Socially Irrelevant [?] – American Muslims & Race

The continued floundering state of American Muslims’ stance towards race is at once unsettling, disappointing and personally frustrating. To complicate matters, both immigrant and indigenous Muslims seem to be equally guilty of what Professor Sherman Jackson calls, “racial agnosia”. Much to my dismay, I continue to hear the mantra, “Islam does not do race” from the mouths of American Muslims. And while Islam may not, “do race”, in that it does not support a hierarchy of racial preference, it most certainly does “do reality”. Without a doubt, regardless of whether certain individuals perceive race-based thinking to be right or not, race is an integral part of the social landscape of America. By Muslims choosing to not recognize and come to grips with the historical and social forces that have shaped race in America, they will have little chance of abolishing the system they claim to oppose. For indigenous Muslims [and here I am placing more emphasis on Blackamerican Muslim, though not to the exclusion of other groups], they will only further ostracize themselves from their social counterparts, giving the impression that Islam is disinterested in social justice.

In one of Professor Jackson’s recent talks, he underlined a crucial element to the system of racism, specifically its white supremacist manifestation. This value system, at its core, is akin to what Muslim theology calls shirk, or the association of power and authority [not only partnership] with God. Jackson lays bare the role and function a value system such as white supremacy has at its apex; said values have been elevated in to quasi-ahistorical rankings. In other words, the values and proclivities, the likes and dislikes of whites [American or European] are no longer held to be those of a specific people from a specific time and place, but rather have been foisted “beyond history”, attempting to compete with the same place, as traditional theology sees it, Revelation comes from. In this manner of understanding, racism in general and white supremacy in specific represent a real challenge to Islamic theology, which is vehemently opposed to any form of idolatry, be it wood, stone, or man-made.

As I mentioned above, this ideology is not only peddled by foreign-born or foreign-imagined Muslims—who either refuse or claim to be incapable of seeing race [a short visit to the Middle East and South East Asia will reveal this to be overwhelmingly false]—but has been imbibed by a great many Blackamerican Muslims, who, in their desire to escape the “problem of Blackness”, have abandoned social stances that make them strangers within their own ranks. In conversations with other Blackamerican Christians, many view Blackamerican Muslims to be either out of touch with the social plight of today’s African-Americans, or even hostile towards any rhetoric that seeks to address racism. Where once upon a time—such notable Muslims as Malcolm X come to mind—Black Muslims were synonymous with the social and emotional struggles of other Blackamericans. Today’s Blackamerican Muslims, particularly those in urban settings, no longer seem to use Islam as a vehicle to lift themselves out of their social quagmires, instead being content to adopt Islam as a nouveau identité, whereby one can aspire to alternatives modes of validation and self aggrandizement, vis-a-vis, a new name, a new mode of dress, and especially any time spent “overseas”. The stances of these indigenous Muslims are bolstered from foreign-born voices, imbued with religious authority based on no other grounds than their proximity to so-called “Muslim lands”, who claim Islam is a religion that is free of race, that it simply, “does not do race”. What these two parties fail to realize is how crucial race is to the American story, the American narrative, and the collective psyche.

In a recent interview at The Immanent Frame, Nathan Schneider interviewed Muslim pundit, Reza Aslan. In it, Aslan articulates something crucial to the American social project: social narratives. Aslan says,

“Why is it that the vast majority of Americans are so pro-Israel? It’s because they have fully absorbed the Jewish narrative in a way that they haven’t when it comes to the Palestinian narrative. The story of Israel is a good story. It’s a compelling story. And it’s one that Americans get. But they haven’t had an opportunity to hear, let alone absorb, the Palestinian narrative.”

Narrative is everything in America. Without it, no one knows who you are; no one cares who you are. And in fact, without a narrative, the dominant culture will turn on the offending group as white blood cells do on an infection, treating the invasion as something that must be expelled. While American Jews are not completely safe from racist attacks [a la Mel Gibson], they have mastered the art of narration. American Muslims could learn a great deal from their religious counterparts. Given that Blackamericans are an intricate part of the American narrative, to cast aside this narrative in favor of an abstractionist approach to race is akin to committing social suicide.

