Category: History

BlogHistory

Hijra: A Black Muslim Retrospective

by Rasul Miller

source_28

I recently had a conversation with a close friend who moved to Mexico a few years ago. He reflected that his experience living as an expat had been incredibly enriching, though difficult at times. As a Black American Muslim, he found that living abroad provided a break from the psychological, social, and spiritual hardships that face people of African decent in the US. He is not alone. Recent political developments in the US have prompted many to reexamine the situation that Black people face. The routine extrajudicial killing of Black women and men by police has become increasingly visible. Expressions of white supremacist nativism have become more prominent in the wake of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. And Black people’s socioeconomic prospects remain bleak. One response has been to advocate for Black American migration, invoking our collective memory of once common calls for repatriation and mass exodus.

Our conversation made me reflect on the historical significance of hijra (emigration) for Black Muslims in the West. Hijra signifies the establishment of the model Islamic community founded by the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) over fourteen hundred years ago in Medina in response to persecution from pagans governing Mecca at the time. This was not, however, the first hijra for this early generation of Muslims. Prior to that, the Prophet (peace be upon him) instructed a number of his followers to seek asylum in Ethiopia under the protection of a righteous Christian king. For Muslims of African decent, this is a reminder of the prominent place of Africa and its people in the early period of Islam, as the religion was established on the continent even before most places in the Arab world.

While this history of hijra is invoked by Muslims of various ethnicities, Black Americans have a rich emigration tradition of their own. Since the trans-Atlantic slave trade, enslaved Africans sought to escape and create maroon societies where they would have the autonomy to live as free people and recreate the kinds of communities that characterized their life prior to enslavement. Some enslaved Africans were even able to return to the African continent. Perhaps more frequently remembered, however, is the Great Migration of Black Americans from the South to the North and West.

After the end of American racial chattel slavery, Black people in the South struggled to build their own institutions and access the rights of citizenship. However, and rather incredibly, they achieved quite a bit of success, building schools, businesses, and thriving Black enclaves, as well as electing Black politicians. This occurred during Reconstruction, which lasted roughly from 1865 to 1877, although some communities held onto these gains for a few additional years. This ended with the Compromise of 1877, more fittingly referred to as the Great Betrayal, which involved the removal of federal troops from the South who were commissioned with preventing local governments and elites from infringing upon Black people’s newly won free legal status. As a result, white vigilante violence spread throughout the region and Black towns were burned to the ground. Black people became politically disenfranchised and economically incapacitated, and were habitually plagued by extrajudicial murders, more commonly referred to as lynchings. In the wake of the inescapable horror that typified Black life in the region, many emigrated.   

Emblematic of this story is the case of Ida B. Wells, the radical Black activist and journalist who waged a global anti-lynching campaign. After moving from the rural town of Holly Springs, Mississippi to urban Memphis, Wells became part of that city’s thriving Black community, which made up roughly 40% of the population. After the lynching of a Black grocery store owner and two others, Wells advocated for Black people to leave Memphis. As a result, about half of the city’s Black population emigrated, crippling the white-dominated local economy. Wells was even open to the idea of mass Black American migration to the African continent, but ultimately settled among Chicago’s burgeoning Black population. She even spent time abroad in pursuit of Black empowerment, traveling to London to obtain international support for the anti-lynching movement.

In the wake of the Great Migration, Black people established communities in urban cities throughout the North. They pursued various strategies to achieve economic, political, and cultural self-determination. The emergence of Black Muslim communities in these cities over the course of the twentieth century is just one chapter of this larger story. These communities similarly sought to establish spaces for Black people to live self-determined lives amidst an exceedingly repressive political climate. Movements like the Moorish Science Temple and the Nation of Islam pursued these ends through Black political Nationalism. Black American Sunni Muslim communities like the Addenu Allahe Universal Arabic Association and Brooklyn’s Islamic Mission of America worked to achieve this first by creating rural, self-sufficient settlements on the East Coast, and later by pursing a distinct brand of Black Internationalism — embracing African and Middle Eastern cultural identities and aesthetics while attempting to forge transnational links with Black and Brown Muslims abroad. Of course, this list could be expanded to include Cleveland’s Muslim Ten Year Plan and Duse Mohammed Ali’s Universal Islamic Society in Detroit.

