#IAmMuslimARC

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This short video below outlines one of the major motivation for doing this work, my work in an Islamic school. I am committed to supporting healthy environments for Muslim children to thrive and prosper. I found that many of our children were ill equipped with the skills necessary to challenge the racism they faced, whether it came from their peers or from the broader society.

I don’t want people to think that the experience was all negative. I saw many wonderful examples of students and families who embodied Islam. I have a young daughter and I constantly pray that my daughter grows up to be like many of the girls and young women I came to know. Empowering our youth with healthy self-identities and with a sense that they can help create a better world are two of my greatest motivations.  Those two years teaching secondary school left a lasting impact on me. Those students taught me much more than I could have ever taught them. I still see those beautiful young children, although most of my students  are adults, in college, starting their own families, and taking on leadership roles themselves.

Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative in many ways represents the beauty of Islam. Although I felt those deep bonds of sisterhood with individuals over the years, I had struggled calling my co-religionists brothers and sisters. Sometimes it was because of some of the  socio-economic, gendered, and racial power dynamic  that dehumanized us. Other times, it was because I felt in the end our futures were not intertwined. But this past year, the tireless  work  Namira Islam, Bangladeshi American woman who lived thousands of miles away, Laura Poyneer, a white American Muslim who at the time lived on the other side of the country, and over forty volunteers who gave their precious time showed me the depth of our bond. Our shared visions,  frustrations, hopes,  and struggles bind us together.

I am asking you to join us in this movement. We are need your input to know a bit more about MuslimARC’s reach. Please take a moment to complete this short survey.


If you checked any of these than, YOU are part of the Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative.

 

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Come out and show your support for anti-racism education and activism in the Muslim community. Join us for a hashtag event that is part of MuslimARC’s new LaunchGood campaign to both raise awareness and funds for anti-racism initiatives and projects throughout the US.  Give $5 or 5 minutes to spread the word. Follow the event at https://twitter.com/muslimarc and use the hahtag #IAmMuslimARC to be part of the conversation on Tuesday November 11 2:00PM PDT/ 5:00 PM EST.
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The Relevance of Black American Muslim Thought

The Muslim American community is held together with the belief that there is no God but the One True God and that Muhammad is His prophet.  Muslims share daily patterns of worship, rituals of birth, marriage, and death. As one of the most diverse faith communities, Muslim Americans come from various ethnic, socio-economic, and cultural backgrounds.   Sometimes there are various articulations of Islam  due to different political, cultural, and religious orientations. Over the years, many Black American Muslims have been at the forefront of articulating Islamic thought for the growing American Muslim community. But this seems to have changed as a dominant narrative has taken over.

Some estimates go as far to say that there are 5 million Muslims in America. According to census data and information provided by mosques and community centers, Muslims in America make up .5% of the total population in America. Keeping it conservative, that equals just under two million. This still represents a significant number. CAIR reports that the ethnicities of mosque participants can be broken down to 33% South Asian, 30% Black American and 25% Arab, 3.4% sub-Saharan African, 2.1 European (i.e. Bosnia) 1.6% White American, 1.3% South-East Asian, 1.2% Caribbean, 1.1% Turkish, .7% Iranian, and .6% Latino/Hispanic. Other reports indicate the number of Black Americans may be even larger. Regardless of the numbers, there is no clear ethnic majority in American Islam. But these numbers raise some important issues: Who has the right to speak for American Muslims? Who are the real Muslims? Who will define the agenda for American Muslims? These questions have often been central to a debate that has emerged about the Black American/immigrant divide.

In America, there is fierce competition over resources which has led to some voices getting silenced in deciding the agenda for American Muslims. Within mainstream media, the Muslim American experience is about the immigration and assimilation experience. There is little press coverage or interest shown in the media on converts or the multi-generational Black American Muslim families. Sylvia Chan-Malik uses the term, “foundational blackness” to describe how contemporary Islam in America can best be understood by transnational affiliations that link gender, class, and religion, but also with its relationship with blackness.   However Black American Muslim foundations go back further, with memories of African Muslims enslaved in the America, even predating the formation of the United States. There are  also Sunni communities dating back to the 60s, such as Dar al-Islam movement. Some communities have origins much earlier, such as Quba Institute with roots in the 1930s Izideen village in New Jersey. Yet, consistently, there continues to be a portrayal of Islam as a foreign religion, with only internationalist interests. For over a century, some Black Americans have looked to African cultural legacies, addressed local issues, and have maintained transnational networks and ties, to articulate religious thought that is African, Islamic, and uniquely American.

