The Tale of The Two Muslim Americas
by Shaykh Luqman Ahmad
Go to any major American city where there are a sizeable number of Muslims; Philadelphia, Atlanta, San Diego, Chicago, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Washington D.C., St. Louis, Kansas City, Cleveland, and Buffalo, the Carolinas, and everywhere else there are Muslims and you will find; in one corner, multi-million dollar Masaajid that are well-funded, and made up of very affluent professionals and their families, and in the other corner you will find a small nondescript Masjid, usually a storefront, or a converted building, that is struggling in many cases to keep its doors open, pay its bills, and fund programs. In the former, there will be a largely immigrant Muslim community, and in the latter, there will be indigenous Muslim American converts, made up of mostly African-Americans. This is the case in virtually every major city in America where there are Muslims; a tale of two Muslim Americas.
By all credible accounts, Indigenous African-American Muslims have been relegated to a third class citizen status in modern-day Muslim America. They are largely invisible in the national news, in national coverage, and in ridiculous Muslim reality shows on television. Whenever there is mention of American Muslims in the media, the reference is made to immigrant Muslim communities, indigenous American Muslims are almost completely ignored. More often than not, the people and organizational leadership, who illegitimately claim to speak on behalf of all American Muslims, determine priorities and define which issues are deemed most important, are political leaders, and board members of national Muslim political and advocacy organizations, not imams, clerics, or leaders of actual religious congregations, and they are almost always immigrant Muslims. Subsequently, many Muslim Americans find themselves thinking and confronting challenges politically, not morally, which is why the topic of the two Muslim Americas is never mentioned.
Traditionally, converts, imams, and more spiritually oriented Muslims of all backgrounds tend to look at things from a moral perspective, not a political one. Conversion to the faith itself is a moral decision; there’s nothing political about it, and there is nothing to gain except guidance. Thus, many converts, every day Muslims, and those concerned primarily with salvation become confused when the so-called Muslim leadership become almost obsessed with status, power, and controlling the message of Islam and the trajectory of American Muslims, even at the expense of our own moral values. It is unlikely that the Prophet (SAWS) would have sanctioned the war against islamophobia, especially in light of the verse;
لَتُبْلَوُنَّ فِي أَمْوَالِكُمْ وَأَنفُسِكُمْ وَلَتَسْمَعُنَّ مِنَ الَّذِينَ أُوتُواْ الْكِتَابَ مِن قَبْلِكُمْ وَمِنَ الَّذِينَ أَشْرَكُواْ أَذًى كَثِيرًا وَإِن تَصْبِرُواْ وَتَتَّقُواْ فَإِنَّ ذَلِكَ مِنْ عَزْمِ الأُمُورِ (Ye shall certainly be tried and tested in your possessions and in your personal selves; and ye shall certainly Hear much that will grieve you, from those who received the Book before you and from those who worship many gods. But if ye persevere patiently, and guard against evil,-then that will be a determining factor in all affairs.) 3:186. It is also unlikely that the Prophet (SAWS) would have sanctioned that we as American Muslims would characterize ourselves as oppressed, given the tremendous amount of material wealth, access to food, housing and physical resources that we here in the United States. Nor would the Prophet (SAWS) have sanctioned Muslim imagery and public relations over moral substance when it was he who said; “verily Allah does not look at your outer shapes or your bodies, but He looks at your hearts”.
In the past thirty years, billions of dollars have been put into building masaajid, and Islamic Centers, setting up schools, propping up political and advocacy organizations and educational endowments in the name of Islam and in the name of furthering the cause of Islam in America. However, only a very small percentage of that funding goes towards masaajid and institutions that serve the needs of indigenous American Muslims in the cities of America. Subsequently what we have seen over time is the establishment of two distinctly separate Muslim Americas. This reality, arguably more than anything else, defines who we are as an American Muslim community, and shapes in large part, our moral reality. It sort of resembles ‘Jim Crow’ Muslim American style.
The debate about the two Muslim Americas is an ongoing one and there are varying opinions about whether it is a problem at all. African-American, Latino and even Caucasian Muslims will tell story after story about being marginalized and disrespected by their immigrant counterparts, about being in the mall giving salaams and not having the greeting returned to you, or having an immigrant Muslim question your Islam. Recently an African American Muslim woman in her sixties, who converted to Islam in the 1970s, related the story to me about how she, wearing full hijab, was questioned whether or not she was a Muslim by an immigrant Muslim store owner. Such accounts are plentiful.
Indigenous American Muslims constantly relate stories of how they are disparaged and marginalized by the immigrant community. People are quick to relate to you the ‘Bilal story’, and swear that there is no racism in Islam. However, the reality on the ground is that we are indeed an ummah where people are frequently judged by their race, and ethnicity and the darker you are; the lower you are on the totem pole. If you ask African-American Muslims about their experiences, you will hear story after story after story after story of indignation, hurt, and disappointment when made to feel like you are less than. Of course there are those who say it is only imagined, but I believe that after 400 years, African-Americans have come to know a little something about prejudice.
This is the tale of the two Muslim Americas, on the one side, are a people who according to a CAIR / Pew study, have the highest per capita income of all Americans, the highest percentage of people with post-graduate degrees, the highest percentage of businessmen, the highest percentage of home ownership, while on the other side of the coin are indigenous African-American Muslims who are dead last on virtually every socio-economic barometer that measures well-being; employment, education, health care, disease, home ownership, single parent households, and so on. They are two separate American Muslim communities with minor areas of overlap here and there. Nevertheless, this has become the reality of Muslim America.
How these two Muslim Americas interact and address this chasm says a lot about who we are since the fundamental message of the Prophet (SAWS) from the beginning to the end of prophetic period was the integration of all people into one community under faith. Many Muslim Americans, both immigrant and indigenous, are not happy at all with this divide and are diligently working to bridge the gap, but so far it is an uphill battle. The power elite of Muslim America are made up of only a small percentage of American Muslims; however, using money and politics, they are bent on controlling the debate, the issues and the path that we take as a Muslim people in America.
As American Muslims we owe it to ourselves to address the indigenous – immigrant and the racial-ethnic divide and the unchecked authority of our political, lobbying and advocacy organizations, head on; especially since it speaks to our moral worth and credibility as a religious people. Our religion requires that our spirituality and character are not overthrown by perceived political expediency and imagery.
The great thing about Muslims is that we respond to reminders; [ وَذَكِّرْ فَإِنَّ الذِّكْرَى تَنفَعُ الْمُؤْمِنِين ] “yet go on reminding [all who would listen]: for, verily, such a reminder will profit the believers” َ 51:55. I believe in sha Allah that as people become more aware of the two Muslim Americas, the prevailing attitudes that keep us separated will change. It may take a generation, and it may even take a revolution within the Muslim community. I do not believe that in the long run, righteous and conscious Muslim Americans who will accept this great divide between immigrants and indigenous American Muslims, because it is hurting us and will continue to hurt all of us. I suspect that future generations of enlightened and free Muslims will not accept for any group a third class status in our own faith. I believe that we can write a better narrative because at the end of the day, despite our faults and shortcomings, we are a believing people.
Shaykh Luqman Ahmad
Imam, Masjid Ibrahim Islamic Center
Please visit Shaykh Luqman Ahmad’s blog The Lotus Tree Blog
TAM Editor’s note: Many of these issues were discussed by participants at the 1993 First North American Muslim Pow Wow in Abiquiu, New Mexico. There is still a great deal of work to be done.