African-American Muslims have forged a ‘Black Muslim Tradition’ in this country with their sweat and blood that rejects the American exceptionalism and all forms of institutional racism. Islam in African-American communities was not a cultural identity that one passively partook in. It was and remains a justice movement that arose as a God-centered critique of American racism, western imperialism, and to resist racist policies. Many African-Americans throughout the course of American history found Islam empowering because it epitomized their struggle for justice.
Imam Jamil El-Amin (formerly H. Rap Brown) said that when they were “in the movement” they did not have a book. The Quran was that “book.” It combined righteousness with revolution: “Surely Allah will not change the condition of a people until the people change what is in themselves.” This is one of the most oft-repeated verses in African-American urban masjid. It equates obedience to the Creator while emphasizing socio-economic and socio-political transformation. The earliest Muslims in this hemisphere were African-American and today, African-
American Muslims are the largest demography of Muslims in the United States.
Thus, it becomes logical and rational that the political tenor of Islam in this country to be centered on African-American Muslim’s experience. This experience is predominantly related to white supremacy and institutional racism. Certainly, the dawah should reflect the existential concerns of African-Americans for having struggled against the hostile forces of white supremacy. The autobiography of Malcolm X is the story of a man empowered by Islam to overcome the social vices not only in his personal life but to address such issues in inner-cities as well. The ray of hope for a better future ignited by Malcolm X has influenced many African-American converts to Islam. He epitomizes transformation from within to change the world. For Malcolm X, and Black Muslim Tradition’s proponents and followers personal responsibility includes fighting oppression. The Holy Quran and Hadith mandate struggling for justice as an act of worship.
Unfortunately, there are increasing voices from within the Muslim community that is seeking to minimize the damage caused by white supremacy in the United States and in utter dereliction to the Black Muslim Tradition. This faction dubbed as the “akhi-right” are not only illegitimate in their betrayal of the Black Muslim Tradition and the justice ethos of Islam; but also their efforts to rebrand Islam as an American conservative faith that theologically underpins the most egregious aspects of the West undermines Dawah efforts in Black America. Perhaps, their end goal is to destroy the image and perception of Islam among Black Americans by infusing a false belief that Islam is compatible with intolerant and bigoted anti-black political postures.
It is evident that they wish to uproot Islam from the radical position it has held for so long and to relocate it to the far right of the political spectrum. Here we want to dissect these statements made by the most vocal right-wing Muslims to understand why they are dangerously out of logic and completely out of sync with reality. To say that such statements are nothing but outright foolish would suffice. There are three views that characterize this group: The belief that structural racism does not exist, that critiquing anti-black racism is racist, and that the sexual politics should be the defining issues of the Muslim political agenda. We will examine each in detail and expose the errancy. This discussion will argue that the “akhi-right” have adopted the political views of the American conservatives and white nationalists and their metaphysical concept of individual personal agency is based in a pietism of the Protestant church.
Zaytuna College’s Hamza Yusuf & Dr. Abdullah Hamid Ali Send A Racist Message Towards Black Americans
The remarks by Hamza Yusuf at the Reviving the Islamic Spirit Convention in December of 2016 gain much more importance considering his controversial appointment to the Human Rights Convention under President Trump. At the Reviving the Islamic Spirit Convention in an interview with Mehdi Hasan, Hamza Yusuf engaged in a diatribe against the current social justice climate where he simultaneously indemnified racism among the police and the judicial system; scoffed at the idea of white privilege, institutional racism and pathologized the black community. The “sheikh” who had been regarded by many as thoughtful was in this moment rattling off a list of right-wing grievances that sounded like a parroting of a Breitbart column.
In retrospect, Yusuf’s comments exposed a budding anomaly: the trend towards anti- Black American conservativism among a Muslim substrate. Dubbed the “Akhi-Right,” this group has enlisted themselves in the cultural wars of the West and deem that the Far Right is most closely aligned with traditional Muslim values. This has been particularly exemplified by a prodigy of Hamza Yusuf, Dr. Abdullah Hamid Ali who parrots Hamza Yusuf’s points in indemnifying the role of structural racism in the Black plight.
