NPR Asks How & Why Blackamericans Are Drawn To Islam

National Public Radio recently did an interview of Imam Anwar Muhaimin of Masjid Quba here in Philadelphia as well as yours truly, asking how and why Blackamericans, despite the phenomenons of 9/11 and more recently, the FBI raid in Detroit, are drawn to Islam. I spoke at some length with the gentleman from the Associated Press, as did my wife, about the continuing evolution of Islam in the Blackamerican experience. You can read the article here. Even though AP did mention the part about Blackamericans being drawn to Islam for many of the social reasons, it did leave out some of the points I tried to elucidate concerning the breadth of reasons why Blackamericans come to Islam: social, spiritual, and otherwise. In other words, the reasons are as vast as there are people coming to it. Perhaps in the future this point can be discussed further at length.

Hat tip to Safiya for putting the AP in touch with us.

Update: Since the article seems to not be on NPR’s web site any longer, I’m going to insert it directly here.

JESSE WASHINGTON, AP National Writer

By now, Sekou Jackson is used to the questions: Why does he need to leave a work meeting to pray? Don’t black Muslims convert to Islam in jail? Why would you even want to be Muslim?

“It’s kind of a double whammy to be African-American and Muslim,” said Jackson, who studies the Navy at the National Academy of Science in Washington. “You’re going to be judged.”

Jackson’s struggle may have gotten harder when the FBI on Wednesday raided a Detroit-area warehouse used by a Muslim group. The FBI said the group’s leader preached hate against the government, trafficked in stolen goods and belonged to a radical group that wants to establish a Muslim state in America. The imam of the group’s mosque, a black American named Luqman Ameen Abdullah, was killed in a shootout with agents.

Although the FBI was careful to say those arrested in Detroit were not mainstream Muslims, it has accused other black Muslims of similar crimes, most recently in May, when four men were charged with plotting to blow up New York synagogues and shoot down a military plane.

Yet the Muslim faith continues to convert many average African-Americans, who say they are attracted by Islam’s emphasis on equality, discipline and family.

“The unique history African-Americans have faced, we’re primed for accepting Islam,” said Jackson, 31, who grew up in a secular home and converted to Islam when he was about 18.

“When someone comes to you with a message that everyone is equal, that the only difference is the deeds that they do, of course people who have been oppressed will embrace that message,” Jackson said. “It’s a message of fairness.”

It was a message of black pride in the face of dehumanizing prejudice that launched Islam in America in the 1930s.

Created by a mysterious man named Wallace Fard, the “Lost-Found Nation of Islam” strayed far from the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad, but its mixture of self-reliance, black supremacy and white demonization resonated with many blacks. Some 30 years later, Malcolm X began the African-American movement toward traditional Islam when he left the Nation of Islam, went on a pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia and proclaimed that all whites were not evil.

In 1975, the Nation split into two factions: a larger group that embraced orthodox Sunni practices, and another, led by Louis Farrakhan, that maintained the Nation’s separatist ideology.

Today, it is difficult to determine the number of Muslims in America. A 2007 Pew survey estimated 2.35 million, of whom 35 percent were African-American. Lawrence Mamiya, a Vassar College professor of religion and Africana studies and an expert on American Islam, said Muslim organizations count about 6 million members, a third of them black.

Most African-American Muslims are orthodox Sunnis who worship in about 300 mosques across the country, Mamiya said. The second-largest group follows Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam, which has about 100 mosques in America, abroad and U.S. prisons, Mamiya said.

He said the third-largest group is the Ummah, founded by Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin, the black activist formerly known as H. Rap Brown. The group has about 40 or 50 mosques. The organization targeted in the raid near Detroit was part of the Ummah, the FBI said.

“The vast majority of African-American Muslims are using the religion to strengthen their spirituality,” said Mamiya, who has interviewed many black Muslim leaders and congregants. He said the number of black Muslims is growing, but not as fast as before the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Few white Americans convert to Islam “because the tendency is to view Islam as foreign,” he said. “For African-Americans, it’s part of their African heritage. There’s a long tradition (in Africa). … It moves them away from the Christianity they saw as a slave religion, as the religion that legitimized their slavery.”

