When Nelson Mandela described himself as “something of an Anglophile” it relieved some tension. Somehow this celebrated freedom-fighter openly admitting his affinity for English culture made my comparatively mild curiosity a little less damning. And so there I was: A poor student travelling to Cairo via London. Upon arriving at Heathrow, I made my way through the labyrinthine line at the gate until I reached the agent. With an earnestness conveyed by sheer audacity and a pitiful carry-on stuffed to nearly twice its regular capacity, I humbly requested that British Airways rebook my connection the following day so that I could explore London. And to my suprise the agent obliged!
As my classmate Habeeb Akande and I combed the streets of London, taking in some of the cosmopolitan metropolis’ most notable sites, there was only one thing on my mind: “Yo, akh. You gotta take me somewhere I can engage British Muslims.” As we made our way to the beautiful complex at Regents Park, Habeeb insisted that my request wasn’t a problem, “atoll.” With its majestic golden dome and striking courtyard, the mosque was truly a sight. And while the Muslims I met and spoke with were extremely engaging (across the pond they excel us in repartee!) and friendly, because they were mostly of Arab descent or Desi, I was forced to disclose that Regents Park hadn’t exactly satisfied my curiosity. I wanted to meet Muslims who resembled the Duke of Windsor! After Habeeb patiently explained my mistake of confusing British nationality with English ethnicity, he assured me that there were many English Muslims in the UK; leading, serving, participating, and making contributions at every level of community. “However,” he continued, “with the exception of a mosque in Woking, it would be highly unlikely to find them a numerical majority in any mosque or Islamic Center in the UK.” It was then I realized that the majority of the Muslims in the UK hailed from the Subcontinent. The Muslim communities of France, Belgium, Spain, and Portugal were mostly made up of North African immigrants. In Germany, Turkey is the place of origin for its Muslim immigrants. As a matter of fact, the United States of America is the only country in the West that boasts a significant Muslim population whose members aren’t identified as recent immigrants.
Blackamerican Islam is a unique historical phenomenon. As the only community within a modern Western democracy to have achieved communal conversion, Blackamerican Muslims are the inheritors of a great legacy. In order to truly appreciate this history we need only compare the enslaved population of the United States with that of South America. In Generations of Captivity, Ira Berlin puts the number of enslaved persons brought directly to the United States at 388,000 (roughly 5% of the total number of enslaved Africans) whereas the number of enslaved persons brought to South America exceeded 4 million (more than 40% of the total). In other words, if Blackamerican communal conversion to Islam was the direct result of the Islamic faith of the now estimated 30% of enslaved Africans brought to the Americas, we would expect to find at least similar rates of conversion among South Americans and Afro-Caribbeans. In Islam and the Blackamerican, Dr. Sherman Jackson suggest that conversion rates among Blackamericans are without parallel because no other community in the Americas benefited from the iconoclastic, culturally redemptive, religious movements of “proto-Islamic” leaders like the Noble Drew Ali and The Honorable Elijah Muhammad. Although these leaders promulgated doctrines many Sunni and Shi’i Muslims would hardly recognize as authentic, the interpretive responsiveness and creativity of these brilliant leaders and their respective movements, the Moorish Science Temple (MST) and the Nation of Islam (NOI) would help black people to see Islam as their own. With the impediment of foreignness removed and the immediate relevance ensured by a theology and practice woven into weft and warp of the day-to-day realities of the people, the proliferation of Islam was inevitable.
In 1975 Imam Warith Deen Mohamed (may God have mercy on him) became the leader of the NOI and presided over the single largest communal conversion to Sunni Islam in recorded history. Since that time, the majority (even before 75’ there were some Blackamerican non-NOI Muslim communities) of Blackamerican Muslims have been inexorably moving in the direction of more traditional exponents of Islam: Some of us crawling in that direction, some cautiously tiptoeing, some sprinting, many of us blindfolded, crashing! Nonetheless, we’ve been moving.
In addition to the feeling of solidity that accrues from joining a trans-historical, transnational community, the highlight of our embrace of tradition has certainly been the production of scholars. Meeting huffādh and men and women that have gained a command of the scholarly tradition rightfully fills us with pride. On the other hand, our embrace of the tradition and the interpretive responsiveness and relevance–that helped Islam gain recognition in black communities in the first place–seem to be inversely related. This is disheartening. And if I’m honest, whenever I dare to compare the impact of my work and my struggle to find an authentic voice within the tradition with the impact and authenticity of earlier generations, I concede failure. At times, I’ve deflected, asking: How can someone serving a multi-ethnic collective of Muslims, trained overseas, attempting to distill instruction relevant to his immediate community from a 1400 year old tradition be compared to someone serving a homogenous community, crafting a theology in direct response to the struggle of his/her people? At times of greater strength, I conclude: Both the tradition and serving a diverse collective are sources of strength. Da’wa is translation. As I deepen my knowledge of the tradition and connectivity with my immediate community, I will become a better translator.
Two weeks ago, I had the pleasure of being hosted by the Midtown Mosque and Mi’rage Academy in Memphis, Tennessee. In many ways, the community there, led by my classmate Imam Hamzah Abdul-Malik and Malik Shaw (accepted student to this year’s ALIM Summer Program), is addressing itself to the question of the tradition’s relevance in black communities. With Hamzah’s unrivaled scholastic pedigree and deep community experience and Malik’s passion for community organizing, I felt as though I was witnessing the beginning of a movement to combine the best of who we are with our potential. The mosque, the school, the neighborhood canteen, the women’s shelter, the community garden, the playground, the various newly renovated homes now occupied by Muslim families, all spoke loudly and clearly to the mission of this community. However, offering Salat al-Maghrib behind a young Blackamerican Hāfidh of the Qurān and then settling into some easy conversation and laughter over some ‘around the way’ Chinese food, said it just as easily. Translation