HistoryReligion

Profile: The Leadership and Legacy of Sister Clara Muhammad

By Jamillah Karim

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Behind every great man is a great woman. Sister Clara Muhammad, or the First Lady of the Nation of Islam, was an extraordinary woman who supported two giants in the history of American Islam: her husband, the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, and her son Imam Warith Deen Mohammed. Without her, there would not have been a Nation of Islam or the unique Sunni community that evolved from it, one attuned to the concerns and aspirations of women.

Born Clara Evans near Macon, Georgia, in 1899, she experienced firsthand the injustices of the Jim Crow South. Like millions of African Americans who migrated north to escape its harsh realities, she and her husband Elijah Poole arrived in Detroit in 1923 with two infants. Hard times persisted up North as they struggled to support their growing family without full-time employment. Sister Clara described in a 1967 Muhammad Speaks article,

“With five children, there were times we didn’t have a piece of bread in the house, nor heat, water or even sufficient wearing apparel. My husband would walk the streets looking for a job daily, but would come home with no job. I would go out and try to help him, but with five children I could not work steadily. However, I was successful when I went door to door, asking for work.

Clara, therefore, experienced the common reality of black women working as domestic servants in white homes where their humanity was insulted with scant wages and the risk of sexual violence. It made sense, then, that she found Fard Muhammad’s message of race and economic advancement attractive when she heard it from a friend in 1931: “My girlfriend told me there’s a man who’s saying some things about our people. . . .We once dressed in long flowing cloth and we were royal.” Upon her friend’s invitation to meet Fard, Clara’s first thought was her husband, who was haunted by hopelessness and despair. “Maybe this might help my husband,” prayed Clara. Elijah agreed to attend the next meeting, which proved miraculous as it marked the beginnings of Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam. According to Imam W. D. Mohammed,

“When the meeting was over, as they were walking out, my father told my mother, ‘Clara, when you go back home, we gon’ have to throw all the pork out of the ice box.’ Now that’s what one lecture, one speech did.”

As the Nation of Islam grew, so did Clara Muhammad’s contribution. After the disappearance of Fard Muhammad, Elijah Muhammad contended for leadership against rivals who threatened his life. Between hiding from rivals in the late 1930s and spending time in prison for draft evasion in the 1940s, Elijah Muhammad left Clara Muhammad virtually a single mother of eight for over a decade. Added to this difficult situation, endured in the time of the Great Depression, Clara Muhammad took on the enormous task of carrying the organization in her husband’s absence.

Historian Ajile Rahman describes Clara Muhammad as an “interim leader” who carried Elijah’s orders from prison to Nation ministers. But she was more than a messenger, emphasizes Rahman. She must have been an irresistible force of inspiration and moral courage for Muhammad’s ministers and followers, encouraging them to continue the work of Nation building via regular meetings and recruiting through the duration of Elijah’s four-year absence. The fledgling group, far from the membership numbers it would boast in the 1960s, could have easily disintegrated without the leadership of a woman with vision, faith, and resourcefulness.

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Once Elijah Muhammad returned to his family and the movement began to thrive, Sister Clara Muhammad’s influence reached further. In 1931, she had pioneered the NOI’s primary and secondary independent schools, established on a national scale by the 1950s. This was unprecedented in both black and Muslim communities. The Nation’s school system, instituted by Fard Muhammad, was given the lofty title, “The University of Islam.” The first classes were in Clara Muhammad’s home, and she was the first teacher. She and her husband withdrew their children from the public schools in a time when homeschooling was illegal. Clara Muhammad never returned her children to public school despite harassment by law enforcement. It is reported that she told the police at her door, “I would rather die than send my children to the public school system.”

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Sister Clara Muhammad is a household name in American Muslim communities because of her son’s vision to honor her legacy. In 1980, Imam W.D. Mohammed renamed the University of Islam after his mother. Sister Clara Muhammad School is only one example of Sister Clara’s influence on the imam’s thought and practice.

