The Tale of The Two Muslim Americas By Shaykh Luqman Ahmad


Scripturally speaking, at our core, all Muslims are a single brotherhood. Why? because Allah says so that’s why. [“Verily the believers are but a single brotherhood“]. – 49:10.  This is true  whether or not we believe it, or practice it. However, in the United States of America, in our communal and social assignment as a Muslim American demographic, we are still brothers and sisters in Islam but, there are two Muslim Americas; and it’s not just a tale; it is a reality.

Go to any major American Metropolis where there are a sizable number of Muslims; Philadelphia, Atlanta, San Diego, Chicago, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Washington D.C., St. Louis, Kansas City, Cleveland, and Buffalo, the Carolinas, and and anywhere and everywhere else and you’ll find almost without exception, two distinctly different versions there are Muslims and you will find; in one corner, multi-million dollar Masaajid that are well-funded, and made up of very affluent professionals and their families, and in the other corner you will find a small nondescript Masjid, usually a storefront, or a converted building, that is struggling in many cases to keep its doors open, pay its bills, and fund programs. In the former, there will be a largely immigrant Muslim community, and in the latter, there will be indigenous Muslim American converts, made up of mostly African-Americans. This is the case in virtually every major city in America where there are Muslims; a tale of two Muslim Americas.

“By all credible accounts, indigenous African-American and convert Muslims have been relegated to a second class and sometimes even third class status in modern-day Muslim America.”

African American and converts Muslims are largely invisible in television coverage, in the national news, and in ridiculous Muslim reality shows on television. Whenever there is mention of American Muslims in the media, the reference is made to immigrant Muslim communities, indigenous American Muslims are almost completely ignored. More often than not, the people and organizational leadership, who illegitimately claim to speak on behalf of all American Muslims, who determine domestic Muslim priorities and who define which issues are deemed most important, are political leaders, and board members of national Muslim political and advocacy organizations, not imams, clerics, or leaders of actual religious congregations, and these spokespeople and policy makers are almost always immigrant Muslims. Subsequently, many Muslim Americans find themselves thinking and confronting challenges politically, not morally, which is why the topic of the two Muslim Americas is never mentioned.

Traditionally, converts, imams, and more spiritually oriented Muslims of all backgrounds tend to look at things from a moral perspective, not a political one. Conversion to the faith itself is a moral decision; there’s nothing political about it, and there is nothing to gain except guidance. Thus, many converts, every day Muslims, and those concerned primarily with salvation become confused when the so-called Muslim leadership become almost obsessed with status, power, and controlling the message of Islam and the trajectory of American Muslims, even at the expense of our own moral values. It is unlikely that the Prophet (SAWS) would have sanctioned the war against islamophobia, especially in light of the verse;

لَتُبْلَوُنَّ فِي أَمْوَالِكُمْ وَأَنفُسِكُمْ وَلَتَسْمَعُنَّ مِنَ الَّذِينَ أُوتُواْ الْكِتَابَ مِن قَبْلِكُمْ وَمِنَ الَّذِينَ أَشْرَكُواْ أَذًى كَثِيرًا وَإِن تَصْبِرُواْ وَتَتَّقُواْ فَإِنَّ ذَلِكَ مِنْ عَزْمِ الأُمُورِ  (Ye shall certainly be tried and tested in your possessions and in your personal selves; and ye shall certainly Hear much that will grieve you, from those who received the Book before you and from those who worship many gods. But if ye persevere patiently, and guard against evil,-then that will be a determining factor in all affairs.) 3:186. It is also unlikely that the Prophet (SAWS) would have sanctioned  that we as American Muslims would characterize ourselves as oppressed, given the tremendous amount of material wealth, access to food, housing and physical resources that we here in the United States. Nor would the Prophet (SAWS) have sanctioned Muslim imagery and public relations over moral substance when it was he who said; “verily Allah does not look at your outer shapes or your bodies, but He looks at your hearts”.[1]

In the past thirty years, billions of dollars have been put into building masaajid, and Islamic Centers, setting up schools, propping up political and advocacy organizations and educational endowments in the name of Islam and in the name of furthering the cause of Islam in America. However, only a very small percentage of that funding goes towards masaajid and institutions that serve the needs of indigenous American Muslims in the cities of America. Subsequently what we have seen over time is the establishment of two distinctly separate Muslim Americas. This reality, arguably more than anything else, defines who we are as an American Muslim community, and shapes in large part, our moral reality, and our civilizational trajectory.  It sort of resembles ‘Jim Crow’ Muslim American style.

