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Being Black and Muslim in the U.S.
This article is to teach you about the Black Muslim experience. One thing I see happening in the world is too much racism. People are hated for their race, religion, etc. Some of the worst racism I have seen is aimed towards our Black brothers and sisters. This should be unacceptable to all humans and especially Muslims. Islam is a religion of inclusion, love, and peace. Tragically, Muslims forget about that.
I only know the experiences of a white convert Muslim. I know my experiences cannot be compared to a black Muslim. I asked a sister to write about her experience as a black Muslim in the United States, to teach fellows Muslims and Americans about racism.
Written By: Maryam Jawwaad
“What?” I asked in confusion, as I looked at the two boys sitting next to me.
One of them confidently repeated what he said, “How are you black and Mazlim? Doesn’t even really make sense. Mazlims are Arabs”.
I squinted my eyes. They couldn’t be serious. They just had to be joking. Here we were in a public school, in the middle of Newark, NJ, a city full of black Muslims and they were asking me a question I would have expected to hear from some misinformed foreigners.
Once I realized that they weren’t joking, I became agitated. “Your whole name is Arabic AND has Islamic roots but you’re asking me that question. You don’t even know what your name means.” I shot back at one.
I glared at the other one “And you talk about how Nigerian your family is all of the time. How about asking yourself why you’re black and Christian.”
That situation reminded me of the year before. At 14 I went on a youth trip with an Arab majority masjid. It was a beautiful day of apple picking and Eid shopping. Even though I was having fun, I felt more than a little left out as I received hesitant looks and cautious salaams from 90 percent of the girls there.
It became very clear to me as to the reason why when a girl sat next to me and politely asked if I was really Muslim. I was confused. Here I am, on a masjid funded trip, with an abaya and hijab being questioned about my belief in Islam as if I was some type of imposter. “Uh, yes I’m Muslim.” I answered.
She looked at me skeptically, “Are you sure? Where are you from?” I proceeded to tell her that I was American. She didn’t seem to believe me so she asked when I became Muslim. I told her that I was born and raised Muslim. She vehemently denied it and swore that I must be from somewhere in Africa because there weren’t any black Muslims from America. She called me African for the rest of the trip. I was fuming for the rest of the day and fuming even more when I found out she was Egyptian.
Upon further discussion with my peers, I quickly realized that I wasn’t the only one facing this. Across the board other Black Muslims were all having experiences like this and worse. In some way, we were all being made to feel as if we didn’t belong. As if we were actors playing a poorly researched role. How can we be imposters of a religion that was sent for everyone? Why are people treating us as if black and Muslim are mutually exclusive?
Sometimes other Muslims don’t seem to realize that while being Muslim has its own struggles attached to it, being a black Muslim is a whole different story. It’s a story that speaks of existing in a community where you’re united by the outrage of religious profiling but divided by people’s ignorance of race. It’s dealing with the feeling that comes when you know that people aren’t accepting of you because of things out of your control. You’re worshipping the same God as the person next to you, being outraged at the same atrocities happening to community members across the world. But, shunned by the same people because your skin is a deeper color.
According to the Pew Research Center, as of 2014 (http://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/religious-tradition/muslim/), black Muslims make up to 28% of American Muslims. Despite this, we’re the least represented, sorely overlooked and very underappreciated. Not only are we attacked outside of our religious communities because of something as natural as the amount of melanin in our skin. We’re also attacked INSIDE of our religious communities for the exact same reason.
It’s as if we are born, raised, and existing with two strikes against us. Two things that we should be proud of become vilified, misrepresented, and turned against us. Then, in the end, we become rightfully protective and defensive when it’s brought up or threatened.
Being black and Muslim means that we are not mothers who do the regular amount of worrying. We also have the constant fear that some bigot will rip our daughter’s hijab off or the fear that a police officer will get ‘trigger happy’ with our 12 year son at any time, and never be penalized for it. We are husbands who worry that our wives will be attacked on the way home. We worry about our husbands when they leave for work. We are angry 13 year olds in middle schools feeling cornered as an ignorant classmate yells at us, “You African booty scratching terrorist!” and everyone laughs. We are students in history class, who have sickness in our stomachs, as we realize we are being taught to idolize and respect the same people who wrongfully and cruelly enslaved our ancestors less than 200 years ago. Then the next week being taught lies about our own religion.