While it is true that Black American Muslims were often drawn to Islam in an attempt to articulate their own cultural identity outside of the dehumanizing ascribed identity of Black inferiority, Black American Islam is thoroughly embedded in the American tradition. From the proto-Islam movements of the early 20th century, to the Black separatist movements of the 1960s, heterodox communities, and orthodox communities with leaders from or trained abroad, many Muslim communities sought to address social ills in America and globally. In particular, racism, economic and social inequality, economic exploitation, and family instability are on the main agenda of many Black American Muslim leaders. Before 9/11, some of the most prominent voices in American Islam were African Americans, including Warith Deen Muhammad and Siraaj Wahaj. Their status as citizens afforded them the privilege to critique American society and foreign policy, without compromising their Americaness. The protest tradition of many leaders helped forge a space for the next generation of immigrant and descendant of immigrant Muslims Americans to assert themselves in the public sphere. Following the events of 9/11, there has been an increasing silencing of Black American Muslim voices: a combination of little to no media acknowledgment of BAM’s as well as a systemic neglect on the part of immigrant Muslims. Over time, Black American spokespeople were gradually eclipsed as national Muslim organizations with strong immigrant interests sought to assert their agendas and provide the dominant narrative of immigrants assimilating to American values.

In contrast to the hegemonic narrative that has rendered them invisible, Black American Muslims are  vital to the health of this diverse Muslim community.  They have also continued to make great strides politically, socially, and culturally. This includes two Black Congressmen, Keith Ellison and Andre Carson, the growing prominence of intellectuals and scholars, most notably feminist scholar, Amina Wadud, and Aminah Beverly McCloud, who wrote African American Islam,  Sherman Abdul-Hakeem Jackson, and Zaid Shakir. There are also many young scholars, such as Jamilah Karim, Su’ad Abdul Khabeer, and Intisar Rabb. There is a large wave of Black American Muslim leaders who have demonstrated mastery of Islamic sciences and have graduated from Muslim institutions of higher learning, including Abdullah Ali, who earned a degree from  Al-Qarawiyin University of Fes. Black American Muslims have made cultural gains including a feature length film, “Mooz-lum,” and prominent Hip Hop artists, including but not limited to Lupe Fiasco, and Yasiin Bey (Mos Def).  The Abdullah brothers shared their story of taking time off from from the NFL to perform the annual Muslim pilgrimage (Hajj). The fencer,  Ibtihaj Muhammad, was the first Muslim woman to compete for the United States in an international competition and win a medal. Black American Muslims are very much part of the fabric of America and often play a daily role in interfaith dialogue, as many of them have family and loved ones who are non-Muslim.

Black American Muslims have used their social capital to critique American foreign policy, Islamophobia, and erosion of American civil liberties. As a group, Black American Muslims are far from nativists, as many identify with and relate to  numerous international and transnational Muslim communities. They are much more likely to attend a mosque in which another group dominates, showing their willingness to assimilate into an immigrant dominant mosque. Black American Muslims participate anti-war protests, critique extra-judicial killings through drone strikes in Chad, Mali, Yemen, and Pakistan, raise money for war refugees in Syria and alleviate suffering in natural disasters in Somalia and Pakistan. Yet  pressing social issues in their home communities, such as economic inequality, street violence, and family instability, play a large role in their everyday lives. Crime, poverty, and marriage are common issues raised in the Black American Muslim discourse from the minbar to the lecture hall. These issues also shape their outlook, which in turn causes them to be empathetic to the plight of others at home and abroad.

Perhaps the flexibility of thought can be tied to the Black American  Muslim identity, which is comprised of multiple intersections.  They are connected to many faiths and ethnic groups as part of this nation building project that we call United States of America. They are connected to many faiths and people who were either forcibly or willingly migrated to other lands  as part of the African Diaspora. They find connections with people on the African continent, and Black communities in South America and the Caribbean. They are also connected to people all over the world in  a multi-ethnic global community,  ummah. These connections have given Black American Muslims a unique juncture to relate to and speak on various issues and causes. Black American thinkers continue to be influential in defining American Muslim thought, as they connect their day to day lives with Muslims globally.

