Dr. Sherman Jackson Lecture in Chicago “What is Our Mission?”

What is Our Mission? Islam Beyond Ritual and Words by Dr. Sherman Jackson

(Written on the Amtrak to St. Louis forgive me if there are errors)

This past Sunday December the 8th I had planned to be coming back from Brooklyn, NY after attending the boxing matches. As fate would have it I was not able to attend the fights and heard about the Dr. Jackson lecture at Masjid al-Faatir on the South Side of Chicago. $54 roundtrip on the Amtrak and a $25 room and I was in the Chi just in time for the snow.

Before I get into my analysis of the Dr. Jackson lecture let me just give a shoutout to the Pilsen neighborhood of the Lower West Side of Chicago. I walked the streets and viewed the amazing Mexican-American street art and architecture. Before I was picked up by brother Ahmad Mubarak I had a chance to attend the National Museum of Mexican Art. I highly recommend it to anyone visiting Chicago.

Now to the Dr. Jackson lecture:

Who are the Bani Hashim?

One of the central points of the lecture of Dr. Jackson was this question above. Bringing our situation today into the light of the Serah Dr. Jackson illustrated how Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) was a member of Bani Hashim and that because he did not alienate himself from that community he was still able to retain a degree of support which operated as his foundation as the message of Islam began to spread. The argument is that you need such a foundation to function as a geographic and ethnic safe-haven for believers. The question is who are the Bani Hashim in 2013 America?


The African-American Foundation

Dr. Jackson pointed to the fact that the African-American is the only person in America who can say they are a Muslim and not be either looked at funny or asked “where are you from?” The question of where your wife is from or what is your ethnic origin will not be asked to the African-American: because being a Muslim is seen as a normal thing within the African-American community. Later in the question and answer section Dr. Jackson quoted Rev. Al Sharpton who in a post-911 Tavis Smiley State of Black America forum stated that Muslims are no stranger in the black community because every black family has a Muslim in it.

I find this true in my own life as well. When I converted to Islam in 1992 the first question I was normally asked by people was “how can a white person be a Muslim?”. Islam in St. Louis was seen as a “black thing” as it is in most such areas. While in deeper suburbia and in the post-911 climate Islam has come to be seen as foreign, exotic and dangerous.

The argument Jackson presents is that Islam has no natural home in the white community. There is no such history of Islam in the white community. No association with Islam cleaning up lives and cleaning up streets or of giving hopes to the hopeless. Making lost young men on dark corners into upright God-centered young men in the mosque. No white version of Muhammad Ali, Kareem Abdul-Jabar, Eddie Mustafa Muhammad, Yusuf Lateef, Keith Ellison and countless other examples. No white version of Rock Allen wearing a kufi in his United States Olympic photos. Or Lupe Fiasco, Freeway and Mos Def. And I could go on and on.

When I tell a black person I am a Muslim I never get any hostility. I may get asked if I converted in the joint: but that’s about it. Normally I will get my brother or cousin is a Muslim and get asked if I know them (and half the time I do). When I tell a white person I am Muslim I get a pause, an odd look and then questioned about where my family is from or where my wife is from. Then I might get a shrug, a few curious questions or some downright hostility.

Dr. Jackson also mentioned that black Americans have far fewer problems from their families about conversion to Islam. I have found this to be true as well. I have seen Latino and Asian converts outright disowned by their families. A white convert I knew was sent to the insane asylum after converting by his mother. Most black converts I have known have either got little resistance from their families or full support.

My case is a little different I guess. I took Shahadah at 17. Between 13 and 17 I had been arrested at least 40 times. Assaults, gun-possession, car break-ins, fighting, drug-possession, distribution, etc.. I had been involved in shootings, stabbings and numerous fights and a lot of my friends were getting shot and killed. Growing up in a Southern Baptist Labor-Democrat home Islam was seen as very foreign by my family. My grandmother didn’t even know what Islam was saying “you mean you going to stand wearing a suit with them black men selling newspapers?’.

When I did convert though they embraced it because they saw it as something that could keep me off the streets and out of trouble. My father put up theological resistance: but even he saw it as a good thing. I went from being always high and drunk getting locked-up committing crimes and running the streets to spending my time with Muslim brothers and reading. Good older African-American brothers like Mukhtar Abdul-Malik, Naji Fakhrid-deen, Pi, Jerome Hampton and Kariem Abdul-Haqq who could relate well to my family. They saw this as something good in my life even if it was strange for a white person.

