African American Muslims and Their Social Purgatory

Hat tip to Khalifa for passing this on. And while we may be occupied with more-than-earthly matters today, perhaps we can take a look at this over the next couple of days and reflect upon it. I have a few thoughts of my own I will share on it shortly.

“When you control a man’s thinking you do not have to worry about his actions. You do not have to tell him to stand here or go yonder. He will find his “proper place” and will stay in it. You do not need to send him to the back door. He will go without being told. In fact, if there is no back door, he will cut one for his special benefit. His education makes it necessary. ….History shows that it does not matter who is in power…those who have not learned to do for themselves and have to depend solely on others never obtain any more rights or privileges in the end than they did in the beginning.” – Dr. Carter G. Woodson, The Mis-Education of the Negro.

Let me say from the outset that if you’re faint of heart or easily ruffled, pardon my having included you on this note. One would think that in quoting a social commentary from 1933 that its ideas would be anachronistic or at least irrelevant by 2010, but I find that as an African American Muslim its words ring disturbingly poignant and applicable. Between the Muslim world and America, and between history and orthodoxy, African American Muslims are in a social purgatory of agenda and mission…of identity and relevancy..and between citizenship and complacency.

Let me clarify my use of the term purgatory. Social Purgatory: Living effectively in no sphere of mainstream society whether religious/spiritual, professional, economic, or cultural. .. And belonging neither comfortably or whole-heartedly to the African American community or the broader Muslim community. We stand on the fence at a time of key transition. Imam W.D. Mohammed (rahmah of Allah be upon him) has passed away. Imam Jamil is likely to die in prison, we had to scrape to raise funds for Imam Siraj’s health care, and many of us are an arm-span from FBI watch-lists or already on it. Every time a domestic attack occurs we pray that it isn’t a Muslim. Then we pray that it isn’t an African American Muslim. And then we deliver our “that has nothing to do with Islam” speech on cue. That, my brothers and sisters, is something of a purgatory in itself.

We cannot afford to turn a blind eye or merely a snide comment to the pathologies that exist among us. The dogmas and isms that we tolerate… No, this is the chasm through which opponents readily attack and before that, these are the anchors that narrow our Islam. These pathologies are too many and complex to elucidate here, but suffice it to say they range from misapplication of polygamy to dysfunctional views of our very American-ness and citizenship. We constantly frame our troubles as being from without. Well my motivation in writing this is that I believe quite the opposite. They are from within.

Its only fair to say that establishing Islam in America has been a troubled terrain. Many of us discovered Islam, or a version of it, during an age of segregation and open mistreatment and discrimination. So for us Islam represented a place to anchor our identity as we struggled to find freedom, justice, and equality and their spiritual antecedents.

But how will we move forward in a world that is more globalized and diverse with enemies and obstacles more abstract and no less formidable?? And while having at least a veneer of Islamic orthodoxy, why have African American Muslims not established more functional Masajid w/ proper boards and ownership, a ‘Muslim Social Services’ or an ‘Islamic Charities’ that freely and unapologeticly serves the needs of the disenfranchised and dispossessed in our neighborhoods? Standing on the shoulders of stalwarts from Wali Akram and Elijah Muhammad to Malcolm X and W.D. Mohammed, what stands to justify or even explain the dearth or non-existence of institutional edifices that speak to that rich history and inescapable trust? Well the answers to that may be complex and varied but there is an albatross that hangs about our necks that I’d like for us to ponder.

In assuming Muslim identity how did we lose the maxims of our culture? And if we didn’t know them to begin with how can we assimilate a spiritual tradition whose perennial contribution to humanity has been to act as a super culture, reforming and renewing peoples from China to Spain even within 100 years of the death of the Prophet (S). Now that terms of this brief discourse has been set…let me take more specific aim at its incorrigible African American torch-bearers with a few questions. Why do you value the culture of others above your own when yours was forged in fire like the blacksmith’s sword? Why are the priorities and challenges , expression and aesthetics of others more legitimate than your own? Why are your non-Muslim families and neighbors excluded from your Islamic paradigm? Why is your definition of the religious ‘other’ grounded in an unwarranted bigotry? Why do you have four wives when you cant take care of one? How did you conflate poverty and righteousness? When and why did you devalue your hard-fought, blood-soaked American citizenship?

If this doesn’t apply to you then please excuse this diatribe as a temporary nuisance. But if it does you’ll know because you’re discomfited with the kind of cognitive dissonance I was hoping you’d have. And now we’re calling ourselves indigenous. Does it seem odd that a people whose presence stretches from 1619 should 400 years later need to use the term indigenous? It is ironically necessitated, perhaps, because we are forcing the square peg of our scarcely-understood Islamic identity into the round hole of our American, multi-religious, pluralistic social reality. When will we make the connection that in order to fully assume a grounded, effective, and relevant Islam we have to give back to those who pose and posture as “the Muslims” their ill-conceived cultural Islam?

