Peace in Sapelo: On Black Islam and Black Christianity


Ashon Crawley I Spirituality & Religion I Commentary I February 26th, 2016



On Tuesday, August 2nd, 2011, I parked my car on "the mainland" at the Sapelo Island Visitors Center. Grabbing my suitcase, waiting in the hot sun for its arrival, I finally took one of the daily trips - the 3:30pm ferry - to the island, right off the coast of Georgia. Arriving on the other side, I was greeted by Miss Yvonne. Only 55 people were living in Hog Hammock at the time - a small community on the island with a general store, and lots of chickens, cows and mosquitos - so she spotted me easily, Miss Yvonne, the woman whose flat I rented. I stood out because I was the only one arriving so late in the day that wasn't one of the 55. When we spoke on the phone the week previous, she told me to bring food because the general store didn't sell much of anything. So before arriving at the Visitors Center, I stopped at the closest Piggly Wiggly, purchased bread, mustard, deli turkey and a lot of juice. I love juice. When she settled me into the flat I rented, she looked in the refrigerator to see what I had to eat.

"Do you want to have dinner with me tonight?" she asked.

"Don't worry about it…I have food." I replied. I didn't want to impose.

"Do you want to have dinner with me tonight," she asked again. If I really think about it, I might remember her saying something like, "that's not real food!" I do remember that she was incredulous, my inability to bring real food.

"Yes, ma'am." I said.

Though I didn't eat pork at the time, I walked to her home a couple hours later - her husband was still working - and sat down to a meal of pork chops, mashed potatoes, gravy and peas. It satisfied. And though the conversation that ensued was lovely, I most remember how it felt to be there. With her. Eating and talking. The gestures and the laughter. Her distinctive voice and smile. I remember the tentativeness of getting to know one another, even if only briefly. I felt at home with a woman, and a place, I'd never been. Her kindness shown would be replicated the entire time, the five days I was there.

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While researching Ring Shout choreographies of the sea coastal inhabitants of Georgia and South Carolina, the dance tradition that was prominent for Gullah Geechee black folks living there from the Antebellum period up until now, I kept running into the name Bilali and the place Sapelo Island. Turns out that Bilali was the name of an African man, born around 1760 in Timbo, Futa Jallon, enslaved and eventually sold to Thomas Spalding in 1802. Spalding lived on Sapelo Island and, as such, Bilali did too.

"If you had been standing on the white sands of this island (Sapelo Island, GA) at dayclean in 1803, or a little later, you might have seen a tall, dark-skinned man with narrow features, his head covered with a cap resembling a Turkish fez, unfold his prayer mat, kneel and pray to the east while the sun rose. This was Bilali, the most famous and powerful of all the Africans who lived on this island during slavery days, and the first of my ancestors I can name."

Bilali is important to me, not because of the famed Ben Ali's Diary that was, at least partially, written by him in Arabic script. He is important to me because of the resonance and vibrancy of his lived life, a meditative way of existence, his blackness, a way of life that his descendants would celebrate, the ones that would come to bear the surnames Bailey, Grovener. Bilali is important because of the way his religiosity was of primacy for him, how his religiosity - his practice of Islam, him unfolding mats and praying eastward five times daily beginning at dayclean, him donning a Turkish fez - was both ritual and social. The ritual and social aspects of his religiosity are lived out even today, the way he moved his flesh eastward and the remembrance of his sartorial practice are keypoints to memory and celebration.

So it is.

I drove in a 2000 white Maxima to Sapelo in 2011, after having visited Praise Houses in South Carolina, because I was interested in feeling the ground upon which Bilali walked, the ground upon which his descendants danced. Such walking and dancing, such space where prayer and ritual washings were made, were resistant to the notion of black inferiority, of black anti-intellectualism, of black barbarism. Theirs was a way of life, a social and ritual way of being together with others that has been and is reproduced.

