“Black Muslims are not safe in Muslim spaces, which falsely offer ‘sanctuary’ but end up being asylums of pain.”
Rage building inside me, I breathed in and out as I walked away from the computer. I recited some supplications to Allah to calm my anger, but the term “holy whores” kept playing over and over in my mind. I had just read a Muslim-authored blog criticizing African-American Muslims in disadvantaged neighbors for participating in polygyny while being on government assistance. The term “holy whores” was chosen to express the writer’s disgust with Muslim women who were legally “single” and thus had no “husband” but kept “popping out babies” while donned in full jilbaab and niqaab.
I myself did not agree with the practice of plural marriage by those who could not afford it, but I understood enough about the complexity of systematic racism and transgenerational poverty to know that this issue was far more nuanced than the writer was presenting it to be. Though I couldn’t personally relate to any of the scenarios she was listing, over the years, I had met and befriended those who could. And just one conversation with my struggling sisters in Islam was enough to make me realize that I should keep quiet about things I had no knowledge of, lest I be called to account on the Day of Judgment for slandering Allah’s believing slaves.
But the truth was, the woman’s post wasn’t about her outrage at those who exploited the welfare system for personal gain, and it wasn’t about clarifying the proper Islamic practice of polygyny. It was about highlighting the alleged hypocrisy of ostensibly religious African-American Muslims, especially those who identified with what many Muslims termed “Wahhabi Islam.” And the mention of polygamy and women wearing all black and face veils gave her arguments the fuel she needed to vilify these believers without opposition from other Muslims. For certainly, if there were two things that turned the stomach of nearly every privileged Muslim seeking approval in White America, it was the mere mention of modern-day polygamy as having any connection to their faith, and the suggestion that they had any legitimate connection to Black Muslims in the “ghetto,” especially those who affiliated with Salafi Islam.
In other words, her premise was really just one of zillions posited by privileged Muslims in an effort to spread their own culture’s anti-Black glorified victimhood under the guise of Islam.
“They Think Black People Are Gods!”
My friend and I grew quiet as we sat in her living room watching a lecture by a renowned Arab-American imam as he discussed the teachings of the Nation of Islam under the late Elijah Muhammad. She had chosen the video because she wanted to watch something that included the remembrance of Allah before we ate dinner and enjoyed each other’s company casually. But minutes into the video, it became clear that we were being reminded of the inferiority of our skin color more than the greatness of our Creator.
It is an unspoken rule amongst Black people that we give non-Blacks a zillion excuses before we allow ourselves to acknowledge or voice our pain. In most cases, we don’t speak about it at all. Emotional suffering is so much a part of our daily experience that for purposes of mental sanity alone, we regularly create alternate narratives in our minds that paint a less distressful reality regarding what is happening right before our eyes. It is such a necessary coping mechanism that some Black people can only cope by changing the narrative entirely to one of self-blame, even in cases of obvious wrongdoing and harm. This allows us to psychologically take control of the situation, even as we are utterly incapable of controlling the situation outside our mind.
In other words, withstanding daily racism results in the same psychological coping mechanisms that occur in survivors of domestic violence, child abuse, and sexual assault. Given that racism involves both blatant and subtle abuse tactics, including verbal harassment and physical mistreatment, this result is quite obvious to those familiar with the effects of both situational trauma and long-term abuse. However, the difference is that in the case of racism, there is no safe space for the sufferer, at least not in the absolute sense. There is no abusive relationship to escape, no childhood home to grow out of, and no assailant whose attacks are confined to a specific context or time frame.
Couple this with the fact that some Black people, as is the case with all other ethnic groups, have also suffered domestic violence, child abuse, and sexual assault in their lives; and we can see that systematic racism only exacerbates their problems, making the entire world a perpetually dangerous, unsafe place. Unfortunately, it is often the very places Black people go to for sanctuary that end up being environments of further abuse.
This is precisely what happens in Muslim environments, particularly those with predominately non-Black immigrant populations. Personally, I have never in my life met an African-American adult Muslim who had been part of a predominately Arab or Desi community who has not suffered some form of emotional pain as a result. Those whose children attend predominately Arab/Desi Muslim schools (or who they themselves attended the schools) acknowledge their constant need to tend to the emotional and mental health of their children—and themselves—due to the daily mistreatment by both adults and children alike due to the widespread colorism and racism that is not even acknowledged as a possible reality in these cultural environments.
Islam sees no color! There is no racism in Islam! The only one with a problem with color seems to be you. This thinking is from jahiliyyah [pre-Islamic ignorance]. We love all people. We don’t see color. So-and-so is Black and teaches first grade, and we love her! My cousin’s friend’s brother is married to a convert, and they treat her like their own family.
