Imam Johari Abdul-Malik remarked to a friend and myself that a beautiful thing about MANA is that it brought together all of the historical factions of the African-American Muslim community; under one roof there were Mainline Sunni Muslims, Salafis (even if there numbers were few), Sufis, descendants of the Dar al Islam Movement (both those followers of Imam Jamil al-Amim and the Muslims of America), people who began their journey into Sunni Islam in the Islamic Party, and you also had the two major historical factions in African-American Islam represented; Imam Warith-deen Muhammad, the son of Elijah Muhammad and successor to his leadership and catalyst of the largest mass conversion to Sunni Islam in the history of the West as stated by Dr. Sherman Jackson, and Minister Akbar Muhammad who is the International Representative for Minister Louis Farrakhan. That spirit of continuity was brought to the forefront in a session that featured lectures by Imam Siraj Wahhaj, Imam Warith-deen Muhammad, Imam Talib Abdul-Rasheed, and Ishan Bagby.
Imam Siraj Wahhaj is a pioneer of Islam in the African-American community, and the at-large Muslim community, and this has led some Muslims to give him the title of the “Amir of Dawah in the West”. As Imam of Masjid at-Taqwa in Brooklyn, a masjid that started with a handful of people and now is a large and vibrant masjid, Imam Siraj has become an intentionally known figure in the Muslim community.
When I lived in New York, I would take the subway sometimes for a hour or two depending on where I was just to hear him speak at jumma and wherever I am I keep some of his lectures on CD for inspiration and encouragement. The journey that began in the late 1970’s for Imam Siraj has grown to the point today where he is considered as one of the most, if not the most influential leaders in the American Muslim community and an inspiration to many.
During my period in the Salafi movement Imam Siraj was often denigrated and talked bad about because he was perceived as someone who lacked knowledge and had not received formal Islamic training. However, I never fell for that negative way of thinking, because I knew then and know now that being a leader as a Muslim is about more than just the memorization of some knowledge and having the ability to regurgitate it, being a leader is also about leading by example and knowing what message is right for your people after feeling their needs and then calling them to the truth in their own language. By that measurement of leadership Imam Siraj was and is a leader in every sense of the word.
Imam Siraj announced that it was his pleasure to introduce Imam Warith-Deen Muhammad, his original teacher and the leader of the movement that he originally came out of, and to give him an award on behalf of MANA and he told the story of him asking Imam Muhammad for permission to leave the movement and go into his own direction in the late 1970’s and getting the blessing he asked for.
Imam Warith-Deen Muhammad, now old and frail, came to the microphone is a spirit of brotherhood with all of those in attendance. Imam Muhammad, like Imam Siraj, has often come under heavy criticism in the past . Those critical of Imam Muhammad often cite a lack of classical knowledge, his liberal views on many issues, and that to many people, he has failed to fully bring his community into the mainstream of the global Muslim community.
In the past at times I have often been critical of Imam Muhammad as well, but I think I fell into a trap and a way of thinking designed by those who do not have an understanding, of history, culture, and socio-political issues; because if we would have had this correct understanding then we would have been able to see that Imam Muhammad holds a place in the history of Muslims in America that is second to none in terms of his promotion of the deen and moving the community from the fringe to a factor. Many of those critical would not have known have known Islam without the benefit of his experience and it was Imam Muhammad who, long before anyone else, was pushing for Muslim acceptance into the American mainstream.
Many may see MANA as an organization set up as a rival to the work of Imam Muhammad, but I see it as just a product of the natural growth and the maturity in the African-American Muslim community, and Imam Muhammad told the crowd that he was proud to see the growth of Imam Siraj and that he “supported the work of MANA 100%”.
Imam Talib Abdul-Rasheed of the Mosque of Islamic Brotherhood in Harlem expanded on this point. In a powerful speech Imam Talib explained that the example of Imam Muhammad was historical not only in American history but in the history of the Muslim ummah and that the loudest critics of Imam Muhammad lack the understanding of history and many are those internal “shaiateen” within the community who recite Quran in a beautiful and dress the part of the Muslim but have the actions of devils.
