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2014’s Best Places in America for Halal Foodies

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By Laila Alawa

Given that the American Muslim population was just recently found to be the most racially diverse religious group in the United States, it is only natural to wonder about the food scene that has flourished as a result of the many cultures coexisting within one nation. With that, enters the halal food scene. While halalies (halal foodies) might know the ins and outs of the best places to be, in the most interesting towns and states, the rest of us still aren’t really sure.

Enter then, the first annual ranking of the best places to be for the most delicious halal noshing experiences.

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[button color=”green” size=”big” alignment=”center” rel=”follow” openin=”samewindow” ]An exclusive Muslimmatters.org feature with famous halal foodies Shahed Amanullah and Sameer S. Sarmast gives us the low-down on the top places in America for the best halal food.[/button]

 

Shahed Amanullah is the founder of Zabihah.com, the first-ever halal restaurant review database, consisting of over 10,000 reviewed restaurants and markets worldwide and boasting 10 million annual users. Sameer S. Sarmast is the founder of Sameer’s Eats, the web’s most popular show for discovering the best halal eateries. The host of The Halal Food Tour, Sameer’s Eats is instrumental for putting halal food on the American culinary map.

With the input from them both, we have been able to put together a list of the best fourteen places for 2014. Let us know if you agree- or better yet, disagree, and have a better place to add to the list!

1. The Tenderloin, San Francisco, California

Located in downtown San Francisco, the Tenderloin is known as the ragged and determinedly dingy domain of the city’s most down and out. Yet there’s a sort of grittiness found in the area that is not seen much anymore. An area that used to have no restaurants, the Tenderloin attracted the attention of a restaurant owner and the rest is history. “Because of the strength of a single restaurant, Shalimar, multiple halal restaurants have now pushed the area from being down and out into possessing a booming food industry, solely on the back of the Muslim food dollar,” Shahed Amanullah, founder of Zabihah.com, reflected. Drawing people from all over the San Fran area, the restaurants in the Tenderloin are primarily South Asian, but Chinese, Italian, North African and other cuisines are now beginning to feature predominantly as well.

Top picks: Shalimar, Tikka Masala, Bang San Thai 2

2. Street Cart Scene, New York City, New York

“When you talk about New York City as a distinct area, you have to recognize how it’s all about the halal carts and how they transformed the field for food carts everywhere,” Amanullah divulged. With a near-perfect rating of 9.2 out of 10 on Foursquare, The Halal Guys wins the top twenty five most popular food trucks hands down. It’s not even a question as to what to purchase when you’re standing in line: “chicken and gyro over rice with as much white sauce as is humanly possible to ingest,” says Foursquare and Buzzfeed.

Top picks: The Halal Guys, Halal Food Cart, Halal Food Cart II

3. Devon Avenue, Chicago, Illinois

A major east-west thoroughfare in the Chicago metropolitan area, the area boasts the perfect way to get a fix on South Asian food, all in a ten-block stretch on the Far North Side. Known as the most multicultural street in the city, Devon features businesses run by Indians, Pakistanis, Iraqis, and Russians, while catering to Hindus, Jews, Muslims, Jains, Sikhs, and Christians. “It’s the only place I’ve ever seen where there is a kosher butcher near a halal butcher,” Amanullah divulges. South Asian restaurants in the area jockey for the most authentic and spicy, but the history is unconventional, to say the least. Although all of Devon used to consist of Orthodox Jews and Russians, Indians, Pakistanis and Bengalis moved in and took over the street. As a result, the street boasts a whole gamut of spices.

Top picks: JK Kabab House, Sabri Nihari Restaurant, Ghareeb Nawaz

4. North Jersey, New Jersey

It’s easy to let New Jersey’s size fool you, but don’t discredit this small state. Known as the absolute halal hub, Sameer Sarmast of SameersEats.com was quick to call it a “halal paradise.” Although the city was dominant in silk production during the 19th century, it has since evolved into a major destination for Hispanic emigrants, as well as Arab and Muslim immigrants. While the majority of people in North Jersey are Middle Eastern, with a large number of Arabs residing in Paterson, there are a lot of Bangladeshis living in the area as well. “So you find a variety of restaurants, lots of halal restaurants,” Sarmast said.

[Updated] Top picks: Kabab Paradise Al-Basha, Amin’s, Mamoun’s Falafel

5. Ford Road, Dearborn, Michigan

One of the heaviest populations of Arabs and Muslims in America, Dearborn is known as a utopia for those that do not reside within the town boundaries. The center of the town is Ford Road, which is also the most concentrated area. The predominant Arab concentration is Lebanese, although the area has mellowed out into a pan-Arab population in recent years. The town’s economic strength is reflect “in the number of establishment on Ford Road, most of which are Lebanese… but in recent years, a lot of mainstream meat and potato places have opened up for the younger crowd.”

Top picks: Shatila, Fuego Grill, Cedarland

6.Sugar Land, Houston, Texas

Known for being the heart of the Muslim community in Houston, Sugar Land is also one of the most affluent and fastest-growing cities in the state. It is only natural, then, that its diversity is reflected in the fact that, as Amanullah said, “no one type of food dominates.” “Two things make it unique,” he continued, “one is its very Texas culture – Southwest and Mexican cuisine and meat- and the second is in its Asian immigrants and cuisine, reflected in Chinese and Vietnamese cuisines.” One of the more diverse scenes in America, Sugar Land has come a long way from its more homogenous sugar plantation roots. Don’t miss the opportunity to sample from the different ethnic contingents during your time here.

Top picks: Crespo Pizza & Italian Grill, China King, Bijan’s Persian Grill

7. Northern Virginia, Virginia

“It’s the kebab capital of America,” Amanullah said immediately when we brought up the area. “Everyone focuses on kebabs, because they’re a comfort food for people coming from different places. If you like kebabs, it’s the place to come to. It’s the only area where there are restaurants and food joints open 24 hours in a day, so it’s very fascinating.” Northern Virginia comprises of several counties, but is the widespread region radiating westward from Washington, DC, and the most populous region of Virginia. With the commute from DC, it is only natural then to rely on everyone’s favorite comfort food.

