid-goers only to discover no one around. There was a large gathering of Muslims in one gazebo, none of whom I recognized. Clearly Palestinian, I thought by surveying the collection of men who needed a BBQ grill so big they brought their own. The pithily one at the park would never do for the massive amounts of beef and chicken they were about to unleash. I understand. I’m Collard Green.

The other dead give-away were the men dressed in brightly colored shirts underneath snug, black polyester vests, coupled with fitted pants reaching to long, black and well-shined, square-toed shoes. Picture minions of Godfathers hovering around a grill next to a massive playground set. The grill master, a young guy, wore his dress sleeves rolled up, and extending from his left hand were five kabob poles extending three feet or more in the air; his other hand swiftly turned the sizzling kabobs still on the grill. The aroma was marinated, charred yumminess- a feast that only a zealous vegan could refuse with satisfaction. I wanted to ravage the place.

Impatient, I scanned the horizon. Where were all our people?  I spotted two familiar faces, likely as disappointed as me over the weak turn-out. We convened and made a few phone calls before realizing that folks were on their way; a phenomenon I’ve come to know as ‘Muslim Standard Time.’ Before long, a Nigerian friend showed up and soon her kids were running around the park; they disappeared into the haze of smoke. She leapt in to retrieve them, and no sooner than she could exit, they insisted that she : EAT! EAT! TAKE! SOME MORE! NO, THAT’S NOT ENOUGH! The men busied themselves with heaving generous portions of food on her plate.

She didn’t know any of them, yet because she walked into their midst for less than a minute, she was obliged to take something away. That’s ummah.

So, we huddled in our barren, yurt-like gazebo and ate the Palestinians’ food. It was so good. I could hardly complete a thought, but when my consciousness returned, I felt guilty to have left a sick friend with an empty stomach. My intention had been to bring  her some of our food, but not enough in our party had arrived to start grilling. Not having grown up in an ummah-centered culture, I was too shy to walk up to the Palestinians and ask for more food, even if for a sick woman. That’s what Collard Green people would call tacky. But, there’s no tacky in ummah which is what my Nigerian friend knows. She didn’t hesitate to return. With wide smiles, like greeting a long, lost friend, they encouraged her a second time. EAT! EAT! TAKE! SOME MORE! And this time they handed her an entire tray full of freshly grilled shrimp to go along with her over-flowing plate.

Eventually our party showed up; we were able to start our own festivities. Toward the end of the day, I navigated my way into the Palestinians’ enclave with a measly plate of fruit. Meandering around the men, I crept deep into the belly of the party where all of the women, from the Palestinian region of Gibran, languished. Their space was dim and hazy. The smoke from a shisha pipe rose – hovering like cumulus clouds over their lair. Their heads cocked back -mouths gasping for air because it was just so funn-y…I can’t speak..I can’t breathe…my love, habeebti!!!

In their colloquialism, I had no clue what they said. What caused them to laugh so convincingly? They looked the way life does…when it is living.

A thin, petite woman took my plate and winked, thank you, she said. I did not stay; in fact, I ejected myself swiftly, feeling like a school girl who’d slipped out of bed and tip-toed into her mother’s party, uninvited, but then stricken by being so far out of her element, scurries back to bed, only to wish she had stayed.

There was more goodwill to be had. The Palestinians made these fantastic high-end goodie bags and proceeded to throw them into the arms of any child within reach, including my own. To which one of my kids exclaimed: “They have really good stuff!”

Our parties had mingled so much, they would have been indistinguishable by passerby.  One of the Palestinian women made her way to our huddle and lamented that she had left her broom at home. “Do you have one?,” she asked. “I can’t just leave the place like this!” she lamented. Of course, how could she leave her first-come-first serve gazebo so un-kept?! Doesn’t everyone sweep up the concrete floor after a BBQ. How disappointed would the next party be?! “Sorry,” we replied, we are fresh out of brooms.

Later that night we ended up at our friend, Laila’s house for an all dessert pot-luck. Families with roots in Korea, Pakistan, Nigeria, Malaysia, Palestine, Turkey, Morocco, and my very own ‘Merica, amassed on the main floor with the men huddled in the basement. We had our own version of a smoke-filled room, without the smoke. Over-indulged on the qatayef, chocolate, and coffee, we remembered the Palestinians and felt joy.

Ummah is a thing that eschews mere politeness; it scoffs at minding your manners. It is a surging wave that thrust itself forth, covers the other, washes over and quenches the thirst of its members – both giver and receiver. It harbors no refuge for the ego; for to experience it you must peel off the coarse layers of yourself and meet with the tender heart of another. Like Prophet Abraham’s vision, it forces you to see beyond the ephemeral and dive into the timeless Source of all Pleasure.

I can’t tell you precisely what it is, but I pray that you will feel it on the tip of your tongue one day….so close, but never able to convey it precisely. Who can define love, after all?


2 Responses to “Something about Ummah”

  1. Fatima November 4, 2012 at 7:58 am #

    Lovely. The broom story was awesome.

  2. CollardGreenMuslim November 6, 2012 at 8:44 pm #

    I’m glad you enjoyed, Fatima. Come back again!

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