Theology Thursdays: Exclusive Q & A With Dr. Aminah Beverly McCloud, Professor, Islamic Studies in Religious Studies, DePaul University (Part I)
There are certain individuals, that, for a variety of reasons, many of us are unaware of, though their impact, contribution, and influence is historic, public, documented and controversial. Such a person is Dr. Aminah Beverly McCloud, Director of the Islamic World Studies Program and Professor of Islamic Studies in Religious Studies, Depaul University. Dr. McCloud, a Muslim for nearly 40 years, is the first African-American to graduate with a degree in Islamic Studies from Temple University and the first Muslim to graduate from that institution with a degree in Pharmacy. She is also one of only three Black Americans who currently hold Professorships and teach Islamic Studies at universities in America.
But although many among the masses remain unaware of Dr. McCloud, others - learned and politically powerful - have tried their best to place a spotlight on her, and her unique standing among Blacks and Muslims in the United States. Among this group, some in the 'mainstream' and ideological media have tried to position the Islamic scholar and adviser - to both institutions and leaders - as either a maverick intellectual activist or 'rabble rouser'. Two examples of this are "An Islamic Scholar With A Dual Role As Activist," January 17, 2004, New York Times and "The Gray Lady Whitewashes Black Muslims," April 8, 2004, FrontpageMagazine.com
Whether due to gender, race, religion, association, expression or scholarship, Dr. Aminah McCloud seems to make a variety of individuals, institutions and organizations, very uncomfortable.
To get better acquainted with the trailblazing Muslim author, teacher and consultant, BlackElectorate.com Publisher Cedric Muhammad sought and was granted an exclusive interview with Dr. McCloud. Today, we feature part one of those questions and answers.
Cedric Muhammad: As-Salaam-Alaikum Sister. We are very honored to have this opportunity to have this discussion. In the last couple of years we have linked to news articles about you in our news section, and we appreciate this chance to talk with you and allow the viewers of BlackElectorate.com an opportunity to get to know you better. How are you these days?
Dr. Aminah McCloud: I am well, thank you, in light of the multi-pronged attack on Islam and American Muslims by many Americans in positions of influence and power. It is a strain to live with threats of attacks on my integrity, my life and my family along with attacks on our Islamic Studies program at DePaul University. I am grateful however, for Allah’s mercy and favor and the support of a few Muslims like yourself.
Cedric Muhammad: Sister, as a Professor of Islamic Studies in Religious Studies at DePaul University, and Director of the Islamic World Studies Program you hold some very interesting and important positions. What makes it all the more interesting to me and many others is that you do so as a Black woman. Please tell us more about how you grew in the academic world in Islamic studies and what have the dynamics of that been like for you, as a Black woman?
Dr. Aminah McCloud: As do many American Muslims, I spent most of my adult life as a Muslim trying to learn about Islam and own it as a way of life. I was actually recruited just as I was taking a hiatus from medicine by Ismail al-faruqi to Temple University’s Islamic Studies program in their Department of Religion. I found that I new almost nothing about the breadth and depth of Islamic Studies and the cultures involved. I also did not know that women were literally prevented from such studies or that the abuse of women in the transnational community was some of the impetus for the abuse of women in the Black community. I was at that time the only African American and only American and one of four women, two of which were only going for a masers degree and returning to Malaysia. I found out that those African Americans previously recruited were not successful in completing the studies. My lifelong gratitude, may Allah grant them His favor, goes to my peers and a few professors who had a great deal more confidence in my abilities than I did. I am also in debt to the few Muslim women who babysat and listened to by woes for almost six years.
What I found out in academia about academia was that few African Americans were permitted to succeed. There seemed to be a very low glass ceiling. Those that do succeed have unrelenting ambition, perseverance, and a hyperdrive for learning. White students are mentored and given opportunities. In Islamic Studies I found myself engaged in the most wonderful, inspiring, intriguing, and overwhelming set of studies I could ever have imagined. I was often drowning and seeking a way out as I took language exams in Arabic, French and German, studied law, Qur’an and tafasir, history, hadith literature, traveled overseas and continued as a divorced mother of three extremely active children. My youngest daughter was 18 months old when I began and eight years old when I took the job at DePaul. It was brutal. I also found myself in constant turmoil as I learned more. Most of the books sold in masajid and at conventions are part of particular indoctrinations to Islam – cultural expressions that have been given authority over time. Americans, transitioning into Islam are learning some other culture’s version – primarily either Arab or South Asian. These are very narrow articulations which sometimes are distortions or very biased. Islam has become a religion with many expression some closer to the Qur’an than others, but none living up to the mandates of the Qur’an itself. American Muslims have been cheated out of the a lot of the beauty of Islam and its commandments for justice and acting justly, being a part of social fabric through leadership and so on.