11054849_10155672261330252_4028533384544535712_n

A group of Black American Muslim women living in Dubai. Photo courtesy of Fitriyanie.

By the 1960s, Black American Muslim movements like Darul Islam and the Islamic Party of North America articulated calls for Black and Muslim self-determination in a language similar to that of revolutionary organizations like the Black Panther Party and the Black Liberation Army. While this might appear to signify a shift away from an older discourse of hijra, these movements embraced an alternative geography that oriented them toward the Black and Brown nations of the Third World. In many ways, such an orientation speaks to the heart of what hijra means. In a portion from the 89th verse of Surah an-Nisa, Allah says concerning the hypocrites (i.e. those who faked belief in Islam while plotting against the community of believers): “They wish that you reject Faith, as they do, and thus (that you will) be on the same footing (as they): But take not friends from their ranks until they flee in the way of Allah (From what is forbidden)”. Here a form of the word hijra is translated as ‘flee’. From this verse, Muslim religious scholars have extracted one of the wisdoms of the inner reality of hijra: to leave what is wrong and pursue what is righteous and just. Shaykh Ahmad Tawfiq of Harlem’s Mosque of Islamic Brotherhood once articulated this concept in a sermon, referring to Islam as an ark that would save those who embrace it from the ills that plague society.

this-photo-shows-children-the-islamberg-home-school-group-in-hancock-new-york

Young people from the Black Muslim enclave of Islamberg, New York protest threats made against them by failed Congressional candidate Robert Doggart. Photo courtesy of The Muslims of America.

This is the long history that the conversation with my friend brought to mind. The notion of hijra is an important part of Black Muslim history. Many of the leaders who represent the trajectories of both our religious and sociopolitical histories have encouraged a physical hijra — whether to majority-Muslim lands, or to an African homeland where Islam is an integral part of the religious landscape, or to parts of North America that are more conducive to a self-determined existence. Others have advocated a more symbolic hijra in the form of the kinds of cultural and religious nationalisms that motivate us to divest from the West — or at least from the aspects of Western culture that we deem to be unjust and unhealthy. In either case, the word of God rings true. The most excellent reminder can be found in the 97th verse of Surah an-Nisa:

“When angels take the souls of those who die in sin against their souls, they (the angels) say: “In what (plight) were you?” They reply: “Weak and oppressed were we in the earth.” They (the angels) say: “Was not the earth of Allah spacious enough for you to move yourselves away (from evil)?” Such people will find their abode in Hell,- What an evil refuge!”

My friend’s words reminded me that God’s earth is indeed spacious.


 rasul-picRasul 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.

BlogHistory

Muslims and Jazz in 1953

From Ebony Magazine, April 1953

Today’s post is from an Ebony Magazine article published in 1953 that explored the growing popularity of Islam among Black American jazz artists. The article provides a window into the important connection between jazz and the spread of Islam among Black Americans from the 1940s onward — especially for those who identified with Sunni Muslim communities or the Ahmadiyya movement. It centers around the saxophonist Lynn Hope (also known as El Hajj Abdullah Rasheed Ahmad), who served as a leader and teacher of a Sunni Muslim community in Philadelphia that was affiliated with the historic Adenu Allahe Universal Arabic Association founded by Professor Muhammad Ezaldeen. A few other iconic be bop jazz artists are also mentioned, including Art Blakey and Ahmad Jamal, both members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community. The piece highlights Islam’s appeal as a potential antidote for the evils of white supremacy, anti-Black racism and racial oppression.

The author recounts how Black Muslim jazz musicians like Hope and his band used their religious identity to subvert the discriminatory policies of segregation in the South.

They were able to “pass” since Arabs and “Eastern peoples” were often designated as white in segregationist America. This was attractive to some, as it indicated one’s ability to reconnect to an affirming history and cultural identity, countering “any sense of inferiority as a Negro” as the article puts it. By allowing Black artists to pass, Islam also offered a potentially powerful survival tool.

