A South African Muslimah's Blog

Constructing Identity: Loud Whispers, Lasting Echoes

Apologies September 15, 2008

Filed under: Uncategorized — Safiyyah @ 8:40 pm

This piece really had me thinking and I’m not even American, because the same situation applies to South Africa, “indian” muslims have not intergrated with the african muslim brothers and sisters, to such a degree, that even at the hajj, in my own experience, some ignorant people would not share tents at mina with them! They are not deemed “muslim” enough to marry, socialize or even pray with! It is the Egyptian, Turkish and Iranian muslims that are carrying out da’wah and islamic education in the black african townships.

An Apology
Heartfelt reflections on the passing of a legendary Blackamerican Muslim leader
By Azhar Usman

On September 11th, 2008, while countless American flags whipped in the wind and the television and radio waves were dominated by remembrances, recordings, and stories about the terror attacks of seven years ago, I attended the funeral of Imam W.D. Mohammed (may God be pleased with him). For me, it was a somber day, but I found myself mostly lost in thought: about African-American Muslim communities, about the challenges ahead in American Muslim institution- building, and about the future of Islam in America. If you don’t know who Imam WDM was, you should look him up. The Sufis say: “The true sage belongs to his era.” And of the many gifts given to Imam WDM by God, perhaps the most obvious and beneficial one was the Imam’s profound understanding of the principles of religion, and his adeptness at intelligently applying those Islamic principles in a socially and culturally appropriate manner befitting the everyday lives of his North American followers.

While carefully respecting sound, traditional jurisprudential methodologies of the Islamic religion, and the collective religious history and time-honored scholarship of classical Islam, he promulgated creative ideas and dynamic teachings across many domains of human endeavor, including theology, law, spirituality and even ethics and aesthetics, that together articulated a vision for a quintessentially “American Muslim” cultural identity. And he did all of this before anyone else, with quiet strength and unending humility—a true sage indeed.

So I stood before his final resting place, brokenhearted. And I suddenly began to feel the weight of the moment, realizing that when God takes back one of his dearly beloved friends, those who are left behind should cry not for the deceased, but rather for themselves. For the fact that they are now without one of God’s friends in their midst, and, in a sense, they are orphaned. And the tears began to well up, for I became acutely aware that I was standing in front of the grave of my spiritual grandfather, who was himself a spiritual descendant of Bilal al-Habashi (may God be pleased with him), the mighty and beloved companion of the Prophet himself. Bilal was the first Black African to convert to al-Islam at the hands of the Prophet Muhammad (may God bless him and keep him) in the sands of Arabia nearly a thousand and a half years ago. Undoubtedly, some measure of that love, mercy, compassion, and spiritual stature that inhabited the heart of Bilal has found its way down through the ages, and I found myself begging God to transfer to my own heart some glimpse of these realities now laying before me.

I would like to unburden myself of something that has been sitting like a ton of bricks on my heart for my entire life. I want to apologize to my Blackamerican brothers and sisters in Islam. I know that this apology may not mean very much; and I know that our American Muslim communities have a LONG way to go before we can have truly healthy political conciliation and de-racialized religious cooperation; and I know that I am not the one who is responsible for so much of the historical wrongdoing of so-called “immigrant Muslims”—wrongdoings that have been so hurtful, and insulting, and degrading, and disrespectful, and dismissive, and marginalizing, and often downright dehumanizing.

But anyway, for every “Tablighi” brother who may have had “good intentions” in his own subjective mind, but behaved in an utterly insensitive and outrageous manner toward you when he suggested that you need to learn how to urinate correctly, I’m sorry.

And for every Pakistani doctor who can find money in his budget to drive a Lexus and live in a million-dollar house in suburbia, and who has the audacity to give Friday sermons about the virtues of “Brotherhood in Islam,” while the “Black mosque” can’t pay the heating bills or provide enough money to feed starving Muslim families just twenty miles away, I’m sorry.

And for every Arab speaker in America who makes it his business to raise millions and millions of dollars to provide “relief” for Muslim refugees around the world, but turns a blind eye to the plight of our very own Muslim sisters and brothers right here in our American inner cities just because, in his mind, the color black might as well be considered invisible, I’m sorry.

And for every liquor store in the “hood” with a plaque that says Maashaa’ Allah hanging on the wall behind the counter, I’m sorry.

And for every news media item or Hollywood portrayal that constantly reinforces the notion that “Muslim=foreigner” so that the consciousness of Blackamerican Muslims begins even to doubt itself (asking “Can I ever be Muslim enough?”), I’m sorry.

And for every Salafi Muslim brother (even the ones who used to be Black themselves before converting to Arab) who has rattled off a hadith or a verse from Koran in Arabic as his “daleel” to Kafirize you and make you feel defensive about even claiming this deen as your own, I’m sorry.

And for every time you’ve been asked “So when did you convert to Islam?” even though that question should more properly have been put to your grandparents, since they became Muslims by the grace of God Almighty back in the 1950s, and raised your parents as believers, and Islam is now as much your own inheritance as it is the one’s posing that presumptuous, condescending question, I’m sorry.

