51 Percent
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#1695: Women Religious Leaders, Part Four | 51%

On this week’s 51%, we wrap our series speaking with women religious leaders and scholars. Dr. Sh. Haifaa Younis discusses her work at the Jannah Institute, an Islamic school for women. Uzma Popal, director of the Capital Region’s Muslim Soup Kitchen Project, shares how charity is a pillar of her faith. And Stanford University’s Dr. Amina Darwish challenges the perception of Muslim women in the U.S.

Guests: Dr. Sh. Haifaa Younis, founder of the Jannah Institute; Uzma Popal, director of the Muslim Soup Kitchen Project; Dr. Amina Darwish, Associate Dean for Religious & Spiritual Life at Stanford University

51% is a national production of WAMC Northeast Public Radio. It’s produced by Jesse King, our executive producer is Dr. Alan Chartock, and our theme is “Lolita” by the Albany-based artist Girl Blue.

Follow Along

You’re listening to 51%, a WAMC production dedicated to women’s issues and experiences. Thanks for joining us, I’m Jesse King. This week, we’re wrapping our series speaking with women religious leaders and scholars. By now, at part four, we’ve spoken to women from various backgrounds about their beliefs. My hope in doing this, as someone who doesn’t know much about religion, was to hear directly from women about how they worship, why they do it, and what they see as the greatest challenges in their faiths – because while a lot of today’s mainstream religions are traditionally male-led, women are increasingly stepping up to the plate. 

Today, we’re wrapping the series by speaking with three well-versed Muslim women. Our first guest is Dr. Sh. Haifaa Younis, the founder and chairman of the Jannah Institute in St. Louis, Missouri. Haifaa Younis is a board-certified obstetrician and gynecologist with roots in Iraq, and she says she started the Jannah Institute in 2013 to offer an Islamic education for women, by women. Haifaa Younis always wanted to dive deeper into her faith, and before starting the Institute, she went on her own journey in search of knowledge — a mission that proved somewhat difficult in the U.S. at the time. After trying various remote learning methods, she packed up her life and moved to Saudi Arabia, where she graduated from the Mecca Institute of Islamic Studies. 

“There, actually, is where I met the woman scholars. Before that I have not – maybe I’ve read about them before, but there I definitely met [them]. I learned 90% from woman scholars, with really deep knowledge,” says Younis. “And the beauty when you learn from a woman – and this is not because of gender – is just because, as a woman, you know she goes through what you are going through. It’s closer. So it doesn’t mean the man doesn’t do it, but it’s just something a little bit [closer]. I didn’t know this ‘till I felt it, ‘till I tried it.

What kinds of classes are you teaching at the Jannah Institute?

At the Jannah Institute, what we offer, there is a broad spectrum, because there’s so many things you can learn about Islam. So we divided it into the main two things: the holy book itself, and then what we call Islamic study. So the holy book [courses are] if people want to learn how to read. Remember, the holy book, the Quran, is in Arabic, and the majority of the women that live in the west don’t speak Arabic, and they don’t know how to read. So we offer them courses from the basics, from literally the alphabet, to becoming an expert in reading. Then, if someone knows how to read, but they want to memorize – it’s a huge virtue to memorize – we offer that too. Then we offer, if you want to read but you want to read perfect – how you study academically. How do you read it? It’s a whole subject. That’s one. And then the other, which is much more needed, is basically, “What does Islam say? What does Islam teach? How can I practice my religion living in the west, in 2022, as a professional woman, as a mother, as both?” And this is what we offer. We started in 2017, giving six-to-eight week courses, once a week or twice a week. And then last year in March, we call this “The Year of Knowledge: What Every Muslim Woman Should Learn About Islam.” And we designed it in a way that it is the traditional books and the traditional sciences, but in a practical way, and that the ordinary woman – the goal is not to graduate scholars, I told the woman from day one – the goal is you learn your religion, and how you apply it in your daily life.

So what are some of the ways that students are taking those lessons into their daily lives?

