American Muslims Mourn the Loss of Judge Sheila Abdus-Salaam

Justice Sheila Abdus-Salaam prepares to speak at a New York state Senate Judiciary committee meeting at the Capitol in Albany, N.Y., on Tuesday, April 30, 2013. (Photo by Tim Roske for New York Law Journal)
Justice Sheila Abdus-Salaam prepares to speak at a New York state Senate Judiciary committee meeting at the Capitol in Albany, N.Y., on Tuesday, April 30, 2013. (Photo by Tim Roske for New York Law Journal)

By Layla Abdullah-Polous

NEW YORK – News of the death of Judge Sheila Abdus-Salaam, 65, sent shock waves through American Muslim communities across the country.

“Judge Abdus-Salaam was a champion of holding law enforcement accountable for racial profiling and police violence, which made her beloved among social justice circles but disliked by the NYPD union,” law professor Khaled Beydoun told AboutIslam:

It is too early to speculate about her death, and her stance for racial justice in a city long ravaged by stop-and-frisk, spying on Muslims, and police violence mandates that we honor Judge Abdus-Salaam as a figure that delivered an elusive justice to the most marginalized and vulnerable segments of the City.

Her death is deflating, and her life and the model she set for others to follow worth celebrating.

Abdus-Salaam became a judge for the New York City Civil Court in 1992 and served on the bench of the New York Supreme Court from 1993 to 2009.

She became the first Muslim woman to be appointed to the New York Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court in 2013. She was confirmed without any opposition.

In addition to her work as a judge, Abdus-Salaam served as president of the New York City chapter of the Nation Conference of Black Lawyers, chair of the board of directors for Harlem Legal Services and chair for the Women’s Housing and Economic Development Corporation.

Abdus-Salaam was a notable member of the American Muslim legal community, and Muslim attorneys conveyed the immediate affect her death has on the profession.

Tahirah Amatul Wadud is the only “African American, Muslim, woman, attorney, hijabi, litigator” in New York and Massachusetts, where she practices.

She said that in addition to her legal work, Abdus-Salaam was a prominent representative of the continued achievements of Black Muslim women in fields where they are few.

“As a lawyer myself in a system where there aren’t many like me, her loss feels so close,” attorney Wadud said.

Muslim Women Remember Abdus-Salam

Muslims across the country expressed their sadness about learning of Abdus-Salaam, she affected lives of people beyond personal relationships.

Abdus-Salaam’s reputation touched Muslims outside of the legal profession as well.

“As I read the profiles of Judge Abdus-Salaam and learn more of her life’s work, deep moral conviction, and her reputation as a just and fair public servant, I grow increasingly sad for this loss.” Social justice advocate Christina Tasca said.

“Her visibility as an African-American Muslim woman working at the intersections of faith, race and gender in the highest position in New York State court was and continues to be an important example of leadership for all communities.

“I feel for our little sisters who will never have the opportunity to learn from her directly but inshAllah [God willing] will learn from her legacy and aspire to her follow in her footsteps, knowing that they too can achieve a position in this esteemed office.”

Legal advocacy and education organization Muslim Advocates called Abdus-Salaam’s death “a true loss for the state of New York and for the nation.”

Said Farhana Khera, president and executive director of Muslim Advocates:

It is not easy rising through a career in the public service all the way to New York’s highest court, especially for women, especially for Muslims, and especially for African Americans, but that didn’t stop Judge Abdus-Salaam from breaking through those barriers so that others may follow. While law enforcement has said they have seen no evidence of foul-play, given the circumstances, we urge the police department to pursue a full and thorough investigation to be sure. We share our deepest condolences with Judge Abdus-Salaam’s family and with the people of New York, who have lost a pioneer and a model jurist.

Layla Abdullah-Polous is a Patheos Muslim blogger who writes at NbA Muslims and freelances for AboutIslam. A version of this article originally appeared in AboutIslam.

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