Managing Muslim Cultures and Identities as an African American

We must move beyond binary categorizations

By Jimmy E. Jones

January/February 2023

God proclaims, “O you who believe! Stand out firmly for God as witnesses to fair dealing and let not the hatred of others to you make you swerve to wrong and depart from justice. Be just, [for] that is next to piety, and fear God, for God is well-acquainted with all that you do after (5:8).

Exactly 78 days after I was born in Baltimore, feminist Alma Bridwell White died on June 26, 1946, in Zarephath, N.J. While not well known, her biography reflects the racially toxic times into which I was born. 

As a feminist. she was likely involved in the effort to gain American women the constitutional right to vote; it was ratified on Aug. 18, 1920. In this, the 21st century, we usually find feminists involved with other inclusive progressive movements. But this wasn’t the case with Alma White. As co-founder and ultimately bishop of the Pillar of Fire community of 61 Christian churches, she was indeed a progressive trailblazer as the first female bishop in the U.S. 

Unfortunately, this legacy is tainted by her antisemitism, anti-Catholicism, nativism and racism. Much of her xenophobia was evident in her radio broadcasts over her two radio stations and her alliance with the infamous Ku Klux Klan, about which she wrote three supportive inflammatory books: “The Ku Klux Klan in Prophecy (1925)”, “Klansmen: Guardians of Liberty (1926)” and “Heroes of the Fiery Cross” (1928). 

While speaking at a Klan gathering (as she often did) during a 1929 “Patriotic Day” camp meeting, she preached a sermon entitled “America: The White Man’s Heritage.” In the version of this sermon published in “The Good Citizen,” one of her 10 periodicals, she stated, “This is white man’s country by every law of God and man and was so determined from the beginning of Creation. Let us not therefore surrender our heritage to the sons of Ham [black people].” 

In the same sermon, she advocated the repeal of the Fifteenth Amendment, which granted African American men the right to vote. Meanwhile, further north at what was to become one of my alma maters, from 1921 until 1938 Yale University served as the headquarters for the American Eugenics Society (AES), which was dedicated to educating the populace about the genetic basis of social problems. This elitist approach was used by Nazi Germany in its attempt to exterminate the Jews. 

This world, influenced greatly by the likes of Alma White, the KKK and the AES, was the one into which I was born on April 9, 1946. Despite such racial animus, which, according to the Equal Justice Initiative, caused more than 4,000 African Americans to be lynched across 20 states between 1877 and 1950, we, as Muslims, are still called on to “Be Just.” 

Be Quranic 

Verse 4:1 states, “O humanity! Reverence your Guardian-Lord, who created you from a single person, created, of like nature, his mate, and from them twain scattered (like seeds) countless men and women. Reverence God, through whom you demand your mutual (rights), and (reverence) the wombs (that bore you), for God ever watches over you.”

Being just under such circumstances is extremely difficult. We, as human beings, are prone to lash out emotionally and seek revenge against those who have wronged us. This thought pattern is often manifested in what I call the post-victimization ethical exemption (PVEE) syndrome. Much like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), its impact is often subtle yet powerful. Many of those affected by either condition are unaware that they have it or, if they are aware, when or how they got it. The PVEE syndrome gives those who have it a proverbial “pass” when it comes to being fair and just to members of groups who have oppressed “their people” — or worse. 

When one talks to such people, one will find that their unethical position is the result of “their people” being or having been victimized by one or more groups. This is the Golden Rule turned on its head: “Do bad to others because they or someone else did something bad to you and/or ‘your people.’” Such persons often defend, rationalize or minimize the most outrageous attitudes held and/or acts carried out by themselves or members of “their group.”

