Imam Michael Saahir
May 11, 2017
The civil rights movement in America is a
very important and continuing epoch in American history. The shapers of history
often influence our perceptions and remembrance of history — even our own
African-American history — by repeatedly highlighting the faces, characters and
institutions the shapers desire for us to remember, cherish and honour.
No single ethnic, religious or racial group
should allow another group to tell their respective history. One’s perception
of their history greatly impacts the trajectory of their lives as they seek
their destiny as a people. Therefore, it is incumbent upon Muslims,
particularly indigenous Muslim Americans, to independently tell our story — our
American story, in this case, surrounding the topic of American civil rights.
First, let’s address the image problem that
has been saddled upon African-American Muslims as “outsiders,” a group
disassociated from the general African-American struggle for human and civil
rights. Albeit the early Muslim methodology under the leadership of the Hon.
Elijah Muhammad spoke of racial separation, nonetheless, his focus was solely
on improving the lives of African-Americans.
Often the Hon. Elijah Muhammad is cited for
building a “nation within a nation,” but few know of the June 22, 1964, Supreme
Court ruling the Nation of Islam (NOI) won via Thomas X Cooper pursuing his
religious rights that, at that time, no religions enjoyed. This NOI civil
rights success opened the door for non-Muslim inmates to begin enjoying
religious freedoms previously unknown to them. Please find more by searching
online for “Cooper v. Pate and the Origins of the Prisoners’ Rights Movement.”
Another Muslim American who championed
civil rights is boxing champ Muhammad Ali, who stood for his religious rights
not to serve in the U.S. military. Again, it would take another watershed U.S.
Supreme Court ruling after many years of vigorous and tiring legal battles. As
Father Frederick eloquently and truthfully stated, “Power concedes nothing
without a demand. It never did and it never will.”
Ali essentially lost all of his material
accomplishments, but he was never robbed of his convictions and determination
to stand for his civil and religious rights while improving the lives of,
namely, African-Americans, but the lives of all Americans. Ali’s stance was
directly in accord with the Qur’an’s encouragement that we all be ambassadors
for justice despite the odds.
The majority of African-American Muslims,
while still honouring the great achievements of the Hon. Elijah Muhammad, have
embraced the universal teaching of Islam that accepts all races as natural
creations of Allah. Collectively the very presence of African-American Muslims
— individuals who very often change their family names and observe different
holidays, among other changes —serves as a catalyst for moving civil rights in
America forward. Islam in the African-American community has proven itself to
be an option that is just as “American” as any other religion we uphold.
American Muslims and Christians both have
paid a serious price in our pursuit for human and civil rights, sacrifices that
included surveillance, loss of jobs, murders and unjust time in jail. The
methodologies may have been diverse, but the objective was one and the same —
freedom and justice.
To borrow an excerpt from my book, The
Honourable Elijah Muhammad: The Man Behind the Men, Page 309 illustrates one of
the similarities and dissimilarities of African-American Muslims and the civil
rights movement. Imam Yusuf Abdullah of the Nashville Masjid of Al-Islam
summarized the point this way: “There are some similarities and some
dissimilarity; there were some dissimilarity in that we would stand up by our
(individual) selves sometimes, or one or two of us and do what we thought we
had to do whereas in the Civil Rights Movement there tend to be a large crowd.
We didn’t always have a large crowd and we would go out and do our job of
seeing to it that the words of The Hon. Elijah Muhammad reached the
“The similarities are that we had a call,
and I think all of us would say … the call was similar even though they were
articulated differently. I think all of it was for social justice and equality
for the African American people … the similarities is that we were all after
the same thing. We just couldn’t see another generation of living under the
same conditions that were existing before the movement started.”
There are other excellent examples and
testimonies of Islam’s contribution to the civil rights movement in America.
Often, Elijah Muhammad quietly posted bail for non-Muslim civil rights marchers
in the South, along with giving charitably in other ways.
As people of faith, the Muslim American
involvement in civil rights has increased exponentially with the immigration of
Muslims from abroad who, too, are seeking their share of America by standing
upon the wisdom of the Qur’an …“Let there arise out of you a band of people
inviting to all that is good, enjoining what is right, and forbidding what is wrong:
They are the ones to attain felicity.”