by Sherman Abd al-Hakim Jackson
The passing of Imam W.D. Mohammed, may God have mercy upon him and grant him Paradise, has brought the Blackamerican Muslim community face to face with a reality that it has been more comfortable with ignoring than coming to terms with. Imâm Mohammed’s death has signaled the end of the era of charismatic leadership in which the rank and file can look to a single leader to settle all major questions and chart the Community’s course for the future.
Rather than being decided by a single voice, that future will have to be negotiated by the collective understandings and perspectives of the Community’s learned. This implies, of course, general agreement on who is learned and what the rules of engagement are. If the criterion is set too high, it will marginalize valuable voices and confirm an already widespread distrust of religious knowledge and those who claim to represent it. If it is set too low, it will open the Community to the ravages and abuses of those who think that the role of religion is to sanction their and or the dominant culture’s every undisciplined whim and passion.
In the years leading up to his death, Imam Mohammed strove mightily and with great farsightedness to empower his Community to carve out a dignified existence for themselves, to transition to what I have referred to as the “Third Resurrection,” whereby, individually and collectively, the Community is able to negotiate American reality in light of the Qur’ân and Sunna. For the most part, however, the Imam had to go it alone, with few contributions from Blackamerican Muslim scholars outside his own movement.
Here we come to an embarrassingly sad fact about the state of Blackamerican Islam. For decades, Blackamerican Muslims have been venturing abroad to learn Arabic and the Islamic religious sciences. Yet, this has translated into little benefit and even less interfacing with the Community of Imam W.D. Mohammed — despite that community’s historically unique role in indigenizing Islam among Blackamericans. When we think across the spectrum of the most noted Blackamerican Muslim scholars – from myself to Zaid Shakir, from Aminah Wadud to Aminah McCloud – what we see is a veritable brain-drain out of the Blackamerican community into discourses and activities whose primary beneficiaries are not Blackamerican Muslims and or whose primary focus is not Blackamerican Muslim problems or concerns. Of course, there are exceptions, both in terms of individuals who contradict this description and in terms of some of the activities of the scholars named. But the fact that these are exceptions points to the reality that I am trying to describe: Blackamerican Muslim scholars have a closer relationship with the immigrant community than they have with the community of Imam W.D. Mohammed.
To be fair, there are understandable reasons for this: 1) it is easier (and safer) to direct the Islamic sciences to the realities of the Muslim world and by extension the perspective of Muslim immigrants; 2) Muslim immigrants have more financial wherewithal to support such activities as lecturing, teaching and writing; 3) the immigrant community has a greater ability to validate scholars as scholars; and 4) the media (which plays an enormous role in setting the Muslim agenda in America) tends overwhelmingly to focus on immigrant issues. Beyond all of this, however, there lurks a far more subtle, sadder and less talked about reality that has for decades plagued the relationship between the followers of Imam W.D. Mohammed and the rest of the Blackamerican Sunni community.
I remember Philadelphia in the late 70s and early 80s, when Imam Mohammed was in this midst of his history-making transition. Those of us converts who had been blessed with greater access to (what we thought was) traditional learning would deride the way members of the World Community of Al-Islam in the West recited al-Fâtihah, joke about how they gave salâms and relish their inability to keep up with us on all of the irrelevant minutia on which we so self-righteously prided ourselves. We were better than them; for we were real Sunnis, not half-baptist wannabes. For all our ‘knowledge,’ however, we were completely devoid of wisdom and even more ignorant of the Sunna of Muhammad (SAWS). Of course, our high-handed arrogance would produce over time an understandable counter-arrogance. To the Imam’s community, we were confused, self-hating Negroes, wannabe Arabs, fresh off the back of the bus onto the back of the camel. If what we displayed was what the so-called Islamic sciences were supposed to be about, they would have little use for them. Ultimately, this would lead to a quiet resentment, mistrust and even hostility, not only towards us but also towards the so-called Islamic tradition that we so dismally (mis)represented. Of course, there were those from Imam Mohammed’s community who managed to transcend some of this alienation. But this was far more the exception than it was the rule.
I may be wrong, but I suspect that Philadelphia was no anomaly in this regard, that this was a fairly widespread phenomenon across the country. The death of Imam Mohammed, however, has now forced us all to take collective responsibility for this toxic state of affairs. Imam Mohammed may be succeeded by another leader; but he is not likely to be replaced; for who could fill his shoes? The new leadership, therefore – not unlike Blackamerican Muslim leadership in general — will have to find ways to spread greater Islamic literacy among the rank and file, to empower them to engage the religion on their own, in order to enable them to sustain their commitment to it. As for the rest of the Blackamerican Sunni community – especially the scholars – I pray that Allah will inspire us and show us the way to mend this relationship. And I ask Allah (and the followers of Imam Mohammed) to forgive me for whatever I may have contributed to our mutual estrangement.
This is not time for a blame game; there is enough blame to go around – on all sides. The time now is for us to put all our “hidden differences” aside and come together to work for the glory of God. In concrete terms, perhaps this year’s MANA conference in Philadelphia could be the starting point of a broad-based dialogue. And if not the MANA conference, perhaps the conference held by Imam Mohammed’s community next year could be the forum. The important point is that we find a way to move beyond where we are now, that we come together in safe space where we can air our differences, establish bonds of mutual respect, identify our common objectives and strengths and renew our commitment to upholding the truth, as Allah says, “even if against ourselves.”
In the meantime, may Allah shower his mercy upon our beloved Imam W. D. Mohammed. May He keep him firm in the grave and raise him among those who have earned His pleasure. May He reward him richly for all that he has done and sacrificed for Islam in this land. And may He bless and guide us to overcome our insecurities through strengthening our bond with Him. May He empower us to conquer the evil whisperings of our souls and grant us the resolve to resist the temptations of Satan. And may He gift us the wisdom to prepare ourselves for a Day on which neither wealth nor progeny will avail, and none shall be spared save those who come to God with a purified heart.
Dr. Sherman Abd al-Hakim Jackson is the author of Islam and the Blackamerican: Looking toward the Third Resurrection. Dr. Sherman Jackson is the Arther F. Thurnau Professor of Near Eastern Studies at the University of Michigan. He is a co-founder, Trustee, and Core Scholar of the American Learning Institute for Muslims (ALIM). ALIM is an institution dedicated to empowering Muslims through the development of Islamic Literacy; the application of critical thinking to the building blocks of Islamic Knowledge, Thought, and Character. ALIM currently provides intensive instructional programs targeted at those desiring a critical understanding of their faith and the place of that faith in modern world.