Over the weekend of May 6-7, Masjid Muhammad of Atlantic City, New Jersey held their 5th annual African American Muslim Summit. I had the honor of attending the conference for the first time. It was also my first time attending a Muslim conference of this nature since my return to the U.S. In some ways, it had the vibe of a Muslim family reunion. In other ways, it was an intensive learning experience as speakers and attendees alike expressed their erudition on a broad range of topics dealing with not only the religious sciences of ʿaqīdah, fiqh, and taṣawwuf, but also on topics of finance, psychology, marriage, history, and politics. It could have used a panel about the revival of the Afrocentric Muslim, but that is the topic of another conversation. Beyond the speakers of the conference – many of whom the community benefits from year around in several online and localized venues – I would like to share a few take aways based on my conversations and reflections:
African American Islamic Summit
Photo credit: Islah Muhammad 2023
- The role of imam in an American Muslim community is a political role. The person in the position of imam should have as much political savvy as he does knowledge of Islamic sciences. Understanding the political terrain in the city, county, and state in which a masjid operates is key to the survival and growth of a community. New Jersey has a higher percentage of Muslims than any other state and these populations are used strategically by some local imams as well as politicians to achieve certain gains. This does not mean that communities located in places with less Muslims cannot play an effective political role in their locales. Politics is essentially about institutions working with other institutions. America is built on the mutual cooperation of these institutions. The sad truth is that those who are not affiliated with an institution are often ignored in American society.
- Every Muslim community should have a dār al-iftā run by qualified muftis/mujtahids, counselors, doctors, financial experts, lawyers, etc., who are sworn to the same ethical standards as therapists and social workers. Generally, American Muslims do not understand the purposes of the sacred law (Sharīʿah). This may be due to years of anti-Muslim propaganda or trauma related to dealing with secular law. However, we must understand that the Sharīʿah is not a Hammurabi’s Code of infractions and punishments. Rather it is about solving problems while keeping our dīn, hearts, and dignity intact. We know that international organizations like ICNA and some Mosques with qualified individuals have tried but more can be done. At any given moment, Muslims may deal with issues that require thoroughly researched responses. More often than not, they seek to resolve these issues by searching the web, social media, or Muslim gatherings where imams and knowledgeable people may be present. However, some issues require a personal touch and knowledge of disciplines beyond the traditional Islamic sciences. Imagine if such an institution was localized and widespread, solving everything from financial contracts to marital disputes.
- There is no benefit in intra-religeous polemical culture within Black Muslim communities. No matter how right one group is or how wrong another is, the harms outweigh the benefits and usually encourages people to double down on their positions. Black Muslims should understand how deeply these polemics divide our communities and destructive they can be. I find it just as disturbing coming out of the mouths of sufi madhhabis as I would from the mouths of salafis. I have listened and interacted with various elements of the African American Muslim community and found that most people just don’t understand each other and their doctrines completely. We should seek ways to cooperate with each other, even if we cannot convince each other of our ideas. The greater good of the community’s future is of more consequence. A simple exercise to keep ourselves in check is to imagine the impact you and your community will have on the history of Islam in America 100, 200, even 1,000 years from now. Ask yourself: how do you want to be remembered?
These are just a few of my thoughts that I hope we can realize sooner rather than later. Until then, I’m back to America and back to work.