Serving as a point of departure from the so-called clash of civilizations , African American Muslims counter the claim that hostility is inevitable between Westerners and Muslims. Having barely any historical connections to outside modern nation states, African American Muslims have been entirely formed by the American experience; indeed, their American-ness is beyond challenge. And yet they are completely Muslim.
African American Muslims have roots in America that are four centuries old.
They provide the larger Muslim American community with a unique connection to the West that is generally lacking in European Muslim communities. This connectivity offers a supportive narrative to all Muslims in America, and provides the African American community with an active role in bridging the gap between the West and the Muslim world.
Unlike Muslims that have migrated to Europe, Muslim Americans form a substantial indigenous demographic. This population, which is overwhelmingly African American, has an irrefutable connection with America. While the institution of slavery sought to erase religions, languages and cultural practices, African American Muslim heritage has been preserved through its historic contribution to freedom, justice and equality.
The role that African Americans have forged for themselves has benefited all Americans – and in fact the entire globe. Their struggles, notably during the Civil Rights movement, paved the way for a practice of Islam in America that is not found in other Western nations and even in some Muslim majority nations. For example, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 gave Muslims the right to attend Friday prayer services and gave women the right to wear the headscarf at their places of employment and schools.
The Civil Rights Act does not allow an employer the right to limit, segregate, or classify his employees in any way which would deprive or tend to deprive any individual of employment opportunities or otherwise adversely affect his status as an employee, because of such individual s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. (Section 703.(a).(2))
The same movement further challenged America to address the social ills of white supremacy and opened the door for the Immigration Act of 1965, which had the residual effect of greatly increasing the number of Muslims in America from South Asia.
The American Muslim community has benefited from the majority of its members belonging to the African American community, a group that embodies America s consciousness regarding civil and human rights. The increased recognition of the importance of this demographic within the American Muslim community may be recent, yet its value has long preceded the realization.
From America s first Muslim judge and Detroit s first Muslim Deputy Mayor, Adam Shakoor, to America s first two Muslim congressmen, Keith Ellison (D-MN) and Andre Carson (D-IN), Muslims – domestically and internationally – have been empowered by pioneering African Americans.
The tangible benefits, such as introducing domestic legislation that takes into account Muslim concerns and voting with greater understanding than the average American congressman on issues relating to the Muslim world, are obvious.
The greater reward to Muslims, therefore, is that of hope.
If these Muslims have overcome the experience of marginalization to hold elected offices in America, then perhaps all American Muslims have the same potential. Muslims in Africa, Asia and Europe can hold strong to the idea that if Muslim descendants of American slaves can be respected in broader American society, then perhaps America can undergo a healthy reform in its foreign policy and assess the Muslim world with a more balanced eye.
The Jeffersonian idea that all men are created equal. endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness , has an exceptionally strong following among African American Muslims. With this rich history and historical legitimacy as Americans, African American Muslims will continue to be a vital ingredient in cultivating a better life for Muslims throughout America and will continue to serve as a spiritual link between America and the Muslim world.
Dawud Walid is the executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations – Michigan (CAIR-MI) and Assistant Imam of Masjid Wali Muhammad in Detroit, Michigan. This article is part of a series on African American Muslims written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at www.commongroundnews.org.