Margari Hill was a California teenager seeking an antidote for nihilism and widespread disrespect of black women when she found Islam in 1993. A few years ago she began covering her hair with a hijab, or head scarf.

“I wanted to be thinking about humility and modesty,” said Hill, a 34-year-old teacher in Philadelphia. “I decided it would help me be a better Muslim and a better person.”

She also is attracted to Islam’s family values and the egalitarian message embodied by the prophet Muhammad’s “last sermon,” which according to Muslim scriptures says that no Arab, white or black person is superior or inferior to members of another race.

Hill’s ex-husband, Marc Manley, said that many blacks who have struggled with crime, drugs or alcohol are drawn to Islam’s regimented lifestyle, which includes prayers five times a day.

“Especially in the urban context, it provides a vehicle for African-Americans to deal with those ills,” he said. “It provides a buffer or a barrier.”

Muhaimin was born into a Muslim family after his parents embraced Islam in the 1950s. He grew up in Saudi Arabia, “but was very clear from a young age that I was and am an American citizen.”

“America is my country, I love the United States,” he said. “I don’t agree with everything our politicians do in our name, but that doesn’t mean I’m not a citizen of this country.”

___
On the Net:
Margari Hill blog: http://www.azizaizmargari.wordpress.com
Marc Manley blog: http://www.manrilla.net
http://www.qubainstitute.com
(This version CORRECTS that FBI raid was on warehouse, not mosque.)

___

On the Net:

Margari Hill’s blog: http://www.azizaizmargari.wordpress.com

Marc Manley’s blog: http://www.marcmanley.com

The Quba Institute: http://www.qubainstitute.com

(This version CORRECTS that FBI raid was on warehouse, not mosque.)

Bebop, Islam and the Promise of a Dignified Existence in Jim Crow America

The following is a short paper that I wrote on the relation between Islam and Blackness and the draw between the two back in the early part of the 20th Century. I hope to have the time to post a few more ruminations, but at the moment, enjoy this small piece.

Much like the 1940’s, modern day America is taking a closer look at the religion of Islam, how America relates to it, and how Islam fits into the tapestry of the dominant culture. As it is today, so was it some seventy years ago that Islam was seen as a foreign and possibly even hostile entity. And yet, for Blackamericans, Islam not only held a mystique that called to them but also eventually offered an alternative modality of being both black and American. For many, this switch of religious identity was cemented in the social issues of the day, namely the racism that was prevalent in American society at the time towards Blackamericans. As we shall see, jazz, and more specifically, bebop, would play a major role in tying together disparate narratives into a holy protest against white supremacy.

The article I have chosen to discuss is a passage from Dizzy Gillespie’s memoir, To Be or Not to Bop. From the selected passed, Gillespie, as one of bebop’s founding fathers, illustrates a unique crossroads of black consciousness: religion, music and social justice that for many Blackamerican jazz musicians came in the form of Islam, bebop and intellectual/anti-establishment mindset that saw to either confront or subvert the laws and practices of a Jim Crow legacy.

In recent years there has been a tremendous amount of research conducted on Islam, including the phenomenon of Islam amongst Blackamericans. And while there has been enlightening findings that have shed more light on the nature of Africans and their decedents in antebellum American, it still stands that the chain that linked modern Blacks and those of their African ancestors that were Muslim, is a broken one. Instead, as Gillespie relates for us, the rise of Islam in the interest and imagination amongst many Blackamerican jazz musicians had primarily to do with the social/racial climate that these musicians found themselves in. As “colored” or “Negro”, such musicians were barred from playing and performing in jazz clubs, which were white-owned. Even the task of acquiring lodging for these traveling musicians was made near to impossible due to the color of their skin. But in what would be a puzzling discovery, Blackamerican musicians that changed their public identity to Muslim, would find they could pass under the radar of Jim Crow.

