Theology Thursdays: The Challenge Of Being Both Black And Muslim by Mark I Pinsky
One by one, at sundown, they trickle into the simple building in the downtown strip of small manufacturing plants, homeless shelters and vacant lots: a bus driver, a homemaker, a martial-arts instructor, a salesman.
After long days they have come to learn a new language, a skill that will ease their way along a new path. They need to be fluent to fit into the lives they have chosen. But they are not immigrants, and it is not English they study twice a week.
They are African-Americans, and they are studying Arabic at Masjid Al-Haq in Orlando as part of their passage to the Muslim faith.
Learning Arabic is important for understanding the Quran, Islam's holy scripture, says Imam Hatim Hamidullah, 50, the mosque's spiritual leader. Those who make the effort are more likely to be respected by those born into the faith. The members of Masjid Al-Haq are also participating in the monthlong fast called Ramadan, which began Oct. 27. Like their coreligionists around the world, African-American Muslims such as Kevin Fuller and Aminah Hamidullah - wife of the imam - are refraining from food, drink, smoking, secular music and sexual activity during daylight hours.
Instead, they devote their days to prayer, introspection and charity. In the evening, they feast in their homes or in large groups with other Muslims. The end of Ramadan is marked by a large celebration called Eid al-Fitr.
Despite the restrictions of the month, Muslims such as Aminah Hamidullah, 46, a business manager for an Orlando public school, view Ramadan like the arrival of a long-lost friend. "It reminds me I have a closer relationship with Allah," she says
Fuller and Hamidullah acknowledge that it can be a challenge to be both black and Muslim in America today. Asked which is more difficult, each pauses.
"It's a double whammy," says Fuller, 32, who spent seven years in the Army with an artillery battery, including separate tours in Operation Desert Storm in Iraq and, later, in Kuwait.
When he is walking in his neighborhood with his wife, who wears traditional Muslim dress, he says, he gets "that stare - the ones that don't look you in the eye."
"They don't acknowledge that you're walking the Earth," he says. Though he is proud to be a Muslim, Fuller says, he doesn't broadcast it.
Aminah Hamidullah thinks there is a difference in the two types of prejudice.
"The racial prejudice is more ingrained than the anti-Islamic prejudice," she says. "It's harder for me to be black."
But that's not all.
Fuller, Hamidullah and other African-American Muslims say they think some Muslim immigrants from the Islamic world look down on them. That perception is not pervasive, they say, and they are not certain whether it is racism or a reflection of Islam's tangled history in the United States.
For most African-American Muslims over 50, their new faith began with the Lost Found Nation of Islam - the "Black Muslims" - and the fiery leader Malcolm X. More than anything else, the religion was a vehicle for racial resistance in the strife-ridden 1960s and 1970s. The Nation of Islam's political message of self-discipline and self-reliance - combined with its virulent anti white and black-supremacist rhetoric - was attractive to many urban blacks.
That was the experience of Hatim Hamidullah, as he was growing up on the streets of Dallas.
"I saw confidence in the face of Nation of Islam members," he recalls. "The brothers that I used to see standing on the corner, all clean and sharp, looked very fresh. Another thing that attracted me was their unity and integrity. They had a sense of pride and respect for themselves and other people."
As these young Muslims saw it, Christianity - the faith of their fathers and mothers - had failed them. In the American South, the religion provided a theological rationale for enslaving their ancestors and, later, for racial segregation. In Africa, white Christians used the Bible to justify colonialism and apartheid.
With Islam comes "the promise of race blindness and the ability to act with the world, and not be locked into the world American whites have prescribed for blacks," says Aminah McCloud, a professor of religious studies at DePaul University in Chicago.
Still, embracing a new faith after generations of Christianity can mean a wrenching break for some African-Americans, especially those who also adopt new Arabic names. "There is an initial sense of loss of family closeness," says McCloud, author of African American Islam.
Others have found surprising acceptance. Aminah Hamidullah was raised in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, but "when I chose Islam," she says, "my family was proud of me."
Over time, many who were introduced to the Muslim faith through the Nation of Islam have become affiliated with a more traditional form of Islam. Today, African-American Muslims attend traditional Sunni mosques that are predominantly black, some of which are affiliated with a denomination called Al-Islam, founded by Imam Wallace Deen Mohammed.
