The African-American Muslim in 2012
Praise and thanks be to Allah, the Lord of the Worlds
I had in mind to write this article prior to what occurred here in Memphis this weekend. What occurred took me back to another place and another era in my life, and it made what I am about to address all the more real and concrete. I had intended to write my “Black Man’s Manifesto” over on my other blog (http://inthisjournal.wordpress.com/) to clear the air about my position today about being Muslim and race in America, so that the readers don’t think that I hold the same views now that I held in my Journals many years ago.
People read what they wish into my comments about this subject. Some think that I am the Muslim version of Uncle Ruckus, and others “just know” that I am a crypto-Khaled Muhammad1 wannabe. The fact of the matter is I am neither. Being critical of the current condition of black culturedoesn’t mean that I hate or feel ashamed of being black. On the other hand, to ignore the unique condition of the African-American convert, or to tell him just to “get over” the matters of race and identity reflects a real ignorance or insensitivity to African-American sensibilities. As one person said to me recently, “The immigrants [Muslims] do not know how to raise African-American children.” People are different. Different people have different problems, and different problems require different solutions.
My objective here is to give the Muslims a wake up call regarding a people who are in a deep state of crisis, namely, African-American Muslim. Why am I talking about African-American Muslims, in particular? Because there is no other ethnic group of converts that actually has developed their own Muslim subculture. African-American Muslims (and those who identify as Muslim and/or are considered to be “Muslim” by the general African-American population—I’m not going into the matters of creed, yet) have a relatively substantial and disproportionate amount of influence in African-American culture over the past fifty years. If you doubt me, ask yourself how many white American Muslim converts are considered to be “heroes,” leaders, or role models in mainstream white culture? I’m not talking about white converts who are thought of highly by fellow Muslims, I am talking about white converts that are regarded highly by white non-Muslims. Typically the white convert is seen as little more than a race traitor amongst his brethren of European origins.
Now, ask yourself how many Muslim converts (or people perceived to be Muslim) have been heroes, leaders, or role models in the African-American community (and not necessarily for religious reasons)? Not always, but also not infrequently, when a black person embraces Islam, it is seen (or at least was seen) as a positive thing among non-Muslim African-Americans. It would be thought that this convert would clean himself up from the drugs and alcohol, stop chasing women and become a family man; he would start to instill discipline and order in other aspects of his life. This is not the same perception that a white convert is seen by fellow white non-Muslims. As for other American ethnic groups, I know that there is a growing Latino Muslim community, but I don’t know of any that have reached any major prominence among non-Muslim Latinos, and as for converts from East Asian backgrounds, I think they remain to be very few and very far between.
Also, it was African-Americans who pretty much made the word “Islam” a household word in America. This was due largely to the activism of the so-called Nation of Islam (“Nation”). And it was the work of African-American activists (many of whom were at least influenced by those who self-identified as “Muslims”) that made America’s previously virulent racism tolerable for those Muslims who started coming to America after the passage of the Immigration Act of 1965.2 With that said, many African-American Muslims would like to “get their props” for the sacrifices people of their ethnicity have made to improve the racial conditions in this country—something the immigrant Muslims benefit from immensely. I can understand those sentiments, even if they matter little to me now.
Now let us get down to the meat and potatoes. I decided to delay writing my “Race Manifesto” because of what I witnessed at the ISNA Convention this year. Perhaps, while I was there in the bazaar and walking about, I saw a dozen men I could—or would like to think I could—identify as African-American. That’s not many—given that there were probably 30,000 people in attendance. Also, this morning, as I was thinking some more about ISNA, I realized that I don’t remember seeing any African-American vendors. I saw a couple working with I think it was the Wahhabi booksellers, but they were just there setting up and the likes. I didn’t spend much time on the clothing side of the bazaar, but usually there wouldn’t be many African-American vendors there anyhow.