The debate about the two Muslim Americas is an ongoing one and there are varying opinions about whether it is a problem at all. African-American, Latino and even Caucasian Muslims will tell story after story about being marginalized and disrespected by their immigrant counterparts, about being in the mall giving salaams and not having the greeting returned to you, or having an immigrant Muslim question your Islam. Recently an African American Muslim woman in her sixties, who converted to Islam in the 1970s, related the story to me about how she, wearing full hijab, was questioned whether or not she was a Muslim by an immigrant Muslim store owner. Such accounts are plentiful.

After more than forty years of direct observation, and hundreds, of source testimonials, it is clear that it is very unlikely that American Muslim converts can successfully integrate into immigrant masjid communities or to ever be accepted as equal in a practical sense. The level of denial and taboo about dealing with the race issue is too great, and there are too many differences in goals, priorities, and objectives.

American Muslims constantly relate stories of how they are disparaged and marginalized by the immigrant community. People are quick to relate to you the ‘Bilal story’, and swear that there is no racism in Islam. However, the reality on the ground is that we are an ummah where people are frequently judged by their race, and their ethnicity.  If you are an African American Muslim, you are expected to assume the subordinate position.  If you ask African-American Muslims about their experiences, you will hear story after story after story after story of indignation, hurt, disappointment,  when made to feel like you are less than.  Of course there are those who say it is only imagined, but I believe that after 400 years, African-Americans have come to know a little something about racial prejudice.

This is the tale of the two Muslim Americas, on the one side, are a people who according to a CAIR / Pew study, have the highest per capita income of all Americans, the highest percentage of people with post-graduate degrees, the highest percentage of businessmen, the highest percentage of home ownership, while on the other side of the coin are indigenous African-American Muslims who are dead last on virtually every socio-economic barometer that measures well-being; employment, education, health care, disease, home ownership, single parent households, and so on. They are two separate American Muslim communities with minor areas of overlap here and there. Nevertheless, this has become the reality of Muslim America.

How these two Muslim Americas interact and address this chasm says a lot about who we are since the fundamental message of the Prophet (SAWS) from the beginning to the end of prophetic period was the integration of all people into one community under faith. Many Muslim Americans, both immigrant and indigenous, are not happy at all with this divide and are diligently working to bridge the gap, but so far it is an uphill battle.  The power elite of Muslim America are made up of only a small percentage of American Muslims; however, using money and politics, they are bent on controlling the debate, the issues and the path that we take as a Muslim people in America.

As American Muslims we owe it to ourselves to address the indigenous – immigrant and the racial-ethnic divide and the unchecked authority of our political, lobbying and advocacy organizations, head on; especially since it speaks to our moral worth and credibility as a religious people. Our religion requires that our spirituality and character are not overthrown by perceived political expediency and imagery.

The great thing about Muslims is that we respond to reminders; [ وَذَكِّرْ فَإِنَّ الذِّكْرَى تَنفَعُ الْمُؤْمِنِين ] “yet go on reminding [all who would listen]: for, verily, such a reminder will profit the believers” َ 51:55.  I believe in sha Allah that as people become more aware of the two Muslim Americas, the prevailing attitudes that keep us separated will change. It may take a generation, and it may even take a revolution within the Muslim community to see the change. I do not believe that in the long run, righteous and conscious Muslim Americans who will accept this great divide between immigrants and indigenous American Muslims, because it is hurting us and will continue to hurt all of us. I suspect that future generations of enlightened and free Muslims will not accept for any group, a second or third class status in our own faith. I believe that we can write a better narrative because at the end of the day, despite our faults and shortcomings, we are a believing people.

