The Trouble with Our Criminal Justice System

Documentary Teaser for Prison Blues by Mustafa Davis.

MuslimARC organized a panel on Muslims and the New Jim Crow, a standing room only event where over 200 people ended the event with a direct action. The deaths of Black, Latino, and Native Americans by police or in police custody has raised attention to the problem in our criminal justice system. Here is an article that I’ve written on criminal justice reform:

On July 17, 2014, Eric Garner, an African-American father of six, was killed by a police chokehold and nearly a year later, New York City settled a lawsuit by his family for $5.9 million. Over the past year, protests erupted in Ferguson, MissouriNew York,Baltimore,Los Angeles, and numerous other cities where black people have been brutalized by police. Live tweets, live streams and pictures highlighted the militarization of law enforcement. The outrage against police brutality has galvanized activists, community leaders and concerned citizens across the country, and has spurred Muslim coalitions such as Muslims for Ferguson and Muslims Make It Plain. Activists Carmen Perez,  Linda Sarsour, and Tamika Mallory, along with 100 protesters completed a nine-day  #March2Justice from New York to Washington, D.C., in April to highlight the problem of police oppression.  But their long journey reflects the difficult challenge that we, as Americans in general and as Muslims in particular, have in addressing the real problems of policing in this country.

If the Muslim community is going to truly deal with policing, then we must address the criminal justice system as a whole. We must delve deep into the issue and make abuse and oppression in our criminal justice system our issue. We must allow our faith to inform us into peaceful action by engaging with others and calling for action and reform where it is needed.

Certainly, Muslim-American communities have made inroads into conversations about these abuses. However, stumbling blocks remain. Often Muslims will argue that law enforcement is getting a bad rap. In one news story, a relative of a Muslim woman, who was rescued by police after an arson, argued that police officers have the worst job in the world. He said, it was because “people hate you, but when they get in trouble you’re the first person they call.”

In one off-the-record meeting at a Muslim community center with the FBI, a non-black Muslim community leader compared law enforcement with Muslims, saying that both are stereotyped because of the actions of a few.  Many Muslim national organizations and advocacy groups have issued statements in support of #BlackLivesMatter protesters. When the Islamic Society of North America issued a statement about the escalation of violence during the Baltimore uprising, activists and organizations pointed out that ISNA’s focusing on the destruction of property downplayed the role of systemic racism in the criminal justice system.

The controversy over ISNA’s statement about Baltimore demonstrates how social media has helped to shape conversations about police brutality and the justice system. Muslim media platforms and national organizations are beginning to engage when previously, only a few urban-based organizations, such as the Muslim Alliance of North America and Inner City Muslim Action Network, addressed the justice system and programs for the formerly incarcerated. But times are changing.

For example, the 15-year-old murder conviction of Adnan Syed, which was detailed in a podcast “Serial,” has sparked the imagination of people across the country, as well as South Asian and Arab Muslims. These same Muslims  raised over $100,000 to support his appeal. Syed’s narrative of being a child of immigrants, a model minority youth wrongfully convicted with thin evidence because of Islamophobia continues to captivate the country. Many people, who follow this story often fail to link Syed’s fate with that of many Latino and black people, who have also been wrongfully convicted.

The Innocence Project has exonerated numerous men, who served decades in prison, and some of them only getting their names cleared long after their executions. Yet, some people still believe that justice is blind and support a kind of Muslim exceptionalism when it comes to how members of the Muslim community are treated by the criminal justice system.  In contrast, when a black Muslim is accused of a crime, many Muslims will distance themselves from the case.

For black Muslims, systemic racism and Islamophobia intersect in the most powerful ways in state surveillance, law enforcement and the criminal justice system. Some recent cases highlight this reality, such as the killing of Imam Luqman Abdullah, who was shot 20 times by federal agents during a raid at a warehouse in 2009; the case of Usaamah Rahim, who was killed by police while waiting at a bus stop in June; the case of Marcus Dwayne Robertson, who was arrested and jailed on tax fraud and illegal gun possession and about to be accused of terrorism based on his e-book collection but eventually set free for time served for previous charges. These men were all black and Muslim. Yet most Muslim leaders and organizations didn’t give these cases the full court attention afforded to non-black Muslims affected by law enforcement or the prison system. This implicitly extends such mainstream racism well into the Muslim community.

