by Ryan Hilliard
Like many of us on June 10, 2016, I watched the livestream of the memorial service for our late hero Muhammad Ali [may God ﷻ have mercy on him] with bittersweetness. I knew that many celebrities and well-known personalities would attend to tearfully celebrate his life while mourning his departure. His legacy was clearly reflected in every facet of the event, but what struck me the most was the introductory Qur’ān recitation. Imām Zaid Shakir, who presided over the memorial service, introduced Imām Hamzah Abdul-Malik, a Black man dressed resplendently in a brilliant white, scholarly robe (jubba) and Azhari-style red cap, who then beautifully recited the perfect words of God ﷻ according to the method taught by Imām Warsh1. My heart melted at the sight of the overwhelming and multi-layered message that I was witnessing in this man’s presence and his role on the stage. Often, celebrity events, especially when televised, are white-washed. But Muhammad Ali’s memorial service was so Black, so Muslim, and so real all at once. At that moment, I knew I had to learn more about Imām Hamzah, who honored me with a sleepy yet warmly-received interview via phone on January 10, 2017.
Imām Hamzah Abdul-Malik was born and raised in a Muslim household in New Haven, Connecticut, and grew up in the Masjid al-Islām community, which also has links to Imām Zaid, Imām Dawood Yasin, and other prominent American Muslims. Even at a young age, he recalled that his parents installed a mobile of Arabic letters above his crib. It was there where he began initial Qur’ān studies at age seven. About four years later, Imām Hamzah’s parents arranged for him to live and study in Tangiers, Morocco, where he completed his memorization of Qur’ān (ḥifẓ). “When I got to Tangiers, it was a different and more intimate experience than what I was used to [in the States],” he remarked. “The combined emphasis on listening, dictation and writing was a challenge. I had to make my own bamboo pen and my own ink, and the wooden board (lawḥ) I wrote on became my light-saber of sorts. It was redundant to have a book Qur’ān (muṣḥaf) because the majority of the students at the school I attended memorized the Qur’an and could write if from memory. I didn’t have the Arabic knowledge to write yet, so I traced out the letters until I got it down.”
From there, Imām Hamzah moved to Damascus, Syria, and attended the Abu Noor Institute for Arabic and Islamic Studies for five years to focus on mastering classical Arabic (fuṣḥa), Islamic law (sharī’a) and theology (‘aqīda), and honing his Quranic phonetics (tajwīd). Later, he undertook private studies in jurisprudence (fiqh) and spirituality (taṣawwuf) at Dar al-Mustafa Institute in Tarim, Yemen, and then spent four years at the renowned al-Azhar University in Cairo, Egypt, where he completed a Bachelor’s degree in Sharī’a, alongside classmates Ubaydullah Evans, Jamaal Diwan, Muslema Purmul, Arsalan Haque and Yasir Fahmy. After a tenure of 15 years studying Islamic sciences abroad, and recently married and with children, Imām Hamzah returned to the U.S. and served in various communities across the country, including Toledo, Ohio, and Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Currently, he resides in Memphis,Tennessee, and serves as imām of the Midtown Mosque.
After living overseas for more than a decade, I asked him how he was able to acclimate to life in America again; and how did the general American Muslim community, and especially Black American Muslims, react to his scholarship.
“I would say that it’s highly valued,” says Imām Hamzah. “The immigrant community’s issues with inherent racism is a by-product of colonialism. But when it comes to Qur’ān… if you know your stuff, then they’ll respect it. If you recite with correct pronunciation, your memorization is solid, know the rules of leading prayers, et cetera, then it becomes one of those things that can’t be argued with.
“If they hear you, and can tell that you are classically trained, respect is automatic. One only notices a stark difference in acceptability when those listening/gauging your qualification are not qualified themselves.”
Many Black Muslims in America are perplexed by the lack of Black scholastic leadership of mosques and Islamic centers, particularly those serving large Arab or South Asian constituents. Equally frustrating is the scarcity of such opportunities to produce and train future leaders. Imām Hamzah says that applied Islamic knowledge should be its own qualifier, despite the attempts to undervalue it on the basis of skin color or “the idea” of a ḥāfiẓ.
