Sherman Jackson on WDM, divisions among Black Muslims, and the road ahead

Sherman Jackson on WDM, divisions among Black Muslims, and the road ahead September 21, 2008

As a commenter astutely noted, not all Black Muslims in this country looked to W.D. Mohammed for leadership. Many assimilated fully into mainstream, majority-immigrant mosques and institutions, in some cases going abroad for traditional training, as well.

Dr. Sherman Jackson, one of the most important North American Muslim jurists, scholars and community leaders–not to mention the author of an extremely important book on American Islam –has penned a fascinating reflection (posted on the old faithful Manrilla Blog) about Imam W.D. Mohammed’s legacy and the complicated relationship he and the community he led often had with other Black Sunni Muslims.

It illustrates a very important aspect that I left unmentioned, partly out of a sense of my “place”  and in the interest of space. The worst scorn and sniping often came from fellow Blacks, not immigrants.

Dr. Jackson doesn’t make this point, but personally I think it’s fair to say that this is partly due to the disproportionate role long played by Wahhabism in one form or another in non-WDM urban mosques. Not because they “infiltrated” inner cities, but 1) because their strict, cut & dried approach naturally appeals to those who feel their world has gone to Hell in a handbasket (not unlike the militant preaching one regularly encounters at urban, “front-line” churches) and 2) they were willing to invest in desperately need urban Islamic infrastructure when others weren’t (even if said funding sometimes came with Faustian conditions).

For many years in urban Muslim life, the Muslim community was tri-polar, with the most prominent Islamic culturo-religious institutions on the ground being in the orbit of either WDM’s community, Wahhabism or the Nation of Islam. There have no doubt always been many individual exceptions and some local anomalies (e.g., the Naqshabandis under Sheikh Kabbani in Los Angeles, whom I think had some success in reforming some gangbangers, getting them to if you will exchange the 40 Ounce for dhikr), but I think those have been the organizational players in urban Islam on the national stage. (Incidentally, I’ve seen claims of Shia inroads in some places. If anyone has info, please chime in.)

That’s not to say (as Azhar Usman’s moving apology shows), that he consistently got the respect he deserved within majority-immigrant communities, but more often than not when immigrant leaders contributed to this problem it was in a more passive manner, whether damning with faint praise or just cold ignoring him entirely (presumably simply out of ignorance in many cases). When he and his community were openly attacked, to the contrary, it often usually by other Blackamerican Muslims, and some really went for the jugular.

Only a few years ago, I was shocked to see, on a mailing list of Muslim grad students and academics, a knowledable and traditionally trained Muslim grad student who was Black quip brazenly that the “W.D.” might stand for “Weak Deen”. At the time, I went ballistic and made rather pointed comparisons between WDM’s accomplishments on the ground in American society and those of most prominent immigrant Muslim leaders who sniffed at the homespun delivery of his message. Hopefully, such slights will no longer be socially acceptable after this outpouring in his honor.

The Manrilla Blog | Life. Art. Religion. Culture. » Imâm W. D. Mohammed and The Third Resurrection by Dr. Sherman Jackson

I remember Philadelphia in the late 70s and early 80s, when Imam Mohammed was in this midst of his history-making transition. Those of us converts who had been blessed with greater access to (what we thought was) traditional learning would deride the way members of the World Community of Al-Islam in the West recited al-Fâtihah, joke about how they gave salâms and relish their inability to keep up with us on all of the irrelevant minutia on which we so self-righteously prided ourselves. We were better than them; for we were real Sunnis, not half-baptist wannabes. For all our ‘knowledge,’ however, we were completely devoid of wisdom and even more ignorant of the Sunna of Muhammad (SAWS). Of course, our high-handed arrogance would produce over time an understandable counter-arrogance. To the Imam’s community, we were confused, self-hating Negroes, wannabe Arabs, fresh off the back of the bus onto the back of the camel. If what we displayed was what the so-called Islamic sciences were supposed to be about, they would have little use for them. Ultimately, this would lead to a quiet resentment, mistrust and even hostility, not only towards us but also towards the so-called Islamic tradition that we so dismally (mis)represented. Of course, there were those from Imam Mohammed’s community who managed to transcend some of this alienation. But this was far more the exception than it was the rule.

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