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Between a Rock and a Hard Place- Black and Muslim

Margari Hill

The path to autonomy can be treacherous. In the early 90s, my International Relations professor would describe leaders in newly independent Africa and Middle East nations as being “between a rock and a hard place” during the Cold War.  He used it so much, that it became a catchphrase.   However,  I always heard the phrase, “Between Iraq and a hard place.” Every time he’d say it, I’d look at my Libyan American classmate and say, “is he talking about Jordan?”  I enjoyed the class. It satisfied my curiosity about current affairs, but I was also interested in a world that existed outside of white supremacy, of colonialism, or slavery.

Similar to those newly independent nations, our American Muslim communities also navigated uncharted territory, pressured by political forces outside our control. Inspired by the thoughts of Alija Itzbegovic who wrote Between East and West, by W.D. Muhammad who told us the sun would rise in the West, I believed in the relevance of Islam to addressing the social ills in my society. Many of these I faced personally, including family instability, substance abuse, street violence, and lack of education opportunities.  I had no idea about the complexities of building  Muslim communities, but I became a firebrand within the campus bubble. National conventions  like ISNA seemed like a distant vacation place that only my affluent friends could afford to go in order to participate in the halal meat market. From my position on the periphery of community life at the Muslim Community Association and South Bay Islamic Association, I grew tired of being upheld as some example of  perseverance through obstacles. I didn’t want to be the female version of Bilal raḍyAllāhu 'anhu (may Allāh be pleased with him), to inspire nonBlack Muslims, “See how beautiful Islam is, she believes even with that boulder weighing on her chest.”   I wanted to exist free from the things that were weighing me down and feel free from being tethered to the hard place that was my past.

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At the time of my conversion, I only knew one Muslim family, a Black American family, and had little clue about the social and political dynamics of community life. Shortly after converting, I found two small scarves to cover my head and soon found myself developing relationships with Muslim men and women from the Philippines, Iran, Albania, Libya, Palestine, Nigeria, and Syria. Although I had a lot of passion for my faith, I was by no means an ideal Muslim convert. I also found the community to be less than ideal.  Dreams of racial egalitarianism faded as white converts were put on pedestals, as some of my peers told racist jokes, as colorism was rampant, and as our community was divided along  ethnic lines.  Whenever I brought up issues about race, some people blamed colonialism, others said I was making things up and or that I was too sensitive. Being Black, being a hijab wearing woman, being a college dropout, being rejected by family, being abandoned and left to fend for myself, that weight started to weigh me down more than I could bear. It would take me years to reconcile with Muslim community life.

It was only when I started blogging in 2006, over a decade later, that I began to find my voice and wrap words around the pain I experienced. Islam and the Blackamerican came out while I was in graduate school in 2005. While many Black American  Muslims nod their head in agreement when Dr. Sherman Abdul Hakeem Jackson describes the power dynamic between first and second generation American Muslims and Black American Muslims (described as the Immigrant/indigenous Muslim divide), there are many nonBlack Muslims who fail to grasp how much truth that book speaks to our reality. Privilege can provide blinders to the overt and subtle experiences racism.

In my early quest to understand my place Muslim communities, I  found anti-blackness in classical Arabic literature. This drove my quest in graduate school to understand pre-colonial racial formations in Muslim majority societies. I wanted to find myself in my tradition outside of the Bilal trope. I also wanted to be equipped to have those difficult conversations about race. Back then, there were a few bloggers who came into Islam through the Black experience. They also  wrote about race and Muslims, these bloggers include Charles Catchings, Umar Lee, Tariq Nelson, Jamerican Muslimah, Marc Manley, Abdur Rahman Muhammad, and Umm Adam.  Whenever we wrote about racism our comments sections would explode with heated exchanges that included people dismissing our views or sometimes it would devolve into ad hominem attacks. In 2007, Muslim Alliance of North America tackled the issues of race in Muslim American communities head on. But they faced push back and I remember reading  some non-Black blogger who wrote that we should just get over it with vociferous agreement in the comments section. In 2012,  Hakeemah Cummings started a campaign, “We are All Slaves of Allah.” Then Dawud Walid took the mantle in 2013 by tweeting at Muslims who used racial slurs. The chorus picked up  and since its founding in 2014, MuslimARC has helped sustain the conversation about race in Muslim communities.