It seems to be willful ignorance on the part of the media, scholars, and some organizations to overlook these important contributions and connections.  The occlusion of Black Americans despite the continual relevancy of Black American Muslim thought makes it especially important to document this  intellectual heritage.  Indeed, we must go beyond documenting the life histories of major Muslim leaders and begin to study transformations in Muslim American thought. I look forward to the next wave of scholars who study Black American Muslims, such as Donna AustonZaheer Ali, and others who will shed light on roots of Black American Islam. These scholars can help us look at the ways in which Black American Muslims drew upon their intersecting identities in their interpretations of textual traditions in ways that address their global and local issues. I look forward to future studies of our rich intellectual traditions and the insights  that these brilliant scholars can bring to the discussion about American Islam.

Why Black History?

I wrote the article below,  “Why Black History?” to commemorate Black History Month. You can read the full article and other great articles and references at  SuhaibWebb.com.

49_13

O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. Indeed, Allah is Knowing and Acquainted.

49:13 Quran Sahih International

Black History Month is observed in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom to remember important events and people  of the African diaspora. In North America, we observe it in February and the United Kingdom during the month of  October. In 1926, the noted African American historian, Carter G. Woodson (d. 1950), began  “Negro History Week.” He selected  the second week in February in order to coincide with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. Woodson felt that scholars ignored his people’s history and other cultures. Much of his work was intended to foster understanding between the races. Joan Novelli writes, “Woodson believed that if whites learned of blacks’ contributions to American history and humanity, this awareness would engender respect.”[1] This reminds me of Surah 13 in Hujarat, where Allah (s.w.t.) tells us that He created us as different peoples and tribes so that we may know another. Racial equality and intercultural dialogue are moral imperatives based on Holy Scripture and Prophetic traditions.  Black history month is an opportunity for us to get to know the rich legacy of Africans and their contributions to their societies, our ummah, and humanity. Importantly, Muslim Americans should commemorate Black history because it is our history.

 

 

Black history month is not about nationalism. The Quran acknowledges heritage and lineage, but it emphasizes that nobility is not inherited. The most noble are those who cultivate piety. This is the essence of Islam’s egalitarian message. Black history month is an education initiative intended to combat racism. Even during the time of our Noble Prophet (s.a.w.), anti-Black and anti-African racism was a problem. It still plagues Muslim societies and our own communities in North America. One way that we can combat racism is by educating ourselves, and others, about the contributions of various peoples to our ummah, society, and humanity in general. February  is an opportunity to eradicate ignorance and combat prejudice against African and their descendants.

 

 

Black History Month is an importunity to instill self-worth in our youth. When I was in elementary school, two factors played a role in my low self worth: first, the lack of education about my people’s history and contributions to society; and second, school bullies who made fun of me and called me a slave and the “n” word. Today, in many Islamic schools, young people are still called “abeed” by their classmates. Abeed is the Arabic word for slave and it is the equivalent to calling someone the n-word.[2] When I was in elementary school, I thought that all my people were was slaves. I did do not know of the many contributions Black Americans have made to this society, whether in the sciences, business, or institutions. Although I was in the Gifted and Talented Education program, I felt like I was incapable of achieving anything. It wasn’t until middle school that I began to learn about the Civil Rights Movement and the contributions that my people made.  It allowed me to imagine possibilities for myself. I could become a medical pioneer who saves lives like Charles Drew, a millionaire like Madam C.J. Walker, or a poet like Phillis Wheatley. I saw myself in those stories and I began to dream big. These stories about black scientists, inventors, explorers, doctors, and leaders can provide examples of how people triumph over adversity.

 

During Black History Month, I learned about Martin Luther King and, of course, Malcolm X. For many converts, regardless of race,  Autobiography of Malcolm X played a role in their interest in Islam. Without Black History Month, I wouldn’t have learned  about Malcolm X and it is unlikely that I would have learned much about Islam. Watching Eyes on the Prize in middle school helped me understand the Civil Rights Movement.  The Civil Rights Movement help end institutional racism encoded in segregation laws. It also create opportunities for Americans of all colors. For example, an outcome of the Civil Rights Movement was the 1965 Immigration Act, which  ended immigration quotas of  non-Europeans.[3] This is what allowed South Asian, Middle Eastern, Arab, North African, and African Muslims to immigrate in greater numbers and establish Muslim communities. We now have one of the most diverse religious communities in the country.

