For the pleasure of God and acquiring knowledge of His word, hundreds of Muslims braved the inclement weather, four days before the arrival of Christmas. It is precisely this closeness to the holiday and vacation time that allows Muslims from North America and other regions of the world to escape from the grind of the working week to downtown Toronto. While news bulletins deliver the terrible news of homeless people and elderly folk dying in the streets or in their homes due to the lack of proper shelter or heat, students hurry into the warm confines of the Royal York hotel. They bring in the smell of the winter winds, as they stand in line in the foyer to sign in to the RIS programme.
Established in 2003, Reviving the Islamic Spirit (RIS), aims to help youth contend with challenges of communication and social integration in North America by “reviving the Islamic tradition of education, tolerance and introspection, and across cultural lines through points of commonality and respect” (RIS website). To this end, the organisation puts on a yearly convention showcasing “Islamic leadership from across the globe sharing a common platform before the widest cross-section of [the] community” (RIS website). The numbers of attendance have steadily increased over the years with the conference seeing over 25,000 attendees. To cater to a large number of people, LCD screens are set up around a large convention room. Men with headsets sit in mobile chairs around the hall. Their seats swivel high and low, left and right, as though on a movie set, to capture every part of the speaker on stage and the audience watching.
Over the course of three days, participants are subjected to a heavy programme, with a line-up of more than 10 speakers. A large bazaar is spread out on the premises, with stalls selling clothing, books, tapes, jewellery and much more. It’s an intense, highly charged crowded scene day in and day out. And if the fast pace and crowds are not to one’s liking, the Knowledge Retreat provides a more intimate experience, with a smaller crowd of students and teachers. The Knowledge Retreat is held for six days, either the week before or after of the three-day conference.
When I walk in on the first day of the retreat, volunteers are attending to the needs of participants behind a semi-circle of tables, just beyond the opening of the elevator bank. Green lanyards with ‘RIS Knowledge Retreat 2013/1435’ embossed in white, rest around their necks. Each bears a square card at its end, showing a name and decorated with an intricate design of Arabesque similitude. They smile and hand out programme-bags, crossing names off their lists as they go. Students quickly make their way into the lecture hall. It is the first day of the retreat and getting a good seat is a must. They settle in, facing one of the six teachers for the week.
The teacher, a young American man is sitting on an erected stage in the front of the room, which is designed to give off an Arabian flare. It is fitted with small chairs and chaise-like benches. Two lamps of seemingly Middle Eastern design are positioned on the corners of the stage. A tall gold lattice framing stands in the back, swathed with chiffon fabrics which crisscross one another, draping to the floor. Coloured lights shine upon them, creating a vision of an Arabian night.
The programme attempts to give students the opportunity to engage face-to-face with religious teachers, providing an environment for students to learn about traditional Islamic sciences, preserved through a chain of scholarly transmission. When I ask participants about their reasons for attending, many say that they wanted to gain further knowledge, often using “spiritual” as an adjective. Others sought time with these influential scholars to experience a “revival,” “recharge,” “renewal” or “uplift” their spiritual dispositions. This is part of what I hear from Fatima when we chat during a break session.
“I was quite distant from Islam. I guess the only way I practised it was that I fasted in Ramadan and I would only eat halal. Those were the only two things that I did,” Fatima says, chuckling over the simplicity of her practice.
A Toronto native and a most unlikely attendee of RIS, Fatima talks about her “awakening.” Her relationship with RIS began with the intention to accumulate volunteer hours for university credit.
“I started volunteering with RIS when I was sixteen. I volunteered with them for five years and then it was time for me to move on to other things, but then I started coming as an attendee…I learned so much. That enlightenment that I felt, that spiritual awakening I felt at RIS made me come back again for the next five years,” she says. The timing of the programme, during the Christmas holiday, and proximity to Ramadan, benefited Fatima, now in her mid-twenties.