So one day during my five days long trip, I made a visit to the Sapelo Island Cultural and Revitalization Society and met an older black man - tall, dark, silver hair, striking features, Morehouse graduate, proud man - and there we talked. The one question I needed to ask him: "What direction do you pray?" His response: "Now, I'm Baptist born and Baptist raised, but I pray to the east, I only pray to the east." This direction, this movement of the flesh, is the resonance of Bilali and his ritual social practice, his way of life. His faith practice took seriously the gestures, the movements, conviction lived out in the flesh. And I knew to ask the gentleman such a question about direction and prayer based on what Cornelia Bailey says:

"When I'd go to say my nightly prayer, I'd better not, I repeat, I'd better not let Mama catch me with my head turned to the West. I was up for a good fussing at if she did. (…) The first thing I learned when it came to directions was East and West. Forget the South and the North. I knew at an early age that the sun rose in the East, so it was easy to pinpoint, and I knew the West, because the sun sets there and the darkness begins. So I knew my directions and who I was supposed to be praying to and who I was supposed to be avoiding. It was god resides in the East. Pray to God, not the devil."

In Sapelo, I was compelled by the way the practice of Christianity was not antagonistic to nor a dismissal of the practice of Islam but how they both were celebrated. In Sapelo, I experienced a model for thinking and living out interreligious possibility that was based on how we practice through peace and joy, in and on our flesh, being together with others. This was Miss Yvonne's table. This was Miss Cornelia's opening her home to me to talk as she prepared food for her family. This was the way, that one day, Miss Yvonne, her husband and a family friend stood around at twilight, removing the heads of just caught shrimp, putting them - along with just caught crabs - in a large seasoned pot to cook, inviting me down to stand with them and, when ready, eat with them. In Sapelo, I was continually moved by the quiet and meditative kindness of strangers, a kindness that was not based on who I am or my life history but the making room at the table for another, to join and be fed through relation that may be ephemeral but no less important.

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How are you going to live? As Christians recently entered into and experience the season of advent - a season of waiting for a promise - this question, this concern about how to live, is about us all. I am interested in peace and love. And I am interested in how living peaceably during a season of waiting, during a moment of uncertainly, is an ethical and moral challenge, an occasion to which we are called to rise. Are you living in such a way that people of and not of, with or without, your faith practice will look and think peace? I learn this, this way of living as noticeable by others, through my Muslim kith and kin. They teach me a way to live out my Agnostic-Pentecostal (non)-faith, my Agnostic-Pentecostal conviction about a world that produces justice. And this because of a phrase.

"Peace be upon him…"

The phrase, to non-Muslim ears, could seem to be a rather ornamental, a rather curious non-necessity, an excess that is not integral for how we - Christians and those that are concerned with a Christian ethic and love practice - think justice. And I first noticed the phrase during a conversation with a friend, when she wrote the name Jesus and quickly followed it with "peace be upon him." Of course, we had a rather brief, but helpful conversation regarding Islamic beliefs about Jesus as Messiah, as prophet. And that was all well and good, and really cool. But what most struck me then and what still moves me now is the "peace be upon him," a phrase reiterated each time an adherent and submitter to this particular faith enunciates the name of a prophet.

And it's such a beautiful thing for someone like me. And it's such a moving thing for someone like me.

Because buried in the phrase, for someone like me who does not practice Islam, someone who is committed to Blackpentecostalism as a cultural practice and way of life but not its doctrine or theology, the phrase causes me to realize that the way we live, the way we produce our flesh in the cause of peace and justice is noticed by those who do, and those who do not, share in our faith traditions. Various faith traditions call on us to act and live peaceably but so many fail to do so because of nationalism, because of patriotism, because we choose empire rather than the cause of justice and love. With such an aversion, with such a choosing of empire, we choose the proliferation and spreading of violence.

And the world, we know, is a violent place.

