By Kayla Wheeler
I began writing this reflection on the 1-year anniversary of Breonna Taylor’s murder by Louisville police officers as she lay sleeping in her home. As I scrolled through Twitter, I saw posts of Black people and our allies gathering to celebrate her life and fight for justice. In Louisville, protestors took to the streets to demand police reform. People in Washington, D.C. danced to “Everything,” Breonna’s favorite Mary J. Blige song. I sat quietly thinking about her life and how she — or Sandra Bland or Tanisha Anderson — could easily have been me.
As a teenager, my grandmother worked as one of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s secretaries before joining the Black Panther Party. She often tells me stories of the National Guard occupying Black neighborhoods in Cleveland, Black Clevelanders avoiding Little Italy out of fear of being lynched, and her work for voter education. In many ways it does not seem like much has changed since my grandmother was young. Yet, it seemed to me that summer 2020 was different. In the midst of a global pandemic, which in the United States has disproportionately affected people of color, Black people risked both their lives and health to demand justice for Breonna, Tony, George, Ahmaud and all the Black people whose stories we do not know. Black Americans also renewed their connections to other members of the African Diaspora and continental Africans, recognizing that our struggles and liberation are interconnected. Although we might take different routes to obtaining freedom, we are all committed to creating a better tomorrow for our children, even if we do not live to see it.
However, I worry that months into Joseph Biden’s first term as president and over a year into the global pandemic, people are tired and returning to business as usual. I understand; Zoom fatigue, physical distance from my loved ones and the inability to pray in a mosque have taken a toll on me. But we can’t let our shouts become whispers. Assata Shakur reminds us, “It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win.”
…[W]e can’t let our shouts become whispers.
As a Black American, the descendant of enslaved Africans from the Congo, the story that stands out most for me in juz’ 9 (7:88–8:40) is that of Musa (AS) and the Israelites. They were enslaved for over 400 years before Allah delivered them from the bonds of slavery (7:103–137). The first section of Juz’ 9 reminds us that all empires eventually fall. Preparing for its fall requires our patience, perseverance, faith and action.
Several times on their journey to freedom, the Israelites doubted Musa (AS).
Moses reassured his people, ‘Seek Allah’s help and be patient. Indeed, the earth belongs to Allah alone. He grants it to whoever He chooses of His servants. The ultimate outcome belongs only to the righteous.’ They complained, ‘We have always been oppressed—before and after you came to us ˹with the message˺.’ He replied, ‘Perhaps your Lord will destroy your enemy and make you successors in the land to see what you will do.’ —7:128-129
Feeling hopeless is natural, but it is in these moments that we should turn to Allah (SWT) and strive to build a closer connection to our Lord. I have found that yoga, connecting with Black Muslims on Twitter and listening to Surah al-Rahman help me stay grounded.
…[A]ll empires eventually fall.
Juz’ 9 also reminds us that as we seek justice, we have to be vigilant to avoid replicating the same systems that oppress us and create a disconnect between us and the Most High. If we are not vigilant, we will be no different than the Israelites who after being led out of slavery, in a moment of complacency and disbelief, began to covet idols and asked for their own (7:138). While Musa (AS) was on Mt. Sinai, they made a golden calf out of their jewelry and returned to their old ways (7:148). We cannot become complacent as soon as we find a moment to catch our breath. Once we have achieved liberation, the world we choose to rebuild must be rooted in justice and equity for all.
There are some among the people of Moses who guide with the truth and establish justice accordingly. —7:159
It is easy to become complacent if you do not have a clear image of what a free future could look like. If our goal is only to insert ourselves into existing social frameworks, but make them “Black” (e.g., Black capitalism, Black-owned prisons or Black police forces) or “Muslim,” we will become no better than our oppressors. To me, freedom means rejecting all human-made oppressive systems rather than seeking to merely reform them. Audre Lorde reminds us that “…the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” The master’s tools may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to achieve or maintain liberation.
My hope is that we use this Ramadan to begin to imagine different futures for ourselves. So many organizations continue this work, including Muslim Anti-Racism Coalition, Justice for Muslims Collective, Believers BailOut and DSA Muslim. I hope we take time to learn from them and support them, as well as our elders whose stories of past struggles can help us see our collective path to freedom.
This reflection is part of Sapelo’s Ramadan 2021 series. To read other reflections in the series click here.
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Kayla Renée Wheeler is an Assistant Professor of Gender and Diversity Studies at Xavier University in Cincinnati, OH. She earned her Ph.D. in Religious Studies with a concentration in Islam in America from the University of Iowa in 2017. Dr. Wheeler is an expert in contemporary Islam and Black material culture. Currently, she is writing a book entitled Fashioning Black Islam, which provides a history of Black Muslim fashion in the United States from the 1930s to the present. She is the author of the digital humanities project, “Mapping Malcolm’s Boston,” which explores Malcolm X’s life in Boston from the 1940s to 1950s. Dr. Wheeler is also the curator of the award-winning Black Islam Syllabus.