The turn of the 20th Century saw few improvements for Blackamericans. Indeed, one could say that things were worsening, with the state-condoned violence that was unleashed on many Blacks in America. And by the mid- and especially late-Forties, when Black service men were returning to America after having served in a war that was supposed to be about racism, they saw their social context in complete opposition to the values supposedly expressed by the dominant culture. It is here the seeds of discord would be sown and out of this collective discontent would rise a new sense of intellectual ownership over themselves, as yet unseen before in the history of the United States. For many Blackamericans who chose to adopt Islam as their faith, Islam represented something completely outside the jurisdiction of white authority. This sentiment would be proved even by the racist elements of white-American society that would permit access to services to Blackamerican Muslim converts, who were presumed to be of a non-American black origin. Gillespie relates one such occasion:

“He [Oliver Mesheux] went into this restaurant, and they said they didn’t serve colored in there. So he said, ‘I don’t blame you. But I don’t have to go under the rules of colored because my name is Mustafa Dalil.’”

This process, something as simple as changing one’s name to something that sounded Middle-Eastern, offered some Blackamerican musicians a expeditious means of overcoming Jim Crow racism. Though beyond the scope of this article, it would be this sentiment that would inform many other Blackamericans and their choice to embrace Islam.

To gain a more encompassing perspective of this phenomenon, we must also analyze the broader social context into which it came into, namely the liberalization of the American society. One must remember that though Blackamericans were indeed suffering at the hands of their white counterparts, they still saw themselves as American in one sense or another. And along with that traditional sense of American was a strong attachment of Blackamericans to Christianity. As we will see in the Civil Rights Movement, Black Christianity would play a key role in organizing and shaming the dominant culture in American into submission. To be certain, there were some amongst the black intelligentsia that were aware of the legacy of non-Christian religious traditions in their heritage, but by and large, Christianity remained the predominant if not exclusive religion of Blackamericans pre-1900’s. This would all change with the coming of alternative black intellectual endeavors (such figures as Garvey and DuBois were sympathetic to Islam, though certainly not practitioners of it) that saw to root themselves outside of the white-dominated constituency of American society.

With the relaxing of society’s grip on religious intolerance, an increasing (though still a minority to be sure) number of Blackamericans sought solace in the haven that Islam promised. Less rooted in religious or philosophical reasons than purely existential ones, Islam opened up to Blackamericans, of which the ripples of this are still seen to this very day. In short, a black man, for example, in the 1940’s could convert to Islam in what would amount a sort of racial swapping, if not apostasy. And like modern times, this did not escape the attention of the dominant culture, who were curious or even concerned that Islam amongst Blackamericans might be some sort of “anti-Christianity” movement. Gillespie himself, though not a Muslim, was at one point put to the question if he “planned to quit and forsake Christianity”. In a sense, what is being articulated here, is an invisible link that binds “blackness” and “Christianity”. Islam was a foreign enterprise and for many, represented a hostile (though not in the same meaning as hostile would mean today) threat, for this conversion was seen as linked to movements and ideologies that sought to circumvent the status quo of Jim Crow law and sentiment.

I believe that the movement and attraction of Islam within this minority of Blackamerican musicians is both intriguing and erudite to some of the similar issues we’re looking at today. It also sheds light on why Islam would be appealing to a minority group that simply looking for a method of living out a dignified existence in a social landscape that offered few choices and little room for improvement. Throughout its history and even up until today, Islam amongst Blackamericans cannot be separated from its history as a social commentary and vehicle of upliftment and expiation for Blackamericans. Indeed, as we would soon see from the likes of Malcolm X, Islam was a vehicle to combat the hostilities from their environment in a manner and method that differed quite distinctly from black Christians. It also allowed Blackamericans to re-created themselves with a new sense of autonomy not formerly allowed to them in the stifling social climate that they lived in. And yet, unlike Malcolm X, the black bebop jazz musicians that would embrace Islam sought to do so in a non-violent fashion. Contented to be social commentators and critics through their music, most simply just wanted to be able to play their music to a broader audience without discrimination. I find this again, strikingly similar to the times we live in today, where there is a very small number of Muslims who advocate violent resistance to perceived oppressions (valid or otherwise is besides the point here), and yet the vast majority of Muslims simply wish for the right to live with dignity and practice their religion with their humanity intact, and not called into question, as was the case for black folks living at the beginning of the 20th Century America. Perhaps here in history there’s a lesson for us all to learn (again).

