Tag: Islam in America


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

by Sapelo Square

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.


Being Muslim and Not Belonging Anywhere

by Mikel Aki’lah Jones

(originally posted on HijabiChronicles.com)

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.

American Muslims and the Historical Struggle for Black Lives: A Reflection on Malcolm X in Between the World and Me

by Will Caldwell

We are still grappling with the life and legacy of Malcolm X now more than fifty years after his martyrdom in the Audubon Ballroom. His lived example ironically inspired both the formation of the Black Panther Party and the Nation of Islam’s gradual move away from black nationalism. Spike Lee canonized him as a black hero in his 1992 film, Malcolm X, and he was referenced at Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration as a dangerous, militant foil to a sanitized, pacifist rendering of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr..1 He has been both the quintessential black revolutionary for Marxists and a paragon of “post-Hajj” Islamic orthodoxy for many Muslims. Many have attempted to stake a claim in (or denounce) the multitudes that he contained so effortlessly. Yet Malcolm-the-Black-Hero and Malcolm-the-Muslim seem rarely to meet each other in contemporary discourse—despite their emergence from a man for whom these identities walked hand-in-hand. How, then, are we to understand his legacy at a time when a prominent face of American Islam has spoken out against the movement for Black Lives even as calls for solidarity between Muslims and communities of color in the age of Trump are invoking his name anew?2

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ most recent book, Between the World and Me, provides an excellent place to begin a fresh encounter with Malcolm X. Coates writes the book as a letter to his son, discussing the realities of race and racism he will need to navigate growing up in the United States. Malcolm makes an early appearance here as a formative voice for Coates’ own development as a young black man coming up in Baltimore during the eighties and nineties. This was a time, he explains, in which the “air… was charged with a call for a return, to old things, to something essential, some part of us that had been left behind in the mad dash out of the past and into America.” Malcolm’s voice emerged clearest among these calls, sampled alongside bass lines and drum beats during the early days of hip hop. “I loved Malcolm because Malcolm never lied, unlike the schools and their façade of morality, unlike the streets and their bravado, unlike the world of dreamers. I loved him because he made it plain, never mystical or esoteric, because his science was not rooted in the actions of spooks and mystery gods but in the work of the physical world.” Malcolm recalled a form of blackness that was essential and pure—molded but not ravaged by centuries of enslavement and racial terror. Importantly, for Coates, this also implied a form of blackness untainted by the Christianity that he himself never knew. Malcolm X was someone who “would not turn the other cheek for you…. Malcolm spoke like a man who was free, like a black man above the laws that proscribed our imagination.” Coates prized Malcolm as a paragon of blackness who was unapologetic, driven by forces unseen, yet thoroughly rooted in this physical world: “he returned [from prison] wielding some old power that made him speak as though his body were his own. ‘If you’re black, you were born in jail,’ Malcolm said…. Perhaps I too might wield the same old power that animated the ancestors.”3


Coates’ describes a Malcolm thoroughly cast in the die of a Marxist revolutionary. He is a black hero precisely because he cuts through racist and religious obfuscation to the underlying material conditions of white supremacy. Yet this description simultaneously captures the complexity of a man whose revolutionary spirit and commitment to justice for black Americans is fully constituted by his Islam. The author’s use of “spooks and mystery gods” to characterize the forces Malcolm fought with his “science” directly quotes Elijah Muhammad’s polemics against Christian theism in favor of Islam as a “natural religion of the black man.”4 Islam was also, of course, that “old power” with which Malcolm returned from prison—just as it undoubtedly animated countless ancestors before and after “the mad dash out of the past and into America.”5 Despite Coates’ own avowed atheism, he cannot seem to praise Malcolm as a black hero without subtly invoking his Islam. For as he faithfully demonstrates, Islam is the black power that animated Malcolm X and his continued legacy.

Between the World and Me provokes us to ponder the full complexity of Malcolm X by thinking about the history that produced him. His power was an “old” one because the potent relationship between Islam and black peoples in the Americas long preceded him. But what is this historical relationship and how are we to think about it? Here, too, Coates provides valuable insight. Toward the end of the book, he speaks directly to his son about his ancestors and the struggle he inherits from them. “The Struggle is in your name, Samori—you were named for Samori Touré, who struggled against French colonizers for the right to his own black body.” This is, of course, the same Samori Touré who ruled the independent Muslim empire of Wassoulou in what is now Guinea; his aptly-named “struggle” was in fact a jihad against the French that he inherited from al-Hajj Umar Tal and a lineage of anticolonial mujahideen before him. That “old power” that Coates admires in Malcolm X is thus a tradition of African Muslim struggle that extends across the Atlantic—informing new struggles that we still fight today.6


