Friday, December 29, 2017

Islamic Education, Reclaiming Our West African Islamic Legacy

By Jamillah Karim

#SisterClaraMuhammadSchool #Qur'anSchool #BlackAndMuslim #Sufism

Shaykh Hassan (R) and Imam WD Mohammed (R), 2005, Chicago, Drake Hotel
Our Beloved Hajja Ayisha Jeffries arranged the meeting between them.

This post is the talk I presented at the 7th Annual Commemoration of Shaykh Hassan Cisse (R) in Atlanta, GA, on December 24, 2017.

1976. It is the year that Shaykh Hassan Cisse, may Allah be pleased with him, first visited the United States. Here, he would continue the legacy of his grandfather Shaykh Ibrahim Niasse (R), twentieth century West Africa’s most influential scholar and spiritual guide. Before his death in 1975, Shaykh Ibrahim’s followers had reached the millions in more than fifteen sub-Saharan African countries, gaining him the distinction of the one who brought the fayda, or the divine flood, of the Tijaniyya spiritual brother and sisterhood. With Shaykh Hassan, the flood would now extend into the United States among African Americans.

To me, it is no coincidence that the Tijaniyya flood would take root in the United States just one year after another flood of sorts took place in America. In this case, the year is 1975. The leader of the Nation of Islam, Elijah Muhammad, dies. His son, then called Supreme Minister Wallace Mohammed, assumes the leadership, and immediately introduces the Nation of Islam community to the Qur’an and our beloved Sayyidina Muhammad, Allah’s blessings and peace be upon him, transforming the community almost overnight. That year, 1975, marks America’s one and only mass conversion to Islam. The converts honored with this distinction were none but you in this room, the descendants of enslaved Africans.

Arguably, the Nation of Islam played the most prominent role in popularizing Islam in Black America. At the same time, several other Black Muslim movements gave Black American Islam its unique expression. No doubt, the first generations of African American Muslims were divided, but what they shared was a common pursuit of an Islamic identity. The descendants of a noble people stripped of their religion and culture, they were all struggling to reclaim their true human identity. And all of them, in one form or another, found their humanity in Islam.  

1975, therefore, marks a significant moment in the history of Black American Islam for all of us, not just those with Nation of Islam heritage. 1975 symbolizes a turning point, when Allah gifted us with the clarity and knowledge to separate truth from falsehood. Although the Nation of Islam’s false beliefs were striking, we were not the only early Black Muslim group in need of the light and beauty of Sayyidina Muhammad (S).

And although we had discovered the light, the African American Muslims of the 1970s were vulnerable to another round of confusion. Eager to prove our true Islamic identity, too many of us surrendered our culture. We were told that to be Muslim meant you had to be Arab or Pakistani.

But there were a few select leaders who had the vision as early as 1976 to teach us that we can be authentically Muslim and African American too.  Imam Mohammed (R) was one of those teachers. Shaykh Hassan (R) was one of those teachers. Two foremost spiritual guides, two spiritual brothers. Their connection and contribution are undeniable.

Interestingly, it was through their death that many of us began to realize the depth of their connection. They both returned to Allah in the same year, 2008, first Shaykh Hassan in the month of Sha’ban, and then Imam Mohammed immediately following him in the month of Ramadan.

Their living legacies are connected by the coinciding time frames in which Allah sent them to do shared work, which, in light of their spiritual brotherhood, can be interpreted in this way:

1975, when Imam Mohammed guided America’s Black Muslims, represents the mass movement of darkness into the light, and 1976, when Shaykh Hassan first visited us, symbolizes the subsequent opening that happens after gazing upon the light. The actual descending of the light of Sayyidina Muhammad (S) upon us, in a form that we could relate to: Black and beautiful like us.

I was born in 1976 and grew up in the Warith Deen Mohammed community here in Atlanta. I never met Shaykh Hassan, though I was in the company of esteemed women in the Atlanta community who were very close to him, women like Dr. Askari, Sister Rabiyah, Auntie Ayisha, Sister Jeanette, and Sister Rakaia. When I look back at how I saw these women in the 1990s, when I was just a teenager, I remember them standing out, likely because they warmly radiated West African spirituality, but at the same time, I saw them as I saw my own mother, women who gracefully wove together their African American and Muslim identities.

What I sensed as a teenager about these women--that they were imbued with a striking love for Allah and love for themselves--was confirmed when I dug a little deeper. I discovered this about Shaykh Hassan: Our pioneer, Imam Sayed Abdus-Salaam (R) used to say, “Not only did Shaykh come to us here in America, but he interceded.”

In the words of Imam Sayed’s son Hajji Ajib Abdus-Salaam,

“Shaykh Hassan saved us from a form of religious slavery, where religious authority is given to Arabs. Shaykh Hassan intervened by teaching us that it is not the color of your skin that determines your knowledge. He broke the chains of religious slavery so that we could practice freely. He let us be who we were.”