Racially of course I had problems as well. I grew-up in a very racially-polarized area with a lot of fights and racial-tension. Everything was about race and everyone knew it. My father had all the racial-attitudes of a blue-collar North St. Louis white guy. Which is to say he was a lot like Archie Bunker. But our relationship wasn’t good anyway and my mother (who I did not see) was married to a black man with my bi-racial younger siblings. I never really felt at home within the racial paradigm of North St. Louis County. So, at 14 while getting into trouble I was also reading books like Soul on Ice by Eldridge Cleaver . When I read the story of Malcolm X I was ready to be a Muslim but we will get to that next.


White Guy with a Race Question

Dr. Sherman Jackson asked the audience if anyone thought that he was anti immigrant-Muslim or anti-white. One white guy in the crowd said yes based on having read Jackson’s book (he did not get the chance to elaborate).

I remarked to Abdul-Malik Michael Ryan after the talk that the racial-attitudes of young white-converts is radically different than our generation. To a man almost all of the converts of our generation came to Islam after reading Malcolm X (and the whites from the generations before were influenced by the Black Panthers and the “movement” spirit). I was recently told that in an interview with a white-convert the convert said they didn’t like Malcolm X because he was “anti-white”.  In the past week there has been a very active Facebook discussion between an African-American Jackson student and a white-convert who has displayed all of the racial-attitudes of your average white Bubba in the Tea Party. The day when people like that would be Muslim I never thought would come. However, as few as they may be, it reflects a change in the climate.

Unless whites live in racially-mixed areas they are never forced to look at race or examine race. Even when they live in such communities many still do not. America is racially-divided it is a small percentage of whites who care to understand or spend time on the other side of the divide ( and more than liberal-arts majors and do-gooders it is poor urban and inner-suburb white folk who spe

A Hanging, Loss of Memory and Chi-Town Questions

These are tough times for us all as we are going through this recession. Tough times can become unbearable times for people whose economic woes are compounded by personal problems in their love or family lives and or drug-alcohol addiction.

The tales are legendary of Wall Street types jumping off buildings in Manhattan during the Great Depression and of others facing hard times, such as farmers in India, turning to suicide en masse.

Turning to my life and the present I came to work on Friday night and got a most unpleasant surprise. A fellow driver (a female, to be exact) had hung herself in the basement of her apartment building in the Shaw Neighborhood.

Her death was the talk among all of the drivers. Everyone wanted to know why she took that fatal step. Everyone goes through tough times; but very few actually decide to give up on life. There has to be something very wrong with the person’s spiritual state of being to take a decision to terminate the life that has been given to you by your Creator. Absent a belief in God, suicide can become a rational step for many people who believe that right and wrong, and good and evil, are not set in stone and change with time, place and a person’s situation.

Why she did it I may never know. I did not know her well. In addition to being a driver she was a part-time dispatcher and I will miss hearing her classic South St. Louis accent on the radio. Few people even know or talk about their being a South Side accent; but there is. The sound of it is hard to describe; but you will not hear it from white North Siders like myself, African-Americans from Da Lou, people with money here, or the yuppies moving into the city. It is unique and can only be found amongst the old working-class white South Side population (what most would refer to here with the derogatory term of “hoosier”).  The accent is dying out with the fading white working-class population of the South Side neighborhoods from which it came and this woman was one reminder of it that I always had.

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Death of American-Muslim Pioneer Amir Ali

For those of you who did not have the privilege of knowing Amir Ali, may Allah have mercy on his soul, he was a pioneer in Islamic education and Dawah and was based in Chicago. For years he operated the Islamic Reading Room (a Muslim library) next to the Muslim Community Center Masjid on the North Side of Chicago on the corners of Elston and Pulaski.

Br. Ali was also the founder of the Institute of Islamic Information and Education (an organization whose pamphlets on Islam can be found at Masjids all over the world) and the American Islamic College (a Muslim institution of higher learning in Chicago founded along with his wife Miriam Ali). He was also heavily involved in the Radio Islam project and was a frequent lecturer to Muslim and non-Muslim audiences. Br. Ali focused on Islamic education and counseling to Muslims and Dawah to non-Muslims. In his work; Br. Amir Ali always held firm to the Quran and Sunnah and sought to purify his soul through adherence to the Sunnah and that is the methodology he taught.

A native of Pakistan, Amir Al was always fully committed to the cause of Islam in America and had a particular love for the American-Muslim. I can still remember the day when two young adventurous American-Muslims, Ismail Royer and I, traveled to Chicago flat-broke just to explore the Muslim community. We would have been in bad shape if we had not been taken in by Amir Ali and Juan Lopez (another dear Muslim brother). He sat us down firmly and gave us everything from advice on school to advice in choosing a suitable mate and sent us away with gas money alhamdudilah.

The American-Muslim community will miss Amir Ali. Insh’Allah his work will inspire others to embark on a similar mission.