The same implicit bias that causes officers to be more likely to shoot an unarmed black person than a white person also leads to racial disparities in the viewing, prosecution and sentencing of cases. Studies have shown that race also factors into the severity of the punishment, and even skin color and phenotype play a factor, considering that dark-skinned people receive longer and harsher sentences.  Such a stark reality is also underscored by the fact that Dylann Roof, a white man who murdered nine African-Americans attending church in Charleston, South Carolina, was later apprehended alive and then taken to Burger King; while African-American Usaamah Rahim was shot to death at a bus stop without having committed any crime.

Moving beyond the headlines and the latest hot spots, the Muslim community must address police misconduct as part of a larger broken system. This entails addressing policies and practices.   In the book, The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander demonstrates how communities of color are disproportionately affected by mass incarceration, and activists such as Mariame Kaba have worked tirelessly to raise awareness about racial injustice in the criminal justice system.  The prison industrial complex  (PIC) is a term used to describe the overlapping interests of government and industry to use surveillance, policing and imprisonment as solutions to economic, social and political problems. Prison abolition activists argue that the PIC perpetuates the flawed belief that imprisonment is the solution to social problems such as substance abuse, homelessness, illiteracy and mental illness.   Further, the “school-to-prison pipeline” refers to the policies and practices that push low-income children out of classrooms and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems. Schools are more likely to punish young black boys and girls more severely, charging them with crimes and sending them into the juvenile court system than their white counterparts for the same offenses. Our society is more apt to invest in prisons rather than education or preventative measures, such as substance abuse or rehabilitation programs.

The Sentencing Project estimates there are 2.2 million people in American prisons. The United States is the world’s leader in incarceration. Over the past three decades, the population has increased over 500%. Many people are in prison for nonviolent offenses. More people are coming to see these policies as costly and ineffective. Reflecting this changing tide, on July 13, President Barack Obama cut the sentences of 46 drug offenders.  In his speech to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Obama said, “We spend $80 billion to keep people in prison.”

For more than 20 years, I have heard Muslims cite the Hadith, “Feed the hungry, visit the sick and set free the captives.” (Sahih Al-Bukhari, Volume 7, Hadith 552) America’s incarcerated community is held captive, and former offenders often suffer from a lifetime of stigma and discrimination.

Our communities, however, are often hands-off when it comes to prison populations. They limit support to distributing prison dawah (proselytizing) while leaving rehabilitation and reentry programs cash strapped.   The Muslim community, as a whole, has done little to advocate for progressive reform of the criminal justice system.

There are exceptions. We can look to local efforts as models and amplify their work. For example, the Latino Muslim Association of America (LALMA) and Islah LA worked with faith-based community organizers, LA Voice, to help pass Proposition 47,  which reduced nonviolent felonies to misdemeanors in California.

Our national Muslim advocacy organizations and lay people across the country should support current criminal justice reform efforts. One place to start is by supporting the Ban the Box campaign, which seeks fair employment for people with past convictions. As individuals, we can donate our time or resources to help build capacity for organizations working on police brutality and the criminal justice system by taking part in faith-based organizing, joining multiethnic coalitions or supporting organizations doing grassroots work.

Muslim Americans, as a community, cannot allow for injustice to fester in our justice system and expect to receive justice for ourselves. Whether calling for criminal justice reform, supporting prisoners’ rights or advocating for changes in policing, our faith must inform our actions.


Read the original  published at Islamic Monthly.

Chicago Muslims Join Mass Protest in Chicago


With the full support of The Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago (CIOGC), Muslims are joining thousands in a rally and  march from Chicago’s Federal Building to City Hall to call for an elected Civilian Accountability Council. Grassroots campaigns to address violence and criminalization of Black and Latino communities are significant in this movement. This is the city where our sister Ameenah Matthews  and other Interrupters have courageously stood between rival gangs. According to Bill Chambers, CIOGC is a federation of organizations that represent over 400,000 Muslim Americans in the Chicago area.  Activists have long been fighting to change police policies, from Stop and Frisk, police killings, and even torture. In the past eight years, 400 people have been shot by Chicago police and only one was ruled an unjustified shooting. Don Rose points out,  Dante Servin, who was only the second Chicago police officer to be indicted in 20 years, but even he was recently acquitted of manslaughter for shooting Rekia Boyd.   In the Homan Square police warehouse interrogation facility  200 suspects from 1972-1991 and Emanuel Rahm approved a reparations settlement for victims of torture. Anjum Ali explains, “I heard a WBEZ story about the Chicago review board, IPRA, made up of mostly law enforcement people, and how they almost never rule an officer-involved shooting to be unjustified.” Ali  pointed out the connections between Human Rights violations against Muslims and the war on terror and Chicago. He notes, “Det. Richard Zuley who honed his torturing skills in Chicago and was sent to be an interrogator at Guantanamo Bay. Ali highlights,“The Muslim community and others have been outraged by the techniques used in the Guantanamo Bay facility, but it’s happening right here.”