Top picks: Charcoal Kabab, BBQ Delight Kabab & Grill, East West Grill

8. Minneapolis, Minnesota

Minneapolis is the 48th largest city in the United States and known on the down low as the “Somali capital of America.” Although “it doesn’t have a large number of restaurants,” Shahed confided, “the food is amazing.” The dominant cuisine here is Somali, reflecting the area’s population, which has a long tradition of charitable support through progressive social programs and volunteering. In one generation, Minneapolis’ Somali residents grew from penniless immigrants into wealthy entrepreneurs, banking on their popular cuisine to contribute to the greater community. Right at the crossroards to Arab, African and South Asian food, Somali dishes are like no other.

Top picks: Hamdi Restaurant, Safari, Kabob’s Restaurant

9. Queens, New York City, New York

Known as the most ethnically diverse urban area in the world with a population of over 2 million, 48% of which are foreign-born, Queens is a place like no other. “There are a million halal restaurants in New York City,” Amanullah said, “but Jackson Heights is the best place to go.” A very vibrant neighborhood, Jackson Heights is a dense working class area – but any place where the cabbies go to eat is known as having the most delicious food. Vying for a close second is Astoria, also known for being a halal hub. With a diversity of restaurants between 28th and Astoria, a true glimpse at the richness of the Muslim community in New York City can be seen.

Top picks: Fatima’s Halal Kitchen, Kabab King Diner, Kababish

10. Central Jersey, New Jersey

Given that New Jersey is such a halal hub, it needed more than one feature on this top fourteen list. The other notable region to look at is central Jersey, which is a mix of Indo-Pakistani, Afghani and Arab residents, clumped in different towns. “On the weekend,” Sarmast said, “everyone goes to weekend buffet restaurants.” Where there are strong cultural populations, there can always be found delicious cuisine developments, and Jersey is no stranger to this phenomenon. Although there are not found specific hubs of cuisine, notable restaurants can be found nonetheless.

Top picks: Shalimar BBQ & Curry House, Douglass Pizza, Kabab Paradise II

11. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

If you really want to try out a famous Philly cheesesteak, there is no other place to go than the original source. Shaped by the city’s mixtures of ethnicities, available foodstuffs and history, it is an icon to the city. Invented in the 1930s, the soft bread filled with an indulgent mix of beef and gooey cheese is a longstanding foodie favorite in Philadelphia, and a halal scene has finally caught up and begun creating their own delectable versions of the food. The economic and cultural center of Delaware Valley, Philadelphia is home to over six million people and the country’s sixth largest metropolitan area.

Top picks: 7 Seas Seafood/Broad Street Cheesesteaks, Saad’s Halal Restaurant, Nanee’s Kitchen

12. Washington, District of Columbia

Although it’s well known as the capital of America, complete with government buildings and national museums, what’s less known is the wholesome, filling and vibrant halal food scene that thrives off of its loyal customers. Amanullah spilled about the most famous restaurant in the area: Ben’s Chili Bowl. “Ben’s Chili Bowl is a restaurant in the African American area of the city, straight up salt of the earth. The most famous dish there is the half-smoked, half pork, half beef sausage – but the interesting thing is the founder of 60 years, Ben Ali, never once ate the dish, because he’s Muslim. When he passed away, the city gave him a hero’s funeral – the restaurant is really one of a kind.” Compared to northern VA, DC is predominantly African American in cuisine.

Top picks: Busboys & Poets, Kabob Palace, New Dynasty

13. Atlanta, Georgia

Another halal hub that falls in the more unconventional category, Atlanta is well known for its halal food not simply because of the quality but because, according to Amanullah, “it’s very big on American food and less on immigrant food.” One of the South’s largest cities, Atlanta has a flare for the arts that allows its visitors and residents the opportunity to develop their creative taste – and then the opportunity to satisfy their more traditional culinary taste. The Muslim community in Atlanta is fully integrated and engaged in the state, with community life being expressed in areas of education, entrepreneurship, civic involvement, and interfaith. It’s no surprise, then, to see the array of predominantly American halal cuisine options, with “highlights in seafood and soulfood cooking,” Amanullah said.

Top picks: Shujaa’s BBQ, Karachi Broast & Grill, Famous Sharky Seafood & Company

14. Dade County, Miami, Florida

The most populous metropolis in the Southeastern United States after Washington, DC, Miami is nicknamed the “Capital of Latin America,” as the largest US city with a Spanish-speaking majority. It is only natural, then, that the halal food scene is “influenced by the proximity to Cuban cultures,” as Amanullah said, “creating a new kind of taste, Afrocaribbean halal.” With the Muslim community in Miami representing cultures and backgrounds from around the world, including a significant Hispanic population, the food is “pretty diverse in terms of offerings.” This is the place to find something with a little Latin flair, and not feel like you’re struggling to discover it.

Top picks: Lazeez Asian Cuisine, Juicy Gyros, Natural Chicken Grill

Laila Alawa is the Social Media Associate at Unity Productions Foundation; and a Public Policy & Government Intern at the Muslim Public Affairs Council. She is also the founder & editor of ComingofFaith.com

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24 Comments

24 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Safa

    July 29, 2014 at 10:35 AM

    How come there is no mention of Ravi Kabab?! Its the best place ever!

  2. Avatar

    Hyde

    July 29, 2014 at 11:30 AM

    Or you can only eat one simple meal at home. How about that ? Please stop eating people, please. This obsession with food is insane.

    • Avatar

      Summer

      July 31, 2014 at 6:34 PM

      I have to say, the number of food-related posts that pop up all around ramadan is staggering and irritating, but I think this one came at a good time for Muslims visiting family for Eid in big cities. That said, as a consumer of meat slaughtered according to more stringent standards (commonly referred to as halal slaughter), I resent the term “halali.” What is the rest of the Muslim population? Non-halalis? Haramis? I understand that most “non-halal” restaurants actually have 100% haram menu items, but using a term as broad and important to the practice of our religion as “halal” to describe actual people in our ummah is divisive and dangerous. A more appropriate description would be “Muslim-friendly restaurants” or something similar that is more inclusive.