All the "real" Islamic scholars are Arab men followed (not closely) by South Asian men, then some Euro-American Muslims like Hamza Yusef and then by Black men like Sherman Jackson. Needless to say, I do not fit the criteria and thus, there is no space for me or any other Black woman in Islamic studies. This pattern is best seen in who gets what position in which university. Imams permit me to interview them but not to share what I know or learn from them what they know. Muslim women are not organized for study, perhaps because they are overwhelmed with other responsibilities. As a professor of Islamic Studies who is Muslim, I am not welcomed in academe. Black professors are supposed to only know about subjects dealing with the Black community. Islamic Studies in the West has been the province of white men and a few transnationals. White women have gotten their feet into Islamic Studies through the door of wither Feminist or gender Studies.
Cedric Muhammad: I remember when I was in college I took an Islamic studies course as an undergraduate. Some of the books were interesting, but I was impressed by how little these studies covered the role that Blacks have played in the spread of Islam in the United States. That was in the early 90s. How have you seen the quality of Islamic study courses evolve since you began your academic studies and teaching?
Dr. Aminah McCloud: The study of Islam in America regarding historically American Muslim groups would be primarily focused on African American Muslims – so that it why it is not covered in courses either in African American Studies or in Islamic studies. Islamic studies has to be about an Islam – "over there" and certainly African American participation in Islam is illegitimate. Scholars of Black religions have ignored or deliberately hidden the history of Islam in the Black community until very recently when two of those scholars began to publish the truth and their work is often over looked in efforts to keep the religious scholarship on the Black community grounded Christianity. There are no African American Muslim scholars of Islam at Harvard, Princeton or Yale where there are large African American Studies programs. Grants are given to Christian and Jewish scholars of Islam, almost never to the Muslims for research unless there are Christians and/or Jews to oversee them. The development of courses reflects these biases. Course in Islamic studies are often distortions of the religion under the guise of "objective treatment" or focused on the stereotypes of Islamic societies or women. We are working to change that in our Islamic Studies program but we are the only degreed stand-alone program in the country and we are not situated in a research institution which financial backing. We are probably one of a very few programs which study Islam in Africa, China, western Europe, the United States and South America and so on.
Cedric Muhammad: What is your view of some of those who are being represented as Islamic "experts" in the media - people like Mr. Bernard Lewis and Mr. Daniel Pipes? And who are some of the better Islamic scholars in American academia that you respect and think are overlooked by the mainstream media?
Dr. Aminah McCloud: For over a century, non-Muslims who love the study of Muslim societies (mostly finding them peculiar) and those (Muslim and non-Muslim) who hate both Islam and Muslims have acquired graduate degrees in Islamic Studies. This is a very good question. We have those who make their bread on skillfully rendered denigrations of Islam, its texts, Prophet, and believers. These scholars are really quite skillful in manipulating the data so that their work has the appearance of diligence and integrity while it skirts the truth by focusing readers or students on the inconsequential or irrelevant. For instance Mr. Pipes rightly points out there have been many attempts at counting Muslims (he never says that there are few attempts to count Jews) but that the Muslims consistently exaggerate the numbers. He does not however say that keeping the numbers low figures in the potential, say, Muslims have in political circles. If there are just a few thousand Muslims as he asserts then politicians do not have to really be concerned with their issues, whereas if there are 6 million then politicians would be foolish not to pay attention. So rather than focus on the more important issue of voice, Pipes focuses readers on what could be labeled the persistence of Muslims in exaggerating their numbers. Many could ignore Mr. Pipes in particular if he did not incite others to violence and slander, espionage, etc. He has encouraged students, like the Nazi era or the McCarthy era to spy on professors and make-up/tell what they said in class that could possibly be a link to support of anything that remotely sounded like something one could call if pressed, anti-Israeli. This has caused a number of Christian and Muslim professors, angst and discomfort along with their other students. One wonders about people like this and why they would resort to such tactics when they know their heinous effects. While non-Muslim scholars, almost always adherents of another faith but sometimes immigrant Muslims, have become wealthy and influential in Islamic studies, American professors have labored at second tier universities, when they can even find a job. And there are not many jobs in the first place. I know of one instance where an African American non-Muslim was given an endowed chair. His qualifications are good but his impact and reach in the African American Muslim or transnational Muslim communities are severely limited. There are only a few African American scholars of Islam and we are good at what we do even though with one rare exception, reap none of the rewards. Here is a short list – Farid Munir, Zain Abdullah, Sherman Jackson, Akel Kahera, Ihsan Bagby, Amina Wadud, Amir al-Islam, Zohara Simmons, Muktar Curtis, and myself. You rarely hear them, read them or see them as media experts even though most of what is covered in the media is directly in their field.
