Who Is Umm Zakiyyah?
Professionally, “Umm Zakiyyah” is a pseudonym or pen name that I use for my writing and business projects. So when I think of the professional persona of “Umm Zakiyyah,” she is an artist who shares her heart with the world through novels, self-help books, blogs, essays, and through other people’s stories in hopes that this sharing will inspire others to look deep within and challenge themselves to be both honest and compassionate with themselves on their personal, emotional, and spiritual journeys in this world. And most recently the artistic persona of “Umm Zakiyyah” is now sharing stories through filmmaking.
Personally, I view myself as a regular human being like everyone else, with all the emotional, personal, and spiritual struggles that come along with our life journeys on earth. Behind the scenes, I spend a lot of time reflecting, journaling, and reading and studying Qur’an. I’m also blessed to teach Qur’an, and this is something I enjoy immensely, as it allows me to connect with my sisters in Islam in a way that isn’t really possible in the “professional” Umm Zakiyyah world. I look at this as my “down time” from all the public work, where I can just connect to others in a way that allows us to inspire each other.
Where did you grow up? Can you tell our readers about your introduction to Islam?
I was born in New York, but I spent most of my childhood and youth in Indianapolis, Indiana, where I lived from the middle of my kindergarten year until I graduated from high school. My first introduction to Islam was through my parents, who had converted to Islam the year I was born. They themselves had grown up Christian, then joined the Nation of Islam, and then made the transition to orthodox Islam the year of my birth. Most of my extended family and some of my elder siblings are Christian. However, I was blessed to grow up Muslim. But my parents did tell me (and my siblings) that we weren’t automatically Muslim just because they were. So as a teenager, I spent a brief time studying the Bible and the doctrine of Judaism and Christianity to see what faith I believed in. When I realized how Islam preserved the original messages of both of these faiths, I knew that Islam was what I believed in for myself.
Your debut novel, If I Should Speak quickly became a classic piece of Muslim fiction. How has your author platform evolved since then?
My first novel If I Should Speak was published in 2001, more than fifteen years ago, so I’ve definitely evolved since then. At the time, I was deeply involved in studying about my faith, and I was still in the beginning stages of embarking on my own unique spiritual path that was different from close friends and loved ones. Also, the genre of Muslim fiction (or Islamic fiction) didn’t really exist for the novel category. There were Muslim children’s books and chapter books for young adults, but no Muslim fiction for a mature audience, at least not in the English language as far as I knew. So I didn’t really know how to go about what I was doing. On the one hand, I wanted to write a spiritually beneficial and uplifting story, on the other hand, I wanted to write an entertaining fiction novel that anyone could enjoy.
How do you think the Muslim Fiction landscape has changed and where do you see it going?
At the time, I was also exposed to the idea the writing fiction itself wasn’t even allowed in Islam, so I had to navigate that too. But alhamdulillah, after some research I realized that this wasn’t a point of view that I felt represented the rules of my faith. But I still felt unsure about what was okay to actually put in the story and what was better left alone. So I think there was a level of being extra careful so as to not fall into doubtful that is evident in my first books that isn’t there today. It’s not that I’m not cautious today; it’s just that I feel a bit more comfortable in who I am as a Muslim and a writer, so I don’t feel as restricted in what topics I can cover and how deeply I can delve into the life and heart of a character. I’ve also evolved personally outside of my writing, so that too is reflected in my books over the years.
My audience platform is now very diverse and includes Muslim men and women from many cultures and from many parts of the world, and there is even a non-Muslim segment who follows my work.
Who are some of the Muslim authors you see making an impact that we should be watching?
Today, there are many Muslim authors, so the selection is wider than when I first began writing. We still need many more authors, but I’m happy to see so many Muslim writers today. I’d say the authors to watch are those listed here: patheos.com/blogs/nbamuslims/muslim-women-authors At least these are many of the American authors to watch.
My personal favorite who isn’t on this list is Na’ima B. Robert from the United Kingdom. She’s definitely an author to follow and keep up with, mashaAllah. I’d also say an up-and-coming author to watch is Jamilah El-Amin, who has been a huge inspiration in my own life and writing, and who is working on a memoir, as well as some self-help work, mashaAllah.
Another up-and-coming author to watch is Khalil Ismail, who is an independent artist and creative director, who contributed to my book Prejudice Bones In My Body, which is scheduled for release this week inshaaAllah. He’s also working on some books about relationships that discuss physical, emotional, and spiritual connections. We’re also finalizing the children’s book we co-authored entitled “Who Is Allah?” which details the 99 Names of Allah, inspired by his song 99 Names (Asma ul-Husna).
