A touching tribute and a much needed plea for humility

Islamic comedian (and, no, that's not an oxymoron, or at least shouldn't be) Azhar Usman wrote a powerful, soul-searching tribute to Imam W.D. Mohammed after attending the great man's funeral. It lays bare the indignities and neglect that African-American Muslims have all too often endured at the hands of upwardly mobile and status-conscious immigrant (and Caucasian–see below) Muslims in North America.

Here is an excerpt from Br. Azhar's touching and much needed jeremiad against snobbery and ethnic chauvinism within the Muslim community in "An Apology: Heartfelt reflections on the passing of a legendary Blackamerican Muslim leader":

I would like to unburden myself of something that has been sitting like a ton of bricks on my heart for my entire life. I want to apologize to my Blackamerican brothers and sisters in Islam. I know that this apology may not mean very much; and I know that our American Muslim communities have a LONG way to go before we can have truly healthy political conciliation and de-racialized religious cooperation; and I know that I am not the one who is responsible for so much of the historical wrongdoing of so-called “immigrant Muslims”—wrongdoings that have been so hurtful, and insulting, and degrading, and disrespectful, and dismissive, and marginalizing, and often downright dehumanizing.

It's good to see that an up and coming leader like him not only gets the critical issues at stake here, but, masha'Allah, has the humility and courage to call us[*] out for not doing right by WDM and African-American Muslims in general. As people like Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, Chris Rock, fellow Muslim Dave Chappelle and even–if in his own apolitical, narcissistic way–Jerry Seinfeld  have demonstrated, comics are often the most insightful of social observers, so I'm not surprised.

I'm reminded of the great Christian theologian H. Richard Neibuhr, who fiercely attacked the phenomenon of denominationalism in American Prostestantism, which he saw if I'm not mistaken as the de facto re-imposition of Jim Crow-style segregation on American religious life. He understood, as we should, that consistently choosing to associate with "one's own kind" is only innocent and ethically neutral when all parties have the same access to resources and privilege that you enjoy (which is why, incidentally, minority-only institutions do not pose the same ethical quandry–members of majority groups do not need access to them to enjoy those basic rights, which they inherit by virtue of their background).

It's also heartening to see a discussion by a Muslim of the  ennobling power of apologies. A lot of Muslims today seem to think that apologies are a sign of weakness, when they quite to the contrary are its polar opposite. Real men–Ever notice how the Latin word "virtue"  essentially means manhood; vir is Latin for "man"–and real leaders apologize or at least know they ought to do so when they screw up, but I digress.

Putting aside the indeed sad and scandalous history of neglect of this great man and his inspiring community, the greatest lesson to be learned from his story IMO is that the guy with the grandiloquent khutbahs, perfectly nasalized Arabic and a stack of learned citations isn't always right. Unlike so many contemporary Muslims who seem to think that Pharisaic legalism is the sum of all virtue in Islam, Imam W.D. Mohammed didn't apologize for resorting to common sense when he encountered new challenges or found inherited customs designed for vastly different circumstances inadequate for the needs of his flock in an urban American milieu.

 May Allah bless him and forgive his sins and grant us all the wisdom and humility to learn from his example.

I also came across another tribute that is thought-provoking in a rather different way. It touches on how complex and far-reaching WDM's influence has been on Blackamerican Islam.  In his respectful assessment of WDM's achievements, Temple University professor Mark Lamont Hill points out in "R.I.P. Warith Deen Muhammad"  how some observers feel his embrace of Sunni Islam had the unintended effect of taking the wind of the sails of such movements as agents of political change.

In many ways, Warith Deen Mohammed’s ascendance within the ranks of American Islam marked the first major blow to the Nation of Islam’s power in America. As the son of The Honorable Elijah Muhammad, Warith Deen assumed the reigns of the organization after his father’s death in 1975. Soon after, he shifted the name and mission of the organization, slowly shifting it from a hybrid of Christianity, Islam, and Black Nationalism to a more mainstream form of Sunni Islam. For some, Warith Deen’s moves were a literal godsend to Black Muslims in America, redirecting them from hatred and heresy (their words, not mine!) to a newfound place of truth, orthodoxy, and global community. To others, Mohammed took the political and cultural teeth out of the Black Muslim movement, effectively undermining the extraordinary work of Elijah Muhammad, one of the most influential, innovative, and woefully underappreciated figures in American history. At the end of the day, neither description fully captures the complexity and significance of Warith Deen Muhammed. 

