Hijabi of the Month March - Faatimah Knight
Posted on Apr 03, 2016
Faatimah is a writer, a thinker and a wife, in no particular order. She was born and raised in Brooklyn, NY and graduated from Zaytuna College in 2014 as part of their inaugural class. She is currently finishing her Masters in Religious Studies in Chicago. She is the Religion Editor for Sapelo Square, an online journal for all things Black and Muslim, and a board member for Lamppost Productions, an Islamic education initiative for Muslim Americans. Faatimah was part of a group of Muslims who started the initiative #RebuildwithLove that helped raise awareness and money for black churches in the south that were victims of arson at a time of heightened racist rhetoric and xenophobia. They raised over 100k for those churches and the project was featured in many publications including The Huffington Post, Al Jazeera, and CNN among others.
Faatimah is looking forward to starting a one-year chaplaincy internship at UCSF Children’s Hospital and then going back to school to further her religious education and throw herself into her writing. Currently she is finishing up her writing on notions of personhood in Islam and how that is expressed and embodied in women. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Medium.
1) When did you start wearing hijab? Tell us a little about your journey.
Interestingly enough, growing up in Brooklyn, NY around the Masjid Taqwa and Masjid Khalifa communities, we used the word khimar, not hijab. I’m not sure the history of why those communities use the word khimar instead of hijab, but I do know that the word khimar is found in the Qur’an (24:31) in which God tells women to take their khimar and cover their chest. I think the distinction between khimar and hijab is actually quite helpful because khimar refers specifically to the scarf on your head whereas hijab is commonly and confusingly used to refer to either the headscarf and/or one’s entire outfit. It was not until I moved to the Bay Area that I heard people use the word hijab and I was like, “Oh! Okay, that’s what I’m wearing.” In any case, I started wearing hijab when I was 9, shortly after I was visited by Aunt Flow. Do people still say Aunt Flow? I remember one morning my mother was doing my hair before school and out of the blue I asked her if I would have to start wearing hijab and she said it was up to me, but that it would be a good thing if I did. It may have taken me a month or so to get into the habit. I remember once leaving the house without it on only to realize I wasn’t wearing it when a strange breeze passed through my hair.
I am the youngest of 6 daughters so I was fortunate to have many examples of women wearing hijab, including my mother. I also had different examples of hijab styles in my own family. I don’t think people realize that Black Muslim women have been wearing their hijab in “buns” and “turban” styles for decades- those styles were nothing new to me. So I ran the gamut: from simply tying it in the back, to wrapping it into a bun, to pinning it in the front (for a hot minute!), to draping it loosely over my head, to draping it more tightly to make sure it covers my chest and neck. I’ve been wearing hijab for 14 years, that’s more than half of my young life! I’m so grateful that God has put into my heart the desire to wear hijab. Sometimes I think about that love that is fostered between women and God through the wearing of hijab, and I believe for many women wearing hijab becomes an act of love that eclipses feelings of obligation.
2) You spearheaded the #RebuildwithLove LaunchGood initiative to restore the seven black churches that were victims of arson this past summer and raised over $100,000! What did the initiative mean to you?
For me the initiative was about giving hope in a time of fear, and showing up for those who’ve suffered injustice. It was really moving to see the positive and loving responses I received from supporters of the project. It was also empowering to be a part of something that turned out so successfully. It gave me confidence to think about how I might move forward with other initiatives and I hope it gave other people confidence to take their ideas off the ground.
3) How did it feel to see the initiative receive national and international attention and receive recognition from President Obama?
I was immensely grateful to be part of something that helped others in a tangible way. However, I was a little disappointed that the presidential recognition did not add to the cause in any significant way that I could measure. I would have liked to see the initiative recognized in a way that stressed the injustices of the church burnings within a larger context of the history of brutality against Black people and Black things. But I am sure that it did some good to have that presidential recognition by at the very least alerting people to the civic action of Muslims. So I am appreciative for the attention. It feels burdensome to have that kind of exposure because you’re forced to ask yourself if you are doing the most you can with the platform you are given.
