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African American perception of the Last Prophet

Whenever anyone would ask me what "type" of Muslim I was, I'd simply say, "I have no type. I'm just a Muslim." To this day, I avoid debates over madhabs like the plague and consciously remain silent during conversations harkening back to the glory days of Islam.

As an African-American Muslim woman, I have always been conscious about the difference between how I have come to view Islam as opposed to others who have come from other cultural traditions.  I had never given too much consideration to the development of my beliefs or what African-American Islam ever really meant.  For most of my adult life, I found myself cringing whenever I would hear people differentiate types of Islam.   It was not that I didn't perceive any differences.  I just felt that further differentiating "types" was counterproductive to the ideal of Islamic unity. Whenever anyone would ask me what "type" of Muslim I was, I'd simply say, "I have no type.  I'm just a Muslim." To this day, I avoid debates over madhabs like the plague and consciously remain silent during conversations harkening back to the glory days of Islam. However, it was during a recent trip to Istanbul where I began to come to terms with the source of my discomfort. 

For the first time, I had come to understand and appreciate the very unique cultural and historical framework of my own Islamic heritage and how this shaped my outlook on Islam in general and Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) in particular.   During the trip, I was asked, "How do you feel about Prophet Muhammad?" I managed to give an answer, however I came away from the interview with questions - questions of myself. As I walked through the streets during the final days of my visit, this question was stuck in the back of my mind. I had difficulty reconciling the admiration of the sites of Islamic history surrounding me with the fact that the Prophet himself was not reflected in my daily consciousness outside of prayer.


  As I walked through the streets during the final days of my visit, this question was stuck in the back of my mind. I had difficulty reconciling the admiration of the sites of Islamic history surrounding me with the fact that the Prophet himself was not reflected in my daily consciousness outside of prayer.

While I have always been versed in the life of the Prophet and understood his position in Islam, expressions of love and admiration of the Prophet as an individual personality were limited. Having Muslim friends from all over the world, I was accustomed to various approaches and traditions that differed from my own.  Although I could overlook most differences as being misguided or just plain cultural, nothing really made me more uncomfortable than hearing fellow Muslims shower continual praise upon the Prophet.   Why ? As I responded, I began to understand for myself.

The African American Church holds a major position in the tradition and heritage of America.  As slaves, our ancestors were stripped of everything upon arrival to America. African slaves were subjected to one of the most severe forms of cultural genocide in history of the West.  Except for a few traditions passed down in secret, our ancestors were denied the ability to practice their religious traditions, speak their native language, maintain traditional family structures, etc. However, the slave was given the right to learn and practice Christianity.  

Christianity was perceived by white American slave masters as a "purifier" for the "uncivilized" African slaves.  It also provided justification for the chattle form of slavery that emerged in the American South.   "However, you may purchase male or female slaves from among the foreigners who live among you.  You may also purchase the children of such resident foreigners, including those who have been born in your land.  You may treat them as your property, passing them on to your children as a permanent inheritance.  You may treat your slaves like this, but the people of Israel, your relatives, must never be treated this way".  (Leviticus 25:44-46 NLT)   "Christians who are slaves should give their masters full respect so that the name of God and his teaching will not be shamed.  If your master is a Christian, that is no excuse for being disrespectful.  You should work all the harder because you are helping another believer by your efforts.  Teach these truths, Timothy, and encourage everyone to obey them."  (1 Timothy 6:1-2 NLT) Thus, Christianity was promoted within the slave community as a method of both spiritual salvation and as a means of communicating to the slave their status and obligation to the slave master.  


Christianity was perceived by white American slave masters as a "purifier" for the "uncivilized" African slaves.  It also provided justification for the chattle form of slavery that emerged in the American South..

