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The Box He’s In

free ibrahim

One From the History Books

Sometimes you read a story (casually, not knowing what to expect), only to have that story haunt you. There’s something at the heart of it that won’t let you go. The story of Henry Brown was one of those for me.

It was in 1849, in Louisa County Virginia, that Brown did a series of incredible things. 

First, he used sulfuric acid to burn his hand, because it was the only way he could get some time off of work (he used too much, and burned all the way down to the bone). 

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He then climbed into a small box – three feet by two feet, by two and a half feet high – and had his shoemaker friend nail the top shut. And with only three small holes in the box for air, he sent Brown away by mail. Brown travelled 350 miles in that box, for 27 hours. When he finally reached the address in Philadelphia, a group of waiting friends pried the lid open, and Brown could finally escape, a free man.

You won’t be surprised to hear it, but this was a horrible way to travel. Even though Brown had clearly labeled the box, “this side up with care,” handlers tossed his box around, and he spent hours of his journey traveling on his head. At one point, the pressure had built up so much that Brown felt like the blood vessels in his head would burst, and his eyes would literally pop out of their sockets. He waited silently for the blood to gush out and flow over him. 

But as difficult and dangerous as all of this sounds, it was nothing compared to the agony Brown had endured as a slave. 

Compared to most slaves, Brown himself acknowledged that he had it “good” – a very relative term, of course. In his 33 years as a slave, he had been whipped just once. He had enough food to eat, enough clothes to cover him decently, and the work he was given was never too extreme. But nothing of his was really his own, not even his own person. As a young boy, his mother would take him on her knee, and with trembling voice and tears rolling down her cheeks, she would point at the forest trees and say, “my son, as yonder leaves are stripped from off the trees of the forest, so are the children of slaves swept away from them by the hands of cruel tyrants.”  

And when his first master died, Brown and his parents and siblings were divided as property between this master’s heirs. They were torn in separate directions, never to see each other again. 

Later, when Brown was a young man, he found solace in a fellow slave named Nancy. Brown fell in love with Nancy, and married her, and had three children with her. He did everything in his power to keep her nearby. But Nancy, like Brown, was not her own person. And one day without warning, Nancy and the kids were all sold off by their owner, and Brown could do nothing except watch as his loved ones were taken from him a second time.

And it was this agony – to have his wife and children stripped mercilessly away from him – that Brown could not endure. This was the agony that made him burn his hand, and climb into a wooden mailing box, and suffer in mute silence as he travelled, tumbling on his head, so he could be free. 

Threads of Injustice

I hesitate to draw parallels between this story of Henry “Box” Brown and the story I am about to tell of my own life. The history of slavery in the US is so dark, and so grim, I can think of few  things that compare to that horror. I guess by those accounts, you could say we’ve had it good. “Good” is a relative term, of course. 

But as I picture my husband sitting – trapped – in an ICE detention center in Aurora, Colorado, 1,200 miles away from where I am with our kids, I can’t help but wonder why our country seems so hell-bent on perpetuating those same threads of injustice, so that some form of slavery, some flavor of oppression, will always endure.

My husband, Ibrahim Mohammad, is a political prisoner. The US government will happily label him a terrorist, an accusation he is entirely innocent of. But by all accounts (whether you believe him to be innocent, or guilty of the “crime” on official records) he is meant to be a free man.

I’ve written about my husband before, at some length, in a story that is in a story that is now a decade long

After a fruitless FBI raid on our home in 2011 which turned up no evidence, after my husband then cooperated with the FBI in answering any and all questions on two occasions, after four years of radio silence from them – my husband was suddenly arrested in 2015.

Ibrahim was kept behind bars for almost two and half years after that, simply awaiting a trial that the prosecution kept pushing back.

Then in 2018, Ibrahim took a plea deal. 

It was an excruciating decision for him to make. He had spent countless hours preparing for his own case, sifting through pages and pages of discovery. Ibrahim was ready to go to trial and defend his innocence, when the prosecution (who had shown up in court before unprepared and unable to make a coherent argument) presented him with an offer that was almost impossible to turn down.