In the video, Imam Abdul Malik Mujahid  affirms, “Black Lives Matter” and states that the historic march aims to do two things:  Stand in solidarity with Black Lives Matter, and ask for city council to pass a law to establish civilian oversight of Chicago’s police. On the CGOIC website, “this march coincides with the #BlackLivesMatter movement and the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) who used coalition building as a major strategy in his efforts for peace.” The Muslim efforts are largely coordinated by Imam Abdul Malik Mujahid, Volunteer Chairman for Justice for All, an organization that “… has taken on the mandate of doing political advocacy for causes that do not get mainstream support.”


As of Saturday morning 201 have joined  Muslim Join August 29 March the facebook page.  Churches, mosques, temples, and labor unions are joining in the organized rally, which According to the facebook page, the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago  is providing water for 10,000 people.


On the Facebook Event page  hosted by The Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression states “We are uniting our shared experience fighting for justice in order to bring about a systemic change. We are empowering the people to hold the police accountable for the crimes they commit, and to decide and control how they are policed” As of early Saturday,  1263 people signed up on the facebook page. Buses are schedule to pick up participants from ten mosques including  the Muslim Community Center (MCC). Muslim Education Center (MEC), Islamic Center of Wheaton (ICW), Islamic Community Center of Des Plaines, Islamic Foundation, Islamic Foundation North (IFN), MECCA Center, Mosque Foundation, Dar-us-Sunnah, and Masjid Al Farooq. The mass rally is utilizing the hashtags #ChiRisingAug29 , #StopPoliceCrimes, and #BlackLivesMatter

The Medina: Muslim Urban Justice


What does medina mean for Muslims in the United States? With major Muslim centers of population along the two coasts, in New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Detroit, Islam in the United States is an urban religion. In a recent Ramadan reflection, Hazel Gomez writes, “In the next 35 years, America will grow by 110 million people and nearly 100 percent of that growth will be in cities — not suburban or rural America.” She continues, “Our task, if we’re to remain relevant to society at large, is to create viable, urban, multi-ethnic, Muslim-led, values-based communities.” Shaykha Muslema Purmul extends the argument about the significance of Muslim institutions in urban spaces. A mosque shutting down in a suburban neighborhood may not impact the neighbors, she points out, but “… if an institution like IMAN or Islah LA or Ta’leef Collective is shut down, the neighborhood would certainly care.”

Reflecting on Malcolm X’s legacy, Rami Nashishibi calls on our faith community to deepen our commitment to the inner city for three reasons: 1) Our roots are in the ‘Hood; 2) We do a lot of “our” business in the ‘Hood; and 3) Our greatest contributions to America are in the ‘Hood. Nashishibi points out that the modern roots of Islam in America began in urban centers such as Detroit, Harlem, Cleveland, and Chicago. Many immigrant Muslim families have benefitted economically through gas stations, restaurants, corner stores, and services in the hood. And finally, as a community we can make the greatest contribution to addressing social and economic disparities in the inner city.

These disparities arise out of migration patterns and the economic disempowerment of inner city communities. With approximately 70% of Black and Latinos in cities or outer ring communities, urban justice is often linked to racial justice. Dawinder S. Sidhu writes:

Urban America is occupied by the ‘urban underclass”–the marginalized poor in America’s inner cities. Members of the urban underclass are, generally defined, those who are economically impoverished, spatially relegated to ghettos, disproportionately African-American, subjected to discriminatory policies, and lacking prospects for social or physical advancement.

