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 1: Where Do We Start?
Mohammed Saleem: Imam Bilal, thanks for agreeing to discuss these important issues. Race in our community is one of those elephants in the room we can’t ignore, but starting a conversation about it is pretty daunting. I’m not sure where to begin, so perhaps it is best we learn a little bit about one another first. So, when did you convert to Islam?
Bilal Ansari: [laughs] Good one, I’ve heard that before. As you know quite well, I was born in the latter part of what we affectionately call the First Resurrection. That is, it was 1972 and my father Imam Usamah Ansari converted to Islam in Temple #7 in 1954. My father came into Islam under Minister Malcolm X and transitioned to orthodox Islam in 1975 with Imam Warith Deen Muhammad.
MS: [laughs] Yeah, I thought you would like that one. Even though you were born in the faith, you’ve probably been asked that question as many times as I’ve been asked “Where are you from?” and the obligatory follow-up question, “No, where are you really from?” [any US town or state is deemed an unacceptable answer to the first question].
But all jokes aside, these commonly asked questions are really representative of the constant challenge to our identity as American Muslims, based on the assumptions we have of one another. For the “indigenous”, you are American for sure, but the Muslim part is questioned, critiqued, or seen as less than authentic. For the “immigrant” (and there are certainly problems with us using the terms indigenous and immigrant, but let’s use it for simplicity sake now), you are Muslim, but not so much American. These attitudes play into our assumptions about one another, and that’s reflected even in these seemingly innocuous questions we ask.
The reality is that both of us are second-generation1 American Muslims, one the son of an indigenous parent who accepted Islam, the other the son of Muslim parents who immigrated. Yet we continue to carry much of the cultural baggage and perceptions our parents’ generation had, even though we don’t need to. So, again, where do we start?
BA: That is so true, we are both second-generation American Muslims with similar struggles around our identity. Listening to your question, “where do we start?” conjures within me the advice from Booker T. Washington about his struggle with cultural baggage and misperceptions in his day. He advised us Americans in 1895 to “cast down your bucket from where you are.” I must start to “cast down my bucket” at Zaytuna College, where the goal is to better the condition of Muslims in America professionally, intellectually and spiritually. Cast it down among a third generation of people of all races, classes and cultural identities to help them sort out the clothes in the baggage, wash them not with Tide but tarbiyah (educational upbringing) and fold them away neatly in the drawers of our collective history. Then remind them what God says in His Majestic Book to us about what to wear as we ponder where do we start, for He says:
“Children of Adam, We have given you garments to cover your nakedness and as adornment for you; the garment of God-consciousness is the best of all garments—this is one of God’s signs, so that people may take heed.” (Qur’an 7:26)
MS: I think that verse in itself does give us an avenue to start. We must, to continue your analogy, start fresh with the libaas (garment) of taqwa (God-consciousness). We need to start this discussion on a spiritual level, remembering we are all children cut from the same original cloth of Adam and Eve, who have been further graced with belief in God and His Messengerﷺ. We can’t sort through the different issues without starting from a point of convergence, with the intention that we are spiritual beings who want to cleanse our hearts of these divisions. Many times when we discuss race, the way we discuss it is with an undercurrent of hostility or even hopelessness. We use certain terms, we employ certain generalizations, and that just sets each “side” on edge, and we are doomed to fail. Sometimes our “discussions” on race, in themselves, are racist! What chance is there for unity when the discussion starts about division? Ultimately we need to start off recognizing that we are all flawed and exposed before our Lord, and that moving forward, adorning ourselves with taqwa, is the only way to fulfill our rights to Him and to each other.
When a racial incident once occurred, the Prophet ﷺ framed it as an indicator of jahiliyyah—these problems we have are manifestations of spiritual ignorance and disease. It’s interesting you mentioned this verse because right before it, the Qur’an describes the story of Adam. Adam, as we know, disobeyed God’s command, repented and then was forgiven. Hence, there is no doctrine of original sin in Islam, no one can be judged based on the actions of the other; sins of the parent do not pass down to the child.
As second and third generation however, that’s what we do, we assume the "other" feels and acts a certain way because of the generalized, often stereotypical, notion we have of their parents’ generation, or because that generation did something to our “side”. Instead of casting down the bucket, we dunk our head in it.
