“Nobody cares about Black Muslims except Black Muslims,” the Arab member of the Muslim Student Association (MSA) told me. I was vice president of the MSA at the predominately White university that I attended in America, and I had suggested to the MSA board members (who were all Pakistani and Arab except myself) that we host a forum wherein we discuss the difference between the Nation of Islam (NOI) and orthodox Islam.
Many Americans did not know the significant differences between the Black-empowerment NOI organization and the authentic religion of Islam, so I felt that hosting an event to discuss the fundamental differences would be educational and timely for students and faculty at the university.
However, some of the board members believed that the topic was not appealing enough to justify an entire event—because African-American Muslims allegedly were not a group that people cared about. Though our MSA eventually hosted the event that I suggested, the board members’ reluctance and opposition to an African-American themed event continued to bother me for quite some time.
“Calling all my brothers, can I get a quick huddle?
Time out for a second, need to address some trouble.
I see so many of us on the stumble,
No goals, no direction, so affected by the slow, subtle
Devaluation of our roles.
Nobody to teach us, took the poppas out the homes,
Left to learn alone
What it means to be a man,
So it’s easy for the media to carry out their bigger plan.”
When I first saw the video “Man Up” by the artist Khalil Ismail featuring the former professional basketball player Etan Thomas, I was deeply moved. Khalil’s words “Calling all my brothers…” entreat African-Americans to consider deeply the issues plaguing their communities.
However, the solution to these problems is not in the hands of secular media or in current political powers. Rather the solution is in the hands of African-Americans themselves, hence the refrain “Man up,” asking men to be men, by respecting themselves, their communities, their families, and their women.
But the words touched me on a deeper level. Though they are an entreaty to African-Americans specifically, they speak to world consciousness as a whole, particularly to Muslims in America and abroad. Muslim men and women are the first teachers to their children and thus have the phenomenal power to leave an indelible mark on the psyche of Muslim youth. This cultural psyche determines how Muslim boys and girls see the “other” from childhood through adulthood.
So what was the cultural psyche of the Arab and Pakistani MSA members that made them believe that “nobody” cares about African-American Muslims? What was the cultural psyche of Muslims from various parts of the world that made them believe that darker skin somehow equals ugly and unintelligent? What was it that made Muslim immigrants to America readily cite and fight for their civil rights amidst the post 9-11 Islamophobia while continuously perpetuating in their homes, masjids, and communities the same racist and colorist ideas that sparked the need for the American Civil Rights Movement itself?
So no, the lessons African-Americans learn while addressing their community issues are not limited to American Muslims of color. They extend to the worldwide Muslim community, who could benefit from heeding the advice to “man up” when eradicating colorism and racism from the ummah.
“Living Love,” a Message to Muslims of All Colors
Some months ago, I sat down with my sister and my daughter to do a video entitled “Living Love.” The video features a poem I wrote as a tribute to my parents for all that they taught me and my siblings about life and faith. I chose to share it on YouTube because I felt the message of “living love” transcended all cultures, races, and ethnicities to benefit all Muslims, and even those of different faiths.
When I was a youth, my father was a community activist and regularly spoke out against injustices suffered by African-Americans. My father was widely known for his work as an Islamic teacher in the prison system, where he met the famous boxing champ Mike Tyson who eventually accepted Islam as a result of my father’s teachings. My father worked as Mike Tyson’s spiritual advisor for years and regularly counseled famous rappers and entertainers, who were primarily African-Americans looking for spiritual direction.
Following in my father’s footsteps, I began penning poetry and reflections about current events, and while I was in high school, I wrote editorials for the local newspaper and focused mostly on moral issues affecting youth of all ethnicities and backgrounds. However, this was only the beginning for me. I visualized myself as a professional writer making a positive impact worldwide, and what guided this endeavor was my parents’ message of “living love” that inspires so much of what I write today.
Do American Muslims of Color Even Matter?
In fact, the racism I’ve personally experienced was often so blatant that I recently said to an American Muslim friend, “Being around Muslims from other countries has made me grateful for the racism I experienced from non-Muslim Americans. At least as a culture, Americans recognize the need to be ashamed of what they’re doing.”Though I continue to be inspired by my parents’ message of “living love,” it is often difficult to reconcile what I learned about Islam from my parents with what is being taught about Islam through the actions of other Muslims. My experience in American Muslim communities populated mostly by immigrants from predominately Muslim countries suggests that the racial hatred and injustices that necessitated the Civil Rights Movement and the ultimate recognition of Black History Month are being perpetuated in the homes and communities of Muslims every day.