Whenever we are learning, the first question comes in how to apply it. So when we finished our first semester, we had the final exam. And at the end, there was a question, and I told the students, “This is not going to be marked.” And the question was, “What did this subject change in your life? And how did you apply it in your daily life?” So for example, when we were teaching the woman about prayers, how you pray – not supplication, how you perform, we call it “Sana” in Islam. And then we taught them all of it, the connection to God and everything. So what they wrote was amazing. Like, “I always used to look at it as a duty, I have to do it. I never thought of it as it is a connection with my creator. And now I take my time to do it.” The science of the Quran, which is very academic, and it’s not easy – they said, “Although it is challenging, and a lot of new information, it’s changed the way I look to the book itself. Like, ‘How am I, as a woman living in this day and age, how do I apply it? How do I learn it? And how do I teach it to my children and apply it in my home?’” So basically, it’s a practical theory, but we bring it to practice always.

And you went to school to memorize the Quran, correct?

Yes. Yes, definitely.

Was that like? How do you break up such a large text to put it down to memory?

The younger you are the better, because your brain is not busy yet. So usually, either you do it yourself – a lot of people do it, but it takes much longer. Or you do it with a teacher one-to-one. Or the best way, where everyone will advise you, is you go to school. And usually there are small classes, eight or nine in the class. And you all memorize the same. The teacher is usually very expert. Usually, the way they do it, to make it easy: it’s 30 parts. So they usually divided over three years, and every year you memorize 10 parts. The irony, if you want to use the word, and the challenge, is that you can forget it very easily. So when you memorize, you have to keep reviewing. So you build up…and you get tested and tested and tested. So you sit in front of the teacher, and you don’t have the book, she opens it to any page, and then she says, “Read from the following.”

What does worship look like to you?

To me, and I have seen it also as we are teaching, what has the most impact is when you start learning about your creator. Because whatever we say, and we say, “Yeah, I know, I know, I know.” But when you start studying in detail – so we believe in a creed, that he is the only creator and the Prophet, peace be upon him, is the messenger. And then when you look at who is he, like we spend 13 weeks studying “Who is he?” This really had an impact on me before the students. One of the sayings says, “He created us, and he doesn’t need us.” And he gives to us constantly and never runs out, if you want to use this word, of continuous giving. I always tell the students: take a break. Just think about this, close your eyes and see, “Who is he?” So when you want something, why do you ask from people? Why don’t you go and ask from the source? And the source will make me subcontractors, if you only use the word, do it. So the most important to me personally, as a woman, is this connection, this personal connection. Anywhere I want to go – I don’t need anybody, I just sit and I talk to him. And if you know his words, the holy book, it’s even better, because now you’re talking to him with his own words and spirit. Islam is a very spiritual religion, and many people don’t know that, unfortunately. Even Muslims don’t know that. There’s a lot of spirituality and personal connection. And you don’t get the peace that we are supposed to get from religion, unless you have this.

One thing I’ve been asking my guests is, do you see any opportunities or obstacles in your religion?

I would call them both. Because the obstacle is, I will call it one of the most misunderstood religions – because of many reasons, you probably know, working in the media. But this obstacle is the opportunity. This is how I look at it. For example, I cover my hair, right? So people will ask me about this. Well, this is an opportunity. I can look at it as an obstacle – “Well, they have labeled me” – but no, I look at it as an opportunity to explain to people what is my religion. Since I am doing it – I am convinced that I didn’t do it for any other reason than to please Him, God – then this is the opportunity. I’ve been a professional lay woman for years, studied all in the western world. I have always had people, when they asked me, the first thing I say to myself is, “They don’t know, there is no other reason they are asking. And this is the opportunity.” And this is what I teach, also, at the Jannah Institute. I always tell the women, “When you are in that grocery shop, this is your opportunity to practice what you are learning.” One of the teachings of the Prophet is to not get upset, don’t get angry. So you go to the grocery shop, and the cashier is busy or made a mistake. Because we are so much used to everything going our way, we get upset. But remember what you learned and apply it, especially as a Muslim woman. And that’s the opportunity.

Do you have either a favorite religious message, or story, or person from the Quran that you’d like to share?

