The African American's Islamic Heritage

by Imam Ghayth Nur Kashif

(This paper was delivered before the National Association of the Aged, Washington, D.C)

Ghayth Nur Kashif is Resident Imam for Masjidush-Shura in Washington, D.C

We, as Muslims, always begin our day and any endeavor with this phrase, "In the Name of Allah, the Creator, the Most Gracious and Most Merciful." The Qur'an teaches us that He has the most Beautiful Names. He is called God by some, Elohim and Yawah by others, Jehovah, Jah, and many other appellations, all in recognition of His Sovereignty.

There is a beautiful passage in the Qur'an which reads: "There is no god but He, the Sovereign, the Holy, the Source of Peace, the Guardian of Faith, the Preserver of Safety, the Exalted in Might, the Irrepressible, the Supreme, Glory be to Allah above the partners they attribute to Him. He is Allah, the Creator, the Evolver, the Bestower of Forms (or colors). To Him belongs the Most Beautiful Names: "Whatever is in the heavens and on earth declare His Praise; He is the Exalted in Mighty, the Wise." (59:23-4)

For many Americans, acknowledgement of the Creator is perfunctory and of little meaning. In the mistaken passion for the separation of Church and State, many even find such acknowledgements un-American in any setting other than a Church, Masjid or Synagogue. Such acknowledgements, however, lay at the root of our heritage, whether we are Muslim, Christian, or Jew. Furthermore, such acknowledgment establishes a common ground for all of us, upon which we can begin to build, or repair the relations we must have with one another if we are to live at peace. We have chosen this introduction to our paper because we find it very relevant and fitting to the question of racial justice in America.

We are all cognizant of "Black History Month." It is generally considered a very positive introduction into American memorial rituals, however, it says something else. It confirms that we have detoured so much from the legacy and concept of the oneness of God that we have made the variations of our colors, speech, and languages a cause for division, hatred and oppression. Why should there be a "Black History" month? Why not a "Black History" year? Until America is ready to include the history and contributions of all of its citizens as an integral part of "American History," the "Black History" month will remain what it is: something of an appendix to American life.

Turning to our subject: The African-American's Islamic Heritage, we will begin by addressing two caveats always included in the historical tradition: The eulogy of Malcolm X (Malik El-Shabazz), and Alex Haley’s classic work, "Roots." It is interesting to note that both the life and history of Malcolm and the premise of "Roots" establish the fact that Islam is endemic to the psyche and heritage of African Americans. These aspects, however, have often been ignored amidst the revel and celebration of African-American "contributions" to American life.

In the case of Malcolm, for instance: His "militancy" is emphasized while his dedication to Islamic principles is played down. His legacy is attributed to his gregarious personality rather than to Islam, the professed "source" of his strengths. In the case of "Roots," that confirmed the Islamic heritage of a great majority of slaves brought to America, the emphasis is muted in the movie version and commentaries on the work. The reasons appear quite obvious. Should the African Americans be able to see beyond the "hero" imagery painted for Malcolm, or the "dramatics" of "Roots," and begin to seek out the sources of truth by which he and the people of "Roots" lived, they would no longer remain "mentally" enslaved as they are today.

For African Americans who were brought up in the church, for instance, a profound paradox was placed upon their minds. God, or the "Son of God," was presented in the same image as the historical "slave master," blond haired and blue eyed. For those over 50 who lived in the south, there is the remembrance of vividly contradictory themes about God, and about the lineage of blacks or "Negroes" in religious history. They remember the commentaries, even used as texts by the preachers that suggested blacks were the sons of the Biblical Ham, and were cursed to be slaves and servants to white Christians, Jews, and others till the end of time. Is there any wonder that blacks are yet mentally enslaved today, despite their Phd's and MBA's and DDS's?

What is the attraction to Islam for African Americans? It is not just that it brings clarity to religion, but that its quintessence embraces the yearning of every heart for justice, peace and equality in the brotherhood of man. Islam does not make distinction, for instance, between the Prophets (peace be upon them). From Adam to Moses, to Muhammad, including Daniel, Lot, Joseph, Noah, David, and all the rest; those known, and unknown, no distinction is made other than the roles and salient qualities in leadership among their people and among mankind.

The enslavement of Africans, and the loss of their roots including their Islamic heritage, left them with a collective deficiency. These Africans, seeking true freedom, sought to find it in the Church -- but for the most part found temporary pacification. As the pacification waned over the years, some militancy began to develop, and ultimately culminated in the Christian movement of non-violence, led by Dr. Martin Luther King. The King-led movement, however, was restricted by the limited ideas and constrictions embedded in the religious concepts spoken of above. It was still playing out a "master-slave" drama. It was an appeal by "inferiors," seeking acceptance and acknowledgement from "superiors" as human beings. It did not speak to the kind of elevated concept of true self-worth, social and collective responsibility as we find in Islam. Consequently, we find that after the euphoria of the King movement and the Civil Rights "victories," the mentality of the African American today is still one of "enslavement." The so-called "gains" it appears, are all but nullified or diluted beyond recognition.

The concepts planted in slavery and in the practice of religion, including the imagery of God, remains at the core of social, educational, and political dysfunction among African Americans, whether educated or illiterate. It is interesting to note that during the 60's "Black Revolution," neither the ‘Negroes’ nor the Black militants spoke to the issue of self-development, collective economic programs, nor independent educational initiatives. It was only in the Islamic community that these concerns were emphasized, and in fact practiced. It is tragic that even today, the Civil Rights Movement has been unable to successfully take up these initiatives. No program has been commissioned to study the Muslim concepts and successes in self-help, at least not with the intent to put them into practice.

The West and other opponents of Islam are strange in nature. They truly represent the epitome of contradiction and hypocrisy. On the one hand, here in America, there is this outcry about "affirmative action," welfare, and the crime and drug culture that is allegedly associated with African Americans. On the other hand, when it is suggested that Islam, in philosophy and in proven practice has the answers, the opponents seek to distract those interested with "alarms" of potential "terrorism." It is even reflected in foreign affairs where, for instance, Algeria conducted a true democratic election, yet when a military junta aborted it, there was no outcry by the U.S. Why? Because the victors were Muslims.

Let me conclude by saying that Islam is not only a boon for African Americans, but for the country as well. It needs to be seriously considered by American leaders when accessing plans and alternatives being offered as solutions to the country’s multiplying ills.

Posted March 26, 1999