How was it that I sat through MSA meeting after MSA meeting, listening to Muslim students implore everyone to give time and money to events aimed at raising awareness about the suffering in Palestine and Kashmir, but the mere idea of talking about something that would raise awareness about Islam itself was dismissed solely because the topic included Black Americans?
How was it that I sat in the women’s area of a masjid awaiting the start of prayer, and I heard children of the imam discussing the ugliness of brown skin? How was it that my White friend who recently became Muslim was confronted in the masjid and asked, “Why would you marry a Black man?”
Yet these same Muslims complained about Islamophobia and the racial profiling of Muslims post 9-11. Ironically, the very civil rights that Muslim American immigrants are so passionate about securing for themselves exist largely due to the sacrifices and efforts of the very race of people that they feel “nobody” cares about.
My Parents’ Story, African-American Muslim Pioneers
My parents grew up Christian, and as adults, they were part of the African-American generation that spearheaded the Civil Rights Movement in America. They witnessed powerful personalities like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., and they lived through the tragic assassinations of these remarkable men. They lived through the infamous separate-but-unequal Jim Crow laws, where people of color had to use water fountains and restrooms that were separate from White people, and they were allowed to shop, dine, and attend school at only certain places distinguished as open to “colored” people.
In the mid-1960s, my parents were introduced to the Nation of Islam, then headed by its original leader, the late Elijah Muhammad. Like the journey of Malcolm X detailed in his book The Autobiography of Malcolm X, my parents were intrigued by the organization’s message of Black dignity and superiority in a world that was designed to erase the strength and pride from this powerful race of people.
Like most American Christians, my parents’ first introduction to the concept of God was through the church. At that time, most American churches depicted a White, blond-hair blue-eyed man nailed to a cross who was said to be Christians’ Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. The culture of the church offered much social and emotional stability for my parents and other African-Americans, but the depiction of God as both human and a member of the very race responsible for their persecution was difficult to reconcile with what their hearts believed about their Creator. So when they heard about the NOI’s concept of Black divinity, it made much more sense than worshipping their oppressor.
However, in 1975 as he neared death, Elijah Muhammad dismantled the NOI and appointed his son Warith Deen Mohammed as the leader of the African-American organization for the purpose of teaching them orthodox Islam. By Allah’s mercy, my parents were amongst the pioneers who left the teachings of Black divinity and embraced the belief in Allah and Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him—and I was born this year.
Muslims Care About American Muslims of Color
When I first arrived in Saudi Arabia and felt alone and out of place, I went to the masjid and stood next to an Arab woman, whose first words to me were, “Are you American? Welcome.” And when my family was in need, a Saudi family helped us without question or hesitation though we had never met before then.Though I have had many discouraging and hurtful encounters with Muslims from predominately Muslim countries, I have also had many inspirational and supportive experiences with Arabs, Pakistanis, and Muslims from all over the world; and it is these experiences that give me hope that Muslims can represent “living love” to themselves and the world.
After I got married and moved to a new city in America, my first friends were two Pakistani-American women who introduced me to other Muslims and drove me to Islamic classes and events. My first Qur’an teacher was an amazing Canadian woman whose family was from Pakistan and whose Egyptian-born husband started a now famous Islamic learning institute whose classes were so inspirational that I was often moved to tears; and both of them remain amongst the most thoughtful, kind neighbors I’ve ever had.
And closest to my heart is my beloved friend who is a scholar of Qur’an from Sudan with three ijaaza’s (certificates of authentic memorization and recitation), who has tirelessly dedicated her time to assisting me in my desire to obtain an ijaaza of Qur’an myself. And she refuses to accept a single payment from me though she is one of the most sought after Qur’an teachers in Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
And the list goes on…
So yes, Allah has shown me that true Muslims do care about American Muslims of color, because they care about all Muslims regardless of the color of their skin. And despite the inevitable faults and sins of Muslims from every culture, including American Muslims of color, there remain Muslims from all over the world who “man up” to their responsibilities and thus share with the world what it means to spread Islam’s message of “living love.”
First published: February 2013