The prosecution’s offer was for a 5 year sentence for reduced charges – half of which he had already served – followed by deportation from the country. To go to trial, on the other hand, was to face a necessarily biased jury, and risk a potential life sentence. It was a no brainer. Ibrahim’s lawyer for the case called this deal, “The closest thing to surrender by the Government. The Government did not indict him on life sentence terrorism offenses to have him serve 21 months [after taking the deal].” 

And so my husband took the deal. He admitted to guilt on paper so he could one day walk the earth free again, reunited with the wife and children he was so mercilessly stripped away from.

Unfortunate Crossroads

On February 7th of this year, 2020, Ibrahim completed the remaining days of his sentence.

He was released into ICE custody as the transitional ground between the Colorado prison he was in, and the country he would be deported to (likely India, since my husband is an Indian national). His departure was needlessly delayed, and now, because of COVID-19 and the world crisis we all find ourselves in, he is trapped. Flights out of the country are cancelled or delayed, and India has closed its borders.

“I never should have taken that plea deal,” my husband said recently, and I try, as I have many times before, to console him. 

It’s a resurfacing of an internal struggle Ibrahim has had since the moment he took the deal, trying to reconcile his soul to the decision. He has spent long days worried that by “admitting” even to the lesser charges in the deal, he betrayed himself and his beliefs. He goes back in time often to reject that deal, trusting that God would clear his name. Trusting that the research he put in, and the dedicated lawyer he had, could have easily (easily) stood up to the weak evidence and mumbling prosecution. Maybe, he thinks, he should have risked everything to stand up for the truth, rather than make the slightest concession to tyranny.

But the reality is, Ibrahim never stood a chance at a fair trial, despite his glaring innocence. Terrorism cases of the past have taught us that. A racist President and a country that elected him gave us no reason to hope that this time would be different. 

If you still think it’s strange that my husband would admit to something he didn’t do, that he’d be willing to take on the implication of “terrorist” when he took his plea deal, I want to remind you again of Henry Brown. How he burnt his hand with sulfuric acid and travelled in a nailed wooden shipping crate, risking his life. A good and innocent man, when stripped of his family and freedom, will do desperate things to get them back. 

“If you have never been deprived of your liberty, as I was,” wrote Brown, “You cannot realize the power of that hope of freedom, which was to me indeed, an anchor to the soul both sure and steadfast.”  

A Looming Disaster

In the wake of COVID-19, my husband is now serving an indefinite sentence.  Everything about his situation is uncertain.

And while his prolonged stay in the ICE detention center may seem like just another inconvenience brought on suddenly by this pandemic – aren’t all of our lives on hold in so many ways? – my husband is in a dangerous situation. He sits in a box, with other men, while the whole world has been flipped on its head. While the rest of us are told to stay home, to stay safe, to keep a distance – my husband and other detainees are in cramped quarters where social distancing is impossible, where disinfectants and cleaners are inadequate, and where all it takes is for one inmate to get sick before the rest of them follow suit.

I shudder to think what could happen to Ibrahim and these other men. I shudder to think how an already overwhelmed medical system – short-staffed and lacking necessary gear and equipment – could even begin to handle this.

Already, in early April, a staff member at my husband’s detention center tested positive for COVID-19, and shortly afterwards, a fever and illness spread among the inmates. There’s no way to know what it was, and the detention center says they did their best to isolate the infected staff member. What if it wasn’t COVID-19? And what if COVID-19 is on its way to them? All it takes is for one person – one delivery driver, one staff member, one detainee– to be infected, and the rest of the center is the perfect breeding ground for this virus.

For Cook County Jail in Chicago, all of this is no longer a “what if.” At the time of writing this, more than 500 detainees and staff at that jail have been infected. Prisoners have started rioting, and more recently going on hunger strike. All across the nation, what has already happened in Cook County Jail will happen at other prisons, because our government is failing to act. The data paints a horrifying picture, and some activists expect that “tens of thousands of prisoners will needlessly die” in the wake of COVID-19. They have labelled this a time “when mass incarceration becomes mass murder.”  

And all of us are culpable if we fail to act

Friends on Either Side

In late March, activists on the ground worked to release a number of prisoners from the Aurora Contract Detention Facility where my husband is being held. A wave of men was released, like a breath of air, to alleviate a humanitarian crisis on the verge of happening.

Ibrahim was not one of those men.

The ICE detention center claims they “probably” cannot release him on house arrest based on his conviction, even though they have complete jurisdiction to do so. 