So my brothers, relieve yourselves of your turbans, thobes, slippers and mishwak. Cultural artifacts from times gone by make a Muslim not!!!! Embrace your history in all its complexity! Embrace your family and your neighbors. Love your country and give back to it at least as much as its given to you! Work with Muslims, Christians, and Jews and any who desire the best for humanity. Seek not aggrandizement and vie not with immigrants for a facade of mainstream acceptance. And above all remember that Islam is not a sub-culture….its super culture in that it stands above and reforms the cultures of all places and times. So brothers and sisters, if you find yourself in cramped, lifeless masajid with no hot water and water bugs competing for your seat in the wudu area…Feel free to reject this station for us as Muslims in America!! Know that no number of terrorist attacks or FBI raids challenges our place here. Its our complacency and recalcitrant refusal to accept the amana of being a 21st century Muslim fully embracing what it means to live, work, and engage with all who hope for good in this world as it is…and through that have the faith to make it what it should be.

Kyle J. Isma’il
National Director
SHARE Network


A short Youtube video where brother Isma’il is interviewed at the MANA conference.

9 Replies to “African American Muslims and Their Social Purgatory”

  1. Tas – wa ‘alaykum as-Salaam. Thank you for the encouragement. I found brother Kyle’s observations in the Youtube video quite astute when he comments on the phenomena of immigration. Islamica magazine had interview Imam Mohammed asking who would be leading Islam in America 50 years from now: African-American Muslims or immigrant Muslims. Kyle noted that it was both enlightening and troubling that the interviewer didn’t see an issue with immigrant Muslims still considering themselves to be immigrants 50 years from now! I know that some people have objected to the cerebral nature of this blog, but I think this is another example of where thinking can be conducive to some of our issues.

  2. Supahna Allah. Jazak Allah khairun for the effort. MashaAllah very well written and an excellent conversation to be had.
    I hope that these words don’t fall on deaf ears inshaAllah.

  3. I especially liked the Carter G Woodson comments and their relevance to Muslim issues today…

  4. Even though I’ve been occupied with more-than-earthly candied yams with marshmallows at this time, I do have to say this was a good article!

  5. ” The thinker will eventually think outside of the myth” Imam WDM and

    “My spirit is to dig through 300 pounds of snow with a spoon or die trying ” Imam WDM(rm)

    An Imam told me that he(Imam WDM) said he got that spirit from the Honorable Elijah Muhammad

  6. All respect to Brother Kyle for this article. However, Elijah Muhammad was not honorable and many of us really need to recognize that anyone who associates partners will Allah, or commits adultery is not one to be followed, but less addressed as honorable. I am not suggesting that he be excluded from history, but rather the correct information be presented along with all the other fitna we have had to climb through to the Sunnah. Why bring him up in response to an excellent article about Islam in America. This is exactly what Brother Kyle was addressing. Let’s be of the best in humanity, leaving alone that which may be from our past that was negative in the past.

  7. Do our muhajir brothers and sisters who have lived in the US still consider themselves “immigrants”? Or do they just recognize that they have a close connection to family and a land on the other side of the world that they also call home. Those brothers and sisters whose familial origins that are not the US have a culture that for the most part is intact and valid. Not perfect, but intact and based on Islam. The image of the African American throughout the world is one of a criminal, thug, immodest, immoral person either poor or a celebrity athelete or overly sexual musician/hip hop artist. The statistics speak for themselves in terms of single parent homes, multiple children from unmarried homes and the lack of education and social status of the majority of most African Americans. As I have told my children and their friends, no one is stopping any of us from going to libraries, living simply and morally and avoiding the drug/social/sexual lifestyle that beckons. There is no racist conspiracy causing men and women to make bad choices when their own parents struggled to teach them the right way to live. There are many, many reasons why African Americans are further behind in society than their own people were 50 years ago. At least 50 years ago, men did not dresss in a manner designed to showcase their underwear and women were not collectively referred to in vulgar terms by their own people. My point is that most “muhajirs” view African Americans as low class people and do not want to be associated with them. If African Americans in general were the medical class, the engineering class or even the military class of people, I am certain that such a condition would not exist. This is not Islamic, but if you live or work in the urban/inner city, most people, including this African American Muslim have good reason to feel that way. Quran and The Sunnah instructs us not to imitate the non-believers and to distinguish ourselves from them. Anyone can put on a hijab, jilbab, niqab or thobe. However, many among us have not clothed their personality, character and behaviors in Islamic practices and sadly are just considered a “Negro with a Muslim name.”
    Yes, racism and colorism is part and parcel of the Muslim world. Totally unIslamic, but no society is free of its ugliness. In sum, most non-African American Muslims have their own culture and like many of our own people, do not want to embrace the popular, current African American culture that presently exists.

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