[This article is part of a six-person roundtable entitled “African American Muslims and the Black Freedom Struggle.” Click here for the introduction by Lindsey Stephenson and links to responses by Zareena Grewal, Abbas Barzegar, Mansa Bilal Mark King, Aminah B. McCloud, and Sohail Daulatzai. The initial question posed to the roundtable participants was: African American Muslims have been involved in the black freedom struggle for over a century, however their participation is often overlooked or generalized. How have they engaged with some of the important questions of the movement such as: the extent to which the black freedom struggle was a national or an international one; whether the struggle is ultimately about civil or human rights; and the means by which freedom was to be achieved? Is religion in fact a relevant cleavage within the black freedom struggle? Have African American Muslims represented a unified block? Finally, what African American Muslim experiences contribute to the ongoing debate about civil rights and human rights in the United States and abroad?]
Before we answer any question about Islam in the black freedom movement, it would seem necessary to comment briefly on the notion of freedom, itself, as espoused by African American Muslims over the decades. Since the days of Ahmadiyya missionary work and Noble Drew Ali, Islamic discourse in black empowerment movements has been tethered to social and political platforms that exceed the modern nation state and its institutional racism. In that sense, the African American Muslim experience parallels that of Islamic political activists in other parts of the world who have also sought a platform to escape the confines of secular national ideologies that were either born of, or imposed by, European colonialism. From this perspective then, the African American Muslim cultural movement can be seen as part of a larger global pattern of Islamic activism in the twentieth century and, as such, a pervasive theme that cuts through the various organizations, sects, and ideological orientation of African American Muslims is that “freedom” entails something far larger and more encompassing than the legal project of achieving civil rights. Instead, African American Muslim freedom as expressed through the historical records aspiring towards a non-secular humanistic project. In this sense, the international dimension to African American Muslim experiences—whether it be in the form of third-world anti-colonial solidarity, pan-Africanism, or affiliation with the worldwide Muslim ummah—is foundational.
Is religion in fact a relevant cleavage within the black freedom struggle? Have African American Muslims represented a unified block?
For centuries, religious practice has been absolutely central in the quest for African American liberation, not just in the United States but wherever the enslavement of African peoples took place. Scholars much more qualified than myself can testify to the ways in which the black freedom struggle oscillated vis-à-vis the mobilization of religious institutions and their aesthetic sensibilities. The adoption of Islam by swaths of African Americans as a platform to achieve a higher order of freedom, as opposed to the exclusive quest for legal equality in the United States, represents a significant cleavage in African American social and political thought in the twentieth century. One of the most significant dimensions of this development has been the articulation of black freedom within the framework of an alternative universal humanism as expressed in Islam. That is, whereas equal citizenship and constitutional protection become the benchmarks for freedom within a contemporary state framework, recourse to an Islamic political and theological imaginary has enabled African American Muslim thinkers to envision and enact an alternative social project. I should say immediately, of course, that the Islamic tradition was not the only one that produced this kind of rupture: the Black Hebrew Israelites, the revival of Yoruba practices, and even the creation of pan-Africanist Christian traditions are all examples of similar phenomenon. That said, the diversity, breadth, and depth of the Islamic tradition within the African American community is unrivalled as far as non-Christian traditions are concerned.
Per the question of unity: no, there has never been a unified block of African American Muslims. However, although it may seem counterintuitive, the internal rivalry and fractiousness of African American Muslim movements in fact ensures its long-term viability. That is, there has been constant multigenerational African American Muslim hermeneutical tradition which cannot be relegated to the thought and practice of one particular figure or organization. Understanding the nuances and contours of this tradition, how it has changed over time in relationship to questions of race, American citizenship, cultural identity, and international issues can thoroughly enrich our contemporary cultural conversation. This, in part, is a motivation to produce the digital archive.
Finally, what African American Muslim experiences contribute to the ongoing debate about civil rights and human rights in the US and abroad?
For a brief period in graduate school I served as a voluntary Muslim chaplain at a federal prison in Colorado; at the time, the torture photos from Abu Ghuraib were released. The conversation the inmates and I had was a poignant one for this question: from the perspective of the incarcerated individuals I served, the torture photos were merely published versions of the experiences they had suffered in the US penitentiary systems. They argued that the indignity, cruelty, and abuse they experienced qualified as torture. Now, I don’t want to be taken as suggesting that the critique of the prison industrial complex comes exclusively from African American circles, of course not. However, that African American Islamic discourse has for so many decades targeted the racist and illegal practices of the American empire both at a domestic and international level deserves note. In fact, an eerie irony emerges when one examines the relationship between state power, racism, empire, and Islam more closely. In addition to the well- known identification of the Communist Party and Black Panther Party, the growing power of the Nation of Islam was also listed as one of the justifications for the establishment of J. Edgar Hoover’s COINTELPRO program. Again, as scholars much more qualified than I can attest, COINTELPRO provided the infrastructure for many of the intelligence gathering and counterterrorism programs employed by the US government today on its “war on terror.”
