by Irshaad Ishmail , Sadhana Member
On any given day, if you take the subway in New York City, and look around you as the train travels through the dark tunnels, you will notice a glaring and beautiful fact: there is so much diversity. Cultural, ethnic, and religious diversity can all be found sometimes in just a single subway cart. In the course of just a week of taking the E and J trains, I’ve seen a man wearing a dashiki, a teenage indian couple listening to music together on a shared headphone, a Chinese father and his son looking at a map, and several men preaching enthusiastically from the Bible. A few nights ago, as I travelled from Queens all the way to City Hall in Manhattan for an Eid-Al-Fitr celebration, where I represented Sadhana, I soaked in the diversity that surrounded me every time the train stopped at a platform and a large crowd came rushing in. I admired it all because Audre Lorde, New York’s native writer, once said that “It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences”. The event at City Hall agreed with her, because it was not just an event to commemorate the ending of the Muslim month of Ramadan, it was also a celebration of an extraordinarily diverse group of Muslims.
The Council Chambers, where the event was held, was unlike any room I had ever seen. The center of the ceiling was filled with a painted mural, and the room itself was large, and wide, with portraits, and statues everywhere. The most notable of them was a statue of Thomas Jefferson—a Founding Father who paved the way for the Free Exercise Clause in the First Amendment which allows people to freely practice their religions. The program officially started with everyone standing for the national anthem—Muslims and people of other religions standing together to show their respect for the United States of America. That was then followed by an Arabic and English recitation of the first chapter of the Quran, surah Al-Fatiha, which essentially praises God and pleads for spiritual guidance, and then finally, the recognition of extraordinary Muslims who were positively contributing to society.
The first to be honored was Rana Abdelhamid, a young woman, who founded the Women’s Initiative for Self Empowerment (WISE) which is a program that teaches self-defense, leadership and entrepreneurship to young Muslim women in New York City. She gave a passionate speech about being the victim of a hate crime several years ago, and how she used that negative experience as motivation to create something positive and good. Then Tavasha Shannon, a female Muslim rapper, was given the floor, and she wowed everyone when she performed her song about prayers.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations, which fights for the civil rights of American Muslims, was also honored. The legal director of CAIR, Albert Fox Cahn, a Jewish man, said something profound as they accepted the award: “My right to practice my faith is only as strong as my Muslim brothers and sister’s right to practice their faith”. It was a much needed reminder that an attack on anyone’s right to practice their own religion is an attack on everyone’s right to practice their own religion.
The Khan Foundation, an organization that helps undocumented and low-income students prepare for College and obtain scholarships, was present to receive their award as well. Mr. Ivan Khan shared a touching story about his father and the journey of carrying on his legacy.
The New York Immigration Coalition was also honored for their tireless work to create an equal society for all immigrants. The program then concluded with a musical performance from Raquy Danziger who was playing the tabla while another musician strummed the strings of his guitar along with her.
Diversity of religions and cultures are no strangers to me. I grew up with a Muslim Father, and a Hindu Mother. I’ve heard melodious Adzans in Mosques, and harmonious Bhajans in Temples. When I left City hall that evening, the last performance of the Tabla, and Guitar lingered in my mind—two completely different instruments coming together to create this beautiful sound. At first glance, it might have seemed like the different sounds from these instruments would have clashed, but instead, they complimented each other, highlighting the beauty in each other’s own unique sound. People and religions are the same in that way. Our differences may at first seem like they will conflict with each other and clash, but a closer examination would show that they do more to highlight the beauty of our uniqueness.
Once I was home, I laid in my bed, stared up at the ceiling in my room and thought of the painted Mural on the ceiling in the Council Chambers. I decided to do some research on the design and architecture of the room and I found out that incorporated into the mural on the ceiling is a quote by Thomas Jefferson; the statue of him was not his only presence in the room after all. The inscription reads, “Equal and exact justice to all men, of whatever state or persuasion, religious or political”. I hope that in the coming years, the United States of America never stops striving to reach what Jefferson envisioned, not only for the sake of Muslims, but for the sake of humanity.