Hope’s Islamic identity and practice permeated his daily life, including his performances. His “spectacular [musical] routine” in which he was known to “parade across the bar” is cited several times in the article, along with pictures of Hope standing on top of the bar sporting a white turban during a performance. Hope is, however, also depicted as being quite devout.

Reading the article today, we might wonder whether or not he felt himself in a compromising position. By all accounts, Hope was an exceptionally knowledgeable Muslim who took his religion quite seriously. Yet, his profession carried him into some spaces (i.e., on top of the bar) that many Muslims today would deem cringeworthy. But the article also discusses how Hope drew upon Islamic teachings to help guide his business practices, contracts, paying his band members and how he spent his income. Therefore, from another angle, we might take inspiration from his ability to skillfully navigate the music industry without hiding or compromising his faith. This last point is particularly salient for Muslims living in America today. Sixty-five years after this article was published, Muslims still struggle with some of the same issues. For instance, how does one balance their professional life with a desire to pursue Islamic education? Today, we have weekend intensives and summer retreats. Hope took a year off from music to study Islam, along with history and Arabic, which enabled him to serve his religious community as a teacher. And while some Muslims work hard to avoid public displays of their faith on the job, Hope showed up to work wearing a turban.

We hope you enjoy this week’s fascinating retrospective!

BlogHistory

Profile: Ana Karim — Activist and First Woman Editor of Muhammad Speaks

by Dr. Jamillah Karim 

Sister Ana Karim was the first woman editor of the Muhammad Speaks (MS) newspaper. Appointed by Imam W.D. Mohammed in 1975, her story weaves together a legacy of women’s activism in both the Civil Rights Movement and the Nation of Islam (NOI). In particular, her story sheds new light on the male-centered narratives of the Black Muslim movement. Women like Ana Karim inspired from within Black power structures spaces for women’s leadership and contribution. Ana’s story, therefore, illuminates the way in which the Movement for Black Lives stands on the shoulders of great Muslim women in Black History.

Ana, a native of Cincinnati, Ohio, was no ordinary woman in the NOI — or person, for that matter. She was invited by Elijah Muhammad personally to join the organization. Before meeting Muhammad, Ana was a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) activist in Lowndes County. Located between Selma and Montgomery, Lowndes County was a fierce battleground for SNCC. It was also near Tuskegee, where Ana began attending college in 1965.

Ana Burks (Karim) (L) at Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University)

“I nearly lost my life,” Ana shared, recalling how some of her peers were shot to death. News of these courageous students made local newspapers that eventually fell into the hands of Elijah Muhammad. Muhammad tried to convince her to join the Muslims. She initially declined, returned to Tuskegee, and witnessed an atrocity that never left her.

It’s not that I feared death, but there was so much I wanted to do. I didn’t want to die not having accomplished anything

As we approached one house, we heard a truck coming on the road…I hid in a cornfield. There were two Caucasian guides, one at the wheel; and two on the truck bed that were on the porch talking to an African American sister who was pregnant, and some argument broke out, and we saw them grab her off that porch, hang her by her feet and split her stomach open. So it was so horrendous at nineteen to see something like that happen.

Elijah Muhammad’s call to convert to Islam began to make sense to her:

It’s not that I feared death, but there was so much I wanted to do. I didn’t want to die not having accomplished anything — just die on a back road in some rural county and my body be buried in a cornfield or drowned somewhere in a stream. I didn’t want to die like that, so I left because I thought there was a higher mission, a better opportunity to help my people with the Honorable Elijah Muhammad.

Nation period

Ana excelled as a leader in the NOI. “The Honorable Elijah Muhammad asked me to introduce Islam in Tuskegee” by contributing to the MS newspaper a column titled “Islam in Tuskegee.” After graduating from Tuskegee, she moved to Chicago to work for Muhammad and occasionally spoke on his behalf at local temples.

