“All mankind is from Adam and Hawwā (Eve), an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab; also a white has no superiority over black nor a black has any superiority over white except by piety and good action. Learn that every Muslim is a brother to every Muslim and that the Muslims constitute one brotherhood. Nothing shall be legitimate to a Muslim which belongs to a fellow Muslim unless it was given freely and willingly. Do not, therefore, do injustice to yourselves.” ~ Prophet Muhammad, from his “Farewell Address” given shortly before his death
Back in the summer of 2006, about eight months after I took my shahadah, I found myself in Detroit, Michigan, sitting upstairs on the floor of Masjid Wali Muhammad, a masjid belonging to the Warith Deen community, an edifice once known during the days of the Nation of Islam, the proto-Muslim and Black Nationalist movement, as Temple Number One. I was in the area for a summer program, an unorthodox program to say the least but one nonetheless enlightening, and the occasion was jumu’ah, “Friday” in Arabic, which, for those who might not know, is the Muslim equivalent to the Sabbath in Judaism and Christianity. We had been visiting the masjids around the area as part of a showcase of the various cultural expressions of the American Muslim community: as I recall, we had visited a predominantly Yemeni masjid (this one was interesting because they had those toilets that are holes in the ground lined with porcelain and the khutba, the sermon or homily, was entirely in Arabic), a Pakistani masjid, a Shi’i masjid (The Islamic Center of North America, the largest masjid in the US if I’m not mistaken. This one was interesting for me since it was my first real exposure to Shi’a Islam and Shi’i Muslims), and an affluent masjid populated predominantly by Immigrants, as in Arabs and Desis. This particular Friday, we went to a masjid populated almost exclusively by indigenous Blackamericans.
The prospect was exciting to me, since up to this point, I had only attended Immigrant masjids where the population and participation of Blacks paled in comparison to Immigrants. I myself had never even stepped foot into a Black masjid, not out of aversion, but simply because there weren’t any around. I converted to Islam in college (not in prison, though many Blacks do come to Islam in prison) where the representation of Blacks was generally lacking anyway. Our local MSA reflected these demographics: during my tenure, there were only two indigenous Black Muslims in our entire MSA, myself being one of them; the rest were either First or Second generation Immigrants from middle and upper class families. The town outside the college atmosphere boasted a sizable Muslim presence, and was home to many Black Muslims. However, because of racial politics, many Black Muslims shied away from the religious establishments, so my exposure to Black Muslims was limited to intimate, ad hoc conversations with older Black Muslims in the area who would frequent the masjids and books authored by Black Muslim scholars like Dr. Sherman Jackson and Dr. Jamillah Karim.
As we drove away from the affluent, suburbs and towards the poorer urban areas, I witnessed an all too familiar metamorphosis: the well paved streets, the clean, nice looking houses and lawns, the rococo churches and masjids deteriorated, became dessicated, like a vivacious, sanguine youth drying to ashes and dust. I saw telltale signs of a squalor and penury I’m so accustomed to seeing as Black man from the hood. The venue was reminiscent of my neighborhood back in Pensacola, though this one was more urban, less rustic: dilapidated and abandoned buildings and housing, poorly maintained streets and sidewalks, unfunded schools and parks. No one had to explain to me the situation of the area; it was like clock-work, an immediate subjective insight into the reality. I simply got it. Though degrees of severity my vary, though the ethnicity of the inhabitants and the location may vary, all ghettos or all projects or all trailer parks or all slums, to me, look exactly the same, no matter where I go. I’m convinced of this.
