By Rasul Miller
Black Muslims in the Americas have worked to acquire, preserve, and transmit knowledge of their religion throughout their sojourn in this part of the world. During the twentieth century, as Islam underwent a resurgence among Black Americans in urban centers around the country, a number of them pursued Islamic learning with religious scholars from majority-Muslim countries. While historians have begun to chronicle fragments of this history, much of it remains unwritten — preserved almost exclusively in the oral narratives of community elders in the major cities that witnessed a flourishing of Islam during the 1940s, 50s, 60s and 70s. However, there are some examples of unbroken chains that link Black Muslim religious seekers in the present to their predecessors. Sheikh Ameen Abdul Awwal Al-Akkir is one such link, having served the community as a student and teacher of Islamic sacred law according to the Maliki madhhab (school of thought) for nearly five decades. While American Muslims’ engagement with ‘traditional’ Islam is often presumed to be a rather recent phenomenon, Sheikh Ameen stands as a testament to Black American Muslims’ long standing engagement with the thousand year old tradition by which knowledge of fiqh (Islamic sacred law) has been transmitted from student to teacher, for generations.
Sheikh Ameen, as he is referred to by students and community members, was born in 1947 in Harlem, New York. He grew up in a rough neighborhood that facilitated a strong will and a life long interest martial arts. His father admired the Nation of Islam’s political economic program, though he never joined the movement. As a child, Sheikh Ameen encountered the teachings of Elijah Muhammad while reading NOI literature that his father kept in the house. During his teenage years, he became acquainted with Clarence 13X and the founders of the Five Percent Nation. By this time, Sheikh Ameen had obtained prestige throughout the city for his talents on the basketball court, making him a target for the proselytizing efforts of this nascent movement of hip, militant, Islamically influenced youth. While these experiences played a role in introducing him to Islam, Sheikh Ameen never found the theological articulations of these groups to be very compelling. At the age of 18, Sheikh Ameen began his journey as a religious seeker, investigating orthodox Islam at various New York City mosques.
Motivated by a thirst for knowledge about the Muslim faith, Sheikh Ameen visited several mosques during the mid-1960s. His quest ultimately led him to the Islamic Cultural Center of New York City at 1 Riverside Drive. There, he met a prolific, world-renowned scholar named Dr. Sulaiman Donia. After serving as the head of the Theology and Philosophy departments at the famed Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Dr. Donia traveled to the US, which he regarded as the ‘new frontier’ of Islam. For more than a decade, Dr. Donia provided Islamic education and guidance for the New York City Muslim community. Dr. Donia’s sense of history and justice inculcated in him a desire to serve Black American Muslims in particular. One of the worlds’ leading authorities on the Maliki madhhab, Dr. Donia held classes in Islamic sacred law primarily for Black American Muslim women and men. He also privately served as an advisor to some of the city’s well-known Black American Imams.
This orientation brought Dr. Donia into occasional conflict with some members of the Arab immigrant Muslim community, as well as some of its institutions. At one point, the Muslim World League — which provided financial support for the Islamic Cultural Center —withheld Dr. Donia’s stipend. When asked why, Dr. Donia intimated that his efforts to empower Black American Muslims to ultimately govern their own communities put him at odds with some of the League’s representatives. His goal, in his words, was to provide sound religious education so that Muslims from abroad “wouldn’t be able to fool (Black American Muslims) any more.” Upon hearing this, Sheikh Ameen and several other Black Americans who attended the mosque demanded Dr. Donia’s stipend be reinstated.
During their first meeting, Sheikh Ameen asked Dr. Donia a number of questions. Impressed by his answers, he returned the next day and with more questions. On the third day, Dr. Donia advised the young seeker to keep his company regularly. For the next decade, Sheikh Ameen did just that, accompanying Dr. Donia even to private meetings with Arab scholars and dignitaries who sometimes protested his presence. Dr. Donia made his aim clear: groom his closest Black American student for the task of leadership. Such training did not come without costs. Sheikh Ameen began his studies while attending Fordham University on a basketball scholarship. He also married young. Balancing his studies, a growing family and children, and daily classes with Dr. Donia proved challenging. Sheikh Ameen reflects that it would not have been possible without the massive support he received from his family, who sacrificed greatly to make this unique opportunity for Islamic education possible.
During the 1980s, Dr. Donia retired and left the US. Sheikh Ameen traveled to Cairo at Dr. Donia’s request, and received additional instruction from other notable scholars as well as an ijaza (authorization to teach) from Al-Azhar University. Sheikh Ameen is believed to be the first American to receive an authorization of this sort in the subject of Islam sacred law from the historic university. For more than 35 years, Sheikh Ameen has utilized his expertise to educate Muslim women and men in the New York City area of every ethnicity and socioeconomic background. However, true to his teacher’s vision, he has maintained a focus on the needs of the Black American Muslim community. He has had more than two thousand students and taught at several historic mosques in the area, including Masjid Dawood located at 143 State Street in Brooklyn. Along with teaching, he continues to serve the community through various social programs, including the Midnight Run — a collaborative effort between New York City community-based organizations that provides food, clothes, and other items to homeless and indigent New Yorkers. This and other initiatives are supported through the Islamic Educational Support Foundation (IESF), of which he serves as founder and president.
The last fifteen years or so have witnessed a massive surge in the popularity of ‘traditional’ Islam among Muslims in America.1 It is generally presumed that twentieth century American Muslims first started embracing this ‘traditional’ approach to Islamic sacred law and knowledge transmission during the late 1980s. Sheikh Ameen’s efforts to learn and teach religious knowledge demonstrate the falsity of such claims. He stands alongside figures like Professor Muhammad Ezaldeen and Al Hajj Wali Akram as an important example of Black American Sunni Muslim leadership. Sheikh Ameen’s example reminds us that Muslims in this part of the world have long found ways to access the same intellectual traditions that have shaped the religious life of Muslim communities around the globe. It also reminds us that, even as our community and its leaders grow in prominence and prestige, many of our most precious jewels remain somewhat hidden.
Here I use the term “traditional Islam” to refer to notions of orthodoxy that privilege the institution of the madhhab (school of thought) with regard to Islamic sacred law and the tariqa (Sufi path) with regard to the cultivation of Islamic spirituality. For more on the development of the term see Mathiesen, Kasper “Anglo-American ‘Traditional Islam’ and Its Discourse of Orthodoxy.” Journal of Arabic and Islamic Studies. 13 (2013): 191-219.
Rasul Miller is a PhD student in History and Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. His research interests include Muslim movements in 20th century America and their relationship to Black internationalist thought and West African intellectual history.