Community leader Aisha al-Adawiya (known as Sister Aisha) embodies a life grounded in a profound commitment to pursuing justice, social transformation and deep, meaningful relationships. I met Sister Aisha many years ago during the struggle to save the Khalil Gibran International Academy, the first Arabic-English dual language public school in New York City. I was drawn to Sister Aisha’s beautiful energy and spirit and soon realized that many of the women I was organizing with from within Muslim communities looked up to her deeply as a mentor, role model and inspiration, and that this was true of partners from other communities, like myself, as well. Given the challenging moment we are in, I wanted to interview Sister Aisha to learn from her wisdom and her generous self.
Born and raised in Alabama, Sister Aisha came to New York in the early 1960s right after high school to pursue a singing career. She was raised in the Black church and sang in her church choir. Describing herself in those years as “a free spirit,” she lived in Greenwich Village until moving to Harlem. Seeking a spiritual home, she said that “Islam found me” in 1972. She encountered Malcolm X, “was blown away by him, and began my education as it were. Malcolm X continues to be my mentor.” She has worked for more than 30 years at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem and is currently the administrator of its Scholars-in-Residence Program. She recounted how the founder of the Schomburg Center began collecting documents because he was told by a teacher that Black people didn’t have any history — a history, she said, that she also hadn’t known growing up.
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Sister Aisha founded Women in Islam, Inc. in 1992 to bring the voices of Muslim women into critical community discussions that were local, domestic and global in scope. The organization was born soon after the story broke about rape camps in Bosnia. Sister Aisha began to speak out about what was going on and said that, at some point, she was challenged. “Here you are, an African American woman showing up for Bosnians. What does that have to do with you? I was compelled to speak out after hearing about women being herded into rape camps. And the majority of the women being victimized were Muslim.” She realized that, because there weren’t visible voices from Muslim women on this issue, “I felt the need to construct something that would enable us to engage in this conversation, and to do what we continue to do.” Women in Islam, Inc. has, since its inception, stood up for Muslim women, been a space for Muslim women to discuss who they are and the role of women in Islam, and engaged collectively in the struggle for human rights and social justice.
The first thing Sister Aisha said to me was, “One woman does not make a movement.” That really does capture her humility and belief system.
Reflecting on the current moment, Sister Aisha spoke about how busy we all are right now. But she is concerned that “a lot of us are in reactionary mode. It’s not going to end if we spend our energy and resources just reacting.” Thinking about how to move forward in a different way, she said, “I’m reminded of the Black arts movement and all those … people who were just brilliant and awe-inspiring and how they really fed us and people in the movement through their art. Art may be our last frontier here,” she added. “How do we get back to that? How do we re-engage the arts so that we can have deep expression coming from artists and artistic creativity as we continue to speak truth to power?”
Pausing for a moment, she said, “I’m really trying to reorient myself to the more artistic side of my brain.”
She then spoke about the commonalities in the different struggles for justice. “We are all struggling on so many fronts with few resources except for our will and commitment to what we think is right. More and more of us — and I see it happening so much now in the Muslim community — are recognizing the importance and power of coming together and joining efforts with one another and across our communities. It’s about much more than being an ally. It’s about being family.”
She began speaking about the young man, Micah David-Cole Fletcher, who survived in Portland after being one of three men attacked by a white supremacist when they tried to stop his racist tirade against two teenagers, one of whom was wearing a hijab and one of whom was Black. The other two men who were attacked, Ricky John Best and Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche, didn’t survive. “Look at how this young man took it upon himself to say what he did about the two young girls who were assaulted — that we should be focusing on them and not on him. From his hospital bed, he was holding up his thumb. You could feel his indomitable spirit. That is much more than allyship. That is way beyond solidarity. This is humanity here.”
She paused before speaking more about what we can learn from Micah’s experience. “How do we harness that? That is an inspiration for anybody and everybody who wants to look for hope in any direction.” And then she spoke for a moment about her own role. “How can I support that in any way, and help cultivate that in ourselves and the younger generation? I’m thinking about that a lot.”
“I’m really in awe of this young man and of those people who are just there to stand up. I’m speechless, really. This is exactly where I believe we need to move as human beings. Standing up for each other in a real authentic way. No cameras rolling. Just the human spirit calling on us to say, ‘This is not right and I have to say something’.”
Clearly profoundly moved, she continued to talk about what had happened in Portland. “These two men lost their lives doing that, and this young man who survived, he shined the light back on those girls. How can you — how can we — inspire that sort of commitment? I don’t think they had a choice. They just knew they had to do it.”
Speaking about our challenges at this particular moment, Sister Aisha said she thinks that “the work is much the same, but I do think we need to try to find new tools. For example, I want to dig deeper, more spiritually. I think about Native American cultures and communities a lot. Theirs is a history and reality that often gets ignored or minimized. Yet, we have so much to learn from them and their experience. This is where my spirit is moving me. When we talk about interfaith work, we have to remember that there is a whole world of people with deep spiritual connections, including those who may not adhere to a formal religion, but are committed to human dignity.”
At the end of our conversation, Sister Aisha spoke about our needing to think more about ways to bring our whole political and spiritual and artistic selves into the different facets of our work. “We need to create platforms for people in our communities to express themselves when they have something they want to say. They need to know their voices matter and that they have something to contribute because they are human, because they are part of the human race, because we are all part of humanity together.”
While it is, of course, true that no one person makes a movement, Sister Aisha’s wisdom, grace, compassion and kindness have powerfully impacted so many of us and our movements. She is a leader and visionary we all hold dear.