      • Aly Balagamwala

        Aly Balagamwala

        August 2, 2014 at 7:41 AM

        ‘Halali’ is a term used frequently in the lingo hence the usage probably.

        Aly
        *Comment above is posted in a personal capacity and may not reflect the official views of MuslimMatters or its staff*

    • Avatar

      M

      July 31, 2014 at 9:54 PM

      Bro, I think Muslims in North America have been eating “simple meals at home” for a really long time, due to the lack of Halal options for people who want to dine-out. Although it is always better to eat at home since the food has more barakah and is made by someone who loves and cares about you, I don’t think anybody would dine-out everyday. Most meals are, in fact, eaten at home.

      It’s ok to eat out once in a while with your friends and family. Honestly speaking, I don’t find these articles to be obsessing about food, they are really helpful.

    • Avatar

      Aaminah

      June 12, 2015 at 4:28 PM

      I know that many of us are addicted to food, but sometimes you are in the mood for meat and not everyone can go to McDonalds and order a Big Mac because: it simply not halal. Yes, overeating is a bad thing but it isn’t it you eat little at a time and not all the time. Those days where you decide to eat at one of these places can be called “cheat days” since it’s not the healthiest if choices.

    • Avatar

      Asmaa

      July 6, 2016 at 10:42 AM

      Sometimes people want to eat something they don’t know how to make. Sometimes they like to have a chance to be served at a restaurant. Sometimes you simply don’t have the option of a home-cooked meal. It’s not a sin, so why deny Muslims that right? Not to mention, articles like this (and people who dine out) bring business to Muslim-owned restaurants, so this article is a win-win.

  3. Avatar

    June

    July 29, 2014 at 10:52 PM

    PA – If you’re in the Philly area I would also recommend Al-Shams.
    NJ – My husband actually worked for Douglass Pizza for a little while! Then he got a delivery job a little closer to home at Nunzio’s. If you happen across Nunzio’s Halal Pizzeria in Iselin you GOTTA try the chicken bacon ranch pizza (turkey bacon, of course)
    DC/MD – The best gyro I’ve ever had was from Aladdin Sizzler. Also nearby, in the College Park area, is Krazi Kebob. A fun Mid-Eastern/Mexican fusion restaurant.

    I know there’s more great halal food out there. These are just some of my recommendation based on where I’ve been. I can’t want to see what other people in the comments recommend!

  4. Avatar

    mezba

    July 30, 2014 at 12:26 PM

    We need a similar article for Canada (would be mostly Toronto focused I would think).

  5. Avatar

    Imran

    July 30, 2014 at 1:57 PM

    So in NYC the top picks are ‘rat infested’ ‘food poisoning’ ‘shut down by health department every other month’ restaurants Kabab King and Kababish? Shows the legitimacy of this article.

  6. Avatar

    Nas

    July 30, 2014 at 8:09 PM

    DC area picks are pretty accurate. BBQ delight has to be the top choice. Its combination of an awesome buffet and prayer space for Maghrib makes it an excellent destination during Ramadan. Also up there is Afghan kabob house in West Springfield, Kabob ‘N Karahi in Silver Spring and Amina Thai in Rockville. Unfortunately, I’ll have to hand the top Halal joints to the peeps in Toronto

  7. Avatar

    Zain Mohammed

    July 31, 2014 at 5:11 PM

    Hey guys, I write a halal food blog! I go all over the country, but I am based in Houston! My blog is zainshalalreviews.blogspot.com and my instagram is thehalalreviewer

  8. Avatar

    rabia

    July 31, 2014 at 5:19 PM

    Ravi kabab makes the best karahi!!! I’m shocked it didn’t make the list!!!

  9. Avatar

    Abdul

    July 31, 2014 at 10:29 PM

    Assalamualaikum
    It is sad to see how Muslims in USA don’t care about the source of Zahiba halal(which is more correct way of slaughter), they don’t even enquirers about meat source, if its halal said by some app or friend then its ok for most of us. And most of Muslims consider chicken slaughtered by non- muslim with no mention of name of allah as halal. Most of the restaurants has mixed halal menu with alcohol. And then if anyone raises question he is consider as extremist or gives excuse as its OK in non-muslim countries. Anyways allah is judge of all. make dua for all humanity
    Jazakallah Khair

    • Avatar

      H

      July 31, 2014 at 10:42 PM

      Truth is, we should trust the restaurant if they say they are halal. If it turns out to be a lie, then the sin will be on the sellers than the consumers. One more thing, saying that something is haram without legitimate proof is a major sin in Islam

      • Avatar

        Abdul

        July 31, 2014 at 11:34 PM

        I never said to promote something without inquiry to stamp as haram , Anyways so you say we should not to tehqeeq (proof just relay on words).

    • Avatar

      fatema rashid

      August 1, 2014 at 12:03 AM

      I will have to agree with you. May Allah guide us all to the right path and keep us from haram aameen

  10. Avatar

    PR

    August 1, 2014 at 5:18 AM

    Salang Pass (Afghani Restaurant) in Fremont, CA is one of my favorites.

  11. Avatar

    Saaqib

    August 2, 2014 at 12:29 AM

    Enjoyed the article and although SF tops the list, seems to be some East coast bias. No way Anaheim, CA can be outside the top 10 — if not top 5. Some recommendations in no particular order: Hatem Persian Restaurant, Ma’s Chinese, Sahara Falafel, San Giovanni Pizza, Special Thai.

    Also, recently discovered San Jose area has some great halal options: Ike’s Sandwiches, Lada Thai, Falafel Corner.

    — Former Halal Food Critic, InFocus News

  12. Avatar

    Aaminah

    June 12, 2015 at 4:33 PM

    There are many options in Phoneix, Arizona as well. Zam Zam in Chandler is one of the best places I’ve been to. If you have seen Food network and know a man named Guy Fieri, he hosted a show about a place called Curry Corner in Tempe, which has the best Tikka Masala Fries. Though I don’t know any other places who makes those. ?

