Racial, cultural, and social divides have been a disturbing reality in Muslim communities throughout the United States, despite the unique diversity of the American Muslim community. At the forefront of this divide are the two largest demographics of American Muslims today: indigenous African-Americans and immigrants. Since the immigration from Muslim lands began in the early 20th century, the complex, and often tense, history between the two sub-communities continues to be a barrier for second1 and third generation American Muslims trying to move the community forward in the 21st century. Though most may agree on the unity of the community as an ideal, putting it into practice requires an open, and sometimes uncomfortable, discussion.
Using the Qur’an as an anchor to guide this discussion, Imam Bilal Ansari the Director of Student Life at Zaytuna College, sat down with Mohammed Saleem of Al-Madina Institute to examine the issues of race and class the next generation of Muslims must address.
Part 3: Who Owns American Islam?
Mohammed Saleem: Imam Bilal, in our conversation thus far, one of the issues that gets people on edge is the question of who should represent the Muslim American community and drive its agenda, especially in these times of increased racial tension and Islamophobia. This issue has made even talking about the demographics of American Muslims contentious. Our use, for example, of the terms “immigrant” and “indigenous” as identifiers is deemed problematic for some who see these terms as creating an unnecessary binary in the community. I personally find these terms helpful identifiers in a constructive conversation, but potentially problematic in others, depending on when and how they are framed. In a certain context, for example, many second-generation “immigrants” bristle at the term because it can be used to imply that we are not rooted in, or familiar with, the American experience, and therefore are not qualified to speak on it at all. On the other hand, “immigrant” denial of these terms could be rightfully called another example of erasure—continuing the trend of denying racism by avoiding the issue (often under the guise of “We are all Muslim”), and continuing to cast our “immigrant” narrative as the normative American Muslim experience while ignoring others.
How should American Muslims, both indigenous and immigrant, represent, and talk about themselves? Do you think there is a place for distinguishing between immigrant and indigenous communities, or is it a dichotomy that should be avoided?
Bilal Ansari: These identifiers are absolutely necessary and grounded in our Qur’anic frame of reference. We find these two categories of identity in the Qur’an, immigrants and helpers (or the indigenous of Medina). They both were joined together based on a covenant of faith and today we are bound by a similar covenant. This religious bond should transcend any wall or binary of any national American experience or political identity or recognition. The problems or barriers arise when either immigrants and indigenous choose political affiliation over religious filiation. The attested assumption implicit in this bond and ability to transcend is that this noble outcome only manifests under idealistic circumstances. This is just not the case, Medina was rife with political strife but it was just the moral caliber of individual leaders that led the way over mountainous terrain.
We need both emotionally and intellectually mature stewards from both communities of immigrant and indigenous. We need leadership that respects the bonds of brotherhood and able to transcend their low inclinations to develop to be the best of shepherds who follow the Wisdom of the Holy Prophet Muhammad ﷺ who was the greatest of shepherds for humanity. Ibn Sa’d reports in his Tabbaqat from ‘Abbas what the uncle of the Messenger of Allah ﷺ said about this on his nephew’s death bed:
By Allah! The Messenger of Allah did not die until he had left the way as a clear open road, and he permitted what is permitted and forbade what is forbidden, he married and divorced, made war and concluded treaties. No shepherd of sheep and goats who took them over the mountain tops beating down the leafy branches of tall thorny trees for them and plastering their watering trough with clay with his own hands was more exhausted and wearied by hard work than was the Messenger of Allah among you.
Granted modernity and postmodernity creates circumstances on the ground that appear to be politically thorny and thicker, mountainously wider and steeper, and our trough seems to be devoid of any clean water today. To hold on to the covenant today is like holding on to a rope made of burning coal in the hand of believers. However, according to the great scholars of our tradition there has been no greater tragedy or crisis to Muslims than the one of the first community with the loss of the leadership and presence of the Messenger of Allah ﷺ. Therefore, we can take a lesson about the first fitnah to appear to our ummah regarding the contested leadership between the indigenous Ansar and the immigrant Muhajireen. They intellectually and spiritually confronted their immigrant and indigenous histories and categories. Ultimately they embraced the best leadership based on the divine intervention in their history in their land and the elevated categories of those who immigrated for God. Their crisis was the most extreme difficulty but our community handled it in a dignified manner, and so can we.
