Freedom and Faith by amina wadud

amina 2014 - cropped

 In September past I travelled to Zanzibar with a long time friend from Singapore. I intentionally planned to visit the places where other Africans, like my ancestors, were bought, sold, and held in waiting like fish in the fish market.  The slave trade in east Africa is linked to this historical island, which was like a Fed Ex hub: a central location to facilitate the transfer of slaves—stolen, captured in war, kidnapped, or bought elsewhere to be traded, from there to parts of Persia and Arabia.

I explained to my friend, EVERY African-American identifies intimately with slavery.  We talk as if it were only yesterday.  We say “we,” as though speaking of relatives in another city or town. We also say “they” about slave masters and traders, about the over seers who beat us, the men who raped our foremothers and sold off their children, the few who taught us to read in secret, or turned a blind eye at our efforts to escape. Yet, I know of NO WHITE person who identifies with their history as slave masters.

My intention was to perform some simple ritual interface at the markets and holding cells. I had not planned any details, I had only reflected on the value of sacred expiation and the reality of living blood still flowing because my ancestors gave their blood, sweat, and tears. Perhaps my blood would mingle with the spirit of the blood of my ancestors.  At least I hoped I could, through some selected prayers or liturgy, release anger, pain, and humiliation in exchange for a life of freedom. I owe my life to them and I wanted to consciously renew the bond and then, like Nelson Mandela’s walk to freedom, to LET it go. To honor my ancestors I must live fully and in freedom.

As we walked throughout Stone Town to the present day market of fresh produce, fish and oddities, I thought it was no coincidence that the slave market was just around the corner.  This living market continued unbroken all the way back in time when human beings were also bought and sold.  An Anglican Church has been built over the actual site of the slave market leaving only the original holding cell as a memorial.  Included is a statue depicting Africans standing stiffly slaves in pitwith chains on their necks.

As we wound our way down the narrow stairs to the holding cells, our guide gave details, explaining that the cells were built below sea level because a pathway that cut between the stone beds could wash out the excrement at high tide.  Women and children were kept in one room, men in another.  I hardly heard what he was saying as the tears began to build up in my eyes.  What must it have been like for my people…?  But then, I was stopped short—my friend more quickly was wiping her hand over her cheeks.  She told me, “I could feel the souls…”  I thought how odd it was that one whose people never enslaved another and was never enslaved could feel so deeply and so quickly.

Slave cell

Slave cell

The next day, we took a boat off the southern coast where dolphins swim freely in large schools.  I have wanted to swim with dolphins for some time.  As recent as the previous month I learned of holding places for them in Bali while I was visiting there.  I did not manage it then.  Just before my trip to Zanzibar I chanced upon an award winning documentary about the trade and slaughter of dolphin called The Cove.  It forever changed my heart about captured dolphins for human entertainment.    

In their natural environment Dolphins swim in schools—or should I say they play in schools?  When they are not held in water pens, they can travel as far as 40 miles in a single day and then turn around and travel right back.  Like all playful creatures, they have their familiar play grounds.  As it happened in Zanzibar we loaded onto a small boat and sped off the coast to one such playground.

DSC03869

There, over the bow of the boat, we saw them leaping in the water and submerging, to leap again like synchronized dancers!  They swam towards the boats and away from the boats.  They swam up close to those who jumped in to touch or just watch.  Since my friend does not swim, I was the only one in our boat to jump out.  Alas my snorkeling skills are inadequate to get a look for longer than I can hold my breath and my swimming skills have tired from lack of use and old age. But still.

When the dolphins are not jumping for air, and to play with each other (or us?), they swirl and dive in underwater. They are never still, and they are never alone.  They don’t shake hands, clap or rub noses; but they do dance and frolic. This was the second time that I felt an unexpected intensity of faith performance as embodied MOTION.  (As a pilgrim circumambulating the Kaabah at the Holy city of Makkah with millions of others, I was overcome with the idea of the dervish for whom dance is the epitome of faith expression).  The waters off the beaches of Zanzibar are so clear.  Even as the dolphins dived 30 or 40 feet and I looked at them through my goggles, I felt the generosity of invitation to join in the dance—if I could.