Despite being a non-violent prisoner, despite having no prior contact with the law before the trumped up charges were brought against him, despite having served his agreed upon sentence, my husband (like other Muslims caught in the crossfire of the US “War on Terror”) wears a scarlet letter in the shape of a “T,” branded onto him as if with a hot iron – without pity and without escape. 

When Henry Brown made his historic escape from slavery, he was aided on either side by friends and supporters. In Virginia, there was his shoemaker friend and another man who was himself a freed slave. And in Philadelphia, it was a group of abolitionists who knew the evils of slavery, and the imperative of helping out a fellow man in need. They took up his cause and fought for him before they ever met him. 

For my husband, he is awaited on the other side of his captivity by a loving, longing family. We have waited for him every day since his release date in February, and long before that in every moment since the moment of his traumatic arrest.

Ibrahim is also aided by loving friends and activists fighting to get him out as we speak. A few weeks ago we filed for an Emergency Humanitarian Parole Request, asking that my husband be released on house arrest until India opens up its borders and he can fulfill the second half of an unjust plea deal, in a case that was always a travesty of justice.

It was denied. ICE gave no reason, but merely wrote a few lines as if to offer some sort of appeasement. 

We now have to put up a fight in the higher courts and file what’s called a habeas corpus in the 10th Circuit Federal Court of Appeals in Colorado. A habeas corpus, simply put, challenges the court to show reason as to why an individual must remain in custody. In Ibrahim’s case, having served his time, further imprisonment or detention now warrants further review. It’s still a long shot, but worth it for the chance at freedom it gives my husband, and for the sake of not staying silent in the face of injustice.

We do need your help. 

We ask that people who have never met Ibrahim take up his cause and fight for him, because the US government’s misplaced “war on terror” and systems of “mass incarceration” are evils that need to be eradicated. Help Ibrahim (and other prisoners) out of a situation that could needlessly turn into one of mass murder. Help release Ibrahim from the indefinite sentence he is now serving after having completed the unfair sentence he was given. 

Please sign the petition to free my husband, and spread the word: https://bit.ly/FreeIbrahimNow

As we see so many people stepping up during this crisis, as we witness the earth heal and restore aspects of its physical form, it’s time for a moral transformation as well.

Help set a free man free. 

 Brown, Henry. Narrative of the Life of Henry Box Brown. Kindle ed., Dover Publications, 2015. 

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3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Umm Talha

    May 23, 2020 at 12:34 PM

    SubhanAllah I feel ur pain and make dua that Allāh swt eases your situation. InshaAllah. Those with emaan always have the biggest test so inshaAllah staying patient is the key (I know easier said than done).

  2. Avatar

    Wael Abdelgawad

    May 28, 2020 at 3:30 PM

    Henry Brown’s story is indeed fascinating. Thank you for sharing that.

    I am sorry to hear of your family’s trials. May Allah bring you comfort and relief.

    However, to those reading this who may one day find themselves in similar straits, I must say: Never plead guilty to something you did not do! It will mark you forever, and no one will believe your innocence henceforth. If you are innocent, hold to that. People DO win terrorism trails. There HAVE been acquittals. Not to mention the possibility of future appeals. I realize the prospect of going to prison is terrifying. It’s a Hobson’s choice that no one should have to make. May Allah protect us all from evil and falsehood.

    • Avatar

      Wael Abdelgawad

      May 28, 2020 at 3:34 PM

      P.S. I believe your husband has now been deported to India, has he not?

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Social Justice

Podcast: Priorities and Protest | On Muslim Activism with Shaykhs Dawud Walid and Omar Suleiman

Islam teaches us to stand up for justice, to enjoin good and forbid evil, and to help our brother whether he’s the oppressor or the oppressed, but how?

To help us fully understand the answer to this question, we have the honor of speaking to not one, but two subject matter experts on Muslim activism. Dr. Omar Suleiman and Shaykh Dawud Walid are both scholars, authors, and Imams internationally known for their work in civil rights and social justice.