The path of healing and purification entails that we assume the best of one another, to have husn al-dhann, a good opinion. If we do not begin assuming that we are all trying to improve ourselves for our Lord, and that our brother or sister is better than us and pure-intentioned, we are not going to get anywhere.
BA: I think pragmatically about American spirituality as a means of eradicating most of the racism we suffer from today. Hence my reference to Booker T. Washington was due to his unrelenting sound reasoning in regards to improving racial tensions. In one of the most hostile and toxic racist environments in America, the Jim Crow South, Mr. Washington’s advice was successful and he built a higher education institution as a model and symbol of hope for us today. His advice was to work from whence you stand and come together based on sincerity and God-consciousness. God-consciousness erases any superiority complex on the tongue, in the heart and in one’s actions. It nurtures general good will so that intimate feelings and actions become the source of reversing past enmity and callous behaviors. This pragmatic spiritual process is mentioned in the Qur’an in the following verse:
“And not equal are the good deed and the bad. Repel [evil] by that [deed] which is better; and thereupon the one whom between you and him is enmity [will become] as though he was a devoted friend.” (Qur’an 41:34)
You will find in the verse just before this the rhetorical question from God- “Who is best in speech?” (Qur’an 41:33). Clearly this superlative inquiry is a warning against divisive speech and therefore it is a very important point to ponder about our race “discussions” going forward. Interestingly, God says in the context of this verse to achieve this station of human relations is a great fortune and only those who are abundantly patient with each other and His decree can ever hope of achieving such a spiritual station.
Mohammed, often assuming the best of our brothers allows the worse to happen. Do you agree? I understand conceptually husn al-dhann but practically it often allows for spiritual bypassing and can be mistaken for compassion fatigue, where we overlook injustices and stand silent while witnessing harm in discourse or actions. It is hard to do such harm when both “immigrant” and “indigenous” (whatever that means) Muslims are engaged in collaborative community work. This is the real spiritual work of transforming that divisive language to muhajirs (sojourners) and ansaar (supporters). As God says:
“Believers, be the supporters of justice and testify to what you may have witnessed, for the sake of God, even against yourselves, parents, and relatives; whether it be against the rich or the poor. God must be given preference over them. Let not your desires cause you to commit injustice. If you deviate from the truth in your testimony, or decline to give your testimony at all, know that God is Well Aware of what you do.” (Qur’an 4:134)
When God said, “whether it be against the rich or the poor. God must be given preference over them”, how do we get to that place with our race relations? Is the ability to be “supporters of justice” fundamentally related to one’s ability to testify to what you may have witnessed? We need to start to understand each other and know that our volition is based on our inner constitution and equilibrium of reasoning ('aql), self-assertion (ghadab), and appetition (shahwa). God clearly states it is not our negative opinions of each other (racism) but our inability to refrain from our desires that hinders us.
Our traditional spiritual teachers illustrate to us how in order to have the ability to act justly we ourselves must be internally disciplined. This means that all three elements of our inner constitution must be working together in harmony, that is, our ‘aql, ghadab, and shahwa must be observing the golden mean of ‘adl (justice). Virtues manifest when each are balanced and in the correct proportion. “Who created and portioned, and Who destined and [then] guided” (Qur’an 87:2-3). Justice, ('adl) which holds the meaning to be justly balanced, is the power that directs these elements to achieve the golden mean and to preserve their harmony.
Therefore, “supporters of justice” must have good and balanced character. This then gives them the ability to restore balance between people individually and communally. In order to achieve this in the next generation, we must be able to therefore act in support of institutions of character development and this will impact our capacity to support justice. Otherwise, self-assertion (anger) and appetition (passions) will continue to develop in excess and be out of control, and thus our ability to reason to act justly will be easily exploited by anger and passions (i.e our desires). This is why Shaykh Hamza Yusuf speaks on how our greatest struggle today is returning knowledge to its central place in our religion. Al-Ghazali similarly states that the “best development of self-assertion and appetition consists in their subservience to reason, that is, in their activity according to the dictates of wisdom and the religious law.”
MS: Yes, I think we are in agreement here, that the solution to our problems must be a spiritual one, and if it is truly the balanced, pragmatic spirituality our Islamic ethos mandates, supporting justice is the integral component.