My Arab American friend, who is a mother of a mixed raced Black child, told me about her daughter’s experience at an Islamic school. Weekly, she gives her daughter a pep talk to counter the negative messages her peers give her about being too dark with fuzzy hair.  While she has a loving extended family, she has no friends at her school. Another Sudanese family pulled their child out of the same school. Whenever parents share these stories, and there have been too many, I realize the gravity of my work. It is also deeply personal. My daughter is only four and I dread the experiences she may have at school. Positive peer experiences contribute to Muslim youth developing their religious identities, but many Black Muslims in multi-racial communities are bullied or socially isolated. This continues in college, with Black American Muslim youth  disassociating from the MSA. While I know a few Black American Muslim families who are  three generations strong, I also know other families whose kids cite their experiences of marginalization as a reason why they don’t practice or even identify as Muslim. I know firsthand the devastating consequences of not feeling a sense of belonging in the Muslim community.  Between Islamophobia and anti-Black racism, the cultural production of Black American Muslims is at stake.

Facing these pressures, Black American Muslims are often have divided loyalties and must make difficult choices.  Do we try to integrate into communities that seem to not want us or do we work on forming havens where we can be free of Islamophobia and anti-Black racism? The principle that drives my work is that we are one family, an Ummah. So, I hold a mirror up to my brothers and sisters as a reminder. For that reason, I will not disengage from any community or organizations that seeks to serve our collective interests. I believe that Black American Muslims are like the Ansar (Helpers) and Muhajiroon (Immigrants) and we truly need each other to thrive in this society.

Despite the model that we have from the Seerah,  I have faced criticism from Black American Muslims for wasting my time working within predominantly immigrant communities.

They stress the importance of building up institutions within the Black American Muslim community. Without institutions and wealth, Black American Muslims remain on an uneven footing from their counterparts.  Questioning the benefit of my work, several Black American Muslims have urged me to refocus my energies to support Black American  Muslim self reliance. While I support Black American Muslim self reliance, I also believe in the importance of building bridges because we need allies. Inner city community organizations rely on support from affluent donors in the suburbs. Sometimes these relationships can reify hierarchies in our community.  My work is to dismantle paternalistic attitudes and relationships by training organizers and community members about systemic oppression and our shared interest in addressing it. With this in mind, I work to build relationships with individuals and organizations. It is difficult to address problems such as lack of diversity on their boards, exclusion of Black and Latino Muslims,  and ethnocentric messaging that erases the plurality of the American Muslim experience from an adversarial relationship.

My hope is that working with organizations, we can make important shifts in policies, cultures, and practices.  For working with these organizations, I also face criticism and at times derision. This year, I have faced criticism from Black American Muslims for working with ISNA to organize  a panel addressing the Muslims and the New Jim Crow and for facilitating the ISNA Black Lives Matter Roundtable. On the day I landed in Chicago for ISNA 52, I was tagged in a thread critiquing the Black Lives Matter as a kumbaya event. I have also faced criticism for working with CAIR.  I have been reminded of the importance of “do for self,” a motto of Black self determination. Some have likened my anti-racism work as an attempt to earn the respect of non-Black Muslims. In my Counter Violent Extremism organizing, I have been warned by Black American Muslims to not be used as a token by non-Black Muslims in their battles. Others encourage me to utilize my energies in Black led initiatives, rather than work on multi-racial Muslim campaigns.

I also get criticism from non-Black Muslims for my engagement with mainstream Muslim organizations. While I issue statements and am not above a protest or drop the mic moment, I haven’t followed their calls to boycott ISNA, the White House Iftar, or other organizations. I believe in speaking my truth. I have weighed in on the marginalization of Palestinian American voices during the MLI controversy and critiqued Counter Violent Extremism programs from a racial justice lens. And because I take a stand, some people think that also requires I break off relationships.   In November someone sent me a screenshot of a conversation where I was the subject. They were discussing their concerns about  my acceptance of the  MPAC  Community Change Makers Award.  They were concerned I would be co-opted and stop my critique of the  Safe Spaces Initiative.  People approached me during the  months leading up to the award ceremony to express their opinions about what I should do or say. But for the most part, they expressed their support telling me the award was well deserved.  As I said in my acceptance speech, my critiques are out of love because I believe we can do better as a community. I was deeply humbled to be considered a Community Change Maker and be acknowledged  alongside the phenomenal Nahla Kayali, Founder and Executive Director of Access California Services, and Dr. Shamim Ibrahim, Founding Executive Director of Niswa Association. While they provide direct services, MuslimARC is a racial justice education organization. We have changed conversations, but these women have changed lives.  Yet that recognition helped normalize anti-racism work in Muslim communities. After I received the award, someone messaged me to express disappointment over my decision. It does hurt in many ways to think that people would take rather take a cynical view of that moment. This individual argued that my decision was an unprincipled act of hypocrisy because I had criticized MPAC. As someone who values being understood, it bothers me more that others do not want to acknowledge the reasons why my acceptance of the award is guided by my own principles. I am not sure what space some people hope for me to operate in, not at ISNA, not in multi-ethnic coalitions, not with established institutions, but maybe from the periphery in operating between a rock and a hard space.