This constant righteous indignation and denial by Arab and Desi American administrators and community leaders makes it impossible to address the systematic colorism and racism since they insist that it doesn’t even exist. Undoubtedly, this is a form of gaslighting carried out under the guise of Islamic piety, and it is one of the most destructive. I personally know of African-Americans who suffer from PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder), who have had mental breakdowns, and who have left Islam after these repeated experiences and outright dismissals. I myself have suffered anxiety attacks due to my repeated exposure to anti-Black racism at the hands of fellow Muslims, and till today I cannot go in certain Muslim environments due to the deep triggers they incite.
When I was in deep emotional pain before I left to live overseas, I met with one masjid administration and shared my experience and those of other African-Americans in hopes that we could brainstorm a solution and positive way forward. However, their response was so dismissive and accusatory toward me (which included saying my thinking was from jahiliyyah) that I was literally in tears when I left the room. This, after they repeatedly advertised that their goal was to build a community and that we should feel free to come talk to them about anything.
Thus, it is only natural that many African-American Muslims respond to this mistreatment by creating safe spaces that meet the needs of Black people specifically. While these safe havens are absolutely necessary for our collective emotional healing, they do not solve the pervasive problem of widespread racism in the ummah. Moreover, many of these sanctuaries ultimately evolve into exclusively pro-Black, Afro-centric religious sects that are merely responses to the anti-Black racism suffered in predominately Arab and Desi communities, as well as White America at large. Consequently, the pro-Black glorified victimhood culture creates yet another unsafe emotional environment for Black Muslims who value spiritual authenticity for the safety of their souls.
The Nation of Islam itself was a response to the egregious racism suffered by Black Americans at the hands of racist Whites who viewed Blacks as not fully human such that systematic abuse, murder, rape, and torture of them was viewed as justified and even “necessary.” Dr. Joy DeGruy details some of this thinking in her discussions and writings on Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome (PTSS). The results of this psychopathy still exist today in America’s systematic racism via eugenics programs, mass incarceration of Blacks, and the prevalence of the “Black family pathology” myth that is so widely accepted that some Muslims themselves embrace it and teach it.
What made my friend and I grow quiet as we watched the renowned Arab American speak about the Nation of Islam was the shameless ridicule in his presentation. While talks discussing Christianity, especially those with American Christians in attendance, were generally carried out with a tone of compassion and understanding (if not religious pandering and apologetics), this one was carried out as if the Black people in the Nation of Islam were not even deserving of basic human empathy and respect, they were so repulsive in this man’s view. The atmosphere of anti-Black ridicule was almost palpable through the video as the Arab presenter couldn’t keep from smirking and chuckling as he listed the “crazy” beliefs of these Black people who were so “deranged” as to think White people were the devil and Black people were gods. During his mockery of the Nation of Islam, the predominately Arab/Desi audience burst into fits of laughter so loud that it was like watching a comedy show.
What’s so hilarious about a group of oppressed people genuinely believing their oppressors were evil and that they themselves were divinely superior due to their refusal to stoop to that despicable level? I thought to myself. Without a doubt, the beliefs of the Nation of Islam were grossly incorrect, but these were not people who had heard the message of authentic Islam then created their own religion. So why the mockery? Though the presenter sought to justify his mockery by listing the anti-White racism and shirk inherent in the Nation of Islam’s beliefs, his hypocrisy was apparent when he didn’t do the same regarding the anti-Black racism and shirk inherent in the Eurocentric version of Christianity, which was literally forced on the ancestors of the very Black people he was making fun of.
Because my friend and I could neither make any reasonable excuses for the blatant anti-Black ridicule we were witnessing nor derive any remembrance of Allah from this imam’s disrespectful presentation, we turned off the video.
For some time, my friend and I sat in pensive silence completely unsure what we could (or should) say about the emotional pain we were feeling.
Allah Requires Us To Accept Abuse and Mistreatment?
While we as African-Americans are daily exposed to lectures making fun of our people and culture and to fatwas declaring that everything from our hairstyles and clothes to our art and music (even without instruments) are either haraam or “imitation of the kuffaar,” we are routinely religiously forbidden (by self-appointed religious authorities) from speaking up against these confusing and traumatic realities lest we fall into “sin” and thus risk Hellfire in the Hereafter. The use of religion to silence the pain of oppressed minorities (particularly women and Black people) is generally taught under the Islamic obligation to show adab (religious deference) to the “inheritors of the prophets.”
