A constant struggle which explores new avenues with changing ground realities
By Haseeb Abdali & Khirad Siddiqui
The Islamic Movement (IM) is an organised effort to introduce the Islamic system of life, independent of time and space. The ultimate purpose of this task is to seek the pleasure and blessings of Allah in this world and the Hereafter. The mission of IM is to establish justice in this world, which was the reason Allah sent his Messengers.
“We sent Our messengers with clear signs, the Scripture and the Balance so that people could uphold justice: We also sent iron, with its mighty strength and many uses for mankind, so that God could mark out those who would help Him and His messengers though they cannot see Him. Truly God is powerful, almighty.” (Al-Hadeed 57:25)
Allah Almighty established humanity on this earth with His first Prophet Adam; thus, this mission was inaugurated. After Prophet Muhammad ﷺ, this responsibility rests on the shoulders of the Muslim Ummah.
“Believers, you are the best community singled out for people: you order what is right, forbid what is wrong, and believe in God. It would have been better if the People of the Book had also believed. For although some of them do believe, most of them are lawbreakers.” (Ale-Imran 3:110)
The IM is not merely a fixed organisational structure. It is a constant struggle which explores new avenues with changing ground realities. Indigenous participation is an indispensable component of this struggle.
UNDERSTANDING AMERICAN CONTEXTS AND ISLAM
Before making recommendations for an Islamic movement within America, one must understand the context in which these interventions are being staged. Thus, we lay out a brief history of America in the following section and Islam’s complicated historical and political relationship to these contexts.
1. Foundations: Indigenous Genocide, Slavery, and the Early Arrival of Islam: The founding of the American nation-state was based on two initial kinds of violence, which can be understood as the founding code of this country and as the foundation of its ongoing framework of oppression. These are the genocide of indigenous communities and the establishment of trans-Atlantic racial chattel slavery. Both founding acts of violence mark the beginning of “American” history. The problems identified later in this document (of economic inequality, settler-colonialism, the prison and military-industrial complex, class, and caste) can be understood as the aftermath of these systems.
Unlike other Western nations, such as European nations, where the expulsion of Muslims marked the initial formation of Christian and European identity, Islam has existed in the United States for four centuries, a history unmatched in the rest of the western hemisphere. [Asad, T. (2003), Formations of the Secular, Stanford University Press.] From establishing these communities until a relatively recent period in modernity marked by shifting citizenship and immigration dynamics, Islam had the character, in America, as a Black religion.
This is not the case for Muslims in other nations in the West. Most Muslims in the U.K. can trace their ancestry back to the Indian subcontinent, German Muslims are mostly Turkish, and in France, Muslims are predominantly North African. That is to say; the United States is a place of exception regarding Islam’s status and history.
The centre of Muslim life, thus, was in the spaces that Black Americans inhabited. It was practised, often in secret, to avoid forced conversion to Christianity on the plantations. Later, Muslim centres, Mosques, and Islamic schools were established in urban centres, inner cities, and other spaces where Black Muslims were relegated due to segregation, Jim Crow, and redlining. [Jackson, S. A. (2005), Islam and the Black American: Looking Toward the Third Resurrection, Oxford University Press on Demand.] Black imams and Black Muslims were the foundation of the activism of the 1960s and 70s, the anti-war movements, the civil rights campaigns, the prisoner rights movements, and so many more. [Smith, C. E. (1993), Black Muslims and the development of prisoners’ rights, Journal of Black Studies, 24(2), 131146.]
Thus, Islam has not just been marginally present in the United States for centuries; it has been seminal in the struggle against oppression and a means of seeking redress, justice, and even freedom. This character, too, is a crucial aspect of understanding its place in the context of dismantling subjugation.
2. Immigration: The Establishment of Elite Muslim Communities: The immigration of Muslims from the global south is mired in histories of collaboration with the imperial project. The first wave of immigrants from Arab countries, Iran, and India all attempted to establish themselves as “white”, when racial categorisation was an essential part of citizenship; thus legitimising the racial biological theories of the state that served to keep Black people at the bottom of the racial hierarchy, and Whites at the top. [Maghbouleh, N. (2017), The limits of Whiteness: Iranian Americans and the everyday politics of race, Stanford University Press.]
Critical Race Theorists define this process of attempting to fit into whiteness, or the boundaries of Whiteness changing to reflect assimilation and upward economic mobility afforded to non-black immigrants, as racial triangulation. In contrast, others, like Wilkerson, have likened these phenomena to the caste system, whereby one single group is barred from Whiteness, defined as its antithesis, and denied mobility. In contrast, others can move about racial and economic hierarchies. [Wilkerson, I. (2020), Caste: The Origins of our Discontents, Random House.]
