Faith on the move
Journey of Discovery, the recently published collection of writings by activist couple Na’eem Jeenah and his late wife, Shamima Shaikh, opens with a dedication “for all those fearless enough to say and act according to what they believe is the Truth”. For anyone who has followed the lives and careers of this extraordinary couple, it could not have been more aptly put.
Their jointly authored book relating their experiences on the Muslim pilgrimage or haj is less of what Jeenah himself describes as “a how-to book”, than it is a vivid and indeed brave testimony continuing the couple’s tradition of rigorously applying the Qur’anic principle of “standing out firmly for justice” at a sometimes heavy cost.
Recalling the lives of Shaikh and Jeenah, the words of Margaret Thatcher come to mind, who once remarked that her father had installed in her “upright qualities, which entailed a refusal to alter one’s convictions just because others disagreed, or because you became unpopular”.
Shaikh never got to see the book published she died of cancer in 1997, at 36, soon after the pilgrimage.
Yet the words of the tenacious young activist speak throughout the book, doing on paper what she had constantly done throughout her relatively short but remarkable life. She spoke out for equal rights and participation for women in all areas of public and religious life, where others would not.
Earning the derision of many, Shaikh wore her supposedly pejorative name “That mad Shaikh woman” like a badge of honour. Whether it was leading groups of women to storm mosques to demand access for women, or battling traditionalists on the airwaves of the radio station she and Jeenah were instrumental in founding, Shaikh’s commitment to racial and gender equality was admirable because, throughout their lives, the odds were never stacked in their favour.
But the fruits of her labour live on, in the community radio station The Voice, and in the archives of the progressive Muslim newspaper Al-Qalam, which she used to edit. Journey of Discovery is primarily a narration of the pilgrimage to Mecca, a compulsory tenet of the Islamic faith. Its viewpoint that of a couple so finely tuned to an “equality frequency” makes it stand out and lends it a South African flavour.
The book illustrates, perhaps even painfully, how the racial lens through which South Africans have been conditioned to see the world influences even the simplest issues. The one ugly incident that mars the high spiritual state for the couple, noted in the book, relates to a racially charged incident between a South African pilgrim and a group of dark-skinned pilgrims.
Shaikh questions the narrow interpretations of women’s role in the mosques back home, when she, a woman, could pray freely and without hindrance in the holiest site of Islam.
The interest for non-Muslim readers of this book is simple. It is a “spiritual travelogue” that opens a window to a ritual and place that few in fact have the opportunity to be privy to. The words speak for themselves, allowing the reader to “feel” the haj.
The book is simple, easy to read, but with a deeply touching message that the path to God does not lie in the length of one’s beard, or the number of university degrees one has acquired. Shaikh was well-known for disarming those who condemned her audacity at claiming her rightful place in religious life, and asked her to furnish her credentials for her claims. “I’m just a housewife,” she would retort.
Journey of Discovery is published by Full Moon Press and is available from the Muslim Youth Movement of South Africa