WRITTEN BY OMAR SHAHID |
Friday, May 4, 2018 ;
9 Minute Read
What do you think of when you think of black Muslims?
For most of us, the first (and only) thing that will come to mind is the great companion of the Prophet (pbuh), Bilal ibn Rabah, a freed slave of Ethiopian heritage.
But this is problematic and potentially dangerous.
Despite his greatness and the legacy he left, to frame the entire black Muslim historical experience on Bilal (RA), is to do a disservice to the entire history, culture and legacy that black Muslims have contributed over the past 1000 years.
Shaykh Muhammad Nizami, a British-based Islamic scholar says in this deeply informative piece: “The popular vernacular and mode of reference towards black Muslims of the past imagines them as a peripheral entity, and when they are spoken of, it is usually for rhetorical purposes that neglect a meaningful engagement with how they served to shape Muslim history.”
The Homogenisation of Black Muslims
Part of the reason this has happened is because black Muslims have been homogenised by non-black Muslims. Many of us imagine them to be converts (aren’t we descendants of converts?), who don’t really know much about Islam and haven’t contributed much either.
Shaykh Nizami goes on to say: ” Ironically, many of those who assume some sense of supremacy in their cultural religious understandings are not only oblivious that Africa had monotheism long before their part of the world, but that black scholars from the African Sub-Continent and Arabia have had a profound impact on general Islamic scholarship, not to mention fearless resistance against oppressors.”
It’s also important to recognise the complexities and nuances that exist when considering black Muslims – there are differences in the history, culture and struggles between black Muslims in places like West Africa, America and those in Europe.
A Marginalised Collective
It’s this lack of meaningful engagement with black Muslim history and the non-acknowledgement of their contributions, that, in part, allows for many to adopt highly racialised language towards them. (Black Muslim Influencers, as we’ll see later in this piece, still suffer from racism and a lack of appreciation and respect for the cultures which have shaped them as people).
We also risk reinforcing the notion that Islam is primarily a religion belonging to Arabs and South Asians.
Sadly, most of us have suffered from a type of cultural hegemony where we’ve been told that the Islam emerging from certain cultures is better than others.
But this type of thinking can only exist as long as we view Islam through the lens of culture, rather than a faith-system.
Islam’s Authenticity Stretches Across the World
Just because the Prophet (PBUH) was born in Arabia, Arab Islam is still no more authentic as it is in any other part of the world.
Islam is undoubtedly a universal religion. It’s why Islam spread very quickly across the world, to every distant outpost – as far as China, Spain and West Africa.
Not only was Islam able to spread quickly, but the faith also found home in a vast array of cultures and lands, comfortably sitting in whichever environment it was placed.
This is because Islam isn’t a race or ethnicity.
It’s a universal message, it’s a call to live for a higher purpose and a way to make your surroundings better. It’s a faith for Jamaicans or West Africans, just as much as it is for people from Saudi Arabia or Pakistan.
Reasons for Hope
In spite of the ignorance surrounding black Muslims, there is great reason for hope.
Things are changing. Many black western Muslims are finally finding their voices, despite the prejudices they still face and are rising to leadership positions within Muslim circles.
In short, many black Muslims, tired of the narrative that they aren’t as Muslim as a Pakistani or Arab and are now seeking to show that their respective cultures and traditions are not absent of Islam.
While black Muslims in places like West or East Africa view Islam as a very normal way of life, a religion native to their land, and something where their culture and faith can comfortably co-exist, in places like the UK, however, being black and Muslim poses difficulties. But these difficulties have proved a source of inspiration for many.
“Growing up, I couldn’t figure out how I could be both black and Muslim. Everywhere I looked, Islam seemed to be something for Asians or Arabs,” says Khaled Siddiq, a UK-based Muslim musician and Youtuber.
The Tale of Khaled Siddiq
A year ago, Khaled began fusing his music – which is primarily based on his faith – with his Jamaican heritage, creating something that hasn’t been done before.
Like many other black Muslims now, he’s finally beginning to find his place within the Islamic context.
Today, Khaled is one of the most Influential black British Muslims.
Khaled, along with fellow creatives including Somali-born Brit Faisal Salah, Jamaican-Brit Sukina Douglas, Mozambican born, London-based Mohammed Yahya have all recently visited Senegal, meeting and learning from Islamic scholars and the Muslim communities in West Africa.
Across the pond, in North America, the landscape is a little different. Black Muslim Americans still feel some sense of empowerment after the civil rights movements and the prominence of the Nation of Islam.
Yet, that was a long time ago, and key anti-racist, civil rights heroes like Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali have left us, leaving a dearth in leaders for black Muslim Americans.
However, new voices are emerging.
The Inspirational Story of Ibn Ali Miller
Ibn Ali Miller, who last year, was recorded breaking up a fight between two teenagers (gaining almost 100m views), is fast becoming a key spokesperson for young Muslims in America.
Miller – a close friend of Imam Zaid Shakir, a mixed-race American Imam who led the funeral procession of Muhammad Ali in 2016 – is fast becoming an influential and symbolic figure.
His powerful oratory, reminiscent of figures like Malcolm X, and upbringing in the ghetto of Atlantic City, New Jersey where he was exposed to poverty and vicious cycles of violence, make him a figure to watch out for.
He speaks with courage, determination, emotion and a type of exhilarating passion rare to find amongst people who’ve not been through the types of struggles him and his community have. “I’m telling you, something is happening. Black Muslims from inner-city America is waking up,” Miller says.
Deen Squad – A Controversial Yet Powerful Group
In Canada, Jae Deen, one half of the Muslim duo Deen Squad – a controversial group that divides opinion – has recently come out strongly against the racism that exists within Muslim communities, especially towards prominent black figures like himself.
“It’s not that music is haram, it’s just that they don’t like African American culture…If I was an Arab singer from the Middle East, I’d be allowed to do this,” he says in Deen Squad’s song Look Alike (Halal Remix).
What Does the Future Hold for Black Muslim Influencers?
Many black Muslim Influencers are not shying away anymore. They’re finding their voices and showing a new side to the faith, a side which often has its roots in African and Caribbean culture, which has long been ignored.
Largely helped by their popularity on platforms like Youtube, Facebook and Instagram, social media has made black Muslims, their struggles and various forms of artistic expressions, visible.
More and more black Muslim Influencers entering the public eye can only be a healthy thing – after all, it’s only through accepting diversity that we’ll find unity.
Let us know your thoughts below.