Reclaiming our Muslim-American Heritage

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Imam Muhammad ibn Heshaam Jaabir talks to us about the Muslim American heritage.
Imam Muhammad Jaabir

Interview with Muhammad ibn Heshaam Jaabir

Duston Barto

A conversation with Muhammad ibn Heshaam Jaabir is like taking a trip through time as he enthusiastically reaches back to the deep roots of Western Sudan (Mali) to pull knowledge of his ancestors to help the Muslim American community of today. He even said that his favorite part of the Qur’an is Surah Al-Ikhlas because it reminds him that dawah is not yet done in America and that it will not be done until everyone in America understand the mercy and justice behind the message of this surah which represents the core and foundation of Islam, therefore every effort of the Imam is set on ensuring that the concept of Tauheed is expressed across the country. Currently Sheikh Muhammad is so busy with several projects that he does not have a fixed imam position, however he is constantly providing education to various communities and delivers khutbahs at any Masjid that asks for his time. As the president of BIMA (Bureau of Indigenous Muslim Affairs) he is constantly working on community building and expansion as well as fixing issues with various masajid. BIMA, which was begun by Muhammad Jaabir’s father Heshaam, provides counseling, social assistance and knowledge through its two mosques in NJ and Brooklyn, NY. Recently, Imam Muhammad moved back to Charlotte to help enhance local Islamic media, specifically to establish TV and radio networks to benefit Muslim American communities with knowledge and for dawah purposes. This is not a new concept as he’s had a great deal of experience with WBIE Muslim talk Radio in New York.

BIMA House is another major project that Muhammad ibn Heshaam Jaabir is working on, BIMA House will, Insha’Allah; provide housing along with lifestyle development resources for indigent and homeless Muslims. This will help prepare individuals toward productive lives and could even be expanded to assist our brothers and sisters who have embraced Islam (or gotten back to Islam) while in prison which will help them to develop and hold firmly onto the Islamic knowledge that they have gained.

Since Imam Muhammad spends so much of his time in dawah and education, he spent a couple of years in Egypt to improve his Arabic language skills so that he could better teach English speakers from the roots of Islamic knowledge. Getting back to the roots of Islamic knowledge is deeply important since he is a second generation Muslim, his father, Haj Heshaam Jaabir, was a part of the civil rights movement and one of the first students of the oldest Sunni organizations to be established in America. AAUAA, Inc. (Adinu Alahi Universal Arabic Association, Incorporated) was founded in 1938 by professor Elzedeen Muhammad (formerly Lomax Bey) who had abandoned the Moorish Science Temple in the quest of true Islam (much in the way Malcolm X abandoned Nation of Islam in the same quest to become Al-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz). Haj Heshaam Jaabir performed the Janaazah prayers for both Malcolm X and for Betty Shabazz and was instrumental in various episodes of the Civil Rights struggle such as when he stood in between protesters and the National Guard at the height of tension in Elizabeth, NJ; this action secured his recognized status as a peacemaker of the Civil Rights Movement. With this deep personal connection to the evolution of Muslim American history and culture, it is easy to see why the quest for Muslim American identity is important to Sheikh Muhammad Jaabir.

According to Sheikh Muhammad, African-Americans aggressively sought out information following the Emancipation and Reconstruction events of American history as it became vital for former slaves to struggle for and reclaim a sense of heritage. Since the African slaves were ripped from Muslim lands and in spite of the worst efforts put forth to strip Islamic identity from the people, many scholars remained true to knowledge and aspects of Islamic heritage remained embedded in the culture of African Americans. It was during this time of African-American enlightenment that Pseudo-Islamic sects such as the Moorish Science Temple, Canaanite Temple, Allah’s temple and the Nation of Islam originally emerged. Even before this, in the late 1800s, the Ahmadiyyah missionaries came to America to actively convert people to their ideology. Even though these sects are all outside of Islam, the use of Islamic terminology and pieces of Islamic thought caught the attention of individuals who would then work toward embracing Sunni Islam. In fact, once Lomax Bey had evolved his understanding and embraced Sunni Islam he spent time developing his knowledge as Elzedeen Muhammad before making a bold move in the 1940s by establishing the Uniting Muslims Society wherein he invited all members of all of these parenthetical pseudo-Islamic sects to come together and embrace Sunni Islam. It was through this explosion of knowledge that the AAUAA expanded and rapidly brought people into Islam and elevated the understanding and recognition of Islam in America. In 1957 a major victory was earned as the first hajj visa from America was issued which secured America as a recognized country of Muslims.