“He sent me to Detroit, to Cincinnati, and to Dayton to deliver his message from the pulpit, and that had never been done by any woman…He sent me to teach in areas where there was a problem. He said the minister there is not following [his] instructions.” The fact that Ana was authorized to speak on behalf of Muhammad to correct ministers illustrates that women sometimes circumvented the Nation’s traditional gender roles.

How the MS newspaper’s legacy of the “best man for the job” led to the first woman editor

 

Malcolm X started the MS newspaper in Harlem in 1960, and it soon became a stunning success. C. Eric Lincoln called it “by far the most widely read paper in the Black community.”

Historians attribute MS’s success partly to its high quality journalism. Preparing the MS from his basement, Malcolm X enlisted assistance from professional writers and editors, including Louis Lomax and C. Eric Lincoln.

Imam Mohammed once declared, “I will follow any qualified woman. What God instills in her to bring about change and human excellence among our people, I will follow.”

By 1961, the newspaper was moved to Chicago at the Nation’s headquarters and produced weekly. Dan Burley, a seasoned journalist and former editor of the Amsterdam News, was the first editor. The next two editors were also non-Muslims with experience in the Black press, one a former editor of Ebony. Elijah Muhammad, determined to get his message to the Black masses, permitted Nation outsiders to lead his newspaper for pragmatic reasons.

Malcolm X had no immediate influence over the paper once it was moved to Chicago in 1961. He did, however, arrange for his close friend and secretary of the Harlem temple, John Ali, to be promoted to national secretary of the NOI and moved to Chicago. One of John Ali’s duties was overseeing the Nation’s MS newspaper printing plant, established in 1968, where at least 500,000 papers were produced per week.

The MS legacy, therefore, was one of quality, competitive journalism: let the best man do the job. This legacy provided an unexpected platform for Ana Karim’s leadership.

When Imam W.D. Mohammed became the new leader of the NOI, he actively promoted women’s work and leadership as ideal and central to the community’s transformation to Sunni Islam. Imam W.D. Mohammed followed in the legacy of Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad to let the best man do the job, except now it was let the best man or woman do the job. Imam Mohammed once declared, “I will follow any qualified woman. What God instills in her to bring about change and human excellence among our people, I will follow.”

Women at the Center of Imam W.D. Mohammed’s Transition to Sunni Islam

Imam W.D. Mohammed leveraged the platform of MS to demonstrate his commitment to women’s leadership. Imam Mohammed had faced resistance from the MS staff, many of whom were still loyal to Elijah Muhammad’s teachings. Like his predecessors Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad, who authorized the most qualified professionals to lead the paper, Imam W.D. Mohammed sought the person most qualified to ensure that MS would reflect the transition.

Ana Karim was the most qualified person. Although she was not a trained journalist, Imam W.D. Mohammed chose Ana Karim because of her intelligence, exceptional courage and loyalty.

When Ana arrived at the MS printing plant in 1975, it was managed by John Ali, introduced previously as Malcolm X’s friend and secretary of the Harlem temple, who was later appointed as the National Secretary. John Ali had become one of Malcolm’s fiercest enemies and used the paper to cast Malcolm as a traitor. Obviously, Ali was not happy with Imam W.D. Mohammed’s leadership either.

Ana stated, “The Honorable Imam W.D. Mohammed asked if I would be willing to take the position at the paper because of the volatility down there under John Ali.” Ana described John Ali as harsh and said that the way he treated the staff “was reminiscent of the hardcore racist and ruthless rule of southern whites in Alabama during the civil rights struggle.” Ana called a meeting of the entire MS staff and declared, “If you all don’t stand up against this man, you deserve the treatment he is giving you.”

Afterwards, “a new determination to be treated with respect began to emerge on the faces of the staff.” Eventually, “it got to a point where John Ali was run out of that plant, so it was then that the Honorable Imam W.D. Mohammed asked if I would become the head of that plant and that’s how I became the first woman editor of MS.”