Cedric Muhammad: If anyone were to rely on media accounts to get to know you, I think they would walk away with a very mixed and confusing picture. As an example I can point to three very different articles about you: "Teaching Terror At DePaul University" by Thomas Ryan, Frontpage.com, May 12, 2005; "An Islamic Scholar With The Dual Role Of Activist" by Felicia R. Lee, New York Times, January 17, 2004; and "Islamic Study Rises A Level At DePaul" by Geneive Abdo, Chicago Tribune, June 1, 2004. What is your view of how the media has written about you?
Dr. Aminah McCloud: Much of my media contact is through video and even that is limited. Regarding news articles, I think the object of many reporters is to heighten the confusion of which you speak. Two examples: Felicia Lee called me to give me a rare opportunity to be featured in the New York Times. Though we spoke a great deal about what I do, her interest was squarely on the Nation Of Islam and there was nothing I could show her or say that would change that. I do quite a few things. I am the editor of the referred Journal of Islamic Law and Culture, I manage the Islam in America Archival Collection, and I teach and write and am active in many community affairs. The reporter’s interests are the only interests. I firmly believe that the old academic saying that black professors can only talk about black issues is the name of the game even if the professor’s expertise is elsewhere and the reporter is Black. It is a way of limiting and is very successful. It is dishonest. Thomas Ryan’s venom and slander reads for itself. He could not even make a good argument but could cause a lot of discomfort. His animus for Islam and Muslims is so heated that he even tripped himself. African American scholars of Islam are impossibility in the minds of whites, immigrants and even other African Americans. I am a professor of Islamic studies who focuses on Muslim cultures and Islam in America. In that I research Muslim cultures and record the history of Islam in America with a particular focus on African American Muslims.
Cedric Muhammad: Sister, it is my understanding that of late, in particular, you have been receiving death threats? If you do not mind and it is not inappropriate would you please tell us about the nature of these threats and what is contributing to them?
Dr. Aminah McCloud: Immediately after 9/11, many Muslims received death threats. Those of us out in the public giving lectures were particularly vulnerable and continue to be. White men have cornered me after lectures, shouting obscenities in their own churches. I’ve had a long list of threatening e-mails from some in both the Jewish and Christian communities after Ms. Lee’s article. It got so bad that I had to get my husband to accompany me everywhere or I did not go. Mr. Ryan’s article has just turned up the heat. The death threats are back with a vengeance. The FBI has been notified and DePaul provides me with an escort. In many ways, it is frightening as they threaten not only me but also my family and our program at DePaul. It is ugly.
Cedric Muhammad: A major point of focus of some of the media coverage revolves around your relationship with Minister Louis Farrakhan. What is that relationship? How did it evolve?
Dr. Aminah McCloud: As a researcher on Islam in America, I have made it a point to stay in touch with communities across the country and to know as many of the leaders as possible. I do not belong to any community but that historically Sunni African American community which is decentralized. Directly due to the fact that I do not belong to any community, it has been difficult to get to know some of the leaders. I was teaching at DePaul for at least four or five years before I met a member of the Nation Of Islam who could get me an audience with Minister Farrakhan. I was first introduced to him by Professor C. Eric Lincoln who I am sure if he was not already dead, Mr. Pipes would say something degrading about him and his scholarship also, although he still might. I have only had an audience with Minister Farrakhan for an interview on one occasion but am on his list of people who are invited to his meetings and for dinner at his Chicago home. In summary, I can say that Minister Farrakhan knows me on sight, greets me when I attend an event and will give an ok when I want to interview a member of the community.
