By Imam Zaid Shakir
Black History Month should be of interest to every
Muslim -especially here in America. It is estimated that upwards to 20% of
the Africans enslaved in the Americas were Muslim.  In some areas, such
as the coast of the Carolinas, Georgia, and parts of Virginia, the
percentages of Muslims in the slave population may have approached 40%.
 The fact that the search of a random African American, Alex Haley, for
his roots led him to a Muslim village in West Africa is indicative of the
widespread Muslim presence among the enslaved population here in the
At this critical time in the history of our country, it
is important for Muslims, whose legitimate existence in this country is
being challenged in some quarters, to connect to our American Muslim
roots. As Muslims, our story in this country did not begin with the coming
of Syrians, Lebanese, Albanians, or Yemenis at the turn of the 20th
Century and later. It began with those courageous African Muslim slaves
whose blood, sweat, and tears were instrumental in building this country.
Their struggle is our struggle, and our struggle should be a continuation
In identifying with those African Muslims, we must not
allow ourselves to forget that they were part of a greater community, a
community which has evolved to almost fifty million African Americans. The
struggle of that community, its pain, perseverance, triumphs, and defeats,
cannot be separated from the struggle of its Muslim members. If we as
Muslims are moved by the suffering of our coreligionists who were exposed
to the dehumanizing cruelties of a vicious system, we should similarly be
moved by the plight of their non-Muslim African brothers and sisters who
suffered the same injustices.
We must also be moved to work with unwavering conviction
to address, within the parameters of our organizational missions, the
vestiges of institutional racism which continue to disproportionately
affect African Americans and other racial minorities in this country. One
statistic alone should be sufficient to alert us to the presence of such
racism - 50% of this nation's 2.3 million incarcerated individuals come
from her 12% African American population. Similarly discouraging
statistics are found in areas ranging from access to higher education,
teen pregnancies, high school dropout rates, youth homicides, and many
other "quality of death" indicators.
African American Muslims have a particular
responsibility in addressing such racism. In beginning to do so, we can
take our lead from our formerly enslaved brothers. Despite their lack of
freedom, many of them were never "owned." This fact is strikingly clear in
their increasingly widespread biographies. Individuals such as Ayyub bin
Sulayman (Job Ben Solomon), Ibrahim Abdul-Rahman, and Yarrow Mamout, to
name a few, did not allow the ravages of chattel slavery to rob them of
their dignity, honor, nor their human worth.
As we endeavor to address the imperfections of society,
in race relations and other areas, we must do so with dignity, honor,
grace, and with free and open minds. Those of us who hail from the
historically oppressed minority communities of this land, must resist the
temptation to allow the triumvirate of rage, a sense of victimization, and
vengeance to distort our ability to calmly assess and then pragmatically
address the many issues confronting us. When such a distortion occurs,
delusional thinking and irrational politics usually result.
One of the greatest delusions challenging us lies in
seeing our situation as paralleling that of our brothers and sisters in
foreign lands governed by repressive, authoritarian regimes. By viewing
our situation as parallel to theirs we are tempted to view the paradigm of
resistance which governs their struggles as valid for our situation. Such
an assessment is fallacious for a number of reasons.
First of all, most of the significant "Third World"
liberation struggles pitted oppressed majorities against oppressive
minorities. In this country, the white majority, and significant segments
of the nonwhite minorities, are not so severely affected by structural
violence or institutional racism that they view violent, or even
aggressive challenges to the status quo as legitimate forms of political
Secondly, alternative means of political expression,
available in this country, are unavailable in most "third world"
dictatorships or authoritarian oligarchies. Hence, the mechanisms whereby
the Jews, by way of example, once a despised and demeaned minority in this
country, were able to favorably situate themselves within the system, are
not available in the previously referenced countries. Similarly, the
progress achieved by African Americans in affirmative action, progress
which has been steadily eroded, no doubt, could not have been hoped for by
oppressed minorities in many other countries. Whether we view these
realities as truly empowering or ultimately co-optive does not negate the
fact that they do exist. And as long as they exist, they will be powerful
mechanisms to damper the appeal and feasibility of radical challenges to
the status quo.
Thirdly, while the feasibility of an aggressive, or even
violent challenge to the status quo may be debatable in a small,
minority-based, "third world" dictatorship, in a society as large,
complex, diverse, and, ultimately, as politically conservative as the
United States, such challenges would be used to legitimize severe
repressive measures which would serve to render even milder forms of
dissent less acceptable. While presented here in hypothetical terms, this
is actually a recurrent lesson which American history has taught us.
The history of "third world" revolutionary change is no
more encouraging. Frantz Fanon, in the Wretched of the Earth, his analysis
of the Algerian decolonization struggle, saw decolonizing violence as a
cathartic agent which would create a new liberated man. The sad reality
created by that violence is documented by Fanon in the last chapter of his
work. It led to a litany of mental disorders, which Fanon, a trained
psychiatrist, documented all too well. Wreaked lives which the leaders of
the nationalist struggle were ill-prepared to repair. Furthermore, thirty
years later, the remnants of the nationalist regime which the revolution
brought to power would be all too willing participants in a bloodbath that
would rival anything the former French colonizers had visited upon the
Archbishop Dom Helder Camara, has pointed out that once
a spiral of violence begins, it operates on its own internal logic.