Long historical processes and profound structural economic shifts, that include the decline of industry in urban America, in addition to the legacy of housing discrimination have segregated poor and minority populations in U.S. cities. Inner city poverty is a racial justice issue because of the persistence of racial and gender discrimination in employment, criminal justice system, and education disparities, which prevent communities of color in urban areas from achieving their full potential. These factors also led to complex interactions between various groups, including tensions between South Asian and Arab corner storeowners and predominantly Black and Latino communities.

On the other hand, faith based initiatives and individual Muslims inspired by Islam and their hopes for bringing power to underserved communities have led to developments such as Kenny Luqman Gamble’s Universal Companies. It is important for us to know what Muslim community leaders are doing in terms of Urban Justice. They can inspire us, while providing important models to follow. But we also need to think more about how we can mobilize the broader Muslim community to support these efforts.

When it comes to Urban Justice, what are Muslim community leaders with strong organizing experiences on the ground doing? What models can we follow? How can the broader Muslim community support community leaders who are addressing Urban Justice?

Join  this important conversation by viewing the livestream and tweeting your questions and reflections on the panel using the hashtag #MuslimUrbanJustice Thursday August 13 at 3:15 pm PST/ 6:15pm ESTTo address these issues, MuslimARC is very excited to organize a live streamed online panel highlighting the work that organizations like IMANDream of DetroitLA-Voice, and Sahaba Initiative are doing to advance Urban Justice.

We hope you’ll join us at 6:15pm ET this Thursday to discuss some of these important questions. Click here to join the event on Facebook and be sure to share it with friends.








A Ramadan Plea to Overcome Muslim Stereotypes in America

A multi-ethnic community puts Muslims in North America in a unique position to build bridges

As we honor Ramadan, the holiest month in the Muslim calendar, it’s important to look back at the history of Muslims in America to guide the context of fighting increased anti-Muslim bigotry in the U.S. today.

Anti-Muslim hate crimes are five times more common today than they were before 9/11. In 2014, we saw the chilling murder of 15-year-old Abdisamad Sheikh-Hussein, who was run down outside his mosque in Kansas City, Mo., by a man who had expressed his hatred for Muslims. In February 2015, the Chapel Hill shooting took the lives of three American-Muslim college students and shook the entire Muslim community. Last month there was an armed protest in Arizona outside of a mosque, and a Muslim community in New York was targeted by a man who plotted to burn down a school and mosque. The media is also filled with negative stereotypes about Muslims.

My concerns mirror those of so many Americans: As a parent to a rambunctious 3-year-old girl, I am concerned with her getting a quality education in a safe school, and I want her to live to her fullest potential and to have a positive self-identity. Yet when I taught an anti-racism workshop to 11-year-old girls last fall and asked about stereotypes, almost all of them answered that they faced some level of anti-Muslim bias. This reflects a recent survey from Muslim ARC, an organization that I co-founded, in which 82% of respondents said that they experienced racial, ethnic, or religious discrimination from society at large.

American Muslims with roots in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia face anti-Muslim bias mixed with a heavy dose of xenophobia. African American Muslims are often judged on two fronts: on the basis of religion and on the basis of race. But this native Muslim population has historical roots that go back hundreds of years. Around the time of the American Revolution, a large community of Moroccan Muslims lived and thrived in Charleston, S.C.Slaves in the Antebellum United States—nearly 15% to 30% of whom were Muslim—celebrated Ramadan in the South. From Thomas Jefferson owning a Quran to the mass adoration of Muhammad Ali to the reverberating social impact of Malcolm X, African American Muslims have always been a part of the American tapestry. The latest spate of hate crimes—both from white supremacists and from Islamophobes—belies this history.

Muslim Americans in America are a diverse group. The American Mosque Study breaks down the ethnicities of mosque participants in 2011 to 33% South Asian, 27% Arab, 24% African American, 9% Sub-Saharan African, 2% European (i.e. Bosnian), and about 1% each for white, Southeast Asian, Caribbean, Turkish, and Latino. This multi-ethnic community puts Muslims in North America in a unique position to build bridges.

