Pray But Keep Rowing the Boat

Pray But Keep Rowing the Boat

Aisha El-Mekki’s mother didn’t believe in ‘sparing the rod’. She also had a deep respect for teachers, nuns and other authority figures; a respect that never trickled down to her youngest daughter. Discipline was real in the El-Mekki household, so from an early age she and her older sister formed an alliance. They promised not to tell on each other. Sometimes El-Mekki even took a beating for her sister. When she was in first grade, the two were sent away to a private, all-white boarding school. In third grade, El-Mekki was expelled.

 “As a child, if I got backed into a wall, I would refuse to do whatever you wanted me to do because you were trying to force me.”

Upon returning to her home in Philadelphia, El-Mekki’s mother – who worked until five everyday – enrolled her daughter in the neighborhood school. It was around this time that El-Mekki met her best friend, Shakora. The two began spending afternoons together, deepening their friendship and getting into trouble.

 “One time I was on a bus. It was a Friday afternoon. The bus driver said my pass had expired; that I had to get a transfer…so he gave me a transfer while waiting for the next bus and the next bus was late. We waited for a while. There was a crowd of people by the time the bus came. [The next bus driver] said that my pass had expired and that I needed to get off the bus. Well I didn’t have any more money so I said, ‘I paid my fare and I will ride.’ This man decided that he was going to send a message. So he stopped a police car and told them that I refused to pay. The police emptied the bus and told the driver to drive to the police station with just me on it. So he drives this empty bus to the police station and they arrested me. And this just infuriated me. My mother had to be called and of course she was just livid. She had to end up getting a lawyer and had to go court, miss time from work…and eventually it was resolved but I mean they charged me. I had a record. It was ridiculous. That was my first incident with what I consider police brutality and how they can escalate a situation unnecessarily.”

Three years later, El Mekki graduated from an all-girls Catholic high school. It was at this point that she began to question the Trinity. She didn’t want to leave the church. She believed she would go to hell if she did. Still, the questions remained. After college El-Mekki decided she wanted to become a social worker. She learned about a group called the Black Panther Party that was organizing programs for the needy. 

“When I heard about these people feeding children – and I worked on the midnight shift – I said, ‘you know what? I’m gonna go up there’. And there were tables and tables of children being fed cereal and toast, and I was really amazed. People were doing this out of the bottom of their hearts. They weren’t getting paid for it. But they wanted to make sure the children were getting a decent breakfast.”

El-Mekki joined the group. At the same time, her religious search continued.

“I had an aunt that was Muslim. I used to visit her. She was not aggressive, she was not pushy, she was not trying to convert me. Anytime I had a question, she would answer. Her husband was very nice. And I liked the way her family was so calm. It was so peaceful. And so I would go visit her often. During that time I was in the Black Panther Party, and she didn’t disapprove. Everybody else in my family said, ‘Here she goes again, doing something off the beaten path.’ But not aunt Mariam. One time when we knew that there was going to be a police raid, and we were trying to get the children out because I didn’t want the children to be there.  And she just told me to bring them to her house. You know? And I just admired her. I just said wow, if her religion supports revolutionary acts like that, then I want to hear more about it. So she would always be listening to Shaheed Malcolm’s albums. She owned every word he ever said. And she’d often have his records on when I’d go over there.  And she gave me his book to read because I was always asking questions about him. And that was like the answer to my prayer. You know? The part where he said that our religion doesn’t teach us to be aggressive, but if you lay a hand on me, then I can send you to the cemetery. And I said, ‘I can do that. That is the religion that I need.’ You know, that allows me to defend myself. That doesn’t encourage me to just constantly turn the other cheek. Nobody else is turning the other cheek. They’re turning the other side of their hand. And so i decided you know what, that’s when I decided Islam was for me because it allowed me to be religious and at the same time, be revolutionary.”


Hadhrat – Arabic title used to honour someone

Hadhrat Fatimah (a.s.) – daughter of the Prophet Muhammad (s), wife of Imam ‘Ali (a.s.), mother of Imam Hasan (a.s.), Imam Husayn (a.s.), and Sayyeda Zaynab (s.a.)

Black Panther Partyrevolutionary black nationalist and socialist organization active in the U.S. from 1966-1982

The Prophet – reference to the final prophet of God, Muhammad (s)

‘Isa- Arabic for Jesus (a.s.)

shaheed – witness; martyr

Malcolm – Malcolm X

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