  13. Avatar

    Hammad

    June 29, 2015 at 7:17 PM

    Asa lol not trying to be rude but if Zam Zam in Chandler is one of the best places you have been to is a bit of a strech and your gonna end up disappointing alot of people. I do agree about the tikka fries at curry corner and there tikka masala is amazing as well. If your looking for the best desi food in the valley its probably Tahoora grill in Phoenix. If you get a chance go on Sunday when they have there all day buffet.

  14. Pingback: Best Thai Restaurant In Sugar Land Tx | food - restaurant finder

  15. Avatar

    Ali Chahine

    September 28, 2016 at 11:27 PM

    Hi my name is Ali Chahine owner of BiG AL’S Pizzeria in Los Angeles I was wondering why u didn’t have LA on the list of best places ,we are the best halal pizzeria in LA and in all of California ,Just google it.

  16. Avatar

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    November 15, 2016 at 3:50 AM

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Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas | Book Review

In the second decade of the 21st century in America, Muslims consider themselves “as American as apple pie,” don American-flag hijabs, and consider their presence and participation in American politics as a crowning achievement. There is little to no resemblance between the majority of the American Muslim population today, and the very first Muslims who landed in America – not as privileged individuals, but as enslaved people at the hands of vicious white colonizers who had already decimated the Indigenous population and who had no qualms about destroying the lives of their slaves. Dr Sylviane A. Diouf’s book “Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas” tracks the journeys and experiences of African Muslims who found themselves shipped aboard slave-trafficking vessels and taken to the other side of their known world. From their induction into the Transatlantic slave trade, to their determination to uphold the five pillars of Islam – regardless of their circumstances – to the structure of the enslaved Muslim community, their prized (and dangerous) literacy, and their never-ending resistance against slavery, Diouf illustrates in incredible detail the powerful and painful experiences of enslaved African Muslims, and the legacy that they left behind in the Americas.

This review of “Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas” will focus on the unique qualities and formidable faith of the very first Muslims in the Americas, and the legacy that they left for Muslims in the Americas today.

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In Chapter One, Diouf begins by answering the very first question that arises when considering the path of enslaved African Muslims: how did they end up enslaved in the first place? Slavery already existed as an institution in Africa, though vastly different from the horrifying standards of the European slavers. Between the existing slave trade, military conflicts that created prisoners-of-wars who were then sold as slaves, and the European propensity for kidnapping innocent people, many Muslims found themselves swept into the Transatlantic slave trade. These same Muslims were the ones who provided us with much of the knowledge that we have today regarding the American slave experience. Most African Muslims were literate, due to the religious and cultural importance of education; of those enslaved, many were religious scholars or students of knowledge. They described how they were captured, the torturous journey of the slave caravans across the continent, and the even more horrific experience of the slave ships themselves. These men also documented their lives as slaves, and indirectly, provided deep insight into their own inner nature. 

Despite the intense pressure and demands on African enslaved people to renounce their ‘heathen faith’ and be inducted as Christians, African Muslims demonstrated a commitment to Islam that should cause modern Muslims today to feel deeply ashamed in comparison. The very first words that Job ben Solomon (Ayuba Suleyman Diallo) uttered, after running away and then being discovered in Pennsylvania, were the shahaadah; Omar ibn Sa’id wrote numerous Arabic manuscripts, in which the shahaadah was always found (Diouf, 2013, p. 72-73). When Catholic priests tried hard to educate slaves about Christianity as part of the conversion process, the African Muslims were both resistant and unimpressed; they were already familiar with many Biblical stories, thanks to their Qur’anic education. Of those who seemed to have accepted Christianity, many did so only outwardly, while confirming their belief in Allah and His Messenger in every aspect of their lives. Indeed, in Brazil and other areas where there were large concentrations of Muslim slaves, the Muslims established underground madaaris to maintain and pass on their Islamic knowledge and education. Muhammad Kaba Saghanughu was a man whom the missionaries had thought was successfully converted when he provided all the right answers to their pre-baptismal questions – eleven years later, in a Baptist Missionary Society notebook, he wrote a 50-page fiqh manual in Arabic that encompassed the rulings of salaah, marriage, and other topics. 

Slavery did not stop the African Muslims from maintaining their salaah in whatever manner they could manage, considering their circumstances. Some did so in secret, while others insisted on upholding their salaah in public, to the extent that these incidents were recorded by the descendants of slaves and slaveholders alike. In Brazil, the African Muslim community – both enslaved and freed – held together so strongly that they were able to secretly establish Salatul Jumu’ah and attend gatherings of dhikr, even in the face of intense scrutiny (Diouf, 2013, p. 88-89). 

Perhaps one of the most greatly moving examples of enslaved African Muslims’ dedication to their Islam was that even in the midst of the utter poverty of slavery, they found a way to uphold zakaah, sawm, and Hajj. In Brazil, it was recorded that the Muslims would end Ramadan with the exchanging of gifts, no matter how simple they were; in truth, these gifts were zakaatul fitr and zakaatul maal.

In other areas, the descendants of Muslim slaves recalled that their parents and grandparents would make rice cakes called saraka at least once a year – saraka was a corruption of the Arabic word sadaqah, and the rice cakes were a Jumu’ah tradition in West Africa. (Diouf, 2013, p. 92-94) In Ramadan, many Muslims sought to fast; indeed, despite the incredible hardship and lack of nutritious food that the slaves already endured, there were those who fasted voluntarily outside of Ramadan as well, often by pretending to be ill. They knew that their situation meant that fasting – in Ramadan and outside of it – was not obligatory on them, and yet, to them, no circumstance was bad enough to warrant not even attempting to observe Ramadan. Hajj was another pillar of Islam that was both impossible and no longer obligatory on the enslaved Muslims; yet in Brazil, in a house that was used as a masjid, there were illustrated depictions of the Ka’bah – demonstrating the emotional bond that the African Muslims had with the Sacred House. 

