If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. … This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle.
– Fredrick Douglass (d. 1895).1
One who sees the ultimate source of his problems in created beings is like a dog whom a man hits with a brick and then the dog goes and bites the brick, not knowing that the brick has no agency of its own.
– Ibn Ata Allah (d. 1310).2
The struggle of disenfranchised people against oppression and tyranny on American soil is older than the country itself, beginning with the genocide of the idigenous people and then continued by the enslavement of African people for capitalist gains. The long history of the Black freedom struggle is one of continuous movement, flowing like a river. The scholar and social activist Vincent Harding (d. 2014) described this river as, “sometimes powerful, tumultuous, and rolling with life. At other times meandering and turgid, covered with ice and snow of seemingly endless winters, all too often streaked and running with blood.”3 The weight of this river is a constant source of anxiety and anguish, particularly among Black folk, which we are seeing manifest today. For all too long we have lived with a sense of double-consciousness, “always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity”.4 Now, the tide of this metaphorical river surges, breaking the levies of social acceptance and political correctness.
The social reality of Blackamericans demands a perpetual fight to exist. For the last 3 months the world has lived through Covid-19, a global pandemic, that has disproportionately impacted and claimed the lives of Black people. For those of us who are blessed with life and health, many have ambiguous job security, or the lack thereof, when quarantine sanctions are lifted. Covid-19 and the subsequent ramifications are a traumatic experience that we will continue to process and live with in the days, months, and years to come. Unfortunately, all of this is further exacerbated when yet another unarmed Black man, George Floyd, was murdered by the very people who are commissioned to serve and protect.
Human emotions are complex, full of nuance, often complicated, and produce a spectrum of responses. Some of us are angry while others are sad, some of us are surprised while others numb, and some of us frequently oscillate between all of those emotions while others feel them all simultaneously. These feelings are natural and acceptable, but apathy is not.
Unfortunately, our post-modern neo-capitalist society of today has manifested an ontological inversion; what was once deemed sacred has been deprioritized for the material. In the Quran, Allah speaks about the sacredness of human life, “If anyone kills a person—unless in retribution for murder or spreading corruption in the land—it is as if he kills all mankind” (Quran 5:35). Then, just a few verses later, He speaks specifically of retribution as He has in scriptures before, “An eye for an eye” (Quran 5:45). To equate the life of George Floyd or the generational trauma of Blackamericans to material possessions is antithetical to our Islamic tradition and, one could argue, common sense. Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) cared so intensely about the spiritual condition of others Allah rhetorically asked him, “Are you going to worry yourself to death over them if they do not believe in this message?” So, if he (PBUH) worried himself so deeply over the spirituality of others, how do we imagine his care (PBUH) was for their physical well-being?
Churchmen, laymen and ministers alike apparently fail to recognize their contribution to the ghetto condition through permissive silence—except for a few resolutions which they usually pass once a year or immediately following a riot—and through their co-tenancy of a dehumanizing social structure whose existence depends on the continued enslavement of black people. If the Church is to remain faithful to its Lord, it must make a decisive break with the structure of this society by launching a vehement attack on the evils of racism in all forms. It must become prophetic, demanding a radical change in the interlocking structures of this society.
– James H. Cone (d. 2018).5
Throughout history, Blackamericans' ability to endure and persevere, despite the systematic and institutional injustice around us, has always been connected to a transcendent moral compass. As Muslims, we must lean into our rich spiritual tradition with more depth and strength than ever. Our spiritual imperative requires that we strive to connect with the Almighty so that we may transcend the temporal and temporary challenges we face. Regardless of our fears or sorrows or how meek and challenging the horizon looks, our primary focus must be achieving Allah’s pleasure. Via a loving embrace of this perspective we can begin to find meaning and direction in the foggy confusion of our lives. By no means is this an easy task, but we must remember Allah tells us in the Quran describing Himself, “Exalted is He who holds all control in His hands; who has power over all things” (Quran 67:1). Therefore, like our ancestors before us, as we struggle, as we protest, as we fight to keep our heads above the river water, we must remember the Creator.
Allah tells us that it is He “who created death and life to test you [people] and reveal which of you does best” (Quran 67:2) but also that He “does not burden any soul with more than it can bear” (Quran 2:286). By necessity, we have the capacity to not only succeed but also to thrive. “Allah wants ease for [us], not hardship!” (Quran 2:185). Therefore, our challenge is to orient our emotional and cognitive frameworks theocentrically—to humble ourselves to the limitations of our intellectual faculties while recognizing our feelings, yet still searching for God’s figurative silver lining despite them.