 

Black History Month is an opportunity to learn about the history of Muslims in America. Often, Muslim Americans see themselves as recent transplants with roots only a few decades long. Many Muslim Americans are first or second generation immigrants, but Muslims have had a long presence in America. It is estimated that 10 to 15  percent of the slaves brought to the New World were Muslim.[4]   While Muslim slaves were not able to pass on their religion to their descendants, the historic memory is significant. Many Black Americans look to this past as they reclaim some part of their identity ,which was erased under the brutal system of chattel slavery. Likewise, Muslims from all backgrounds can relate to the stories of Muslim who were enslaved, such as Ibrahim Abdur Rahman and Omar Ibn Said.[5] There was also Bilali, who led a community of Muslims on the Sapelo Islands during  the 19th century. [6] If we look at our history in North America, we can feel more at home knowing our presence dates back hundreds of years.

 

Black history if also part of Islamic history.  The 31st Chapter of the Quran is named after Luqman the Wise, who is said to be from Africa.[7] The first hijrah was to Abyssinia.  Five times a day, we hear the call to prayer and remember the first muezzin Bilal.  Islam has been in East Africa from the time of its founding and has had a presence in sub-Saharan Africa for over 1000 years. Just recently, King Mansa Musa of the Mali Empire was named richest person of all time.[8] There are also important Africans who stand out in the history of Islamic civilizations in the Middle East and Indian sub-Continent. Al-Jahiz, was a champion of Arabic and demonstrated that it is a possible to write beautiful prose in Arabic. There was also Malik Ambar who ruled the  Deccan Sultanate, a rival to the Mughal Empire.[9] Many people do not know of the complex connections between East Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, and India nor are they familiar with the trade routes that connected sub-Saharan Africa to the Mediterranean. Black history can be our opportunity to explore the culture and history  of Afro-Arabs , Afro-Turks, or Siddis of India. By embracing our interconnectedness, we Muslims have a rare opportunity as Muslims to participate in Black history.

 

Interconnectedness is the strength of our community. In the borrowing and blending, and acknowledging what we have to offer, we can understand how our lives intersect.  We can take this opportunity to look for lessons in this past. We can also use this window of opportunity to begin a real process of getting to know each other’s histories and engendering a greater respect and appreciation for all peoples in our ummah.

 

 


[1] Joan Novelli  “The History Behind Black History Month”   Teaching Tolerance, 2007  Retrieved February 12,  from 2013http://www.tolerance.org/article/history-behind-black-history-month

 

[2] Anyone arguing that it no longer has negative meaning, must remember that the n-word was used common place in America also. See Huckleberry Finn.

[3] Devin Love-Andrews Immigration Act of 1965 Webchron: The Web Chronology Project retrieved from internet February 12, 2013

http://www.thenagain.info/webchron/usa/immigrationact.html

[4] Islam in America retrieved February 12, 2013 from http://www.pbs.org/opb/historydetectives/feature/islam-in-america/

[5] John Franklin “Omar Ibn Said” Documenting the American South  retrieved February 12, 2013 http://docsouth.unc.edu/nc/omarsaid/menu.html; Yusra Owais, “African Muslims: A Rich Legacy”  Suhaib Webb February 26, 2011 retrieved February 12 2013 from  http://www.suhaibwebb.com/personaldvlpt/character/african-muslims-in-america-a-rich-legacy/

[6] Ray Crook “Bilali-The Old Man of Sapelo Island: Between Africa and Georgia” 40-55 Wadabagei: A Journal of the Caribbean and its Diasporas Vol. 10 No. 2 Spring/Summer, 2007 retrieved from http://www.utc.edu/Faculty/Nick-Honerkamp/Bilali%20the%20Old%20Man%20of%20Sapelo%20Island,%202007.pdf

[7] Margari Aziza Hill “Luqman the Wise” August 18, 2010 retrieved February 12, 2013 from  https://azizaizmargari.wordpress.com/2010/08/18/rediscovering-luqman-the-wis/

[8] Erik Oritz “King Mansa Musa Named Richest Person of All Time” The Daily News February 18, 2013 http://www.nydailynews.com/news/world/king-mansa-musa-named-richest-history-article-1.1186261

[9]A. Rangarajana “Malik Ambar: Military guru of the Marathas” The Hindu October 18, 2008  retrieved February 12, 2013 from http://www.hindu.com/mag/2008/10/12/stories/2008101250220700.htm

Pilgrimage for Life

Pilgrimage for life
Like many converts, I was drawn to Islam’s egalitarian message. Through Muslim student groups on college campuses and community life in various masajid,  I developed close friendships with Muslim women from all parts of the world. We were brought together by our mutual love for Allah and His Messenger.  The bonds that I developed with some of them gave me a sense of real belonging and acceptance that I had not felt with my high school friends and even member of my own family. But there were also  times when those cross cultural encounters brought to light some unsettling realities of racism and colorism. But by addressing our shortcomings we can meet the challenge and create communities that are more closely aligned with the example set by our Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him).