What Coates can point us toward is in fact a new understanding of the history of Islam in the Americas through a fuller account of Malcolm X. The presence of significant numbers of African Muslims enslaved in the Americas is now an established historical fact.7 Historical research over the past few decades has revealed as many as 30% of the Africans enslaved in the United States were Muslims—and that this accounts for only a fraction of the total Muslims stolen from Africa over the course of the Atlantic Slave Trade.8 Historians have, so far, written African Muslims into existing narratives about black enslavement—a natural choice reflecting the very real evidence of Muslims on plantations throughout the Americas. Yet this is not the full story. The line running from Samori Touré to Malcolm X, two Muslim revolutionaries unbent by colonialist racial terror, certainly does not seem to run through the plantation. Indeed, there is ample evidence to suggest that the tradition of African Islam running between them has been transmitted through free communities of Muslims living and engaged in anticolonial struggle in the Americas for centuries. The “Free Mandingoes” of Trinidad, the Malê Revolt of Bahia, and Fort Musa in Florida are just a few such examples.9 While the history of enslavement is therefore necessary to tell the full story of Islam in the Americas, it is certainly not sufficient; free African Muslims fighting colonial subordination have been integral to the struggle for black self-determination that Malcolm X and his protégés inherited.

The two Malcolms mentioned above must begin to meet more often in our memories of him. He has been a hero to black revolutionaries and Muslims alike for half a century now because Islam has always been integral to the structure of what Cedric Robinson calls the “Black Radical Tradition”—that “specifically African response to an oppression emergent from the immediate determinants of European development in the modern era and framed by orders of human exploitation.” The freedom of black peoples in the Americas has likewise been the historical condition for the free and full practice of Islam in this hemisphere. This history can be the basis for meaningful solidarity going forward—one to which our Black Muslim hero has always pointed us.

  1. Sohail Daulatzai, Black Star, Crescent Moon: The Muslim International and Black Freedom Beyond America (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012), ix-x. ↩︎
  2. Sheikh Hamza Yusuf recently stoked controversy as the RIS 2016 conference by claiming that the United States is “one of the least racist societies in the world,” defending police who commit violence against minorities, and broadly dismissing anti-racist movements like Black Lives Matter. ↩︎
  3. Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2015), 36-37. ↩︎
  4. See the first chapters of Message to the Blackman, entitled “Who Is That Mystery God?” which answers, “some invisible spook somewhere in space.” Elijah Muhammad, Message to the Blackman in America (Phoenix, AZ: Secretarius MEMPS Publications, 1973), 4-5. The original teachings attributed to Fard Muhammad, Teaching for the Lost-Found Nation of Islam in a Mathematical Way, uses the same language. ↩︎
  5. Malcolm’s conversion in prison is detailed in The Autobiography of Malcolm X. ↩︎
  6. Coates, Between the World and Me, 68. ↩︎
  7. See, for example, Allan Austin’s African Muslims in Antebellum America or Sylviane Diouf’s Servants of Allah. ↩︎
  8. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., “How Many Slaves Landed in the US?” The Root, January 6, 2014, accessed October 16, 2016, http://www.theroot.com/articles/history/2014/01/how_many_slaves_came_to_america_fact_vs_fiction/. ↩︎
  9. See respectively: Carl Campbell, “John Mohammed Bath and the Free Mandingos of Trinidad”; Joao Jose Reis, Slave Resistance in Brazil: Bahia, 1807-1835; Samory Rashid, Black Muslims in the U.S. ↩︎


Will Caldwell is a doctoral candidate in Islam and American Religions at Northwestern University. He specializes in the history of early twentieth-century African American Muslims, with a focus on issues of race, empire, and internationalism.


Eid 2016 (Photos)

By: Malikah Shabazz

Images By: Rahmeek Rasul

Eid Ul-Adha. The greater Eid. Around the world, Muslims celebrated Eid by wearing their best fabric and sweetest oils. The multitude of pictures shared across social media showcased the beauty of Muslims across the diaspora. However, it’s the lens of special photographers that helped tell stories of the celebration.

One of those photographers is Rahmeek Rasul. The Atlanta-based visual griot specializes in portraiture and documentary photography with subject ranging from local artists to fortune 500 CEOs. Inspired by the likes of Gordon Parks and Richard Avadon, this year Rasul turned his lens towards the Atlanta muslim community to capture both Eid Al-Fitr and Eid Al-Adha. Below are the stories he captured.

Click photos below for full-size images

rahmeekRahmeek is photographer based out of Atlanta, Georgia. He was born in New York City and has lived in various cities. He specializes in portraiture and documentary photography.

Focusing his camera on social issues surrounding identity and culture. Inspired by a host of photographers ranging from Gordon Parks to Richard Avedon. Rahmeek loves to travel, drink coffee and meet new people. He has never met a stranger.