Category: Religion


It Ain’t Easy: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s Journey to Islam

by Sapelo Square

In a 2015 post for Al Jazeera, basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar narrates his journey to Islam and how Black identity is central to his conversion story. Like many, Abdul-Jabbar was deeply moved by The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Abdul-Jabbar recalls how he was transformed by Malcom’s journey and the impact it had on his life: “I was riveted by Malcolm’s story of how he came to realize that he was the victim of institutional racism that had imprisoned him long before he landed in an actual prison. That’s exactly how I felt: imprisoned by an image of who I was supposed to be.”

Inspired by Malcolm, Abdul-Jabbar sought his own freedom, and his path of self-realization led to Islam. Islam responded to his desire to connect with his African heritage and also provided a means to meet the racial challenges of the 1960s and 1970s.

Islam responded to his desire to connect with his African heritage and also provided a means to meet the racial challenges of the 1960s and 1970s.

Yet, his personal transformation did not come without its costs. He dealt with strained family relationships and also disappointment from his fan base who wanted him to be “a clean-cut example of racial equality” that proved racial progress when he knew the truth was quite different.

His conversion was a private declaration of faith that happened to take place on a very public stage; yet, his move from an identity he was given to one that he chose for himself is a path worn by many who are Black and Muslim in the United States.

Click on the link to access the original post.


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Definitions and the Divine Experience

This month, we invite you to listen to an episode from the  Identity Politics podcast as hosts Ikhlas Saleem and Makkah Ali interview Imam Muhammad Mendes. Imam Mendes touches on several interesting points. In particular, he discusses how the Muslim community defines the terms imam and shaykh (23-minute mark), which are commonly used interchangeably among Muslims. Imam Mendes explains the etymology of the imam and shaykh and how the words are used today,

“These terms are often misunderstood and the community that’s using them whether it’s the scholarly community or your muslim community in general or if its the media. They all have different connotations. What a shaykh is in each of those communities means different things.”

At the 33:33 mark, Imam Mendes discusses why he chose to study Islam in West Africa and how the Black experience can be a unique Islamic experience. As you listen to the podcast, reflect on the terms imam and shaykh and what Blackness and the divine experience means to you.

Click on the link to hear the full interview,



Being Muslim and Not Belonging Anywhere

by Mikel Aki’lah Jones

(originally posted on

After greeting me, or sometimes before, fellow Muslims usually ask: Where are you from? My response is always, here. That response must not be what they are looking for because they are always left confused or uninterested in further conversation. I guess there is a wrong answer to that question, Where are you from?

When I am in the masjid and hear people refer to “back home” I sit there blankly. Sure, I’m West Indian, but that identity does seem to give me any standing in those settings. Unlike others, my relationship to the island of my family is not, in my mind, fundamentally tied up with my Islam.  I began to feel that I was missing out on a part of being Muslim because I didn’t have a “home” in the way other Muslims spoke of home. For them, home provided them with legitimacy, authority, and community. My “back home”—if I had one—did not have the same kind of power.

This feeling of homelessness has upset me ever since I was a child. My sense of belonging felt deeply threatened. I would ask myself, Why is it that I don’t have this “home” everyone talks about? What did I do wrong to be denied a home? Every Muslim community I found myself in was a house without a home for me. Each one was so reliant on this idea of “back home.” My sense of being foreign and somehow less worthy in those spaces was something I could not bear. So I distanced myself because I knew when they spoke they weren’t talking to me or about me.

For them, home provided them with legitimacy, authority, and community. My “back home”—if I had one—did not have the same kind of power.

Rather, they spoke in a way that only those with a shared home could relate to. In their minds– and increasingly in mine– their closest thing to home was Islam, and I wondered if I could compete with that kind of “authentic” connection to religion. Around Eid especially I felt incredibly alone, watching from Facebook the fuller Muslims celebrate Eid with their large families and communities, all of whom shared the same “back home.”

For some people, they find Islam through their “homes”. They have a place to go back to, and a language for that place, that is familiar, but for those of us that don’t have this, we don’t know where to go when trying to revive our iman or when trying to get back in touch with our practice. The masjids I enter don’t seem like they belong to me, and “community” events make me feel even more excluded. I’ll admit that sometimes there’s a blessing in this because I get to experience Islam organically.