Sometimes doing anti-racism work makes me feel like Sisyphus, punished by pushing a boulder uphill. There are times when I feel the weight of that rock crushing down on me. Everyone who has done work in the Muslim community knows that heavy criticism comes with the job. I know I am not beyond reproach. Because of social media and my accessibility to volunteers and the public, hardly a day goes by without me receiving negative feedback about my work. I take it all to heart, sometimes too heavily. I understand concerns about our tactics and methods of anti-racism work: whether too confrontational or too soft.  Even in our most successful campaigns or programs, there is no time to celebrate. We have to look at it with a critical eye and think how we can do better.
When making choices, I always keep my identity, my context as an African American Muslim woman. I often seek advice from trusted friends, family, community members, and above all guidance from my Lord before making decisions. I also take into account the vision of MuslimARC and think about the long road to liberation. In truth, MuslimARC is beyond me as an individual. But people will look at my actions to affirm or delegitimize this work. And that’s also a heavy weight.  To get out from between the rock and a hard space, I have had to carve out my own space in our community. But I may also have to  begin to dig even deeper, beyond my comfort zone, to create help create inclusive spaces where we can thrive and struggle for a world that is just.

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Margari Aziza Hill is co-founder and Programming Director of Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative (MuslimARC), assistant editor at AltM, co-founder of Muslims Make it Plain, and columnist at MuslimMatters. She is on the Advisory Council of Islam, Social Justice & Interreligious Engagement Program at the Union Theological Seminary and winner of the 2015 MPAC Change Maker Award. She has nearly a decade of teaching experiences at all levels from elementary, secondary, college level, to adult education. She earned her master’s in History of the Middle East and Islamic Africa from Stanford University in 2006. Her research includes colonial surveillance in Northern Nigeria, anti-colonial resistance among West Africans in Sudan during the early 20th century, and race in Muslim communities. She is also a freelance writer with articles published in Time, SISTERS, Islamic Monthly, Al Jazeera English, Virtual Mosque (formerly Suhaibwebb.com), and Spice Digest. She has given talks and lectures in various universities and Muslim communities.

4 Comments

4 Comments

  1. Avatar

    GregAbdul

    February 25, 2016 at 10:09 PM

    Fascinating article! The true dilemma of the thinking black American Muslim: separate or integrate. The Fantasy of black American nationalism ended with the decline of the Nation of Islam. In one of his famous lectures, Malcolm X talked about blacks doing business with blacks alone and not relying on “outsiders.” If we properly understand the teachings of Malcolm, we see new interpretations and adapt them to our circumstances in the modern world. We seek to integrate, but as Muslims, with our identities undiluted. There is no black bubble where money goes in and never goes out. If we truly want such a setup, then we must move to Africa and even then, tell me which African country is insulted at the idea of Western aid?

    We must work to build wealth as individuals, not because we are black, but be cause the proper practice of Islam takes money. Islamic education takes money. You have to have time to go to the mosque to learn and that means you have to have enough money for leisure. It takes money to build a mosque. It takes money to go on Hajj. Having a middle class or better income is not a black struggle. It’s a Muslim thing. I am an African American Muslim. The biggest challenge we face in our double bind in America is not going backwards and debating things that were settled 50 years ago.

    The biggest obstacle to our unity that I see is us getting our due respect from the immigrants. Sometimes in this we are our own worst enemies. In the last year, I have seen over and over old black American Muslims, for reasons that totally baffle me, who want to resurrect and legitimize Elijah Muhammad. This guy called himself a messenger, who spoke directly with God after Prophet Muhammad. He impregnated six teenage girls outside of marriage in the 60s and sat silently while his people gunned down Malcolm X.

    As individuals, we must strive to create success in the dunya as we build for our Akhira. But we must never lose sight of the fact that our goal is not to please men or be seen as good by other people. Our goal is Allah (swt). When black American Muslims use the term “the honorable Elijah Muhammad,” we are telling the greater Ummah that we don’t mind shirk and fornication, because a black man did it. Elijah was NOT honorable and using this term demeans us as people and demarks us as a people who do not understand basic Islam. Allah determines our risk. But we as individuals determine if we will stand with the good and against the bad, even if the bad happens to have dark skin or champions pseudo black nationalism. May Allah guide us.