On the Middle Ground podcast hosted by Imam Marc Manly, Dr. Abdullah Hamid Ali stated that “White Supremacy is used as an excuse by many African-Americans to not do better.” In another post, he argued that the wealth disparity between whites and blacks is not an inherited social condition of slavery by systemic and structural racism but mostly attributed to the poor spending habits of the African-Americans.
If the poor spending habits of African-Americans are responsible for the wealth disparity between blacks as Abdullah Hami Ali believes then why haven’t poor spending habits of whites closed the gap? In an article appearing in the June 7, 2016 issue the Atlantic the research by sociologists Raphaël Charron-Chenier, Joshua J. Fink, and Lisa A. Keister of Duke University used data from the Consumer Expenditure Survey to assess the spending habits of white and black households. Empirical data does not support Zaytuna College Professor Dr. Abdullah Ali’s belief that black people have poorer spending habits than whites. The study notes ‘For goods that are purchased repeatedly, such as groceries or entertainment, low-income blacks and whites spent relatively similar amounts.” The study showed that “access to credit, retail deserts, and discrimination could be major factors in why blacks spend less, in aggregate than whites.” In other words, African-Americans do not just earn less than whites but when they earn as much, they spend less. The reason for this trend is the lack of options available to African-Americans in contrast to their white counterparts of the same economic class.
Abdullah seems to be pulling from history written from an implicit orthodox American Economics view. In this view decision making is decontextualized. Man as homo-economicus. The rational calculator. The problem is that the only structure that conservatives recognize as affecting the individual personal agency is the family. Children accrue a number of disadvantages growing up in socio-economic disadvantaged areas which does seismically affect choices made within such a demographic. Black people were literally homeless and penniless immediately upon emancipation. What African-Americans did build in the way of successful communities proved fragile when they were destroyed and discriminatory laws were passed hindering them from rebuilding.
The so-called Post-Civil Rights Era was also disappointing. Patillo-McCoy, Anderson, Massey and Denton American Apartheid demonstrate that poor Black families (and thus children) tend to live in concentrated high-poverty spaces, whereas other poor kids tend to live in more mixed socio-economic situations. My point, here, is that while Republicanesque Muslims like Abdullah Hamid Ali like to emphasize personal choice as key overall and unaffected by enveloping systems the data shows that choices made by adult Black Americans have everything to do with the circumstances that shaped them as children. The stability of the black family has always been tenuous.
Whether it was in the racially hostile South, during the Great Migration, or the economical marginalization of the North. Malcolm Gladwell’s tipping point concept points out that one horrible thing that happened to the majority of black families to negatively affect the majority. Thus, the economic health of black society from the family to its individual members has always been exceptionally vulnerable due to factors besides their personal choices. To bring it back to Islam this is why the deen is a complete way of life that includes the government, economics, social norms, and the individual matters because Islam recognizes that the human being is a social creature.
Perhaps Dr. Abdullah Hamid Ali is referring to black entertainers like rappers and athletes when he cites poor spending habits, but they are not the norm nor a small chunk is representative of a much larger sample. Furthermore, their behavior is indicative of the general hedonism and conspicuous consumption that is America. Most low-income African-Americans consume brand items like clothing at discounted rates. Knock-off clothing, pirated movies, use bootleg items for entertainment such as movies and rely upon wholesale outlets. The other day a picture was viral on social media where a Black guy traveling by bus was mocked for wearing shoes that were not puma but had similar branding, the joke is on the ones mocking him and certainly on Dr Abduallah Hamid who considers Black community as reckless spenders.
Whether it is this egregious example of Dr. Abdullah Hamid Ali denying the role of slavery in creating much of the black-white wealth gap or Hamza Yusuf citing single-parent households in the black community; there is a persistent notion among conservatives that personal responsibility should be made a stand-alone issue that explains every or most of the social inequity issues between blacks and whites. Elsewhere on facebook, Abdullah Hamid Ali critiques critical race theory and explained “it’s in response to another person trying to use the race and slavery card to explain away the role that personal responsibility plays in improving our condition.”