Throughout Diouf’s book, the overwhelming theme that arises is the fierce commitment that enslaved African Muslims had to Islam. It was not superficial, shallow, or easily shrugged away in the face of difficulty. Instead, the African Muslims held onto their belief in Allah and their daily, lived practise of Islam, even when they had every excuse to relax their obligations. They upheld their Islamic and cultural dress code, not just at its minimum standard of modesty, but in a way that clearly demonstrated their religious identity (Diouf, 2013, p. 101-110). They found ways to make prayer mats and dhikr beads; they gave their children Muslim names in secret, when they were expected to present themselves as Christians; they even strove to observe whatever they could of the Islamic dietary code, by refusing to drink alcohol or eat pork – Ayuba Diallo went so far as to only eat dhabiha meat that he himself slaughtered (Diouf, 2013, p. 119-122). The enslaved African Muslims valued their Islamic identity above all. Even in slavery, they knew that their ‘izzah came from their Deen – and so did those around them, who noted their unique bearing in the face of the horrors of slavery. 

The story of the African Muslims who were enslaved and brought to the Americas is not merely a history lesson, or a token homage in honour of Black History Month. It is a story that echoes the persecution of the earliest Muslims in Makkah, and applicable to Muslims today. Muslim minorities in the West are often all too eager to complain of our difficulties and to seek religious exemptions for our minor inconveniences. Yet who are we in comparison to the earliest African-American Muslims, who endurable the unspeakable? Who are we, with our privileges, with our very freedom, in comparison to those Muslims who were stripped of everything and everyone they knew and loved, and who still held ever tighter to the Rope of Allah? One may say that it is unfair to compare us and them; that to recognize their struggles should not mean invalidating the challenges we face today. Certainly, we face numerous different fitan that are very different from what they experienced, but the truth is that we should compare our attitudes with those of our predecessors. We should be ashamed of our own weaknesses in times of privilege compared to their strength in times of oppression. More importantly, we must learn from them what it means to have such a relationship with our Creator and our Deen that we are capable of surviving and thriving in even the worst of circumstances. 

May Allah have mercy on the enslaved African Muslims who endured one of this Ummah’s historic tragedies, and may He make us of those who demonstrate their strength of love for Him through every tragedy of our own.

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The Smoker

Cigarette butt

“I’m going to kill her,” the man in the back seat growled. A moment earlier his phone had beeped, indicating a text message.

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Randa ignored him. She could already smell him – he reeked of cigarette smoke and Drakkar, a syrupy yet rancid combination, like a rotting fruit – and didn’t care to expend the energy to turn her head.

Exhausted from a nine hour shift slinging overloaded plates of food to hordes of Japanese and German tourists, she sat in the front seat of the UberPOOL car, staring out the window at the passing nightlife of San Francisco. Taxis and buses jostling for space, restaurants with lines down the block. Cable cars, street cars, tourists with their expensive cameras like baby candy for Tenderloin junkie thieves. Chinese women heading home from SOMA sweatshops, elbowing their way onto packed buses. Local hipsters, bike messengers and pimply faced tech millionaires. They were all jammed into this city on seven hills, mesmerized by the lights and endless cash, or imprisoned by them. Free to go where they would; free to ruin themselves.

She reached into the shopping bag between her knees and fingered the silk scarf she’d purchased. She’d spent half her weekly paycheck on it. A gift for Nawal. SubhanAllah, its exquisite softness was unreal. What she would have given during the last three years to feel something so yielding. She released the scarf and settled back into the seat. Quick stop at the halfway house to shower and change, then on to Nawal’s party. She could do this. After all she’d been through, why should a party make her nervous?

“Bitches lie,” the smoker went on. “That’s all women do, they lie. I’m going to kill the sl*t.”

“Sir,” the driver said, glancing in the rear view mirror. He was a tiny man with a thick moustache and a flat cap. His name was Ali, according to the Uber app. European looking, maybe Kurdish, maybe Arab. “Calm down or I will put you out.”

“Screw you,” Smoker said. “I paid for this ride, I’m not going any-”

Ali swerved to the curb and hit the brakes, screeching to a stop beside Union Square. “Out.”

It was almost Christmastime, and the square was packed. Randa saw people ice skating on the little rink they set up every December. The compressor that cooled the ice was very loud. Tourists were crowded into the Starbucks beside the rink. On every side of the square, monuments to consumerism rose. Macy’s, the Westin St. Francis, Nike, Apple, Louis Vuitton, Bul93gari, Tiffany & Co… Idols of wealth and third world labor. After spending three years owning nothing but a few sets of clothing and a few books, this was all foreign. As if some great beast had eaten every valuable thing in the world and regurgitated it in one place. She wasn’t quite sure if she wanted it all, or was revolted by it all.

“Drive the damn car,” Smoker said.

Randa had had enough. She turned and scanned the back seat. Directly behind her, a teenaged blonde girl in denim looked very uncomfortable – almost frightened but not quite there. Randa focused on the smoker. He was brown skinned and barrel chested, with thinning black hair. Middle Eastern. He looked familiar, actually. His eyes were bloodshot. It was like a set up for a joke: three Arabs and a white girl get into an Uber… Except there was nothing funny about this guy. He was big and looked quite capable of violence.

Randa, on the other hand, was physically unimposing. Short, skinny, long black hair tied in a ponytail, she was a typical Yemeni girl, as light as one of the reeds that grew in the Aden wetlands, where her parents had grown up. That didn’t matter. Anyone could hurt anyone, she knew this. Her eyes were lasers drilling into the smoker. Her jaw was a steel trap. Liquid nitrogen flowed through her veins. If this guy wanted to mix it up, she would tear him to pieces.

The man’s eyes met hers, he opened his mouth to speak, then thought better of it. He exited the car, slamming the door.

The driver smiled at Randa. He looked very relieved. “MashaAllah alayki,” he praised her in Arabic. “I don’t know what you did, but thanks. Maybe you should be a rideshare driver.”

Randa did not reply.