As we figuratively journey through our lives, we must remember that our bodies are a trust from the Creator. While our physical bodies serve as the boat that carries us and our limbs as the oars that move us, the energy source that thrusts us down the river of the struggle for freedom is undoubtedly our hearts. No matter how strong the canoe and efficient the oars, without energy our journey, at best, will produce meager results. Thus, our heart requires very intentional care. We must care for the external, nurturing healthy emotions and prioritizing self-care, and for the internal, building and fortifying a connection with Allah. This arduous task comes with great sacrifice, but the tradeoff is being amongst those whom Allah says, “Today I have rewarded them for their patience” (Quran 23:111). True freedom, existentially transcendent freedom, is only found in Allah—the ultimate source of all. We ask Him to bless us with the requisite means to embrace struggle and preserve patiently in a way that pleases Him (with goodness, ease, and well-being). Ameen!
Abdul-Malik Merchant, MTS
Muslim Chaplain, Tufts University
1 “Frederick Douglass Project Writings: West India Emancipation”. University of Rochester. Accessed June 1, 2020 via https://rbscp.lib.rochester.edu/4398.
2Ibn ʻAṭāʼ Allāh, Aḥmad Ibn Muḥammad, and Jackson, Sherman A. Sufism for Non-sufis? Ibn ʻAṭāʼ Allāh Al-Sakandarî's Tâj Al-'arûs. Oxford ; New York, N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 2012. 81.
3 Harding, Vincent. There Is A River. New York, NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1981. xix.
4 DuBois, W.E.B. “The Souls of Black Folk”. In W.E.B. Du Bois: Writings. New York, NY: Literary Classics of the United States, Inc., 1986. 364.
5 Cone, James. Black Theology & Black Power. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2018. 2.
George Floyd, an unarmed Black man was strangled to death by police after reportedly using a counterfeit $20 bill at Cup Foods, a convenience store and restaurant in Minneapolis. Apparently one of the staff there called the police. I was disappointed at this but I’m willing to concede that calling the police for a counterfeit bill is not something everyone expects to end tragically. It must be stated unequivocally that Derek Chauvin and the three officers who silently watched him are the only guilty parties in Floyd’s killing. What I offer here involves improving the relationship between immigrant Muslim store owners and the predominantly Black communities they often serve. However, I don’t implicate Cup Foods in Floyd’s death nor am I suggesting that it mistreats its community. Quite the reverse, when a store that has honorably served a majority Black community for 31 years calls the police for what strikes me, along with many others, as a minor infraction, I’m concerned that we don’t know each other well enough. In an interview with CNN, the owner of Cup Foods, Mahmoud Abumayyaleh expressed heartfelt condolences for the family of George Floyd and corroborated reports of police misconduct. In the 4-minute segment, Don Lemon, the show’s host, never challenges the owner about the decision to alert the authorities. I understand this omission. The risk of appearing to suggest a causal relationship between a random call to the police and a brutal execution carried-out by the responding officer was too great. Nonetheless, within Muslim communities this particular configuration is not so random: Muslim-owned businesses, black communities, and law enforcement are three elements of a story we’ve seen many times.
Police-instigated violence against Black people has a long and notorious history. Those looking for thoroughgoing and circumspect treatments of the subject will find for example, Police Violence against Afro-descendants in the United States, a 2018 report by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. The conversation in the public domain has tended to focus on two issues: (1) The misconduct of individual police officers. (2) The systemic anti-Black racism which associates criminal intent, aggression, and higher thresholds of pain with Black people. However, the fact that the murders of Alton Sterling, Mike Brown, Eric Garner, and most recently George Floyd all involved minority-owned businesses (some of which were owned and operated by Muslims) in predominantly Black communities is scarcely analyzed as a relevant factor in their deaths.
