Tag: Muslims in America


The M.A.R.I.A.M. Experience

By Stephen Jamal Leeper

This past weekend my wife and I attended the Muslim American Research Institute Advocating for Marriage conference – M.A.R.I.A.M. for short –  at Masjid Waritheen. For those who don’t know, Masjid Waritheen has provided a space for worship and Islamic education in Oakland, CA since the 1970’s when there were few if any places for Muslims. While it is a misnomer to call it an “African American Mosque,” it does have its origins in the Nation of Islam – a homegrown cultural and syncretic religious movement that espoused Black liberation theology. Under the leadership of Imam W.D. Mohammed, the community emerged from its nationalist cocoon and embraced the universality of al-Islam. What Masjid Waritheen didn’t lose through that transition was a strong connectedness to its roots, honoring one of the values sharia is meant to preserve – lineage.


My wife and I holding hands the first night of the M.A.R.I.A.M. Conference

That was evident at the conference, which was open to anyone, although this event was specifically tailored to address the needs of marriages among African American Muslims. The presenters and organizers customized every aspect of the workshops to a Black audience – from the content, to the anecdotes and cultural references, to the food. For Instance, Dr. Debra Majeed, Professor in the Religious Studies Program at Beloit College, presented research from her new book, Polygyny: What It Means When African American Muslim Women Share Their Husbands, in which she discussed how Black women have been socialized to want a partner that is Black and of equal or higher social and educational status.


Top left: Imam Faheem Shuaibe introduces Dr. Deborah Majeed and holds up her new book. Top right: Dr. Deborah Majeed

Imam Jihad Saafir and his wife Garland Bush, founders of Islah Academy, a private Islamic School in Los Angeles, did a joint presentation entitled, in part: Re-education of Islamic Marriage – Developing a Marriage System for the African American Context. The premise of their workshop was that Black couples bring additional “baggage” into a marriage due to the historical context of slavery and racial oppression. Therefore, a specialized curriculum must be developed and propagated by Masajid serving African American Muslims. Imam Saafir and Ms. Garland Bush wove together critical race theory with traditional Islamic text in a historical analysis of the Black experience and how it has impacted the Black family.


Imam Jihad Saafir and Ms. Garland Bush

Focusing on a specific experience while appealing to a broader audience is a balance that is not easy to strike. One either risks alienating participants not from the dominant group or being so vague and general that the overall experience being created feels inauthentic. Teachers face a similar challenge in a diverse classroom of students, and the question in both cases is one of pedagogy – how do you make your presentation of content culturally relevant and engaging to a broad cross section of learners?  This turned out to be inconsequential considering that all the presenters and the overwhelming majority of attendees were Black.

This does raise an important question – how do we focus on serving the needs of the African American community and not just be a “Black Mosque?” Masjid Waritheen’s racialized history casts a shadow that it has long been under. In reality, though, this is not apart from the legacy of the segregated American congregation– specifically in the African American religious experience. The difference is that while Black churches have generally needed white permission to serve Black folks, Masjid Waritheen has unapologetically sought no such permission to make its mission a political, economic, and spiritual liberation for Black folks. As has always been the belief among African American Muslims – it all starts with rebuilding families by mending relationships between Black men and Black women.


A family in attendance at the M.A.R.I.A.M. Conference

After the conference was over I couldn’t help but reflect on my relationship with my father. During my junior year in high school he came back in my life after a five-year absence. At the time I was in my first serious relationship with a young woman. It was her birthday and I didn’t know what gift to buy her. When I told my dad I was thinking about getting her lingerie he laughed and said, “No brother! That’s not good etiquette.” It was my first lesson in adab regarding relationships. One of the major themes of the conference was preparation – something I got very little of by the time I was about to marry my wife, nearly ten years after my first girlfriend. That’s not to say I didn’t have some help from my family and a bit of pre-marital counseling from an Imam. However, the Masajid I attended had not yet set up a marriage curriculum that Imam Jihad Saafir talked about. I didn’t receive practical advice and strategies from other young couples for building a “sacred house of marriage” like Dr. Marcus Lambert and Ms. Zahara Lambert shared in their presentation.


My wife and I reflecting at one of our favorite spots in San Francisco, CA.

In the end, the preparation we were being called to make was not simply building healthy marriages in this life. The greater preparation is for the final union with our Beloved in the next world. Marriage is only half of that preparation. Taqwa, piety towards God, is the other half.

For more images from the M.A.R.I.A.M. Conference visit Sapelo Square’s Facebook Page.


Stephen Jamal Leeper is a writer, educator, and nonprofit consultant. Above all, he is a believer. He embraced Islam while in college, and he believes in the power of words, of story, of dreaming, of activism, of community, of people, of the Creator. He is currently a Humanities and Ethnic Studies educator at Aptos Middle School in San Francisco, CA. Stephen lives in Oakland, CA with his wife Aïdah and their cat, Muezza.



