By Ryan Hilliard
“Our success started with creating our own value, our own images; but even as we created and promoted our own, we have been most effective when the mission is beyond establishing ourselves in this country, and showing compassion and concern for the people who were already here.” — Dr. Jamillah Karim
Whenever I attended the graduation of a family member or friend, it was an unwritten rule that if we were one of the few Black families in the audience, we would cheer for every Black graduate that walked across the stage, even if we had no idea who they were. We felt it was our duty to combine our applause with the other Black families because their joy was a shared experience. The uproar of triumph was also an uproar of defiance, because this tended to happen when the Black students were only a handful of the graduating class.
The need to celebrate becomes more imperative when our Black Muslim siblings in faith reach milestones in their pursuit of Islamic knowledge, particularly our Black Muslimahs. Our participation in Islam’s intellectual heritage goes without saying, and seeing young Black Muslimahs acquiring knowledge within the Islamic sciences today is an encouraging sign that our continuity is not under threat. However, the hurdles of discrimination and restriction that are often imposed on Black Muslim seekers of knowledge are ever-present, and sometimes make the vision of these seekers’ future as scholars and community servants more obscure.
Sister Aisha Sajdah Ibrahim is a Chicago native who earned a Bachelor’s in Liberal Arts specializing in Islamic Law and Theology from Zaytuna College in Berkeley, Calif., in May 2017. Ustadha Fatima Lette is from Atlanta, Ga., and graduated with a license (ijaza) in general Islamic sciences from Qalam Seminary in Arlington, Texas, in June 2015, and is currently studying in Qalam’s Ālimīyah Program specializing in Qur’anic analysis (tafsir) while serving in Qalam’s faculty as a teachers’ assistant. I spoke to both of these women about their studies toward becoming Black Muslimah scholars, including what their academic experiences may contribute to their respective communities and to their identities being Black, Muslim, and women.
RH: During your studies, did your teachers and colleagues talk about your experience as a Black Muslim woman?
AI: There weren’t many Black students at Zaytuna [College] when I was there, and I was the only one in my graduating class. This topic of Blackness came up mostly in my Politics courses, which were taught by Imam Zaid [Shakir]. He said that it’s important for us to focus on the serious problems we face in our humanity as a whole, and that means [also] acknowledging the different struggles that different people face.
Our Black community in the United States has collectively experienced and still experiences a lot of trauma, and it comes from enslavement and other factors stemming from that. Zaytuna taught me to work for the betterment of humanity, but to have proper conduct (adab) with the nuanced struggles of different groups of people, and to approach them with historical knowledge and understanding, compassion and humility. We can then create a space that is structured with those qualities and build up our communities at-large, which to me is the Prophetic model of public service.
Because of my skin tone, some of my peers perceived that I could “pass” for something else and therefore [did] not identify me as a Black Muslim woman the same way I identify myself. One person said to me “Stop trying to be Blacker than you are” and another said “You’re not Black enough to talk about that.” I was able to navigate those conversations by understanding that these people either had a perception of what it means to be Black based on superficial markers, or were expressing a different definition of what Blackness means to them from their experiences. During my sophomore year, I and some other colleagues started a book club called “Third Resurrection” and started off with Dr. Sherman Jackson’s Islam and the Blackamerican. It agitated so much conversation among the handful of other students in our club, and even those who were not Black appreciated the historical [relevance] of the discussions we had and how the American Muslim community owes its grounding to the Black Muslim community. From this experience, I realized that I have to strive to be ready and open to discuss my Blackness in these spaces and not lose patience with those who don’t know.
One person said to me “Stop trying to be Blacker than you are” and another said “You’re not Black enough to talk about that.”
FL: Absolutely. One of my biggest concerns going into Islamic studies was that maybe they won’t be able to teach me in a way that addresses my experience as a Black Muslimah and how it differs from those of my colleagues, whose communities are mostly Desi (South Asian) or Arab, and male. How would my teachers be able to prepare me to deal with racism and prejudice in the Muslim community as a whole if they themselves have the privilege of being male and Desi and/or Arab? Shaykh Abdul Nasir [Jangda] has been a great mentor in that he recognized the challenges I’ll face as a Black Muslimah. For example, I was recently appointed as the sisters’ programs coordinator at a prominent Islamic center in the Dallas/Forth Worth area. I was sure I was not going to get the job, not because of lack of qualification, but because I’m African American. [Shaykh Abdul Nasir] assured me that I shouldn’t feel like this is my only opportunity, and that my worth is not measured by others’ perceptions of me. He encourages and supports my intentions and, although he can’t defend me from everyone, then goes on to speak directly to the leadership of that community to make sure that these issues are addressed proactively however he can.
RH: What advice did your teachers give you that spoke to you as a Black Muslimah scholar in the making?