The Threat

Prison visitors window

She checked into the halfway house on Turk Street with ten minutes to spare before her work period expired. The staff member on duty was her own case manager, a thin, bald man with a pasty complexion and a scar on his lip.

“I’ll need a recreation block later,” Randa told him. “Starting at seven.”

The man smirked. “Hot date?”

Randa gazed at him impassively, her face as ungiving as a concrete wall.

“I need to know where you’re going,” the case manager said, annoyed.

“Bachelorette party.”

“Better not be any drugs there.”

“Muslim party. No drugs, no alcohol, no men. Just women dancing and eating.”

“You only have one rec block left this month.” He nodded toward the door that led to his private office. “Come back here, we’ll have a little fun, I’ll give you five more blocks. You’ll have a good time.” He punctuated this assurance with a wink.

“Eat poison and die.”

The man flinched as if he’d been slapped, then snarled. “Take your block. But if you’re one minute late I will write a violation on you faster than you can say, ‘Allah help me.’”

Up in her tiny second floor room with the two-woman bunk bed, changing out of her waitressing uniform, she considered not going. She hadn’t been to a social event since her release. She knew they’d all be talking about her.

While locked up she’d earned a correspondence bachelor’s degree in business administration. She was still trying to figure out what to do with it. Education wise she’d already surpassed 90% of the Yemeni community. But that didn’t matter. To them she was a shame and a wreck, a disgrace to her family.

And she wasn’t sure it was safe. What if her brother Motaz showed up? Did he still have it in for her? She had not seen him since her arrest, when he came to see her in the county jail. They sat across from each other in small cubbies, separated by thick plexiglass into which someone had scratched the words, “LOVE YOU FOREVER.”

Leaning forward to talk through a perforated panel, she explained that she hadn’t known there were drugs in the backpack. Her boyfriend had told her it was a game console he’d sold, and asked her to deliver it on her way to school. She’d been in love with Lucas, and never imagined he would manipulate her that way.

Her brother’s cheeks were purple with rage. “I don’t care about the drugs,” he seethed. “That only proves how stupid you are. You had a boyfriend. An American.” He struck the plexiglass and Randa reeled, nearly falling over in her seat. “If we were back in Yemen,” her brother went on, “I would kill you myself. It would be best for the family if you hang yourself from your bunk.”

She didn’t try to tell him that she’d never been intimate with Lucas and that she was, in fact, still a virgin. It wouldn’t make any difference, she knew that. It was public perception that mattered, and the shame it would bring. And she wasn’t saying her brother was totally wrong on that score. She hadn’t represented herself or her faith well. But that didn’t give him the right to threaten her.

She had not spoken to her brother since that day. She had no idea what his intentions for her might be. But she didn’t intend to give him the chance to make good on his threats.

The Phone Call

The phone rang. It was her mom, reading her mind. Randa told her she was going to skip the party.

Her mom clucked her tongue. “Nawal is your friend. She’s getting married, she wants you to celebrate with her.”

“She didn’t invite me.”

“She invited me. That means you as well.”

“What if Motaz shows up?”

“Why would he? It is a ladies party. And if he did, so what?”

“You know what. He threatened to kill me.”

“Ah, Randa! Astaghfirullah. That was in the past. All is forgiven. Anyway he never meant it. It was only his anger talking.”

Randa was not sure. Islam taught compassion and mercy, but in her native Yemen, feuds could carry on for generations. People did not forget. She voiced another of her fears: “They’ll all be judging me. The ladies.”

“Eh?” Her mother sounded genuinely perplexed. “Why should they?”

“Because I just spent the last three years-”

“No,” her mother interrupted. “We don’t speak about that. It never happened.”

“I don’t know how to talk to those people.”

“Those people?” Her mother sounded outraged. “They are your people, Randa!”

Randa sighed and shook her head. She could fight off people trying to kill her, and had done so, but she was powerless against her mother. Why was that, still?

Her mom switched to Arabic. “Give your tribe your money and blood, but give outsiders the point of a sword.”

Her mom and her proverbs. And she never used them right. “That doesn’t even fit.”

“It means do not justify yourself. The past is the past.”

“I don’t think it means that.”

“And wear something colorful. No more black like you’re going to a funeral.”

Prayer

All she had was black. What else? After three years of state-issued denim, she’d sworn she’d never wear any shade of blue again. What, then? Orange was jail jumpsuits. Red, pink, yellow, purple? What was she, a clown? Or white, like a nun, a nurse, or a virgin bride? She would laugh at that if she remembered how.

San Francisco Islamic Society Mosque

She donned a long black skirt over black stockings, walking shoes, a long-sleeved blouse and a black sweater, and set out on foot. Her first stop was the Islamic Society masjid on Jones at Market. In the elevator she took a light black abayah from her purse and draped it over herself, covering everything but her face and hands. The masjid was on the third floor, a wide open space in which Randa could forget her problems for a time. She had rediscovered her faith in prison, and sometimes it was the only thing that kept her going.

She knew that was a cliche, but it was true. When every door was made of solid steel, double locked and remote controlled – Allah’s door was open. When every road was not only blocked but taken away altogether, because you were sealed in a tiny room – the road to Allah was still there. When there were no windows, and the light bulbs were turned off so that you sat in utter darkness, Allah’s light was still there.

She smiled imperceptibly, remembering the first of Ruby’s rules. Ruby, her cellmate and mentor, had developed a set of rules to survive and thrive in prison. Rule number one: only God can get you out.

Well here, she was, out, and just in time for ‘ishaa. A handful of other women were in attendance and she prayed beside them. As the Imam recited Surat Ar-Rahman, Randa searched her own heart for some sign of spring. A bit of softness, a warm breeze stirring, a melting of the ice. She found little to give her hope. Too soon, she thought. Her great fear was that her past self, the Randa who cried at the recital of the Quran, hung out with friends and gossiped or laughed about boys, or just walked down the street with a bounce in her step, happy to be alive, was gone.