Though rarely highlighted, the advancement of women was central to the imam’s work in the transition to Sunni Islam. In his first year, the imam appointed the community’s first female minister and first female editor of the Muhammad Speaks. Muslim Journal editor Ayesha K. Mustafaa noted, “His appreciation for sisters could always be referred back to his appreciation for his mother. He spoke of her in such glowing terms.”

It was through her role as a mother that Sister Clara most influenced Imam Mohammed’s progressive gender philosophy. He used the concept of “mother” to discuss women’s roles. In doing so, he honored another one of Clara Muhammad’s important contributions, especially in the eyes of Nation women, referred to as MGT. Clara Muhammad served as the exemplar of feminine virtues instilled in MGT, short for Muslim Girls Training and General Civilization Class. The imam, however, rejected the MGT’s narrow focus on the domestic realm and celebrated women’s unique capacity and insights as mothers in a scope beyond the home, captured in his term “mothers to society.”

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Imam Mohammed saw from his own mother that women can and must contribute to the larger society while fulfilling their role in the family as supportive wives and educated mothers. Sister Clara Muhammad epitomized this ideal, making her a role model for women and men. Having achieved this status in the face of racism and economic exploitation, she stands in the ranks of great women in Black History.

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.


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Jamillah Karim is author of Women of the Nation and American Muslim Women. She is a former Professor of Religion at Spelman College. She specializes in Islam and Muslims in the United States (African American, South Asian and Arab), Islamic Feminism, Race and Ethnicity, and Immigration and Transnational Identity.

 

History

A Tribute to Shaikh Daoud Faisal [PART TWO]

Introduction by Rasul Miller

Here we present to you the second half of a two part series on Shaikh Daoud Ahmed Faisal, authored by his student and long time assistant, the accomplish jazz trombonist and educator Hajj Daoud A Haroon. In this installment, Hajj Haroon provides additional analysis of Shaikh Daoud’s life, mission, and impact. He mentions several of the notable women and men who made up the extraordinary community of American Muslim pioneers who attended the mosque founded by the Shaikh and his wife, Mother Khadijah, at 143 State Street in Brooklyn, New York. Hajj Haroon also includes some remarkable photographs!

 

 As I mentioned in part one, thsd-office.jpgat this is not an easy undertaking even though I have had the opportunity to have spent time in the past with the venerable Shaikh and his wife Khadijah (RA) and have quite a bit of memorabilia collected over the years plus the additional information gleaned first hand by several of my surviving colleagues from those early days – but also the memories and biographies of many of the early members of the Islamic Mission of America (IMOA) and Muslims and non Muslims who had benefited from an association with the IMOA over the years. Insha-Allah many segments of this phenomenal story will be will be re-assembled and pieced together to form a reasonable reference to a truly meaningful piece of American history that transcends in many ways more conventional historic events that are not as far reaching in breadth and scope as this early attempt at Islamic propagation in the West spanning a time frame that extends from the turn of the 20th Century to the 1970’s.  

To read the complete second part of Hajj Daoud A. Haroon’s tribute to Shaikh Daoud Faisal please click the following link:
http://mancebomosaic.com/writing/a-tribute-to-shaikh-daoud-fasial-pt-2/


 

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.

Politics

On Going Home

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I have worked and lived in the Middle East for the past 5 years. I did not come for hijrah; I was perfectly fine living my deen in America, even with the pitfalls and negative assumptions therein.  I moved abroad because I wanted to contribute something to the global ummah. What I have found, however, is that my perception of American reality has been forever changed and I find myself wondering where exactly I fit in.

Living in the Middle East was never a dream of mine. I grew up on a block adjacent to a sizable Arab community. My early interactions with Arabs, both Muslim and Christian, were not always favorable. As a woman who converted to Islam at the age of 23, I was never privy to the beauty and nuance of Arab culture. My first interactions with Arabs were not always pleasant. In our neighborhood, there was always constant strife between Lebanese and Jordanian shopkeepers and the Black families who formed their customer base. The first Arabic words I ever learned were racial slurs.  I knew well enough that the people I encountered who were overtly racist did not represent the majority of Arabs. I wanted to see for myself what life was like in an Arab nation. I wanted to feel what it would be like to be surrounded by Muslims. I wanted to see what it would feel like to be truly included. The experience has been one which has caused me to question my own identity at times and has helped me to strengthen my already passionate allegiance to the Black community in my country of birth.

