Roots & Religion
This month millions of Muslims from around the world fast from daybreak to sunset in recognition of the holy month of Ramadan. For many on the outside world looking in, certain buzz words immediately surface when thinking of anything dealing with Muslims- headscarf, middle east, Arab, DJ Khaled, terrorism, war, or any country ending with –stan. On the contrary however, I always think of the apparent lack of association- that is the lack of association of black people. You know the look that you get when you tell someone that you’re Muslim, but you don’t necessarily look like the stereotype. Partly the fault of the media, but also due to the long standing second class status of black people within modern day Orthodox Islam. Now hold your horses here, I know many are thinking about Louis Farrakhan, and the Nation of Islam and the like. But for the majority this empire has fallen and is no longer recognized within Islam for justifiable reasons I will save for another day. However, there is precious pearl to take from this controversial African American Muslim sect. It is time to get serious about communities creating the space and helping people to find their roots within their religions.
And I mean all the major monotheistic religions who have ever erased, belittled, and continue to un-acknowledge and un-include influence from people of different colors. For many people of color, we are either flooded with images that don’t look like us, don’t pray in our language, or are rarely referenced in the written word. This is a stark reality we must face and lack of privilege we must accept, while simultaneously trying to make religion the center of our lives. As we approach the first ten days of Ramadan I am searching for inspiration in honor of this holy month. Inspiration that really marries the spiritual and cultural identity within. Inspiration that allows me to really deep down inside call my religion my own. Many are yearning for this similar inspiration, but may not recognize their need or know where to start yet.
People need to understand that religion and socio-politico-cultural matters have always been intertwined at all stages of existence. To ignore this is a failure to realize why throughout history we have often taken a back seat when it comes to influence. Our ancestors came to know religion in bondage or as the subordinate within the realms of political or economic conquest. Missionaries tainted their message with the dual goal of foreign expansion and imperial rule. There is no doubt that there was and is still power in the monotheistic message, but we must understand the dynamics that perpetuated inferiority in the first place. Otherwise religion is just blind fervor. Otherwise we are not able to forgive and focus internally.
Secondly, we must realize that no one person holds the key. Superiority within religious scholarship is often wrongfully based on ethnicity or nepotism. We may have minority leaders in our respective communities, but we still lack belief in our own ability to become equal players in the shaping the future of the religion. Everyone desires to fit into the divine plan.
That’s why we must seek religious communities that not only prioritize diversity in congregation, but in leadership. I remember Imam Khalid Latif, having a meeting with me asking me what we can do to bring more black Muslims to the Islamic Center at NYU. At the time, I did not know how to answer, and to some extent I still do not. I was focused more on internal spiritual maturity, and did not really understand the importance of communal spiritual maturity as well. The truth is when you find community, you thrive.
Whether or not you believe that Jesus was black, or that Bilal was the only important black Muslim of the prophet’s (sws) time, or the curse of Canaan- it is time to start telling your own stories now. Christianity and Islam made good men. When I think about MLK and Malcolm X I am moved. When I think about Marcus Garvey and Muhammed Ali I am equally moved. These stories inspire me to keep pushing forward in my religion. These stories remind me that I can be of color and still make a difference in my religion.
You cannot rewrite history, but you can impact the future. It is our duty to establish dignity and respect within our religion for ourselves. This is the only way we can truly feed our souls and have spiritual longevity. True religious devotion stems from knowing the roots within.