Although language and cultural differences can create challenges to forming social bonds, perceptions of race and ethnic identity can have the greatest impact on how well some women are received by a community.  When asked how her ethnic identity influenced her integration into the Muslim community, Keziah. S. Ridgeway, an African American  high School Social Studies teacher, responded that her outgoing personality helped bridge the cultural divide. She noted, “however, as time wore on I did realize that many of the people that I hung out with had biases towards people who looked like myself.”  Safiyyah, a white American convert, said that her ethnicity as an Ashkenazi Jew influenced her integration because some Muslims were suspicious of her and others denied her cultural identity. She added that by extension of her African American husband, she has experienced discrimination. “We rarely get invited to the homes of immigrant Muslims. This is despite the fact that the Muslims in our mosque know us very well, and that my husband and I are active in our mosque.” Some argue that this is old world thinking and they place their hopes on the next generation.

In many Islamic schools, students socialize along racial lines,   repeating the social patterns of their own racially segregated Muslim communities. The language that many of the Arab American students use alienates a number of African American students. Kezia highlighted the common usage of the word abeed (Arabic for slave) to refer to African Americans. She said,  “their parents use it on a regular basis to describe African Americans. To them it’s just a cultural term and many don’t understand why it evokes anger from their Black counterparts.” In a Michigan school, when two weekend school teachers disciplined a child for using the term, the parents came to the child’s defense. Islamic schools are often a crucible for race relations in our ummah.

The sad reality in our Islamic schools and segregated communities contrasts with the egalitarian message that we find in the Qur’an, which says:

“O Humankind! We have created you from male and female and have made you into peoples (shu‘ub) and tribes (qaba’il) that you may know one another; truly, the noblest (akram) among you before God are the most pious (atqa) among yourselves; indeed, is God the All-knowing, the All-seeing.” (49:13).

The Prophet (PBUH) said during his farewell pilgrimage:

Oh humankind, your Lord is one and your ancestors are one. You are from Adam and Adam was from dust. Behold, neither the Arab has superiority to the non-Arab, nor the red to the black nor the black to the red except by virtue of piety (taqwa). Truly the most distinguished amongst you is the most pious

Yet, Muslims old and young are often stereotyped and categorized by their ethnic background and color of their skin.

Some have argued that the colorism and racism we find in the Muslim ummah is due to colonization. Yet, we can find even in classical Islamic literature racial hierarchies. Ibn Khaldun wrote disparaging of sub-Saharan Africans as lacking intellect. A famed Andalusian poetess, Hafsah Ar-Rukaniyyah  (1190-1191) asked Abu Jaffar how could he love a Black woman, ”Who is altogether like the night, which hides beauty/
And with darkness obscures the radiance of a face?” In the chapter on marriage in the Revival of the Religious Sciences,  Imam Ghazali wrote, “a black woman is better than a barren beautiful women,” implying that black women cannot be beautiful. Blacks were assumed to not have status in Arab society. This was reflected in some classical positions where a man could marry a black woman as a guardian. Their documentation  points to how Muslims fall short of our ideals. Blind acceptance of social norms and customs perpetuate ignorance and bias. Ethnic chauvinism leads to arrogance and robs us of our ability to see the inherent value and beauty of each human being.

Like racism, colorism is a blight in our community.  I found the traces of colorism in my students’ creative writing projects as they wrote about protagonists with skin as white as milk. Dark skin has been looked down upon in many Muslim societies through the ages. And now, there is a huge market playing into fears and insecurities.  Some halal and international markets in the US are stocked with bleaching cream. There are young girls who fear playing outside lest they become black and ugly.   Girls and women with curly and kinky hair struggle with issues of self worth and shame because they can’t tame their curls into submission. The standard of beauty is centered around pale skin and straight hair, with as European features as possible. An international student from the Gulf suggested that I pinch my daughter’s nose to make it grow straight and pointy. She recently expressed a desire to have work done on her own nose.  The frequent comments about my daughter’s fair complexion and the Muslim obsession with European features makes me shudder to think about what type of self image will my curly haired, button nosed daughter have in the Muslim community. While living in abroad, one friend said that in the West there are many types of beauty, but in Egyptian society there was one standard. It worries me that we use veiled rhetoric about liberating ourselves from western standards of beauty with hijab, all the while embracing notions of beauty that are just as oppressive, if not more. The beauty regime of whitening and straightening continues even as the society becomes more outwardly religious.