Injustice leads to revolt. Revolt induces repression. Repression leads to
greater injustices, which in turn encourage more radical forms of revolt.
These then induce more severe forms of repression. This spiral continues,
unbroken. The challenge for theologians in this age, when the potential
destructiveness of war is so great it threatens the very existence of our
world, is to devise strategies which can meaningfully enhance our
collective wellbeing by peacefully altering the mechanisms of structural
violence and institutionalized racism. Muslim theologians, if we are truly
"Heirs of the Prophets," Peace and Blessings of God be upon them, should
not shy away from this challenge. However, in attempting to meet it, we
must resist the temptation to resuscitate the failed strategies, stale
ideas, and outdated methods of an ineffective "third world" revolution.
In a not too distant past, when standards of political
correctness were more closely associated with truth, and not selfish and
narrow political agendas, John Kennedy said, "Those who make peaceful
revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable." The great
theologian Reinhold Niebubr declared, "In the social struggle we are
either on the side of privilege or need." If these two white Americans,
who were "privileged" in every sense of that somewhat trite expression,
can advocate for the need to challenge oppressive social relations, it
would be an unforgivable travesty for our voices to fall silent.
The question for us is, "How can we best address the
oppressive mechanisms facing us, and those facing our coreligionists in so
many redoubts scattered around the globe?" In answering this question, we
can gain valuable insight from the lives and struggles of our African
Muslim forebears. Superior erudition was the key to the liberation of Job
Ben Solomon. Herein is a sign for us. As American Muslims we have been
blessed to reside in the most intellectually dynamic society in history.
Also, the primal command in our religion is to read. We should
enthusiastically pursue the mandate created by these twin facts and push
ourselves to become the most educated community on Earth -in religious and
worldly knowledge. In so doing, the miracles which were so clearly
manifested in the life of Job Ben Solomon will surely bless our lives.
The dignity, nobility, and erudition of Ibrahim 'Abd al-Rahman,
qualities which earned him the epithet, "Prince," were instrumental in his
liberation from the shackles of bondage. Our day is witnessing the steady
degradation of our collective human dignity. We should be a community
whose dignity and nobility readily impresses all who deal with us, and
more importantly a community whose ethics are a reflection of the true
value and depth of the prophetic teachings. Sadly, as Muslims, generally
speaking, we have dishonored the prophetic legacy we have been entrusted
Our forefathers conquered lands with the loftiness of
their character and ethics. We oftentimes repulse dignified outsiders who
come into our midst. At the height of American chattel slavery, Yarrow
Mamout, an elderly Muslim who had gained his freedom, so impressed the
artist Charles Wilson Peale with his dignity, nobility, and grace that the
latter, who painted six portraits of George Washington, was inspired to
paint Mamout. Who among us would inspire a similarly placed artist today?
It is not the purpose of these ruminations to suggest a
specific program of empowerment. Power, as the Qur'an emphatically
affirms, is God's to give to whomsoever He chooses.  However, a deep
knowledge of God, self, and society will certainly yield insights
conducive to conformity to the divine ways God has established to invite
His empowering grace upon a particular community. Furthermore, history
affirms that dignity, nobility of character, and courage have been the
indispensable characteristics of those who were able to take the
oftentimes unpopular stands which helped to usher in fundamental change
-by the Will of God.
In speaking of unpopular stands, we are not merely
speaking of those which may place us in opposition to an unjust power
structure, but similarly those which may place us in opposition to our
race, tribe, class, or even our coreligionists. Popularity has never been
a condition for greatness. However, the acts of a great woman may
certainly render her popular to those whose lives are bettered by her
In conclusion, Islam is calling us to be bigger than
what the world has made us. If the world has made us members of a
"disadvantaged" race, class, ethnicity, or gender, the world wants us to
be dehumanized by the ensuing rage, sense of victimization, and a quest
for vengeance. Perhaps the greatest manifestation of that dehumanization
is the loss of hope. For our African Muslim ancestors enslaved in this
land, Islam was always a source of hope, dignity, and for many, as we have
mentioned, the key to their liberation. For those who never escaped the
shackles of physical bondage, Islam provided the basis for their rising
above the dehumanization of the chattel system. In the words of Dr.
Sylviane A. Diouf, "The African Muslims may have been, in the Americas,
the slaves of Christian masters, but their minds were free. They were the
servants of Allah."  As they were, so too should we be.
Imam Zaid Shakir,
 See Sylviane A. Diouf, Servants of Allah: African
Muslims Enslaved in the Americas, (New York, London: New York University
Press, 1998) p. 48.
 Diouf, p. 47.
 See Al-Qur'an 3:26-27.
 Diouf, p. 210.