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Profile: The Yellow House in Medina Baye, Senegal

By Samiha Rahman

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African American students posing in front of the Yellow House. Photo courtesy of Ihsan Muhammad.

Aminah Abdullah, a 12-year-old African American girl from Brooklyn, NY, boarded a plane with her 5-year-old sister Tauhidah in July of 1988. They were headed to Senegal to memorize the Qu’ran. Though their mother herself had never been to Africa, she felt comfortable sending her daughters almost four thousand miles away because they would be under the care of Shaykh Hassan Cisse, a world-renowned Senegalese Islamic scholar and humanitarian. On the ride to the airport, Aminah’s eyes were glued to the window. She took careful note of everything, not wanting to forget the home she was leaving behind.

Once Aminah and Tauhidah arrived in Dakar, Senegal, they were received by Shaykh Hassan and Sister Kareemah Abdul-Kareem, an African American woman from New York City. Aminah kept asking, “What is the Qu’ran school like? When are we going there?” She asked because she knew there were other American children at the school. She hoped that seeing them might make her feel a little less homesick.

Shortly after, Sister Kareemah took Aminah and Tauhidah to Medina Baye, a small village three hours outside of Dakar where the African American Islamic Institute (AAII) was located. The AAII Qu’ran school was founded by Shaykh Hassan and named in honor of his broader project to re-establish forcibly severed ties between African-descended peoples in America and on the African continent. Once they arrived in Medina Baye, Sister Kareemah brought Aminah and Tauhidah to the Yellow House – what would become their home away from home for the next five years.

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Students wear their brand new, tailor-made West African outfits on Eid. Photo courtesy of Ihsan Muhammad.

The Yellow House was a modest four-room building that Sister Kareemah had managed for the last few years. Though referred to by the color of its paint – which Sister Kareemah made sure to recoat every few years – it was known to most people in Medina Baye as the house where all the American students lived. At any given time, approximately 20 children and teenagers lived there. Some former residents recall that as many as fifty young people lived in the house at its peak. African American parents sent their children from New York City, Atlanta, Detroit, and other urban centers to live at the Yellow House and to memorize the Qu’ran at AAII. When Aminah’s mother told Shaykh Hassan that she wanted to send her two young daughters to Senegal, he responded, “Bismillah. I will take care of them like my own.” He fulfilled this promise to all the American parents who sent their young children to Medina Baye in pursuit of Islamic education and firsthand experience with Islam in Africa.

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Photo courtesy of Ihsan Muhammad.

Nonetheless, the young people felt homesick. Most of them spoke to their parents no more than once a week over a rickety and expensive telephone connection, and more often, waited weeks to exchange hand-written letters. But surrounded by so many other Americans, they kept alive many of their traditions from back home. Kubra Askari-Cisse traveled to Medina Baye from Atlanta and finished memorizing the Qu’ran at AAII at the age of 20. She recalls eating suhoor – the pre-dawn meal eaten by Muslims in preparation of their sacred fast – daily during the month of Ramadan at the Yellow House. In each room, the young residents set up different meal options: oatmeal in this room, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in that room, and egg sandwiches in another room. On weekends, many of them gathered to play Spades. Ihsan Muhammad, also from Atlanta, finished memorizing the Qu’ran at the age of 17. He remembers a point at which all the boys at the Yellow House were obsessed with comic books. Ultimately, one of the caretakers of the house thought the comic books were too big a distraction and burned them. (Ihsan also remembers helping to save about a hundred comic books by burying them in the sand.) He recalls that regularly reading those stories actually helped many of the young people maintain their English reading skills in the midst of their Quranic studies and Wolof  language immersion.

Shaykh Hassan worked to minimize distractions that might have interfered with the students’ studies. Ihsan recalls Shaykh Hassan making a pop-up visit to AAII. After inquiring about everyone’s academic progress, Shaykh Hassan noticed one American student missing and asked where he was. One of his classmates responded by saying that the missing student was busy washing his clothes. Hearing this, Shaykh Hassan immediately hired someone to do laundry for all the residents at the Yellow House, explaining, “Now you have no reason to miss school. Your only job here is to study the Qu’ran.”

And study they did. AAII graduated the first-known American hafiza (a woman who has memorized the entire Qu’ran) Aminah Abdul-Kareem during the late 1980’s. Aminah was one of at least eleven African American children who became hafiz and one of more than two hundred African Americans who studied at AAII. In addition to learning the Qur’an, they also picked up the Wolof language and became immersed in Senegalese culture. Outside of school, they observed Shaykh Hassan’s example of tirelessly feeding the poor and helping the marginalized. They also learned about the more spiritual dimensions of Islam, called Sufism.

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Students attend a conference with Shaykh Hassan in Banjul, the Gambia. Photo courtesy of Jannah Abdus-Salaam.

Though the Yellow House has fallen out of use of over the years, it is an institution that hundreds of African American Muslims remember fondly. It was a place where they formed lifelong bonds. Nearly thirty years later, former roommates consider each other to be siblings. Because of their life-changing experiences at the Yellow House and in Medina Baye, many of them have since sent their own children there to study. Most from this newer generation live at Kubra’s house in Medina Baye, which some former Yellow House residents consider to be this generation’s version of the Americans’ home-away-from-home. Approximately 25 African American youth live at her house, and at least four of them finished memorizing the Qu’ran while living under her care.