Challenging beauty norms or patterns of racism in our community can seem daunting for the individual.  Muslim womanSafiyyah said to “Remember all the Qur’an and ahadith that speaks out against racism” and “defend victims of racism when it occurs.” Citing the example of the “We’re All Abeed of Allah” campaign, which uses T-shirts and wristbands to deliver their message, Kezia argued that Muslims must unite and form coalitions to change racial perceptions. Her role as an educator, activist,  and Muslim fashion blogger places her in a special position to address these changes through education and meaningful dialogue.  Both women point the power of women’s voices. We need to speak up and against expressions racism and colorism. The disease of prejudice that plagues our community can be cured if enough of us create a stigma against violating the prophetic example.

You can read the full article and other thoughtful pieces at Sisters Magazine  January 2013 edition “All the Colours of the Ummah”

Obsessions: Religion, Race, and Sex

Yes I admit it, I’m more than preoccupied by Religion, Race, and Sex. We have been told to avoid these three topics in polite dinner conversation. In fact, I often do not take to heated discussion about religion, race, and sex in polite dinner conversation. This is why I have a blog.

While my major field is the history of Islam in Africa, my research and studies go beyond Africa. I examine the African Diaspora in the Middle East. I have a deep interest in Islam as a global religion. My career was inspired by my personal conviction as a Muslim. I am obsessed about Islam and can talk about it for hours, days on end. I also study race and talk about race. I have written numerous papers and articles on race relations, racial passing, community identity, and the African Diaspora in the Middle East. Importantly, my discussion about race is often personal. I talk about race in that it affects me and a number of people I care about.I talk about sex, women, and gender relations. Who doesn’t think about sex?    I talk about relationships, how Muslim men and women relate to each other, how Black men and women relate to each other, how Black women relate to men and women from various Muslim communities. I talk about women’s gendered roles, men’s gendered roles. I talk about marriage. I talk about free-mixing and gender segregation. I talk about hijab, niqab, and physical attraction.

I’m obsessed with Religion, Race, and Sex.  I am building a career on it. I want to write articles about these topics, explore dusty libraries digging for books about it,  spend sleepless nights researching and editing articles about it, travel around  the world to talk with other scholars and experts about it. I  even want to teach a class about it. We’ll see how receptive university students are to this topic. I’m pretty sure I’ll have a full roster because people can’t say enough about religion, race, and sex. And it is sure to fire up some heated dialog.

This blog is an intellectual and personal exploration of these same themes that have informed my career choice. If you read the title of my blog closely analyzing why I chose certain words, it should become evident that I wanted to talk about Islam, the African Diaspora, and Gender. I haven’t really seen someone from my perspective, as a Black American Muslim, explore these themes. This is why I made my intervention. Some people have written me directly telling me I should get over talking about religion. Others say I should get over race. Even  once someone who expressed ambivalence towards my discussion of FGM. If I were to stop talking about religion, race, and sex then this blog would not have a purpose. Or maybe I could just post cute pictures of flowers, kittens, and bunnies and peppered with my own personal reflections as Just Another Muslim. No, my blog is not polite dinner conversation nor is it designed to make us all feel uplifted. I just want my readers to think. I also want to validate an experience that is forged in struggle.  I try to not present a doom and gloom scenario. Nor am I trying to be a polemic or write entries for shock value. At the same time I think that we as Muslims still need to look at a number of issues. The American Muslim community still needs to examine how race, class, and gender intersect in order to understand how to move forward.

