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Racism Is A Disease of the Heart And Other Epiphanies In A Journey Towards Anti-Racism

I thought I wasn’t racist. I grew up in Sudan and the humanity of my friends and neighbors was something I took for granted. Muhammadain taught me how to drive, Mrs. Bashary was a beloved teacher and the twins next-door were chatty Safiya and Summaiya, who shared my secrets and whose mother smelled heavenly. Race was an American conversation I was introduced to after coming to the United States. I counted my blessings and  thought, what if I was raised in Indo-Pakistan and if I had not been raised around people with black skin?  Would I have seen them in the same way as many South Asians do? 

I thought I was okay. I was well-read, trained.

I thought I was not racist, but we all have internal biases which come out. Admitting this is imperative to moving forward.

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A few years ago, I wrote a news story for a local paper about a mainly South Asian youth group who delivered Ramadan meals to the inner city masajid. My tone came across as very “desi savior,” even if I did not consciously attempt to write it that way. The youth did not stay to break their fast with the community, I didn’t comment on that behavior and covered dilapidated mosques and did not give the same attention to the organized and well-run masjid in the center of the city.  Black elders in Baltimore checked me, and I tried to explain it away until I realized I needed to stop. They were not being oversensitive; I was being oversensitive. I was just as biased as anyone else – my perspective was influenced by my own experiences and position of privilege. 

I have been checked a few times since. My sister, Romana Muhammad, checked me when I wrote a news article  in which I quoted  a woman from a housing project I had interviewed, verbatim. “E tu brute?” said Sr Romana, expecting better of me. I thought I was relaying authentic vernacular. But I had fixed the grammar of many immigrant leaders that I had interviewed; why didn’t I fix her quote?

These are times when your intentions don’t matter as much as the effects of what you say, write or do. In these examples, I was perpetuating stereotypes of Black Muslims, which can cause real harm.

Nice people can do and say racist things.

If someone points out that something you said or did is an act of racism and you take it as a personal attack on your character, you’re making the situation all about you – not the bigger picture of how all of us can take responsibility for our own role in white supremacy. Really good people can do this. Really nice people can do this.

I knew I had to work on myself.

My dearest nonBlack family,

We need to have a hard conversation. We have come a little way forward but we are nowhere near where we need to be in learning how not to be racist. 

Many of us come from colonized lands where our parents and grandparents were forced to hate themselves for their own identities- we carry this baggage with us. We have negative feelings about our own selves, our languages, traditions, culture. This is called internalized racism. We are taught to value white culture and white values over our own through television, movies etc. So much so that when we are told Musa 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) was a Black man we gasp, as if hearing blasphemy. We have to analyze ourselves and learn to filter that out before we react to people and the world around us.

“And among His wonders is the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the diversity of your tongues and colors. For in this, behold, there are messages indeed for all who are possessed of innate knowledge!” (Quran 30:22).

We have to admit that many, many times we aspire to whiteness—maybe because that is where power and wealth lies— many times over piety, even over doing the right thing. What does this mean for those of us who live in the West? We move into white neighborhoods as fast as we can afford them, as far away as possible from black people. We choose white schools and label black areas as bad.

We coo over light skinned babies, bleach our skin, and dismiss the idea of marrying into black families as if it is a haram act. Whiteness is a norm. So much so that we sometimes even stop treating Black people as humans.  

It is a learned behavior and we can unlearn it. If we have been miseducated, we can educate ourselves. 

Race 

What is interesting is that many scholars who study race believe that race is a social construction with no true or absolute biological basis. “Americans of European descent invented race during the era of the American Revolution as a way of resolving the contradiction between a natural right to freedom and the fact of slavery,” explains historian Barbara J. Fields in the PBS’s series Race: The Power of An Illusion

Many of us don’t know that the word “white” in the United States has more to do with regulating marriage, property rights, citizenship, and voting than it has to do with actual ancestry. Mexicans were considered white until the 1930s. Historically,  many people of differing skin color were placed in the category of “white.”  

Racism to Anti Racism

According to Dr Anneliese A. Singh, in her book on racial healing, the term “antiracist” refers to people “who are actively seeking not only to raise their consciousness about race and racism, but also to take action when they see racial power inequities in everyday life.” Being an antiracist is much different from just being “nonracist,” writes Black antiracist Marlon James.

Dr Singh also urges us to keep in mind that we have internalized White supremacist notions about our own race and others, so we have to keep a lookout for how those internalized attitudes show up and provide an obstacle to us joining forces with other people of color groups.

Start your education on racism

Racism occurs between individuals, on an interpersonal level, and is embedded  in organizations, institutions and countries through their policies, procedures and  practices.

Interpersonal racism 

The Messenger of Allah ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) said: These lineages of yours do not make you superior to anyone. You are all sons of Adam. No one has superiority over another except in piety and consciousness. It is sufficient shame for one to be foul, evil, or stingy.” 

As a Muslims,  dealing with interpersonal racism is incumbent on us. Many people say they do not see color, but Allah asks us in the Quran, “Do you not see that Allah sends down rain from the sky? With it We then bring out produce of various colors. And in the mountains are tracts white and red, of various shades of color, and black intense in hue. And so amongst men, and crawling creatures, and cattle – they are of various colors. Those truly fear Allah, among His Servants, who have knowledge. For Allah is Exalted in Might, Oft-Forgiving” (Quran 35:27-28).

