More than 20 years ago I conducted a round-table with a group of Muslim leaders coming out of the African-American experience.
To my knowledge, it was the first-ever discourse from and about African-American Muslims and how they saw Islam and relations between Muslims in America to be published by what were then more prestigious and powerful American Muslim organizations established and run largely by immigrants.
What struck me most then is something I am still struggling with now, as I write these words. It came from Jamil Al-Amin, the 1960s celebrated civil rights advocate H. Rap Brown chairman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and then Justice Minister of the Black Panther Party, now serving a life sentence after being framed for a suspiciously bizarre homicide and locked away from the Muslim community as a critical Muslim American leader the year before 9/11.
I had asked the participants how they thought they and the particular Muslim community they had emerged from should be identified in the upcoming feature. All the participants, after some examination of titles like “indigenous” and “American” said as African-American Muslims–except Br. Jamil.
“As Muslims,” he said, “Muslims.”
But how can I let people know that the leaders talking to them are coming out of this particular segment of the Muslim community in America, I said. We have “White American” converts, “African American converts" "Immigrant Muslims.” “The Children of Immigrant Muslims,” or the so-called “Second Generation Muslims.” How can people know?
I remember the seriousness of his eyes, a slight smile on his face (a grin of painful patience, perhaps), and his head being bowed forward just a bit as he sat slouched back in his chair, his large hands interlaced across his midsection.
“Being Muslims is enough for any of us.” He spoke calmly and with an incredible conviction that never left the memory of my heart.
He didn’t want the division. He didn’t want the distinction. He didn’t want the disconnection from a whole world of Muslims in far-flung lands with diffracting challenges atomizing into national Muslim communities–American, North American; European, British, French, German; Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi; African, Sudani, Egyptian. Or into ethnic Muslim communities–Arab, Desi, Asian; Latino, Anglo. Or into racial Muslim communities–Black, White, Red, Yellow, Brown. Or into economic Muslim communities–wealthy, poor, high, middle, lower class, homeless. Or into corporate Muslim communities–executives, professionals, professors, business owners, laborers, unemployed, imprisoned.
Jamil Al-Amin was right, for his words echo true those of the Messenger, sallallahu alayhe wa sallam: “You find the Muslims, in their mutual love and compassion, like one body. Should any organ of it fall ill, the rest of the body will share in the fever and sleeplessness that ensues” (Al-Bukhari).
Br. Jamil knew firsthand how the pressures of the powers that he can cause the hearts of men to fray, and then their unanimous spirit to vanish in an identity-shattering, mission-splintering hail of endlessly parsed and hyphenated loyalties.
Allah states in the Quran: “Indeed, this community of yours is one community, and I am your Lord, so worship only Me. But [succeeding generations] divided their faith among themselves. Yet all shall return to Us [for Judgment]” [Al-Anbiya’, 21:92-93].
And elsewhere, in nearly the same terms: “For, indeed, this community of yours is one community. And I am your Lord. So fear Me. Yet they [who came after] split into factions among themselves in the matter [of their faith]–each party exulting in whatever they had taken hold of, [and, without authority, calling it truth] [Al-Mu’minun, 23:52-53].
Alas, for us. We have not heeded these divine exhortations to unity, and seem only too eager to please others under their immense Worldly coercion of Muslims to obsequiously rush to publicly profess our divided, and divided again, allegiance, partisanship, nationalisms, and chauvinism. It shows in our words and our works, and our expressions of mission–each party of us seemingly exulting in whatever pressurized struggle for “survival” in our too small defined contexts we have desperately taken hold of.
I know I began by mentioning some of these extra-labels myself. Such is the struggle to which I referred in the beginning, for we have not succeeded to define ourselves by our one, God-given honorific, from our One God.
History. That is, in the reading of our histories, the stories of our predecessors, our forerunners, from our available but too-long marginalized and hidden sources, we can break through the disfigured images and disinformation about us and the world that now forms our deeply deluded worldview, life-view. We must know where we’ve come from to understand where we are and see how to get where we need to go.
To become “just Muslims,” one chosen Community of this Midmost Way.
Article provided by Al Jumuah Magazine, a monthly Muslim lifestyle publication, which addresses the religious concerns of Muslim families across the world.
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