This Ramadan, I abstain from drinking and eating during daylight hours and break fast at sun down with people from all walks of life. I have celebrated with Muslim Americans from Vietnam, Albania, Bangladesh, Morocco, and Mexico, and each exchange has helped me develop greater understanding of myself and empathy for others. As part of the African Diaspora, I feel a connection to African Diasporic communities in India, Brazil, Haiti, and Europe. As a Muslim, I have felt a closeness to Muslims from Eastern Europe, Yemen, Indonesia, and Azerbaijan. By celebrating our plurality, we demonstrate that there is no one single narrative for what it means to be Muslim and to be American.


Original article in Time.

Heartbreak, Detachment and Hope

Foregoing Community for Authentic Relationships

I came home from a community iftar on Saturday and tweeted this:

Margari Tweet

When asked what happened, I answered, “I’m breaking up with my community.” Anybody who has been through a divorce can tell you that ending a relationship can be a long process.  It begins with knowing that things aren’t working.

So, I’m in the process of breaking up with my community.

Two months ago, the reality of it being over hit home.  I was in a New York hotel, on the first over night trip away from my three-year-old daughter.  As my husband told me about the latest development in our Muslim community, I burst into tears. The masjid board was dissolved the month before, and the waqf took over, deciding not to institute elections for the foreseeable future.

I was losing the dream of an inclusive community, one where my daughter could belong to and one in which the 18-year-old version of me could prosper, rather than spiritually and economically flounder. I felt so hollowed out.  What had I been working towards for over a decade?

Read the rest on AltMuslim

What’s In a Name?: Using “Muslim” As a Cultural Category Erases and Stereotypes

Image source: Nsenga Knight from A Guide to the Last Rite 2011-12 ” tumblr_nihv1yRokW1qex654o1_500

In seeking solidarity with Black movements, organizers must be cognizant of and uproot anti-blackness from the content and approach to their work down to the terminology and vocabulary used. Whether doing this for the purpose of talking about solidarity with Ferguson, or in terms of addressing Islamophobia and civil liberties violations, the framing of types of social justice or, social justice issues has resulted in tangible exclusions of Black/African American Muslims and feelings of erasure. Even in the realm of  Muslim American social justice work, certain voices are privileged over Black Muslim voices. The latest wave of this patterned behavior raises serious concerns in the engagement with the #BlackLivesMatter movement.  In an “Open Letter to Non-Black Muslims,” Nashwa Khan wrote:

We Muslims who are non-black, and non-black people as a whole – we need to move away from constantly wanting to center and insert our own identities. I want to see solidarity with our black brothers and sisters be genuine and authentic. I want to witness non-black people unpack our benefits and complicity. I want to see us raise black voices in this discourse instead of inserting our own thoughts or letting every black individual relive trauma by presenting ourselves as special snowflakes.

The socio-economic background of many Black American Muslims has not positioned them to engage with immigrant-origin college-educated on the same footing.  Nor do many of the Black/African Muslim activists have access to the same platforms as many non Black Muslims. Further, many do not have  institutional backing to address their grievances. Compounding inequities, Black American Muslims,  who are most affected by policing and surveillance, are often relegated to a secondary role in national Muslim organizations or Muslim-related religious civil rights advocacy groups. Making “Muslim” a cultural category, along with ethnic groups like “South Asian” or “Arab,” is problematic in a number of ways, often resulting in  practices that exclude or erase Black/African Muslims.


The of Muslim a cultural identity include reifying South Asian and Arab hegemony in Muslim discourses. One particular issue is using “Arab and South Asian” as a synonym for Muslim, or on a group that is intended to be open to all Muslims but only uses some names and ethnicities. On one level it makes sense that civil liberties groups have developed the category “Muslim, Arab, and South Asian” to address the ways in which some communities have borne the brunt of government surveillance and discrimination in  post-9/11 society. However, the cultural category has resulted in the exclusion of Black Muslims in the discussion of Muslim civil liberties or the effects of Islamophobia. Black American Muslims have been under surveillance and discrimination many decades before 9/11.

