Race, class, and religion: Remembering Imam Luqman Abdullah

Race, class, and religion: Remembering Imam Luqman Abdullah November 16, 2009
A different story

On Wednesday, October 28, 2009, Imam Luqman Abdullah, a humble servant of America’s underclass, was killed by a fusillade of bullets fired by government agents, some of whom had played an integral role in helping to stage the crimes he was accused of committing. His story, like that of all humans is a complicated one. Unfortunately, most people in this country will never learn of Imam Luqman Abdullah, the complicated man. The complexity of his life will be drowned out by the simplistic images of the homegrown Muslim extremist – a caricature.

The nuances of his story, his dedication to family, friends, and community; and his struggle to live a dignified life despite the crushing weight of poverty, will all be lost. With their loss, America loses yet another opportunity to attain a small part of the understanding so vital to move this country towards the sort of policies it needs to pursue, both domestically and internationally, if it is to avoid the consuming trap of imperial hubris and the inevitable ravages her twin sister, who is never too far behind her – Nemesis.

Imam Luqman was no fan of the American government. It is difficult to find many people living and working in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Detroit, one of the poorest cities in this country, who are fans of the government – regardless of their religion. Too much of the country’s sordid underbelly is exposed in such communities to engender much affection for its government. Too many souls are lost to the liquor that flows too freely. Too many lives are fractured by crack and other debilitating drugs. Too many dreams are deferred by the crushing combination of poor schools, dysfunctional families, and inadequate opportunities and services – in housing, employment, and healthcare. And far, far too many people are gunned down by the bullets flying too freely from guns that are too easily available. In most instances the trigger is pulled by the brown or black hand of a lost soul hailing from the same neighborhood as the victim, but in far too many instances it is pulled by an agent of the state.

Imam Luqman knew that violence well, on both ends. He was shot and nearly killed by a robber who assailed his vehicle during the time he was a struggling cab driver, and his life finally came to an end at the hands of government agents who had lured him to the warehouse where he was gunned down after allegedly shooting a dog that had been unleashed against him.

However, despite the poverty, the pressure, and the pain existing in communities such as his, there are heartwarming stories of human dignity and decency. Imam Luqman Abdullah was the author of many of those stories. He wrote those stories with his service to the community, the people he assisted, day in and day out, such as providing rides to people lacking vehicles, arranging for a heater to be repaired before the onslaught of a brutal Detroit winter, and in countless other ways. He also wrote them in his commitment to his family. The Imam has thirteen children. Not all of them are his biological children, but all of them affectionately call him Abu, or Papa, because of the sincere advice and guidance he had provided them over the years. He loved his community and his family, and he also loved his religion.

Imam Luqman loved Islam. The depth of that love can never be appreciated by one who has never experienced the intensity of conversion. Many will point to that intensity as one of the factors feeding what is viewed as a brooding radicalism among African American Muslims. However, for every African American Muslim who has, in an unprovoked manner, done something to harm the interests of this state, hundreds of thousands of lives have been removed from the ranks of the living dead and ushered into the ranks of the morally and spiritually quickened, and those revived lives have contributed immensely to the betterment of their communities and this country.

For the likes of Imam Luqman, Islam provides a vision for a new and better life. It has showed him, and legions of others, how to live. For many African Americans, this is something that the country herself still cannot do. Despite the tremendous progress made in some facets of race relations in this country, it is sad that the deep musing of Richard Wright, found at the end of his powerful classic, Black Boy, are as relevant today, for many, as they were when penned several decades ago:

Well, what had I got out of living in the city? What had I got out of living in the South? What had I got of living in America? I paced the floor, knowing that all I possessed were words and dim knowledge that my country had shown me no examples of how to live a human life. All my life I had been full of a hunger for a new way to live…

Through Islam, Luqman Abdullah and countless others have found a new way to live.

The political rhetoric sometimes employed by the Imam has led his detractors to argue that he is responsible for his own death. After all, they argue – falsely – he was an advocate for a violent Islamic revolution in this country. However, those close to the Imam present another picture. They say that ultimately his vision of Islam was far removed from any grandiose delusions of overthrowing the American government. His was a vision of creating a space where children could play and develop free from the influence of drugs, consumerism and the ever-present threat of violence, where young men could grow up without being stalked by the pernicious spectre of gangs and gang warfare, and where families could establish networks of mutual support and assistance. If his neighborhood in Detroit could have been cleaned up to the degree that such conditions prevailed, then that neighborhood would have become Islamic in his view.

One could debate the Imam’s political ideology, just as one could debate if the Imam would have ever been moved to a point where he would have become involved, unprovoked, in an act of violence against the state. However, if agents of the state had not infiltrated his mosque and set in motion the series of regrettable events that culminated in his death he would still be alive today. That is a fact beyond dispute.

It would have been inspiring if the agents who had come into his community brought access to the resources needed to make the healthy community he envisioned a reality. They would have found the strongest ally in Imam Luqman. Instead, they brought intrigue, violence and yet more social devastation. Unfortunately, this is something they had to do, as they were fighting a war on terror. Although Imam Luqman had not been implicated in any terrorist related charges or conspiracies, he would become an unsuspecting victim of that war. In that sense, he is not alone.

In a final, but telling twist to his story, his life came to an end because he allegedly fired the shots that would kill Freddy, the government dog that had been unleashed against him. As his own bullet-riddled body lay handcuffed in a pool of blood on that cold, hard Detroit warehouse floor, Freddy was evacuated by helicopter to a hospital for possible life-saving treatment. Folks familiar with communities like those Imam Luqman lived and worked would not be surprised by that prioritization. As an old song goes, “…it’s an everyday thang, in the ghetto.”

Imam Zaid Shakir is a scholar-in-residence and lecturer at Zaytuna Institute, where he now teaches courses on Arabic, Islamic law, history, and Islamic spirituality. This article was previously published at his blog at New Islamic Directions.

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