Reflections on Black History Month
by Imam Zaid Shakir
Black History Month should be of interest to every Muslim, especially in America. It is estimated that upwards to 20% of the Africans enslaved in the Americas were Muslim.  In some areas, such as the coast of the Carolinas, Georgia, and parts of Virginia, the percentages of Muslims in the slave population may have approached 40%.  The fact that the search of a random African American, Alex Haley, for his roots led him to a Muslim village in West Africa is indicative of the widespread Muslim presence among the enslaved population here in the Americas.
At this critical time in the history of our country, it is important for Muslims, whose legitimate existence in this country is being challenged in some quarters, to connect to our American Muslim roots. As Muslims, our story in this country did not begin with the coming of Syrians, Lebanese, Albanians, or Yemenis at the turn of the 20th Century and later. It began with the lives of those courageous African Muslim slaves whose blood, sweat, and tears were instrumental in building this country. Their struggle is our struggle, and our struggle should be viewed as a continuation of theirs.
In identifying with those African Muslims, we must not allow ourselves to forget that they were part of a greater community, a community which has evolved to almost fifty million African Americans. The struggle of that community, its pain, perseverance, triumphs, and defeats, cannot be separated from the struggle of its Muslim members. If we as Muslims are moved by the suffering of our coreligionists who were exposed to the dehumanizing cruelties of a vicious system, we should similarly be moved by the plight of their non-Muslim African brothers and sisters who suffered the same injustices.
We must also be moved to work with unwavering conviction to address the vestiges of institutional racism which continues to disproportionately affect African Americans and other racial minorities in this country. One statistic alone should be sufficient to alert us to the presence of such racism – 50% of this nation’s 2.3 million incarcerated individuals come from her 12% African American population. Similarly discouraging statistics are found in areas ranging from access to higher education, teen pregnancies, high school dropout rates, youth homicides, and many other “quality of death” indicators.
African American Muslims have a particular responsibility in addressing such racism. In beginning to do so, we can take our lead from our formerly enslaved brothers. Despite their lack of freedom, many of them were never “owned.” This fact is strikingly clear in their increasingly widespread biographies. Individuals such as Ayyub bin Sulayman (Job Ben Solomon), Ibrahim Abdul-Rahman, and Yarrow Mamout, to name a few, did not allow the ravages of chattel slavery to rob them of their dignity, honor, or their human worth.
As we endeavor to address the imperfections of society, in race relations and other areas, we must do so with dignity, honor, grace, and with free and open minds. Those of us, who hail from the historically oppressed minority communities of this land, must resist the temptation to allow the triumvirate of rage, a sense of victimization, and vengeance to distort our ability to calmly assess and then pragmatically address the many issues confronting us. When such a distortion occurs, delusional thinking and irrational politics usually result.
One of the greatest delusions challenging us lies in seeing our situation as paralleling that of our brothers and sisters in foreign lands governed by repressive, authoritarian regimes. By viewing our situation as parallel to theirs we are tempted to view the paradigm of resistance which governs their struggles as valid for our situation. Such an assessment is fallacious for a number of reasons. First of all, most of the significant “Third World” liberation struggles pitted oppressed majorities against oppressive minorities. In this country, the white majority and significant segments of the nonwhite minorities are not so severely affected by structural violence or institutional racism that they view violent or even aggressive challenges to the status quo as legitimate forms of political expression.
Secondly, alternative means of political expression, available in this country, are unavailable in most “third world” dictatorships or authoritarian regimes. Hence, the mechanisms whereby the Jews, by way of example, once a despised and demeaned minority, were able to favorably situate themselves within the system are not available in the previously referenced countries. Although some of their advancement was facilitated by their ability to benefit from their “whiteness,” most of it is due to hard work and effective planning. Similarly, the progress achieved by African Americans in affirmative action, progress which has been steadily eroded, no doubt, could not have been hoped for by oppressed minorities in many other countries. Whether we view these realities as truly empowering or ultimately cooptive does not negate the fact that they do exist, and as long as they exist, they will be powerful mechanisms to damper the appeal and feasibility of radical challenges to the status quo.
Thirdly, while the feasibility of an aggressive, or even violent challenge to the status quo may be debatable in a small, minority-based, “third world” dictatorship, in a society as large, complex, diverse, and, ultimately, as politically conservative as the United States, such challenges would be used to legitimize severe repressive measures which would serve to render even milder forms of dissent less acceptable. While presented here in hypothetical terms, this is actually a recurrent lesson which American history has taught us.
The history of “third world” revolutionary change is no more encouraging. The Algerian experience is illustrative of the legacy of revolutionary violence in Africa. Frantz Fanon, in the Wretched of the Earth, his analysis of the Algerian decolonization struggle, saw decolonizing violence as a cathartic agent which would create a new liberated man. The sad reality created by that violence is documented by Fanon in the last chapter of his work. It led to a litany of mental disorders, which Fanon, a trained psychiatrist, documented all too well, wreaked lives which the leaders of the nationalist struggle were ill-prepared to repair. Furthermore, thirty years later, the heirs of the nationalist regime which the revolution brought to power would be all too willing participants in a bloodbath that would rival anything the former French colonizers had visited upon the Algerian people.