Shaykh Abu Laith Luqman Ahmad

 

Imam Abu Laith Luqman Ahmad is the Imam and Executive Director of the Lotus Tree Institute, an American Muslim Think tank based in California U.S.A., and the author of the book’ ‘The Devil’s deception of the Modern Day Sect”, available on Amazon.com. You may contact him @ imamluqman@icdph. com

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[1] Collected by Muslim

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11 thoughts on “The Tale of The Two Muslim Americas By Shaykh Luqman Ahmad

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  1. I agree with the general premise of this article, and have witnessed this divide many times as the son of an immigrant. I used to frequent a masjid in a poorer area run by african americans because i liked the culture and the imam. I do feel like I stood out, but I also felt quite welcome. This divide ultimately weakens everyone though because the indigenous population has a great deal to offer. I must say though that I believe speaking out about islamophobia is important because that is also a form of prejudice.

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  2. I’m not sure if this is a racial issue rather than a cultural one. There are a lot of very dark-skinned African muslims (not “African American”), like those from Somalia, Nigeria, etc, who are considered to be just as “muslim” as many immigrants. I think the challenge is that there is a very different social and cultural experience that ties together many immigrant Muslims that separates them from converts – even long-time converts.

    I think this is (and will be) a lot less pronounced as many of the children of these immigrants grow up and form their own social and cultural associations that don’t have the same in-built prejudices or preconceptions that immigrant muslims have.

    On the other hand, many converts (especially black converts) in America may be looked upon suspiciously by immigrant Muslims because they’re not sure if they’re “muslims” (either Sunni or Shia) or members of the Nation of Islam or other psuedo-muslim groups.

    There’s also the question of class and finance – many indigenous converts tend to come from lower income groups, and often the process of conversion has led many to abandon their previous lifestyles as they try to focus their lives on their Islam, which sometimes leads them to be less financially stable than many immigrant muslims (very broad generalization of course), and this can lead to a further level of social segregation.

    I can tell you that in our mosque, near Toronto, there is a fairly free mixing of (mostly IndoPak) Muslims, with smaller groups of Somali, Arab, and other racial groups. We have a few converts, but most of them tend to stick to their own groups and organizations which provide more support for new muslims than the more immigrant dominated mosques. This naturally reinforces the types of services offered, which will again focus more on the needs of the constituents.

    MKS

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    1. Kamal Syed, I disagree. You guys have a very different dynamic going on in Canada. The African Muslims, in many cases, are actually *not* seen as being just as Muslim as the other immigrants. To most prejudiced Arabs, indopaks or other, black is black, period. I lived in 2 Arab countries, one was on the African continent and even there black people were seen as lower class citizens. So it is more race than culture. Let’s not confuse the two. Jazaak Allaahu khairan.

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      1. I’m surprised. As I said, our local mosque is mostly IndoPak, and one of our very regular scholars is Somali and is respected just as much as our IndoPak/British Imam. We have many other black scholars that are very respected and I haven’t seen any degree of racism towards them (even from the elder people). I definitely see a degree of scepticism directed towards some of the convert brothers, but there is also and element of educational elitism as many of these brothers are self-taught and are not from either a recognized Madressa or from an Islamic university, or studied under a recognized Shaikh.

        I’m not trying to argue that racism doesn’t exist in Canada or in our ethnic communities (it definitely does), I’m just suggesting that its more nuanced and its not based on just skin colour. There are very dark skinned IndoPaks that are looked down upon in their own community as well, especially when it comes to marriage prospects.