The Black Knight: ‘Antar and the Arab Epic

antar-document-4a.jpg
I was doing a little research on a course I’m trying to develop on Muslim societies, slavery and race when I came across an intriguing story. As I was looking for some pre-Islamic literature I stumbled across a familiar, but long overlooked historical character–‘Antar Ibn Shadad. Because I tend to be rather long winded, I thought this brief bio would suffice:

Antara (äntär’ä) [key], fl. 600, Arab warrior and poet, celebrated in his own day as a hero because he rose from slave birth to be a tribal chief. His poetry is represented by one poem in the Muallaqat. His greatness gave rise to many legends over the centuries, and he became the hero of the popular Arabic epic Sirat Antar. In it he represents the ideal of a Bedouin chief, rich, generous, brave, and kind. His name also appears as Antar.

There I found this very thorough book by Peter Heath, analyzing Antar’s epic, Thirsty Sword : Sirat Antar & the Arabic Popular Epic. And H.T. Norris has a translation of the epic itself. I love classic epics, but his story was significant because both race and slavery overlapped. His mother was a Black slavewoman and his father a Bedouin who refused to acknowledge him. Since I have long been interested in Afro-Arabs, this rediscovery of Antar really excited me. I haven’t really found the epic in Arabic literature in Africa, but then again I haven’t looked too hard. But what I found so interesting is the fact that his story resonated for so many Muslims over the centuries. ‘Antar’s was told and retold in Arabic, Farsi, and Urdu.

I became intrigued. While being careful not to insert my own projections, I began to think about the meaning of a mixed race young man, the son of a Black slave woman and Bedouin chieftain raising to become the model of Arab masculinity. It raised so many questions for me, many of them I will continue to explore in my own studies. Here is a translation of his poetry. Reminder for the readers, the English does it no justice

MOALLAKA

The poets have muddied all the little fountains.

Yet do not my strong eyes know you, far house?

O dwelling of Abla in the valley of Gawa,
Speak to me, for my camel and I salute you.

My camel is as tall as a tower, and I make him stand
And give my aching heart to the wind of the desert.

O erstwhile dwelling of Abla in the valley of Gawa;
And my tribe in the valleys of Hazn and Samna
And in the valley of Motethalem!

Salute to the old ruins, the lonely ruins
Since Oum El Aythan gathered and went away.

Now is the dwelling of Abla
In a valley of men who roar like lions.
It will be hard to come to you, O daughter of Makhram.

* * * * *

Abla is a green rush
That feeds beside the water.

But they have taken her to Oneiza
And my tribe feeds in lazy Ghailam valley.

They fixed the going, and the camels
Waked in the night and evilly prepared.

I was afraid when I saw the camels
Standing ready among the tents
And eating grain to make them swift.

I counted forty-two milk camels,
Black as the wings of a black crow.

White and purple are the lilies of the valley,
But Abla is a branch of flowers.

Who will guide me to the dwelling of Abla?
Grayson, David One Hundred and Twenty Asiatic Love Poems

As I read the poems and more and more of Antar’s life and the prolific renderings of his epic, I began to wonder why his story was largely ignored by many Muslims in the West. I have some idea, but I’ll refrain for now. I spoke with a few Muslims and none of them had heard of him. Many Black American Muslims had heard of Jahiz, but why not ‘Antar? Sure he was born in the Jahiliyya time, but there were many stories from ancient times that were retold. I began to wonder if it was some vast conspiracy. Was I thinking along the lines of a renegade Cheikh Anta Diop student? I began to conjure up some grand Arab conspiracy to conceal their African influences in Arab culture, at least by making sure none of us heard of ‘Antar? But then again, translations of the epic have been around, as well as his verses in the Mu’allaqat.

But last week something happened to further dismiss my conspiratorial hypothesis. After I watched the second half of the Arabic version of “The Message” couldn’t bring myself to sleep. So I flipped through the channels at 1:30 in the morning. I stumbled across a few characters who were surprisingly brown. Some were clearly Arab in brown make-up. But one was a man of clear African descent and dignified bearing.

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As I watched, it dawned on me that this was THE story. I saw ‘Antar and ‘Ablah’s romance unfold. I was so excited. It was was serious production with a number of Arab Ramadan serial heavy hitters. And this was the first time I had seen Faisal Ahmad as the lead character, ‘Antar.

Kuwaiti Times reported:

KUWAIT: Historical TV soap operas are popular and have many audiences as they are valuable pieces of art work. These TV soaps are carried out by more than one country, hence making these show multinational shows. Two of the most popular historical TV soaps broadcasted during this Ramadan were ‘Khalid Bin Al-Waleed’ and ‘Antara Bin Shadad’.