  2. Avatar

    Anees

    February 27, 2016 at 2:15 AM

    Loved this very much. The work you are doing is absolutely necessary – building bridges within the Muslim community among the different groups is key.

    Though we have a great Black Muslim community here in Portland (the masjid/community center that our Black brothers and sisters attend to on the East side of the city, was recently lost to fire), it is clear that much of the community don’t value their place as much as their own. We recently had a fundraising event at our Islamic school (itself which has moved into a new building), but it was noticeable that the crowd was not as large as for other events, though still a good crowd by Allah’s Grace. Being a South Asian Muslim, I notice more of the outside picture, but as far as those allies that subgroups, such as the Black Muslim community need, I’m glad that those who did attend the fundraising event or those who help behind the scenes, in secret, are doing their part. It is encouraging, but as you’ve surely seen, there is still plenty of work to be done.

    Once again, so proud that the Muslim community at large has someone like you Sr. Margari. May Allah (swt) continue bless you with success, strength and patience as you move forward.

  3. Avatar

    Aafia

    February 29, 2016 at 1:10 AM

    Feel sorry that you recieve negative feedback . But does that feedback really matter If the Purpose is the Pleasure of Allah(swt)You are doing great work , Sis.

  4. Avatar

    junaid

    March 9, 2016 at 4:23 AM

    Loved this very much. The work you are doing is absolutely necessary – building bridges within the Muslim community among the different groups is key. The true dilemma of the thinking black American Muslim : separate or integrate.

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#Life

What Repentance Can Teach You About Success

When losing weight, one piece of advice you’ll hear often is the following – if you fall off your eating plan one day, pick yourself back up and think of the next day as a fresh start.

Annoying, isn’t it?

You’ll hear this advice from people who have “made it” – they’ve lost a lot of weight, their lives have changed, and they’ll tell you to stick through it, and you’ll be like, yeah, I have, I tried, and I keep failing. I keep trying, I can’t sustain the motivation, I have life factors, I have stuff going on that makes this difficult.

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And you’re right.

You don’t have millions of dollars, a dedicated personal trainer and chef, the free time and lack of commitments others do, the lack of sleep, the injuries, or personal life circumstances that advantage others, nor do they have those that disadvantage you.

That’s not the point.

When you make a mistake, if you run through the process of regret, repentance, and retrying to do the right thing, Allah (swt) is pleased with you. And if you keep failing, repenting, and trying again, and again, and again, until you die, Allah keeps forgiving you.

The process of both recognizing your weakness, of getting out of denial, and humbling yourself and not thinking yourself so high and mighty has its own sobering effect. Not only does it help you in dealing with that atom’s weight of arrogance you don’t want to meet Allah (swt) with on the Day of Judgment, it helps make you a better human being, a more compassionate one, a more empathetic one, when calling others away from mistakes.

I’m not perfect, and you’re not perfect. Perfection is only for Allah (swt). But we’re trying. And the process of recognizing your weakness and at least attempting to rectify it means that maybe you’ll sin a little less, maybe you’ll still not invent excuses for mistakes and you’ll teach others, “Hey man, I know this is a sin, I know this is wrong, I hope you can do better than me.” And maybe they do change, and you’re both better for it.

Maybe in trying and failing again and again, what you end up doing is coming a little bit closer to success, and that process of trying and failing is the teacher you needed to get you out of your weakness and to then help others do likewise. Maybe that learning process serves you in succeeding elsewhere down the road in other treacherous turns and trials of life.

Whether it’s in losing weight, fixing broken relationships, pulling away from a heavy nafs addiction (eg pornography), don’t ever put yourself mentally in a position where “you’ve lost” and “you may as well give up” because “there’s no hope for me”. Don’t identify yourself by your failures.

So then, what is the point?

The point isn’t that you hit your goal perfectly. The point is that give your best, even with the little that you have, and that is good enough for you and for all of us. Ask Allah (swt) to help you better yourself, and in these 10 Days of Dhul-Hijjah, increase in your du’a, cry to Him for help, in whatever area of life it is you’re trying to improve.

And whatever you fail at, don’t fall off for weeks on end. Acknowledge your mistake, own it completely and take full responsibility. Try to figure out where you went wrong in your process, get help from others if you need to. Forgive yourself, and don’t resign yourself to an identity based on your mistakes.

Never get tired of failing, getting knocked down, and picking yourself back up and trying to do and be better again.

