Obituary: Tayyibah Taylor

Obituary: Tayyibah Taylor

Tayyibah Taylor Life and Legacy by: Jamillah Karim

Reflection and Poem by: Su’ad Abdul-Khabeer

Tayyibah Taylor: Life and Legacy by: Jamillah Karim

Tayyibah Taylor, the founding editor-in-chief and publisher of the award-winning Muslim women’s magazine Azizah, passed from this life on September 4, 2014, but leaves a spiritual, intellectual, and cultural legacy that calls us to excellence. The noblest of human qualities surround our memories of her: Faith. Dignity. Grace. Honor. Inner Beauty. Radiance. Joy. Gratitude. Courage. Humility. Peace. Adventure. Innovation. Vision. Service. Piety. God Consciousness. Love. Light. Tayyibah was the mother of five and an active member of the American Muslim community, both locally and nationally. Trailblazer, entrepreneur, interfaith activist, and peace advocate; through all of these roles we will remember Tayyibah.

Azizah Magazine was the primary vehicle through which most of us were honored to know Tayyibah and were inspired to greatness. The story of Tayyibah’s “creation” begins in childhood. Born in Trinidad to a Barbadian Christian family, she was a rebel and an intellectual from the start. At the age of 12, she picked up a copy of Ebony Magazine and understood the significance of blacks presenting their culture and contribution through their own images and voices. She also possessed the talents and interests that would lead to her destiny to present Muslim women as free thinking, spiritually elevated, and active. “Writing and reading have always been my primary love. And spirituality. I grew up in a Christian home. I went to church twice a week.”

Tayyibah converted to Islam in 1971, and her keen awareness of gender inequalities within Muslim communities began even before her conversion. In fact the very same year that she became a Muslim, she was kicked out of a masjid in the Caribbean by men who didn’t think the masjid was a place for women. Yet this did not deter her faith, and her rebel spirit brought her attention to gender inequalities in American mosques.  “Masajid [mosques] here put the women’s entrances in the back alley, the women’s masalla [prayer space] in the basement. Imams [male prayer leaders] begin the khutba [sermon] with ‘as salaamu alaikum [peace be upon you], my dear brothers.’  The role of the women in Islam is often addressed, but seldom are the responsibilities of males addressed.” Such observations led Tayyibah to organize the women’s group Seattle’s Islamic Sisterhood (SIS) in the 1980s.  Working with SIS for eight years, Tayyibah recalled, “We were considered quite radical!”

Azizah was first conceived during a Muslim women’s conference in Chicago in the early ‘90s organized by the activist Sharifa Alkhateeb.  A woman spoke about an existing magazine for Muslim women.  The idea excited Tayyibah; she could not wait to see it.  “But,” Tayyibah explained, “when I went to her booth, it was just very small, kind of like a newsletter, so I was really disappointed.”  All the way home on the plane, she kept asking the two Muslim women traveling with her, “Why can’t we have a magazine?”  And her friends finally said, “Tayyibah, why won’t you just go ahead and do it?”  “Okay, I will,” she said.

Tayyibah began planning her venture, but family matters intervened.  A year later, a Muslim male publisher approached her to work for him on Kaleidoscope, a magazine for Muslim children.  After two issues, he proposed a Muslim women’s magazine.  Tayyibah commented, “Instead of me declaring it my intellectual property at that point and saying, ‘This is mine,’ we kind of segued into it, and it ended up being his.”  They named the magazine Sisters.

After four issues, the publisher of Sisters lost interest in the magazine. “Because I hadn’t written a contract,” Tayyibah explained, “all the rights were legally his, and he offered to sell it to me, but I thought, ‘Well, why would I buy my own creation?’”  Soon Sisters stopped running. Tayyibah took a break from publishing and shortly thereafter moved to Atlanta.  “After I moved here, I said, ‘No!  I have to do this magazine.’” She partnered with an Indonesian American Muslim woman, Marlina Soerakoesoemah, Azizah’s co-founder and creative director.

Tayyibah’s work was influenced by her passion to represent the value and rights of women that she saw embodied in the Qur’an and prophetic example. To be a full advocate for women, Tayyibah had to totally free herself of male control.  Working under a male publisher with Sisters taught Tayyibah why it was so important for Muslim women to publish their own magazine.  For example, she wanted to do a story on breast cancer, but the male publisher responded, “No, don’t do breast cancer.  Do all the cancers and don’t use the word breast.”  Recalling this experience, Tayyibah stated, “So you see the limitations came from a very androcentric view.”