As a people of “color” and a minority, we don’t want people looking at us colorblind, do we? We all have vibrant, beautiful histories, some filled with pain of colonialism and neocolonialism. When we don’t want this for ourselves, then why do we take the “colorblind” approach to our black brothers and sisters? We can’t erase their histories. 

When you find yourself in a situation when you know racism is the cause of a marriage proposal being rejected, or someone not being offered a job, then for Allah’s sake speak up. Speak up when you hear people use a derogatory slur even in jest. It is incumbent upon you.

How many times do we fail to speak up when racism is happening because we do not want to draw attention to ourselves?. It’s our job to call it out when it happens, even if it feels uncomfortable. We had to have these difficult conversations with our families. You’re not “ruining” an otherwise peaceful occasion—they’re ruining it by being racist. 

You have the truth with you and this is so powerful. Sīdī Aḥmad Zarrūq said that “the truth has the power to penetrate the hearts of people, including those whose hearts have a seal. Humanity has the right to have among us witnesses to the truth, those who are willing to defend the truth no matter how unpopular it may be.” We are all creations of Allah. 

Structural Racism

Systemic Racism includes policies and practices entrenched in established  institutions, which result in the exclusion or promotion of certain groups.

Many of us who live in the United States need to study the life of Al Hajj Malik Shabazz  (Malcolm X), if we haven’t already. He was Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) blessing to this nation for a reason: to cure the cancer of racism, before his life was snatched. He wrote in his column in the Eygptian Gazette, “Racism: the Cancer that is Destroying America,” in Aug. 25 1964. “The common goal of 22 million Afro-Americans is respect as human beings, the God-given right to be a human being. Our common goal is to obtain the human rights that America has been denying us. We can never get civil rights in America until our human rights are first restored. We will never be recognized as citizens there until we are first recognized as humans.”

If you can not understand why people are protesting right now in so much anger, read The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, which shows how the criminal justice system perpetuates racist oppression, or Cornel West’s Race Matters, or watch 13th by Ava DuVernay. 

I remember my first visit to DC and witnessing the abject poverty under the shadow of the Capitol of the most powerful nation in the world. Nothing made sense. Venture into parts of Baltimore city with large presence of police and the state of the schools, playgrounds and empty buildings reemphasize how little resources are channeled into certain areas.

So I read up on housing policy and department of transportation, drug enforcement policies , use of force policies that destroy Black neighborhoods. I am educated everyday. 

I learned about the the vicious policies that forced some Black fathers to leave their families from Ustadha Zakia Amin, the wife of Imam Hassan Amin and cofounder of the Muslim Social Services. She shared stories of the 60s, when governmental aid was only given to single women and the department of Human Services would conduct a raid of laundry baskets inside homes to make sure no man lived in the house. Many fathers who could not find jobs in their wrecked neighborhoods had to walk away from families because they faced the difficult choice of watching their children starve or to live with them. How many Black fathers are imprisoned for petty crimes while white men get away with much worse crimes?

Remember this, the next time people talk about broken Black families, which is such a gross stereotype. 

Understanding Race and Whiteness 

It was important to study and read about Whiteness. “Racism is based on the concept of whiteness—a powerful fiction enforced by  power and violence,” writes Paul Kivel in Uprooting Racism, “whiteness is a constantly shifting boundary  separating those who are entitled to have certain privileges from those whose exploitation and vulnerability to violence is justified by their not being white.”

During university in New Orleans, my white roommate shared that there was white side of Lake Ponchatrian and a black side and that I should not go to the black side. This was a defining and very jarring moment for me in a superbly divided city. I had no place in it as a dusky South Asian international student. “Hena, you are white,” she drawled. I most certainly am not. But her binary way of thinking, made me pick up some reading. American philosopher, Dr Cornel West explained it all in his 1994 book Race Matters, “Yet the enslavement of Africans—over 20 percent of the population—served as the linchpin of American democracy; that is, the much-heralded stability and continuity of American democracy was predicated upon black oppression and degradation. Without the presence of black people in America, European-Americans would not be “white”—they would be only Irish, Italians, Poles, Welsh, and others engaged in class, ethnic, and gender struggles over resources and identity. What made America distinctly American for them was not simply the presence of unprecedented opportunities, but the struggle for seizing these opportunities in a new land in which black slavery and racial caste served as the floor upon which white class, ethnic, and gender struggles could be diffused and diverted. In other words, white poverty could be ignored and whites’ paranoia of each other could be overlooked primarily owing to the distinctive American feature: the basic racial divide of black and white peoples. From 1776 to 1964… this racial divide would serve as a basic presupposition for the expansive functioning of American democracy, even as the concentration of wealth and power remained in the hands of a Few well-to-do white men.”  I realized how whitewashed my U.S. history books had been. 