Above all, American Muslims’ agnosia of the racial climate will only continue to beleaguer Muslims’ attempts at endearing themselves to the rest of American society, to say anything of contributing to it. This task should not be seen as something for “Black Muslims to deal with”, while immigrant Muslims continue to reap the benefits of a racially biased system: why else do Muslims that hail from the Middle East and South-East Asia, despite their swarthy skin tones, claim “white” on that little check box? How else would one explain the racist tendencies amongst immigrant Muslims towards Blacks if indeed their religion “did not do race”? In parting, consider this small factoid, provided by NAACP president Benjamin Todd Jealous, when interviewed on Roland S. Martin’s, Washington Watch:

“White people are 65% of the crack [cocaine] users in this country. Black people are 85% of people busted for using crack.”

If Muslims, immigrant or indigenous, are to remain relevant to America, they are going to have to have their eyes examined and their heads checked. They must confront the myth that whiteness is omni-benevolent, omni-wholesome, and omni-pure or risk becoming a marginalized, hostile foreign entity that must be treated like an invasive disease, to be expelled at all costs.

Extra Links

  • White Supremacy—The Beginning of Modern Shirk?: an audio lecture by Professor Sherman Jackson.
  • More Thoughts On the Exclucivity of Whiteness: how did the Founding Fathers conceive of whiteness?
  • Religion Gone Global — an interview with Reza Aslan at The Immanent Frame.

21 Replies to “Socially Irrelevant [?] – American Muslims & Race”

  1. Marc, I think the emphasis on connectivity and interdependence – of Blackness, Muslimness, Agency, and Social Activism… – is a crucial moment in this piece. A naturally ensuing thought for me here goes right back to our latest conversation about “holistic redemption of self,” which follows the act of embracing “all selves” of one’s past, present and even future in an effort to mould reality. Just how we being this intricate process is perhaps a topic for our next conversation! Lovely food for thought! Thank you! aleks

  2. Assalamualaikum Marc,

    That lecture by Shaykh Sherman Jackson “White supremacy: The beginnings of modern shirk?” was a real eye opener for me as an immigrant. If any one wants a dose of relevent aqeedah, that lecture should be required listening. In fact, all of his works should be studied if anyone wants to study Islam relevant to the North American context and narrative. JazakaAllah khair for the article.

  3. Salaams,
    excellent blog post. I hadn’t heard of that Sherman Jackson talk, but I will definitely check it out.

  4. @Aleksandr,

    Thanks for the kind words. Yes, this is definitely a “crucial moment”. What many folks miss is that Blackness is the only authentic proxy between Islam and Americanness at the moment. So to protect Blackness is to protect Islam’s only viable foothold in America, not some archaic Black nationalist movement.


    Here’s a link [I assume you’re heard it] to the lecture in question: White Supremacy-The Beginning of Modern Shirk?. It’s only $10 for an mp3 download and it is indeed highly recommended.

  5. A few weeks ago I heard a UPenn undergrad say to his friend that he thought black Muslims were no longer relevant. He was ignorant. He was being honest. I met him a week later and he was reading the autobiography of Malcolm X.

    Another interesting thing, this week I was showing the film Malcolm X to my high school photography students. Before watching, we discussed the now popular photo of Malcolm and Martin smiling together and my students presented on both men’s philosophies, how they differed and where they met up. One student said Martin wanted to help black people and Malcolm wanted to help Muslims. She was really thinking of him in a contemporary sense where Muslims fight against stuff like islamophobia and for Muslim rights. I asked her to explain and as we discussed we clarified that Malcolm was a black nationalist. Black folk were of his top concern. Islam was to help and to cure and to empower all black folk, not Muslims exclusively. Somehow Muslim has become like a strange and exclusive club that has no real identity or purpose beyond itself.

    The question is, how is Islam helping and healing humanity? How is Islam going to help and heal black people. I don’t want to see anymore Muslim organizations that are for Muslims only. I saw a flier a few months ago for an organization that served Muslims afflicted with HIV/ AIDS. It pained me to think that a Muslim AIDS organization would serve Muslims exclusively when Black women are the most afflicted by this disease! What if we as Muslims would just fulfill the needs of our kin first and people humanity, and would serve regardless of religion. Islam is for everyone.