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Excerpts from the interview:

“You can’t say I don’t believe any bad things about black people because I love Sayyiduna Bilal. We have to move past, and move beyond the tokenization of Bilal and talk about the haqeeqah (reality) of America and how the broader super culture really has influenced a lot of anti-black frameworks inside the Muslim community of those who are not black.” – Shaykh Dawud Walid

'We believe very deeply that our deen calls us to stand for the sanctity of life and to stand against oppression, and to stand against state violence and all that it represents in this regard.' - Imam Omar SuleimanClick To Tweet

“We can never elevate any other cause to where we equate it to anti-blackness in America, we can and rightfully should point to the fact that the same frames that have been used to justify state violence and white supremacy embedded in state policy towards black people in America is what guides America’s foreign policy and imperialism as well.” – Imam Omar Suleiman

'When the Muslim community stands up for the importance of black life, it is standing up for itself and with itself.' - Shaykh Dawud WalidClick To Tweet

“You know your name, and you know what land your family came from and you know the language that they spoke. Imagine the centuries of trauma that African Americans have gone through in this country, where we were brought here as chattel, like a cow or a chicken, our children were separated from our parents, our names were taken from us, our language, our culture, our religion, and then we were forced into the religion of Christianity, and the psychological warfare and violence of then having to look at a picture of a blonde-haired, blue-eyed Jesus that looked just like our slave-master, and to be told that our slave master looked more like the embodiment of civilization and purity of Jesus. And then we looked at ourselves and we saw the exact opposite. And then this dehumanization, being baked into every single system of the socio-political life of black people in America.

Anyone who is named Jones in America, it’s because their great, great grandfather was owned by someone named Jones. It has nothing to do with their lineage or their culture. And people like me, who are lighter skinned African-Americans – there’s no one from Senegal or Gambia indigenously who looks like me – it’s because my great grandfather’s mother was raped by a white man on a plantation in South Carolina. What we face in America isn’t just a moment or two of discrimination here or there.” – Shaykh Dawud Walid

'Why should cops with a list of seventeen prior violations of excessive force still be on the force? Why is it that penalizing of everyone but the police exists?' - Imam Omar SuleimanClick To Tweet

“Many Muslims feel very stressed when they’re driving across the border to Canada or flying back into the country. They’re very fearful about CBP or about being interrogated or held. Take that feeling, multiply it by about three, and imagine every day of your life living in America feeling that way. That’s about the best way I can explain it, but if you’re black AND you’re Muslim, that’s double trouble.” – Shaykh Dawud Walid

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Raised by Converts

Note to the reader:  Some Muslims debate which term we should use for someone who has chosen to accept Islam. Is it supposed to be “convert” or “revert?”  In this article, I choose to use the word “convert.”  Before I start receiving comments from individuals who are convinced that the term “revert” is the only correct one, I would like to share this superb article on the issue written by Ricardo Peña, who says it better than I ever could.  

Nuha* thought she had found her soulmate and future life partner in Joel*, her co-worker. He was kind, hardworking, and charming, and the young couple wanted to get married.  Nuha’s father, however, would not give his blessing to the union because the potential groom had recently converted to Islam.  Nuha’s dad wanted his daughter to marry a man who had grown up in a Muslim family and therefore, presumably, had years of Islamic experience and fairly solid religious knowledge. He speculated about some of the things Joel might have done before embracing Islam and whether he had any habits that would be hard to break. He also thought it would be wiser for his daughter to marry someone from the same background; he doubted a white guy would really know how to relate to a Pakistani-American girl and her desi family. Most of all, he worried that Joel would not know enough about Islam to be a good husband, father, and imam of his family.  

Was Nuha’s father justified? Do converts make good spouses and parents? Can they ever truly move on from any un-Islamic aspects of their past and adhere to their new deen

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How do converts attain the knowledge necessary to raise children with Islamic knowledge, taqwa, and adab?

To answer this question I spoke with six Muslims who grew up in a household where one or more parents were converts to Islam. Their answers give insight into the true dynamics of what happens when converts raise children.  

Khadijah is a freelance writer, editor, and writing coach from the United Kingdom. Her mother, a white British woman, converted when Khadijah was eight years old.  When she and Khadijah’s father had divorced, she had felt a need to find a deeper meaning in life. This searching led her to Islam.  

“My mum taught me Islam in stages,” explains Khadijah. “As she learnt things, she passed them onto me. We went to study circles together, and we learnt to pray together as well. She wrote the transliteration of the prayer on little blue cards for us to hold whilst we prayed. I wouldn’t say her knowledge was sufficient at the time, but whose knowledge is? I learnt valuable lessons as I watched her do her own reading, leaning, and questioning. I felt like we stumbled through together. As I grew up, this taught me Islam is a constant journey, and it’s ok to ask questions.”

