By Rashida James-Saadiya
In the United States, many media platforms struggle with being intersectional when representing Muslims. Thus the legacy lived experiences and complexities of Black Muslims in America is often ignored. Filmmaker and Sapelo Square’s Arts and Culture editor Malikah A. Shabazz confronts this erasure by using photography to highlight the lives of folks both proudly Black and Muslim. Photography is a visual means of storytelling that documents history, culture, social hardships, and change. We spoke with Shabazz to discuss the inspiration behind the Instagram project, entitled the “#BilalianExperience,” and her decision to use photography as a tool to capture Black Muslims in their everyday lives. By sharing these images, she aims to expand the public’s perspective on who American Muslims are by highlighting its oldest and most prominent ethnic group.
How is photography important to this project?
Photographs are visual stories. I aim to honor the various stories and identities among Black Muslim communities by depicting imagery that instills a sense of pride. There are few creative platforms dedicated to highlighting the Black Muslim experience in the United States. Through this project, I want to change the narrative from an overdetermined image of Muslims as foreign and/or migrant and shift the focus to relay our humanity, our struggles, and our triumphs. Black Muslims have daily struggles and wins just like everyone else. We feel the pain of our brothers and sisters in Palestine as well as our brothas and sistas in Ferguson. As a filmmaker who has studied media, I am acutely aware of how false or negative imagery can shape and skew our definitions of worth, success, and beauty. Our youth are bombarded with images of Muslims that fail to reflect their community or physical appearance. I chose photography because it is vivid, and can be easily understood and shared on social media platforms. My hope is that the #BilalianExperience is a visual platform which highlights Muslim photographers and creatives in addition to crafting a more visually inclusive representation of Islam.
Photographs are visual stories. I aim to honor the various stories and identities among Black Muslim communities by depicting imagery that instills a sense of pride.
What is the #BilalianExperience and why did you create this Instagram channel?
The “Bilalian Experience” is a response emanating from my frustration with the Black Muslim American narrative being ignored or rarely included in national dialogues on Islam in America. Instead of waiting for others to include our voices. I decided to create a platform highlighting both our experiences and existence through art, specifically photography. The project launched in 2015 on Instagram as a digital space to celebrate Black Muslims in America. In the early stages, I posted portraits from other photographers, in addition to personal pictures that highlighted images of close friends and Eid celebrations in Brooklyn, New York. Over time, I began to incorporate photographs of historical and or notable Black Muslims in an effort to show a long-standing presence of Black Muslims in America. Fairly quickly, folks began sharing their portraits, street, and family celebrations with me through Instagram, and on other platforms like Twitter and Facebook expanding both the reach and diversity of the project. #BilalianExperience is ongoing and reshaping itself, as I am currently in the early stages of curating an original exhibit utilizing a collection of personal images gathered over several years, with a focus on the contributions of Black Muslims in pop culture.
I was blessed to be raised in an environment where I did not have to choose between being Black or Muslim.
What inspired you to use Bilal’s (RA) lived experience as a contemporary representation of Black Muslims in the United States?
I can’t take credit for this term. My Imam, Imam W. Deen Muhammad (RA) coined the termed “Bilalian” in 1975 as a way for Black Muslims to free themselves from the limitations of social inequality, utilizing the life of Bilal Ibn Rabah (RA) as an example of resilience. The term embodies our lived experience and history, but most importantly clearly defines who this project seeks to highlight. Writer and historian Precious Rasheeda Muhammad, notes that “Imam Muhammad’s use of the term “Bilalian” was designed to free the minds of a people; to move beyond the trappings and limitations of colorism and racism; to enable them to see themselves as slave servants of God alone; to follow the moral arc of Bilal ibn Rabah; to be truly free.”
#BilalianExperience explores layered identities: Black, Muslim, and American. How does this project reflect your lived experience?
Being born into the community of Imam W. Deen Muhammad, I was blessed to be raised in an environment where I did not have to choose between being Black or Muslim. Those identities co-existed. In essence, this is the core message of this project, to use a creative lens to highlight Muslim’s from all walks of life, affirming through culture, celebration and scholarship, that we can and should be Black and Muslim at the same time. Our collective history and experiences are unique and should not be ignored or reshaped to fit into false perceptions and stereotypes that eliminate Islam as a diverse spiritual path with roots in the United States. It is my hope that this project alongside those of other bloggers, creatives, and scholars expands mainstream representations of Islam in America.
Although there is a long history of Black Muslim contributions to music, art, community development and academic scholarship, these narratives are often missing.
This project features artists, educators, emcees, bloggers, scholars, and academics. What do you hope to accomplish with this project?
The core goal of this project is to educate through a creative lens by crafting a visually inclusive space of vintage and contemporary photographs with short narratives exploring the accomplishments of Muslims from various Islamic ideologies: Sunni, Shi’a, Tijjani, Salafi, etc. The photography posted on #BilalianExperience channel reinforce diversity and our connection to to the deen. By using personal images and photographs from other Muslim artists, this project also sheds light on the diverse professionals and artists who are members of our community.
Although there is a long history of Black Muslim contributions to music, art, community development and academic scholarship, these narratives are often missing in the retelling of how this country’s formation and rise into the industrial age. There are many Muslim bloggers and academics who are doing an amazing job sharing their personal experience or the layered history of Black Muslims through scholarly articles.
As a filmmaker and photographer, I use this craft in conjunction with social media to focus on reshaping the visual representation of Muslims. We learn so much through photography, information on food, culture, environment and history. Photography draws people in, however subtle, and they learn something. It is my hope that with this project, folks outside of the Muslim community learn that that our lives like many of other Americans are tied to family, joy, hardships and community. We laugh, cry and gather in celebration. We work hard and continue to add to the fabric of the country. We continue to carve out a space for both our history and lived experience in a country struggling to include our stories.
Rashida James Saadiya is a cultural educator and multidisciplinary artist working at the intersections of social justice, community building, Black Muslimness and multi-faith dialouge.