Other communities may prefer to see someone that looks like them lead or who knows the ins and outs of their cultural nuance. But from my experience, leading daily prayers, tarāwīḥ during Ramaḍān, and teaching Qur’ān are merit-based.
In our own community, the older generation in particular definitely values a Black [Muslim] scholar. They tend to look at this more deeply because they are converts and strived to have this access to Qur’ān for themselves and their children. It’s lifeblood for them.
But the challenge is how much we invest communally into reproducing such scholarship and mastery. Many people in general hold a misconception that knowing the Qur’ān is a simple matter of having a nice voice and knowing Arabic phonetics, and those being the prerequisites to being able to “finish the Qur’ān” in a year. But ḥifẓ is a lifelong commitment, and thus is at risk of being undervalued and insufficiently invested in because people don’t want to invest the time into it nowadays. More often than not it’s seen as an ornament to the community than as the heartbeat.
Access to the Qur’ān and encouragement toward developing a personal, spiritual relationship with it seems, in Imām Hamzah’s eyes, to have become a luxury and no longer a right.
“There are also many families, both Black American and immigrant background, who do not want their children to put so much time and energy into Qur’ān because it takes away from potential material gains in the long run. They may only let their kids do part-time ḥifẓ and treat it as though it were an extracurricular [activity] like after-school soccer. This goes back to perception that ‘it doesn’t take a lot’ to know Qur’ān, and this cannot be farther from the truth.”
This further complicates the access to Quranic education among Black American Muslims. The difficulties of living in America for Black Muslim families aside, the valuation of what it means to have a ḥāfiẓ in one’s household seems to be decreasing across the board because of shifts in family priorities. Furthermore, due to symptoms of the post-colonial mindset, that same inherent racial discrimination and fear caused many invitations for Arab and South Asian Qur’ān teachers to come to mosques and community centers in Black neighborhoods to go unanswered, with far too little exceptions.
Imām Hamzah’s opportunity to spend 15 years overseas may seem like the obvious next step to many, but is it the only option? Must we to send our youth who seek Islamic knowledge abroad when many trained scholars and teachers live and work a few suburbs away? And if a family cannot afford to support their child or themselves to study in another country, where should they go to reclaim their right to the Good Book?
For Imām Hamzah, even the trajectory of studying Dīn in other countries is fraught with issues.
“[When you study overseas] you pick up the cultural sensibilities of the people you are around in that country, which seems natural, but puts the student at risk of losing touch with the nuance of the American Muslim experience. Knowledge comes with culture, and [the two] are hardly separable. Cultural pedagogy doesn’t always transfer back to our experience in the U.S. So what you’ll find is that people will come back home and try to teach, still holding on to the enthralling allure of the cultural experience, and find that they are not connecting with their brothers and sisters here due to loss of relevance.”
Or as Dr. Sherman Jackson put it succinctly, “The greatest threat to religion in any society is not persecution, but rather apathy born of irrelevance.”2
“We like to talk about sending our people overseas, but hardly anyone mentions the low retention and failure rates,” Imām Hamzah continued. “Most people I’ve come across did not fulfill the expectations of their intentions, and obtained a little bit of useful knowledge, but came back and have little to no impact on their home communities, with few exceptions. In the last 20 years, we have likely sent hundreds of our young men and women to study Dīn abroad. Collectively, what do we have to show for it? Very little.”
According to Imām Hamzah, the main causes for this trend include racism in the lands we study in (even in places like Sudan, Senegal, Mauritania), hardships of student life (e.g., illnesses, financial strains and natural environment) and American exceptionalism.
“American exceptionalism isn’t lost on us just because we’re Black; we enjoy some of that privilege for being American in other countries and sometimes abuse it by partaking in the societal discrimination of others; to an extent, we start playing the game and accept the societal ills we see around us in these learning environments as ‘part of the course’; some people get into fights with locals because they aren’t prepared for what they see and [the] experience of racism and other socially nuanced issues.”
Of course, there are some who make it, but do not come back. Imām Hamzah pointed out:
“I know plenty of folks, and some were my classmates, who simply didn’t come back [to the U.S.]. It’s similar to how Black World War II soldiers used to justify living in Europe and elsewhere. They feel that they aren’t treated like second-class citizens can be and the ‘grass is greener’ in that country. They stay and get married, find a source of livelihood teaching English or in some other profession they have, and don’t return to share the fruits of their [academic] labor.”