In the act of reclaiming Muslim American heritage, Sheikh Muhammad expresses “The Muslim American identity has roots that’s not only attached to people of African-American decent but also Anglo-Americans. The American Islamic Identity has been pushed back because of lack of documentation and because the pioneers have not been properly acknowledged.” Muslim leaders like Sheikh Dawoud Faisal and Wali Akram, the wealth of Muslim American leaders who have been ignored due to ethnicity and background. Sheikh Muhammad cautions that we shouldn’t forget about the mass migration to Islam that occurred as a direct result of the Civil Rights Movement “Many Muslims who made the transition through the civil rights movement saw order and stability in Islam, they saw a way to express themselves and to fight a righteous fight, a dignified fight while having God on their side. A God that wasn’t prejudiced, a God that embraced all of the human family.”

We discussed the journey that Malcolm X made, as Sheikh Muhammad says “It’s almost like the journey that Malcolm X took is a microcosm of the Muslim-American movement, coming from the pre-Islam understanding of Malcolm Little who was angry at his oppression and acted out in the negative and destructive ways then Nation of Islam gave him purpose, focus and drive but then the dynamic of Islam is what created Al-Hajj Malik Shabazz, not Malcolm X; Malcolm X was between the Civil Rights/human rights conflict of civil and social disorder but that whole enlightenment of what humanity is and the individual’s worth is what struck him when he made hajj.”

Sheikh Muhammad continues “Malcolm X to Al-Hajj Malik Shabazz is a case study of human behavior, he represented the whole transition and when he went to Mecca that was the huge act of submission because he saw that the God he’d been restricting to race was a universal God and embraced all of Mankind. The Universal ideal of Islam was what allowed him to be able to see the reality of Islam and see the deception of what he was already involved in. So we can see that even with this, Islam was oppressed [via the parenthetical sects mentioned above]. It was about a new ideal being born, from an indigenous standpoint; the idea that Islam was not an Arab religion, that it was not a Pakistani religion. So when Malcolm made the transition, he created a paradigm shift.”

Malcolm X was in the middle of Sunni communities of the day, the Dar-Islam Masjid in Brooklyn with Abdul Kareem, Sheikh Dawud Faizal at States Street and the Deenulahi Masjid. However, he did not gravitate to Sunni Islam earlier because at that time Muslims were not addressing the immediate social conflicts in a way that Malcolm could see and feel. Sheikh Muhammad reiterates that it is important for us to understand the roots of these organizations, to realize that while they are outside of Islam, they use the language of Islam and so, in a way, they propagate and draw people into the idea of Islamic understanding which can be a powerful tool as long as we do not ignore it.

Due to Imam Muhammad’s knowledge on these parenthetical sects I asked: What would be the best way, in your opinion, for Muslims to talk to these people to help them leave the deviant aspects of their belief to come into the sunnah of Islam?

The Imam responded with enthusiasm, “I think what we need to do is to go back as far as we can and document how these organizations were founded and in that documentation and research we will be able to clearly show that they were not religious organizations. They were social or militant or other different factors that motivated them. The Islamic attachment was because the non-Western ideology was the strongest expression that they could have to push against the culture they were struggling against.” Regarding the people who led the movement, Muhammad Jaabir emphasized, “There were many strong personalities that gravitated to that. Noble Drew Ali was a very strong personality, as was Elijah Muhammad; the defiance of western ideas seemed to be attractive whereas raw militancy didn’t have enough force to compete in the environment. You didn’t have the resources to do guerrilla warfare so the Panthers and things died out very quickly.”

