A Fair Witnessing (Gems from Scott Korb’s Light Without Fire)

 

Sweetness for the mind and  heart.

Sweetness for the mind and heart. (Soma Chocolate, Toronto)

Some books call out to you to share them with others. Recently I read Scott Korb’s book Light Without Fire about the first year at Zaytuna College, America’s first Muslim liberal arts college, and ever since I finished it, I can’t stop talking about it with others.

There are so many things to appreciate and admire about this book. To begin, it is rare to encounter an author who is able to talk about Islam/Muslims with honesty and sensitivity. In Light without Fire, the author’s admiration, warmth and connection with the people he meets shines from every page, and you get the sense that he is not a journalist simply watching Zaytuna from the sidelines, but someone who participates in the life of the community. When he visits the Lighthouse Mosque in Oakland for Friday prayers for instance, he lines up shoulder to shoulder with others in prayer. When he attends the mawlids (a celebration of the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him), at Zaytuna or in the broader community, over time he becomes familiar with the poetry and sacred music that is recited.

His curiosity and engagement makes the book a very readable, thoughtful, interesting, important read, and one that rewards its reader generously for their time and attention. It makes the book a light, a book of beautiful writing, subtle humour, and humanity, that helps the reader see and understand Zaytuna College more clearly.

“Always carry a little notebook around with you. Whatever inspires you, or rings true for you, was meant for you. So make sure you write it down.” Faced with what Faatimah called “the obvious way” that the Zaytuna classroom – or really any classroom – was not like the rest of the world, and vice versa, every moment deserved the attention of a notetaker. Though the Zaytuna classroom might be structured with the books and schedules and tests that are the trappings of any classroom, what’s “out here” is no less important, structured as it is, she said “so much more by the divine.” The whole world is the classroom. She saw in it signs and proofs of Allah.” ~ (Light without Fire, p.110)

In the spirit of this advice to be a notetaker (given by Shaykh Yahya Rhodus), below are a few thoughts from my read.

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Toronto 2.0 (On Stories, Faith and Cities)

Warm your heart.

Warm your heart.

About four years ago, I ran a storytelling program called Terry Tales. Before it began, I imagined a “Moth-style” event where from the very first event, people would enthusiastically tell stories about their lives to a group of strangers.

What I discovered instead is that it takes time and confidence to realize that you have a story and experience to share. Instead of providing a space for performances, our events were about a circle of chairs, an open room, and tea and cookies to break the ice. The conversation was intimate, unexpected and dynamic, and participants ranged from first year students, to PhD candidates to recent alumni/young professionals in the wider community. Every event was different because the participants grew each time, we blogged about the conversation afterwards, and many participants shared with us how important these bi-monthly gatherings became to them.

I stopped holding these events when I moved to Toronto for grad school, but Terry Tales taught me about the importance of spaces of community and the power of stories.  Whenever I’ve moved in the past, whether it was to Toronto four years, or to Vancouver two years ago, or most recently, back to Toronto this March, it’s been important to me to find non-alcoholic centric spaces for discussion, and to find others who were striving to grow spiritually, develop strong family relations, make deep community contributions, create/appreciate heart-nourishing art, live healthily, and protect the planet. So much of the time, the conversations I have about faith are from the standpoint of explaining oneself, and so its always been important to also find people with whom to have proactive, positive conversations that widen and deepen my understanding of what it means to live faithfully in the world. The further I get from my undergraduate experience, the more questions I have, and the richer these conversations become.

Now that I’m back in Toronto, I’d like to create a space for conversation on a regular basis. In many ways coming back to Toronto has been like moving to a new city altogether, and over the past couple of weeks I’ve been spending a lot of time listening and learning through one on one chats and large group settings. In large groups it’s been beautiful (for example) to witness the passionate debate at Canada Reads about how we understand difference, belonging, colonialism and marginalization in Canada today, to learn about the NFB documentary Highrise about the experience of living vertically in Toronto today, to participate in a Muslim Chaplaincy discussion about how people with disabilities experience inaccessible mosques, and to hear beautiful expressions from students of how faith and art connect, among other experiences.  In small settings, it’s been wonderful to exchange stories and perspectives over long chats and multiple cups of coffee.

Both encounters have been a reminder that that this is a city of countless stories, and telling and hearing our stories matter. Sharing one’s experience with others can be an act of discovery and identity formation, and for listeners, stories can act as both an entryway to unfamiliar perspectives and experiences and a bridge to discovering others with experiences similar to your own. In this spirit, Seriously Planning will, God-willing, offer programs on a regular basis on storytelling, books, dialogue and reflection.

For March, here are our upcoming events:

March 21st: Seriously Planning BookClub On “Amusing Ourselves to Death.”

March 24th: Seriously Planning Stories

For either these events, please email seriously (dot) planning (at) gmail.com (or RSVP on the FB event page) to confirm your attendance. Hope to meet you soon!

It’s Not a Mosque, But It’s Still Controversial

In the Wall Street Journal today, I read about a community in Walnut Grove, California where neighbours are upset that a proposed development called Sufism Reoriented has been granted planning permission. It’s not a mosque; the project leaders describe it as not “affiliated with Islam and is focused on celebrating all major religious figures and their teachings”, but it is remarkable how similar the  s’plot arc’ of proposed faith developments are. The objections people cite tend to be similar concerns of compatible design, traffic concerns, sprawl, size and the character of the neighbourhood changing, and are challenging because it is difficult to reach a point where you can definitively say a concern like appropriate size or compatible design has been adequately dealt with.

I find it fascinating, particularly because in many cases, communities are mobilizing after planning permission has been granted to try and pressure planning authorities to reverse their decisions. In Markham, Ontario there is a proposed mosque that has met the necessary planning requirements but residents are still mobilizing to stop the mosque from being built, Park 51 had approval from planning authorities before its conflict became the subject of national and international media attention, and the list goes on. My research is about how planners can address conflicts that occur around the development of mosques, but this too is an interesting question. What do you do when the planning process is over, but the conflict refuses to die down? When citizens see the planning system as open to pressure and amenable to change?  I’m not sure what the answer is, but its an important question I think.

One might say that all developments attract conflict and NIMBY (Not in my Backyard) sentiments, but I agree with Walter Kieser,  one of the people interviewed in Wall Street Journal piece:

“Walter Kieser, managing principal at EPS LLC, an urban economics and planning consultancy in Berkeley, says Bay Area communities are increasingly pushing back against construction projects affiliated with religious groups because many of the projects have grown in size in the era of megachurches. Meanwhile, residents often hope to limit sprawl or want to preserve the pastoral nature of their neighborhoods, he says.

“Big projects always face some pushback from the community but when faith is added to the equation, these kinds of squabbles often turn into fights,” Mr. Kieser says.

You can read the Wall Street Journal article in its entirety here.