American Congress of Muslim Youth

The picture of spruce street neighbourhood boys and african american males with rage zoot suits “You are royal. You come from a royal background,” the Spruce Street neighbourhood boys were told in Smitty’s barbershop when they came in for their weekly haircuts. With these words, the lives of these young African American males were impacted forever. They were inspired to think about themselves in a way that was broader and grander than they had ever imagined.

This was Newark, New Jersey nearly 70 years ago, a time when jazz music was the rage, zoot suits were in style and the Spruce Street boys were looking to have a good time, spending their nights dancing, partying and picking up women. The person speaking to them was their local barber, Brother Sabroon, who tried to inspire these young men to look deep within themselves to see something that was deeper than what they were living at the time.

Occasionally, Brother Sabroon would invite these boys to meet the man who inspired him: “The Professor”. Muhammad Ezuldeen was a man from the South who had journeyed to the Middle East in the early 1900s to study ancient Egyptian history and ended up studying the tenets of Islam and later becoming a Muslim. He taught his followers the basics of this religion, following in the footsteps of the Prophet Muhammad in the early days of Islam.

Over time, many of these young men began to ponder their broader purpose in life, asking what might be more meaningful than just having a good time, and thinking about what made their heritage special.

I am the son of an early convert, and as someone who has known many of these African American converts to Islam throughout my life, I have grown to understand that Islam provided many answers to these questions. It seems that Islam was, for many of them, the answer to the powerlessness that they felt, a way to rise up and build themselves back into the people that God intended them to be. They finally felt “connected”, not just to their ethnic roots as black people but, more powerfully, to a universal and global family.

Professor Muhammad used to encourage his followers to migrate from the cities and “go back to the land”. He would captivate them with stories about their true heritage and their connection to the Biblical Hagar, mother of Ishmael. They were taught that they were the original Arabs, the Hemetic Arabs, and thus they had an obligation to reconnect to their lost heritage, tongue, history and culture. Many of them also felt that by submitting to God they were taking their rightful place amongst civilised people in the world a right that they were denied, in many instances, by the very design of society in those days.

In trying to achieve the same outcome, my elders would tell me stories of overcoming hatred of the “white man” and learning to love God and accept His decree. Some may view this as a passive form of acceptance but, in fact, the spiritual implications are very powerful indeed.

In my case, I was constantly reminded that my destiny was ultimately the design of God and for that reason no one had control over it or me except Him. Therefore I could not fall prey to the “blame game” which, in a larger context, made me responsible and accountable for my own actions and responsibilities.

In listening to the stories of these elders I have come to admire and respect the sincerity and depth of commitment that many of them possessed. For a significant part of my life, Islam was a habit for me it was all I knew in my childhood. But for many of my predecessors, Islam was a true life-choice.

In my early adulthood, I often read the autobiography of Malcolm X, who would later become El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. His story parallels the stories of the Spruce Street boys and other African American Muslims who were not born into Islam, but chose another path to it.

The stories of these early converts continue to inspire me and inform both my understanding and my practice of Islam. And it is a story that has yet to be fully told.

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American Congress of Muslim Youth

The picture of address issues oppression and ethics community service with elders responsibility family kin New York, New York – African American Muslim women are a rare gift in that we have a unique perspective on what it means to be Muslim in the United States. Our historical references as women are specifically honed and readily available to address issues of oppression and struggle for liberation as well as opportunity and success.

We have experience communicating with those different from us in faith and culture; we have the stamina needed for a sustained struggle in the interest of social justice. Our lives are intertwined with those who oppress and those who seek to liberate.

Most of us were not raised by Muslim parents; we grew up in predominantly Christian households and were schooled in ethics, community service and self-reliance. But we were looking for a new spirituality. We wanted a new way of life that would speak to our current existence while taking into consideration our exigent past. Islam was the answer.

When we adopted Islam, the teachings that were already ingrained in us such as the respect of parents and elders, responsibility to family, kin and neighbours, a strong work ethic and commitment to self-improvement became even more pronounced. Our new religion provided us with a structure for the lessons we’d been taught throughout our lives.

Many African American Muslim women actively sought out new avenues of spiritual enlightenment through research and interaction with other Muslims, especially in more urban environments, while others embraced Islam after meeting and marrying Muslims from other countries. Of all the reasons we chose Islam, one of the most compelling was the religion’s emphasis on family.

Still others chose Islam for the status afforded to Muslim women, as in my case. We saw in Islam the opportunity to re-create ourselves as women. Many of us even changed our names. We were not seeking to assimilate into the society indeed we were already well assimilated. We knew that we could be powerful because of our spirituality not in spite of it.

We continue to be nourished by the daily practice of Islam. We lay claim to the strong women who surrounded the Prophet Muhammad, such as his wife Khadija, as our role models. They forged a clear path for us since they were among the first Muslims and, like us, had embraced Islam while living in a predominantly non-Muslim society.

Many Muslim women struggle against cultural oppression within their societies. But while immigrant Muslim women struggle as new minorities in the dominant culture, the African American Muslim woman has a knack for understanding the terrain that must be scaled due to our historical knowledge of how oppression manifests itself.

We carry the scars of centuries of enslavement and the residual effects that persist to this day. We have lost and continue to lose our children and loved ones to pernicious institutional racism manifested through policies of abuse and neglect, such as economic deprivation, criminalisation of our youth, substandard health care, and inferior education. Based on these experiences, we can offer lessons learned to Muslim immigrants struggling to realise the promises America makes to new arrivals. At the country’s doorstep, Ellis Island, we say to them, “Give me your tired, your poor huddled masses yearning to be free”.

Many of us have come to feel that Islam has been a vehicle of empowerment for African Americans, and African American women specifically. We can thus speak concretely about the vast potential the religion offers not only to women, but all humanity, in the realm of personal spirituality, community, equality and justice.

Given our unique perspective on history, we are prepared to engage in struggles for social justice both within the Muslim community as well as for all Americans, and indeed, every global citizen. But we cannot call for constructive change in the larger society and not address the social ills within our own ranks.

Issues such as honour killings and domestic violence must be addressed and resolved. We must help break down the cultural barriers that prevent all Muslim women from seeking education, attending mosque, and participating in Islamic organisations and civic projects. Failing to do so would be in direct contradiction to the examples of those very women we have taken as our mentors.

At the same time, we also seek opportunities to build coalitions with others across racial, religious, ethnic and socio-economic lines to bring about equality, equity and harmony not only for ourselves but also our neighbours. The historical experiences of African Americans, combined with those of Muslim women, have taught us the value of collective effort for peace and social justice.

Aisha H.L. al-Adawiya is the founder and executive director of Women in Islam, Inc., an organisation of Muslim women that focuses on human rights and social justice.

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