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 their 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 Americans, 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. Sherman 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.
Margari 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, SISTERS, Islamic Monthly, Al Jazeera English, Muslimmatters, Virtual Mosque (formerly Suhaibwebb.com), 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.