By Su’ad Abdul Khabeer
Throughout the long history of Islam in the United States, conversion has played an important role — whether it was the forced conversion of enslaved African Muslims to Christianity or later, in the 20th century, the voluntary conversion of their descendants to Islam, also referred to as reversion, or returning to your ancestor’s faith. The conversion and reversion of Black U.S. Americans to Islam from the 1920s through the 1970s involved profound shifts in understandings of the Divine and of human reality, and has had lasting impacts on critical issues such as Black identity, racial justice and U.S. politics. The video below tells just one of those stories.
In the short video, the late New York-native and community elder Amina Amatul Haqq narrates her conversion/reversion story. Much of what she calls “my search for truth” reflects common experiences of Black U.S. Americans who became Muslim in the late 1960s through the early 1970s.
Among the experiences that set the stage for her conversion/reversion: a rising personal sense of Black consciousness, reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Pan-Africanism, joining the Black Panther Party and becoming involved in broader student and community activism. Amina explains that the circles she traveled in at that time were both Afrocentric and Muslim and that all the “heavy duties” (intellectuals and activists) eventually became Muslim.
Moreover, Amina explains that she was initially hesitant to accept Islam because of the role Arabs played in enslaving Africans and also because of religious mores around modesty, celibacy and partying. Eventually, she took her shahadah (the Islamic declaration of faith) after visits to the Sankore Masjid at the Green Haven Correctional Facility in Upstate New York.
The Sankore Masjid at Green Haven was founded in 1968 and scholars note that from 1975 to 1976, it had more conversions than any other mosque in the United States. Many of the converted, like Amina, were not inmates.
Sankore, located inside the prison, was named after the historic Sankore University and Mosque of Timbuktu. The Sankore Masjid at Green Haven was founded in 1968 and scholars note that from 1975 to 1976 it had more conversions than any other mosque in the United States. Many of the converted, like Amina, were not inmates. After her first few visits to the prison, she purchased her very first Qu’ran at the famous Yasin Mosque of the Dar ul-Islam Movement in Brooklyn in the fall of 1974. On March 23, 1975, she visited Sankore, which was hosting a Mawlid (a celebration of Prophet Muhammad’s birthday). That day, the late Imam Rasul, a.k.a. Robert 35X, a.k.a. Karate Bob, whom she described as “one of el-Hajj Malik’s (Malcolm X’s) right-hand men” gave a lecture about the grave and the day of judgment that compelled her to accept Islam:
“…It really shook me up, even though the night before I had been to a party. When I heard that talk about the grave, I remember thinking: ‘maybe I should give this Islam a try?’ … I thought to myself, ‘Well … I can always get out of this; I don’t have to stay in this.’ But I knew whatever I did, Islam was something serious. I didn’t want to do it for a man — I didn’t want to do it as a fad. I was somebody that always had to be true to myself. And so, finally, I put my hand up and said I was ready to take my shahadah.”
It is important to note the way women and questions of gender factored into her story. Amina gives a frank account of how some Muslim brothers “[were] always looking for other wives”; yet, going against several stereotypes, she describes choosing Islam not “for a man” nor “as a fad.” In the interview, Amina also describes spending time with the wives of incarcerated brothers as well as other sisters and that it was one of her sister-friends who showed her how to make wudu (ablution) before she formally took her shahadah.
She also explains how she changed her dress: she went to work the very next day in “a long skirt and a gele” (head wrap). That job, she noted, was only three blocks from the historic “State Street” masjid in Brooklyn, which enabled her to attend jummah (Friday) prayers from work.
She was close to the founders of the masjid, Shaykh Daoud Ahmed Faisal and his wife, Mother Khadijah. In other interviews, Amina described Mother Khadijah as someone who “did not play” when it came to women’s prayer space. As traditionally common in Black Muslim masjids, Amina had unfettered access to the masjid as a woman, a tradition that many in today’s Muslim communities would be wise to revive.
Amina’s search took her to some historic landmarks. Check out this map of the places mentioned in “A Search for Truth.”
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Su’ad Abdul Khabeer is a scholar-artist-activist who uses anthropology and performance to explore the intersections of race and popular culture. Su’ad is currently an associate professor of American Culture at the University of Michigan. She received her PhD in cultural anthropology from Princeton University and is a graduate from the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and completed the Islamic Studies diploma program of the Institute at Abu Nour University (Damascus). Her latest work, Muslim Cool: Race, Religion and Hip Hop in the United States (NYU Press 2016), is an ethnography on Islam and hip hop that examines how intersecting ideas of Muslimness and Blackness challenge and reproduce the meanings of race in the US. Su’ad is a Brooklyn native and daughter of Amina Amatul Haqq (Audrey Weeks).