We arrived at the masjid, and the first thing I noticed was that it wasn’t as opulent as the Immigrant ones we had visited; the building mirrored environment around it, as most things tend to do. I could tell by glancing at the faces of some my colleagues, who were mostly middle to upper class Immigrant Muslims, that they were uncomfortable with the surroundings: I guessed most of them had never been to the ghetto, at least not voluntarily. Black faces wearing warm smiles welcomed us inside and we were directed past a row of unused pews (the old Nation of Islam mosques had pews in them, like churches) and up a flight of stairs towards the musalla, the prayer room. When we got there, I noticed was there was absolutely no partition between the men and the women whatsoever: no curtain, no separate room, no wall, no line of chairs, no nothing: the women, donning their head coverings the way Black women culturally do, they way my mother and my grandmother did even though they weren’t close to being Muslim, sat behind the men as they had during the time of the Prophet. I also noticed the lack of “Islamic” clothing: though plenty of kufis decorated the heads of men, thawbs, jilbabs, abayas, salwar kameez, and turbans were conspicuously absent. The khatiba, the person who delivers the sermon, spoke eloquently in English but his Arabic, though well-spoken, was fragmented. Still, the sermon was much better and much more relevant than anything I had heard before, definitely not “pie-in-the-sky” Islam or “Ivory Tower” Islam or even – dare I say – “Immigrant” Islam but rather a rendition which contextualized the Blackamerican experience through the lens of Islam.
The ambiance of the place had all the trappings of the Black Churches I grew up around, even to down to the minutiae, such as the clothing worn and type of food served after jumu’ah, save for the fact, of course, that everyone was Muslim. For the very first time since converting, I felt at home in a masjid, as if my presence was more than just merely tolerated – a word which I’m beginning to disdain by the day – but was welcomed. I didn’t feel like a stranger or a pariah, not just because I was Black, though I’m sure it helped; it had more to do with the interpretative prism, of how they managed to construct a narrative which spoke to the reality of being Black in the States. And I didn’t feel as if I was on the fringe elements, the distance and dark periphery, like little Pluto going about its orbit at the farthest reaches.
Let me be frank about my experiences as a Muslim thus far and let me also be unequivocal about the conclusions I’ve drawn from my own experiences and from the experiences of other Muslims, converts mostly, both Black and non-Black, I’ve chanced upon during my trek in this great faith. These thoughts have been festering in my mind for a while now and it’s high time I breathe life into them so as to relinquish burden upon my nafs, upon that which makes me, me. Henceforth I’ll let WordPress bear their weight, insha’Allah. But before doing so, I would first like to say, by way of preamble, that my views are not necessarily representative of any larger whole, Black or non-Black, and nor are they indicative of the realities of any individual, Black or non-Black, other than for myself, nor are they necessarily reflective of a greater reality of the American Muslim community. These words are mine alone and are born from my limited and lay perspectives on things, so take them with a grain a salt – maybe even less so. If you’re like me, then you don’t like too much salt anyway. Bad for your blood pressure.
Okay. Ready? Breathe. Here we go. Let us commence.
Sometimes it’s hard for me to give credence to the words of the Prophet’s Farewell Address when I consider the glaring socio-economic and racial dissonance within the American Muslim ummah, the community. The image this dissonance produces likens to a paradoxical chimera comprised of the quixotic elements of a racial, or even raceless, utopia which the words of the Prophet engender amalgamated with the nasty reality of racial and economic discrimination. Because of the nature of this chimera, I think there is in fact not a single Muslim community, but rather, there are, at the very least, at this juncture in time, two distinct communities bifurcated along racial and socio-economic lines: the Blacks and the Immigrants. Non-Black, non-Immigrant Muslims, chiefly Whites and Hispanics, seem to be caught in the middle of the dynamism, or lack thereof, depending on your level of cynicism, and they either incline towards one community, remain in a state of racial purgatory, or wallow between engagement and disengagement with the two broader communities. The direction of the inclination usual depends both on their life experiences, stations in society, and social situations. Most White and Hispanic Muslims I’ve encounter tend to identify with the Blacks, but these same people also tended to hail from poorer families and environments. For example, most of the words conceived for this post were written in the household of a White Muslimah from a predominantly Black neighborhood up North who loathes, with an ardent passion, the elevation of fair skin found in Immigrant, particularly Arab, circles and swears that she is emphatically not White and that her soul is actually Black. (Not that race or gender aptly describe one’s soul; she was speaking figuratively). Yet, I’ve met some who go the other the way: they integrate into the Immigrant Muslim community fairly well, though not perfectly, and they, to employ a dark candor, take advantage of the privilege of having fair skin, or at least non-Black skin, whether they realize it or not. Of course, I say these things not to indict anyone, but merely to state my observations.