There is plenty of literature that you can study that considers whiteness — most notably by W. E. B. Du Bois, James Baldwin, and Ralph Ellison. In his 1984 essay, James Baldwin provided an excellent description of the nature of whiteness in the United States as a social construction. Writing about how European immigrants to this country (Irish, German, Italian, Jewish, French, Polish, and so on) began to define themselves as white — sometimes not by choice and other times by choice in order to gain privileges — he explains how this new way of thinking and this new category changed the immigrants’ mindset: “Because they think they are white, they cannot allow themselves to be tormented by the suspicion that all men are brothers.” In conclusion, he writes: “However — ! White being, absolutely, a moral choice (for there are no white people), the crisis of leadership for those of us whose identity has been forged, or branded, as Black is nothing new.”

Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, is an essential read as it explains for profit prisons, how Black communities are punished with harsher prison sentences for minor crimes and the “caste system” as she calls it. “The genius of the current caste system, and what most distinguishes it from its predecessors, is that it appears voluntary. People choose to commit crimes, and that’s why they are locked up or locked out, we are told. This feature makes the politics of responsibility particularly tempting, as it appears the system can be avoided with good behavior. But herein lies the trap. All people make mistakes. All of us are sinners. All of us are criminals. All of us violate the law at some point in our lives. In fact, if the worst thing you have ever done is speed ten miles over the speed limit on the freeway, you have put yourself and others at more risk of harm than someone smoking marijuana in the privacy of his or her living room. Yet there are people in the United States serving life sentences for first-time drug offenses, something virtually unheard of anywhere else in the world.”

Racism in Muslim Communities

There are many articles on Muslimmatters on this subject. Here, here, here, here, and here, and especially by Umm Zakiyyah. Read them with an open heart, willing to purify yourself and your community.

I have often stood on the port in Annapolis, where they used to dock slave ships. There is a memorial to Kunta Kente. We don’t know or teach our children that Muslims have been on this soil from the  time they were brought on slave ships from Africa, or even before that when Moors traveled on Spanish ships. By doing this we erase the history and justify why the Black struggle is not a “Muslim” issue. I urge people to visit America’s Islamic Heritage Museum in Washington DC, run by Br Amir Muhammad with their family and then spend the day at the African American History Museum.

Another segment in Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow, is an aha moment, especially when it comes to the Muslim community. She writes that when we think of racism “we think of Governor Wallace of Alabama blocking the schoolhouse door; we think of water hoses, lynchings, racial epithets, and “whites only” signs. These images make it easy to forget that many wonderful, goodhearted white people who were generous to others, respectful of their neighbors, and even kind to their black maids, gardeners, or shoe shiners–and wished them well– nevertheless went to the polls and voted for racial segregation… Our understanding of racism is therefore shaped by the most extreme expressions of individual bigotry, not by the way in which it functions naturally, almost invisibly (and sometimes with genuinely benign intent), when it is embedded in the structure of a social system.”

When you understand this, then you understand that we do the same in Muslim communities. Just because we may not be actively banning Black people from the masjid, or harming them physically doesn’t mean we are not consciously or subconsciously not voting for them for board positions or not inviting them to speak at our events, not donating to their causes. When we do this we uphold similar power structures in our own institutions.

Many NonBlack Muslims, especially immigrants, buy into the model minority myth – hook, line and sinker. We were allowed to come to the United States because of the sacrifices Black people made in the civil rights movement.

Nearly 60 years ago, four African-American college students sat down at a segregated Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina and started a movement that led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965. Congress then passed the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, abolishing the race-based immigration quota system and replacing it with a system that prioritized refugees, people with special skills, and those with family members living in the United States. It also forbade discrimination in the issuance of immigrant visas on the basis of race, sex, nationality, place of birth, or place of residence.

Most of us or our parents were allowed to come because we were highly educated. We fail to see the inequities or learn history, and blame Black people for not working hard, after all we made it so why can’t they? This point of view fails to take into account the systematic dehumanization that Black people have faced during slavery and continue to face today. 

 “It is from the unseen world that the phenomenal world emerges, and it is from the unseen realm of our hearts that all actions spring,” writes Shaykh Hamza. Muslim communities and institutions run by non-Blacks (we often forget that upto ¼ of our community is Black) must reflect on this extremely important communal spiritual state. The well-known civil rights activist Martin Luther King, Jr. said that in order for people to condemn injustice, they must go through four stages. The first stage is that people must ascertain that indeed injustices are being perpetrated. In his case, it was injustice against African Americans in the United States. The second stage is to negotiate, that is, approach the oppressor and demand justice. If the oppressor refuses, King said that the third stage is self-purification, which starts with the question: “Are we ourselves wrongdoers? Are we ourselves oppressors?” The fourth stage, then, is to take action after true self-examination, after removing one’s own wrongs before demanding justice from others.(Purification of the Heart)

We are going through a time when we are faced with openly anti-Muslim administrations in many Western countries. The Muslim community has to examine our collective wrongs, and racism (both personal and structural) is a wrong doing in our communities.                                                       

How many times do we fail to speak up when racist events are happening because we do not want to draw attention to ourselves.

Self-reflection is a crucial part of the journey 

The Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) warned us over and over again: “Narrated Uqbah Bin Aamir: The Messenger of Allah ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) said: These lineages of yours do not make you superior to anyone. You are all sons of Adam. No one has superiority over another except in piety and consciousness. It is sufficient shame for one to be foul, evil, or stingy.”