Profile: Mustafa Davis & Usama Canon


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.


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.



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.


Black Churches Burning- Speech at the Parliament of the World’s Religions, Emerging Leaders Plenary

First Posted on October 20th, 2015

1391195484007-freedom08First I’d like to thank the Parliament of World Religions for inviting me here, I feel honored and humbled to be on this stage given the fact that I am so early in my own journey. I’d like to begin by talking to you about some emerging leaders who lived a long time ago and then I’d like to talk to you about our project, Rebuild with Love, a Muslim-led initiative to help rebuild black churches burned down by arsonists in the south.

I want to throw out some names to you: Faatimah bint Muhammad, Ali ibn Abi Talib, Ayesha bint Abu Bakr; Mus’ab ibn Umayr, Uthman ibn Affan, and Abu Hurayra. Some of you will recognize these names because these are some of the most well-known companions of the Prophet Muhammad. Most Muslims would have some knowledge of each of these women and men. The reason why I bring them up together as one group is because they were all young when Prophet Muhammad first received his revelation from God. We tend to think of the companions of the Prophet, the men and women who learned from him and helped him spread his message as middle-aged and established, removed from society. But many of his companions were around his age of 40, and many were much younger than that. These giants, as we think of them now, became the way they became because they heard the Prophet speak to his friends and his enemies; those who would secure the success of the message and those who would fight tooth and nail to undermine its spread.

And when we say that they were present when he first received his revelation we should remember what the revelation was. It was a revolution. It brought absolute chaos and dissention, but it also brought the most sublime almost unreasonable brotherly and sisterly love those people had ever seen.

So when we say they were there, it means they saw him preach under the glorious light of the Arabian sun to people like themselves for whom the message had come just in time. It means they saw him threatened with death over and over again by those who found the message entirely inconvenient because of its social justice, egalitarian message.

It means they sat with him while he told them how honored they should feel to be creations of God, honored with intellects, hearts, language and beauty and the ability to know their Lord. It means they sat with him while he questioned them as to the strength of their faith that they could bear to go to sleep at night while their brother down the road lays restless, kept awake by the hollow pain in his stomach from lack of food.

So we have all these young people being taught and nurtured in the ethics and spirituality of the religion, experiencing triumphs and challenges with the community. Then these young people go out and they quite literally change the world with the kind of tenacity and creativity that young people have at their best: nurtured but not sheltered; worldly but not broken.

When I think of examples like these in our current period I think of Razan and Yusor Abu-Salha and Deah Barakat, three Muslims students gunned down in their apartment in North Carolina. All three of whom were deeply invested in the health and welfare of refugees which stands as a testament to the vibrancy and dynamism in the homes they grew up in and the people they grew up with.

Before I say more about the initiative itself, I’d like to speak to the history of targeting black churches. We should keep in mind that attacks on Black churches are a very old form of intimidation in the South especially. Historically used to strike fear into the hearts of Black people. So its results were both physical and psychological damage. Although it is true that arson at religious institutions has decreased over the decades, attacks on black churches today are a haunting reminder of what used to be a norm. And the fact that almost immediately when a black church is burned down before investigators can conclude the cause as arson, many black people make that conclusion for themselves, which speaks to a very real anxiety under the surface that many members of the black community carry with them.

The act of burning black churches is emblematic of the very difficult position black people have historically been in, the tenuousness, the fact of living in between a rock and a hard place; forced to exist in this land, but criminalized and brutalized for trying to create a life worth living in this land. The church is standard infrastructure in so many black communities- it stands tall. So attacking it is akin to attacking its people, breaking it down is akin to breaking the backs of its people.

A church is a community’s attempt to strike roots in the ground, which seems benign enough, but the black church has continually come into conflict because certain segments of society only want black people to live tangentially, on the surface and in a state of anxiety. The church, when it is at its best, is a bed of ideas, a hub of learning, a center out of which thought spreads outward and through the community, a place to reaffirm one’s humanity and worth before God, a place to organize and plan for the future of the community. So when there are people who are uncomfortable with black people finding permanence, then attacking a center of spirit and culture like the church makes total sense.

Some may ask why am I, as a Muslim, so concerned about the black church. I’m concerned because black people are my people and this country is my country, and because I don’t want to live in a world where dark-skinned people are perpetually oppressed, where unsubstantiated hatred of the other, whoever that “other” is, turns violent. When Prophet Muhammad told us to free the slaves he didn’t say only the Muslim slaves, he just said free the slaves because people are born free, should live free and die free.