Why Polemics Are A Waste Of Time

A Muslim recently brought to my attention a disturbing video (the link has since disappeared off of the person’s web site) of a Muslim openly bashing and berating a group of Nation of Islam men standing on a street corner in the UK. I watched the video with a sense of shock and disgust. The antagonist obviously had only one thing in mind – to act or perform for his audience and to denounce the “kafirs“, as he termed them, for all to see. Chalk up another victory for Islam.

My frustration and anger do not stop at the video. On the site that’s posting the video, the brother describes the NOI brothers as, “nuts”. I am curious to examine the potential reasons behind this NOI bashing in an attempt to find some validation for it.

Let me start my vent with a short statement: polemics is a waste of time. I have yet to ever see any good come of it. Nor should healthy dialog and debate be mistaken for polemics and especially visa versa. Is is because they claim Islam that they deserve such a scathing public display? For me, it is a real shame that Muslims today [with special emphasis placed on Blackamerican Muslims] cannot find the room to find a dialog with the Nation. They are simply stripped of any value and tossed aside. How utterly ignorant and shortsighted this is [not to mention thankless – we would not have had a Malcolm X without the Nation!].

While other Muslims seem to enjoy the ability to foster care, concern and dialog about their own people, regardless of religious affiliation [the Palestinians come to mind], the same room is not afforded to Blackamerican Muslims who wish to address the Nation. In fact, Blackamerican orthodox/Sunni Muslims in my opinion, tend to be the biggest offenders. Why? Have we forgotten the contribution that the Nation of Islam has made to Islam being a viable and tangible mode of Americana for blacks in this country? I would hope no one out there would be absurd enough to forget that blacks in America [for the time being] have the capacity to move from Christianity to Islam without sacrificing neither their Americanness nor their blackness. This shift has been greatly made by the efforts of the Nation. This simply cannot be emphasized enough. The sooner we all come to openly recognize this and appreciate the reality of this, the sooner I believe we can repair a rift between the Nation and other orthodox/Sunni Blackamerican Muslims.

The gentleman in the video seemed to frame his arguments against the Nation around three central points: that they’re kafirs. That they murdered Malcolm X. And that their theology isn’t “true” Islam. I shall attempt to look at each of these critical points.

Before analyzing the brother’s takfir [calling them kafirs], we must examine this word kafir and see what type of value is placed on this word now and if so, how does that value compare to previous historical values that have been used by Muslims in the past.

Undoubtedly, in the Modern context, kafir is a dirty word, akin to calling somebody a son-of-a-bitch [or in reality, much worse – so use your imagination]. But beyond ethical values, the word is also used to strip someone or a whole group of people, of their humanity. If one is a kafir, in this sense, then one isn’t even fully human. And historically, we have seen the darker side of humanity when one group of people imagines the other without human value. But in pre-Modern times, kafir was used to simply denote a person who fell outside the religious fold of Islam. Not whether or not they had value as a person or a human being. And while it’s not within the scope of this post to do so, there are numerous sources that will support my opinion here including Prophetic ones. For further reading, research some of Dr. Sherman Jackson’s work on this term, kafir.

As for the murder of Malcolm X, this is not in repute nor dispute. Rather, what is important, in the immediate case, is that were any of the brother’s in the park personally responsible for brother Malcolm’s murder. Communal guilt is not a practice that can be legitimized in the religion of Muhammad of Arabia and I find no reason to instigate that bid’ah. Conversely, Usama bin Laden and his cohorts were responsible for the mass murder of some 2, 998 people. And yet we as Muslims, worldwide, have been clamoring against precisely the same thing – communal guilt. That we are guilty by religious association, for the deaths of those 2, 998 people [God rest their souls]. I have no doubt, that if put to the question, Mr. Abdur-Raheem Green, would agree that he in no was is responsible for the actions of the nineteen hijackers despite his religious affiliation with them. So why then are the NOI brothers held in duplicitous guilt? I can find no facts that support this presupposition and move to have the case dismissed.