SubhanAllah, those last words, “to practice freely,” and “to be who we are” deeply resonated with me because that was the sentiment that I heard over and over again from women followers of Imam W D Mohammed when I researched how they felt when the imam transitioned them to Sunni Islam. But here’s the really brilliant moment of connection. Hajji Ajib noted, “And,” in addition to this freedom to be who we are, “Shaykh Hassan gave us something, he gave us an institution. He said this is for you.”

Hajji Ajib’s words solidify why we are here together, in Atlanta, GA, and perhaps why I was chosen to speak here tonight. We are honoring the legacy of Shaykh Hassan (R) in light of the legacy of institutions, one of the most celebrated aspects of my personal heritage. The Nation of Islam not only taught my parents to love their African features, but it provided them the institution, Sister Clara Muhammad School, to ensure that their children would be educated enough and loved enough to never question their beauty. But more importantly an institution, that at its best, would beautify our hearts with the Qur’an.

And this is what Shaykh Hassan gave us. He gave our parents a Qur’an school in his home of Senegal, but for us. And he made it clear that it was for us by calling it the African American Islamic Institute. Many of you in this room studied there, and were transformed there into these beautiful souls in our midst tonight.

And there are some among you who were blessed to have benefitted directly from these dual legacies. One is our dear Sayidah Kubra, the daughter of Dr. Khadijah Askari, and the wife of Shaykh Mahy, may Allah bless and preserve them all, who memorized the entire Qur’an in Medina Baye, Senegal. But her early years were spent right here in Atlanta, GA, where she was a student at Sister Clara Muhammad School.

I cannot mention Sayidah Kubra without mentioning her predecessor, Aminah Abdul-Kareem, may Allah bless her, the first American woman to memorize the Qur’an in Medina Baye in the 1980s, and as far as we know, the first American woman period to memorize the Qur’an.This indicates the magnitude of Shaykh Hassan’s gift to us. What African American children, and girls in particular, were memorizing  the Qur’an in the 1980s and 1990s? By the grace of Allah, ours were.

Like Shaykh Hassan, Imam Warith Deen Mohammed also imparted a message when he named an institution. In 1980 he changed the name of the University of Islam, as it was called in Nation days, to Sister Clara Muhammad School. It was to honor the legacy of his mother, without whom there would not have been a Nation of Islam.

In 1930 it was Clara Muhammad who first heard about Islam and immediately thought that the message, as given by the mysterious Fard Muhammad, might help her husband who was struggling with unemployment and hopelessness. She brought him to Fard Muhammad, and the rest is history. Tonight I want to highlight just one part of this story that frames my main message. It is the message of reclaiming our lost identity, reclaiming our legacy of West African Islamic scholarship and spirituality.

Clara Muhammad first learned of Fard Muhammad’s teachings from another woman. Sister Clara once recounted, “My girlfriend told me there’s a man who’s saying some things about our people. We once dressed in long flowing cloth and we were royal. We were not Christians. We were Muslims.”

This idea, passed on through women, that we were once a great Muslim people gave birth to the Nation of Islam. The Nation of Islam gave birth to Sister Clara Muhammad School. Sister Clara Muhammad School is where I spent all my school years, from 1980 to 1993. There, our hearts became attached to the legacy of African American people as much as to the legacy of Prophet Muhammad (S).

My English teacher, Sister Sandra El-Amin, who introduced me to the classics in African American literature, was also one of my first Qur’an teachers. She had me memorize the 99 Names of Allah and short surahs from the Qur’an in Arabic and English. At Sister Clara Muhammad School, our own people were our first Qur’an and Arabic teachers.

Add to that beautiful fact, my first Qur’an teacher who was not African American was still African, our very own Imam Bye Secka, may Allah bless him. He was the first to teach me Ayatul Kursi, which I recently taught my sons. And as Sister Sandra would expect of me, I also had them memorize it in English.

My classmates and I didn’t realize it, but by memorizing Qur’an under Imam Bye, we were taking from a great lineage of African Muslim scholars and awliyah, friends of Allah. In addition to this, we were now linked to a movement of African American children taking from this lineage, children from New York, Detroit, Atlanta and other urban centers, who were traveling to Senegal to memorize the Qur’an under the loving guidance and care of Shaykh Hassan.  

Like the case of Sister Clara Muhammad, an African American woman stood at the center of this historic moment. Sister Kareemah Abdul-Kareem, from New York City, managed the home where American students lived while attending the Qur’an school in the 1980s and ‘90s. Called the Yellow House, the residence provided American students a home away from home and a community mother who supported them.

But perhaps my connection to the Qur’an school that most illuminates my message tonight comes through my longtime classmate, Furqan Muhammad. Our mothers, who joined the Nation in the early ‘70s, were close from the time we were babies. In our early school years, our fathers carpooled us and our siblings to Sister Clara Muhammad School. May Allah bless them all. Since then, our paths have been different, but nonetheless parallel, leading us to a common destination.

Towards the end of our ninth grade year, Furqan’s parents sent him, and later his brother Haneef, to Senegal to protect them from society’s negative influences. Alhamdulillah, Allah blessed them with protection and more. Furqan memorized one third of the Qur’an, earned a scholarly license to teach Qur’an, and was trained under Shaykh Hassan in the Islamic science of purifying the heart, also known as tassawuf, or Sufism.  