AI: At an event hosted by UC Berkeley last spring, Imam Zaid talked about us, referring to the Black Muslim community, “getting back to work.” We can’t wait on other people to come and fix our condition. Our generation inherited the legacy and the means to continue building on what they built. [The Black Muslim community] should be independent and be strategic in solving our own issues rather than looking to another group to do so. What that means for me moving forward as a Black Muslim student of knowledge is that I have to work to solve problems and make my community better because it earns the pleasure of Allah and attempt to transcend the wrongs and hurt done to us in a sense. It goes back to the purity of intentionality that we have in our [Islamic] tradition. If people are not ready to join our work or are critical of us, then we go on ahead and keep going because Allah commands us to.
How would my teachers be able to prepare me to deal with racism and prejudice in the Muslim community as a whole if they themselves have the privilege of being male and Desi and/or Arab?
RH: What are some challenges that you will face moving forward in your pursuit of Islamic knowledge? Will these challenges be blatant or subtle?
FL: It’ll be a mixture of both. It goes back to the adage that Black people have to work twice as hard just to be half as good. I’ll admit that this was my expectation going into Qalam; most of my peers would be fluent in Arabic or Urdu and are expected to excel because their respective cultures assume they should. Alhamdulillah, my teachers have shown me that this is not the case and that everyone’s prestige is to be earned and not assumed. There will be times that people don’t take me seriously as a knowledgeable person due to my color or gender. And I see this happening in other institutions of Islamic learning that I witnessed myself or my friends attend. Knowing this gives me tougher skin and makes me more resolute to serve in a way that will change things and make it easier for others. At Qalam, my efforts to learn are valued and I work twice as hard because I am motivated and encouraged to.
RH: Many Muslims hold the belief that women who gain knowledge should exercise their scholarship exclusively in the home. Do you feel that this belief is limiting to women scholars’ potential, or consistent with the responsibility of being a bearer of traditional Islamic knowledge?
AI: I definitely don’t think that if a woman chose to use her knowledge publicly to benefit her community that she is doing something wrong. Our tradition is far more fluid than that. It’s affirming for young Muslim women to see that there are scholars out there that they can identify with. So many people ask, “Where is a woman’s place?” It’s wherever Allah places her. Depending on their circumstances, some knowledgeable women may feel more inclined to [teach] at home. But I will say that anyone who is given knowledge by Allah is obligated to share it. If the maximum benefit of one’s God-given knowledge lies outside of the home and one refuses to share it with those who need it most, I am concerned that there may be a disservice. When I came to Zaytuna, I just wanted to study and I wasn’t thinking about my scholastic career post-graduation or communal impact. But my father said to me, “Well Aisha, you don’t have a choice now. If people need you to speak, then do so, because this is the responsibility that you have taken on.”FL: To each their own, I say. If a Muslim woman wants to become a scholar and she’s more comfortable teaching in her home, then that’s her choice. It is not right, however, to assert that women scholars and teachers should only teach in the home. Female teachers are just as obliged to teach whoever seeks [Islamic] knowledge as male teachers are. There is a Qur’an intensive going on right now where I am tasked with teaching spiritual development (tarbiyah) to both women and men. There is a stark difference between preference and restriction.
RH: We see examples like Sr. Ieasha Prime, Dr. Intisar Rabb and other Black Muslimah scholars who are classically trained domestically and abroad, and are using their knowledge in relevant ways. Because these examples are few, do you feel you have a responsibility to “hold it down for the sistahs” in the area of Muslim scholarship that is saturated with male and non-Black personae?
AI: When I get the opportunity to continue my studies, I will absolutely hold it down for the sistahs. Sometimes it’s necessary to shake things up when they need to be shook. I was raised with nothing but brothers, so I have no problem going toe-to-toe with men and ensuring my respect if need be. The only thing separating women and men in the eyes of Allah is God-consciousness (taqwa), so the measure of someone’s representation is their understanding of the Dīn. If women do not identify with what is being put forward by male representatives, then we should change that by representing ourselves with sound, quality knowledge. We shouldn’t have a “token” woman on a panel if she isn’t qualified to speak on a specific subject just to make people happy. I choose quality over a false sense of credibility and hurt feelings.
FL: Yeah, I do. Growing up, it was always impressed upon us to become good, Muslim women and understand our possibilities and roles as Muslimahs. But the current role models to talk to about that were few and far in between. The examples may not be numerous, but that just means that the possibilities are endless. I do believe that Allah has given me this amazing opportunity and blessing to learn, and it would be absolutely unfair to not do what I am supposed to do with it.
…my father said to me, “Well Aisha, you don’t have a choice now. If people need you to speak, then do so, because this is the responsibility that you have taken on.”
RH: How do you imagine that your interactions and service to the Black Muslim community will look? Moreover, do you think community’s perception and reception of a young, Black Muslimah scholar in the making will differ between the Black Muslim community and those of other ethnicities/backgrounds?