4) Before enrolling at the Chicago Theological Seminary to pursue your masters, you graduated from Zaytuna College after turning down the University of Chicago and other prestigious universities - what made you choose Zaytuna and what was your experience like?
It was not easy to walk away from the University of Chicago. Up until I decided to study at Zaytuna, I was sure that I would go to college and major in English Literature (and possibly minor in Archaeology, but that’s another story altogether) and UofC seemed like an ideal place to do that. But once Zaytuna awakened my desire to study Islam, I could not wrestle the feeling that Zaytuna was the best option for me. That was saying a lot considering that before that point I never envisioned myself studying Islam for years at a time. I chose Zaytuna because I felt I owed myself the opportunity to seriously study Islam and engage on a deep and intentional level with the religion I had been born into. What further prompted me to study at Zaytuna was that I knew I would be learning under teachers I had deep admiration and respect for; I could not pass up the opportunity to learn from the best of the best. I went to Zaytuna mostly for personal edification, not thinking that I would continue to pursue religious studies after I graduated. Yet, here I am getting my Masters in religious studies and looking for the next opportunity to sit with a teacher and go over an usul al-fiqh text. Being a member of the first graduating Zaytuna class, I had an amazing, challenging and unique experience.
The library was unfurnished in 2010, without books or even shelves to speak of the promise of books, and the tiling on the floor in the hallways was not yet completed; it was a temporary space with lasting possibilities. When the temporary shelves did come in, we stocked them ourselves with books from the libraries of our founders, teachers, friends and donors. The library served as our study and worship space so that we could make an organic transition between reading the word and practicing it. Half of the inaugural class, my cohort, was made up of students pursuing second degrees and the other half- of which I was a part- ‘true freshmen’ with newly minted high school diplomas. Unlike most undergraduate programs, we jump into our major right away- Islamic Law and Theology. We considered ourselves to be inheritors and practitioners of a classical tradition that gripped the Western most parts of the Muslim world from the times of Al-Andalus in Spain to modern day West Africa to as far as Muslim China in the East. Arabic was our Latin; the Qur’an was our Bible; but Aristotle was still Aristotle.There is so much more I could say about the friendships, the challenges and my hopes for the school, but this is not a piece about Zaytuna!
5) What would you say to students who are thinking of applying to Zaytuna College but are on the fence?
It’s ok to be on the fence. I think some people make the mistake of thinking that because Zaytuna is a Muslim college that means it’s for all Muslims. People should remember that Zaytuna is for those who want a Bachelors in Islamic Law and Theology and not every Muslim wants that. Of course people can pursue a variety of careers and continue schooling in different disciplines after Zaytuna, which many current Zaytuna students intend to do. My advice would be to do your research and talk to a few students who have been through the program.
6) Who is your role model, or who do you look to for inspiration?
I cast a wide net when it comes to inspiration. First and foremost, God does the most stunning work I’ve ever seen. Nature is a never-ending source of inspiration. I’ve often thought that if I had another life to live I’d be a scientist. People never cease to amaze me. One of my all time favorite inspiring quotes is from George Washington Carver who said, “If you love it enough, anything will talk with you.” It brings to life this idea that inspiration can be an interactive thing. You can love something into fruition or pour energy into that precious thing you want to understand and it will open itself up to you. Inspire literally means ‘to breath into,’ so that which inspires is that which gives life and animates you, taking your raw material and making it move. Feeling inspired is a major blessing from God and I pray for more moments of inspiration in my life.
7) Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
These kinds of questions are so tough! You know what will make me happy? If in 5 years I can look back at 2016 and feel that I have grown and improved (intellectually, spiritually, morally, etc.) in obvious and indisputable ways; then I will be happy. So, where do I see myself in 5 years? Better than I am today. More confident in who I am. More intellectually and spiritually mature.
8) If you could give one piece of advice to someone struggling with hijab, what would it be?
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