The major flaw of Yusuf and Abdullah’s responsibility-politics is the false dichotomy it sets up between taking personal responsibility and acknowledging and fighting structural racism. Dr. Abdullah Hamid Ali sees the two as mutually exclusive. He writes “God will not change what is with people until they change what is with themselves” (Q 13:11). Where is any of that in our current discourses about Critical Race Theory, White Supremacy, Racism?” This view is nothing but sheer ignorance or bias towards the largest segment of Muslims in this country
Is this the political commentary that America’s first accredited Muslim College wants to send the Black Community? This is the most oft-quoted ayot in African-American Muslim urban circles. The Black Muslim tradition is not some upstart neo-conservative American Muslim movement but has always seen Islam as a force for transforming black life from within. Zaytuna’s Professor Dr. Abdullah Hamid Ali would know this if he were not so adrift from black people in America and logic.
The difference between Black Muslims having always quoted this ayat and how Abdullah is misappropriating it here for the first time is that the Black Muslim tradition has never isolated its meaning and the agency for change that it places on people from the historical developments that brought about the condition that we seek to change. Personal responsibility entails social and political activism. The Black Muslims, not some upstart neo-conservative American Muslims, have the reputation for actually getting in the streets and prisons and inspiring our people to change their lives. That is our track record. That is the Black Muslim legacy.
We did so without having to deny the forces of racism that produced the conditions that make certain personal decisions harder than others or make it easier for one group than another. Changing what is in your selves must go hand-in-hand with understanding the conditions surrounding you.
The Black Muslim Tradition of Malcolm X, The Dar ul Islam, and Imam Jamil Al Amin always tied the struggle against systemic and structural oppression to personal responsibility and morality. Establishing Black Muslim families was an act of revolutionary praxis. After a haranguing in social media, Dr. Abdullah bin Hamid Ali quoted this verse in what can only be described as an act of ideological appropriation. It speaks to the undeveloped state of this nascent faction that they have not found their own language, that they must co-opt the rhetoric of the established movement that they eschew.
Dr. Abdullah Ali’s and Hamza Yusuf’s political commentary that minimizes the role of slavery in the African-American condition is not rooted in the Black Muslim tradition but Lutheranism pietism. Originally, Lutheranism pietism promoted the idea of unconditional personal moral restraint. It conceives of personal decisions in isolation of external influences. Sinful behavior cannot be inherited from social practice but the preserve of the individual alone. Politically in the United States, this translated into American conservativism. Historian Richard McCormick said in The Party Period and Public Policy “In the nineteenth-century voters whose religious heritage was pietistic or evangelical were prone to support the Whigs and later, the Republican.”
The egregious anti-Black political commentary of Dr. Abdullah bin Hamid Ali and Hamza Yusuf is not Islamic at all. When it comes to admonishing people for personal responsibility Abdullah bin Hamid Ali exhibits a pro-White racial favoritism. Tweeting about the white male gunman in Dayton, Ohio, Conner Betts, who shot up a downtown nightlife this past August he said: “White supremacists have been around for a long time. But I’ll give you three reasons why they’re becoming so hopeless now: b/c everyone but for whites can celebrate who they are, Christianity is an enemy of the liberal establishment, and they’re being told whiteness is bad.”
Dr. Abdullah Hamid Ali grants white terrorists and their mass shootings context and sympathy which he does not extend to black social conditions. Instead, like Hamza Yusuf, he pathologized African-Americans by reducing their issues to the lack of personal responsibility. Criminologist Adam Lankford of the University of Alabama said that three factors that mass shooters have in common are: suicidal motives and indifference to life, perceived victimization, and desire for attention and fame. Abdullah Hamid Ali never addresses why there are comparatively less black mass shooters despite the high rates of depression in the black community and the sense of existential dread that he is saying drives these white males to extreme acts of violence.