Racism is a disease of the heart

Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) didn’t create racial disparity, society did, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t affect the way we live in this world.

I believe Racism is a sin. No one can tell me that they don’t sin ever. No one can say they are not a liar. You may not lie today, but you could lie tomorrow. You may try never to do gheebah, but could slip tomorrow. It is a sin that we fight against our nafs. We try not to do it but we acknowledge that we are weak and that we can fall. We accept our mistake and learn from it and promise Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) not to do it again. We apologize to the person that we have harmed and try to be better. It is as simple as that.

Racism is a disease of the heart. Mufti Menk taught me that. You think you are better than another person, which is directly against the orders of the Quran.

The heart can be purified. I learnt that from a beautiful book, Purification of the Heart, many years ago. Sh Hamza writes that “purifying the heart is a process. First, one must understand the necessity of having courtesy with God and the importance of fulfilling its requirements, as noted above. Second, one must be aware of the diseases of the heart—aware of their existence, their ailments, and the deleterious complications and troubles that ensue from them, and recognize that these diseases prevent one from attaining this courtesy.” 

Racism of the Tongue

Be careful with your tongue. Words like Abeed (which literally means slave) and Ka$%u are not just words.  They carry poison for you and the people you say them to. If you are in the habit of saying the N word, please pay especially attention to the taubah section and cure yourself.

These are Prophetic teachings: “Abu Malik al-Ash’ari narrated Allah’s Messenger ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) who said: Among my people there are four characteristics belonging to pre-Islamic time of ignorance which they do not abandon: boasting of high rank, reviling other peoples’ genealogies, seeking rain by stars, and walling (Sahih Muslim, #934). 

So make sure you do not say a word about a person based on his or her race or the color of the skin(1). 

“Whoever debases others is debasing himself.”James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time

How to make Taubah and erase the disease

Imam Ali is quoted to have said that the tongue is the interpreter of the heart. We have to purify our hearts to perfect our relationship with God. 

Allah commands us to be upright in our speech, which is a gauge of the heart’s state.

According to a Prophetic tradition, each morning, when the limbs and organs awaken in the spiritual world, they shudder and say to the tongue, “Fear God concerning us! For if you are upright, then we are upright; and if you deviate, we too deviate.

Engaging in the regular remembrance of God (dhikr) safeguards the tongue and replaces idle talk with words and phrases that raise one in honor. The tongue is essential in developing courtesy with God, which is the whole point of existence.”” (Purification of The Heart)

Sit with those feelings. This part of your education and development as a servant of Allah.

We can’t control what others say and do but we can control what we do.  “In essence, what is forbidden to do is likewise forbidden as an object of reflection. Included in this is thinking about the weaknesses or faults of others, whether they are present or not. The Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) said, “There is a tree in Paradise reserved for one whose own faults preoccupied him from considering the faults of others.” Spending time thinking or talking about other people’s faults is foolish. Time is short and is better invested in recognizing one’s own shortcomings and then working consistently to eradicate them.”(Purification of the Heart)

Another hadith states, “One of you will say a word and give it no consideration, though it will drag the person [who uttered it] through Hellfire for 70 years.”

Listen

When a person with dark skin color comes to you and shares their pain- for example that they were not allowed to give adhan at the masjid even though their recitation is amazing. Or they were passed over a raise or called angry for expressing their views, Listen, and do not try to explain their own experience to them. They are not ignorant or wrong about their own experiences, nor are they overly sensitive. Just give them some brotherly or sisterly love and hold space for them — which is the process of witnessing and validating someone else’s emotional state without interfering with your own feelings.

I still get confused because there are a variety of voices in the African American/ Black Muslim community and they don’t always agree with each other, but that’s like any community no? Can’t we afford to give them that- the space to differ? We differ all the time. Learn to learn. Listen. Be okay with being checked.

Don’t traumatize Black People

When you start realizing how racist society is and you see it everywhere, at this point resist the urge to share those stories with your Black friends. I do not relay anti-black racist incidents to my Black American or African friends or colleagues. See I can feel angry about the incident and vent. When I share it with you, a non Black person, we will be collectively upset for a while. But then we can move on. We don’t have to live it. That incident will not bring up lived memories of similar experiences that Black people have gone through or go through everyday.

We don’t share the pain of being dehumanized or internalizing that pain, especially from our own brothers and sisters in Islam. 

In the same vein, don’t share dehumanizing photographs and videos of death by cops. Black people will stay the same color their entire life, they cannot take off their skins. 

The Anti-Racist Grind

Anti-racism work is a continuing pursuit of acknowledging where you are on the spectrum of oppression, which is why I’ve made so many different choices since my  earlier mistakes. Each of us should be striving to be an anti-racist- in word and in action. I urge you to get trained by Muslim AntiRacism Collaborative. 

When you start actively becoming an anti-racist then do not make it about yourself. Many people who do this work all day and do not have time or the energy to educate you, to discuss racism that you start seeing it everywhere — once you see the matrix, you can’t unsee it.

My work with RashidunDC and CEPA forces me to witness the reality of these policies. When you work with the families affected by these policies it become so much more personal- you build relationships. I share all this to show you that everyone needs to constantly work on themselves and then do something with what they have learned. 