You’ve written a number of powerful books. Can you tell us which book is your personal favorite and why? And is there one book that receives much more fan praise than the others?
Amongst the books I myself have written, my personal favorite changes from time-to-time. But now, amongst my novels, my personal favorite is His Other Wife. I think this is my personal favorite because it’s the first time that I wrote a novel that can be used as bibliotherapy, reading for healing. This book is rooted in honesty about personal pain, emotional wounding, surviving abuse, and even overcoming spiritual crisis. It’s the first time all of that was in a single book, and because I put my heart into it while writing on these sensitive topics, it’s very close to my heart.
Till today, the book that receives the most fan praise overall is If I Should Speak, but the short story series and novel His Other Wife is a close second and may soon overtake If I Should Speak in fan praise.
You recently produced a movie entitled His Other Wife. What was that experience like and how can readers learn more about your short film?
Producing the short movie His Other Wife, which is inspired by the novel, has been a blessing and a challenge. Though the short movie is about toxic relationships, many people have taken issue with the title, under the assumption that the movie is about polygamy and/or promoting polygamy. Though I personally see no problem with a Muslim producing a movie that shows this optional Sunnah in a positive light, neither my book nor the short movie is focused on this issue. However, plural marriage is discussed briefly as part of other personal and relationship issues in the broader storyline. Readers can learn more about the film by visiting enspirednation.com where they can secure a ticket to watch the short movie and behind the scenes documentary on-demand until February 5th inshaaAllah.
Your latest book, No One Taught Me the Human Side of Islam discusses bipolar in the Muslim community. Can you share with us what it was like compiling the story and a bit about the sister Sakinah whose story you shared?
My latest book No One Taught Me the Human Side of Islam: The Muslim Hippie’s Story of Living with Bipolar Disorder is a book in which I share the true life story of Sakinah “The Muslim Hippie” who is an American convert to Islam who lives with bipolar disorder. Compiling this story was very emotional and enlightening for me. There were times that I went home fighting back tears after a session or interview in which she shared her story with me. I also felt really inspired by her determination to keep going despite all of her pain. I’m still moved by her determination to give back to the community and world despite her suffering emotional trauma after how she was treated by many Muslims. Yet she chooses to view their behavior as indicative of misunderstanding her illness instead of as any evidence of them wishing her harm. I find this to be so empowering, as I really cannot imagine having faced all she has and still carry that positive attitude.
Can you shed some light on what your experience has been as a #BlackMuslimWriter? What advice would you give other writer’s of color who want to see their work in print and are trying to get published?
My journey as a #BlackMuslimWriter still continues, and there’s so much I’m still learning. There’s so much I’ve discovered with this experience, that I could write a series of memoirs on this experience alone. But in brief, I’d describe this journey like the one I had in producing the short movie His Other Wife. It’s a tremendous blessing and an immeasurable challenge. My advice would be to do a lot of soul-searching and praying, because there’s no way to know just how many difficulties you’ll face as a person of color trying to get your work out there, especially if you also happen to be Muslim. In this, I believe African-Americans have a much more difficult time than those who come from immigrant Muslim backgrounds. Racism and black erasure are very much a part of the writing sphere as it is in the wider society and Muslim community, so it’s very important to take care of your emotional and spiritual health if you’re going to start writing and publishing. The public isn’t always kind and supportive. However, I believe you’ll find love and support from places you would have never imagined, and that in itself is a tremendous blessing from Allah.
I also suggest having a mentor if possible before and/or during your writing journey.
What can we expect to see next from Umm Zakiyyah?
My upcoming projects include a “Prejudice Bones in My Body” book event, and series of live discussions beginning in Black History Month inshaaAllah.
For this I’ll be partnering with Khalil Ismail, and we’ll both be posting more about this in the next two weeks. This project is aimed at speaking honestly about Muslim racism and how it’s often denied or ignored under the claim, “There’s no racism in Islam.” We’ll also be discussing the spiritual and emotional wounding that often happens as a result of constantly suffering racism and spiritual abuse from fellow Muslims.
I also am planning to host discussions and events about living with mental illness as a Muslim, and for this I’ll be partnering with Sakinah “The Muslim Hippie” who will be drawing on her mental health advocacy work and her experience with living with bipolar disorder in the Muslim community.
Please keep us all in your du’aa.
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Posted by Muslim Writers and Publishers Association on Thursday, February 1, 2018