But to say that is not to say much. In the United States, there has been a recent spike in the intentional and spectacular forms of terrorizing of Muslim communities nationwide, and this because of the uptick in the violent rhetoric against Muslims. But this uptick in violence - arson to mosques, physical confrontations with muslimahs, as examples - is not disconnected from a foreign policy that targets Muslims as always already violent and in need of remediation, Muslims as always already violent and against progress and modernity. To rehearse the many ways in which violence as violation is perpetuated daily against the flourishing and viability of love, happiness and peace is rather vulgar. It is not to say that violence as violation does not exist. But I'm likewise interested in how we can contend against that. And given the not new but old, the not new but otherwise currently intense, experience of Islamophobia that is not disconnected from antiblackness nor misogyny and a long history of colonialism, I again find myself asking: how are you going to live such that when your name is mentioned, that peace be upon you is your end is thought, uttered, felt? To know that my Muslim brothers and sisters pray for peace to be upon Jesus and other prophets is an ethical and moral charge for how I will live, how I will conduct myself. Am I living, are we living, in such ways that compel those that are, and are not, part of our traditions to wish peace upon us?

John's gospel records Jesus saying "A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all ... will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another." The way of discipleship is the way of peace, and the way of peace is lived out, is given, through love for one another. This love is not founded upon shared doctrine and dogma, not found in shared theology and worship practice. Rather, the way of discipleship is through the display of love one towards the other. Those who follow in the way and path of Jesus are to love one another and that this love displayed would allow all others to see and hear and smell and feel that yes, these people showing this ethic of care and concern are displaying the "way" of Jesus. Love is an ethic but unlike our what western constructions of political economy dictate, love is not an exhaustible resource that must be sequestered and given out hierarchically, incrementally. Love, rather, is inexhaustible, it constantly refreshes from whence it comes, it gives by continuing to give.

Love is the answer to violence as violation. As Apostle Paul says, "Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends." That "love never ends" means that it must be used on and with others, it must be used in order to be experienced and felt, it must be given away in order to receive more. Love is only love insofar as it is held in common, in communion, with others. What we have in common is the ability to give and receive love, the ability to give and receive peace even in the most difficult of situations.

"Peace be upon you."

With such a phrase, two things are accomplished. It is both declaration, an "I say" as well as a hope, an "I pray." "I say" as a decree and blessing, as a declaration and announcement. "I pray" as a desire and hope, as a prayerful posture and wish. Not only is a command but a desire for such peace to take place.

Growing up in my Blackpentecostal church, we used to sing a song during testimony service:

To be like Jesus, to be like Jesus

Oh how I long to be like him

So meek and lowly, so humble and holy

Oh how I long to be like him

So the declaration "peace be upon him" is not reducible to a very strained and limited theological posture or set of beliefs. I think it's because Jesus tried to do something peaceful in the world. And this trying, this striving, was evident in the way he preached love, the way he lived love, and the way he challenged his followers to love others. He lived his life in such a way that both those that share in the tradition and those that do not, that those who declare themselves Christian and those that are other faiths, want to speak peaceably his name.

And I want to live in such a way that peace is what my name, our names, call up, conjure. If I live in the way of love and peace, and you live in the way of love and peace and we all live in the way of love and peace, love and peace become the ground upon which we live, move and have being. It would simply be the way to be human, to care for our world, to care for others as ourselves.

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Who is my neighbor? My neighbor is the one, are the ones, with whom I share in peace and joy. My neighbor is the one, are the ones, that compel me to have a different relation to the world, that call us to a practice not grounded in shared doctrine nor theological conviction but in the thereness, in the fleshliness, in the ephemerality of encounter. Shared shrimp and crabs, shared conversation and laughter. These things do not remain yet they become the possibility for thinking otherwise relations to each other. My neighbor is the one, are the ones, that interrupt orthodoxy and fundamentalism in order to produce, even against fear, otherwise ways to be with, to be together, to make the world more just. James Baldwin, always a guide, offers:

"The fundamentalist ministers remind me of my time in the pulpit, of the ministers I have known, and of my own choices. In some of my encounters with ministers, I found myself dealing with people from whose lives all possibility of earthly joy had fled. Joy was not even, to judge from the endless empty plain behind their eyes, a memory. And they could recognize, in others, joy or the possibility of joy only as a mighty threat - as something, as they put it, obscene."