Tayyibah refused to compromise the voices of women in her “own creation.”  When men asked to write for the magazine, and her reply was:  “You will have to excuse us but we’re so thrilled to have our own magazine, we don’t want to give it to anybody else.” Azizah is a magazine for the Muslimah by the Muslimah.  This position is not against men.  Rather it is for women.  Tayyibah stated, “It has nothing to do with men.  It has to do with us, and where we are, and what we are thinking.”

Tayyibah’s impact was global, not only because the magazine attracted worldwide attention but also because of Tayyibah’s vast travel. She was raised in Canada, lived abroad for a few years in Saudi Arabia, and resided in the United States. She visited 36 countries spanning six continents. She worked on several interfaith initiatives and traveled to Turkey, Spain, Morocco, Jerusalem, Greece and Jordan with various groups of Jews, Christians, and Muslims. In spring 2010, she was one of eight Muslims to meet His Holiness the Dalai Lama in an Islam-Buddhism Common Ground event, and she was invited to the White House Iftar in August 2011. She was named one of the “500 Most Influential Muslims in the World” and one of Huffington Post’s “Ten American Muslim Women You Should Know.”

It was all the different parts of Tayyibah’s story—Muslim, black, female, immigrant, revert, business owner, visionary—that gave her the insight and ability to connect with so many different kinds of people. On the eve of her passing, facebook and twitter feeds were full of people, from all walks of life, who celebrated Tayyibah. And all those testimonies repeated the same message: Tayyibah Taylor was an inspiration. Tayyibah’s words, her model, her very existence empowered us all, whether we are male or female, black or not, revert or born into a Muslim family, immigrant or native born. As a “spiritual mother and mentor,” Tayyibah took the time to advise, encourage, and support others. She honored the divine purpose in the aspirations of others as much as she honored it in her own “creation,” Azizah Magazine.

Tayyibah Taylor’s comments were originally published in Jamillah Karim, “Voices of Faith, Faces of Beauty: Connecting American Muslim Women through Azizah Magazine,” in Muslim Networks from Hajj to Hip Hop, ed. miriam cooke and Bruce B. Lawrence, 169-188 (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2005).

Tayyibah Taylor: Reflection and Poem by: Su’ad Abdul Khabeer

To me, Sis. Tayyibah’s individual accomplishments are the echo of a generation. This is a generation of Muslim women who embody what it means to “have the courage of your convictions.” These women, black, female and reverts to Islam, faced significant odds. As the renowned Zora Neale Hurston once famously wrote “the black woman is the mule of the world.” This statement testifies to some of the struggle inherent in being black and female. To be black, in a world that prefers white, and woman, in a world that prefers men, is to be seen as a caricature—alternatively a jezebel, a mammy or the “strong black woman.” It is to be seen as always less than and the object of someone else’s possession and therefore denied the right to fully exercise your humanity–including the right to let someone else carry the weight of the world. Yet the narrative of the black woman is not only one of tragedy. After all Hurston also wrote: “Sometimes, I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry. It merely astonishes me. How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It’s beyond me.”

Likewise, I believe, is the narrative of the black Muslim woman. To be black, female and Muslim means to also be confronted with the idea that you are a victim of patriarchy and an accomplice in terrorism. Moreover as reverts to Islam, Sis. Tayyibah’s generation didn’t have much of what we have today, already-made community life and institutions. So what did they do? Did they mourn tragically. No, they were too phenomenal for that. They knew, despite all the words, deeds and denials, that they had the capacity to envision and create a new world. And so they went on to build that world–in their families and schools, businesses and masjids, sisterhood networks and institutions, like Azizah Magazine.

In this spirit of their triumph, which is our own, I offer this: A Poem for Tayyibah

A Poem For Tayyibah

this thing,
Al-Islam in America

we be chanting “flawless”
but that’s child’s play
our mamas be
undaunted by men.
inspired by Allah.

our mamas got supapowers!
what else can explain it?!
how they flipped the world
right-side up
with babies in tow.

they got that supa sight!
they see straight through the darkness
they be our light.

and they be supa smart
in a single glance
they read a room
filter out the nonsense
& chart the better course.

be supa healers,
they bind bones
and hearts.
and their smiles
a balm for the weary.

and oh, how they laugh!
laugh in the warmth of the circle of sisters
and sing and dance and play
soft bellies
full bodies
gray hairs and all!

No, “life ain’t been no crystal stair”
our mamas been broken hearted
yet all they give back
is that supa love
to the babies
to the sisters
to the brothas
yes, our mamas be lovers.

and they (supa) flyyyyy!
khimars and wide sleeves
be like wings
as they soar above
all ceilings
made of glass
and wrought by HIslam.
ONLY heaven is their limit,
ONLY the garden they seek.

In truth,
our mamas be dipped in wali-ness.

our mamas,
sweet mamas,
Dear mama…

Ya Rabb, Ya Rahim!
Your greetings
to our mamas!

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