The Party

Yemeni food mutabaq sandwich

Mutabaq

She took another Uber to Nawal’s house, out in the Richmond district, near the ocean. At the party she stood against the wall near the front door, as if she might attempt escape. No one talked to her, though she saw plenty of glances cast her way. She drank guava juice from a small glass and ate a mutabaq. At least the food was good. She hadn’t eaten anything so delicious in years.

Her mom had hugged her when she arrived, chastised her for her grim sartorial choices, then wandered off to sit and gossip with her friends.

There were at least forty women present. The younger ones danced to the sounds of A-Wa, with the occasional Ahmed Fathi song thrown in to appease the aunties. Others sat at a table around a henna artist, taking turns getting their hands and arms tattooed. A woman in an orange scarf sat on a sofa crying, while two other women flanked her, comforting her.

Nawal sauntered over to Randa and embraced her. She looked radiant in a sequined blue gown, her long black hair flowing freely, her arms hennaed up to the elbows with intricate designs. “Thanks again for the scarf. It’s lovely. You didn’t have to do that.”

“My pleasure.” Randa nodded to the crying woman. “What’s going on there?”

Nawal looked. “Oh. That’s my Tant Ruqayyah. Her husband’s been cheating on her. But she’s finally done with him. She sent him a message today, asking for a divorce. Hey.” Nawal grinned at Randa. “What’s up with the black outfit? You planning a burglary later?”

Randa bristled, pulling back. “What do you mean?”

Nawal faltered. “No. Nothing. Just a joke, Randa. What happened to you? You lost your sense of humor.” Nawal squeezed Randa’s shoulder and turned away to rejoin her friends.

Randa wanted to shrink into a corner of the room and draw the darkness around her like a cloak. Nawal’s comment stung like chili in a cut, all the more for its truth. She knew she wasn’t the fun person she’d once been. She wasn’t someone people wanted to be around. She wasn’t someone people loved.

A commotion from the direction of the entrance made her turn. The door was just around the corner and she couldn’t see what was happening. She heard a man shouting, and a woman protesting. For a second she had the irrational thought that it was her brother, come to murder her as he’d threatened to do three years ago. Then she smelled it. The stench of cigarette smoke and Drakkar. It was the man from the Uber. Suddenly she knew why the man had seemed familiar. She’d seen him with his wife at parties in the past. His name was Momo, she remembered now, and he was Ruqayyah’s husband. She remembered the text message Momo had received in the car, and his saying, “I’ll kill her.”

A woman shrieked from the doorway and the man pushed his way in. He passed by Randa, not noticing her. Her eyes shot to the man’s hands, just as Ruby had taught her. Rule thirty: watch people’s hands, not their faces.

Momo held a long butcher knife tucked low against the back of his leg. No one else in the room seemed to have noticed it. The other women were too busy scrambling to put their scarves on, now that there was a man in the room. Some were retreating quickly, heading for the bedrooms. Some of the younger ones were still dancing, oblivious. Meanwhile, Momo was making a beeline for Ruqayyah.

Ruqayyah had spotted the knife. Her eyes were locked on it as she backed up, her hands held to her mouth in horror, her face pale as the moon.

Randa moved. Dropping her plate and glass, she walked rapidly toward the food table, slipping off her sweater as she did so. Rule thirty two: anything can be a weapon. Without breaking stride she snatched up the pepper shaker and pocketed it, then grabbed two unopened soda cans. She wrapped the cans with her sweater and twisted it, gripping it by the sleeves.

Momo had almost reached Ruqayyah. He brought the knife up, aiming it at her heart. Ruqayyah stepped back, stumbled into a chair leg, and fell to the ground. It probably saved her life.

Randa was only a few feet behind Momo now. He still had not seen her. Rule thirty five: hit first and hit hard. She gripped the sweater sleeves with both hands and swung, turning her hips, putting everything she had into it. All her frustration, fury and shame, her loneliness and self doubt. The soda cans in the sweater connected with the side of Momo’s head. There was a loud thudding sound, and Momo dropped as if a djinn had snatched his heart out of his chest. His hand opened and the knife clattered to the ground beside him. Some of the women screamed, and someone finally turned off the music.

Still clutching the sweater in one hand, Randa reached down and took Ruqayyah’s hand, helping the older woman to her feet, and helping her adjust her scarf, which had slid forward over her eyes. The auntie was stunned speechless.

Momo groaned. Randa turned to see him reach for the knife, find it, and begin to climb back to his feet. Damn. Hard-headed bastard. Reaching into her pocket, she calmly unscrewed the pepper shaker and flung the contents into Momo’s eyes. He hollered in pain and dropped the knife once more, and this time Randa kicked it away so that it skittered under the table. Once again she gripped the sweater sleeves with both hands and swung. The cans smashed Momo square in the face. He fell backwards with a cry, blood spurting from his nose. He rolled about on the floor, clutching his face, all the fight gone out of him.

Someone seized Randa’s arm and she turned to see her mother. The woman was literally quaking with rage. “Get out of here,” she hissed. “You crazy person. Why did I think you changed? You are a majnoonah.”

Nawal was there too, her face set in stone. “You should leave,” she said. “I won’t tell the police what you did, but you should go.”

Randa didn’t argue. What did it matter? These women had their minds made up about her, as did her mother. Fine. She turned to leave. Again someone gripped her arm, but this time it was Tant Ruqayyah. The auntie pulled Randa into an embrace, then kissed her on the cheek. “Thank you,” she said, her lower lip trembling. “You saved my life, habibti. May Allah give you life. I don’t know how I can ever repay you.”

Nawal frowned. “What are you saying, Tant? Randa, what does she mean?”

Randa looked at her former friend. “He came here to kill her. He had a knife.” She gestured with her chin to the table. “It’s under there.”

“To kill her?” her mother said. “What nonsense is this?”

Randa smoothed Ruqayyah’s orange scarf. “Don’t worry, Tant. You’ll be fine.” She turned away, replacing the pepper shaker and dented soda cans on the table on her way out. One of the cans had punctured and was spraying soda in a fine stream. She put her sweater on and found it wet.