Slave society resonated with the stories of the Bible, in particular the narrative of the delivery of the Israelites from Egypt. The plight of the slaves and their condition became interpreted within the plight of the Israelites along the narrative that they would someday be delivered from their bondage and reach the Promised Land.   Additionally, their ability to identify their suffering with the suffering of Jesus (pbuh) also permanently cemented the idea of African American empowerment and triumph within a Christian framework.  Christianity allowed the slaves to sustain hope for a day when they would be delivered from bondage and created the ability to form community bonds where they had been previously broken. Narratives of deliverance were engrained into the consciousness of the slave and became a source of cultural narrative in song and other oral traditions.  Therefore, the African American church became a central component to the development of African American culture and indelibly intertwined with the heritage of Black Americans.  

As a whole, the southern United States is more culturally connected to the Baptist Church than any other region.  This cultural connection is strong in both black and white communities.  Thus, the language of the church is so intrinsically engrained in the everyday speech of the region that it is not unusual to hear phrases such as "Praise Jesus", "I can do all things through Christ", etc. in the marketplace.  For African Americans, the language and culture of the church became synonymous with the culture of the people.  Laudatory expressions for Jesus in the African American tradition were, and to some degree, are still used in much the same way as Muslims would use Islamic expressions such as mashallah, Alhamdullilah, or Allahu Akbar


Christianity allowed the slaves to sustain hope for a day when they would be delivered bondage and d the ability to form community bonds where they had been previously broken. Therefore, the African American church became a central component to the development of African American culture and indelibly intertwined with the heritage of Black Americans.

The tensions amongst African American Muslims and African American Christians (either real or perceived) can be understood within the interpretation by each group of what African American heritage is.  To reject the Church and the language of the Church was seen by many to reject ones African American cultural heritage which "saw us through our darkest hours". Therefore, those who broke from the church were heretics of both church and community.

As more and more African Americans embraced Islam, either through the pseudo-Islamic teachings of the Nation of Islam, orthodox Islam, or other strains of Islam, there was a very conscious attempt to communicate their new understanding of Jesus as prophet and not Jesus as savior. In an effort distinguish between the roles of Muhammad in Islam and Jesus in Christianity, emphasis was never put on the actual person of Muhammad, but rather on the actions and principles exercised by the Prophet. This was seen as not only an acceptable approach Islamically, but also culturally.

 Although African American Muslims have evolved in their understanding of the status of Prophet Muhammad, there is still a great reluctance and caution when expressing admiration and praise for Him.  With their new faiths, African American Muslims sought to remove any resemblance of shirk they perceived in their cultural communities, rather focusing instead on the message the Prophet came to instill.  


nbsp; To reject the Church and the language of the Church was seen by many to reject ones African American cultural heritage which "saw us through our darkest hours".

While it may be Islamically acceptable to praise the Prophet, this practice was kept in check.  Those from outside the African American Islamic tradition may view this sort of stoicism as having a lack of understanding of the Prophet.  However, many African American Muslims see it as anything but.

As Muslims, we feel it is our obligation to remain far from the cusp of shirk by distinguishing between the admiration of the Prophet as a personality and the admiration and praise of the message. This level of consciousness is of particular importance for African American Muslims from both a historical cultural perspective of being slaves in the West and from that of being denied our own expression of culture.   

The rejection of Christianity for many African Americans was not only a rejection of its theological teachings, but also the burdens of functioning within a religious system in which they could not clearly understand their spiritual position in relation to the wider community of Christians.  

In Islam, the African American found a level playing field that articulated equality amongst believers, regardless of race and economic status.  Though African Americans could not yet find a level playing field in society at large, the guarantee of equality within the brotherhood of Islam and before God provided the spiritual reassurance that God had determined for them a place of power within the social structure of humanity.   

O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other (not that ye may despise (each other). Verily the most honored of you in the sight of God is (he who is) the most righteous of you. And God has full knowledge and is well acquainted (with all things).  Quran, Surah al-Hujurat ayat 13


Although African American Muslims have evolved in their understanding of the status of Prophet Muhammad, there is still a great reluctance and caution when expressing admiration and praise for Him. 

The guarantee of spiritual equality during a time when African Americans were being treated as second-class citizens provided a concept of empowerment beyond the framework of their immediate social environment.  Going forward, their social environments would now be dictated from the injunctions of Islamic spiritual values. 