There are a lot of strong figures within Black and Black Muslim communities that lead initiatives, show up and support their leadership. Be comfortable in taking their lead about issues that they are intimately familiar with. 

Step out of your bubble. Volunteer for organizations that are doing solid, transformative work. Do work behind the scenes on a consistent basis. Don’t look for gratitude. 

…….

We need spiritual remedies and social remedies, we need just policies and breaking the structures that support racism, like police accountability, like abolishing private prisons, dismantling the school to prison pipeline. We need love and we need seeking forgiveness from Allah, from each other.                                                      

This is hard, lifelong work. It is a test. It is not a selfie and a rant on social media. Let’s get to work. In the words of W. E. B. Du Bois, “Now is the accepted time, not tomorrow, not some more convenient season. It is today that our best work can be done and not some future day or future year. It is today that we fit ourselves for the greater usefulness of tomorrow. Today is the seed time, now are the hours of work, and tomorrow comes the harvest and the playtime.”

Those of us who have made the journey to this land – a settler colony – and now call it home must reconcile with and love our Black and Native siblings deeply, and adopt their struggles, for the sake of Allah, before we lose our souls to the devil. 

It is a lifelong journey- let’s ride together.

with salam

1. Anas ibn Malik reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said, “The faith of a servant is not upright until his heart is upright, and upon him, said, “The faith of a servant is not upright until his heart is upright, his heart is not upright until his tongue is upright. A man will not enter Paradise if his neighbor is not secure from his evil.Source: Musnad Aḥmad 12636

عَنْ أَنَسِ بْنِ مَالِكٍ قَالَ قَالَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ لَا يَسْتَقِيمُ إِيمَانُ عَبْدٍ حَتَّى يَسْتَقِيمَ قَلْبُهُ وَلَا يَسْتَقِيمُ قَلْبُهُ حَتَّى يَسْتَقِيمَ لِسَانُهُ وَلَا يَدْخُلُ رَجُلٌ الْجَنَّةَ لَا يَأْمَنُ جَارُهُ بَوَائِقَهُ

12636 مسند أحمد باقي مسند المكثرين

2554 المحدث الألباني خلاصة حكم المحدث حسن في صحيح الترغيب

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Hena Zuberi is the Editor in Chief of Muslimmatters.org. She leads the DC office of the human rights organization, Justice For All, focusing on stopping the genocide of the Rohingya under Burma Task Force, advocacy for the Uighur people with the Save Uighur Campaign and Free Kashmir Action. She was a Staff Reporter at the Muslim Link newspaper which serves the DC Metro. Hena has worked as a television news reporter and producer for CNBC Asia and World Television News. Active in her SoCal community, Hena served as the Youth Director for the Unity Center. Using her experience with Youth, she conducts Growing Up With God workshops. hena.z@muslimmatters.org Follow her on Twitter @henazuberi.

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Identity Scholarship: Ideological Assabiya And Double Standards

The Prophet helped the Arabs overcome their asabiya (tribalism) and enter a new defining bond of Islam. The criterion for right and wrong was no longer clan membership, but rooted in the religion of Islam. Muslims were instructed to defend the truth, command good, and forbid evil regardless of tribal affiliation. Asabiya does not just relate to kin-based tribes.  One of the resurging traces of jahilya affecting our discourse is ideological tribalism. In ideological tribalism, we hold double standards between our tribe and other tribes, and overlook fallacies in our group that we would not for other groups. Just as we protect an idea that represents our identity, when a personality reflects our group identity, there is a personal reason to defend the personality. It then becomes instinctual then to double-down in discussions even when wrong to show group strength, which at this point is a survival mechanism and not a true dialectic. Abandoning a quest for truth and succumbing to an in-group vs. out-group dichotomy leaves us to defend falsehood and dislike truth. Refusing to accept truth is one way the Prophet described arrogance. 

Group belonging

One of the main drivers of identity scholarship is group belonging. When we focus on defending our group rather than principles which extend beyond group delineations we prove false our claims of wanting the truth.  The burden of moral responsibility is not offset by finding someone to follow [1]. Charismatic leaders have an ability to tap into latent desires of individuals and awaken in them the desire to be part of something greater than themselves. Their own identities are often validated by following the charismatic figure, and they then work hard to preserve the group as they would to preserve their own selves.

According to Ann Ruth Willner, charismatic authority “derives from the capacity of a particular person to arouse and maintain belief in himself or herself as the source of legitimacy. Willner says that the charismatic leadership relationship has four characteristics:

  1. The leader is perceived by the followers as somehow superhuman.
  2. The followers blindly believe the leader’s statements.
  3. The followers unconditionally comply with the leader’s directives for action.
  4. The followers give the leader unqualified emotional commitment.
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Charismatic leadership satisfies our desire to be part of something bigger, and paradoxically, to hand all power over to someone else can make us feel more powerful because we think that person is the best version of ourselves. We feel that we have gained ‘agency by proxy.’ We have also dumped all responsibility for decisions onto the leader- what Erich Fromm, the scholar of Nazism, called an ‘escape from freedom.’ When we are in a charismatic leadership relationship, our sense of self-worth gets (attaches) attached to the identity of the leader, so that we take personally any criticism of that leader, and have as much difficulty admitting flaws or errors on the leader’s parts as we do on our own. Because we see the leader as us, and we see us as good, we simply can’t believe that he or she might do bad things” (59) [2].