Somewhere between the human slave cells and the dancing dolphins I thought about faith and freedom. To be free in your element and with those whom you choose, you celebrate life and love.  Just as I could no longer think of swimming with Dolphins in holding cells, I could never think of the slavery of human beings as something solely of concern to me or my people.  Like my friend with spontaneous tears, it is clear to anyone who understands the sanctity of life.

amina wadud is Professor Emerita of Islamic Studies, now traveling the world over seeking  answers to the questions that move many of us through our lives.  Author of Qur’an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective and Inside the Gender Jihad, she will blog on her life journey and anything that moves her about Islam, gender and justice, especially as these intersect with the rest of the universe.



Categories: Ancestors, General, Slavery, Spiritual Journey, Spirituality

Tags: ,

25 replies

  1. In “Traces of the Trade,” white Americans from Rhode Island deal with the heritage of having ancestors in the slave trade. I found this film when I discovered that my Searing ancestors in Hempstead, Long Island (Long Island!?!!) held slaves and that my Purcell ancestors in Long Island may have been descended from the great slave trader Thomas Purcell of Virginia.

    https://feminismandreligion.com/2012/06/04/a-daughter-of-the-american-revolution-and-a-daughter-of-quaker-slave-owners-in-long-island-new-york-by-carol-p-christ/

    It was a very sobering discovery for me and opened my eyes to the ways in which “the North” was also involved in the slave trade, and not only those who held slaves, but those who built ships, made iron chains and manacles, processed slave cotton, sold rum made from slave sugar, and on and on.

    I don’t think white people need to be afraid of learning this history. It means that we are not “pure,” but then we never were. And such knowledge can make us want to redouble our efforts to end the enduring effects of slavery in our country including segregation, poverty, imprisionment, voter suppression and and and….

    PS I am not sure if I do or should “identify” with slave-traders or slave-holders, but I do acknowledge their deeds as part of my history.

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    • Thank you Carol for your insightful response. Once again I am in awe of your honesty and humanity. We are none of pure. We are all connected, despite the absence of precise ancestral information.

      And since my own blood line is mixed as well with the blood of slave holders, I am not free of this heritage just because my deference to my African blood is combined with the identity politics of race in America.

      Still, I find some ambivalence in how the dominant white population differs from the minority Black population in our choices about acknowledgement. You have helped me in how I must deal with intimate relationships with persons if all colors with this divergent perception of our shared and shaded history.

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  2. Very touching blog. Thanks for writing it. Zoos are jails, too, but it’s worth considering that some animals that are almost extinct in the wild are at least alive in zoos.

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    • Good point. Our human role in animal preservation is often possible only with these benevolent cages. But I think the documentary the Cove was an eye opener about the “entertainment” component of our control over animals, in particular Dolphins. Tanzania may not be an exemplar with regard to all its animal population, but I think, if they can nevertheless support a tourist industry that does not involve the capture and confinement of Dolphins, then more prosperous and “developed” nations could do better.

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  3. I was privileged to visit Zanzibar many years ago, when I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Somalia. This island that overpowered my senses with its exotic spices also overpowered my emotions with its deserted slave market. There was no memorial at that time beside the church, but everyone fell silent as they entered the courtyard. We could only see with our hearts, but it felt as though everyone did see. And many silently cried. Upon my return to California, I went into a post office one day and was helped by a postal worker with my last name. “Oh,” said I naively, “we must be related”. Having lived midst black people for two years I was literally blind to our differences, and it wasn’t until I was in the parking lot that I realized that she was black, and that my ancestors may have owned her ancestors. I felt so ashamed. My shame wasn’t because of the actions of my ancestors, for I had no control over that. My shame was that I did not acknowledge the full person that she was — all I saw was her name. It isn’t shame that will bring our peoples together; it is a celebration of our different paths that will join us. We have all grown and come to love and respect in ways that our ancestors could never have imagined, and for that I am so very grateful. I pray that we will continue growing and loving for the rest of all eternity.

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    • Wow. What a thought?! I’ve had similar encounters regarding shared last Name (my former last name) with whites and never myself thought it might have been because African slaves were given the name of their slave holders… Thanks for acknowledging that.