Ana continued to face some resistance from a few who “were not on board with the Honorable Imam W.D. Mohammed and wanted the name of the paper to remain MS.” At the end of 1975, Imam Mohammed changed the name of the paper to Bilalian News to connect African Americans to the Islamic legacy of Bilal ibn Rabah, the enslaved African who converted to Islam in Mecca and became the first man to perform the Islamic call to prayer. The Bilalian News, he instructed her, should feature developments within the new Muslim community, as well as positive news about the larger African American community. Although Ana faced opposition from male staff, her resoluteness helped stem the tide. Leading the paper in a new direction would have been difficult for any editor, but she understood that her gender amplified the fight:

1976, Transition Period, Editor at Bilalian News

“So, either you stand your ground, Sister, or they trample over you because being a woman — this was not something these brothers were used to. You know, the militant, commanding FOI, Fruit of Islam, they were the dominant force of our community in terms of visibility. So here comes a woman saying that you have to follow the agenda of Imam W.D. Mohammed. This didn’t sit well with them. But it didn’t matter. ‘You either do it or else,’ I told them. [I was prepared for this type of defiance] because I assumed the hardship of the Civil Rights Movement.”

————

Ana led the paper until 1978. She resigned to pursue a second bachelor’s degree in her childhood interest, agronomy, and continued on to complete her master’s degree. Dorothy Ghallab, succeeded her as the editor. Three men followed Ghallab until Ayesha Mustafaa, the current editor, began her tenure in 1988. Since Ana’s time, the name of the paper changed to the Muslim Journal and its staff is majority female. Today, Sister Ana Karim resides in Columbus, Ohio.

Parts of this article were previously published in Women of the Nation: Between Black Protest and Sunni Islam, co-authored by Dawn-Marie Gibson and Jamillah Karim.

 

References

C. Eric Lincoln, The Black Muslims in America (Third Edition)

Manning Marable, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention

Askia Muhammad, “Muhammad Speaks, a Trailblazer in the Newspaper Industry,” The Final Call


Jamillah Karim is an award-winning author, speaker and blogger. Jamillah specializes in race, gender and Islam in America. She is author of American Muslim Women and co-author of Women of the Nation: Between Black Protest and Sunni Islam. Dr. Karim is a former associate professor of Islam at Spelman College and holds a doctorate in Islamic Studies from Duke University. In 2014, she was highlighted as a young faith leader in the African American community by JET magazine.

BlogHistoryMalcolm X

Mystery of Malcolm X

From Ebony Magazine, September 1964

Today, on the fifty-third anniversary of El Hajj Malik Shabazz’s (Malcolm X’s) martyrdom, we re-present Hans Massaquoi’s article in Ebony covering the short period between his departure from the Nation of Islam in March 1964 and his assassination in 1965. Massaquoi followed Malcolm X across Harlem as he built the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU), “a non-religious and non-sectarian group organized to unite Afro-Americans for a constructive program toward attainment of human rights.” The founding of this organization marked Malcolm’s official foray into “the Negro revolt” that is now called the Civil Rights Movement. Elijah Muhammad had restrained Malcolm X from commenting directly on the movement and ostensibly excommunicated him for his now-famous characterization of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination as “chickens coming home to roost.” Malcolm added a fresh, militant voice to the wider movement — calling, for example, to send “armed guerrillas into Mississippi to protect civil rights workers” from attacks by the Ku Klux Klan. This message quickly gained an audience in Harlem where “the pacific voice of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is but a whisper” and “white rookie cops… casually saunter by, their billy clubs twirling with suggestive ease.”

Massaquoi writes with a cautious optimism that ought to remind us that we barely knew Malcolm X because we were robbed of witnessing who he could have become. The message of upright, restrained militancy that has solidified his image was, in the summer of 1964, more of a vision than an actualized reality. The Malcolm X we know, as Massaquoi points out, is the one who built up the Nation of Islam. What would El Hajj Malik Shabazz make of the OAAU and Muslim Mosque, Inc.? How would a prominent militant voice have shaped the Civil Rights Movement? Would we today be speaking instead of a “Human Rights” movement (as Malcolm framed the struggle)? As the author notes, “[a]lmost everybody ventures to guess, but nobody really knows.” The “Mystery of Malcolm X” remains with us.