Charismatic leadership is emotional and works on desires. This type of leadership has no relation to truth. It exists and persists due to feelings, hence contradictions, double-standards, and outright hypocrisy aren’t issues for those in the relationship. Even when the leader confidently behaves irresponsibly, followers do not think less of him. What is inconsistent and irresponsible for an out-group observer is charming to members of the in-group. As Miller points out: 

Followers don’t expect charismatic leaders to be responsible for what they say, nor to behave responsibly; their irresponsible behavior is part of their power. Their use of hyperbole and tendency to be unfiltered in speech are taken to signify their passionate commitment to the in-group (60).

Such loyalty is not specific for charismatic leaders, The Minimal Group Paradigm shows that we have more empathy for our in-group even if that in-group is arbitrarily assigned, and we will act biased in their favor against an arbitrarily assigned out-group. This is a tendency against which we must actively fight to maintain clarity in thinking and fair standards in discussions. When group loyalty is prized there is a fear of opposing the group, which obliterates any chance of scholarly discourse. Questioning a position becomes akin to questioning authority and leaves the questioner ostracized and out-casted. When the out-group is pejoratively labeled, there is an additional fear of thinking like or ending up in that group. 

Identity scholarship

Rather than looking at the argument constructed and judging whether or not it is sound, identity scholarship approves or dismisses arguments based on the person making them. Arguments are then validated by personalities and not standards of scholarship.  This is a dangerous shift from reasoning and evidence to personalities. 

Identity scholarship leverages the need to belong and centers the personality over the argument. However, focusing on the strength of arguments and not the personality is especially important given that the term ‘scholar’ or ‘shaykh’ is applied to vocationally trained Muslims, seminal graduates, preachers, or to those who display a scholarly caliber in Islam alike. This is a sufficient crisis. The term is heavily equivocated, and should never serve to stand in place of standards of scholarship in discourse. 

Ambiguity in the term ‘scholar’ or ‘shaykh’ is exploited by groups to strengthen their influence. Not always pernicious, this is the natural progression of proselytizing via group identity. An in-group who will dismiss dissenting voices for not having studied long enough, not obtaining ijazas, will promote voices of similar or less educated Muslims when those voices are in their ‘in-group.’ Titles like ‘ustadh’ and ‘ustadha’ are quickly conferred upon those who are volunteers or proponents of the ‘in-group’ even with minimal study. Advocating for the correct paradigm is rewarded more than a knowledge based approach to issues. Giving titles to those with social capital in your in-group is also an effective way for brand expansion. For example, loosely affiliated students with avenues into the growing Muslim mental health field are often referred to as ‘ustadha.’  Also, traditionalists will often promote in-group religious figures engaging in no-risk activism like condemning already popularly condemned figures as exemplary ‘scholars and activists’ who should be followed by other activists.  

If a person has been doing this long enough they become ‘shaykh,’ and then eventually a ‘senior scholar’ with assumed wisdom and spiritual insight, worthy of deference. I am well acquainted with the unfortunate irony in traditional circles where those who push a manhaj of studying at the feet of scholars have by and large not done so beyond attending general lectures by visiting scholars.  Many do not even know Arabic, but their zeal and tenure of feel good lectures in a community primarily interested in nasheeds and tea coupled with their promoting the right figures secure for them a scholarly status by generations who venerate the theory of studying at the feet of scholars. 

Thus authority and titles are conferred by virtue of in-group allegiance. 

Slip into demagoguery

When we accept an in-group and out-group dichotomy and don’t argue fairly, we lay the foundation for demagogic discourse. As Patricia Mill-Roberts writes “If people decide to see things as a zero-sum game- the more they succeed, the more we lose, and we should rage about any call made against us, and cheer any call made against them- then democracy loses” (13). The best way to avoid this is by maintaining fair discussions and letting go of double standards. Arguments appealing to in-group or out-group positions rather than being based in fact should not be accepted regardless of which group they are coming from. Several tactics used in these types of arguments are described below. 

Creating a strawman

Falsely representing the out-group is a common tactic in demagogic discourse. One example is portraying out-group critics as only critics. The critic is frozen in time as someone who has accomplished nothing, helped no one, and as only one who sees the faults in others. The in-group then goes on to list what they have accomplished -‘albeit with some faults’- to not seem as braggarts, but insists that those faults are magnified by the arm-chair critics. 

Another example is labeling Muslims more concerned with academic preservation and development as Muslims in ivory towers. This suggests knowledge is only relevant if immediately actionable and discounts the role of theoretical knowledge in both present and future action as well as an intrinsic end.  

Even when it comes to the epitome of practical action, Allah tells the Muslims to not all go out in battle, but to have groups remain behind to study.

Condescending discrediting

One way demagoguery characterizes the out-group is by a “dithering, wavering, impaired masculinity, and weakness…”(66).  Just as Rudy Giuliani dismissed those protesting Trump’s 2016 win as “professional protestors” with nothing else to do in life, so do we dismiss dissenting voices. 