Mr. Green’s final point, that their Islam isn’t “real” Islam, again, is a dog barking up a wrong tree. I don’t think any moderately educated orthodox/Sunni Muslim [in his/her religious tradition] could condone the Nation of Islam’s theology as valid according the strictures of the religion that Muhammad of Arabia brought. The fact is besides the point and ties back to the misplaced value and making takfir on them. Nation of Islam or not, kafir or not, does not give one the reason to chide these people. But let me further my case with some Sunnah.

Any orthodox/Sunni Muslim worth his or her salt knows that the Prophet loved his people. Religious affiliations aside, he loved his people. It is apparent in his actions and most evident in the love of his uncle, who is recorded in more than one authentic narration, died in a state of kufr [disbelieve]. If one were to give the life of the Prophet a thorough, detailed study, you will find a man who was deeply troubled about and for his people. That throughout his Prophethood, he dearly wanted to make concessions to make Islam more attractive for Makkans/Arabians. Which is why Allah shows to us in the Qur’an that He had to strengthen the Prophet’s resolve or he was have conceded more to them than was proper. That is the real Muhammad, Mr. Green. That is your real Prophet, of which your actions show you are woefully ignorant of. And to toss gasoline on a fire, Mr. Green actually proceed to yell out verses of the Qur’an, in Arabic, of which his target audience was most likely ignorant of. In my opinion, this is akin to shouting fire in a burning house full of deaf people. It does no one any good and saves no lives. What would you do, Mr. Green? Keep shouting at those poor, miserable deaf bastards until the house falls down on them or learn to communicate with them and try to save some lives?

Nuts? Only nuts I’ve seen lately were in the snack isle. But I have seen some crazy stuff on the Internet lately.

And God knows best.

A Religious World Divided?

That is the title of the town hall meeting I attended last night, hosted by WHYY, here in Philadelphia. The discussion consisted of a rabbi, an academic/columnist, and an imam. Ray Suarez, the resident journalist, fielded the questions and set the pace.

Almost immediately from the get go, it ceased to be a discussion about divisions (plural) in the world between religious traditions but the good old, time-honored tradition of the rift between the “Muslim World” and “The West”. Suarez dove right in, making it clear that he was not interested in divisions between Christians, Jews, and Muslims, but rather the perceived clash of monospaces, i.e., The West and Islam.

Amongst Suarez’s early questions was one directed towards the imam, who is a Blackamerican Muslim, on how is he able to reconcile his Americaness and his Islam. In other words, his “Easterness” and his “Westerness”. Suarez in a sense alluded to the notion that any and all Muslims, by simply being Muslim, must have some sort of connection to “The East”.

For the sake of this post, I am not going to delve into the responses of the panelists but rather examine the nature of the questions and how large aspects of the American media simply follow suit in sound bite, sloganized journalism, neither introducing nor encouraging new thought or dialog on a topic that goes far beyond “Islam and The West” – which is synonymous language for “us and them”, often conflated to “good and evil”.

Another oft-repeated motif during the talk was, “Americans’ need to understand Islam and Muslims”. During the Q&A session I asked Mr. Suarez and the panelists how they could justify such a question given that the majority of Blackamerican families have at least one member who is a Muslim. A son, a daughter, an uncle and so on (incidentally, this goes beyond the “prison convert” – my brother is dating Bernard Shaw’s daughter (Shaw, if you’re unfamiliar is a prominent Black journalist who worked for CNN, famous for his reportage during Gulf War I), whose brother is a Muslim, obviously coming from an affluent background). So in this instance, Islam is known to Blackamericans (Malcolm X being the most famous Black Muslim). So the question needs to be altered to, “which portions of Americans need to understand Islam and Muslims better?” – a.k.a., White Americans.