Regardless of the terminology, the role of Arab and Desi immigrants in this has often been in collusion with the logic of whiteness, attempting to fit into its confines rather than refuting the racist system and standing in solidarity with Black people. [Delgado, R., & Stefancic, J. (2017), Critical Race Theory: An Introduction (Vol. 20), NYU press.]
Thus, American Muslims can be considered part of an American caste system, with most Muslim immigrants here (who started arriving in the 1960s) who come from South Asia and the Middle East standing firmly with the equivalent of an upper caste (akin to Brahmins).
For these people, the racialised struggle is something to be overcome, and in large part, through education and opportunity, they can achieve some semblance of upward mobility. This contrasts with the Black Muslims, who Wilkerson would describe as the lowest caste (akin to Dalits), and for whom upward mobility or conforming to whiteness is not possible.
Later, as the United States began to fund its system through immigrant labour, particularly in the Cold War push to establish the nation as a worldwide leader in STEM (Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) large swaths of immigrants from Asia and Middle East were lured to America to pursue higher education and elite jobs. The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 had much to do with this, causing immigrants from Asia to settle in America after their education and bolster the STEM industries.
This was also one of the first moments that the “model minority” myth would be touted regarding Asian (including Desi and Arab) immigration into America as stereotypically hardworking or intelligent communities. This was an American project that aimed to assert dominance on a global stage through the luring of immigrants at the forcible exclusion of its already-present minorities: Indigenous, Black, and Latinx people. [Lee, E. (2015), The Making of Asian America: A History, Simon and Schuster.]
Though certainly not comprising the entirety of later Muslim immigrants, the merit-based system introduced by this immigration policy attracted educated and advanced groups of people from the global south, ultimately shifting the structure of Muslim America. The Black Muslims who had thus far comprised most of the Islamic society and had been responsible for infusing its character with that of fighting oppression, racism, and subjugation were pushed aside, relegated to the margins of Muslim American life and narratives, now superseded by mostly privileged immigrants who monopolised Islamic centres, organisations, mosques, and religious institutions.
This marked the establishment of several national Islamic organisations and institutions in the last 70 years, mostly in wealthy and suburban areas. The leaders, imams, and board members of these organisations and mosques are generally elite immigrants. This, too, would mark a moment in the history of American Islam that would distance it from its radical roots and instead begin to fit itself into the institutions of the U.S.
3. State and Private Institutions: Complicit Mosques: Knowing this history, it follows that the institutions that mark life today are embedded within these histories of violent occupation, genocide, and slavery and represent their afterlives under the guise of reform. The plantation economy undergirds the racial capitalist system that characterises American life.
The prison system is often geographically on the very same terrain as that of former plantations (i.e., Angola, the Louisiana State Penitentiary). It is also an inheritance from its unsuccessful abolition, as the 13th Amendment marked the abolition of slavery except for cases of criminality. This caveat successfully replaced one system of oppression for another and rounded up a class of Black “freed” people into prisons. Consequently, excluded them from involvement in a democratic society by stripping them of housing, voting, and other fundamental rights, while continuing to profit off their labour. Today, the statistics on prisons showcase this, with a quarter of Black youth currently incarcerated or on parole. [Alexander, M. (2010), The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.]
Other institutions, too, were produced with the same logic and function for similar purposes. The earliest police arose in the South as slave patrols to catch enslaved peoples who had run away, and in the North, they appeared to break up labour organising through unions. In both cases, their primary function was to protect private property (that property being the bodies of enslaved people) and the elite. [Reichel, P. L. (1988), Southern slave patrols as a transitional policy type, American Journal of Police, 7, 51.]
The research on the school-to-prison pipeline showcasing how young Black and brown children in low-income areas attend schools with minimal to no funding and the presence of school police officers, whose disciplinary actions often land them in the criminal punishment system. Public schools are hallmarks of economic stratification and the afterlives of redlining. The segregated neighbourhoods along racial and economic lines accounted for significant differences in schooling experiences and funding.
Those in wealthy, white areas, where property taxes pay for high-end schools, funnel students into elite universities and occupations. On the other hand, low-income inner-city schools, whose students are instead directed from one state institution to another through school-to-prison pipelines. [Wald, J., & Losen, D. J. (2003), Defining and redirecting a school‐to‐prison pipeline. New Directions for Youth Development, 2003(99), 9-15.]