American Muslims are a diverse group, comprised of individuals of South Asian, Arab, North African, Middle Eastern, African, Latino, White, Indigenous, Asian, and Pacific Islander background. Indeed, over ⅓ of the US Muslim population is Black/African. US media,  government agencies, and organizations often ignore this, to much criticism from and distress of  Muslims. However, Muslims – both at the individual and the institutional level – engage in the framing of “Arab and South Asian” in the same category as “Muslim” and vice versa, frequently. While it may be unintentional, the results of this exclusion have toxic potential, including but not limited to the following:

  1. Centering South Asian and Arab voices as larger groups that retain their own complexities (i.e. individuals are able to identify or not identify as Muslim yet speak for Muslim communities) while reducing other groups to only their religious identity
  2. Ensuring the idea of Islam and Muslims are linked most strongly to Arabs and South Asians
  3. Minimizing the historical contributions of Black and African Muslims, as well as of Muslims in North Africa who are not Arab and Muslims from regions including Southeast Asia and East Asia.
  4. Privileging Arab and South Asian perspectives as representative of the Muslim community at the expense of marginalized groups
  5. Allowing for South Asian and Arab Muslims with little ties or stake in mosque or Muslim community life to have the privilege to set the agenda religious and spiritual life in mosques and Muslim community centers.
  6. Marginalizing Muslims who strongly identify with their faith tradition by moving “Muslim” to a racialized but secular humanistic framework.
  7. Making South Asian and Arab cultures normative.
  8. Not allowing South Asians of Sikh, Hindu, Christian, or Buddhist religious identities or Arab Christians to speak to their faith traditions, while allowing solely Muslims to speak to theirs.


  1. Conflating Arabs or South Asians with Islam
  2. Reifying concept of a monolithic Muslim culture
  3. Ignoring overlap between Black and Muslim identities
  4. Promoting the idea that Islam is a foreign religion without American roots
  5. Ahistorical depiction of Black Muslims, downplaying the historical role that Black Muslims have played in freedom struggles of which #BlackLIvesMatter is a part. This includes people like Jamil El-Amin, (H.Rap Brown) who is currently imprisoned, and many others from centuries ago to today..

By talking about Muslim solidarity and taking Islam out of it, we support the creation of a Muslim cultural category that excludes people who are Black American Muslims, as well as other Muslims who do not fall into these dominant ethnic categories. While embracing the concept of self-identified Muslim, it is important to address how treating “Muslim” as an ethnic, cultural, or political identity can invalidate the experiences of converts and/or Muslims who do not fit into the major cultural categories associated with Muslim identities.

Some options to use instead (note: each of these categories has a pro and a con, which I encourage you to help flesh them out in the comments below):

  • Confessional Category: Just use “Muslim”: i.e. Mobilizing Muslims for Ferguson
  • Footnote it: Use Muslim, but include a footnote that lists the major ethnic groups: i.e. Muslims for Ferguson1


Calling on all self identified Muslims, including but not limited to Arab, African/Black, South Asian, North African, Iranian, Latino, Asian, and White Muslims.  

  • Direct Marketing Approach: List the target Ethnic groups for participation: i.e. Arab, South Asian, African/Black Coalition against Spying.
  • HIghlight major groups: List the groups comprising largest demographics ie: African/Black, South Asian, and Arab Muslims (ASAM) or Muslim African/Black South Asian, and Arab (MASA)
    • Include in a footnote or clear statement that all Muslims and people of all faiths and backgrounds are welcome to join.
  • Interfaith route: i.e. Middle Eastern and South Asian Interfaith Alliance for #BlackLivesMatter
  • Get Creative: i.e.  Non-Aligned Movement for #BlackLivesMatter
    • the Non-Aligned movement harkens back to the non-aligned movement comprised of multiple states, many of which also had Muslim populations, including India, Ghana, Egypt, Yugoslavia

This resources should be used liberally by non-Black Muslims to end the erasure of their Black Muslim brothers and sisters. Although many members of the Black community may not be offended by some use of the language (such is the case with non-Blacks using the n-word where some people will give their friends a pass, but overall the use is not accepted by a more conscious crowd), it is still recommended to modify the language in response to a vocal few. This article is meant to start an important conversation, one which we hope will be particularly sensitive to those who are largely excluded in Muslim American narratives. In developing inclusive language, we must be open to continual dialogue and critiques. Please share your thoughts and concerns in the comments below. 