Oh, I have lots of stories. My friends know that. But one story is not about me, but I was there. And I’m talking to you about the connection because I saw the connection on the spot. This is in the holy month of Ramadan. The last 10 days of Ramadan is a very highly spiritual time, when many go for exclusion. We call it the “Aitikaf,” when you go alone, and it’s really highly recommended to do it in the mosque. So here I am. This is years ago, with another woman who I don’t know. And we were in the mosque, in the holy mosque in Makkah, which is so crowded. Jesse, you’re talking about millions, not one or two. And then you are up all night praying, and in between they give you a break, but if you want to leave the mosque, go out and eat and come back, you will miss the prayers. So whatever food you have [you eat], usually it’s a cheese sandwich, maybe a piece of food. And this is for 10 days. So at the end, this woman, young woman at that time, in her 20s – you know that giving, generous person? Anybody wants anything, I was watching her, for 10 days, she gives it. So she came to me at 3 a.m. We were sitting together, exhausted. And she looked at me and she said, in her own slang language, “I am dying for a piece of meat.” And I looked at her and I was like, “Where are we going to get meat? We are in the mosque with this millions.” Not even five minutes [later], a woman comes in, sits in front of us with a container. She opens the container, and guess what’s in the container? Meat, cooked meat in tomato sauce. We looked at her, we don’t know this woman. She said, “By God, this was cooked at home, and you all are going to eat.” And I looked at her like, “What connection you have, that you only wanted food, and he gave it to you within five minutes.” Amazing, amazing. But to have the connection, you have to sacrifice, you have to work for him, and give for him, and do what he wants from you. And it’s amazing what you get back.

Well, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me. That’s all the questions that I had for you off the top my head. But is there anything that I’m missing that you’d like me to know? Or that you’d like our listeners to know?

Thank you so much, and thanks for everyone who’s listening to me. I would ask everybody who’s listening to us: don’t judge people. Learn, ask, and ask with a smile. And believe me, everybody will be more than happy [to help]. But don’t judge anybody just because they look different. Especially women, just because they look different or maybe they have an accent. Believe me, this is what we believe in Islam: we all were created from dust, and we all got to go back to dust.

The Muslim Soup Kitchen Project says it has served roughly 42,000 meals to families across the Capital Region since 2014. (Facebook: Muslim Soup Kitchen Project)

One thing we’ve seen over the course of these episodes is how many people worship through service, and our next guest, Uzma Popal, is no exception. Popal has long been a member of the Al-Hidaya Center in Latham, New York, and since 2017, she’s been the director of the center’s Muslim Soup Kitchen Project. The charity, which helps families across the Capital Region, says it’s served roughly 42,000 meals since 2014 – and the projects keep coming. I sat down with Popal to learn more. 

How did you get involved with the organization?

So I actually grew up here, I came to America when I was nine years old. I had heard about the Muslim Soup Kitchen Project a while ago, and at that time, I was mother of two: my kids were around 10, 11.  And I really wanted them to learn to give to the needy, and to help others. Because we have a lot that He has blessed us with, but I wanted my children to be able to be grateful and to give back. In our faith, charity is one of our pillars. We can’t even really call ourselves Muslims if we don’t give in charity. And when this, MSTP, came into my lap, I knew that this is something I really wanted to do.

Tell me a little bit about what the project does. How often do you hold soup kitchens, and where do you operate?

So MSKP, Muslim Soup Kitchen Project, has many programs underneath its umbrella. We serve monthly soup kitchens, monthly meals to local shelters in Schenectady, Albany, and Troy. We serve about 300 to 500 meals. On top of that, once a year we do the National Soup Kitchen Day, in which we serve over 1,200 meals just locally, and we extend to multiple shelters in Albany. There’s also monthly drives that we do. So maybe in winter we do coats and socks and hats and stuff like that. When school starts around August, we do school supplies, and then we do fresh vegetables and fruit, things like that. So we do that every month. We have a donation center that we collect those things, and then we distribute it to local refugees, local families in need. In our holidays, we have either Eid al-Adha and Eid al-Fitr. So one of the holidays is where we sacrifice meat, and we actually donated over 1,500 pounds of meat to local families in need.

These are just a few of the things that MSKP does, along with, you know, visiting the sick and the elderly. That’s another thing in our religion, is that we look out for our elders. Just the idea of putting your parents or somebody into the nursing home, it’s like a foreign thought for us. I know it can’t be helped sometimes, because people have to work. We understand that, you know, just because you put your parent in a nursing home doesn’t mean you don’t love them. Of course, everybody loves their parents. But in our culture, it’s more, “They took care of us, now we have to take care of them.” So in the community, if there’s somebody that doesn’t have a family member, or they’re alone, it’s a community’s job. It’s their right upon us that we have to check on them.