For him and many others, the only viable solution that addresses the problems of accessibility to sound Islamic scholarship, the production and sustenance of Black Muslim scholars and relevant engagement with the American Muslim experience is homegrown institution-building within the Black American Muslim community.
We need to have a serious conversation about what Islamic education in the U.S., specifically for Black Americans, should look like. It’s hard work to invest in ourselves. That’s the one problem that we face is that we simply don’t use our money to cultivate our own scholarship. It needs be something sustainable and not haphazard.
Is it going to continue to be an extracurricular, limited to after-school programs, or are we willing to set up a core group of our youth to inherit all that we have worked for in the past 50-60 years [to access Islamic knowledge] so that they can teach the next generation?
When you study overseas, they don’t train you to build institutions for Islamic learning locally [or] to shape a pedagogy to the needs of your local community so that you can teach with relevance. Our communities are underserved and underdeveloped in terms of Islamic learning institutions, and these are the skills that are needed.
Imām Hamzah advocates homegrown scholarship not just to build that cadre for the next generation, but also to fully obtain the Black Muslim community’s return on the years of expended investments.
We have enough people who are here that did the study abroad thing, set up shop here to teach, and not enough people are walking through their open doors. Why spend thousands of dollars to send our kids to learn Qur’ān [overseas] when we can just send them down the street from people who look like them and know them? I’m not saying that overseas studies are moot, but first exhaust the local resources as a means of fulfilling the requisites for advanced studies, establish a work ethic and a strong value proposition of the individual student, then send them overseas for a couple of years to hone what they obtained here.
When I was at al-Azhar, students from Indonesia, Kenya, [and] Nigeria graduated from local institutions and then came to al-Azhar for advanced studies and perfecting what they already have. We need to work towards doing the same and investing in the folks who we sent out for us and came back [to] us.
I’m not pointing fingers at anyone. Everyone is responsible for their own souls and the decisions they make. But regarding the sustainability of Islamic knowledge in our own communities, this is the reality of what we’re dealing with as a collective community.
For Imām Hamzah and many others like him, in generations before and after, they made the intentions and requisite sacrifices to fulfill the needs of the Black American Muslim community. The examples that are out there of our potential to build institutions, such as the Muhammad University of Islam in Chicago and the Mohammed Schools of Atlanta, are few and far in between. We have the same needs and desires for Islām to be inherent and inherited as others do. Essentially, we share that moral and religious value for knowledge and education as a means of drawing closer to God ﷻ and increasing our communal worth as indigenous Muslims, but there is a crescendoing cry to put money, time, and energy into that moral ideal, and to turn the ideal into a workable reality for which we are long overdue.
Reflecting back on seeing Imām Zaid introduce Imām Hamzah, I remember feeling triumphant. Here was a Black Muslim man, whom Imām Zaid watched grow up and taught knee-to-knee in New Haven, reciting the perfect words of God ﷻ at the homegoing service of the most unapologetically Black American Muslim man of this century. I screamed at my computer screen, “ALLAHU AKBAR! WE MADE IT!”
Now, we need to make more.
1 Imām ‘Uthmān b. Sa’īd al-Quṭbī (d. 197 AH) was an Egyptian scholar who transmitted Quranic recitation from Imām Nāfi’ al-Madanī. He was nicknamed “Warsh”, a substance of milk, by his teacher Nāfi’ on account of his light complexion. Imām Warsh’s recitation mode one of the ten accepted modes of Quranic recitation, and is popular throughout North and West Africa.
2 “Christian-Muslim Perspectives on The Problem of Black Suffering: Conversation with Dr. Cornel West and Dr. Sherman Jackson”; Princeton University; 29 March 2010.
Ryan B. Hilliard is the Religion Editor for Sapelo Square, and serves as Assistant Program Coordinator for Ta’leef Collective. He is the former Youth Director for the Islamic Association of Collin County in Plano, Texas, as well as US Liaison for SeekersHub Español. He currently lives in Edmonton, Alberta with his wife and daughter.