Orlando's Masjid Al-Haq, which draws 125-150 worshippers at Friday Juma services, is supported financially by the Islamic Society of Central Florida.
However, some African-Americans worship at mosques founded by immigrants from Muslim countries, while others attend remaining congregations of the Nation of Islam, now led by Louis Farrakhan.
African-American Muslims share much with immigrants from Islamic countries, beginning with the Quran, but there are also differences, experts say.
"There are some geographical and cultural obstacles to overcome," says Imam W. Deen Shareef of the Waris Cultural Research and Development Center in Irvington, N.J.
Predominantly African-American mosques tend to be urban and working class. In the Sunbelt, mosques where immigrants are in the majority are more likely to be middle-class and suburban.
"Our experiences as Muslims are reflective of our experiences as African-Americans," says Baiyina Khalil, 23, a stay-at-home Orlando mom. "Our masjids are going to be where we reside. We're not going to worship in the suburbs if we don't have homes in the suburbs."
While most of Masjid Al-Haq's worshippers are African-American, immigrant Muslims who live in the suburbs but work downtown come to the mosque for midday prayers.
"That's how barriers start to break down," says Hanif Khalil, 23, an Orlando salesman and Baiyina's husband.
The Khalils are part of a young generation who were raised as Muslims, children of parents who were introduced to the faith through the Nation of Islam and ultimately moved to more traditional practice.
Another difference is that African-American Muslims have largely escaped the post-Sept. 11 wave of prejudice aimed at their foreign-born coreligionists. On the other hand, black Americans of all religions are accustomed to centuries of racial discrimination.
"All of us were in the same boat - feeling the pain of the unjust hate-crime attacks," says Imam Hamidullah.
But for immigrant Muslims, the backlash was crushing, because it came as such a surprise.
At a meeting of area Muslim clergy, Imam Muhammad Musri called on Hamidullah to talk about what African-Americans had been through in the past, and how they had survived.
A large and growing percentage of the Islamic world is from Africa - or of African descent. In the United States, estimates are that a third of this country's Muslims are African-American, or immigrants from the Caribbean or Africa.
Like other Muslims around the world, African-American believers make the pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia that is a pillar of their faith. In his celebrated autobiography, Malcolm X said his eyes were opened on the irrelevance of race when he made the pilgrimage called "haj."
In a widely published letter written from Mecca on April 20, 1964, Malcolm X wrote:
"Never have I witnessed such sincere hospitality and overwhelming spirit of true brotherhood as is practiced by people of all colors and races here in this ancient Holy Land, the home of Abraham, Muhammad and all the other prophets of the holy scriptures.
"There were tens of thousands of pilgrims, from all over the world. They were of all colors, from blue-eyed blondes to black-skinned Africans. But we were all participating in the same ritual, displaying a spirit of unity and brotherhood that my experiences in America had led me to believe never could exist between the white and non-white. . . .
"America needs to understand Islam, because this is the one religion that erases from its society the race problem."
However, not all dark-skinned Muslims have the same experience in Mecca as Malcolm X had nearly four decades ago. South African Khalil Mandhlazi is one of three Muslims profiled recently on the National Geographic special "Inside Mecca."
In the special, the rural radio commentator says he has come as a pilgrim to the holy city for "a chance to see an ideal world of Islam in action." Yet Mandhlazi finds there is some disparity in the way believers with black faces are treated.
So Mandhlazi leaves his country's encampment for the more hospitable tents of the central African nation of Malawi, where most of the pilgrims are black.
Mandhlazi is shaken by the experience, narrator Keith David says. "His vision of brotherhood seems under siege." Still, by the time Mandhlazi joins millions of other pilgrims on the Plain of Arafat, he is convinced that Islam's universality is genuine.
"We are all one in front of God," he says.
Like Catholics who once prayed in Latin, and Jews who pray in Hebrew, Muslims such as Kevin Fuller yearn to understand the language of their faith.
"It's easier to study something you really love," he says. Last Ramadan, his goal was to be able recite some of the prayers in Arabic, which he now can do. By next Ramadan, he says he would like to be able to read and understand verses from the Quran.
One day, Fuller says, he would like to take his new skill to Mecca.
"That would be the ultimate feeling, to pray in the original language," he says. When that happens, "you feel whole."
© 2003, The Orlando Sentinel (Fla.).
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Thursday, November 6, 2003