  6. “A good start is to Advocate for the REMOVAL OF ALL RACIAL IMAGES THAT ATTEMPT TO PORTRAT THE DIVINE”. Imam WDM 1976

    In an article in the Muhammad Speaks Newspaper in 1975 entitled “Invisible white Divinity by a Visible Whitened Divine” he explored the profound latent effects of images in religion.[21] In an August, 1977 Jumuah Prayer Service on Chicago’s Southside he taught on “The meaning of colors in Scripture and the Natural Powers of Black and White”. In this talk (Khutbah) he described and explained ancient scriptural symbolism and its effect on modern-day scriptural and religious interpretation. He also elaborated on how colors in scripture have triggered racist influences in the religious societies. Also in 1977 he engaged in a (debate) public forum discussion with Reverend Al Sampson in Chicago, Ill. on images in religion and racism.[21] In 1980 he formed the Committee for the Removal of All Images that attempt to Portray the Divine (C.R.A.I.D.).
    Those who fail to study history ( especially their own ) are doomed by it

  7. Salaams

    I haven’t heard that specific talk by Prof. Jackson but I’ve definitely heard other African-American Muslims compare racism to shirk… or in a similar way compare racism to the original sin of Iblis (“I’m better because I’m made of fire and he’s only made of clay”). There are definitely some conceptual ways to frame racism as one of the deepest sins from an Islamic perspective And conversely one can argue a deep egalitarianism found withing Islam as well.

    I would also agree that Muslims need to do a better job of being socially relevant and “doing race”. I think we need to develop more organizations that do social justice / community improvement and are focused on the US, especially the inner city. I.M.A.N. in Chicago is a great start but more should be done.

    On a more “theoretical” level, I wonder how you feel about the role lineage plays in traditional Islam? One of the main examples I have in mind are how the caliph is supposed to be from Quraysh. This seems to be the standard “Sunni” view and some would claim ijma for it but then how do you come to terms with it? Or do you follow the ijtihad of the khawarij that even a “black slave” (or a Kenyan father and a Kansas mother) could be in charge? The other example which really bothered me when I learned about it is how at least in the Hanafi school (which I am trying to follow) lineage is refered to when it comes to suitability of a marriage partner (and gets defined in terms of being qurayshi, being sayid, or descending from certain companions, and also in terms of how many generations back one has Muslim ancestors).

    Do you have any thoughts on how an anti-racist traditional leaning Sunni Muslim should approach the topic?

  8. @Nsenga,

    Wa ‘alaykum salaam. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment. Your students’ observations are unfortunately very similar to what I have heard from others and that is, the growing irrelevancy of Islam in not only Blackamerica, but America as a whole. This is the consequence of indigenous American Muslims allowing themselves to be colonized, as one scholar put it, by foreign-born interpretations of Islam. It is also a sad commentary on the condition of the Black psyche, where blackness and the condition of blackness has become so undesirable, that Black folks are willing to jump ship, regardless of what destination those ships are sailing to.

    You bring to light a really excellent observation: Islam as a country club mentality. It is still being perpetuated as a club of exclusivity [though most exclusive clubs have something people desire — in the case of urbanized American Muslims, there’s not much there to attract public attention]. Gone are the notions that Islam should that defining force that, or as I will be writing about in the second installment of my post, a holistic redemption on an Adamic scale. While Muslims may criticize the Nation of Islam—Blackamerican Muslims are particularly guilty of this—because of their theological stances, the NOI was far more capable at social issues as well as being concerned with people. Where I would say that the NOI was short sighted was not simply in their conception of God as a Black man [this is obviously incorrect], but in attempting to restrict that redemption [God’s mercy] to one racial group. I believe that Blackamerican Muslims must and should be concerned with the Black agenda, not solely out of race-based fraternal notions but because blackness is the only culturally insulated modality of Americaness that is open to Islam. But beyond this, Islam must be perpetuated as a holistic redemption for all people; Black, white, or other. I believe that to be nothing other than embodying the Sunnah of Muhammad [s], who was A Mercy to All the Worlds.

  9. For years I have talked the effects of race upon all Americans. Our insistence to minimize just how deep race and race notions lie in our consciousness only speaks to our outright purchase of the systems of in-equality. We seem to always be unwilling to change, no matter what price we are eventually to pay.

  10. Asalamualaykum Marc,

    Social relevance is an endeavor that, as you well noted, requires our community to come to terms with our reality. That said, I think the problem that we are seeing not only has to do with the proliferation of foriegn socio-cultural definitions being accepted as quasi-divine or whiteness as a whole being accepted as omni-benevolent, but rather an issue of us understanding what our reality is. Reality is inherently subjective; for many muslims, and by extension many Americans, the social problems being faced by those in the inner city dont resonate with people who live in the middle class or upper middle class. Along the same lines, racial divides and seeing whiteness for what it is requires an awareness as to how a specific racially motivated social reality is influencing our daily decisions, and that has to be understood in concrete terms.