Therefore, I have no problem with those identifiers ontologically. We should have no issue with the assumptions implicit with these categories religiously. The challenge is with the misidentification embodied in these words. How these words act as a real placeholder of some fictional political value is the problem. The truth for Muslims is not in the nouns but how we transcend these terms collectively that should inform our identity which is from a revelatory epistemology. Can Muslims interpret their meanings with religiously transcendent ultimate meanings over political rationale? The fact that these complaints about these categories are disturbing to immigrant sensibilities is enough proof how ignored or misunderstood African American religious history is in America to them. The Philosopher theologian Kierkegaard said it best I believe about this, “People understand me so poorly that they don't even understand my complaint about them not understanding me.” Yes we are all Muslims, hopefully in our belief and behavior, but how we collaboratively ascend the mountain treading upon the path set before us by our scholars before us really matters.
Do you really believe that your immigrant community has a legitimate claim to ‘bristle’ given the facts on the ground? The reality is Black American Muslims are marginalized and rarely represent Muslims on any media platform. It is more of an erasure of our history and more a fight for the immigrant community to retain their category of whiteness in the American psyche and to avoid the current trends toward blackness of Islamophobia. Do you agree?
MS: I don’t think there is much disagreement about any of that, but our tone may cause a certain reaction. Yes, there has been marginalization. Yes, the immigrant community has striven to hold on to any category of whiteness on the racial totem pole. This has accelerated with more urgency post 9/11, even though that ship sailed long ago.
But immigrants are not monolithic. There’s the earlier generation, some willfully ignorant or tacitly in support of the racial totem pole of white supremacy in America. Many of them still equate their own cultural experience as Muslims in their lands of origin, with all its post-colonial baggage, as the normative, authentic Islam they feel must be replicated in America. But there are others who do not subscribe to this and deserve better than to be lumped in by any sweeping generalizations, by both their own second-generation children and others. Same goes for more recent, less-established immigrants. Some are falling into the same traps, not learning from the mistakes of earlier generations, and now are further insulated from these issues by the more readily available ethnic-specific enclaves present today.
And then there are the immigrants who didn’t emigrate, the second-generation. Some are trying to develop a historically and spiritually informed racial consciousness, and understand this is a big problem. Others don’t yet grasp the seriousness of it, but with education and spiritual purification that can change (see Part 2). But I would surmise any second-generationer can have issues with the immigrant label because it can connote exclusion in a certain context. Remember, for many second-generation immigrants growing up, there was a sense of being in between two worlds—their parents’ culture of origin and the country of their birth, America and its dominant white culture—and feeling alienated by both. The urge to develop an identity that spoke to this reality often led to cultural rejection, cultural assimilation, or a cocktail of the two.
Ultimately, many of us found validation and a place of belonging in Islam. It accepted us, and shaped our way of seeing ourselves in this country as we grew up. Now, fast-forward to today, and there is a sentiment that indigenous voices should alone fashion the future of Islam in America, as they are the most suitable models for a truly American Muslim outlook. So then when the label “immigrant” is used in this context, that’s where second-generation immigrants may become uneasy. Because the community we found acceptance in now rejects us like others did before—for we are not “American”. We are told we can’t speak about America or understand it, even if we’ve lived here our entire life. That we are indelibly brainwashed or miscalibrated by our parent culture. If this is the new paradigm, we don’t fit the standards of either old American whiteness or a liberated, positive American blackness.
I don’t believe that most calls for indigenous authority are intentionally trying to diminish immigrants but just trying to right the wrongs of communal exclusion and cultivate self-determination. Just as I believe many immigrants are not intentionally trying to erase the indigenous, but often do so out of racial illiteracy or ignorance. But on both sides, some of the language out there can have unintended implications and heighten sensitivities and the risk of misunderstanding.
The irony is of course not lost here that the children of the immigrants who marginalized the African-American voice, with our inherent “brown privilege” in the Muslim community, could ever feel this way. We need to admit that we are accorded privilege within the Muslim community. And we definitely need to have some perspective—even the worst Islamophobia or xenophobia directed towards brown Muslims today does not compare in the slightest to both historical and current Black suffering. The Prophet ﷺ himself did that with his Companions, reminding them of the harsher persecution of previous faith communities, to set them straight.2 At the same time, we need Prophetic sensitivity in order not to devalue or discount the life stories and concerns of those with “privilege” so that they do not feel targeted to the point that it breeds resentment, defensiveness or indifference. That's a more constructive approach and is especially true when interacting with those not yet immersed in a program of self-purification (which is centered on self-criticism).