I see people talk about words like “community”, “sisterhood” and “ummah” but they all seem so foreign, like another part of Islam or even the world I can’t access with having the proper home.

There’s no particular opinion dictating my experience besides my own, and there’s room to explore. But there are moments when you want to share these discoveries, I see people talk about words like “community”, “sisterhood” and “ummah” but they all seem so foreign, like another part of Islam or even the world I can’t access with having the proper home. When I would explain this feeling of loneliness, people would tell me to go to mosques or certain programs but it didn’t work. Those spaces only accentuated my feeling of otherness.

I didn’t have much community support when I started wearing hijab because no one saw me in them, there was no language or background to connect us besides the fact that we were both Muslim. My personal evolution felt less valuable, less weighty than others. I’m not saying forget about your home for the convenience of those of us who don’t have one, but be sensitive towards us. We exist and a lot of us are hurting. For some of us Islam is all we have, and this feeling of homelessness doesn’t help us in our faith or in our social development as Muslims.


Mikel Aki’lahJones (Twitter: @kindofmeem | Instagram: @meemlah) is a poet from Brooklyn, NY. She has been writing since the age of eight and uses her work as a way to share her story as a Black Muslim woman in the west. She has been published in the Poet Linc Youth Anthology 2-12-2014 created by the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts as part of their annual Target Thursdays. Aki’lah has shared her work at the Nuyorican Poets Café, Lincoln Center, and the Brooklyn Public Library. She is a foodie, bibliophile and is currently living and studying in Lyon, France.

On Imām Alī and Slow Death

As many all over the country wait for the start of a new school year and parents and children prepare to say goodbye to the summertime chill we invite you to revisit a post from October 6, 2016 titled “On Imām Alī and Slow Death.” The post discusses the sacrifices that parents make for their children and highlights the parenting advice of Imām Alī.

by Ryan Hillard

I advise you to be conscious of Allāh and not to pursue this world, even if it comes towards you. Do not cry over something that is kept away from you. Speak the truth, show mercy to orphans, help those who are lost, do deeds that will benefit you in the Hereafter. Oppose the oppressor, help the oppressed, and practice what is in the Book of Allāh. Do not fear the attacks of critics in matters concerning Allāh […] O my son(s), I advise you to fear Allāh, to establish the prayer at its appointed time, to give the alms-due in the appropriate place, and to perform excellent ablution because no prayer is accepted without purity. I advise you to forgive sins [committed against you], subdue your anger, maintain ties of kinship, be forbearing towards the ignorant, gain a deep understanding of religion, do not be hasty in taking decisions without giving them due deliberation, remain attached to the Qur’ān, maintain good neighborly ties, enjoin good and forbid evil, and abstain from immoral acts. —Imām ᶜAlī b. Abī Ṭālib

In this climate of refreshed violence against Black bodies and souls, I’ve been re-visiting the idea of “slow death” and how to recognize it in myself and those around me. Kiese Laymon defines this concept in his 2013 essay collection How To Slowly Kill Yourself And Others In America, which explores the complicated, dark realities that are exposed when aspects of humanity, specifically within the scope of Blackness in America, are removed by choice and/or by force in order to survive the lethal symptoms of fear and racism. The “slow death” could be interpreted as a series of decisions and actions that black people take, and sometimes inherit, in this country that erode the human spirit for the sake of “getting by”.

2016-08-30-18-46-37As a new father, I’ve been increasingly inspired by Black parents who love their children more than themselves, and kill themselves slowly to make sure that they live. The guarantee of the childrens’ living is volatile at best, and all the more endangered nowadays by the systematic killings of Black babies. Even if the children dodge the bullets and escape out of the back doors of their mothers’ homes as the police ram their way into the only safe spaces they have known, the “living” that becomes their adulthood is more so survival than anything else, a type of fugitive status, continually making decisions to evade a fatal punishment, for a Black existence that is deemed criminal. I guess this makes me a fugitive, too; and as one, anything I teach or pass on to my child becomes a lesson in survival rather than an experience in living.