In several places, among them 30:22 and 49:13, the Quran prohibits such attitudes and actions. Unfortunately, many of us who profess to follow Islam take on the language, attitudes and actions of the larger society to “fight fire with fire.” Consequently, we see many Muslims going beyond the bounds when it comes to fighting prejudice inside or outside the Muslim community. According to the Quran, we must always stand for justice in all circumstances and with all people (see 4:135). Therefore, we should not employ tactics that objectify and/or demonize members of other groups. A prime Quranic example is the story of Prophet Moses (‘alayhi as salam), the most frequently mentioned prophet in the Quran. Throughout his encounters with Pharoah, he was steadfastly respectful while always insisting on putting God first. Thus, when it comes to supporting modern movements like Black Lives Matter (BLM), Muslims should always remember Moses’s example. In other words, “BLM” should also mean “Be Like Moses.” Essentially, in all cases, no matter how oppressive, we are called to be Quranic in our approach.

Be Collaborative 

Verse 2:148 states, “To each is a goal to which God turns him [her]; then strive together (as in a race) toward all that is good. Wheresoever you are, God will bring you together, for God has power over all things.” 

The Prophet’s (salla Allahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) hijra from Makka to Yathrib (the future Madina) changed not only the Muslim community, but the history of the world. Whether you call yourself a Muslim or not, the conquest of Makka and subsequent events led to what the 2000 PBS three-part documentary called “The Empire of Faith.” Historically speaking, Islam’s profound impact on world history, politics and economics continues to this day. Any unbiased intellectually honest observer has to affirm this fact.

On this topic of navigating Muslim cultures and identities, the Prophet’s seera is very instructive in several important ways.

First, the communities that formed around him in both cities were obviously multicultural. Any review of the lists of the Companions will bear this out. Consequently, we should, like the Prophet did, ensure that people who don’t look like us or share our cultural background feel comfortable joining us in worship or other community activities. You must be intentional and proactive in this regard.

Second, the Prophet, known as “the walking Quran,” collaborated with the two cities’ non-Muslims for the common good. The Constitution of Madina is a prime example of this. Even up until the day that he left Makka, its non-Muslims honored him with the nickname of “the Trustworthy One” (al-Ameen). Surah al-Kahf, which millions of Muslims read every Friday, provides diverse models of civic collaboration for believers. It’s clear that the Quran and the seera call on us to work for the common good. In other words, to “be collaborative.”

Verses 7:28-29 say, “Whenever they commit a shameful deed, they say, ‘We found our forefathers doing it and God has commanded us to do it.’ Say, ‘No! God never commands what is shameful. How can you attribute to God what you do not know?’ Say, [O Prophet,] ‘My Lord has commanded uprightness and dedication [to Him alone] in worship, calling upon Him with sincere devotion. Just as He first brought you into being, you will be brought to life again.’” 

As a Muslim American of African descent raised in the segregated South, nurtured in the Black nationalist campus milieu of the 1960s-70s and who converted in 1979, I believe that many of us are using unhelpful approaches in navigating cultures and identities in the U.S. Many of these approaches were tried by our forefathers and mothers — and failed. For instance, in his book “How To Be an Anti-Racist” (2019), well-known public intellectual Ibram X. Kendi argues persuasively that you are either “racist” or “anti-racist.” He opines that there is no such thing as “not racist.” Given that words matter, particularly regarding complex sensitive topics, I beg to differ. 

As an African American, I would urge the Muslim community to avoid what I regard as simplistic tropes like this one. We have a lot of collaborative work to do. Sorting each other into confrontational binary categories (e.g., immigrants versus indigenous) is not going to get us where we need to be when it comes to trying to be just, Quranic and collaborative in navigating Muslim American cultures and identities. We should heed the just Quranic collaborative words of Malcolm X when he stated in his “Autobiography” near the end of his life, “I’m for truth, no matter who tells it. I’m for justice, no matter who it is for or against. I’m a human being, first and foremost, and as such I’m for whoever and whatever benefits humanity as a whole.”

Jimmy E. Jones, DMin, is executive vice president and professor of comparative religion and culture at The Islamic Seminary of America, Richardson, Texas.

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