One might say that, “Well, ISNA isn’t really an African-American event: it’s an Indo-Pakistani/Bangladeshi kinda thing.” That’s understood, but Washington D.C. is a city that is still 50% black and a substantial number of those African-Americans are self-identified as Muslim. To number, perhaps, not more than a few dozen—or even a few hundred—at such a major Muslim event indicates that something is amiss. One might counter that the $75 entrance fee is cost prohibitive for many African-American Muslims. Yes, I am sure that is a factor, but that leads to another issue. Why is it that the South Asians, who entered this country having to struggle with language and cultural obstacles and religious prejudices, are able to afford such an event—often traveling hundreds of miles and having to pay for relatively expensive hotel rooms—while a substantial number of African-American Muslims who live in the Washington, D.C. region cannot?
As for saying that ISNA ain’t a black thing, then exactly what is a “black thing?” Several years ago I attended as a vendor the MANA Conference in Philadelphia. MANA (Muslim Alliance in North America) is the black version of ISNA, so to speak. Seeing that ISNA is not particularly responsive to the needs of the African-American, MANA attempted to hold a conference to talk about the issues of indigenous (i.e., largely, African-American) Muslims. The problem here is that the MANA convention, held in the city with probably the largest percentage of African-American Muslims in the world, located about two hours from both D.C. and New York City, attracted, it was said, 1,500 people in total. I’m not good with the head counting, but it didn’t even seem like it was that many.
Furthermore, in contrast to what one sees at ISNA (not to mention the RIS): thousands upon thousands upon thousands of teenagers and early 20-somethings, I do not recall seeing two dozen folks from that age bracket at MANA. What comes to mind was one mother that seemed to be dragging her “tween”/teenage children along; she wanted them to be there, so they could see some African-American “scholars.” It seemed that most of the people there were “ole-heads,” who used the convention as an opportunity to catch up on lost time… time lost somewhere perhaps back in the mid 80’s.
Well, if the African-Americans are not at ISNA nor MANA, then were are they? I have to give a shout to Umar Lee for the piece he did on the history of the American Wahhabis and other articles he’s done about the condition of the working class Muslims. He’s far more familiar with the different African-American Muslim enclaves than I am but my observations, although narrower in scope, are pretty much in line with his. There are exceptions (like those the Brother who just visited pointed to) but on the whole, we have witnessed general loss of the momentum among those African-Americans who self-identify as Muslims. Again, for the time being, I am not going into the details of Doctrine (God-willing, I’m going to get there), but when we consider the hundreds of thousands of people who were involved with the “Nation,” and the many tens of thousands (if not more) who were involved with the community of W.D. Mohammed, and the various other black nationalist figures who started to identify with Sunni Islam through the seventies and eighties, and then a little later with the rise of African-American Wahhabism, what remains of what has been called the “Movement Muslims?”3
It’s been about forty years since African-Americans in any recognizable numbers began to call themselves “Sunni Muslim.” In those four decades, what have they produced? Where are their national institutions? (I am not talking about the W.D. Community, per se, because for most of that time they opposed traditional Sunni scholarship, although I have heard that there have been changes in that community in more recent years).
In spite of African-Americans being at the vanguard of what was popularly considered to be “Islam” in this country, and at one time being the largest ethnic of Muslims in America, how have they become increasingly irrelevant in the discourse about Islam in this country? I think that there are two general reasons. One, was that during the early days of this period there was an absolute dearth of traditional Sunni learning in this country. People simply did not have much access to traditional scholarship. The books available were poorly written (or translated) and few qualified people were around to explain and clarify, especially, in English. This led to people reading, for instance, a “Yusuf Ali” (an immensely problematic book), a collection of ((mis)translated) Hadiths, and a Muslim prayer book, and trying to come up with their own understanding of “Islam.” Some dabbled into the Arabic language. Islamic scholarship simply does not work in a “do-it-yourself” manner. A people whose grasp of the traditional Islamic scholarship is that tenuous will easily be surpassed by immigrants—even if the immigrants themselves don’t have much training in the traditional Islamic sciences.
This ignorance of traditional scholarship left the door for the unscrupulous to exploit the African-American zeal to learn about Islam. The Saudi regime, with its Wahhabi4 ideology, offered scholarships to almost anyone who wanted to go to the Kingdom to study. Many went to study for various stretches. Some went long enough to get their Wahhabi indoctrination and learn enough Arabic to astound the unlettered black folk. Others went for lengthier periods. These people, although not following genuine Sunni Islam certainly had more than enough “familiarity” with traditional scholarship than those who were still trying to figure Islam out from pulp fiqh texts coming from the Indian subcontinent or the works of the “modernists” and the Orientalists.