Meanwhile, I continued on at Mohammed Schools in Atlanta, graduated, and then matriculated at Duke University. Majoring in Electrical Engineering, I had no idea that in reality Allah had placed me on a path to discover the vast richness of Islam. Duke was one of the top schools for pursuing a PhD in Islamic Studies, and the study of Sufism in particular. Alongside my math and engineering courses, I took courses in Islamic law, civilization, and philosophy.

I learned that Sufism has been the soul of Islamic culture and practice since its beginnings. I found the study of Islam in academia deeply fulfilling because when I read about Islam’s history in any region of the world, my readings were infused with the beauty of Islamic spirituality, stirring my inner yearning to know and love Allah more. Take this passage from Dr. Zachary Wright’s book Living Knowledge in West African Islam. Although his book is relatively new, it mirrors the type of reading I was assigned at Duke.

As Islam spread from North Africa to south of the Sahara, the “teaching-master [was] the principle source of knowledge: ‘For the Moors, the shaykh was their library.’ Early West African scholars...were revered for their learning and piety, the power of their supplications (for rain for example), and spiritual blessing (baraka).….It was such scholars, whose beings were inscribed with the ethical and legal norms of their religion, that deserve credit for the spread of Islam in West Africa, rather than the traders often credited with spreading Islam in the region."

Dr. Wright’s phrase, “Beings inscribed with the ethical and legal norms of their religion,” can be restated this way: Scholars whose hearts radiate the beauty and light of Sayyidina Muhammad (S).

While I was reading about the beautiful heritage of my ancestors, my classmate Furqan actually tasted it, as he drank from the fountain of knowledge of Shaykh Hassan (R). But either way, through the pursuit of Islamic knowledge, instilled in us early on as students of Sister Clara Muhammad, we both fulfilled her earliest vision of African American Muslims, a once broken people reclaiming our royal roots in Islam. We tapped into the rich, living legacy of West African Islam.     

In April of this year, almost 30 years after Furqan made his journey to sub-Sahara Africa, I made mine for the first time. Many fortuitous and favorable things happened on that trip, indicating that Allah was watching over and orchestrating things for me. One of those things was that Furqan was also visiting at that time, another sign that we are brother and sister. As our roots were one, our destination is one. From Allah, to Allah.

I will end tonight by sharing what I wrote about my travel to Senegal:

Allah set my trip up most beautifully in that immediately after arriving in Dakar, we were escorted directly to a village that is a spiritual center, Medina Baye, and the first thing we did upon our arrival was greet a great scholar and servant of Allah, Shaykh Mahy, may Allah ta'ala preserve him and his family. How exquisite a return! To witness whom we would be, who we are! The brutality of slavery separated us in proximity, but Allah preserved our hearts and healed them so that neither distance nor difficulty separates the hearts of believing servants. It is as though we have always been on this path. It was not just a homecoming but a coming home to the best of our legacy.

April 2017, Grand Mosque of Medina Baye, Senegal

Within us is the light of the legacy of Sister Clara Muhammad, of Elijah Muhammad, of Imam Warith Deen Muhammad, of Shaykh Ibrahim Niasse, of Shaykh Hassan Cisse, of Sister Kareemah Abdul-Kareem. May Allah bless them all. The light of their legacy illuminates in proportion to the light of our hearts. Shaykh Hassan once said, “If you ask where the house of Allah on earth is, I will show you the mosque: these are the houses of Allah. If you want to know where the place of Allah in the body is, that is the heart. Because Allah said in a ḥadīth qudsī, ‘I cannot be contained in the heavens nor in earth, but only in the heart of a believing servant.’ That is the place of Allah. You should always make sure that you are cleaning it.”

We have been singled out. We have been gifted with a unique legacy. Not everyone has what we have. And that’s why people are attracted to Atlanta, and are attracted to Medina Baye, and are attracted to us. But with every gift, there is a test. Our institutions are struggling. We are needy before Allah. And yes, we need more money. But also, let us not forget this. When we come begging to Allah ta’ala, what does He look at? Does He look at our wealth, or our capacity to build wealth? No, the Beloved of Allah (S) told us that Allah ta’ala looks at our hearts.

When we clean and beautify our hearts for Allah, He fills them up with Him, with everything we need to build institutions. He fills them with patience, with faith, with excellence, with truthfulness, with compassion and generosity, with the will to serve and sacrifice, with unity, with love and beauty. May Allah ta’ala make us the people of hearts. May people know us by our hearts. And with clean hearts, we will, by Allah, build and sustain the institutions that uphold the legacy of our Beloved (s) and the legacy of our beloved ancestors, may Allah grant them the highest level of paradise, their hearts’ content.

7th Annual Commemoration of Shaykh Hassan Cisse (R)


The Divine Flood by Rudiger Seesemann

Living Knowledge in West African Islam by Zachary Wright

"The Yellow House in Medina Baye, Senegal" by Samiha Rahman