Emphasis added.  I have nothing but good things to say about about the Imam's impact, but it's interesting to see how differently WDM's transformation of NOI can look to people in other strands of Black Nationalism.

Yikes, it's 3 AM. I am going to be a zombie for sehri in, gulp, 2 hours.  Ah, the wicked wages of late-night blogging. My sins will be punished by my 2 1/2 year old when she jumps out of bed, ready to rumble, at 7:30 AM sharp.

[* ] By "us", that I mean Euro-American Muslims no less than those of immigrant extraction. Discussions of the tragic immigrant/black divide within the Muslim community often leave the impression that Euro-Americans are somehow  unimplicated in all this, which I think is reactionary hogwash. Far from being above the fray, most of us white Musilms are just as eager to move up the social totem pole towards "authentic" (read: foreign) Muslim-ness and distance ourselves socially from from those allegedly less traditional majority-African-American communities.

Unlike them, we arrive in the Muslim community with all the social benefits of whiteness and in any case are afforded the opportunity to assimiliate into and align ourselves with one of the traditional ethnic blocs that dominate the community. And most of us avail ourselves of that of that option with gusto, high-tailing it to the suburban, immigrant doctor and engineer-led mosques as soon as we find their coordinates.

"White flight" meets the Ummah.

  • Sumayya

    Bismillah Ar Rahman Ar Raheem,
    As Salaamu alaykum
    Very interesting comments by both yourself and brother Azhar. I appreciate the honesty and critical observations that you both made about your “cliques” withing the Muslim community.
    I would call us all to think a bit more openly about the term “Blackamerican Muslim” however. I for example, am a Black woman who converted to Islam at the age of 17 while a freshman in college. I come from a solid middle-class college-educated family. My path within Islam has been, Alhamdulilah steady within the ranks of Sunni Muslims and I must admit that I have had very little contact with the late W.D. Muhammad’s (May Alah have Mercy on him) community.
    We must not exagerrate his reach and paint him to have been a leader for the entire community of BlackAmerican Muslims. In addition, I would hope that people would be open to accepting Islamic guidance from the most qualified people in the community and that race would not be one of their criteria.
    Perhaps on the outside, the BlackAmerican Muslim community looks like one large mass of “have-nots” that immigrant and white Muslims need to feel sorry for. Yet, there is a diversity amongst us in terms of economic status, educational background, and yes, some of us even live in the suburbs, gasp!
    The best thing we can do to forward racial relations within the Muslim community (which i think are often worse than those outside of the Muslim community) is to stop making assumptions about people we don’t know and to give people the benefit of the doubt about possessing the same intellectual and emotional capacity as ourselves.

  • http://akramsrazor.typepad.com Svend

    Salaams, Sumayya
    Thanks very much for the sage and well put observations about the limitations of this narrative. These are issues I struggle with whenever I try to contribute to this discussion, and especially as a white man who by definition lacks firsthand knowledge of many of these socio-cultural dynamics. I certainly don’t want to reduce a diverse and changing community to a caricature and I realize Imam WDM has never been the only game in town for Blackamericans, especially for the many who live outside inner cities (a fact that raises other issues of who speaks for the Blackamericans about which I’m obviously unqualified to hold forth). I also realize that communal lines are porous and that many people straddle two or more boundaries (I certainly identify with multiple constituencies depending on the matter at hand).
    At the same time, I suspect that one could make an argument for the need to start this conversation this way, both because of how hard it is to avoid oversimplifications when discussing so complex a matter and because WDM had, I think, disproportionate influence on his flock due not only to his gifts but also the relative dearth of other resources available them.
    An interesting question is which is more unrepresentative of the reality on the ground for most Blackamerican Muslims, minimizing these problems, or exagerrating them? I don’t know what the breakdown within the overall Blackamerican community is between WDMers and less ethnically affiliated Muslims, but it seems to me that if you weigh by the potential good and harm each exaggeration does erring on the side of pessimism seems a better choice to me, at least to get the conversation going.
    The most important lesson should certainly be, as you say, to judge people by their character and what they have to say rather than their race.
    Which for me is the moral of this story. If I didn’t make this clear, for me WDM’s most important (and most overlooked) contribution is intellectual as opposed to communal,however important his stewardship of “his” community has been. It is a great loss for all of us that his message has been so often limited to one particular segment of the Muslim community.

  • http://faith-theology.blogspot.com Ben Myers

    A beautiful post!

  • http://akramsrazor.typepad.com svend

    Thanks Ben. I figured you’d dig the nod to Neibuhr & the issue of denominationalism.