        As for Arab countries, anyone that is not one of the locals is looked down upon, unless you’re White. A long time ago (25 years ago) I went on an Umrah to Saudi, and ended up missing my plane on my return due to a rainstorm. I was dressed in a Pakistani shalwar khameez and had just shaved my head after Umrah. NOBODY would talk to me at all, forget helping me. They just assumed that I was a poor Pakistani labourer and ignored me. However, when I pulled out my Canadian passport, there was a huge attitude change. They took me to the Airport managers office, gave me a cold drink, and sent someone to go and arrange an alternate flight for me while I relaxed and talked to the manager about my experience of living as a Muslim in Canada.

        Of course, now that this is so commonplace (ie so many Muslims with Canadian passports), I don’t get the same level of privilege, but this illustrates that your poor treatment in these arab countries is not (just) because you’re black, but you’re definitely in good company being a second class human being when you’re in some of these countries.

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      2. PS, to add to this. I was stuck in Medina during the same rainstorm and had a very interesting conversation with a local Saudi. He was very well off and had recently “reverted” to Islam after not practising his faith his whole life in Saudi, ironically while living and studying overseas. He was fascinated by my story of growing up in Canada as a Muslim, and could hardly believe that I knew anything about Islam – even though I was born a Muslim and live as one my whole life. I wasn’t a revert to Islam and (being from an Indian background), it was surprising to me how ignorant a very well-educated Saudi was, about Indian / Canadian Muslims.

        While it wasn’t a negative experience, it displayed its own elements of racism with the assumption that unless you were Saudi or another Arab, that you couldn’t know anything about Islam.

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    2. Its easy for people who are neither African American nor live in the United States or have had detailed and lengthy interactions with African American Muslims living in the United States to make generalizations. Let me clear up a couple of things. T’s nit just about class differences. It has more to do with not only racism ad a predisposed superior attitude of indo pak and Arab Muslims against those of a darker hue. Such exists as you have pointed out, in many Muslim countries. However, in the United States, you have several racial, cultural, and political dynamics in lay at the dame time. The bottom line here is that African American Muslim converts are viewed by the greater Muslim community as a lower class of Muslim and of human being. Even amongst Somali, and east and west African Muslims, indigenous blacks are viewed and treated as a lessor class. Another point is many of those who convert to Islam are educating and many with advanced degrees. However, there is little room for the educated African American Muslim amongst most immigrant communities. Some of the thinking in those communities is clearly pompous, backwards and blatantly irrational. Educated blacks are tolerated in those communities as long as they abdicate their right to think critically or to have an opinion; a right which many of us refuse to give up. It is difficult for many immigrant Muslims in America to even conceieve that an African American could be smarter than them, or understand islam as well as or better than them. I would venture to say that it is a painful notion on many of their part. Much of the immigrant commuity is stuck in a Jim Crow mentality as far as African american Muslims are concerned.

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      1. You’re right, I can’t completely relate to the experience of African american converts, not being one myself. I think though, that you miss out of the parallels to the experience of many immigrants, especially back in the 60s and 70s (or earlier). My whole life, I grew up with the prejudice of the neighborhood kids (growing up in a predominantly Catholic Italian/Portugese area), so I’ve experienced my share of racism and ignorance.

        The culture of slavery, inner city violence and social challenges experienced by many African Americans in the US is definitely alien to me. I’ve read a lot about it, but you’re right – I’ve lived in middle-class neighbourhoods my whole life, and have lived a relatively affluent life without exposure to that social environment.

        I’m not trying to invalidate your argument, its very true that we see a spectrum of social classes in the Muslim community that’s reflected on their resources. I just don’t know if its based on race so much as it is on culture. In our area, we have a large Somali community, and they are relatively less affluent than other immigrant communities, but they have both very large mosques, as well as small storefront mosques. Similarly, we have areas with relatively poor IndoPak muslims, and you’ll find the small, poorly funded mosques there as well. Of course, if you are in a well-off neighbourhood, the people who live there – including the Muslims that live there – will also be more affluent and have more disposable income which many of them will donate to their local mosque, which in turn will mean that they will typically be larger and better funded.

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