C. Islaah Abd’al-Rahim
I am a Muslim. I am also a black woman. In the 1970s, I was one of the many black people who converted to Islam and embraced the sunnah (traditional path) of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). During that time black people were looking for freedom, justice, self-determination, and acceptance across America, but especially in its inner cities. We were also searching for a renewal of faith. For some of us, our previous religious experiences left us with questions and a sense of being unfulfilled. Many of us were examining our place in the world and rejecting the status quo, which supported a stratified society based upon race.
Islam was a model for a better way of life. Its teachings provided a blueprint for a model society, one where piety and good deeds, and not the color of a person’s skin, would be the only basis of stratification. We savored the messages and found hope in its teachings:
“People, We created you all from a single man and a single woman, and made you into races and tribes so that you should recognize one another. In Allah’s sight, the most honored of you are the ones who are most mindful of Him. Allah is the All Knowing, All Aware.” (49:13).
“O people, your Lord is one, and your father Adam is one. All mankind is from Adam and Eve. An Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab, nor does a non-Arab have any superiority over an Arab. A white has no superiority over a black, nor does a black have any superiority over a white – except by piety and good action. Have I not delivered the message?” [Musnad Ahmad, No. 22978].
These were words of hope. Although the message of God being one attracted us to Islam, many of us believed then, and still believe now, that the sincere practice of Islam could facilitate our actualization as human beings. Islam did not put a limit of human potential. It did not teach that black people were the result of a curse, or that our skin color was a sentence for doom.
Some of us had read the story of Malcolm X which was a testimony to the transformative power of the Islamic faith. Malcolm’s journey from innocent child to a rebellious young man, from a dutiful student to an independent thinker with a progressive vision, was one with which we could identify; Islam provided a path of hope.
Many black Muslims were also inspired by the story of Bilal, the first person to offer the call to prayer during the time of the Prophet peace be upon him. Bilal, may Allah be pleased with him, was a black Ethiopian slave who refused to renounce his faith despite prolonged torture from the disbelievers. He occupies a noble status in Islamic history because of his faith and exemplary steadfastness. His story was one which resonated with many black converts who could identify with his fortitude under fire.
Ideals vs. Realities
New black converts to Islam quickly realized that possessing a blueprint for racial equity and justice does not mean that the buildings will be erected easily. Islam presents Muslims with the framework by which we can transform the racial dynamics in society. It provides us with the tools. Many of us, however, recognized that Muslims, like all other human beings, have to go through the process of self-purification necessary to rid ourselves of deeply-rooted biases and trauma. Racial prejudice is a spiritual disease of the heart, and Islam’s teachings provide us with the tools to address that illness. We are enjoined to internalize core values: No one race is lauded over another. We are like bricks in a solid wall.
The rituals of worship underscore the significance of racial equity. Our prayers require worshippers from all walks of life to stand together, foot-to-foot and shoulder-to-shoulder. Our most important holiday, Eid al-Adha, and the associated Hajj pilgrimage, bring people from all over the world together for worship. There is no segregated balcony seat during the hajj rituals. Despite these teachings, we realize that there is a still a disconnect between the ideal and the reality of the beliefs and actions of the human beings who call themselves Muslims.
The frequent killing of black people at the hands of racists and highly militarized police forces has resulted in pervasive civil unrest in America. That, and the stark reality of the health and resource inequities that the coronavirus has exposed, is forcing all its citizens to examine the institutions and traditions that perpetuate racist practices. The spotlight must also be focused on the Muslims.
Although Muslims have not fully built the edifice of racial equality, they have a blessed foundation upon which to place the bricks of faith, education, and action. Our communities are healing from, and working through, the same maladies that plague the larger society, so we must work diligently to make our Islamic communities more reflective of the Islamic ideal. We have work to do, and Islam encourages and supports this effort. It compels us to not only identify oppression and to reconcile differences, but to also confront our own biases and prejudices.
C. Islaah Abd’al-Rahim converted to Islam in 1976. She is a veteran educator, author, and community activist based in Baltimore, MD.