Featured Image: Wasat members gathered for a speaking event. (Photo courtesy of Wasat)

At Wasat, Muslim American Community Can Be Together — Beautifully

by Kamna Shastri

When the Islamic School of Seattle closed in 2012, the children and parents who were part of the local Muslim institution’s community did not want to lose the spirit of the school. Wasat emerged from this gap, fulfilling a need for former Islamic School of Seattle parents and students to stay connected around shared values and exploration of the Islamic faith. What started with informal meals and community Iftar dinners during the month of Ramadan eventually became a robust and cross-cultural space called Wasat.

In Arabic, “Wasat” means “middle-way.” According to Executive Director Baraka Blue, it is the principle that guides a just and balanced community. Wasat is a community of —but not limited to — the Muslim faith and is dedicated to being a space where members can bring their whole selves and engage with the Islamic faith across the many different cultures that Wasat members come from.

Blue says Wasat, and its predecessor, offer something unique in the landscape of Greater Seattle Muslim institutions. Many mosques and community spaces are convened based on cultural or ethnic immigrant community. But for the children of immigrants who are navigating cultural tensions and do not have another place to claim as their own,“this is home,” says Blue.

Wasat members share a meal. (Photo courtesy of Wasat)

“Wasat is really pioneering in Seattle in that it is not dominated by one specific group; it’s really diverse. In a certain sense, Wasat then becomes that space for those that didn’t have a space,” he said.

Kamilah Uddin, who was once a member of Wasat before coming on board as the operations manager, is the daughter of Muslim converts. Her parents converted to Islam and raised Uddin in the faith.

“It was the first time I had been to a Muslim community center where I really felt I could come in and be my authentic self,” said Uddin. “It’s a very unique experience sometimes so finding a place where my Muslim identity and American identity could meet was refreshing and amazing.”

This was the case for Development Officer Kanwal Yousuf as well, especially as someone who grew up as a first-generation Muslim American with a fragmented understanding of Islam.

“For me there is a lot of healing that has happened at Wasat. If somebody were to want to come into a space where they want to learn about [Islam] and learn who the people are, it’s just very welcoming and safe,” said Yousuf.

Wasat is, at its core, about bringing human beings together, and this manifests through three approaches. First, it does so through an open exploration of spiritual tradition and education. Blue is clear that this isn’t just about a basic understanding of concepts and terms.

“For us that’s not just some abstract, academic exercises but asking the bigger questions of what is flourishing, what is happiness, how do we be present in this moment and engage with being human beings on this earth in this moment?”

Next, Wasat celebrates art and creativity as a means of connecting with something greater. In Wasat’s philosophy, beauty moves us to something beyond ourselves, and Wasat delves into this not just through the sacred arts of Islam but with art and music as well. Because the organization’s membership includes Muslim cultures from around the world, manifestations of art and creativity are all embraced in the organization’s cultural programming.

Wasat members coordinate meal delivery during the pandemic. (Photo courtesy of Wasat)

The last component of Wasat is a service mindset to make the world a kinder, better place and help neighbors in need. During the last pandemic year, for example, Wasat members were embedded in serving the community through the Neighborly Needs program by preparing meals during lockdown, an effort supported by the Seattle Foundation’s Neighbor to Neighbor grant program.

Heartcentric Community

To get a sense of the values inherent in Wasat’s work, all you have to do is look at their weekly events. Each one is community focused, heart-centered, and shares an open sense of curiosity and interest to learn. There is a Quran study group on Tuesdays, and Wasat Wednesdays are dedicated to a discourse topic.

On Sundays, members gather for Heartcentric, a place to share experiences and current struggles informed by the wisdom of the Islamic tradition. Uddin says these spaces have been especially beneficial during the pandemic where remote programming allowed for more people to access this urgently needed space to be in the company of other like-minded individuals. Heartcentric, Uddin says, has become a global check-in of sorts.

“I think it’s different because nobody really knows what to expect when they come to these check-ins, but we’ve really created a tight bond,” she said.

