By Narjis Nichole Abdul-Majid
Last year April 26th marked the 25th anniversary of the Watts Peace Treaty between the Bloods and Crips. Many know of this significant event or have a general idea of the bloodshed and conflict that filled the streets of California that led up to this event. What may not be so well known is the history of this peace treaty. First, is the fact that such a historical event was facilitated by a Sheikh is significant. Even more significant is the fact that this Sheikh is an African American (Sheikh Mujahid Abdul-Karim) and Shiite and this “ceasefire” treaty was negotiated and signed in a Shiite mosque; Masjid Al-Rasul [Watts, Los Angeles, California]. Sheikh Abdul-Karim helped bring together Bloods and Crips from the Imperial Courts, Nickerson Gardens and Jordan Downs housing projects to discuss a truce that they verbally agreed to on April 26, three days before the not-guilty verdicts in the Rodney G. King beating and the riots that followed.
Sheikh Abdul-Karim (formerly Benjamin Farmer) is a convert to Islam and religious leader of Masjid Al-Rasul. He has preached Islam’s teaching of “respect for the self and others” among South Los Angeles youths for more than three decades. His foundation, Masjid Al-Rasul Foundation reports that the masjid was founded in 1980 and “is currently the only Shia Masjid in the United States that is strategically located in a historical indigenous community”. The mosque is also purportedly the first United States masjid based on the Jafari school of thought to be exclusively owned and operated by indigenous American Shias. It is through Sheikh Abdul-Karim’s teachings about the message of Islam, the Holy Prophet (s.a.w.) and the family of the Prophet (a.s.) that he seeks to help heal oppressed communities like the one where Masjid Al-Rasul is situated and the greater LA community. One book that Sheikh Abdul-Karim says has impacted his understanding of oppression is Hussain, Savior of Islam, a text that he read as a new convert to Islam many years ago. Sheikh Abdul-Karim likens the oppression of African Americans in America and their legacy of slavery to the historical oppression that faced the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson, Hussain at the Battle of Karbala.
Sheikh Abdul-Karim refers to the hostile environment that led up to the treaty in 1992 as similar to the truce between the two major warring tribes, ‘Aws’ and ‘Khazraj’ during the time of Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.). This treaty would serve as model for other gang treaties all over America. Under Sheikh Abdul-Karim’s leadership Masjid Al-Rasul was pivotal in helping to reduce violence in the surrounding community. His efforts have led many youth away from gangs and towards Islam.
Sheikh Abdul-Karim has always been politically active and community focused, running for LA City Council in 1997, and engaging in community-wide protests against the oppression of the Muslims in Bahrain in 2011, the bombing of Muslims in Quetta, Pakistan in 2013, as well as participating in community interfaith and peace-building efforts such as the Peace Coalition of LA Imams. In December of 2015, he was a featured speaker at the Muslim Student Association PSG of North America’s annual conference.
Sheikh Abdul-Karim and the Masjid Al-Rasul share the same vision to build Masjids and Islamic Communities in the poorest neighborhoods in the U.S., in order to help improve the lives of people that are the most impoverished, oppressed and forgotten people of America. Construction is nearing completion on Masjid Rasul, Fifth Ward Houston, located in an impoverished Houston neighborhood. Sheikh Abdul-Karim seeks to inspire other African American Muslims to bring the message of Islam to those who have been neglected and most in need of healing and guidance. Although he advocates for a united ummah he thinks that his efforts should not reflect an anomaly, but should serve as a model for other African American Shia specifically to facilitate dialogues that address the conflicts that exist in American society, to address the oppressed American brothers and sisters of color, and to share the true message of Islam.
The message and efforts of Sheikh Abdul-Karim echo that of Imam Ali (a.s.)’s last will and testament to his sons in which he states, I advise you, and all my children, my relatives, and whosoever receives this message, to be conscious of Allah, to remove your differences, and to strengthen your ties. I heard your grandfather, peace be upon him, say: “Reconciliation of your differences is more worthy than all prayers and all fasting.”
A photograph of the room in which the 1992 ceasefire treaty transpired taken by American artist Joel Sternfield can be viewed on the website of the Art Institute Chicago.
In an interview with Ali Taj, Sheikh Mujahid Abdul-Karim briefly discusses the purpose of Masjid Al-Rasul and the gang-related issues in which he was able to intercede.
Narjis Nichole Abdul-Majid is a part-time lecturer in the departments of Pan African Studies and Humanities at the University of Louisville. Her research interests focus on the African American and Native American Islamic experiences (Slavery-Melungeons-20th Century Islamic Movements-Present Day) with emphasis on minority voices.