by Donna Auston
From the day of its birth, the anomaly of slavery plagued a nation which asserted the equality of all men, and sought to derive powers of government from the consent of the governed. Within sound of the voices of those who said this lived more than half a million black slaves, forming nearly one-fifth of the population of a new nation.
– W.E.B. Dubois
“And when We said to the angels, ‘Prostrate to Adam,’ and they prostrated, except Iblis. He said, ‘Should I prostrate to the one You created from clay?’” Surah al-Isra’: 61
It goes without saying that the wisdom of the Qur’an is directed toward all of humankind. And yet, one of the characteristics that contributes to the poignancy of its message lies in Allah’s ability to speak directly to each of us, or each group of us, as if we are the only human beings in the world. Repeatedly, throughout the Book, we are given guidance and instruction on how to navigate our lives in the present through examples from the past. These stories are not provided for our entertainment, rather they are tools for our edification. And though all peoples exist in the present with some link to the future and to the past, there is something distinctive about the relationship of Black American Muslims to memory and time. Our spiritual practice is both a celebration and a mourning. We rejoice in our particular expressions of connection to the Divine that have been painstakingly woven out of the shredded fabric of racial violence and cultural genocide and infused with the love of God and ourselves.
Juz’ 15 contains the whole of Surah al-Isra’ (The Night Journey) and nearly three quarters of Surah al-Kahf (The Cave). It begins with the miraculous journey of the Beloved, Allah bless him and give him peace, to the heavens — lifted in the night from his fraught life on earth, where he was leading a community under violent siege by the powerful regime that governed their homeland. On this night, Allah took His Prophet, prayers and peace be upon him, from Mecca to the sacred precinct of Masjid al-Aqsa in Jerusalem, where he led the other prophets in prayer. From there, he was raised to the heavens, where among the many wonders he was shown, he was gifted with the ultimate honor: Allah’s direct Presence. Surah al-Isra’ opens with a reference to this heavenly voyage, reminding us that it is a reflection of Allah’s Majesty, and immediately, in the very next ayat, plunges us into the instructive examples of the past. Here we are reminded of the contours of prior histories of oppression: the trials of Noah, Moses and Bani Isra’il, and the vicissitudes of victory and defeat.
Mirroring the example of our Beloved, Allah bless him and give him peace, our own journey to the heavens begins with history.
Black Islam in the U.S. has been inextricably rooted in our collective attempts to transform the racial violence of our past and present into a future of freedom. Black Islam seeks validation from the One, for its own sake, but also for its potency as the ultimate antidote to white supremacist epistemology that would rob us of our souls––even as it justified the violence that turned our flesh into a commodity. The lesson here is clear: in order for us to transcend, we must first do the painful work of reckoning with history. White America has found this out the hard way. Stubborn refusal to face the Original Sin upon which its very foundation is built — the cancer of racism currently threatens to bring the whole house down.
Throughout the remainder of the juz’, Allah reminds us of past tribulations, of civilizations brought to ruin through the relentless pursuit of iniquity, of the reliability of Divine Justice, and ultimately, of His protection of those among the righteous who strive to remain upright in an unjust world. Surah al-Kahf opens with an emphasis on Allah’s Singularity, and continues with the story of the Companions of the Cave — righteous young people fleeing the oppression of the society around them who were subsequently preserved in their cave retreat through the miracle of slumber and reawakened in a later era as a testimony to the power of the One. And so are we. Anthropologist Carolyn Rouse argued that “the history of the [Black] Muslim community in America is the history of consciousness” — a fact so basic to the way we have come to see the world that Black Muslim temporality — the way we see ourselves across time — is calculated in resurrections.
And though heaven and earth, akhirah and dunya, are pairs of conceptual opposites, they are by definition inextricable. Our road to the hereafter travels through the earthly realm. Our attempts, therefore, to understand the Almighty and to seek His pleasure are tethered to the stories of Creation. Any attempt to reach the heavens that aspires to gloss over the messy business of lived history and its consequences in the present is doomed to land wide of the mark. Black Muslims in the U.S. have long sought salvation in the fight against oppression as a spiritual practice, developing liberation theologies and paradigms of praxis that simultaneously sought to unchain bodies and souls. By taking history seriously, and using its lessons to fashion our spiritual repertoires, we gain Knowledge of Self, the will to resist injustice, and above all, intimate recognition of the Divine. Whosoever knows herself knows her Lord.
Donna Auston is a doctoral candidate in the department of anthropology at Rutgers University. Her dissertation is an ethnography of Black Muslims and spiritual protest in the Black Lives Matter era. She writes and speaks regularly on race, gender, Islam, and other topics; she has published at Anthropology News, Religion News Service, Al Jazeera.com, and the Washington Post. You can follow her on Twitter @TinyMuslimah.