Shaheda, a freelance writer from North Carolina, grew up in different circumstances than Khadijah, but the women’s stories have definite parallels. Shaheda’s parents are African Americans who were both raised in traditional southern Christian families. The pair converted to Islam in the 1960s when they were college students who were active in the Civil Rights movement. They began to learn about Islam after their introduction to leaders like Malcolm X.  

As different as her parents’ life experiences were from Khadijah’s mum’s, Shaheda enjoyed the same benefit of being able to see her parents growing and changing due to the love of Islam. “My parents were learning Islam as they were raising us,” explains Shaheda, “and so their increase in knowledge was tangible to us. We grew up in a community where you would see the physical manifestations of knowledge acquisition. The style of dress of the sisters became more modest, the separation of women and men became more pronounced in social gatherings, social gatherings took on a more religious tone, we began to attend Sunday school to learn Quran and Arabic.”

Though it may come as a surprise to some, in families where one spouse was a born to a Muslim family and the other is a convert, the convert is often actually the more knowledgable and practicing parent. Aliyah is a family counselor from the Midwestern United States whose Indian mother and white American father met when they were partners in pre-med.  “My dad had read about ‘Mohammedans’ and would ask my mom lots of questions about them,” explains Aliyah. “My mom was raised in a home that was only culturally Muslim. Plus, back then most immigrants just wanted to assimilate. She didn’t really know the answer to my dad’s intensive questions. One day she suggested he ask her father the same questions. My grandfather took him to the ISNA convention where he could ask more knowledgeable people. Alhumdulilah he got all his questions answered and converted!”

 She continues, “As a little kid we always looked at my dad as the sheikh of the house. We all agree that he’s the reason my family is even practicing. He would always patiently entertain and answer my questions, read me stories about the Prophets and Seerah, and really focus on aqeedah and comparative religions.  When I grew up and both our levels of knowledge needed to grow, we learnt together. As a teen, my dad and I would walk to the masjid together and attend the Friday night halaqa. In college, our favorite thing to do was attend al Maghrib classes. I would ditch my friends and discuss with him what we had learned during the lunch break.”

For Iman,* a stay at home mom who grew up between the United States and the Middle East, it was her convert mother — not her Arab father — who was her main Islamic influence.  “I was about 6-7 years old when my mom converted,” she explains.  “I grew up celebrating Christmas and Eid. We had a Christmas tree in our living room for the first several years of my life. My mother, who was raised a Southern Baptist, embraced Islam when my youngest brother was a baby, so for most of his life she was a practicing Muslim. We learned most of what we know from her.  I remember as a child seeing stacks of books on the dining table that she would check out of the masjid library to read and learn. She was a very intelligent woman who knew more about Islam than lots of born Muslims.”

Based on her own experiences, Iman asserts, “Generally speaking, I think converts are more knowledgeable than born Muslims. It can be challenging,” she adds, “when the convert is more serious about deen than their born-Muslim spouse.”

Anisa, a former teacher from Missouri, agrees with Iman.  “In some ways, I feel converts may have more Islamic knowledge than born Muslims because they have had to search for the knowledge themselves as opposed to growing up with it. Also,” she adds, “many born Muslims have grown up with so much culture mixed with the religion that the difference between the two can get blurred.”

Anisa’s mom, a white American woman who was raised Christian, met some Muslims at Oklahoma Baptist College back in 1970.  She started conversations with them in the hopes of converting them to Christianity, but ended up intrigued by their faith. She took an Islamic History class and read whatever books she could find at the library. She decided to become a Muslim at an MSA conference and made her shahada in 1973. “By the time my mother was raising my sisters and me, she definitely knew all the basics of Islam and was able to teach us,” says Anisa.

“She was the main parental source of knowledge for us, although we also attended Sunday school.”Click To Tweet

Mustafa is the child of an Egyptian dad and an American mom. He was born in the U.S. but raised primarily in Egypt where he was surrounded by Muslims, and yet his convert mother was a huge inspiration to him in his faith. “I know that I loved my mom so much,” Mustafa says.  “I felt that she had done the decision-making process for us. That if someone so smart, clever, and precise figured out Islam was the Truth, it must be.” 

