Any writer knows that to build a narrative, you gotta have what? Characters, a setting, a plot — driven forward by conflict. If we’re building a Muslim narrative we are obviously among the main characters. Our primary, most pressing conflict is assumed to be the Islamophobic and xenophobic zeal that has been whipped up by politicians and pundits since 9–11. This is the notion advanced, anyway, by media outlets, commentators, and even some Muslim activists at conferences and symposiums across the country.
Storytelling is a contentious act. This is especially true in a political and cultural context that normalizes erasure and criminalizes difference. Because, remember, the story can be used to include or exclude, to make visible or invisible. This means that the storyteller has a significant position in the culture. Historically, the dominant culture has chosen and platformed the storytellers for marginalized communities it considers “safe.” This has resulted in the privileging of the voices of white or white adjacent folks — often men. It has included the voices of folks whose politics, demeanor, and very image are “non-threatening” or in some cases, the least threatening.
The American Muslim community is no exception to this pattern. In the post-911 era, white-adjacent Muslim immigrants are given the mic to speak for the ummah in America. They are depicted in media and popular culture as the “good Muslims” while black and brown Muslims are the disreputable, divisive, dangerous dark horde.
To say that we are not a monolithic community is unremarkable. Its been said so much now that it’s become a cliche. An empty aphorism. It is instructive, however, for us to meaningfully explore and wrestle with some of the ways in which we are in fact different.
For instance, nearly 60% of Muslim adults today are immigrants. This is a major recent demographic shift in the U.S. What caused it? Conflict. The Civil Rights Movement was a black led movement to end racially and ethnically discriminatory domestic and foreign policies, creating the traction for a full-scale reform of our immigration policy. The Immigration Act of 1965 was the result. Waves of immigrants from Muslim majority countries migrated to this veritable City on a Hill, a shining beacon, whose light has been continuously lit by burning dark bodies. You came to escape war, famine, and political persecution. You came to enjoy the spoils of America’s plunder. To get a piece of the pie my ancestors harvested the wheat and fruit and sugar for.
These represent chapters past. But how many of you have read them?
Clara Muhammad. Elijah Muhammad. Waritheen Mohammed. Dhameerah Ahmad. Zakiyyah Muhammad. These are some of the unnamed, main protagonists in the American Muslim story. Pioneers of Islam in America, foot soldiers in Allah’s army singing the “Muslim Fight Song” in temples across America:
We are fighting for Islam, and we will surely win
with Our Saviour Allah, the Universal King.
We are united with our nation, and called by His name.
So let us rise ye Muslims, fight for your own.
Fight O ye Muslims, fight for your own.
Fight for your Nation, and we will all be free.
Fight for your Nation, fight for your own.
No Muslim narrative here in this country can be built without the people and experiences that form the whole plot. With blistered hands and bloodied heads. With prayers and song and art and activism they laid the foundation for you and I to build upon. Know their names. Know their stories. And so this poem I’m about to read is to honor them. But I wrote it for you.
They Came Before
turn right at the end
before we begin
He came down
offering a new lease
following centuries of
Black souls being evicted
by white fictions
and forbidden fruit
Strange time to enter
As a stranger
A Dream conferred
Clara woke up first
sent Elijah to the altar
a living sacrifice
raised from the dead
with hair like dried raisins
in the sun the begotten
son of God
live and in person
no Smokey screens
told us its Fard to
We heard and obeyed
Became fruit of a new tree
Planted by our Master
Spread from these