If you permit me to respond to your comment about husn al-dhann and spiritually bypassing injustice, I would agree, but in the circumstances where that injustice is clearly known, yet we still assume no wrong is being committed and make ourselves believe a lie so that we feel better about that situation. So if I invoke husn al-dhann about my brother who is clearly acting with racism, and I know this, and just brush it off, that’s not husn al-dhann anymore, that’s being an accomplice or silent supporter in his spiritual and moral crime. And honestly, that’s where a lot of us as “immigrants” have to step up; whether it’s not letting a derogatory term slipped into a casual conversation pass without our harshest condemnation, or letting a system of organized discrimination continue without our strongest efforts to change it.
But, again, I would repeat that in our initial encounter in starting this conversation, we have to assume the best of each other and not be skeptical of our intentions, unless, of course, our actions and words prove otherwise. I can tell you of situations where people have assumed I have a certain (negative) racial attitude, or did something out of ethno-centricism when there was no such intention whatsoever, only because of my “immigrant” background. And yes, while this pales in comparison to the harsh realities that our African-American brothers and sisters deal with day in and day out, it still is frustrating for many second generation “immigrants” to be branded in a way that calls into question our basic moral sensibilities, simply because of the sub-community we have originated from. We are all individuals, with our own strengths and deficiencies, and to that I welcome your analogy of the Muhajirs and the Ansaar, transforming the discourse to one that is built in promoting collaborative community work.
Returning the centrality of knowledge in our religion, as you say, is key to this. In the context of this conversation, yes, we might begin out of sincere brotherly love and good intentions, and with an understanding that racism, cultural chauvinism and discrimination are the antithesis of everything in the text of our religious tradition. But to practically institute that spiritual understanding and practice in our communities, unless we have knowledge of the realities on the ground, we are going to have a hard time of instituting real change. I’m sure we will address this more in detail, but briefly, and frankly, many of us from the “immigrant” community have little understanding or awareness of the realities of racism. We’ll spout off the spiritual tradition, that our Prophet ﷺ said that a white is not superior to a black, and black is not superior to a white2, or we’ll invoke the famous quote from Malcolm that Islam is the cure to the race problem in America. And yes, while that is the core of what our intellectualized understanding of our faith is and what it calls to, invoking these statements without the mandatory follow-up work of applying them in our communities makes them seem hollow.
I think there is a knowledge-gap in our “immigrant” generation about the reality of racism, not to the severity of the previous generation, but one that still exists because, for the most part, we have been imbibing (often unknowingly) the narrative of white supremacy our entire life—it was the language of our educational and social upbringing. It’s why even some of us feel more comfortable with whites than our “own”. Like many young white Americans today, while we reject the blunt in-your-face racism of the past, we are either ignorant of or are unwittingly participating in the “new” (refurbished old) racism of the current day. It’s this “knowledge gap” that affects this conversation we are having, because unless I understand the realities of this new racism, I’m not going to empathize or understand where many of your concerns come from. Thus, I won’t be able to help address them sufficiently.
As Allah says, He created us from many nations to “know one another” (Qur’an 49:13), and that requires a knowledge of the conditions in which we each live. Imam Bilal, as a second generation African-American Muslim, are there any similar “knowledge-gaps” or impediments that might be also preventing us from speaking on the same wavelength?
BA: Good question. Today, the biggest “knowledge gap” our communities suffer from is not knowing that we do not know how best to lead our institutions. Our communities operate believing money and position on a board is sufficient to build, lead and operate in the Muslim community. This phenomenon perpetuates and promotes bad character in leadership that usually is to blame for the bad name of every member in that community. If that undisciplined leader is a racist and a bigot then the community bares that stigma unfairly. These perpetrators are what I call “vice squad” board of directors who will only work with imams who submit to their whims and desires at the expense of their religious knowledge. Therefore, leaders in knowledge are subservient to individuals controlled by their passions who have absolutely no spiritual discipline. Episodes of rage and anger often fly from the tongues of these leaders. As African-Americans we see these people in leadership as representing a community instead of individuals unworthy of leadership who are totally consumed by their desires.