“Miss, stop saying you’re Black. You’re not Black.” My student did not understand why I liked wearing traditional African clothes. She didn’t understand my connection to a people and a place which seemed so far removed from an American reality. To some people here, I cannot be Black because I am American. I am not Black because my skin is lighter than some of my peers. I am not Black because I am educated. In the minds of many people I have encountered, to be Black means to be lowly, uneducated, and foreign. It is difficult for some people to imagine the reality of Blackness being a good thing, much less a symbol of pride and dignity.

There are Black people amongst the local population, those who were born and raised here and carry the national identity. They are also often the victims of racial discrimination; it seems that Black bodies are not safe anywhere on Earth. But just as their nationality trumps their skin color so, too, does mine. When a parent at school orders me to retrieve his child from inside the school because he thinks I am a service worker, he feels it is his right to do so. When the same parent later finds out that I am an American, he profusely apologizes. He then tells me about his time spent studying in Florida and asks if I’ve ever been to Disney World.  An hour earlier, I was a dark pariah, but by virtue of my blue passport, I became someone worthy of respect. It happens time and again.  Sometimes, I find myself speaking loudly English with a perfect Midwestern accent while in public. It has become a way for me to wrap myself in American privilege to avoid poor treatment. It makes me feel ashamed; there are many other Black people here who do not have the same mantle with which to wrap themselves. One of my greatest disappointments has been seeing the discrimination which is rife in what has historically been a haven for Muslims of all races and colors. I feel guilty that, even amongst my Muslim brothers and sisters, I have to wave the American flag in order to be treated like a human being.

Not every interaction is fraught with bias. I have forged strong bonds with fellow expats from neighboring lands. Where I once thought I would have very little, besides religion, in common with my Arab neighbors, I now know that we share a fervent bond forged by the communal atrocities we mutually face. They ask me about Ferguson. I ask about Aleppo. I facilitate a class project promoting Palestinian sovereignty. My students discuss the necessity of African American reparations. They speak about Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, and Freddie Gray as if they knew them.  We trade stories of tragedy.  Duma. Baltimore. Sana’a. New York. We lament the bodies of brave Syrians washed up on lonely shores. We talk about the irrationality of Black men killed for riding bicycles, selling cigarettes, of little boys gunned down for playing with the same toy guns sold in the local souk. “Did you hear about Muaz?” This was the first thing my colleague said to me as I walked in the door one morning last semester. She was referring to the Jordanian air force pilot whose death at the hands of ISIS was broadcast in gruesome detail on social media. With tears forming in her eyes, she recounted the look of horror on her husband’s face as he watched the man burn alive on his smartphone screen. She didn’t have the stomach to watch. For the first time, I knew what it truly felt like to live with the survivor’s guilt which plagues those who live far away from their ravaged communities. I felt the same pang of guilt and feeling of hopelessness as I watched news of the murder of Tamir Rice, a boy whose beautiful brown face reminds me of my own son.  It has become disheartening to watch the news and hear stories from home. It is hard to watch Al Jazeera and see the faces of my people talked about as though we are residents of a war-torn underdeveloped nation. We are American, but our Blackness seems to take precedence over all. Tragedy has become an unlikely unifier between me, an African American woman and my Arab friends. My friends fight for land and country and the freedom to move. My people fight for the right to breathe and exist as sovereign beings in our whole Black bodies. I take comfort in knowing that even though we may not share the same skin color, many of my friends in my new home share an understanding of what it is like to feel hunted.

As I write this, I am preparing to return home for the first time in 3 years. I have only been back once in the last 5 years. It almost feels like I am rushing headfirst into a burning building; my home is set ablaze with news of constant killings and harassment. But America is just that: home. Undoubtedly, the expat lifestyle is addictive and I am certain that we will continue to travel and explore the globe, by Allah’s will. But I will always return to the complicated place of my birth.  America does not own the copyright to oppression; Black bodies are under siege in many places around the globe. I will claim my stake in the land of my forefathers and I will relish in my privilege to leave when it all becomes too much. There have been too many lives lost and battles fought for me to run away from the country of my birth forever. As troubled as it may be at times, America is, and always will be, my first homeland. I do not allow myself to indulge in an elitist escapism.  Wherever I go, I carry my Black American self with me.  Here is not always better than there.