Ghassan Zakariya wrote the serial and Rami Hanna directed it. I’ve been trying to catch the show, to watch it unfold. I’m not saying that it is perfect. I have my own critiques. I’ve been researching the show, trying to find out more about the lead actor, trying to get a sense of the mainstream reaction. So far, the reviews in Arab speaking message boards have been favorable. People in general like Faisal Ahmad.

For me, it is a first time seeing an Afro-Arab take center stage. Earlier productions in the Middle East used Arab actors in Blackface, like these pictured below:
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As Umm Adam warned, we should not impose our western categories on other people. But clearly, the serial demonstrates a construction of blackness and slave status. IAt the same time, it shows how ‘Antar heroic journey was about overcoming anyone’s negative opinion of his slave heritage to become the model of chivalry and courage. I am going to continue to watch this show. Despite its shortcomings–especially the unfortunate Blackface Arabs (knowing that they could have found more Afro Arabs–such as Sudanese actors) and the unnatural make-up for the Black characters, I think the series is worthwhile viewing. For those who don’t have satellite television and can’t get the Algerian station, the epic is still available. It is part of the literary heritage of the Arab and Muslim world after all. And to me seeing someone like ‘Antar as an archetype is important for many of us who are descendants of slaves. There is nothing to be ashamed about, through courage and and good character we become noble. For that, we should continue to tell his story.

Language Wars: Don’t talk about people in your language assuming they don’t understand

I cut a several inches off my hair, which means the volume is kind of high. So I was sitting on the train. Two youths who clearly were followers of the hyphey movement (dreads and gold fronts and all) passed by with a lame pick up line, “Oh, damn, Erica Badu!” One goaded the other to try to holla, but I guess they thought wisely against it. The signs were all there that both were likely to get shut down because I had that granola-organic-natural-positive-sistah vibe. I don’t really buy it, cause maybe it was just San Francisco and the fog blew out my flat iron. Anyways, that wasn’t the point of the story. The point of the story is about languages and the assumption that people don’t understand.

So, a few stops down. Two Mexican-American men. I’m not sure if they received the hyphen and were naturalized citizens. But they passed by. My Spanish is rusty, but I understood much of what they said. “Where are we going to sit?” “Here! Here! Behind the Black girl!” “She has a lot of hair.” “She’s pretty” They made a few more comments about my hair and giggled like school girls.

During my first week as a waitress years back, I remember one of the bussers asking our co-worker “Te gustas la morena?” (Do you like the dark girl). Our co-worker responded, “No.” For the year that I worked there, I was La Morena. And when my friend came to work there, they were stumped to find her a name because she was black to. I didn’t tell them right away that I spoke some Spanish. The guys used to cuss us out in Spanish and smile in our face. I understood the foulness coming out of their mouth and at first pretended to ignore them. Then I began the wordplay and mind games in the kitchen language that was a blend between English and Spanish.

It seems as if many Spanish speakers forget that Spanish is taught in high schools. Some of us picked up Spanish from friends and caretakers. In California, Mexican Americans seem to assume that if you are black you can’t possibly know Spanish. I guess it escapes them that there are Panamanians and Dominicans who are black. Besides, sometimes even when you don’t understand what people are saying, you can often detect that they are talking about you.

Middle Easterners should take heed. For example, more and more Americans are learning Arabic. Even though I only know limited colloquial Arabic, I often know enough to know if an Arab is talking about me. My Turkish boss told me that one time, he and a friend were talking about an American woman in Turkish. The woman then told them off in Turkish. She learned Turkish because she had married a Turk. They learned their lesson to assume that a blond haired blue eyed, Northern European looking woman could not understand the lewdness that was spewing from their mouths.

Asians are not immune. They often talk about us Black folks right in front of us. One of my friends returned a video at DeAnza college. Two Vietnamese girls working at the desk cracked some jokes about the guy. He then told them in perfect Vietnamese that his mother was Vietnamese. He then told them, they never tell by someone’s looks if they know Vietnamese and that it was rude to talk about someone in front of them.

I have traveled abroad where few people spoke English. One time in Morocco, a bunch of us girls were chatting in a packed taxi with other passengers. One Moroccan young man told us to shut up. Maybe we were annoying and loud. But perhaps there was an anxiety that we were talking about him and the other Moroccan men. I admit that the anxiety comes from a real place. But, I have never said condescending statements, objectified someone, or ridiculed a non-English speaker in English right in front of their faces. It’s rude and disrespectful and widens the gaps that divide us all.