Think about how this “knowledge gap” affects all the poor Sunday schools that are then tyrannically managed, memorization program students who are often abused, and thousands of Muslims students turned away from religion and distrustful of religious leadership. As a Muslim chaplain in the college setting for over seven years, I have seen the outcome of bad character across the country on campuses from the Ivy League to community colleges. Some young college students begin to reconcile their faith for the first time in our midst. They have never witnessed leaders with knowledge who represent balanced and disciplined Muslim leadership managing a healthy community life. We have lost sincere knowledge leaders in our communities who know how to build, lead, and turn over management to competent leadership. In the Jami’al-Ulum wa’l-Hikam, Ibn Rajab says about such leaders:
“As for sincerity towards the leaders of the Muslims, that is by loving their correctness, their maturity of intellect and good management of affairs, and their justice, loving the unification of the ummah under them, and detesting division of the ummah against them, professing obedience to them in whatever comprises obedience to Allah, hating those who hold the view that it is legitimate to rise in revolt against them, and loving to honor them in [matters consistent with] obedience to Allah.” (P. 124)
In essence, due to this loss of knowledge leadership of our collective community, it means we have lost the ability to love such correctness, maturity, good management and justice. This is why I believe we are a community not united at all and full of racial hatred. We love our desires when it is the people of God who should be given preference. We love revolting above honoring. Our communities are led by our passions and anger, while our intellectually mature serve secular institutions where they are honored and appreciated. No wonder you have racist behaviors being felt in both communities and it is not surprising when some come to the surface in very public ways. Look no further than ISNA’s public announcement about the reaction to the murder of Freddie Gray. ISNA’s Baltimore remarks were evidence enough about us not speaking on the same wavelengths.
MS: Yes exactly, and again, that is derived from ignorance or misinformation of what is going on. When you have that, you will not display the appropriate sensitivity to matters like that. The #MuslimLivesMatter campaign on Twitter, which particularly trended after the murders in Chapel Hill, was an example of this. I don’t think any of us would disagree that the originators of this hashtag were nothing but good-intentioned. But the attempt to mimic the #BlackLivesMatter campaign, something that was representative of a greater, long-standing movement highlighting the systematic, institutionalized injustices towards African-Americans as a whole, leaves a sour taste in the mouth.
Our neglect of the structural racism that affects people of color in this country, regardless of their religion, directly impacts the relationships we have in our mosques and Muslim organizations between “immigrant” and African-American Muslims, because this neglect is essentially a denial of life experience. If I am not going to admit or understand what you deal with every day, I’m not affirming your identity, I’m marginalizing it and devaluing it. The wavelengths are out of sync—I’m not going to be fully invested in you, and you aren’t going to be invested in me. That’s not a recipe for communal success and has significant implications in how our community operates, or more accurately, how our sub-communities operate in parallel with blinders on.
BA: Mohammed, I think I should share some hope in regards to your Black Lives Matter “sour taste” point to perhaps add some sweet to the sour. It’s a positive example of hope about race and the next generation in Muslim-American leadership. I was fortunate this year at Zaytuna College to take two students to join the Black Lives Matter movement in Ferguson, Missouri. At the time, Dean Dawood Yasin was with 12 other Zaytuna College students working with the U.S. Department of Forestry, planting trees in Utah, but he arranged this service trip that I was blessed to mentor students on. We used our Spring Break time alternatively, and rather than rest and sleep we chose to serve and learn on the front lines in the Black Lives Matter movement. We arrived a few days after two police officers were shot. Our two students were not Black but rather a Pakistani male future imam and his wife, a white female with family roots in St. Louis, Missouri. This experience for both of them was transformative in altering their perception and they understood how offensive #MuslimLivesMatter was. This is because they became supporters of justice for others, spending hours in the day serving in the Black neighborhoods with Black students from all over America. At night they spent hours engaged in deep conversations about race, hatred, power, and privilege and systemic causes—both philosophical and practical. They understand intimately now the true meaning of Black Lives Matter and they will, God willing, be more effective knowledge leaders as supporters of justice in their respective communities. Ironically, their community in Southern California is now embroiled in another racial problem and crisis in leadership and could use their wisdom to restore hope.
MS: Indeed, that story does inspire a lot of hope, tempered with the reality that faces them now in their community. God willing, in the next segment of our conversation, we can explore this further and discuss our role in confronting racism.
This series will continue with "Part 2: Immigrants & the New Racism”…
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.
2. From the Prophet's last sermon in Minâ, who said: “O people! Your Lord is one Lord, and you all share the same father. There is no preference for Arabs over non-Arabs, nor for non-Arabs over Arabs. Neither is their preference for white people over black people, nor for black people over white people. Preference is only through righteousness.” Then he said: “Have I conveyed the message?” and the people declared that he had. [Musnad Ahmad (22391)]