By Imam Dawud Walid
Recently, different factors in American society have reenergized or, perhaps, provided more space for Muslims who are the descendants of enslaved Africans to center our concerns as part of the public debate within the broader American Muslim community. We have been involved in celebrating our cultural expressions within Islam, lifting up our heroes both deceased and living, as well as having public discussions online and at Islamic conferences about anti-Black racism.
Regarding anti-Black racism, we often complain that Black Muslims are not properly represented on the boards and staff within the alphabet soup of national Muslim organizations. Other complaints are about how much of the history of Black people in Islam is erased or marginalized and how we are tokenized during Black History Month or when the legacies of Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali are invoked. Although these are legitimate grievances, I am more concerned about what we can do to proactively address our specific needs and build institutions to support them in disciplined and methodical ways.
The reality is that we do not have legitimate platforms that a core of us support with our time, talents and treasures; and that is a serious shortcoming. Muslim immigrants have not stopped us from doing that. We should not look for anyone’s permission or anyone’s grant money to establish, maintain and grow our own platforms. In fact, I have instituted a self-imposed moratorium on complaining about what Muslim immigrant communities are not doing for us. I invite you to do the same, or make a concerted effort to reduce defaulting to complaining, and instead look at the state of Black American Muslim organizations to see how we can move forward and improve taking care of self.
The Muslim Alliance of North America (MANA) had a series of glitches after its initial establishment in 2005 and lost buy-in from many who initially supported it. Similarly, The Mosque Cares no longer has substantial influence after the passing of Imam Warith Deen Mohammed (may Allah’s mercy be upon him) and a large amount of Sunnis simply will not rally behind the Nation of Islam because of concerns over creed. This is the bitter reality.
I strongly believe that it is time for a diverse group among us to establish a new platform that reflects some basic concerns and needs of Black Muslims through the lens of the Qur’an and the Uswah of Prophet Muhammad (prayers and peace be upon him). I am not diminishing the work of our elders; may Allah (Mighty and Sublime) reward them for their efforts. What I am saying is that when certain efforts are tried for multiple years and are not bearing sustainable fruits, it is time for a change.
First, we need to be clear that our (re)organization is based on the framework of the Qur’an and Sunnah, not on blameworthy nationalism. Prophet Muhammad (prayers and peace be upon him) taught unity without dissolving the Arabs’ tribal affiliations and chiefs. For instance, when Sa’ad bin Mu’adh (may Allah be pleased with him) was appointed to be a judge after Ghazwah Khandaq, the people who were affiliated with his tribe within his jurisdiction were commanded by the Prophet (prayers and peace be upon him) to “stand for your leader,” speaking to the deference reserved for Sa’ad (Al-Bukhari and Al-Bayhaqi). When the Prophet (prayers and peace be upon him) was asked if it was from blameworthy tribalism that a man loves his people, he replied it was not and that it was only blameworthy when, “you help your people in wrongdoing” (Abu Dawud). And, as some commentators of the Qur’an have stated regarding Surah 49, Ayah 13, that Allah (Mighty and Sublime) “made you into nations and tribes that you may know each other” carries the meaning that a nation and a tribe must know themselves and their own needs when getting to know others. Having a Black American agenda to bring to the table of the broader American Muslim community is Prophetic, not blameworthy nationalism.
Second, we need to internalize that although we have our own expertise, we also have differences of opinion based upon our areas of knowledge, knowledge of Islamic sciences being the most central, and our individual experiences. In other words, for a shared agenda that centers our concerns, we must acknowledge that we are not monolithic. As there is the need for improving respectful discourse on areas of disagreement within the broader Muslim community, we also need to improve our etiquette with each other. A disagreement on an issue or two cannot be the baseline for breaking up unity or publicly attacking each other whether overtly or implied. The days of painting one particular jama’ah as irredeemable or declaring someone as an apostate to Blackness because of a difference of opinion needs to cease.
Third, we need to better know the talent among us. Before starting a new council or resurrecting one that is operationally dormant, which I am in favor of the former not the latter, it is incumbent that we know who we have in our subsection of the community to leverage and maximize our impact. We have religious scholars including women among us who are just as qualified as other sections of our community. We have mental health professionals, attorneys, strategic planners, academics and community organizers among us too who have skill sets that many of us are unaware of just because they do not have a large social media presence or have not been tapped to speak at one of the various conferences sponsored by national Muslim organizations, the vast majority of them that have little to no leadership or input from us to begin with.
There is much more to be said about building and supporting our own institutions. As Black American Muslims, we will not have our sensitivities properly represented until we have our own venues to amplify our own voices within the Ummah. We can no longer expect others to center us more than we center ourselves and do for self. These are my suggestions for moving forward for 2017 and beyond.
Imam Dawud Walid is the Executive Director of the Michigan chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-MI), is a member of the Michigan Muslim Community Council (MMCC) Imams Committee and is the co author of the new release Centering Black Narrative: Black Muslim Nobles Among the Early Pious.