Imām ᶜAlī, may his face and progeny be ennobled by the Most High ﷻ, advised his sons, even up to the last breath before his return, to be ever-conscious of God ﷻ and to safeguard the realities of creation with unreasonable love. I choked while reading his loving exhortations; not simply because of the wisdom and faith his words were saturated in, but because of the look I imagined on the faces his sons al-Ḥasan, al-Ḥusayn, and Muḥammad al-Akbar al-Ḥanafiyya. There is something about the intensity of being on the verge of tears that makes one clutch at every word that comes from the source of one’s heartbreak. Perhaps the heat rushing to one’s pained face and the stinging pricks behind bloodshot eyes empower the head and heart to listen with acute and painful clarity. When I envision their faces, I see them listening. And then they wash and bury him, actualizing all the love that they inherited from their father, and knowing that their survival hangs on his every word.

My father is still in this world, and it is hard to say how I’ll be when he passes. Whether he jokes about some thing that went down at his job or silently reads his Bible while Mom watches “Frozen”, possibly judging her for still watching cartoons, I listen to him. He’s here for me to listen to, and has something for me worth listening to. I will keep my ears, visible and hidden, attuned to his mannerisms and inflections, altruism and forbearance, weakness and humility, presence and absence, and the emanations of love that emit from his slow death. I’ll still listen when he’s gone, but it will be different. There won’t be booming voices in the sky nor still murmurs in the annals of my mind to echo his words. It will be in my limbs and my own words that my father will be heeded, as if he never left.

I pray that God ﷻ preserves and loves my father for his being and efforts, and converts his mistakes and shortcomings to good deeds. I want to say that my black father is unique from the others that die slowly as he does, but then I would be lying about him. He inherited a quiet violence from his father that looked like selfish disdain for my lack of athleticism, long military tours to pay for a home he wanted to escape from anyway, and acknowledging his pride in his marriage while still leaving a door open for some people to violate it. He always told me that he is not perfect and to never put him on a pedestal, probably because things placed on pedestals can be seen all the way around.

A photo by Majid Korang beheshti.

And even my mother, how much of her am I? I ask God ﷻ for me to taste the Garden in this life at her feet, even when she kicks me. Those swift kicks serve as a reminder that the ones you love the most will hurt you the most, not because that person is ill-intended, but because you made the assumption that they wouldn’t. Her slow death comes in the form of watching the news to make sure that my brother and I aren’t on there, using her work breaks to write lists of baby names that are full of meaning and cultural relevance but will still get her grandbaby hired, and crocheting to keep her mother alive in her hands. She knows she is alive and did not make it on her own, but also knows that her children are not her and may not make it on their own. But she tries, pauses for a brow wipe, and tries anyway. Gardeners are like that.

I wonder if I’ll love my children in the same way they do, and how my slow death will play out for and because of them. I want them to have their mother’s eyes and her anomalous womanism. I hope they have my lips and the eloquence of tongue that cuts through the illiteracy and suppression that America tries to swaddle every colored child in. I dream that they will inherit the need to protect their hearts from the ulterior motives of others from their grandfathers. I pray that they are gifted with the consistency of their steps toward God ﷻ that only their grandmothers can bestow.

Above all, I just want them to know that God ﷻ loves them and will try them by that love, just as Imām ᶜAlī alluded to in his final counsel to his sons. My parents were the greatest test for me, and I do not doubt that I will be to mine, too. Just like Imām ᶜAlī, in loving my children more than myself, I will be giving myself to them and probably hurting them in the process while I kill myself slowly for their survival. Whether they go on to survive depends on how much God’s love they can unselfishly give in return, and wield to swing back at the forces that hunt them.

Be grateful to Me and to your parents; to Me is the destination. | Qur’ān 31:14


Ryan Hilliard @rynbhllrd (Religion Editor) is a Chicago native serving as the visiting speaker-in-residence at The Green Room, a safe space for Muslim youth in northern Alberta. He is the former Youth Director for the Islamic Association of Collin County in Plano, Texas, as well as US Liaison for SeekersHub Español. He currently lives in Edmonton, Alberta with his wife.