There is an additional caveat that goes along with this alteration and that is, “how much familiarity will it take on the part of White Americans before Muslims can or will be accepted by the white-majority American population?” Case in point, Jews, who when they first arrived in America, were not accepted as white and hence we have plenty of historical documentation of anti-Jewish sentiment in this country. But over time, Jews were able to ascend, or more specifically, were racialized by whites, to whiteness, and in doing so, became accepted (or in some circles, tolerated) in the psyche of majority-white America. This path to acceptance in no way led to a greater understanding of Jewish theological thought or ritualistic practices. I would gladly bet dimes to dollars that most Americans are woefully ignorant of both of the above. Never the less, being Jewish is an acceptable form of “whiteness” just as being Muslim is an acceptable form of “blackness” (it should be noted though that Jews ascension to “whiteness” in no way has completely discouraged anti-Jewish sentiment, a la Mel Gibson and his outlandish comments – but it did brand Gibson as brash, lude and has tarnished his image as it rightly should have). The problem lies in groups (and here I am talking about Arabs, Pakistanis, ect.) whose path to whiteness has been roadblocked by the phenomenon of 9/11. And being that America has mainly two acceptable modalities, i.e., black and white, these groups are left in the lurch (personally, this is the same conundrum that Mexican and Hispanic immigrants face but that is the subject of another post).

The aforementioned phenomenon of September 11th has left Muslims in this part of the world or Muslims who come in contact with “The West”, in a predicament. On one hand, in what I will call Example A, due to the combined nature of post-Colonialism and the aforementioned lack of opportunity to be accommodated into this version of Modernity, some Muslims outside “The West” (physically or mentally) feel that they can only achieve a real sense of Islam by thrusting themselves against The West in an all-or-nothing-at-all scenario. The other side, Example B, is that Muslims residing in The West are forced or compelled into authoring an expression of Islam, whose sole purpose is to appease the dominant authority (a.k.a., white/Euro/Anglo-Saxon values). It is from this train of thought that we get Muslim apologists, “Progressive Islam”, or “Secular Islam”. In my opinion, none of the above is conducive to a shared existence and all seek a form of hegemony over one another.

The fallout from Example A is obvious. It is often violent, self-destructive, let alone not condonable by any authentic narrative of the Prophet Muhammad’s “Sunnah”. Like any revolution, its longevity rests in its ability to struggle against “the other”. When “the other” is eliminated, physically or mentally, so dies the movement and its adherents (just look at Civil Rights in America).

Example B is a bit trickier to analyze but no less malicious and perhaps even more denigrating. All peoples have a primordial desire to live out free, dignified existences. Muslims are no different in this regard. But an existence where one is defined, not by what one is but by what one isn’t, is both a sham and a disgrace. Example B is what most immigrant Muslims here in America are currently struggling with. With the door to Whiteness an ever narrowing gap, they are left in a similar situation as Blackamericans during the time of slavery. For those who reject the apologist rhetoric they will be banished to toil in “the fields” or rather the periphery of society and condemned as barbaric, extremist, fundamentalist, and morally deprived. But for those who are willing to trade their freedom for a seat at “Massah’s table”, which means to serve their master to the extent of his or her liking, these Muslims become the equivalent of, pardon the expression, house niggers. Like Example A, this too would have a difficult time gaining authenticity from the the Prophet’s “Sunnah”, which would certainly never settle for a loss of a dignified existence (which, when you examine much of the Sunnah, that’s what it is about).

Not once during the talk did I hear any discussion of how Western (a.k.a., “white”) actors and values play A and B against one another. Again, referring to antebellum America, these Muslims will battle each other over the “True Expression” of Islam in the way that White America fostered an environment where Blackamericans fought and argued (and still do!) over “True Blackness”. If America, and yes, I mean white America (both the people and the value system), are going to be true to their words then they will have to learn to accommodate Islam as it sees itself – not in how it lacks being “Western”. To borrow from a great early American, they will have to, as John Locke wrote, set aside their particulars and differences for the sake of civil society. This goes for both sides.

And God knows best.

P.S. – if you are interested in listening to the show, it is set to air May 18th, at 8pm. For more information, visit WHYY’s Web site.