Faith Life + Arts Special Section

American Muslims are not the foreigners in this country

Fiona Legesse/The Cougar

American Muslims are constantly having to decouple their faith from the connotations made about them, especially by the news media immediately following a terror strike. It’s ironic that they have to defend themselves when their faith has been in this country longer than their persecutors.

The legacy of the American Muslim is disconnected from their heritage, especially when it comes to the artistic and intellectual contributions of the Islamic world. The historical scope of Muslim influence in America is limited, and often even censored, to serve the larger political agenda of xenophobia.

Whether it be President George W. Bush’s War on Terror or the stereotypical and lazy scapegoating, Muslims make a splash only when it’s in a context framed by someone else.

The origins of American Islam 

The true history of Muslims in American can date back as far as the 12th century, when it is said Portuguese Muslims explored the New World and wrote the book that would guide Christopher Columbus. The first confirmed migration was in the rows of slaves brought to the Americas, 10-15 percent of which were Muslim.

The origins of the youngest monotheistic faith are heavily interwoven into the history of the nation that now rejects them.

Muslims haven’t just carved their space in history but also in art, music, medicine and countless other industries. The obvious examples stand out immediately: Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali, voices so loud and celebrated that history isn’t allowed to remember around them.

Muhammad Ali’s refusal to fight in the Vietnam War, the statement that cost him his championship and the best years of his career, stood out so prominently in our history that it could not be filtered out. Malcolm X’s pivotal position in restoring black dignity and nationalism made him the “black shining Prince” of his people and a polarizing threat to the white supremacist culture around him.

Other examples of Muslim excellence are not even lucky enough to be remembered.

The patriots who erected this nation like Yusuf Ben Ali, who served under President George Washington against British Colonialists, are forgotten. The brilliant minds who literally constructed this nation like Fazlur Rahman Khan, the “Einstein of structural engineering,” are forgotten.

My issue isn’t that these names aren’t featured in American history textbooks, which are too busy whitewashing more captivating events. My issue is not that the contributions of these individuals lie at the controversial intersection of Islam and minorities, which makes them even easier to neglect.

My issue is that within my own community, I did not know a single one of these names growing up.

Muslims raised in America are drowned in allegations against their faith. They can barely gasp for enough air to defend themselves, let alone immerse themselves in the richness of their culture. Not only do we willingly isolate ourselves from the intersections of our American and Muslim heritage, we skew these narratives.

Malcolm and Muhammad’s America

Malcolm X awaiting a press conference just one year before his assassination. |Marion S. Trikosko/Wikimedia Commons|

Malcolm and Muhammad are the two icons that made the Nation of Islam and Sunni Islam slightly more palatable to the culture around them.

The Nation of Islam is a daunting term in today’s world, bearing a vague association with the Black Panthers and black nationalism. This neglected sect of Islam was started in 1930 by Wallace D. Fard and preached that Islam was the true faith of Africa, emphasizing freedom and black nationalism. It was taken over in 1934 by Elijah Muhammad and found by Malcolm X in 1952.

The prominent generational misconception that exists today is that Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X existed separately. We like to imagine that our heroes became heroes on their own, that some people are just preordained for greatness.

The bond that existed between Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali began not because of their shared faith but because of the charisma and magnitude Ali, at the time Cassius Clay,  saw within Malcolm. It spurred a friendship that would eventually bring Clay into the folds of the Nation of Islam. Malcolm’s increasing outrage at American intervention in Vietnam inspired Ali to make his stance against fighting in the war.

Malcolm X not only shocked white America, but his growing influence and beliefs of Islamic unity, black pride and pan-African sentiment placed a deep seed of discomfort in the hearts and minds of Americans. It wasn’t only white America that was appalled by Malcolm’s controversial stance, but also the people of his own faith.

While we’ve recently made more of an active effort to reclaim and celebrate the revolutionary, Sunni Islam has long been on the fence about accepting Malcolm X. It could have been his radical and often violent beliefs that kept the community detached for so long, but I think the real issue falls back on man’s oldest vice: bigotry.

We see two young black Muslim activists, and it strikes controversy into the hearts of the American people because this is not what we’ve been conditioned to think Islam should look like. This issue is internal and external, and it is perpetuated by many believers as well as non-believers. It is ironic that our scripture says the diversity of our tongues and colors is among one of Allah’s wonders, yet we treat it as a scale of inferiority and superiority.

When Malcolm cast off his last name in favor of an X, it was a testament to God’s statement of equality. When Cassius denounced his birth name as a “slave name” and took on the name of his people, it was a testament to God’s statement of equality.

When we draw internal divisions of hostility in our Ummah (community) based off the color of our skin, it is a testament to our ability to sow the seeds of unrest and inequality.

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