As you’re helping people with these projects, what are the things that you often see them struggling with? What are some of the things that you’re seeing out there in the community?

Especially with COVID right now, you know, some people have temporarily lost their jobs. And everything is so expensive – even food, everything is rising. So even people that may have lived normally, without feeling the pain of all this, they are starting to feel that. And we also have the refugee group that has come, and we work closely with USCRI. When the refugees come, they contact us and we try to help them get resettled as much as possible. So for the Muslim refugees that come, some of the things that we provide for them, like welcome packages, may have their prayer rugs, as well as the Quran. Not only that, but before they can find permanent housing or apartments – USCRI finds it for them – so in that meantime, they are in a hotel, and they have no money, they don’t have food stamps or anything like that. In order to help them with that, we actually provide lunches.

You mentioned that there are different things you guys are looking for different times of the year. What are some ways that people can help out with the soup kitchen project right now?

One thing that we’re always in need of obviously, is volunteers. And people can go to our website, they can email [email protected]. So they can even email us and say, “Hey, we want to volunteer,” and we can get them started. I like to see what the volunteers are into, what they like to do, and then we try to find the right spot for them. Another way people can donate is they can donate toiletries, or cleaning supplies, because these are the types of things that food stamps doesn’t cover – but they’re expensive.

What was it that made you want to get more involved with your faith? Or has this always been a part of your life?

Oh, yeah, definitely. The main reason I’m doing this and being part of this is because of my faith. We have the Quran, the holy book, and after that, we have Hadith. The Hadith is all the Sunnah, which is the sayings of the Prophet and the things he did. So it’ll say, “Give charity,” but then the Hadith will tell us how to give charity, and who to give to charity. And one thing that always stands out to me is, it says, “One cannot be a Muslim, unless they want for their brothers what they have for themselves.” So when you think about that, how can I eat food, and be OK with that, knowing that my neighbor, or somebody I know, is starving and going hungry? And then another thing that I really like is, when it comes to charity, it says charity begins at home. So I can’t go and help the community when my own children are starving, you know? That just doesn’t make sense. So I see it as a circle that grows.

It’s all about intentions. So if we do something, it depends what your intention is. For example, if I said, “I like your shirt” in a cynical or wrong way, where it hurts your feelings – like, yeah, I said, “I like your shirt,” but am I going to get a good deed or a bad deed? You know, obviously, it’s a bad deed, because what was the intention? So if I say, “I like your shirt” [and mean it] – which I do, by the way – I get a good deed for that. If I sit down and I watch a movie with my family, and I did it with the intention that, you know, I want to spend time with my family, that’s good, I get a good deed for it. And I don’t know too much about too many other faiths and everything, but in one day, every action, everything that I could do, I could get a reward for it.

National Muslim Soup Kitchen Day is scheduled for May 28th with participating soup kitchens across the U.S. For additional info on donations and more about the charity, check them out at al-hidaya.org.

Dr. Amina Darwish (Provided)

Our last guest today has actually already been mentioned on this program before. Dr. Amina Darwish is a close friend of last week’s guest, Sangeetha Kowsik, and she does quite a lot of work as a spiritual advisor and the Associate Dean for Religious & Spiritual Life at Stanford University. She originally got her doctorate in chemical engineering before switching career paths and choosing to pursue Islamic scholarship. 

What made you want to steer your life toward studying Islam?