The Wahhabis (so-called Salafis) could at least masquerade as Sunni Muslims (to the point that they still confuse a good number of Muslims in Muslim countries until today). The Wahhabis quote not only the “Qur’an and Sunnah,” but also (selectively) quote a good number of traditional Sunni scholars. As Umar Lee points out, as the Wahhabi movement began to grow amongst African-Americans, the percentage of the socially dysfunctional amongst them also began to grow. It can be said that a good number of early Wahhabi converts were relatively educated, intelligent, and functional human beings. Many of them were inspired in their “quest” via the socially conscious lyrics of rap in the late 80’s and reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X—or seeing Spike Lee’s movie on Malcolm. These early converts gravitated towards Wahhabism probably not because they preferred the doctrinal absurdities of Wahhabism over the clarity and rational consistency of the genuine Sunni creed, but at that time (late 80’s-early 90’s), people had little access to traditional Sunni scholarship, much less, detailed explanations of the Sunni belief or clearly written English refutations of Wahhabism by Sunni authors.
Of course, there were the pathological types in the African-American Wahhabi movement from the earliest days, but as I like to point out, when a criticalmass of such people become part of a given community, the community almost inevitably has to unravel and disintegrate. Also, for the Wahhabis, they were so keen on importing and imposing their rigid methodology—as they had learned it in Saudi—that they ignored the social needs of the African-Americans in the inner city. (One can give due credit to the “Nation” in that it addressed the psyche of black folks—the tragic thing is that the Nation also taught the people misguidance and blasphemy in the process. Unfortunately, many immigrant Muslims in da`wah still don’t understand the unique problems that African-Americans face, and as a result do not examine the programs the Nation developed to assist with the material and psychological needs of black people.)
As the African-American Wahhabi movement brought more and more followers from the black underclass and prisons into its fold, it also brought in the problems that flourish in the ghetto. In some cases, some of the Wahhabis did try to “keep things halaal,” such as, instead of committing serial fornication with almost any female with a pulse, the Wahhabis just made serial “contracts” with any female who could be “wifed.” Many of the men had no gainful employment… but that did not stop them from breeding kids that they didn’t care for. Then there was the outright haraam and illegal activity, whether the criminal violence, or drug dealing, or the con-games. Unlike the “Nation,” which focused on addressing and eradicating black ghetto pathologies, as well as, the importance of financial and familial stability, the Wahhabis, and even many African-American Sunni Muslims, failed to break the cycle of social and family dysfunction that is so pervasive in the “hood.” This, in a nutshell, explains why African-American Muslims (as a community) are having a smaller and smaller role in the discourse about Islam in America.
God-willing, in the next entry on this topic, we will discuss the consequences of this failure, and what can be doing to help rectify the situation.
Praise be to Allah, the Lord of the Worlds.
1Khaled Muhammad had been a leader in the so-called nation of Islam (please see refutation here: https://facetofloor.wordpress.com/2012/08/10/refutation-of-farrakhanism-the-so-called-nation-of-islam/). And later he founded the New Black Panther Party. He was notorious for his black racist tirades against white people.
3Is there any African-American (self-identified as) Sunni organization, aside from those who call themselves “Salafis” on the national stage (among Muslims) with membership beyond a few hundred? And if so what institutions have they built?
4The Wahhabis (they refer to themselves as “Salafis”) are a corporealist faction that claims God is a giant bipedal unidentified extraterrestrial shadow-casting object with a smiling face and one shinbone. The Wahhabi (so-called “Salafi”) creed contradicts some of the most fundamental principles of the Muslim belief in the Creator, namely, that the Creator ABSOLUTELY does not need or resemble the creations. Allah is the Creator of space, place, distance and direction, and Allah exists without being in a space, place, distance, or direction. Allah is not an image or object. Whatever one imagines, Allah is absolutely different from that! Please see the following for a refutation of Wahhabism: https://facetofloor.wordpress.com/2012/01/27/the-difference-between-the-sunni-and-quasi-salafi-wahhabi-doctrines/.