Archbishop Dom Helder Camara, has pointed out that once a spiral of violence begins, it operates on its own internal logic. Injustice leads to revolt. Revolt induces repression. Repression leads to greater injustices, which in turn encourage more radical forms of revolt. These then induce more severe forms of repression. This spiral continues, unbroken. The challenge for theologians in this age, when the potential destructiveness of war is so great it threatens the very existence of our world, is to devise strategies which can meaningfully enhance our collective well-being by peacefully altering the mechanisms of structural violence and institutionalized racism. Muslim theologians, if we are truly “Heirs of the Prophets,” peace and blessings of God upon them, should not shy away from this challenge. However, in attempting to meet it, we must resist the temptation to resuscitate the failed strategies, stale ideas, and outdated methods of an ineffective “Third World” revolution.
On the other hand, we must not allow ourselves to be divorced from the struggles of the less fortunate members of the human family. In a not too distant past, when standards of political correctness were more closely associated with the truth and not selfish and narrow political agendas, John Kennedy said, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” The great theologian Reinhold Niebubr declared, “In the social struggle we are either on the side of privilege or need.” If these two white Americans, who were “privileged” in every sense of that somewhat trite expression, can advocate for the need to challenge oppressive social relations, it would be an unforgivable travesty for our voices to fall silent.
The question for us is, “How can we best address the oppressive mechanisms facing us, and those facing our coreligionists in so many redoubts scattered around the globe?” In answering this question, we can gain valuable insight from the lives and struggles of our African Muslim forebears. Superior erudition was the key to the liberation of Job Ben Solomon. Herein is a sign for us. As American Muslims we have been blessed to reside in the most intellectually dynamic society in history. Also, the primal command in our religion is to read. We should enthusiastically pursue the mandate created by these twin facts and push ourselves to become the most educated community on Earth –in religious and worldly knowledge. In so doing, the miracles which were so clearly manifested in the life of Job Ben Solomon will surely bless our lives.
The dignity, nobility, and erudition of Ibrahim ‘Abd al-Rahman, qualities which earned him the epithet, “Prince,” were instrumental in his liberation from of shackles of bondage. Our day is witnessing the steady degradation of our collective human dignity. We should be a community whose dignity and nobility readily impresses all who deal with us, and more importantly a community whose ethics are a reflection of the true value and depth of the prophetic teachings. Sadly, as Muslims, generally speaking, we have dishonored the prophetic legacy we been entrusted with. Our ethics oftentimes reflect a utilitarian approach to life. If something proves effective, and effectiveness for many of us is increasingly viewed in terms of money or security, let us find a way to provide it with religious sanction. Such an approach may ensure our short-term prosperity, but it will never open the hearts and minds of masses of people to Islam.
Our forefathers attracted people to Islam and conquered lands with the loftiness of their character and ethics. We oftentimes repulse dignified outsiders who come into our midst. At the height of American chattel slavery, Yarrow Mamout, an elderly Muslim who had gained his freedom, so impressed the artist Charles Wilson Peale with his dignity, nobility, and grace that the latter, who painted six portraits of George Washington, was inspired to paint Mamout. Who among us would inspire a similarly placed artist today?
It is not the purpose of these ruminations to suggest a specific program of empowerment. Power, as the Qur’an emphatically affirms, is God’s to give to whomsoever He chooses. However, a deep knowledge of God, self, and society will certainly yield insights conducive to conformity to the divine ways God has established to invite His empowering grace upon a particular community. Furthermore, history affirms that dignity, nobility of character and courage have been the indispensable characteristics of those who were able to take the oftentimes unpopular stands which helped to usher in fundamental change –by the Will of God.
In speaking of unpopular stands, we are not merely speaking of those which may place us in opposition to an unjust power structure, but similarly those which may place us in opposition to our race, tribe, class, or even our coreligionists. Popularity has never been a condition for greatness. However, the acts of a great woman may certainly render her popular to those whose lives are bettered by her acts.
In conclusion, Islam is calling us to be bigger than what the world has made us. If the world has made us members of a “disadvantaged” race, class, ethnicity, or gender, the world wants us to be dehumanized by the ensuing rage, sense of victimization, and a quest for vengeance. The collective weight of those forces can easily lead to a dehumanizing loss of hope. For our African Muslim ancestors enslaved in this land, Islam was always a source of hope, dignity, and for many, as we have mentioned, the key to their liberation. For those who never escaped the shackles of physical bondage, Islam provided the basis for their rising above the dehumanization of the chattel system. In the words of Dr. Sylviane A. Diouf, “The African Muslims may have been, in the Americas, the slaves of Christian masters, but their minds were free. They were the servants of Allah.” As they were so too should we be.
 See Sylvianne A. Diouf, Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas (New York, London: New York University Press, 1998), p. 48.
 Diouf, p. 47.
 See Al-Qur’an 3:26-27.
 Diouf, 210.
This article is excerpted from Imam Zaid’s book, Scattered Pictures: Reflections of An American Muslim, available at http://astore.amazon.com/newisladire-20//
Please visit Imam Zaid Shakir’s excellent site New Islamic Directions where you will find many of his incisive commentaries http://www.newislamicdirections.com/