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  4. I don’t think it’s fair to say that white people are or do anything. There are white people who are trying very hard to pretend that slavery never happened and white people who work very hard for civil rights. Generalizations don’t serve anyone. I am an amateur genealogist and I can second what Carol said about the difficulty of coming to terms with slavery in your family tree. I recall feeling a physical fear of discovering that my family had participated in something so abhorrent. I know that there are many people in our culture who are deeply racist, and don’t care at all about the lasting pain that slavery causes families here and all over the world. But there are also people who care very much. Half the Sky is a wonderful documentary about the present day slavery and oppression of women and children all over the world. We can’t talk about this issue as if it is in the past. The struggle is still going on and we should not tolerate it, even if it isn’t in our own backyard. If you do choose to watch it, know that it is difficult. Your heart will break more than once, but you will find many ways to help if you are so moved. Blessed be.

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    • I forgot to post a link! http://www.halfthesky.org. They are doing fabulous work there.

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    • Thanks for your comment. I did double check “my” words were very specific… I said “I know of NO whites”. This can only be presumed to be a generalized indictment of ALL white people, about whom I cannot speak, nor did I here.

      Perhaps you need to check your own generalization. For when you say “there are many people in our culture who are deeply racist… you are talking to some one whose people and culture is a victim of racism not the other way around, but still you take the privilege of speaking for “our culture”.

      I do plan to look at that link, when I am back from my present travel, although I have a low tolerance for depictions of human exploits. I have worked explicitly with advocates against current practices of slavery and human trafficking, although my word count limit did not allow me to include any reference to that in this blog. I do not think failure to mention these current practices disallows me from discussing my response to this experience as a reminder of the past practices, which did not benefit from laws against them.

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  5. I don’t understand any of the divisions of race, color, creed, gender, or even species. What difference between a bird and a human? Maybe a non-sequitur, but the Dolphins you mention connect me back to things we’ve been discussing on ancient Greece. The pottery of ancient Greece, the frescoes, and the small votive goddesses (all found in the home environment) are entirely different from classical marble statues of the gods, etc. And it is there in the woman’s sphere that you feel their great love for innumerable plants and flowers and monkeys, dolphins and birds and even rocks painted into the frescoes, etc, and all of it is wrapped in that same delightful playfulness. It occurs to me for the first time, as I write this, that those tears of compassion you mention, derive from that same spontaneity!!

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  6. When I was at a slave castle in Ghana and was in the men’s holding cell there were marks on the walls indicating where archeologists had excavated layer upon layer of excrement. It was over a meter high. The men were alive, crammed in, living on their own shit and piss and the shit and piss of those who had gone before them. The guide then took us outside and pointed out the location of the chapel and the “governor’s rooms.” The chapel was directly….directly….over the men’s cell. The rooms for the governor and his family….his wife and children….was directly over that and to the side. There is no way they could have avoided hearing the suffering that they were causing. No attempt to even look away at the horrors. This was life for them. No doubt the good life. I also saw a plaque in which African tribes declared and apologized for their role in the slave trade and I knew then in a very direct way (not just intellectual knowing) that many of those Africans had been Muslim. As a white person–who has since found out that her ancestors fought on the wrong side of the civil war–and a Muslim, slavery goes back for me both ways. I sobbed too. I felt the souls of the men and women destroyed by the slave trade (how does one even recover from seeing it first hand). But I am the child of traders, owners, and defenders. I don’t want to identify with my history the way you do with your ancestors. It’s like saying I want to identify with Nazis. But I do grieve over it. I never want to turn away from it, so that I am always conscious of my inherited responsibility…especially since I continue to live off the benefits of the blood of your people…then and now. If I ignore my history and my present, how am I any better than the governor and his family, eating, sleeping, praying, laughing, living over the howling pain and degradation of other human beings?