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Angelica Lindsey-Ali is an educator and community activist from Detroit, MI. She currently lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia with her husband and four children.

Religion

Praising the Prophet: Just a Question of How

The Prophet’s birthday has come and gone, but his benefit remains. There is no debate over whether Prophet Muhammad should be praised; it is clear in what he has said about himself and in what God says about him in the Qur’an, that we are obligated to praise him. The debates that surround the Mawlid, for instance, should focus on whether it is appropriate to isolate the date of his birth for a special observation of praise. Those in support of the Mawlid often site a number of arguments in favor of it. They argue, for instance, that when asked why he fasted on Mondays the Prophet responded that he was born on a Monday. From this many gathered that the Prophet himself isolated not just the date of his birth, but the day of his birth for special acknowledgment through a voluntary fast. It is important to note that he was not only fasting on his birthday, that is one day out of the year, but rather on every Monday harkening back to the Monday on which he was born. Thus, we find Muslims who celebrate the Mawlid every Sunday evening (which corresponds to Monday evening in Islamic time-keeping) like Ta’leef Collective in the Bay Area. Others will argue more generally that sending salawat (prayers for blessings) is obligatory and highly recommended for us; therefore, the Mawlid is just one organized way to ensure that this commandment, if you will, is fulfilled.

As Muslims, it is undeniable that our spiritual aspiration is directly related to how much space the Prophet occupies in our hearts and how much preference we give to his way in our actions and character. In this regard, it is related from Ibn Mas’ud that the Prophet said: “The foremost on the Day of Judgment are those who pray most for me to be blessed.” Conversely, the Prophet said: “The miser is the one who does not send blessings on me when I am mentioned in his presence.” This miserliness may go in at least two directions, the most obvious is that the Muslim denies the Prophet something that he is deserving of. Remember that God says of the Prophet that he has “only been sent as a mercy to all the worlds (21:107),” that “he grieves over [our] condition (12:6),” and that in him we have a “beautiful example (33:21)” for traveling along the path to God, and moreover when one considers the personal benefit the Muslim has received from the Prophet having conveyed the message which saves him from ignorance in this world and wretchedness in the next. Miserliness can also be understood in another way when one considers that the Prophet was pleased to know that any member of his community who invokes blessings on him once will be blessed by God ten times over (Study Quran, 1037). Thus, one can see that not invoking blessings on the Prophet would be to deny oneself an opportunity to be blessed by God, and thus the stinginess is turned inward and anyone who would willingly shunned this practice altogether would no doubt be thought to be acting against his own interests.

In a clear command from God to the believers to praise the Prophet, the Qur’an reads: “Truly God and His angels invoke blessings upon the Prophet. Oh you who believe! Invoke blessings upon him and greetings of peace!” (33:56) The Qur’anic exegete, Shihab Al-Din Al-Alusi observed that sending “greetings of peace” is both an injunction to a verbal action as well as an encouragement to be at peace with the Prophet and with what he has brought, preferring him and his way in one’s life (Study Quran, 1036, note 56). Abd Al-Rahman Al-Sulami likewise observed that “invoking blessings” is verbal and behavioral through following the example of the Prophet, which God has called “beautiful” (33:21), and by loving him.

We don’t pretend to have the ability to benefit the Prophet by invoking blessings upon him since it is clear that with God and His angels invoking such blessings upon the Prophet, our invocations are not needed. However, it is one way in which we show gratitude for the Prophet and align ourselves with his way. As knowers of this religion have commented, in this verse we are requested to participate in this ongoing Divine Act of praising the Prophet and to attune ourselves to this Divine Rhythm.

For more on salawat check out these videos:

Shaykh Tijani Recites Salawat

Salawat by all-black male singing group: