In a recent post on her blog Hagar Lives, Dr. Jamillah Karim shares the transcript of a speech she delivered in December 2017 in Atlanta, Ga., at the 7th Annual Shaykh Hassan Cisse Ziyarah, an annual event commemorating the life and work of the late, renowned Senegalese Islamic scholar and humanitarian. Her speech explored the relationship and some similarities between the work of Shaykh Hassan Cisse and Imam Warith Deen Mohammed (may Allah shower His mercy upon them both) focusing particularly on their efforts to provide transformative education to Black American Muslim youth. Her talk highlighted two institutions created by Imam WD Mohammed and Shaykh Hassan Cisse. First, Imam WD Mohammed established the Sister Clara Muhammad Schools, the largest network of Islamic schools in the United States, after he assumed leadership of the Nation of Islam in 1975. Second, Shaykh Hassan Cisse founded the African American Islamic Institute (AAII) Qur’an School during the 1980s, which gave hundreds of Black American children the opportunity to study alongside students from around the African continent at a traditional Qur’an school in Senegal.
Dr. Karim’s talk provides some of the history of both institutions, and contextualizes the historical connection between these two men. Shaykh Hassan Cisse first travelled to America in 1976, just one year after Imam WD Mohammed was elected to lead the Nation of Islam, and the two ultimately built a relationship based on mutual respect and support. Two themes from her talk are particularly salient. Dr. Karim emphasizes the central role that Black women played in building both of these important institutions. She recounts Imam WD Mohammed’s changing the name of the Nation of Islam’s school, the University of Islam, to Sister Clara Muhammad School to honor the legacy of his mother, “without whom there would not have been a Nation of Islam.”
Dr. Karim further explains how Sister Clara Muhammad introduced her husband, Elijah Muhammad, to the teachings of Fard Muhammad in 1930.
Clara Muhammad first learned of Fard Muhammad’s teachings from another woman. Sister Clara once recounted, “My girlfriend told me there’s a man who’s saying some things about our people. We once dressed in long flowing cloth and we were royal. We were not Christians. We were Muslims.”
This idea, passed on through women, that we were once a great Muslim people gave birth to the Nation of Islam. The Nation of Islam gave birth to Sister Clara Muhammad School.
Later, Dr. Karim highlights the central role that women played in the creation of the AAII Qur’an school as well.
Like the case of Sister Clara Muhammad, an African American woman stood at the center of this historic moment. Sister Kareemah Abdul-Kareem, from New York City, managed the home where American students lived while attending the Qur’an school in the 1980s and ‘90s. Called the Yellow House, the residence provided American students a home away from home and a community mother who supported them.
The second noteworthy theme is the impact that Sister Clara Muhammad Schools and AAII had in helping Black Muslim children in America forge a strong Black identity firmly rooted in self-love to combat a white supremacist society that devalues both Blackness and Africanness, especially African Islamic scholarship. Dr. Karim states.
The Nation of Islam not only taught my parents to love their African features, but it provided them the institution, Sister Clara Muhammad School, to ensure that their children would be educated enough and loved enough to never question their beauty. But more importantly an institution, that at its best, would beautify our hearts with the Qur’an.
And this is what Shaykh Hassan gave us. He gave our parents a Qur’an school in his home of Senegal, but for us. And he made it clear that it was for us by calling it the African American Islamic Institute.
Jamillah Karim is an award-winning author, speaker and blogger. Jamillah specializes in race, gender and Islam in America. She is author of American Muslim Women and co-author of Women of the Nation: Between Black Protest and Sunni Islam. Dr. Karim is a former associate professor of Islam at Spelman College and holds a doctorate in Islamic Studies from Duke University. In 2014, she was highlighted as a young faith leader in the African American community by JET magazine.