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    • I felt it deeply when Amina said. “I know of no white person who identifies with their ancestors who were slave holders.” I know my ancestors owned slaves and it tears me up to think of it. I wonder how they treated them: were they kind or did they treat them badly. I can only hope they were kind and I feel that, in their ignorance, they did what they thought was right at the time. When I was in Alabama doing some genealogy, some black people at my motel asked me what I was doing there. I couldn’t tell them I was researching my ancestors who probably held their ancestors as slaves. It just tore me apart. I couldn’t tell them.

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  7. “As a white person–….–and a Muslim, slavery goes back for me both ways.”

    —-We have a tendency to “other” people we do not like…and “bad” persons are people we would want to distance from. But…what if we did not? What if we acknowledged that both the oppressor and the oppressed are from the same family…and not “other”? Would this perhaps, in some way, change how we understand humanity and the human condition?

    The story in the Quran (Surah 5 verses 27-32) about the 2 sons of Adam is interesting….that is, what the Quran says is just as interesting as what it does not say……..in the story, one brother kills another…..but the names are not mentioned. Cain could have been Abel and Abel could have been Cain. They are brothers, of the same family, and each had equal potential for good and bad……..and just like in the post with the dolphins, in the Quranic story too, the lost and dazed brother who had killed, is filled back with remorse and humanity when a raven shows him how to bury his brother.
    This story concludes with the lines from the Talmud that if you slew one soul it is as if you have slain all humanity and if you have saved one soul it is as if you have saved all humanity.

    ….and disturbing as it may be, if neither the oppressed nor the oppressor is “othered” then this becomes my story too, even though I am not an American….because this is the legacy of OUR human family……..?……
    Maybe, each one of us must carry with us the obligations of those who oppressed before us as well as the pain of those who were oppressed……so that we may strive to find ways and solutions to make a better world…………..

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    • Thanks Laury and Anony because as I mentioned in my reply to Carol, my blood line also includes the white slave holding blood.

      What I get from Laury is what I perhaps did a poor job of expressing at the end of the blog, with reference to my Singaporean friend and travel companion, who was so moved by being there where REAL people had been held in bondage. I was actually surprised, although I have known her for 25 years.

      What I got from her reaction is the same as what Laury expressed describing her experience in Ghana, namely, that the “humanity” of compassion for the oppressed peoples of the past, no matter our ancestral roots. Furthermore, what I know about Laury and my Singaporean friend, they continue to work towards anti-oppression today.

      Perhaps that is what you were also trying to get at?

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  8. Thanks Amina and Anonymous. I think the scariest thing is that we’d like to believe we would not be “Nazis,” slave holders, and defenders if we were in the same position. But the truth is that we don’t know. I became obsessed with Hannah Arendt when I first learned about the Holocaust as a young teen. These people were not monsters, they were people. As she puts it “unthinking” people. And there are lots of ways one can not think or avoid thinking.

    One of my favorite ancestors sold cattle to the Confederate army. She was widowed young, with children, she had to turn to sex work to take care of them. She was a tough woman and she ended up working for the cattle men who were her clients. Did she agree with slavery, or did she think “bad” slaveowners were bad but the rest was fine, or did she object to it but could do nothing about it because of her situation. Who can say? I love her because she was tough as nails in hard times. It would have been great if she had been an abolitionist. But she wasn’t. That’s a hard pill to swallow. That’s through my maternal great grandmother’s line. Two men from my maternal great grandfather’s line out and out fought for the confederate army. I don’t know what their story is. My family were extremely poor people on both sides, so I don’t know if they would have owned slaves themselves. Perhaps they worked for slave owners? I don’t know. But I do know these men fought in a war defending the right to own other human beings.

    So when I think back, I wonder what I would have done had I been there. I cannot say I know. So part of not wanting to identify with them too deeply is having to sit with that knowledge of myself that I might have been a coward and looked the other way. That’s kind of scary! And partly why I try not to look the other way at oppression now. I don’t want to be the person now that I am afraid I might have been back then. If that makes sense.

    I recall a Shia friend telling me that during Muharram, the dhakir telling the story about how the Kufans abandoned Hussein and reminding people that they don’t know if they would have left the city to help him or if they would have stayed behind in utter fear of Yazid’s retribution. For real.