I don’t know if I should call them spiritual crises, because they ended up being spiritual awakenings. But when I was 16, I decided like, “You know, this whole praying five times a day thing is a lot of work. I’m either going to do it for me, or I’m not going to do it at all.” And I started reading the Quran mostly to like, argue with my mom. If I was gonna be like, “Oh, I’m not gonna pray anymore,” then I could rebut what she was saying based on this text. And I remember reading it for the first time, and by the end of it, I was like, “Shoot, I think I’m still Muslim. I have to keep praying. I think I should do this now.” And I remember once going to a conference, and it was a discussion on spirituality, and Imam Ghazali is like one of the most renowned Muslim mystics in Islamic history. And I remember hearing his book, it’s called The Alchemy of Happiness – and I was like, “Where has this been my whole life?” I still have my notes about like the spirit and the ego, and how your spirit existed before your body, and it still remembers the presence of God, and it’s always yearning for and it’s always yearning for this, like, timeless existence. That was actually the beginning of me trying to learn and study Islam more seriously.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of idiots on the internet. And when you research things online about Islam, the junk that they say about women is ridiculous. I grew up in a Muslim family, I lived in Kuwait for a long time, I’ve lived in Muslim societies, and I knew what they were saying was just not true to the lived reality. And I also knew deep in my heart, like, I know God’s not a misogynist. And there were so many women in the life of Prophet Muhammad, that anytime someone’s like, “Oh, women can’t do this,” I’m like, “Let me tell you about a woman in the life of Prophet Muhammad who did.”

There’s a woman that goes to the Prophet, peace be upon him, and she asks him, she’s like, “Why in this verse are men mentioned more than women?” And my response every time I present this – this woman was later widowed, Prophet Muhammad marries her later in her life – and I’m like, if people ask who wants to marry the crazy feminist woman that’s like, “What about this thing?” The answer’s Prophet Muhammad, and people who are actually following his footsteps. So I like this woman. And I’m so grateful for all of those examples of women in the life of Prophet Muhammad. And I feel like very few people know about them.

Are there any other things that you feel people misunderstand about your faith?

That seems to be the biggest one. I’ve lived in different parts of the country, so I lived in Ohio, and I remember showing up to spaces where I’m the Muslim representative, and someone’s like, “Islam oppresses women.” And I’m like, “My dude, they sent me. What are you talking about?” I’m just so confused. And it’s odd, because I feel like, especially as women, we struggle claiming [our] space and claiming [our] expertise – and I’m standing in this space, and I’m like, “No, I’m the expert in this room about Islam. And you’re not going to tell me what it is.”

We had a guest speaker, it’s actually the first event I did at Stanford. Dr. Donna Austin is a professor at Rutgers University, and she had a discussion on the women in Malcolm X’s life. His sister, Ella Collins, was the one that got him transferred, and advocated for him to get transferred to the prison that had the library. And that’s how he learned how to read. He memorized a dictionary. And without his sister, he wouldn’t have been there. And she talked about his sister, she talked about his mother, she talked about Dr. Betty Shabazz – like, we celebrate him, and we forget to mention the women that made him who he is. He couldn’t have been that person without her, and this unspoken emotional labor that a lot of the times women do. And she was talking about [how] loving someone that society has deemed unlovable is an act of resistance. And it’s an act of beauty. And that really resonated with me. Because even in the story of Moses, and I think this is true in the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim scriptures, a lot of the women in history are unnamed. And it talks about his sister, it talks about his mother, it talks about his adoptive mother, and you see all of these women that healed him, carried him through his trauma, and protected him, and gave him the opportunity to become who he was. So then he can walk into the court of Pharaoh be like, “Let me tell you about God. Even though you’re trying to kill me.” It’s such a badass moment, but he couldn’t have been there without the love these women gave him.

I’ve been teaching the life of Prophet Muhammad for a number of years now, and a lot of the times the feedback I got from people was like, “This is the first time I’ve heard these particular stories.” I’m named after Prophet Muhammad’s mom, so of course, I’m gonna talk about his mom. I’m talking about his mom a lot. Other times, you’re like, ‘OK, this is where he was born.” [I start the story at] “No, this is everything that was happening in his society when he was born.” His father passed away when his mom was still pregnant, this pregnant widow is carrying all of this. And that’s the beginning of his life.

Tell me a little bit more about Muhammad’s mother.

Sadly, she passed away when he was six years old. He had so much trauma as a child. And even the Quran later addresses it and says, “You were an orphan and we sent people to love you.” Because if you look at a tribal society, the most vulnerable person is the orphan. And there’s so much celebrating that child and protecting that child. And not just protecting that child with like, here we give, we donate. No, people loved him, people took him in. And it’s fascinating that like, that was part of God helping him through his trauma. When he was much, much later in his life – he’s in his 60s, he’s achieved this success of his message spreading everywhere, people are recognizing him for the leader that he is. And he stops by the place where his mother is buried, and he’s just gone for a long time. And then they send someone to go find him, and they just find him standing right next to where his mother was buried, just crying, just missing her. She clearly gave him so much love, and believed in him so much, that he was able to carry through the rest of his life knowing he was loved. That love is healing, it gives people resilience. I was talking to a student earlier today that’s telling me about her fiancée. She’s like, “It’s getting really exciting, I think I’m gonna marry him.” And one of the conversations we had reflected on the story of Moses, and like, “If you marry him, do you think in 10 years that your prayers will be better? That they’ll be deeper, they’ll be more meaningful?” And she’s like, “Yeah, I think so.” Then he is your spiritual partner. That’s awesome.