In the different cultural contexts in which Islam is practiced there is a tendency for cultures to emphasize the teachings that most resonate with their own culture need.  In the African American Islamic tradition, it should be no surprise that the teachings of justice, equality, and independence are a significant part of the religious lexicon.  In predominantly African American mosques, the Prophet's last sermon is used frequently to communicate the irrelevance of race and ethnicity in the eyes of Allah (swt). 

All 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 a black nor a black has any superiority over white except by piety and good action. Learn that every Muslim is a brother to every Muslim and that the Muslims constitute one brotherhood. Nothing shall be legitimate to a Muslim which belongs to a fellow Muslim unless it was given freely and willingly. Do not, therefore, do injustice to yourselves. 

This passage from the Prophet's last sermon, though relevant in the universal context of Islam, is of particular importance in understanding how many African Americans have come to view the Prophet.  From the African American point of view, the Prophet's last sermon is an affirmation that the man-made distinctions in our society are escapable constructs.  Similar to Surah 49:13, the Prophet is reinforcing the notion that the distinctions we draw in our societies, except that of righteousness, will never elevate the status of one man over the other.  It is this provision in the African American context that would later set the stage for conceptualizing what social and spiritual authority means within a community and would allow Muslims to take the lead in creating successful models of educational, economic, social, and spiritual communities.


In the African American Islamic tradition, it should be no surprise that the teachings of justice, equality, and independence are a significant part of the religious lexicon.  In predominantly African American mosques, the Prophet's last sermon is used frequently to communicate the irrelevance of race and ethnicity in the eyes of Allah (swt). 

As an Arab, the Messenger is interpreted as having made a concerted effort to remove himself from the power constructs of race and ethnicity. The recognition that his being Arab could potentially be used by others to insinuate a superior moral authority of Arabs is a point that is not lightly taken within the African American community.   Additionally, the appointment of Bilal, an ex-slave, as the first muezzin of Islam signaled that the brotherhood of Islam was not only theoretical, but also applicable then and in the future. 

El Hajj Malik El Shabazz, the late Malcolm X, communicated his account of the applicability of Islam by creating racial unity in his famous Letter from Mecca during his visit to Mecca in 1964.  He recounts, "There were tens of thousands of pilgrims, from all over the world.  They were of all colors, from blue-eyed blonds to black-skinned Africans.  But we were all participating in the same ritual, displaying a spirit of unity and brotherhood that my experiences in America had led me to believe never could exist between the white and non-white."

In his account, Malcolm shed light on one major reality. The depth of brotherhood within the African American Christian tradition did not extend beyond the confines of race.  American slaves placed themselves within the imagery of the Bible to benefit from the liberating and empowering qualities of the faith.  However, under a new consciousness, African American Muslims recognized that Islam gave them a status and position that eliminated the need to insert them into the spiritual narrative of another people. 


Beyond the applicability of Islam to all of humanity, it offered African Americans the opportunity to shape values within a universal system of beliefs.  Islam became the vehicle by which many African Americans sought to develop both personal and community esteem. 

The example of the Prophet, although an example for all Muslims, emphasized the importance of demonstrating faith through action.  Despite Biblical teachings, such as honoring your neighbor as your brother, the question of race and ethnicity were largely left to deduction.   The role of race and ethnicity was ambiguous and therefore dealt with ineffectively.  The result was the articulation and expression of racial justice as an amalgamation of civil and moral rights rather than a clear principal of faith. This prevented an early Christian response in galvanizing the Christian public towards racial justice. Though African Americans post-slavery were beyond the understanding that whites held some moral superiority, the fact was that the whites still held much of the political and economic authority.  This fact, along with the long history of oppression, left African American Christians with a social and psychological disconnect between their brethren.  El Hajj also spoke of this disconnect in his letter from Mecca. "With racism plaguing America like an incurable cancer, the so-called ‘Christian' white American heart should be more receptive to a proven solution to such a destructive problem.  Perhaps it could be in time to save America from imminent disaster-the same destruction brought upon Germany by racism that eventually destroyed the Germans themselves." Malcolm X: Letter from Mecca.

