by Daisy Khan
The horrific image told in an instant what black Americans have been proclaiming for so long: after 400 years, black necks have not been freed from the knee of oppression. Summer after summer, the streets have swelled with protests and echoed with their names – Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Philando Castille, Breonna Taylor – yet too much has stayed the same.
We have reached a critical point of public consciousness, with growing numbers of officers marching alongside protesters and kneeling in solidarity, but still we are forced to wonder when these gestures will transform into permanent change. Will we have to wait until the Day of Judgement for God to actualize the justice that we could not? On that day, according to the poetic vision of the Qur’an, God will cause our very limbs to speak of the righteous or sinful use we put them to: “their own tongues and their own hands and their legs will testify against their misdeeds” (An-Nur 24:24).
We would be wise to seek out more voices of African American Muslims as our nation confronts its present and past. Like so much of our current conflict, the history of Islam in this country extends back those same 400 years to the slave trade. Enslaved Muslims were primarily taken from West Africa, and included religious leaders’ sons – such as Hyuba boon Salumena boon Hibrahema, and Lamine Kebe – and sons of royalty, such as Abd Al-Rahman. Despite the confines of Colonial and Revolutionary America, however, these Muslims refused to be defined entirely by slavery’s savage conditions.
Defying racist notions of their inferiority, the above men used their erudite knowledge of languages and religion to gradually gain entry into business and social circles, while attracting the notice of abolitionist and philanthropic societies. Though their West African education eventually allowed for some measure of physical and economic security, it was their faith that ensured their psychological and spiritual survival. This devotion usually had to be kept private, but in rare cases enslaved Muslims were permitted to practice their religion openly - as were Salih Bilali and Bilali Muhammad, both of whom impressed their contemporaries by their temperance, fasting, and daily prayers. The inwardly liberating power of Islam would maintain a constant presence throughout our nation’s history; today, black Muslims are more likely to be second- and third-generation Americans compared with Muslims of other ethnicities, and constitute approximately one quarter of all American Muslims.
This spiritual heritage, however, traces far back before the establishment of the United States. In the earliest days of the faith, Prophet Muhammad spoke out publicly to defend the dignity of those suffering under slavery, against opposition from the leaders of Mecca. One such enslaved person – an Ethiopian named Bilal ibn Rabah – felt himself utterly transformed by the message of Islam after Muhammad simply spoke with him as a human being of equal status. From that day, no shackles and no masters could enslave Bilal’s soul, and he refused to pray to the idols in Mecca or renounce his new faith, even when tied to the ground and beaten bloody for all to see. When Prophet Muhammad, his wife Khadija, and closest companion Abu Bakr were finally able to come to Bilal’s aid, they volunteered to purchase his freedom, and the freedom of many enslaved people like him, at great expense. Under the weight of injustice, their collective commitment only grew stronger.
Bilal would eventually gain great honor and fame as Islam’s first mu’adhin, or Caller to Prayer, but this status did not suddenly erase the stigma associated with his past. The Prophet would occasionally have to correct his companions for disrespecting Bilal, and in the spirit of human oneness that is at the heart of the Abrahamic faiths, Muhammad would declare to them “we are all Bilal.” The same spirit animates Muhammad’s final sermon, which teaches that “all humankind is from Adam and Eve, and an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab, nor does a non-Arab have superiority over an Arab, nor does a white person have superiority over a black person or a black person over a white person – except by piety and good action.”
Today, it is high time that all American Muslims live up to the grand legacy set by Prophet Muhammad by actively embracing and supporting our African American brothers and sisters, Muslim or not. Guided by his lessons, and those from the history of African American Muslims, we can confront the reality of racism and militarization by repurposing systems of power to amplify our voices – not only through economic and political engagement, but through constructive acts of cultural creativity. As we remember George Floyd, killed with a knee on his neck, we look to measure our future success by a different image, from the time of the Prophet: when a group of Arab dignitaries, aware that Bilal was formerly enslaved, asked that he be absent during discussions, Prophet Muhammad instead sat side-by-side with him - so close that their knees touched.