Dr. Shakeela Hassan and the Making of a American Muslim Icon

Dr. Shakeela Hassan and the Making of a American Muslim Icon
By Will Caldwell
November 14, 2018

Imagine the Honorable Elijah Muhammad and you will undoubtedly picture a man wearing a cap embroidered with a large star and crescent. This month’s post features Dr. Shakeela Hassan, the maker of those iconic caps. In this video interview with Sapelo Square Editor in Chief, Dr. Su’ad Abdul Khabeer, Dr. Hassan explains how she came up with the design alongside Elijah Muhammad at his dinner table. Her story reveals that the caps, like the Nation of Islam itself, were as much products of local, homegrown enterprise as they were of global Muslim networks.

Dr. Hassan’s story is a striking example of what Professor Sally Howell calls “Old Islam” — the theologically inclusive, ethnically diverse and explicitly indigenizing Muslim communities that arose primarily in the Midwest before America’s immigration reform of 1965. Both she and her husband, Zia Hassan, found a spiritual home in the Nation of Islam as well as close friendship with the Muhammad family upon arriving in Chicago from Pakistan in the 1950s. Indeed, as she tells elsewhere, Clara Muhammad was “nothing short of a mother to me.” Their relationship was born during an era that defied current divisions between ‘immigrant and indigenous’ Muslims in the United States. The story of these caps provides a rare glimpse into not only the personality of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, but also a bygone era that still has much to teach us.

Dr. Sulayman Nyang: Philosopher, Sage and Teacher

By Muhammad Fraser-Rahim

OH, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,
Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat;
But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,
When two strong men stand face to face, tho’ they come from the ends of the earth!

Rupyard Kipling

As a I sit here writing about Dr. Sulayman S. Nyang in his hospital room in Washington, DC as he recovers from a recent stroke, I am reminded of the timeless words that Dr. Nyang has said to me on numerous occasions encouraging myself, and thousands of others (perhaps more) to understand the interconnectedness as human beings, citizens of the world and people of African descent. As you may have heard by now, Dr. Nyang recently suffered a stroke, one of many over the years, but in no way diminishing his continued resolve, and yet again he is rebounding and recovering strong, showing signs of amazing progress, despite all odds and truly having faith in the transcendental other as he would call it, for giving him countless blessings and being the greatest movie maker of us all.


Dr. Sulayman Nyang (c) Aadhil Shiraz

Like those thousands of other students of diverse religious, cultural and academic experience, I too have had a personal relationship with the “sage” as many of us call him. I first met Dr. Nyang when I was 8 years old in my hometown of Charleston, SC where I grew up and we stayed in touch as pen pals up until I was ready for college. After finishing undergraduate, and preparing for graduate school it was not Harvard, Yale, Oxford or Cambridge as the leading contenders or strong options for me to attend with my interest in Islamic and Africana studies, but instead Howard under the tutelage of Dr. Nyang. Like so many others, we decided to study with the de facto “Shaykul-Islam” of Islamic and African Studies and to find the deep meaning of life, purpose and at the same time receive a proper academic training in our doctoral studies. Myself and countless others are no exception in deciding that we would devote our attention and all of our personal and academic time meeting with Dr. Nyang at coffee shops, in hotels, at this home or wherever he was. In fact, we were and still are in fact disciples of Dr. Nyang’s work and intellectual legacy in which we see the huge shoes to fill and to carry on his legacy as he recovers. What Dr. Nyang means in his humility, his almost photographic memory and kindness is in fact the extension of a father, friend and teacher. Part of the historical legacy for many who have been exposed to an African/African American or Muslim aunt or uncle is his love and timeless patience.

It is that sentiment in which we continue to move forward our philosopher, our teacher, our sage and continue his legacy along. At present, we have established the Dr. Sulayman Nyang Foundation which will immortalize his work of spreading the message of religious pluralism, cross-cultural understanding and the preservation of sacred knowledge from Africa, the Middle East and around the world.  The Foundation is a bridge building institution that seeks to nurture the human intellect of all individuals, regardless of their social status, religion or worldview, and seek to keep alive the continued use of positive and uplifting ideas to our “mental furniture” in the words of Dr. Nyang. This foundation will keep alive his intellectual brain trust in the areas of Islam, Africa, Philosophy and U.S. history and seek to make the necessary connections to societal thought, art and civilization.


