Sherrel Johnson Learned about Islam by Secretly Reading Muslim Scholars
By Mohammad Yacoob
The inquisitive nature of Sherrel Johnson persuaded and encouraged her to read writings of major Muslim scholars. The extensive reading made her realize that the common string and the basic foundation of Islam is Justness - fairness and evenhandedness. Although the writings of the Muslim scholars were very slanted towards men, she realized Quran has assured her that women are vital and integral part of Islam. She did not for a moment waver from this belief, but found the blessings of Allah through her contacts with practicing Muslims.
She discovered time and again that the concept of justice-for-all for the entire creation was greatly absent in the United States of America. She witnessed existence of racism and description of beauty standard to describe human beings. She says, “So probably the most shocking struggle I had upon becoming a Muslim, were the various perspectives on ‘skin color’ and ‘race’.” She understood the human nature of people being wary of those who may be different from them, but still, it gave wrong signals when she discovered even Muslims came with misperceptions about skin color and race. She continued reading the Qur’an and finding answers. In addition to this she was shocked to discover segregation being widely practiced in the community; Muslim women not welcomed in Masajid and Masjid activities. She now sees that major Masajid have worked hard towards changing this perception but there is much work to be done to alleviate this problem in the US. She had said, “To resolve this problem, we simply need to implement the Sunnah of the Prophet (pbuh) – and when necessary discuss with leadership the ways to improve it.” She was willing to help any way she could but had to struggle with the fact that few women were considered for leadership positions, other than academics.
Sherrel Johnson also struggled with the fact that many culture-based divisions and practices existed within the US Islamic community. She gained knowledge of the differences between simply cultural and religiously mandated values. She placed more emphasis on the Islamic values and the actions required to implement them. “It was very surprising to me how little attention was paid to cleanliness since Islam most certainly requires cleanliness. For the most part we have been successful in realizing this – our wu’du areas and even parking areas are cleaner. As a girl scout I was taught to leave a place cleaner than I found it. Now I realize that Islam is the originator of the concept of cleanliness and we just need to use this model. It should apply to both men and women!” she says.
Being a Caucasian and sensitive about the prevalent use of skin color and racism as standards of beauty and superiority, she has embarked on a journey to educate Americans about Islam and its stand on race relations. Her Christian background and knowledge help her communicate very effectively with the European American community. She has participated in interfaith and community relations. She saw it very clearly that the events of 9/11 changed the perspective on matters important in our daily life, and each and every action taken by Muslims was scrutinized by Americans. This prompted her to urge Muslims to reach out to neighbors, co-workers, colleagues and non-Muslim friends, and to let them know what Islam is. At one point she lamented lack of interfaith and community relations among Muslims. She says, “Back in the mid-eighties, I was surprised that I had to go all the way to Egypt to learn about Islam.”
Sherrel Johnson has moved forward, and is currently serving the Muslim community in Los Angeles, California, as Community Relations staff member of the Council on American-Islamic Relation, Los Angeles Chapter. She is the first woman representative from CAIR to serve on the Islamic Shura Council, Southern California. She strongly feels this would pave the way for many other Muslim women to take an active role in the affairs of the Muslim community in California.
She has a message for the Muslim community: “We have struggled a long time toward developing a unique Muslim identity. We are still working through how we see ourselves – and - how others see us. By the Grace and Mercy of Allah swt and through community activism and organizations like CAIR, Shura Council and our masajid, we will be successful in being viewed as a vibrant and integral part of this nation – and to be viewed as the leaders of justice and goodness that our beautiful Islam teaches. Jazakum Allahu Khairan.”
[Mohammad Yacoob is a retired Industrial Engineer and Engineering Proposals Analyst who lives in Los Angeles, California.]