Terms like ‘keyboard warrior’ should be dropped from the vernacular of anyone who uses the internet for Islamic education. If the internet is good enough for theatrical Ramadan reminders and choreographed Islamic reflections, it should also be good enough for dissent and valid critiques.[3] We have to embrace the fact that the internet is not a pretend medium; social media posts are used in newsfeeds, are reacted to on the mimbar, and even prompt live events. If we dismiss valid criticisms made online as the act of ‘keyboard warriors’ we should also call those giving dawah online ‘studio daa’is.’  

Discrediting due to inexperience

Experience is an important element in answering questions and dealing with different scenarios, and, should rightly be considered when one is looking for a teacher, etc. However, frequently, the standards for what constitutes experience are used inconsistently. The same individuals who refer to young teachers as ‘shaykh’ or ‘mufti’ while in their in-group, dismiss ‘shaykhs’ and ‘muftis’ in the out-group of similar age and experience, arguing that a person can’t be a ‘real’ mufti because studying 7 years doesn’t make anyone a scholar. Graduating from a seminary or Islamic university will be the standard for members of an in-group to be called scholars, but the out-group will be ‘immature graduates’ who have not learned wisdom.  Wisdom itself will be defined as the avoidance of actions which challenge the in-group. Likewise an activist saying the right thing and echoing in-group talking points will be called ‘ustadh,’ but if from the ‘out-group’ dismissed as a Godless- activist’ that just hates hierarchy. 

Victimization and Victimology

Demagoguery thrives on the in-group being victimized by the out-group. It is common for religious figures to dismiss valid criticism as nothing but hate, envy, or ignorance [4]. When criticized by activists, it is common to label them as ‘anti-clerical’ activists who only have an issue with Islamic leaders because they are neo-Marxists. 

‘Neo-Marxist’ is used as a catch-all term to discredit those who disagree with the positions of some religious leaders to insinuate the disagreements are rooted in hate for hierarchy or authority thus being illegitimate. Even conservative and practicing Muslims are labeled as ‘leftists’ and ‘Godless activists’ for simple critiques. In Sufi groups, disagreeing with leadership is often said to be the result of being spiritually veiled, or the work of ‘dark forces’ and ‘shayateen’ dividing us. If we can agree that black-magic and evil-eye are real but should not be the first culprit in a failing marriage, let’s also look for practical failures when religious organizations break down before we start blaming the ‘shayateen.’  

On one hand the in-group claims they are victims, on the other they blame the out-group for having a victim mentality.  This may seem like an obvious contradiction, but as Miller explains,  

If condemnation of out-group behavior is performed by a very likeable persona, then onlookers are likely to conclude that the rhetor would never engage in the behavior she or he is condemning. This maneuver is especially effective with people who believe that you can know what someone believes by listening to what values he or she claims to espouse, and with people who think you can predict behavior by listening to values talk (who believe that ‘good people- that is, people who say the right things- don’t do ‘bad’ things) (56) 

Another tactic is using terms like ‘victomology’ to belittle legitimate grievances of being wronged and falsely representing those grievances as an attitude of being a victim in life.

Being oppressed (mazlum) does not require living a tough life, being a victim in life, or being part of an oppressed group. We are told by the Prophet that delaying a payment owed while being capable of paying is oppression (Muslim). When our God given rights are transgressed upon, we are mazlum in that situation. It is not uncommon however to see Muslims want to claim their rights and express they have been wronged to be dismissed as those who love to be victims. Ironically, this is even done by organizations that describe themselves with the leftist concept of ‘safe spaces.’  

Disregarding Nuance

“Demagoguery is comfortable because it says the world is very simple, and made up of good people (us) and bad people (them)” (24). 

We must understand that if someone does not see an issue as black or white, it’s not because they are obviously corrupt, willfully ignorant, or stupid.  The word nuance itself triggers cynicism and is treated as an excuse to employ mental gymnastics to deny what is ‘obvious.’  The fact of the matter is when it comes to khilafi issues there is generally a vast scope of acceptable actions, and when it comes personal ijtihaadi matters for policy there is often no clear-cut best answer. Thus in such matters the objective is to come to a best resolution or course of action. In short, we should all take appropriate measures in our decisions to ensure the benefit outweighs the harm. Certain positions are cautioned against due to the likelihood of harm to one’s religion, but that likelihood may not serve as evidence that one has harmed his religion. As the great scholar Muhammad Awama relates in Ma’laam Irshadiya, the way of the scholars is to leave people in what they are following as long as it is correct and has a valid legal perspective [5]

Scholarly discourse

Advice from recognized experts in a field carries weight, but it should not be conflated with a scholarly argument. A common mistake is to confer authority upon an opinion outside the area of one’s authority. Scholarly works must prove themselves to be scholarly as stand-alone works. Even if a great scholar has published many scholarly works, his advice should be taken as advice. For example, Imam al-Ghazali was a great scholar, but Dear Beloved Son is not a scholarly work.  We have a malfoozaat (wisdom-sharing) tradition that is precious, but we must know where to place it in the hierarchy of Islamic knowledge. 