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  9. Hello from Germany
    Even me i went to Zanzibar two years ago and i was crying at this place. The history is very bad. But it was like that that arab and islamic countries took people into the slavery – even people from England and Italy in the medieval times. Even nowadays there is still a lot of slavery in the arab countries. People from East Africa coming to arab countries looking for work and are often treated like slaves.
    On the Sinai peninsula african refufgees are captured and hold on ransom by islamic militias, its gruesome.

    The british “white” people ended the slavery on Zanzibar by the way.

    I cant understand why so many africans and african americans perceive the islam as a religion of liberation. In history the islam was mostly a religion of slavery or enslaving africans until today.

    salam aleikum – peace for everybody …. muslims, jews, christs, lesbians and gays, atheists, buddhists for all human beings , binadamu wote – amani na upendo

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  10. Humanity of compassion (not guilt)—How can we increase its awareness so that we as human beings refrain from harm in the first place instead of being blind to it and regretting it later? how can we all learn to simply cry?………

    For many of us it is easy and affirming to acknowledge the human potential for goodness. But it is scary to look within ourselves and wonder at our own potential to create/do/enable harm. When it comes to the unpleasant, some of us do the “one-step-removal” —we dance around with language, we turn blind, try not to look too closely, justify, excuse,……..we keep it one step removed from “us”………(notice the use of “we”/”us” instead of I/me in the sentence)…….

    Perhaps the concept of the Banality of evil—might also fall into the “one-step-removal” if it is used as an excuse for blindness or easing guilt—as in—all human beings can do bad things? It is sometimes difficult to grasp the magnitude of the harm we are capable of—Once a people that were oppressed in Europe and Russia, are now the ones oppressing others in the I/P, Once a country that fought for its ideals of freedom and equality is now advocating torture, assassinations, drones, of others….time and again, we seem to forget our potential for causing harm…I don’t know how to explain our blindness or how to find its solution…….but maybe if I were not so scared of looking at it in myself…then could I also learn the courage to not be blind when it happens around me now?…in my own family, neighborhood, community, country…..?……

    I once had an opportunity for a short visit to the U.S. and was able to mingle with both white people and black people. The difference in these conversations was startling—it was as if these two groups lived in a different country. One group appeared to be blind/deaf to the voices and conversations of the other group—it was puzzling….and I wonder how blind I might be? and how many others might be like me? Is it possible that if we were more aware of our own potential to oppress/harm…that we could use this awareness so that we might see oppression and be able to refrain ourselves and others from causing or enabling oppression….?……I don’t know….but maybe we need conversations that will open up many ways of thinking? ….of taking responsibility for our world…?….

    I think this Sioux prayer expresses simply and well—-

    Grandfather Great Spirit,
    Fill us with the light,
    Give us strength to understand
    and the eyes to see
    Teach us to walk the soft earth
    as relatives to all that live.

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    • I’m not sure it is possible, if one understands the banality of evil, to use it as a way to look away. It is the argument that unthinking thing you do every day, it could be killing others or destroying their lives and not thinking about it is no excuse.

      That is a lovely prayer, well chosen.

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      • I agree. My words did not express my thoughts well.

        I read an interview sometime back of a Drone operator…it did not give any details of the operation, rather it talked about the dissonance the man felt in “doing his job” then going home to his very normal, average family life…….the unthinkingness is in harm they cause to others, and also the moral injury they cause to themselves…………

        It may be simplistic or maybe even mistaken, but if our blindness causes harm, then maybe the solution is to become more vigilant against blindness/unthinking by becoming more aware of our obligations for justice and morality…?…..somewhat like an alcoholic who first needs to accept that he has a weakness….then a solution to it will be more willingly embraced….?……..these are just unformed thoughts…….

        In a previous comment to another post, I had felt that anger at injustice was a useful tool because it can energize us to work for solutions…..we have our limitations and all injustice cannot be prevented…so solutions will have to come over time…..but, if we were more aware, I wonder if it is possible that we could prevent some systemic injustice in its early stages……?…….again….I am unsure my words express what I want to say…but what I hope is as the prayer says, to have more open hearts so I/we can be and do better…….

