From the Back of the Bus to the Back of the Camel?

Reimagining Muslim African American identity in 2022

Jimmy Jones

January/February 2022

God has ordained: “O humanity! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know each other (not that you may despise each other). Verily the most honoured of you in the sight of God is (the one who is) the most righteous of you. And God has full knowledge and is well-acquainted (with all things)” (49:13).

I first met the erudite, acerbic Sherman Abdul HakimJackson (Distinguished Professor, King Faisal Chair in Islamic Thought and Culture; Professor, Religion and American Studies and Ethnicity, Southern California University) when I was a struggling Arabic Intensive student at ISNA headquarters’ Islamic Teaching Center in the summer of 1991. As a relatively new convert, this was also the first time I was participating in the powerful spiritually anchoring experience of living in a community that prayed the five daily prayers in the congregation.

I was immediately drawn to Jackson’s audacious personality because he was an instant role model and “homeboy” for me, the new Muslim. I marvelled at his ability to seamlessly “code switch” from the demanding Arabic professor to an encouraging mentor (in colloquial Egyptian Arabic) to a recent Arab immigrant; to a well-informed public intellectual (in eloquent English) to “a brother from the block” who still easily identified with the struggles of being Black in America.

The attraction was even stronger because we were both African Americans from economically stressed East Coast inner cities that are only approximately 100 miles apart — him from Philadelphia, me from Baltimore. More importantly, we were both bibliophiles who loved the world of ideas and took pleasure in thinking deeply and enthusiastically about solving complex, daunting problems. Consequently, we often talked about how to use the sentiments expressed in 49:13, and elsewhere, to combat this country’s deadly, daunting race problem.

And so I was surprised when I found out that we didn’t exactly agree on the framing of the U.S.’s original sin of racism, especially when it came to the plight of Muslim African Americans. Dr Jackson’s groundbreaking book “Islam and the Black American: Looking Toward the Third Resurrection” (2011) was a bracing wake-up call for Muslim African Americans and the broader Muslim American community. This characteristically nuanced, thoughtful tour-de-force provided not only a trenchant analysis of what’s ailing African American Muslims but also practical, achievable ways to remedy it.

Nevertheless, we differed about some of his book’s critical details. I recall a rather spirited back-and-forth via cellphone during a long layover between connecting flights somewhere in the American heartland. The crux of the disagreement focused on his witty assertion that by converting, African Americans, as a group, had gone “from the back of the bus to the back of the camel.” I demurred for several reasons.

First, his assessment didn’t fit my experience as an African American revert to American Islam — Nation of Islam. As a person who grew up in 1950s Roanoke, Va., under the “back of the bus” Jim Crow laws, I didn’t find the similarities between the two an apt comparison. Jim Crow laws were codified discrimination backed up by the full force of Virginia’s public policy and law enforcement apparatus. While I am familiar with the many examples of born Muslims mistreating African Americans, this doesn’t rise to the level of an organized institutional effort to make us “second class citizens.” For me and many others, I had far more supportive than negative welcoming experiences as a new Muslim.

Second, the “back of the camel” imagery struck me as stereotyping and otherizing many non-African American Muslims. In seeking to solve one problem, we often use language in a way that creates yet another one. To me, “back of the camel” belongs in the same obsolete dustbin as “camel jockey” and “towelheads,” which were particularly popular during the 1973 Arab oil embargo

Third, once again, “from the back of the bus to the back of the camel” implies to me that African Americans’ primary identity is that of a “victim.” Today we African Americans, just like college student victims, need “safe spaces” that protect us from “microaggressions.” In both instances, I would rather emphasize the “value” we bring to the Muslim community and college campuses. If we concentrate and build upon that, I believe that Muslim Americans of African descent are ideally suited for assuming primary leadership roles in indigenizing Islam.

I believe this is true because we’re more familiar with this country’s religious, social and political history than are most other immigrants. In addition, we’ve shown a strong consistent resistance to racism, as evidenced by the tenacity and resilience of people like Harriet Tubman and Malcolm X. In order to lead, we must stop presenting ourselves primarily as victims and begin to lean toward imagining ourselves as the valuable contributors that we have been to this American project even before its inception.

Finally, I didn’t think that such clever phrases as “from the back of the bus to the back of the camel” encourage the kind of healthy, honest and multifaceted cross-cultural dialogue so sorely needed in our community today.

As Muslim African Americans, we need to leave what appears to me to be a preoccupation with focusing on our “back of the bus”/“back of the camel” experiences. I would prefer that we put more of an emphasis on how we can Americanize the life-affirming, civilization-building prophetic paradigm here and now. History records the possibility of such a transformation, namely, the rapid positive transformation of Yathrib, the Arabian Peninsula and, ultimately, the then-civilized world. More specifically, I and my colleagues at the Islamic Seminary of America believe that engendering a powerful, positive “American Islam” that benefits all Americans, we must focus on the 3 Rs – reconnect, reclaim and recalibrate.

By reconnecting, we mean promoting the kind of foundational Islamic literacy that Jackson advocates in his 2011 book. Therefore, all of us Muslims should insist that our imams, chaplains, teachers and other leaders have, at a minimum, (1) complete Quranic literacy, defined as the ability to read and access the original Arabic text, and (2) a deep understanding of the prophetic theory and praxis, coupled with a strong understanding of the similarities and differences between the socio-cultural contexts of the Prophet’s (salla Allahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) and time and contemporary North America.

By reclaim, we mean to retake the moral high ground that led Yathrib’s non-Muslims to accept Prophet Muhammad’s leadership. Additionally, we need to reclaim the intellectual excellence found among the countless scholars, as well as the many libraries, academic and other institutions found in many Islamic lands, most notably al-Andalus. European and many other lands’ scholars recognized these sites as centres of intellectualism and flocked to them.

For us, recalibrating doesn’t mean “reforming” Islam, but reforming ourselves and learning from the spiritual, intellectual and political acumen of our beloved Prophet, who brilliantly recalibrated Islam’s religious and social practice as he sought to build an Islamic-based inclusive community in Yathrib (renamed Makka after his hijra).

Over the years, my dear friend Sherman Abdul Hakim Jackson has given us much to ponder while helping to actualize his vision. He has done so by building and assisting institutions like the summer American Learning Institute for Muslims (ALIM). May we all strive to be as religiously and intellectually brave as he has been while being verbally attacked from the left, right and centre both inside and outside of Islam. May Allah preserve him and accept the good that he and all of us have done.

Dr Jimmy Jones, DMin, professor and executive vice president of the Islamic Seminary of America, is professor emeritus at Manhattanville College, Purchase, N.Y.