In the way Wasat staff members talk about their community, there is a sense of spiritual companionship. The group is not simply about coming together on the grounds of culture and spiritual tradition; there’s a rarely found solace for people whose identities are complicated and layered and are often forced into limited stereotypes.

For decades, and markedly since September 11, 2001, being Muslim in America has been a “contentious identity,” Blue says. Being Muslim has been equated to being foreign, other, and often dangerous. But Islam can be found on every continent and is the most ethnically diverse religion in the world. Whether in Africa — the continent with the largest Muslim majority — South Asia, Southeast Asia, or Eastern Europe, all of these regions have a distinct, cultural flavor of Islam.

Like poetry, Blue puts it this way: “If you think of Islam itself as a pure spring, a life-giving water that flows, it has no color of itself but it takes on the color of the bedrock where it flows. In Africa it looks African, in Malaysia it looks Malaysian.”

That then begs the question: What does American Islam look like? Just as Islam has taken root in many countries in ways that are unique to those geographical customs, traditions, and histories, we don’t yet know what American Islam will look like hundreds of years from now. There are accounts of how Islam has existed on the North American continent even in pre-colonial times, but these are not well known and are part of a continuing Muslim-American story. For young American Muslims who call this country home, the question of legacy, sustaining tradition, and spiritual heritage is a deeply personal one to be explored in community.

Wasat members gathered for a speaking event. (Photo courtesy of Wasat)

Blue says that the tension and conflict that can arise from identity and community, especially in marginalized spaces, is understandable. People are grappling with questions about life, where they fit in, what is right and wrong — and then the volatile human ego is thrown into this mix.

“Our tradition is always going back to the heart, because you will never socially engineer the perfect world. You have to get to the root — you have to really heal human hearts for lasting change,” says Blue.

Uddin brings in the term for beauty, or ihsan, to say that dealing with conflict with beauty in mind can be the way to healing. “It is the way we can reconcile things, being very conscious and intentional about responding to each other in a beautiful way,” she said.

The Long View

What started as a few people cooking and sharing informal meals has turned into an organized, growing organization. Through the pandemic, the organization adapted and was able to hold more classes online than it had in person so that Wasat’s reach has broadened beyond Seattle.

In the past, they were able to use the Hillman City Collaboratory as a meeting space, but as the Collaboratory disbands, they are on the lookout for a place just for Wasat. In the future they want to expand their reach — having a dedicated space and a kitchen to cook and serve people would allow for events, a prayer space, perhaps a café and bookstore, too. Ultimately, it would be a place to cultivate heart-to-heart connections and to laugh and learn together with a spiritual tether. 

One of the most beautiful things about Wasat, Blue says, is that every American Muslim who is part of Wasat is also embedded in a much wider network of communities and groups. He says it is important to find ways to translate the “pre-modern” wisdoms and traditions of Islam into the present moment.

“We really want to be like bridges,” says Blue. “And I think in our time and I think in all times, this is what is most needed — people that can be bridges between worlds and worldviews.”

This is the third in a series of articles sponsored by the Seattle Foundation in celebration of the 30th Anniversary of the Neighbor to Neighbor program investing in grassroots organizations working for racial equity in South Seattle, White Center, and Kent. For more information, please visit the N2N webpage.

Kamna Shastri is a Seattle-based writer and media creative with a love for place-based community storytelling and journalism that centers personal narrative, identity, and social justice. Her print work has appeared in The Seattle Globalist, Real Change, The International Examiner and her audio work on KUOW, KEXP, and KBCS. More of her stuff at www.kamnashastri.wordpress.com. Twitter: @KShastri2, IG: ms_kamna.

📸 Featured Image: Wasat members gathered for a speaking event. (Photo courtesy of Wasat)

Before you move on to the next story …
Please consider that the article you just read was made possible by the generous financial support of donors and sponsors. The Emerald is a BIPOC-led nonprofit news outlet with the mission of offering a wider lens of our region’s most diverse, least affluent, and woefully under-reported communities. Please consider making a one-time gift or, better yet, joining our Rainmaker Family by becoming a monthly donor. Your support will help provide fair pay for our journalists and enable them to continue writing the important stories that offer relevant news, information, and analysis. Support the Emerald!