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    • Yes! thank you for the prayer. I am less inclined to think about the very circumstances of our lives as “evil” than I am to take up the question of moral responsibility or culpability. There is always some where that we see some “harm” can be done. But when we are able to participate in eradicating that harm or avoiding at least to contribute to it, then I think we have to act. Being blind to the fact that EVERY day some one’s life is in danger or somewhere, others are being hurt, I do not invoke as being morally irresponsible to ignore.

      Meanwhile to work on systemic oppressions, I consider necessary for my humanity.

      I do not however think I and I alone can actually make a dent in those systems, only that I must live in an ethical trajectory, something I learned to embrace after reading the book the Feminist Ethic of Risk. Because some evil is so large one must avoid despair. Sharon Welch in that book writes about being a part of the process as redemptive rather than focusing on the results, like eradicating environmental damage or nuclear disarmament. How do we keep away from dong nothing since our little something cannot dismantle these? We focus on even the tiniest act of consciousness as part of the process. When humanity puts them all together THEN real change can happen.

      But I also do not turn a blind eye to oppressions even the ones I cannot resolve because real people are being oppressed. I thus embrace the personhood rather than the larger cause. I know some people who cannot look a beggar in the eye if they are not also giving a bit of change. I think, my no is NOT the make or break of their circumstance, just as my bit of change isn’t either. On any day, however there is a person there and she or he must NOT be ignored. So my “no” comes from teh same place as my “yes”, my humanity to their humanity. that is all.

      I’ve lost any “god-complex” that I am the cause of great transformation. I am the one and only with my one to another can I even live.

      As for racism in American and our separate communities, some times for survival I know Black people have to confirm their dignity by their own community. There is so much African-American literature that tells this story. We cannot look for the white commuity to confirm our humanity and some times while we are waiting for the systemic change we make the light shine only from within our community. But then the power dimension is another matter.

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  11. Masha’Allah habibty. Fabulously written. Thoroughly enjoyed. Definitely sharing.

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  12. Systemic oppression—some of these are large in scale—Slavery, Apartheid, Nazi Germany, Settlements…..where governments, judiciary, law enforcement, and socio-religious factors converge to create circumstances. Similarly with the Muslims of Burma…….
    If so, then perhaps conversations about solutions need to be about systems as well…that is, solutions need to consider the human factor/human nature in implementation. A system will be as good/bad as the participants…

    Maybe Dolphins are blessed…they don’t agonize about being Dolphins…they just are……

    Perhaps they key is in “embracing the personhood rather than the larger cause” because we the people, are the solutions…that is, we human beings must help each other with our strengths (virtues) and be vigilant against our weaknesses (vice)

    (Previous ideas/conversations about oppression in the European and American contexts led to the ideas about secularism……..maybe more conversations are needed…?……)

    Today, when many Muslim-majority countries are in upheaval, new conversations about systems and systemic justice might be thought in terms of obligations…..?……..If oppression is understood as a loss of rights due to injustice, then to prevent its occurrence, both the governors and the governed must participate in the safeguarding of rights through ethico-moral justice. We can do this by being vigilant against our blindness that allows vested interests to take advantage……?….

    ……but in order to be vigilant against blindness…..we may have to learn to hear and understand the conversations of others…?……and maybe then we can internalize the idea of ” humanity of compassion” which might then lead to efficient participation in safeguarding of rights and vigilance against oppressions…..?……or maybe this is much too simplistic…?…..I don’t know……? …….but we do have the potential to do better than what we have done before………..

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  13. Thank you Aishah! Well put: we have to learn to hear and understand the conversations of others..” ameen to that!

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  14. I am a Tanzanian of Indian origin so obviously my ancestors did not have to go through what my country’s ancestors did, however, I never fail to shed spontaneous tears at the slave market in Zanzibar. Or elsewhere in the country. Every time. And say a dua’a for them, that now, at least, they are at peace. Allah knows best.

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  15. but of course. as my friend demonstrated. In fact after that first slave cell she refused to enter any of the other sites where I felt duty bound to KNOW what the conditions were like by the sea, in the caves, and to BE present as a survivor of this atrocity. This is a part of my heritage I needed to saturate myself with actual locations to never forget…

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