Historically, desegregation and the subsequent outmigration of middle-income Black families, intentional disinvestment on behalf of banks and corporations, and bad municipal planning (highways, railroads, garbage dumps etc.) disrupted albeit poor but more economically self-contained Black communities and created enclaves which were commercially vacuous. That vacuum was filled by proprietors of Jewish, Arab, Korean, Chinese, Polish, and other backgrounds. There is little point in discussing the legitimacy of these establishments. They exist and have every legal right to operate. In fact, those who view them as singularly parasitic might fail to appreciate how little interest anyone else has shown in investing in these communities. How these businesses operate, on the other hand, is of deep concern. When we see video footage of a patron stealing a box of cigars from a corner store and the authorities being alerted—which resulted in Mike Brown’s tragic murder—that is not an isolated incident. It’s an expression of long standing mutual estrangement. In such instances both the business owner and the customer should be viewed as byproducts of a culture of alienation. Karl Marx described this kind of alienation as the consequence of living in a society so stratified that the members of one class can scarcely understand, let alone empathize, with those of another. In our context, the customer, who is a member of the local community, doesn’t know that the store owner is operating on razor thin margins and just barely staving off closure. He doesn’t know that the owner has relatives back home—in a similarly economically depressed community from which he migrated--to whom he sends money every month. He’s just “a foreigner,” one of those people who either intrusively watch us when we enter their stores or assume an unsolicited, patronizing air of informality (“What’s good, my G?”). And the owner views the community with similar disinterest. For starters, he observes his customers behind a three inch-thick bulletproof glass. The perceived threat of gun violence at these retail locations may warrant such security measures. But they come at a great cost. For every would-be armed robber whose plans are thwarted by such preparations, countless normal patrons are forced to confront the blatant invisible message written on the glass: “I am afraid of you. Beyond your money, I want as little to do with you as possible.” Fear and distance breed contempt. From a place of contempt, it’s very easy to ignore the potentially deadly consequences of involving law enforcement to resolve insignificant conflicts with Black customers.
The most obvious way to address this imbalance is re-invigorating a culture of Black entrepreneurship. However, when non-Black Muslim vendors are assessing what it means to run businesses in the Black community, the following Qur’anic verses are illuminating. In verses about integrity and impartiality in trade, the Qur’an highlights both the virtue and vice of the Medinese Jewish community. They were a minority community of merchants living among the Arabs of Medina
There are some among the People of the Book who, if entrusted with a stack of gold, will readily return it. Yet there are others who, if entrusted with a single coin, will not repay it unless you constantly demand it. This is because they say, “We are not accountable for ˹exploiting˺ these ignorant people’.” And ˹so˺ they attribute lies to Allah knowingly. (75) But yes, whoever fulfills their commitment and fears Allah. then indeed, Allah loves those who fear Him. (76) [3:75-76]
Sweeping generalizations are always avoided in the Qur’an: Some members of the Jewish community maintained the highest standard of integrity and fairness—and they were acknowledged. On the other hand, the arrogance of those who pursued their interests through exploitation is also highlighted. Their condescending attitude is expressed in the statement, “We are not accountable for exploiting these ignorant people.” God denounces them as liars. Simply put, there is no way to serve a community you don’t respect. All Muslim entrepreneurs and small business owners should take a keen interest in these verses but especially those that serve structurally disadvantaged communities. “These ignorant people…” the statement is disgusting; however, even more disgusting is the basis of disassociation upon which the statement proceeds. The exploitation is essentially justified because it’s being perpetrated against “these people,” i.e. people with whom one is not associated.
I live in Bronzeville, on Chicago’s South Side, and there are many Muslim-owned businesses in my community. Some are excellent, some are mediocre, but more are bad. In my experience, the businesses that enjoy the most success, security, and longevity are those with the deepest roots in the community. They do simple things such as greeting people respectfully and knowing the names and preferences of regular customers. And they make more important contributions such as hiring local community members to jobs which pay a living-wage and stocking the products of local vendors when possible. In light of the tragic slaying of George Floyd, perhaps the most important thing excellent business owners do is take an active interest in the communities they serve. Cup Foods has been in the predominantly Black community of South Minneapolis for 31 years. That’s an impressive history and it’s safe to assume a great deal of familiarity and affection between the owning Abumayyaleh family and the community. It’s disappointing then, to learn that the management of Cup Foods didn’t have more knowledge of how its community is organized. No one there knew anyone who would’ve been willing to intervene if, in fact, some fraud had taken place? Among people in community with each other the redress of wrong always looks more restorative than punitive. It’s perplexing to think there wouldn’t be more awareness of the mortal risk Black people assume when interacting with law enforcement. Creativity is the essential component of empathy. How creatively can each of us think in order to see ourselves and our struggles in other people? For Muslims who often represent surveilled, occupied, politically oppressed, diasporic communities, it shouldn’t require much effort to connect with the history and present of Blackamericans.