The point that Imam Muhammad had made before was expanded on by Imam Talib that African-American Muslims are a part of a historical mission to reconnect African-Americans to their Muslim roots. Many of the slaves who came to America came from Muslim backgrounds, some figures say that maybe even most slaves were Muslims, and then were forcibly converted to Christianity as a part of slave-indoctrination (a good example of this can be seen in the documentary Prince Among Slaves) , and both imams pointed to the historic nature of the existence of the African-American Muslim community.
Imam Talib phrased it as “African-Americans have been brought up as a part of a prophetic mission here in America.” The Imam from Harlem went on to get a little closer to home for me as he began talking about non African-American Muslims and eventually came around to white Muslims.
The Imam stated that ” white Muslims don’t need to make dawah to us in our communities…they need to go and make dawah in their own communities and tell us how to do things… in order to fight white supremacy…they are in a unique position to do that.”
In saying this, he echoed the words of Malcolm X who said more than forty years ago that whites were not needed to be activists in the black community; but were needed to go and reform their own communities.
By and large I think this is true and most white Muslims would be better off following such advice (but few active white Muslims do share this understanding), but as a white Muslim, and in light of the rapidly changing racial landscape of America, I would like to further analyze this.
The reason that most white Muslims do not follow such advice is because most white Muslims who are serious about the deen become estranged from their own communities after becoming Muslims and are seen as something strange. Unlike African-American Muslims, they do not have a lot of people similar to them in the community, and they often gravitate to certain segments of the community. In my case I took shahadah around mostly (but not all) African-American brothers and those are the Muslims I have always been the closest to and havebeen able to identity with the most.
As Professor Tim Wise of Vanderbilt, an expert on race in America says, “whiteness is based on what you are not and not on what you are”. Today, if you are white in America, you no longer fit into the social fabric of white America because one thing you cannot be and be white in my mind is Muslim. Now, this does not mean that I, as an example, am no longer an American, I certainly am, or I am no longer of Irish lineage, that is scientific and irreversible.
There is also the issue that most white people coming to Islam are from the “guilty white liberal crowd”. That is not my crowd, and I despise the patronizing and phoniness of guilty white liberals, but the Muslim community is full of them. These Muslims take shahadah and immediately begin a full imitation of some group, Arabs, Pakistanis, African-Americans, etc, and are subservient and un-critical of these cultures while being fiercely critical of any white culture. Because these white Muslims appear as foolish to their fellow whites because they may be doing things such as speaking in a Pakistani accent when they grew-up in Cleveland or dressing like an Arab sheikh when they are from Philly, they tend to be looked at as eccentric by their fellow whites (and some want to be looked at that way). I think that some of these Muslims, but not all, embrace Islam to stop being white and think of Islam as some kind of revolutionary Black Panther Movement (which, alhamdudilah, it is not).
I think a new generation is coming along of whites who are more balanced, and I think that even more effective than white Muslims these days are second-generation Muslims who grew-up in white schools and in many cases are more comfortable with white Americans than they are with Desis or Arabs and that is also a part of the new race reality in America; many people did not grow up around their own race and more be more comfortable with others for that reason (and I am one of those people).
This is a challenge for white Muslims in the future, and it is something that I think we will improve on as many are already working to improve this in their own lives, myself included, but I don’t think anything will happen until white Muslims become more secure in who they are .
Dr. Ishan Bagby, who may be more responsible than anyone else for the creation of MANA, followed up tracing the historical timeline of the African-American Muslim community and used his journey from the Dar al Islam movement to where he his today.
Brother Ishan called on the people to do use this convention to build an agenda for change, the kind of change that many of the Muslims there intended to make in American society, when they accepted Islam in the first place, before their Islamic mission was offset by the dominance of imported Islamic understandings.