Note: This is the first of a series of meditations by Cyrus McGoldrick on faith, politics, art, and more.
As my eighth Ramadan recently came to a close (and may God accept everything we did for His sake), I found it important to reflect on my journey so far, in hopes that it may provide some encouragement for my family and friends of all faiths and backgrounds, no matter where you find yourself today in this time of global upheaval, and to rethink my intention behind my writing and art.
Thanks to my parents and teachers, I was always keenly aware of the man-made problems in the world – corruption, war on people and earth – and I went looking for solutions as soon as I was able, looking for a way of living and organizing better than this system that had given us so much pain and oppression. I studied political philosophy and religious ideologies in books and buildings, in people and protests, and found the best of all of them in the Islam of the Qur’an and Prophet. I wasn’t even yet sure in my belief in a God with Will and Agency when I found myself intellectually certain of the ingenuity of Islam as a worldview and practice: simply, Islam made sense to me, as a social solution and a personal one. Islam was liberation. Islam was revolution. Islam was strength in the face of oppression, whether the oppression was external or internal.
I took several years before finally committing to the practice of Islam in 2008 (at the age of 20), a choice I have never regretted. Almost immediately, I was blessed with the opportunity to work for a number of Muslim organizations in North America – of course we make sacrifices to do so, but I was just happy to participate in the struggle against the enemies that drove me to Islam in the first place. I was never really trained for the work I’ve done, and had to learn by trial and error even more than by observation. But I have also been blessed to have time and energy to study independently, and more importantly, to have my elders, colleagues, mentors and mentees become my closest friends, and I’ve learned more from their insight and experience than I could ever express.
This work has not been without challenges, though. Sooner than I was ready for, I found myself among the leaders of the Muslims, not because I sought leadership but because work was needed and the ideas I expressed seemed to inspire others as they inspired me. Some of our leaders have welcomed and nurtured me. Some have felt threatened by my willingness to tell the truth even when it is bitter, or have felt that I have encroached on their “turf” (and what small, pathetic turf it is) and so attack me and other young activists trying to help. Some have taken advantage of my following among youth, attaching themselves to my name while trying to distance it from my politics. Many times over these years I have had my heart broken by these people and my expectations of them, and I would be lying if I said it did not affect my faith, make me question my mission, sometimes even hate myself and our people for our weaknesses (may God forgive me). These last few years, in particular, have been especially painful: even as the war on our people (and Black and Brown and immigrant communities) intensifies, Muslims in America seem to have become even more apathetic, more apologetic – the good imperial subjects that institutional oppression fashions when cultural pressure and worldly comfort cannot.
But after an especially painful such episode recently, I turned to God and found peace there, strength that I desperately needed and hope I can share with you, my beloved friends. It is from faith and not arrogance that I believe He removed me from the situation and pointed me in the direction of the guidance that would keep me firm. Speaking to my elders, I found that they too were worried about the same trends towards weakness and cowardice. Respected teachers and public speakers might still be teaching the safe, personal Islam that audiences have come to expect, but they are quietly preparing their home communities for times of dramatic change. A mentor of mine told me firmly, “trust yourself.” Another said, “move like a soldier.” Another said, “we will never be free as long as we depend on our oppressors.” Muslims have a role as a community sent to work for good and oppose evil, and more and more of our scholars and activists are finding ways to emphasize that, even if some with authority in our community are resisting it. Raise your voice with courage, and you will find many people like you who have been waiting for a movement to rise.
Speaking with young people, I hear the same anger with oppression, the same eagerness for mobilization and resistance, the same frustration with leadership. If you feel alone, detached, helpless, please know that we are in a time of revival, a time of invitation and struggle, and we are the vanguard, the writers of history. Your skin is beautiful, your pride is necessary, and your Islam is everything. The Prophets, peace be upon them all, were revolutionaries, antagonists to the oppressors of their time. Around the world, Muslims are fighting to reclaim their lands and bodies and souls, in the path of Abraham, who smashed the idols; of Moses, who stood up to the Pharaoh; of Jesus, who terrified the Romans; and of Muhammad, who showed us the complete Way with his perfect example. This is the praxis we must connect to – not the colonized Islam that tells you to worship and leave society to the powerful – and this is my purpose in life, my mission. We have a world to build, and it will require faith, courage, energy, knowledge, ethics and leadership, but we don’t have to wait for anyone but ourselves.
On a personal note:
I have long wanted to set aside time to continue my studies so I can be a better worker in the Islamic movement; so I can learn, practice and teach the revolutionary Prophetic praxis; so I can recognize our leaders when they appear and support them. After graduating from college in 2010, I jumped straight into work to support my family and deal with community issues, but often neglected my spiritual and intellectual development. I have been praying for years for the permission and financial freedom to travel to focus on studying, and in the last few months that dream has become a reality.
So, I am very excited to announce to our family and friends our move to study and work in Istanbul. I have been accepted as an M.A. candidate at the Alliance of Civilizations Institute (led by Shaykh Dr. Recep Senturk) at Sultan Fatih Mehmet Vaqif University. I will study Turkish and Arabic language in addition to the multidisciplinary program in Civilization Studies, while working as a teaching assistant, producing art as was really my field of expertise, and continuing my study of the Islamic tradition. I pray that this journey will prepare me to better serve my Lord, family and community with beneficial knowledge and the tools to communicate and apply it. We will leave in late August and hope to see family and friends in New York before going (and then host you in Istanbul when you can get away).
Between now and then, I hope to focus the rest of my time on preparation for travel and writing for this very important moment. I will continue, even after leaving, as a proud member of the Islamic Movement for Justice (www.IMJonline.org), and have planned a number of productions to support IMJ’s mission of liberation through education. I’m also hustling to complete some long-delayed artistic contributions. These and all updates will be posted on my personal website (www.BrotherCyrus.com) and Facebook and Twitter. You are always welcome to e-mail me at Cyrus.McGoldrick@gmail.com with questions or ideas for collaboration – I am grateful to be your brother and hope to always honor that responsibility to the best of my ability.