    We also have to be clear about the path forward when it comes to solutions. I’ve heard Dr. Jackson speak positively about the work that IMAN is doing out in Chicago, and I know organizations like MANA are instituting projects that address social problems being faced by those in the inner city. Would the MANA/IMAN model be an approach that jives with your idea of becoming socially relevant? I’ve heard Dr. Jackson speak in the past on our need to invest in Black American Islam, but I find myself at times at a loss as to what exactly “invest” would entail… Would instituting an affirmative action-esque approach to hiring imams be an actualized model of us investing? (just an idea…I’d be interested to hear your thoughts).

  11. Most definitely. And I only made those points to help clear up what I was touching on but all your points are valid and they raise good questions. In fact, your mentioning of lineage made me recollect some conversation with a group of brothers many years ago where they argued because they spoke Arabic they could claim Arab lineage!

  12. as-Salaamu ‘alaykum to all and thanks for the feedback.

    I wanted to try and comment on some of the great feedback you guys left. As for racism, per Abdul Halim’s comment, my hope was to bring to light race, not so much as racism. While the two subjects may seem to be intertwined, they are indeed separate subjects. There is a continued tendency on the part of Muslims in the States to view racism as something Islam simply doesn’t deal with. Therefore, anyone who does so, must treat racism from a purely secular point of view.

    Abdul-Halim also mentioned I.M.A.N. and I do believe that projects like I.M.A.N. are part of the way forward. What I am refering to does not so much rely upon institutional thinking as it does a paradigm shift in the way in which Muslims on the ground in America conceive of and deal with the issue of race. Institutions like I.M.A.N. can certainly play a role but in order for this to take positive effect, it will have to penetrate deeper than what any institution can do: at the grass roots; masājid/imams; at the Muslim leadership level. Muslims need to see and hear their leaders speaking to and dealing with race positively and effectively.

    Part of this realization will be challenged by the nouveau movement of post-racial America currently being championed mostly by whites, especially in groups such as the Tea Party. With the advent of America’s first Black president, there has been a ground swell of energy and rhetoric directed towards a post-racial America. What disturbs me most is what would this post-racial world look like? What would be its characteristics? Instead of post-racial, why is no one championing a post-prejudice world, one in which race plays no defining role in decision making and social hierarchy but still leaves room for real diversity: the existence of racial and ethical differences, be they man-made or so-called natural.

    Abdul-Halim possed the question:

    “do you follow the ijtihad of the khawarij that even a “black slave” (or a Kenyan father and a Kansas mother) could be in charge [of the Muslim Ummah]?”

    It is well known that there are indeed Blacks, slaves or otherwise, that are descended from the Prophet [s]. Blackness is not a barrier between Prophetic lineage. So I see the two questions as moot.

    Mobeen said that he thinks the real crux of the problem is not only “foreign socio-cultural definitions” but rather is, “an issue of us understanding what our reality is”. I agree that getting a grasp on reality is paramount, but that in America, race dictates reality to a great extent. This is something Muslims right now just don’t get, or to put in line with our conversation, Muslims in American are out of touch with reality. Mobeen stated that, “reality is subjecitve”, but in America, race certainly is not. Race is an object; it is a thing; it is tangible. Again, Muslims must come to grips with the nature or matrix of their reality or face irrelevance. For in the light of irrelevance, arguments about mosque building, be it in New York City or Temecula, California, will only be the tip of the iceburg that will sink the American Muslim project.

    Mobeen posed one other great question:

    “Would instituting an affirmative action-esque approach to hiring imams be an actualized model of us investing?”.