At the doorway, a woman was rising from where Momo had pushed her over on his way in. Thank God he hadn’t stabbed her.

Bridges

Her mother called out to her, but she let herself out. The night breeze instantly penetrated her wet sweater and raised goosebumps on her skin. Her hands were shaking badly, so she thrust them into her pockets, violating one of Ruby’s rules. In fact her entire body shook. She told herself it was just the cold.

Nawal emerged from the house and called to her, then hurried to catch up. Her friend was flustered, her cheeks red. “I’m sorry,” she said, taking Randa’s hand. “I misunderstood. You… You are a hero.”

Golden Gate Bridge at night

Randa looked away. In the distance she could see the Golden Gate Bridge glowing red in the night, and the dark hills of Marin County silhouetted against the sky. Bridges took you from one reality to another then back again, but what if you never wanted to go back? What if you wanted to put the past behind you forever? Was there such a thing as a one way bridge?

They said she was a villain, then a hero. Which label applied? Ex-con? Disgrace? Waitress? Yemeni, American, daughter, friend?

She returned her gaze to Nawal’s face. “No,” she said. “I’m not.”

She turned away. A light drizzle began to fall, chilling her, but somehow she’d stopped shivering. She was miles from the halfway house, but there was plenty of time left on her rec block. She would walk. The city stretched out before her like a jeweled wedding veil, the wet sidewalks shining beneath the street lamps. Appreciate the moment. Another of Ruby’s rules.

Randa walked.

THE END

Reader comments and constructive criticism are important to me, so please comment!

See the Story Index for Wael Abdelgawad’s other stories on this website.

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Wael Abdelgawad’s novels – including Pieces of a Dream, The Repeaters, Zaid Karim Private Investigator, and Uber Tales – are available in ebook and print form on his author page at Amazon.com.

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#Culture

The Beginnings Of The Darul Islam Movement In America

I was raised in the Darul Islam movement; my father Shaykh Abdu-Karim Ahmad, was one of their Imams for a time in Philly. So was my cousin Shaykh Ali Ahmad. Both who are still alive today. There are many narrations yet to be told, that shed a little light and context, about Muslim America today.

Much of the history about Islam in United States of America and of the pioneering Muslims upon who’s shoulders we stand, has never been told. Some of them unfortunately may never be told and may die with the death of those who were there. When it comes to American Muslim history, the narratives of those who lived it is more poignant than that of those who only heard about it. As in the hadith of the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him), “He who is told is not like he who has seen”.

Much of what is written about Black American Muslim Sunni pioneers is written about us but not by us. 

One story that has remained largely unchronicled is that of the Darul Islam movement. Darul Islam was an early indigenous Sunni Muslim community made up of Black American Muslims and converts to Islam. At its height, it comprised 25-30 Muslim communities and masaajid across the country. It was started by Rajab Mahmood and Yahya Abdul-Karim, who were formally attendees of the famous State Street Mosque in Brooklyn, New York in the Atlantic Ave area west of Flatbush. The State St, Mosque which was started by was Dawud Faisal, a Black man who came to the United States from the Caribbean to pursue a career in jazz music, became a beacon for early Muslim immigrants as there was already a spate of Arab businesses along Atlantic Ave near third street, not far from the Mosque. My father used to take us to Malko Brothers bakery on Atlantic Ave in the early sixties where we would buy pita bread and halal meat from one of the other stores. It was one of the few places you could buy pita bread on the East Coast and there was no such thing as a halal store in America then.  

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Partially because Shaykh Dawud was black, and perhaps because of his jazz background and affiliation, the Masjid also attracted Black American converts to Sunni Islam. Many early Sunni Muslims were associated with and came from jazz musicians.  The Legendary John Coltrane was reported to have been a Muslim, he was married to a sister named Amina and his daughter was named Na’eema. My father performed her marriage in New York in the 1980’s. It’s rumored that he never publicized his Islam because it would have damaged his career as it had done to so many others. Hajj Talib Dawud, who started a masjid in Philadelphia (not related to the Darul Islam movement), used to be a trumpet player for Dizzy Gillespie. 

Meanwhile, , there was a chasm between immigrant Muslims who were new to the country. Converts to Islam, who were overwhelmingly Black, were new to Islam.  In 1960, Shaykh Dawud hired a teacher who was Hafiz al-Quran named Hafiz Mah’boob — he was associated with the Tabligh Jamaa’ah movement— but he was Black or looked black. The young African American converts, Rajab Mah’mood, Yahya Abdulkarim, Suleiman Abdul-Hadi (my uncle and one of the founding members of The Last Poets), Muhammad Salahuddin, and others. were drawn to him, He was “down” with educating the brothers from America and he used to teach them Arabic and Islam. It was a different time then and the immigrant, mainly Arab Muslims, and the Black American converts to Islam were from two different worlds. There was an unspoken uneasiness. Eventually Hafiz Mah’boob suggested that the African American brothers go and start their own masjid.

Rajab Mah’mood and Yahya AbdulKarim eventually left the State Street Mosque and started their own Masjid in Brownsville, one of Brooklyn’s toughest neighborhoods, they named it Yasin Mosque, and that was the beginning of the Darul Islam Movement in the United States. That’s also just the beginning of the story.

I was born and raised a Sunni Muslim in Philadelphia, PA; my parents converted to Islam in the 1950’s.

I was raised in the Darul Islam movement; my father Shaykh Abdu-Karim Ahmad, was one of their Imams for a time in Philly. So was my cousin Shaykh Ali Ahmad. Both who are still alive today. There are many narrations yet to be told, that shed a little light and context, about Muslim America today.

History matters. 

Taken from the Upcoming Book. “The History of the Darul Islam Movement in America” 

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MuslimMatters has been a free service to the community since 2007. All it takes is a small gift from a reader like you to keep us going, for just $2 / month.

The Prophet (SAW) has taught us the best of deeds are those that done consistently, even if they are small. Click here to support MuslimMatters with a monthly donation of $2 per month. Set it and collect blessings from Allah (swt) for the khayr you're supporting without thinking about it.

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