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.