Black Muslims say Hajj a reflection of their five-decade struggle

Ismaeel Naar

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Mecca, Saudi Arabia - It was 54 years when Malcolm X took the sacred Muslim pilgrimage of Hajj from the United States to Mecca where images of him wearing the ihram clothing coupled with his famous black-rimmed glasses would set a precedence of the African-American Muslim’s image.

But as 1.7 million Muslims descend onto to Mecca for this year’s Hajj, for many Black Muslims it is a reminder of the struggles that date back five decades still prove difficult to overcome today.

“Uniting African-American (in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement) reminds black Muslims about the color of their skin. This often takes the real attention away from the main message of Islam, which is to submit one’s self fully to the will of Allah Almighty and being a peaceful person. There is no subject of color in Islam as a religion,” Imam Abdullah Dibba, who works for the Missionary of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community in Baltimore city, told Al Arabiya English.

A Pew survey in 2014 showed 28 percent of Muslims counted in the survey were black and since 2007, the black proportion had shrunk, while the white and Asian proportions had grown, mainly due to immigration as most black Muslims were native US blacks brought to the Americas primarily from West Africa.

“It is also important to know that since the very discovery of the new World, Muslims had been coming to America either under servitude or for new financial opportunities. Since the very first ship sailed from Africa to America full of Muslims and others alike for the purpose of servitude, the concept of mosques and prayer areas (in temporary places) was existent in American history,” Dibba said.

Image of the ‘Black-Muslim’

Historically, there was a time – especially five decades ago during the civil rights movement – when “American-Muslims” tended to mean “Black-Muslims” who had joined the Nation of Islam, a Black Nationalist group that gained prominence at the time.

That image quickly faded as years passed and many immigrants from the Middle East started outnumbering the Black Muslims in many communities.

Hakeem Muhammad, a Muslim public intellectual and an Islamic thinker at Muslim Empowerment Institute, says the overall American media culture had a role in the changing of that image.

“When you look at how Muslim are portrayed in the media, it is mainly Asian and Arab, and there is a lack of strong black Muslim voices. Instead, you consistently see our Immigrant Muslim brothers and sisters on the defensive and being overly apologetic,” Muhammad told Al Arabiya English.

“In order to give an alternative to this, we need strong, uncompromising, Black Muslim voices in the tradition of Malcolm X who are unafraid to speak truth to power and point out the wickedness of white supremacy,” he said.

To an extent, there is some truth to that argument. The Washington Post’s Abigail Hauslohner interviewed Samory Rashid, a political science professor at Indiana State University who said that the term “Black Muslim” was coined by a journalist who was neither black nor Muslim: CBS News reporter Mike Wallace. He used the term in a 1959 TV documentary “The Hate That Hate Produced” about the Nation of Islam.

But young Muslims like Muhammad told Al Arabiya English that they do not necessarily shun the term completely but have learned to make it as their own.

“I use the term "Black Muslim" to identify myself to make it clear that I am not a follower of the mainstream American Muslim establishment but part of the tradition of black liberating Islam that Malcolm X, Safiya Bukhari, and Dhoruba Bin Wahad sought hard to establish,” he said.

But many scholars say that Black Supremacy that was preached by the older generation of the Nation of Islam, especially by its founder Elijah Muhammad, was at odds with the teachings of Islam – one of the first religions to have abolished slavery.

“What they have not realized is that Islam is universal and you can practice it as perfect as possible following any culture. Islam only requires us to follow the principle of the Holy Quran as taught by prophet Muhammad (peace be on him), who did not tell us to follow any specific race or culture,” Dibba commented.

Internal racism

Putting the prevailing and worrisome issue of the rise of White supremacists aside, some Muslims confess they face another layer of racism, one that is internal among Muslims themselves.

“Unfortunately, there is a struggle because there is racism among the Muslim community as well. I regularly get calls from young Muslims who complain about the anti-Black racism they face within their own community. It is deeply troubling because Islam at its core is a religion of racial equality. At one hand there is a lot of frustration, because there are the Arab, South Asian and White Muslims marginalizing the Black Muslim community,” Qasim Rashid, a Muslim author and educator, told Al Arabiya English.

But he contends that it’s not all bad news, especially for the youth.

“We’re seeing a revival among the youth were you see Black Muslims taking the lead in many respects like recognizing the rich history of Islam in America through Black Muslims,” he said.

As both Black and non-Black Muslims make their way onto the sacred lands of Mecca for the annual pilgrimage, Hajj becomes yet another reminder of what and how religion plays a huge part in self struggle for equal rights regardless of race or ethnicity.

“Other than it being a time of unity for all Muslims, it is a time to purge the cancers that have crept into our souls and our Umma and pushing past the disunity and the hatred and finding ways to move forward,” Rashid told Al Arabiya English.

This article was part of our 2017 Hajj coverage.