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.”

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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.)

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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.)

Town Square Meeting – GreenFaith

I was honored last night to be asked to attend the Town Square Meeting at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Center City Philadelphia. The meeting was presented by Philadelphia Green and was about the merging of faith-based organizations and the stewardship of those religious groups and how they are or can be engaged in environmental activities. It quickly came to my attention that Muslims at least in this area have been woefully absent. Absent either due to ignorance of such activities or because it’s simply not on the radar. For the concerns of this post, I will address the latter.

Like so many topics and events today, Muslims seem to either be swept along by the zeitgeist of the day or bypassed all together. This is an issue that we as a Muslim community need to address more seriously if we wish to have our voice taken seriously – otherwise, it will be taken away. By zeitgeist I am referring to the trend that many Muslims allow popular consensus or dominant voices dictate to us what is or is not important. One example that comes to mind is a conversation I had with a Muslim brother who said we needed to take a tougher stance towards homosexuality. When I inquired as to what he meant, he was referring to the unions of gay couples and homosexual marriages. He was quite passionate about the topic and felt that Islam was somehow being eroded by this lapse in what he saw as social immorality. I calmly reminded the brother to consider the following: homosexuality is not permissible in Islam. God has made this readily apparent and therefore he should take comfort in this incontrovertible truth. In other words, the question has been answered by the Highest Authority, therefore why approach the topic as if it could be reopened for discussion [and ultimately, permissibility].

Secondly, I asked him to consider why it was so important to him? What was informing his concern? Were there members of his congregation that were openly calling for the permissibility of homosexuality in Islam? He replied in the negative. Upon examining his sources it became apparent to both of us that he was coerced, in a sense, by the dominant hype in the media. That most of the conversation was being driven my Christian groups who were dealing with an internal struggle within Christianity as to the permissibility or lack thereof concerning homosexuality. And ultimately it was the government that was being lobbied on the part of these Christian groups to enact this ban. He conceded that he had not truly formulated his opinion on his own but was rather influenced from the outset. Mind you, none of this compromised his or Islam’s position on the impermissibility of homosexuality. But as a caveat I asked him what he thought of the governments ban on polygamous marriages. The government also placed a ban on that as well, which, according to Muslim tradition, is permissible.

Our conversation led to a common ground of analyzing that in the end, perhaps it was the government that he ought to take to task on intervening in marriages and unions – something that I believe they ought not to be in the business of administrating. The right to union is a right from God and therefore the state should not seek to overturn the rights granted by God. And as for homosexual unions or marriages, if they’re coming to the mosque to do so then Muslims would have every right to nullify or abstain from consecrating any such unions but there would be nothing to stop them from doing them under their own authority [which is to a great extent, what the whole gay marriage issue boils down to]. Ironically, Muslims and homosexuals [as well as other groups] may have common ground on petitioning the state/government to get out of the business of administering marriage. Their sole role should be to recognize the said parties once the union is formed, leaving the respective parties to administer their own unions.

My point in all of this is that Muslims should discipline themselves to ensure that when they are critiquing, that they are doing so on their own terms and are not simply being led around by the nose. Are there social ills that should concern us as Muslims? Absolutely. But we must construct those concerns and critiques in our own language to guarantee that when we are speaking out that we’re doing so with the proper conviction and not serving someone else’s agenda.

To return to my point of Zeitgeist and being passed by, Muslims should develop their own definitive voice on approaching the environment and other “green” causes. As I pointed out during the talk, much of the greening has taken on the form of an elitist rhetoric, whether intentional or not. In discussions with other environmentalists, they often fail to realize that aside from access to the materials and information, economics is often a turn off to small economically challenged groups who may not have the start-up costs to implement these greening methods, especially on the time table and scale of the environmentalists. This has in turn caused a shunning of many low income groups who may see environmental causes as another feel good social stunt for the entitled. Nonetheless, given the overwhelming evidence of the various planet-wide disasters we are facing, Muslims should indeed be lending their voices, their human capital and their expertise based on our scriptural imperatives.

As for the actual presentation, it was invigorating to hear the works that other religious groups were doing. Many spoke of the unexpected gains that they had in lobbying governmental agencies on environmental issues. Rabbi Lawrence Troster from GreenFaith, located in New Brunswich, New Jersey, said that in fact many state legislators were “blind-sided by religious groups advocating for environmental reforms”?. To paraphrase the rabbi, these law makers simply didn’t see this as an expected act from religious groups, who are more typically associated with social justice issues and not environmental ones. And given the great potential for networking and communicating between religious groups and interfaith organizations, they were seeing substantive results. Up until tonight, there had not been a significant Muslim presence in these meetings [many pointed to myself being the one and only thus far] and were eager to welcome the participation of Muslims in these efforts.

Given the many challenges that Muslims are now facing in the public square, opportunities such as these should not be allowed to pass us by. And indeed, if we are to seek a way to articulate an Islam that is not solely reactionary nor appeasing to the dominant culture then we must seize any and all such opportunities and define them with our own voice. We are already seeing the consequences when we let the “experts”? speak for us. And for a city that has so many Muslims – Philadelphia’s Muslim population is enormous [you can see Muslims here in all parts of the city no matter where you go], why do we not have a more active, engaged voice in the affairs that affect us all? I for one am optimistic that we can actively participate in such environmental ventures starting with looking at how green our mosques are. And I’m sure that there are already masajid participating in such activities. I only hope we can do a bit more outreach.

And God knows best.