What keeps us from living peaceably with others such that they would declare peace be upon us? What keeps us bound is fear, fear of dilution, a fear of a lack of purity. Listen to how people discuss Islam in public, how it is a fundamental thwart to patriotism, how it is an obstacle for living life as a proud American. What keeps us behind the lines of orthodoxy and fundamentalism is the fear of a loss of American ways of life. Such a fear is what produces the occasion for violence as acceptable, such a fear is what constitutes the grounds for thinking an American civic religiosity is pure and must be protected.

But perhaps it is worth the risk of constituting together with others otherwise ways of being, otherwise modalities and ways of life. We cannot presume what it would look like but cannot allow such fear to deter us from the necessary journey. What it will require of us is a mutuality of vulnerability, a mutuality of openness, and such vulnerability and openness is the antithesis of western constructions of knowledge and what it means to be a person. We have been indoctrinated, baptized in the idea that we are individuals that need to be closed off and unaffected by the pain or the joy of others. Perhaps orthodoxy, an enclosure against and refusal of vulnerability is not worth it since it does not produce, nor is it produced by, peace but fear. If our traditions and rituals, if our sociality does not lead us to vulnerability against enclosure, it is not what can produce peace for ourselves or the world.

Have you ever listened, or watched, or experienced, or given any sustained attention to fundamentalists, those that are concerned more with the letter of the law, with the legality of their religious doctrines and creeds and statements of faith? Have you ever tried to locate the locus, the cause, of their suffering? Their suffering, produced by their need for purity, is because of the aspiration towards fidelity to text and rule almost never gives way to joy and pleasure. There is no possibility for discovery, for surprise, for the ah-ha, the exhalation enunciated through exuberance of the wonders of difference. It is a terrible, utterly sad way to live ones life, closed off and behind the drawn lines of what one presumes to be their own community. It may be a life of purity but it is not a life of joy and peace. There is a certain joylessness to orthodoxy, to fundamentalism, because one is always afraid of dilution, of becoming impure.

We are called to obscenity, to impurity, to openness and vulnerability. And such a calling to the obscene, to the impure, to the open and vulnerable, is what, precisely, produces the very capacity for joy. It is in that space of mixed up, imprecise encounter, the space where laughter and smiles, where care and concern, can be shared. Baldwin continues:

"Salvation does not divide. Salvation connects, so that one sees oneself in others and others in oneself. It is not the exclusive property of any dogma, creed, or church. It keeps the channel open between oneself and however one wishes to name That which is greater than oneself…Condemnation is easier than wonder and obliterates the possibility of salvation, since condemnation is fueled by terror and self-hatred."

The joys of loving big and deep and wide are terribly obscene, scandalous. That love might be inexhaustible, available to all flies in the face of our political economy. And let us not be deceived: the current iterations of US-based and experienced violence and rhetoric against Islam and Muslims is part of a foreign policy that others and a domestic policy that is fundamentally antiblack. Yet adherents of Islam declare, pray, that peace be upon him, upon Jesus. And perhaps that declaration, that prayer, marks for us an ethical way to be in the world. What we learn is that it is not necessary to agree about the doctrinal and theological ideas about the person, the work, or the deity of Jesus. What does matter is how he lived in such a way that produced a radical peace as a way of life.

It was in Sapelo that I began to think the possibility of peace and joy that did not denigrate nor discard the worship practices of others. It was in the fleshy encounters of sitting, eating, waiting, listening, that the practice of peace was enacted.



Ashon Crawley is Assistant Professor of Ethnic Studies at University of California, Riverside. His research and teaching experiences are in the areas of Black Studies, Performance Theory and Sound Studies, Philosophy and Theology, Black Feminist and Queer theories. He is completing his first book project, Blackpentecostal Breath: The Aesthetics of Possibility, which investigates aesthetics and performance as modes of collective, social imaginings otherwise.