“My mom became Muslim in the early 80s,” explains Mustafa. “She learned about Islam from her students while completing her Masters at the University of Illinois-Champagne. She was teaching English as a second language to Malaysian exchange students. She also ended up living with them and learning about Islam from them. People always assumed my mom converted for my dad,” muses Mustafa. “She didn’t even know him when she converted!”

As positive as their experiences were, overall, with the guidance of their convert parents, life was not always easy for the children who grew up with one born-Muslim parent and one convert. Many times, stereotypes about race, ethnicity, and cultural differences complicated their relationships with extended family members and outsiders. Both as children and as adults, many of them had to cope with people’s misconceptions and tactlessness.  

“I was always teased,” confides Aliyah.  “I’ve been called ‘half Muslim,’ ‘zebra,’ and ‘white girl’ in a derogatory way. Aunties always questioned if I was taught Islam properly. People would assume my dad converted for love (the pet peeve of my whole family). I would hear talk in Urdu in the masjid kitchen that I couldn’t cut an onion because I’m white. It was hard for us when we were getting married to find someone that clicked with us because we were so culturally different than everyone we knew.”

“Kids are rough,” adds Mustafa.  “Muslims can be ignorant, stereotypical, and not know what is offensive. Someone asked my sister, ‘Did your dad marry your mom because she wore a bikini?’ We were oddities at school in Egypt when people would see my mom pick us up from school. I was actually embarrassed to be seen with her for a while growing up, just because of all the attention it got me.”

I was “the white girl” in a Muslim school,” explains Khadijah, “and whilst that made the other girls very aware of who I was, there was always an element of separation there. I didn’t feel white. I didn’t feel Pakistani or Gujarati. I don’t feel like it affected me in either a negative or positive way. I got used to not completely belonging and forged my own ‘culture.’ I married an Afro-Caribbean brother, so my children have such a mix of cultures around them and I think it’s pretty beautiful. Whether my upbringing influenced this or not, I don’t know!”

While Shaheda did not feel any religious tension within her extended family, (“I understand from firsthand experience how people of different faiths can coexist in love and mutual respect,” she says), she does experience some difficulty from her brothers and sisters in Islam.  She reports “having to repeatedly validate my identity as an actual Muslim to those who don’t have the same experience. The assumption that there may be something missing or not quite Muslim enough is troublesome.” 

Wisdom to Share

These children of converts with their unique experiences and courageous dedication to their faith have excellent wisdom to share with the Ummah.  

Aliyah, whose work as a counselor focuses especially on Muslim families, has advice for Muslim parents whose marriage is mixed, either culturally or racially. “To youth,” she says, “identity matters SO MUCH, especially in this day and age when that’s all anyone ever talks about. If you’re a white convert parent of brown/black kids, identify your privilege that comes with that. If your kids are brown or black…learn about what that means in America. When I was with my non-Muslim relatives they would just make me feel so ‘other.’ They would focus on my exotic look and beliefs and just make me feel like an alien.” 

She continues, “Research things to consider when you are raising a child that is a different ethnicity than you. Ask your kids how they feel about it. Have an open conversation. Teach them about valuing both their cultural backgrounds.”

Khadijah’s advice to Muslim parents is,

“Learn WITH your children. Let them see that you’re still learning and struggling as well. Let them experience the journey with you. They’ll learn more that way than through lectures. You don’t have to act like you have everything figured out.” 

I believe the constant cycling in of converts into Muslim communities is a great blessing,” offers Shaheda. “And with that blessing comes a responsibility. We owe them our support, wisdom, and love, and I think we should take that responsibility very seriously. We should create bonds. These individuals who Allah has chosen as believers among disbelievers are special, and they keep us on our spiritual toes. There are multitudes of blessings when a community gains a new convert.”

When I asked them if they would have any concerns about their own children marrying converts, all of the interviewees answered a firm “no.”  They realize that a person’s dedication to Islam is not guaranteed by being born into it, or even raised with it. 

Converts — people who chose Islam as mature adults after a great deal of research, soul-searching, and personal transformation — are among our Ummah’s most passionate, educated, and sincere members.  

*Names have been changed

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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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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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