AI: I’m still figuring out what my role is going to look like, but I do know that we need more Muslim women at the forefront of leadership in our community. Many women may not feel comfortable being in such a position despite being highly qualified to speak and lead. My intention when I return to Chicago is to focus on the women. One of the most empowering things [to me] is knowing my history and spiritual ancestry, which helps to bind us to other Muslims, informs our present and helps [us] to prepare for our future. The best way for my service to be effective in the Muslim community, Black and others, is to be as transparent and consistent as possible. My quality of service has to be as high in one community as it is the other, even if I am outside of my comfort zone.The Arabic words for “manners” (a-d-b) and “beginning” (b-d-a) share the same root. You connect with people and show good manners to their hearts and experiences by starting with your own sincerity. As the old folks say, you can’t fake the funk.
Scholars get their hands dirty and let their community teach them more so than the other way around, just as the Prophet (upon him be peace) did before he began inviting people to Islam.
FL: I’ve thought a lot about what my service would like, especially in a place like home in Atlanta where the Black Muslim community is flourishing. I’m not sure what it will be specifically yet, but the priority for me is making more educational spaces. Often times, our Black communities get the short end of the stick, and the intensives and the courses don’t come to the ‘hood, so we have to make do for ourselves. If I can help make higher Islamic knowledge more accessible and less exclusive, and help people connect with their Creator and learn the depths of their Deen, then I think my primary goal is clear. Anything after that [is] up to Allah and His will.
There is sometimes a fear in our Black Muslim communities that, when they invest in someone to travel and study somewhere else, the return on investment is null because that person becomes comfortable in the space where they learned and lose interest in coming back to serve the community that supported them in the first place. Even though I am in Dallas, I have every intention of coming back [to Atlanta] to serve there. It can be difficult, though, to come back to one’s hometown and still be treated with the type of familiarity that undervalues your potential. But my plan is go home and re-invest, because that is where I and my service are needed, and that’s what Qalam trained me to do. I am not needed here [in Dallas], even though I’m one of a handful of Black graduates of Qalam Seminary and one could argue that my representation could go far here.
RH: With the proliferation of personalities and public figures with “followings” on the internet, there are concerns that many Islamic studies and seminary graduates will pursue visibility, which provides accessibility in an age of information, but is often fraught with problematic interactions like misogyny, racism and arrogance. Do you imagine that the draw of visibility for new Muslim scholars is a fulfillment of potential or a mirage that shouldn’t be chased?
AI: Honestly, who doesn’t like to be acknowledged? I personally wouldn’t seek to put myself on any platform like [social media] because I am not qualified to field a lot of questions. And that which I do know, I’d only discuss on a one-to-one basis and make myself available to my immediate community’s needs. The problem with exposure is that it opens people up to too many possibilities and subjects that are outside one’s expertise, and then the quality of their service will suffer. Hypothetically, if I started a YouTube channel, I worry that the arrogance that swells from that kind of platform would take away from my passion to learn because I think that I have answers for everything and I may begin making a lot of claims to knowing things that I may actually not. It’s one thing if leadership comes to you, but attention-seeking disguised as leadership is dangerous. The best way to protect myself against this is by remembering that I am a student, and I will always be a student, and to defer to my teachers when I don’t know.
FL: There is a saying among the scholars that “Knowledge (‘ilm) can be damaging to the soul.” This happens when it is used to self-promote, because it feeds into the ego. It’s when you put your best foot forward and do work on the ground that impacts people directly that one becomes a leader through that knowledge.Anyone can throw a few videos on YouTube and be a so-called “scholar,” but that’s just putting out information, not knowledge. Giving lectures and talks are not the ultimate measure of scholarship, and no one should put all their energy and time into those. Whatever area of expertise you are good at, you serve in that capacity even if no one gives you props for it. Scholars get their hands dirty and let their community teach them more so than the other way around, just as the Prophet (upon him be peace) did before he began inviting people to Islam.
RH: What advice would you personally give to those Black Muslimah scholars in the making who are coming up in your wake?
AI: Studying is a very personal journey, and it takes constant checks of your intentions to do well. We as women have to stay focused on the greater goals, which are the acceptance of our intentions to study by Allah, and to serve our communities with that knowledge. We have to push past the barriers, be they doubts and insecurities from inside or discriminatory pressures around us, and recognize that Allah is the only Guarantor of our success. It makes zero sense for anyone to even think to assume that you can’t become a scholar because you are a woman. It’s known that women are more spiritually inclined than men. Allah gave us a secret that He didn’t give to them. The Prophet Muḥammad (upon him be peace) said himself that one of the things made beloved to him of our world is women due to the special mercy and compassion that Allah imbued them with. It’s up to us to access it and use it for His sake.
FL: Remember to be like the Prophet (upon him be peace) in everything you do and let your sincerity to Allah shape and guide your growth as a Black Muslim woman. I highly suggest making du‘a everyday for acceptance of your intentions and to put sincerity in your heart and mind. Those supplications are heavy because this is what we are tested in the most. Information comes easily, but true knowledge is difficult because it transforms and improves your human condition.
Ryan Hilliard @rynbhllrd (Religion Editor) is a Chicago native serving as the visiting speaker-in-residence at The Green Room, a safe space for Muslim youth in northern Alberta, Canada. 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.