Month: November 2017


A Search for Truth

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.

Audrey Black Power Fist

Amina, then Audrey, at Ohio State University where she was a student activist and member of the Black Panther Party

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.

Sisters Gathering

Sister’s Gathering (circa 1970s). Photo courtesy of

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.”

At Sapelo Square, we believe in creating our own narrative. You can join our work by supporting our latest project: Preserving an American Muslim Legacy. Donate Today!

screen shotSu’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).


It’s “Been” Cool to Cover: Why Ayana Ife Matters

By Kayla Wheeler, Ph.D.

Ayana Ife NYFW

Image Credit: @ayanife

Salt Lake City-based modest fashion designer, Ayana Ife, made history this year as the first Muslim female contestant on Project Runway to make it to New York Fashion Week, where she placed second. Although Ayana is the first Muslim woman finalist, two other women helped pave the way: Nzinga Knight competed for a spot on Season 13 of Project Runway, but was eliminated during the final audition and Hawwaa Ibrahim was a contestant on Project Runway Junior Season 2 that aired over the summer of 2017. Ayana’s presence on the sixteenth season of Project Runway introduced many non-Muslim U.S. Americans to the diversity of Muslim women’s personal style and definitions of modesty. In the season finale, she debuted her collection, entitled “Evolution.” Her designs were youthful, sporty while feminine, and very Black. From her clothes’ silhouettes, her layering techniques, to the styling of her models’ khimars—leaving the earlobes and neck exposed—she was clearly tapping into a Black U.S. American Muslim aesthetic that has been developed in several Muslim communities including the Moorish Science Temple of America, the Nation of Islam, the community of Imam W.D. Muhammad and other Black Sunni Muslim communities. Her designs highlight Black Muslim women’s creativity and improvisation skills.

Her designs were youthful, sporty while feminine, and very Black.

The judges were surprised by the way she was able to make modest clothes look “modern” and as Zac Posen put it, they exuded “empowered sexiness.” Clearly, none of the Project Runway judges had ever been to a runway show hosted by a Black masjid or checked out #BlackOutEid on social media, created by Amina Mohamed. Their comments speak to a large issue within the United States: the erasure of Black Muslims in conversations of Islam in the United States.

Clearly, none of the Project Runway judges had ever been to a runway show hosted by a Black masjid or checked out #BlackOutEid on social media…

Except for Black models, Halima Aden, the first covered woman to be signed to IMG Models, and Mariah Idrissi, who made history as the first visibly Muslim woman to be featured in an H&M advertisement, the mainstream U.S. American and Western European fashion industries have imagined Muslim fashion as a “Brown woman’s pursuit.” Several clothing and cosmetics advertisements including Gap, Covergirl, L’Oréal, and Nike have featured all featured Brown Muslim women as the representatives for all Muslims. This has been mirrored by the creation of “Ramadan Collections” or more general collections made with the Muslim consumer in mind by several popular European and U.S. American brands. For instance, in 2016 Tommy Hilfiger, MANGO, and Dolce and Gabbana all released collections for Muslim women. These collections either had a very narrow definition of “Islamic”; for instance, the Dolce & Gabbana collection only featured abayas and MANGO and Tommy Hilfiger only marketed their clothes to women in the Middle East. Although the mainstream media and fashion industries are only recently paying attention to Muslims, which they imagine to be Brown, as potential consumers, Black U.S. American Muslim women have a long relationship with fashion.

…it was Black Muslim women who made it cool to cover in the United States.

Lubna Originals Photo

Lubna Originals (1980s) Photo courtesy of Majida Abdul-Karim

Lubna Originals 2013

Lubna Originals (2013) Photo courtesy of Azizah Kahera

Ayana is following in the footsteps of Black Muslim fashion trailblazers including: Lubna Muhammad, the founder of Lubna Originals, whose designs were featured in the Smithsonian Folklife Festival; Yasmine Yasmine, a stylist, fashion editor and entrepreneur who has styled models at New York Fashion Week; and Nailah Lymus, founder of Underwraps, an agency for Muslim and modest models. Their work and that of other Black Muslim women designers, stylists, and tastemakers have largely been ignored in recent conversations around Islamic fashion and modest fashion in the media. This is what makes Ayana Ife’s presence on Project Runway so important. She reminds U.S. Americans, both Muslim and non-Muslim, that it was Black Muslim women who made it cool to cover in the United States.