Beyond the applicability of Islam to all of humanity, it offered African Americans the opportunity to shape values within a universal system of beliefs.  Islam became the vehicle by which many African Americans sought to develop both personal and community esteem.  Post-slavery America left African American communities in shambles.  The ability of Islam to provide a definitive direction for what life is and how it should be led was a huge attraction when grappling with the growing social ills in society- and in the African American community in particular. There was a desperate need to repair the damage inflicted upon the family structure.  The prevalence of broken families and moral breakdown in African American communities required the discipline and moral system established by Islam. 

While Christianity met the individual spiritual needs, it was Islam's guidance on what is forbidden and permissible that made it a viable option in stabilizing both the family and society. For example, in African American urban communities, it was not unusual to see a package store on several corners within a community.  These stores were seen as institutional means of perpetuating alcoholism in the community.  Therefore, Islam's injunction against the consumption of alcohol provided a buffer between what was culturally acceptable and that which was spiritually acceptable.

As a way of life, Islam makes no distinctions between the social, cultural, and political obligations of faith.  Each framework builds upon the other and constitutes an act of worship.  Therefore, personal and social acts of engagement sought to achieve the universal ideal of enjoining good and forbidding evil.  Allah the Most High said: Let there be among you a community who enjoin good and forbid evil; it is they that shall be successful, [Surah 'ali-Imran, ayat 104] and: You are the best community that has ever been brought forth for mankind: you enjoin good and forbid evil, and you believe in God, [Surah 'ali-Imran, ayat 110].


One reason why Islam may have proved effective in modeling community building is the Quranic emphasis on brotherhood and community and the orientation towards salvation.&

Though Muslims may not have been the pioneers of self sufficiency within the African American community, they were the pioneers of articulating a clear community vision of self-help.  They engineered a functioning model for community building.  To lay the foundations for Islamic spiritual practice required a community structure that was disassociated with the forbidden.  Thus, enjoining the good in the establishment of an Islamic community led to the natural emergence of self sufficient businesses and institutions.  One example of this is Mohamed Schools, a network of private primary and secondary schools established by African American Muslims http://mohammedschools.org/about/history/). Sister Clara Muhammad, the wife of Elijah Muhammad, insisted upon educating her own children.  Driven by the ideals of what it takes to create an Islamic environment and acknowledging the inequalities in the American educational system, Clara and Elijah Muhammad created an alternative educational system.  Their opening the first Islamic school in the United States was both a success in the institutionalization of Islam in America but also a success and model for the Black community in general.

This model is directly linked to the interconnectivity of the spiritual, social, and political elements of Islam. The model of interconnectedness, if stated simply, would follow: carrying out an act of worship is good for my own spiritual growth. Therefore, my individual contributions towards enjoining good contribute to a better social environment.  A better social environment decreases reliance upon restrictive political structures.

One reason why Islam may have proved effective in modeling community building is the Quranic emphasis on brotherhood and community and the orientation towards salvation.  Whereas, Christianity teaches personal salvation through the body of Christ, there is no concept of salvation in Islam per se.  A Muslim's pursuit for Paradise is predicated upon his or her actions which are believed to draw the Muslim closer to or further from the fold of Islam.  Therefore, the emphasis on actionable salvation versus implied provides a basis for African American Muslims in particular to develop a dual consciousness of spiritual and cultural empowerment that is fulfilled through acts of faith. 

Academics have long associated the appeal of Islam among African Americans with an attempt to retrieve an African cultural identity.  While this may have been true during the social turmoil of the 50's and 60's, identity, at least anecdotally, is less significant now.  Islamic identity amongst African Americans today has been transformed from being a source of identity to being a means of identifying.  Today's African American Muslims understand their position and status in the global ummah and within American society.  African American Muslims have long held great esteem in the African American community for creating solutions for social and economic problems. It should not go without notice, however, that the model of our communities means little without an understanding of the legacy of the Prophet.

 

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