The incarceration of Imam Jamil Al-Amin speaks to the state’s logic that links the threat of black revolutionary politics and Islamic militant extremism abroad. Formerly known as H. Rap Brown, the aging Imam of an influential national African American Muslim community was convicted on questionable charges of shooting two police officers—a crime which should have him held in state prison. However, he is held, under solitary confinement twenty-four hours a day, alongside convicted terrorists like Ramzi Yousef and Richard Reid in the Federal Supermax ADX prison in Florence Colorado, with no clear reason. African American Muslim critiques of American empire can enrich the current national debate on national security and individual rights, most recently exemplified by the Edward Snowden/NSA scandal. In fact, those that have borne the brunt of state surveillance activities in the US may be in the best position today to lead a national conversation aimed at truth and reconciliation; on discussing the state’s excessive use of force against its own citizens whether it be in the penal system, in political persecution, or in counter-terrorism efforts. Within this framework, civil and human rights as legal regimes may still be realizable goals here and abroad.
A cursory review of Islamic jurisprudence will tell you that consensus is a double-edged sword. On one hand it signals the stabilization of narratives, reconciliation, and temperance. On the other hand, it hides exclusions, relishes myth, and flaunts triumphalism. I wonder about the edges of the consensus emerging in this discussion. In his book Black Star, Crescent Moon, Dr. Sohail Daulatzai asks a haunting question about the national consensus on Muhammad Ali as an American hero, “Clearly, Ali’s inability to speak now stands in stark contrast to his reputation for eloquence, a quick wit, and a sharp tongue…it begs the question: Would Ali be as revered as he is today if he were able to articulate his thoughts and feelings the way only Ali knew how? Is he less threatening now because of his silence? (141)”
Likewise, is it not the case that only now—decades after African American Muslims played a vibrant role in American cultural life but have been so thoroughly marginalized that scholars now need to “reclaim” their legacy—can a celebratory reflection ensue. Indeed, African American Muslim history has and continues to be part of a rich fabric of American and “Muslim” world encounters, but its relevance, I would argue, needs further clarification vis-à-vis the present political moment. This appeal should not be critiqued as presentism. Rather it is an auto-critique of the telos of inquiry: the why?, what?, and where to? of the questions we ask.
Since its inception, the research and production team working behind the After Malcolm Digital Archive has explored the multifaceted transformation of African American Islam as a historical moment that can inform the cultural and pedagogical praxis in the contemporary political moment. As an American story, exploring the lives of those who carried on Malcolm X’s Islamic internationalism provides context to the ways in which American citizens have been drawn to transnational justice movements. Reviewing African American Muslim newspapers in the 1960s, for example, reveals unexpected discursive connections between movements as disparate as “Occupy” and the Nation of Islam in the critique of empire, capital, and American exceptionalism. Such connections provide context to why an African American Muslim leader such as Imam Zaid Shakir teaches Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth in addition to Imam al-Ghazali’s Revival of the Religious Sciences and participates in a range of leftist protest movements.
As an African American story, the black Muslim freedom struggle, as Dr. Amina McCloud notes is thoroughly intertwined in the larger social and political history created by the towering figures she mentions. But the subject of Islam in the black community has undoubtedly created ruptures and here I am much more pessimistic than my co-director Dr. Bilal King. If African American Islam has been written out by the Civil Rights Narrative—is it not left to ask by whom? And what might the answer to that question tell us about America’s sense of self as it celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act?
Finally, to echo Dr. Grewal’s point, as an Islamic story African American Muslim history gracefully melts into a kaleidoscope of global Islamic networks and discourses. It is a unromantic tapestry that adds to fourteen centuries of a global religious tradition. An early member of the Dar al-Islam informed us recently that they had broken away from the Tablighi Jama’at because of their apolitical posture, but their outreach and recruitment methods stayed the same—an amazing anecdote of colonial modernity. He mentioned that much of the English language literature they taught and disseminated in black neighborhoods across the country, came through the pen of Maryam Jameelah, the New York Jewish born protégé of Maulana Mawdudi. In terms of questioning the function and telos of present studies of Islam in America, the After Malcolm project hopes to disrupt an emerging consensus that has reified an “African American Islam” as distinct from an “Immigrant Islam.” Aside from skewing historical data and perpetuating a politics of resentment, such an outlook thoroughly contradicts much of what was sought and realized in the African American Muslim freedom struggle. Hopefully, as a consensus congeals, it doesn’t do so around mere nostalgia.
[This article is part of a six-person roundtable entitled “African American Muslims and the Black Freedom Struggle.” Click here for the introduction by Lindsey Stephenson and links to responses by Zareena Grewal,Abbas Barzegar, Mansa Bilal Mark King, Aminah B. McCloud, and Sohail Daulatzai.]