A hidden voice of Islam

In the midst of an impoverished East Oakland neighborhood as concerned with the war on drugs as the war in Iraq lie answers to a question roiling the country since Sept. 11, 2001: Can Islam and the United States co-exist?

They can, say members of a largely African-American mosque there, offering their decades-old history as proof. But that history is often ignored and misconstrued.

Perhaps no group of Americans can speak about Islam and the United States with the same intimacy or authority as African-American Muslims. But their voice — and story — frequently is missing in the national conversation about Islam after Sept. 11, 2001.

In some ways, it is a question about what is Islam, and what is Middle East politics, says Faheem Shuaibe, the imam, or spiritual leader, of the East Oakland mosque, Masjidul Waritheen.

“What role do black American Muslims play in terms of America and Muslim countries?” asks Shuaibe, whose 1,500-member congregation is the largest mostly African-American mosque in Northern California. “They’re not a factor. As long as the conversation is about geopolitics, that’s fine. But when you talk about Islam in America, I’m the one to talk to.”

No thorough study has ever been done on the number of Muslims in the United States, and estimates vary from 2 million to 8 million. Other studies have estimated that African-American Muslims make up a third of the Muslim population in the United States.

At its core, the Islam practiced at Masjidul Waritheen is no different from what is practiced in Indonesia, India or Saudi Arabia. The Koran and the collected sayings of the Prophet Muhammad form the basis for all beliefs.

But there are differences of interpretation, culture and history. Most African-Americans Muslims are converts; many feel they are returning to the religion of their ancestors, slaves who were Muslims. Many came to the faith through the Nation of Islam, which even African-American Muslims consider to have Islamically heretical beliefs. Women also have a higher status and more visible presence in the mosque. And music plays a role in the community.

African-Americans were the first to promote and develop Islam in America, says Howard University Professor Sulayman Nyang, an immigrant and author of “Islam in the United States of America.”

Decades ago, “African-Americans were the ones who took Islam out of the closet,” Nyang says. “Immigrants who were Muslims, they were not coming out. That’s a fact. Nobody can question that.”

Afghans, Indo-Fijians and Yemenis, to name a few, all have their own mosques in the Bay Area. Those mosques play a dual role for many, providing religion and ethnic and linguistic community.

Amjad Obeidat, a Jordanian immigrant who works in Sunnyvale, says that some of the differences between African-American and immigrant Muslims is simply because of the nature of immigration.

“Immigrants tend to hang out a little bit more with the people that are close to them,” says Obeidat, a spokesman for American Muslims Intent on Learning and Activism. “As a corollary, the immigrant community did not get as close to the Muslims who are African-American.”

Not just Muslims in training

“A common misperception has been that they are Muslims in training even though they are fully Muslim and they have a lot to offer,” says Shahed Amanullah, 35, a child of Indian immigrants and a spokesman for United Muslims of America.

Race and class play a role in the divisions, some immigrants and African-Americans say. But many African-American Muslims’ historic ties with the Nation of Islam and its quasi-Islamic beliefs play a role in why immigrant Muslims sometimes don’t view African-Americans as full followers of the faith.

Remnants of that history are still visible. Go to Masjidul Waritheen on a Friday afternoon, the Muslim Sabbath, and you might see this: Alfred Raoof, 64, selling bean pies he’s brought from San Jose; Abdul Sabry, 64, selling strawberries, mangoes and other produce; and Yusuf Rashed, 85, selling vegan chocolate chip cookies along with soap and tea.

It might as well be a farmers market. Nothing in the Koran calls for this explicitly, and it doesn’t happen at immigrant mosques. But Masjidul Waritheen’s congregants believe that economic self-reliance is one more step on the straight path toward Islam.

“For African-Americans, we live in a capitalistic society where we’ve never had the capital,” says Sabry, an Oakland resident who three decades ago was the first chairman of the black studies program at San Jose State University. “It is an example of self-sufficiency that is lacking in our community.”

For Masjidul Waritheen members who were once part of the Nation of Islam, their history is a source of strength. The Nation of Islam sought to lift them, and other African-Americans, out of the cycles of poverty, racism and humiliation that for centuries defined white America’s treatment of blacks.

Self-reliance and autonomy — in spiritual, financial and even segregationist terms — were cornerstones of the faith. But so was racism. Black people were gods. White people were devils. It was an attempt to lift up the self by bringing down and demystifying their oppressors.

Before the Nation of Islam, “we were straightening our hair” to seem more white, says Tauheedah Muwwakkil, 54, a Masjidul Waritheen member who joined the Nation while she was a student at San Jose State in the early 1970s. “We were bleaching our skin. We were imitating the image the media put before us.”

“Now comes this man who says, `Let’s look at your own kind,’ ” she says, referring to Elijah Muhammad, the Nation of Islam’s founder. “ `You’re not the scum. You’re not the leftover. You’re the best of what God created, the cream of the planet Earth.’ This set the psyche turning in a different way.”

But these teachings had no basis in the Koran, Islam’s holy book, which says that all races are equal.

W. Deen Mohammed became the spiritual leader of the Nation of Islam after his father, Elijah Muhammad, died in 1975. The son soon pointed the Nation toward traditional Islam, one built around the Koran.

The racist views were eliminated from the teachings, as was the name Nation of Islam. Whites were allowed to join. The newspaper for a faith community that once viewed the United States as an enemy and called for a separate black nation now carried the American flag — as it does today.

It was a decision that disgruntled some, such as Louis Farrakhan, who resurrected the Nation of Islam and its black supremacist philosophies a few years later. But the vast majority of the community had already changed, African-American Muslims say.

Immigrant Muslims also offer other reasons for why African-Americans are perceived as still developing in the faith.

Arabic reading required

Islam requires the reading of the Koran in Arabic, a language still being learned by some African-Americans. And some immigrant Muslims say “scholars,” unofficial interpreters of the faith sought for guidance, must be trained in one of the four streams of Sunni thought — the branch of Islam encompassing roughly 85 percent of Muslims worldwide. Some African-Americans find that exclusionary.

Silicon Valley’s prosperous Muslim community, primarily immigrants and their descendants, has been able to raise millions of dollars to build mosques. Masjidul Waritheen, meanwhile, is trying to scrape together $12,000 so that required pre-worship hand and face washing can be done at something other than the hallway sink, which lacks hot water.

One of the most striking differences involves the role of women.

At Masjidul Waritheen, women follow the Koran’s teachings on modest dress. But they also serve in leadership roles. Men and women mingle freely after services, sometimes exchanging hugs. Both genders pray in the same room. This is uncommon in many immigrant mosques.

“We’re different,” says Imam Earl Abdulmalik Mohammed, the national representative for Imam W. Deen Mohammed. “We look at things differently. We are struggling to learn what are our principles that serve our unity.”

Carla Ali, the principal of the Masjidul Waritheen-run school, says she believes African-American Muslims’ history, rising from slavery and discrimination into Islam, is a model of what the religion can be in America.

“First of all, we are Americans,” says Ali, 43. “We do have that American experience. Islam has raised a band of people up from what most people would agree are horrible conditions and challenges. And here we are. We are trying to live as peacefully as possible, forgiving the past, trying to bring people into the knowledge of what the religion is. . . . Who better to explain and show the light of Islam than African-Americans?”

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