The song said, “We are soldiers, in the army, and we have to fight although we have to die, we have to hold up that blood stained banner, we have to hold it up until we die!” This song was sung in the 50s and 60s in an well-attended Baptist church in Poplar Bluff Missouri. The Church, Morning Star Baptist Church, was established by my grandfather, E. C. Keeble, who they say was distinguished, prior to being a man of the cloth, as a distiller and transporter of fine whiskey from Canada to the speakeasies in Chicago during the prohibition. The story says that having made a good amount of money, and prohibition having ended, he of course retired, repented, and became the founder of a southern Church. His church was known for its riverside baptisms, and the specialization of its members in a African holy dance, driven by the hypnotic beat of tambourines. My mother, who reportedly is of different descent, while a teenager, and quite by accident, added a few extra steps to the traditional dance. She also broke the age barrier that had limited the holy dance to only the mature women of the church when she met my father at a church picnic, did the dance, and was subsequently saved. She denies this, but there were eyewitnesses to the event, whom, if they were alive today, would testify to the beauty of her dance. Sadly, the dance has ended, the Church is no longer there, and both my father and grandfather, (God please bless them), have met their maker. Little did they know that they had left behind, generations of young people who were touched by the song, and the dance. Its meanings manifest in different ways in very different lives, even though we all recognize within the song and the dance, a common theme, that says mankind must persevere against all odds, if we are to achieve our desires.
It has been suggested that religion is intrinsically violent. But I wonder if that is true. It seems to me that this suggestion arose from a desire to de-legitimize the political activism of religious people. If we are “innately” violent, then our activism, by extension is “militant.” This suggestion is made, even though statistics indicate that the past century, which was the bloodiest in human history, was the century of government sponsored aggression against unarmed civilian people. It was the century of nationalism, and it was histories most violent, even when we take into account the medieval Crusades and other so-called “religious” or “holy wars.”
The song said “We are soldiers in the army and we must fight,” yet the dance is not violent, it is a dance of life and its rhythm is transmitted through hearts that beat like tambourines. Hearts pounding, we spin and twirl through life, moving between periods of confusion and then clarity, strength and weakness, in ecstasy, in love with life. It tells a story about mankind’s struggle for salvation and our redemption, as individuals and societies that are struggling towards perfection. There is human perfection. It is not void of mistakes. It is a perfect way of life that includes making mistakes, and seeking forgiveness and learning from mistakes, and achieving mastery. The song said “we must die” and the people shrieked, and went into swoon. They envisioned death and reunion with God, this for a people suffering is the ultimate freedom from pains inflicted by powerful tyrants who enforce their dominance with massacres, and lynching, holocausts, and other acts of violence and humiliation and intimidation. “Oh my Lord! ” the preacher bowed his head and cried, as the veils were pierced before his eyes, “we are crossing the river Jordan!” And the church said, “Amen.” Then the mother of the church said, sobbing, “Lord, we are free,” then they all sang, ” A Charge to keep.”
In another part of the world, where religious freedom had been abolished, and the sacred rites had been conformed to government tastes, the people followed a state appointed “Imam” in prayer. They went through the motions of silent and meaningless prayer, that had been prescribed by the dictators as a means to keep the peace, since they feared that Islam, like other faiths, might inspire a song, and a dance. Little did they know that the dance had been done, and has crossed the water, where it rose like a sun, and does that dance. Its beat is like a step, to and from, and its melody is sweet, and soothes the tired soul. Allahu Akbar, (God is Great) Allahu Akbar, (God is Great) there is One God! Yeah, and we sway then stop, to remember that there’s a renewed dance, and it requires bowing, so we kneel. Faces in the dirt, we die then live, and they call us “militant?” We are soldiers, (People) in the army (Society). We must fight (struggle to survive) or die (cease to exist). We must hold up that blood stained banner (life), we must hold it up until we die (live until death). And then we do the dance, (celebrate life) five times a day, and remember God, as we pray, “Our father, (Creator) who art in heaven, all Praise be to thy glorious name. Thy Kingdom Come (the law). Thy will be done (obedience), on earth, (the human being) as it is in heaven, (divine order)” Then there was silence, as the pastor of the church said ” all rise!” and the doors opened and a new congregation walked in. They joined the song, and the dance changed, because it grew, and we added new names, and one saint testified, he said, “A Long time ago, I told Jesus it would be alright, if he changed my name.” Then, the devil popped up, and looked, and saw all the people, sanctified, black and white, and red, and yellow, and men and women, and children all speaking in different tongues singing the same song, doing their dance. And he looked and with them sang the Holy Ghost, and the prophets and the messengers and the young girls, and old women in love. The sun rose in the West, and the preacher of the Church said, “We have crossed over Jordan,” and the mother of the Church sobbed sweetly, “Oh my Lord” and the people said, “we are free” and then they all sang together, the most beautiful song, “A Charge to Keep.” Then they looked and saw a multitude of different people coming over the mountain, tired and thirsty from a long and bitter journey, and the mother asked, “will you enter this Sacred House?” And the people said, “yes, we have, and Muhammad preceded us.” Then they drank from the fountain Kawther, and each prophet knew his people. They lined up in the garden to drink, and with each sip the people’s thirst was quenched, their souls renewed, new scrolls were opened, and life began anew, and we joined hands across the universe, and Lord! how we danced!!!
The writer is the Founder and President of the National Association of Muslim American Women.