What’s interesting and perhaps unique about the burning of black churches in America is that the perpetrators of these crimes are people who would likely identify as Christians. So this is actually Christian on Christian violence. That’s a lens through which you could view it at least. In other countries, we might tend to see people of different faiths at odds with each other, or one religious group aggressing against another religious group. However, in this country historically, white on black hate crimes can also usually be viewed as Christian on Christian hate crimes. I think this is important to acknowledge because we DON’T tend to think of ourselves as a country that has religious violence. In fact, religious freedom is at the center of how we tell the story about ourselves. But the forced conversion of Native populations in the West to Christianity was often done through religious violence; the forced conversion of enslaved Africans was often accomplished through religious violence. That threat didn’t really go away, it just morphed so that if blacks didn’t preach or testify to the kind of feel good Christianity they were taught, if they didn’t practice a humility that was more along the lines of despondency, if they didn’t “love” their oppressors, there was, again, fear of retribution. So even people like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. were sometimes criticized for not being quite Christian enough, which was really just code for not sitting back and taking your oppression.

The first church burning on record happened in 1822, 40 years prior to emancipation. Probably one of the most well know incidents of this was the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama which killed four girls. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr gave the eulogy for those four young victims. During the mid 90s over 100 black churches were burned down.

The campaign that my team started, Rebuild with love, was driven by the principle that all houses of worship are sacred and the often quoted “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” The initiative had three parts: 1) to raise awareness of the hate crime afflicted upon these churches 2) to raise money within the Muslim community in order to help the churches rebuild and 3) to develop a connection with these churches built on a foundation of goodwill.

We wanted to send a strong message of support, and to stand up against hate. We know that fear can be devastating and crippling and that even if someone can dust themselves off from hate it doesn’t mean that feeling of having been targeted or violated will permanently go away. We wanted to contribute to dissipating that fear that those congregations could be feeling by extending a helping hand they didn’t anticipate reaching out to them. We also wanted to make very clear the deep connections between the black community and the Muslim community in that 1/3 of American Muslims are black, in that up to 20% of Africans brought to the Americas to be slaves were Muslim. We wanted to take that message and present it to the Muslim community, and say, listen, this is our problem too. So we fundraised within the Muslim community and gave those fund to the churches, and I’m happy to report that those churches are beginning to rise from the ashes.

Thank you


A Sacrificial Lamb: Reflections on Suffering and Comfort

by Faatimah Knight

For many death is not a subject that readily lends itself to reflection. It’s elusiveness and general undesirability keeps us at an arm’s length from it. Death is a constant worry and an unrelenting threat to the permanence we know so well. Yet, dying is just as much a part of the natural order as living. Perhaps as modern people we are so acutely sensitive to talking about death because we do not see ourselves as properly within the natural order.

There is a prophetic saying that has always comforted me: “On the Day of Judgment, God will present death in the form of a lamb and slaughter it.” I take that it is meant to comfort humanity: there will be no more dying past this point. Now that I think about it, I see parallels between that and ‘atonement through substitution’ in Christian theology in which Christ takes humanity’s place as the recipient of penalties humanity otherwise deserves. In the example of the lamb of the hadith, the fact of dying that is attached to all of humankind and creation is transformed into one being, a lamb, whose very purpose is to be death incarnate. Once the sacrificial lamb is slaughtered, death will never taunt us again or separate us from our beloveds.

Resurrection, insofar as it promises new life, can just as well be an antidote to the fear of death. Or, the uncertainty of our place in the abode of resurrection can compound our fear of dying. I’ve found myself wondering recently: What if God treats each person according to what that person sincerely believed about God? Would that be ‘fair’? My understanding of Islam allows me to think that to a certain extent this is possible. The God I believe in values sincerity and conviction to one’s well-examined beliefs. Thus one way of passing judgment would be to place people on a spectrum, ranging from those who were true to their convictions to those who were not—whatever the form and content of those convictions may have been.

I relate strongly to the concluding sentiments in “What Manner of Love?” an essay written by Dr. JoAnne Terrell, in which she reflects on seeing The Passion of the Christ in a movie theater with other Black women around her age, and what drove these women to the theaters, and why the suffering of Christ so overwhelmed them. Terrell holds that God does not suffer more than us, but rather that “God identifies with us in all manner of suffering.” She writes quite movingly: “I refuse to believe that Jesus’ whipping was more brutal than those of my slave forebears.”

“God does not seek to supersede us in suffering either in quantity or quality,” writes Terrell but to persuade us to stop inflicting suffering.” I almost have a selfish impulse to say, “Suffering is ours, and God can’t take it.” It does not help me to know that God suffers as others do, or more severely than others, but rather to know that God sees our suffering through those unselfish Divine eyes is more redeeming a theology for me.

[1] JoAnne Marie Terrell, “What Manner of Love?” 22.IMG_3649