That said, if we are to embrace the use of the Qur’anic identifiers of Muhajir and Ansar today, we must shift the focus from who we are to what we do. Whether we are indigenous or immigrant, the Qur’an gives us both as exemplars to draw from. From an “immigrant” perspective, many of us with resources are in positions more emblematic of the Ansar to help the disaffected, just as “indigenous” have qualities and assets of the Muhajireen. We must realize that these distinctions are not to delimit our roles but synergize them into a whole greater than its parts.
Eventually, these distinctions might even fade away. A second-generation immigrant, in fact, is not even really like a “Muhajir”. We are more like Abdullah ibn Zubayr, the first child from the Muhajireen born in Medina. How, one wonders, did he regard himself and how did the Ansaar regard him? It is said that, when he was born, his mother, Asmaa bin Abi Bakr, called him the first child born in Islam. His Ansaari brethren born after Hijrah, like Nu’man ibn Bashir and others, were likewise children of Islam. We just need to keep that in perspective.
This begs the question: what “Islam” are we to be the children of? The idea of an anchoring of Islam informed from a purely American perspective rather than from the East is something that, for example, Imam Warith Deen Muhammad (may Allah have mercy on him) proposed. The immigrant Muslim community shied away or outright rejected this idea (as did some segments of the African-American Muslim community), out of a notion that “authentic” Islam was something taken from or imported from the East. Does the concept of American Islam that indigenous Muslims seek truly differ from what second-generation immigrants feel is an authentic Islam? Are there still points of contention in this, and if so, how can they be addressed so it can be a point of convergence moving forward?
BA: As you rightfully pointed out that immigrants are not a monolithic group nor can we speak of one indigenous Muslim community. However, when I speak of these terms I speak of dominant sentiments prevalent in the attitudes, dispositions and practices I have personally experienced as a Black American Muslim. As a student of Imam Warith Deen Muhammad I believe he would argue that what you call ‘a purely American perspective’ he would call ‘a purely Qur’anic perspective.’ This is exactly where some second-generation immigrants miss the mark and others about my particular Black American Muslim community. Our authenticity has always been suspect due to our Black American hermeneutic or scriptural perspective. We today, like our ancestors of early Black Christianity feel unwelcomed, separate from and abandoned by our fellow co-religionists. To understand this as a second-generation Muslim you have to understand Black Religion as an authentic expression or pure perspective of American Islam.
The mega-mosques of suburbia import scholars regularly that represent authentic Islam to their communities. They host CAIR, Islamic Relief and incorporated imams as means to funnel financial support and resources to cover any grassroots building of intentional communities like Medina. Imam Muhammad constantly spoke against the adoration of charismatic imams over the genuine caretaker of communal concerns. Let me give you three inspiring examples of how these contentions can be addressed and could possibly become points of convergence.
At Zaytuna College I have the rare ability to turn these contentions into convergences. Students of mine have affectionately called this the Bilalian school of thought. Although I disagree with the analogy I understand their sentiment. One of my students who is a Pakistani second-generation contracted imam from a major suburb conglomerate mega-mosque comes to me weekly for deep religious conversations. We have one rule: to be authentically present with each other in every way, especially emotionally as active reflective listeners. Two years of deep intimate conversations of open honest dialogue can produce spiritual convergence. Here is one, in February at Zaytuna College this young imam was asked to give a Friday sermon at Zaytuna College. A day or two before his first sermon at this historic place I told him, “This is African American History Month, do not forget that.” I figured, he would do one of two things, an honorable mention of Malcolm X or a reference to Bilal ibn Rabah. I was absolutely wrong. This young imam went to an African-American female classmate of his and asked her when he called on her in Jummah to please speak to a communal concern of hers and asked another female to pray for that communal concern. This brought me to tears and the whole room. This imam told me later in passing, “I thought of the Black church experience and wanted to include it in my sermon delivery in honor of African American History Month.” SubhanAllah.
