Nejma Shea is a 29-year-old hip-hop artist who categorizes herself as an underground MC. Her socially conscious lyrics are militant, high-pitched, and punchy. Walkin Lyke WAR, her latest CD, describes the hardships of her life’s journey, including a five-year incarceration she served in New Jersey. On stage, she adds to her delivery by wearing bold outfits such as long Syrian camouflage dresses, decorative hijabs, and war paint on her face.
Shea’s songs describe her interpersonal revelations, interspersed with criticism of women’s correctional facilities and a quest for political justice. There are also, however, occasional mentions of smoking marijuana that have dismayed members of the Muslim community.
“Sometimes Muslim brothers and sisters don’t agree with my unorthodox ways when it comes to Islam.” Shea also says she does smoke for medical purposes; it helps quiet her chronic nightmares and spiritually enhances her relationship to Allah. “It has many medical uses and is a blessing from the Earth that the most high, Allah, created,” she explains.
Mustafa Umar, associate director of the Islamic society of Corona-Norco, calls Shea’s justification “the Islamification of weed.” The term describes the incorporation of marijuana usage into Islamic practice. Born in Orange County to Pakistani and Indian parents, Umar says he understands the social pressure young Muslims face in American society: “I’ve had many sisters come to me about it, but in the media, it’s more portrayed that guys are smoking,” says the 29-year-old imam.
Umar says he’s also heard young Muslims attempt to defend marijuana use by quoting a passage of the Qur’an that states the Lord “brought forth fruits for your sustenance.” But he doesn’t agree, and he recently held a meeting to combat this notion. His invited guest speaker is Imam Yassir Fazaga, the medical director of Mental Health for Access California Services, a family and resource center for Arabs and Muslims. Addressing a large crowd of immigrants and first-generation Muslims, Fazaga explains that the Qur’an prohibits marijuana.
A 38-year-old U.S citizen who immigrated from Eritrea, Fazaga cites a Qur’anic verse that states if “wine or gambling” causes greater harm than good, it should not be consumed. Incorporating marijuana consumption into this verse, he says, should also be prohibited as well: “For us Muslims, it’s a mood altering agent that shrouds a person’s intelligence to make decisions. Then for the Muslim it is Islamically illegal and the same goes for alcohol.”
Even though marijuana has been legalized for medical purposes, Fazaga says all other alternatives should be explored before its consumption. At the Access Resource Center where he counsels, Fazaga says he has come across an increasing number of young Muslims who admit to smoking marijuana.
In cases like Shea’s, Fazaga says that marijuana is a “mask for people who may suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome,” and “is not the way to deal with the problem." Since marijuana is inexpensive, many young people try it. But Fazaga attributes its frequent use mainly to its prevalence in popular culture.
“You have people like Snoop Dogg and Kanye West. They glorify marijuana,” says Fazaga. “The definition of manhood that is presented promotes and encourages to smoke.”
Umar has also made previous attempts to discourage the use of marijuana among young Muslims by inviting former celebrity rappers such as Loon, who was signed by P. Diddy’s Bad Boy Records, and Napoleon, who was part of Tupac Shakur’s group Outlawz. Both men attribute their new and sober lifestyle to their conversion to Islam. “In order to address the younger crowd, we have to speak lower to their level,” Umar says.
But Shea does not see eye-to eye with these Qur’anic rationales against marijuana nor with Fazaga’s evaluation. She holds firm that Islam is a non-compulsive religion. Since its fundamental principle is the practice of one’s free will, she has the choice to smoke marijuana.
“I’m not going to say the Qur’an forbids us to smoke weed or not,” says Shea. “The Qur’an is the only unchanged religious book and people interpret it in different ways because of different views in the Islamic community.” Only Allah can judge a person’s actions and their intention behind it, Shea adds.
Explaining her perspective, Shea raises the sensitive topic of gender roles and how they are reinforced by Qur’anic interpretations that she finds religiously oppressive: “As a Muslim woman, you are not suppose to make a lot of noise, you are not suppose to look a man in his eyes. The Qur’an and the true Islam, a peaceful and non-compulsive way of life, protects women. It doesn’t intend to give men the right to hold women captive.”
Orthodox members of the Muslim community argue that frequent mentions of marijuana heard in popular music threaten young Muslim-Americans. But, for Shea, hip-hop is an avenue of free expression: “I love hip hop. I love marijuana. But most of all I love Allah, most high, and his messenger Muhammad. Peace and blessings of Allah be upon him.”
About the image: Nejma Shea performs in Omaha, Nebraska. (photo: Ness Ordonez)
Editor's Note (Jan 17, 2013): Language has changed to more accurately reflect Ms. Shea's description of herself. And, we misstated that Ms. Shea did not use marijuana for medical purposes. She does. We regret the error.
Sharis Delgadillo is a broadcast graduate student at the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism. She is the senior producer for the award-winning college television news-magazine show, impact. Last summer, she interned as a television producer at Cape Town TV in South Africa during the 2010 World Cup.
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