Dr. Sulayman Nyang with Usama Canon (c) Aadhil Shiraz

Lastly, the establishment of a foundation of this kind will aide in the following:
1) The identification of a building/office space to serve as the intellectual hub of engagement amongst students, scholars and others in the tradition of Dr. Nyang;
3) Establishment of a Scholarship Fund for students at Howard in the field of Africa, History and Religion;
4) Working in concert with graduate students and academics in assisting in journal publications in the areas of specialization of Dr. Nyang;
5) Working toward an endowed Chair position titled, Dr. Sulayman Nyang Chair of African and Islamic Thought;

To support his foundation –

For those unfamiliar with Dr.Sulayman S. Nyang:

Dr. Sulayman S. Nyang, recently retired from Howard this year as professor and former chairman of the African Studies Department at Howard University in Washington, D.C. He joined the faculty of the African Studies Department at Howard University, shortly after obtaining his Ph.D. in Government in 1974 from University of Virginia. Originally from the Republic of the Gambia in West Africa, Dr. Nyang’s career in academia, local, national and international service and activism spans more than 37 years.

At Howard University, he has been responsible for designing, developing and teaching courses on various topics in African and Diaspora Studies, particularly Islam, Politics and Philosophy. He has mentored and supervised the work of more than 200 graduate students and many more undergraduates, both at Howard University and other institutions of higher learning outside the US. His prodigious corpus of publications on Islam, African political, cultural, social and development affairs include 11 books and more than 70 articles and monographs, such as: Islam in the United States of America (1999); A Line in the Sand: Saudi Arabia’s Role in the Gulf War, co-authored with Evan Hendricks (1995); Religious Plurality in Africa: Essays in Honor of John S. Mbiti, co-authored with Jacob Olupona (1993); Islam: Its Relevance Today, co-edited with Henry Thompson (1990); Islam, Christianity and African Identi-ty (1984); Reflections on the Human Condition (1984); Ali A. Mazrui: The Man and His Works (1981). Since 2001, Nyang has been a regular contributor to the Washington Post’s “On Faith” online forum where he has written many articles and thinks and opinion pieces. One of the most significant being apiece entitled, ‘What Near Death Taught Me About Life’, a reflection on his miraculous recovery from a serious cardiac arrest on May 31 2004. Embracing new technologies of knowledge dissemination, Nyang has authored many audio and visual recordings on various subjects, and made them available from sources, such as Islamondemand, YouTube and iTunes.

muhammad_yarrow (1)Muhammad Fraser-Rahim is a Ph.D candidate at Howard University in African Studies with a focus on Islamic Thought, Spirituality and Modernity. His dissertation research focusing on Islamic Intellectual history in America and across the globe infusing original Arabic sources under his translation, and is leading the way on a seminal study on the 21st century Islamic revivalist, Imam WD Mohammed.


The Many Styles of Muhammad Ali

By Ibrahim Abdul-Matin

People involved with boxing like fighters, promoters, trainers, and die-hard long-time fans are fond of the saying: “styles make fights.”

Styles are the different ways that boxers use their physical abilities to their advantage in the ring. Some styles perform better against others. Each style has pros and cons. Fighters change styles over the course of their careers as they themselves change. The young Clay was known for his quick footwork, lightning fast hands, and incredibly long reach (a reach is defined as the distance from a fighters shoulder to their finger tip and the distance from their finger tip to finger tip). He was what you would call an “out boxer.” Out boxers keep a distance from their opponents and attack opportunistically. Also part of Clay’s style was his accuracy, which spawned his famous quote, “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” This quote came to life in his first bout with Sonny Liston – the fight where Cassius Clay became Muhammad Ali.


Pinback button with Muhammad Ali with famous quote, circa 1970’s

It is important to understand Sonny Liston. In 1950, Liston served a short prison sentence for armed robbery. He found boxing in prison. Upon release, he attached himself to members of organized crime. He was known to be an intimidator for the mob. In the ring, Liston’s style was “a slugger,” someone with raw power but slower footspeed. If he caught you with his left or right hand, it might feel like a pile driver ramming into your skull. In 1962, Liston defeated Floyd Patterson to earn the heavyweight title and defended it again against Patterson the following. Liston was universally feared. For Clay and Liston, the narrative was kid from Louisville vs. grizzly, mob-connected, veteran.

Sonny Liston was the favorite with 7-1 odds in the betting circles. However, as soon as the fight started, Clay exuded confidence. His “out boxer” style emphasized Liston’s “slugger,” characterized by flat feet and heavy fists. Clay captured the title that night and shocked the world. You either fell in love with the young champ or hated the “new negro.” He was at once brash, unintimidated, and fierce, with confidence, beauty, grace, and a smile that could light up Broadway. He spoke poetry. He was a young champion who reflected a new era of Black America. Dollar signs were in view. Cassius Clay was the future of the sport and the potential to make big profits was intoxicating.