Unfortunately, Islamic organisations and Mosques in America have chosen a similar method for funding their operations. As a result, luxurious Mosques shine in elite Muslim areas, and Islamic schools exist with modern facilities. On the other hand, Muslim institutions and Masjids in inner cities present a scene of ruins.
ESSENTIAL ELEMENTS OF THE AMERICAN ISLAMIC MOVEMENT
The section above has summarised the background one needs to understand Islam’s place in America. In the following section, we will outline steps that an Islamic movement must take considering this context to be responsive to it rather than repeating its collaboration in history. This section will focus on prophetic, jurisprudential, and historical examples to better inform the understanding of an Islamic movement within America.
1. Historical Examples: What Does a Collaborative, Local Islamic Movement Look Like?
The Islamic Movement is the constant struggle to establish Islamic justice in society, though in America, it must necessarily adapt its approach to the context mentioned above. Khurram Murad, a well-known intellectual of the global Islamic Movement, addresses this need for context-responsive movement building, saying, “We should try to develop an approach and framework different from the one we see operating in the Muslim world. What should this framework look like? Such a framework will have to be based on recognising that the ultimate goal of an Islamic movement can’t be achieved unless native Muslims are an integral part of this struggle. In other words, these local Muslims should also be working as workers and part of the leadership. For it is only they who have the power to bring change in the society in general and into an Islamic society in particular.” [Ali, M., Modern Islamic movements: Models, Problems & Prospects.]
This is not, however, a call to integrate those rich Muslim traditions that already exist in America into existing immigrant organisations, Khurram Murad continues “at this stage, I may point out that according to my analysis, a unified organisation, where locals join a predominantly immigrant organisation, which is the only possible pattern at present, will perhaps never be fruitful. Such participation will not help but impede the pursuit of many lower orders but important objectives of the present organisations, nor will it enable locals to bloom and flourish fully for the cause of Islam.”
To turn, briefly, to the examples provided in the Qur’ān, one can understand the legacy of honouring indigenous and local practices and responding to these needs in Islamic movement-building.
Surah Ibrahim, Verse 4 says, “We have never sent a messenger who did not use his own people’s language to make things clear for them.” A deep and sustained engagement with the community, and an establishment within these communities, are necessary then to any fruitful Islamic movement. One must become local to a place, know its traditions and histories, to effectively establish Islamic principles of justice within it.
There are numerous verses, as well, wherein prophets refer to their communities as their brothers and as people of their nation. Surah Al-Shuara, Verses 105-106, says, “The people of Noah belied the Messengers. When their brother Noah said to them: “Will you not fear Allah and obey Him?” Surah Hud, Verse 84 says, “And to the Madian people, We sent their brother Shoaib. He said: “O my people! Worship Allah, you have no other God but Him, and give not short measure or weight, I see you in prosperity, and indeed I fear for you the torment of a Day encompassing.”
The point established by these examples is that a movement disconnected from indigenous people is insufficient and not in keeping with Islamic tradition. Sherman Jackson, a renowned scholar on Islam in America, notes that “Without Black American Muslims, Islam would be orphaned in the United States, with no indigenous roots to complicate attempts to relegate it to the status of an alien, hostile intrusion.” [Jackson, S. A. (2005), Islam and the Black American: Looking Toward the Third Resurrection, Oxford University Press on Demand.] An American Islamic movement must recognise this and immediately rectify the situation it finds itself in, wholly disconnected from the communities it purports to serve and segregating itself.
2. Continuing Legacies of Justice
While knowing the importance of an Islamic movement’s establishment in space and its ability to root itself into a community and respond to the intellectual work and demands of locals, the Islamic movement in America should view itself as the inheritance of academic and social labour of great American Muslims, like Malcolm X, W.D. Muhammad, and so many others. These leaders would often see their liberation as intimately tied to the release of Muslims fighting oppression across the globe, signalling toward a “Muslim International.” [Daulatzai, S. (2012), Black Star, Crescent Moon: The Muslim International and Black Freedom Beyond America, University of Minnesota Press.]
Thus, an American Islamic movement should see itself as an inheritance of multiple traditions, both the local Black Muslims it has largely ignored and the internationalist solidarity they and others have linked themselves to in their struggle against imperialism, colonisation, racism, and other forms of subjugation.