Cedric Muhammad: What is your view of the state of relations between the Black or African-American Islamic community and the American immigrant Muslim community?
Dr. Aminah McCloud: The relations between the general African American and transnational Muslim community are filled with tension. Many transnational Muslims understand that they must build bridges between the two communities but do not understand the need to apologize in acknowledging the problem. Many transnationals have joined White Americans in proclaiming that there is no racism or that they are tired of hearing about it. Transnational communities are totally focused on their communities of origin and for a while many African American Muslims were likewise focused on the Muslim world running the risk of forever being ostracized by their communities of origin. In recent times many African American Muslims have again focused on issues in the general Black community. There is a great deal to be said on this topic.
Cedric Muhammad: What is your view of the steps toward reconciliation between the Nation Of Islam and Minister Louis Farrakhan and the American Muslim Society and Imam Warith Deen Mohammed? I spoke at great length about this with Imam Mustafa El-Amin in a 2004 BlackElectorate.com interview. And more narrowly, how do you think the theological differences can be resolved between both communities?
Dr. Aminah McCloud: I can not say any more than what you have read in the newspapers about what the leadership does. However, members of both communities have continued to participate in each other’s events. They seemed to have taken up the spirit of a working reconciliation though the two communities remain under separate leadership. What I see is a difference in emphasis. Most in Imam Warithudeen’s community emphasis the Oneness of Allah and the prophethood of Muhammad of 7th century Arabia while those in Minister Farrakhan’s community emphasize the unique message of Elijah Muhammad. Neither denies the other’s claim with the exception of the place of Fard Muhammad.
Cedric Muhammad: Of late, particularly when I am in New York City and Washington, D.C., and a few other cities I notice the increase of African Muslims in communities populated by Black Americans. I often think about two things: slavery and how African Muslims were enslaved in America; and the state of relations between Black American Muslims and those coming from all over Africa. What is your take on that history and the current state of relations between those of us who practice Islam learned in America and those which bring their way of devotion in Islam, from the Motherland?
Dr. Aminah McCloud: Professor Zain Abdullah wrote his dissertation on African Muslims in America and I have learned much from his work. In the brief researches I have done on the relationship between African and African American Muslims, I can say that there are bridges under-construction and some that need to be built. Africans are many times embarrassed and angry about the association of their presence as another African American presence since it is often pejorative. For example in the case of Mr. Diallo, he was just another Black man when the police shot him numerous times and killed him. African American Muslims, on the other hand, have not turned to Africans for their direction in Islam. They have preferred Arabs and South Asians. Thus, neither community knows much about the other. The Arabs have told them that Sufism is unIslamic and since many Africans are sufi, they are thus, practicing outside of Islam. There is much to be said on this topic.
Cedric Muhammad: What is your view of the news that Imam Warith Deen Mohammed and Cardinal Francis George have called on Muslims and Christians to unite on racism and strengthening families, as reported in the July 26, 2005, Chicago Tribune article, "Muslim leader, George call for unity". What do you make of the account of the relationship between the late Pope John Paul II, and our Brother, Imam Warith Deen Mohammed. The Chicago Tribune wrote the following of their relationship:
In a television interview shortly after John Paul's death, Mohammed recalled his meeting with the pontiff.
"I shook hands and embraced him, and he embraced me," Mohammed said, according to a transcript of the interview. When Mohammed asked for the pope's blessing in the effort to unite Catholics and Muslims, the pope told him: "You have my blessing."
In a letter to John Paul last fall, Mohammed called on the pope to help build a better relationship between Christians and Muslims. The pope conveyed his reply through George and plans for the public conversation began.
Dr. Aminah McCloud: As we all know shaking someone's hand does not a new relationship make. For me the proof is in the product. Catholics in Chicago have their own problems but continue their universal charity work which de facto includes Muslims as part of the general populace. I have not seen any new initiatives, which is not to say there aren't any. Many world leaders like Popes and Cardinals find themselves in very brief and usually none productive conversations with African Americans. We are still at least where we were before the photo-op.
End Of Part I
BlackElectorate.com viewers are welcome to e-mail Dr. Aminah McCloud directly at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Thursday, October 20, 2005