Heavy-weight Champion Muhammad Ali (formerly Cassius Clay) Looks Thoughful As He Watches A Private Showing At A Cinema In The West End. The Film Was Of His World Heavy-weight Fight With Henry Cooper. Original Print Filed In Pkt - Clay 1966.

Photo by Evening News/REX/Shutterstock. Heavy-weight Champion Muhammad Ali (formerly Cassius Clay) Looks Thoughful As He Watches A Private Showing At A Cinema In The West End. The Film Was Of His World Heavy-weight Fight With Sir Henry Cooper. 1966.

In this exact moment, Cassius Clay was in the midst of a spiritual transformation. Shortly after the fight, he proclaimed himself to be Muhammad Ali and a member of the Nation of Islam. His Islam compelled him to refuse the Vietnam War draft and between the ages of 25 and 29, his physical peak, he was barred from boxing in every state for this revolutionary refusal. This is when Muhammad Ali the fighter became Muhammad Ali the freedom fighter.

Upon returning to the sport, Ali changed his boxing style. Billed as the “Fight of the Century” against Joe Frazier, Ali employed the “rope a dope” style. He allowed Frazier to barrage him though he was seemingly stuck along the ropes, giving all these punches got Frazier exhausted. Then, Ali pounced. His first fight using this style he lost. The second, he won. The world started to see a more cerebral fighter. Over the years, “The Champ” would win, lose, and hold the title three separate times. Very few fighters have done that and it is a testament to his will, focus, longevity, and ability to transform to the style that best fit the times.

Muhammad Ali Nation of Islam

In this Feb. 28, 1966 file photo, Muhammad Ali listens to Elijah Muhammad as he speaks to the Muslim Community in Chicago. Two days after the 1964 fight with Sonny Liston, Cassius Clay announced he was a member of the Nation of Islam and was changing his name to Cassius X. He would later become Muhammad Ali. (AP Photo/Paul Cannon)

Beyond boxing, Muhammad Ali was a poet.

In the classic tradition of African griots and Muslim storytellers, Ali used his words to communicate and to inspire. His words were more precise than his fists. “I done wrestled with an alligator; I done tussled with a whale; handcuffed lightning; thrown thunder in jail; only last week I murdered a rock; injured a stone; hospitalized a brick; I’m so bad I make medicine sick.” He transformed the lives of millions by translating the complexities of race and class and spirituality into clear and understandable terms. He traveled widely and visited oppressed peoples and spoke truth to power. He was a contemporary, mentee, and friend of Malcolm X. Their ability to “make it plain” was extraordinary. Ali, like Malcolm, spoke to and for black people, his people. He never wavered and maintained honorable stances based on religious and spiritual principle.

Muhammad Ali was a committed Muslim.

As his fighting career waned in the late 1970’s he stayed deeply connected to the Black Muslim community. Like many in this era, Ali made the leap from the Nation of Islam to mainstream Sunni Islam. I remember an early 1980’s video produced by members of Imam WD Mohammed’s community where Ali encouraged Black American Muslims to start businesses, create their own wealth, and support the black community. He was, above all else, a Black man in America. However, it was his faith that bound him to a personal mission far greater than himself.


Muhammad Ali prays at a mosque during his 12-day visit to the Soviet Union in 1978 (AP Photo).

His final act of unapologetic blackness and unapologetic Muslim-ness was to orchestrate a beautiful funeral and memorial that brought heads of state, artists, activists, and the common folk all to the place where he was from. In his final act he had the ability to uplift unapologetic Black folks and unapologetic Muslim folks, showing the world just how great he was and how great we could be.



Photos by: Aïdah Aliyah Rasheed (c) 2016

ibrahim headshot.jpg

Ibrahim Abdul-Matin is the author of Green Deen: What Islam Teaches About Protecting the Planet and contributor to All-American: 45 American Men On Being Muslim.

Profile: Mustafa Davis & Usama Canon


Mustafa Davis, Brother Khadim, and Usama Canon

For ten years Usama Canon and Mustafa Davis have been the dynamic duo of Ta’leef Collective. Ta’leef’s mantra, “come as you are, to Islam as it is,” sums up the ideal experience for anyone curious to learn about the faith of 1.6 billion people. The space offers a safe and friendly environment for seekers, believers, and the curious. After celebrating Ta’leef’s growth and success, Usama Canon recently announced that Mustafa Davis has tendered his resignation as the Media Director and board member. With new chapters on the horizon for them both, these Brothers continue to exemplify true companionship and brotherhood.