Another student, a Pakistani second-generation American has to write a paper in his US History class. He too is an inspiring imam and community leader in a mega-mosque community in a major city. This young man begins to ask me questions over several weeks about models of African-American leadership. After he read a few books I shared with him we settled on three types of leadership styles: Booker T. Washington, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. He began totally convinced the Malcolm X style of leadership was what the second-generation needed most to know and practice. However, in his research he discovered that pragmatically Booker T. Washington’s style of leadership represents the best leadership style for his community in a major city in Texas. It was an excellent paper and I just cannot help but to think of a positive future for any community under his leadership.
The last example is about a Zaytuna College alternative Spring trip to Selma, Alabama I took with Imam Dawood Yasin and 15 students. We lived for a week in an African-American minister’s home who had survived Bloody Sunday in Selma on the Edmond Pettus Bridge. This pastor cooked breakfast and dinner in his home everyday in the traditional Southern hospitality style and served our students generously. We marched with the students across this bridge after they heard living testimony of those who survived about that day. We marched in silence, hand to hand, and we all experienced something spiritual, historical and converging. Reflecting on this that evening, students who had been numb to being able to feel what Black Americans felt all testified to being able to feel anew. The magnitude of racial hatred and trauma of our lived experience was deeply understood by these fellow students. What was a contention within them was now a place of spiritual renewal and convergence.
Perhaps more intentional communal living together like Medina, more active reflective listening to each other, more deep intellectual inquiry into the historical struggle and leadership, more community engagement, and experiential learning with each other can change our social condition. Together with these experiences we can begin to express Islam as fully American and purely authentic to both our lived narratives.
MS: “Intentional communal living.” By this it sounds like you are referring to the Prophet’s ﷺ effort in Medina to “buddy up” a member of the Muhajireen with a member of the Ansar. This purposeful assignment brought a personal component that created familiarity and eventually brotherhood between the two. Is this something that we should try to replicate? How?
I asked an imam once how we bridge these gaps, and he recalled that in his previous community all the imams, from the inner-city mosque to the suburban mosque, made it a point to meet regularly for a weekend breakfast. This created a sense of understanding that led to a more cohesive approach and formulates a shared ownership of an “American” Islam. In some ways I think that this interaction needs to be almost forced on to us (both leadership and laypersons) because we will just make excuses about how busy we are and naturally gravitate back to our comfort zones.
These interactions can also break down our nafsani (the lower self) drive for power that can influence our desire for “ownership” of Islam. Rather than holding onto or grasping for power in an “us vs them” or “me-first” paradigm, we can see and experience first-hand that we are a community of souls that are all just trying to do good. Ownership must be transformed in our consciousness from an instrument of power to an instrument of responsibility. When we strive to remove our nafs from the equation, we can take the wheel when needed or let someone else take the wheel when needed, and in both scenarios we feel the same inside.
BA: We need a movement! You and I have been practicing step one of any community building movement and that is honest conversations on relevant, meaningful contentions with the hope of finding convergences. We need more! You and I must find practical ways to connect intentionally and invite our peers and leaders to join our covenant of communal renewal. We need to take ownership! You and I should make an intention for this. Then set out a plan with a clear strategy to grow our movement. We need to beg God for His assistance! You and I are brothers, now let’s work at saving ourselves and families from a fire that is men and stones.
Where do we go from here? Join in the conversation and give us your feedback!
1. The definition of "second" generation varies. For the purposes of this conversation, "second generation" refers to the offspring of parents who accepted Islam or Muslim parents who have immigrated to the United States, as elucidated in Part 1 of this series.
2. For example, the companion Khabbab ibn al-Aratt said, "We complained to the Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace while he was using his cloak as a cushion in the shade of the Kabaa. We said to him, 'Will you not ask for help for us? Will you not pray to Allah for us? He said, 'There was a man among those before you for whom a ditch was dug in the earth and he was placed in it. Then a saw was brought and places on his head and he would be cut in two. He would be raked with iron combs which would remove his flesh from his bones or sinews, and that would not deter him from his deen. By Allah, this business will be complete so that a traveller can go from San'a to Hadramawt fearing only Allah, or the wolf for his sheep, but you are trying to hasten things." (Related in Bukhari)