Being a black Muslim means that we think certain struggles will be less difficult in an Islamic school, masjid, or environment because as the Prophet (SAW) said,
“All of mankind is from Adam and Eve, an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab; also a white has no superiority over black nor a black has any superiority over white except by piety and good action”.
Despite these wise words from our beloved Prophet, we still come across situations where Muslims of other races do not want to pray near us. They will move their children away from our children. Then we are called things like “abdi”. It is assumed that we cannot possibly know Quran or our religion. People will refuse to allow us to lead them in salaah. Our children will be told they are not good enough to marry their non-black children. We will walk into a new masjid and feel the tension spilling out of people’s pores. We will see the disgust in faces, as we are looked up and down. We feel the harsh eyes that glare at us for having the audacity to pray in the same vicinity as them. All of this for nothing, but the darker color of our skin.
A person would be hard pressed to find one black Muslim, especially living in the US, who hasn’t experienced similar things. Unfortunately, many of us have stories with varying degrees of implicit or explicit racism. They’re embedded into us in ways that shape who we are. In ways that make us wary when entering a new masjid or joining an MSA. Do not get me wrong, when the sisterhood or brotherhood is there, its presence is strong. You feel that peace of belonging to a group of people who believe in some of the same things that you do, who pray and worship as you do, who love the same Prophets as you, who read the same Quran as you. But the underlying racism is still there. It’s there during a conversation about marriage when someone says “Yea, my dad would never let me marry Abdur-Rahman though because he’s black” and then looks at you and says “I didn’t mean it like that”. Racism is still there when a brother approaches you, for what you thought was marriage, only for him to say “Yea, I want you to be my girlfriend inshaAllah. I wouldn’t marry you though because I would never marry a black person.” It is there when your favorite Islamic studies teacher leaves the school because a co-worker called him a black monkey. It is there when another Muslim comes up to you and swears up and down that you simply cannot be a black Muslim because they do not exist. If you are a black Muslim, you must be a convert, from the Nation of Islam, or from the continent of Africa. There is no way that you are from somewhere else. It is there in our experiences, in the stories that we tell our children, it is in our thoughts when we give salaams to the Muslim on the street who does not return it. It is always there peeking under doors, ready to poke its nasty head up anytime it is given the chance.
One of the worst parts is the denial that comes from the rest of the Muslim community. This comes in obvious and obscure forms. I have witnessed Muslims go so far as to attack black Muslims and the people who support them, verbally and physically. If we complain of bad treatment we are told that other people have it worse, so we should basically sit down and shut up. While talking about injustices done in places like Palestine and Syria, the Muslim world conveniently forgets to mention or care about the Muslims in places like the Central African Republic. Then, if we so much as mention it, it is a problem. While many times black Muslims will love, adopt, and march for others, people are hesitant to do the same for us. We are treated like the ugly duckling in the family or the annoying sibling
It becomes disheartening because if we cannot feel welcomed due to our skin outside the Muslim community, our religion and the teachings of our Prophet (SAW) should have been enough to keep us together in the Muslim world. Yet, some people are filled to the brim with so much pride and ignorance, that they refuse to see some of the damage that they are doing to their own brothers and sisters in Islam. They refuse to want to be a part of the solution and instead insist on staying part of the problem. While hoping that racism completely disappears in the Muslim community is a far fetched idea, my hope is that everyone can begin to do their part. Do not just speak out because something may affect you, speak out because it’s the right thing to do. Understand that black Muslims are just as diverse in religion and background as anyone else. Reign in your arrogance and realize that a brother or sister in Islam is not talking out of their butt when discussing the prejudices that they may face on a day-to-day basis. Stop denying good marriage prospects because of the color of their skin. Stop acting like Bilal ibn Rabah was the only black Muslim to look up to. Realize that abdi is not a term of endearment and that it is an insult. Lastly, think of your scale of deeds, and how your words and actions, towards your darker skinned brothers and sisters in Islam, will affect you on the Day of Judgment.