And for every time some Muslim has self-righteously told you that your hijab is not quite “Shariah” enough, or your beard is not quite “Sunnah” enough, or your outfit is not quite “Islamic” enough, or your Koranic recitation is not quite “Arabic” enough, or your family customs are not quite “traditional” enough, or your worldview is not quite “classical” enough, or your ideas are not “authentic” enough, or your manner of making wudu is not quite “Hanafi,” “Shafi,” “Maliki,” or “Hanbali” enough, or your religious services are not quite “Masjid” enough, or your chicken is not quite “Halal” enough, I’m sorry.

And for every Labor Day weekend when you’ve felt divided in your heart, wondering “When will we ever do this thing right and figure out how we can pool our collective resources to have ONE, big convention?,” I’m sorry.

And for every time a Muslim has tried to bait you with a question about the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, trying to force you to condemn him—turning it into some sort of binary litmus test of true iman—with reckless and irresponsible disregard for the historical fact that he was among the first Black men in America to ever do anything meaningful for the upliftment and betterment of Black people, I’m sorry.

And for every time you’ve heard of an African-American brother who tried to bring home a South Asian or Arab sister to meet his parents, only to learn that her parents would rather commit suicide than let their daughter marry a “Black Muslim” (a/k/a “Bilalian brother”), even as they cheer hypocritically at stadium style speeches by Imams Siraj Wahhaj, Zaid Shakir, Johari Abdul Malik, or others—or get in line to bring one of them to speak at their multi-million dollar fundraiser for yet another superfluous suburban mosque, I’m sorry.

I’m sorry. I’m very, very sorry. From the bottom of my heart, I want every African-American Muslim brother and sister to know that I am ashamed of this treatment that you have received and, in many cases, continue to receive, over the decades. I want you to know that I am aware of it. I am conscious of the problem. (Indeed, I am even conscious that I myself am part of the problem since curing hypocrisy begins by looking in the mirror.) I am not alone in this apology. There are literally thousands, if not tens of thousands of young American Muslims just like me, born to immigrant parents who originate from all over the Muslim world. We get it, and we too are sick of the putrid stench of racism within our own Muslim communities. Let us pledge to work on this problem together, honestly validating our own and one another’s insecurities, emotions, and feelings regarding these realities. Forgiveness is needed to right past wrongs, yet forgiveness is predicated
on acknowledging wrongdoing and sincerely apologizing. Let us make a blood oath of sorts.

When the bulldozer came to place the final mounds of dirt over the tomb of Imam WDM, I was standing under a nearby tree, under the light drizzle that had just begun (perhaps as a sign of mercy dropping from the heavens as the final moments of the burial were drawing to a close), and I was talking to a dear friend and sister in faith, whose family has been closely aligned with Imam WDM for decades. She shared with me a story that her father had just related to her about the passing of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad in 1975 (the same year I was born, incidentally) . She told me that her father described the scene in the immediate aftermath of Elijah’s demise: utter confusion and chaos within the NOI and the communities surrounding it. There was much debate and discord about what direction the NOI would take, and many were still in shock and denial that the founder had actually died. Out of the midst of that confusion arose Imam WDM, and along with his strong leadership came an even more, perhaps surprisingly courageous direction: the path away from the Black nationalism, pan-Africanism, and proto-religious beliefs of his father, and instead the unequivocal charge toward mainstream Islam, the same universal and cosmopolitan faith held and practiced by over a billion adherents worldwide. In this manner, her father explained, the death of Elijah Muhammad became a definitive end to a chapter in our collective history, and the resulting re-direction by Imam WDM marked the beginning of the next, far better, chapter in that unfolding history.

Maybe I am just an idealistic fool, or maybe Pharaoh Sanders was right about the Creator’s Master Plan, but I sincerely believe that all we have to do—all of us together: Black folks, South Asians (Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis) , Arabs from every part of the Middle East and North Africa, Southeast Asians (Indonesians and Malaysians), Persians, Turks, Latinos, assorted Muslims of all stripes, colors, and backgrounds, and yes, even our White Muslim brothers and sisters—is live up to a simple promise to one another: No matter what happens, in good times and in bad, we have to be the brothers and sisters no one expects us to be.

It is hoped that the passing of Imam WDM will also mark the end of a chapter in our collective American Muslim history, and perhaps now, in earnest, we can all look together toward The Third Resurrection.

May God mend our broken hearts, lift our spirits, purify our souls, heal the rifts between our communities, unify our aims, remove our obstacles, defeat our enemies, and bless and accept our humble offerings and service.

[NOTE: Please feel free to forward this essay to others via email or post it on blogs. For permission to otherwise publish or print this essay, please email: azhar@azhar.com]

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One Response to “Apologies”

  1. bb_aisha Says:

    A huge pause for reflection…Much of what he says is relevant here in SA too..I continue to wonder at the hypocricy in our communities. The only black Muslims I know who are truly accepted by the Indian community are those who have been adopted by Indian families. I used to think it's the sad legacy of apartheid, but now I don't know. Apartheid can only be blamed for so long, and Islam (if we practice it as we claim to) should make us rise above our prejudice(Aside: In Egypt I used to get so irritated when I was asked 'Are you Muslim?' Hmm..I'm in hijab, & I've just told you my name is Aisha. What do you think? And: are you a born Muslim? Yes I am. Do you know how to read the Quran and pray salaah? Aargh! )


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