Most Islamic classes emphasize laypeople’s divine duty to respect Islamic scholars more than they do every believer’s independent responsibility to Allah and their own souls. As such, we are taught that “the flesh of scholars is poison” and that the teachers who shame us for the color of our skin are inheritors of the Prophet (peace be upon him) or are awliyaa’ (the friends and beloved of Allah). Meanwhile, as we suffer the pain of racist teachings under the guise of Islam, we are obligated to think of ourselves as mere ignorant commoners with the divinely-mandated responsibility to blindly follow the “spiritual teachers” who are emotionally abusing us, lest Allah Himself will be displeased with us.
Black Culture and Art Equal Sinfulness?
To be clear, I am not suggesting that all African-American culture and entertainment is positive, decent, and Islamic—or even that all of it is allowed in Islam. What I am saying is that the widespread “religious” teachings that vilify Black culture and art are directly linked to the cultural needs of Arabs and Desis, who have immigrated to America but want to protect their children from “corruption,” a corruption that not coincidentally centers almost exclusively around Black American influences, specifically their music, dance, and even colloquial speech patterns.
Meanwhile, if something appeases White America, many Arab and Desi imams will find a way to make it Islamic or praiseworthy—even if it means permitting what is unequivocally haraam (such as joining an army that kills innocent people or becoming government agents that spy on Muslims) or forbidding and trivializing what is unequivocally halaal, such as plural marriage.
The fiqhi acrobatics that are employed to achieve this un-Islamic cultural pandering are astounding. Yet somehow the prohibition of music (a non-ijmaa’ fiqh view) has become the symbol of piety in these very same communities—instead of adhering to the clear teachings of the Qur’an and Sunnah.
To add insult to injury, the struggles and faults of Black people are consistently brought up in blogs, speeches, and even Islamic conferences (as we saw at #RIS2016)—without even the slightest effort at human empathy and understanding. Thus, we have a writer calling poor African-American women “holy whores” if they choose polygyny, and we have a prominent Arab-American imam shamelessly making fun of the Nation of Islam because its form of shirk revered Black people instead of White people.
Racist Administrators Are Protected While the Wronged Are Forced To Quit
I don’t even have words to explain what these repeated experiences have done to my own emotional health, as this blog is only scratching the surface regarding what I experience till today while working with predominately Arab/Desi Muslim organizations. Amongst some of the better organizations (i.e those who make minimal efforts to be “racially sensitive”), you have a good-cop/bad-cop structure in place, wherein one administrator blatantly wrongs you and another administrator privately confides in you that they disagree with it. However, absolutely nothing is done about the “bad cop” administrator, and you’re just supposed to feel happy and grateful that the “good cop” administrator cares enough about you to privately say, “That was wrong.”
Because this structure does absolutely nothing to support you emotionally and spiritually, you have no choice but to ultimately quit, as it is obvious that your emotional suffering is as much a given to the organization as is the lack of any real accountability of the “bad cop.”
“I Hope We All Die Together”
One of the most heartbreaking illustrations of what this repeated racism does to the psychology of the Black Muslim is the story of my friend’s eight-year-old daughter. At the time, the girl was enrolled in a Muslim school that was predominately Arab, and she was showing signs of plummeting self-esteem and increased depression. The students repeatedly called her racist names, mocked her skin color, and told her she was ugly. To add insult to injury, the teachers themselves did not intervene, and they routinely favored the Arab children over her.
One day the eight-year-old girl came up to my friend and said, “Mommy, I hope we all die together.” Surprised by the words of her daughter, my friend said, “Why?” Then the girl said, in all sincerity and earnestness, “Because if you and Daddy die before me, there will be no one else in the world to tell me I’m beautiful.”
Immediately upon hearing this, my heart dropped and tears filled my eyes. Not only because I hurt for the girl, but because I hurt for myself. And I hurt for all the other Black children—and adults—who daily suffered a similar pain, but didn’t quite have the words to tell the world how they felt. And even if they did find the words—as I often did as a writer—it was very rare that anyone cared or was listening.
So our only hope was in waiting for a better life beyond this world, as the wider Muslim community let us know repeatedly that even in the masjids and schools built for the remembrance of Allah and for the supporting of the believers, we did not belong.
Umm Zakiyyah is the internationally acclaimed author of twenty books, including the If I Should Speak trilogy, Muslim Girl, His Other Wife and the self-help book for Muslim survivors of parental and family abuse: Reverencing the Wombs That Broke You. Read HIS OTHER WIFE novel now: CLICK HERE. Subscribe to Umm Zakiyyah’s YouTube channel, follow her on Instagram or Twitter, and join her Facebook page.
Copyright © 2017 by Al-Walaa Publications. All Rights Reserved.