It’s always a brand new day tomorrow.

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30 Khawaatir in 30 Days- A Parent’s Guide | Day 19: My Mercy Encompasses All Things

Now that we have learnt about when the angels surround us, let’s now talk about how Allah’s subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) mercy encompasses all things.

We say بِسْمِ اللَّـهِ الرَّحْمَـٰنِ الرَّحِيمِ  (bismillah Ar-Rahman ar-Raheem) a lot, right? It means ‘in the Name of Allah, the Most Merciful, the Most Compassionate.’ 

We say it when we pray, before we eat, and we’re encouraged to say it before we begin any new task. But do we really understand what rahma (mercy) means? 

Question: What do you think rahma means?

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Do you know that the word rahma comes from the root word, رحم (rahim), which means womb? 

Question: Who can tell me what a womb is?

That’s right. A baby is usually in their mommy’s womb for 40 weeks. The baby gets all the nourishment it requires; the temperature in the womb is perfect, the nutrients are always administered, it is safe and warm. All the baby has to do is grow, and alhamdulillah all its needs are being met. 

Question: How do you think the womb relates to Allah’s subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) mercy?

Allah’s subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) mercy is constantly surrounding us like a safety net. That doesn’t mean that we’ll never experience any pain, but Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) is constantly showing us mercy with every breath we take. Even blinking is a mercy from Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) that we don’t even have to think about. Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) even has more mercy for us than a mother has for her own child! 

One day the Prophet Muhammad ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) was walking with a group of his companions, and they passed by a woman who was frantically looking for her child. She would take any child to her breast and try to feed him/her. Then the Prophet Muhammad ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) said to the companions: “Do you think that this lady can throw her son in the fire?” We replied, “No, if she has the power not to throw it (in the fire).” The Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) then said, “Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) is more merciful to His slaves than this lady to her son.”

And guess what? There’s even more mercy in the hereafter than we’re experiencing right now. 

Salman al-Farisi reported: The Prophet Muhammad ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) said, “Verily, on the day Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) created the heavens and earth, He created one hundred parts of mercy. Each part can fill what is between heaven and earth. He made one part of mercy for the earth, from it a mother has compassion for her child, animals and birds have compassion for each other. On the Day of Resurrection, He will perfect this mercy.” [Sahih Muslim]

99 parts of mercy on the Day of Judgment! That is one reason why it’s so important to have a good opinion of Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He)! Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) even tells us in Surat Al-A’raaf:

وَرَحْمَتِي وَسِعَتْ كُلَّ شَيْءٍ ۚ

“My mercy encompasses all things” (Surat Al-A’raaf; 156]

And you all, my dears, are all encompassed by Allah’s subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) mercy, alhamdulillah. 

 

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30 Khawaatir in 30 Days- A Parent’s Guide | Day 18: When the Angels Surround Us

Now that we have learnt about Hajar raḍyAllāhu 'anha (may Allāh be pleased with her) and her sa’i, let’s now talk about when the angels surround us.

Do you know that every time we sit together and remember Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He), we are not alone in our meeting? We have very special visitors, and these visitors love to hear us praising Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He)and thanking Him. 

Question: Who can tell me who these visitors are?

Yes! They are angels! Can anyone name some angels for me?

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We have Angel Jibril 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) who has delivered every message to every Prophet since the beginning of time. We also have our angels on our left and right who write down our deeds.

Question: Does anyone know the name of the angel that is in control of the weather? 

His name is Angel Mikai’l. 

There are so many gifts that Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) grants us when we gather together and remember him. Four things happen every single time! I want you to pay close attention to this hadith, because I’m going to ask you what those four things are after I read it. 

Are you ready?

‏لا يقعد قوم يذكرون الله عز وجل إلا حفتهم الملائكة، وغشيتهم الرحمة ونزلت عليهم السكينة، وذكرهم الله فيمن عنده‏

The Prophet Muhammad ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) said: “When a group of people assemble for the remembrance of Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He), the angels surround them (with their wings), (Allah’s) mercy envelops them, tranquility descends upon them, and Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) makes a mention of them before those who are near Him.”

Question: Can you believe that Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) makes mention of your name when you make mention of His? What do you think it means when “tranquility descends upon us?” Do you feel how calm your heart is? 

That is a gift from Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) and He tells us that our hearts find rest in His remembrance:

أَلَا بِذِكْرِ اللَّـهِ تَطْمَئِنُّ الْقُلُوبُ

“…Unquestionably, by the remembrance of Allah hearts are assured” [Surah Ar-Ra’d; 28] 

 

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