How can we get started? Imam Muhammad says “In order to set the record straight some independent research is going to have to be set up. I don’t think we can do it in the vein of religion since it may be offensive as one religious group against the other could be very detrimental to criticize from a religious position. Some of them are at a level that we can look at them as Muslims (albeit with some flawed beliefs) but I don’t think all of them would qualify.”

Sheikh Muhammad Jaabir explained how things have already begun in helping our brothers’ transition into Sunni Islam, “I spoke at the Maryam Mosque in Chicago (where Minister Louis Farrakhan’s headquarters is) where Elijah Muhammad’s great-grandson, Sultan Muhammad and I became very close. He grew up and did some of his studies in Riyadh and when he came back he was at odds with the Nation of Islam since his family had been pushed away. So he came back and had a meeting with Farrakhan and struck a deal where Farrakhan agreed to allow Sultan to teach the children in the masjid which is in the downstairs with the Temple upstairs.” I was curious about the aspect of Tauheed being reinforced in the Nation of Islam and Sheikh Muhammad further explained, “I watched the lessons and found nothing but tauheed. What Sultan has said is that he wants to help them slowly transition. Those doors need to be kept open.”

Our discussion was taking place the day after the grand jury decision in Ferguson, MO and since Muhammad Jaabir’s father was a force in the civil rights movement I asked his opinion on how Muslims should respond or react to the social injustice that is being exposed daily across America.

“One of the things that we have to do is to organize our youth and they have to be educated about the environment they are living in and the restraints that are placed on them. Then get involved with the secular groups which have the same call. This is one of Malcolm’s calls when he said ‘I work with any Christian, Jew etcetera who is for social justice.’” Of course Imam Muhammad is speaking of the kind of teaching that Al-Hajj Malik Shabazz made after discovering the universality of Islam. Sheikh Muhammad continued “We’re at a time now where we cannot be effective in isolation, we have to organize and educate so that we do not get the radical element out there responding in a way that will bring harm to the Muslim community. We have to take control at the community level and community to engage with the society at large as Muslims to secure our identity.”

“Furthermore, we need to reject the idolization of Civil Rights leaders because Malcolm’s identity as a Muslim was so heavily suppressed and when he was assassinated they wanted to bury him as a civil rights leader instead of as a Muslim.” Sheikh Muhammad’s words strike at the core of the issue that plagues so many people in the fallout of the Civil Rights Movement. We have to realize that people are just as flawed no matter what good works they may do so that if the focus is on Islam, our faith will not waver in the movement just because a leader is shown to be corrupted in areas of his private life.

Reclaiming our Muslim-American HeritageSheikh Muhammad continued in explaining that to establish the Muslim American identity that we have to secure the sense of Tauheed, the sense of justice and fairness and reinforcing this aspect of Islam. He warns firmly against putting too much energy in interfaith. “We have this mistaken idea that other religious groups have the power in society whereas the reality is that most people in society are irreligious and they have the same struggles that we do in getting their congregants to actively practice!” So it is in secular societal integration while maintaining the Muslim American identity that we can create a safe zone in which we can raise our children.

Imam Muhammad sums it up perfectly stating “The people are concerned about justice, so we have to start with justice since that is the strength of Islam.” He elaborated slightly saying “We’re in a very unique time and society for the time and place we’re in, America is in the spotlight and Muslims are on the front line. We don’t have all the answers, but we have the solution.”

Sheikh Muhammad ibn Heshaam Jaabir’s books and other resources can be found at http://www.colormemuslim.us

Anyone interested in helping with BIMA House should email bimamission@gmail.com or call (908) 400-5361

Insh’allah, donate generously and may Allah (SWT) count it as Sadaqa Jariyyah for you.

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