He just attributes criminality in the inner city as simply the by-product of bad choices. This selective victim-hood is consistent with other posts of his, that paint black organization as equivalent to or worse than white structural racism. This is because Abdullah, like other American conservatives, only sees white victims and the black exceptions are those who are persecuted by the black community for his conservative views. The flaws of American Muslim conservatives are the borrowed flaws of black conservatism.
They endorse reactionary stances on race, they believe that personal agency excludes systemic conditions and advances a communitarian politics, which omits issues that affect everyone and focus only on the social issues that can be dealt with privately. They lack critical insight into American foreign and domestic policy, often defending U.S. imperialism and certain strains of white nationalism. This brings us to another aspect of Abdullah’s Muslim conservativism. His disingenuous statements that limit racism to individuals by ruling out systems and institutions. Dr Abdullah Hamid Ali writes:
“Keep in mind that the Oxford Dictionary defines racism as, ‘prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior’, rather than the novel critical race theory’s (CRT) finagled “race (viz. “whiteness”) coupled with the power to dominate whereby many exclude non-whites from the capacity to be racist, since only whites supposedly have power.”
Firstly, race is a social phenomenon of enormous historical importance that has shaped nations and empires over the past six hundred years. It is a subject that has been grappled with by historians, anthropologists, sociologists, and policy-makers for centuries. For him to think that a single definition from the dictionary should tell us all we need to know about racism trivializes the matter, not to mention glib. Secondly, racism in the form of whites exercising power over non-whites in oppressive ways is why the term came into existence.
The word only made sense in describing the power relation between whites and their conquered and enslaved subjects. It is not a novel concept created by critical race theorists based on a “finagled” definition of race. The incomprehension he shows towards this subject points to an overall sciolism that is common among right-wing Muslims. If Dr.Abdullah Hamid Ali sees any validity in Dr. Sherman Jackson’s thesis that white supremacy is shirk then it logically follows that white supremacy exists as a social-political system.
Does Abdullah A Hamid Ali feel that Dr. Jackson was validating critical race theory when he said “white supremacy” and not simply racism is the beginning of modern shirk? The irony behind Dr. Abdullah Hamid Ali’s anti-critical race theory polemics is that Dr. Sherman Jackson’s conception of white supremacy in his lecture on Lamppost indeed cites and relies upon Dr. Charles Mills, who is a pioneer in the field of critical race studies. Critical race theory was pioneered in order to understand the shift of structural racism from de’jure to defacto. Dr. Abdullah Hamid Ali does not bother to do his due diligent in his critique of the Critical Race theory.
Dr. Abdullah Ali writes that critical race theory “is essentialist because it lumps all “whites” together into a shared experience vis-à-vis “coloreds” such that there is no distinction between the English, Scottish, French, German, Russian, Slav, Irish, Italian, Swede, Jew, etc.”
Dr. Abdullah Ali’s article only contains one citation to a book titled Critical Race Theory: An Introduction by Richard Degaldo and Jean Stefanic. On page 77 of the very book he cites, it reads: “Another aspect of the construction of whiteness is the way certain groups have moved into or out of that race. For example, early in our history Irish, Jews, and Italians were considered nonwhite–that is, on a par with African-Americans. Over time, they earned the prerogatives and social standing of whites by a process that included joining labor unions, swearing fealty to the Democratic Party, and acquiring wealth, sometimes by illegal or underground means. Whiteness, it turns out, is not only valuable; it is shifting and malleable.” This is an indication that Dr. Abdullah Hamid Ali did not bother to read the book prior to accusing the critical race theory of essentializing whites.
Professor Shareef Muhammad is the Director of the Black Dawah Network, an Islamic Outreach organization that aims to introduce Islam to African-Americans particularly in desolated urban areas. He has taught Introduction to Qu’ran and Islamic Studies at the historically Black college of Spelman. Shareef Muhammad holds a Master’s degree in History from Kent State University where his thesis entitled “The Cultural Jihad in the Antebellum South” which details how enslaved African Muslims preserved their religious and cultural identity in bondage.