Searching for God in all the wrong places
...an interview with Salima Essakkati a.k.a. Avant-garde Imam Salima El Musalima on 1st Dec, 2018
How did you become an Avant-garde Imam?
It was a long journey that started at the art academy. I wasn’t used to having a topic as an artist. When you have all the freedom it can also be a burden because you don’t know what to do. I was attracted to the images of the mosque of my great grandfather who was the first Imam there. I was in love with that place and I didn’t know why, so I just started to make paintings, abstractions of the building. For a while I didn’t know how to go on from there and what to do next.
Outside of the art academy I was part of Salaam Shalom an Amsterdam based organization that promotes peace between Jews and Muslims. I helped them to organize a conference about tolerance and peace that was a reaction to terrorist attacks in Europe at that time. There I met a modern Imam who didn’t have a beard and was interested in art, so we had an instant connection.
During our discussions we arrived on the topic of women’s rights. I told him that I didn’t agree that in Morocco women inherit half of what a man does. I saw with my own eyes that it was traumatic for my grandmother who was the oldest in her family and always supported her parents. She was poor but got much less than her richer brothers. It didn’t feel right to me. After I told my story the Imam said: “this is divine law, I’m not going to have this discussion with you”.
I was shocked by this reaction because he was a very important Imam. After this encounter I was a bit depressed because I’m a very spiritual and religious person. I went to the mosque and I thought: if he thinks like this, all these Imams think like this! So, I decided to boycott the mosque. But that didn’t feel right after a while. I was also struggling with what kind of art I should be making. Then I talked to an artist who advised me to make art about my life struggles. I tried to find a mosque that supports human rights, but couldn’t find one, so I decided to create one.
I thought to myself, the modern Imam couldn’t have an intellectual discussion with me about woman’s rights, so I know more about Islam and law than he does. I can connect the dots. I’m also an artist which means I can create things that aren’t there. At that time, I had a blog and decided to transform it into a mosque. I did this for myself because I was searching for something. I started to give sermons every week as part of my artistic practice.
At first this was not supported at the academy, but I continued to do it and it became my thing. I came to conclusions that other Imams couldn’t think of because they’re stuck in traditional interpretation. I went beyond that with an open mind. As the result I am the first female Imam in the Netherlands, but I call myself Avant-Garde Imam because I want to break things open.
How does God influence your artistic practice?
After a year I stopped with the online mosque because I felt it was limiting me as an artist. I thought, I’m talking about God, but I don’t know anything about God. I know God from the Quran, but I don’t believe theologists know the creative process of religion, such as psychosis. They’re just book worms without real experience. So, I thought, what can I do as an artist and decided to search for God.
I did this for three months. When you search for something you will find it because you are paying attention. So, miracles started to happen, coincidences, people that I met. In the end I was almost nearing a psychosis. Finally, I saw the image of Icarus that flew too high to the Sun. It was like God was telling me: “if you continue like this, something bad will happen to you”. I was nearing a danger zone and needed to get back to everyday reality. This made me realize that I’m very humble. Who am I to talk about God?!
I didn’t get the answer that God exists, but I also didn’t get the answer that he isn’t real. In the end I had to make art out of this and at that moment we were doing a project about the unknown. For me God is the unknown! I realized that God was in me and simply started to make pictures of my body. When you do that it becomes almost geometry because there is a divine pattern in the body. That was the first artwork of me as an Avant-Garde Imam.
What is your holy mission?
I haven’t found an answer, but maybe to live authentically. To live naturally, like animals do; to live in harmony with other creatures; to be honest; to live with integrity and not be afraid to reach my highest potential.
Why is it important for women to preach Islam?
Actually, I don’t believe in distinctions. We all have a calling in our life. I feel that if you have a calling you need to do it, doesn’t matter what kind of job that is. For me, the calling is Imam. I didn’t realize it, it came to me! If people tell me that I can’t do this because I’m a woman, I’ll find a different path. If I can’t be a traditional Imam, maybe it’s better for me to be different. So, I’m an Avant-Garde Imam that gives me freedom to find out what I can do in a different way.