3. Maulana Maududi, for example, provides an example of this history in India, as Abad Shahpuri analyses the Mujahideen movement. Both movements establish the ways Muslims kept their traditions alive, under challenging circumstances, in the fight to establish Islam. They detail how Syed Ahmad Shaheed sent his sincere leaders to North India (in Sadiqpur) before his martyrdom. These pious people kept their mission alive for almost a hundred years. In an illustration of the continuation of the Islamic movement, Syed Ahmad Shaheed was martyred in Balakot in 1831, and Maulana Maududi began his organising from Hyderabad Deccan a century later, in 1931. [Shahpuri, Abad (2009), Syed Badshah Ka Qafila (the caravan of Syed Ahmed), Albadar Publications, Lahore, Pakistan.] This way, we can understand how movements are indebted to one another. Just as one Islamic movement inherited the legacy of another, Muslims fighting for justice in America inherit multiple domestic, international, and prophetic traditions, all of which must be honoured in the struggle for justice. What Does Justice Look Like? Dismantling Oppression.
With this context in mind, some concrete imperatives for an Islamic movement follow.
An American Islamic movement must be representative.
In following a prophetic example, the companions (Sahaba) of Prophet Muhammad ﷺ themselves represented the diversity inherent in the society they were representing. A wealthy person like Abd al Rahman Ibn Awf and a poor man like Bilal Ibn Rabah both had a similar status in this movement. Perhaps Bilal’s rank was higher. According to an estimate, one-third of the Companions in Makkah were black. The first martyrdom in this movement also came on the part of a Black companion, Summaya was the first martyr of this struggle. The American Islamic movement is incomplete without African American women. This, too, requires sacrifice and work. An American Islamic movement should be a diverse organisation that includes all races, languages, and economic classes, where all have equal standing and rights.
Expecting any lasting diversity without changes in the basic organisational infrastructure of these institutions is an illusion. Inclusive diversity should be noted as a desirable value in the Charter and By-Laws of the American Islamic movement. This criterion should be considered in the election/ nomination of its representative institutions (Shura, Board, etc.).
An American Islamic movement must fight constantly to establish justice.
Angela Davis reminds us, from Ferguson to Gaza, “Freedom is a constant struggle.” It is never achieved alone. An Islamic movement has this in common with Davis’ thinking, seeing the fight for justice and freedom as inextricably linked to its own goals and as a constant struggle. There are many ways to ground freedom struggles in the language of Islam. Today’s myriad of issues: racism, injustice, and prejudice in their many forms can be understood as part of a system of oppression, one that cannot be solved solely by political participation, as both parties support and undergird these systems.
In looking at historical Islamic examples, one among many is that of Moses عليه السّلام. The Qur’ān says that Pharaoh divided the Egyptian people into classes. The entire population consisted of the enslaver and enslaved person classes. The slaves of Bani Israel suffered severely in the mill of every oppression without fundamental human rights. The freedom of the Israelites was part of the invitation of Moses. When he invited Pharaoh to believe in Allah and the Messenger, he also demanded the abolition of the slavery of the Israelites.
Thus, Islamic liberation is a built-in aspect of the Dawah message, and struggles against white supremacy, the prison-industrial complex, racial capitalism, and other oppressive formations are crucial aspects of the faith. In these cases, one can think of “Pharaoh” as an all-encompassing framework for oppression and moving beyond an individual to a system. The division of people into racialised classes, for example, and the subsequent segregation and banishment of these people from the housing through redlining, suburb development, and incarceration is its own kind of modern Pharoah. It is imperative then that as Moses fought to liberate, the Muslims following in his tradition do the same.
An American Islamic movement must dismantle racism.
That is to say, Muslim American institutions are complicit, often active, enthusiastic participants in antiblackness, exclusion from their spaces, and the theft and hoarding of resources. Dismantling this phenomenon is imperative, disputing it and disengaging it from any link with the fight for justice. Systemic racism permeates every aspect of our society; it must not be allowed within the walls of the mosque, or the leadership committees of the Muslim organisation, or uttered behind closed doors of families.
This means many things, one of which is starting at the beginning and educating the community on what systemic racism really is. The structural manifestations of its effects, such as the racialised wealth gap, educational attainment rates, access to housing, levels of criminalisation, and many others, are steppingstones in this process. Beginning to address these issues is difficult, and it begins with an understanding and acceptance of their presence and permeation in our lives. For many, it will be an exercise in acceptance and radical, difficult education to admit such systemic bias exists in Muslim organisations. But following our religious tradition has historically never been easy and is not meant for those who view it as such. It has meant recognising difficult truths and committing to fighting for justice in an often-unforgiving climate. The steps we outline here can only be undertaken by those with the commitment to follow this tradition and thus, to make this basic acknowledgment. We believe that, like pursuing justice anywhere, it is a worthwhile effort.
[Haseeb Abdali ([email protected]) is an Islamic worker based in Dallas, Texas, and Khirad Siddiqui is a PhD student at University of California, Irvine, USA]