Islamic scholarly discourse should be evidence based, demonstrative of legal proficiency, and cater to Islamic concerns. Those engaging should share the evidence for what they say, the sources of the rulings they share, the difference between the reason for a ruling and the wisdom of a ruling [6], understand contextual fatwas,[7] and understand which rulings are based on urf and which rulings are intrinsic obligations or prohibitions. These are just some elements of Islamic scholarly discourse, and it cannot exist alongside identity scholarship. 

There should be private forums with prerequisites where scholarly discourse can take place. When these discussions move outside of their proper place other issues such as discussing weak or aberrant (shadh) fiqh opinions arise, which to an undiscriminating audience all will seem co-valid on the spectrum of differing opinions in sharia. Promoting aberrant positions caters to our cultural preferences of thinking outside the box and carries the façade of an intellectual approach to Islam. In Maharam al-Lisaan (Prohibitions of the Tongue) Muhammad Mawlud lists both mentioning the conflict between the Sahabah, and mentioning aberrant opinions as prohibitions.  This is not due to the utterance being sinful, but rather to the misconceptions it can lead to for the average Muslim if not properly addressed.  

There may be a need to dismiss open innovators and those spreading misguidance, because there is no end to the possibilities of innovation and it obfuscates what should be self-evident, and can be very difficult for even scholars to refute in ways that resonate with those affected by innovation. The double standard as previously mentioned is when lack of formal credentials is only a problem for out-groups. 

How to have productive discourse

Islamic historical discourse has its share of polemics. There are commentaries, fatwas and treatises which insult valid ijtihad and even refer to the entirety of a madhab with epithets. Some scholars were harsh and had a penchant for polemics. Transgressions into mockery and slander were not condoned, and belligerent attitudes were something scholars sought to check with reminders of adab al-ikhtilaf (the etiquettes of disagreement). While the previously mentioned certainly existed and such an approach may serve to strengthen positions of the in-group to the in-group, it does not make for productive dialogue with the out-group.

Outside of scholarly discourse, when we debate policy and Islamic positions, we need to have sincere, fact based arguments with the goal of arriving at truth. Our ability to accept truth no matter who says it shows we have transcended in-group vs. out-group tribalism and have entered the realm of sincere discourse.  Overcoming in-group tribalism and following the truth, rather than blindly following our ‘fathers’ is a central message in the Quran. 

And when it is said to them, “Follow what Allah has revealed,” they say, “Rather, we will follow that which we found our fathers doing.” Even though their fathers understood nothing, nor were they guided?  2:170 

Arguments on points should never be personal. We should train ourselves to evaluate arguments and understand that people we like can make mistakes, and people we dislike and generally disagree with may be right on certain matters. 

Don’t take cheap shots if you disagree with someone, such as pointing out a typo to insinuate incompetence. 

It’s important to leave double-standards, and to point them out when someone is employing them.  When one side is unfair or uses double standards, it encourages the opposition to act in kind, and the discussion devolves into a fight. When disagreeing with someone, never insult that person.  When a personality is attacked, the response will be defending the personality, and the entire discussion is derailed. 

Sharing a post, or article should not be seen as endorsing an individual or a post. Sometimes it’s a means of opening a discussion, other times to share beneficial points even if the entirety of what is shared is not beneficial. Furthermore, endorsing an individual in one area is not a blanket endorsement, and should never be taken as such.  The Hanafi tradition was able to benefit from legal fatwas while not accepting theology of Mu’tazilite scholars. Likewise, many of our best tafseers are from Mu’tazilite scholars. The widely studied and highly regarded Tafseer al-Baydawi is basically a reworked Mu’tazilite tafseer without the Mu’tazilite aqidah. Scholars have been able to ‘take the good and leave the harm.’ 

“I don’t think you could search America, sir, and find two men who agree on everything.” – Malcolm X

We need to uplift our intellectual level and drop disclaimers like “I don’t agree with everything in this article” or “I don’t agree with everything he said.”  It is only worth stating when you do agree with everything someone says or does.  The common disclaimers should be taken as givens and we shouldn’t capitulate to a cultural push of walking on egg-shells so no one accuses us of supporting the wrong person or idea. 

It is critical we operate under the assumption that sharing a panel with or working with an individual is not an endorsement of that individual. Likewise, working with an organization is not an endorsement of that organization. Such associations are attacked as potentially confusing to the average Muslim, but we must work towards establishing that such actions are not support. 

Here we see an ambivalent conceptualization of the ‘average Muslim’ as someone who both deserves transparency from religious scholars for their actions as well as one who is easily confused or misled by the actions of Muslim scholars. If we can accept both propositions, that a scholar’s actions are not proof, and that working with someone and sharing posts and platforms do not equate support for every particular view or stance of a person, we may set the foundation for being issue focused rather than personality focused. 

In conclusion, it is important we all hold ourselves to high standards of discourse and not support behavior or fallacies from our in-group that we would deride from an out-group. The groups themselves are inevitable and not a problem, but we have to work to overcome the natural ideological tribalism that accompanies group membership.  If we personally transcend in-group bias and reflect it in our discourse, we can overcome the pettiness and hypocrisy that stifles productive discussions. 

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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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#Society

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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