“To me, it’s the midpoint between Ramadan…because Ramadan is like a spiritual high. You have all these goals and you do all these things in Ramadan and you’re like, I’m going to try and continue after and then it starts like…suddenly stuff starts tapering off. Then you come to RIS and you feel it again. You’re like oh no, I need to get back on top of it. I need to be on top of this stuff. So, you continue doing all that. At least try to continue. It’s that awakening as I mentioned before. It’s like…my friends and I call it hajj without going to hajj. It’s that awakening that you feel.”
The explicit religious orientation of the retreat allows Fatima to make her journey and remain overnight for a week on her own. Her parents, whom she describes as “really religious,” “quite traditional and conservative,” are fans of the programme. However, the alignment of thought between Fatima and her parents goes only so far. She is the black sheep of her Pakistani family, and an oddity at the RIS, given her transgender identification.
“I identify as Trans. I was born a female. I identify as male. And at some point, within the next couple of years, I’d say, I will be taking hormones to change that and go through surgeries. It’s something that, interestingly enough, has never been an issue with myself. I’ve never had to go through that acceptance period with myself. I’ve been like this since I was a child. I was like…even looking at my childhood pictures when I was four or five years old, playing dress up…traditionally girls are wearing their mom’s clothes, I’d go dress in my dad’s clothes. I’d be playing with action figures. I was always presented as male. I hung out with the boys and played with the boys. And then I identified as a boy. That was okay until I hit puberty. Then it all had to change. But that never changed… I still identified as such. [But] it was like I couldn’t voice it anymore because it was like no, you know you’re a girl now. My mom was just like “you can’t play with the boys anymore because you know, you’re growing now,” all these excuses. And…you’re like I don’t understand. But…my identity and being out to myself never really changed. I kind of hid myself and then that was one of the reasons I became distant from Islam.”
Although her gender orientation was one cause for her departure from mainstream religious practice, Fatima, like the other knowledge seekers at the retreat, felt the absence of a connection to or understanding of the sacred.
“I didn’t connect with it at that time, at that age. It was too much force from my parents. They’d be like, no you need to do this. And I didn’t understand the reason behind it. It was like, no you must do it. And if I asked questions it would be like because Islam said so, but that wasn’t sufficient. It wasn’t a sufficient answer for me. I’ve always been a person who is like, if something doesn’t make sense to me I’m not going to do it. Even academically, socially, morally, like if it doesn’t make sense to me. I’m not a blind follower. I have reasons for my beliefs. And just because my parents believe in it doesn’t mean I’m going to believe in it. It needs to make sense to me. So, I never connected with it at that time.”
Having found her source for spiritual enlightenment, Fatima is unwilling to give it up, despite the blatant ostracising she knows she will receive at the hands of the retreat attendees and speakers. While in previous years her long hair visibly identified her as a girl, her tom-boy sartorial choices of dress and very short hair make her seem like just another brother in the crowds. But when her voice is heard, eyes go wide with confusion and surprise. A woman?!
“I’ve only had an issue with it when I’ve been to environments like this. Really religious environments where people question me. Otherwise, I’ve never had an issue reconciling my faith and my identity,” she clarifies. Questions about her gender, advice to dress as a woman, or suggestions to go “find” God in order for this ailment to be lifted, are all doled out. It does beg the question as to where else one would find God if not at a gathering for receiving religious guidance. Fatima isn’t deterred.
“The reason why I come to places like this is because…I have to remind myself that this is my relationship with God. And God is the only one that is going to judge me at the end of the day. People can come and tell me that I’m wrong. People can say whatever they want. They can tell me that I’m going to hell, which I’ve heard many times. But at the end of the day, ultimately, God is going to be the one judging me. And if I’m doing something, like making me more comfortable to become closer to God in a way, then to me it’s worth the sacrifice. Because that’s what we’re here for. It’s to please Allah. This life is a test. We need to do what we can over here for the hereafter. And that’s what I remind myself every time. Even when I am in uncomfortable situations.”
This piece is part of a series of ethnographic portraits from interviews conducted during my doctoral research from 2013–2014 on four Muslim retreats, ALIM, RIS, Bayyinah-Dream, and Rihla, attending to the role of knowledge and the multidimensional nature of authority in the education of American Muslims.