And so while the Yellow House may no longer serve as a dormitory for American students, its legacy continues through Kubra’s efforts in her own home. It also lives on through the memories of the hundreds of African American children, families, and communities whose lives have been forever transformed by the experiences of those who studied Islam in Medina Baye, Senegal.


Samiha Rahman is a PhD student in Education and Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Her research interests include race, religion, political activism, and education for liberation amongst communities of color globally. Prior to entering graduate school, Samiha worked with middle and high school aged youth of color in Philadelphia and New York City in the field of youth development.

Blog

Profile: Mustafa Davis & Usama Canon

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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.

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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.

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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.

BlogHistory

Profile: Mother Khadijah Faisal

By Rasul Miller 

In a well known oral tradition attributed to Prophet Muhammad (s), it is said that he exhorted his followers to treat their mothers with respect and deference, informing them, “Your Heaven lies under the feet of your mother.” That Khadijah Faisal is almost always referred to as ‘Mother Khadijah’ by members Muslim communities in Brooklyn, New York and around the country who she impacted is a testament to the respect and admiration garnered by her tireless efforts as a community servant. These efforts span over the course of five decades.

Mother Khadijah Faisal was born in Bermuda around 1899. As a young woman, she migrated to New York City. There, she met a fellow Afro-Caribbean immigrant with whom she shared much in common. Both were talented musicians — her being a vocalist and he a violinist. The two also shared membership within a small community of Black American Muslims who lived in the city during the early 1920’s. Sheikh Daoud Ahmed Faisal and Mother Khadijah Faisal, as they came to be known, got married in 1924. They would spend the rest of their lives working together as an incredible team sharing their faith and serving their community in numerous ways.

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Picture form late 1950’s flyer, courtesy of Mancebomosaic. 

During the 1920’s, the two worked together to run a concert bureau in Harlem where they utilized their artistic background to educate students. Later in the decade, they moved to a brownstone in the Brooklyn Heights section of Brooklyn at 143 State Street — a location that would achieve a special place in the history of Islam in America. After opening their home to serve as a school of elocution for neighborhood children, they converted the property to a mosque, the Islamic Mission of America, in 1939. This site served as New York City’s largest and most prominent mosque for roughly two decades, and it is still used as a Muslim house of worship today.

In addition to serving as the place where scores of American converts to Islam in New York City would learn the foundational practices of their religion, The Islamic Mission of America was an inspiration for a number of other Muslim communities that would emerge in New York City and surrounding areas during and after the 1960’s. Mother Khadijah was an attentive teacher to countless Muslim women and young people over the course of her life, earning her the title of ‘Mother’ with which she is affectionately remembered. In addition, she was the mosque’s secretary and treasurer.

The contributions that Mother Khadijah made to her community along side her husband were not limited to Islamic instruction. Rather, the Islamic Mission of America functioned as a kind of community center where American and immigrant Muslim families gathered and received institutional support. American Muslim converts sought out legal services and advocacy from Sheikh Daoud — probably the first Muslim religious leader to be recognized as a clergy member in the state of New York, while immigrant Muslims and international students became acclimated to their new environment. Mother Khadijah would continue to be a pillar for this vibrant community until her passing in 1992.

Arts and culture were also celebrated within Sheikh Daoud and Mother Khadijah’s community, which was attended by a number of prominent local artists who were part of Brooklyn’s thriving jazz scene. Specifically, the women of the community planed and hosted cultural shows throughout New York City that introduced residents to Islamically-inspired clothing and the music of West Africa and the Middle East. As the head of the Muslim Ladies Cultural Society, Mother Khadijah provided women in the community with a model for active and engaged community leadership. Traveling with her husband around the country and speaking to groups of women, as well as mentoring two generations of Muslim women in New York City from the late 1930’s until the early 1990’s, Mother Khadijah had an immeasurable impact on the spread and development of Islam in the region.

Upon her death in early September of 1992, hundreds of Muslims attended her funeral. Both the size and the diversity of this crowd, which included Black American, South Asian, African and Middle Eastern Muslims, reflected the community she built along with her husband, who died twelve years prior.

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A meeting of members of The Islamic Mission of America with Muslim leaders from the greater New York Area. Mother Khadijah Faisal stands in the center rear. Courtesy of Mancebomosaic.

The work and accomplishments of Sheikh Daoud Ahmed Faisal still have not received the degree scholarly attention that they warrant. And of course, as is often the case, even less has been written about the efforts and contributions of his wife. However, members of the community remember them as a dynamic duo who supported one another in their shared passion to work in service of their community and faith. In another tradition related from Prophet Muhammad (s), he responded a the question regarding how one should honor the rights of his or her parents after their death by saying, “You must pray to Allah to bless them with His Forgiveness and Mercy, fulfill the promises they made to anyone, and respect their relations and their friends.” Today, the young people that Mother Khadijah taught and nurtured have grown to maturity. They continue to pray for the woman who acted as a mother to an entire community, and implement the lessons that she instilled in them over many years. Many of the women among them have become professionals and educators, built families, and raised children of their own. Through their example, Mother Khadijah continues to remind us of the powerful and dynamic scholars, organizers, and leaders that Black Muslim women have always been and continue to be.


Rasul Miller is a PhD student in History and Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. His research interests include Muslim movements in 20th century America and their relationship to Black internationalist thought and West African intellectual history.Rasul Miller is a PhD student in History and Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. His research interests include Muslim movements in 20th century America and their relationship to Black internationalist thought and West African intellectual history.