    In a talk I had with Dr. Jackson, he made the comment that in social matters, affirmative action can help to bring about needed social change and equality, but when it comes to God, there is no affirmative action. These changes will need to be done by nothing other than struggle and hard work. In this sense, Muslims could do America a great service by keeping with the times and speaking to the truth of race, speaking out against the real racist forces that seek to eliminate race will still holding all of the cards:

    يأيها الذين ءامنوا من يرتد منكم عن دينه فسوف يأتي الله بقوم يحبهم و يحبونه أذلة على المؤمنين أعزة على الكافرين يجاهدون في سبيل الله ولا يخافون لومة لائم ذلك فضل الله يؤتيه من يشاء و الله واسع عليم

    “You who have iman! if any of you renounce your deen, Allah will bring forward a people whom He loves and who love Him, humble to the muminun, fierce to the kafirun, who strive in the Way of Allah and do not fear the blame of any censurer. That is the unbounded favour of Allah which He gives to whoever He wills. Allah is Boundless, All-Knowing.” [Qur’ān: al-Mā’idah: 54]

  13. Asalam-alaikum,

    I agree with you that perhaps your original post was broader in scope than my comment. I also agree that technically race and lineage are different concepts and more specifically there were/are Black Qureishis and Black descendants of the prophet (saaws). At the same time, lineage functions in a way similar to race in many societies. And even though the question of the khalifah might be a little bit more theoretical, the marriage issue is not outside the realm of likelihood as an issue I could be faced with.

  14. Salaam alaikum,
    Very late addition to the conversation, but I wanted to address Nsenga’s comments about the organizations for HIV positive Muslims. The woman I know who heads up such an organization does a lot of coalition building and works within the Black and Latino community. She also deals with women’s issues and I really respect the work that she does. But there is a real need to address HIV in the Muslim community. For example, we need to have HIV testing in the community and encourage testing in pre-marital counseling. This is especially important since many Muslims in Philadelphia engage serial polygamy (through multiple marriages and divorces) and polygynous marriages which can expose women to greater risk. Muslim Muslim marriages themselves are not recognized by the state, so the women have even less rights. We have a growing prevalence of HIV and STD’s that need to be addressed. In a conference I attended, the sister mentioned that in light of HIV positive members of the community, she has trained people to wash the bodies in preparation for burial. This is important, because there needs to be special measures taken so that the person washing the body does not accidently infect themselves. Also, many Muslims fear social stigma, and some secular organizations may not be able to address the spiritual crises of an HIV positive person. While it may seem like Muslims are making a Muslim only club, I see the positive side of such organizations. One, they are addressing a real social need and I’m sure that non-Muslims can get services such as free testing if they want.

    On another note, race hierarchy within the Muslim community: In addition to adopting their host country’s aesthetic, immigrant Muslims have their own racial/ethnic hierarchies and presuppositions that stem from their own cultures. The classical scholars (i.e. Ibn Battuta and Imam Ghazali) and writers also had negative assumptions about dark skin and sub-Saharan Africa. We see tension between the ideals in the Qur’an and sunnah and the interpretation of these principles by the Mediterranean scholars. And we as Muslims need to contend with that. That’s why John Hunwick and Eve Trout Powell’s work on the African Diaspora is so fascinating. Insha’Allah we need more scholars to work on this subject. The least we can do is get some social context for why lineage mattered for these scholars. That way we don’t have to take this business about lineage to heart and develop a new sense of inferiority, as some have already done.

  15. Muslims aren’t racist and Americans are. Nice. Brave of the innocent Muslims to throw themselves into such a cauldron from their peaceful and more moral home bases. Making blanket generalizations of people, even if positive is still bigotry since that sword can cut both ways. You are in a perceptual trap and need to emphasize the “think” before the “writer.”

  16. I just finished watching Jackson: he could’ve saved everyone a lot of time by just saying whites are racists and blacks are not. The same tired old refrain that underlies all black rhetoric on the Left and which renders that rhetoric so much semantic ad hoc gibberish.

  17. James – it would appear that you had your mind made up before even watching the video. Therefore, there’s little chance that you might hold a different opinion. That is fine but do not try and couch your preconceived prejudices by slandering someone else. Take responsibility for your own thoughts and actions.

  18. Nsenga Knight,

    Salaam Alaikum,

    I would be interested to know which organization you are referring too that serves only Muslim living with HIV/AIDS. I see your comment is from 2010 so its a few years ago, but hopefully you still check this thread. I started an org in 2012 whose primary focus is to address HIV/AIDS in the American Muslim community but at the same time not turn anyone away regardless of their religious beliefs. I have been looking for other organizations that are trying to focus on this issue in the Muslim community.I did not find many, hence why RAHMA was started. There are many organizations already out there focusing on HIV/AIDS in the general population but there definitely is a need in our community as well as it is rarely talked about. I look forward to your response inshallah. I would love to connect with others out there trying to break down taboos and stigma.


    Please tell me the name of the organization you are referring too. Are you referring to the sister in Philly? Thanks so much.

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