By Su’ad Abdul Khabeer
In what one might call American Muslim English, it is common to refer to Black Muslims as “indigenous.” The term came through self-definition and in response to the assertions of religious authority, tinged with anti-Black racism, made by Muslim immigrants from South Asia and the Middle East.
In a counter power play, Black Muslims challenge the Muslim immigrants’ claim to be more knowledgeable about Islam with their own assertion to know more about how America works. Although the term has its reasons and resonances (since them folks still be trying to teach what you already know), I would like to suggest U.S. Muslims, as a community, reconsider using indigenous because of the dangerous way it erases and hides.
First, the term erases Muslims in the United States who are in fact, not metaphorically or by analogy, indigenous and autochthonous, meaning “of” this land. Of course, there are Black Muslims who have Native American ancestry but despite the popular claim, most U.S. Black folks do not have, to riff Zora Neale Hurston’s playful saying, “a grandfather on their mother’s side who was an Indian chief.”
Since 9/11, the term has expanded beyond the Black Muslim community and is now being used by all U.S. Muslims to lay claim to being indigenous. Citing everything from enslaved African Muslims to Jefferson’s Qur’an, Muslims claim a long history in the United States to argue they are not foreign but “native.” This claim is subsequently used to seek a seat at the table — the very table of the settler colonists who are responsible for indigenous displacement, dispossession and death.
Citing everything from enslaved African Muslims to Jefferson’s Qur’an, Muslims claim a long history in the United States to argue they are not foreign but “native.”
Countries that are settler colonies, like the United States, Canada and Israel, are established by immigrants who come to stay (settlers) rather than by those who plunder material and natural resources to back to their homelands. Staying means that they come to live on the the land, which means they must remove the people, the Indigenous People, who are already there. Removal happens forcibly, including through genocide. Yet to add insult to injury, not only do they settle on indigenous land, but they also take indigenous customs and symbols to construct national myths (e.g., Thanksgiving). Which means the second problem with our use of indigenous is that it is about as anti-indigenous as you can get because Indigenous politics is not that of inclusion, but resistance and refusal or as the indigenous anthropologist Audra Simpson states, “utter opposition and struggle against the state.”
In the United States, we talk about Native communities and their struggle as if they were relics of the past. Yet, as demonstrated powerfully by the resistance at Standing Rock, Indigenous Americans are still here and still fighting. I learned this lesson, thanks to a great book by Simpson that I had the pleasure of teaching called Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life Across the Borders of Settler States. In the book, she narrates forms of resistance by the Mohawks of Kahnawà:ke (pronounced ɡahnaˈwaːɡe) whose ancestral territory covers parts of the United States and Canada. Kahnawà:ke resistance, as Simpson tells it, is a politics of refusal. They insist on their sovereignty as a nation and refuse both American and Canadian citizenship.
Indigenous politics is not that of inclusion, but resistance and refusal
For example, Simpson recounts stories of Kahnawà:ke who may in fact hold U.S. citizenship but when crossing borders to and from the United States, they only identify as Mohawk and present status cards rather an American passport or birth certificate. This is a far cry from a lot of the “indigenous” politics of many U.S. Muslims, including Black ones. In fact, this use of indigenous erases not only Indigenous Muslims, but also all Indigenous people, thus furthering the work of the settler colonial state — the same state that enslaved African ancestors and perpetuates Black displacement, dispossession and death today.
Do we claim to be indigenous because in addition to our grandfather “the chief,” we are opposing the state or are we seeking, simply, to be settlers of a darker hue?
In this context, rather than use the term “indigenous Muslim” (or “immigrant Muslim” for that matter — that is the topic of another essay) my recommendation is to be precise. If you mean Black people, say Black people (and if you mean Black Indigenous people, call them by their names). And I say this knowing that Black people in the United States have their own politics of refusal. In fact, Black Muslim groups are well known, from the Nation of Islam and the Moorish Science Temple to other Black Muslim groups, for seeking their own sovereignty. We have to call it what it is so we can uncover rather than hide our political, cultural and economic motives and aspirations. Do we claim to be indigenous because in addition to our grandfather “the chief,” we are opposing the state or are we seeking, simply, to be settlers of a darker hue?
 In his book, Islam in the United States of America, Dr. Sulayman Nyang cites a 1969 Black Sunni Muslim newspaper as an early use of the term.
Su’ad Abdul Khabeer @DrSuad (Founding Director and Senior Editor) is a scholar-artist-activist whose work explores themes of race, religion and popular culture. She is currently an associate professor of American Culture and Arab and Muslim American Studies at the University of Michigan. Su’ad received her PhD in cultural anthropology from Princeton University and is a graduate from the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. She also has an Islamic Studies diploma from the Institute at Abu Nour University (Damascus). Her latest book, Muslim Cool: Race, Religion and Hip Hop in the United States, examines how intersecting ideas of Blackness and Muslim identity challenge and reconstitute the meanings of race in the United States.