Would you like to see more female Imams?
It’s not about whether you’re a man or a woman, you come to earth for a reason. If you find happiness in something, you need to do it. If you’re not aloud to do it for some crazy reason you need to get creative. So, that’s what I’m doing.
You preach through a Facebook group and a blog. Why did you choose to go online?
It was the easiest way to create a mosque. Anybody could copy and do it and that’s important. I wanted to keep things democratic.
How do people react to your promotion of Arabic culture and Islam online?
A lot of people react. It depends on what their position is. For example, I have a lot of anti-Islam followers on my Facebook page. They come to my page to be triggered, so it’s a vicious circle that repeats. There are also people from Arabic countries that are critical towards Islam and project that on me. Feminists too, but some women are simply haters! They all come to me. They struggle and fight. I try to be as authentic as possible and say what I have to say courageously without being afraid of backlash. I think you should have courage as an artist, without it you have no business in art.
Have you encountered censorship and how do you deal with it?
I did. The first time was by a page called We Want Female Imams. They kicked me out because they didn’t want to post my sermons. There’s a lot of jealously within the feminist movement. So, I created my own group called We Welcome Female Imams where everybody is welcome. The group I left was censoring everyone, only the admins could post freely. There were the same people posting things and I felt it was not the Islam that I promote. So, I created a group where everybody can say what they want as long as they respect each other. The ground rule is that you don’t attack people personally but can say whatever you want about the topic. I don’t feel there should be one type of Islam, because it would be propaganda. So, I have even Islam-haters on my page, it’s a very diverse company.
Did you experience people change their opinions because of your group?
I think so. I have real rednecks in that group and when they see that I treat them with respect they become open to my version of Islam. So now they know not all Islam hates them and they changed their perspective on Muslims in general.
In the summer of 2018 you went on a two-week Hajj to Paris. What is a Hajj?
The Hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam. It’s the last one. When you have the means you need to go on a pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina. After The Hajj your soul is cleansed, and you can start from the beginning in your life. It is a spiritual journey.
Why did you decide to go to Paris?
First of all, I love Paris and just wanted to go there on my birthday. As I was planning my trip, I read an article about the orphan girls of Sierra Leone. Then I thought: “I would be a bad person if I go to a glamorous city like Paris while ignoring that I read this”. These girls exist! Paris is the city of love, these kids need love. As an Imam I need to support them, otherwise it wouldn’t be fair. So, I decided to combine my trip to Paris with helping these kids and then I realized it was during The Hajj. Things came together, and it became a pilgrimage.
On your Hajj to Paris, you tried to reach out to religious institutions to collect money for the orphan girls of Sierra Leone. How was your action perceived?
I started at an Islamic mosque. I went there first because it’s my own religion and the Imam there wasn’t very receptive. I asked if I could tell him why I came to see him, and he answered that he didn’t want me to sit because he was busy. After I told him what I came for he said it wasn’t part of his job: “Goodbye!” The ironic thing was that he held a sermon about the importance of The Hajj and that helping the poor would count thousand-fold, so it didn’t corelate with how he was treating me.
I also went to a synagogue. The rabbi was very nice and blessed me, but he didn’t respond to the email I sent about my project. Then I went to a Jewish lady that had a shop next to the synagogue and she gave me a few gifts. I had a very interesting talk with her. I also went to Christian churches and met a lady from the Maria Chapel. They helped the French children but didn’t have the means to help the African children. I was looking for a place to stay but they didn’t have a free bed. I visited about ten churches but none of them actually helped me.
Eventually you raised 500 euro for The Sunday Foundation that you presented to Sander de Kramer a.k.a. Chief Ouwe Dibbes. Who donated to your cause?