Both California natives have their own unique stories prior to embracing Islam in 1996. Their paths led them to studying Arabic and Islamic Jurisprudence in America and outside of the United States under today’s foremost scholars. As the saying goes, “behind every great man is a great woman,” and both men are married to phenomenal women they met during the beginning stages of their spiritual growth and development.


Mustafa Davis, Hamza Yusuf, Usama Canon

After returning to the States in 2003, Davis pursued studies in filmmaking at the New York Film Academy (Universal Studios – Hollywood, CA), and after graduation his family relocated to Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates where he established the Media Division of the Tabah Foundation for Islamic Studies and Research. He held the executive positions of Media Division Director, Film Producer/Director and Media Advisor. Canon’s family relocated and settled in the Bay Area while he served as the Outreach Director and an Arabic Instructor at Zaytuna Institute, as well as a Muslim Chaplain for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. After the inception of Ta’leef Collective in 2005, they both cultivated separate businesses, Oudimentary and Mustafa Davis LLC.

One of the highlights of their work collectively intersected with the creation of Prison Blues, [1] a film exploring the reality of incarceration in the United States and the high conversion rate to Islam. Mustafa Davis beautifully crafted the documentary, and he included an enlightening perspective with two men that Usama Canon has worked with during his time as a spiritual advisor to the Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN). Both men that are highlighted in the film embraced Islam in prison and have become community leaders, post release, working to assist other formally incarcerated Muslims with their transition back into society. The film is worth watching for anyone seeking to gain an understanding of an often overlooked reality of the American Muslim Community.

Aside from their well established titles, accolades, and world renowned businesses, both men have rightfully dedicated their lives to the service of others. They are husbands, fathers, brothers, and uncles. They don’t claim to have all the answers, and will quickly dismiss the title teacher because they still consider themselves students. Both men are constantly working to hone their skills, and to better themselves and those around them. The body of believers is meant to be a community rooted in love and mercy. Brother Usama and Brother Mustafa have ultimately developed a unique friendship helping to strengthen communal bonds. Additionally, they have empowered others to tap into their human excellence, and the community which surrounds them is a true testament of their countless hours of service.



We pray that Allah blesses them and their families, rewards them and their families, guides them and their families, and continue to love them both deeply by the blessings and truth of our most Beloved Prophet Muhammad, prayers and peace upon Him and His family.

[1] Prison Blues, additional films, and classes can be screened for free at www.taleefcollective.org. Create a free account & click OnDemand for all media content.

Profile: Bean Pie, My Brotha

By Narjis Nichole Abdul-Majid

If the African American Muslim experience had a symbolic icon, the bean pie would be it. The sweet custard-like pie made from cooked, mashed navy beans has a rich history with the Nation of Islam and an even greater legacy with the African American Muslim population. In the short film called “Bean Pie, My Brotha” written, directed and produced by the documentary filmmaker Hassanah Thomas-Tauhidi she briefly outlines the history and experience of the bean pie in in the African American Muslim community. Thomas-Tauhidi’s is also the producer of the D.C. television series “Living Islam in America.

The short film outlines how the pie originated in the hands of Sister Lonnie Shabazz in New York city and then passed through the hands of the children of the Nation of Islam’s leader, Elijah Muhammad. Muhammad had instructed his followers to “eat food that Allah has prescribed” and “Even take little things such as beans. Allah says that the little navy bean will make you live, just eat them. He said to me that even milk and bread would make us live. Just eat bread and milk—it is the best food. He said that a diet of navy beans would give us a life span of one hundred and forty years. Yet we cannot live ½ that length of time eating everything that the Christian table has set for us.” As most beans were prohibited from the strict dietary guidelines laid out in How to Eat to Live, the dietary guide for the Nation of Islam, the path was paved for the simple and delicious pie that would nourish the souls of Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

The bean pie is not a sweet potato pie substitute. Anyone who has consumed a traditional bean pie will assure you that beans will be the farthest thought from your mind when the rich buttery, flavors meet your pallet.

So…bean pie, my brotha? My sista?


For more on the history of the bean pie see:

Bean pie, my brother? –Mike Sula

Narjis Nichole Abdul-Majid is a part-time lecturer in the departments of Pan African Studies and Humanities at the University of Louisville. Her research interests focus on the African American and Native American Islamic experiences (Slavery-Melungeons-20th Century Islamic Movements-Present Day) with emphasis on minority voices.