For those who don’t know, let’s just go over some of the basic beliefs in Islam and the ways that you worship.

Most basic belief is just the oneness of God. There’s one God, he sends prophets to tell us about – I want to say himself, just because English doesn’t have a genderless, singular [pronoun]. Arabic does, which I’m grateful for. Even just putting God, when you say “he,” it becomes so limiting. God by design is one, and only God can be one, because only God is perfect and unique in their oneness. All the rest of us need other people.

What daily practice looks like? I mentioned the five daily prayers, they’re based on the position of the sun. They’re at different times, just spread out throughout your day. They’re very small circuits. It’s also a physical prayer, so you’re in different physical positions – there’s a point where your head is above your heart and you’re standing, there’s a point where you’re bowing and your heart and head are level, there’s a point where your face is on the ground, and your heart is above your head. And there’s different things that you’re saying in each of those positions. And it’s very personal, [but] you can do it in a group. It looks like people standing in rows doing yoga together, which I think is hilarious. In the same way that Muslims are talked about a lot, unfortunately, in the news, in very negative light, very rarely is everyday Muslim life actually discussed. The most consistent thing that is said in the prayer is “Allahu Akbar,” “God is greater.” This is, by design, not a complete sentence because you can, in your own mind, like “God is greater than whatever I was worried about before I started the prayer.” “God is greater” than this. I can personalize it, I can make it my own experience. And unfortunately, a lot of Americans will hear the words “Allahu Akbar,” and they’re like, “Oh, no, this is something bad.” And that makes me sad. Like, I say it a lot. Any practicing Muslim says that a lot. And it feels so insulting, that someone can commit an evil act, say it once, and somehow their once becomes more valuable than my 100 times a day. Me and every other practicing Muslim.

Overall, do you have any religious stories or messages that you’d like to share?

So Prophet Muhammad’s wife narrates the greatest number of narrations from him. He passed away, and she, for the rest of her life, carried on his message. Up to a third of Islam came to us from this woman, and such detailed things of like, “This is the procedure he followed in his shower.” Who would be able to tell us that besides his wife? And any time there’s someone that is insulting to Muslim women, I’m like – first of all, go talk to one. I promise we’re a force to be reckoned with. And two, a third of Islam came to us through a woman. We wouldn’t know so much of our religion without her, and it’s not like the other two thirds was all men. The other two thirds included both men and women. Muslim women have always been at the forefront of our faith: the first martyr was a woman, the first believer was a woman. There’s so many firsts in Islam.

One of my favorites, the oldest running degree-granting university in the world is the one in Fez in Morocco. It was opened by a woman by the name of Fatima al-Fihri. There was a moment where the [former] president of Harvard, at some point, was like, “Women are just not as good at math.” And then he got himself fired and replaced by a woman, which was perfect poetic justice. Thank you, whoever did that. But I remember when he said that, and we were having a discussion at the mosque, and I was like, “No, no. This university was credited of introducing the Arabic numerals that we now use to Europe. So we all wouldn’t do math the way that we do without this particular woman, let alone every woman that has been.” I mean, like, women were at the beginning of computer science, and now our image of a computer scientist is a man. And it just it’s not giving credit where credit is due.

You’ve been listening to 51%. A big thanks, again to Dr. Amina Darwish, Uzma Popal, and Dr. Sh. Haifaa Younis for participating in this week’s episode — and thanks to you for joining us in this special series. 51% is a national production of WAMC Northeast Public Radio. Our executive producer is Dr. Alan Chartock, and our theme is “Lolita” by the Albany-based artist Girl Blue. You can also find us on Twitter and Instagram at @51percentradio. Until next week, I’m Jesse King for 51%