One of the first donations I got was from a guy from an African church. I was introduced by the pastor of that church. The guy came to me and gave me a hundred euro. He didn’t want anything in return and just said that this is from Jesus to help the girls. I met a Dutch lady who had a bike shop and she invited me to stay at her house. So that saved me hotel costs, and the dinner she offered saved me restaurant costs. She even brought me back to Enschede with her car. Another guy I met at a café paid for my breakfast. I met an ex-supermodel who had visited Sierra Leone before the war and she gave me some money. There was an American guy; who found out about my project through the blog and send me a hundred dollars in the mail. There were a lot of people paying for my hotel and food so that is how I saved money. All this money I didn’t spend went to the girls.
On your blog you mention that your Hajj was not covered in the Dutch media. How important are your online platforms to promote yourself?
My faith is not with people, as an Imam I am guided by God. I don’t care about journalists. I feel that God guided me during my pilgrimage to meet the right people. Even though the established journalists didn’t respond to me, I found alternative journalists that were interested. At the moment, my online presence is very important because I don’t get published anywhere else. So, I need to rely on my Facebook and Blogspot. I don’t feel that it’s in any way inferior to mainstream media because you get to reach people and they read it. Maybe it’s even more democratic because other people can copy me. It’s difficult to copy a newspaper, but everyone can make a blog. As an Imam I’m not living for myself, my life is an experiment to show people how things can be done. I like to keep things low key because I want to inspire people to do things as well.
Who is your ideal audience and how do you want to impact their lives?
The audience that I have now is my ideal audience. Average people that are independent thinkers, that have their own opinion and want to research the truth. I expect them to be sincere, just like I’m trying to be sincere in my search for Allah. That kind of people…
Would you call yourself a feminist?
I would not call myself a feminist, but I do use it to communicate my ideas. To show which side I’m on. There are many female Imams that don’t necessarily want more rights for women. To clarify that I don’t agree with that, I say that I’m a feminist but actually I’m a humanist. Because I’m a woman I call my humanism, feminism but I would like to even include animals to make it more universal. I want more love in the world!
What is feminism to you?
I don’t believe in a feminism that says that we should have two left hands; that women should become like men. I feel that we should become equal in the sense of having a left hand and a right hand. Women shouldn’t want to be more like men. We should be more like women. There are female Imam’s that shave their head and wear trousers. I don’t want to be like that. I wear feminine clothes. I like to be a woman. I don’t want to become a man. I want to help a man. Societies where men have rights and women don’t are not working! There’s no balance when one hand is big and the other is small. You cannot work together. For me, there should be women that are really women and men that are really men. They will become equal through collaboration.
Do you think that religion has more potential than feminism to unite women?
I don’t believe in institutions, labels or names. I only believe in people. It’s not about feminism, but about the women behind that feminism. If the women are in solidarity with each other it doesn’t matter if it’s feminism or religion. You must help yourself first to help others, but I do support the idea of women helping other women. I seek help because I realize that I can’t change the world alone.
What can Western feminism learn from Islam?
From my Islam? I don’t want to say all Islam because there are many ways to do Islam. If anything can inspire Western feminists from the way I practice Islam; is that it has a certain sensuality; a certain belief in humanity; belief in prayer and doing something without expecting something in return. They would learn from my Islam that they don’t have to be beautiful from the outside to be loved. They don’t have to be rich to be important. They don’t have to compete with men to be powerful. They can find their own truth! I find Western feminism a little bit aggressive and masculine. I’m not judging but I think they’re losing something precious. A certain femininity that is very powerful as well. The way I do Islam can inspire them to connect with their own spirituality.
How can women reach their full potential?
I think women need to heal themselves first. Of course, women historically have problems in society. They aren’t often taken as seriously as men are. I think the best way for a woman to find truth is not to try to change the world but first change herself. When you're cleaned of your suffering and issues that you have, you’re much more powerful. It’s a different kind of power than control or fame because whatever you’re doing comes from a confident position. I think women can do much more from this place of power than from anger or victimhood. Then women will no longer be ridiculed or dismissed.