One thing that strains the relationship between the two communities – and infuriates the Hell of out me – is this predilection for fairer skin in the Immigrant community. Really, this is a societal problem, but it manifests itself ad nauseam in the Muslim community almost as bad as it does in the boarder society – maybe, to some degree, even more so. Many Immigrant Muslims bring their cultural idiosyncrasies, biases, and prejudices when they come to the States. Those then are coupled with the cultural idiosyncrasies, biases, and prejudices that are already here. The result is a racial hierarchy with Blacks being at the bottom. And what racial hierarchy would complete without the standard “You’re Muslim, but you can’t marry my daughter!” I’m a bit sarcastic for sure, but it’s the only way I can write about this and not get furious. I know of Black Muslims, myself included, who have been rejected for marriage on the basis of skin color, ethnicity, and background. We were either “too dark” or we weren’t from “good families,” whatever the Hell those mean. I take them as not-too-subtle euphemisms for being Black. But that’s just me. May God have mercy on me should I fall for an Immigrant sister again, especially an Arab.
Another issue which perturbs the relationship are the class boundaries. I won’t say too much about this here because others have written more eloquently about this. Instead, I’ll refer to an excellent article about this problem written in the New York Times. It’s pretty spot on and worth reading, if you are so inclined. Also, Dr. Jamillah Karim’s book, entitled American Muslim Women: Negotiating Race, Class and Gender with the Ummah, is also a piece worth reading about this issue.
When it comes to national representation, I’m thoroughly convinced institutions like ISNA, ICNA, MSA, RIS, Zaytuna, and MAS, institutions which claim to be the voice of Muslims in the States, are geared more towards the middle to upper class Immigrant Muslim community. (Now, in saying this, I don’t want to diminish the good these organizations do in the least bit). The presence of Black Muslims at these events, in my experience, is seldom representative of the American Muslim population: Blacks comprise the single, largest ethnic contingent of Muslims in the States, but this reality is not reflected in the demographics of the attendees of these national conferences mostly because of the financial constraints on the part of Blacks. Sometimes, at these conferences, our absence is mentioned. At RIS, back in 2010, Shaykh Hamza Yusuf urged the audience not to gloss over the Black Muslims. He said we were a beautiful community which shouldn’t be overlooked. But even the words from someone of his standing though can’t mend the deep rift between the communities. Black Muslims have formed our own institutions, and most times, there is little interplay between the two. In fact, I often hear of Immigrant Muslims demeaning the existence of these institution, like for example, that of Imam Warith Deen’s community. They say Black issues are not ‘”Islamic issues” or “Muslim issues.” Surprised? By this point, no.
These words don’t come easy. My fingers are as lead as on the keyboard as I try to flesh out the meanderings from my mind. I strive for tawheed, for unity, not just concerning God but for most other things as well. A personal belief I hold on to rather steadfastly is the belief that the degrees of separation between people are often over exaggerated: we are closer to each to one another than what we perceive or than what others would have us believe. Therefore, it’s very difficult for me to have to setup divisions in people like this, Muslims especially. My hand, however, has been forced to go in the other direction because of my experiences.
This post has gotten far too long, so I’ll end on this note. The situation hardens my heart sometimes; it makes me very bitter and angry. Doctors and lawyers and engineers and pharmacist and PhDs didn’t bring Islam here. Slaves, ex-slaves, and poor Blacks pioneered Islam in the States. Those Blacks made a place for it here and they made space for others to come and contribute. But now it seems we Black Muslims all reside at the peripheries, like Pluto, because of our standing in society: we generally aren’t as wealthy, we generally aren’t as educated, we definitely aren’t the “model minority” like the Desis, and we most definitely aren’t White and can’t even pass for White. (Well, some of us can’t pass for White). We sit at the back of bus and our legacy is forgotten, except for maybe during Black History month when everyone praises Malcolm X, may Allah be pleased with him, but then bashes the Nation of Islam. Or even worse, we are ridiculed by arrogant Immigrants who claim to know how to “play the system.”
Whenever I get depressed about it, I think of the fact that we are all poems in motion, works in progress. There’s much to be done in both communities. I harbor no illusions that things will get better, but I hope nevertheless.
If I’ve offended anyone, I do apologize. Sometimes my words get the better of me.
May Allah guide us to what is better and may He give the strength and courage to mend our broken communities.