Kayla WheelerKayla Wheeler earned her Ph.D. in Religious Studies from the University of Iowa. Her dissertation examined Muslim women’s fashion YouTube tutorials. She is a Visiting Scholar in the African American Studies Program at Boston University where she is writing her book on Black U.S. American Muslim Fashion. She is the curator of the Black Islam Syllabus.


The Relevance of Black American Muslim Thought

As Islam and Muslims find their way into the news more and more, Black Muslims are becoming few and far between in these discussions. Maurice Hines asked in a recent Sapelo Square article, “What Happened to Our Big Brother?” Where are the Black Muslim intellectuals? Where are the Black Muslim activists? Hakeem Muhammad wondered about the Islam of Black Revolutionaries. Why are Black Muslims being erased from the conversations? Where are the Black Muslims who used to be a guiding light in the Black community? To give us something to think about, I’m reposting an abridged version of a previous post by Margari Aziza Hill. Think and ponder. — Nisa Muhammad, Politics Editor

By Margari Aziza Hill

The Muslim American community is held together with the belief that there is no God but the One True God and that Muhammad is His prophet. Muslims share daily patterns of worship, rituals of birth, marriage and death.

As one of the most diverse faith communities, Muslim Americans come from various ethnic, socio-economic and cultural backgrounds. Sometimes there are various articulations of Islam due to different political, cultural and religious orientations.

There are approximately five million Muslims in America, though some estimate as many as seven to ten million. CAIR, (Council on American Islamic Relations) reports in sistasgrouptheir 2000 Mosque Study that Muslim ethnicities are 33% South Asian, 30% Black American and 25% Arab, 3.4% Sub-Saharan African, 2.1% European, 1.6% White American, 1.3% Southeast Asian, 1.2% Caribbean, 1.1% Turkish, .7% Iranian and .6% Latino/Hispanic. Other reports indicate the number of Black Americans may be even larger.

Regardless of the numbers, there is no clear ethnic majority in American Islam. But these numbers raise some important issues: Who has the right to speak for American Muslims? Who are the real Muslims? Who will define the agenda for American Muslims? These questions have often been central to a debate that has emerged about the Black American/immigrant divide.

Over the years, many Black American Muslims have been at the forefront of articulating Islamic thought for the growing American Muslim community. But this seems to have changed as a dominant narrative has taken over.

In America, there is a fierce competition over resources that has led to some voices getting silenced in deciding the agenda for American Muslims. Within mainstream media, the Muslim American experience is about the immigration and assimilation experience. There is little press coverage or interest shown in the media on converts or the multi-generational Black American Muslim families.

Sylvia Chan-Malik uses the term “foundational blackness” to describe how contemporary Islam in America can best be understood by transnational affiliations that link gender, class and religion, but also through its relationship with blackness. However, Black American Muslim foundations go back further, with memories of African Muslims enslaved in the Americas, even predating the formation of the United States.

Before 9/11, some of the most prominent voices in American Islam were African Imam Siraj-GMAAmericans, including Imams Warith Deen Muhammad and Siraj Wahhaj. Their status as citizens afforded them the privilege to critique American society and foreign policy, without compromising their Americanness.

The protest tradition of many leaders helped forge a space for the next generation of immigrants and descendants of Muslim American immigrants to assert themselves in the public sphere. Following the events of 9/11, there has been an increasing silencing of Black American Muslim voices: a combination of little to no media acknowledgment of BAM’s as well as a systemic neglect on the part of Muslim immigrants.

Over time, Black American spokespeople were gradually eclipsed as national Muslim organizations with strong immigrant interests sought to assert their agendas and provide the dominant narrative of immigrants assimilating to American values.