The Herstory of Malcolm X’s Legacy

Often, when we talk about the history of Islam in America, we focus on the great men and their big ideas.This month in looking at the BlackLivesMatter Movement through the life and legacy of Malcolm X, I have often thought about the thought of the many women who were were also part of the our nation’s freedom struggle. Many Muslim Americans know about Malcolm X, but few know about the women in his life. Few of us consider the role that many of our sisters who were pioneers of establishing Islam in America, such as Clara Muhammad the wife of Elijah Muhammad. Just as we remember Malcolm, we should know about Ella Collins, Betty Shabazz, and his daughters Attallah Shabazz, Qubilah Shabazz, Ilyasah Shabazz, Gamilah Lumumba Shabazz, Malikah Shabazz and Malaak Shabazz. All of these women have carried the burden of maintaining his legacy. And if we are the honor the man, we should acknowledge the women who contributed to his life and help maintain his memory.

While few of us recognize Ella Collins (1914-1996) as a seminal figure in American Muslim history, the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center honors her civil rights legacy with the Ella Collin’s Institute (ECI). The half sister of Malcolm X, she was responsible for recruiting Malcolm X into the Nation of Islam, although Spike Lee’s film biopic of Malcolm X erased her. Throughout his life she was influential, having helped raised the young Malcolm Little after his father was murdered and mothered suffered a nervous breakdown. She was an activist who had worked for the first Rev. Adam Clayton Powell. According to her obituary, Ella Collins advised her half brother to embrace orthodox Islam and she funded his pilgrimage to Mecca. After his assassination, Ella Collins maintained the Organization for Afro American Unity after his assassination. While her role in supporting Malcolm X is noteworthy,   Ella Collins’ life history as a business woman who set up schools and worked in civil rights is noteworthy in and of itself. By looking at her life, it becomes clear that women played a central role in the civil rights movement and in instituion bulding in the Black American Muslim community.

Betty Shabazz (1934-1997) was invited to Nation of Islam meetings. After attending several meeting wehre Malcolm X preached, she joined in 1956. Following two years of courtship, they married in 1958. Betty Shabazz was pregnant with twins, when Malcolm X was assissinated. Raising her six daughters alone, Ruby Dee and Juanita Poitierr (wife of Sidney Poitier) raised funds to provide her a home and the royalties to the Autobiography of Malcolm X supported the family. Shabazz returned to school and eventually earned a doctorate in education from the University of Massachusetts in 1975. She became a college administrator and public speaker, often defending her husband’s legacy and discussing topics such as civil rights and racial tolerance. Her life also ended tragically, when she succumbed to her burn injuries from a fire her grandson ignited.

Although she was wife of one of the most influential thought leaders in the civil rights movement, Betty Shabazz’s life history also provides a nuanced narrative of Black American life. She was a middle class, college educated Black woman who faced racism. She negotiated gendered norms in her marriage to develop a partnership with her husband. In addition, by putting Malcolm X’s life in context, we can take a critical look at ourselves in the sunni Muslim community, which failed to support Malcolm’s burial or his widow. Yet now, we find a sense of rootedness in his legacy. And when we talk about his legacy, how much do we honor the women who were closest to him.

It would do a great disservice to speak about Malcolm X’s legacy without talking about his heirs. We should know their names and their struggles because they have largely born greatest burden in the loss of malcolm x. We should know more about Attallah Shabazz, Qubilah Shabazz, Ilyasah Shabazz, Gamilah Lumumba Shabazz, Malikah Shabazz and Malaak Shabazz. Attallah became involved in the arts and public speaking, Gamilah hip hop, Qubilah became embroiled a supposed plot to kill Louis Farakhan, Ilyasah Shabazz became a public speaker and author of Growing Up X and a children’s book titled Malcolm Little: the Little Boy Who Grew up to Become Malcolm X . Malcolm X’s daughters, whose life histories are storied and triumphant reflect the turbulent years following their father’s assassination. Their day to day struggles is a topic worthy of study and reflection on Black American Muslim life in and of themselves.

Even separating their accomplishes from Malcolm X, these eight women point to extraordinary lives of Black American Muslim women. Centering women’s lives can give us a more nuanced sense of historical processes. Ella Collins shows us how social supports also played a role in supporting inspirational figures. Betty Shabazz provides a more nuanced picture of Black women in the 50s and 60s and how they navigated racism and gendered norms. Before the 1992 movie, while Malcolm X was being vilified and the sunni Muslim community largely distanced themselves from his legacy, it was largely Betty Shabazz and her daughters who maintained the Legacy of Malcolm X. We can’t truly honor Malcolm X’s legacy without giving thanks to the women who have shaped it.