In contrast to the hegemonic narrative that has rendered them invisible, Black American Muslims are vital to the health of this diverse Muslim community. They have also continued to make great strides politically, socially and culturally. This includes two Black American Muslim members of Congress, Keith Ellison and André Carson; and the growing prominence of intellectuals and scholars, most notably feminist scholar Dr. Amina Wadud, Dr. Aminah Beverly McCloud, who wrote African American Islam, Dr. fullsizerender-88Sherman Abdul-Hakim Jackson and Imam Zaid Shakir.

Black American Muslims have made cultural gains, including the feature-length film “Mooz-Lum,” and the success of prominent hip hop artists, such as Lupe Fiasco and Yasiin Bey (Mos Def). The Abdullah brothers, Husain and Hamza, shared their story of taking time off from the NFL to perform the annual Muslim pilgrimage (Hajj). The fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad was the first Muslim woman in hijab to compete in the Olympics for the United States and win a medal.

Black American Muslims are very much part of the fabric of America and often play a daily role in interfaith dialogue, as many of them have family and loved ones who are non-Muslim.

Black American Muslims are vital to the health of the diverse Muslim community.

Black American Muslims participate in anti-war protests, critique extrajudicial killings through drone strikes in Chad, Mali, Yemen and Pakistan, raise money for war refugees in Syria and alleviate suffering in natural disasters in Somalia and Pakistan. Yet pressing social issues in their home communities, such as economic inequality, street violence and family instability, play a large role in their everyday lives. Crime, poverty and marriage are common issues raised in the Black American Muslim discourse from the minbar to the lecture hall. These issues also shape their outlook, which in turn causes them to be empathetic to the plight of others at home and abroad.

It seems to be willful ignorance on the part of the media, scholars and some organizations to overlook these important contributions and connections. The occlusion of Black Americans despite the continual relevance of Black American Muslim thought makes it especially important to document this intellectual heritage. Indeed, we must go beyond documenting the life histories of major Muslim leaders and begin to study transformations in Muslim American thought.


MH1Margari Aziza Hill is co-founder and Programming  Director of Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative (MuslimARC), assistant editor at AltM, columnist at MuslimMatters, and co-founder of Muslims Make it Plain. She is a Women’s Policy Institute-County fellow, joining the First for Women team on protecting women’s religious rights in the criminal justice system in LA County. She is also an adjunct professor, blogger, and freelance writer with articles published in Time, SISTERSIslamic Monthly, Al Jazeera English, Muslimmatters, Virtual Mosque (formerly, and Spice Digest.  She is on the advisory councils of the Los Angeles Chapter of Council of American Islamic Relations (CAIR-LA), and Islam and Social Justice and Inter-Religious Exchange (ISJIE) at the Union Theological Seminary.


Dr. Sulayman Nyang: Philosopher, Sage and Teacher

By Muhammad Fraser-Rahim

OH, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,
Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat;
But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,
When two strong men stand face to face, tho’ they come from the ends of the earth!

Rupyard Kipling

As a I sit here writing about Dr. Sulayman S. Nyang in his hospital room in Washington, DC as he recovers from a recent stroke, I am reminded of the timeless words that Dr. Nyang has said to me on numerous occasions encouraging myself, and thousands of others (perhaps more) to understand the interconnectedness as human beings, citizens of the world and people of African descent. As you may have heard by now, Dr. Nyang recently suffered a stroke, one of many over the years, but in no way diminishing his continued resolve, and yet again he is rebounding and recovering strong, showing signs of amazing progress, despite all odds and truly having faith in the transcendental other as he would call it, for giving him countless blessings and being the greatest movie maker of us all.


Dr. Sulayman Nyang (c) Aadhil Shiraz

Like those thousands of other students of diverse religious, cultural and academic experience, I too have had a personal relationship with the “sage” as many of us call him. I first met Dr. Nyang when I was 8 years old in my hometown of Charleston, SC where I grew up and we stayed in touch as pen pals up until I was ready for college. After finishing undergraduate, and preparing for graduate school it was not Harvard, Yale, Oxford or Cambridge as the leading contenders or strong options for me to attend with my interest in Islamic and Africana studies, but instead Howard under the tutelage of Dr. Nyang. Like so many others, we decided to study with the de facto “Shaykul-Islam” of Islamic and African Studies and to find the deep meaning of life, purpose and at the same time receive a proper academic training in our doctoral studies. Myself and countless others are no exception in deciding that we would devote our attention and all of our personal and academic time meeting with Dr. Nyang at coffee shops, in hotels, at this home or wherever he was. In fact, we were and still are in fact disciples of Dr. Nyang’s work and intellectual legacy in which we see the huge shoes to fill and to carry on his legacy as he recovers. What Dr. Nyang means in his humility, his almost photographic memory and kindness is in fact the extension of a father, friend and teacher. Part of the historical legacy for many who have been exposed to an African/African American or Muslim aunt or uncle is his love and timeless patience.

It is that sentiment in which we continue to move forward our philosopher, our teacher, our sage and continue his legacy along. At present, we have established the Dr. Sulayman Nyang Foundation which will immortalize his work of spreading the message of religious pluralism, cross-cultural understanding and the preservation of sacred knowledge from Africa, the Middle East and around the world.  The Foundation is a bridge building institution that seeks to nurture the human intellect of all individuals, regardless of their social status, religion or worldview, and seek to keep alive the continued use of positive and uplifting ideas to our “mental furniture” in the words of Dr. Nyang. This foundation will keep alive his intellectual brain trust in the areas of Islam, Africa, Philosophy and U.S. history and seek to make the necessary connections to societal thought, art and civilization.


Dr. Sulayman Nyang with Usama Canon (c) Aadhil Shiraz

Lastly, the establishment of a foundation of this kind will aide in the following:
1) The identification of a building/office space to serve as the intellectual hub of engagement amongst students, scholars and others in the tradition of Dr. Nyang;
3) Establishment of a Scholarship Fund for students at Howard in the field of Africa, History and Religion;
4) Working in concert with graduate students and academics in assisting in journal publications in the areas of specialization of Dr. Nyang;
5) Working toward an endowed Chair position titled, Dr. Sulayman Nyang Chair of African and Islamic Thought;

To support his foundation –

For those unfamiliar with Dr.Sulayman S. Nyang:

Dr. Sulayman S. Nyang, recently retired from Howard this year as professor and former chairman of the African Studies Department at Howard University in Washington, D.C. He joined the faculty of the African Studies Department at Howard University, shortly after obtaining his Ph.D. in Government in 1974 from University of Virginia. Originally from the Republic of the Gambia in West Africa, Dr. Nyang’s career in academia, local, national and international service and activism spans more than 37 years.

At Howard University, he has been responsible for designing, developing and teaching courses on various topics in African and Diaspora Studies, particularly Islam, Politics and Philosophy. He has mentored and supervised the work of more than 200 graduate students and many more undergraduates, both at Howard University and other institutions of higher learning outside the US. His prodigious corpus of publications on Islam, African political, cultural, social and development affairs include 11 books and more than 70 articles and monographs, such as: Islam in the United States of America (1999); A Line in the Sand: Saudi Arabia’s Role in the Gulf War, co-authored with Evan Hendricks (1995); Religious Plurality in Africa: Essays in Honor of John S. Mbiti, co-authored with Jacob Olupona (1993); Islam: Its Relevance Today, co-edited with Henry Thompson (1990); Islam, Christianity and African Identi-ty (1984); Reflections on the Human Condition (1984); Ali A. Mazrui: The Man and His Works (1981). Since 2001, Nyang has been a regular contributor to the Washington Post’s “On Faith” online forum where he has written many articles and thinks and opinion pieces. One of the most significant being apiece entitled, ‘What Near Death Taught Me About Life’, a reflection on his miraculous recovery from a serious cardiac arrest on May 31 2004. Embracing new technologies of knowledge dissemination, Nyang has authored many audio and visual recordings on various subjects, and made them available from sources, such as Islamondemand, YouTube and iTunes.

muhammad_yarrow (1)Muhammad Fraser-Rahim is a Ph.D candidate at Howard University in African Studies with a focus on Islamic Thought, Spirituality and Modernity. His dissertation research focusing on Islamic Intellectual history in America and across the globe infusing original Arabic sources under his translation, and is leading the way on a seminal study on the 21st century Islamic revivalist, Imam WD Mohammed.